Culture and the quest for universal principles in moral reasoning

Sonya Sachdeva*, Purnima Singh, Douglas Medin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

57 Scopus citations


The importance of including cultural perspectives in the study of human cognition has become apparent in recent decades, and the domain of moral reasoning is no exception. The present review focuses on moral cognition, beginning with Kohlberg's model of moral development which relies heavily on people's justifications for their judgments and then shifting to more recent theories that rely on rapid, intuitive judgments and see justifications as more or less irrelevant to moral cognition. Despite this dramatic shift, analyses of culture and moral decision-making have largely been framed as a quest for and test of universal principles of moral judgment. In this review, we discuss challenges that remain in trying to understand crosscultural variability in moral values and the processes that underlie moral cognition. We suggest that the universalist framework may lead to an underestimation of the role of culture in moral reasoning. Although the field has made great strides in incorporating more and more cultural perspectives in order to understand moral cognition, theories of moral reasoning still do not allow for substantial variation in how people might conceptualize the domain of the moral. The processes that underlie moral cognition may not be a human universal in any simple sense, because moral systems may play different roles in different cultures. We end our review with a discussion of work that remains to be done to understand cultural variation in the moral domain.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)161-176
Number of pages16
JournalInternational Journal of Psychology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 2011


  • Cognition
  • Cultural psychology
  • Moral reasoning
  • Sociocultural approaches

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • General Psychology


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