Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 15, Issue 1, pp 95–115 | Cite as

Psychopaths and Filthy Desks

Are Emotions Necessary and Sufficient for Moral Judgment?
  • Hanno Sauer


Philosophical and empirical moral psychologists claim that emotions are both necessary and sufficient for moral judgment. The aim of this paper is to assess the evidence in favor of both claims and to show how a moderate rationalist position about moral judgment can be defended nonetheless. The experimental evidence for both the necessity- and the sufficiency-thesis concerning the connection between emotional reactions and moral judgment is presented. I argue that a rationalist about moral judgment can be happy to accept the necessity-thesis. My argument draws on the idea that emotions play the same role for moral judgment that perceptions play for ordinary judgments about the external world. I develop a rationalist interpretation of the sufficiency-thesis and show that it can successfully account for the available empirical evidence. The general idea is that the rationalist can accept the claim that emotional reactions are sufficient for moral judgment just in case a subject’s emotional reaction towards an action in question causes the judgment in a way that can be reflectively endorsed under conditions of full information and rationality. This idea is spelled out in some detail and it is argued that a moral agent is entitled to her endorsement if the way she arrives at her judgment reliably leads to correct moral beliefs, and that this reliability can be established if the subject’s emotional reaction picks up on the morally relevant aspects of the situation.


Moral judgment Moral emotions Moral psychology Experimental philosophy Jesse Prinz Jonathan Haidt 



I would like to thank Tom Bates, Pauline Kleingeld and Markus Schlosser for their very helpful comments to an earlier version of this paper. I am also indebted to the organizers and participants of the workshop Philosophical Implications of Empirically Informed Ethics at the University of Zürich, March 2010, especially to Anne Burkard, Markus Christen, Jan Gertken, Bert Musschenga, Hichem Naar and Shaun Nichols. Two anonymous referees from Ethical Theory and Moral Practice have made very useful suggestions, for which I would like to thank them as well.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Instituut voor WijsbegeerteUniversiteit LeidenLeidenNetherlands

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