Is morality culturally determined and relative, an evolved social contract that is absolute, or something else? In this session, we examine the biology of caring behavior and social interactions, as well as the dynamics of cooperation, competition, and power.
Session led by: Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D.
Neuroscientist; Professor of Biological Sciences, Neurology, Neurological Sciences, and Neurosurgery, Stanford University
Susan Fiske, Ph.D. Professor of Psychology, Princeton University
Josh Greene, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
Break: 10:30 - 11:00 am PDT
Susan Fiske is a psychologist known for her work in the field of social cognition. Her research has shown how prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination are influenced by social relationships, and also how dynamics of cooperation, competition, and power can affect how people view other groups. This research has led her to the conclusion that prejudices are an inevitable part of the human condition, but that they are also quite malleable and subject to change. Fiske notes that "when people are on our side, we take the trouble to know them. This conclusion fits decades of research about how to get people from mutual outgroups—black/white, gay/straight, old/young, disabled/not, immigrant/host—to treat each other as individual human beings. When people come together across ingroup/outgroup boundaries, they get to know each other as individuals mainly when they need each other in the service of shared goals." In recent years, her work has focused on finding the neural correlates to prejudices using the tools of social neuroscience.
Joshua Greene is a philosopher, experimental psychologist, and neuroscientist who studies the neurological underpinnings of moral judgment. His work seeks to understand how our moral judgments are shaped by automatic processes (e.g. emotional gut reactions) and controlled cognitive processes (e.g. reasoning). He is perhaps best known for his application of neuroscience to the infamous "trolley problem," revealing the different parts of the brain that are involved in making difficult moral choices. He feels that common sense solutions often hurt more than help, saying, "[serious social] problems are a product of well-intentioned people abiding by their respective common senses and that the only long-run solution to these problems is for people to develop a healthy distrust of moral common sense. This is largely because our social instincts were not designed for the modern world. Nor, for that matter, were they designed to promote peace and happiness in the world for which they were designed, the world of our hunter-gatherer ancestors." He is the director of the acclaimed Moral Cognition Lab at Harvard.
Dr. Robert Sapolsky
Robert Sapolsky is one of the world's leading neuroscientists, and has been called "one of the finest natural history writers around" by The New York Times. In studying wild baboon populations, Sapolsky examined how prolonged stress can cause physical and mental afflictions. His lab was among the first to document that stress can damage the neurons of the hippocampus. Sapolsky has shown, in both human and baboon societies, that low social status is a major contributor to stress and stress-related illness. He boils down the contemporary human's relationship with stress as follows: "We are not getting our ulcers being chased by Saber-tooth tigers, we're inventing our social stressors—and if some baboons are good at dealing with this, we should be able to as well. Insofar as we're smart enough to have invented this stuff and stupid enough to fall for it, we have the potential to be wise enough to keep [these stressors] in perspective." Sapolsky's study of stress in non-human primates has offered fascinating insight into how human beings relate to this universal pressure.