Appiah, On Morality

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Kwame Anthony Appiah.

Kwame Anthony Appiah. Source: Denise Applewhite hide caption

itoggle caption Source: Denise Applewhite

As I read Kwame Anthony Appiah's new book, Experiments in Ethics, I realized that we've started a series without knowing it: "[Insert name of eminent scholar here], On Morality."

Last month, Steven Pinker, who teaches psychology at Harvard, joined us to talk about an article he wrote for The New York Times Magazine about a new trend: scientists who are interested in philosophical questions. The show — and the conversation on the blog — were lively.

"Morality is clearly a judgment that comes out of our emotions and our reason," Pinker told us. "It's a psychological phenomenon which may have objective counterparts but it certainly has psychological counterparts."

Now that we've heard from a scientist interested in philosophy, we'll hear from a philosopher who is interested in how science may define, or redefine, his discipline. Appiah argues that "experimental philosophy" began with Plato and Aristotle, and that it is something to which we should return. He says biology, neuroscience, psychology, and other sciences can help us understand how we make moral judgments.

We want to know what guides your moral decisions? Character? Situation? Intuition? Example? Be specific.



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i am a recovering herion addict and a large part of the 12 step program is developing a morality based upon accountability to a group and a higher power. i've found that surveillance isn't so much a motivator as much as wanting to be "a part of" - this has worked for me in terms of my drug use but also in other moral areas including an altruism that i never had before. is morality contagious?

Sent by dennis anonymous | 3:35 PM | 2-13-2008

While the experiments described by the author reveal interesting psychological phenomena, it doesn't appear to me that they have much to do with philosophy. It is certainly interesting and useful to know that environmental irritants may affect a person's altruistic impulses, for example, but that is a separate question from whether or not a given action is morally justified or ethically reprehensible. It seems to me that the former question is one of psychology while the latter is one of philosophy. In other words, what is moral is a different question from what factors affect whether or not people behave morally. These different sorts of questions define the difference between disciplines like psychology and philosophy.

Sent by Kirk Rader | 3:37 PM | 2-13-2008

Like this subject so much because it allows me to reflect on altruistic and moral actions of folks I know and how some (notice I said some) religious friends act in a pseudo moral manner because its required for their religious dogma. Whereas non religious friends who will do what is right, moral or altruistic because they see the bigger picture and see that their action will radiate out like the whole 'play it forward' idea. I do what is right because I like the mental, physical feeling I get from doing so.

Sent by MotherLodeBeth | 3:58 PM | 2-13-2008