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News: October/November 2023

Cornel West runs for President • Hypatia flees… to Glasgow • NTT launches its own philosophy institute — News reports by Anja Steinbauer

The Moral Brain

Moral Foundations Theory, or MFT to its friends, is an attempt to explain why certain aspects of morality seem to be the same everywhere despite the otherwise wide differences between cultures. The idea is that individuals work from a set of innate and universal moral foundations. MFT was first described and named in 2004 by Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph. Now a team of neuroscientists at U.C. Santa Barbara have conducted a study into whether this theory, and the categories that it defines, are reflected in neural activity. They found that a general network of brain regions was involved when faced with immoral acts, such as cheating on a test. This contrasted with perceptions of simple breeches of social norms, such as drinking coffee with a spoon. A remarkable finding was the great degree to which the topography of that network overlapped with the brain regions involved in understanding other people by ascribing mental states to them (an ability that psychologists call ‘theory of mind’). However, in contradiction to MFT, they found that distinct activity patterns emerged at finer resolution, which means that the brain processes different moral issues along different neural pathways, supporting a pluralist view of moral reasoning. “In many ways, I think our findings clarify that monism and pluralism are not necessarily mutually exclusive approaches,” said co-author Frederic Hopp of U.C. Santa Barbara’s Media Neuroscience Lab. “We show that moral judgments of a wide range of different types of morally relevant behaviours are instantiated in shared brain regions.”

The End of Biodiversity?

Researchers from Queen’s University Belfast analysed the populations of more than 71,000 animal species, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, tracing their development over time. The study, which was led by Catherine Finn and Dr Daniel Pincheira-Donoso, shows that 48% of the species are in decline, while 49% remain stable and 3% are increasing. Declines tend to concentrate around tropical regions, stability and increases show a tendency to expand towards temperate climates. The researchers also discovered that 33% of the species currently classed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List as ‘non-threatened’, are declining. The authors conclude: “Collectively, our findings reinforce the warning that biodiversity is on the brink of an extinction crisis.”

Philosopher Bids to Become US President

Earlier this summer, the well-known philosopher and civil rights advocate Cornel West, who has taught at Yale, Harvard and Princeton, announced that he would run for US President. Initially he hoped to run as the candidate for the People’s Party, but it became clear to him that the small party had access to the ballot in only a very limited number of states. He then switched to seeking the endorsement of the Green Party. Announcing his presidential bid, West said: “I care about the quality of your life, I care about whether you have access to a job with a living wage, decent housing, women having control over their bodies, healthcare for all, the escalating destruction of the planet, the destruction of American democracy.”

Cornel West
Cornel West campaigning for Bernie Sanders, 2016
© D.W. Nance 2019 Creative Commons 4.0

Cornel West has described himself as “a revolutionary Christian in the Tolstoyan mode, one who wrestles with his faith on a daily basis.”

In his philosophical work he is known for his ‘prophetic pragmatism’. This combines systematic criticism of social injustice inspired by the prophetic tradition with the fallibilism and realism of American pragmatist philosophy. West explains: “My notion of the prophetic is a democratic one in which, in the midst of the quotidian, the commonplace, in the midst of the messy struggle in which one’s hands are dirty, that one is holding onto moral convictions and tries to convince others that they ought to be accepted even though these moral convictions can still be subject to criticism and change.”

Hypatia Moves to Britain

The feminist philosophy journal Hypatia has announced a new editorial team for the next five years, starting in January 2024. For the first time their editorial office will be based outside North America, at the University of Glasgow. Philosophers Simona Capisani, Katharine Jenkins, Charlotte Knowles, Aidan McGlynn and Aness Kim Webster are involved. Philosophy Now wishes the new team the best of success! Founded in 1983, Hypatia is named after the pioneering female mathematician and neoplatonist philosopher who was brutally killed by a mob in Alexandria in 415 CE.

Tech Giant NTT Launches Philosophy Institute

Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto © DXR 2019 Creative Commons 4.0

The Japanese technology corporation NTT has announced the launch of an institute for studying philosophical problems thrown up by technology and its social impact. Called the Kyoto Institute of Philosophy, it will aim “to advise regulators and enterprises on emerging technologies, including AI, the metaverse, digital twins and more” and “to pursue research on optimizing benefits received by technological innovation.” The new institute will be headed by Yasuo Deguchi, a professor of philosophy at Kyoto University. “Philosophy is the study of the proposal of values. To whom? Of course, people and society above all else,” said Deguchi. “To deliver a voice to people, philosophy must once again face society and engage it. On the other hand, the world of the 21st century desperately needs a more pluralistic and multilayered approach to values. The Kyoto Institute of Philosophy is established as a ‘place’ where these two trajectories meet.”

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