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Ethics, Moral Intuitions, and Science

I had a past discussion with Alex Novack (the club's founder) about ethics. Alex has a PhD in the philosophy of science and ethics was not his particular area of interest in philosophy. One question that Alex was puzzled by when he studied ethics was why (most) philosophers test their ethical theories against our moral intuitions. "Why must our ethical theories conform to our moral intuitions?" was the gist of his question. Why not come up with ethical theories, and if they conflict with our moral intutions, discard our moral intutions? We will see if we can answer that question, as well as address several other related questions - in particular those questions about ethics and moral intution which have been brought to the forefront in recent times by neuroimaging research.  These issues are particularly relevant to one ethical theory: conquesentialism/utilitarianism, as one major "strike" against utilitariianism is its alleged counterintuitive conclusions.

Does recent neuroimaging research in moral intuitions support one moral theory (utilitarianism) over others (specificially deontology)? Some philosophers, notably Peter Singer, contend that it does.

From Singer's abstract:

For millennia, philosophers have speculated about the origins of ethics. Recent research in evolutionary psychology and the neurosciences has shed light on that question. But this research also has normative significance. A standardway of arguing against a normative ethical theory is to show that in some circumstances the theory leads to judgments that are contrary to our common moral intuitions. If, however, these moral intuitions are the biological residue of our evolutionary history, it is not clear why we should regard them as having any normative force. Research in the neurosciences should therefore lead us to reconsider the role of intuitions in normative ethics.

However, others think otherwise, and suggest that neuroimaging has little if any normative significance.

If we better understand the origin and nature of our moral intuitions, what - if anything - does this tell us about ethical theory? Peter Singer suggests that understanding the evolutionary origins of some of our moral intutions supports impartiality over rational egoism. In other words, once we realize that the origin of our intuitions to be egoists is evolutionary in origin, this gives us reason to not trust this intuition. We can be more confident of an intuition that impartiality is important (unsurprisingly impartiality is the basis of Singer's utilitarian philosophy) - because it is not obviously evolutionary in origin - or so Singer argues. This is what is called a "debunking" argument in philosophy - revealing the origin of an intuition as due to a non-truth tracking process (e.g. evolution which tracks survival) casts doubt upon its validity.

A discussion of Singer's paper on a professional philosopher's group blog is below.

As usual, no preparatory reading is absolutely necessary, the first two links would probably be the most useful if you wanted to do at least some reading.

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  • A former member
    A former member

    Wish I could come! This sounds really good. I'm gonna post a discussion thread in lieu of attending. Have fun!

    June 19, 2013

  • Adam

    I'll be working late, unfortunately.

    June 19, 2013

  • Michael

    I came across an excellent presentation by Joshua Greene on YouTube that covers roughly the same material, but with some new stuff thrown in, some objections addressed, and a Q&A:

    June 19, 2013

  • Victor M.

    More about the venue: The Aspira building is on the corner of Terry and Stewart St., in the South Lake Union area. Parking on the street, in nearby lots, and in the building ($2/hr - entrance from alley). Please RSVP if coming. Meet in lobby, the concierge will have a list of RSVPs. The meetup will be on the 11th floor conference room/lounge but you need to be on the concierge list to get in. An organizer, probably myself, will be in the lobby to help if needed until 7:00pm.

    June 14, 2013

  • Steph

    Look forward to meeting you all!

    June 13, 2013

  • Josi


    June 9, 2013

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