Moral Judgment

[Old text, from 2012:]

All of my research is ultimately about morality. I study how people come to know what is right and wrong, how this knowledge is based in emotions and intuitions, and how morality varies across cultures. At the heart of my research is the “Social Intuitionist Model,” which lays out an account of how moral reasoning and moral emotions work together to produce moral judgments. In brief, the model says that moral judgments are like aesthetic judgments — we make them quickly and intuitively. We know what is right and wrong in much the same way we know what is beautiful. When called on to explain ourselves we make up reasons after the fact. Moral reasoning does affect judgment, but this happens primarily in between people, as they talk, gossip, and argue (hence the “social” part of the model).

The Social Intuitionist Model has been extended into “Moral Foundations Theory,” an account of how a small set of innate psychological systems form the foundation of “intuitive ethics,” but each culture constructs its own sets of virtues on top of these foundations. The current American culture war can be seen as arising from the fact that progressives try to create a morality using primarily the Care foundation, along with Fairness (as equality) and Liberty (related mostly to identity issues). Conservatives, especially social conservatives, use all of the modules, including Loyalty, Authority, and Purity. Plus, they see Fairness as referring to proportionality, not to equality of outcomes. (The theory owes a great deal to Richard Shweder‘s account of the “Big 3″ moral ethics: Autonomy, Community, and Divinity).  I strive for a complete explanation of morality, including its evolutionary origins, brain basis, development within cultural context, and cognitive mechanisms. I have been particularly interested in moral judgments about harmless yet offensive situations, often involving sexuality or food taboos, for these topics allow us to see moral judgments that cannot be said to be about protecting innocent victims.

For a full account of my research on moral psychology, please read The Righteous Mind, or visit

For information about Moral Foundations Theory, including scales to measure people’s endorsement of the five foundations, please visit

To participate in research on moral psychology and to see how you score on the moral foundations, please visit