Moral Thinking, More and Less Quickly


Cushman, Young, & Greene (2010) urge the consolidation of moral psychology around a dual-system consensus. On this view, a slow, often-overstretched rational system tends to produce consequentialist intuitions and action-tendencies, while a fast, affective system produces virtuous (or vicious) intuitions and action-tendencies that perform well in their habituated ecological niche but sometimes disastrously outside of it. This perspective suggests a habit-corrected-by-reason picture of moral behavior. Recent research, however, has raised questions about the adequacy of dual-process theories of cognition and behavior, which tend to distinguish categorically between fast, affect-laden, automatic, sometimes-unconscious, nearly-incorrigible mental processes and slow, rational, effortful, conscious, corrigible mental processes. Processes of one alleged type often have properties associated with the contrary type. For instance, rational processes can be emotional, and fast thinking can perform logical operations. In addition, the fast-slow binary transforms a continuous temporal scale into a dichotomous one, losing potentially important information along the way. While these problems are beginning to be addressed in some subfields of psychology, moral psychology has yet to grapple with them. In this theoretical paper, we argue that moral psychology needs a framework that accounts for our knowledge of both temporal and spatial (anatomical) dimensions of the brain basis of moral cognition and virtuous decision-making. We argue that methodologies with very fine-grained temporal granularity, such as electroencephalography (EEG), should be used to complement more frequently used methodologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). We outline how this might be accomplished using generosity, gratitude, and integrity as a case study.

Author's Profile

Mark Alfano
Macquarie University


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