Monthly Archives: November 2011

The role of biology in morality

Ahh…it’s once again been so long since I blogged. The job application season has me scarce in the blogging world at best. However, I miss it. I miss writing down my thoughts about teaching and learning, so I’m back for a quick post.

I am insanely excited about an awesome class I have tomorrow. I’m teaching a large group lecture to my sophomore level interdisciplinary students on the interconnection between Machiavelli, psychopaths, empathy, and mirror neurons – woot! The underlying premise of the lecture is that empathy motivates prosociality (a la reviews from Daniel Batson ), but what happens when empathy is off the table (as in Machiavelli’s Mandragola and the Prince?). It’s going to be a delightful discussion.

I’m starting them off in a Prisoner’s Dilemma Game, and then we will dive into the question of whether human’s are always selfishly motivated. Then, we will discuss if they ought to pursue the good (as Plato and Aristotle might argue) or if they ought to pursue THEIR good (as Machiavelli would). More specifically, I want them to think about which philosopher was more accurate in his portrayal of humankind.

Then we will end on an interesting note – the role of biology in shaping morality. We will talk about how we are all designed naturally to feel empathy toward one another, as evidenced by studies on mirror neurons. However, what happens when their are biological deficits that prevent one from having empathy, such as psychopathic traits? What moral system are these individuals bound to? Your thoughts are welcomed.