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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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Why study moral psychology? It matters for understanding human sociality, for understanding—and perhaps overcoming—political conflict, and perhaps also for understanding whether claims to ethical knowledge are justified.

Moral Psychology Matters for Understanding Human Sociality

Humans are unusual among apes in cooperating with non-kin. They appear to have been doing this since well before the advent of farming.[1]

How is this possible given evolutionary pressures to favour kin? Attempts to explain this by appeal to kin selection or reciprocity do not appear promising. Instead is may be that

‘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 Foundations?

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 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?

Kant famously claimed that Kant (1870) 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.

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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).


Apicella, C. L., Marlowe, F. W., Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2012). Social networks and cooperation in hunter-gatherers. Nature, 481(7382), 497–501.
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.
Hill, K. R., Walker, R. S., Božičević, M., Eder, J., Headland, T., Hewlett, B., … Wood, B. (2011). Co-Residence Patterns in Hunter-Gatherer Societies Show Unique Human Social Structure. Science, 331(6022), 1286–1289.
Hill, K. R., Wood, B. M., Baggio, J., Hurtado, A. M., & Boyd, R. T. (2014). Hunter-Gatherer Inter-Band Interaction Rates: Implications for Cumulative Culture. PLOS ONE, 9(7), e102806.
Kant, I. (1870). Grundlegung zur metaphysik der sitten. Berlin: L. Heimann.
Kant, I. (2002). Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. (A. W. Wood, Trans.). Yale University 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.


  1. Hill et al. (2011, p. 1289) argue that ‘our foraging ancestors evolved a novel social structure that emphasized [...] co-residence with many unrelated individuals.’ This conclusion is based on their observation that, across 32 contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, ‘bands are mainly composed of individuals either distantly related by kinship and/or marriage or unrelated altogether. [...] primary kin generally make up less than 10% of a residential band’ (Hill et al., 2011, p. 1288). See further Apicella et al. (2012). ↩︎