I am the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University's Stern School of Business. I am a social psychologist who studies morality, emotion, and culture.

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Ethical Systems Interview (July 2017)

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My Approach to Ethical Systems:

My research examines the intuitive foundations of morality. I have found that moral reasoning is generally done post-hoc, to search for confirmation of our fast, automatic intuitive responses. I am therefore skeptical of the power of reasoning to bring us to the right conclusions, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. I therefore became skeptical of direct approaches to fostering ethical behavior -- particularly direct teaching in the classroom. We can't just put moral knowledge into our students' heads, and expect them to implement that knowledge after they leave the classroom. 

One of the heroes of my book The Righteous Mind is Glaucon. He's the guy in Plato's Republic who challenges Socrates with the story of the Ring of Gyges, which makes a man invisible at will. He says that a man with such a ring would behave abominably, once freed from concerns about detection and reputation. I think Glaucon was right, and so we must design "ethical systems" for Glauconian creatures like ourselves. That's what this site is all about.

My Ethical Systems Research Pages: Ethics Pays and Teaching Ethics

My Major Relevant Publications:


  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) (public library). This book offers a comprehensive account of moral psychology from a social intuitionist perspective. It explains why it's probably not possible to improve ethical behavior just by teaching students to reason more carefully about ethical dilemmas. Such courses appeal only to the "rider." We need to train the elephant, and change the path. That's what ethical systems design is all about.
  • The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (2006) (public library). This book lays out the "Rider and Elephant" analogy, which is the basis of my approach to ethical systems. The rider is our conscious, controlled mental processes (mainly conscious reasoning). The elephant is the other 99% of what goes on in your mind -- its the automatic processes, such as intuition and emotion.



Academic Articles

See a full list of my academic publications on moral psychology.