Q&A: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong on the identities of philosophy

An Alumni Faculty Fellow, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong is Chancey Stillman Professor of practical ethics in the philosophy department and the Kenan Institute for Ethics. His current work explores moral psychology and brain science, uses of neuroscience in legal systems, and freedom and responsibility. He co-teaches a MOOC, “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue.”

You’ve become interested in the intersection of philosophy and neuroscience. What sparked that interest?

It all started with a student taking my introductory ethics class [at Dartmouth]; she raised her hand and asked why we believe what we do about morality. I couldn’t answer her question, but I was interested enough to find myself in lot of conversations with neuroscientists. The student, Jana Schaich Borg, and I went on to publish together. She’s now a post-doc at Duke.

Are you now a philosopher or a neuroscientist, and is it clear what a philosopher is?

Why can’t someone be both? And is it clear what philosophy is? No. That’s a wonderful thing, because it frees you to take up any topic you become interested in. I am interested in moral intuition: Why do some people find it obvious that cannibalism, or incest, or abortion is immoral? Why do others disagree? Where do those intuitions come from? And should we trust those intuitions?

You’re also drawn to argumentation, particularly in your online teaching. What should we know about argumentation?

Arguments should not be like fights. The point of an argument should not be to beat the audience into submission, but rather to understand the reasons people have for their views. One of the sad things about our country today is that opposing political parties don’t even listen to each other. Republicans say government is terribly inefficient and ineffective. Democrats say a lot of people are hurting and need our help to improve their lives. I wish more political leaders would say, “Let’s figure out the other side’s reasons, and then let’s figure out some path that takes into account their reasons, so that we can agree on a compromise.”

Has philosophy always had something to say to the legal system?

Philosophers always have been interested in the law. Lawyers are interested in arguments, and so are philosophers. The law often is trying to seek justice, trying to protect rights, and if you’re trying to understand justice and rights, that’s a philosophical investigation. Still, there are differences. Legal argumentation begins with authorities—a constitution, statutes passed by legislatures, precedents established through court opinions. A philosopher does not take those authorities for granted but instead asks whether and why existing laws are justified: Why should freedom of religion be guaranteed? Why should people receive equal protection? Why are unusual punishments worse than usual punishments?

How has the legal system responded to findings in neuroscience?

One example is punishment of juveniles. Judges, in their opinions, referred to the neuroscience of adolescent brain development when they ruled out life without parole for nonlethal crimes committed before the age of eighteen. 

Is there reason to be concerned that neuroscience could be used to evade moral responsibility?

Behavior always has some neurological root. The question is not whether but how a desire is built into our brain, so we should not excuse everyone, though we should excuse some. People with mental illnesses should not be treated in the same way as people who know exactly what they are doing. The hard task is to draw those distinctions.

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