Course ‘Ethics & the Empirical Sciences’ (2013)

The Dutch School for Research in Philosophy (OZSW) invites graduate students in philosophy for the course ‘Ethics & the Empirical Sciences, to take place in Spring 2013.

March 25, April 15, May 6 and 27, June 10 and 24
(the morning sessions are from 10 – 12:30 p.m.; the afternoon sessions from 13.30 – 16 p.m)
Location: VU Amsterdam, main building

Scientific background

More and more empirical scientists not only do research on  issues which until then predominantly were considered to belong to the domain of philosophy, but with the results of their research they also partake in philosophical discussions. Evolutionary biologists try to explain how the process of evolution could lead to the emergence of morality and show that morality is to a much lesser degree an exclusively human phenomenon than usually is thought. To their mind, morality is not merely a product of culture, but is built upon capacities which were already present in their evolutionary predecessors and are present in other primates. our nature. Social psychologists have tried to pull the rug out from under virtue ethics by concluding, based on various experiments, that concepts such as ‘character’ and ‘virtue’ are empirically untenable. More recent social psychological research has been done on moral judgements which shows that moral judgements often are intuitive, i.e. fast, automatic, unconscious, affection-charged reactions, in short ‘gut’ feelings. Reasons and reasoning rarely constitute moral judgements, but often are post hoc rationalisations of those judgements. Neuroscientists support that view by demonstrating that in cases of moral intuitions and moral reasoning different parts of the brains are active. Neuroscientists also try to get a grip on matters such as free will, weakness of will and amorality.

Philosophers cannot, nor ought to ignore the results of empirical research on moral agency. The formulation of ethical theories in future ought to be empirically well informed. But this does not imply that ethicists should resign themselves to the (philosophical) conclusions which empirical scientists draw. For the conceptual frames of empirical sciences are theory-laden, as well. A widespread (but not generally) shared view among empirical scientists, is for instance, that the Humean view of morality empirically is more adequate than the Kantian one and that the so-called ‘free will’ which ‘the’ philosophers talk about is an illusion. In order to evaluate these conclusions as philosophers and make a critical contribution to the broad discussions which at the moment are devoted to these empirical studies, philosophers will also have to take a serious look at the results upon which they are based.


The course aims at

  1. offering insight into the empirical presuppositions of philosophical and ethical theories to graduate students,
  2. informing graduate students about relevant recent empirical-scientific research, and
  3. asking graduate students to reflect on the consequences such research may have for philosophical and ethical concepts and theories.

Coordination and speakers/instructors

Coordinator of the course is prof.dr. A.W. Musschenga (VU University). Speakers/instructors include:

  • Prof. dr. D. Brugman (Utrecht University)
  • Dr. L. de Bruin (Free University Amsterdam)
  • Dr. J. Ham (Eindhoven University of Technology)
  • Prof. dr. G. Meynen (Free University Amsterdam)
  • Prof. dr. M.M.K. Sie (University of Leiden / Erasmus University Rotterdam)
  • Dr. Nancy E. Snow (Marquette University, USA)
  • Prof. dr. N.M.N. van Straalen (Free University Amsterdam)
  • Dr. A. Wouters (Erasmus University Amsterdam)


The course takes place on 6 days spread out over 3 consecutive months. During the first session of a day relevant empirical research will be examined after which in the second session, the philosophical aspects will be considered and discussed.

The participants are expected to read all the assigned literature, to do assignments, to actively participate in the discussions and to write a paper at the end of the course.


The full program for this course can be downloaded here.


The course is free for:

  • 2nd year research master students in philosophy at a Dutch university,
  • PhD students who are a member of the OZSW; As the OZSW is still in its start-up phase and has officially no registered members yet, this comes down to: PhD students from one of the sections/departments/faculties mentioned here.

All other students pay a fee of 250 euro.

How to apply

Please send an e-mail to with:

  • your contact details (email address, telephone number and postal address),
  • a brief motivation for taking part in the course.
  • whether you are a 2nd year research master student or a PhD student
  • if the latter: a description of your PhD project (500 words)

When the number of applications exceeds the number of places available, we will give priority to PhD students of the Dutch Research School of Philosophy. You will be notified of whether your application has been accepted before February 17, 2013.