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Why Investigate Moral Psychology?

We consider three reasons (and one non-reason) for studying investigating moral psychology. This is not supposed to be an exhaustive list.

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Background: ‘intuitive ethics’

Haidt & Joseph (2004) and Haidt & Graham (2007) claim that there are five evolutionarily ancient, psychologically basic abilities linked to:

  1. harm/care
  2. fairness (including reciprocity)
  3. in-group loyalty
  4. respect for authorty
  5. purity, sanctity

Moral Psychology matters for understanding human sociality

‘Humans are […] adapted […] to live in morally structured communities’ thanks in part to ‘the capacity to operate systems of moralistic punishment’ and susceptibility ‘to moral suasion’ (Richerson & Boyd, 1999, p. 257).

Further, ‘humans (both individually and as a species) develop morality because it is required for cooperative systems to flourish’ (Hamlin, 2015, p. 108)}

Moral Psychology matters for understanding political conflict

‘The moral framing of climate change has typically focused on only the first two values: harm to present and future generations and the unfairness of the distribution of burdens caused by climate change. As a result, the justification for action on climate change holds less moral priority for conservatives than liberals’ (Markowitz & Shariff, 2012, p. 244).

Will moral Psychology change how philospohers do ethics?

Several claims in the literature imply that it will:

Humans lack direct insight into moral properties (Sinnott-Armstrong, Young, & Cushman, 2010).

Intuitions cannot be used to argue against theories (Sinnott-Armstrong et al., 2010).

Intuitions are unreliable in unfamiliar* situations (Greene, 2014, p. 715).

Philosophers, including Kant, do not use reason to figure out what is right or wrong, but ‘primarily to justify and organize their preexising intuitive conclusions’ (Greene, 2014, p. 718).

A key issue on this course is whether discoveries about moral psychology justify any such claims.


moral psychology : The study of ethical abilities. These include abilities to act in accordance with ethical considerations, to make ethical judgments, to exercise moral suasion, and to feel things in response to unethical or superordinate acts.
unfamiliar problem : An unfamiliar problem (or situation) is one ’with which we have inadequate evolutionary, cultural, or personal experience’ (Greene, 2014, p. 714).


Greene, J. D. (2014). Beyond Point-and-Shoot Morality: Why Cognitive (Neuro)Science Matters for Ethics. Ethics, 124(4), 695–726.
Haidt, J., & Graham, J. (2007). When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize. Social Justice Research, 20(1), 98–116.
Haidt, J., & Joseph, C. (2004). Intuitive ethics: How innately prepared intuitions generate culturally variable virtues. Daedalus, 133(4), 55–66.
Hamlin, J. K. (2015). The infantile origins of our moral brains. In T. Wheatley & J. Decety (Eds.), The moral brain: A multidisciplinary perspective (pp. 105–122). Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Markowitz, E. M., & Shariff, A. F. (2012). Climate change and moral judgement. Nature Climate Change, 2(4), 243–247.
Richerson, P. J., & Boyd, R. (1999). Complex societies. Human Nature, 10(3), 253–289.
Sinnott-Armstrong, W., Young, L., & Cushman, F. (2010). Moral intuitions. In J. M. Doris, M. P. R. Group, & others (Eds.), The moral psychology handbook (pp. 246–272). Oxford: OUP.