Weinberg Symposium focuses on relation between science, morality

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Molly J. Crockett, an associate professor at the University of Oxford, gives a talk titled "Computational Approaches to Moral Cognition" at the Michigan League on Friday. Buy this photo

By Irene Park, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 12, 2015

The Marshall M. Weinberg Symposium — hosted Thursday and Friday in the Michigan League — focused on a key question: What does it mean to be moral?

This year’s symposium, titled “The Cognitive Science of Moral Minds,” was organized for the first year by the Weinberg Institute of Cognitive Science. The University’s departments of Philosophy, Psychology, Linguistics and Molecular and Cellular Biology previously hosted the sixth annual symposium.

The institute opened last April after the University received a $7.7 million donation by University alum Marshall M. Weinberg. The Weinberg Institute aims to promote an interdisciplinary approach to cognitive science research. It also houses the undergraduate cognitive science major, which launched January 2014.

Thursday’s speaker, Joshua Greene, psychology professor at Harvard University, presented a lecture Thursday titled “Human Morality: Features and Bugs.”

Molly Crockett, associate professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, and John Mikhail, professor of law and philosophy at Georgetown University, also delivered lectures during the symposium.

During his talk, Greene gave an overview of human morality based on findings from psychology, neuroscience and philosophy. Greene defined morality as putting “us” before “me.”

“Morality is a suite of psychological features that allow otherwise selfish individuals to reap the benefits of cooperation,” he said.

Greene also discussed the importance of cognitive science research for studying morality. Cognitive science, he said, can change the way people ask questions about morality and help identify the underlying cognitive factors shaping moral standards.

Greene, who is also the director of the moral cognition lab at Harvard, also applied his morality research to real life situations. Greene’s team of researchers found that not all people in the medical field who deal with life-and-death situations employ the same moral standards.

The team analyzed morality in two groups: medical doctors and people who work in public health. Greene said they found people in public health were, in comparison to medical doctors, more “utilitarian,” meaning that they value what produces the best outcome for the society.

“The idea is that if you are in public health, you are more concerned about the society,” he said. “Whereas if you are a doctor, you are concerned about the individual in front of you. It’s about your duty for that patient and as a doctor.”

Greene also commented on the “bugs,” or discrepancies, in morality identified by his team. For example, they found that people are more likely to help someone if the person who needed help was in close proximity — like a bleeding man on the side of the road as opposed to a child starving in another country. Greene said this moral discrepancy stems from evolution.

“From a biological perspective, it makes a lot of sense,” he said. “You didn’t evolve to be universally cooperative to everybody on Earth. You evolved for your tribe.”

Because a number of factors are involved in shaping one’s moral standards, he said it is difficult to come up with a general principle of how people should act. This idea suggests no theory can account for the complexity of the human mind. In spite of the difficulty, Greene said humans still need a general moral standard for how society “ought to be.”

Rackham student Kevin Blackwell, who said he attended the symposium due to his interest in the topic, echoed Greene on the importance of human morality research.

“It is very important for decision-making,” Blackwell said. “I thought the examples about public health decisions were very on-point.”