Cognitive science and moral intuitions


  • [required]
  • [required] A. Appiah (2008). Experiments in Ethics. Harvard University Press. See the chapter "The case against intuition". [1-day reserve]
  • [recommended] Machery Edouard. The Bleak Implications of Moral Psychology. See here.


  • Which are the cognitive processes that underlie moral reasoning? How is it related to general reasoning?
  • Is moral reasoning objective? Why should we trust our intuitions?
  • Is science relevant to morality? In what ways?

Biases in moral thinking

  • Cultural / religious biases vs cognitive biases
  • Framing effects, e.g. gain vs loss, order effects, default choices
  • Cognitive Biases
  • Unconscious influence, e.g. hypnotic priming, gender biases
  • Action biases due to irrelevant contextual factors ( Harman / Doris critique of virtue ethics )

@Isen and Levin (1972) - 87.5% of participants who had just found a dime in the coin in a phone booth helped a confederate (of the experimenter) who dropped a folder of papers, while only 4% who had found no coin helped.@

Also - J.M. Darley and C.D. Batson (1973). From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 27, pp. 100–119.

The trolley problem

  • TrolleyProblem

Scientific facts and moral intuitions

How are they related?

  1. No connection at all - The is-ought gap
  2. Science improves folk morality (Appiah (2008))
    • Science helps us understand what kind of person we can become and how.
    • Science helps us distinguish between good and bad moral intuitions.
  3. Science undermines folk morality.
    • Our judgments are inconsistent.
    • Our judgments are biased by irrelevant / inappropriate factors.
    • Our judgments are products of an unreliable process.
  4. Science evaluates empirical presuppositions of moral theories
    • "Ought" implies "can".
    • If a moral theory implies something that is empirically false or not feasible, this is problematic. ( See this )

Issues to consider

  • Can we avoid intuitions? - Circularity in the philosophical arguments.
  • Wide and narrow reflective equilibrium
  • Are emotions bad for morality?