An Empirical Turn in Ethics

By: Jacqueline Allen '23, 
October 12, 2021

John Doris, Peter L. Dyson Professor of Ethics in Organizations and Life at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, and Professor in the Sage School of Philosophy, describes his research as falling in the intersection between “cognitive science, moral psychology, and philosophical ethics”.

Starting from an early interest in ethics, Doris’ path diverged from pure philosophy toward a more interdisciplinary focus. “One way of thinking of it is:  I went to graduate school, began studying ethics, which is about what people should do, and I ended up thinking, we don’t know very much about why they do it,” explains Doris. “A few philosophers had been pointing out that ethics wasn’t very psychologically realistic, and so a lot of philosophers at that time were seeming to write a lot about ethics without a very rich understanding of what human beings are actually like.”

To address this deficiency, Doris and other philosophers turned to psychology for insights on human actuality. Doris’s career began during what he calls “an empirical turn,” when people interested in philosophical ethics also became interested in scientific psychology. Although Doris looks to psychology to supplement and improve philosophy, he does acknowledge a potential concern: “One question here, to someone like me, if you’re looking to psychology to enrich philosophy, to what extent is psychology to be trusted?”

John M. Doris - Character Trouble

These issues of “metascience”, including concerns about the so-called “replication crisis” in psychology, are among the topics discussed in Doris’s new collection of essays, Character Trouble: Undisciplined Essays on Moral Agency and Personality.  Two of the essays take up the social psychology of character and situation, the topic of his first book, Lack of Character (2002), a book prompted, he says, by studies like the Milgram experiment, “which showed that people’s behavior varies quite unsettlingly with their circumstances, more than it should. You’d think that if people had sturdy characters, that would determine their destiny.” In the new essays, Doris reviews past arguments in philosophy surrounding the influence of character on people’s behavioral choices.  In another earlier book, Talking to Ourselves (2015), Doris discussed behavioral regulation and to what extent one ought to be held responsible for their actions. These considerations also extend into Doris’ current and future plans, specifically in the context of war crimes: “I’ve spent a good bit of time thinking about war crimes, and why people commit war crimes, and what might be done to reduce instances of war crimes.”

A second project, in collaboration with Dr. Manuel Vargas of the University of California at San Diego, is an edited Oxford Handbook of Moral Psychology, consisting of some fifty state-of-the-art articles in this new interdisciplinary field. 

At Cornell, Doris is one of the directors of a new Minor in Moral Psychology (launched in Fall 2021, read the announcement here), along with Laura Niemi in Psychology and Rachana Kamtekar and Shaun Nichols in Philosophy.  In addition, Doris regularly participates in Niemi’s Applied Moral Psychology Laboratory, collaborating with psychologists around the country. The lab hosts multiple ongoing projects, including investigations into civility, the nature of grudges, and effects of moral identity.

Doris’ current and future plans include further exploration of management-related issues in the context of the military, an area with a surprisingly minimal amount of research, he says, given the considerable presence of the military in American culture. “One way to think about it is that it’s a huge organization. What can we learn for the study of management from looking at the military? What can the study of management tell us about the military?” Doris asks.

Doris is also thinking about the moral psychology of war crimes, wondering whether a management-oriented approach might serve as a useful framework for considering military and wartime transgressions. “When the rules of war are not observed, is that usefully construed as a kind of management failure, in the way that financial conduct in a company might be viewed as a kind of management failure? Some kind of failure of supervision, failure of culture.”

John M. Doris