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Monday, 10 December 2012

The Overreach of Stupid Science, Part V

The Eclipse of Ethics

[Part V of  The Folly of Scientism by  Austin L. Hughes
Originally published in The New Atlantis ]

Perhaps no area of philosophy has seen a greater effort at appropriation by advocates of scientism than ethics. Many of them tend toward a position of moral relativism. According to this position, science deals with the objective and the factual, whereas statements of ethics merely represent people’s subjective feelings; there can be no universal right or wrong. Not surprisingly, there are philosophers who have codified this opinion. The positivist tradition made much of a “fact-value distinction,” in which science was said to deal with facts, leaving fields like ethics (and aesthetics) to deal with the more nebulous and utterly disparate world of values. In his influential book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (1977), the philosopher J. L. Mackie went even further, arguing that ethics is fundamentally based on a false theory about reality.

Evolutionary biology has often been seen as highly relevant to ethics, beginning in the nineteenth century. Social Darwinism — at least as it came to be explained and understood by later generations — was an ideology that justified laissez-faire capitalism with reference to the natural “struggle for existence.” In the writings of authors such as Herbert Spencer, the accumulation of wealth with little regard for those less fortunate was justified as “nature’s way.” Of course, the “struggle” involved in natural selection is not a struggle to accumulate a stock portfolio but a struggle to reproduce — and ironically, Social Darwinism arose at the very time that the affluent classes of Western nations were beginning to limit their reproduction (the so-called “demographic transition”) with the result that the economic struggle and the Darwinian struggle were at cross-purposes.

Partly in response to this contradiction, the eugenics movement arose, with its battle cry, “The unfit are reproducing like rabbits; we must do something to stop them!”
Although plenty of prominent Darwinians endorsed such sentiments in their day, no more incoherent a plea can be imagined from a Darwinian point of view: If the great unwashed are out-reproducing the genteel classes, that can only imply that it is the great unwashed who are the fittest — not the supposed “winners” in the economic struggle. It is the genteel classes, with their restrained reproduction, who are the unfit. So the foundations of eugenics are complete nonsense from a Darwinian point of view.

The unsavory nature of Social Darwinism and associated ideas such as eugenics caused a marked eclipse in the enterprise of evolutionary ethics. But since the 1970s, with the rise of sociobiology and its more recent offspring evolutionary psychology, there has been a huge resurgence of interest in evolutionary ethics on the part of philosophers, biologists, psychologists, and popular writers.

It should be emphasized that there is such a thing as a genuinely scientific human sociobiology or evolutionary psychology. In this field, falsifiable hypotheses are proposed and tested with real data on human behavior. The basic methods are akin to those of behavioral ecology, which have been applied with some success to understanding the behavioral adaptations of nonhuman animals, and can shed similar light on aspects of human behavior — although these efforts are complicated by human cultural variability. On the other hand, there is also a large literature devoted to a kind of pop sociobiology that deals in untested — and often untestable — speculations, and it is the pop sociobiologists who are most likely to tout the ethical relevance of their ostensible discoveries.

When evolutionary psychology emerged, its practitioners were generally quick to repudiate Social Darwinism and eugenics, labeling them as “misuses” of evolutionary ideas. It is true that both were based on incoherent reasoning that is inconsistent with the basic concepts of biological evolution; but it is also worth remembering that some very important figures in the history of evolutionary biology did not see these inconsistencies, being blinded, it seems, by their social and ideological prejudices. The history of these ideas is another cautionary tale of the fallibility of institutional science when it comes to getting even its own theories straight.

Just the same, what evolutionary psychology was about, we were told, was something quite different than Social Darwinism. It avoided the political and focused on the personal. One area of human life to which the field has devoted considerable attention is sex, spinning out just-so stories to explain the “adaptive” nature of every sort of behavior, from infidelity to rape. As with the epistemological explanations, since natural selection “should” have favored this or that behavior, it is often simply concluded that it must have done so.

The tacit assumption seems to be that merely reciting the story somehow renders it factual. (There often even seems to be a sort of relish with which these stories are elaborated — the more so the more thoroughly caddish the behavior.) The typical next move is to deplore the very behaviors the evolutionary psychologist has just designated as part of our evolutionary heritage, and perhaps our instinct: To be sure, we don’t approve of such things today, lest anyone get the wrong idea. This deploring is often accompanied by a pious invocation of the fact-value distinction (even though typically no facts at all have made an appearance — merely speculations).

There seems to be a thirst for this kind of explanation, but the pop evolutionary psychologists generally pay little attention to the philosophical issues raised by their evolutionary scenarios. Most obviously, if “we now know” that the selfish behavior attributed to our ancestors is morally reprehensible, how have “we” come to know this? What basis do we have for saying that anything is wrong at all if our behaviors are no more than the consequence of past natural selection? And if we desire to be morally better than our ancestors were, are we even free to do so? Or are we programmed to behave in a certain way that we now, for some reason, have come to deplore?

On the other hand, there is a more serious philosophical literature that attempts to confront some of the issues in the foundations of ethics that arise from reflections on human evolutionary biology — for example, Richard Joyce’s 2006 book The Evolution of Morality. Unfortunately, much of this literature consists of still more storytelling — scenarios whereby natural selection might have favored a generalized moral sense or the tendency to approve of certain behaviors such as cooperation. There is nothing inherently implausible about such scenarios, but they remain in the realm of pure speculation and are essentially impossible to test in any rigorous way. Still, these ideas have gained wide influence.

Part of this evolutionary approach to ethics tends toward a debunking of morality. Since our standards of morality result from natural selection for traits that were useful to our ancestors, the debunkers argue, these moral standards must not refer to any objective ethical truths. But just because certain beliefs about morality were useful for our ancestors does not make them necessarily false. It would be hard to make a similar case, for example, against the accuracy of our visual perception based on its usefulness to our ancestors, or against the truth of arithmetic based on the same.

True ethical statements — if indeed they exist — are of a very different sort from true statements of arithmetic or observational science. One might argue that our ancestors evolved the ability to understand human nature and, therefore, they could derive true ethical statements from an understanding of that nature. But this is hardly a novel discovery of modern science: Aristotle made the latter point in the Nicomachean Ethics. If human beings are the products of evolution, then it is in some sense true that everything we do is the result of an evolutionary process — but it is difficult to see what is added to Aristotle’s understanding if we say that we are able to reason as he did as the result of an evolutionary process. (A parallel argument could be made about Kantian ethics.)

Not all advocates of scientism fall for the problems of reducing ethics to evolution. Sam Harris, in his 2010 book The Moral Landscape, is one advocate of scientism who takes issue with the whole project of evolutionary ethics. Yet he wishes to substitute an offshoot of scientism that is perhaps even more problematic, and certainly more well-worn: utilitarianism. Under Harris’s ethical framework, the central criteria for judging if a behavior is moral is whether or not it contributes to the “well-being of conscious creatures.” Harris’s ideas have all of the problems that have plagued utilitarian philosophy from the beginning. As utilitarians have for some time, Harris purports to challenge the fact-value distinction, or rather, to sidestep the tricky question of values entirely by just focusing on facts. But, as has also been true of utilitarians for some time, this move ends up being a way to advance certain values over others without arguing for them, and to leave large questions about those values unresolved.

Harris does not, for example, address the time-bound nature of such evaluations: Do we consider only the well-being of creatures that are conscious at the precise moment of our analysis? If yes, why should we accept such a bias? What of creatures that are going to possess consciousness in the near future — or would without human intervention — such as human embryos, whose destruction Harris staunchly advocates for the purposes of stem cell research? What of comatose patients, whose consciousness, and prospects for future consciousness, are uncertain? Harris might respond that he is only concerned with the well-being of creatures now experiencing consciousness, not any potentially future conscious creatures. But if so, should he not, for example, advocate expending all of the earth’s nonrenewable resources in one big here-and-now blowout, enhancing the physical well-being of those now living, and let future generations be damned? Yet Harris claims to be a conservationist. Surely the best justification for resource conservation on the basis of his ethics would be that it enhances the well-being of future generations of conscious creatures. If those potential future creatures merit our consideration, why should we not extend the same consideration to creatures already in existence, whose potential future involves consciousness?

Moreover, the factual analysis Harris touts cannot nearly bear the weight of the ethical inquiry he claims it does. Harris argues that the question of what factors contribute to the “well-being of conscious creatures” is a factual one, and furthermore that science can provide insights into these factors, and someday perhaps even give definitive accounts of them. Harris himself has been involved in research that examines the brain states of human subjects engaged in a variety of tasks. Although there has been much overhyping of brain imaging, the limitations of this sort of research are becoming increasingly obvious. Even on their own terms, these studies at best provide evidence of correlation, not of causation, and of correlations mixed in with the unfathomably complex interplay of cause and effect that are the brain and the mind. These studies inherently claim to get around the problems of understanding subjective consciousness by examining the brain, but the basic unlikeness of first-person qualitative experience and third-person events that can be examined by anyone places fundamental limits on the usual reductive techniques of empirical science.

We might still grant Harris’s assumption that neuroscience will someday reveal, in great biochemical and physiological detail, a set of factors highly associated with a sense of well-being. Even so, there would be limitations on how much this knowledge would advance human happiness. For comparison, we know a quite a lot about the physiology of digestion, and we are able to describe in great detail the physiological differences between the digestive system of a person who is starving and that of a person who has just eaten a satisfying and nutritionally balanced meal. But this knowledge contributes little to solving world hunger. This is because the factor that makes the difference — that is, the meal — comes from outside the person. Unless the factors causing our well-being come primarily from within, and are totally independent of what happens in our environment, Harris’s project will not be the key to achieving universal well-being.

Harris is aware that external circumstances play a vital role in our sense of well-being, and he summarizes some research that addresses these factors. But most of this research is soft science of the very softest sort — questionnaire surveys that ask people in a variety of circumstances about their feelings of happiness. As Harris himself notes, most of the results tell us nothing we did not already know. (Unsurprisingly, Harris, an atheist polemicist, fails to acknowledge any studies that have supported a spiritual or religious component in happiness.) Moreover, there is reason for questioning to what extent the self-reported “happiness” in population surveys relates to real happiness. Recent data indicating that both states and countries with high rates of reported “happiness” also have high rates of suicide suggest that people’s answers to surveys may not always provide a reliable indicator of societal well-being, or even of happiness.

This, too, is a point as old as philosophy: As Aristotle noted in the Nicomachean Ethics, there is much disagreement between people as to what happiness is, “and often even the same man identifies it with different things, with health when he is ill, with wealth when he is poor.” Again, understanding values requires philosophy, and cannot simply be sidestepped by wrapping them in a numerical package. Harris is right that new scientific information can guide our decisions by enlightening our application of moral principles — a conclusion that would not have been troubling to Kant or Aquinas. But this is a far cry from scientific information shaping or determining our moral principles themselves, an idea for which Harris is unable to make a case.

A striking inconsistency in Harris’s thought is his adherence to determinism, which seems to go against his insistence that there are right and wrong choices. This is a tension widely evident in pop sociobiology. Harris seems to think that free will is an illusion but also that our decisions are really driven by thoughts that arise unbidden in our brains. He does not explain the origin of these thoughts nor how their origin relates to moral choices.

Harris gives a hint of an answer to this question when, in speaking of criminals, he attributes their actions to “some combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad ideas, and bad luck.” Each of us, he says, “could have been dealt a very different hand in life” and “it seems immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved in morality itself.” Harris’s reference to “bad genes” puts him back closer to the territory of eugenics and Social Darwinism than he seems to realize, making morality the privilege of the lucky few. Although Harris admits that we have a lot to learn about what makes for happiness, he does advance his understanding that happy people have “careers that are intellectually stimulating and financially rewarding” and “basic control over their lives.”

This view undermines the possibility of happiness and moral behavior for those who are dealt a bad hand, and so does more to degrade than uplift at the individual level. But worse, it does little to advance the well-being of society as a whole. The importance of good circumstances, and guaranteeing these for as many as possible, is one that is already widely understood and appreciated. But the question remains how to bring about these circumstances for everyone, and no economic system has yet been devised to ensure this. Short of this, difficult discussions of philosophy, justice, politics, and all of the other fields concerned with public life will be required to understand what the good life is and how to provide it to many given the limitations and inequalities of what circumstance brings to each of us.

On these points, as with so many others, scientism tends to present as bold, novel solutions what are really just the beginning terms of the problem as it is already widely understood.

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