May 9, 2016

Philosophy professor explores intentions versus moral enhancement

Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy William Simkulet, Ph.D., explored what motivates a person to take certain actions in a lecture April 28, examining the relationship between intention and moral enhancement.

Simkulet based his presentation on a recent paper he wrote on the subject.

The lecture focused on the subtle differences between a person doing things because one feels obligated, rather than doing things because one truly wants to.

“Recently, philosophers proposed a variety of interventions to specifically help people avoid doing the wrong thing,” Simkulet said.

“Some proposed cognitive enhancement as a means of giving people tools to make more morally informed decisions and others proposed forcing agents to act in a way they want,” he added.

“Interventions of the first kind are called capacity-oriented accounts and interventions of the second kind are called behavior-oriented accounts.”

He provided several examples, the first being of a man named Jones whose cousin died and feels a moral obligation to think about his cousin often.

A week passes since his death and he has not thought of his cousin until the family calls him to inform him of funeral arrangements. Jones thinks he has failed his moral obligation.

In response, he puts pictures of his cousin all around his home and ties a string to his finger. Whenever he sees the pictures or the string, he will think of his cousin.

This is called “hat-hanging,” using an external object to draw attention to something.

Another example discussed a person trying to lose weight – so they hide fatty foods in the top cabinet normally out of reach.

This does not completely eliminate the chance that they will end up eating the fatty food, but it reduces it. This is called “hat-hiding.”

A second hat-hanging example was that of a wealthy woman who feels an obligation to help the poor due to her wealth, but she does not really care or feel a connection to that cause.

She leaves images of people suffering due to poverty on the television to try and increase her emotional connection.

“Neither hat-hanging or hat-hiding are considered moral enhancement,” Simkulet explained. “Although such interventions might lead to the behavior Jones wants to engage in, it’s not clear he becomes a better person by doing either of these things.”

His final example involved two police officers, one male and one female in an identical situation.

Simkulet closed the lecture by saying all his examples are about doing the right thing for the wrong reasons versus doing the right thing for the right reasons – and how it can be very difficult to know which a person is doing.


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