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Descartes Centre
Symposium & Congres

One Day Conference on Empirically Informed Ethics

Science seems to have discovered the moral domain. The behavioural, cognitive, brain and life sciences rapidly develop ways to address (and transform) the normative questions traditionally left to religion or moral philosophy. Scientists such as Harris, Churchland, Haidt and De Waal produce findings for which they do not merely claim epistemic authority, but also – and by the same token – normative authority.

This development should come as no surprise. But how are we to understand scientific endeavours to make empirical sense of other people’s entitlement to well-being and respect? What empirical findings can significantly inform and inspire our conceptions of the good and the right? What can empirical science tell us about the content of ethics? What does it mean for empirical science to claim moral authority?

These questions will be discussed at this one-day conference, organized under auspices of the Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities and the Ethics Institute (Utrecht University). Five philosophers, well at home in both moral philosophy and the sciences that are about to dominate the moral domain, will give a lecture. There will be ample room for discussion.



Chair: Herman Philipse (Utrecht University)

09.30-10.00: Coffee

10.00-10.15: Welcome and introduction by Herman Philipse (Utrecht University)

10.15-11.00: Jan Bransen (Radboud University Nijmegen): Being Informed. Ethics, Science and Common Sense.

I shall distinguish in this paper two different interpretations of what it means to be informed. One of these interpretations, which I shall call the Information View, sits well with a picture of science and of ethics as activities that produce rather abstract, decontextualized bodies of knowledge, theories, that inform people. On this interpretation contemporary developments in the behavioural and brain sciences seem to allow the possibility that scientific theories take over part of the role of moral theories in informing people about the right course of action. On the other interpretation however, which I shall call the Formation View, “being informed” is a matter of slow, developmental processes that result in the formation of largely implicit dispositional capacities. On this interpretation ethics and common sense are best understood as practices. On this interpretation the self-image of the behavioural and brain sciences is rather deceptive and incoherent albeit in a fascinatingly revealing way. I shall argue that the Formation View is the most plausible view, that is best supported by scientific findings. It is however also a view that urges the behavioural and brain sciences to revise themselves and to accept as their model not natural science but virtue ethics and common sense.

11.00-11.15: Discussion

11.15-11.45: Coffee

11.45-12.30: Daniel Haybron (Saint Louis University): What matters in measures of well-being for policy?

With the rise of government interest in measuring and promoting well-being, a question arises: what sorts of well-being information should policymakers seek? I argue that subjective well-being (SWB), broadly conceived, is a good candidate for "headline" measures of well-being, regardless of what the right theory of well-being is. However, the components of SWB, notably life satisfaction and affect balance, give different results; for instance, affect balance appears to correlate much more weakly with income than life satisfaction. How important, then, is each type of measure? I argue that both components of SWB are well-motivated--but as currently conceived, have serious deficiencies. Life satisfaction in particular bears a highly complex relationship to well-being, making it seriously misleading in many contexts. I recommend replacing such measures with "aggregate life evaluation" metrics that dispense with the "satisfaction" and global judgment elements of life satisfaction. Affect balance, for its part, conflates two importantly different psychological kinds, "hedonic balance" and "emotional well-being." While current affect balance instruments focus more on hedonic balance, I suggest looking to the mental health literature for models of how to measure emotional well-being.

12.30-12.45: Discussion

12.45-14.00: Lunch (for own account)

14.00-14.45: Jan Verplaetse (Ghent University): Is a blameless life possible in our world?

As a philosophical doctrine hard incompatibilism claims that moral responsibility does not exist because free will is an illusion. In my view hard incompatibilism is true. This position rests on a sound logical reasoning and is in line with recent neuropsychological findings on decision-making processes. The most crucial challenge comes neither from logic nor neurosciences, but from our own psychology, unable to drop notions such as guilt and desert - notions devoid of any philosophical foundation if hard incompatibilism turns out to be true. In this dilemma between philosophical truth and social acceptability recent experimental investigations in social psychology, showing how living without the illusion of a free will causes a negative impact on our moral behavior, play dominant role. In my talk I critically review these studies demonstrating that contemporary empirical evidence does not rule out the possibility, prospect and advantages of a blameless life.

14.45-15.00: Discussion

15.00-15.45: Valerie Tiberius (University of Minnesota): Well-being, Wisdom, and Thick Theorizing: on the division of labor between moral philosophy and positive psychology

We wouldn’t attribute well-being to someone who is seriously physically ill and we wouldn’t attribute practical wisdom to someone who has poor skills of instrumental reasoning. But when we attribute well-being or wisdom to someone we also mean to say that they have something worth having, something good for them, perhaps even something admirable.  Well-being and wisdom are thick concepts: they are tied to the world and they express evaluations at the same time.  Interestingly, psychologists have taken a recent interest in thick concepts that used to be the domain of philosophers. Psychologists have constructed and operationalized definitions of well-being and wisdom and have run many studies to discover the facts about what causes well-being or wisdom so defined. One might think that this research is irrelevant to philosophical theories because one assumes a picture according to which we start with philosophical analysis of the thick concept and then simply turn things over to the scientists. I argue that this is the wrong picture and that things are more complicated than this – at least as far as well-being and wisdom are concerned. I further argue that once we see how things are more complicated we can also see that thick concepts hold out a special promise for making progress in moral theory.

15.45-16.00: Discussion

16.00-16.30: Tea

16.30-17.15: Jesse Prinz (State University of New York): Sentimentalism Naturalized

Recent work in psychology and neuroscience suggest that emotions are related to moral judgments. Many theories of moral judgment posit such a link, but sentimentalism of the kind associated with David Hume offers the best explanation.  Recent research also allows us to elaborate on Humean moral psychology by specifying which emotions contribute to morality, and empirical methods can help settle the central debate in metaethics between objectivists, subjectivists, expressionists, and error theorists.

17.15-17.30: Discussion

17.30-18.00: Panel discussion


Attendance:              Free. No registration necessary.
Organized by:           Jan Bransen (Radboud University Nijmegen) 
                               Herman Philipse (Utrecht University)
                               Annemarieke Blankesteijn (Descartes Centre, 
                               Utrecht University)
                               Ethics Institute (Utrecht University) 

Startdatum en tijd: 26/8/2011 09:30
Einddatum en tijd: 26/8/2011 18:00
Locatie: Kanunnikenzaal Academiegebouw, Achter de Dom 7a, Utrecht. 
Please ring the bell in order to enter the building; the door opens up within a few seconds. The stairs will lead you directly to the Kanunnikenzaal.