pp 1–24 | Cite as

Is morality a gadget? Nature, nurture and culture in moral development

  • Cecilia HeyesEmail author
The Cultural Evolution of Human Social Cognition
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. The Cultural Evolution of Human Social Cognition


Research on ‘moral learning’ examines the roles of domain-general processes, such as Bayesian inference and reinforcement learning, in the development of moral beliefs and values. Alert to the power of these processes, and equipped with both the analytic resources of philosophy and the empirical methods of psychology, ‘moral learners’ are ideally placed to discover the contributions of nature, nurture and culture to moral development. However, I argue that to achieve these objectives research on moral learning needs to (1) overcome nativist bias, and (2) distinguish two kinds of social learning: learning from and learning about. An agent learns from others when there is transfer of competence—what the learner learns is similar to, and causally dependent on, what the model knows. When an agent learns about the social world there is no transfer of competence—observable features of other agents are just the content of what-is-learned. Even learning from does not require explicit instruction. A novice can learn from an expert who is ‘leaking’ her morality in the form of emotionally charged behaviour or involuntary use of vocabulary. To the extent that moral development depends on learning from other agents, there is the potential for cultural selection of moral beliefs and values.


Cultural evolution Social learning Moral psychology Moral learning Moral development Nativism 



I am grateful to Kim Sterelny, Caterina Dulles and two anonymous referees at Synthese, to Rich Cook for advice on configural face processing, John Pearce for guidance on partial reinforcement, and, especially, to Peter Railton for enriching conversation and detailed comments—many of them dissenting—on an earlier version of this manuscript.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Experimental Psychology and All Souls CollegeUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK

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