Exploring The Moral Domain in Vilnius


This week I am in Vilnius, Lithuania attending a wonderful conference. It’s titled Moral Domain: Conceptual Issues in Moral Psychology, and organised by Renatas Berniūnas and Vilius Dranseika.

Just as I did in Budapest this summer (incidentally, where I met Renatas and Vilius), I am going to write down my thoughts about the conference as it progresses. There are a lot of talks, and it’s simply not possible for me to discuss each one in the detail they deserve. I will just focus on some highlights of talks that were particularly thought-provoking for me.

Thursday 10th October

The conference is being held in the main university in the old buildings, and it is incredibly beautiful. The weather has been kind so far – sunny, but with a refreshing October edge. I’m staying in the Old Town, just 10 mins away from the university, and am thoroughly enjoying my morning walks through the winding cobbled streets of Vilnius.

The conference started today with an opening keynote by Stephen Stich, from Rutgers. Stich opened this conference on ‘the moral domain’ by forcefully arguing in an engaging speech that in fact there is no moral domain. He noted that philosophers have struggled to define morality for a long time, and now psychologists, anthropologists and so on have joined the team using the new term ‘the moral domain’. As he noted, these efforts have been fraught with difficulties, and he argues that this is because there is no definition, and there are no characteristics – because there is no moral domain. Stich talked at length about how psychology assumes that the moral domain is a natural kind, and how we can (and do) use the Kornbluth and Devitt method. I hadn’t heard of this, but as I understood it, this is where you use intuitive judgments to pick our intuitively clear cases, and then scientific methods to discover what nomological cluster of properties associated with most of these have in common. This then allows you to see which cases are indeed members of the natural kind, and which of the intuitively clear cases lacking the cluster of properties are not in fact a member of that natural kind. He then focused on Turiel’s work in moral psychology, suggesting that on one plausible interpretation, Turiel implicitly uses the Devitt / Kornblith method – he looks at intuitive moral judgments and intuitive conventional judgments, and then suggests that many intuitive moral norms share some properties, but conventional norms do not (e.g. these properties being harm involving; authority independent; generalising to other times and places). However these Turiel features can come apart – e.g. Haidt’s work showing that actions are not harmful are judged to be authority independent and generalised – i.e. they come apart. In other study, Kelly, Stich, and Fessler looked at serious harms (like ancient slavery) and found they perceived to involve serious harm but were in fact authority dependent and did not generalise. Stich’s conclusion of his argument (which I am obviously condensing and simplifying) was that there simply is no moral domain. I went into this talk thinking I would disagree with him on this, but I must admit I found his talk very convincing. I’m looking forward to hearing the counter-arguments this week, however.

The second talk I found very interesting was by Shen-Yi Liao, who gave a talk on the moral domain and the aesthetic domain. He is interested primarily in the relationship between moral judgment and aesthetic evaluation, and discussed the extent to which moral evaluations be dissociated from aesthetic evaluations. Presenting evidence from some studies, his conclusion was that the moral domain and aesthetic domain do have important overlap. I do agree with him, but I was also quite sceptical of the methodology he used. In particular, as he conceded, his conception of the aesthetic has important overlap to the moral. That seems fair enough, but I think that creates important methodological issues in exploring the correlation between them: if people think that “aesthetic” includes “morals” (i.e. they perceive that morality is an important part of whether something is aesthetically pleasing), of course they will be correlated when you ask questions about how morally pleasing they think an artwork is, and how aesthetically pleasing they think it is. It seems to me that a better approach would be test the extent to which people’s conceptions of the morality of an art piece and the extent to which they find it visually appealing, or whether it gives them a certain aesthetic experience akin to watching a beautiful sunset. It seems to me that the interesting question is how these ‘purely’ aesthetic judgments are related to morality, for it seems self-evident (and uninteresting) to me that if people judge “aesthetic” value to include morality, then of course they will be correlated. Perhaps the interesting thing is whether morality and beauty are related, for example. Overall, though, this talk made me think a lot and I am happy to see work done on this notoriously tricky area!

In the afternoon was a fantastic talk by our hosts in Vilnius, Renatas and Vilius. Their talk was entitled “Are there different moral domains? Evidence from Mongolia”. They conducted a study in Mongolia using the Turiel moral-conventional tasks, and found evidence for all five of Haidt’s moral foundations, supporting pluralism across the moral domain. Yet they also found that fairness was an important driver across domains, even if all domains could not simply be reduced to fairness. I thought this was a really interesting study, particularly because of it’s cross-cultural approach. So often we conduct these studies on WEIRD samples, and it was a refreshing surprise to see this study using a Mongolian sample.

Friday 11th October

Day two of the conference, and it was a beautiful day. Really warm and sunny, which is more than a little surprising given that it is mid-October and I’m in the Baltics. I managed to take some pictures in the glorious weather, and I think some of them came out quite well.

The first talk today was by Dan Sperber, talking about the cultural epidemiology of morality. He discussed how evolved psychological dispositions are one kind of factors of attraction in cultural evolution. He discussed how humans have an evolved sense of fairness that makes possible a wide variety of forms of cooperation, and discussed how this biologically evolved disposition contributes to the cultural evolution of diverse systems of norms. It was an interesting talk, but my thoughts on this haven’t changed much since I heard his lectures in Budapest.

Following on from his talk were three short talks by Francisco Pippa on the scope of morality; a talk by Pascale Melanie Ruder on the why social norms matter for the attribution of causal responsibility; and a talk by Aistė Šeibokaitė on re-examining methodological assumptions in the neuroimaging of moral dilemmas. These were interesting talks, with the latter two being of particular interest due to the way that they touched upon areas of my own research (namely, the use of moral dilemmas and what these tell us). But I’ll be having my time tomorrow.

Saturday 11th October

Another stunningly beautiful day in Vilnius, started in the best possible way: an almond latte and a cigarette on the balcony.

There was a fascinating talk today by Joeri Witteveen from Utrecht University on ‘constructing the moral niche’. He discussed the work of Jean-Baptiste Andre and Nicolas Baumard (whom I was with in in Budapest), and did this in a really excellent way. Despite hearing lectures from both Andre and Baumard on this topic, I actually felt that Witteveen presented this information in a really straight-forward and compelling way and so I learnt a lot.  The approach of Baumard and Andre takes morality as evolutionarily adaptation in which individuals were in competition to be chosen and recruited in mutually advantageous cooperative interactions. In this environment, the best strategy is to treat others impartiality and to share the costs and benefits equally. He suggested that although Baumard et.al.’s individual-selectionist account is on the right track, it fails to support their conclusions about human innate moral psychology. He argued – convincingly – that the evolution of morality began with humans niche constructing each others’ ecological, reproductive and informational environments in the early Pleistocene. The evolution of mutualism could only get started when trust – itself rooted in an evolved capacity for positive affect – allowed humans to cooperate in situations with immediate, automatic playoffs. This made me think a lot, and I have some ideas about how I might be able to integrate the ideas he discussed into some of my own work on parochial altruism through a preferences and beliefs framework.

Next, Thomas Noah and Molly Sinderbrand from UPenn gave a fascinating talk entitled ‘A Rejection of Game Theoretic Unconditionality as the Mark of the Moral Domain’. They gave a really engaging and interesting talk, and managed to sustain my attention for the full half an hour (which is quite a feat, unfortunately). They questioned whether one can actually delineate the moral domain (i.e. separate moral norms from other behaviours) merely at the level of formal motivational structures, through unconditionality. As they note, a preference is conditional when it is constrained or determined by empirical or normative expectations. It is unconditional when it is not, and moral norms are supposed to be unconditional. They talked a lot about the work by Cristina Bicchieri, a leading proponent of using formal motivational structures to distinguish among behavioral domains. Bicchieri suggests that moral norms are a subset of personal norms, and personal norms are marked by an unconditional preference to act in accord with the norm. For example, I have a moral norm not to kill infants that would hold even if people thought I should do this, or if people expected me to, and so on. In short, Thomas and Sinderbrand argued that the account cannot distinguish customs from moral norms. Because moral norms and customs are boht unconditional, there is nothing in the motivational structure that allows us to distinguishthem. Hence, motivational structure (unconditionality) is insufficient. I thought their conclusions that, based, on Bicchieri’s theory’s inability to separate habits from moral norms, we can conclude that unconditionality is not sufficient to delineate the moral domain from the habitual domain, was particularly interesting. To distinguish moral norms from customs, we need an account of moral reasons – but to get an account of moral reasons, we need to go outside psychology to normative ethics.