Bioethics Blogs

Sinnott-Armstrong on Implicit Moral Attitudes

On October 30th, Professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong of Duke University gave the 2014 Wellcome Lecture in Neuroethics.  His talk, “Implicit Moral Attitudes”, concerned the practical and theoretical implications of recent empirical research into unconscious or sub-conscious beliefs or associations.  Recordings of his talk will be made available soon; I will update this post when a link is made available.  For those interested that were unable to attend, I will summarise the main points of Sinnott-Armstrong’s talk and some of the discussion that occurred during the Q&A afterwards.

Evaluating people’s moral attitudes is both practically and theoretically important, but faces crucial difficulties.  To understand people’s moral attitudes and determine praise or blame, we have traditionally had to rely (at least in part) on reports.  This is particularly difficult, though, when confronting psychopaths: are they being honest when they make moral claims?  Mere reports are unreliable, as psychopaths are prone to deceive.  More usual cases of convicted criminals present similar problems: how can we know whether a criminal is rehabilitated, or will reoffend?  Given the incentive to lie, reports are unreliable – and behavioural assessment may only be of limited utility.

More theoretical issues have plagued philosophers for centuries.  Moral semantics inquires into whether people make cognitive, truth-conducive claims or non-cognitive expressions of attitudes.  Motivational internalists argue there is a tight link between moral belief and motivation to act, while others deny it.  Moral epistemology deals, in part, with whether our moral judgments are justified, reliable, knowledgeable, etc. And questions of moral responsibility consider whether factors like moral knowledge are necessary for us to legitimately blame agents.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.