The Allure of Moral Psychology vs. the Foundations of Cognitive Science

In the last month or so, two Ph.D. students at two different schools told me they changed their research focus from foundational topics (such as computational theories of cognition) to moral psychology.  Is this indicative of a trend?

Moral psychology is obviously fascinating and has seen much new work in recent years.  I don’t know enough about what’s happening in that area to guess how much opportunity for growth is left in moral psychology.  I mean, at some point philosophy fields become saturated and begin to stagnate:  every major position has been articulated and subsequent generations are left to comment and add epicycles to existing views, until something new happens that changes the conceptual landscape again.  Does anyone has a sense about how things stand in moral psychology?

Speaking of which, I think something importantly new is happening in the foundations of cognitive science.  The driving change is the rise of cognitive neuroscience as an integrated science of cognition.  Some people are surely riding the cog neurosci bandwagon and have been for a while, but very few people have even begun to study the foundational implications of this change.  For some of my views on the matter, see here  and here.  In any case, I think this area is ripe for a new beginning, with plenty of opportunity for bright young philosophers to reshape it.  And when you reshape the foundations of a discipline, eventually you end up reshaping the whole discipline (including moral psychology ).


  1. Josh Shepherd

    Hi Gualtiero,

    I’m a PhD student who does some moral psychology, among other things. Or at least I’d call it that, which raises (for me) a question.
    I don’t know if there’s a trend towards moral psych or not, partially because the area is so broad. Some stuff cleaves pretty close to relevant empirical work, other stuff (at best) feigns interest in cognitive science. I wonder what brains readers think of when they hear ‘I work in moral psychology’? What writers/issues come to mind?


  2. I think there might indeed be a trend here. For my part I have, to a large extended, trended in the opposite direction (from topic(s) roughly related to moral cognition, to foundational issues.)

    I understand the allure, since moral cognition is very “hot” right now (in philosophy and cognitive science more generally.)However, this trend also raises a worry, since I think the broad field of moral cognition has some of the worst empirical work I have ever seen, and often theorizing to boot (not intrinsically of course. More likely it is because of the current research “gold rush.”) Often, this seems to be a reflection of underlying foundational issues, which are neglected.

    If anything, we need people doing more foundational work, esp. in areas like cognitive neuroscience (for the reasons you suggest), which as it so happens, has been (mis)used quite a lot in moral cognition research.

  3. Colin Klein

    I think there has been a shift towards moral psychology. I think a lot of it is well intentioned, and not mere trend-following: psychologists doing empirical work on moral reasoning often have a very simplistic model of ethics in mind, and so much of the work has precisely the sort of conceptual confusions that philosophers feel they need to clear up. It’s also part of a broader trend of trying to bring up-to-date empirical work to bear on philosophical issues, which I suppose I’m in favor of.
    That said, I share Brendan’s worry—I think that a lot of the empirical work in the area is sloppy, or ill-conceived, or otherwise shaky. A caveat here: I actually have papers in both `foundational issues’ and moral psychology. But my stuff on the latter is mostly critiquing the empirical work from the foundational side (in my case, looking at flaws in the neuroimaging methodologies used—which aren’t unique to moral psychology, but come out especially acutely). So I think that foundational work is where more philosophy is needed. Though I fully admit that this reflects my own biases!

  4. Josh Shepherd

    Thanks Gualtiero,

    I figured that’s what you had in mind. Foundational work here is certainly important, in part because some of the work is (as others have noted) sloppy, while some is just so new it’s bound to need precisification.

    As to the original question, I have no real wisdom.

  5. Catherine Stinson

    I for one am working on exactly these sorts of foundational issues. A chapter-in-progress of my dissertation is similar to your Integrating…Mechanism Sketches paper. Essentially I agree that cognitive neuroscience is trying to integrate by treating cognitive models as mechanism sketches then filing them in, but disagree about it being seamless. I argue that information-processing models are not mechanism sketches, although work can be done to turn them into mechanism sketches. Most of the rest is about methodological implications of both this being the strategy, and it not being seamless.

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