Tracking visits to my blog back to their origin, I often find things that cause me a bit of . . . well . . . frustration?
Baggini vs Krauss on Science, Philosophy, and Morality
In concerns the question of whether all answerable questions belong to science or whether some questions - exemplified in this case by moral questions - belong to the realm of science.
In this field, among these people, it would seem that somebody would start weeding out the nonsense claims. Yet, I continue to find statements that would embarrass a student in Philosophy 121: Introduction to Ethics. If there is going to be progress made in this field, then those who dedicate themselves to talking about this subject need to make some minimal effort to clear out the junk so that the questions can focus on what remains.
On this dispute, I hold that (1) there is at least one question whose answer belongs to philosophy and not science, and (2) moral questions belong to science and not philosophy.
I hold that moral questions concern the acts that would fulfill desires - including those malleable desires that tend to fulfill other desires (and thus which people have reason to promote or inhibit through praise and condemnation). It is entirely an empirical question.
It is a DIFFICULT empirical question in many cases. However, questions that are difficult to answer (e.g., How many protons are there in a human body?) are not, by that fact alone, unscientific.
There are three speakers in this debate. Julian Baggini - the defender of philosophy; Lawrence Krauss - the defender of science; and Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution Is True who wrote about the debate and injected his own comments.
People's view of what is "moral" ultimately must rest on one or more of three things: an appeal to the consequences, an appeal to some authority (like Scripture), or some innate feeling instilled by our genes in combination with our environment (in other words, morality lies in our neurons).
Clearly, one must recognize a distinction between "People's view of what is 'moral'" from "What is moral" in the same way one must distinguish between "People's view of what is 'true'" from "What is true." The question, "What is true about people's beliefs about the origin of life?" is one question. The question, "What is true about the origin of life?" is a different question. There is a relation - an attempt at least on the part of some to match their beliefs to what is true. However, these are still two different subjects of investigation.
Yet, in morality, people often confuse them. They routinely study and investigate one, while writing as if they are studying and investigating the other. A person writing on this subject should start by being clear as to which question they are trying to answer. "Am I going to write about what is right and wrong? Or am I going to write about people's beliefs about right and wrong?"
As it turns out, I do not think that any of these three options accurately accounts for what is true about morality. They do not even exhaust the options of what people "must rest" or even do rest their opinions on. They represent three theories about the nature of morality. But they do not exhaust the possibilities.
You can have three theories about the origin of the moon (the co-formation theory, the capture theory, and the division theory) without exhausting all of the options available (the collision theory). If you fixate on the first three, declaring that it MUST be one of these three, you blind yourself to other options. Coyne does not present us a mutually exhaustive set. They do not even have the structure of a mutually exhaustive set (e.g., "A", "B", and "Not A or B"). Therefore, Coyne must be careful on his use of the word "must".
I hold that what people are doing when they make moral judgments is determining whether the desires that motivated an action are desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote or inhibit using social tools such as praise or condemnation. There is an element here of evaluating the action. However, this action is only one of many that a particular set of desires can motivate and counts only as one among many in calculating the merit of those desires.
Our feelings count. However, our feelings are as relevant to what is right and wrong as they are to what is true and false. There is a reason for this. Moral claims are capable of being true and false; therefore, basing moral claims on feeling is the same as basing claims about what is true and false on feelings. People have a habit of calling "true" what they want to be true - what they 'feel' is true, and false what they want to be false. However, this is considered a poor justification for a proposition to actually be true or false. The fact that it is commonly done does not make it right.
Here is a fourth thing that can matter in making moral judgments. Even if I am wrong about desirism, it is still a forth option - no worse than the scripture and divine revelation option and perhaps better. Why only three?
In the end, then, it is possible, though not yet feasible, for science to determine what is moral, simply by investigating the neurological and evolutionary bases of our value judgments.
This does not work.
This is comparable to saying that it is possible, though not yet feasible, for science to determine the chemical structure of Pluto by investigating the neurological and evolutionary basis of those who have beliefs about Pluto.
One cound argue that our beliefs about what is right and wrong are different than our beliefs about Pluto. However, this is an assumption - an assumption that Coyne has not justified and which I hold to be false. Even if it is true, why are we assuming that this is the case without argument? In fact, if there were a burden of proof argument in play here, it would argue for taking claims about right and wrong to be like claims about Pluto as an original assumption. This assumption can be overridden by evidence that they are not alike. There is no such evidence.
Another way of reporting this distinction - and one that philosophers have known about since Hume in the 1700s - is that there is a distinction between the values we have, and the values we should have. It is a distinction repeated in G.E. Moore's criticism of John Stuart Mill - where Moore accuses Mill of failing to distinguish between what we desire and what we should desire - the latter being the concern of morality.
Coyne is providing us a biological account of what values we have. However, he is completely avoiding the question of "What values should we have?
This is what I mean when I write about clearing away the junk. I am not reporting a problem that I have discovered. I am reporting a mistaken inference that has been known in moral philosophy for over 200 years. It is as clear as the distinction between what we DO believe (something we answer by looking at the neurological and evolutionary basis for our beliefs) and what we SHOULD believe.
Krauss has a different view of what matters for morality. Speaking about homosexuality, Krauss wrote:
. . . scientific discoveries about the frequency of homosexual behaviour in a variety of species tell us that it is completely natural in a rather fixed fraction of populations and that it has no apparent negative evolutionary impacts. This surely tells us that it is biologically based, not harmful and not innately "wrong".
Baggini counters this.
There have been claims, for example, that rape is both natural and has evolutionary advantages. But the people who made those claims were also at great pains to stress this did not make them right - efforts that critics sadly ignored. Similar claims have been made for infidelity. What science tells us about the naturalness of certain sexual behaviours informs ethical reflection, but does not determine its conclusions. We need to be clear on this.
Let us not forget that nature invented the predator and the parasite - the killer whale versus the seal cub, the lion that slaughters its step-children, the preying mantis that kills and eats her mate, and the tarantula hawk - a wasp that lays its young on living tarantulas, which the larvae eat from the inside out keeping the spider alive as long as possible.
However, Baggini's response does not handle the harm issue and sidesteps the proposal that, while rape may provide some evolutionary advantage, a visceral reaction to rape may do so as well. These are not mutually exclusive.
There is more that can be said about each of Krauss' criteria for morality.
To begin with, Krauss provides no criteria for something being innately wrong (whatever that means). All of his criteria are extrinsic to homosexuality - evolutionary impacts, harm, commonality among populations. None of these are properties that you can discover about homosexuality independent of its relationship to other things. They describe no innate properties.
Furthermore, none of these effects define morality.
Let us assume that some alien species comes along with an intent to wipe out the whole human race if one homosexual exists. Homosexuality, now, would have negative evolutionary impacts. That would make it wrong, right? Or, let us assume that a segment of the population wants to kill all homosexuals. Again, this would provide a negative evolutionary impact among those discovered to be homosxual. Would such an interest in killing all homosexuals be self-justifying?
On the issue of harm - punishment is harmful. Fines, imprisonment, and execution all deliver harms to other people. Yet, they are not wrong - or they are not wrong simply on that fact alone. A person opens a new store in the neighborhood driving a competitor out of business. That is a type of harm, but not one that identifies the act as immoral. Exposing a lie may bring harm to the liar (e.g., he loses his job). However, it is not wrong.
And there is commonality among populations. Does this imply that if there was only one homosexual in only one species, that this would constitute immorality? It appears to be the case that we are all the descendants of a single mitochondrial "Eve". Meaning, at one time, the qualities that this person had were unique. For several generations, they were rare - found nowhere else in nature. Were they immoral, up to the point where they became sufficiently common?
Let me repeat, I agree with Krauss that moral properties are subject to scientific investigation. However, Krauss is looking at the wrong set of facts. He is looking at evolved dispositions, rather than at the relationship between malleable desires that can be influenced by praise and condemnation and other desires.
More importantly, he is looking at facts that a moment's reflection should tell him do not work as a standard for morality.
Coyne wants to get rid of morality entirely and talk only about consequences since morality requires free will and free will does not exist.
Desirism, actually, does not require free will. It requires determinism. Desires cause actions and, in turn, some desires can be modified by environmental factors such as praise and condemnation. This deterministic ethics accounts for everything from excuses to mens rea to non-obligatory permissions to negligence and so on.
"Free will" entered into the debate as a mistake. People were looking at the fact that praise and condemnation are not reasonably applied where desires are not malleable or where malleable desires did not play a role in the outcome. Primative thinkers dreamed up the entity "free will" to account for these facts. We have been stuck with that mistake ever since.
Still, this dispute between Coyle and myself is a language dispute. If Coyne wants to eliminate moral terms and talk only about using social tools such as praise and condemnation to mold desires through their effect on the reward system so as to promote desires people generally have many and strong reasons to promote and inhibit desires people have many and strong reasons to inhibit, he may do so. I find this option extremely awkward.
Furthermore, getting rid of morality not only requires getting rid of "right" and "wrong". It requires getting rid of all of those elements mentioned above and then some - excuses, apologies, obligation, non-obligatory permission, prohibition, just versus unjust law, mens rea, consent, and the like. It is a massive project that we have reason to avoid if we can. Because desirism provides an account of all of these practices in a determined world, eliminating morality is a project we can avoid.
Coyne writes, "But in the end, we aren't responsible for our actions in the way most people think, for they stem from aspects of our biology that we don't understand and can't control."
Perhaps, but we are not responsible for our actions the way most people think we are, but we are responsible for our actions in the way that our moral practices requires us to be, and that is what counts.
Finally, I want to address the overall question - whether all answerable questions belong to science, or whether there is room for philosophy.
I invite you to look at the question itself - the question "Do all answerable questions belong to science, or is there room for philosophy?"
THAT question does not belong to science. To hand that question to science would be to beg the question. It would require assuming the truth of the conclusion as one of the premises.
This implies that the question is an answerable question that belongs to philosophy, or it is not an answerable question. If it is the former, then Krauss is wrong. If it is the latter, then Krauss is wrong. Either way, Krauss is wrong.
More importantly, this answer - "It is either an answerable question that belongs to philosophy, or an unanswerable question" - is an answer provided by philosophy, not by science.
It is also the case that the answer, "Morality belongs in the realm of science," which I hold to be true, is a question whose answer belongs in the realm of philosophy - not to science.
So, yes, there are answerable questions that belong to philosophy and not to science. However, moral questions are not among them.