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Morality as an applied science November 21, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
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Quick note: My blogging activity has been very light lately because I have just started working again.  I am going to dedicate some more time to writing so that I can have at least a couple of posts a week, and hopefully more.  One the positive side, my posts may become shorter (you’re welcome)

There continues to be conversations about the relationship between science and morality in the blogosphere (here’s some from yesterday), which is no surprise since it overlaps issues such as scientism, religion, and skepticism generally.  These topics are all hot tamales, at least on my google reader.

Moral philosophy can bee thought of as an application of scientifically discovered facts to a problem in social dynamics.  In a sense, it is a bit like a computer programming problem in that we know what kind of program we want to create (a harmonious society with minimal ill-treatment of its citizens), but we need to figure out how to achieve this goal with the software and hardware we have.  The hardware and software are (loosely) ourselves, and the program we want to write involves coming up with a way to order social relationships in a way which benefits people while preventing their harm if possible.

And what is morality? Is it the study of how humans (or other sentient beings) interact in groups, or is it the study of the how those humans should act in groups given some given desires and goals?  With morality the desires are given (they are the facts of our psyches), and the goals are at least defined even if not universally shared.  It is the logistics of how to achieve those goals which are where science comes in.

Is this puzzle one for the scientific method, or more generally one for empirical research? That depend son how we are defining ‘science’ here.  If it is meant merely are a set of tools towards pure research, where the empirical methodology we use is utilized in order to discover laws or support hypotheses towards some theory, then no.  If it is meant as a more general application of reason and the scientific method, then yes.  As I have written recently, I think that the term ‘science’ in terms of these philosophical questions (such as the issue of science v. religion) should make way for ‘skepticism’ instead.

Moral philosophy is not science in the same way that physics is a science.   There is science where we know the road (method) but not the goal (like physics), and then there is science where we know the goal (some achievement, technological or otherwise) but not the path by which to get there.  Morality is an example the latter; we know what we want to accomplish, but we need more information and analysis before we know how to get there.  Morality is an applied science.

When we are talking about doing the science of morality, we are not talking about designing a set of experiments to discover the underlying laws of morality as we would with physics.  But morality is a field where we have real, physical things about which we have questions and goals.  We will use reason, empiricism, etc in doing moral philosophy but most importantly doing moral philosophy will compel the need for further empirical research, some of which might be physics.  It will mostly be neuroscience.

So, to deny that morality is a scientific project only makes sense if we are to define science so narrowly as to limit it to pure research, rather than the larger skeptical project of discovering what is true or how to achieve things via naturalistic means.  This is why I prefer to use ‘skepticism’ in place of science in so many conversations such as this, because so many people conflate ‘science’ with pure research.  I think that is the source of much of the disagreement concerning this issue.

For people such as Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, etc, ‘science’ seems to stand for that larger skeptical project.  The best approach to any topic (including morality) is this skeptical method often referred to as ‘scientism’ by so many commentators, and confused with some kind of neo-positivism by others.  That’s why morality is a skeptical project; it is by these empirical and logical methods that we can get real answers to meaningful questions asked.

For morality, the question asked is something like “how should we behave socially in order to allow people to maintain personal and social well being?” This goal of well being (or whatever term you prefer) is not the thing we are trying to determine or justify, it is the project of moral philosophy from the start.  If we were not assuming, axiomatically, the values of well being, happiness, or whatever term we prefer, we would not be talking about morality at all, but something else.  And what other method besides the empirical ones of science could we use to find out how to answer this question?

We are not using science to determine what morality is or should be, we are using it to find the best ways to solve the philosophical problem we are already aware of.  That’s why this is not about the is-ought “fallacy.”  We are not saying that these are the facts, and so we should do this.  We are saying that here is the place we want to be, so how do we get there?

Much like how we are not using science to find or justify our desires for truth when we use it to determine what is true generally, we are not using science to discover or justify our desire for a moral society by trying to discover the best means to attain such a thing. If you don’t take that goal as axiomatic, then you don’t care about doing moral philosophy.  Similarly, if you don’t care about the truth, you don’t do science.

We skeptical and scientistic moral philosophers take what the hard sciences give us through their pure research methods and apply it to this problem of creating a better society in which to live.  That, to me, is applied science.

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