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A Science of Human Nature?

Philosophical Disputes at the Interface of Natural and Social Science

Studying at Cambridge

Michael Tomasello and Shaun Nichols on Human Morality

last modified Mar 06, 2015 02:43 PM

Michael Tomasello and Shaun Nichols will be speaking on 12 March as part of the CRASSH Moral Psychology Research Group. The title for the session is 'What is the Nature of Human Morality?', and here are the abstracts for the talks:


Michael Tomasello

Human morality is a form of cooperation, specifically, the form that has emerged as humans have adapted to new and species-unique forms of social interaction and organisation. Because Homo sapiens is an ultra-cooperative species, and presumably the only moral one, we assume that human morality comprises the key set of species-unique proximate mechanisms - psychological processes of cognition, social interaction, and self-regulation - that enable human individuals to survive and thrive in their especially cooperative social arrangements. Given these assumptions, the attempt is: (i) to specify in as much detail as possible, based mainly on experimental research, how the cooperation of humans differs from that of their nearest primate relatives; and (ii) to construct a plausible evolutionary scenario - comprising two steps, one based in concrete collaborative activities and the other in larger-scale processes of culture - for how such uniquely human cooperation gave rise to human morality. A key at both steps will be humans' ability to engage with others in acts of shared intentionality involving a plural agent 'we'.

Shaun Nichols

Philosophical observation and psychological studies indicate that people draw subtle distinctions in the normative domain.  But it remains unclear exactly what gives rise to such distinctions. On one prominent approach, emotion systems trigger non-utilitarian judgments. The main alternative, inspired by Chomskyan linguistics, suggests that moral distinctions derive from an innate moral grammar. We develop a rational learning account. We argue that the “size principle”, which is implicated in word learning (Xu & Tenenbaum 2007), can also explain how children would use scant and equivocal evidence to interpret candidate rules as applying more narrowly than utilitarian rules.


More details here.