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The Moral Psychology HandbookReview - The Moral Psychology Handbook
by John M. Doris & the Moral Psychology Research Group
Oxford University Press, 2010
Review by Tom Bates and Hanno Sauer
Jan 18th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 3)

The Moral Psychology Handbook is a collection of thirteen extensive and systematically argued survey articles which cover a wide range of topics from the evolution of morality over the psychology of moral reasoning to character and racial cognition. It is written by the leading philosophical and psychological experts in moral psychology, a field which has regained a lot of attention and undergone interesting developments in the first decade of the 21st century. The authors share a commitment to empirical accuracy in their approaches to philosophical moral psychology. To that end they endeavor to systematically make use of empirical studies which impact on the various issues they discuss in the book. 


(1) Edouard Machery and Ron Mallon discuss the provocative claim that morality is an evolved part of human nature. In particular they discuss whether the claim would play a debunking role for our moral norms. The authors distinguish three ways the claim could be interpreted, arguing that the first -- that components of moral psychology evolved -- is uncontroversial, and that the second -- that normative cognition evolved, and is perhaps an adaptation -- is supported by a small, but suggestive, body of evidence. Scholars who support the third reading of the claim hold that morality is a specific type of normative cognition. Joyce, for example, draws out seven properties which distinguish moral judgments from other normative judgments. Machery and Mallon argue that the evidence does not support the claim that morality, understood in this way, is an evolved part of human nature.

With careful reference to the literature they argue that it has not been shown that moral norms -- with the features listed by Joyce, for example -- are found universally. They also argue that a growing body of evidence shows that the moral/conventional distinction is not clearly held in groups of children. If this were true it would undermine one of the key arguments for the evolution of specifically moral judgments. Overall they argue that the evidence provided does not support the conclusion that moral norms and moral judgments, understood as a specific type of norms and normative judgments, evolved, rather than evidence that normative cognition evolved. The authors believe that whilst the first and second reading of the claim that morality is an evolved part of human nature are at least reasonably well supported by the evidence, the third reading is not well supported. They believe that nothing of philosophical interest can be derived from either of the first two readings and, given the shortcomings of the third interpretation, the claim does not undermine the authority of our moral norms.


(2) In "Multi-system Moral Psychology", Fiery Cushman, Liane Young and Joshua Greene moderate between rationalist and emotionist approaches to moral judgment, and make the case for a "dual process"-account of moral cognition. When it comes to moral judgments that involve tradeoffs between preventing a greater by causing a lesser threat, two potentially competing mental systems are at work: an affectively, automatically and rapidly working and a cognitively, effortfully and consciously operating system.

This hypothesis is supported by evidence from neuroimaging -- where brain areas associated with emotion have been found to be more (or less) active when engaging in more (or less) emotionally engaging moral judgment tasks -- lesion studies -- where patients with prior emotional impairments (due to focal brain damage, for instance) have been found to endorse more cognitive (consequentialist) responses to moral dilemmas -- and mood induction -- where subjects whose emotional state has been manipulated show systematic variations in their willingness to endorse actions which are otherwise deemed impermissible.

The authors point out that it is still an open question whether certain responses are due to mere affective reactions or whether these are either partly caused or structured by implicitly employed moral principles such as the doctrine of double effect and that ultimately, moral judgments of any type seem to have an emotional foundation, which motivates people to consider harm to be a bad thing in the first place. The authors do not address the normative question to what extent neuroscience recommends to discount or trust different types of moral intuitions and the judgments that stem from them. Moreover, they leave a couple of important problems completely aside. Neither does one find a discussion of the reverse inference problem for inferences from brain structures to cognitive functions, nor is it addressed whether the dual process-model has been borne out in terms of a reaction time-analysis.


(3) In "Moral Motivation", Timothy Schroeder, Adina Roskies and Shaun Nichols discuss which account of moral -- and morally praiseworthy -- motivation fares best in the light of current neuroscientific evidence. They analyze motivation as an occurent mental state that is causally efficacious for an individual's behavior and sketch four distinct philosophical views on the nature of moral motivation. The instrumentalist holds that motivation is best understood in terms of an agent's desires and her beliefs about how to reach the desired end; the cognitivist maintains that people are motivated by their beliefs about what is the right (or valuable) thing to do; the sentimentalist argues that a motivation to act will not count as moral if it doesn't crucially involve a person's moral emotions (such as compassion); finally, the personalist attempts to explain moral action by an appeal to an agent's long-standing conative states, emotional dispositions and stable traits.

The neuroscientific evidence suggests that it is the reward system that primarily influences the spinal cord (mediated by the motor cortex and pre-motor cortical areas), and issues motor commands which result in voluntary movements -- actions. On that view, the neuroscientific evidence best supports the instrumentalist's account, because the reward system seems to be the area that executes precisely those functions that are folk-psychologically attributed to desires.

From a different angle, studies investigating psychopathy and ventromedial prefrontal damage suggest that cognitivism about moral motivation can not be the whole story: either, the authors argue, moral judgments produced by reason are not intrinsically motivating (as psychopaths, who have unimpaired reasoning but impaired emotion, suggest), or psychopaths cannot be said to make genuine moral judgments (due to the fact that they have impaired emotion, rather than reason).

Just to mention one problem that arises on the conceptual front: it should not come as a surpirse that the neuroscientific evidence turns out to support most nicely the instrumentalist and personalist accounts of moral motivation, because it seems that the original description of the brain architecture as consisting of, among others, areas such as a "reward system" is largely inspired by the same intuitions that have inspired desire-belief accounts of practical reasoning to begin with. In fact, the separation of cognitive centers from conative centers in neuroscience directly reflects, if not presupposes, a desire-belief theory of moral motivation.


(4) Jesse Prinz and Shaun Nichols argue that "Moral Emotions" play a crucial role in moral cognition. It turns out, however, that it requires a great deal of effort to specify exactly what that claim amounts to. The emotionist about moral judgment, they maintain, will typically endorse an emotional genesis- and an emotional essence-thesis. On that account, subjects typically arrive at their moral judgment on the basis of their emotions, and those emotions, in turn, are essential for the judgments that are based on them either because they alter the functional role these judgments play in a person's motivational economy or because they are constitutive parts of those judgments.

Moral emotions are the class of emotions that are concerned with the adherence to or violation of moral norms. Although they take these criteria to be non-sufficient, Prinz and Nichols characterize moral norms as norms that are non-conventionally valid: they are more serious, less authority-dependent, and more likely to be justified in terms of the suffering of and the empathy for a victim.

There are many different moral emotions. The authors argue that these cannot be reduced to one distinctive type of moral (dis)approval, but that there are pro-social emotions such as empathy and concern, self-blame emotions such as guilt and shame, other-blame emotions such as resentment and anger, positive moral emotions such as love and admiration, community-related emotions such as respect and loyalty, and purity-related emotions such as disgust. All these emotions qualify as moral insofar as they satisfy the above criteria and apply to paradigm cases of moral violations. For a proper understanding of the "thin" notions of moral right- and wrongness, guilt and anger seem to be of particular importance, and the authors discuss the psychological profile and motivational role of those two central emotions.

Although the authors cite a wealth of evidence concerning the connection between emotion and moral judgment, and contribute to a richer and empirically better informed account of moral emotions, they have a hard time showing that what makes an emotion a genuinely moral one can be understood in emotionist terms itself, independent of a prior, emotion-independent understanding of what moral rightness and wrongness are.


(5) Whilst the question of whether costly helping behavior is ever motivated by ultimately altruistic reasons, or is always the product of egoistic motivation at base, has been debated at least since Plato, it has been subject to new approaches in recent years. John Doris, Steven Stich, and Erica Roedder give a thorough account of the empirical work being done to tackle this question. They argue against the view that evolutionary theory has shed light on the debate.

In particular they think that Sober and Wilson's arguments that psychological altruism would be favored over egoism in motivating parental care are undermined if one factors in the concept of sub-doxastic states. On such a model our ultimate desires could be egoistic and still reliably produce helping behavior, as we have something like core beliefs which are inferential on our other beliefs, but not responsive to them. The authors then give a detailed discussion of the project of Batson and his colleagues. This work in social psychology aims at providing a body of evidence against specific egoistic hypothesis which incrementally supports the empathy-altruism hypothesis for helping behavior. The authors analyze the comparison of this hypothesis with three egoistic hypotheses: 'Aversive-Arousal Reduction', 'Empathy-Specific Punishment', and 'Empathy-Specific Reward'. In doing so they argue that Batson et al have not yet shown the empathy-altruism hypothesis to be true. However, the authors do believe that this work has made significant progress in a debate of such longevity, and they firmly endorse this empirical approach to the issue.


(6) In their article on "Moral Reasoning", Gilbert Harman, Kelby Mason and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong criticize what they call the 'deductive model of moral reasoning' as empirically inadequate. The psychological theory that, most famously, assumes a deductive model is Kohlberg's developmental theory of moral judgment and justification, but the authors also attribute a similar view to Plato, Kant, and proponents of rule-utilitarianism.

          The authors argue that the deductive model fails for four different reasons. First, it rests on a false account of moral justification. Deductive moral reasoning (that is, reasoning from a first premise that specifies a moral principle and a second premise that specifies whether the principle applies to a given case to a conclusion which then contains a moral judgment) says nothing about which moral judgment one is entitled to or obliged to believe in, but merely that believing the premises of a deductively valid argument and not believing the conclusion is inconsistent. It does not say that one ought to believe the conclusion, and always leaves open the option to simply drop one of the premises. It is also wrong, they argue, to suppose that only some premises have moral content and some do not, and that the latter are, or have to be, morally neutral. Instead, they argue, the question whether the principle (that killing is wrong, for instance) applies to a given case (that is, whether an action is an instance of killing) is not independent of a moral assessment of the very case at hand. Recent experiments have shown, for example, that the judgment that an action or its effects were brought about intentionally track moral considerations rather than mere facts of the matter. Third, the authors present counterexamples to the idea that moral judgments are derived from principles such as "killing is wrong". In some central cases, it can be shown empirically that subjects do not judge some actions of bringing about a person's death as morally wrong in a way that depends on whether they also classify them as acts of killing. Fourth, the authors argue against the view of concepts involved in the deductive model of moral reasoning. The meaning of concepts, they hold, is not determined by definitions in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but by mental representations of prototypes, typical exemplars, or other things whose content outruns simple, conceptually exhaustible moral rules.

         The authors sketch one possible alternative to the empirically badly supported and theoretically undesirable deductive model: the reflective equilibrium-account. They argue, however, that although reflective equilibirum more adequately describes the psychology of moral reasoning, it is faced with a different problem. Minor changes in an equilibrized web of (moral) beliefs can cause major adjustments in that web, thus rendering the state of reflective equilibrium overly fragile.


(7) "Moral Intuitions" have received a great deal of attention within moral psychology recently. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Liane Young and Fiery Cushman assess the question if, and to what extent, moral intuitions are based on moral heuristics, and what that might entail for the reliability and trustworthiness of those intuitions. Researchers in the Kahneman/Tversky-tradition have typically emphasized that intuitive judgments are liable to systematic errors, whereas psychologists and philosophers from the Gigerenzer-tradition are typically interested in how one can use intuitive ways of belief-formation to become more efficient and accurate.

Heuristics are based on (mostly unconscious) attribute substitutions. People try to determine whether some X has the target-property P -- which is hard to detect -- by trying to determine whether X has the heuristic-property H -- which is easy to detect. It is widely agreed upon that this method generally works well, but tends to misfire, and severely so, in untypical situations those intuitive rules of thumb have not been tailored to.

Heuristics figure in decision-making in general and in moral decision-making in particular. Among the most pervasive ones are the availability heuristic and the representativeness heuristic, which assess something's likelihood in terms of whether one can easily think of examples for it or whether it is representative of the class of things it belongs to. Other, more straigthforwardly moral heuristics include the action heuristic (Don't actively do harm!), the nature heuristic (Don't tamper with nature!), the hierarchy heuristic (Don't break ranks!) or the betrayal heuristic (Punish, don't reward, betrayals of trust!). All these different types of simple rules that rapidly generate (more or less) reliable snap judgments can be used to explain the moral judgments we are drawn towards in our private and social life. Moreover, they can help avoid the systematic mistakes these judgments are subject to.

Which heuristics there are and how reliable they are is largely a question of detailed empirical research. What this research demonstrates, however, is that the claim that intuitive knowledge is typically gained via some sort of direct insight is typically false. In fact, there is no such thing, and what appears to be based an immediate apprehension of a moral truth will often turn out to be based on a potentially misleading heuristic.


(8) The theory of universal moral grammar (UMG) has received great attention recently. As ist names suggests, it rests on the assumption that there are important analogies between "Linguistics and Moral Theory". Erica Roedder and Gilbert Harman explain these analogies and assess their usefulness.

         The idea behind the theory of UMG is that moral judgments follow certain moral principles that -- very much like the grammatical rules of language -- need not be consciously accessible even to competent judges/speakers, and that these implicitly represented rules can account for some of our most central moral intuitions. The theory rests on the assumption that moral judgments, that is, judgments of moral right- and wrongness, depend upon structural descriptions of the act that is judged, and the grammar of intentional action and moral permissibility that is employed in doing so. In particular, UMG-theory can be brought to bear on questions whether the principles of moral judgment are acquired or innate, uniquely human or shared with other species, whether there is a "core" of moral norms as opposed to a periphery, how stable or malleable the content of individual moralities is and, of course, whether some moral principles are universal or not. The authors mention one theortetical issue that is of particular significance for the moral grammar-account: the fact that sometimes, moral judgments do not depend on structural descriptions of a case at hand, but rather that the structural description of an action (whether, for example, a side-effect has been merely foreseen or been brought about intentionally) can depend on a prior normative assessment.


(9) Recent work in empirical moral psychology has provided a lot of evidence for the important role that emotions play in moral judgment. Against this background Ron Mallon and Shaun Nichols question whether there is still a need for the idea of moral rules in judgment. They discuss three major strands of research which appear to threaten a role for rules. But they argue, in contrast, for a dual vector model of non-utilitarian moral judgment.

Haidt's social intuitionist model suggests that our judgments stem from intuitive systems with our controlled reasoning systems providing an account after the fact. The authors argue that work in racial bias shows that the controlled cognitive system plays an important role in the formation of our expressed and endorsed judgment. They then discuss Blair's work on the moral/conventional task, and his explanation based in the violence inhibition mechanism. He holds that our judgments are rooted in a particular kind of emotional response which is caused by the cues of suffering. Like Haidt's model, Blair's position offers a clear alternative to rationalism. However, these emotional responses cannot be sufficient for judgment, as we have the same type of response to natural disasters and accidents. The model picks out a plausible candidate for why we judge certain things to be bad, but does not give an account of why we judge certain things wrong. The authors hold that the natural way to deal with this problem is by using rules. Certain events are wrong because they violate or transgress against an endorsed rule. They then discuss Greene's dual process model, which posits roughly that in "personal" cases our judgments are caused by emotions, but when the situation is not personal we tend to use reason to form our judgment. Greene holds that if an action is personal it must be utility maximizing to be permissible. However, the authors point to some counterexamples and suggest that an appeal to rules can give a simple explanation as to why acts like self-defense, punishment, and circumcision are permissible - whilst the "personal" account cannot - namely that the judge does not embrace a rule against them.

They argue that all three models provide a prima facie challenge to the role of rules in making moral judgments, but that all three are vulnerable to counterexamples. In reply they posit a dual-vector model of judgment in which emotions and reason (via rules) combine to form a judgment. They argue that this model provides the best explanation of the data, and are happy to defend the role of rules this way without going into further argument about the way rules and emotions combine on their model.


(10) Following P. F. Strawson, Joshua Knobe and John Doris hold that in discussing our responsibility judgments we should look at the ordinary practices of praise and blame -- a methodological move taken by many. This move seems to come into sharp conflict with the assumption -- also widely held -- that theories of responsibility should be invariantist. That is, that they should look at the same criteria for responsibility in all cases. The evidence, the authors argue, is that people are in fact strongly variantist in their responsibility judgements, and this leaves the theoretician with a dilemma: either abandon variantism, or accept that their theory will have quite a serious divergence from ordinary people's judgments.

The authors carefully provide evidence from empirical testing to show that there are at least three kinds of factors which influence the criteria people use to make responsibility judgments; abstractness/concreteness, the normative status of the behavior in question, and the relationship of the judge to the agent. It turns out that ordinary people tend to be incompatibilist in abstract discussions of free will, but compatibilist when an example is concrete. For example they tend to assign more blame to an agent who identifies with his action than to his corollary who does not, even though both actions are fully determined. Ordinary people also show a marked asymmetry between assignations of praise and blame when it comes to the moral valence of factors like known side-effects, actions performed in hot or cold blood, and actions with severe vs light consequences. Whilst one might be tempted to respond that core elements of responsibility such as causation and intention remain unaffected, the authors aim to show that the application of these criteria is itself variantist.

The authors conclude by asking whether these variations are a question of the competence of the judges or performance errors when it comes to application. This, they hold, is a question for psychology. The question for moral philosophy is whether we should revise our accounts in light of these findings, or hold that the ordinary folk are making mistakes in their judgments. The authors suggest that a plausible way forward is to consider that moral praise and blame are just very different things, and that there is no reason why we need a single system of criteria for them both. Given the costs of invariantist theories, perhaps we should look to variantism.


(11) Maria Merritt, John Doris and Gilbert Harman give an updated overview and discussion of the ongoing debate between character skeptics and proponents of a virtue-ethical model. The chapter begins with an overview of the debate and what is at stake. The case for character skepticism is sketched and formulated as a modus tollens. The authors note that most of the responses to the skeptical position challenge the first premise of this formulation, arguing along the lines that behavior being ordered by robust traits need not lead to pervasive behavioral consistency, typically because this conditional ignores the important role of inner states emphasized by the virtue-ethical model. However, the authors point to work on "framing effects" to question whether inner cognitive workings are immune from situational factors. They also point to the Milgram experiments as an example of how the sort of practical reasoning described by neo-Aristoteleans patently did not happen. The authors coin the term moral dissociation for the phenomenon where an agent's behavior fails to comply with moral norms which they can reasonably be supposed to accept. They set themselves the task of explaining moral dissociation.

Attempts to rationalize the empirical results found in the situationist experiments point to one or two key features of the agent's psychology which will explain the disconnect between behavior and presumed ideal. For example, Sabini and Silver propose a fear of embarrassment as the motivating factor behind the unexpected behaviors. The authors hold that whilst this might do some work, it is not going to provide an explanation for many of the experiments. Instead they wish to propose another perspective. They take it that the important point to be discussed is how interactions between morally arbitrary situational factors and people's tendency to respond to them can be explained. They focus on depersonalized response tendencies, which function largely independently of the agents' evaluative commitments. In seemingly ethical situations, they take it, the key factor to be explained is the breakdown in other-oriented attention. The authors give an account of the  empirical evidence suggesting that many important cognitive and motivational processes proceed without intentional direction, and that other-oriented attention is often influenced by such unsupervised processes. They argue that an incongruency exits between an agent's endorsed normative commitments, and their actions. This is because their behavior is influenced by automatic processes which they are often unaware of. This fact is troubling for the virtue-ethical model of practical reasoning. They finish up by discussing some remedial measures for counteracting this incongruency.


(12) Valerie Tiberius and Alaxandra Plakias aim to provide an account of well-being which can both pick out empirical phenomena that can be observed and realized in people's lives, and which makes sense to be promoted. These are the criteria of empirical adequacy and normative significance. They situate their discussion of well-being within the new field of "positive psychology", and take up one fundamental area of research in this field: defining the nature of happiness, well-being, or flourishing.

There are three distinct research paradigms in this domain; hedonistic, eudaimonic, and life-satisfaction theories. The authors cite some interesting studies which problematize traditional hedonistic theories. Literature on how we adapt to changes can be taken to undermine pleasure maximization as an action guiding principle, for example, as our actual responses to our decisions are unpredictable. Moreover, they argue that hedonistic theories face objections that they cannot distinguish between different types of pleasure. Eudaimonic theories overcome this objection by tying well-being to vital needs. However, they derive their normative force from other theories. Insofar as they furnish compelling advice about how to live, this is so because we want, prefer, or care about the things eudaimonism tells us we need. Life satisfaction theory holds that well-being consists in holding an overall positive appraisal or endorsement of one's life. This grounds well-being in the subject's own norms, and can give an account of how different pleasures count differently. However, it faces it's own problem: it must treat all positive responses to the conditions of one's life as equally authoritative. This problem is grounded in empirical work which shows that we do not make consistent judgments of life-satisfaction. In particular, our judgments are affected by the availability of information, how it is used in the judgment, one's perception of social norms, and one's mood. The authors argue that there is stability to be found when we identify particular domains of importance. Our judgements of how these are going correlate strongly with our judgments of overall well-being. But it is still unclear whether our judgments of life-satisfaction are normatively arbitrary. The remainder of the chapter is dedicated to the authors' development and defense of their account of "Values-Based Life-Satisfaction", which proposes that well-being is satisfaction with one's overall conditions of life evaluated on the basis of standards provided by one's values. A person's actual attitudes of life satisfaction count as well-being unless they are defeated because they are influenced by irrelevant factors that have nothing to do with what the person cares about, or because the person is misinformed about the objects of her care, or because what the person says she cares about fits poorly with her affective nature.


(13) In "Race and Racial Cognition", Daniel Kelly, Edouard Machery and Ron Mallon assess the psychological feasibility of the two most important normative proposals about how to deal with racial categorization. They argue that by and large, psychological insights into the nature of racial cognition have been ignored, and attempt to point out how to make up for this lapse.

          The whole discussion takes place against the backdrop of an ontological consensus: it is widely agreed that "thick racialism" is false, and that there is no biological basis for racial categories in any non-trivial sense. It is widely disagreed, however, how to react to this diagnosis. Eliminativists want to do away with racial categories altogether. They argue that there is no such thing as race, that it is -- and clearly has been -- an oppressive concept and the costs of its use by far outweigh its benefits. Conservativists, on the other hand, hold that racial categories should not be eliminated entirely, but only to the extent that they facilitate racist attitudes. To the extent that they serve as the conceptual foundation of ethnic communities of meaning and solidarity, they should be preserved.

Both eliminativism and conservativism are normative doctrines. As such, they are not interested in descriptive psychological facts per se, but in social reform. It is nevertheless clear that for a normative proposal to be promising at all, it must be feasible. The most recent research about the psychological underpinnings of racial categorization can help sort out the details of this problem, and provide evidence for whether one can eliminate racial cognition or stick to it in a non-racist way. The authors review this evidence how strong and recalcitrant, yet subtle lingering implicit and explicit racial biases can be, and the extent to which these findings bear on how to best deal with the prejudices and proto-racist thoughts people happen to have.

The naturalistic approach chosen by the book is one of its main virtues as well as vices: it is a virtue to the extent that it enables moral psychology to empirically adjudicate between abstract philosophical claims, and decide which of them are more and which are less empirically tenable. It turns into a vice, however, when it starts to take empirical data at face value and stops to criticize the conceptual assumptions and overstate the implications of the findings made by empirically working psychologists and conceptually working philosophers alike. That said, we think that The Moral Psychology Handbook will be a useful resource for anyone working in the field, and a valuable guide for advanced students from both philosophy and psychology who wish to orient themselves in this interesting and rapidly growing discipline.


© 2011 Tom Bates and Hanno Sauer


Tom Bates is a PhD student in practical philosophy at Leiden University, The Netherlands. He is a member of the NWO-funded research project "Morality Beyond Illusions? Re-assessing the Philosophical Implications of Empirical Studies of Moral Agency". His work focuses on focuses on the situationist challenge to traditional accounts of moral character.


Hanno Sauer is a PhD student in practical philosophy at Leiden University, The Netherlands. He is a member of the NWO-funded research project "Morality Beyond Illusions? Re-assessing the Philosophical Implications of Empirical Studies of Moral Agency". He currently works on empirical accounts of moral judgment and reasoning and their normative significance.


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