The place of psychological facts in moral theory


Jakob Elster
Foto: Hæge Håtveit

Description of Elster's project as a postdoc fellow at the Ethics Programme 2008-2011:

In my postdoctoral project, I will examine what role should be given to facts about moral psychology when doing moral theory. On the one hand, I will ask how moral theory in general must be construed in order for psychological facts to be relevant for it. On the other hand, I will investigate in what ways the results of recent empirical research on moral psychology in neuroscience, social psychology and other disciplines affect moral theory. I will further ask what consequences this research has for applied ethics. The project thus combines an interest in theoretical issues related to the role of psychological research for moral theory with an interest in practical and normative conclusions to be drawn from recent research. Recent empirical research in moral psychology, from neuroscience, social psychology and other disciplines, has given new insight into the mechanisms underlying moral judgement and action. This insight clearly seems relevant for moral theory, yet we need to find a way of drawing ethical conclusions from psychological facts without committing the "naturalistic fallacy" of going from an "is" to an "ought". I discuss three ways in which psychological facts can be relevant for moral theory:

1) Research on the genesis and nature of moral intuitions might show that intuitions are not a valid guide to moral judgements.

2) Our normative claims may have implicit empirical preconditions, which we can identify through philosophical analysis and test empirically. This answer requires, however, that we accept what I call a "two-level" theory of morality.

3) Psychological research might shed light on the question of moral conservatism. On the one hand, the criticism of intuitions points in a revisionist direction, by showing that we lack good reasons to hold on to our intuitive beliefs. On the other hand, psychology might show that, given our psychological traits, certain revisions of moral theory are impossible or counterproductive to implement.


1. Master/PhD-avhandling

- 2007: PhD-avhandling: Transforming Moral Motivation. Doctoral Dissertation, Acta Humaniora n. 293, Unipub Forlag
- 1998: Avhandling til cand.philol: Le rôle de Dieu dans l’établissement d’une société juste selon Simone Weil. Mémoire de maîtrise (Master’s Thesis)   at the University of Paris X – Nanterre (France)

2. Vitenskapelige publikasjoner

- 2007: “Hva skal vi med etiske komiteer?” i Etikk i Praksis, nr. 1, 2007 (p. 11-31)
- 2007: (co-author with Ulla Schmidt) “Ethical issues related to stem cell research” in Stem Cell Research in the Nordic Countries - Science, Ethics, Public Debate and Law, NordForsk Policy Briefs 2–2007 (p. 26-39)
- 2007: "Wrongful life, suicide and euthanasia", in a special supplementary volume of the Journal of Philosophical Research.
- 2006: “Teaching bioethics in the secondary education – the Norwegian experience” in Educação e Formação em Bioética, a report published by the Portuguese National Council of Ethics for the Life Sciences
- 2005 (co-editor): Et barn i ditt bilde : etiske dilemmaer ved livets begynnelse, Bioteknologinemnda.
- 2005: ”å velge eller ikke velge (om Jürgen Habermas, Den menneskelige naturs fremtid)”, Agora, no. 3 (2005): 207-17.
- 2004: (co-editor) How to best teach bioethics: Report from a workshop March 2003 organized by The Nordic Committee on Bioethics and NorFA, Nordic Council of Ministers, 2004.
- 2004:  “How to best teach bioethics: an introduction”, in How to best teach bioethics: Report from a workshop March 2003 organized by The Nordic Committee on Bioethics and NorFA (p. 11-15).

3. Vitenskapelige foredrag

- 2007: “How does the mind matter for the law?”, paper presented at the “Law, Mind and Brain”-workshop at the XXIII World Congress of Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy, Krakow, August 1-6, 2007.
- 2007: “(How) Can We Draw Normative Conclusions From Empirical Work In Moral Psychology?”, paper presented at the conference “Neuroethics and Empirical Moral Psychology”, University of Oslo, March 14-16 2007
- 2006: "Legitimate Motivational Transformation", paper presented at the 2006 Annual Conference of the Association for Legal and Social Philosophy - "Social Justice in Practice", University College Dublin, June 28 - July 1, 2006.
- 2005: “Teaching bioethics in the secondary education – the Norwegian experience”, presented at the conference “Educação e Formação em Bioética”, organized by the Portuguese National Council of Ethics for the Life Sciences, Lisbon, November 25-26 2005.
- 2005: “Simone Weil on the Purificational Role of Atheism and Amoralism”, presented at the American Philosophical Association - Central Division Meeting 2005 (Group session, organized by the APA Committee on International Cooperation and the Hannah Arendt Circle)
- 2005: “Can the Level of Our Moral Motivation Influence the Content of Our Moral Duties?”, symposium paper presented at the American Philosophical Association 2005 Pacific Division Meeting
- 2004: “Wrongful life problems and euthanasia”, presented at the conference “Ethics and the Life Sciences”, organized by the American Philosophical Association and the University of Delaware, October 22-24 2004.

4. Formidlingspublikasjoner og kronikker

Diverse artikler i Genialt (tidsskrift utgitt av Bioteknologinemnda, finnes på, 2001-2007, bl.a.:

- ”Nevroetikk: bioetikkens nye skanse?”, Genialt 2/2007, p. 18-21.
- ”Samtykke og medisinsk bioteknologi", Genialt 4/2002; p. 17-19.
- ” ’Retten til ikke å fødes’ skaper storm i Frankrike”, Genialt 1/2002; p. 22-23
- ”Xenotransplantasjon vekker både frykt og håp”, Genialt 3/2001; p. 14-17
- “Forsikringsselskapers bruk av genetiske opplysninger”, Genialt 1/2001; p. 21-23.

Jakob Elster

PhD i filosofi

Seniorrådgiver i REK (Regionale komiteer for medisinsk og helsefaglig forskningsetikk).

REK sør-øst
Postboks 1130 Blindern
0318 OSLO

Gullhaug torg 4a
0484 OSLO


Telefon (arbeid): 22 84 55 30

Mobil: 414 67 211

Tidligere stipend fra Etikkprogrammet:
Prekvalifiseringsstipend i 2002
Doktorgradsstipend i 2003-2006
Postdoktorstipend 2008-2011