HSD: Collaborative Research: Evolutionary, Developmental, and Neurobiological Sources of Moral Judgments

Project Details


A multidisciplinary research team will study various aspects of the nature of moral judgments and the causal factors for the capacity for cross-cultural variation and change. The project measures the nature of moral decisions across different time periods (evolutionary, developmental, and cultural) and among different test populations (nonhuman animals, normal and neurobiologically impaired human infants and adults, and different cultures). It uses different methods for each type of study including experiments of primates, large-scale internet studies, and neuropsychological investigation of patients. The investigators will to study two psychological factors: (1) The idea that intending to harm another as a means to the greater good is less permissible than harming merely as a foreseen side effect (the intention principle) and (2) The idea that acts that cause harm to others will be perceived as morally worse than omissions of an act that causes equivalent harm (the omission principle). Studies of these principles will be conducted with nonhuman primates and human infants to test the hypothesis that some of the core cognitive building blocks that are necessary for these principles (e.g., perceiving intentions and goals) are in place but only take on moral significance in our own species, and only later in child development. The investigators will test the hypothesis that these principles are universal but with cross-cultural variation in their specific content (e.g., who can be harmed) by using both large-scale internet-based studies as well as studies of hunter-gather and subsistence-based societies. They will test the hypothesis that governments can impose explicit laws that alter how people behave yet these explicit norms do not penetrate people's intuitive moral judgments. The investigators also will examine how neural insult systematically changes the nature of particular moral judgments among patient populations (i.e., autistics, individuals with damage to the frontal lobes and amygdala).

The project is expected to enhance basic understanding of how humans evolved the capacity to deliver moral judgments, how such judgments change over development and across cultures, and how the capacity breaks down following selective neural insult. Results from this project are likely to be useful in the arenas of justice, public policy, education, and clinical treatment, showcasing the biological and psychological mechanisms that humans bring to the moral table, and how they respond to policy that may be at odds with their intuitive moral sense. The project also will provide education and training opportunities for graduate students, including students from minority groups and developing nations.

Effective start/end date9/1/078/31/11


  • National Science Foundation: $381,292.00


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