1 Moral Response

Often when we make moral judgements, we find they are tied up with our emotional reactions. For instance, we typically feel happy when good things happen to good people and angry when we witness things that we consider evil or unjust. We may also feel personal satisfaction at having done what we consider to be the right thing and pride in having it recognized. Similarly, we often feel guilt for acting badly and shame when others call us out for it. These familiar experiences are moral judgements just as much as emotional reactions.

Although emotions can be important and instructive by alerting us to moral issues, they are often not well justified on reflection. Indeed, in some instances, once we reflect on our emotions, we may find that they are ethically quite misleading. Even positive emotions, like love, may lead us to misjudge a situation, prompting us to defend friends or family members who have, in fact, behaved badly. Negative emotions can be equally misleading. Most of us have had the experience of being in a fit of anger and doing something (or at least thinking of doing something) that we later recognize was morally wrong. The Roman historian Tacitus believed that many people had a tendency to hate those whom they had injured.[1] This insight that our emotional reactions to our own bad behaviour might distort our perception of our victims in ways that would make us prone to harm them yet further should trouble anyone who is inclined to let their emotions govern their actions.

If we cannot rely on our emotions to guide our actions, where might we turn? We might think about how others will judge our actions or how they would act were they in our place. Again, this can be instructive in terms of alerting us to moral considerations (as we shall see in sections 3.9 and 3.10 below). Nonetheless, this is typically insufficient for coming to a justified moral judgement. There are good reasons for this. There are many biases in our society and many people who behave badly. If we simply judge as others judge and follow what others do or what they expect us to do, we may end up making some terrible judgements and engaging in some heinous behaviour.

It can be deeply disturbing to discover that those who hold a respected place in our community or the people we love have immoral attitudes or have engaged in morally repugnant behaviour. Nonetheless, if we truly care about doing the right thing, we must be open to making such discoveries. We may even discover that attitudes or conventions that are widely accepted in our society are nonetheless morally pernicious.

Of course, many social conventions are perfectly morally acceptable, some may even be morally required. After all, conventional norms and practices offer a set of rules for behaviour that help the members of society understand one another and fruitfully interact with each other. However, in order to be able to distinguish conventions that are useful and good from those that are bigoted and bad we need to go beyond the conventions themselves. This is where normative ethics, philosophical analysis and argument come in.


Take a moment to consider a norm or a practice that was (or perhaps is) thought to be ethically acceptable in some culture or society (perhaps even your own) that you believe is morally wrong.

Now try to articulate the reasons why it’s wrong.

You have just started doing moral philosophy!


  1. Tacitus, Project Gutenberg's The Germany and the Agricola of Tacitus (Project Gutenberg, 2013), Agricola para. 42, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/7524/7524-h/7524-h.htm.


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Applied Ethics Primer by Letitia Meynell and Clarisse Paron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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