The 2012 Distinguished Alamshah Speaker Peter Railton, Ph.D., presented his lecture at Cal State Fullerton last week that explored questions of objectivity in ethics.
The event was part of a series of lectures intended for Cal State Fullerton’s fall Philosophy Colloquium that served to explore themes of oppression, objectivity and beauty.
Railton, a professor at the University of Michigan, is widely known in his field for his research on contemporary meta-ethics. He is a published author whose philosophical education includes degrees from Harvard and Princeton.
Railton was selected as the Distinguished Alamshah Speaker by JeeLoo Liu, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy at CSUF. Liu was inspired by a lecture Railton had previously given.
“I went to Railton’s talk when I was still a graduate student,” said Liu. “Even though I have listened to hundreds of philosophy talks since then, Railton’s talk had the charm of making a lasting impression on me such that I can still recall the theme of that talk, human rationality, more than 20 years later.”
Liu said she hoped Fullerton students would have a similar experience with Railton’s lecture.
“Our students do not often get the chance to listen to lectures by top philosophers from other universities, and by bringing those philosophers to our campus, we are opening up our students’ intellectual horizon,” Liu said.
At his lecture, he presented the nature of objectivity in moral discourse.
“Is it even possible to be objective in ethics?” Railton asked in the opening moments of his lecture.
He demonstrated ethical concepts through scientific evidence in the study of brain and neural activity. His lecture prompted overwhelming feedback from students and professors alike, many of whom stayed back after the presentation to ask questions and further discuss concepts with the visiting professor.
Though many students were initially lured to the lecture by the opportunity for extra credit, some, like Chase Turrentine, were drawn in by the intellectual discussion.
“A lot of the stuff he (Railton) talked about related to a lot of the stuff that I’ve studied, primate behavior and philosophy of emotion,” said Turrentine, a philosophy major. “So I found it really engaging on a lot of different levels.”
Throughout the lecture, Railton attempted to rationalize his ethical theories in socially understandable situations using everyday experiences as examples. Through these methods, he concluded his presentation with an answer to the complex moral dilemma.
“Suppose we’re self interested, suppose we’re competitive… it looks like through belief, desire, and empathy we’re equipped to register information that is not in our self-interest, that doesn’t reflect our perspectives,” Railton said.
He challenged the audience to take his rationalization and apply it in a social context.
“You’ve got the hardware necessary to do it just how objective you become is up to you,” Railton said. “If we fail, then we can’t blame human nature or social bias… We can only blame ourselves.”
His lecture marked the second presentation in a free, three-lecture series which is open to the public. The first lecture was from Kristie Dotson, a philosophy professor at Michigan State University, who used her personal battles with homelessness to depict the outdated nature of superficiality and oppression in an otherwise modern society.
Cal State Fullerton students and faculty will be given another opportunity to engage in an intellectual forum Nov. 8 when Scott Sevier, an assistant philosophy professor, will present a talk in the Humanities Building about goodness and its correlation with beauty.