Psychological Mind Fruit

Psychology of Morality: Current trends

Morality is and understandably difficult thing to define, much less investigate. An instructive peice on the state of affairs of the psychology of morality was co-authored by one of the most prominent voices in moral psychology: Dr. Jonathan Haidt.

Unsurprisingly, our conceptions of morality as it existed in early history come from religious writing. Not relying solely on moral rules, the virtue-based approach to moral behavior sought to change perceptions, emotions, and intuitions. In other words, early moral (read: religious) thinkers asked, “Who should I become?”

The Enlightenment, however, turned everything on its head. Instead of using religion to construct a code of ethics, philosophers turned to secular principles: namely, deontology (actions are only morally correct if the rule governing that action applies to everyone) and consequentialism (one should act in way to bring about the most good). The question underlying ethics formation changed from “Who should I become?” to “What should I do?” This shift resulted in what Haidt calls “the great narrowing,” a time in which moral psychology focused on understanding “quandary ethics,” how an individual resolves self-interest and the moral concerns of harm/care (others’ suffering) and fairness/reciprocity (justice, rights). Turiel (1983) epitomized the traditional study of morality when he described it as:

"prescriptive judgments of justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other.”

In short, morality means not harming or cheating others. Haidt, however, contends that the above definition captures an incomplete picture of morality. He proposes a functionalist approach to the study of morality:

"Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperative social life possible"

Haidt’s description of moral systems evokes E.O. Wilson’s prediction that a full explanation of human morality would incorporate “distal mechanisms (such as evolution), proximal mechanisms (such as neural processes), and the socially constructed web of meanings and institutions.” Integral to this “New Synthesis” of moral psychology is the cooperation between various academic disciplines; analysis must go “up” a level, requiring sociologists and anthropologists to study cultural institutions and social practices. The future of moral psychology also requires researchers to go “down” and investigate the evolved psychological mechanisms responsible for morality (i.e., the burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology).

One of the recurring themes I’ve encountered (in this article and elsewhere) is a general movement away from Enlightenment views of rationality, specifically the “rational actor.” This is why we see so many political psychology papers investigating why voters so often vote against their self interests. If they were rational actors, they would unemotionally weigh the facts of the situation and act in their best interest. This is rarely the case.


Haidt, J., & Kesebir, S. (2010). In S. Fiske, D. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.) Handbook of Social Psychology, 5th Edition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. Pp. 797-832.