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The Moral Universe

The Moral Universe

Dialogues on the psychology of right and wrong

Introducing Dialogues on the Moral Universe

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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!

 

JZ,

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.

 

AW,

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.

jz

 

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

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