I’m finalizing a research monograph on moral psychology and meta-ethics. Below you’ll find summaries of the book and its chapters.

Regard for Reason in the Moral Mind

(working title; forthcoming with Oxford University Press)


The burgeoning science of ethics has produced a trend toward pessimism. Ordinary moral thought and action, we’re told, are profoundly influenced by arbitrary factors and ultimately driven by unreasoned feelings. This book counters the current orthodoxy on its own terms by carefully engaging with the empirical literature. The result is a cautious optimism grounded in the pervasive role of reason in our moral minds. While the science suggests that moral knowledge and virtue don’t come easily, we needn’t reject ordinary moral psychology as fundamentally flawed or in need of serious repair.

Table of Contents

1. Empirical Pessimism
Part A: Moral Judgment & Knowledge
2. The Limits of Emotion
3. Reasoning Beyond Consequences
4. Defending Moral Judgement
5. The Difficulty of Moral Knowledge
Part B: Moral Motivation & Virtue
6. Beyond Self-Interest
7. The Motivational Power of Moral Beliefs
8. Freeing Reason from Desire
9. Defending Virtuous Motivation
10. Cautious Optimism

Chapter Abstracts

Ch. 1: Empirical Pessimism

This chapter introduces the pessimistic trend among scientifically-informed theories of moral psychology. It also previews what’s to come by summarizing the subsequent chapters. Along the way, I discuss the alleged reason/emotion dichotomy and its complications.

Ch. 2: The Limits of Emotion

Empirical research apparently suggests that emotions play an integral role in moral judgment. The evidence for sentimentalism is diverse, but it is rather weak and has generally been overblown. First, there is no evidence that our moral concepts themselves are partly comprised of or necessarily dependent on emotions. Second, while the moral/conventional distinction may partly characterize the essence of moral judgment, moral norms needn’t be backed by affect in order to transcend convention. Third, priming people with incidental emotions like disgust doesn’t make them moralize actions. Fourth, moral judgment can only be somewhat impaired by damage to areas of the brain that are generally associated with emotional processing. Psychopaths, for example, exhibit both emotional and rational deficits, and the latter alone can explain any minor defects in the psychopath’s ability to distinguish moral from conventional norms. The greatest problem in psychopathy appears to be motivational or behavioral, and emotional deficits do much more of the explanatory work there.

Ch. 3: Reasoning Beyond Consequences

Ample experimental research demonstrates that ordinary moral judgment involves both conscious and unconscious reasoning or inference. The evidence suggests in particular that we treat as morally significant more than the consequences of a person’s actions, including the distinctions between: acts/omissions; intentional/accidental outcomes; and harming as a means/byproduct. However, contrary to some recent evidence, it isn’t clear that ordinary moral thinking conforms to the Doctrine of Double Effect. Drawing on existing research and some of my own experiments, I show that the means/byproduct distinction grounds only some norms, which are sensitive to how involved the agent is in bringing about an outcome. This norm-specific account has some affinity with Double Effect but is distinct. The result is a dual process model of moral judgment on which we at least compute both outcomes and the actor’s role in bringing them about.

Ch. 4: Defending Moral Judgment

Despite containing non-consequentialist elements and relying in part on automatic heuristics, I argue that ordinary moral cognition can rise to moral knowledge. I rebut several prominent, wide-ranging debunking arguments (based on evolutionary pressures, framing effects, automatic emotional heuristics, and disgust). The discussion reveals a general debunker’s dilemma for such sweeping arguments: they can identify an influence on moral belief that is either substantial or defective, but not both. When one identifies a genuinely defective influence on a large class of moral beliefs (e.g. framing effects), this influence is insubstantial, failing to render the beliefs unjustified. When one identifies a main basis for belief (e.g. automatic heuristics), the influence is not defective. Thus there is a trade-off for wide-ranging empirical debunking arguments in ethics: identifying a substantial influence on moral belief implicates a process that is not genuinely defective. We thus lack empirical reason to believe that moral judgment is fundamentally flawed.

Ch. 5: The Difficulty of Moral Knowledge

While moral knowledge is possible, the science does show that it can be difficult to attain and maintain. There are two main threats. First, empirical research is increasingly unearthing the grounds of our moral beliefs. While wide-ranging debunking arguments are problematic, this does not hinder highly targeted attacks (e.g. beliefs based on implicit biases). Second, contemporary moral issues are increasingly complex, such that resolution often requires expert knowledge (especially concerning bioethical issues, such as cloning and climate change). Yet many of us lack such knowledge or a willingness to defer to experts, or to educate ourselves via self-criticism. Thus, while we share many fundamental values, moral knowledge is elusive, not because our basic moral beliefs are hopelessly flawed, but rather because the relevant non-moral beliefs are false or unjustified. To tackle topics engendering fervent disagreement, we don’t need a radically revisionary conception of ethics, such as utilitarianism; or a cure to a perceived “empathy deficit” in the populace; or rhetorical appeals to emotions like disgust. Given that moral judgment is fundamentally a matter of reasoning, we would do better to encourage quality education, intellectual humility (including some deference to experts), and various methods that combat cognitive biases (e.g. overconfidence and confirmation bias).

Ch. 6: Beyond Self-Interest

This chapter introduces the long-standing idea that inappropriate motives, such as self-interest, can militate against something like virtue. Some have tried to show that we are universally egoistic by appeal to empirical research, from evolutionary theory to the neuroscience of learning. However, these efforts fail and instead decades of experiments in social psychology provide powerful evidence that we are capable of genuine altruism. We can be motivated ultimately by a concern for others for their own sake, especially when empathizing with them. The psychological evidence, moreover, cannot be dismissed as showing that empathy blurs the distinction between self and other, making helping behavior truly egoistic or even non-altruistic.

Ch. 7: The Motivational Power of Moral Beliefs

Even if we can rise above self-interest, we may just be slaves of our passions. The dominant Humean tradition has desire reining supreme when it comes to motivation generally and moral motivation in particular. But the motivational power of reason, via moral beliefs, has been understated. Appealing to empirical work primarily in social and developmental psychology, I show that moral beliefs play a prominent role in motivation, even in the difficult case of temptation. Experiments show that often when we succumb, it is due in part to a change in moral (or normative) belief. Rationalization, perhaps paradoxically, reveals a deep regard for reason—to act in ways we can justify to ourselves and to others. The result is that we are very often morally motivated. Even when behaving badly, actions that often seem motivated by self-interest are actually ultimately driven by a concern to do what’s right. This addresses a second form of egoistic pessimism but also sets up a challenge to the Humean theory addressed in the next chapter.

Ch. 8: Freeing Reason from Desire

The previous chapter showed that our beliefs about which actions we ought to perform frequently have an effect on what we do. But Humean theories—holding that all motivation has its source in desire—insist on connecting such beliefs with an antecedent motive. I argue that we can allow normative beliefs a more independent role. First, I show that the Humean theory rules out some of the ways we ordinarily explain actions. This shifts the burden of proof onto Humeans to motivate their more restrictive, revisionary account. Second, I show that they are unlikely to discharge this burden on empirical grounds, whether by appealing to research on neurological disorders (acquired sociopathy, Parkinson’s, and Tourette’s), the psychological properties of desire, or the scientific virtue of parsimony.

Ch. 9: Defending Virtuous Motivation

This chapter considers whether there is empirical evidence that we’re rarely virtuously motivated—i.e. rarely do what’s right for the right reasons. There are two key challenges that threaten to “defeat” claims to virtuous motivation: self-interest and arbitrary situational factors. The structure of these threats is similar to the debunking arguments from Ch. 4: defective influences on moral behavior make us motivated by the wrong reasons. The motive of self-interest is indeed powerful and rationalization is rampant. Still, there are limits to egoism and arbitrary influences, as exemplified by experiments on cheating and dishonesty. Ultimately, like debunking arguments, defeater challenges succumb to a Defeater’s Dilemma: one can identify influences on many of our morally-relevant behaviors that are either substantial or arbitrary, but not both. Our best science so far suggests a trade-off: substantial influences on many morally-relevant actions are rarely defective.

Ch. 10: Cautious Optimism

This brief chapter summarizes the main argument of the book, draws out some less explicit lessons, and discusses some more practical implications (particularly, how to increase moral knowledge and virtue).