Let’s get it straight to start with. Without factual information, some of it provided by science, ethics could not get off the ground. But factual information is not enough, despite the continuing attempts by scientists or science-minded amateurs to suggest that science is sufficient to accomplish what moral philosophers have been unable to accomplish — namely, a more completely adequate understanding of the moral life. Michael Shermer, who already has one book to his credit regarding this issue, is now planning another, and if his essay over at Rationally Speaking is anything to go by, this next foray into the world of philosophy is going to be, if anything, less satisfactory than the first. At least it shows a lamentable failure to learn about moral philosophy before undertaking the journey.
Why Shermer should think that he can really provide a grounding for morality without studying what the best of the philosophical tradition has had to say about morality is simply beyond me. The overweening hubris involved is a bit like military commanders who forget that every battle has flanks around which enemies can move unmolested, unless they are protected in advance so as to protect what the Germans call the Schwerpunkt of the battle. Shermer begins by dismissing moral philosophy with disarming words about “the Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality.” To start by dismissing as irrelevant the fundamental distinction between science and morality, without any effort to learn what the so-called “fallacy” of the movement from “is” to “ought” consists in, is a recipe for aporia or confusion which must dog the remaining steps that he must then undertake. It is fine to pass an enemy’s strong points, if you intend to come back and neutralise their power, or if you can blockade them, so that they wither on the vine, but to leave an enemy at your back who is self-sustaining is simply a fallacious strategy, and will render all that you do otiose.
This is what happened to Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape, which, for all its fanfare, has sunk almost without a trace in the continuing project of moral philosophy’s search for understanding. There seems to be a misapprehension of scientific pretenders to the victor’s crown of moral philosophy. They imagine that they are in the vanguard, beavering away scientifically at the only seam of truth in morality, where alone it is supposed that progress can be made. Moral philosophy is apparently thought by such giants to be, like theology, perhaps, sophisticated, yet meaningless, a battlefield where ignorant armies clash by night, where doubts, differences of opinion, and nuanced argument litter the field, in a pointless display of logic chopping and word play which have no end. Yet scientific moralists have yet to give us any insight into what would constitute morality, other than a few unsatisfactory references to human flourishing or happiness. Everyone, of course, believes that human flourishing is worth aiming at, but that is where the problems begin, for there is simply no agreement as to what human flourishing is, and how it is to be achieved, and how, at the individual level, this helps to guide moral action.
Shermer, of course, much like Harris, thinks that we can best achieve human flourishing and survival by economic means, and in his essay gives us a brief rundown on the achievements of what amounts to welfare economics. He gives us some rough figures of the reduction in polio cases over the years 1988 to 2012, and then asks:
Is that a moral good? Ask the 350,000 polio victims [in 1988].
Now, no doubt much moral good went into the achievement of the result, but whether the result itself is a moral good we may question. It is a social good, certainly, and the outcome of much moral good by individuals. But the actual reduction of numbers of polio cases from 350,000 to 222 is not, by ordinary measures, what we think of as a moral good. It is a social good which is the outcome of a great deal of hard work and dedication by many people, many of whom were driven by moral considerations. If this had happened by purely natural means, as is quite conceivable, its goodness would have no clear relation to morality at all.
This is a problem which, I fear, goes right to the heart of the scientific understanding of morality. Let’s take another case which was just brought to my attention by an email. In a response to my last post – ”Uncle Eric goes all scientistic, argues for “ways of knowing” other than science” — Jerry Coyne points out that,
If you think abortion is wrong because fetuses feel pain, science can in principle investigate that. If you think that torture is wrong because in no case can the suffering of one individual prevent the suffering of many, that’s amenable to investigation, too.
But in neither case would the scientist be examining the morality of action. Certainly, science can in principle investigate whether or not foetuses feel pain, but determining that does not in fact determine whether or not abortion is right or wrong. The same goes for torture. If torture is wrong it is likely to be wrong whatever the outcome of torture is. Even if torturing Al Qaeda members ended in the capture of high ranking Al Qaeda leaders, this would not show that torturing people is not wrong.
Far more serious, however, is Jerry’s belief that I argued for “ways of knowing” other than science. Indeed, in the post in question I say, explicitly, that
I have, to start with, to say that I do not find this language [of "ways of knowing"] useful, for it either includes too much or too little.
It is just not clear that talk of “ways of knowing” is particularly helpful. Perhaps, as one commenter says, it is a spinoff from Gould’s use of the word ‘magisterium,’ to delimit different spheres of knowledge, science being one magisterium, religion and ethics being another. But to run on from the claim that I find this use of language unhelpful, to the remarkable suggestion that I have suddenly joined forces with John Polkinghorne and Paul Davies, as Jerry does, or to suggest, falsely, as it turns out, that what I was doing in my last post was “going after science,” is simply an unwarranted extrapolation.
But you don’t [he says] have to go after science to deny religion’s moral authority.
But I did not in any sense at all “go after” science. Indeed, I am at pains to say how vital science is to our understanding, that it is indeed, paradigmatic for what it means to know, and that it has essential elements to contribute to moral judgement.
Nor did I, as Jerry suggests, make the egregious error of supposing that we can draw a straight line from Darwin to Hitler. Nothing that I said can reasonably be taken otherwise. There would be more reason to suggest that a straighter line could be drawn between Nietzsche and Hitler, but I don’t even think that that line can be drawn. Hitler’s perversion of science, which it indeed was, may not be able to be traced to Darwin, but it would be foolish to deny that Hitler had scientific backing for his conception of the survival of the fittest as applied to human societies, or for his use of eugenics to achieve those goals. Indeed, some of the normative language of conservative economics, as was in evidence during the recent American election, expresses this view precisely. However, to suggest that scientists are immune to the blandishments of ideology is simply implausible. Even Darwin himself thought that the white races were destined to rise superior to the darker races of humankind, and in the hands of supporters less gentle and human than his this belief was to turn into the social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer, and eventually into H.G. Wells’ belief that wide-scale slaughter might indeed be necessary in order for humanity to thrive.
It is surprising how many physicians in the Third Reich complied with the project of Nazi ideology, and practiced, not only eugenics, but participated in experimentation on living human beings, a practice that had its Japanese equivalent in China. Jerry says that
[i]f Eric wants to maintain the notion that scientists are ideologues who resemble the faithful, let him give examples, and not just a few, either! I deny that accusation, and think that the notion that “scientists are as prone to quasi-religious absolutism as any other human being” is a vile and baseless claim. Are we just as absolutist as, say, Southern Baptists?
This is simply a misunderstanding of what I meant. I did not say that “scientists are ideologues who resemble the faithful,” and was careful not to do so. I said clearly that scientists are as prone to ideological thinking as any other human being; my point being simply that scientists are no more immune to moral ill-doing than non-scientists, and should not be supposed to be so. Far from providing a foundation for morality, science can as easily underwrite wrongdoing on a massive scale, especially if morality is thought to be somehow the province of science itself, and I see no reason to think otherwise. We are, after all, as Hitch used to remind us, primates, and it shows.
Does this mean that morality or ethics is a special way of knowing? No, it does not. Indeed, as I have suggested several times, as I suggested in my last post, the language of “ways of knowing” is, in my estimation, at least, mistaken and unhelpful. All knowing requires reasons and evidence. We cannot be said to know something unless we can give adequate reasons or evidence for believing it to be true. That is why religion fails so miserably at the business of knowing, and why so many religious apologists try to suggest that religion is not a matter of knowledge at all, but of mythical self-understanding, or some such thing. But, for all that, it still does not help to speak of morality or ethics as in fact grounded in science, for it isn’t. Certainly, empirical information is vital in making many moral decisions; but it is a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition for moral knowledge.
And that’s where the whole idea of domains of knowledge, as I have taken to calling them, comes in. A domain of knowledge is an area of knowing which has its own canons of proof or demonstration. Science works by means of hypothesis and empirical confirmation, but morality needs a considerable degree of what might be called “human” (or humane) understanding, the kind that can be conveyed by stories and poems, and even, sometimes, truth be told, theological analyses of human situations fraught by uncertainty and confusion. Without this emotional/human depth, moral outcomes will be, for the most part, superficial and unsatisfactory. Though I have not read James Joyce’s “The Dead,” that Jerry extols so highly, my guess is that the excellence of the prose is closely related to the depth of perception of human feelings and emotions, and how these are taken up and illustrated by the characters as they interact in the story. Style and moral seriousness are often closely allied in literature, which is what makes Tolstoy the novelist so superior morally to Tolstoy the religious zealot.
I would be remiss here, however, if I did not also address one of Jerry’s central concerns, which he expresses in the following terms:
I am starting to think that we should dispense with the idea of “moral” and “immoral” acts for two reasons. The first is because morality is implicitly connected with free choice, that is, with “free will.” If one can’t choose one’s acts freely, that one can’t decide to be “moral” or “immoral.” Rather, as a consequentionalist, I’d replace “morality” with what it really means for most people, “the effects of an act on an individual or society.” Thus an “immoral act” might better be seen as “an act that reduces societal well being.”
In response to this what more can I say than that I disagree with the claim that we can give no sense either to freedom or to moral responsibility? This is a fundamental disagreement which is not susceptible to scientific proof, at least at present, in very much the same way that consciousness is unamenable to scientific explanation. Besides this, defining immorality in terms solely of a reduction to social well-being seems to me inadequate to what we normally mean when we speak of morality, which is as or more important in the context of individual relationships than it is on the scale of whole societies. Indeed, one of the besetting problems of utilitarianism is that it seems unable to deal with the more immediate concerns of individuals, and, indeed, in its classic form, would legitimate actions which most people rightly take to be immoral.
And this raises a further problem which it is impossible for me to deal with in the scope of a blog post, but should be of concern to us all, namely, the question as to the objectivity of morality. Jerry says, without providing any evidence for the claim, that there are no objective moral truths, and takes me to be arguing as follows:
In other words, by denying that morality can be subject to the same empirical standards that determine truth in science, we scientists are enabling religion. After all, if there aren’t objective moral truths, why not just turn to religion for guidance?
This is certainly not what I am arguing, though I think the claim that we can be good without god, without providing some guidance as to the good that we can achieve is certainly leaving an opening for religion to hold that secularism reduces goodness to the level of mere subjective preference. Humanism must, in the end, provide some sense, not only of the wonder and beauty of the intricacies of the scientific understanding of nature, but of the depth and resonance of being human. Our moral understanding, as well as our understanding of justice and equity, are essential elements, I believe, of this depth and resonance. I am not at all convinced that science can provide this, and one of the aporias which contemporary nonbelief seems to have reached lies in a disagreement about the status of moral claims, and the attempt by some simply to short-circuit the intricacies and depth of contemporary philosophical disagreements about morality by opting for an overly simplistic understanding of what morality consists in, and how it is grounded.
It may be true that moral philosophy does not reach assured conclusions in the way that science does; but it may, for all that, be the nature of the human condition that these things are undecidable in a strict sense, yet, at the same time, be such that the continuing discussion of morality is the way in which morality’s objectivity, as an aspect of our understanding of being human, is maintained. Absolute moral conclusions are probably, simply as absolute, immoral, because morality, given the nature of being human, cannot arrive at absolute principles that are valid for everyone, whatever the time, place or occasion; yet it may be vital that, as a part of what Philip Kitcher terms “the ethical project,” issues of morality be maintained in public discourse, in order to assure that whatever we do is reliably based on the ongoing moral conversation in which the objectivity of morality itself consists. I can only gesture generally in the direction of Amartya Sen’s notion of “positional objectivity” here (for reference to which I thank my daughter Kirsten — see Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol 22. No 2 (Spring 1993), 126-145), for an important part of the human experience is diversity of belief, which can only be dealt with by way of rigorous thought and continuing conversation. In this respect, the objectivity of morality consists, not in the achievement of general moral agreement, which is not likely to be forthcoming, but in commitment to a process of discussion and the piecemeal settlement of disagreements, in an effort to reach moral consensus — a consensus which, of course, is never fully achieved, and continually shifts through time.
This is why moral philosophy is so important, not because general agreement has been achieved, but because there is a continual process, within moral philosophy, of challenge and response, keeping our moral language limber and clear. The problem with the idea of a science of morality is that it aims at cutting the Gordian knot, and jumping straight to conclusions, without undergoing the rigours of disciplined thought and discussion, which is, given the complexities of human thought, relationship and emotion, unending. I hope after all this that Jerry can feel that, while I disagree with him sharply on some issues, that disagreement is meant to be, and is in fact offered, with the greatest respect.