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Study information

The Moral Mind

Module titleThe Moral Mind
Module codePSY3432
Academic year2023/4
Module staff

Dr Joseph Sweetman (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

What is morality? This is a classic question at the heart of understanding just what kind of creatures we are. Over the last 20 years the science of morality has seen a renaissance of inquiry into our moral minds, brains and behaviour. This module will give a contemporary overview of the science of morality. The module will sketch some answers to four core questions regarding our moral capacity:

  1. What is it?
  2. How does it develop (i.e., what, if anything, is innate and what is culturally determined/learned)?
  3. How is it instantiated in the brain?
  4. How did it evolve?

These core problems will be examined and evaluated through interactive seminars, demonstrations, and student-led group presentations and debates. Moral cognition is an exciting interdisciplinary study that has received contributions from social, cognitive (neuro), and developmental scientists as well as from our colleagues in philosophy, law and computer science. In this module 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, developmental science, philosophy, computer science, 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 the science of morality.

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 suggests that our moral cognition can be usefully modelled on principles taken from legal theory and philosophical theories of human action. Developmental approaches suggest that infants as young as 3 months old can make complex moral evaluations on the basis of an agent’s mental state. Cognitive neuroscience suggests that there is a fairly consistent network of brain regions involved in moral cognition. Comparative approaches suggest that non-human primates display some homologous elements of moral cognition. Social-cultural, evolutionary accounts suggest that human morality evolved to solve problems of social cooperation and that cultural processes write human morality on top of this innate first-draft. 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

Indicative topics that will be covered include:

  • The science of morality: levels of understanding
  • Computational moral cognition: a moral grammar
  • The cognitive neuroscience of morality
  • The evolution  of moral cognition
  • Development and learning in moral cognition

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 3 hours)
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 small group 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
Examination602 hoursAllWritten, generic feedback posted on module ELE page
Proposal or 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
Proposal or essayProposal or essayAllAug 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 proposal/essay you will be required to resubmit the proposal/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

Indicative basic reading list:

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 cover in this module will find the following books useful:

General overview:

  • Wheatley, T., & Decety, J. (Eds.). (2015). The moral brain: A multidisciplinary perspective. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

More specific technical and popular science books focusing on the approaches covered include:

  • Greene, J. (2014). Moral tribes: emotion, reason and the gap between us and them. New York, NY: The Penguin Press.
  • 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.
  • De Waal, F. (2009). Primates and philosophers: How morality evolved. Princeton, New Jeresey: Princeton University Press.

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

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 Social Psychology II, or PSY2212 Cognition Practical II, or PSY2213 Social Practical II, or PSY2303 Cognition and Emotion, or equivalent

Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date