Moral psychology

Moral psychology

Moral psychology is a field of study in both philosophy and psychology. Some use the term "moral psychology" relatively narrowly to refer to the study of moral development.[1] However, others tend to use the term more broadly to include any topics at the intersection of ethics and psychology and philosophy of mind.[2] Some of the main topics of the field are moral judgment, moral reasoning, moral responsibility, moral development, moral character (especially as related to virtue ethics), altruism, psychological egoism, moral luck, and moral disagreement.[3]

Some psychologists that have worked in the field are Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, Elliot Turiel, Jonathan Haidt, Linda Skitka, Marc Hauser, C. Daniel Batson, Joshua D. Greene, A. Peter McGraw, and Philip Tetlock. Some philosophers that have worked in the field are Stephen Stich, John Doris, Joshua Knobe, John Mikhail, Shaun Nichols, Thomas Nagel, Robert C. Roberts, Jesse Prinz, Michael Smith, and R. Jay Wallace.



Historically, early philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato engaged in both empirical research and a priori conceptual analysis about the ways in which people make decisions about issues that raise moral concerns. Moral psychological issues have been central theoretical issues explored by philosophers from the early days of the profession right up until the present. With the development of psychology as a discipline separate from philosophy, it was natural for psychologists to continue pursuing work in moral psychology, and much of the empirical research of the 20th century in this area was completed by academics working in psychology departments.

Today moral psychology is a thriving area of research in both philosophy and psychology, even at an interdisciplinary level.[4] For example, the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg questioned boys and young men about their thought processes when they were faced with a moral dilemma,[citation needed] producing one of many very useful empirical studies in the area of moral psychology. As another example, the philosopher Joshua Knobe recently completed an empirical study on how the way in which an ethical problem is phrased dramatically affects an individual's intuitions about the proper moral response to the problem.[citation needed] More conceptually focused research has been completed by researchers such as John Doris. Doris (2002) discusses the way in which social psychological experiments---such as the Stanford Prison Experiments involving the idea of situationism---call into question a key component in virtue ethics: the idea that individuals have a single, environment-independent moral character. As a further example, Shaun Nichols (2004) examines how empirical data on psychopathology suggests that moral rationalism is false!

Contemporary Thought of "it" Theories

Recent attempts to develop an integrated model of moral motivation[5] have identified at least six different levels of moral functioning, each of which has been shown to predict some type of moral or prosocial behavior: moral intuitions, moral emotions, moral virtues/vices (behavioral capacities), moral values, moral reasoning, and moral willpower. This Social Intuitionist model of moral motivation[6] suggests that moral behaviors are typically the product of multiple levels of moral functioning, and are usually energized by the "hotter" levels of intuition, emotion, and behavioral virtue/vice. The "cooler" levels of values, reasoning, and willpower, while still important, are proposed to be secondary to the more affect-intensive processes.

The "Moral Foundations Theory" of psychologist Jonathan Haidt examines the way morality varies between cultures and identifies five fundamental moral values shared to a greater or lesser degree by different societies and individuals.[7] According to Haidt, these are: care for others, fairness, loyalty, authority and purity.[8] Haidt's book for the general reader The Happiness Hypothesis looks at the ways in which contemporary psychology casts light on the moral ideas of the past. On the other hand, in a recent conference, Haidt expressed views that may suggest he does not support a science of morality.[9]

Moral Identity

A study was conducted by Anne Colby and William Damon regarding the lives of individuals who exhibit extraordinary moral commitment. This article suggests that one's moral identity is formed through that individuals synchronization of their personal and moral goals. The author describes these exemplars as maintaining a “unity between self and morality” (pg. 362). The research suggests that a "transformation of goals" takes place during the evolution of one's moral identity and development and therefore is not an exercise of self-sacrifice but rather one done with great joy. The transformation of goals is described as a developmental process that takes place in ones personal beliefs, affecting their conduct. This transformation is brought about by powerful social interactions that will gradually change and shape the persons goals. Moral exemplars are said to have the same concerns and commitments as other moral people but to a greater degree, "extensions in scope, intensity and breadth" (pg. 364) [10]

Theoretical and empirical studies in the past had been focused that moral emotion and reasoning was the source of moral motivation. But recent models of morality placed that identity is the source of moral motivation. Empirical studies on moral exemplars has shown that moral identity has been developed through moral action while theoretical studies on moral identity was developed through from the concept of moral cognition, moral reasoning, and moral functioning. Not much information is fully decided due to people express a limited selection of moral behaviors to express as a part of their identity.[11]

Moral Values

Kristiansen and Hotte review many research articles regarding people's values and attitudes and whether or not they guide behavior. With the research they reviewed and their own extension of Ajzen and Fishbein's theory of reasoned action, they conclude that value-attitude-behavior depends on the individual and their moral reasoning.

Moral Virtues

Robert A. Emmons theorizes that gratitude is the greatest of virtues. Gratitude is an emotion as well, but it becomes a virtue when it is frequently enacted across several situations. Its main function is to promote social relationships by establishing firm interpersonal ties amongst the members of a society through a system of reciprocity.[12]

Moral Reasoning

In the history of moral psychology, there is perhaps no more central figure than Lawrence Kohlberg. His cognitive developmental theory of moral reasoning dominated the field for decades. Briefly stated, he argued that moral development is best thought of as one's progression in their capacity to reason morally about various moral dilemmas or conflicts of interest (The most widely known moral scenario used in his research is usually referred to as the Heinz dilemma). Kohlberg suggested that children begin by reasoning about such dilemmas ...

Kohlberg developed six stages that a child will go through using a story called "Heinz steals the drug." In the story Heinz's wife is dying of cancer and the towns druggist has something that can help her but is charging more than Heinz can afford so Heinz steals the drug to save his wife's life. Children aged 10, 13, and 16 years old were asked if what Heinz did was okay. In the story children go from stage one, where they start to recognize higher authorities and that there are set rules and punishments for breaking those rules; to stage six, where good principles make a good society. They also start to define which of the principles are most agreeable and fair.[13]

Moral Willpower

Metcalfe and Mischel (1999) research the idea of willpower in regards to the delay of gratification paradigm. They propose a hot/cool system in which one can control one's emotions while still being driven by impulses. The hot system is referred to as the "go" system whereas the cool system is referred to as the "know" system. The different systems being triggered decide how one reacts to different stimuli being presented.

Baumeister, Miller and Delaney (2005) state that “[t]he self can free its actions from being determined by particular influences, especially those of which it is aware.” (p. 68) But there is a substantial cost in resisting these natural reactions and promoting moral ones.[14] Studies have shown that improvement of “self-regulation” or willpower for a long period of time can develop by practicing the building of self control through repeated exercise. Previous research has shown that exertions of self-control can be exercised in a short period of time lead to decrements of self-control. Both of these findings confirm the view that self-control is similar to a muscle because in the short run exertion makes self-control tired and diminishes its power, in the long run, exercise makes self-control stronger and increases its power. This finding can be a benefactor for people who have issues as addiction and substance abuse, who, lack any self-control by practicing building up their self-control to adjust their unwanted behaviors, thoughts, and actions through physical and mental exercises.[15]

Moral Behavior

A study conducted by Reynolds and Ceranic identified the various contributors to moral behavior, two of which are the idea of moral judgment and moral identity. Reynolds and Ceranic identified some major limitations in these classic cognitive moral development theories. They sought to bring together the concept of moral identity and moral judgment, rather than studying them as separate contributors to moral behavior. This research suggests that moral identity and moral judgment work together and separately in order to shape moral behavior. In addition, they have researched the effects of social consensus on ones moral behavior. The study claims that depending on the level of social consensus (high vs. low) moral behaviors will require greater or lesser degrees of moral identity to motivate an individual to make a choice and endorse a behavior. Also, depending on social consensus,particular behaviors may require different levels of moral reasoning. This article seeks to demonstrate an integrated approach to examining moral identity and moral judgment as well as study the effects of social consensus on moral judgment. [16]

Moral Intuitions

Haidt and Graham perform a study to research the difference between the moral foundations of political liberals and political conservatives. They find that “justice and related virtues…make up half of the moral world for liberals, while justice-related concerns make up only one fifth of the moral world for conservatives” (p. 99).[17] For conservatives, their moral foundations are constituted by the foundations of not only harm/care and fairness/reciprocity, but also by ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. Haidt and Graham propose that in order for open discussions to take place in the political arena, liberals must recognize this fact if they are to understand the stances of conservatives.

Moral Character

According to Blasi’s theory on moral character, he stated that moral character is identified by the person’s set of the morality of virtues and vices.He theorized willpower, moral desires, and integrity have the capability for a person to act morally by the hierarchical order of virtues.He believed that the “highest” and complex of virtues are expressed by the concept of willpower while the “lowest” and simplistic of virtues are expressed by the concept of integrity.The will as desire is expressed as the wanting to “move forward” towards the virtue whereas the will of self-control is the wanting to “move backward” from the vice. Thus will as desire is the moral desire that contains the moral characters’ virtues and vices.[18]

Moral Emotions

“One approach would be first to define morality and then to say that moral emotions are the emotions that respond to moral violations or that motivate moral behavior”.[19] There have generally been two approaches taken by philosophers to define moral emotion. The first “is to specify the formal conditions that make a moral statement (e.g., that is prescriptive, that it is universalizable, such as expedience)[20]”. This first approach is more tied to language and the definitions we give to a moral emotions. The second approach “is to specify the material conditions of a moral issue, for example, that moral rules and judgments ‘must bear on the interest or welfare either of society as a whole or at least of persons other than the judge or agent’ [21]”. This definition seems to be more action based. It focuses on the outcome of a moral emotion. The second definition is more preferred because it is not tied to language and therefore can be applied to prelinguistic children and animals. Moral emotions are “emotions that are linked to the interests or welfare either of society as a whole or at least of persons other than the judge or agent.” ([22])

There is a debate whether there is a set of basic emotions or if there are “scripts or set of components that can be mixed and matched, allowing for a very large number of possible emotions”.[23] Even those arguing for a basic set acknowledge that there are variants of each emotion. Ekman (1992) calls these variants “families”. “The principal moral emotions can be divided into two large and two small joint families. The large families are the ‘other-condemning’ family, in which the three brothers are contempt, anger, and disgust (and their many children, such as indignation and loathing), and the ‘self-conscious’ family (shame embarrassment, and guilt)…[T]he two smaller families the ‘other-suffering’ family (compassion) and the ‘other-praising’ family (gratitude and elevation)”.[24]

Batson, Klein, Highberger, & Shaw conducted two experiments on empathy-induced altruism proposing that this can lead to actions that violate the justice principle. The results showed that empathy-induced altruism and acting in accordance to the justice principle are independent of one another. They sometimes go hand in hand and sometimes conflict with one another.

Cultural Values

Morality didn’t arise from individual choice but from a collection of human decisions to try and create a structure while living together. Constraints by their environments and natural human desires influenced these decisions. The evolution of human social instincts overlap with the evolution of culture. Cultural morality has provided a way of managing conflict. Cultural morality requires behavior that is cooperative and considerate of others, it discourages potentially unhealthy self-interest, and encourages other-regarding emotions beneficial in society. Furthermore, it can provide an outlet of self-interest motivations in other-regarding actions.[25]

In his 1992 study, Schwartz, in collaboration with Roccas and Sagiv, studies how value priorities are effected by the “social experience,” how they affect “behavioral orientation and choices,” (p. 1)[26] and how/why they differ across cultures and nations. Shwartz writes, “Studies combining our abstract level of measurement with contextually specific measures would increase our understanding of how values enter into concrete decision-making” (Shwartz, 47) and he proposes that, "Identifying moderators of universal or culture-specific value priorities would help us better understand the operation and functioning of value priorities"(Shwartz, 2). The valuable observation is made that "Structures probably evolve alongside transformations of societies and social conditions, or “may even change rapidly in response to major technological, economic, political, and security upheavals” (Schwartz, 47). He finds that the majority of cultures prioritize these 10 value types: Self-Direction, Stimulation, Hedonism, Achievement, Power, Security, Conformity, Tradition, Benevolence, and Universalism. Within these value types there are values that cultures all prioritize to varying degrees. The study ultimately concludes that its data and postulations are supported enough, according to researchers, to justify their use when conducting further research into similar questions about values and universality, and “about how the whole integrated system of value priorities relates to background, attitude, and behavior variables.” The article is clear that ”By identifying universal aspects of value content and structure, this article has laid the foundations for investigating culture-specific aspects in the future,” (Shwartz, 60).

Schwartz created a theory of the types of values of which various cultures can be contrasted to one another. The data was collected from 49 nations around the world and then used to create seven value types according to the nation’s priorities of values. Schwartz selected the 7 value types based on their compatibilities and contradictions to one another. The value types were conservatism vs. autonomy and affective autonomy, hierarchy vs. egalitarianism, and mastery vs. harmony. The value types were used to draw light upon nations whose cultures were closely related as opposed to those that were drastically different. The theory is based on culture level dimensions, rather than individual level dimensions, so that conclusions can be drawn accounting for the entire nation as a whole (majority), rather than the individual person. The value profiles of the five nations had significant results in that not only did the students and teachers yield similar results, but the majority of the divided up regions had similar values that were emphasized as well. The results of the study essentially validated Schwartz study design and set the ground work for assessing the cultural implications of values and formulating hypothesis based on the co plots. Furthermore, the research done on neighboring nations exhibited a correlation between geographical proximity and shared cultural values. Schwartz contributes these relationships to the “shared history, religion, level of development, culture contact and other factors” (p. 37)[27]


The subjects covered by moral psychology include:

  • The structure of action
  • Perceived causes and events of moral action
  • Emotions in morality
  • The faculties of the mind involved in moral decision
  • The interaction of those faculties and the emotions
  • Moral commitment
  • Rationality in moral matters
  • Moral judgement
  • The relationship between ethics and moral action
  • The means by which moral agents understand each other

See also


  1. ^ See, for example, Lapsley (2006) and "moral psychology" (2007).
  2. ^ See, for example, Doris & Stich (2008) and Wallace (2007). Wallace writes: "Moral psychology is the study of morality in its psychological dimensions" (p. 86).
  3. ^ See Doris & Stich (2008), §1.
  4. ^ Doris & Stich (2008), §1.
  5. ^ Leffel (2008)
  6. ^ Leffel's (2008) model draws heavily on Haidt's (2001) "Social Intuitionist Model" of moral judgment.
  7. ^ Haidt, Jonathan; Jesse Graham (2007). "When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions That Liberals May Not Recognize" (PDF). Social Justice Research 20 (1): 98–116. doi:10.1007/s11211-007-0034-z. Retrieved 2008-12-14. [dead link]
  8. ^ Talks: Jonathan Haidt on the moral roots of liberals and conservatives at TED in 2008
  9. ^
  10. ^ The development of extraordinary moral commitment, Anne Colby and William Damon
  11. ^ Identity as a Source of Moral Motivation, Samuel Hardy and Gustavo Carlo
  12. ^ Emmons, Robert A. "Greatest of Virtues? Gratitude and the Grateful Personality." Personality, Identity, and Character. New York: Cambridge UP, 2009. 256-70. Print.
  13. ^ Crain, W.C.. "Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development". Theories of Development. Prentice-Hall. Retrieved 3 October 2011. 
  14. ^ Baumeister, Miller, & Delaney (2005). Self and Volition
  15. ^ Longitudinal Improvement of Self-Regulation Through Practice,Muraven, Baumeister & Tice
  16. ^ Reynolds, SJ Ceranic, TL (2007). The effects of moral judgment and moral identity on moral behavior: a empirical examiniation of the moral individual. Seattle, Journals of Applied Psychology.
  17. ^ Haidt, Jonathan, and Jesse Graham. "When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions That Liberals May Not Recognize." Social Justice Research 20.1 (2007): 98-116. Print.
  18. ^ Moral character: A Psychological Approach, Augusto Blasi
  19. ^ Haidt, J. (2003). The moral emotions. p. 853
  20. ^ Hare (1981)
  21. ^ Gewirth, 1984
  22. ^ Haidt, J. (2003). The moral emotions. p 583
  23. ^ Haidt, J. (2003). The moral emotions. p. 855
  24. ^ aidt, J. (2003). The moral emotions. p. 855
  25. ^ Wong (2009) Cultural pluralism and moral identity
  26. ^ Schwartz, Shalom H. “Universals in the Content and Structure of Values: Theoretical Advances and Empirical Tests in 20 Countries.” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 25 (1992): 1-65. Print.
  27. ^ Shwartz, S (1999). A theory of cultural values and some implications for work. International association of applied psychology.

References and further reading

  • Baron, J., & Spranca, M. (1997). Protected values. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 70, 1-16.
  • Batson, C. D. (1991). The Altruism Question: Toward a Social-Psychological Answer. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Doris, John M. (2002). Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Doris, John & Stich, Stephen. (2008). "Moral Psychology: Empirical Approaches". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). link
  • Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108(4), 814-834.
  • Jackson, Frank & Smith, Michael (eds.) (2007). The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy, Oxford University Press.
  • Lapsley, Daniel K. (1996). Moral Psychology. Westview Press. ISBN 0813330335
  • Leffel, G.M. (2008). Who cares? Generativity and the moral emotions, Part 2: A social intuitionist model of moral motivation. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 36(3), 182-201.
  • McGraw, A.P., Tetlock, P.E., & Kristel, O.V. (2003). The limits of fungibility: Relational schemata and the value of things. Journal of Consumer Research, 30, 219-229.
  • Mikhail, John. (2011). Elements of Moral Cognition: Rawls’ Linguistic Analogy and the Cognitive Science of Moral and Legal Judgment. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • "Moral psychology" (2007). Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Retrieved December 6, 2008 from link
  • Nagel, Thomas. (1970). The Possibility of Altruism. Princeton University Press.
  • Nichols, Shaun. (2004). Sentimental Rules: On the Natural Foundations of Moral Judgment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Plato. The Republic, public domain.
  • Richardson, Henry S. (2008). "Moral Reasoning", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). link
  • Roberts, Robert C. Emotions: An Essay in aid of Moral Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter, ed. (2007). Moral Psychology, 3 volumes. MIT Press. ISBN 0262693542
  • Smith, Michael. (1994). The Moral Problem. Cambridge: Basil Blackwell.
  • Tetlock, P., Kristel, O., Elson, B., Green, M., and Lerner, J. (2000). "The Psychology of the Unthinkable: Taboo Trade-Offs, Forbidden Base Rates, and Heretical Counterfactuals," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 78, 853-870.
  • Thagard, Paul. (2007). "The Moral Psychology of Conflicts of Interest: Insights from Affective Neuroscience". Journal of Applied Philosophy, 24(4), pp. 367–380.
  • Wallace, R. Jay. (2007). "Moral Psychology", Ch. 4 of Jackson & Smith (2007), pp. 86–113.
  • Wallace, R. Jay (2006). Normativity and the Will. Selected Essays on Moral Psychology and Practical Reason. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

External links

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