Philosophical vs Psychological Perspectives on Moral Values

In an introductory class in ethics that you might take in a college or university philosophy program, the subject of moral values is commonly integrated into the discussion of moral theories. That association limits the range of moral values that are discussed, but is nonetheless a very important association to be aware of.

By contrast, when moral psychologists talk about moral values, they aren’t trying to map particular moral values onto particular moral theories. They’re focused more on the descriptive project of categorizing distinctions in moral values, for the purpose of understanding the role that moral values play in explaining differences in moral behavior, and explaining why certain moral values play a larger role in the moral psychology of some people than in others.

Both of these perspectives, the philosophical and the psychological, are equally important for moral literacy and for critical thinking about ethics.

So in what follows I’ll be moving back and forth between these perspectives.

I strongly believe that this integrated approach offers a more effective foundation for learning how to craft moral arguments that are compelling and persuasive.

An integrated approach is also crucial for understanding the proper role and limits of moral argumentation in the framework of our personal and social lives.

Let’s begin with how philosophers tend to categorize moral values in relation to moral theories.