Investigating the Moral Self

Investigating the Moral Self

Jesse Prinz, Ph.D. (co-PI)
Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, CUNY Graduate Center
New York, NY

Javier Gomez-Lavin (co-PI)
Philosophy, CUNY Graduate Center
New York, NY

Shaun Nichols, Ph.D. (co-PI)
Professor of Philosophy
University of Arizona

Nina Stohminger, Ph.D. (co-PI)
Assistant Professor of Legal Studies & Business Ethics
Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania

Project Summary

Emerging research suggests a crucial link between the self and morality (Strohminger & Nichols 2014). That is, we are defined less by our personality, memory, or agency than by our moral values. This research has given rise to the Moral Self hypothesis: Most people regard moral values as a core part of identity, and essential for preserving identity over time. This work opens up a variety of exciting questions about identity and the self, which we addressed with this project. In particular, our work was motived by the following two research questions:

RQ1. What kinds of thought processes are involved in people’s views about the relationship between morality and the self?

RQ2. What are the social and behavioral consequences of thinking of the self as essentially linked to moral values?

Since the moral self hypothesis is relatively new, these fundamental questions have not yet been systematically explored. Through a series of studies, we operationalized and tested two overarching hypotheses about the moral self (corresponding to our research questions). These corresponded to six sub-hypotheses, which elaborated the overarching ideas:

H1. Associations between morality and the self are ordinarily deep

H1.i     People ordinarily identify with the moral values

H1.ii    In both clinical and non-clinical populations, individual differences in values will be reflected in differences in judgments about identity,

H1.iii   The moral self emerges as a result of automatic, as opposed to controlled, cognitive processes.

H2. The moral self is crucial for real-world social behavior (YEAR 2)

H2.i The conceptual link between morality and identity influences judgments of responsibility and punishment

H2.ii People signal their moral values to others, in an effort to form communities with like-minded moral selves

H2.iii Moral selfhood contributes to prosociality

Our goal was to explore these hypotheses using a range of original methods that integrate methods from psychology and philosophy that have been classically categorized as experimental philosophy. Ultimately, our proposed research served the larger goal of revealing the contours and consequences of the moral self.

During our two years of research we ran over three-dozen individual studies in three countries to examine these dimensions of the moral self. As with any ambitious project, our team encountered a series of challenges and obstacles, but also came upon unexpected directions for empirical development. In particular, technical limitations resulted in only limited, exploratory progress on two of our hypotheses (H1.iii & H2.iii). However, despite these challenges we were able to refine various casual modeling methods which should help us uncover the mechanisms driving our robust effects. Also, motivated in large part by our robust effects, we extended the scope of our project to include ecologically-driven and socially significant real-world cases where moral change might serve as a forensic referent for personal identity: particularly in immigration and carceral contexts. Additionally, thanks to our team’s extensive network of international contacts, we were able to pursue a number of replications and extensions of our work with collaborators in Germany and Taiwan—which only serve to cement our team’s findings as we continue the extensive task of data analysis and preparation of manuscripts for publication.

Significant Research Accomplishments

We completed our proposed data-collection on four of our six original project areas: identification, clinical-populations, responsibility, and signaling. As previously mentioned, we only engaged in exploratory studies of our cognition and prosociality project areas. Lessons learned from these two project areas will be developed as we seek additional funding and collaborators in the near future. Our team has also completed a number of manuscripts regarding our clinical-populations and responsibility projects, and is in the process of finalizing manuscripts for our identification and signaling project.

We expect our work to produce further accomplishments over the next sixteen months as we finalize many of our manuscripts for publication. However, in the short-term we are pleased to report that Mr. Gomez-Lavin won a Graduate Student Presentation Prize for his talk on “Parole and the Moral Self” at the 2017 Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology. And by all accounts our capstone workshop on Identity and Morality was huge success with a larger than capacity audience in attendance and many possible collaborations discussed. Additionally, thanks in part to her work on our grant project, Dr. Strohminger has just begun a position as an assistant professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Finally, Mr. Gomez-Lavin will begin his postdoctoral studies in summer 2018, a position which was earned in large part due to his work on this project.


  • Strohminger, N. (2016, January). Personal identity versus attribution: A battle to the death. APA Eastern Division, Washington, DC. Comments provided by Gomez-Lavin, J.
  • Nichols, S. (2016, March). Moral responsibility, change and the self. Department of Bioethics, NIH, Bethesda, MD.
    • Lectures based in part on our moral self research were also given at Columbia University, Colorado College, and Union College.
  • Prinz, J. (September 2015 – March 2016). A series of lectures on the moral self given at Humboldt Universitaet zu Berlin, Washington and Lee University, University of Alabama, SUNY Albany, and Cambridge University.
  • Strohminger, N & Nichols, S (2016, June). Presented grant related work at the Society for Philosophy and Psychology’s pre-conference on “transformative experiences.”
  • Strohminger, N (2016, April). The self: Adventures in experimental philosophy. Presented at the Conversations in cognition series at Yale University.
  • Gomez-Lavin, J. (2017, March). Parole and the moral self. SSPP annual meeting in Savannah, GA. Won prize for best graduate student presentation.
  • Gomez-Lavin, J. (2017, June). Borders of the moral self. Presented at the Self, Motivation and Virtue Project’s second grand awardee meeting in Norman, Oklahoma.
  • Gomez-Lavin, J. & Fingerhut, J. (2017, August). Music and the aesthetic self. Poster presented at the VSAC annual meeting in Berlin, Germany.
  • Gomez-Lavin, J. & Fingerhut, J. (2017, November). Music and the aesthetic self. Presented at the annual American Society for Aesthetics meeting in New Orleans, LA.
  • Prinz, J. (2017, February). The moral self. Lecture given at the Berlin School of Mind and Brain winter school.
  • Prinz, J. (2017, May). Lecture on the moral self given at the Roosevelt House, New York.
  • Prinz, J. (2017, May). Presentation on the moral self given at the Moral Injury Conference at Hunter College.
  • Prinz, J. (2017, June). Presentation on the moral self given in Basel, Switzerland.
  • In 2018, Professor Prinz will give lectures and invited talk on the moral self effect at the following venues:
    • Tokoyo University (January),
    • Berlin School of Mind and Brain (February),
    • Clemson (March),
    • Duke (June).

Publications & Manuscripts

  • Prinz, J. & Nichols, S. (2016). Diachronic identity and the moral self. In J. Kiverstein (ed.), Handbook of the Social Mind. Routledge.
  • Prinz, J. (In progress). Book manuscript on the moral self. To be submitted to Oxford University Press by December 2018.
  • Prinz, J. (forthcoming). Empathy and the moral self. In S. Silva (ed.), Morality and Emotion: New Interdisciplinary Landscapes. Routledge.
  • Prinz, J. (forthcoming). Moral sedimentation. In G. Caruso (ed.), Neuroexistentialism. Oxford University Press.
  • Prinz, J. (forthcoming). Neo-classical sentimentalism. In R. Debes & K .Stuber (eds.), Ethical Sentimentalism. Cambridge University Press.
  • Strohminger, N. (forthcoming). Identity is essentially moral. In K. Gray & J. Graham (eds.), Atlas of Moral Psychology.
  • Prinz, J. (forthcoming). Transformative experience and the moral self. In E. Lambert & J. Schwenkler (eds.), Transformative Experience. Oxford University Press.
  • Gomez-Lavin, J. & Prinz, J. (Revise and Resubmit). Parole and the moral self: Moral change mitigates responsibility. Journal of Moral Education.
  • Gomez-Lavin, J., Fingerhut, J., & Prinz, J. (In progress). Immigration and the moral self.
  • Gomez-Lavin, J., Fingerhut, J., & Prinz, J. (In progress). The aesthetic self.
  • Strohminger, N., Gomez-Lavin, J., Nichols, S., & Prinz, J. (Under review). Expansive interdisciplinary and the moral self. Invited chapter for the SMV Project edited volume.
  • Strohminger, N., Gomez-Lavin, J., Nichols, S., & Prinz, J. (In progress). Moralization and value: Uncovering the mechanisms of the moral self.


Proposal - 2015 IMF