Paper on defining morality

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Audun Dahl

Mar 23, 2023, 9:23:45 AM3/23/23
Dear all:

At the preconference yesterday, I inadvertently sparked some controversy by advocating a "technical" definition of morality.

Very, very sadly, I wasn't able to attend in person. The latest Californian storm forced me to give my presentation by Zoom.

Someone mentioned that the discussion continued after I logged off. Since I couldn't elaborate my views in person, they suggested that I distribute a recent paper.

I attach the paper here. This email is not self-promotion, though it may be anti-self-demotion! Mostly, though, I'm sharing the paper because the debate is worth having. The paper makes the points I was trying to make, at the cost of being lengthy.

The short version is this:
1. Everyone who studies morality needs to define it. (No disagreement in our group there.)
2. Some definitions work better than others. (No disagreement there either.)
3. A definition of morality as obligatory concerns with others' welfare, rights, justice and fairness, as well as the reasoning, judgments, emotions, and actions based on those concerns, is the one I continue to advocate. (This is effectively the SDT definition, and I didn't perceive disagreement.)
4. Yet, it doesn't seem possible to demonstrate that one definition is superior to all other definitions for all purposes. We don't have any criterion for identifying some One True Morality nor do we have a sensible way of defining morality in a way that captures all uses of the word "moral." For that reason, the definitions we adopt for research are "technical" definitions. (Some disagreement about this, I think.)
5. That scientific, technical definition of morality can separate the moral from the non-moral (e.g., the conventional). It can't separate the moral from the immoral, the morally right from the morally wrong, since those are not distinctions than an empirical science is equipped to draw. This is not relativism, however. I don't claim that there's no truth about whether torture is wrong; I only claim that we find such truths not with scientific methods but with the human capacity for moral reasoning. (Some disagreement here too.)

I perceive these ides to be entirely consistent with--and strongly supportive of--Social Domain Theory. That's why I expected them to be uncontroversial:) My paper was prompted by what I saw as spurious critiques, both of the SDT definition and of the constructionist emphasis on definitions. So perhaps yesterday's controversy arose merely because I did not explain my points well enough. But if the disagreement is real, I would love to discuss these issues further. Please do reach out!

I much missed seeing you yesterday; I hope to see you soon!

Best wishes,


Audun Dahl
Associate Professor
Department of Psychology
University of California, Santa Cruz
Developmental Moral Psychology Lab

Melanie A. Killen

Mar 24, 2023, 1:12:19 AM3/24/23
to Audun Dahl,
Dear Audun,

We missed you at the meeting! I agree that Zoom does not provide for interactive and engaged interactions.  

Multiple perspectives are the sign of a healthy scholarship.  Piaget discussed disequilibrium as a mechanism of change.

I look forward to future engaged discussions at SDTIC meetings and in other venues.


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