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Morality and science

Published May 17, 2003; Category: EVENTS

Conference to explore effects of scientific data on  philosophical debates

Moral philosophy is no longer just for humanists, as organizers of an upcoming conference intend to demonstrate. Scholars from philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, education and biology will come together at Dartmouth from Thursday, May 20, to Sunday, May 23, to compare notes about the insights each discipline offers in understanding the human capacity for moral reasoning.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Event organizer and professor of philosophy Walter Sinnott-Armstrong said the conference, titled "The Psychology and Biology of Morality," melds the natural sciences with philosophy in a way that hasn't always been accepted.

"Some traditional philosophers still deny that empirical science can teach us anything about morality. But more and more philosophers are interested in what neuroscience can tell us about the brain and the new approaches it suggests for classic questions in moral philosophy," said Sinnott-Armstrong.

The conference will be the culminating event of a 10-week institute, sponsored by the Leslie Humanities Center, which brought together 10 scholars from Dartmouth and elsewhere to discuss the topic intensively. Support for the conference came from the Leslie Humanities Center, the Dickey Center Endowment, the MALS program, the social brain sciences initiative, the Ethics Institute and the departments of philosophy and psychological and brain sciences.

Age-old philosophical debates, such as whether moral reasoning springs from emotion or from reason, could take on added dimensions through the consideration of scientific data, Sinnott-Armstrong said. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, for example, researchers have found that parts of the brain associated with emotion play roles in processing some moral dilemmas, but not all of them. Understanding why different kinds of moral dilemmas are processed in different ways could create greater insight for philosophers, Sinnott-Armstrong said.

"If you want to know whether you can trust your vision, you need to know that maybe your color vision isn't very good at twilight. In the same way, to know whether or not you can trust your moral judgment, you need to know when your moral belief-forming processes are unreliable," he said. 

Topics to be discussed at the conference include the evolution of moral belief, the locations in the brain where beliefs are processed, how cognitive structures affect moral belief and what this additional knowledge can tell scholars about the reliability of moral belief.

One of the most prominent speakers at the international conference will be Duke University philosopher Owen Flanagan, who was among the first scholars to suggest that empirical psychology should influence moral philosophy. In 1999 he was invited to participate in a conference with the Dalai Lama on the topic of destructive emotions. The event was the basis of the recent book Beyond Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Collaboration With the Dalai Lama.

A full list of speakers and topics for the conference, which is free and open to the public, is online, or call Sinnott-Armstrong at  646-3807.

By TAMARA STEINERT

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Last Updated: 12/17/08