Discovery Fit & Health
Before we explain moral dumbfounding, let's lay a bit of emotional groundwork first. In addition to the basic or primary emotions that humans share with animals (including such things as fear, joy and surprise), psychologists and scientists in related fields have found that there also could be a set of higher emotions that only self-conscious organisms can experience. These higher, or moral, emotions are the result of our self-awareness as living beings and our relationships with others; they stem from our self-consciousness. As a result, these secondary emotions help maintain social and familial bonds and prevent reckless selfishness. These moral emotions are guilt, shame, pride and embarrassment.
It's from this well of higher emotions that we find the basis for moral dumbfounding. Scientists suggest that the emotional parts of the brain containing our sense of right and wrong may have evolved earlier than the rational side, and that these sides may in some situations be in competition with each other. When our rational side can't figure out why our emotional brain is reacting as it does, it's called moral dumbfounding, according to moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt [source: Wade].
It's probably easier to explain moral dumbfounding with a concrete example. As part of a sweeping examination of morality from the perspective of evolution, Haidt studied peoples' reactions to uncomfortable, off-putting hypothetical situations that prompted their disgust. One example he used concerned a family that was going hungry, and when their dog was run over by a car, the family ate it. The notion was repulsive to Haidt's subjects, although they struggled to explain, rationally, exactly why it disgusted them. Hungry people need food, after all, and the dog, technically, is food -- but still our sense of morality rebels against the notion of eating a beloved pet. It's just wrong. The rational brain, though, has trouble explaining why the emotional brain finds the whole situation so disturbing.
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