Edge: The New Science of Morality

Edge logoAn Edge Conference featuring Roy Baumeister, Paul Bloom, Joshua D. Greene, Jonathan Haidt, Sam Harris, Marc D. Hauser, Josua Knobe, Elizabeth Phelps and David Pizarro was held July 20-22, 2010. Edge has made a number of videos and texts available from this conference.

Read the introduction to the conference by John Brockman below:

Something radically new is in the air: new ways of understanding physical systems, new ways of thinking about thinking that call into question many of our basic assumptions. A realistic biology of the mind, advances in evolutionary biology, physics, information technology, genetics, neurobiology, psychology, engineering, the chemistry of materials: all are questions of critical importance with respect to what it means to be human. For the first time, we have the tools and the will to undertake the scientific study of human nature.

This began in the early seventies, when, as a graduate student at Harvard, evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers wrote five papers that set forth an agenda for a new field: the scientific study of human nature. In the past thirty-five years this work has spawned thousands of scientific experiments, new and important evidence, and exciting new ideas about who and what we are presented in books by scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Steven Pinker, and Edward O. Wilson among many others.

In 1975, Wilson, a colleague of Trivers at Harvard, predicted that ethics would someday be taken out of the hands of philosophers and incorporated into the “new synthesis” of evolutionary and biological thinking. He was right.

Scientists engaged in the scientific study of human nature are gaining sway over the scientists and others in disciplines that rely on studying social actions and human cultures independent from their biological foundation.

No where is this more apparent than in the field of moral psychology. Using babies, psychopaths, chimpanzees, fMRI scanners, web surveys, agent-based modeling, and ultimatum games, moral psychology has become a major convergence zone for research in the behavioral sciences.

So what do we have to say? Are we moving toward consensus on some points? What are the most pressing questions for the next five years? And what do we have to offer a world in which so many global and national crises are caused or exacerbated by moral failures and moral conflicts? It seems like everyone is studying morality these days, reaching findings that complement each other more often than they clash.

Click the names of the participants at the top to jump to their videos/writings. The main page (see first link above) also has bios of the participants as well as the proceedings (below) and who attended from the press at this conference.

Each of the nine participants led a 45-minute session on Day One that consisted of a 25-minute talk, followed by 20-minutes of discussion.

Day Two consisted of two 90-minute open discussions on “The New Science of Morality”. The first session, “Consensus/Outstanding Disagreements”, led by Jonathan Haidt, explored the the scientific aspects of where we are, how much consensus we have, and what empirical or theoretical questions are still outstanding in the science of morality. The second session, “Applications/Implications”, led by Marc D. Hauser, gave the participants an opportunity to think big about how the science of morality can be applied to make the world a better place, make governments work better, improve corporate governance, law, the Internet, etc. The goal for Day Two: to begin work on a consensus document on the state of moral psychology to be published on Edge in the near future.

We are pleased to make the entire 10-hours of talks and discussions available to the Edge community. Over the next month we will serialize the conference by rolling out one or two of 45-minute sessions as an Edge Edition. This will include HD video of the 25-minute talk (with complete text), the 20-minute discussion, and a downloadable audio MP3 of the talk. We will end the series with the last two ninety-minute discussions on “The New Science of Morality”.

Update 20100811: Cognition paper retracted as prominent psychologist Marc Hauser takes leave from Harvard
A chapter from Haidt’s book at The Situation of Morality (The Situationist)
Update 20101128: While trying to find Hauser’s talk again (for some aspects on bullying), I noticed his contribution has vanished down Orwell’s memory hole.

One thought on “Edge: The New Science of Morality

  1. As can be expected with discussions on morality and ethics, many talks mention deontology:

    Deontological ethics or deontology is an approach to ethics that judges the morality of an action based on the action’s adherence to a rule or rules. Deontologists look at rules and duties.

    and consequentialism:

    Consequentialism refers to those moral theories which hold that the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action (or create a structure for judgment, see rule consequentialism). Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right action is one that produces a good outcome, or consequence. This view is often expressed as the aphorism “The ends justify the means”.

    Jonathan Haidt in his opening talk refers to the paper on WEIRD people being the subject of most studies and conclusions in psychology. For reference:


    Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world’s top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Researchers – often implicitly – assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these “standard subjects” are as representative of the species as any other population. Are these assumptions justified? Here, our review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species – frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Many of these findings involve domains that are associated with fundamental aspects of psychology, motivation, and behavior – hence, there are no obvious a priori grounds for claiming that a particular behavioral phenomenon is universal based on sampling from a single subpopulation. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity. We close by proposing ways to structurally re‐organize the behavioral sciences to best tackle these challenges.

    Joshua Greene introduces the famous trolley problem.

    Hauser brings up the scale for psychopathy, which also was the subject of recent controversy.

    Ultimatum games are brought up in several talks.

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