in Features
October 4th, 2019

Jared Diamond, Joseph Henrich, Joseph Heath, and Kate Manne are authors whose influence spreads across a multitude of fields. The reason being that, in pursuit of human understanding, all disciplines are considered. Their collective presence on Dr. Victor Kumar’s shelf says more about the growing nature of our intellect than the most elaborate collection of neuroscience textbooks. 

For Kumar, now an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Boston University, director of the Mind and Morality Lab, and member of the Moral Psychology Research Group, it started when he took “Philosophy of Biology” during his Junior at Dalhousie University. 

“I was never that fascinated, engaged, or motivated to work in school until I took my first philosophy class,” he said. “I realized that there were all these really interesting theoretical questions in biology about the nature of natural selection and how evolution works that my biology professors weren’t that interested in talking about, but the philosophers were.” 

After hopping around between different disciplines, he ultimately settled for a B.S. in Psychology and Biology and a B.A. in Philosophy. He completed his Ph.D. in Philosophy with a minor in Cognitive Science at the University of Arizona, where he wrote a perceptive dissertation on the nature of moral judgment. 

“If you think about the history of science and psychology and all academic subjects, almost all of them come back to philosophy,” he said. “Some [moral philosophy] questions are better answered by other fields that have more empirical methodologies for studying the mind.” 

Kumar took old philosophical questions — what is moral judgment? What distinguishes moral judgments from other types of normative and evaluative judgments? Do moral judgements motivate on their own? — and tried to answer them with neuroscience. Why is this important? He explained:

“The way that academia has grown in the past hundred years is that there is more and more specialization, and that’s necessary because there is so much knowledge that you have to master in order to make any contribution in that field. However, one result of that is that, within disciplines and between disciples, there’s a lot of isolation,” he said. “One thing that I think is really important to do in this age of increased specialization is to have some people whose job is to help others in those fields talk to each other and to figure out which insights in biology are relevant to psychology and which insights in psychology are relevant to philosophy.”

His inquisitive nature earned him publications in Ethics, Philosophers’ Imprint, Cognition, Philosophical Studies, and The Philosophical Quarterly, as well as a Jean Hampton Prize for the best essay by a younger scholar from the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association in 2015. 

Kumar joined the Philosophy department at Boston University after completing his post-doctoral fellowships at the University of Michigan and the University of Toronto in 2017. 

“The interview that I had at BU was really special. I could tell that people here were really serious about philosophy,” he said. “You guys are lucky to live in the center of the intellectual universe, there isn’t any other city that compares to this…You could live in an apartment where you’re walking distance to BU, Harvard, and MIT. There’s just a lot of brilliant academic minds in this city.”

Upon arrival, Dr. Kumar founded the Mind and Morality Lab, an interdisciplinary group in philosophy and cognitive science that hosts conferences and topic-focused lectures every semester. Most are typically at the intersection of science and moral philosophy.  

“Inevitably, in any scientific field, you get trapped in a little bubble where you start on talking to advanced specialists in that field,” he said. “It can be really useful to get knowledge from another field, a different kind of perspective. That could be the spark to seeing things in a different way and starting an entirely new research program.”

In addition to all of this, Dr. Kumar is part of the Moral Psychology Research Group, a team of like-minded philosophers and scientists who group once a year to investigate topics of moral reasoning, character, evaluative diversity, moral emotion, positive psychology, moral rules, the neural correlates of ethical judgment, and the attribution of moral responsibility. The goal being to inspire empirical work in areas like development, culture, social cognition, and brain science.

His fascination for morality has grown into an ongoing project, How Morality Evolves, a book that he is co-authoring with Dalhousie University’s Richmond Campbell. 

“I think it’s really fascinating to understand who we are and where we came from, but that’s not just interesting in itself, it also has interesting social implications,” he said. “If we understand who we are and where we come from, then we might be in a better position to understand where we’re going and who we might become.”

The book’s goal is to put different evolutionary theories into a broad, encompassing explanation of how morality evolved through cultural and genetic processes. 

“We try to get a better understanding of cultural evolutionary mechanisms that caused progressive moral change, regressive moral change, and moral stasis,” he said. “If we have a better understanding of how they lead to moral and social change, then that might give us some ideas on how to encourage moral progress and prevent moral regress.”

The interlink between philosophy and science is notorious for pursuing a so-called “Theory of Everything,” classifying its efforts as idealistic. However, the reality of every discipline is rooted in a hierarchy of truths and links. In the end, all points of view must be accounted for, and so we keep searching for those relationships. 

“It’s really easy [for students] to get pulled into some areas and have laser focus on that [subject]” he said. “One of the points of going to university is to receive a broad education, and dual programs really bring that.”

If we keep searching for those links, we might just find something substantial about ourselves and others — Dr. Kumar is an intellectual proof of that fact.

Writer: Stephanie Gonzalez

Editor: Emme Enojado

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