A new theory of moral psychology

A new theory of moral psychology March 3, 2008

Natural Rationality reports on a paper just out in the February issue of Judgement and Decision Making that puts forward a new psychological model for moral reasoning (well, it’s actually an iterative development of earlier theories).

The major novel idea the authors propose is that moral reasoning is no different from other kinds of deontic reasoning.

So-called “deontic propositions” are statements about things that you may, should or should not do. So all moral propositions are a kind of deontic proposition, but deontic propositions also include things like cultural taboos. The authors give an example: you shouldn’t eat peas with a knife. This is a deontic proposition that isn’t a moral proposition, it’s just something you shouldn’t do in polite society. Similarly, if you play table tennis there are certain rules you have to stick to.

The insight in the new paper is that nobody’s ever come up with a reliable way of telling apart moral propositions from deontic ones. Some propositions are clearly one or the other, but many lie in the middle somewhere. And since nobody’s come up with a way of telling them apart, perhaps that’s because they’re basically the same.

This doesn’t of course, mean that all morality is just cultural. What they do point out is that, although some moral judgements are accompanied by an emotional response, some aren’t. Emotions aren’t a sound guide to what’s moral or not. And neither is anything else.

The present theory goes beyond other current accounts of moral reasoning in that it aims to dissolve any appeal to a special mechanism for moral reasoning. When you think about moral issues, you rely on the same independent mechanisms that underlie emotions and cognitions in deontic domains that have nothing to do with morality, such as games and manners. Your evaluations of the morality or immorality of actions depend, in turn, on unconscious intuitions or on conscious reasoning, but your beliefs do not always enable you to reach a clear decision about what is right and what is wrong, or even about whether the matter in hand is a moral issue.

The paper is open access, and has a great, brief introduction to earlier theories of moral psychology and where they fall short.


Bucciarelli et al. The psychology of moral reasoning. Judgment and Decision-Making February 2008;3(2):121-139

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