Science and the Good (Book review wrt deriving morality from science)


What principles of psychology are you talking about? Kids normally learn about moral behavior long before they are 13.

(Mitchell W McKain) #22

And I gave such particular examples with regards to seat belts and cigarettes. Is it possible that what you really want is not an example of how moral dictates can be derived from scientific findings, but some kind of proof that every commonly accepted moral sentiment can be derived from scientific principles? I have already suggested that some such commonly accepted moral sentiments ought to be discarded as mere prejudice.

But if you are particularly interested in the the question of why killing people is wrong then psychology works for that one rather well indeed. The negative psychological effects of taking a life in law enforcement are well known. But I already explained that science cannot help us with the arbitrary lines we draw such as between when we deem taking a life to be justified such as in combat and when we do not. Certainly the negative psychological effects do not recognize any such lines.

Some people move beyond the two-year old mentality “its wrong because mommy and daddy says so” and the utter inadequacy of an authoritarian morality for mature rational adults, to look for some actual reasons why these things might be wrong. On the other hand… some people do not get beyond that stage and when they rebel against their parents (and religion) they throw all their morality out the window. But that is one of the glaring inadequacies of authoritarian morality.

(RiderOnTheClouds) #23

When do you think one ‘does’ make a naturalistic fallacy?

(Dillon) #24

I think that “brute forcing” your way through the is/ought problem is a decent approach. But it isn’t without its problems.

  1. It’s raining outside. (IS-statement)
  2. We are going to go outside. (IS-statement)
  3. We don’t want to get wet. (IS-statement)
    We ought to wear raincoats. (OUGHT-statement)

Most people would agree that the above argument seems logically coherent. But it is leaking water. It relies upon an assumed fourth premise which makes it possible to put an ought-statement in the conclusion: “We ought to have our desires satisfied.” No scientific discovery or observational powers (IS-statements) can furnish us with this premise.

The moral naturalist wants to take the invisible fourth premise as a “given.” But this is a mistake. “Why is satisfying our desires good?” Is a valid question, and one worth exploring. It is tempting to say that the fourth premise is obvious (and in most cases it is), but just because it is obvious doesn’t mean it should be ignored. After all, ignoring something obvious is just as likely to result in a faulty judgement as ignoring something obscure.

That’s why I favor approaches that ask, “What is good?” rather than those approaches which assume science provides the answer to that question.

(Dillon) #25

I agree with everything you said except the part about not needing an objective standard. The words right/wrong/moral/immoral lose all their meaning unless they refer to something objective. According to a particular set of cultural standards FGM may be permissible… or even wrong for a young woman to try and avoid. One could argue that I’m just a prejudiced Westerner regarding my attitude toward FGM (and perhaps I am).

But, to me, “Is FGM morally wrong?” is a valid question to ask. It’s an issue worth exploring. But the question becomes unanswerable if the only metric being used is relative standards of a culture. By that metric, FGM IS morally permissible so long as the cultural environs in which the practice transpires is accepting of it.

(Mark D.) #26

I wonder though if morality correctly applied by an expert user with no formal knowledge of any supporting arguments is entirely inadequate? Just as with language, one can become an expert user without having any formal knowledge of grammar or usage. So why not with morality? We might have a higher regard for people who do have that formal level of understanding but should we have a lower regard for the informal user’s morality on that account? Someone who shows consideration appropriately would surely continue to be counted a moral person, wouldn’t they?

(Mitchell W McKain) #27

The naturalistic fallacy is made when…

  1. You do not acknowledge the linking assumption, and thus not not make it available for criticism.
  2. There is no link between “is” and “ought.” One of the more classic examples is one of pointing various behaviors in animals and saying that these are perfectly natural behaviors and thus should not be considered immoral. But the rather childish justification “because they do it, then we can do it too” has never been very convincing. Another example is one from past and tradition, “this is the way it has always been done.” Again this says absolutely nothing about whether it ought to be done that way.

Of course 1 and 2 can be linked by exposing the hidden premise though this requires suppositions which may be objected to. One can suppose that the first of those examples is based on the premise that “animals behave as humans ought to behave.” And the premise behind the second example might be “humans ought to behave as they have always behaved.” Neither of these sound very believable and are thus likely to be denied that they are the premises behind the claims made in these two examples. Regardless, the point of the naturalistic fallacy is that the link must be made and thus the premise which makes this link needs to be stated for examination.

(Mitchell W McKain) #28

Yes. I am certainly not making the argument that we ought to get our morality from science alone, only that it is possible to derive moral mandates and even a system of morality from scientific conclusions. Nor have I ever supported the idea that we can derive everything from logic and objective evidence alone. On the contrary, I have repeatedly opposed such an idea. And where does that leave us?

  1. It leaves us with making our choices of the premises we accept for a variety of reasons which will necessarily go the whole range from subjective to objective.
  2. It leaves the moral argument for the existence of God in the garbage can.

(Dillon) #29

Absolutely. It is obvious that moral naturalists are capable of precise moral judgements. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. Most people (including myself) get by with their basic moral intuitions. It’s almost as if one doesn’t even need to be rigorously trained in logic or philosophy in order to be a moral person. :wink:

I still think it’s worthwhile to explore the foundations of our moral beliefs though. (ie. It goes beyond mere philosophical musing). In a world filled with war, unbridled greed, starvation, and exploitation (and no way to outright abolish these things without doing more harm than good) moral thinking has its place. Moral thinking helps us identify the nature of these problems and can provide a justification for challenging the status quo.

(Christy Hemphill) #30

I think maybe we are using objective differently, and it’s entirely possible I’m not using it correctly (I’m pretty sure I’m not using it the way Mitchell would approve of).

I’m using objective truth in opposition to subjective truth. I don’t think humans have access to many things that can be considered objectively true in a pure sense, because I think we are limited by our embodied, experientially-defined, culturally-influenced perspectives. Objective truth can’t be biased by the perception of the person knowing it, it has to be neutral.

I don’t see how any standard of morality is untouched by the subjectivity of the particular humans who came up with it. Even when people say they are basing their morality on the revelation of God’s objective standard, what they really mean is they are basing it on their subjective understanding of God’s absolute truth. Anytime you introduce applied value judgments of good or bad or even harmful or beneficial, you are introducing a perspective and an inherent bias because values will need to be ranked in order to be applied.

But maybe we agree that you can’t have morality without standards. It’s impossible to have a system of ethics if no one has to agree what is good and what is bad and everything is relative and all values are perpetually un-ranked. It seems to me that most moral or ethical systems are justification of a ranking of values. Who ranks higher, the individual or the group? What is more important honor or happiness? What is worse, shame or death? What makes a person more valuable, usefulness or loved-ness? It’s not that we don’t agree that shame is bad and death is bad in some objective sense, we just disagree which is worse when applied to a particular situation that will be viewed through subjective lenses and require us to rank our values.

(Christy Hemphill) #31

I agree. I can’t think how you get from the is to the should objectively though. Underneath every should is another should, not an is. Every answer to the question why is FGM wrong ultimately boils down to a should, not an objective fact.

I live where most people I know grow opium poppies. I think it’s wrong, but it ultimately all boils down to shoulds that the people don’t accept as valid and a value ranking that they don’t share. It is not considered wrong in their community.


And yet even babies are drawn to goodness, long before they can speak.

The Moral Life of Babies
(These experiments are quite famous.)

And all of us have a moral system unless we are mentally ill. We have the same laws for believer and unbeliever alike.

And religion doesn’t necessarily make us behave ourselves. I attended a really great series of classes given by a rabbi, who heads a Jewish science and faith organization. It was held in a local Episcopal church. We were talking about ethics. The rabbi asked if we knew religious people who weren’t ethical. Everyone raised a hand. He then asked if we knew ethical people who weren’t religious. Again, everyone raised a hand.

(Wayne Dawson) #33

Actually, I think @Christy was expressing that question (“Geology is by definition a moral enterprise”) in more of an ironic tone to make a point.

I somewhat differ with you here in subtle ways. Of course, in the general practice of science – being honest, demonstrating the truth of your hypothesis through experimental evidence (without “little adjustments” :wink: ) or a theoretical proof built upon the foundations of already established concepts and methods, etc. – is the duty of a scientist.

But to play on Christy’s hyperbole a bit, we can use all the proper methodologies of science to make a virus to demolish the human race. To accomplish the task, it would require “honesty” (adherence to facts), evidence, proof, and well established scientific methodology. Yet, I assume that – buried deep in the moral agent of the scientist in an unwritten way – like the Hippocratic oath, most scientists would rightly not engage in this activity even though it satisfies all the fundamental elements of any other genuinely good scientific endeavor.

On a somewhat less purely evil trajectory, this scientific curiosity can be justified in questions like “what made the particular strain of influenza causing Spanish Fever particularly deadly?”. There is the seasonal flu that has more or less found an equilibrium in the human population (not usually deadly at least), and then there are the ones that have caused pandemics (typically by crossing the species barrier wherein the immune system of the new host has limited existing defenses). Understanding why it was so deadly might improve our ability to treat patients who come into contact with some future influenza that might also otherwise wipe out 1/3 of the population. Questions like “was it failure in the treatment?”, “what procedures of isolation would be most effective?”, etc. are very valuable questions to ask and perfectly scientific. So the mere act of creating and examining viruses is not necessarily evil; it is the intention and purpose that need to be clear (and, of course, proper precautions must assiduously be taken).

In that sense, I still see science (at least the scientific method – abstract as it is – and its application to questions about the world) as mostly the tool. The gun, to use your analogy, fires bullets. The gun can be used in acceptable forms of enterprise such as hunting game, protecting a nation, defending property, etc. However, when it is used for murder, armed robbery, shooting straight up in the air celebrating victory or whatever, etc., I would say that these are not acceptable ways to employ a gun. Just like the user of the gun, the important thing is that there is the overarching assumption that a scientist is also a moral agent.

(Wayne Dawson) #34

It is almost surely my fault, but no. Would you be able to locate the link again?

(Christy Hemphill) #35

We used the proper methodologies of science to make an atomic bomb. Was the making of the bomb immoral? Or does the morality come into play when humans decide to drop it? Good question.

(Mitchell W McKain) #36

Incorrect. The scientific method is one of finding the way to test your hypothesis to see if it is true or false. That is the scientific standard of honesty which tops all other human activities. One of the results is that your conclusions can be demonstrated simply by repeating the experiment.

Incorrect, you seem to be confusing science with engineering.

And although I didn’t respond, that is the same essential confusion in Cathy’s response that she was talking about scientific knowledge. Yes this knowledge is a tool and the use of this tool is engineering not science.

Ok… so… ???
I do not see that what you said had any bearing whatsoever on what I said.
But… thank you for the info and observations. Sounds like something of particular interest to those who would argue for a long evolution of morality in primate behavior.


It certainly isn’t your fault; I don’t see why it would be.

Thanks for your interest. Here it is again:

2017 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate: De-Extinction

(Host Tyson talks about astrophysics in the beginning of this but then gets down to business. It’s long but very good.)

The panelists include:
2017 Asimov Debate panelists are:

George Church
Professor of Health Sciences and Technology, Harvard University and MIT

Hank Greely
Director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences, Stanford University

Gregory Kaebnick
Scholar, The Hastings Center; Editor, Hastings Center Report

Ross MacPhee
Curator, Department of Mammalogy, Division of Vertebrate Zoology; Professor, Richard Gilder Graduate School

Beth Shapiro
Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Santa Cruz


Meaning, babies haven’t been taught morals by their parents at this point in their lives.

(Wayne Dawson) #39

I think you have largely hit on a reasonable secular definition. At least within Western pluralistic democracies, we have to pose some set of rules or standards that people can agree to follow and rank them as such. It is far easier to establish if someone has followed the “rules” and rank the rightness or wrongness based on how well they followed that set of rules. So then we just agree to follow the rules and some will say just chuck out the god just follow the rules.

This seems to all come back to what one’s fundamental worldview is. If this world we live in and the life and family we have is all that is, which is basically all science can say, then I think we could settle for “the law”, and largely be done with ethics.

The thing about being a Christian is that we do believe, as our worldview, that there is something more. There are things that may be true that we cannot demonstrate by scientific experimental methodology but appear to still make sense on this side of the cross. It is that walk and relationship with Jesus. I know that is difficult for atheists. They would reasonably ask, “how do you know?” We don’t, we trust that God is sovereign over all that is and that all will be called to account at some point. So where our paths as religious people differ from those who would say that “this life and world is all that is” is that, though we play a small insignificant thread among many, if we could see it from the perspective of God, we would see a breathtaking tapestry.

But maybe more important is when it doesn’t pay to be moral. There is someone I am acquainted with who lived in Libya for many years. He was there when Reagan had some “ordinance” dropped on the place in response to some nonsense Qadaffy was up to. Through all the years Qadaffy was in power, people got along fine there. There were the issues with the foreign religion and being a foreigner, but the place was quite peaceful as long as everyone respected the “rules”. Now, it is nothing like that. There are plenty of other examples of populations that go very much awry in terrible ways in times of stress. The logical thing to do in situations like that is to be “invisible”. Do we walk our faith, or do we just follow the crowd? Certainly, the probability of preserving your life and your family is to follow in the “invisible middle” of the crowd if you can.

This is where we Christians come face to face with our walk with Jesus. For some, I cannot even imagine how they persevere through such levels hard testing. Somehow, they trust enough. But that is the thing, we see Jesus as part of a bigger picture (one who suffered for us) that helps inform us on how we can face and deal with our own cross.

I also don’t see this as solely a Christian thing, though I decided to follow Jesus myself. I live in Japan where most of the people are (effectively) secular (I would say not exactly) and those who are religious are more likely to be Buddhist than any other faith. I sense a common heart toward the right way in a much bigger picture. Jewish folk also understand God through history. In essence, to have a religious perspective on life is to assume that there is a bigger picture in which our actions play out. I’m not sure we can really know with certainty whether choosing to walk this way will lead to a better picture, but therein we must trust. Mind you, I am not implying or suggesting that atheists don’t care whatever. One could see this as “the one life”, appreciate the gift, and at least have some empathy for people who don’t get a good lot. I am simply pointing out a worldview issue here.

So maybe practically, because we live in a pluralistic society, we have to establish a set of rules that people can tolerate and find not too difficult to follow, and this is basically civilization. Morality, to a purely secular person, would be something that grants the person enough freedom to go about his/her day without being molested by people using unjust scales and standards – and therein, it is simply agreeing on what those scales and standards are and requiring everyone to follow them. We can use criteria like utilitarianism, or survival of the species, economic incentives of free trade (much harder but at least demonstrable at some level), and so forth. These can (and sometimes do) fall apart, but outside of a grand perspective of a religious worldview, that is probably what we will have to live with.

So, fundamentally, it seems to me that it comes down to whether a person believes (i.e., trusts) that there is something more or not. One’s moral convictions are then shaped by that perspective. Most of the time, this doesn’t really matter, but it will inform the choices we make sometimes. For me, should I ever find myself hiding in a cave somewhere after fleeing an unrighteousness ruler, I hope I will hear and obey the quiet whisper from the voice of the maker of that eternal tapestry.

by Grace we proceed.

(Wayne Dawson) #40

I don’t really see what is different about what I said in a very terse way and what you say. I happen to be a scientist and someone who has made some real discoveries. Must we sit on our high horse on the mountain looking down on the fools and idiots who inhabit the shire? Sir.