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A statement of consensus reached among participants at
the Edge The New Science of Morality Conference
Washington, CT, June 20-22, 2010
In the last ten years, morality has become a major convergence zone for scholars in the sciences and
humanities. The volume of research has increased rapidly, as has the diversity of methods employed.
In an effort to take stock of this rapidly changing field, Edge convened a conference in Washington,
CT, on June 20-22, 2010. The participants in the conference described their own work, and then
attempted to draft a list of points on which all could agree. They reached consensus on the eight
points listed below.
This Consensus Statement is not intended to speak for all who study morality, nor is it intended to be
a definitive pronouncement about morality. Rather, the statement is intended to be a starting point for
an Edge Reality Club conversation. It is proposed as a first draft of a partial description of the state of
the art, submitted to the research community for commentary and editing.
In addition, a forthcoming set of individual statements will highlight areas of disagreement among this
statements signatories.
Signed by:
Roy Baumeister, Florida State University
Paul Bloom, Yale University
Joshua Greene, Harvard University
Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia
Sam Harris, Project Reason
Joshua Knobe, Yale University
David Pizarro, Cornell University
1) Morality is a natural phenomenon and a cultural phenomenon
Like language, sexuality, or music, morality emerges from the interaction of multiple psychological
building blocks within each person, and from the interactions of many people within a society. These
building blocks are the products of evolution, with natural selection playing a critical role. They are
assembled into coherent moralities as individuals mature within a cultural context. The scientific study
of morality therefore requires the combined efforts of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the
2) Many of the psychological building blocks of morality are innate
The word "innate," as we use it in the context of moral cognition, does not mean immutable,
operational at birth, or visible in every known culture. It means "organized in advance of experience,"
although experience can revise that organization to produce variation within and across cultures.
Many of the building blocks of morality can be found, in some form, in other primates, including
sympathy, friendship, hierarchical relationships, and coalition-building. Many of the building blocks of
morality are visible in all human culture, including sympathy, friendship, reciprocity, and the ability to
represent others' beliefs and intentions.
Some of the building blocks of morality become operational quite early in childhood, such as the
capacity to respond with empathy to human suffering, to act altruistically, and to punish those who
harm others.
3) Moral judgments are often made intuitively, with little deliberation or conscious
weighing of evidence and alternatives
Like judgments about the grammaticality of sentences, moral judgments are often experienced as
occurring rapidly, effortlessly, and automatically. They occur even when a person cannot articulate
reasons for them.
4) Conscious moral reasoning plays multiple roles in our moral lives
People often apply moral principles and engage in moral reasoning. For example, people use reasoning
to detect moral inconsistencies in others and in themselves, or when moral intuitions conflict, or are
absent. Moral reasoning often serves an argumentative function; it is often a preparation for social
interaction and persuasion, rather than an open-minded search for the truth. In line with its
persuasive function, moral reasoning can have important causal effects interpersonally. Reasons and
arguments can establish new principles (e.g., racial equality, animal rights) and produce moral
change in a society.
5) Moral judgments and values are often at odds with actual behavior
People often fail to live up to their consciously-endorsed values. One of the many reasons for the
disconnect is that moral action often depends on self-control, which is a fluctuating and limited
resource. Doing what is morally right, especially when contrary to selfish desires, often depends on an
effortful inner struggle with an uncertain outcome.
6) Many areas of the brain are recruited for moral cognition, yet there is no "moral center"
in the brain
Moral judgments depend on the operation of multiple neural systems that are distinct but that interact
with one another, sometimes in a competitive fashion. Many of these systems play comparable roles
in non-moral contexts. For example, there are systems that support the implementation of cognitive
control, the representation of mental states, and the affective representation of value in both moral
and non-moral contexts.
7) Morality varies across individuals and cultures
People within each culture vary in their moral judgments and behaviors. Some of this variation is due
to heritable differences in temperament (for example, agreeableness or conscientiousness) or in
morally-relevant capacities (such as one’s ability to take the perspective of others). Some of this
difference is due to variations in childhood experiences; some is due to the roles and contexts
influencing a person at the moment of judgment or action.
Morality varies across cultures in many ways, including the overall moral domain (what kinds of things
get regulated), as well as specific moral norms, practices, values, and institutions. Moral virtues and
values are strongly influenced by local and historical circumstances, such as the nature of economic
activity, form of government, frequency of warfare, and strength of institutions for dispute resolution.
8) Moral systems support human flourishing, to varying degrees
The emergence of morality allowed much larger groups of people to live together and reap the
benefits of trust, trade, shared security, long term planning, and a variety of other non-zero-sum
interactions. Some moral systems do this better than others, and therefore it is possible to make
some comparative judgments.
The existence of moral diversity as an empirical fact does not support an "anything-goes" version of
moral relativism in which all moral systems must be judged to be equally good. We note, however,
that moral evaluations across cultures must be made cautiously because there are multiple justifiable
visions of flourishing and wellbeing, even within Western societies. Furthermore, because of the power
of moral intuitions to influence reasoning, social scientists studying morality are at risk of being
biased by their own culturally shaped values and desires.
I break the eight into these groups in order to separate the three in Group B.
A. Natural Morality
1) Morality is a natural phenomenon and a cultural phenomenon.
2) Many of the psychological building blocks of morality are innate.
6) Many areas of the brain are recruited for moral cognition, yet there is no "moral center" in the brain.
B. Judgment & Reasoning
3) Moral judgments are often made intuitively, with little deliberation or conscious weighing of evidence
and alternatives.
4) Conscious moral reasoning plays multiple roles in our moral lives.
5) Moral judgments and values are often at odds with actual behavior.
C. Culture & Flourishing
7) Morality varies across individuals and cultures.
8) Moral systems support human flourishing, to varying degrees.
Could some members of this list agree to tell the "Consensus" group that we agree with the eight
"Consensus" statements, as far as they go, and wonder whether they could agree with four more
statements on which we (whoever signs on) have a consensus? This would respond to their appeal to
the scholarly community for "commentary and editing."
* Moral reasoning at its best is not post hoc rationalization
…though some (who knows how much) of what looks like moral reasoning is in fact merely post hoc
rationalization, confirming our biases and/or shoring up our loyalties.
* Moral reasoning can go well or poorly
…in the sense that we can sometimes or often be sloppy, inconsistent, and/or blind to important
matters – but it is also possible to reason well in the sense that we (a) honestly look for holes in our
reasoning, (b) attempt carefully to weight competing considerations, some of which conflict with our
preferences and loyalties, (c) take a long-term and indirect-effect view of the matters we are
considering, and (d) genuinely endeavor to take properly into account the perspectives of the least well
off and most negatively affected; reasoning well takes training, but moral reasoning at its best is one
especially apt use of parts of the neocortex and of our complex social functioning.
* Moral reasoning – when it is conscious – can be an effortful and energy-expensive process – but it can
be done well
…even though in fact much organism-energy is dedicated in some situations and contexts to realizing
impulses we recognize consciously should be over-ridden, and in such cases reasoning well, let along
acting well, can demand a lot from a natural being.
* Character formation and moral education, done well, are essential for learning how to reason and act
well precisely because our intuitions and gut reactions have not evolved to handle flawlessly or
effortlessly the moral climate of the 21st Century.