The Place of Psychological Facts in Moral Theory (completed)

What role should be given to facts about moral psychology when doing moral theory?

About the project

In my postdoctoral project, I will examine what role should be given to facts about moral psychology when doing moral theory. On the one hand, I will ask how moral theory in general must be construed in order for psychological facts to be relevant for it. On the other hand, I will investigate in what ways the results of recent empirical research on moral psychology in neuroscience, social psychology and other disciplines affect moral theory. I will further ask what consequences this research has for applied ethics. The project thus combines an interest in theoretical issues related to the role of psychological research for moral theory with an interest in practical and normative conclusions to be drawn from recent research. Recent empirical research in moral psychology, from neuroscience, social psychology and other disciplines, has given new insight into the mechanisms underlying moral judgement and action. This insight clearly seems relevant for moral theory, yet we need to find a way of drawing ethical conclusions from psychological facts without committing the "naturalistic fallacy" of going from an "is" to an "ought". I discuss three ways in which psychological facts can be relevant for moral theory:

  1. Research on the genesis and nature of moral intuitions might show that intuitions are not a valid guide to moral judgements.
  2. Our normative claims may have implicit empirical preconditions, which we can identify through philosophical analysis and test empirically. This answer requires, however, that we accept what I call a "two-level" theory of morality.
  3. Psychological research might shed light on the question of moral conservatism. On the one hand, the criticism of intuitions points in a revisionist direction, by showing that we lack good reasons to hold on to our intuitive beliefs. On the other hand, psychology might show that, given our psychological traits, certain revisions of moral theory are impossible or counterproductive to implement.


This project is a postdoctoral fellowship funded and hosted by the Ethics Programme.

Published Apr. 15, 2010 6:55 PM - Last modified Mar. 6, 2013 11:45 AM