11/01/2012 Julia Ferrante

Bennett Helm

In April, the John Templeton Foundation awarded Franklin & Marshall College Professor of Philosophy Bennett Helm and a team of philosophers a grant to study “Love and Human Agency: An Interdisciplinary Investigation.” The grant totals $1 million with the support of F&M, the University of California-Riverside, Vassar College and the Brocher Foundation in Switzerland. Helm has been with F&M since 1995. Here, he answers questions about his work.

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Q: This project seeks, in part, to address how love influences our decision-making and discerning of what is morally right and wrong. What can the study of love’s role in this process teach us?

Love and caring more generally are what I call “evaluative attitudes,” which means they lie at the intersection of evaluation and motivation and clearly have a large effect on how we act. Yet it is common to think that love is irrational, and that the effect it has on our actions is a negative one. One of our research group’s central ideas is that this common view is false. Various psychological disorders that affect someone’s ability to care—including psychopathy, certain kinds of dementia, certain addictions—greatly impair one’s ability not only to deliberate about and decide what is important or worth doing, but also to motivate oneself to act accordingly. So we want to understand both how love and caring are implicated in these disorders and, more fundamentally, what role love and caring play in rational decision-making for normal, healthy adults.

Moral decision-making will be a special case, but love is no less important here, as we can see in the familiar commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. Our aim, in part, is to understand whether and how such an attitude of love can, does, and should play a role in our ability to identify, think about, and respond to important human values.

Q: Your research team will draw on subjects such as psychology, law, medicine and economics. What do you hope this interdisciplinary approach will bring to the project?

While we philosophers do tend to worry about big-picture conceptual issues that are at least one step removed from anything that looks like scientific data, philosophical theories inevitably have implications for how things are that stand or fall with the evidence. So if I claim that an emotional capacity for caring is fundamental to our ability to reason about what to do, then we had better be able to find evidence for this in the structure of the brain.

Yet the influence between science and philosophy goes the other direction, too: if neuroscientists claim to have found a network in the brain that enables us to respond to salient events, then we’d better have a good conceptual understanding of what salience is and the role it ought to play in a rational responsiveness to the world, and that understanding and role ought to be borne out in the structure of the brain. If not, then perhaps that network isn’t a “salience” network after all.

In medicine, we need to understand what are the elements of human wellbeing—elements that plausibly include capacities to care and love—so as to be able to think about how best to restore that wellbeing to patients to the extent possible. In law, we need to understand the conditions under which people can properly be held responsible for what they do and how capacities to care and love contribute to our status as responsible agents. For example, should psychopaths, who seem incapable of at least certain kinds of caring relationships, be held legally responsible for what they do? What about 16-year-olds or 12-year-olds?

In each of these cases, our aim is to get philosophers, neuroscientists, psychologists, economists, doctors, and lawyers together to discuss the issues and so we can think both about how our understanding of those issues stands up in the face of evidence we already have and about what new evidence we should try to get so as to be able to continue to refine that understanding.

Q: How did your research interests become focused on the topic of love?

A common thread in my research has been a concern with the nature of rationality. As I started thinking about first animals and then people, I came to think that the traditional opposition between reason and emotion is simply mistaken in a way that distorts our understanding not only of the emotions, but also of rationality itself, and thereby our understanding of what it is to be a person. Simultaneously, I have come to think that the dominant individualistic strand in our thought about people also distorts our understanding of people and rationality. In each case, the key to recognizing the distortions and overcoming them has been carefully thinking about issues connecting love and human agency.

Q: What are some of the goals for your research?

We’ve already had one interdisciplinary workshop at the University of California-Riverside and are currently planning another at the Brocher Foundation in Geneva, as well as a more extended retreat. Next year, we will hire three post-doctoral candidates, one of whom will be at F&M teaching some classes and organizing interdisciplinary reading groups. We’ll be collecting and posting interdisciplinary bibliographies, running an essay competition, talking, reading, writing— at least two books and a couple dozen articles and many conference presentations. The project will culminate with a large interdisciplinary conference at F&M in the 2014-15 academic year.

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