Themester 2012

Themester 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 the Summer Olympics and the 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, and so on—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.

Themester 2012 advisory committee

Colin Allen, Cognitive Science, History and Philosophy of Science
Fritz Breithaupt, Germanic Studies
Anna Connors, College undergraduate
Gregory Demas, Biology, Center for Integrative Study of Animal Behavior
Constance Furey, Religious Studies
Jill Robinson, Chemistry
Peter Todd, Cognitive Science, Informatics, Psychological and Brain Sciences
Stacey Vosters, College undergraduate