Moral Attitudes and Decision-Making

Moral Attitudes and Decision-Making at the Kenan Institute for Ethics explores why and how people think and behave through the lenses of psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, and sociology. Through interdisciplinary projects as well as a vertically-integrated lab, students and faculty work together to better understand aspects of human motivation and human behavior, and to disseminate findings on these normative, ethical issues.

The projects and programs associated with the Moral Attitudes and Decision-Making program examine the ways in which cultural, biological, and external forces frame our ethical decisions and how that shapes our views on issues such as what it means to live a “good” life, which political affiliations we choose, and our susceptibility to propaganda or addiction. There are multiple research projects housed in the program, including:

MADLAB is a vertically-integrated, interdisciplinary laboratory, directed by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Philosophy, Kenan Institute for Ethics, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Law School), where faculty, postdocs, graduate students, and undergrads work together on shared research projects. MADLAB is built around the broad theme of how social, cultural, neurological, and biological factors shape our moral attitudes, decisions, and judgments. More specifically, we work on the roles of attention and automatic processes, scrupulosity and psychopathy, objectivity and evolution, moral foundations and the unity of morality, and virtue and development. We have grants on implicit moral attitudes, moral artificial intelligence, disgust, and neurophilosophy. Our methods include surveys, manipulations, fMRI, EEG, and animal models as well as philosophical reflection. Lab activities include presentations of works in progress, discussions of recent relevant literature, and discussions with visiting experts.

Visit the lab’s researchers page for a list of the MADLAB participants.


Education for Civic and Moral Responsibility
This Teagle Foundation funded project, which brings together faculty from Dartmouth, Duke, and Notre Dame seeks to understand how better to promote civic and moral responsibility amongst undergraduates. By directly linking scholarship and educational initiatives, the project aims to improve the ability of colleges and universities to prepare students to deal effectively with some of the “great questions” of meaning and value, and of purpose and responsibility that surface throughout life, and are especially pointed in the period of emerging adulthood. Each campus will explore the impact of a particular curricular or co-curricular program on the students’ sense of moral responsibility and civic commitment. At Duke,  the project will compare the impact of different ethics pedagogies on moral purpose, identity, and responsibility. Project PIs are Suzanne Shanahan, Associate Director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke and Associate Research Professor of Sociology, and Robert Thompson, Duke Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience.

Collaborators Include:

  • Dartmouth College: Aine Donovan, Director of the Ethics Institute and Research Associate Professor
  • Duke University: Noah Pickus, Dean of curriculum and faculty development at Duke Kunshan University; Amber Diaz Pearson, Research Scholar, Kenan Institute for Ethics
  • University of Notre Dame: Jay Brandenberger, Director of Research and Assessment at the Center for Social Concerns and Concurrent Associate Professor of Psychology; Cathryn Fabian, Postdoctoral Research Associate


Measuring Morality
Measuring Morality was begin in order to create a Rosetta Stone for researchers. The first phase involved fielding a nationally-representative survey of 1,500 adults in the United States aimed at understanding the interrelations among moral constructs, and at exploring moral differences in the U.S. population. Survey items were chosen in consultation with an international group of scholars from sociology, psychology, and linguistics, and represent a wide range of theoretical traditions. The survey includes both morality scales (typically shortened for inclusion on the survey, and including several recently developed scales), and measures of constructs theoretically associated with morality. In the second phase, select items from the Measuring Morality survey were included in the fourth wave of the National Study of Youth and Religion, a nationally-representative study of the religious lives of teenagers and young adults. This allowed us to trace how experiences in the formative adolescent years shape the moral perspectives developed by American young adults. The research project is directed by Stephen Vaisey, Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University, and funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

The dataset is available for free to those who register.


Academic Integrity
In 1995, 2000, 2005, and 2011, the Academic Integrity Council and the Kenan Institute for Ethics surveyed thousands of Duke undergraduates, asking questions about cheating, collaboration, plagiarism, and other matters. Each survey’s findings have led to recommendations to and actions from university officials, including the creation of the Duke Community Standard. The 2011 survey also included questions about integrity outside the classroom, as well as in-depth interviews with graduating seniors. The 2011 survey and interviews documented marked reductions in academic dishonesty; significant gaps between the large numbers of students perceived to be cheating vs. the smaller number of students self-reporting cheating; and rising numbers of students reporting inappropriate collaboration. The survey and interviews also explored the relationships among integrity in different domains (academic, social, work, and civic) and raised key questions about how a Duke education can and should affect multiple dimensions of a student’s sense of integrity.