Maria W. Merritt, John M. Doris and Gilbert Harman

in The Moral Psychology Handbook

Published in print June 2010 | ISBN: 9780199582143
Published online September 2010 | e-ISBN: 9780191594496 | DOI:

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Moral psychology is central to modern virtue ethics, whose proponents have claimed greater psychological realism as a theoretical advantage. Yet much empirical research in personality and social psychology appears to unsettle familiar notions of character, prompting critics to advance skeptical views of character as portrayed in philosophical virtue ethics. In response, some defenders of virtue ethics have acknowledged the importance of incorporating the empirical literature into philosophical conceptions of character. This chapter moves the discussion forward by exploring avenues available to, and difficulties faced by, an empirically sensitive psychology of character. It considers virtue-ethical ideals of practical rationality, as well as certain basic moral norms, in light of the picture of human cognition now emerging in the cognitive sciences. The chapter interprets some of the classic psychological experiments as evidence that morally consequential behavior is pervasively influenced by cognitive processes resistant to intentional direction and at best insensitive to personal, reflectively endorsed moral norms, if not contrary to them. Lastly, on the basis of this understanding, the chapter surveys the prospects for using empirical findings to seek remedies for such adverse influences on moral thinking and behavior.

Keywords: automaticity; bystander intervention; character traits; Good Samaritan study; Milgram obedience studies; situationist experiments; social psychology; virtue; virtue ethics

Chapter.  20164 words. 

Subjects: Moral Philosophy

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