Moral Complexity

Moral psychology arrives at an interesting juncture (Lapsley & Narvaez, 2005). For decades years, the field was dominated by an emphasis on reasoning (i.e., Kohlberg, 1981, 1984, who used a neo-Kantian framework to map cognitive change), an approach now strongly challenged by intuitionism (Haidt, 2001). Although intuitionism brings an important corrective to the study of moral functioning, intuition is not a straightforward construct. More importantly, moral functioning is more complex than rationalism or intuitionism makes it out to be. Both paradigms provide incomplete views. Rationalism neglects implicit processes, narrowing morality to a small slice of human behavior. Intuitionism ignores the complexities of moral functioning that rely also on complex interplays between reasoning, intuition, and other factors. In Narvaez (2010), I describe how both intuition and reasoning are integrated into realms of moral functioning in terms of moral imagination, habituated empathic concern and moral self-monitoring. Although historically my work is associated with the rationalist view because I grew up academically in the rationalist camp, I have long been interested in implicit processes primarily from the perspective of expertise and expertise development. In every expertise domain, intuition and reasoning are constitutive, interactive, and educable; so also in the moral domain.

Narvaez, D. (2010). Moral complexity: The fatal attraction of truthiness and the importance of mature moral functioning. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(2), 163-181.


Abstract:  Recently, intuitionist theories have been effective in capturing the academic discourse about morality. Intuitionist theories, like rationalist theories, offer important but only partial understanding of moral functioning. Both can be fallacious and succumb to truthiness: the attachment to one’s opinions because they “feel right,” potentially leading to harmful action or inaction. Both intuition and reasoning are involved in deliberation and expertise. Both are malleable from environmental and educational influence, making questions of normativity—which intuitions and reasoning skills foster—of utmost importance. Good intuition and reasoning inform mature moral functioning, which needs to include capacities that promote sustainable human well-being. Individual capacities for habituated empathic concern and moral metacognition—moral locus of control, moral self-regulation, and moral self-reflection—comprise mature moral functioning, which also requires collective capacities for moral dialogue and moral institutions. These capacities underlie moral innovation and are necessary for solving the complex challenges humanity faces.

Narvaez, D. (2010). The embodied dynamism of moral becoming.  Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(2), 185-186..pdf

Abstract: There is much more work to be done to uncover the complexities of human moral functioning. Any synthesis must attend to the embodied nature of human functioning, the dynamic interplay of multiple capacities, the neurobiology of moral development, including the trajectory of vicious and virtuous dispositions, and the failures and successes of cooperation.


Narvaez, D. & Mrkva, K. (2014). Creative moral imagination. In S. Moran, D. H. Cropley & J. C. Kaufman (Eds.), The Ethics of Creativity (pp. 25-45). New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan.