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Mindfulness, Emotions, and Ethics: The Right Stuff?


Ellen A. Waldman


Thomas Jefferson School of Law

May 7, 2010

Nevada Law Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2010
Thomas Jefferson School of Law Research Paper No. 1602107

Abstract:     
What role do emotions play in ethical decision-making? Philosophers have long debated the question, disagreeing about both the nature of "the good" and how best to achieve it. Rationalists ground one's capacity for virtue in logic and deliberate cognition, while moral intuitionists look to one's capacity for feeling deeply. Immanuel Kant, for example, maintained that right conduct flowed from a sense of duty that functioned independently of emotion. Conversely, David Hume argued that all right action involved sentiment and that reason, stripped of passion, could not impel ethical choice.

Philosophers are not alone in their fascination with the question. Psychologists also have delved into the relationship between emotion and moral development, creating varying models of maturation that either embrace or reject emotion as a critical component of moral discernment. Today, debates in the "soft sciences" of the mind spill into the "hard sciences" of the body. Interest in the biological bases of emotion invigorates neuroscience, and developments in functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI) promise methods for mapping the synaptic pathways that induce affective states. Although we can now detect activity in portions of the brain associated with emotional experience, it remains unclear whether those electrical surges push us in "right" or "wrong" directions.

In the mediation world, scholars and practitioners frequently treat emotion as the unruly step-child of the problem-solving mind. Professor Leonard Riskin characterizes emotion as a potential negotiation saboteur and offers "mindful practice" as a useful corrective. He argues that mindful mediation can help negotiators gain better control over their wandering minds and negative emotions, and achieve more satisfying, interest-based solutions.

This essay celebrates Riskin's call to arms while suggesting some limits to what mindfulness can achieve in the ethical realm. It examines in more detail the relationship Riskin posits between mindful practice and ethical decision-making. It discusses recent developments in neuroethics that imply a prominent role for emotions in establishing ethical restraint. It also surveys a growing body of evidence that suggests the directive power of our emotions remains largely hidden from and impervious to the control of our "reasoning" selves. Lastly, it examines what Riskin has, in an earlier work, described as the ethical "hard case" in light of recent explorations into the emotional wellsprings of deontological versus consequentialist thinking. Although the mediation community need not wade deeply into the debates currently roiling social psychologists, it is useful to reflect on the genesis of our ethical commitments and whether they continue to serve the field’s long-term goals and interests.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 24

Keywords: mindfulness, mindful practice, ethical decisionmaking, moral intuitionism, logic, deliberate cognition, ethical restraints, mediation, negotiation, Riskin, neuroethics, ethics, cognitive bias, emotion

JEL Classification: K10, K40

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Date posted: May 7, 2010  

Suggested Citation

Waldman, Ellen A., Mindfulness, Emotions, and Ethics: The Right Stuff? (May 7, 2010). Nevada Law Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2010; Thomas Jefferson School of Law Research Paper No. 1602107. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1602107

Contact Information

Ellen Waldman (Contact Author)
Thomas Jefferson School of Law ( email )
1155 Island Ave
San Diego, CA 92101
United States
619-961-4346 (Phone)
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