Ethics, Meta-Ethics, and Moral Psychology


Ethics is one of the central areas of philosophy. It ranges from ethical problems and applied philosophy, to ethical theories concerning how we should act (normative ethics), to fundamental issues in metaphysics, epistemology, and psychology that are raised by ethics (metaethics and moral psychology). It has deep roots in the history of philosophy, while it can also be approached independently of this history. It can also be studied in an interdisciplinary manner, for example by drawing on insights from psychology, evolutionary theory, economics, politics, and history. Once rather side-lined as a subject, ethics is now seen as fundamental, and a field which allows for exciting and highly relevant research.

Sheffield has considerable and widely recognized strengths in this area, with researchers working on both individual projects, and also collaboratively. Staff have been successful in attracting grant funding for work on ethical constructivism, and moral and intellectual character traits. Jimmy Lenman was a founding member of the British Society of Ethical Theory (BSET), Chris Bennett has been editor of the Journal of Applied Philosophy and Max Khan Hayward is associate editor of the Journal of Moral Philosophy. The department also hosts the Centre for Engaged Philosophy, which applies its research in ethics to contemporary issues and problems. Sheffield runs the ‘God and the Good’ lecture series <>, which has invited leading contemporary thinkers to discuss the relation between religion and ethics. The department also hosts the well-known ‘Understanding Value’ conference for the past nine years, which is organized by our graduates and has attracted a range of high-profile academic speakers, as well as showcasing working from early career researchers and postgraduate students. The postgraduate ethics community at Sheffield is particularly lively, with several reading groups in this area, and a good placement record for graduates in this field. We also offer a range of exciting undergraduate modules in ethics, based around our research.

Normative Ethics

Jimmy Lenman is very interested in how relevant an action’s consequences are to determining whether it is right or wrong and to what extent moral relations between people are illuminatingly to be compared to contractual relations. Max Khan Hayward has written about utilitarianism and effective altruism, and is working on a project about utilitarianism and cooperation. Bob Stern has worked on Kantian ethics, and has developed Hegel’s well-known ‘empty formalism objection’ to Kant’s account of the formula of universal law.

Several members of the department work on the issue of trust and its fundamental role in ethics. Paul Faulkner works on the nature of trust and the second personal obligations we have to one another: namely, how we owe it to the trusting person in particular to respond to them in a trustworthy manner. Yonatan Shemmer is interested in how trust relates to consent and friendship. He is writing about the nature of trust and its relation to friendship, and is researching consent in the sexual and the medical context. Bob Stern works on this topic through his research into the ethical thinking of the Danish philosopher and theologian K. E. Løgstrup, who made trust fundamental to his account of our vulnerability to each other, on the basis of which he argued that we are under a ‘radical demand’ to care for their interests. 

Ryan Byerly is interested in virtues and vices of individuals and groups. He has written, for example, about faith, humility, others-centeredness, and wisdom. He is currently collaborating with psychologists to develop measures of overlooked character traits. Bob Stern has just co-written a paper on whether hope should be considered a virtue (arguing it should), while Paul Faulkner is working on faith. Bob Stern is also interested in whether virtues can be acquired. Angie Hobbs works on many issues within a framework of an ethics of flourishing and virtue: particularly love and desire; friendship; courage, heroism and fame; war and peace.

Chris Bennett has written about the justification of punishment; about blame, apology and forgiveness; and about the nature and possible justification of retribution and retributive emotions such as resentment, indignation, guilt, and remorse. Yonatan Shemmer works on issues raised by freedom of speech.

Eric Olson has worked on the issue of death, and the ancient view, attributed to Epicurus, that if there is no afterlife it cannot be bad to die. Jimmy Lenman has written about how we should think about the prospects of death and human extinction. Jules Holroyd has written about what feminists might have to contribute to the question of what a good life consists in.

Ethics also has close connections to issues in political and social philosophy, philosophy of gender and race,, philosophy of education, and environmental philosophy.

Representative publications:

  • Bennett, C. (2002). “The varieties of retributive experience”. Philosophical Quarterly.
  • Bennett, C. (2008). The Apology Ritual: A Philosophical Theory of Punishment. Cambridge University Press.
  • Bennett, C. (2018). “The alteration thesis: Forgiveness as a normative power”. Philosophy and Public Affairs.
  • Byerly, T. R. (2019). Putting Others First: The Christian Ideal of Others-Centeredness. Routledge.
  • Faulkner, P. (2014). “The moral obligations of trust”. Philosophical Explorations.
  • Faulkner, P. (2018). “Giving the benefit of the doubt”. International Journal of Philosophical Studies.
  • Hayward, M. K. (2020). “Utility cascades”. Analysis. 
  • Hobbs, A. (2020). “Women, heroism and World War 1” in Mobilizing Cultural Identities in the First World War: History, Representations and Memory, eds. F. Pedriali and C. Savattieri. Palgrave Press
  • Holroyd J. (2015). “Feminism and well-being” in The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Well-Being, ed. G. Fletcher. Routledge
  • Lenman, J. (2000). "Consequentialism and cluelessness". Philosophy and Public Affairs.
  • Lenman, J. (2002). “On becoming extinct". Pacific Philosophical Quarterly.
  • Lenman, J. (2008). “Contractualism and risk imposition”. Politics, Philosophy and Economics 
  • Lenman (2017) "La révolution est un bloc? Wallace on affirmation and regret". Journal of Applied Philosophy
  • Olson, E. (2013). ‘“The epicurean view of death”. Journal of Ethics.
  • Stern, R. (2015). Kantian Ethics. Oxford University Press.
  • Stern, R. (2019). The Radical Demand in Løgstrup’s Ethics. Oxford University Press.
  • Stern, R [with B. Han-Pile] (forthcoming). “Is hope a secular virtue? Hope as the virtue of the possible”. In N. Snow (ed), Hope. Oxford University Press.


Jimmy Lenman specialises in metaethics. He is especially interested in debates around realism, expressivism, constructivism, and scepticism about the normative domain. He is interested in making sense of what we are talking about when we go in for normative thought and talk and what it might be to do so well or badly. Yonatan Shemmer and Bob Stern have also written on the issue of constructivism. Shemmer has written on normative objectivity, subjectivism, reasons and autonomy. Max Khan Hayward also works in metaethics. He is primarily interested in debates about moral realism and objectivity. Niall Connolly has worked on moral fictionalism. Bob Stern is particularly concerned with the issue of moral obligation, and whether this idea makes sense outside a religious context that treats God as the source of these obligations, either as commander or as creator.

Representative publications:

  • Lenman (2010). “Humean constructivism in moral theory”. Oxford Studies in Metaethics.
  • Lenman (2013). “Ethics without errors”. Ratio.
  • Lenman (2019). “An Ecumenical Matter?” Philosophical Quarterly.
  • Lenman, J. & Shemmer, Y. eds (2012). Constructivism in Practical Philosophy. Oxford University Press.
  • Hayward, M. K. (2019). “Immoral realism”. Philosophical Studies. 
  • Shemmer, Y. (2012). “Constructing coherence”. In J.Lenman and Y. Shemmer (eds), Constructivism in Practical Philosophy. Oxford University Press.
  • Shemmer, Y. (2016). “Objectivity and idolatry”. Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume.
  • Shemmer, Y. (2019). “Subjectivism about Future Reasons or The Guise of Caring”. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.
  • Stern, R. (2012). Understanding Moral Obligation. Cambridge University Press.

Moral psychology

Max Khan Hayward is interested in the role of reason and emotion in moral judgement, an interest he shares with Chris Bennett and James Lenman. Max has also worked on the nature of rationality, asking what constraints - if any - rationality places upon choices, preferences and desires. Yonatan Shemmer is particularly interested in practical reason and subjectivism. Luca Barlassina and Stephen Laurence are interested in the cognitive underpinnings of moral judgment and they have conducted experimental work in this area. Stephen has focused on the relationship between culture and morality, while Luca has been writing on the interplay between normative and descriptive judgments. Jules Holroyd has written about decision making and how to characterise what it is for a decision to be biased, as well as how we might make better, non-biased - and in particular, non-discriminatory- decisions.

Representative publications:

  • Barrett, H. C., …, and Laurence, S. (2016). “Small-scale societies exhibit fundamental variation in the role of intentions in moral judgment”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
  • Bennett, C. (2020). “Russell on naturalism and practical reason”. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice.
  • Hayward, M. K. (2019). “Practical reason, sympathy and reactive attitudes”. Noûs 
  • Holroyd, J., Scaife, R. & Stafford, T. (2017). “What is implicit bias?” Philosophy Compass.
  • Lenman, J. (2008). “The politics of the self”. In L. Bortolotti (ed), Philosophy and Happiness. Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Lenman, J. (2018). "The primacy of the passions". In A. Bergqvist and R. Cowan (eds), Evaluative Perception. Oxford University Press.
  • Reuter, K…, and L. Barlassina (2014). “The good, the bad, and the timely: How temporal order and moral judgment influence causal selection”. Frontiers in Psychology.