Philosophy professor awarded international research grant to study responsibility and morality

Philosophy professor Paul Russell will be spending the next decade studying questions of morality and free will thanks to a $12 million large grant from a Swedish research group.

The grant, which is worth 80 million Swedish kronor, or approximately $12 million, and has been awarded by the Swedish Research Council, will go towards Russell's research on moral responsibility and global issues.

Russell will now be dividing the next 10 years of his life between UBC and the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, where he will be examining how free will influences human responsibility in both local and global issues.

In Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) receives significantly less funding than its counterparts in science, engineering and health research. In the past eight years, SHHRC's budget has also shrunk by 10.5 per cent.

According to Russell, the Swedish government is more geared towards promoting support and research opportunities to academics in humanities. He also said that this is the first program of its kind in Sweden, which attracts researchers in all fields to the country.

“[The Council] started a new program to attract what they call ‘leading researchers’ to Sweden," said Russell. "This is, I believe, the first one in the humanities area, so quite a few of them are in other areas like medical research, engineering, things of that sort.”

According to Russell, the University of Gothenburg established a research project with a group led by Gunnar Björnsson. Björnsson, once he heard of the project, began talking to Russell about the possibility of his coming on as an international researcher for the project.

Most of the funding will go towards hiring and establishing a team of researchers to collaborate and assist in the initiative. Russell said that even $12 million can go away quickly when hiring postdoctoral researchers and other project assistants.

Russell’s research considers ethical issues, including traditional philosophical questions regarding the moral responsibility of human beings and the relation of this responsibly to law. According to Russell, such an issue splits into questions of moral psychology, personal values and people's feelings of responsibility to other human beings.

“What is it about human beings and human agents that makes it intelligible to regard ourselves and other human beings as responsible agents?” said Russell.

Russell's team will also be looking into how moral questions regarding law, criminal and legal responsibility interact with people's feelings of accountability for their actions.

“What makes them valid and makes us think they are not fully responsible and not liable to punishment?” said Russell.