The Science
of Ethics Project


The Science of Ethics Project seeks to engage the bourgeoning field of empirical ethics while critically examining its philosophical implications.


The empirical ethics movement has reconceived moral psychology, traditionally considered a branch of philosophy, as a thoroughly empirical enterprise. Scientific research has added greatly to our knowledge of human nature, and the empirical ethics movement rightly criticizes aprioristic philosophical accounts of moral psychology, but practitioners of empirical ethics sometimes overreach in two crucial respects:

  1. They draw controversial philosophical conclusions with inadequate appreciation of the deepest ethical questions.

  2. Their emphasis on unconscious and eccentric factors in moral reasoning threatens to undermine the possibility of human agency.

Empirical ethics practitioners have seized attention with their ambitious answers to some moral philosophy’s most central questions. But even if their science is correct, their philosophical conclusions do not clearly follow from the scientific evidence. It is too often assumed that descriptive accounts of what people feel and how they think settle normative issues of how we should feel and think — questions that are at the heart of the capacity for moral reasoning and action.


The Science of Ethics Project aims to take a skeptical and often critical, but fair and open-minded, look at the normative implications drawn from this new science of ethics. To do so, we will bring together philosophers with differing perspectives to engage in collaborative research. The Project champions an alternative conception of moral psychology by developing a middle ground between aprioristic philosophical accounts, which ignore the vital humanistic questions, and the empirical ethics movement, which sometimes begs them.


The two books at the center of The Science of Ethics Project will exemplify the empirically informed but philosophically careful approach that the Project seeks to foster.

Rational Sentimentalism

A collaborative work by Daniel Jacobson of the University of Michigan Philosophy Department and Justin D’Arms of the Ohio State University Philosophy Department, Rational Sentimentalism focuses centrally on a sphere of values that are both central to human life and yet relatively ignored by philosophy: the sentimental values.

Self and Self-Control

In Self and Self-Control, Chandra Sripada of the University of Michigan Departments of Philosophy and Psychiatry will consider traditional questions of agency with an eye towards the biological underpinnings of such phenomena, and the constraints they place upon philosophical theory.

We hope these two works will generate substantially more literature exemplifying this truly interdisciplinary approach to moral psychology.


The Science of Ethics Project will run two summer programs at the University of Michigan. These programs will bring together philosophers doing groundbreaking research on the central issues addressed by the Project to discuss and debate questions posed by the ambitious research agency of the empirical ethics movement.

Workshop on Moral Psychology and Human Agency, June 2012

This workshop concerns issues about the focus of the empirical ethics movement on unconscious and non-deliberate factors that influence human choice and action, and whether this approach threatens the very possibility of human agency.

Workshop on Human Nature and Moral Knowledge, June 2013

This workshop concerns issues raised by the empirical ethics movement that seem to challenge the truth and justification of evaluative judgments.


The Science of Ethics Project is led by Daniel Jacobson of the University of Michigan Philosophy Department. Funding is provided by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation and the University of Michigan.

The John Templeton Foundation The University of Michigan