Some Effects of Moral Indignation on Law

Posted: 8 May 2009

See all articles by Cass R. Sunstein

Cass R. Sunstein

Harvard Law School; Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)


Moral intuitions operate in much the same way as other intuitions do; what makes the moral domain distinctive is the frequent foundation of moral judgments in the emotions, beliefs, and response tendencies that define indignation. The intuitive system of cognition, System 1, is typically responsible for indignation; the more reflective system, System 2, may or may not provide an override. An understanding of indignation helps to explain many phenomena of interest to law and politics: the outrage heuristic, the severity shift, the puzzling centrality of harm, moral framing, and the act–omission distinction. The operation of System 1 also helps to explain moral dumbfounding, understood as intense moral opprobrium that people are unable to justify, and moral numbness, understood as moral indifference that people know on reflection to be unwarranted. Both moral dumbfounding and moral numbness play a significant role in law and politics. Because of the nature of indignation, it is extremely difficult for people to achieve coherence in their moral intuitions, and the absence of coherence appears to be replicated in several areas of law. Legal and political institutions usually aspire to be deliberative, to check intuitions that misfire, and to pay close attention to System 2; but even in deliberative institutions, System 1 can make some compelling demands. A general implication is that judges may not be aware of the actual causes of their moral judgments and of the legal conclusions that rely on them.

Suggested Citation

Sunstein, Cass R., Some Effects of Moral Indignation on Law. Vermont Law Review, Vol. 33, 2009, Emotion in Context: Exploring the Interaction between Emotions and Legal Institutions Conference, University of Chicago Law School, May 2008, Available at SSRN:

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