Regard for Reason in the Moral Mind

by Joshua May (Oxford University Press, 2018)

Below you’ll find summaries of my book and its chapters. If you’d like to see any draft chapters, get in touch.

Abstract: 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 resulting view, optimistic rationalism, shows the pervasive role played by reason, and ultimately defuses sweeping debunking arguments in ethics. The science does suggest that moral knowledge and virtue don’t come easily. However, despite the heavy influence of automatic and unconscious processes that have been shaped by evolutionary pressures, we needn’t reject ordinary moral psychology as fundamentally flawed or in need of serious repair. Reason can be corrupted in ethics just as in other domains, but a special pessimism about morality in particular is unwarranted. Moral judgment and motivation are fundamentally rational enterprises not beholden to the passions.


“…an innovative and important contribution to moral psychology, which ought to be read by everyone in the field.”

John Doris, Cornell University, Behavioral and Brain Sciences

“May offers his smart and thorough analysis in a way that is highly accessible, though not at all at the expense of rigor…. [He] proves himself to be not only a sharp philosopher but also a leading expert on empirical work on moral knowledge and moral motivation.”

Asia Ferrin, American University, Ethics

“…a systematic, impressively thorough, and convincing defence of the viability of moral rationalism. It excels in a detailed discussion of the experimental record, coupled with exceptionally clear discussions of the commitments of moral rationalism… the best defence of moral rationalism against empirical pessimism available.”

Michael Klenk, Delft University of Technology , Metapsychology

“May undertakes a careful, measured, and systematic re-examination of the evidence that some scientifically motivated sentimentalists and others take to show that ordinary moral thought is driven by, and depends upon, affect.”

Jeanette Kennett, Macquarie University, Australasian Journal of Philosophy

“…a tremendous and much-needed intervention in the field of moral psychology.”

Robin Zheng, Yale-NUS College , Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Table of Contents

1. Empirical Pessimism
Part I: Moral Judgment & Knowledge
2. The Limits of Emotion
3. Reasoning beyond Consequences
4. Defending Moral Judgement
5. The Difficulty of Moral Knowledge
Part II: 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

Ch. 2: The Limits of Emotion

Ch. 3: Reasoning beyond Consequences

Ch. 4: Defending Moral Judgment

Ch. 5: The Difficulty of Moral Knowledge

Ch. 6: Beyond Self-Interest

Ch. 7: The Motivational Power of Moral Beliefs

Ch. 8: Freeing Reason from Desire

Ch. 9: Defending Virtuous Motivation

Ch. 10: Cautious Optimism