Tuesday, February 17

Meeting 6 (2/24) — from Science to Values?

We will switch gears for a little while to talk about the relation between science and values quite generally. First up for our next meeting, we'll look into a recent attempt to have science tell us something about where values come from in the first place. So for 2/24, please read:
Ruse and Wilson's project to subsume moral philosophy into biology, though it might sound deeply problematic in principle, actually has a long historical pedigree going back to Hobbes and Descartes. In different ways, each of these philosophers saw humans as fancy machines — more specifically, that our behavior was the result of certain facts about our fundamental constitution (this story is more complicated for Descartes — but that need not detain us). The great Scottish philosopher, David Hume, was later much impressed with the work of Newton and company and aimed to become the "Newton of the human sciences", wishing like Hobbes to uncover the nature of human understanding in order to put moral sentiment on a firm footing.

Later, around the time Darwin published the Origin, shrewd thinkers in England like Malthus and Spencer were thinking hard about social problems like crime and poverty. Malthus, you might recall, was instrumental in Darwin’s thinking when he pointed out that a struggle for existence was inevitable so long as (unchecked) populations grew at a geometrical rate and resources linearly. This suggested to the so-called Social Darwinists that such social measures as the poor laws in England were doomed to fail. Criminals, the insane, the handicapped, the poor, and others were lumped into the “unfit” and Darwinian evolution supposedly tells us not to intervene in their removal from society. It is simply natural that they would be culled. They should be culled.

This line of thought, however, commits a number of mistakes. For one, it presumes that social undesirables form a homogenous class of evolutionarily unfit. For two, and more germane for our purposes, Social Darwinism commits what G.E. Moore called the naturalistic fallacy: the mistake of inferring what ought to be the case from what is the case. Just because something is “natural” (and this epithet would seem to need quite a bit of explanation), does not mean that it ought to be the case. So as we turn to the efforts of Ruse and Wilson to “biologicize” ethics, we should perhaps wonder whether they glide too easily from purported biological facts to moral principles. (Wilson, you might know, is the founding figure of the now mostly defunct movement of "Sociobiology"; he is still a prominent public biologist.)

What exactly is their project? This is essentially Kitcher’s question in his response. He identifies four different possible projects that Ruse and Wilson could be engaged in, concluding that none of them succeed in quite the way intended. This leaves open the question, though, of whether there isn’t some other way of "biologicizing" ethics. Is this a project worth doing? Does it have any hope of success? What might answers to these questions tell us about the relation between science and ethics?

1 comment:

  1. Jeeze, I just noticed that the Kitcher link was broken (it's now fixed). It's hard for me to believe that no one else noticed this. If you do notice some problem like this, PLEASE let me know. Chances are it's me, not you.


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