Moral psychology as cognitive science: Explananda and acquisition

Depending on how one looks at it, we have been enjoying or suffering a significant empirical turn in moral psychology during this first decade of the 21st century. While philosophers have, from time to time, considered empirical matters with respect to morality, those who took an interest in actual (rather than ideal) moral agents were primarily concerned with whether particular moral theories were ‘too demanding’ for creatures like us (Flanagan, 1991; Williams, 1976; Wolf, 1982). Faithful adherence to Utilitarianism or Kantianism would appear to be inconsistent with other things we value, like personal integrity and flourishing, which depend upon pursuing individually determined projects and ways of life in rather single-minded ways. Maximizing the good is a full-time job, and the impartiality recommended by Kantian theory can get in the way of showing special care for those we know and love. All this is standard philosophical fare. However, more recently, philosophers and psychologists have begun to treat moral psychology as a legitimate branch of cognitive science. They inquire into the evolution of morality (e.g., Joyce, 2007; Nichols 2004), debate the human uniqueness of moral capacities (e.g., deWaal, 2006; Hauser, 2006), investigate the causal etiology of moral judgments (e.g., Haidt & Greene, 2002; Hauser et al., 2006; Prinz, 2006), attempt to map the neuroanatomy of moral reasoning (e.g., Greene et al., 2001; Greene et al., 2004; Moll, et al., 2005), and consider what other affective and cognitive capacities are required by a creature who sees the world in moral terms. (See also Sinnott-Armstrong, 2007, 2008a, 2008b). 1 In this essay, I discuss two issues whose interdependence and central importance for empirically informed moral psychology have not been fully grasped, or so I believe. First is what I call the Explananda Challenge. Let us assume that the primary question for moral psychology is this: How is it possible for human beings to be moral creatures? Deceptively simple, this question obscures a number of rather more difficult ones..
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