Philosopher John Doris: ‘Moral psychologists have plenty to do’

For a long time – centuries, in fact – philosophers theorizing about morality didn’t interact much with scientists studying human behavior.

But movement is afoot to inform moral philosophy with psychological research, as well as the other way around, according to John M. Doris, the Peter L. Dyson Professor of Ethics in Organizations and Life in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business and professor in the Sage School of Philosophy­ in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S).

“Philosophical moral psychologists are reading (and producing) empirical work with much greater sophistication than they did 20 years ago, and their colleagues in the sciences have become far more adroit with theoretical issues in ethics,” Doris wrote in “Character Trouble: Undisciplined Essays on Moral Agency and Personality.” “As a result, work in moral psychology keeps getting better and will, I’m certain, continue to do so.”

Moral psychologists proceed with the conviction that better understanding why and how people behave poorly or well can help us craft interventions that help people behave better, said Doris, a leading proponent of interdisciplinary approaches to moral psychology exploring questions of character, virtue and agency. “Character Trouble” collects his work developing this approach spanning more than 20 years.

Doris will reflect on the collection during a Chats in the Stacks book talk Thursday, March 2 at 4 p.m. in 160 Mann Library, also streamed online. He will also discuss recent developments in understanding of moral cognition and behavior, and the moral psychology of character.

The College of Arts and Sciences spoke with Doris about the book.

Question: When and how did you start to advocate for an interdisciplinary approach to moral psychology?

Answer: Early on in my grad school career, philosophers began talking more about how the depictions of human psychology in moral philosophy were not very lifelike. This seemed exactly right to me, and I started looking to scientific psychology for more realistic understandings of people. I thought this was an obvious step, but it was actually pretty controversial; a lot of people argued that scientific facts did not have a place in ethics, which was supposed to deal with moral "oughts" rather than scientific "izzes."

For a graduate student, it was pretty tough going; when I first began developing my psychological critique of philosophical conceptions of character, one of my advisors said, "I don't know what you could say to convince me of that." For better or worse, I wasn't dissuaded.

Q: How is Cornell contributing to this burgeoning interdisciplinary conversation?

A: By being the best place in the world to study moral psychology. When I came here in 2019, I knew about the outstanding moral psychologists in philosophy and psychology, but I've been delighted by how many people around the university are illuminating the field, whether they explicitly work under the title of "moral psychologist" or not: people in economics, biology, computer science, management, and more.

Happily, we're now able to help undergraduates partake in this excellence: a moral psychology minor with an engaged learning component launched in 2022, led by Laura Niemi, assistant professor of psychology (A&S) and the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at the SC Johnson College of Business. It's probably the only one of its kind in the world.

We hope and expect to increase moral psychology programming in the years to come, and to make the best even better.

Q: In which fields might moral psychology have applications?

A: All of them! Or at least any field that studies human beings. Humans are inevitably social organisms, and where there's sociality, there's morality. And all of us have psychologies. Which means it ain't easy to study people without doing some moral psychology.

My new home field, management, makes an excellent illustration. For one example, many of us have been taught about implicit bias as part of workplace trainings. I'm a believer myself, and have defended the research in print, but it's certainly controversial, and it's safe to say that there's a lot we don't know.

For another example, in recent years "corporate psychopathy" has been proposed as a central determinant of what we in management call "counterproductive workplace behavior"; it's even been proposed as a root cause of the 2008 financial meltdown. Here, I'm more of a skeptic, but skeptic or not, it's again clear there's a lot we don't know about psychopathy in the workplace – and much we badly need to figure out. When we address these questions, we're doing moral psychology. So moral psychologists have plenty to do.

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book cover: "Character Trouble"