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Ought-ology? Science & Ethics

by Rick Lewis

Two of the most obvious and least ignorable features of today’s society are the ever-accelerating advance of science and the ever-increasing urgency of questions about how we should all relate to one another in our changing, crowded world. You might think it would be hard to find two areas of human endeavour less alike, but in fact science and moral philosophy influence each other in both directions, as you’ll see from the first few articles in this issue.

Firstly ethicists can contribute in various ways to our use of science. As science has gained ever greater mastery over our world, the potential consequences of misusing it have become terrible indeed. Both research and technology throw up moral dilemmas. Moral philosophers wrestle with such dilemmas and this is why some serve on government committees advising on the regulation of new technologies.

Another role which philosophy plays is to explore the longterm social impact of scientific advances, and warn us about the shape of things to come. It is not always easy to foresee how technological developments might mesh with social and economical ones or what the ethical issues might be. Jason Xenopoulos plays seer in a way reminiscent of H.G. Well’s novel The Time Machine, fretting that humanity may diverge into two separate species under the combined impact of hi-tech medical enhancement and rampant economic inequality.

That re-engineering the human organism should have the potential to change society is perhaps obvious, but occasionally research in the most fundamental areas of pure science can change the world too. Take particle physics, for example, the ‘beautiful subject’ of the 1920s and 30s. Reflecting sadly on his own involvement in the development of the atomic bomb, Albert Einstein later wrote “If I had only known, I would have been a locksmith.” Few today realise that Einstein wrote and spoke extensively about ethics and society, perhaps in an understandable reaction to the way the pure physics he had loved had led to the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In his article Ching-Hung Woo explains how Einstein thought that people tended to make a mistake about the nature of human agency. If people understood physics better they would realise that the universe was deterministic, and this would make them less arrogant, and more respectful of those choices which individuals really can make. So Einstein derived a kind of ethics from his interpretation of science.

Einstein wasn’t the first (though he may have been the nicest) thinker to claim that science could provide a basis for morality. There were the Social Darwinists back in the 19th century and much more recently and wholesomely there has been biologist E.O. Wilson with gene-culture evolution. For a scientist, philosophy can be very frustrating. In contrast to the astonishing progress in the physical sciences over the past few centuries, philosophers just talk and talk and nothing ever seems to get finally settled! No wonder the occasional scientists thinks that they could really sort out a few intractable philosophical problems such as the basis of morality once and for all, with a bit of clear thinking, some better-defined questions, and some hard scientific evidence from the real world. Brian King’s fascinating article on the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the evolution of morality explains how some researchers now think that a combination of game theory, evolutionary biology and computational modelling can explain how in a hostile and unforgiving environment our species nonetheless developed the capacity for feelings such as sympathy or empathy and learned not only to compete but also to co-operate in the pursuit of shared goals. Most philosophers these days reckon that humans are part of the natural world, and have evolved as other animals have evolved. If so, then looking for scientific explanations for features of our culture and our psychology seems a perfectly valid and interesting enterprise. A problem arises though when scientists go one step further and claim that some feature of the natural world means we should act in some particular way towards each other; in other words when they step over the line from making descriptive accounts of ethics to making actual prescriptions for how we should behave. Amy Cools in her article explores why this is a perilous move. Responding to yet another science-based ethic, that of Michael Shermer, she agrees with Shermer that ethics should be informed by science, but argues that it can’t easily be derived from science. Cools explains in depth the difficulty first pointed out by David Hume in his Treatise of Human Nature; that you can’t just hop straight from statements of fact to statements about what should be done. Cools says that little journey is so tricky that only science and philosophy together in partnership have a hope of making it.

In debates a few decades ago, some philosophers like Richard Hare and Karl Popper went further than Cools and argued that this journey is strictly impossible. Hume’s point – they called it Hume’s Law – was a logical one: you can’t have something in the conclusion of an argument unless it also appears somewhere in the argument’s premises. If somebody makes some true statements about apples and pianos, and then claims they can deduce a conclusion from them about penguins, then you should be very wary. The same applies, they said, to any argument which apparently derives conclusions about what we ought to do from premises which state only what is the case. It can’t be done. Were they right? What do you think?


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