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The science of overcrowded life boats and other moral dilemmas

Scientists join philosophers at Dartmouth to discuss the relationship between the brain's structure and function and the human capacity for moral reasoning

Dartmouth College

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 emotions. The event was the basis of the recent book Beyond Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Collaboration With the Dalai Lama. Michael Gazzaniga, director of Dartmouth's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and a pioneer in the cognitive neuroscience and neuroethics fields, will also speak at the conference. Gazzaniga is especially known for his split-brain research and is a member of President Bush's national Council on Bioethics.

Some of the topics to be discussed at the conference are 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.

The conference is the culminating event of a term-long institute that brought together 10 scholars to study and discuss the topic intensively. A full list of speakers and topics for the conference, which is free and open to the public, is online at or by calling Walter Sinnott-Armstrong at 603-646-3807.


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