Can Science Answer Our Ethical Dilemmas? Exploring the Is-Ought Dichotomy

Know thyself! A straightforward imperative which leads directly to one of the most important questions we can ask.

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.)

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Again, while all of these statements are either true or false in a given context, each italicized statement is merely a description of what is the case by coincidence of where you happen to find yourself, and we often happen to find ourselves in places we believe ought to be different than they are. For example, think of slavery in the US South or concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Pre-Civil War US Southern society may have approved of and codified slavery, but from this fact alone should we conclude that owning slaves and continuing to approve of the system was what ought to be done? Germans by law had to turn in Jews to authorities, and many citizens felt, some even passionately, obliged to do so, but does that mean it was right?

Cultural subjectivism is the idea that when observing and describing the beliefs of a society (a descriptive is statement), one will necessarily reach the correct conclusions for what is morally right and wrong in that society. In that case morality is simply whatever a society concludes. As anyone who has taken part in activism will quickly see, however, this does not explain our individual or collective change in our beliefs. If the cultural subjectivist is right, then Martin Luther King Jr. was wrong. King fought against the beliefs of his society. He sought change. The moral code that described his society he believed was not what ought to be. From a more individual perspective, look at anyone who has personally changed their own opinion on a moral issue (including yourself). While such a person would agree that even though they had believed, say, abortion is an abhorrent action, they also would believe that were wrong at the time, and that after changing their beliefs, they are right. Most people recognize that they aren’t claiming infallibility, but if it turns out that they are correct now, which they think they are, then earlier they were wrong. If what is morally right is whatever we believe, then it would be the case that they were right in their beliefs both before and after changing them. Whether as individuals or societies, when we give reasons for moral arguments and then change our beliefs we aim to move from an incorrect to a correct belief.

The anthropologist’s work in cultural subjectivism therefore doesn’t give us very much. It only documents our history and who we are as a culture. While this is a legitimate scientific enterprise, it merely describes what we think the moral truths are at a particular time. However, there is a second approach that science has undertaken in an effort to make is statements into ought statements. Instead of merely listing what we happen to believe, this approach aims at that first central maxim ‘Know Thyself’. Instead of morality being whatever we already believe, it is acknowledged that we may think we know what we are, but we can easily be wrong. Our beliefs aren’t necessarily true.

The Know Thyself route has two paths. First, as Harris discusses, we can systematically observe and compare societies and look for those which promote the most well-being. So for example, when we look at places where homosexuality is criminalized, suicide rates for homosexuals and violence against such individuals is higher, but in places where homosexuality is accepted all involved consistently appear to be happy and better off. In the second path of the Know Thyself route, Wilson argues that science can uncover the epi-genetic rules that gene-culture co-evolution has produced to help us survive, which can then inform our future choices to promote survival and well-being. Science can therefore answer ‘what kinds of things are we,’ both as we have evolved as a species and as different societies. For example, we can uncover our propensities toward lie detection and how natural selection has developed this faculty to aid our individual and collective survival. Now maybe these two particular examples are factually false, but the point is that concluding whether they are true or false is a product of an empirical process – science.

These arguments are certainly founded on statements of what is the case. They also seem to be able to produce ought statements about which sets of rules we should follow. For instance, ought we to allow homosexuality or not? Looking at different societies, it appears we ought to. The philosopher agrees that science is ideally suited for studies of the inclinations that we have evolved as well as which sets of norms produce the most well-being. However, the disagreement comes down to the accusation that scientists are making an unwarranted jump – they have assumed a particular goal or end, namely that of well-being. The question still remains: why should we care about well-being? The philosopher might ask: Why not focus on justice, equality, beauty, perfection or one’s intentions? What about human rights? Does nature have value apart from human well-being? Is our scope of concern for well-being only ourselves or is it our family, our society or all of humanity? What about an animal’s well-being? And so forth. However, it should be clear that the gap between is and ought remains.

Science can only ever describe what is the case and what we are. Philosophy looks into what ought to be the case and what we should become. This is because Philosophy asks the question “what has value?” Not what do people actually happen to value in different societies or what we have evolved to value in order to survive. So when scientists look into comparative reports of well-being – like societies that condemn or allow homosexuality – they have already assumed the aim and sole value of well-being. Nowhere in Harris or Wilson’s arguments is the question “What has value?” or “For what end should we aim?” asked and then explained as a feasible project of science following from an observation of what in fact Is.

To explain these points in another way, consider the metaphor of life as a journey which we can map. Philosophy discusses where we ought to plan on going. Ought I as an individual to become a truthful person or deceitful when it suits me? Ought we as a society to allow homosexuality and abortion? Which destination is worth my effort is a question of value. In aiming for well-being, Harris has already chosen the city he wishes to visit and then goes on to explain how science can go about answering the best route we can take to this city or how science can figure out which cities actually are the ones that fit the description of well-being maximizers. When someone then argues we should travel to another city that does not have as much well-being but is more just, beautiful or egalitarian, Harris does not have an answer.

In this map metaphor, Wilson has shown that science is great at figuring out our starting point and where we in fact are on the map. We are creatures that have evolved to value certain things and are inclined to certain behaviors. The cultural relativist can also step in and help describe what different societies actually believe. However neither of these help explain what we ought to value and what behaviors we ought to have, i.e. what city we ought to go to. So, in reviewing the journey we have already taken along our evolutionary path, our goals and ends still remain. A good example of this latter point is our evolutionary path to becoming social creatures that form strong in and out groups. Human beings have survived by transcending the individual for the sake of the group. Most animals only form such groups with kin, but we have evolved to gather around symbols, be they kings, gods, nations or ideas. In this process, however, out groups are formed that are treated as enemies. Listen to any politician if you doubt that the most effective way to solidify a group and move them to act is by creating or exaggerating an enemy at the doorstep. Now this is simply a fact about what kinds of things we are. But its existence alone does not tell us if we should continue being racists and bigots towards other religions or expand our definitions of our in group, i.e. whether or not we should stay in the cities we’ve settled down in or seek ‘greener pastures’. So while survival (and reproductive success) of the fittest is a description of what is and actually happens in nature, the question of whether the fittest ought to survive still remains. If we decide to move along the map and overcome our gene-culture inheritance, what should we then aim for? Should it be the good of one’s self, our families, our societies, all sentient beings or all of nature? And why should we aim for it? Because it is just or it produces well-being or it protects inviolate human rights? In moving along our moral map, it is certainly important to figure out where we are coming from, as Wilson points out, as well as to figure out how to get to the next city by comparing best practices. But neither of these steps helps us decide in what kind of city we wish to live.

The empirical observations of what is and the analytic discussion of what ought to be are both important for answering the ethical dilemmas we face. Science and philosophy, in the rough caricature I have argued, are both required. Know Thyself remains a central imperative but it is not sufficient; once answered it begs “And now what ought I become?” Arguing that we should aim for well-being merely makes assumptions that cannot be answered by systematic observation. Science is therefore dependent on philosophy to discuss what has value and what we should aim for, and philosophy is dependent on science to figure out the starting point of who we are and how we can eventually get where we want to go.

Paul Chiariello was a 2009 Fulbright grantee and has an MSc in Comparative Education from the University of Oxford, where he conducted field research on identity conflict in Bosnia. In the Fall of 2012 he will be exploring the other side of the Is/Ought bridge and starting his PhD in Philosophy at Yale University focusing on ethics, epistemology and philosophy of religion. Paul is currently the Assistant Coordinator and Webmaster at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Rutgers University.

Disclaimer: The author’s views do not necessarily represent those of AAAS or DoSER.