Funded Grants

Off the Rails: Moral Psychology Beyond Traditional Borders

How do we solve everyday moral problems? What kind of considerations shape our moral assessment of others? Is common sense moral thinking unified in one moral system?

These questions are at the heart of the study of moral cognition. Answers to them shed light on the scope of moral thinking, the nature of moral disagreement, and the socio-cultural factors that mediate our relationship with morality. To that end, cognitive scientists have begun looking at the cognitive and emotional mechanisms underlying moral judgment.

Despite its importance, research on moral judgment has been limited in significant ways. First, for more than half a century, moral judgment has been studied through the lens of sacrificial dilemmas (e.g., Trolley Dilemmas). These are situations where an individual is faced with at least two options, each involving the violation of a moral norm. Unfortunately, these dilemmas are somewhat artificial and represent, at best, a small corner of everyday morality. It is, therefore, problematic to make general statements about real-life moral judgment on the basis of them.

Research on moral judgment has also been limited with respect to the populations studied. There are currently various initiatives to study moral judgment outside the industrialized Anglo-European world. But, because the materials and situations being tested were originally designed with abstract philosophical theories in mind (e.g., Kantianism, Utilitarianism), cultural variation in moral judgment has been vastly underestimated.

Lastly, studies of moral judgment typically ask participants to rate moral behavior along predefined scales (e.g., from good to bad, or appropriate to inappropriate). It is, however, plausible that everyday moral judgment has significantly more granularity and richness than these scales allow observing, which points to a further limitation in the studies done so far. Current instruments for measuring moral attitudes are, in short, not designed to observe these intricacies.

Our project aims to revolutionize the study of moral judgment by pushing the boundaries of current research on the topic in three directions. The first is to develop new materials that describe more realistic non-dilemma scenarios. For this, we plan to construct scenarios from the ground up by studying the kind of moral situations that people in different contexts report when asked about common episodes of moral assessment. The second is to widen the socio-cultural characteristics of the populations studied. This requires reaching out to communities that cannot be accessed by conventional methods, such as laboratory or online testing. Finally, we seek to adopt a variety of methodologies (experience sampling, behavioral studies, linguistic analysis) that will better allow for the expression of idiosyncrasies in everyday moral judgment. Rather than imposing pre-defined categories of moral evaluation, we aim to establish and validate which categories individuals apply in their own contexts.

In sum, our research aims to expand our understanding of moral cognition through the development of materials and methodologies that allow for a better appreciation of the complexity of moral life and the vast cultural and political differences that mediate our moral thinking.