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Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Morality

  • Course Level: Graduate; undergraduate with permission
  • Department: Psychology, MAPSS
  • Year: 2021-22
  • Term: Winter
  • Tues 12:30-3:20 PM
  • PSYCH 33165/23165, KNOW 33165
  • Jean Decety

Morality is essential for societal functioning and central to human flourishing.  People across all cultures seem to have the same sense about morality.  They simply know what morality is, often without being able to concretely define what exactly it means to label something as a moral kind.  But when one tries to more precisely and scientifically define what morality is, things become less clear and more complex.  As we’ll see in the class, the field of morality is incredibly dynamic, and characterized more by competing theories and perspectives than by scientific consensus.  Some research has worked deductively, starting with a theoretical definition (like the moral foundation theory) to generate hypotheses.  Other research has taken a more inductive approach, starting with lay people’s perception of morality. 

The past decades have seen an explosion of theoretical empirical research in the study of morality.  Amongst the most exciting and novel findings and theories, evolutionary biologists and anthropologists have shown that morality has evolved to facilitate cooperation and social interactions.  Developmental psychologists came up with ingenious paradigms, demonstrating that some elements underpinning morality are in place much earlier than we thought in preverbal infants.  Social psychologists and behavioral economists examine the relative roles of emotion and reasoning, as well as how social situations affect moral or amoral behavior. Social neuroscientists are mapping brain mechanisms implicated in moral decision-making.  The lesson from all this new knowledge is clear: human moral cognition and behavior cannot be separated from biology, its development, culture and social context. This course fulfills the elective requirement for a new MAPSS concentration on the Formation of Knowledge