Moral Emotions

Texts and Courses

Primary Texts

Mengzi (Mencius), e.g. 1A7

Suggested Courses

  • Introduction to Ethics


In Mengzi 1A7, Mengzi attempts to train a king who is skeptical that he can be a benevolent ruler. Mengzi observes that the king once had a spontaneous compassionate response upon seeing an ox being led to sacrifice, a feeling that spurred the king to spare the ox. The discussion that ensues addresses how the king can both identify his own spontaneous innate moral feelings (called “sprouts”) and then extend these into reliable, stable virtue. The aim here and throughout much of the Mengzi is, first, to become practiced at seeing one’s own spontaneous moral feelings – i.e., emotions that arise without command or effort in response to stimuli. And then, second, learn to increase one’s moral emotional range so that one has such responses to more, and more diverse, stimuli. The process Mengzi outlines is one in which unfamiliar or more difficult moral reactions are built on the easier or more natural ones. He wants to describe how, e.g., naturally arising compassion in caring for one’s own elderly grandmother may be “extended” such that one will reliably feel generalized, reliable, and motivating compassion for relevantly analogous targets such as the elderly, the frail, the suffering, etc.

Discussion Questions

  • Can emotions be trained or altered?
  • What role does emotion play in moral motivation and action?
  • What technique can be brought to bear on influencing emotion toward the moral?


Have students examine their own moral emotions to try to locate what Mengzi would consider “sprouts” (e.g., instances in which they spontaneously feel compassion for suffering or disdain for wrongness). Then have them try to identify analogous phenomena to which their emotions ought plausibly extend. Discuss challenges in making one’s emotions stretch to the new phenomena.

Author Information

Amy Olberding (University of Oklahoma)