29 Sep

The Science of Morality

Posted By Politybooks

mark alfano teachingWhat makes a person’s life go well? Should we aim to give people what they happen to want, or try to shape their preferences to be more easily satisfied? Are we responsible even for actions that express implicit biases, or only for our conscious choices? Are reason and emotion essentially antagonistic, or do emotions embody reasoning? How is character molded and stabilized? Are we more authentic when we are alone or when we are in the company of intimate friends and family? How stark are moral disagreements, both within and between cultures?

In Moral Psychology, I develop philosophically nuanced and empirically informed answers to these questions. I begin the book by exploring five central moral psychological phenomena: agency, patiency, sociality, temporality, and reflexivity. People are agents: they make things happen in the world. They are also patients: things happen to them. Sometimes one person does something to someone else — an instance of sociality. Sociality is complex because it is recursive. For instance, you, as agent, can persuade me, as patient, to do something. That thing might be to coerce someone else to do something. People can also act on themselves, both in the present moment and over time. When they do so, they exhibit reflexivity and temporality. Each subsequent chapter of Moral Psychology employs these five central concepts to better understand human behavior, decision-making, cognition, reasoning, and development.

In chapter one, I draw on behavioral economics and psychology to argue that preferences are neither entirely stable nor entirely determinate. This means that, to the extent that someone’s wellbeing depends on whether their preferences are satisfied, wellbeing is also unstable and indeterminate. While this might seem like a problem, I argue that it opens up the possibility of shaping, reordering, and clarifying preferences, rather than treating them as set in stone.

In chapter two, I consider the ways in which implicit and explicit biases may help and harm both those who embody them and the people they come in contact with. Using the examples of police violence against racial minorities and gender inequality in the workplace, I show how even small and subtle biases can have huge effects over time. I then explain the psychology of implicit biases, which typically operate below the level of awareness, and explore the extent to which someone who has such a bias is responsible for their behavior. While it may not be possible to wrest complete control from such biases in the moment, I argue that there is reason to think that people can construct their environments and introduce counter-biases to take distal control over themselves. Hence, while we may not be fully responsible for what we do, we are responsible for the ongoing fact that we have biases.

In chapter three, I draw on recent neuroscientific evidence to argue that emotion — far from being antithetical to reason — is a way in which humans embody or implement reason. Unlike prominent emotion-skeptics like Joshua Greene, I suggest that emotions are often fine-tuned to ongoing concerns, registering gains and losses, opportunities and threats.

In chapter four, I develop an interactionist theory of moral character that is consistent with the most recent findings in both personality psychology — which has documented remarkable kinds of consistency in people’s dispositions to thought, feeling, and action — and social psychology — which has documented remarkable kinds of inconsistency in people’s dispositions to thought, feeling, and action. I argue for the hypothesis of extended character, according to which people’s character partially inheres in stable facets of their material and social environment, especially in the ongoing expectations-signaling of their near and dear ones.

In chapter five, I explain the kinds and levels of moral disagreement that can exist between cultures, within cultures, and even within individuals. I then argue that, despite facile arguments for inter-cultural disagreement, basic values are strikingly consistent in different parts of the world. There is more intra-cultural disagreement than inter-cultural disagreement, and even that disagreement is primarily about how to implement shared values, not about what’s ultimately valuable.

Finally, in the conclusion, I explore future directions for philosophical and psychological research in moral psychology.

Moral Psychology marks a major advance in an emerging interdisciplinary field. It challenges many traditional views but also casts a critical eye on the scientific study of moral psychology, which turns out to be extremely difficult to do well. Undergraduates, graduate students, and researchers in both philosophy and psychology will find this book stimulating and thought-provoking.

Mark Alfano is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Princeton University Center for Human Values and Center for Health and Wellbeing. His book Moral Psychology will be published in January 2016.