Panelists Talk Science, Ethics

Professors stress skepticism in discussion of "moral biology"

According to speakers on a “moral biology” panel yesterday, the union of morality and science calls for a heavy dose of skepticism.

Mixing DNA and Descartes, the panel discussed how developments in evolutionary biology and the mind sciences should be applied to diverse fields such as law, philosophy, and economics.

The panel—which took place at Harvard Law School and was entitled “Moral Biology: How should developments in mind sciences and behavioral biology alter our understanding of law and morality?”—featured four panelists, including Joshua D. Greene, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard.

The panel’s moderator, I. Glenn Cohen—an assistant professor at Harvard Law School and co-director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics—introduced the panelists as a “truly intimating group of people” before each discussed their thoughts on science in relation to morality.

William J. FitzPatrick, a professor of philosophy at Virginia Tech, asked the audience to be skeptical about claims of moral biology.


In response to this, Greene, who studies moral judgment and decision-making, then asked the audience “to be skeptical of his [FitzPatrick’s] skepticism.”

He said that human morality could be looked at in two ways: how it “ought” to be and how it actually “is.”

“There is a bright yellow line between ought and is,” he said. “I think science can have important implications.”

Adina L. Roskies, an assistant professor of philosophy at Dartmouth College, incited more skepticism from the audience, asking the panel’s attendees to be skeptical of Greene’s skepticism of FitzPatrick.

On a different note, Philosophy Professor Thomas M. Scanlon Jr. noted that people have different philosophical beliefs that can influence their thoughts regarding morality.

“What philosophy is about is not about deciding what people think, but deciding what to think yourself,” he said.

The panel was organized as part of the two-day 2010 Conference of Law and Mind Sciences called “Moral Biology?: What Can Biology and the Mind Sciences Teach Us about Law and Morality?”