The New Science of Morality


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Something radically new is in the air: new ways of understanding physical systems, new ways of thinking about thinking that call into question many of our basic assumptions. A realistic biology of the mind, advances in evolutionary biology, physics, information technology, genetics, neurobiology, psychology, engineering, the chemistry of materials: all are questions of critical importance with respect to what it means to be human. For the first time, we have the tools and the will to undertake the scientific study of human nature.

This began in the early seventies, when, as a graduate student at Harvard, evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers wrote five papers that set forth an agenda for a new field: the scientific study of human nature. In the past thirty-five years this work has spawned thousands of scientific experiments, new and important evidence, and exciting new ideas about who and what we are presented in books by scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Steven Pinker, and Edward O. Wilson among many others.

In 1975, Wilson, a colleague of Trivers at Harvard, predicted that ethics would someday be taken out of the hands of philosophers and incorporated into the "new synthesis" of evolutionary and biological thinking. He was right.

Scientists engaged in the scientific study of human nature are gaining sway over the scientists and others in disciplines that rely on studying social actions and human cultures independent from their biological foundation.

No where is this more apparent than in the field of moral psychology. Using babies, psychopaths, chimpanzees, fMRI scanners, web surveys, agent-based modeling, and ultimatum games, moral psychology has become a major convergence zone for research in the behavioral sciences.

So what do we have to say? Are we moving toward consensus on some points? What are the most pressing questions for the next five years? And what do we have to offer a world in which so many global and national crises are caused or exacerbated by moral failures and moral conflicts? It seems like everyone is studying morality these days, reaching findings that complement each other more often than they clash.

Culture is humankind’s biological strategy, according to Roy F. Baumeister, and so human nature was shaped by an evolutionary process that selected in favor of traits conducive to this new, advanced kind of social life (culture). To him, therefore, studies of brain processes will augment rather than replace other approaches to studying human behavior, and he fears that the widespread neglect of the interpersonal dimension will compromise our understanding of human nature. Morality is ultimately a system of rules that enables groups of people to live together in reasonable harmony. Among other things, culture seeks to replace aggression with morals and laws as the primary means to solve the conflicts that inevitably arise in social life. Baumeister’s work has explored such morally relevant topics as evil, self-control, choice, and free will. [More]

According to Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, humans are born with a hard-wired morality. A deep sense of good and evil is bred in the bone. His research shows that babies and toddlers can judge the goodness and badness of others' actions; they want to reward the good and punish the bad; they act to help those in distress; they feel guilt, shame, pride, and righteous anger. [More]

Harvard cognitive neuroscientist and philosopher Joshua D. Greene sees our biggest social problems — war, terrorism, the destruction of the environment, etc. — arising from our unwitting tendency to apply paleolithic moral thinking (also known as "common sense") to the complex problems of modern life. Our brains trick us into thinking that we have Moral Truth on our side when in fact we don't, and blind us to important truths that our brains were not designed to appreciate. [More]

University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt's research indicates that morality is a social construction which has evolved out of raw materials provided by five (or more) innate "psychological" foundations: Harm, Fairness, Ingroup, Authority, and Purity. Highly educated liberals generally rely upon and endorse only the first two foundations, whereas people who are more conservative, more religious, or of lower social class usually rely upon and endorse all five foundations. [More]

The failure of science to address questions of meaning, morality, and values, notes neuroscientist Sam Harris, has become the primary justification for religious faith. In doubting our ability to address questions of meaning and morality through rational argument and scientific inquiry, we offer a mandate to religious dogmatism, superstition, and sectarian conflict. The greater the doubt, the greater the impetus to nurture divisive delusions. [More]

A lot of Yale experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe's recent research has been concerned with the impact of people's moral judgments on their intuitions about questions that might initially appear to be entirely independent of morality (questions about intention, causation, etc.). It has often been suggested that people's basic approach to thinking about such questions is best understood as being something like a scientific theory. He has offered a somewhat different view, according to which people's ordinary way of understanding the world is actually infused through and through with moral considerations. He is arguably most widely known for what has come to be called "the Knobe effect" or the "Side-Effect Effect." [More]

NYU psychologist Elizabeth Phelps investigates the brain activity underlying memory and emotion. Much of Phelps' research has focused on the phenomenon of "learned fear," a tendency of animals to fear situations associated with frightening events. Her primary focus has been to understand how human learning and memory are changed by emotion and to investigate the neural systems mediating their interactions. A recent study published in Nature by Phelps and her colleagues, shows how fearful memories can be wiped out for at least a year using a drug-free technique that exploits the way that human brains store and recall memories. [More]

Disgust has been keeping Cornell psychologist David Pizarro particularly busy, as it has been implicated by many as an emotion that plays a large role in many moral judgments. His lab results have shown that an increased tendency to experience disgust (as measured using the Disgust Sensitivity Scale, developed by Jon Haidt and colleagues), is related to political orientation. [More]

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Marc Hauser, one of the nine participants at the conference, has withdrawn his contribution.]

Each of the above participants led a 45-minute session on Day One that consisted of a 25-minute talk. Day Two consisted of two 90-minute open discussions on "The Science of Morality", intended as a starting point to begin work on a consensus document on the state of moral psychology to be published onEdge in the near future.

Among the members of the press in attendance were: Sharon Begley, Newsweek, Drake Bennett, Ideas, Boston Globe, David Brooks, OpEd Columnist, New York Times, Daniel Engber, Slate, Amanda Gefter, Opinion Editor,New Scientist, Jordan Mejias, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,Gary Stix, Scientific American, Pamela WeintraubDiscover Magazine.

The New Science of Morality, Part 1

[JONATHAN HAIDT:] As the first speaker, I'd like to thank the Edge Foundation for bringing us all together, and bringing us all together in this beautiful place. I'm looking forward to having these conversations with all of you.

I was recently at a conference on moral development, and a prominent Kohlbergian moral psychologist stood up and said, "Moral psychology is dying."  And I thought, well, maybe in your neighborhood property values are plummeting, but in the rest of the city, we are going through a renaissance. We are in a golden age. 

The New Science of Morality, Part 2

[JOSHUA D. GREENE:] Now, it's true that, as scientists, our basic job is to describe the world as it is. But I don't think that that's the only thing that matters. In fact, I think the reason why we're here, the reason why we think this is such an exciting topic, is not that we think that the new moral psychology is going to cure cancer. Rather, we think that understanding this aspect of human nature is going to perhaps change the way we think and change the way we respond to important problems and issues in the real world. If all we were going to do is just describe how people think and never do anything with it, never use our knowledge to change the way we relate to our problems, then I don't think there would be much of a payoff. I think that applying our scientific knowledge to real problems is the payoff. 

The New Science of Morality, Part 3

[SAM HARRIS:] ...I think we should differentiate three projects that seem to me to be easily conflated, but which are distinct and independently worthy endeavors. The first project is to understand what people do in the name of "morality." We can look at the world, witnessing all of the diverse behaviors, rules, cultural artifacts, and morally salient emotions like empathy and disgust, and we can study how these things play out in human communities, both in our time and throughout history. We can examine all these phenomena in as nonjudgmental a way as possible and seek to understand them. We can understand them in evolutionary terms, and we can understand them in psychological and neurobiological terms, as they arise in the present. And we can call the resulting data and the entire effort a "science of morality". This would be a purely descriptive science of the sort that I hear Jonathan Haidt advocating. 

The New Science of Morality, Part 4

[ROY BAUMEISTER:] And so that said, in terms of trying to understand human nature, well, and morality too, nature and culture certainly combine in some ways to do this, and I'd put these together in a slightly different way, it's not nature's over here and culture's over there and they're both pulling us in different directions. Rather, nature made us for culture. I'm convinced that the distinctively human aspects of psychology, the human aspects of evolution were adaptations to enable us to have this new and better kind of social life, namely culture.

Culture is our biological strategy. It's a new and better way of relating to each other, based on shared information and division of labor, interlocking roles and things like that. And it's worked. It's how we solve the problems of survival and reproduction, and it's worked pretty well for us in that regard. And so the distinctively human traits are ones often there to make this new kind of social life work.

Now, where does this leave us with morality?  

The New Science of Morality, Part 5

[PAUL BLOOM:] What I want to do today is talk about some ideas I've been exploring concerning the origin of human kindness. And I'll begin with a story that Sarah Hrdy tells at the beginning of her excellent new book, "Mothers And Others."  She describes herself flying on an airplane. It’s a crowded airplane, and she's flying coach. She's waits in line to get to her seat; later in the flight, food is going around, but she's not the first person to be served; other people are getting their meals ahead of her. And there's a crying baby. The mother's soothing the baby, the person next to them is trying to hide his annoyance, other people are coo-cooing the baby, and so on.

As Hrdy points out, this is entirely unexceptional. Billions of people fly each year, and this is how most flights are. But she then imagines what would happen if every individual on the plane was transformed into a chimp. Chaos would reign. By the time the plane landed, there'd be body parts all over the aisles, and the baby would be lucky to make it out alive.            

The point here is that people are nicer than chimps.

The New Science of Morality, Part 6

[DAVID PIZARRO:] What I want to talk about is piggybacking off of the end of Paul's talk, where he started to speak a little bit about the debate that we've had in moral psychology and in philosophy, on the role of reason and emotion in moral judgment. I'm going to keep my claim simple, but I want to argue against a view that probably nobody here has, (because we're all very sophisticated), but it's often spoken of emotion and reason as being at odds with each other — in a sense that to the extent that emotion is active, reason is not active, and to the extent that reason is active, emotion is not active. (By emotion here, I mean, broadly speaking, affective influences).

I think that this view is mistaken (although it is certainly the case sometimes). The interaction between these two is much more interesting.  So I'm going to talk a bit about some studies that we've done. Some of them have been published, and a couple of them haven't (because they're probably too inappropriate to publish anywhere, but not too inappropriate to speak to this audience). They are on the role of emotive forces in shaping our moral judgment. I use the term "emotive," because they are about motivation and how motivation affects the reasoning process when it comes to moral judgment.

The New Science of Morality, Part 7

[ELIZABETH PHELPS:] In spite of these beliefs I do think about decisions as reasoned or instinctual when I'm thinking about them for myself. And this has obviously been a very powerful way of thinking about how we do things  because it goes back to earliest written thoughts. We have reason, we have emotion, and these two things can compete. And some are unique to humans and others are shared with other species.

And economists, when thinking about decisions, have also adopted what we call a dual system approach. This is obviously a different dual system approach and here I'm focusing mostly on Kahneman's System 1 and System 2. As probably everybody in this room knows Kahneman and Tversky showed that there were a number of ways in which we make decisions that didn't seem to be completely consistent with classical economic theory and easy to explain. And they proposed Prospect Theory and suggested that we actually have two systems we use when making decisions, one of which we call reason, one of which we call intuition.

Kahneman didn't say emotion. He didn't equate emotion with intuition.

The New Science of Morality, Part 8

[JOSHUA KNOBE:] ...what's really exciting about this new work is not so much just the very idea of philosophers doing experiments but rather the particular things that these people ended up showing. When these people went out and started doing these experimental studies, they didn't end up finding results that conformed to the traditional picture. They didn't find that there was a kind of initial stage in which people just figured out, on a factual level, what was going on in a situation, followed by a subsequent stage in which they used that information in order to make a moral judgment. Rather they really seemed to be finding exactly the opposite.

What they seemed to be finding is that people's moral judgments were influencing the process from the very beginning, so that people's whole way of making sense of their world seemed to be suffused through and through with moral considerations. In this sense, our ordinary way of making sense of the world really seems to look very, very deeply different from a kind of scientific perspective on the world. It seems to be value-laden in this really fundamental sense. 



August 15, 2010



The surprising moral force of disgust
By Drake Bennett

...Psychologists like Haidt are leading a wave of research into the so-called moral emotions — not just disgust, but others like anger and compassion — and the role those feelings play in how we form moral codes and apply them in our daily lives. A few, like Haidt, go so far as to claim that all the world's moral systems can best be characterized not by what their adherents believe, but what emotions they rely on.

There is deep skepticism in parts of the psychology world about claims like these. And even within the movement there is a lively debate over how much power moral reasoning has — whether our behavior is driven by thinking and reasoning, or whether thinking and reasoning are nothing more than ornate rationalizations of what our emotions ineluctably drive us to do. Some argue that morality is simply how human beings and societies explain the peculiar tendencies and biases that evolved to help our ancestors survive in a world very different from ours.

A few of the leading researchers in the new field met late last month at a small conference in western Connecticut, hosted by the Edge Foundation, to present their work and discuss the implications. Among the points they debated was whether their work should be seen as merely descriptive, or whether it should also be a tool for evaluating religions and moral systems and deciding which were more and less legitimate — an idea that would be deeply offensive to religious believers around the world.

But even doing the research in the first place is a radical step. The agnosticism central to scientific inquiry is part of what feels so dangerous to philosophers and theologians. By telling a story in which morality grows out of the vagaries of human evolution, the new moral psychologists threaten the claim of universality on which most moral systems depend — the idea that certain things are simply right, others simply wrong. If the evolutionary story about the moral emotions is correct, then human beings, by being a less social species or even having a significantly different prehistoric diet, might have ended up today with an entirely different set of religions and ethical codes. Or we might never have evolved the concept of morals at all. ...




Alexis Madrigal

University of Virginia moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt delivered an absolutely dynamite talk on new advances in his field last week. The video and a transcript have been posted by, a loose consortium of very smart people run by John Brockman. Haidt whips us through centuries of moral thought, recent evolutionary psychology, and discloses which two papers every single psychology student should have to read. Through it all, he's funny, erudite, and understandable. Here, we excerpt a few paragraphs from his conclusion, in which Haidt tells us how to think about our moral minds: ...


July 28, 2010


Moral reasoning

How do you train a moral muscle? American researchers take their first steps on the path to a science of morality without God hypothesis. The last word should have the reason.
By Jordan Mejias

[Google translation:]

28th July 2010 One was missing and had he turned up, the illustrious company would have had nothing more to discuss and think. Even John Brockman, literary agent, and guru of the third culture, it could not move, stop by in his salon, which he every summer from the virtuality of the Internet, click on moved, in a New England idyl. There, in the green countryside of Washington, Connecticut, it was time to morality as a new science. When new it was announced, because their devoted not philosophers and theologians, but psychologists, biologists, neurologists, and at most such philosophers, based on experiments and the insights of brain research. They all had to admit, even to be on the search, but they missed not one who lacked the authority in matters of morality: God.

The secular science dominated the conference. As it should come to an end, however, a consensus first, were the conclusions apart properly. Even on the question of whether religion should be regarded as part of evolution, remained out of the clear answer. Agreement, the participants were at least that is to renounce God. Him, the unanimous result of her certainly has not been completed or not may be locked investigations, did not owe the man morality. That it is innate in him, but did so categorically not allege any. Only on the findings that morality is a natural phenomenon, there was agreement, even if only to a certain degree. For, should be understood not only the surely. Besides nature makes itself in morality and the culture just noticeable, and where the effect of one ends and the other begins, is anything but settled.

Better be nice

In a baby science, as Elizabeth Phelps, a neuroscientist at New York University, called the moral psychology may by way of surprise not much groping. How about some with free will, will still remain for the foreseeable future a mystery. Moral instincts was, after all, with some certainty Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University, are not built into us. We are only given the ability to acquire systems of morality. Gives us to be altruistic, we are selfish by nature, benefits. It is moral to be compared with a muscle, the fatigue, but can also be strengthened through regular training. What sounds easier than is done, if not clear what is to train as well. A moral center that we can selectively edit points, our brain does not occur.

But amazingly, with all that we are nice to each other are forced reproduction, and Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale, is noticed. Obviously, we have realized that our lives more comfortable when others do not fight us. Factors of Nettigkeitswachstums Bloom also recognizes in capitalism that will work better with nice people, and world religions, which act in large groups and their dynamics as it used to strangers to meet each other favorably. The fact that we have developed over the millennia morally beneficial, holds not only he has been proved. Even the neurologist Sam Harris, author of "The Moral Landscape. How Science Can Determine Human Values "(Free Press), wants to make this progress not immoral monsters like Hitler and Stalin spoil. ...

[...Continue: German language original | Google translation]


25 JUL 2010


Edge held a seminar on morality. Here's Joshua Knobe:

Over the past few years, a series of recent experimental studies have reexamined the ways in which people answer seemingly ordinary questions about human behavior. Did this person act intentionally? What did her actions cause? Did she make people happy or unhappy? It had long been assumed that people's answers to these questions somehow preceded all moral thinking, but the latest research has been moving in a radically different direction. It is beginning to appear that people's whole way of making sense of the world might be suffused with moral judgment, so that people's moral beliefs can actually transform their most basic understanding of what is happening in a situation.

David Brooks' illuminating column on this topic covered the same ground:


...Advantage Locke over Hobbes.



July 23, 2010


Scientific research is showing that we are born with an innate moral sense.

Washington, Conn.

Where does our sense of right and wrong come from? Most people think it is a gift from God, who revealed His laws and elevates us with His love. A smaller number think that we figure the rules out for ourselves, using our capacity to reason and choosing a philosophical system to live by.

Moral naturalists, on the other hand, believe that we have moral sentiments that have merged from a long history of relationships. To learn about morality, you don't rely upon revelation or metaphysics; you observe people as they live.

This week a group of moral naturalists gathered in Connecticut at a conference organized by the Edge Foundation. ...

By the time humans came around, evolution had forged a pretty firm foundation for a moral sense. Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia argues that this moral sense is like our sense of taste. We have natural receptors that help us pick up sweetness and saltiness. In the same way, we have natural receptors that help us recognize fairness and cruelty. Just as a few universal tastes can grow into many different cuisines, a few moral senses can grow into many different moral cultures.

Paul Bloom of Yale noted that this moral sense can be observed early in life. Bloom and his colleagues conducted an experiment in which they showed babies a scene featuring one figure struggling to climb a hill, another figure trying to help it, and a third trying to hinder it. ...




Howard Gardner, Geoffrey Miller, Brian Eno, James Fowler, Rebecca Mackinnon, Jaron Lanier, Eva Wisten, Brian Knutson, Andrian Kreye, Anonymous, Alison Gopnik, Robert Trivers, Randoph Nesse, M.D.

Psychologist, Harvard University; Author, Changing Minds

Enlightenment ideas were the product of white male Christians living in the 18th century. They form the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other Western-inflected documents. But in our global world, Confucian societies and Islamic societies have their own guidelines about progress, individuality, democratic processes, human obligations. In numbers they represent more of humanity and are likely to become even more numerous in this century. What do the human sciences have to contribute to an understanding of these 'multiple voices' ? Can they combined harmoniously or are there unbridgeable gaps?

Evolutionary Psychologist, University of New Mexico; Author, Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior

1) Many people become vegans, protect animal rights, and care about the long-term future of the environment. It seems hard to explain these 'green virtues' in terms of the usual evolutionary-psychology selection pressures: reciprocity, kin selection, group selection -- so how can we explain their popularity (or unpopularity?)

2) What are the main sex differences in human morality, and why?

3) What role did costly signaling play in the evolution of human morality (i.e. 'showing off' certain moral virtues' to attract mates, friends, or allies, or to intimidate rival individuals or competing groups)?

4) Given the utility of 'adaptive self-deception' in human evolution -- one part of the mind not knowing what adaptive strategies another part is pursuing -- what could it mean to have the moral virtue of 'integrity' for an evolved being?

5) Why do all 'mental illnesses' (depression, mania, schizophrenia, borderline, psychopathy, narcissism, mental retardation, etc.) reduce altruism, compassion, and loving-kindness? Is this partly why they are recognized as mental illnesses?

Artist; Composer; Recording Producer: U2, Cold Play, Talking Heads, Paul Simon; Recording Artist

Is morality a human invention - a way of trying to stabilise human societies and make them coherent - or is there evidence of a more fundamental sense of morality in creatures other than humans?

Another way of asking this question is: are there moral concepts that are not specifically human?

Yet another way of asking this is: are moral concepts specifically the province of human brains? And, if they are, is there any basis for suggesting that there are any 'absolute' moral precepts?

Or: do any other creatures exhibit signs of 'honour' or 'shame'??

Political Scientist, University of California, San Diego; Coauthor, Connected

Given recent evidence about the power of social networks, what is our personal responsibility to our friends' friends?

Blogger & Cofounder, Global Voices Online; Former CNN journalist and head of CNN bureaus in Beijing & Tokyo; Visiting Fellow, Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy

Does the human race require a major moral evolution in order to survive? Isn't part of the problem that our intelligence has vastly out-evolved our morality, which is still stuck back in the paleolithic age? Is there anything we can do? Or is this the tragic flaw that dooms us? Might technology help to facilitate or speed up our moral evolution, as some say technology is already doing for human intelligence? We have artificial intelligence and augmented reality. What about artificial or augmented morality?

Musician, Computer Scientist; Pioneer of Virtural Reality; Author, You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto

A crucial topic is how group interactions change moral perception. To what degree are there clan-oriented processes inherent in the human brain? In particular, how can well-informed software designs for network-mediated social experience play a role in changing behavior and values? Is there anything specific that can be done to reduce mob-like phenomena, as is spawned in online forums like 4chan's /b/, without resorting to degrees of imposed control? This is where a science of moral psychology could inform engineering.

Journalist; Author, Single in Manhattan

What's would be a good definition - a few examples - of common moral sense? How does an averagely moral human think and behave (it's easy to paint a picture of the actions of an immoral person...) Now, how can this be expanded?

Could an understanding/acceptance of the idea that we are all having unconscious instincts for what's right and wrong replace the idea of religion as necessary for moral behavior?

What tends to be the hierarchy of "blinders" - the arguments we, consciously or unconsciously, use to relabel exploitative acts as good? (I did it for God, I did it for the German People, I did it for Jodie Foster...) What evolutionary purpose have they filled?

Psychologist & Neuroscientist, Stanford

What is the difference between morality and emotion? How can scientists distinguish between the two (or should they)? Why has Western culture been so historically reluctant to recognize emotion as a major influence on moral judgments?

Feuilleton Editor, Sueddutsche Zeitung

Is there a fine line or a wide gap between morality and ideology?


1. Some of the new literature on moral psychology feels like traditional discussions of ethics with a few numbers attached from surveys; almost like old ideas in a new can. As an outsider I'd be curious to know what's really new here. Specifically, if William James were resurrected what might be the new findings we could explain to him that would astound him or fundamentally change his way of thinking?

2. Is there a reason to believe there is such a thing as moral psychology that transcends upbringing and culture? Are we really studying a fundamental feature of the mind or simply the outcome of a social process?

Psychologist, UC, Berkeley; Author, The Philosophical Baby

Many people have proposed an evolutionary psychology/ nativist view of moral capacities. But surely one of the most dramatic and obvious features of our moral capacities is their capacity for change and even radical transformation with new experiences. At the same time this transformation isn't just random but seems to have a progressive quality. Its analogous to science which presents similar challenges to a nativist view. And even young children are empirically, capable of this kind of change in both domains. How do we get to new and better conceptions of the world, cognitive or moral, if the nativists are right?

Evolutionary Biologist, Rutgers University; Coauthor, Genes In Conflict: The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements


What is it? When does it occur? What function does it serve? How is it related, if at all, to guilt? Is it related to "morality" and if so how?

Key point, John, is that shame is a complex mixture of self and other: Tiger Woods SHAMES his wife in public — he may likewise be ashamed.

If i fuck a goat i may feel ashamed if someone saw it, but absent harm to the goat, not clear how i should respond if i alone witness it.