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News: August/September 2015

Philosophy benefits children’s education • Dalai Lama: “Ethics more important than religion” • Morality for chimpanzees and robots — News reports by Anja Steinbauer

Dalai Lama: “On Some Days I Think It Would Be Better If There Were No Religions.”

As the Dalai Lama turns 80, he has published a surprising appeal to the world, in which he declares ethics to be more important than religion. (It is helpfully titled: An Appeal of the Dalai Lama to the World: Ethics are more important than religion). In this short but tightly argued essay, available as a free e-book, he expresses the view that spiritual wellbeing comes from compassion and moral integrity rather than religion. He also emphasises the importance of dialogue and rejection of violence. Believing religion to have become one of the issues which divide humanity instead of inspiring us with a sense of solidarity the Dalai Lama writes: “…we are still focusing far too much on our differences instead of our commonalities. After all, every one of us is born the same way and dies the same way. It doesn’t make much sense to pride ourselves in our nations and religions – all the way to the graveyard.”

Shock News: Drugs Can Alter Moral Judgment

The journal Current Biology has just reported a recent experiment in which individuals were asked to decide on the amounts of money they would pay to prevent electric shocks being administered to themselves or others. In the study, one group of healthy people were given a one-off dose of a serotonin-boosting drug commonly used to treat depression while another group received a one-off dose of a dopamine-enhancing Parkinson’s drug called levodopa. Those on citalopram, the seratonin-based drug, were far more harm-averse, becoming more protective of others as well as reluctant to suffer pain themselves. Those given levodopa, by contrast, became more selfish. Dr Molly Crockett, an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford who led the research, commented: “We’re not transforming someone from a healthy person into a criminal or anything like that. But in aggregate we make decisions multiple times a day and they can shape our lives.”

Animal Ethics: Chimpanzees’ sense of right and wrong

Chimpanzees may have a sense of right and wrong that resonates with human concepts of morality, a study conducted at two Swiss zoos in Gossau and Basel has found. Seventeen chimpanzees were shown wildlife video nasties: film clips depicting violence involving members of their species in the wild. They paid more attention to film clips of an infant chimpanzee being killed by its own kind than those showing other acts of violence. The researchers, led by Dr Claudia Rudolf von Rohr from the University of Zurich, wrote in the journal Human Nature: “This result is consistent with the idea that severe aggression against infants did not match chimpanzees’ social expectations of a certain tolerance normally afforded to infants,” and that they viewed it as being outside the boundaries of normal behaviour.

Machine Ethics: AI and the Building of a Moral Sense

How can we expect autonomous, automated systems to react when forced to decide between two bad outcomes? These dilemmas will soon affect healthcare robots, military drones, self-driving cars and other autonomous devices capable of making decisions that could help or harm humans. For example, should a self-driving car protect its passengers or passers-by, if it cannot protect both? America’s IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) has set up a Robot Ethics committee to consider such issues. And according to a new report in Nature researchers believe that the public’s acceptance of such machines will depend on whether they can be programmed to act in ways that maximize safety, fit in with social norms and encourage trust. “We need some serious progress to figure out what’s relevant for artificial intelligence to reason successfully in ethical situations,” says Marcello Guarini, a philosopher at the University of Windsor in Canada. Several projects are underway trying to address this challenge. “If you had asked me five years ago whether we could make ethical robots, I would have said no,” says Alan Winfield, a roboticist at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, UK. “Now I don’t think it’s such a crazy idea.” Bernhard Weidemann, of Daimler in Stuttgart said “Going forward, we will have to try to program things that come more naturally to humans, but not to machines.”

Study Shows Benefits of Philosophy for Children

A large-scale study funded by the UK’s Education Endowment Foundation has concluded that having a philosophy discussion session once a week for a year resulted in 9 and 10 year old children making more rapid progress in reading and maths. The effect was particularly marked among children from disadvantaged backgrounds (meaning those eligible for free school meals). The study found that disadvantaged children saw their reading skills advance by 4 months and their maths skills by 3 months relative to children not given the philosophy sessions. Feedback from teachers also suggested improvements in confidence, patience and self-esteem.

The randomised controlled trial involved 3,159 children in 48 primary schools across England. The specially-structured philosophy sessions were run by the children’s own teachers using training and materials provided by SAPERE (a society which promotes Philosophy For Children, or P4C) and results were assessed by an independent team from Durham University. The cost of running the sessions for the year was less than £30 per child, suggesting that this could be a very cost-effective way for schools to speed educational progress and reduce inequality.

Philosophy Now News

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