The Cognitive Science of Morality Lecture Series 2011/12

There is a near universal interest in morality that has sparked thought-provoking inquiry for thousands of years. Much of that inquiry proceeded without the benefit of modern cognitive science, but that is now changing.  And the change promises to shed new light on morality, particularly its practices, development, and the psychology behind ethical thought.  In this series we bring together speakers from a vast array of disciples–from philosophy and law to biology and psychology–to discuss cutting edge research in the cognitive science of morality.

This year’s seminar series will be held at 5pm at Green College (except where noted):

the Green College Coach House
6201 Cecil Green Park Road, The University of British Columbia
Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z1


September 12th, 2011

Matt Bedke

“The Normative and the Vague”

If you ask me, ethical thoughts and statements are largely expressions of sentiment. If I say lying is wrong, I’m disapproving of it, or expressing a negative emotional reaction to it, or some such. So I disagree with moral realists, who think that I am reporting a fact. “Lying is wrong” is more like “Boo Boston!” than it is like “Grass is green.” But this view of things comes with significant explanatory burdens. It turns out to be really hard to explain why we seem to disagree with one another about what really matters when we engage in moral disputes, and it’s really hard to explain how we can reason our way to moral conclusions. Consider this perfectly valid inference: Failing to save a drowning child is wrong; if that is wrong, then failing to donate $15 to Oxfam is wrong; so, it’s wrong to fail to donate $15 to Oxfam. [Matt begrudgingly writes a check]. The problem is, one can’t formulate rational, valid inferences with “Boo”s – one has to use language that looks like statements of fact. In this talk, I will draw of the semantics of vague language to give an account of the meaning of moral terms that allows them to merely express sentiments, but also explains moral reasoning, and explains away appearances that favour the moral realist.

October 3rd, 2011

Larry Walker

“Agency and Communion in the Lives of Moral Exemplars: Antagonistic or Integrative?”

How can we best explain the motivation to be moral? What instigates and sustains the actions of highly moral people who promote the well-being of others at apparent cost to themselves? I contend that extant notions of self-denial and of altruism lack explanatory oomph, and, in contrast, proffer the hypothesis that moral exemplars have integrated their personal interests with their moral concerns—a form of enlightened self-interest. In our research, we identified a “dream team” of moral exemplars from among TIME magazine’s lists of influential people of the previous century, along with a comparison group of similarly influential people who are not especially known for their moral character. We assessed motivational aspects of their personality (agency vs. communion – the fundamental duality of human existence) by conceptual coding of archival materials (their speeches and interviews). Our findings suggest that the tension between self-promoting agency and other-promoting communion can be adaptively reconciled in mature moral functioning, providing insights regarding the development of moral motivation.

November 7th, 2011

Kiley Hamlin

“Moral Babies: Preverbal Infants Know Who and What are Good and Bad.”

How do humans come to have a “moral sense”? Are adults’ conceptions of which actions are right and which are wrong, of who is good and who is bad, who deserves praise and who deserves blame the result of experiences like observing and interacting with others in one’s cultural environment and explicit teaching from parents, teachers, and religious leaders? Do the complexities in adult’s moral judgments reflect hard-won developmental change coupled with the emergence of advanced reasoning skills? This talk will explore evidence that, on the contrary, preverbal infants’ social preferences map surprisingly well onto seemingly complex adult moral intuitions. Within the first year of life, infants prefer those who help versus harm third parties, those who reward prosocial individuals and punish wrongdoers, and even privilege the intentions that drive actions over the outcomes they lead to. the second year of life, toddlers direct their own helpful actions toward helpful individuals, and harmful actions toward harmful individuals. These results suggest that our adult moral sense is supported, at least in part, by innate mechanisms for social evaluation.

December 5th, 2011

Joan Silk

“The Origins of the Prosocial Ape: Insights from Comparative Studies of Social Preferences”

A growing body of evidence demonstrates that humans are remarkably altruistic primates. Food sharing and division of labor play an important role in all human societies, and cooperation extends beyond the bounds of close kinship and networks of reciprocating partners. In humans, altruism is motivated at least in part by empathy and concern for the welfare of others. Although altruistic behavior is well-documented in other primates, the range of altruistic behaviors in other primate species, including the great apes, is much more limited than it is in humans. Moreover, when altruism does occur among other primates, it is typically limited to familiar group members—close kin, mates, and reciprocating partners. It is not clear whether some of the most compelling naturalistic examples of “altruistic” behavior among nonhuman primates, such as food sharing, are the product of other-regarding social preferences or more instrumental motives. A growing body of experimental research suggests that there are substantial differences in prosocial behavior across the primate order, and considerable controversy about the nature of social preferences in our closest relatives, chimpanzees.

January 16th, 2012 – Buchanan A104, 1866 Main Mall

Dave Pizarro

Cornell University
“The Good, the Bad, and the Dirty: the Role of Disgust in Moral and Political Judgment”

There is growing evidence that the emotion of disgust–an emotion that likely evolved to protect individuals from physical contamination–plays a central role in moral and political judgment. I will review two sources of evidence we have collected in support of this general claim. First, I will review a set of recent studies demonstrating that the degree to which people are likely to experience disgust (their “disgust sensitivity”) is predictive of their general political orientation (including their voting behavior), and of their political views on specific issues in the sociomoral domain (e.g., attitudes toward gay marriage). Second, I will review a series of studies demonstrating that inducing disgust in the laboratory can shift moral and political attitudes toward the conservative end of the spectrum. Finally, I will attempt to provide a plausible explanation for why disgust might affect moral and political judgment in this manner.

January 23rd, 2012

Daniel Jacobson

University of Michigan
“Empirical Ethics and Singer’s Dilemma”

Peter Singer claims that the best scientific evidence about ethics forces upon us a choice between a form of moral skepticism (presumably relativism) and a rationalism based on self-evident “rational intuitions” such as Sidgwick’s Axioms of Ethics. Such hyper-rationalism would require us to discard all “moral judgments that we owe to our evolutionary and cultural history” (Singer 2005: 351, cf. Greene 2008). Call this Singer’s Dilemma. In this paper I argue, to the contrary, that this is a false dilemma. First, there is room for an anthropocentric account of value which is not relativist or otherwise skeptical. Second, human nature belies makes untenable such radically impartialist conceptions of morality as those based on Sidwick’s axioms. Hence, an empirically informed account of ethics neither permits hyper-rationalism nor requires relativism.

February 6th, 2012

John Mikhail

Georgetown Law
“Elements of Moral Cognition”

Is the science of moral cognition usefully modeled on aspects of Universal Grammar? Are human beings born with an innate “moral grammar” that causes them to analyze human action in terms of its moral structure, with just as little awareness as they analyze human speech in terms of its grammatical structure? Questions like these have been at the forefront of moral psychology ever since John Mikhail revived them in his influential work on the linguistic analogy and its implications for jurisprudence and moral theory. In this lecture, Mikhail will offer a careful and sustained analysis of the moral grammar hypothesis, showing how some of John Rawls’ original ideas about the linguistic analogy, together with famous thought experiments like the trolley problem, can be used to improve our understanding of moral and legal judgment.

March 5th, 2012

Polly Wiessner

University of Utah
“Foreign arms and indigenous intervention”

In 1990 modern weapons were adopted into Enga warfare causing devastation as the bulging population of youths took control. Violence began to decline in 2006 as local leaders updated traditional institutions to regain control and bring about peace. By 2010 after some 500 wars had raged, warfare declined radically. Data on Enga wars and sessions in indigenous village courts for conflict resolution from 1990-2011 allow us to: (1) examine the effectiveness of indigenous institutions on levels of violence; (2) understand principles and values evoked to resolve conflict and promote peace; (3) consider how indigenous institutions might have contributed to shaping our human behavioral repertoire to make life in state societies possible.

April 2nd, 2012 – Buchanan A104, 1866 Main Mall

Jonathan Haidt

University of Virginia
“The Groupish Gene: Hive psychology and the Origins of Morality and Religion”

For nearly 50 years scientists have generally agreed that selfish genes shaped human nature to be mostly selfish, with exceptions made toward kin, partners in reciprocity, and a few other cases. Group selection was banished from respectable discourse. But recent findings from multiple fields have re-opened the question. I will show that human nature appears to have been shaped by natural selection working at multiple levels, including not just intra-group competition but also inter-group competition. I’ll suggest that we have in our minds what amounts to a “hive switch” that shuts down the self and makes us feel, temporarily, that we are simply a part of a larger whole (or hive). This uniquely human ability for self-transcendence is crucial for understanding the origins of morality and religion.

May 7th, 2012

Josh Knobe

Yale University
“Moral Judgments and the ‘True Self'”

People sometimes wonder what an individual is like ‘deep down’ or ‘at her core.’ In short, it seems that people are drawn to an essentialist picture of the self. But how exactly do they figure out which aspects of the self counts as the essence and which are merely superficial or inessential? A series of experiments examine this question and suggest that people’s moral judgments actually play a role here. In other words, when we are trying to identify the essence of another person’s self, we do so in part by thinking about which ways of life would truly by morally good or bad.


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