ResearchBlogging.orgQuandaries such as those involving stealing a drug to save a spouse's life or whether or not to have an abortion have historically dominated the study of the development of moral thinking. The predominant research programs in psychology today use dilemmas in which one choice is deontologically correct (it is wrong to rotate a lever that will divert a train and kill one person instead of five), and the other is consequentially correct (kill one person if it will save five others).

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It is not surprising that psychologists have followed philosophers in proposing definitions for morality that are shaped by quandary-based ethics. In that vein, Turiel defined the moral domain as "prescriptive judgments of justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other." More recently, however, Haidt has argued that the study of moral psychology should not focus on the content of morality, but rather on the function of moral systems: "moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible." Haidt has also suggested that a comprehensive moral psychology must study the full array of psychological mechanisms that are "active in the moral lives of people of diverse cultures." Further, it should go beyond the neural and psychological systems that support moral reasoning, and show how psychological mechanisms and culture mutually influence each other.

For a skill so complex as moral reasoning, it is difficult to identify the aspects of the moral reasoning process that may be innate, and therefore would not require any form of implicit or explicit instruction by cultural institutions (e.g. parents, schools, communities). Many such institutions (especially schools, secular and religious) champion virtue-based approaches to moral education, and claim that they provide "character education" or a "values education." Even major research universities claim to do so. USC's mission statement states: "We strive constantly for excellence in teaching knowledge and skills to our students, while at the same time helping them to acquire wisdom and insight, love of truth and beauty, moral discernment, understanding of self, and respect and appreciation for others."

How do people come to learn the ethical conventions of their communities? Is there evidence for universal moral systems? Is there any indication that building blocks of moralty can be found in human infants? In non-human animals? Find out over the course of the next week!

Haidt J (2007). The new synthesis in moral psychology. Science (New York, N.Y.), 316 (5827), 998-1002 PMID: 17510357