Experimental philosophers rejoice! According to a USC press release, a new paper in Nature is giving us important results, and “provides the first causal account of the role of emotions in moral judgments.”
I particularly like how they are selling this as having applications to the humanities.
By showing that humans are neurologically unfit for strict utilitarian thinking, the study suggests that neuroscience may be able to test different philosophies for compatibility with human nature.
Note to writers issuing releases to Eureka Alert: for heaven’s sake, why not give the title of the paper in the press releases, and maybe the authors’ names? And on this fancy thing called the Internet, a link to the publication would be grand.
To remedy this, dear readers, I offer you the glorious link to the advance online publication (subscription required):
The authors are Michael Koenigs, Liane Young, Ralph Adolphs, Daniel Tranel, Fiery Cushman, Marc Hauser and Antonio Damasio. If that last name is familiar, it might be because he wrote Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. [Edit: Marc Hauser is the author of Moral Minds.]
In the interest of contributing something new to the discussion, I’ll offer the following:
There has been a lot of work on the biological connection between emotions and moral judgement. The consensus is that emotions matter a lot. This means that we can manipulate moral judgements by cultivating emotional responses, and from at least two directions.
An obvious experiment involves altering brain chemistry with drugs: would you take a pill to see what it’s like to be a Utilitarian? Might there be a moral obligation to medically correct ‘defects’ in moral reasoning? If so, I look forward to trademarking the term ‘philosophical pharmacology’.
Absent tinkering with brains directly, what about designing subjects so they become subjects of our moral concern? If we want to include objects in the sphere of things to which we grant moral concern, then perhaps we can design them to trigger emotions that make them ‘moral attractors’.
Of course, we can always do what rhetoriticians have done for a long time – manipulate emotions through framing conversations, and so guide debates to policy decisions.