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Definitions of Moral Psychology

[three definitions]
Start with an encylopedia definition

‘moral psychology—the study of human thought and behavior in ethical contexts

Doris et al, 2017

In perfect philosophy style, there are two encylopedia articles that give different definitions (both in the SEP) ...

‘Moral psychology [...] concerns how we see or fail to see moral issues, why we act or fail to act morally, and whether and to what extent we are responsible for our actions’

Superson, 2014


‘moral psychology is the study of the psychological aspects of morality.’

Tiberius, 2014 p. 3

So there you have three definitions. What should we make of them?
Back to the first definition. Is this any good?
What is an ethical context? A context in which ethical considerations apply, perhaps. But then every context is an ethical context.
Compare mathematical psychology is the study of human thought and behaviour in mathematical contexts!
This definition makes little sense to me. I think we are interested in ethical behaviours and thoughts, not behaviours and thoughts in ethical contexts.
Nothing wrong with this definition. It just isn’t what this course is about.
I like this third definition best. But what is morality?
We might think we can rely on philosophers for this. Step 1: Do ethics, discover what morality is. Step 2: Now you can ask about the psychology of it.
But if you’ve done ethics, you should be convinced that philosophers collectively really have no idea what morality is. We could pick a favourite account, but that would be arbitrary.
We need a better starting point ...

linguistic / mathematical / ethical


The analogy is helpful. But what are ethical abilities? This is partly clear enough: you can act in ways that are, or are perceived to be, right or wrong; you can judge, keep score, respond and feel
But we should also allow that there is room for discoveries about which ethical abilities particular kinds of individual possess. For example, what ethical abilities do dogs have, or do humans in the first year of life have?
example of an ethical ability:

‘Because it is wrong.’

1 Capacity to identify moral considerations as reasons for action.
I could have done it. Doing it would have been very advantageous, and cost me nothing. But I didn’t. Asked about why I didn’t do it, I say ‘Because it is wrong.’
You can be sceptical about this in all kinds of ways, but you cannot deny that the statement carries some force.

Another example of an ethical ability:

distinguish conventional from moral violations

‘findings on the moral/conventional distinction [...] have been replicated numerous times using a wide variety of stimuli [...] Furthermore, the research apparently plumbs a fairly deep feature of moral judgment. For moral violations are treated as distinctive along several different dimensions. Moral violations attract high ratings on seriousness, they are regarded as having wide applicability, they have a status of authority independence, and they invite different kinds of justifications from conventional violations. Finally, this turns out to be a persistent feature of moral judgment. It is found in young and old alike. Thus, it seems that the capacity for drawing the moral/conventional distinction is part of basic moral psychology’ \citep[p.~6]{nichols:2004_sentimental}.

Another ethical ability:

susceptibility to others’ moral reasoning

Important for understanding (a) how there can be convergence in ethical standards, and (b) how ethical abilities support living in large, cooperative but non-kin groups.
Definition used in this course:

Moral psychology is the study of psychological aspects of ethical abilities.

Let me return to the comparison, for I think this is helpful in two ways.
FIRST, you can investigate psychological aspects of linguistic (or mathematical) abilities irrespective of your views on the nature of linguistic (or mathematical) truths. Likewise for ethical abilities. You might be sceptical about the very existence of ethical truths, or you might be some kind of realist, or you might have any other kind of view about the nature of ethical truths. It’s quite unlikely to matter. Any more than it would matter for studying psychological aspects of mathematical abilities.
SECOND, when it comes to ethics (and religion), people quite often assume that psychological discoveries challenge beliefs about the nature of morality (or of divinty). We should be cautious here. Discoveries about psychological aspects of linguistic (or mathematical) abilities have not generally informed discussions about the nature of language (or of mathematics). It may turn out that discoveries about psychological aspects of ethical abilities have little bearing on the nature of morality.
If you came here expecting to turn your moral life upside down, or if you are hoping to justify your first-order ethical views, prepare to be disappointed.

linguistic / mathematical / ethical


Nice contrast from Dwyer. (Note that our concern is not limited to judgements, tho!)

‘The moral psychologist wants to know about the processes [...] underlying moral judgment. The moral theorist (typically) wants to know about which moral principles or theories are [...] consistent [with] people’s moral judgments’


Dwyer 2009, p. 293

Recap: Definition used in this course:

Moral psychology is the study of psychological aspects of ethical abilities.

Warning: the term ‘moral psychology’ is used in all kinds of ways, many unrelated to this course.

see also: list of questions handout

The other thing that will help you understand what we are doing is the list of questions