Winter School of Ethics and Neuroscience – day 2: introduction to ethics

The second day of the winter school was split in two tracks, one focused on philosophical matters, the other on practical applications. I chose to attend the philosophical track, where we talked at first about definitions of ethics, morality, judgment, and so on.

The discussion was not easy, especially for me as a newbie of the field (except for some memories of high school’s philosophy class). In these discussions, words are sharp weapons – I felt that every sentence needed to be composed with care, in order to minimise misunderstanding or ambiguity (the fact that we discussed in English and that it was not the most fluent language for most participants did not help). This reminded me of Quantum Psychology and its aim of making English less dangerous when talking about ethical principles and everyday facts.


Trolley problem


We talked about standard ethics exercises (trolley problems), but the reasoning got quickly overridden by emotions. It is not surprising, as the trolley problem is a way of putting a lot of pressure to make the “right” decision about other people’s lives. I personally could not really get into the mindset of that experiment, because lots of variables were missing or were unrealistic (the people on the tracks were all equal and unknown to me, the trolley could not be stopped in any way, I was the only one able to do something, etc…). That left space to a lot of “moral noise” and to amusingly absurd ideas.


During the session, I thought that it is theoretically possible to separate ethics from emotions, but ethics would become inhumane. I moreover thought that the effectiveness of emotion-aware ethics lies in the ability to emotionally connect with the involved parties in a given situation. Of course a more detailed knowledge of every possible influence of an action would make its outcome mathematically more positive, but it would take longer to compute and it would be dependent of an objective evaluation of everything, that is often impossible.

Nevertheless, I understand the questions raised by philosophers about the nature, origins and utility of ethics. It enables people to understand what is going on within them instead of acting solely on emotional bursts. I still value emotional input as much as reasoning, because I consider that emotions have been fundamental for the survival of our species (and maybe others too, but it’s hard to prove without doubt or bias), by shaping our decisions in conflictual situations. What I see is that modern humans are challenged on problems that are so huge and complex that our emotions, that helped us solve local, small group problems, are sometimes inaccurate or problematic. So I think that studying ethics and morality in theory is a way of better understanding our decision-making processes, and help us make more informed decisions.

More about this in next post! Stay tuned 🙂