Moral psychology, empirical work in

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L147-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2012
Retrieved February 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

How do we form our moral judgments, and how do they influence behaviour? What ultimately motivates kind versus malicious action? Moral psychology is the interdisciplinary study of such questions about the mental lives of moral agents, including moral thought, feeling, reasoning and motivation. While these questions can be studied solely from the armchair or using only empirical tools, researchers in various disciplines, from biology to neuroscience to philosophy, can address them in tandem. Some key topics in this respect revolve around moral cognition and motivation, such as moral responsibility, altruism, the structure of moral motivation, weakness of will, and moral intuitions. Of course there are other important topics as well, including emotions, character, moral development, self-deception, addiction, and the evolution of moral capacities.

Some of the primary objects of study in moral psychology are the processes driving moral action. For example, we often think of ourselves as possessing free will, which undergirds our being responsible for what we do; we often believe we can be ultimately concerned for the welfare of another; and so on. Yet these claims can be tested by empirical methods to some extent in at least two ways. First, we can determine what in fact our ordinary thinking is. While many philosophers investigate this through rigorous reflection on concepts, the empirical methods of the social sciences are at least an additional tool to bring to bear on the issue. Second, we can investigate empirically whether our ordinary thinking is correct. This typically involves checking the empirical adequacy of philosophical theories, assessing directly any claims made about moral cognition, motivation, and so forth.

Understanding the psychology of moral individuals is certainly interesting in its own right, but it also often has direct implications for other areas of ethics, such as metaethics and normative ethics. For instance, determining the role of reason versus sentiment in moral judgment and motivation can shed light on whether moral judgments are cognitive, and perhaps whether morality itself is in some sense objective. Similarly, moral theories, such as deontology and utilitarianism, often rely on intuitive judgments about what one ought to do in various hypothetical cases. Empirical research can again serve as an additional tool to determine what exactly the intuitions are and which psychological processes generate them.

    Citing this article:
    May, Joshua. Moral psychology, empirical work in, 2012, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L147-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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