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The Moral Universe

The Moral Universe

Dialogues on the psychology of right and wrong
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Introducing Dialogues on the Moral Universe

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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INTRODUCTORY NOTE: Welcome!  We are Adam Waytz (AW) and Jamil Zaki (JZ), professors and psychologists who study morality, empathy, and prosocial behavior.  Through our years as colleagues and friends, we’ve long discussed the world (or universe) of moral psychology.  In this blog, we continue this dialogue, in the form of an informal exchange between the two of us (beginning with a message from AW to JZ).  We hope that in doing so we can provide readers with a tour of  our favorite ideas.  Readers: your thoughts, comments, and feedback are always appreciated!



I thought I would get this dialogue going while I’m waiting for my train.  Perhaps we can hash out an overview of this blog through email, as a way to introduce ourselves.  As a sort of a mission statement, I was thinking about something like the following: This is a blog about moral and immoral behavior and judgment as well as the cognitive and social faculties underlying these processes.  What do you think?

On a broader level, I guess one thing I have been thinking about a lot lately and wanted to get on the table is that blogging seems a tad antithetical to science.  Science is slow, blogging is fast.  The cycle of research finding to published paper to press release to popular press article to blog-post-promoting-the-finding to blog-post-criticizing-the-finding moves extremely quickly.  The same goes for the well-worn practice of explaining [current event] through [recent research finding].  On the one hand, these practices are invaluable to conveying recent findings to a public that is hungry for knowledge.  On the other hand, I am inclined to see the contribution and explanatory power of any single research finding (including my own) as incremental (also not a derogatory term).  I guess all of this is to throw a caveat out there, which is that any new finding we discuss should be fully considered as NEW: a piece of a broader puzzle, rather than a definitive conclusion.  And also, it would be worth our while to talk about older findings as well, or those findings that have been observed 100 times (or at least more than once).   But enough meta-science talk, let’s get the question I try to start all research projects with and that I hope to infuse into every post on this blog: What is interesting?

And I can think of two things that interest me quite a bit lately.  We can get into those in a moment, but wanted to hear your thoughts on what I have laid out here so far.



The scope you describe for the blog is perfectly on point.  To elaborate a bit on your framing, I think we’ll cover two key features comprising the Moral Universe.  First, when and why do individuals behave morally?  Among relevant issues, we’ll want to attack the saggy but still important “Hobbes-Rousseau debate,” as to whether people are naturally inclined towards helping others, or are naturally antisocial but steered into ethical behavior by outside pressures (laws, reputation, social contracts).  We’ll also explore cases in which prosocial and moral behavior split apart, and ask how people decide to commit “moral harm” or “immoral altruism.  Second, we’ll grapple with issues surrounding how people judge behaviors (either their own or others’) as moral or immoral.  We’ll explore cases in which supposedly unimportant factors alter moral judgment, and how our motives, beliefs, and emotions affect moral principles we claim are steadfast and constant.

Of course, like particles in any universe, moral behavior and judgment will interact and often collide into complex, unintuitive, and sometimes confusing combinations.  I hope we don’t shy away from any of this richness in order to cultivate easy answers to hard questions.

Along these lines, I couldn’t agree more with the strange relationship that’s developed between science and science communication.  On my view, pop science too often (though of course not always) provides readers short on time with one of two unhelpful classes of messages: (1) a new study solved a problem, or (2) a study (or even a field) is fundamentally flawed and can’t solve any problems.  I think this comes from viewing science communication as news instead of education.  If bloggers assume that readers only want information about what’s happening NOW, they limit themselves to a very noisy, very sensational picture of our field, in which science needs to be news (red wine is good for you!  oh wait, it’s bad for you!  the first study was flawed!  So was the second one!), or deepen the news (Joe Flacco won the superbowl because he is low in anxiety!  Here’s a study on anxiety that renders that message credible.).  As you point out, this take is too “zoomed in” and focuses us away from how science works: slowly, methodically, off any news cycle.

Instead, I hope we can treat this blog as more of an education: favoring work that sheds light on morality, regardless of where it comes from or how old or new it is.  After all, to cover a space as large as this, it’s critical to zoom out.



Jamil Zaki About the Author: Jamil Zaki is an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, studying the cognitive and neural bases of social cognition and behavior. Follow on Twitter @jazzmule.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. davenussbaum 1:45 pm 03/13/2013

    Hi Jamil and Adam, really excited that you guys have decided to take on this blog.

    I couldn’t agree more about the disconnect between the pace of science and the news cycle. More psychology has been making it into the mainstream recently, which is great, but it’s been a double edged sword for the reasons you describe. Of course, it’s hard to blame reporters for turning science into news, because that’s their job — and there are some who do it really well. But it’s great to also have the people doing the science filling some of the space between the laboratory and the public.

    Looking forward to the education!

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  2. 2. Bora Zivkovic 1:47 pm 03/13/2013

    Welcome to the family!

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  3. 3. SugarTax 6:09 pm 03/13/2013

    This could be interesting. Good luck!

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  4. 4. Lartiste 7:43 am 03/14/2013

    What distinction if any would you make between moral and ethical? Perhaps, you allow the former to subsume the latter as a matter of convenience. But, I suspect that many of your readers may be inclined to associate moral with God or something supernatural and ethical with human nature or origin.

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  5. 5. gesimsek 6:54 pm 03/14/2013

    I just red that scientists managed to connect two minds together by electrodes, let’s see if they could manage to connect hearts as well

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  6. 6. foreigngirl 8:24 pm 03/16/2013

    I find the description of the purpose of this blog to be very unscientific. “A blog about moral and immoral behavior and judgment” implies that there exists such thing as immoral behaviour. Morality is a social construct that is in the constant flux; what was considered immoral once, can become perfectly ‘moral’ within one generation. Your use of words is imprecise and lacks compassion towards your fellow humans. You and Nietzsche have driven me to write this blog post today: . Human progress is a constant battle against ridiculousness of moral structures. All that any individual needs is love, not morals. Toodle pip.

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  7. 7. comefullcircle 1:01 am 03/22/2013

    One of the authors summarizes some of the things they will address in this blog … he says that: “we’ll grapple with issues surrounding how people judge behaviors as moral or immoral.” I don’t know about the rest of you, but I have never experienced difficulty in evaluating another individual’s behavior as being moral or immoral – there is a clear and strong line separating right and wrong, and hardly something that one would need to “grapple” with.

    He also says they will “ask how people decide to commit ‘moral harm’ or ‘immoral altruism’.”
    Did I read that correctly? Did he really say “moral harm” and “immoral altruism”??!
    This one just blew me away, because it would never occur to me to use the words “moral” and “harm” in combination
    to result in one thought. As well for the words “immoral” and “altruism”. What the heck is he talking about?
    Let’s take a look at the actual definitions of these four words:

    Definition – “Moral”: conforming to the rules of “right conduct”; ethical behavior; the distinction between right & wrong.
    Definition – “Harm”: to injure physically, morally, or mentally; to maltreat, impair; moral evil or wrongdoing.

    How can one possibly be conforming to the rules of right conduct and do someone harm at the same time?

    Definition – “Immoral”: unscrupulous behavior resulting from corruption; one who violates established principles
    of personal & socially acceptable ethics.
    Definition – “Altruism”: the philosophical doctrine that right action is that which produces the greatest benefit to others;the principle or practice of unselfish concern for, or devotion to, the welfare of others; also, behavior that may be to one’s own disadvantage, but that benefits others of it’s kind.

    How can one be demonstrating altruism and immorality simultaneously?

    (Definitions – Source: Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition 2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd)

    We all know the difference between right and wrong. My father laid down the basic tenets when I was a very young child; and my understanding of doing the right thing is so ingrained that diverting from ethical behavior is not something that I struggle with; it is not an option. It is really so simple: just do the right thing.

    In conclusion, perhaps the fact that the authors deem this worthy of a special blog, is a sad sign of how many people in our society have a character that is not morally intact. That’s pretty unsettling.

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  8. 8. foreigngirl 7:17 am 03/27/2013

    Well, first of all, I find it quite hilarious that my comment date was amended so that it does not appear at the top of the comments. My comment was the first one hear and for several days the only one, hence the fact that so many are now dated earlier than mine is quite something. @Comefullcircle – here is an example of something immoral for you, which whoever decided to do it might have considered as a ‘moral harm’.
    Further @Comefullcircle: you appear to be constrained by the words moral and immoral in very simple ways, i.e. without thinking what morality actually is. As I mentioned before what had been immoral 200 years ago may not be moral anymore. Moral values are constructs invented by people to control other people so that everybody conforms to one even structure. As a result moral harm can arise whereby people may act within accepted moral structures of the time yet they will be harming others. And if you do not understand this you are personally in danger of thoughtlessly harming other people, especially if you are the type of person who always complies with broadly accepted moral values. If you were to make decisions based on unconditional love towards yourself and other people you would not need any moral structures to assist you and consequently your actions would not result in moral harm. For example, you would not ostracize or judge a prostitute thereby causing a lot of harm to her but would either accept her life choices and get on with yours or see how you can help her to achieve better life. The latter would be driven by love to all human beings and by love to yourself, because before you can see a prostitute as a human being who deserves love you would need to learn how to understand and forgive your own mistakes and to love yourself unconditionally. It’s a very simple formula and one, for which generations fought for by fighting against morals. We have come to the time when there is plenty of science out there to support the fact that the simple rule of unconditional love is the ultimate solution to everything, i.e. it’s the true simplicity that underlies the complexity, which we perceive and which we believe is the truth. Philosophizing about what moral and what is immoral is a waste of time. It is not the XXI century philosophy and for the sake of the lives of these two bloggers I would strongly advise to spend the precious time on something that can change the world for the better and not on something that is outdated.

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