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Indiana University Bloomington

Fall 2012   Good Behavior, Bad Behavior: Molecules to Morality


When is behavior good, or bad? We may believe we know it when we see it, but how do we  judge? For example, when is it okay to lie? Can we specify what is good behavior for an  unsupervised robot in every situation it might encounter? For that matter, what is behavior?  Not even experts agree on a definition. Do plants behave? Bacteria? Physical chemists  talk about “the behavior of water molecules” and we recognize good (in the sense of life- supporting) and bad (in the sense of life-threatening) behaviors of chemicals and other  materials.  Even mathematical functions can be described as “well- or badly-behaved.”

In 2012, we are treated to the quadrennial double-header of Summer Olympics and U.S.  presidential election.  It is said that competition brings out the best in people, but the  competitive arenas of sports and politics provide plenty of counterexamples as well.   Athletes excel, but also cheat; politicians inspire, but also lie.  We endorse good behavior  and reject bad behavior and develop elaborate systems to assess each, although we  don’t always agree on which is which.  As humans, we tend to think that we of all animal  species have a monopoly on moral reasoning, but we still recognize good (adaptive) and  bad (maladaptive) behavior in other animals. Biologists studying the evolution of such  behaviors in animals even wonder whether human morality is also an evolved adaptive trait.  

Themester 2012 explores the meanings of "good behavior" and its counterpart “bad behavior”  in all senses: aesthetic, ethical, adaptive, useful, essential, etc., applied to the realms of the  living and non-living. Our discussions encompass moral philosophy, behavioral biology, the  social sciences, mathematics, law, material science, cosmology, the literary, visual, and  dramatic arts, and more.  All contribute to our understanding of the possibilities and limits of telling good from bad and behaving accordingly.

For additional information about Themester, including future themes, please visit About Themester.