A $231,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation has been awarded to Furman University philosophy professor Carmela Epright, and 2003 Furman psychology graduate Paige Harden, now an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. The grant was awarded as part of the Genetics and Human Agency initiative, a $3.5 million project devoted to research on the application of modern genomics to complex human behavior.
Together Epright and Harden will use the funds to complete an interdisciplinary project, which considers the question of “moral luck,” how this concept can be used to understand results from behavioral genetic research, and whether the effects of luck ought to be mitigated in order to achieve social justice.
“It is an enormous privilege to work with such a distinguished alumna, and to undertake a project that will also permit the participation of current students and faculty from two outstanding, yet very different institutions,” Epright said. “I am grateful that the Templeton Foundation is willing to fund interdisciplinary projects focused on the intersections between philosophy, psychology, and social justice, all of which are central components of my teaching, research, and work in the larger community.”
The researchers say these questions result from the fact that the United States has largely embraced the concept of a meritocracy, in which the advantages people enjoy are thought to derive from voluntary choices like hard work, and thus that any resulting inequities in goods, such as wealth, are thought to be just and fair. For example, according to this view, individuals who achieve more in school (in terms of better grades and more advanced degrees) are thought to “deserve” a greater allotment of goods.
Yet behavioral genetic research suggests that school achievement is, like many other outcomes, heritable. Epright and Harden ask, “Does this mean that social attainments commonly thought to be deserved, are really matters of luck? And if inherited traits such as intelligence make one lucky rather than meritorious, how can we properly apply concepts such as fairness, desert, and/or personal responsibility for success and failure to the distribution of societal goods?”
Epright and Harden will also consider the extent to which such traits as aggression and criminal behavior are influenced by genes, and if they are, what are the implications of this with respect to the assignment of criminal responsibility? Such questions have been fundamental to Epright’s recent research, which is focused on mental illness and social justice.
The researchers expect that the project will result in several papers published in both philosophy and psychology, and that the grant will fund interdisciplinary discussions, research, and the revision of course content at both institutions (Furman University and the University of Texas) through faculty seminars entitled “Genetics and Justice.”
For more information, contact Furman’s News and Media Relations office at 864-294-3107.
About the John Templeton Foundation
The John Templeton Foundation serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality. It supports research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will. The Foundation encourages civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights. Learn more at https://www.templeton.org/.
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