Are Moral Rules Given by God?
A conversation with Ryan McKay

Ryan McKay is Professor of Psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London.


What does it mean to be moral? Are moral inclinations embedded in our psychology?

I’m a psychologist rather than an ethical philosopher, so it’s not for me to say what thoughts, words and deeds are in fact right or wrong, or whether morality is in some sense “written in the stars”. As a psychologist, I’m interested in the intuitions and beliefs that humans have about right and wrong; and I’m interested in what factors promote behaviours that we designate as “moral”. In particular, I’m interested in the relationship between religion and morality.

Of course, morality means different things to different people —and to different groups of people. Nevertheless, the mainstream psychological view is that moral rules are not arbitrary but are constrained by evolved psychological systems that all humans share. For example, one prominent psychological model of morality is called “Moral Foundations Theory” (MFT), developed by Jonathan Haidt, Craig Joseph, Jesse Graham and others. The idea is that there is a small cluster of innate psychological systems —perhaps five to ten— that give rise to moral inclinations and principles of different kinds. For instance, MFT theorists argue that humans have an evolved psychological system that is triggered by inequity. So, kids as young as 3-years-old notice unfair distributions of stickers (they are particularly unhappy if they get fewer stickers than other kids...) and are able to distribute awards according to who has contributed the most to an assigned task. The fact that young kids —and some of our nonhuman relatives— are sensitive to violations of fairness norms suggests to MFT theorists that human intuitions about fairness are “foundational”.

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