Morality, we now know, is not exclusively rational. Scores of recent studies have revealed that our moral behavior is frequently affected by non-cognitive factors, such as situational and emotional influences. However, this same body of evidence is often taken to support the more extreme conclusion that morality is rarely rational. Indeed, leading thinkers have argued that our moral behavior is determined entirely by non-cognitive influences of one sort or another. These radical conclusions constitute a challenge to the more traditional, optimistic view of reason’s role in morality—the view that reasoned thought is integral to moral action, and that rational factors often play a key role in moral progress.
We believe that this extreme view is unmotivated, and that a better understanding of reason’s place in our moral psychology requires a more thorough and nuanced approach. As scientists, we should not simply ask whether there is a role for reason in our moral thinking and behavior. Rather, we should seek to discover when, how, and why reason matters for morality. To this end, we have proposed a multi-modal series of investigations to address these questions. In light of recent findings in this domain, our studies are predicated on the hypothesis that reason plays a pervasive and essential role in our moral psychology at two key points, namely, moral learning and moral action. Furthermore, we hypothesize that many apparent cases of non-rational moral action are in fact rational, given the way that our moral values are internalized and the effects this has on our thought and behavior.
The current orthodoxy in psychology has influenced the way that policy-makers, business leaders, educators, and ordinary folk think about moral action and moral progress. We hope that the work of this project will reorient our field—and these other audiences in turn—toward a more balanced understanding of the role of reasons and reasoning in moral learning, thinking, and acting.