A Scientific Perspective on Ethics

What can science tell us about ethics? Dr. Piercarlo Valdesolo, Director of the Moral Emotions and Trust Lab at Claremont McKenna College, scientifically investigates our moral decision-making processes.

Published September 12, 2013

A Scientific Perspective on Ethics

Recent blogs, Science and Scientism and Science and Ethics, consider the importance of ethical and interpretive frameworks for thinking about data and the results and cultural contexts of scientific inquiry.

Dr. Piercarlo Valdesolo, Director of the Moral Emotions and Trust Lab at Claremont McKenna College , studies the relation from the other direction. He asks what science can tell us about people's moral decision-making processes.

"There are all these emotional states—compassion, awe, jealousy—that philosophers and scholars of religion have been interested in for a long time and have speculated about when it comes to moral judgments. I'm trying to look at these states and their effects on moral decisions more empirically in the lab," explains Dr. Valdesolo.

In this Q&A, Dr. Valdesolo discusses the value and challenges of investigating morality through a scientific lens.

Q: Why use science to ask these questions?

P.V.: I think the value of looking at these questions through a scientific lens is to provide philosophers and people whose job it is to think about ethics with more fodder for philosophizing. I don't see it as my role to do that part. I agree with people who are wary of scientists who make normative claims. There's value in what we're doing because it can inform the perspectives of people who are in that business.

Q: What are the challenges?

P.V.: There are negative feelings that need to be evoked in the lab in order to study, say, aggression. The biggest challenge is to try to create these phenomena as they would exist in the real world, but to do so in a way that still respects participants.

Q: Could understanding patterns or emotional influences over moral choices have a dark side? Could people be manipulated more effectively, for example?

P.V.: That's the case with so much of social psychology. If you're someone who studies persuasion or attitude change, that information can be used for good or bad. You could try to get people to change their attitudes about charity in a positive way. Conversely, the information could be used by marketers to try to get you to buy a product that might not be good for your health, for example. The application of the knowledge of psychological principles can go either way, good or bad, and that's true across all social science findings, I think.

Q: What do you think is the value of studying moral psychology?

P.V.:  What I try to emphasize in my classes, when I teach social psychology, is that the point of trying to get at the processes by which people  make these decisions is to gain a third party perspective on your own choices. It helps you to try to remove yourself from a given situation, to really understand—in as objective a way as you can—why you're doing what you're doing. Are your behaviors and decisions getting you towards your goals, whatever those goals may be? I think that's the real value of learning about social psychology.

For more on this topic, including some of the methodologies by which Dr. Valdesolo studies moral decisions, check out the complete interview in the podcast, The Science of Moral Decisions.


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