The science of overcrowded life boats and other moral dilemmas

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

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 is "unprecedented."

"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 they suggest for classic questions in moral philosophy," said Sinnott-Armstrong.

A good example is the age-old philosophical debate about whether moral reasoning springs from emotion or reason. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, 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.

Speakers at the international conference will include Duke University philosopher Owen Flanagan, one of 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 emotion

Contact: Tamara L. Steinert
Dartmouth College

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