The “Is” and the “Ought”


The objective ethics of Raymond Cattell and Jacques Monod

If POOR OLD Pontius Pilate could reassemble his ashes, revisit the earth and once again ask the unanswerable, his historic quiz would fall on deafer ears than before. It is not the fact of the matter that counts these days, (has it ever counted?), but the morality of the matter. It is not “What Is,” but “What Is To Be Done?” That’s the $128,000 question. (ILLUSTRATION: Raymond B. Cattell)

Let us take a not uncommon case. That of a very ill professor of biology. If he grinds all his pills into dust, smashes his medicine cabinet and turns to a two-bit swami, a $100-an-hour shrink, or a ten thousand dollar automated alpha wave computer monitoring system, he may get a friendly write-up in the Washington Post for “expanding his consciousness. ” But let him try to investigate the inherited nature of his disease, let him seek to “biologize” his problem and his laboratory may be bombed, his lectures broken up and his life threatened.

As is becoming more apparent every day, there are accepted and distinct ways of treating a man who researches racial differences in intelligence and a man who believes in osteopathy, astrology, ESP and the mental life of plants. In the present-day academic community it is easier to pass a resolution condemning Shockley than psychokinesis.

To search out, analyze and restructure the moral basis of all the fabrications and perversities of this off-its-rocker age, to examine a little more closely and clearly the ethics of the day (which often seem to be promoting unethical rather than ethical conduct) has been a life-long project of two very eminent and uncensorable academicians — Raymond B. Cattell, a British-born empirical psychologist, and the late Jacques Monod, a geneticist whose mother was an American and whose father was a Parisian painter of Huguenot descent.

A pioneer in the study of human abilities, personality and group dynamics through the use of rigorous experimental and statistical (as opposed to intuitive) techniques, Dr. Cattell in his masterful opus A New Morality from Science: Beyondism attempts to build a new moral system upon the findings of modern biology, with particular emphasis on behavior genetics and evolution. Surveying the various moralities now in vogue, he notes that they derive from one of two sources: (1) a revealed religion or tradition; (2) rationalism. The Decalogue is an example of the former, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights an example of the latter. For all their faults, traditional moral systems possess the appealing property of working. Cattell notes, as does Edward Wilson in his Sociobiology, that behavior patterns are just as subject to natural selection as physical features — perhaps even more so. Consequently, while appearing somewhat silly in their claim to divine inspiration, societies following such otherworldly guidance can at least be credited with having survived.

Rational ethical systems do not represent behavior patterns that work, but rather behavior patterns that someone thinks should work. While created by some of the world’s most brilliant minds (Locke, Aristotle, Plato, Voltaire, among others), such systems have not been tested in the evolutionary crucible. As Cattell observes, rationalism has proved more capable of destruction than of construction. While the wise man may take some comfort that in twentieth century America few of his less intellectual fellow citizens shake and quake in fear of spending eternity in a fiery hell as punishment for their sins, the fact remains that he himself is more susceptible than ever to an equally painful, if less enduring, intellectual mugging by his agnostic brothers.

Since rational systems are usually built upon assumptions about human nature and society, viz., all men are inherently good, rationalists are likely to believe that education and good intentions can abolish war, poverty and injustice. Cattell notes that because of such assumptions rationalist morality rests on “subjective, a priori premises surreptitiously imported from the religions they seek to outmode” (p. 63). A further complication is that when reason dictates the content of morality, people have difficulty in agreeing on what kind of behavior is moral or immoral. Rather than subject their moral system to the test of natural selection, rationalists rely on man-made selection in the form of world wars, genocide and totalitarian thought control.

Cattell concludes his argument by proposing that moral systems be evaluated by their survival value. In so doing he advocates removing the bathwater of Revealed Truth without simultaneously ejecting the baby of a viable society. But for natural selection to stimulate human evolution and not human extinction, it must operate on diversity, both cultural and genetic. Cattell therefore pleads for “the right and duty of every society to pursue its own culturo-genetic experiment.”

Jacques Monod en 1956.
Jacques Monod

The British philosopher Antony Flew in Evolutionary Ethics attacked all moral systems such as Cattell’s on the grounds that they commit the naturalistic fallacy of determining what ought to be by basing it upon what is or has been. It is to this point that Jacques Monod’s brilliant Chance and Necessity speaks most forcefully. Winner of the 1965 Nobel prize in Physiology and Medicine for his study of the mechanism of gene replication, Monod argues that life, including human life, has arisen solely through the chance action of mutation and the necessity of natural selection. Such a view, he contends, is the only one that can be defined as objectively consistent. By this he means that statements about anything are meaningful only to the degree that they are testable. Denying “that ‘true’ knowledge can be got at by interpreting phenomena in terms of final causes — that is to say ‘purpose,'” he insists, “it is obviously impossible to imagine an experiment which could prove the nonexistence anywhere in nature of a purpose, of a pursued end” (p. 21).

Western society owes both its power and its wealth to its adherence to the postulate of objectivity, which has put men on the moon, split the atom and cured a myriad of diseases. But unfortunately, Monod tells us, objectivity has won men’s minds, but not their hearts. The profounder message of the principle of objectivity, its insistent demand for a revision of fundamental ethical premises, remains unseen or ignored. He notes that the liberal societies of the West have built their moral systems upon “a disgusting farrago of Judea-Christian religiosity, scientific progressivism, belief in the ‘natural’ rights of man and utilitarian pragmatism. The Marxist societies still profess the materialist and dialectic religion of history; on the face of it a more solid moral framework than the liberal societies boast, but perhaps more vulnerable by virtue of the very rigidity that has made its strength up until now….” After surveying the dangers threatening modern society — overpopulation, destruction of the natural environment and depletion of natural resources, thermonuclear war and genetic deterioration through survival of the unfittest, Monod asserts that it is the divorce between objective scientific knowledge and contemporary ethical systems that “afflicts and rends the conscience of anyone provided with some element of culture, a little intelligence and spurred by moral questioning” (p. 171), He concludes that this schism constitutes the greatest danger to our continued evolution.

How does Monod specifically respond to Flew’s criticism of deriving an “ought” from an “is?” Accepting the postulate of objectivity as the condition of true knowledge itself “constitutes an ethical choice and not a judgment arrived at from knowledge, since according to the postulate’s own terms, there cannot be any ‘true’ knowledge prior to this arbitral choice” (p. 176).

Knowledge, then, and morality itself arises from an initial choice. The “ought” of traditional and rationalist ethical systems all claim to be based upon either immanent or transcendent truths which force themselves upon man. But as the ethic of knowledge is chosen by man, Flew’s argument dissolves into emptiness. Hoisting high the banner of objectivity, man becomes free to build his own ethical system and societies become free to pursue their own culturo-genetic experiment.

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Source: Instauration magazine, April 1977

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