Subscribe to the New Ideal podcast here.
Why has mankind made so much progress in science, but so little in fields like philosophy — in particular, in ethics?
A field progresses when thinkers working in it make discoveries that expand the frontiers of knowledge. In the physical sciences, it is obvious which major figures (Galileo, Newton, Einstein, etc.) made the breakthroughs that pushed human knowledge forward. But even though philosophers have raised and analyzed big questions about right and wrong since Socrates in the fifth century BC, their profession looks more like a centuries-old debating society than a team of explorers who have opened up new vistas of knowledge.
A major reason for the lack of progress in ethics is that many thinkers can’t even agree about whether moral questions can be answered. Questions about right and wrong are often thought to be the province of taste or a matter of opinion. The idea that there are objective facts that could help us scientifically determine the best way to live our lives strikes many as outlandish. If there are no moral truths to discover, then obviously there can’t be progress in our knowledge of these truths.
So it’s refreshing to see that a new set of prominent public intellectuals has recently emerged to propose that we can answer moral questions using a scientific approach. In recent years, thinkers like Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, and Michael Shermer have published popular books that, in whole or in part, try to lay the foundations of a scientific morality.
Making a scientific breakthrough requires the bravery to seek out new truths, untrammeled by prejudice, convention, or preconception. It means the willingness to ask new questions, to acknowledge that one’s peers may have even been asking the wrong questions. While Harris, Pinker, and Shermer deserve credit for pointing out that science might make progress in ethics, their efforts still bear the marks of a dangerous conventional assumption about what kind of questions ethics aims to answer.
To see what real scientific progress in ethics would look like, we have to take a step back from the questions today’s ethical thinkers usually focus on.
The conventional view: morality asks questions about social relationships
“Much of what we call wisdom consists in balancing the conflicting desires within ourselves, and” — note the contrast — “much of what we call morality and politics consists in balancing the conflicting desires among people.”1 That’s how Steven Pinker identifies the basic subject of moral guidance, in contrast with merely practical guidance. It’s a representative summary of today’s conventional view of what morality is really all about.
It’s not just this one line of Pinker’s. Enlightenment Now, his ode to the values of reason, science, and progress, includes a crucial final chapter about the scientific basis of a “humanistic” morality. Though he gives no formal definition of “morality,” most of his prominent examples of moral and immoral behavior concern social relationships: Should we tell other people lies or tell the truth? Should we heal them or kill them? Should we work to establish welfare policies, or not? Science, he thinks, can provide the basis for a form of morality that identifies the means to the end of the greatest happiness of the greatest number of other people. Of course that’s nothing new in ethics: “utilitarian” philosophers like Bentham, Mill, and Sidgwick proposed and developed it over a century ago, but utilitarians have been unable to persuade non-utilitarians that it is a solid foundation for ethics.
Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc is a book-length exploration sounding the same basic themes about morality as Pinker’s. Shermer proposes that we model morality on public health science, which gives us detailed factual information about the consequences of policies on society as a whole. But it’s fascinating to see how he begins to construct this model. On the very first page of the book, he gives a fairly standard definition of “moral” as “proper behavior,” and slides from that directly to the conclusion that it must be “in terms of intentions and actions that are right or wrong with regard to another moral agent. Morality involves how we think and act toward other moral agents . . . .”2 But this makes the blithe assumption that proper behavior can be proper only with respect to other people.
Sam Harris recently wrote another full-length treatment of the scientific basis for morality: The Moral Landscape. Harris goes even further than Pinker and Shermer in making explicit his view of the subject of ethics: he builds the issue of proper relationships with others directly into the definition of morality: “the problem of human cooperation seems almost the only problem worth thinking about. ‘Ethics’ and ‘morality’ . . . are the names we give to our deliberate thinking on these matters.”3
For instance, consider someone who deliberates about which career to adopt. Should he choose a career he loves or the one his parents find respectable, or should he just join the religious order his church thinks is holy? According to the conventional academic view, because this is a question that primarily affects the course of his own life, he wouldn’t be struggling with a moral question at all. But isn’t there a moral issue here — a question about whether it is courageous and good to decide one’s own path in life by one’s self for one’s own sake?
This view that morality concerns only impartial regard for everyone’s interests is a deeply entrenched academic view about the very subject of morality, which none of the recent scientific morality advocates are willing to challenge. But shouldn’t scientific innovators have the courage to challenge deeply entrenched assumptions about the subject of their field, especially assumptions that make it impossible to count courage in the pursuit of your own happiness as a moral virtue?
Why scientific fields shouldn’t narrow their subject arbitrarily
How scientific is it to delimit the subject of ethics to include only guidance for proper social relationships?
When scientific thinkers study a subject, they understand that not all thinkers will understand it in the same way. So typically, they work to circumscribe it in a way that allows disagreement to exist, and therefore to be settled.
Consider, for instance, physicists’ study of heat. Before they would ever come to agree about the ultimate causes of heat, they had to be able to isolate the phenomenon they sought to explain. Heat is that property whose presence or absence determines whether things burn or freeze, whether we feel sensations of hot and cold, whether a thermometer rises or falls. Some scientists thought these effects were caused by a fluid (“caloric”) that moved through entities, while others thought they were the result of the motion of tiny particles (the kinetic theory).
Think about what would have happened if the caloric theorists had simply defined “heat” to mean the fluid they hypothesized. They would have regarded kinetic theorists as not even disagreeing with them, but as simply changing the subject. Kinetic theory, by contrast, would be understood as declaring that heat does not exist. To decide, as physicists eventually did, that the kinetic theory was the proper answer to questions about heat, “heat” needed to be understood broadly enough to describe the phenomena that these theories disagreed about.4
Whether it’s a religious ethical code, the theories of the ancient Greeks, or the more modern utilitarian theories, all of these moral thinkers are trying to answer the basic question: how should I live? They of course have very different views of the answer. St. Augustine says that we should live in devotion to God; Aristotle says we should live to achieve eudaemonia, or flourishing; and the more modern utilitarians say we should do what benefits the greatest number of others.
But notice that these questions are not confined to questions about our relationships with other people. They concern how we are supposed to coexist with the God that some believe in, or even how we should manage our own personal character. But to think that all of these views have something important in common is to take a very different approach from today’s thinkers. And it’s a commonality that thinkers who want to make ethics more scientific fail to notice (at best) or refuse to consider (at worst).
Crucial data points ignored by the conventional view of ethics
When today’s moral thinkers assume that ethics is concerned only with the narrow question of guidance about social relationships, they’re not only failing to notice a commonality. They’re also ignoring important data points: examples of moral viewpoints and theories that any scientific account of the field should consider. It’s true that some of the most influential moral theories of the last few hundred years are focused on social relationships. But this is peculiar to the philosophical assumptions of a relatively small span of human history.
Consider an example from the psychologist Jonathan Haidt:
Contrast us with the Hua of New Guinea, who have developed elaborate networks of food taboos that govern what men and women may eat. In order for their boys to become men, they have to avoid foods that in any way resemble vaginas, including anything that is red, wet, slimy, comes from a hole, or has hair. It sounds like arbitrary superstition mixed with the predictable sexism of a patriarchal society. . . . But the Hua seemed to think of their food rule as moral rules. They talked about them constantly, judged each other by their food habits, and governed their lives, duties, and relationships by what the anthropologist Anna Meigs called “a religion of the body.”5
Thinking about morality as rules for achieving “purity” and avoiding “pollution” is not only characteristic of remote, isolated tribes. Haidt notes how the same guidance is offered by the Hebrew Bible, with its variety of dietary and sanitary commandments. Today’s conservative Christians have their fair share of the same kinds of rules: no drinking alcohol, no masturbation, no impure thoughts. You might say these rules are still about the believer’s relationship to another being: God. But that’s something of a stretch, especially since whether or not one adheres to these rules isn’t thought to affect God. In any case, these rules certainly aren’t about how to relate to other people.
One might think that religious moral codes are so superstitious and irrational that they shouldn’t even be thought of as “moral codes.” But as irrational as these codes might be, the cost of saying they don’t even count as moral codes is far too high. It implies that critics of these codes don’t even disagree with them: they can’t disagree if they don’t disagree about the same issue.
What’s much worse is that the conventional view of morality excludes from consideration some of the most revolutionary attempts by thinkers to grapple rationally with the subject of ethics.
In our own time, Ayn Rand formulated an ethical theory defining a set of virtues that are exclusively aimed at promoting one’s own life and happiness. In her view, one needs to practice virtues of rationality, independence, integrity, productiveness, and pride because each involves a commitment to recognizing important facts that are required for living one’s own life successfully. Even the virtue of justice, which concerns the importance of recognizing facts about the character of other people, is important because of the role others play in one’s own life and happiness. Whatever one thinks of Rand’s theory, it includes a set of recognizable moral virtues. Yet the conventional view of morality as a set of rules for dealing with others would not even count it as a moral code, let alone as the wrong moral code.
One reason that ethics has to be understood as concerning more than simply our relationships with other people is that the broader concept of “morality” also explains the function of specific moral concepts in our thinking. How we think about what is right and wrong has a characteristic effect on how we feel, and act. A religious person who believes that drinking alcohol is wrong but who drinks anyway won’t just feel frustrated; he will feel guilty and try to repent. If he believes sexual pleasure is wrong, he will feel a kind of righteous pride if he is able to practice a celibate life and condemn others who don’t. It’s hard to understand how someone who adopts religious morality would feel and act this way if morality were primarily about the obligations we owe to other people.
By the same token, as someone who is persuaded by Rand’s view that virtue aims at the pursuit of one’s own happiness, I can tell you that I have felt guilt — and pride — about things I’ve done that affect nobody’s happiness but my own. Yet this response is inexplicable on the assumption that morality only concerns our relations with others.
Something has gone wrong with a view of “morality” when it excludes by fiat some of the most celebrated moral codes of all time, and would tar as amoralists those who are deeply convinced that their own lives are of central ethical importance.
A scientific revolution about “morality” needs to unfreeze the concept
One of the defining moments in the history of science was Copernicus’ proposal that to best account for our observations of the heavens, we should abandon the idea that Earth is at the center of the universe. In contrast, he proposed that the Earth moves around the Sun, and was therefore to be classed with the other planets that had already been observed to wander across the sky. Part of what made this Copernican revolution possible was a willingness to reformulate the concept of “planet” to include not just the stellar wanderers like Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and others, but Earth itself, which had previously been understood in opposition to the planets.
The point is not that newly reformulated concepts are always better. In the ancient world, there was little reason to see a commonality between the Earth and the other planets. The point is that it is important to revise our concepts when arguments and evidence from scientists like Copernicus and Galileo point to a broader similarity or an important but subtle difference. Just think if scientists had refused to think of Earth as a planet after Copernicus and Galileo. There is much to learn about the Earth by studying other planets. Most notably, Newton cashed in on the connection when he realized that the laws of motion the other planets were observed to follow applied on the Earth as well. Newton’s resulting mechanical theories went on to revolutionize not only science, but industry and technology as well. Without seeing the similarities between Earth and other planets, these revolutions would not have been possible.
If today’s efforts to start a scientific revolution in morality have not yet come to pass, part of the reason is surely that today’s moral thinkers have been unwilling to revise their concept of morality by broadening it from the account given by just a few historically recent theories. It’s a mistake that Ayn Rand called “the fallacy of the frozen abstraction,” which she described as “substituting some one particular concrete for the wider abstract class to which it belongs.”6
Arbitrarily freezing the concept of morality on questions about our relation to others puts up arbitrary barriers to thinking. If the fundamental question of ethics is not what do I owe to others?, but how should I live?, it may turn out that what makes for good relations with others actually depends on more fundamental questions about what makes for good living — with ourselves.
The lesson here is not that we should return to the two-thousand-year-old original theories, but that if we want to propose new and better answers to our ethical questions, we need to better understand the basic issues that give rise to these questions in the first place. But that means that if we are to make progress in ethics, we need to unfreeze the concept of morality and let it grow as the evidence requires. Scientific courage demands nothing less.
- Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Viking, 2018), 414.
- Michael Shermer, The Moral Arc: How Science Makes Us Better People (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016), 11.
- Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010), 55.
- For more on the development of the concept “temperature” in light of development in scientists’ study of heat, see Hasok Chang, Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) and Travis Norsen, “Scientific Cumulativity and Conceptual Change: The Case of ‘Temperature,’” PhilSci-Archive, 2010.
- Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind (New York: Vintage, 2012), 14.
- Ayn Rand, “Collectivized Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (New York: Signet, 1964 Centennial edition), 94.