Science and the Good

The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality

In George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara (1915), a father and son are discussing the fastidious young man’s future:

UNDERSHAFT: Well, come! Is there anything you know or care for?

STEPHEN (loftily): I know the difference between right and wrong.

UNDERSHAFT (hugely tickled): You don’t say so! What! No capacity for business, no knowledge of law, no sympathy with art, no pretension to philosophy; only a simple knowledge of the secret that has puzzled all the philosophers, baffled all the lawyers, muddled all the men of business, and ruined most of the artists: the secret of right and wrong. Why, man, you’re a genius, a master of masters, a god! At twenty-four, too!

Nowadays the lawyers and men (women too) of business don’t seem to care a fig for right and wrong, and artists take note of morality chiefly to mock it. Only philosophers soldier on, and most of them have scaled back their ambitions considerably: from delivering authoritative moral judgments to analyzing the language in which other people make them. And there are new kids on the playground – sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists – who say we can’t know what’s good for humans until we understand better what humans are, which requires a detour of a million or so years into our remote past. 

The School of Athens

The School of Athens, Raphael, 1509-1511

James Davison Hunter, a cultural historian, and Paul Nedelisky, a philosopher, think morality is getting short shrift these days, even from its professed friends. They are particularly suspicious of claims that contemporary science can address fundamental issues of morality. But as they acknowledge, scientists are merely filling a vacuum left by philosophers.

The history of philosophical ethics, as Hunter and Nedelisky reprise it, is a history of failure. On the eve of the modern world, they write, “traditional religious beliefs and medieval philosophy had … conspicuously and tragically failed to bring order and peace to an increasingly pluralistic world.” Moreover, they “had made such hopes ever more elusive.” [Science and the Good, xiii] Aristotelian scholasticism, with its immaterial essences and its static teloses, could adjudicate a stable, hierarchical world but not the maelstrom of heterogeneity and conflict that began in the 15th century, bringing with it religious wars, commercial rivalries, and new sciences. 

Francis Bacon roundly rejected scholastic metaphysics. Isaac Newton’s physics bestowed enormous prestige on scientific method and imparted immense confidence to secular thinkers (though Newton immersed himself in esoteric theology). The natural lawyers of the 17th century, especially Hugo Grotius, were a halfway house, defining rights and natural law in ways that were alternately metaphysical and mechanistic.

Thomas Hobbes was more radical, sweeping away the idea of natural law and asserting that the moral is instead “whatever human beings make it to be through consent and convention,” [42] while good was merely “the object of any man’s Appetite or Desire” and evil “the object of his Hate and Aversion.” [43] John Locke’s empiricist epistemology was more influential than his moral theory: “all knowledge,” he held, “is founded [on] our observation … either about external sensible objects or about the internal observations of our minds.” [44]

Three subsequent schools of moral theory in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tried to claim the authority of science. The theory of moral sentiments expounded by David Hume and Adam Smith found the basis of positive ethics in sympathy, the capacity to feel others’ pleasures and pains as one’s own. “The minds of all men are similar in their feelings and operations; nor can any one be actuated by any affection, of which all others are not, in some degree, susceptible.” [54] Not very rigorous science, perhaps; more like hopeful conjecture.

Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism turned England, indeed all of Europe, on its ear. It is difficult today to understand why, so outlandish and implausible seems the idea of precisely, quantitatively comparing pleasures and pains. I suspect the reason is simply that the approach of paying attention to what the other person was feeling – Bentham was much concerned with prison reform, so the other person in question would often have been a prisoner – seemed a startlingly humane innovation.

Charles Darwin did not formulate a moral theory, but several of his followers did. The most influential was Herbert Spencer, who thought that what was true of biological evolution was also true of social evolution: unbridled competition would produce the best results. Cooperation – in the form of socialism or social democracy – would merely postpone the inevitable culling of the weak. As a preacher of radical laissez-faire capitalism, Spencer has never been entirely out of fashion, but few people believe any more that selfishness can be deduced from Darwinism.

Hunter and Nedelisky are most concerned by far with contemporary – that is, late 20th- and 21st-century – developments. These decades have seen the most ambitious claims yet about a “science of morality.” The theory of kin selection in evolutionary biology, for example, explains why altruistic behavior doesn’t die out, as might be expected from the workings of natural selection. The reason is that, if the altruistic person shares enough genes with the person for whom she sacrifices herself, her genes will pass on the altruism trait. Primates sometimes display the rudiments of a sense of justice: treated unequally, monkeys will appear bothered by the unfairness and will even refuse offered food in apparent dudgeon. Neuroscientists have discovered that different parts of the prefrontal cortex are activated according to whether a moral judgment is primarily emotional or primarily calculated. Social psychologists have found that a disposition to help is significantly enhanced by recent good luck and diminished by environmental stresses. Other psychologists – the Moral Foundation Theorists – claim to have discovered a kind of Periodic Table of the moral sentiments: six (and counting) dimensions in which all moral emotions can be arranged. And newly published work by Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham propounds an ingenious theory of the evolutionary origin of morality in a rebellion against the tyranny of alpha males.

The authors are dubious about most of this boundary-crossing, not on its own terms or within its own domain, but because they think it promises more than it delivers, or can deliver. It is not moral reasoning; it does not settle questions of right and wrong. Surely a “science of morality,” faced with a moral problem, should be able to generate a solution?        

Or should it? There is a science of marketing, which acquaints business-school students with the hidden springs of attraction and repulsion, though an actual marketing campaign requires individual imagination. Military science shows how battles are won and political science how elections are won, but neither generates victories, or even correct answers. It is possible that Hunter/Nedelisky disagree with the new moral scientists not over propositions but over prepositions. The authors take “of” to mean “consisting of” and a “science of morality” to mean “how to do moral reasoning correctly.”  But the new moral scientists seem to be using “of” to mean “behind” or “pertaining to” and a “science of morality” to mean “a description of what’s going on inside us when we’re making moral judgments.”

And perhaps that is all we can hope for. Hunter/Nedelisky acknowledge candidly that traditional moral reasoning – the kind that aspires to settle moral questions – has been a bust: not a single indubitable, universally agreed-on result in 2500 years. Of course, that is no worse than the rest of traditional philosophy has done. Maybe we need to philosophize differently. 

Hunter/Nedelisky might well agree, judging from the book’s suggestive, ambiguous concluding sentence: “there is finally no substitute for history, literature, poetry, philosophy, sociology, and the world’s great religious traditions – no substitute for understanding morality on its own terms.” [215] It is the first (the only) time the authors refer to history and literature as moral resources. Yet it seems to me that pretty much everyone – laid-off Americans in the Midwest; citizens of Northern Ireland; Polish and Hungarian nationalists; African dirt farmers – makes moral judgments with reference to a stock of ideas and images of heroes and villains, memorable events, and characters from poems, novels, or movies. The application of these mental materials to moral problems may be thought of as moral imagination (another phrase rarely employed in Science and the Good). Unfortunately, many people’s stock of ideas and images now largely derives from commercial television and continual, relentlessly intrusive advertising, and their moral imagination is correspondingly debased.

This is not a new idea. In A Defence of Poetry (1821), Percy Bysshe Shelley proposed a remarkably cogent theory of our moral faculties

Ethical science arranges the elements which poetry has created, and propounds schemes and proposes examples of civil and domestic life …. But poetry acts in another and diviner manner. It awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought. … The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight … [it] strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.

The essence of science is logic, method, control. Can those tools be applied to the imagination, or must new versions of them be developed? The exact sciences should keep investigating the sources and mechanics of morality. But the soul, as always, will slip through the net.

George Scialabba has published six essay collections, most recently Slouching Toward Utopia.

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