What do we do?

What do we do?

Our research centres on two main areas: moral psychology and experimental bioethics. Our goal is to advance moral psychology and ethics through the use of interdisciplinary expertise, rigorous scientific research standards, and high-quality philosophical ethics. 

Moral psychology is the scientific study of the processes that underlie and explain moral judgment, reasoning, agency and behaviour. 

Experimental bioethics is the use of results from moral psychology to advance arguments in philosophical ethics, especially bioethics. For an introductory explanation of experimental bioethics, see this short article; for a fuller discussion, see this article.

Drawing interdisciplinary inspiration from philosophy, bioethics, and law, we are especially interested in experimental psychological projects that have the potential to contribute to substantive philosophical debates in ethics.

Long-term, we aim to build cumulative, explanatory models of moral attitudes and behaviour as these relate to bioethical issues, ideally grounded in nuanced, real-life examples. Insofar as abstract, theoretical principles or normative arguments emerge from bioxphi, they will hopefully be enriched by having been formulated or tested in a manner that takes into account the moral psychology of ordinary people.

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Consent is morally transformative and suffuses our everyday moral and social lives. Valid consent makes the difference between permissible sex and rape; between a medical exam and assault; between entering a person’s home and trespass; between an economic transaction and theft. We need consent to include participants in research, to collect private information, to borrow things, to exchange money, to perform medical procedures, to cut someone’s hair, and to enter into legally binding contracts. Despite the centrality of consent to everyday moral and social life, however, little psychological research has investigated how people determine whether someone else has given valid consent, nor how attributions of consent figure in moral reasoning–how attributing the presence (or lack) of valid consent affects attributions of responsibility, obligations, and permissions to different parties. This line of research aims to understand how people reason about, and navigate, consent-based moral interactions. 

Moral psychology has been dominated by the study of judgments and behaviors concerning strangers: individuals who stand in no particular relationship to one another, and who may or may not interact in the future. These studies commonly have participants make decisions that impact anonymous others, or judge the moral acceptability of hypothetical actions taken by thinly-described agents, as in sacrificial “trolly problem” dilemmas where participants must judge the permissibility of killing one person to save a greater number. However, the vast majority of our moral judgments in everyday life do not concern strangers. Rather, they concern familiar others with whom we stand in particular, often ongoing relationships. The stakes of such moral judgments for the maintenance of our personal social networks typically are higher than the stakes of analogous judgments pertaining to strangers. Moreover, moral judgments about interactions between strangers often will differ in systematic ways from judgments about interactions between friends, family members, or other familiar individuals in the same situation. This line of research seeks to understand how our moral psychology is shaped by social-relational roles and norms that govern dyadic interactions in everyday life. 

It's natural to blame people for wrongdoing and to hold them responsible for their actions. But the kind of blame, condemnation and punishment that we think is appropriate can depend on various factors: was it really their fault? Could they have done otherwise? Are they a good person, really? Or are they a "monster" - barely even human? Our lab is interested in the processes by which people morally evaluate others and the kinds of blame, condemnation and punitive treatment that results.

What determines your personal identity through time and change? Are “you” at age five the same person as “you” in old age, at the end of life? If you suffer a serious brain injury that causes you to lose most of your memories—or which permanently alters key aspects of your character—are you still yourself, and if so, in what sense? Suppose that two people could swap bodies; how could we decide or track who was who? In a clinical or bioethical context, judgments about whether, to what extent, or in what sense someone is the same person despite having undergone various changes often matter for real-life decisions about how someone should be treated: for example, in the context of high-stakes decisions about what healthcare a person should receive at the end of life. Understanding the factors that influence these personal identity-related judgments in more realistic, ethically charged situations is thus both theoretically and practically relevant. This project will aim to understand the factors that influence ordinary people’s judgments about whether (and in what sense) someone is the same person despite undergoing significant psychological changes (for example, due to a neurodegenerative disease like dementia) and how these judgments relate to the moral conclusions they reach about how the person should be treated under various conditions, for example, with regard to the use of an advance healthcare directive.

Most people believe that it is permissible to give special priority to close friends and family--those who are “near and dear” to us--when deciding how to allocate our time, attention, resources, and acts of care. However, according to the philosophical theory of utilitarianism, the morally correct thing to do is whatever will maximize overall well-being of human beings in general (or even all sentient creatures), impartially or “from the point of view of the universe” -- where no individual person or relationship should count for more than any other. This is a highly counterintuitive moral conclusion from the standpoint of commonsense moral psychology; however, there are some people who explicitly endorse this view, who may or may not self-identify as utilitarians. These people are highly “impartially beneficent” and the goal of this project is to understand the moral psychology of those who claim to be dedicated to unusual levels of altruism (as in the “effective altruism” movement). Why do some people weight the well-being of strangers -- or even people in future generations -- much more highly, compared to close friends and family in the here-and-now, than the average person? And how do these beliefs and commitments actually affect their relationships and behavior? 

Across healthcare settings and in everyday life, accurate assessments of another’s pain are critical for guiding appropriate responses. Yet pain is a private experience and as such is not directly accessible to outside observers. Instead, an inference must be drawn from behavioral and situational cues, which are often ambiguous and may therefore be interpreted in a biased or otherwise distorted manner. In the case of children, the ability to verbalize pain in a reliable way may not yet be fully developed, creating more room for ambiguity. Children also lack full autonomy, and must therefore often rely on others to meet their pain control needs. In pediatrics, for example, parents and medical staff are often responsible for evaluating and responding to children’s pain, especially when the child is very young. In such cases, adult inferences about the child’s subjective experience of pain are central to understanding pathology and determining a suitable intervention. It is therefore crucial to identify any biasing factors that may influence such third-party pain assessments. In this project, we are seeking to understand how certain gender norms and stereotypes (e.g., “boys don’t cry”) influence adult interpretations of children’s pain experiences.