Why Study Morality? A Blog Post by Clara Civiero

Why Study Morality? A Blog Post by Clara Civiero

This is a guest post by Consortium RA Clara Civiero.

Can morality be measured? Is it possible to create a blueprint for living the “good life”?  If you find yourself reflecting on this question you are not alone.  

I recall sitting in my undergraduate psychology statistics class, clinging to my pen and paper, scribbling the nuances of hypothesis testing and the difference between a Type I and Type II error. What I did not know at the time was that aside from learning the foundation for good scientific practices, there was a whole discipline of psychology waiting to be discovered by those who dared to abandon popular clinical seminars for a class in social psychology. In particular, the subfield of moral psychology. Morality is a complex subject that is studied across various disciplines, and is the focal point of a large body of research. That said, as social creatures, morality is the foundation of our existence, guiding us in a world riddled with corruption and chaos. From an academic perspective, scholars take these real world questions and use their expertise and methods to search for answers. 

One of my favorite questions to ask my Research Assistants, friends, and family members is the following; ”When did you become aware of the concept of morality?” Despite our basic kindergarten lessons of what is considered ‘right and wrong,’ I never truly thought of the meaning of morality in an academic context until my senior year of high school. When I share with others about my mandatory senior class simply entitled “Morality,” I receive some confused looks and raised eyebrows. However, as an Italian Canadian attending a Catholic school, these courses were as common as calculus. Being a STEM focused high school, this particular class was often empty, with students skipping class to bury their heads in their chemistry books – anything to avoid engaging in a discussion on the ethical implications of The Nuremberg Trials. I quickly learned that there are scholars who devote their entire careers to uncovering the process of human decision making, and how behavior impacts the welfare of society, both at individual and group levels. Oftentimes, it is the memorable events which occur in contemporary culture associated with  political division and vicious cycles of violence, that spark critical reflection of society’s moral compass.  

“Watching the January 6th Coup attempt, I couldn’t understand how so many people had gotten to a place where they thought that was the right response, or that they were in the right. I think that sparked my interest in both moral and political psychology, particularly morality as it related to partisanship. I still struggle with understanding how certain positions are adopted as being right, but I suppose that’s all the reason for studying that and trying to understand it.” 

  • Lauren O’Rourke, EMP Lab Research Assistant 

For many people, they can recall personal anecdotes or specific moments of moral dilemmas in their daily lives. Coming from a family which is involved in corporate life, stories of corrupt leadership, and lack of social responsibility were normal dinner table topics of conversation. It was these discussions and contemplations which prompted my interest in the field of organizational behavior – a field which looks at effective conflict resolution, ethical leadership, motivation and organizational culture. These are only a few of the topics which tap into the application of moral cognition and empathy in corporate settings. 

“The stark moral differences between some individuals in my family got me interested in the origins of morality and empathetic behavior–are these tendencies innate? Which environmental factors affect our concern for others?”  

  • Rachel Buterbaugh, EMP Lab Research Assistant

Why is being part of a Research Lab which studies moral psychology so unique? There are a myriad of reasons such as the sense of community, a genuine camaraderie amongst researchers who share the same interests, and a desire to answer social research questions from various academic perspectives. 

“Although I am a political science and philosophy major, Dr. Cameron encouraged me to apply to the lab, since I could help provide a different perspective on the world of moral psychology. I became so interested in how psychology affects political action and out-group sentiments that I wanted to learn more. Last year I was able to help test studies that measured empathy towards in-groups and out-groups. As a research assistant, I have learned more about what actually goes into conducting a study. I have learned how to read research papers and translate some of the more technical language into new thoughts during our lively and insightful discussions during lab meetings.”

  • Jessica Firestone, EMP Lab Research Assistant 

For those who are familiar with research, the greatest ideas often come from a casual conversation over a cup of coffee. Connecting with others who are interested in translating those ideas into real qualitative and quantitative projects is invigorating and allows us to see new perspectives  which may not have been considered. 

I had spent a lot of time in high school talking at length with friends about the logic behind morality and what it meant to be a good person, and here my interests were being parroted back at me at an academic level. I applied exclusively to Dr. Daryl Cameron’s Empathy and Moral Psychology Lab and have met a lot of people interested in the same questions as me.” 

  • Hope Butler, EMP Lab Research Assistant 

When I ask myself what moral psychology means to me I am inclined to answer with what it is not.  Moral psychology is omnipresent in every facet of our lives from our healthcare systems, to corporate environments, our political institutions, our relationships with others, and our interaction with the environment.  In fact, you could even contemplate it at your local coffee shop, for example, to tip or not to tip your barista? While morality cannot be simply distilled to your own opinion towards cultural conventions relating to tipping, I believe it is nearly impossible to conceive of any context where morality and ethics do not hold some form of relevance. 

Moral psychology is interdisciplinary by nature. I challenge you to speak with a scholar in any discipline and you will be hard pressed to not have a conversation which relates to moral decision making in some way. It is for this reason that Dr. Cameron’s Consortium on Moral Decision-Making was conceived.  Its mission is to create a collaborative network of scholars and to support interdisciplinary research initiatives. 

“Investigating research questions through the lens of psychology is fascinating, but engaging with other disciplines such as philosophy, anthropology, engineering, etc. allows for even deeper exploration and the production of original ideas.” 

  • Rachel Buterbaugh, EMP Lab Research Assistant

If you have been involved in research first-hand, you know the process can be arduous and unforgiving. It takes a great deal of resilience and persistence to embark on projects that may ultimately lead to a dead-end or disappointing results. However, what makes research worth doing is the meaning it holds. I think most moral psychologists would agree that aside from the desire to answer burning questions we have been reflecting upon for months or perhaps years, we hope that our work can have an impact on real world problems. For this I am humbly grateful for the brilliant and inquisitive minds that I have had the honor to meet and work alongside, through my lab work.  Despite the fact that only a fraction of my peers may opt to pursue a doctorate in moral psychology, it is the discussions that we have shared and the lessons we have learned that will be carried into our diverse life journeys. This is what moral psychology means to me.