The Journal of Ethics

, Volume 17, Issue 3, pp 257–274 | Cite as

Making Psychology Normatively Significant

  • Regina A. Rini


The debate between proponents and opponents of a role for empirical psychology in ethical theory seems to be deadlocked. This paper aims to clarify the terms of that debate, and to defend a principled middle position. I argue against extreme views, which see empirical psychology either as irrelevant to, or as wholly displacing, reflective moral inquiry. Instead, I argue that moral theorists of all stripes are committed to a certain conception of moral thought—as aimed at abstracting away from individual inclinations and toward interpersonal norms—and that this conception tells against both extremes. Since we cannot always know introspectively whether our particular moral judgments achieve this interpersonal standard, we must seek the sort of self-knowledge offered by empirical psychology. Yet reflective assessment of this new information remains a matter of substantive normative theorizing, rather than an immediate consequence of empirical findings themselves.


Cognitive science of ethics Moral methodology Moral psychology Normative abstraction Intuitions 



This paper has undergone many iterations, and I have certainly lost track of some of the people to whom thanks for written comments are owed. Still, at least some are: Ned Block, Stefano Cossara, Daniela Dover, Bill Glod, Guy Kahane, Hyunseop Kim, Joshua Knobe, Thomas Nagel, Michael Strevens, and two anonymous reviewers for this journal. Many of the ideas have come from discussions with Anne Barnhill, Justin Clarke-Doane, Jonny Cottrell, Andy Egan, Grace Helton, Matthew Liao, Steven Lukes, Simon Rippon, Jeff Sebo, Jon Simon, Knut Olav Skarsaune, Stephen Stich, Sharon Street, and participants in the NYU Philosophy Thesis Prep seminar and the NYU Sociology of Morals working group, as well as conference audiences at Hokkaido University and the University of Latvia. Further development of this research was supported by the VolkswagenStiftung’s European Platform for Life Sciences, Mind Sciences, and the Humanities (grant II/85 063).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of OxfordOxfordUK

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