In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Moral Psychology

  • Introduction
  • Contemporary Overviews
  • Classic Works

Psychology Moral Psychology
Chuck Huff, Owen Gaasedelen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0038


It is surely the case that the field of moral psychology is in flux today. It was abandoned by personality and social psychology in the 1930s and again in the 1970s because the expected pattern of stability of character or personality characteristics proved illusory (see Mischel 2004 in the Personality section for a historical review). Lawrence Kohlberg’s groundbreaking work in the late 1950s established a cognitive-developmental trajectory, rehabilitating the field and generating thirty years of research centered on the structure and development of conscious moral judgment. The resulting paradigm generated a great deal of research that became foundational to the current flowering of the field. Despite this clear success (or perhaps because of it) this research had a cluster of less salutary effects. Its philosophical commitments required the establishment of conscious reasoning as the only proper moral phenomenon for investigation, with the developmental progression of this reasoning as the central puzzle, making moral psychology a wholly owned subsidiary of developmental psychology (see Narvaez and Lapsley 2009 under Contemporary Overviews). With the gradual demise of this paradigm in the late 1980s, a new excitement is now (2011) growing in the area. A new synthesis combining research on automatic cognitive processing, emotion, neuroscience, and evolution has been proclaimed in Haidt 2007, written by one of the most prolific authors in the field (see Contemporary Overviews), though renewed interest and rapid expansion in the area make claims of synthesis somewhat premature. It is certainly interdisciplinary: philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, and anthropologists alike are collaborating and disputing over the nature and extent of the field. Given this broad interdisciplinary interest, this bibliography will frame the field in an encompassing manner: cited here is work on moral judgment (long the child of privilege) but also on moral perception, intuition, emotion, planning, and action. In short, this discipline is interested in moral action and the influences and processes that support it. Though this is primarily a bibliography of psychological research and theory, it will by necessity contain sections reviewing other disciplines’ contributions (Philosophy, Religion, and Neuroscience). It will also bring to bear literatures in psychology that have not previously been thought to fly the banner of moral psychology. Thus, the organization of this bibliography is itself a theoretical statement about a rapidly evolving field: its contents, its extent, and its integration (or lack thereof). Many of the literatures here do not cite each other or are only beginning to look outside their towers. The issue is framed as taking moral action, in order to include a wide range of psychological processes relevant to being and becoming moral and to broaden the scope beyond the traditional emphasis on moral judgment. Literatures are brought together that have clear relevance for moral psychology, even though they may mention moral issues only in passing. Also examined are the influences, processes, and interdisciplinary context required to engage in this interdisciplinary inquiry.

Contemporary Overviews

Listed here are recent handbooks, review chapters, and other contemporary work that proposes to give an overview of the field. Greene, et al. 2001, Haidt 2007, and Narvaez and Rest 1995 are classic statements or empirical investigations. The remaining volumes are comprehensive handbooks or overviews of the field, either from the perspective of subdisciplines (for example, Killen and Smetana 2006, Lapsley and Narvaez 2004, and Mikulincer and Shaver 2010) or that put scholars from different disciplines in dialogue on a topic (Narvaez and Lapsley 2009 and Sinnott-Armstrong 2008).

  • Greene, J. D., R. B. Sommerville, L. E. Nystrom, J. M. Darley, and J. D. Cohen. 2001. An f MRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment. Science 293.5537: 2105–2108.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.1062872

    Proposes a neuroscientific solution to the famous “trolley dilemma” in which moral intuitions differ depending on whether one directly or indirectly causes harm in order to do some larger good. One of the most highly cited of the early articles on the neuroscience of morality.

  • Haidt, J. 2007. The new synthesis in moral psychology. Science 316.5827: 998–1002.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.1137651

    Pivotal publication by Jonathon Haidt in Science that proclaims a “new synthesis” in moral psychology, drawing on evolutionary, social, and cognitive psychology, and neuroscience.

  • Killen, M., and J. G. Smetana, eds. 2006. Handbook of moral development. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Single-volume edited book that contains some of the best reviews of the developmental literature. It contains sections on developmental stages, distinguishing morality from convention, moral emotion, and moral education, each with chapters from a developmental perspective.

  • Lapsley, D. K., and D. Narvaez, eds. 2004. Moral development, self, and identity. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    A festschrift for Augusto Blasi, concentrating on the role and construction of the moral self in moral psychology. Several useful and pivotal reviews of the literature on the self.

  • Mikulincer, M., and P. R. Shaver, eds. 2010. Prosocial motives, emotion, and behavior: The better angels of our nature. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    DOI: 10.1037/12061-000

    A good representative of a literature with roots in the social psychology of helping. This literature tends to be somewhat isolated from other work in moral psychology, but its findings converge with that of other areas.

  • Narvaez, D., and D. K. Lapsley, eds. 2009. Personality, identity, and character: Explorations in moral psychology. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers write on the underpinning and implications of moral character. Gives a good overview of the diversity of work being done.

  • Narvaez, D., and J. R. Rest. 1995. The four components of acting morally. In Moral development: An introduction. Edited by W. M. Kurtines and J. L. Gewirtz, 385–399. New York: Allyn & Bacon.

    The classic presentation of the four-component process model (interpretation, reasoning, decision, implementation) of moral action derived from the Kohlbergian tradition, now called “neo-Kohlbergian.” It is “neo” in that it is no longer a stage or a developmental model and is no longer concerned with only moral judgment. It is instead a schema-based approach to explaining the processes underlying moral action.

  • Nucci, L. P., and D. Narvaez, eds. 2008. Handbook of moral character and education. New York: Routledge.

    Excellent volume to represent the state of the art in the character education genre that Lawrence Kohlberg pioneered. Kohlberg-based approaches are still evident, but it represents a range of other approaches.

  • Sinnott-Armstrong, W., ed. 2008. Moral psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Excellent three-volume (evolution, cognitive science, and neuroscience) edited set that puts neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers in conversation. This is the single-best place to see what the current controversies in the field are, challenged and defended by the main proponents and critics.

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