The Moral Mind

Module titleThe Moral Mind
Module codePSY3432
Academic year2017/8
Module staff

Dr Joseph Sweetman (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

Why are some actions morally permissible while other, very similar actions (e.g., in terms of outcomes), are not? Is morality innate or culturally determined? How is moral knowledge acquired? How is morality instantiated in the brain? How did morality evolve? Does the science of morality have any implications for what we ought to do? These core problems will be examined and evaluated through interactive seminars, demonstrations, and student-led presentations and debates. Moral cognition is an exciting interdisciplinary study that has received contributions from social, cognitive, and developmental psychologists as well as from our colleagues in neuroscience, philosophy, and legal theory. In this module we will we will examine the science behind our moral minds.

This is a specialist final year module suitable for students completing two years of Psychology and interested in social cognition, cognitive neuroscience, emotion, philosophy, linguistics, law, and morality.

Module aims - intentions of the module

The aim of this module is to provide a detailed and critical exploration and evaluation of current accounts of moral cognition – i.e., scientific theories of how we make judgments regarding what is right and wrong. 

Dual-process accounts suggest that our moral cognition can be usefully understood in terms of a distinction between automatic/fast (characteristically deontological and “emotional”) intuitions and controlled/slow (characteristically “utilitarian”) processes. Adopting conceptual models from Noam Chomsky’s research programme in linguistics, the universal moral grammar approach suggest that our moral cognition can be usefully modelled on principles taken from legal theory. The argument offered is that an analysis of each of these approaches is useful in order to develop a more comprehensive account of our moral minds. This proposal is subjected to a careful critical assessment in the course of the module.

Through attending the weekly seminars and participating in class discussions and exercises, interactive demonstrations, group presentations and debates you will develop your ability to

  • think rationally and develop reasoned arguments, approach and solve problems in a rigorous and systematic way (linking theory to methods, developing your own ideas with confidence, being able to respond to novel and unfamiliar problems)
  • manage structure (identifying key demands of the task, setting clearly defined goals, responding flexibly to changing priorities)
  • develop time management skills (managing time effectively individually and within a group)
  • collaborate (respecting the views and values of others, taking initiative and leading others, supporting others in their work, maintaining group cohesiveness and purpose)
  • communicate effectively
  • enhance your ability to formulate research questions and hypotheses, and
  • present to an audience of your peers (presenting ideas effectively in multiple formats, persuading others of the importance and relevance of your views, responding positively and effectively to questions).

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Describe comprehensively current approaches to the study of moral cognition and critically evaluate these approaches and their contribution to a comprehensive account of our moral minds
  • 2. Describe and critically evaluate methodological and ethical issues within moral cognition and the broader ethical (normative) implications of moral cognition research

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 3. Acquire detailed, systematic and comprehensive knowledge within the discipline, with in-depth specialisation at the forefront of the discipline in certain areas and demonstrate advanced critical understanding of this knowledge and of the limits and provisional nature of this knowledge
  • 4. Review and critically evaluate published work and identify the strengths and weaknesses of this work and structure this literature to present logical, coherent and sustained arguments to support conclusions at an advanced level
  • 5. Address systematically complex problems which may be framed within unpredictable contexts, think critically, creatively, and independently and fully appreciate the complexities of the issues at an advanced level
  • 6. Understand and apply essential principles in designing novel research, critically evaluate and analyse empirical evidence and assess the reliability of empirical evidence using a range of defined techniques at an advanced level
  • 7. Illustrate the wider ethical issues relating to the subject and its application at an advanced level

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 8. Interact effectively and supportively within a learning group
  • 9. Manage your own learning using the full range of resources of the discipline with minimum guidance
  • 10. Describe your own criteria of self-evaluation and challenge received opinion, reflect on your actions, and seek and make use of feedback
  • 11. Select and manage information, and to undertake competently study tasks with minimum guidance
  • 12. Take responsibility for your own work and criticise it
  • 13. Engage effectively in debate in a professional manner and produce detailed and coherent written work
  • 14. Identify with confidence and flexibility complex problems and apply appropriate knowledge and methods for their solution
  • 15. Act autonomously with minimal supervision or direction, within agreed deadlines
  • 16. Manage time effectively to meet deadlines

Syllabus plan

Syllabus plan

This module will include discussion of the following topics:

  • What is morality: Historical perspectives and core questions
  • The “innateness hypothesis” and the acquisition of moral knowledge
  • Describing moral cognition: The new synthesis and the social intuitionist approach
  • Describing moral cognition: Emotion and moral foundations theory
  • Describing moral cognition: Dual process theory of moral judgment
  • Describing moral cognition: Universal moral grammar and the linguistic analogy
  • The evolution of morality
  • Normative implications of the science of morality

Learning and teaching

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching33Seminars and Q&A session (11 x 2 hours, 11 x 1 hour)
Guided Independent Study57Reading in preparation for weekly seminars and Q&A sessions, following reading list recommendations on reading list and linked to ELE module homepage and independently exploring further sources of information using links provided. Preparing seminar presentations.
Guided Independent Study30Further exploratory research and subsequent reading in preparation for writing CA component
Guided Independent Study30Further exploratory research and subsequent reading in preparation for final exam


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Seminar presentations/debate15 minutesAllOral
Engagement in seminar discussion10 x 1 hour Q&A sessionsAllOral

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Examination603 hoursAllWritten, generic feedback posted on module ELE page
Essay402000 wordsAllWritten, individual feedback on script, generic feedback posted on ELE


Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
ExaminationExaminationAllAug Ref/Def
EssayEssayAllAug Ref/Def

Re-assessment notes

Two assessments are required for this module. Where you have been referred/deferred in the examination you will have the opportunity to take a second examination in the August/September re-assessment period. Where you have been referred/deferred in the essay you will be required to resubmit the essay. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%; deferred marks are not capped.


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Most of the research discussed will be drawn from journal articles and several book chapters (available on ELE). However, those interested in a scholarly overview of moral cognition research will find the following books useful:

  • Doris, J. M. (2010). The moral psychology handbook. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Mikulincer, M.N. and Shaver, P. R. (Eds.), (2011). The social psychology of morality. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • More specific technical and popular science books focusing on the approaches covered include:
  • Bloom, P. (2013). Just babies: The origins of good and evil. Crown.
  • Greene, J. (2014). Moral tribes: emotion, reason and the gap between us and them. Atlantic Books Ltd.
  • Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Vintage.
  • Hauser, M. (2006). Moral minds: The unconscious voice of right and wrong. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
  • Mikhail, J. (2011). Elements of moral cognition: Rawls' linguistic analogy and the cognitive science of moral and legal judgment. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Module has an active ELE page

Key words search

Psychology, morality, social cognition, moral cognition, emotion, linguistics, dual processes, universal moral grammar, moral psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, philosophy, legal theory

Credit value15
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites

PSY2203; or PSY2213; or PSY2212; or PSY2303; or equivalent

Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date