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Conclusion: Why Investigate Moral Psychology?

Why moral pscyhology?

How closely did what led you here match with what you got? Are there things you would like to see if the course ever runs again? Discuss with the person next to you. Most interesting answers on a post it, stick them on the board during the break.
Reason 1: it enables us to better understand human sociality


human sociality

You can reach the same conclusion without buying into the ‘intuitive ethics’ idea. For example, Hamlin writes, on the basis of different arguments (to be considered later), that:

‘humans (both individually and as a species) develop morality because it is required for cooperative systems to flourish’


Hamlin 2015, p. 108

Modern humans

have recently (~10 000 years ago) begun to

live in societies roughly as complex as those of social insects

but cooperate with non-kin.

(~10 000 years ago, relative to the 100 000 years since they first appeared)

How is this possible?

‘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 and Boyd, 1999 p. 257

We can see how this might be true, in outline, by reflecting on something called ‘intuitive ethics’

‘intuitive ethics’ (Haidt & Joseph, 2004; Haidt & Graham, 2007)


fairness (including reciprocity)

in-group loyalty

respect for authorty

purity, sanctity

Haidt and his collaborators claim that: 1. that humans are disposed to respond rapidly to events evaluated along these five lines; (‘We propose that human beings come equipped with an intuitive ethics, an in- nate preparedness to feel flashes of approval or disapproval toward certain pat- terns of events involving other human beings’ \citep[p.~56]{haidt:2004_intuitive});
2. the first four of these dispositions are all found in nonhuman animals;
3. that these dispositions have an evolutionary history;
4. and that these dispositions provide starting points for the cultural evolution of morality.
For our purposes, let’s suppose they are roughly right.

Graham et al, 2013 table 2.1

Note the claim that moral foundations arose in evolutionary history as solutions to specific challenges faced by humans’ ancestors.

Graham et al, 2013 table 2.1

[connecting evolution to MFT]: ‘pathogens are among the principle existential threats to organisms, so those who could best avoid pathogens would have enhanced evolutionary fitness. Van Vugt and Park contend that human groups develop unique practices for reducing pathogen exposure---particularly in how they prepare their foods and maintain their hygiene. When groups are exposed to the practices of a foreign culture, they may perceive its members as especially likely to carry pathogens that may contaminate one’s ingroup’ \citep[p.~93]{graham:2013_chapter}

van Leeuwen et al, 2012 figure 1

\citep[figure 1]{vanleeuwen:2012_regional}
Historical pathogen prevalence
‘binding foundations (mean of Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, and Purity/sanctity). The data for contemporary pathogen prevalence showed a similar pattern.’
‘When controlling for GDP per capita, the pattern of correlations between historical pathogen prevalence and endorsement of moral foundations remained largely unchanged; however, contemporary pathogen prevalence was not significantly correlated with any of the moral foundations’ \citep{vanleeuwen:2012_regional}.

Simon Myer’s lecture on partner-choice vs partner-control

-- Are different strategies linked to cultural variation in ethical principles?

That was human sociality: the idea was that investingating moral psychology is worthwhile because it enables us to better understand human sociality.


human sociality


political conflict,

e.g. over climate change

Reason 2: it enables us to better understand one aspect of political conflict, and will perhaps even eventually suggest ways of overcoming some political conflicts.
Relatedly, moral psychology matters for understanding why political change is sometimes difficult; especially in democratic societies.
I can’t provide much support for this claim now, and, being philosophers, one of our questions will be whether it is true at all. But I think there is a reasonable case to be made for it.
The idea that moral psychology can help us to understand, and perhaps even to overcome, political divides comes out sharply in research on attitudes to climate change ...
This idea has been advanced by Markowitz & Shariff ...

Why are liberals generally more concerned about climate change than conservatives?

‘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

Similarly, you can understand a bit about why nationalism tends to be associated with conservatives rather than liberals (although it varies from place to place).

Graham et al, 2009 figure 1

Also works with a web sample collected in USA \citep[figure~1]{graham:2009_liberals}

Graham et al, 2009 figure 3

Graham et al, 2009 figure 2

‘We tested whether the effects of political identity persisted after partialing out variation in moral relevance ratings for other demographic variables. We created a model representing the five foundations as latent factors measured by three manifest variables each, simultaneously predicted by political identity and four covariates: age, gender, education level, and income. [...] Including the covariates, political identity still predicted all five foundations in the predicted direction [...]. Political identity was the key explanatory variable: It was the only consistent significant predictor [...] for all five foundations’ \citep[p.~1032]{graham:2009_liberals}

Graham et al, 2009 figure 1

The Joan-Lars-Joseph objection

The evidence on cultural variation says socially conservative participants tend to regard all five foundations as roughly equally morally relevant.

This does not generate the prediction that socially conservative participants will be more likely to view climate issues as ethical issues when linked on one foundation (e.g. purity) than when linked to another foundation (e.g. harm).

Does Moral Foundations Theory provide a model that is invariant?

Davies et al, 2014 : metric invariance for gender groups

(scalar invariance not tested)

Davis et al, 2014 : metric but not scalar invariance for Black vs White people

\citep{davis:2016_moral} found metric but not scalar invariance

Dogruyol et al, 2019 : metric non-invariance for WEIRD/non-WEIRD samples

‘the five-factor model of MFQ revealed a good fit to the data on both WEIRD and non-WEIRD samples. Besides, the five-factor model yielded a better fit to the data as compared to the two-factor model of MFQ. Measurement invariance test across samples validated factor structure for the five-factor model, yet a comparison of samples provided metric non-invariance implying that item loadings are different across groups [...] although the same statements tap into the same moral foundations in each case, the strength of the link between the statements and the foundations were different in WEIRD and non-WEIRD cultures’ \citep{dogruyol:2019_fivefactor}.

‘across subscales, there were problems with scalar invariance, which suggests that researchers may need to carefully consider whether this scale is working similarly across groups before conducting mean comparisons’


Davis et al, 2016 p. e27

Graham et al, 2009 figure 1

Are the differences in means measurement artefacts?

On balance, this seems likely.

There is a risk of building a theory on measurement artefacts.

‘entire literatures can develop on the basis of faulty measurement assumptions.’


Davis et al, 2017 p. 128


On balance, MFT seems to be supported by a growing body of evidence.

Although limited, MFT is probably useful and there is no better alternative.

Ok, that was the second reason for studying moral psychology: it may help us to understand an aspect of political conflict.
Yes there are limits to specific conclusions we can draw. Moral psychology can provide at most quite limited guidance on how to approach political issues, I would suggest.
Important discovery is that there are methods which will likely eventually be relevant to making political progress on climiate change.


political conflict,

e.g. over climate change

A third reason brings us closer to home. Not a few researchers in moral psychology have argued that their discoveries about the psychological underpinnings of moral abilities have consequences for ethics and metaethics.
[Reason 3: according to many researchers, discoveries in moral psychology undermine various claims that have been made by philosophers in ethics; they may also challenge some philosophical methods. (This is going to be controversial.)]



You can see I put a question mark here; I am not convinced they are right. But anyone who studies ethics should at least understand the challenges posed by researchers in moral psychology. And they may well turn out to be right.
[Add something about the question mark missing from the module title: the science of good and evil?]
Some claims made by moral psychologists.

Humans lack direct insight into moral properties


(Sinnott-Armstrong et al, 2010 p. 268).

Intuitions cannot be used to counterexample theories


(Sinnott-Armstrong et al, 2010 p. 269).

Intuitions are unreliable in unfamiliar* situations


(Greene, 2014 p. 715).

‘Let us define unfamiliar* problems as ones with which we have inadequate evolutionary, cultural, or personal experience.’ \citep[p.~714]{greene:2014_pointandshoot}

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).

‘the sprouts are incipient tendencies to act, feel, desire, perceive, and think in virtuous ways. Each sprout corresponds to one of Mencius' four cardinal virtues:



(propriety), and


’Even in the uncultivated person, these sprouts are active. They manifest themselves, from time to time, in virtuous reactions to certain situations’


‘characteristic of each sprout is a particular set of emotions or attitudes’


Norden 2002 pp. 46--7, p. 74 on Mencius

‘someone suddenly saw a child about to fall into a well: everyone in such a situation would have a feeling of alarm and compassion---not because one sought to get in good with the child's parents, not because one wanted fame among their neighbors and friends, and not because one would dislike the sound of the child's cries’

Mencius, Mengzi 2A6

progress since 4th century BCE

One standard in ethics: Rawls’ reflective equilbrium idea
‘one may think of moral theory at first [...] as the attempt to describe our moral capacity [...] what is required is a formulation of a set of principles which, when conjoined to our beliefs and knowledge of the circumstances, would lead us to make these judgments with their supporting reasons were we to apply these principles conscientiously and intelligently’ \citep[p.~41]{rawls:1999_theory}; see \citet{singer:1974_sidgwick} for critical discussion.

‘one may think of physical moral theory at first [...]
as the attempt to describe our moralperceptual capacity

Interesting: seems like Rawls’ project requires the methods of psychology (and is moral psychology)


what is required is

a formulation of a set of principles which,

when conjoined to our beliefs and knowledge of the circumstances,

would lead us to make these judgments with their supporting reasons

were we to apply these principles’

Rawls, 1999 p. 41

So that was the third reason ...



Time for a summary ...

Why investigate moral psychology?


human sociality

political conflict