Links: Morality – a strictly worldly affair

As soon as you jetison the supernatural, you as a naturalist are forced to see human morality as strictly human affair without divine fear or favour. If unlike most, you want to think about morality and moral decision-making, here are naturalised resources that may help. You’ll need to think about the type of decisions that qualify as moral ones and, as Steven Pinker points out below, the boundaries of moral and non-moral issues shift and change. Also you should look at how how we currently make these decisions and typically they are make at a subconscious level. And, finally, what methods or tools can be used to reflect on moral decisions. Don’t forget that ethics and morality is a big part of philosophy and can provide useful ideas for reflection.

Neuroscience is doing a lot of research today on how we make moral decisions – links below. I’ve also provided links for some interesting research areas about humans in a physical world – (1) Marc Hauser and moral grammar; (2) Lakoff and Johnson “Embodied realism” and (3) evolutionary psychology.

A good place to start is with Steven Picker’s article The Moral Instinct (NYT, 13 Jan 2008).

Alex McCullie


Scientific American – Mind Matters (see feed on this site) regularly covers recent research. Like the rest of science, neuroscience is about describing how we make moral choices and not the best ones for a good life. Here is some recent research to whet your appetite – Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Thinking about Morality.

Joshua Green, Harvard University, conducts neuroscience research into moral decision-making using iMRI scanning techniques. You can download his PhD thesis and other papers.

Patricia Churchland, Philosophy University of California. To quote her website “I explore the impact of scientific developments on our understanding of consciousness, the self, free will, decision making, ethics, learning, and religion and issues concerning the neurobiological basis of consciousness, the self, and free will, as well as on more technical questions concerning to what degree the nervous system is hierarchically organized, how the difficult issue of co-ordination and timing is managed by nervous systems, and what are the mechanisms for the perceptual phenomenon of filling-in. Also check my links sections for links to YouTube videos.

Moral Minds – Marc Hauser

Marc Hauser, Psychology & Biology Harvard University proposes that we evolved a common moral grammar enabling rapid moral decision-making at a subconscious level.

Radio broadcast              Interview with Discover magazine

Complete an online moral sense test (hosted by Harvard)

Book reviews – (NYT by Richard Rorty) (The Guardian)

Embodied realism – George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

George Lakoff Linguistics, Berkeley and Mark Johnson Philosophy Oregan University with others have developed a theory from neuroscience, linguistics and philosophy that sees the brain, correctly, as an embodied within our bodies and, therefore, brain processing should be seen as a natural consequence of our interactions with our environments. Furthermore our cognitive processing is seen as metaphoric with the higher-level concepts being processed metaphorically by the same responses used by lower level perceptions.


Lakoff, G and Johnson, M 1980, Metaphors We Live By, University of Chicago

Lakoff, G and Johnson, M 1999, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, Basic Books

Johnson, M 2007, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, University of Chicago

Book reviews: (NYT)  (Steen)

Edge interview with George Lakoff

Evolutionary Psychology/Biology

This applies the implications of evolution on our behaviour including moral decision-making. Even though a controversial area the area of study contributes to our understanding of human moral behaviour.

Steven Pinker Evolutionary psychology, Harvard – many articles available

Other articles

Jon Haidt, Psychology Virginia - Moral Psychology article (The Edge)

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