The Big Questions Three BC professors received grants from the John Templeton foundation to study philosophy and psychology issues.

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orn in Tennessee in 1912, the late Sir John Templeton was known for open-mindedness and an eagerness to learn. When the John Templeton Foundation was founded in 1987, it continued his work toward answering what the Foundation now calls “Big Questions,” according to its website. This year, the John Templeton Foundation administered grants to three BC professors. Psychology professor Liane Young and her lab received the largest grant—at $2,743,961—to support her project, “Reasoning in Moral Thought and Action.”

This year, the John Templeton Foundation administered grants to three BC professors. Psychology professor Liane Young and her lab received the largest grant—at $2,743,961—to support her project “Reasoning in Moral Thought and Action.”

“We’re really interested in the psychological processes that drive our moral thinking,” Young said about her research. “So, how we make moral decisions ourselves in our daily lives, but also how we evaluate other people when they behave in certain ways that are morally relevant.”

Young’s fascination with human morality has taken her on an intricate, twisted path—one that started just across the Charles River.

Spending her undergraduate years at Harvard University, where she was a philosophy major, Young was originally intrigued by how so much of the world’s population could have differing opinions on moral questions, such as abortion and euthanasia, but all were convinced that they had the correct answer. Young said she initially hoped to go on to medical school but soon found herself veering further and further away from that plan. After deciding to go to grad school for psychology, she quickly realized that she didn’t need to limit herself to studying her interests through any specific academic scope. 

“I’ve known for a while now that it’s less that I’ve been interested in psychology or philosophy but more that I’ve been interested in morality for a really long time,” Young said.

Young grew up in Boston, attended college and graduate school in the Boston area, and, after completing her postdoc at MIT, fell in love with BC’s psychology department.

“I didn’t plan to stay in Boston for all of these different phases,” Young said. “I thought for sure that at some point, I would be spending time somewhere else either for grad school or for my postdoc, or for my job, so I definitely feel really lucky that I’ve been able to stay.”

Young is now the principal investigator in BC’s Morality Lab. Comprised of 16 members—researchers, lab assistants, graduate students, and one dog, Lindy, who the team has dubbed a “post-dogtoral researcher”—the Morality Lab has grown and shifted its focus since Young arrived at BC. The Morality Lab’s alumni include a quantitative researcher, assistant professors at a number of established universities, and postdocs at colleges across the country.

Young came to campus in 2011 after having just received her first grant from the John Templeton Foundation, which she used to look at the influence of people’s beliefs on moral behaviors. At the time, the Morality Lab consisted of just her, a full-time lab manager, and two graduate students. 

Nine years and two more grants from the John Templeton Foundation later, Young and her team in the Morality Lab applied for their latest and largest grant. They wanted to figure out what psychologically drives human moral thinking—how people make moral decisions, how they evaluate other people’s moral behavior, and how relational and social context impacts judgment of others.

Young’s impact on the members of her lab is palpable, according to Minjae Kim, a graduate student who works under Young in the Morality Lab. Kim spoke to her distinct leadership style.

“She’s an incredible mentor. I think something that we really appreciate about her is that she’s very enthusiastic about … [theoretically] oriented ideas,” Kim said. “Given her enthusiasm for taking these many different approaches and seeing what we can learn from a combination of approaches, I’m learning a lot about those different methods.”

For Young and her lab, morality spans a vast variety of topics. Beliefs, behavior, and social interaction impact how we think about ourselves and others, she said, while neural mechanisms also play into these thought processes. 

One of the most crucial parts of Young’s new project in the lab is right in the name: “Reasoning and Moral Thought and Action.” Amid collecting physical data to get to the core of the research, Young is also focusing on reintroducing a need for reason in moral reasoning.

“We wanted to push back against this idea that moral psychology is all intuitive and mostly irrational and [instead] think about the ways in which reason can make an impact and how to bring back a focus on moral reasoning,” Young said. 

Though Young has watched her lab and its goals shift as young members come and go,  she said that she is just as excited about BC’s psychology department and her fellow professors as she was when she first visited nine years ago.

“That’s sort of one thing that hasn’t changed, which is just … the sense of community in the department,” Young said. “I really enjoy coming to work.”

Young isn’t concerned by the Morality Lab’s large-scale changes in approach and aim—she feels prepared for whatever might be thrown her way. 

“I think that the goal is to just grow the new generation of scholars who are interested in world psychology from this truly interdisciplinary perspective to become real experts in the methods that we use in neuroscience and psychology,” Young said. 

Young isn’t the only professor receiving a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to have strayed from her intended academic path. Now a faculty member in BC’s philosophy department, professor Daniel McKaughan spent his undergraduate years at the University of Oregon studying chemistry and biology. Initially pursuing pre-med, McKaughan ran into a slight problem—he was squeamish around blood. So he switched gears. Like Young, McKaughan found himself wanting to answer big-picture questions.

“I didn’t take a philosophy class until my senior year, and, in fact, it was a course called ‘Love and Personal and Political Life,’” he said. “I was intrigued and impressed by philosophers’ ability to think clearly about sort of big questions and a topic like love.”

McKaughan has been at BC for 12 years, pursuing information on topics such as faith and trust. The philosophy department, he said, has an openness when it comes to exploring questions about religion and philosophy—the exact interests the John Templeton Foundation is allowing him to combine through the grant McKaughan and his team recently received for his project, “Philosophy, Theology, and Psychology of Christian Trust in God.”

McKaughan said the process of applying for his largest grant yet was time consuming and risky. 

“The amount of time that needs to go into writing a good proposal that’s … going to be compelling to funders is really comparable to what might go into writing academic articles or even writing a book proposal,” he said.

McKaughan’s project examines the concept of Christian trust in God through philosophical, theological, and psychological lenses. McKaughan is examining why the word “faith” may have a negative connotation in Christian discourse—on account of the fact that faith is believing without having sufficient evidence. But McKaughan is pushing people to step outside of a purely theological view of faith, he said.

“It was sort of recognizing that a lot of social relationships depend on us placing our trust or faith in others to come through for us in various ways,” McKaughan said. “Then you can see why it would be considered virtuous for [someone] to be faithful or trustworthy and to actually come through.” 

Like Young, McKaughan is embarking on redefining the way a popular topic in his field of work—philosophy—is viewed. He’s asking the big-picture questions that the John Templeton Grant funds—what faith is; how it relates to topics such as belief, hope, and doubt; and in what ways they are different.

McKaughan speaks precisely and articulately, talking about his field of expertise with a relaxed air about him. Honing in on the idea that a person can have faith in God while still lacking full confidence in their belief in God, he compared faith to winning the lottery. Though there is only a one in 250 million chance of winning the lottery, he said, the hope of winning still drives people to buy tickets.

McKaughan’s team consists of philosophers, theologists, and psychologists. Each department uses their expertise to work towards the best final product.

“I think that’s one of the exciting things about the project,” McKaughan said. “ … [that] it is this sort of rich interdisciplinary interaction, but that also it takes some work.”

The John Templeton Foundation also awarded the grant to professor Katherine McAuliffe, another member of the psychology department, for her lab’s project, “Building Virtue: Environmental and Social Influences on the Development of Fairness, Forgiveness, Honesty and Trustworthiness.” 

Her journey to BC’s psychology department started at Dalhousie University and King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she took joint classes at both schools and eventually earned her bachelor’s degree in marine biology. Despite her degree centering around animal tendencies, McAuliffe tied in aspects of psychology to her studies, which would eventually lead to her career at BC.

While in Halifax, McAuliffe studied whale culture—or more specifically, the question of whether whales have something that looks like culture in the human sense. After living in Nova Scotia, she continued on to a one-year program at the University of Cambridge, where she examined primate cooperation and the evolution of babysitting in primates. She said that this experience solidified her interest in the psychology of cooperation, noting that humans are much more likely to let a non-family member care for their child for an extended period of time than primates are.

Moving from studying whales to primates to dingoes and different species of fish, McAuliffe eventually honed in on whether animals care about being fair.

“And the answer that I got was basically that animals don’t really care about fairness in the way that humans do,” she said.

So McAuliffe switched gears. She began to apply the tests that she had been running on different animals to children. Her basic finding was that kids as young as 4 had a solid grasp on fairness and that it played a large role in their decisions when it came to interactions in a group.

“How do children develop the concept of a group? How do those groups influence the way people think about fairness?,” McAuliffe asked herself and her colleagues. Now in her fourth year at BC, McAuliffe and her team at the Cooperation Lab are working toward finding the answers. 

The lab’s motto is “we study the forces that shape and sustain cooperative societies.” For McAuliffe and her team, this project involves working with both young children and adults. She focuses on topics such as the interest of a group versus self-interest, and how people reconcile the gap between their own interests and those of others.

Not only has McAuliffe transferred her initial interest in marine biology to the world of human psychology, but she’s taken strides to reassess the way psychologists approach their studies. The majority of psychological studies, McAuliffe said, are from what is known as the W.E.I.R.D. population—western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic people.

“Not only does this represent one particular slice of the human population, it’s also probably not super representative of how humans have been existing for our history,” McAuliffe said. “And yet, often, we make claims in psychology papers that are very general about human development and human psychology.”

Her team transfers the goal of diversifying psychology studies that McAullife has in mind to the actual work it does in the lab. Richard Ahl, a postdoctoral fellow in the Cooperation Lab, explained how widening the pool of subjects applies to the Cooperation Lab studying children.

“[We are] looking at children, how children of different ages in different cultures behave fairly, honestly, and in a trustworthy and forgiving way—looking at how those behaviors develop as kids get older in different places,” Ahl said.

McAuliffe and her team have conducted the studies for the grant they received from the John Templeton Foundation in the United States, Canada, Ecuador, Peru, and Uganda, and they are currently in the process of planning a trip to India. They’re looking for information on how children perform tasks based on their conceptions of fairness, forgiveness, honesty, and trustworthiness. McAuliffe said she hopes that in each place it visits, her team gathers a wide cultural scope that can give an answer to her questions.

“A lot of virtue development has to do with how people become good people … how do we become the best versions of ourselves?” McAuliffe said. “And I think that’s fully in line with this idea of character formation and the BC tradition and the Jesuit tradition.”

Note: McAullife and the Cooperation Lab are currently still looking for members for this spring semester and the summer. If interested, Professor McAullife can be contacted at [email protected]

Featured Images by Maggie DiPatri / Heights Editor, Aneesa Wermers / Heights Staff

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About Maeve Reilly