Final Essay

The goal of the final essay is to take an intrinsically interesting question about morality (one you could imagine discussing in your dorm room late at night), and develop a well-reasoned well-written argument for an answer, based on a sophisticated analysis of neuroscientific evidence. This requires understanding how to translate interesting questions into neuroscientifically testable hypotheses, how to evaluate and connect existing neuroscientific methods and results, and how to structure an argument based on evidence.

Possible essay questions include: Is morality uniquely human? Is morality innate? Could we make people more moral by helping them to be more empathetic? Is psychology a disease of the moral faculty? If humans are moral, why is there war? Is morality the opposite of selfishness? What isthe neuroscientific difference between a murderer, a terrorist, and a soldier? Is the special concern parents have for their children the opposite or the origin of human morality? Why do people cheat? What has neuroscience taught us about morality?

Students will work on their final essay throughout the semester.


Choose a question (from the list above, or propose your own). Select 6-9 papers from the list of papers in Readings, and for each one, in one sentence say how you expect that paper to be relevant to your question.

Draft 1 and Additional Reading Proposal

The draft aims to develop and define the question, and argue for the answer, by evaluating and integrating evidence from the chosen papers. Aproximately 3000 words. The reading proposal is informal: a description or list of questions or claims that might be interesting to expand or strengthen by drawing from additional independent readings. Around one page. Feedback will focus on improving the writing and developing the plan for future reading.

Draft 2: A complete draft of the final essay

Approximately 5000 words. Feedback will focus on the logical structure and scientific content.

Final Essay

A well-written, well-reasoned, original argument.

Essays that receive an A in this course have all of the following qualities:

  • Make a claim: not just an overview of a topic, but a persuasive argument for a specific view, idea, or answer.
  • Based on scientific evidence, including neuroscientific evidence (e.g. from fMRI, TMS, lesion studies, optogenetics, neuropharmacological interventions, neurological disorders).
  • Conceptual precision: use key technical terms clearly, provide definitions when helpful.
  • Novel insight: identify links or connections across papers or topics.
  • Critical evaluation: base claims on the original data, potentially critiquing the authors' interpretation.
  • Strong logical structure: organize the evidence to clarify and support the claim.
  • Good sentences: few unnecessary words, strong verbs, relatively simple sintax

All written work should contain in-text citations to your sources (name, date) and a complete bibliography at the end of the essay in APA format.

Final Exam

The goal of the final exam is to create an incentive for students to take time at the end of the course to integrate what they have learned, and practice using their ideas to make creative and synthetic arguments in real time. The main purpose of the exam is therefore to incentivize preparing for the exam — the learning happens during the preparation.

The exam is 12 open-ended essay questions, of which students must choose and respond to 4. The exam lasts 3 hours, and is open book and computer (including all of your notes), but no internet (there's no time for new research, anyway). Essays are typically 600-1000 words long.

Expample exam questions from last year:

"As measured by the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, 'Harm' is a moral principle that almost everyone endorces. Yet cultures, genders, and individuals do differ in how much harm they are willing to commit. How can we reconcile these two observations?"

"If you had access to the Cuban twins registry —all of the twins in Cuba— and unlimited time on an MRI machine in Havana, what experiment would you do (relevant to the neuroscience of morality) and why?"

During the semester, I provide two practice exams (6 questions each) to help students prepare themselves. To increase the incentive to do the practice exams, one question on the final exam includes a question from the practice exam. If you already have a prepared answer to this question, you will only write 3 essays during the 3 hour exam, a much easier task.