Home Mind & Brain Exploring the Cognitive Corners: A Psychological Theory of Moral Truth

Exploring the Cognitive Corners: A Psychological Theory of Moral Truth

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In recent years, a fascinating psychological perspective has been emerging: a psychological theory of moral truth. Drawing upon varied disciplines like cognitive science, neuroscience, and philosophy, this theory extends its tendrils into the core of human understanding of right and wrong. While moral absolutes may seem as if they exist independent of the mind, evidence suggests they are profoundly influenced by human cognition.

In essence, the psychological theory of moral truth suggests that moral codes, often viewed as social constructs or religious doctrines, are deeply rooted in the human psyche. This idea may sound relativistic, with morals varying person to person. However, psychologists suggest there might be universal underpinnings in our neurology that guide our moral compass.

The cognitive backdrop

The crux of this theory rests upon the cognitive development processes, such as perspective-taking, empathy, and fairness judgments. Evolutionarily speaking, these social-emotional competencies played a vital role in fostering human cooperation and survival. Psychologists argue that such cognitive abilities have shaped the moral standards we adhere to today.

For example, empathy – our ability to understand and share the feelings of others – is not unique to humans. However, humans exhibit a high degree of empathetic understanding, which contributes significantly to our moral judgements. If we can understand the pain or joy another person is experiencing, we’re more likely to deem actions causing these feelings as morally wrong or right, respectively.

Tapping into the subconscious

Neuroscience lends support to this theory. FMRI studies reveal that when making moral judgments, areas of the brain associated with social cognition and emotion, such as the prefrontal cortex and amygdala, are highly active. These findings suggest that our brain’s architecture might be ‘wired’ for morality, shaping our notions of moral truths.

Moreover, subconscious processes play an often underappreciated role. While we might believe our moral decisions are driven by conscious, logical reasoning, research suggests subconscious emotions significantly influence our judgments. For instance, a perceived violation of fairness can evoke a visceral emotional response that feeds into our moral evaluations.

The complexity of moral relativism

If moral truth is linked to psychological processes, does that mean morality is wholly relative, differing drastically between individuals? While our personal experiences and culture can shape our moral outlook, psychologists propose that there’s likely a universal moral grammar encoded in our minds, influenced by evolutionary and neurobiological processes. This theory does not deny cultural variation in moral norms but rather posits a foundational level of moral cognition shared by all humans.

Consider, for instance, the nearly universal abhorrence of harm. Despite cultural differences, the moral condemnation of unwarranted violence seems almost instinctual across societies. This might be due to our psychological and biological wiring, designed to promote cooperation and deter harmful behaviors.

Towards a unified theory

The psychological theory of moral truth thus treads a middle ground between moral absolutism and relativism. It suggests that while our moral truths are not universal in the absolute sense, they are deeply rooted in our shared psychological and neurobiological makeup, going beyond mere social or cultural constructs.

However, this theory doesn’t imply that morality is entirely deterministic or mechanistic, with human agency and freewill playing a significant role. Our capacity for reflection, empathy, and reason, allows us to refine and expand our moral truths as our understanding evolves.

The psychological theory of moral truth is an innovative perspective that prompts us to reconsider how we view morality. While it may not provide all the answers, it undoubtedly contributes to a nuanced understanding of our moral compass, woven intricately within our cognitive and emotional fabric.

Just as we have decoded many natural truths about the world using science, we are now starting to unlock the psychological underpinnings of our moral landscape. As we delve deeper into the complexities of the human mind, we stand at the precipice of a better understanding of our moral universe, its origins, its universality, and its profound connection to our shared humanity.


Sophia Jameson, PhD is a psychologist with over a decade of experience in cognitive neuroscience and moral philosophy.

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© Copyright 2014–2023 Psychreg Ltd