PHIL 402 - Undergraduate Seminar in Philosophy
Winter 2014, Section 001 - Moral Psychology
Instruction Mode: Section 001 is (see other Sections below)
Subject: Philosophy (PHIL)
Department: LSA Philosophy
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Requirements & Distribution:
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Enforced Prerequisites:
Two 300-level Philosophy courses.
May not be repeated for credit.
Primary Instructor:


The tenability of our moral theories, ordinary moral judgments, and moral practices depend on whether or not those theories, judgments, and practices rest on an empirically sound foundation. Take, first, judgments and practices. We have very strong emotional reactions in the face of sexual assaults of children (and there is, likely, a good evolutionary explanation, as well as good reasons for this): we feel an urge to judge and punish. But consider the recent case of a 40-year old man who had committed sex crimes against children and whose pedophilic urges turned out to have been caused by a brain tumor. Was he responsible for his actions? Should he be punished? Would we be justified in judging him? The answers to these questions obviously depend on more than the emotional reaction we have when we think about what he had done: they depend on various facts about the man’s brain functioning and the extent to which his impulse control mechanisms were impaired. There is no way to answer these questions by introspection alone and, more generally, to draw an a priori boundary between mad and bad, between a sin and a symptom.

Or consider moral theories. According to one theory, virtue ethics, the goal of moral education is to develop a virtuous character. But recent developments in social psychology suggest that true virtue is very rarely — if ever — instantiated. If this is right, then maybe, we’d do well to abandon the ideals of virtue ethics. Perhaps what we can do, instead, is harness our selfishness and put it to use in achieving socially valuable ends. For instance, if you are a cancer researcher and you discover you don’t care very much about cancer patients, you can try to develop a deeper concern for their well-being — as a virtue theorist would suggest — but you can also, alternatively, derive motivation to work on cancer cure from your selfish desire to beat a rival you despise.

This course is premised on the assumption that the cases just described are not exceptions: that moral theories and practices depend on facts about human psychology. Consequently, we will bring empirical research — from psychology, social science, and neuroscience — to bear in evaluating moral theories, and we will use both traditional philosophical methods — such as thought experiment and careful philosophical reflection — and empirical data in order to answer questions regarding our moral judgments and practices. Topics we will cover include: responsibility, ethical questions regarding psychopathology, the respective roles of emotion and reason in making moral judgments, akrasia and volitional disorders, the role of hypocrisy in moral life, and the possibility of altruism.

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PHIL 402 - Undergraduate Seminar in Philosophy
Schedule Listing
001 (SEM)
 In Person
F 12:00PM - 2:00PM

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