Cognitive Psychology and Moral Reasoning

Also in the Boston Review, Rebecca Saxe looks at cognitive psychology and moral reasoning.

“A decade after [James Q.] Wilson’s book [The Moral Sense] was published, the psychological and neural basis of moral reasoning is a rapidly expanding topic of investigation within cognitive science. In the intervening years, new technologies have been invented, and new techniques developed, to probe ever deeper into the structure of human thought. We can now acquire vast numbers of subjects over the Internet, study previously inaccessible populations such as preverbal infants, and, using brain imaging, observe and measure brain activity non-invasively in large numbers of perfectly healthy adults. Inevitably, enthusiasts make sweeping claims about these new technologies and the old mysteries they will leave in their wake. (“The brain does not lie” is a common but odd marketing claim, since in an obvious sense, brains are the only things that ever do.)

The appeal of the new methods is clear: if an aspect of reasoning is genuinely universal, part of the human genetic endowment, then such reasoning might be manifest in massive cross-cultural samples, in subjects not yet exposed to any culture, such as very young infants, and perhaps even in the biological structure of our reasoning organ, the brain.

How far have these technologies come in teaching us new truths about our moral selves? How far could they go? And what will be the implications of a new biopsychological science of natural morality?