Disclaimer: The author’s views do not necessarily represent those of AAAS or DoSER.
Know thyself! A straightforward imperative which leads directly to one of the most important questions we can ask. Knowing what kinds of things we are as human beings is a prerequisite to figuring out what kind of morality is relevant to our lives. For thousands of years religions have developed many different answers to this. For example, we are the images of God that still must grapple with our sinful nature, or we are reincarnations that accrue good and bad karma. Secular explanations also have deep roots, going back to the time of Aristotle, most notably in his Nicomachean Ethics. However in the West, the secular component of this discussion has been marginalized and has only recently come to the foreground. And while this push might be either a cause or an effect, as more people leave religious explanations, how secular philosophy and science address these questions becomes ever more important.
I believe there is an important underlying discussion that needs to be had between philosophy and science, namely whether or not Know Thyself is enough. In other words, if once we know the empirical details of our humanity, will we then have the answers to our daily ethical dilemmas? There are scientists, such as socio-biologist E. O Wilson and neuroscientist Sam Harris, who would answer “Yes!” However, philosophers have classically argued that there are two sets of questions required for a discussion of morality. So while scientists are certainly needed for one set, philosophers, I argue, are also needed to paint the bigger picture of ethics.
Now of course there are many scientists and philosophers on each side of this debate that don’t fall into the categories I’ve described. However, for the sake of simplicity, I will use this caricature of philosophy versus science. Though not perfectly congruent, this conflict parallels one of the most important underlying issues in modern secular ethics known as the is/ought dichotomy. David Hume, a philosopher, first outlines the distinction between is and ought in 1739. For Hume, “is” refers to statements of what is observed while “ought” refers to what ought to be. Because of the nature of descriptive is statements and prescriptive ought statements, one can never get moral imperatives from observations. Since Hume philosophers have classically agreed with this – though by no means are they unanimous. Scientists and popular authors E. O. Wilson and Sam Harris, on the other hand, explicitly disagree with Hume. For them there is no fundamental bridge between is and ought. Both of these scientists have since developed arguments for how science, by itself, might go about explaining morality.
In his book The Moral Landscape, Harris argues that science is sufficient to answer questions of who we are and what we ought to do. Through systematic observation, he argues, we can discover the principles that lead to human well-being. For example, if we observed societies that veil women and commit honor killings we would see that they produce less well-being for most of their members when compared to alternatives. Now maybe this particular claim is false and such societies produce more well-being, but the point Harris seeks to make is that whether it happens to be true or false is something we can observe.
Wilson, similarly, discusses a project of discovering ‘epigenetic rules’ which have been developed over humanity’s history by natural selection so that we can best fit the environment that we have found ourselves in. For the individual, this environment includes the social community they are in, i.e. their culture. Epigenetic rules, as he defines them in his book Consilience, are “inherited regularities of development in anatomy, physiology, cognition, and behavior.” Further, “the adaptiveness of epigenetic rules of human behavior is not the exclusive result of either biology or culture. It arises from a subtle manifestation of both.” This subtle manifestation he terms gene-culture co-evolution. Wilson then cites anthropologist George Murdock’s survey of human cultures which concludes that despite the many differences among these cultures, much is fundamentally the same. As examples, Murdock lists our propensity towards courtship, incest taboos, trade, gift giving, social groups as well as 61 other traits. Wilson argues that all of these traits have been selected to help us survive in our environment, which includes each other. Summing it up, he writes “Human social existence… is based on the genetic propensity to form long term contracts that evolved by culture into moral precepts.” Our task is then to understand what behaviors our genes tend us toward and, as Sam Harris adds, what kinds of contracts can lead to the continued survival and well-being of humanity.
All of this sounds convincing. For example, if we do have a propensity for aggressiveness towards perceived out groups, then it is important to understand this instinct in order to address it. And it seems straightforward that if we systematically observe that certain behaviors only cause suffering to society, that we should then condemn such practices. The philosopher does not disagree with any of this. The philosopher only argues that the scientist is overstepping the bounds of purely empirical study in making such claims.
Let me explain. Science only makes observations. Whether these concern the practices that a society accepts or the facts of our evolutionary history, science can only make descriptive claims of what is, as discussed above. In arguing that oughts are completely different kinds of things than descriptive statements, the philosopher explains that what ought to be the case may not be, have been or will ever be the case. Therefore, there may simply be no ought to describe. What ought to be may not exist now or ever and science cannot describe the non-existent.
There are two approaches that scientists like Harris and Wilson use to introduce science into the discussion of what ought to be. First, there is the goal of understanding what laws and norms that you, I and others actually believe. Wilson argues that “to translate is into ought makes sense if we attend to the objective meaning of ethical precepts… [which] are no more than principles of social contract hardened into rules and dictates.” He then discusses a possible scale of such precepts concerning adultery:
Let’s not go further; it doesn’t feel right, and it would lead to trouble.
(We probably ought not.)
Adultery not only causes feelings of guilt, it is generally disapproved of by society, so these are other reasons to avoid it.
(We ought not.)
Adultery isn’t just disapproved of, it’s against the law.
(We almost certainly ought not.)