Binghamton philosophy professor talks morality and ethics

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Lisa Tessman from Binghamton University presents a talk on transforming moral demandingness to students. Kim Bolduc | Concordiensis
Lisa Tessman from Binghamton University presents a talk on transforming moral demandingness to students. Kim Bolduc | Concordiensis

On Thursday, October 6, the second speaker in the Annual Philosophy Speakers Series gave a talk in Everest Lounge.

A Professor of Philosophy at Binghamton University, Lisa Tessman teaches ethics, with a special focus on moral psychology and feminist ethics. Her talk, “Transforming the Question of Moral Demandingness,” addressed problems concerning the philosophical discussion about the degree to which people are morally required to lessen the suffering of distant strangers and with the methods of the “effective altruism” movement.

The event drew in a dozen students and half a dozen members of the faculty, who stayed long after Tessman had finished her lecture to ask questions about and challenge aspects of her argument.

Tessman began her talk by acknowledging the reality that “we are in the crazy position of choosing against many of the things that we value or that we care about because we hold a plurality of values and they tend to conflict with each other. So in choosing one or in prioritizing one, we reject another one.”

The two main problems Tessman finds with both the discussion of morally required acts and the “effective altruism” movement are the following: the problem of motivation is not addressed and morality is wrongly assumed to be monistic, or to be about only one kind of value.

Tessman argues that our moral values are plural and conflicting, and “create situations where we often have to make choices between them.”

Moral judgments, or evaluative judgments to use Tessman’s language, are based on our moral values. We may judge that it would be good, or that we ought to, do something because it preserves or supports one of our values.

However, we do not necessarily act on these judgements because, as Tessman pointed out, “it’s possible that I’ll make a judgment and be very confident about that evaluative judgment but not be sufficiently motivated to act on it and since evaluative judgements can conflict with each other, even if I am motivated to act on a judgment, it may lose out on a conflict with another judgment.”

Tessman elaborated on “motivation” and the different kinds of motivations we may have by providing an anecdotal example. In her example, the son of a single mother whose brother had been killed in war is grappling with the decision to join the armed forces to avenge him or to stay home with his mother to help her carry on.

In this case, the son was wavering between two different kinds of ethics: one of sympathy and personal devotion, and the other a broader ethics that effected a vast number of people, but ones whose actual efficacy was more dubious. Tessman argued that emotions and social norms influence us in moral decision making, contributing to our motivations to do specific acts, and that often our evaluative judgments are often based on empathy.

The topic of empathy brought Tessman to her next concern about the philosophical discussion about morally required action: the methods of the “effective altruism” movement, which motivates people to act because of social pressure.

The problem Tessman points out is that there is a particular kind of moral judgment that is often not sufficiently motivated enough to become the judgment we act on – the one that lacks empathy. Since we are always aware of others watching us, and we take our social cues from others, our evaluative judgments and subsequent actions are heavily influenced by society.

Tessman claimed that morality is socially constructed and that while morality allows humans to balance self-interest and cooperation, no trait is instrinsically moral – humans transmit morality to it. Tessman concluded her talk by saying, “We still do need to face, if not accept, some very serious losses of some of what we value in the case of conflicts.”

The next speaker in the Philosophy Speaker Series will be Martina Jimenez of Emory University, who will come to Union on Thursday, October 20, to give a talk entitled “Artistotle Two Justices and the Proper Lover of Self.” The event will take place at 4:30 p.m. in Everest Lounge.

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