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What is the nature of human morality?

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Gabriela Pavarini.

The event includes presentations by the speakers, discussion and Q&A. It will be followed by a wine reception in the atrium.

Prof Shaun Nichols is happy to meet researchers for an informal chat during the day. If you would like to meet him individually, please sign up to a time slot here: Meetings take place in the atrium at CRASSH .


Prof Tomasello: Human morality is a form of cooperation, specifically, the form that has emerged as humans have adapted to new and species-unique forms of social interaction and organisation. Because Homo sapiens is an ultra-cooperative species, and presumably the only moral one, we assume that human morality comprises the key set of species-unique proximate mechanisms – psychological processes of cognition, social interaction, and self-regulation – that enable human individuals to survive and thrive in their especially cooperative social arrangements. Given these assumptions, the attempt is: (i) to specify in as much detail as possible, based mainly on experimental research, how the cooperation of humans differs from that of their nearest primate relatives; and (ii) to construct a plausible evolutionary scenario – comprising two steps, one based in concrete collaborative activities and the other in larger-scale processes of culture – for how such uniquely human cooperation gave rise to human morality. A key at both steps will be humans’ ability to engage with others in acts of shared intentionality involving a plural agent ‘we’.

Prof Nichols: Philosophical observation and psychological studies indicate that people draw subtle distinctions in the normative domain. But it remains unclear exactly what gives rise to such distinctions. On one prominent approach, emotion systems trigger non-utilitarian judgments. The main alternative, inspired by Chomskyan linguistics, suggests that moral distinctions derive from an innate moral grammar. We develop a rational learning account. We argue that the “size principle”, which is implicated in word learning (Xu & Tenenbaum 2007), can also explain how children would use scant and equivocal evidence to interpret candidate rules as applying more narrowly than utilitarian rules.

About the speakers:

Professor Michael Tomasello studies the origins of our capacity for social cognition, cooperation and communication from a developmental and evolutionary perspective. He is co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, co-director of the Wolfgang Kohler Primate Research Centre, and author of seven books (including, most recently, Why We Cooperate and A Natural History of Human Thinking) and over 100 articles, including publications in Science and Nature. Prof Tomasello’s current interest is on shared intentionality – the capacity to coordinate our actions to cooperate towards some common goal. He has proposed that this capacity, and the cognitive architecture underlying it, may be the crucial feature of human cognition that renders us unique among species.

Shaun Nichols is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona. A pioneer of the emerging discipline of ‘experimental philosophy’, Prof Nichols is interested in the psychological processes underlying our everyday moral intuitions, moral reasoning and moral decision-making – and in how understanding these processes can shed light on classic and contemporary questions in morality and ethics. More specifically, his research has brought an empirically-informed lens to bear on a range of philosophical questions including free will, moral responsibility and blameworthiness, and notions of self and personal identity. He is author of three edited volumes and two books (Sentimental Rules and Mindreading), and has been published in such prestigious journals as Mind and Language and the Journal of Philosophy.

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Moral Psychology Research Group

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