These Scientists Just Got a $4 Million Grant to Study the World’s Nicest Humans

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Portrait of happy young woman.
Photo: stefan kranefeld/Westend61 / Stefan Kranefeld

We spend a lot of time and energy worrying about the worst of humanity, and for good reason — the liars, the crooks, and the sociopaths cause terrible problems, both to individual lives and society at large. But what about the other end of the moral spectrum: the people who are consistently and exceptionally good? Researchers at Wake Forest University recently won a $3.9 million grant intended to fund a three-year research initiative studying the most morally upright people they can find, nominated by the people who know them. They hope that these “moral superstars,” as the researchers dubbed them, will provide some lessons for the rest of us on how to be good. 

Will Fleeson, a Wake Forest psychologist who is leading the project, hopes to include both people who act in small, everyday ways for the good of their community, and people who make huge and costly sacrifices, like anonymous kidney donors. “These are everyday people,” Fleeson said. “They don’t get celebrations; they often never even meet the person they’re helping. They’re never directly thanked.”

But then there are the obvious questions: Whose definition of morality are we using here? And is it more moral to resist temptations — or does the truly morally superior person never feel tempted in the first place? For Fleeson, the complexity of questions like these makes the whole thing feel even more exciting. “We’re going to start with a common-sense definition of morality — compassionate, fair, generous, honest,” Fleeson said. “But even on that, people can differ. What’s compassionate? What’s fair? Even on our team we have different opinions about morality — we have both liberals and conservatives on our team.”

Fleeson uses differing opinions over reproductive rights to make his point over the trickiness of defining morality. People who are pro-choice might see someone like Dr. David Burkons — an Ohio ob-gyn who recently opened a clinic that provides abortions in a state with increasing abortion restrictions — as a kind of moral superstar. Those with opposing views, on the other hand, might see an anti-abortion activist as being exceptionally moral. “Within their two sides, they’re going to be looked at as heroes — and on the opposite sides, as villains,” Fleeson said. He wants to study both sides, to see if and how they differ on a psychological and cognitive level. 

About half of the grant will be awarded to scholars — psychologists, yes, but also philosophers and theologians, Fleeson said — who come up with exciting and innovative ways to study morality. Fleeson said it’s about time researchers started to take the study of morality as seriously as something like cognitive ability. “We spend a tremendous amount of energy identifying cognitive talent,” he said, “and yet morality is at least as important as cognitive ability.”