intellectual self-defence

The Moral Arc

I am seeking suggestions for things to read on a specific topic, which I am struggling to articulate. I would like to read an analysis of how individuals understand their own moral development. Moral philosophers have accounts of what is moral, how it should be understood. This lacks the first person perspective I want to explore – I want to read something that takes seriously the subjective moral life as it is, not as it should be. Experimental philosophers have accounts of differences in people’s responses to moral dilemmas. This is too static – I want to read something that takes seriously our ability to change morally, and particularly to be agents of our own changes in belief. Biographies, particularly of spiritual or political figures, have first person accounts of moral change – why people lost their faith, or changed faith, in deities, parties or principles – but these don’t allow the comparison across people that I’d like.

I wonder if such a book exists. Something like “In a different voice“, but with more emphasis on adult development, or The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, with a specific focus on moral change.

The motivation is to escape the implicit model of many psychological accounts, which portray people as passive information processors; at their worse stimulus response machines, but even at their best as mere suboptimal rational agents. I’d like to think more about people as active moral agents – as having principles which are consciously developed, seriously considered, subject to revision, passionately defended and debated. Then, of course the trick is to design empirical psychology research which, because it takes this perspective seriously, allows this side of people to manifest rather then denying or denigrating it.

4 replies on “The Moral Arc”

If that book exists, I don’t know it.

There are couple of classics that deal with some of these questions though, but from an individual perspective. I’d have a look at the Confessions of Saint Augustine. He basically founded the genre and the book has the added benefit of giving you insights in the world of pagan antiquity and early Christianity and hence in a big part of our moral background. The Essays of Montaigne are extremely interesting (especially for a psychologist) but the references are unfortunately obscure for most contemporary readers.

I asked the question on twitter

Here is a compilation of suggestions:

“the stories we live by: personal myths and the making of the self” Dan P. McAdams

something by George Vaillant

Redirect by T. Wilson

Narvaez, D., & Lapsley, D. K. (2005). The psychological foundations of everyday morality and moral expertise in Character Psychology and Character Education, 140–165.

Charles’ Taylor’s Sources of the Self

Hi, I have been participating concurrently in two MOOCs- ‘evolution of human sociality’ and ‘Justice’ out of interest in these issues and just read your Graeber on Pinker (‘evolution…’ course had implications for this re. lethal violence in chimpanzees: our closest relatives and with similar % of deaths from violence to hunter-gatherers i.e 11-12%. Also the more recent primate research shows male inter-group lethal violence occurring when imbalance of power(numerical) exists – e.g 8:1.) and then came here.
I don’t know if you know this guy’s work? he seems to be interested in similar vein.

“Interestingly, even young children can distinguish
moral transgressions (such as lying and stealing)
from violations of social conventions; it is
only with regard to moral transgressions that children refer to rights and welfare of others
(Turiel, 1983).”

Eugene Subbotsky.

I started thinking about this during the other course – that morality, at root, is a question of what we do with, and how we react to,our own perceived power and that one of the formative experiences of this must be how we react to younger siblings’ relative weakness.
But I also have a gut feeling that some things just ‘feel wrong’ and that they must have deeper internal models and potentially pre-verbal as such.

Hi Tom, I just ran across your blog as a result of your recent BBC article on getting people to overcome their bias. I am not in cognitive psychology (rather, Theology), but your work is fascinating me (I’ve just downloaded For Argument’s Sake). I see that your question about works on moral development is an old one (2015), but if you haven’t read the three major works of Alasdair MacIntyre (Emeritus Phil. prof at Notre Dame )on the topic of ethics, then I’d highly recommend them. (1: After Virtue; 2: Whose Justice? Which Rationality? 3: Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry). Cheers!

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