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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Consensus Statement on The Science of Morality

It seems to me that points #2 and #3 are in harmony with the theory of Ethical Intuitionism which I have defended.

A statement of consensus reached among participants at
the Edge The New Science of Morality Conference
Washington, CT, June 20-22, 2010

1) Morality is a natural phenomenon and a cultural phenomenon

Like language, sexuality, or music, morality emerges from the interaction of multiple psychological building blocks within each person, and from the interactions of many people within a society. These building blocks are the products of evolution, with natural selection playing a critical role. They are assembled into coherent moralities as individuals mature within a cultural context. The scientific study of morality therefore requires the combined efforts of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.

2) Many of the psychological building blocks of morality are innate

The word "innate," as we use it in the context of moral cognition, does not mean immutable, operational at birth, or visible in every known culture. It means "organized in advance of experience," although experience can revise that organization to produce variation within and across cultures.

Many of the building blocks of morality can be found, in some form, in other primates, including sympathy, friendship, hierarchical relationships, and coalition-building. Many of the building blocks of morality are visible in all human culture, including sympathy, friendship, reciprocity, and the ability to represent others' beliefs and intentions.

Some of the building blocks of morality become operational quite early in childhood, such as the capacity to respond with empathy to human suffering, to act altruistically, and to punish those who harm others.

3) Moral judgments are often made intuitively, with little deliberation or conscious weighing of evidence and alternatives

Like judgments about the grammaticality of sentences, moral judgments are often experienced as occurring rapidly, effortlessly, and automatically. They occur even when a person cannot articulate reasons for them.

4) Conscious moral reasoning plays multiple roles in our moral lives

People often apply moral principles and engage in moral reasoning. For example, people use reasoning to detect moral inconsistencies in others and in themselves, or when moral intuitions conflict, or are absent. Moral reasoning often serves an argumentative function; it is often a preparation for social interaction and persuasion, rather than an open-minded search for the truth. In line with its persuasive function, moral reasoning can have important causal effects interpersonally. Reasons and arguments can establish new principles (e.g., racial equality, animal rights) and produce moral change in a society.

5) Moral judgments and values are often at odds with actual behavior

People often fail to live up to their consciously-endorsed values. One of the many reasons for the disconnect is that moral action often depends on self-control, which is a fluctuating and limited resource. Doing what is morally right, especially when contrary to selfish desires, often depends on an effortful inner struggle with an uncertain outcome.

6) Many areas of the brain are recruited for moral cognition, yet there is no "moral center" in the brain

Moral judgments depend on the operation of multiple neural systems that are distinct but that interact with one another, sometimes in a competitive fashion. Many of these systems play comparable roles in non-moral contexts. For example, there are systems that support the implementation of cognitive control, the representation of mental states, and the affective representation of value in both moral and non-moral contexts.

7) Morality varies across individuals and cultures

People within each culture vary in their moral judgments and behaviors. Some of this variation is due to heritable differences in temperament (for example, agreeableness or conscientiousness) or in morally-relevant capacities (such as one’s ability to take the perspective of others). Some of this difference is due to variations in childhood experiences; some is due to the roles and contexts influencing a person at the moment of judgment or action.

Morality varies across cultures in many ways, including the overall moral domain (what kinds of things get regulated), as well as specific moral norms, practices, values, and institutions. Moral virtues and values are strongly influenced by local and historical circumstances, such as the nature of economic activity, form of government, frequency of warfare, and strength of institutions for dispute resolution.

8) Moral systems support human flourishing, to varying degrees

The emergence of morality allowed much larger groups of people to live together and reap the benefits of trust, trade, shared security, long term planning, and a variety of other non-zero-sum interactions. Some moral systems do this better than others, and therefore it is possible to make some comparative judgments.

The existence of moral diversity as an empirical fact does not support an "anything-goes" version of moral relativism in which all moral systems must be judged to be equally good. We note, however, that moral evaluations across cultures must be made cautiously because there are multiple justifiable visions of flourishing and wellbeing, even within Western societies. Furthermore, because of the power of moral intuitions to influence reasoning, social scientists studying morality are at risk of being biased by their own culturally shaped values and desires.

Signed by:

Roy Baumeister, Florida State University
Paul Bloom, Yale University
Joshua Greene, Harvard University
Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia
Sam Harris, Project Reason
Joshua Knobe, Yale University
David Pizarro, Cornell University


  1. It makes you wonder how this consensus will change over time as we and our society continually evolve. Maybe if you're a rapist or murderer you just weren't made for these times?

  2. It makes you wonder how this consensus will change over time as we and our society continually evolve. Maybe if you're a rapist or murderer you just weren't made for these times?

    A rapist or murderer would have had a better time living in the era of Moses and Joshua. ;-)

  3. A rapist or murderer would have had a better time living in the era of Moses and Joshua. ;-)

    Maybe, maybe not. Capital punishment for murder and rape was routinely practised in ancient Greece and ANE civilizations. And don't forget Hammurabi, what, 3500 years or so ago? But I kind of agree with you; you could be right, and you could be wrong. Who's to say? These eight points are just today's snapshot of the current product of human and societal 'moral' evolution. 2500 years from now, who can say what morality will be?

  4. I predict that 2500 years from now it will be Mad Max morality after a nuclear holocaust ensuing from an energy crisis wipes out most of the human race.

    Oh I'm kidding already. Did you see Sam Harris on TED, Ken?