Ethics: Discovered, Not Decided
A reprise of my central point regarding the efficacy and worth of philosophy in the absence of science
by David Sims
I THINK that philosophers know as little about ethics, absent any empirical research into it, than they do about anything else. Rather, the reason philosophers make free, at present, with their ethical pronouncements is the same reason the Church made free with its astrodynamical pronouncements in the 17th century. The reason is that science has not yet investigated the subject with rigor.
Philosophy doesn’t gather the facts of reality within itself, whether we are speaking about physics or about ethics. It is as blind for one as it is for the other. Nobody is privileged to choose what is moral, which is what philosophers are really trying to do, however they might present it as an adventure of discovery through pure reason.
You can’t discover anything through pure reason. You might form a self-consistent conjecture that way, but you haven’t made a discovery unless you have gathered data from Nature via observation or experiment. Even the laws of logic weren’t deduced by logic. An attempt to do so would involve an invalid circular argument. Rather, mankind did a lot of informal research, as part of our general life experience, regarding which forms of argument were reliable and which forms of argument were unreliable. That’s the empiricism that informed Aristotle, who first codified the laws of logic.
Nature has its own standard for morality, and that standard is survival. What does not exist is worthless. And an improper moral system that causes its own destruction — via the destruction of its practitioners — is worse than worthless; like a disease, it has a negative worth.
What philosophy does is concoct logically self-consistent narratives, which might or might not be the truth. Philosophy and science inform each other: Philosophy informs science about correct procedure, about logic, and science tells philosophy what the discovered facts are and which of its narratives have been disqualified from being truth.
A philosopher who does not engage with science is blind to reality. He forever spins conjectures that he has no way of checking. He gets into arguments with other similarly blind philosophers who insist that their conjectures are superior to his, and none of them really knows what the truth is because none of them has indulged in experimental verification. Their arguments are so much hot air.
You know the old saying among atheists: “As science advances, God retreats,” meaning that once experiment has revealed the true nature of a part of existence, the older theological explanations quickly seem obsolete — if not outright ridiculous. After three or four hundred years of trying to refute a scientific explanation that is supported at every turn by every test, while at the same time having their increasingly contrived alternatives either disproved or shown to be rather suspiciously untestable, the theologians adopt the scientific explanation, grudgingly at first, but after a generation they are pretending that they had never thought differently. And then they go around saying things like “There’s no real conflict between science and religion.”
Ethics is like that. Philosophers may claim to have knowledge about ethics because they believe it to be subject to their choices. Some philosophers may believe that they can create ethics by making their preferences known. On the contrary, I say. Those philosophers are wrong. Nature constrains the truth about ethics to the same degree that it constrains the truth about gravity. This truth is something to discover. It isn’t something to be decided.
When you discover the truth about ethics, you might not like it. You might wish that it were something else. But it will be the truth, nevertheless. The approval of philosophers isn’t required.
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