Experiments in Philosophy

The impact of psychological research on life's big questions.

Experimental Philosophy: Starring Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer narrates a video describing the findings of a recent experiment.

Suppose one person says '3,277 is a prime number,' while another says '3,277 is not a prime number.' Since these two people have opposite views, it seems pretty clear that one of them has to be wrong. There's just no way that they could both be correct. 

But now consider a different kind of case. Suppose that one person says 'It is horribly wrong to commit murder,' while another says 'Murder isn't really that bad -- in fact, it's completely fine.' In a case like this one, does one of the two people have to be saying something incorrect? 

Philosophers have long assumed that people see morality as objective, indeed, that they think of moral truths as being just as objectively true as the truths of mathematics. So philosophers typically assume that people would think that if there is a disagreement between these two moral views, one of them has to be incorrect. 

But recent work in experimental philosophy seems to be challenging that traditional picture. This work suggests that people don't actually see morality as objective -- that people might be moral relativists.

Oddly enough, the filmmaker Ben Coonley has now put together a video illustrating these experiments. The video is really something -- not just a clear explanation of some scientific research, but also an over-the-top visual experience featuring animated extraterrestrials, narration from rockstar Amanda Palmer and (for those of you who have 3-D glasses on hand) a chance to see the whole thing in three dimensions.

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[If you are curious about the original study, you can try reading the experimental philosophy paper.]

Joshua Knobe is a professor in the philosophy department at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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