Where Do Morals Come From?

Jesse Prinz
City University of New York, Graduate Center

In recent years, there has been an empirical turn in ethics. Using the methods of psychology, neuroscience, behavioral economics, and evolutionary modeling, we have been able to make progress on old philosophical questions about the nature of morality. For example, much recent research has lent support to the view that emotions are integral to moral judgment. Unsurprisingly, empirical research in ethics has tended to be reductionist: the loftiest aspects of human behavior have been related to simple mechanisms, which can be identified in the brain. The implicated mechanisms, most notably emotion circuits, are also known to have homologues in other creatures. This fact, together with evolutionary theory and behavioral ethology, have helped promote the idea that there is an innate moral sense. Nativist accounts have always been popular in cognitive science, so this outcome can hardly be surprising. But we should be cautious about importing that approach into the moral domain. Moral diversity within human populations suggests that, at the very lease, culture is an important variable in shaping morality, and it is a variable that we cannot afford to overlook.

My goal here is to make a plea for a cultural approach to empirical ethics. I will begin by reviewing what I take to be the main empirical lessons about how we make moral judgments. Then I will argue that judgments, so understood, are not universal in content. This will lead to a discussion of where moral judgments come from. The answer is that cultural factors, unfolding in historical time, are crucial for understanding the content of morality. This has implications for how to think about the biological contributions to morality and the processes by which moral values are acquired.

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