Joshua Greene

Joshua D. Greene
Assistant Professor, Psychology
Harvard University, United States

Joshua D. Greene is a philosopher, experimental psychologist, and neuroscientist. He received his AB in Philosophy from Harvard University in 1997 and his PhD in Philosophy from Princeton University in 2002. From 2002 to 2006, he trained as a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton’s Department of Psychology and Center for the Study of Brain, Mind, and Behavior. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, where he directs the Moral Cognition Laboratory. His primary research interest is the psychological and neuroscientific study of moral judgment, focusing on the interplay between emotional and “cognitive” processes in moral decision-making. His broader interests cluster around the intersection of philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. His research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the MacArthur Foundation. His publications have appeared in Science, Neuron, Cognition, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. He is currently writing a book about the philosophical implications of our emerging scientific understanding of morality.

The Wisdom of Moral Principles
Moral principles are a cornerstone of human wisdom, enabling the codification and communication of hard-won social knowledge. But where do moral principles come from? And how are they used? Using a combination of behavioral testing and functional neuroimaging, our research constitutes a detailed case study of the generation and application of three moral principles that feature prominently in law, public policy, moral philosophy, and commonsense moral judgment. These are the action/omission principle (harming through action is worse than harming though omission), the means/side-effect principle (harming as a means to an end is worse than harming as a side-effect), and the contact/no contact principle (harming through direct physical contact is worse than harming without contact). This research has three main objectives. The first is to investigate the psychological mechanisms that support moral intuitions, giving rise to consistent patterns of moral judgment that may form the basis of moral principles. More specifically, we test the hypothesis that non-moral assessments of causal responsibility and intention give rise to the moral content of the action/omission and means/side-effect principles. Our second objective is to determine whether people abstract moral principles from consistent patterns of intuitive moral judgment, and to evaluate the role of prefrontal cortical function in this process. Our third objective is to determine how and when such moral principles affect moral judgments. This research speaks directly to current debates concerning the roles played by, and relationship between, intuitive emotional processes and controlled cognitive processes in moral judgment. Additionally, the proposed research may shed light on normative issues of broad significance. By understanding how different moral principles are formed and applied, we stand to choose among them more wisely.

Currently, Greene and collaborator Fiery Cushman continue with the process of stimulus design and pilot testing for Experiment 1: “The Means/Side-Effect and Action/Omission Distinctions in Moral and Non-Moral Scenarios”. Pilot behavioral tests conducted on the stimuli designed during the first quarter revealed effects that, while statistically significant, were insufficiently large to confidently transition into the scanner. Thus, their focus during the second quarter was on redesigning aspects of the experiment and the stimuli to achieve stronger effects. They have also taken steps to ensure rapid fMRI data collection going forward.

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