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A big thought for Friday: Does moral action depend on reasoning?

May 21, 2010 |  6:22 pm

Nietshe If you're the kind of person who shrugs and thinks "who cares?" when presented with such a beard-stroking question, move on. If not, you may be interested in the latest slim volume from the John Templeton Foundation, a philanthropic organization that seeks to bridge the divide between science and religion and whose logo reads, "supporting science -- investing in the big questions."

Titled (yes) "Does moral action depend on reasoning?", the booklet features essays by 13 scientists and scholars.

Here's what a few had to say in reply to the question. 

"Not really," says Michael Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist at UC Santa Barbara. How can it be, he argues, since it's known that most people react in similar ways when faced with a moral dilemma, and even babies have been shown to have a moral sense? He notes that people give very different reasons for their chosen, supposedly well-thought-out moral decisions --as if, in fact, they acted on autopilot and filled in the reasoning afterward. 

"Yes and no, happily," writes Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of the book "36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction." Certain moralities are ingrained in us, she says -- the ones pertaining to treatment of ourselves. And being good to others comes naturally too -- when those "others" are family or friends. These things make sense evolutionarily speaking, since we want to survive, we share genes with our kin and we trade kindnesses with our friends to our mutual advantage.

Reason, she says, is what's needed to expand our moral capacity to others outside this group.

All the essays are available online. Take a look.

--Rosie Mestel

Photo: Nope, Friedrich Nietzsche isn't in the book, but -- well, he was a philosopher who wrote about morality a lot.  Credit: Associated Press