Crossing Lines

An article from the series "Elephants & Butterflies" – Science in a nutshell

Moral philosopher R. Jay Wallace takes a close look at the rules, norms and agreements which are fundamental to our social relationships and society as a whole. As Einstein Visiting Fellow, he brought together scholars from various disciplines to examine our sense of morality, its history, and evolutionary roots.

The phenomena tackled by moral philosophers are utterly familiar to each of us, but they are at the same time difficult to make sense of. We all have an intuition that there are lines in our social relations that just are not to be crossed. But where do these lines come from? And why should we care about staying on the right side of them? These questions are at the center of my research on interpersonal morality as a set of requirements we rely on to show recognition or respect for each other.

To take just one example, it is clear that we are failing to live up to our moral obligations to other individuals right now when it comes to questions about global warming. Greta Thunberg is a powerful figure, because she is a spokesperson for the first generation whose lives will be significantly affected by anthropogenic climate change. Her anger communicates very effectively that it is not okay to disregard the interests of an entire generation in this way. She is rightly calling us to account, and we don’t have anything very effective to say in response to her implicit moral challenge.

During the four years I spent in Berlin as an Einstein Fellow, my research group organized a series of 15 workshops and conferences with senior and early career scholars from all over the world. This was extremely fruitful and stimulating. We brought important figures to Berlin to discuss central issues in moral philosophy with the local community of philosophers and students working in these areas. The workshops covered a wide spectrum of issues: from traditional topics such as responsibility and moral obligation to questions about the morality of risk and the future of humanity. There also was an important interdisciplinary dimension to it: We invited lawyers and psychologists to enrich our discussions about, for instance, the nature of private law and the evolution and development of moral capacities in humans.

Artificial Intelligence and gene editing raise existential issues and it is crucial to think about it in a discplined way

What I like most about my job is engaging with young minds who have not encountered philosophy before and are kind of intimidated by it. It is very rewarding to see them slowly getting into the subject by discussing central problems with me. It is an honor to be able to share some of my own enthusiasm with them. Philosophy is still relevant. At Berkeley, it is a discipline that attracts growing numbers of students. Many students in computer science and related areas really appreciate having philosophy courses as part of their curriculum. There are existential issues raised by advances in Artificial Intelligence and gene editing, for instance, and it is crucial that those working in these areas have a disciplined way of thinking about the ethical issues they confront in their work.

We are living in an era of massive technical and scientific disruption, and I think philosophers are necessary partners in the ongoing conversation about where the important interpersonal lines are in these areas that ought to be respected.

Transcript: Eva Murasov