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What is Human Agency? Scientific & Philosophical Perspectives

What makes Jane the U of M student different from Spot the dog? Besides the obvious, there are two really important differences. First, Jane knows a lot more than Spot about the world and wants to learn even more. Second, unlike Spot, Jane thinks about whether she is a good person and what she ought to do from a moral point of view. Human beings, then, are epistemic agents (knowledge seekers) and moral agents. How does this agency work? Is it primarily rational or does it involve our emotions? How does it develop?  Can it be changed or improved, or is it fixed by our genes? Philosophers have been asking these questions for thousands of years. Recently, psychologists have been trying to answer them, too, using different methods. In this course, we'll see what progress can be made by bringing the methods of philosophy and science together.

We'll start with moral agency. Historically, philosophers have thought we are profoundly different from other animals in our ability to understand and alter our own moral character.  Some psychological research has cast this thought into doubt. What should we think?  Philosophers and psychologists working on this problem have made real progress, so we'll use this example as our case study. The second half of the course will focus on epistemic (or knowledge-seeking) agency and, in particular, on the question of when it makes sense to believe what other people tell you. Here, interdisciplinary research is undeveloped so students will have the opportunity to be on the cutting edge.

This course is taught by a philosopher and a psychologist. Readings will include philosophical and psychological research papers, and assignments will be designed to foster creative engagement across these fields. Weekly short writing assignments on the readings and active participation count for a portion of the grade.

Course Details

Meeting Time: Spring 2019, Mondays & Wednesdays from 11:15 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.

Location: East Bank 

Liberal Education Theme: Civic Life and Ethics

Topics: Philosophy, psychology, moral agency, epistemic agency

Credits: 3

Prerequisites: Must be a sophomore, junior, senior, or graduate student

Professors: Valerie Tiberius & Melissa Koenig