The psychology of the moral instinct

The New York Times has a fantastic in-depth article by Steven Pinker on the origins of morality and the psychology of moral reasoning.

It’s a comprehensive and enjoyable review of most of the main areas of the recently invigorated ‘moral psychology’ field.

As well as discussing how lab-based studies are helping us to understand the cognitive neuroscience of moral reasoning, it also contains a number of examples and thought experiments that bring the anomalies in our moral cognition into sharp relief.

Pinker argues that we have a specific reasoning framework for moral situations and that when we deem a situation to have moral implications, this comes into play.

The starting point for appreciating that there is a distinctive part of our psychology for morality is seeing how moral judgments differ from other kinds of opinions we have on how people ought to behave. Moralization is a psychological state that can be turned on and off like a switch, and when it is on, a distinctive mind-set commandeers our thinking. This is the mind-set that makes us deem actions immoral (“killing is wrong”), rather than merely disagreeable (“I hate brussels sprouts”), unfashionable (“bell-bottoms are out”) or imprudent (“don’t scratch mosquito bites”).

Pinker suggests that this process can easily be seen at work, as some things that were previously thought to be an personal difference have now become a moral issue (e.g. smoking) whereas other things that were previously thought to be a moral issue have now become a personal difference (e.g. atheism).

He also covers the development of morality in children, the role of genetics, and the anthropology of morality – how the hypothesised universal moral principles express themselves differently across different cultures.

Highly recommended if you want a guide to this burgeoning area of research.

Link to NYT article ‘The Moral Instinct’.

2 thoughts on “The psychology of the moral instinct”

  1. Pinker is somewhat biased in his presentation of the moral prototypes. Norman Borlaug has his critics, but no criticism of him is presented in the article, whereas the other two (Gates, Theresa) are painted as controversial. Granted, the whole point was to provide an introduction, so brevity was required.

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