My research focuses on questions at the intersection of psychology and moral philosophy. In particular, I am interested in how cognitive biases can distort moral judgments and limit altruistic behavior.
Our moral judgments and behavior are often not in accordance with moral principles that moral philosophers consider reasonable, or even with principles that most of us would endorse under careful reflection. Most of us would, for example, agree (at least in the abstract) with the following three moral principles:
- Helping others in need is important.
- Everyone whose life can be good or bad matters morally — irrespective of who they are, where they are, or when they are.
- Helping more individuals is better than helping fewer, everything else equal.
In reality most of us don’t live up to these principles. Why is this? The answer might depend on the specific cases, but I believe that cognitive biases play a crucial role. Zooming in, I am currently investigating the following three concrete cases of where our behavior seems to diverge from moral principles:
Effective Charitable Giving
If we care about helping others in need, and believe that helping more individuals is better than helping fewer, why do we not donate more to charity? After all, we could save many lives by doing so. And even more importantly, when we donate, why are we not trying harder to find out where we should donate to help as many individuals as possible? In my research I am trying to identify biases that underly this tendency in order to develop countermeasures.
If we agree that animals matter morally at least to some extent, why do we treat many animals so badly? Each year we kill more than 60 billion animals for food and other purposes. And why do we care about some animals such as dogs and cats so much more than about others such as pigs or rats? Philosophers have termed our paradoxical treatment of animals speciesism — discrimination based on species membership. In my research I investigate this phenomenon, its underlying structure and related behavior.
If we think that individuals in spatial distance matter, we will probably also agree that people in temporal distance matter. But if so, shouldn’t we invest much more time and resources to ensure that future generations will live good and not bad lives? After all, in terms of numbers they will by far outnumber our generation, which means that we should probably be more concerned about potential risks that future generations could face. In my research I am trying to understand how people think about these questions.
I am in the fortunate position of being able to work together with brilliant researchers from both experimental psychology as well as moral philosophy. My supervisors are Dr Nadira Faber and Prof Julian Savulescu. I am part of the Social Behavior and Ethics Lab at the Department of Experimental Psychology and the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford.