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Thursday, November 11, 2021

Revisiting the Social Origins of Human Morality: A Constructivist Perspective on the Nature of Moral Sense-Making

Segovia-CuĂ©llar, A. 
Topoi (2021). 


A recent turn in the cognitive sciences has deepened the attention on embodied and situated dynamics for explaining different cognitive processes such as perception, emotion, and social cognition. This has fostered an extensive interest in the social and ‘intersubjective’ nature of moral behavior, especially from the perspective of enactivism. In this paper, I argue that embodied and situated perspectives, enactivism in particular, nonetheless require further improvements with regards to their analysis of the social nature of human morality. In brief, enactivist proposals still do not define what features of the social-relational context, or which kind of processes within social interactions, make an evaluation or action morally relevant or distinctive from other types of social normativity. As an alternative to this proclivity, and seeking to complement the enactive perspective, I present a definition of the process of moral sense-making and offer an empirically-based ethical distinction between different domains of social knowledge in moral development. For doing so, I take insights from the constructivist tradition in moral psychology. My objective is not to radically oppose embodied and enactive alternatives but to expand the horizon of their conceptual and empirical contributions to morality research.

From the Conclusions

To sum up, for humans to think morally in social environments it is necessary to develop a capacity to recognize morally relevant scenarios, to identify moral transgressions, to feel concerned about morally divergent issues, and to make judgments and decisions with morally relevant consequences. Our moral life involves the flexible application of moral principles since concerns about welfare, justice, and rights are sensitive and contingent on social and contextual factors. Moral motivation and reasoning are situated and embedded phenomena, and the result of a very complex developmental process.

In this paper, I have argued that embodied perspectives, enactivism included, face important challenges that result from their analysis of the social origins of human morality. My main objective has been to expand the horizon of conceptual, empirical, and descriptive implications that they need to address in the construction of a coherent ethical perspective. I have done so by exposing a constructivist approach to the social origins of human morality, taking insights from the cognitive-evolutionary tradition in moral psychology. This alternative radically eschews dichotomies to explain human moral behavior. Moreover, based on the constructivist definition of the moral domain of social knowledge, I have offered a basic notion of moral sense-making and I have called attention to the relevance of distinguishing what makes the development of moral norms different from the development of other domains of social normativity.