Funding Opportunities

Funding Opportunities

Call for Seed Grants

The Consortium on Moral Decision-Making is seeking proposals for seed grants to support interdisciplinary research related to the conceptual and empirical study of human morality and ethical decision-making. How do people decide whether to help or harm others, whom to trust and cooperate with, and how much to assign punishment and blame for transgressions? How do these trade offs play out in light of current events, including the pandemic, climate change, and the political landscape? Understanding human morality and ethics requires drawing upon insights from a diverse range of disciplines, and the current request for proposals aims to motivate scholars to find such connections in exploring the nature of human morality. The goal of the Consortium, which is funded generously through College of Liberal Arts, Social Science Research Institute, Rock Ethics Institute, McCourtney Institute for Democracy, and the Philosophy Department, is to cultivate new projects that bring together people in projects such as these.

This call is open to faculty-led teams at Penn State, with an ideal focus on interdisciplinary teams from within the Consortium’s faculty members. Graduate student collaborators are welcome as part of application teams as well. Although the seed grants are ideally suited for applicants who propose to apply empirical study to human morality and ethics (e.g., through data collection, narrative review of data), we also welcome applications for projects that are more conceptual in nature. Interdisciplinary projects are encouraged but not a requirement for applications.

Applicants may request anywhere from $500-$2500, and funds can be put toward participant recruitment, workshops or reading groups, and other support for the research project. Ideally, these awards will support the seeking of external support and/or efforts to publish research. All awardees will be expected to attend an in-person half-day conference at the end of spring 2024 in which they will present their in-progress research ideas and/or results to members of the Rock Ethics community. Furthermore, awardees must use these funds during the fiscal year which they are awarded, until June 30th 2024.

Proposals should be a maximum of 500 words and describe the overall goals of the project, specify all collaborators on the project including CVs, along with a separate expected budget. Send proposals to Daryl Cameron ( and Clara Civiero. The deadline for submissions is by midnight EST on February 16, 2024, and a number of proposals will be awarded, based on review by a small team of Consortium members, in late February.

Update: This call for seed funding is now closed. To learn more about the funded projects, see the slides below. To hear more about these projects, please make sure to check out the event on Friday April 19 from 2-3:20pm EDT (see Events page).

Catherine Wanner, Professor of History, Anthropology and Religious Studies, College of the Liberal Arts;
Lena Suzkho-Harned, Associate Teaching Professor of Political Science and Associate Director of the Public Policy Initiative, Penn State Behrend

What constitutes a war crime and which war crimes have been committed in Ukraine after Russia’s invasion in 2022? This research examines the moral implications of reacting to atrocities committed during war. Specifically, we analyze how understandings are formed as to who has a responsibility to respond to the restoration and healing of a traumatized population and a ravaged country, and how understandings might come to differ as to where that responsibility begins and where it ends.

Daryl Cameron, Associate Professor of Psychology
Joshua Wenger, PhD student in Social Psychology

This study will examine whether individuals prefer to receive empathy from human versus AI interaction partners. Participants will be presented with vignettes in which they will imagine themselves as the central actor in empathy-evoking scenarios. Participants will then have the choice to receive either empathy or a neutral description of the scenario from human or AI sources. Studies will also explore a possible differential preference in receiving compassion versus experience sharing.

David Puts, Professor of Anthropology; Mark Shriver, Professor of Anthropology; Nancy Williams, Professor and Head of Kinesiology
Laura Weyrich, Associate Professor of Anthropology
Sojung Baek, graduate student in Anthropology

Social behavior is modulated by ovarian steroid hormones in nonhuman primates, but evidence for such associations in humans are mixed, and relevant studies are few. This study investigates the roles of ovarian steroids measured from metabolites of estradiol and progesterone, individual characteristics, and their interactions in predicting empathic behaviors across the ovulatory cycle. Hormones and behavioral data will be collected daily for at least an entire ovulatory cycle, a dense sampling schedule that is likely to generate the measurement precision necessary for revealing existing behavioral patterns.

Evan Bradley, Associate Professor of Psychology & Linguistics

This mixed-methods project investigates individual and contextual factors affecting the adoption of nonbinary pronouns in educational settings, through a fun and interactive experimental paradigm. By analyzing participants’ interactions in real-time, and connecting them to offline measures, we plan to identify strategies for accelerating pronoun fluency, thereby fostering a safer environment for gender diversity.

Emily Rosenman, Assistant Professor of Geography and Affiliate Faculty Member, Consortium on Moral Decision Making;
Louisa Holmes, Assistant Professor of Geography and Associate Faculty, Consortium on Substance Use and Addiction (CSUA); Social Science Research Institute (SSRI co-funded)

This project investigates how the pharmaceutical industry has targeted vulnerable populations for aggressive opioid marketing, seeking novel supply-side understandings of the uneven landscapes of opioid use disorder, opioid deaths, and other types of community harm. Given ongoing distribution to US counties of settlement funds from lawsuits against the opioid industry, our findings relate to equitable and ethical distribution of resources to ameliorate and prevent future harm. In this the study brings moral decision-making squarely to the center to inform key actionable strategies of regulation, policy, and public health interventions to help groups that were targeted by pharmaceutical company marketing.

Huaiyuan Zhang, dual-degree PhD student in Philosophy & Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies

This proposal bridges classical studies with contemporary philosophy through both conceptual research and an interdisciplinary workshop. To facilitate the genesis of Levinasian ethics as being good to the Other, it theorizes the requisite subjectivity for ethical responsiveness. It argues that our capacity for ethical action stems from a fundamental susceptibility to perceive the needs of strangers as objects of desire, not hatred, intertwined with self acceptance and openness to alterity. Addressing contemporary challenges of cross-cultural understanding, it elaborates on Levinas’ new return to Plato by examining how love contributes to ethical self-formation.

Kelly Sweeney, Doctoral Candidate and Graduate Assistant, Department of Communication Arts and Sciences;
Dr. Andrew High, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences

Drawing from the Communication Interdependence Perspective (CIP), this project investigates how college roommates manage supportive conversations across various communication channels. Understanding communication interdependence as a moral question involves recognizing the interconnectedness of roommates’ lives and its impact on their well-being and moral values. By examining communication patterns among roommates, this study sheds light on how they foster support, morality, and well-being through diverse communication channels, expanding upon CIP dynamics within non-romantic relationships. Through an interdisciplinary approach, this research contributes to understanding how roommates utilize communication to cultivate connections, support, and moral values, ultimately enriching our knowledge of interpersonal dynamics in mixed-media relationships.

Minghui Sun, PhD Candidate in Applied Linguistics, College of the Liberal Arts;
Robert Schrauf, Professor in Applied Linguistics, College of the Liberal Arts

This project is designed to explore the moral and ethical aspects of shared decision-making processes among older adults living in Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs), and to unravel the intricacies of interpersonal relationships forming and community building at the last stage of psychosocial development, namely old age (Erikson, 1950). Specifically, the project adopts the linguistic ethnography approach to examine the shared decision-making processes related to the Garage/Yard Sale, a community-wide event organized entirely by current residents of a CCRC in the northeastern US. Throughout the entire preparation and organization process, older adults engage in multiple rounds of discussions concerning the nomination, evaluation, and recruitment of fellow residents to contribute to the Garage Sale’s successful execution. By exploring these individual and collective decision-making processes, the project illuminates how personal agency and moral accountability intertwine within the dynamics of group decisions, shedding light on the nuanced interplay between language, signs, and societal decision-making processes

Sean Laurent, Assistant Professor of Psychology
Becca Ruger, 2nd Year Graduate Student in Psychology
Iris (Sooyun) Chung, 1st Year Graduate Student in Psychology.

The study of “moral” decision-making implies the study of both moral and immoral behavior, but a disproportionate number of studies about “moral judgment” mostly study bad behavior. This single word also implies that moral character judgments might be unidimensional, ranging from “very immoral” to “very moral,” but little is known about how bad behavior might only sometimes prompt inferences about moral character and how prosocial behavior might only sometimes prompt inferences about immoral character. The work I am proposing will support ongoing empirical and theoretical efforts to reconcile this gap in our understanding, ultimately aiming to show when and why judgments of moral and immoral character are sometimes part of a single dimension, and at other times might be considered as two distinct areas of social judgment.

Sophia A. McClennen, Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature
Reginald Adams, Professor of Psychology
Janet Swim, Professor of Psychology
Joseph Wright Professor of Political Science

This project compares the efficacy of different forms of nonviolent activism – conventional tactics and comedic dilemma tactics – in the context of environmental activism in order to measure if comedic dilemma tactics can potentially counter negative stereotypes people hold about environmental activist groups and negative impressions of their tactics, and if using such tactics increases willingness to support such groups. This issue is paramount to moral decision-making because, while the general public tends to worry about the environment, they are disinterested in engaging in climate advocacy. Building on findings that creative activism is more effective than conventional activism and that dilemma actions that force negative outcomes for targets are associated with increased success for nonviolent campaigns, we test how distinct types of activism influence perceptions of activist groups and their sense that their support for an activist group will be worthwhile. We examine these perceptions and effects across a wide variety of cultural contexts in the Global North and the Global South. Further, we assess these perceptions both within the activist community and among different groups of citizens.

David Puts, Professor of Anthropology; Mary Shenk, Associate Professor of Anthropology;
Sojung Baek, Graduate Student in Anthropology

Throughout evolutionary history, human females have faced ecological pressures, such as exogamous marriage, that may have selected for specialized psychobehavioral tendencies that promote same-sex dyadic relations, which provide social support. Empathic response has the potential to enable subtle social strategies among women, whose use and acquisition of social status and power may be limited in male-centric societies. Motivated by signaling theory, we seek to understand the signal value of empathic response and whether the value is associated with the formation and maintenance of the signaler’s social network, and thus her access to social capital.