There’s always the question of “should I” or “should I not” when faced with an imminent decision that requires our urgent action. And this is even more evident when confronted with a problem that borders on our psychological inclinations.
So how does our state of mind influence our decisions to act morally? Before answering this question, mental health and moral compass definition are in order.
WHAT IS MENTAL HEALTH?
Mental health can be loosely defined as a person’s cognitive, emotional, and behavioral well-being. Our ability to feel, think rationally, and act based on our emotions can be termed as mental health.
Emotions being referred to here include anger, empathy, happiness, and fear to mention but a few. In other definitions, mental health refers to the absence of mental disorder.
However, the World Health Organization (WHO) succinctly states that mental health does not directly equate to the absence of mental disorders. It is the ability of an individual to cope with the emotional strains of life (like stress and anxiety) and work productively.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, tens and millions of people in the United States experience mental health problems with only half of these people receiving adequate treatment.
The world mental health statistics by the WHO states that one in four people are estimated to suffer from mental health disorders with about 400 million people currently suffering from these conditions. This makes mental health disorders one of the leading and contributing causes of ill-health in the world.
Mental health stigma and discrimination are among the reasons why importance isn’t attached to the treatment of these disorders. People with mental illnesses or disorders shy away from receiving treatment because of societal discrimination.
It is no wonder that a mental health day had to be specially designated to increase awareness of mental health and advocate against social stigma and discrimination against mental health warriors.
The World Mental Health Day first came to light in 1992 at the initiative for the World Federation on Mental health, and today it is celebrated and observed on the 10th October of each year.
Preserving and restoring our mental health is of utmost importance. Having good mental health ensures that we live happy and productive lives. When our mental health is balanced and in top form, we are more able to deal with stress and other life adversities.
WHAT IS A MORAL COMPASS?
From a young age, we learn to discern between right and wrong. To put it more correctly, we have a sense of right and wrong and try to live by these internalized injunctions.
This sense of right and wrong and actions that we deem acceptable and unacceptable according to our inner values can be said to define moral compass. Our moral compass is what helps us stay in check and act like a responsible human.
It is our natural instinct that tells us to act or not to act in certain ways. It is the soul of human behavior. That intuition that tells us lying and cheating is wrong, that tells us not to steal or exploit others or walk away in the face of injustice, that teaches us how to act responsibly and be humane is our moral compass.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MORAL COMPASS AND MENTAL HEALTH
There are certain lines and boundaries we are always afraid to cross. In any warranted or unwarranted situation, we dare not risk putting our morality to the question. We often believe that our moral judgment has nothing to do with our state of mind or emotions. But that may be untrue.
Imagine a scenario where you have to make a decision concerning your loved one’s wish to undergo Euthanasia following a debilitating medical condition. On the one hand, you can emphasize with their suffering and understand their need to be released from their agony, but on the other, you are morally inclined to believe you may be complicit for assisted suicide.
So what do you do? This is a classic example of how your moral compass and your mental health, in this case, the state of your emotions ( majorly empathy) intertwine.
THE CLASSIC TROLLEY PROBLEM
Our moral decisions are often influenced by emotions like anxiety, anger, disgust, and empathy.philosophers and psychologists came up with a principle to determine the human opinion about morality and decision making. They termed this the Trolley problem. A variant of the problem is presented as thus :
- A runaway trolley is coming at fast speed and headed for five people who are tied up and immobile on the tracks. An impending murder is about to happen right in front of you. But you can save the day by pulling the lever next to you, which will cause the trolley to change tracks. As you move to pull the lever, another person on the opposite track comes in your line of vision. Pulling the lever means, the trolley will run into this person and cause their death. So you have only two choices
- To not pull the lever and allow the trolley to kill the five helpless people
- To pull the lever and divert the trolley onto the opposite track where it is certain to kill this one person.
Which is the morally right thing to do? Which is the most conscientious decision?
This is the ultimate moral compass test because the two options involve the “grim reaper”. Whatever option you chose, life will be lost. It will seem like saving five persons will be the better option, but that will mean deliberately causing the death of another.
How would you feel making the innocent person the sacrificial lamb to save five lives, and how would you feel knowing you could have saved five lives but you didn’t? This is a tough moral compass test you would agree with.
A large percentage of us would flinch at the idea of killing one person to save five when asked as a question, but in the real sense of events, when the urgency to act is demanded, most of us will settle with that choice.
This brings us to the Deontological and utilitarian forms of moral judgment as explained by philosophers and psychologists.
Deontological means to make a moral decision out of obligation, while utilitarian means to make a moral decision that lessens harm or minimizes the consequence of events, as the case may be.
With the Euthanasia dilemma as cited above, the deontological choice will be to go against your loved one’s willing demise because you can’t have them dying on your conscience.
After all, you’ve been taught that deliberately taking a life is humanly immoral. The utilitarian choice on the other hand will be to agree to their decision and free them from their current misery.
For the Trolley problem, the deontological choice will be not pulling the lever, because technically you didn’t kill anyone, you didn’t tie them up and you didn’t set the trolley in motion.
While the utilitarian choice will be to redirect the trolley’s movement. In doing so, you will minimize harm by saving five lives for one. But how do emotions and our mental state guide these decisions?
EMOTIONS AND MORAL COMPASS
According to research, stress and anxiety are the basis for making deontological choices. When subjected to stress and anxiety we tend to make deontological moral decisions even if the cause of the stress is not directly linked to the moral problem at hand.
One study experimented with this by conducting a mental health test in relation to the trolley problem. Some of the study participants were told they had to give an impromptu speech in a couple of minutes, and as expected they became really anxious.
The other group on the other hand were not asked to prepare for a speech. The two groups of participants were then presented with different variations of the Trolley problem.
Compared to the control group, the anxious group had a tough time coming to a decision and only a few of them made utilitarian decisions. The more anxious they were, the more unwilling they were to sacrifice one person to save five.
But stress and anxiety aren’t the only emotions that influence deontological decisions. According to research, empathy is another emotion that drives us to make deontological choices.
The more empathetic we are, the less likely we are to save five lives against one. People who were more compassionate and warm towards others were reluctant to pull the lever and save the five immobile people when presented with the Trolley problem.
Negative emotions like anger and disgust also play a role in moral judgment. The more disgusted and angry we are, the higher our moral compass. one study proved this by exposing a part of it’s participants to angry emotions after making them watch a video where someone is bullied.
To get them more miffed, they were told the bully got away with the dastardly act. While in this pissed-off state, the researchers read a short literary piece to them that narrated the bad behavior of a car salesman who deliberately refrained from telling buyers about the problem with the car’s engine.
The angry participants judged the sale’s man behavior more harshly compared to participants who didn’t watch the bullying video. They even suggested that the salesman be made to pay an exorbitant fine because of his wrong-doing.
This goes to show that anger does indeed elevate our moral compass. We are more inclined to pass a harsher moral judgment when peeved.
To show the effect of disgust on the moral compass, one particular study made the study participants sit in a malodourous room. They made some of the participants sit in a room sprayed with fart spray while the other participants were kept in an odorless room.
The participants were then presented with the Trolley Problem and other morally inclined questions such as the inappropriateness of tampering with a resume and marrying a first cousin. Participants who had to endure the smelly room reacted more harshly to these questions compared to those who sat in a normal room.
It will also appear that the state of being drunk can influence how we make moral decisions. Researchers in France explored bars and asked people with different alcohol levels in their blood about the Trolley problem.
People with more alcohol in their blood picked saving five and killing one without a second thought. They didn’t even mind pushing a stranger onto the track to interfere with the trolley’s point of direction. Who would have thought that a drunk person would lean towards the more rational choice of sacrificing one to save many?
The researchers believe that this decision might be based on reduced empathy levels. It is no secret that alcohol makes us less sympathetic or compassionate.
WHAT DRIVES THESE EMOTIONS TO AFFECT OUR MORAL COMPASS
Our emotions don’t just work on their own to interfere with our moral decisions. The brain is the driving force. A part of the brain that is located behind the forehead called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) is responsible for emotional processes.
According to research, the VMPC is activated when a person is confronted with a moral decision like the Trolley problem. Surprisingly, this area of the brain is inactive when the moral problem does not affect the person personally.
For example, thinking about someone stealing money or doing something morally wrong does not activate the VMPC. Another interesting fact is that people who have VMPC defect tend to make more utilitarian decisions. These set of people will eagerly sacrifice one to save five.
But can we control how our brain affects our moral judgment? The answer is yes. By practicing emotional regulation we can determine how much we let our brain interfere with our moral decisions.
The basic approach to emotional regulation as it relates to morality is “cognitive reappraisal“. In practicing this, a person views the negative emotions experienced in the face of a moral decision, from different perspectives.
We can reduce the intensity of these negative emotions by willing ourselves to be calm and analyze the situation from a lucid point of view. This will help us make more utilitarian decisions.
However this doesn’t mean that utilitarian choices conform better with our moral compass, it is indeed the more rational of the two, but sometimes it may be the second-best choice. It all depends on the situation at hand.
- Our mental health or state influences how we make moral decisions
- Stress, anxiety, and empathy are the emotions that drive us towards making deontological decisions
- Anger, disgust, and being drunk tends to make us more morally enthusiastic and aggressive in dishing out punishment for perceived moral “crimes”.
- A part of the brain influences these emotions and the ensuing moral decisions
- Through emotional regulation, we can control how the brain influences our moral judgment.