Science and Ethics

Why Ethical Statements Are Not Merely Matters of Opinion

Ideas matter. Over time, some spread virally and have consequences far beyond their place of origin. In our time, in which philosophy has become, alas, an academic discipline far removed from everyday life, it’s sometimes difficult to recognize philosophical ideas at work, but at work they are. Those who claim to be practical people who eschew philosophy tend to be, in fact, people who are employing de facto philosophical ideas that they have inherited, that they have acquired without recognizing that they have acquired them—ideas that were once new and heretical, that gained popularity, and that then became the default orthodoxy. “I must create a System or be enslaved by another man’s,” wrote William Blake. Precisely, though he probably should have added “without even knowing it.”

It’s probably no exaggeration to say that many educated Westerners, today, especially if they were educated in science or technology, are default Positivists. Positivism was a philosophical movement of the early twentieth century that grew out of the nineteenth-century struggle between religious mysticism, on the one hand, and science, on the other. It is associated with a group of philosophers in Vienna headed by Morris Schlick (“The Vienna Circle”), including Rudolf Carnap. Exponents included A.J. Ayer and, initially but not later on, Bertrand Russell, both in England. The Positivists tried to claim the young Ludwig Wittgenstein, on the basis of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, as one of their own, but Wittgenstein would have none of that and insisted, rightly, that the Positivist interpretation of his work missed its main point altogether, which was that much of what is important is beyond language.

The basic principle underlying Positivism was a correspondence theory of meaning. Meaning, for the Positivists, was a characteristic of propositions. For them, a proposition was meaningful if it was either a statement within a purely formal, axiomatic, consistent  system in logic or mathematics or a representation—a little model or picture—of an independently verifiable external reality.  Such statements can be assigned a truth value. They are either true or false. To use philosopher Eric Schwitgebel’s example of the latter kind of proposition, there is either beer in the fridge or there isn’t.

To the Positivist, statements that are not such pictures of facts about the world—propositions in metaphysics, religion, ethics, and aesthetics, for example—are not legitimate propositions. They are neither true nor false but meaningless because they contain elements that are merely unverifiable assertions. Now, few people today, unless they have studied philosophy, know much, if anything, about the Positivists, but the Positivists’ ideas have had enormous influence. They’ve had a long afterlife. They underlie such common assertions as “That’s just your opinion” and “Everyone has a right to their [sic] opinion.” The former statement suggests that opinions, including ethical claims, not being matters of fact, are not justified or justifiable. The latter statement implies that opinions, not being matters of fact, are all equally justified.

Positivism led, in Great Britain and the United States, to the development of a simple-minded, blinkered approach to human psychology known as Behaviorism, championed by Edward Thorndike, John B. Watson, and B. F. Skinner. The basic idea was that because science must be about that which can be independently and objectively verified, and because mental states, if they exist at all and are not (somehow, LOL) simply subjective illusions, are not accessible to direct observation and thus independent verification, those states lie outside the purview of science. B. F. Skinner went so far as to deny the existence of mind entirely. Humans were to be seen as behavior machines, with inputs (stimuli) and outputs (responses).

Behaviorism had enormous influence in the U.S. For decades, references to mental activity were largely absent from scientific papers published by U.S. journals. In the 1970s, long after Behaviorism had been largely discredited, U.S. teachers were still almost universally being required to include in their lesson plans “Behavioral Objectives” stating what behaviors would be exhibited as a result of the lessons. Think of that. Teachers were being taught to IGNORE the fact that their students had MINDS, and this was considered SCIENTIFIC! Oh, the faddishness of our official approaches to education!

How did Behaviorism come to be discredited? Well, in 1951, psychologist Karl Lashley published a ground-breaking paper on jazz improvisation. The standard Behaviorist account of jazz improvisation went something like this: a player in a jazz trio encounters a stimulus like another player—the drummer or bass player, for example—changing the tempo. The stimulus travels along the player’s nerves to his or her brain, which generates a response that travels along the player’s nerves to his or her fingers. But that’s not what happens. Lashley discovered that improvisation happens so fast that there isn’t time enough for that traveling of signals back and forth, to and from the brain. Lashley showed that improvisation must involve internal, mental models that are played out in one direction. In short, you can’t explain jazz improvisation using a Behaviorist stimulus/response model. To account for the behavior, you HAVE to talk about mental processes—about what was going on in the musician’s mind—about her thoughts and automatic mental processes as well as her behavior.

The definitive blow against Behaviorism occurred in 1967 in linguist Noam Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s book on language, Verbal Behavior. Chomsky described aspects of language, such as its embedded recursiveness, that, like jazz improvisation, cannot be explained solely on the basis of responses to stimuli. The number of anomalies not accounted for by Behaviorism grew. By the end of the twentieth century, Positivism’s bastard stepchild, Behaviorism, was no longer the reigning theory in British and U.S. psychology. It had been superseded by a new theory called Cognitive Psychology that was also mechanistic. The mind was seen as being like a computer, with lots of interacting subroutines. As a result of this change, psychologists today are free to study write and speak about mental processes, and such work is viewed as being perfectly scientific. There are problems, however, with the computer analogy, and new paradigms are emerging.

As the disastrous, century-long reign of Behaviorism showed, philosophical theories like Positivism have an afterlife. They live on in various pockets of our culture and in unthinking, unexamined assumptions, long after professional philosophers have largely moved on.

So, are the Positivists right? Are ethical statements like “We shouldn’t separate asylum-seeking parents from their children” nonsense? Are such statements unscientific because they are not verifiable, as statements of fact are? Must we relegate them to the category of “mere opinions” or “mere assertions”?

Let’s think for a moment about how science works. Science proceeds by

Observing phenomena

Making a falsifiable general hypothesis to explain the phenomena

Testing that hypothesis against experience

Consider the following case: We observe that a swan is white. We hypothesize that all swans are white. People go out into the field, and lo and behold, some encounter black swans. We revise our hypothesis—swans are, for the most part, white, but some are black.

It can be argued, I think, that Positivism has been so successful that many people fail to recognize that EXACTLY THE SAME SORT OF PROCEDURE can be applied to ethical statements. Ethics has to do with what MATTERS to entities. As William James observed in his superb essay “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” if there were only one entity in the universe, whatever that entity wanted would be The Good. Now, what Positivists fail to recognize is that what matters to entities are also facts about the world. The subjective experiences of persons are as much facts about the world as are the speed of light in a vacuum and the number of people living in Mumbai. It is a fact that I prefer the blue screen saver to the yellow one. Based on this truth, I shall argue that the Positivists are wrong and that ethics can be placed on a scientific, factual basis. Consider the following parallel lines of thought:

  Scientific Reasoning about the Objective World Ethical Reasoning about the Subjective World
Initial Observation This swan is white. Poking me in the eye with a sharp object is bad. (e.g., “I don’t like that. It matters to me if I am poked in the eye.”)
Generalization of the Observation All swans are white. Poking people in the eye with sharp objects is bad.
Falsification of the Observation There’s a black swan. Under certain conditions, people WANT to be poked in the eye with sharp objects (e.g., when they are undergoing eye surgery to correct a problem with their vision.”)
Revised Generalization Most swans are white, but there are some black ones. Poking people in the eyes with sharp objects is bad under most conditions but is sometimes good, as, for example, when doing so is part of performing eye surgery that people want to have.

In other words, ethical reasoning can proceed in exactly the same way that scientific reasoning does, can be, in fact, a variety of scientific reasoning, but it takes as its input—its facts—not observations about the external world but observations about what matters to entities—observations about the internal world of subjective experiences—both direct observations of our own and indirect observations of those of others.  The point is that the difference between ethical generalizations and the generalizations that have traditionally been considered “scientific” is in the kind of facts that justify, or warrant, the generalization. In the case of the traditional scientific generalization, those facts are “objective facts,” easily verifiable by independent observers. In the case of ethical generalizations, those facts are “subjective facts” that cannot be directly verified in the sense that one cannot experience another’s subjective states. However, one can know one’s own subjective states, and one ask others about theirs—about the facts concerning what matters to them. In addition, one can observe others’ behavior for evidence of mattering. Poke in the eye any creature who has eyes—and one will get a pretty unambiguous reading of whether that matters, a reading on which you can found a generalization.

Now, this line of reasoning does not, by any means, make ethical decision-making easy, for the facts about subjective states are not all known and can be difficult to gather and differ from entity to entity and in their relative significance to those entities. However, ethical propositions can certainly be warranted or not warranted based upon facts. The facts just happen to be subjective ones—matters of semiprivate, subjective experience. So, central to any scientifically based—that is, warranted, or justified—ethics is the recognition that other entities have subjective states and that things matter to them, for what matters to entities are the relevant facts. Importantly, unethical behavior is that which does not take into account those subjective facts—what matters to other subjectivities. To treat another subjectivity as a thing—to objectify the Other and not take into account what matters to him or her—is to ignore that critical subjective experience and is a necessary precondition for unethical behavior of all kinds–objectification of the kind that takes the form of sexism, racism, xenophobia, ageism, class or caste prejudice, and exploitation of workers.

So, the first step toward a rational ethics is recognizing that there are relevant facts and that those are subjective facts. The second step is accepting that one is not a special case, that other subjectivities matter too. In his influential A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argues that a just society is one organized according to principles that would apply whatever one’s position in that society. Rawls asks us to imagine that we are going to be born into a particular society, but we do not know, beforehand, what position we will have within it. Perhaps we will be born to a wealthy, powerful family. Perhaps we will be born to a penniless, crack-addicted single mother. Rawls says that a just society acts as though from behind such a “veil of ignorance.” This is basically the principle that an impartial observer must recognize that ALL subjectivities matter equally (though what matters to them varies in importance to them). (See Rawls’s A Theory of Justice here: The great American philosopher Thomas Nagel calls this stance–an impartial stance toward the subjective facts about what matters to entities–the “view from nowhere.” It’s the idea that impartiality in ethics demands that we see things from no particular point of view, that is, not simply from our own limited perspective (See his brilliant, important book on this topic, The View from Nowhere, here:

A forerunner to the positivists, David Hume, famously (I would say infamously) argued that one cannot created a rational ethics because one cannot get from IS to OUGHT. I hope that I have shown that Hume was wrong, that ought statements are also statements of fact, of WHAT IS THE CASE. The only difference is that they are statements of subjective case—of what is the case FOR, what matters to, various entities.

About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
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4 Responses to Science and Ethics

  1. Excellent discussion, Robert! Thanks! It pulls together a lot of things that I’ve read over the years and can be easily used to show that many of those things some consider to be ethical thought and behavior in actuality are not.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Extremely interesting essay and very well-written as always, Bob! I marvel at your erudition (which is a big word for me ;-)! Reading Bertrand Russell’s three volume Autobiography during my freshman year in college (not to mention The Republic and other dialogues of Plato) had an enormous impact on me. Besides being influenced by many of Russell’s philosophical works, his autobiography led me to an active role in the anti-war movement, and I minored in philosophy. I actually wish that I had more time to respond today, but I’ll have to beg off with cryptic statements like that of Fermat, saying only that I have a wonderful proof but it is too long to fit in the margin…

    I may, however, send a quotation from your essay to my local superintendent. He dismissed yet another of my rants against the A.P. system as “just my opinion.” 😉


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