Ethics and Science

It would be a breach of good reporting, however, not to mention that there are some who object seriously to this contrast, even in the form in which it has just been stated. For implying as it does a clear separation between ethics and science, it arouses the sharp criticism of those who wish to show that ethics is itself a science.

Now the desire to identify ethics with science must not be confused with the desire to make ethics "scientific." This latter desire is well-nigh universal, if by it we mean the wish to avoid, in the treatment of ethical questions, the introduction of personal bias, guesswork, or wishful thinking. In ethics, as in any search after knowledge, the investigator wants the facts to speak for themselves and he goes about the pursuit of facts in the most businesslike and self-critical way attainable. To make ethics as scientific as possible in method is a hope cherished by all who regard this study as something more than an entertaining pastime. Carelessness and arbitrariness are no more to be recommended in ethics than in cooking; the results are likely to prove equally unpalatable.

Frequently, to be sure, scientific method has been given a much more specific connotation than that of rigorousness and distinterestedness of procedure. It has sometimes been construed as involving the application of those special techniques that typify the natural sciences. Among the most famous of these characterizations of the method of science is that which describes every scientific investigation as involving--once the problem to be solved has been posed-a sequence of four successive steps, as follows: (1) the collection and observation of materials or data; (2) the formulation of a theory or hypothesis in explanation of these data; (3) the drawing of deductions or of consequences that would follow from the truth of the hypothesis; and (4) the testing of the hypothesis by seeking verification of its predicted consequences in experience.

When scientific method has been so understood, the question of its applicability to ethics has raised a storm of controversy; this issue remains one of the most lively in technical ethical discussions.

Let us look briefly at the sort of proposals made by those who would like ethics to be scientific, not only in temper but also in its approximation to the methods of natural science. First of all, they insist, moral science must be empirical. That is, it must depend ultimately on experience as its source and criterion of knowledge. But the only data, relevant to ethics, that may be observed and precisely described, so it is held, are the moral judgments of human beings. People's reactions with respect to lying and stealing, keeping and breaking promises, and so on, may be assembled and analyzed. Step 1, then, is the securing of as much information as possible about men's beliefs as expressed in their judgments of right, wrong, good, and bad. Following the collection and sorting of these beliefs, the next step is to examine them with a view to generalizing about the types of behavior that men do prevailingly regard as right or as wrong.

For example, if it is found that all the acts that are considered wrong are also acts likely to injure the community, it may be concluded that "wrong" means "tending to injure the community." Such a conclusion will be an ethical hypothesis or theory. From it one may deduce (step 3) that certain other acts, hitherto unexamined, will, if they tend to injure the community, also be held by men to be wrong. The testing of the theory (step 4) will then be a matter of making observations of men's judgments about these acts, verification consisting in the discovery that men do in fact hold such acts to be wrong. If, on the other hand, public opinion is found, in certain cases at least, to be enthusiastic in its approval of acts which are undeniably injurious to the community, some revisions in the theory would of course be indicated.

The question has been raised, in connection with this procedure, whether precise quantitative tests should be required in ethics as they are in the more exact of the natural sciences. It seems obvious that excessive demands along this line would make rather hard sledding for a field whose data do not easily lend themselves to measurement by yardsticks and differential equations. However, the proponents of a scientific ethics have rarely gone--if a pun may be excused--to such extreme "measures." They have nevertheless contended that if ethics is to fill the shoes of science, its theories must be so stated that they give rise to consequences that are publicly testable and verifiable. To approach ethics with expectations less than these, they maintain, is simply to abandon it to the arbitrary caprices of unscientific romanticists.

Those who object to this conception of ethical investigation, however, do not ordinarily regard themselves as formulating their protest in the name either of caprice or of romanticism. Their criticism of "scientific ethics" is more likely to take the following form: The sort of undertaking, which the scientifically minded moralist has delineated and which he supposes to be an enterprise in ethics, is really not such at all. What he describes is not ethics, but sociology or anthropology. It is a process of inquiring what men believe, how they react in certain situations, and of formulating theories enabling one to predict how these same men will react later in similar situations. What this method provides, then, is an accumulation of folklore. Instead of arriving at knowledge of what is right and wrong, it arrives at knowledge of what men think is right and wrong. Public opinion polls are all right in their place, but what one expects and gets from, say, a pre-election poll, is some indication of who will be elected--not of who ought to be elected. Ethics cannot properly be regarded as a glorified, spiritualized Gallup Poll. It does not seek to learn what standards men use in judging conduct, but what standards they should use. And to this end, other methods of inquiry than that of sociology are required, methods whose nature will be discussed and debated in later chapters.

The scientific technique in ethics is held to breed further difficulties. Suppose, for example, investigation of the moral judgments of human beings should reveal considerable disagreement as to whether certain acts were right or wrong. In such a case no single theory explaining what lay underneath these conflicting opinions could be given. For the theory is supposed to explain agreements: in the face of disagreements, it bogs down. But given such disagreements and supposing that they prove adamant even when confronted by the theory that is supposed to dissolve them, the only course open appears to be that of setting up a variety of theories, each one providing its own special explanation of the special opinions of a special group of moral judges. Since the method under consideration provides no way of comparing these several theories, we are left with something which might be called ethical Relativity. To this view, as we shall see in the chapters devoted especially to its consideration, a number of moralists are resolutely committed.

It may be worth noticing that the definition of ethics with which we originally began was stated without prejudice to the issue of "scientific ethics." The phrase which occurs in that definition, "standards for judging," is neutral, allowing either for the interpretation, "standards which ought to be used for judging," or for the interpretation, "standards which are used for judging,"-- or, for that matter, for several other interpretations, including, "standards which might be used for judging." It is left to the student to decide, after he has more fully considered the problem, which of these meanings he wishes to insert.

In the light of the disagreement among philosophers as to the nature of ethical inquiry, it is pertinent to raise the question: How can any definitive results be achieved in an area where there is not even agreement on the task to be accomplished?

If every moralist could accept the view that ethics is a branch of descriptive science, recording and generalizing on certain aspects of human behavior, the pursuit of ethics might become science and henceforth be carried on in the cooperative spirit of a big, happy, academic family. But it is hardly to be expected that those who regard ethical investigations as something very different from this will resign themselves, for the sake of philosophic harmony and "definitive results," to a method which in their opinion could only produce results, however definitive, in which they were not really interested.

In the face of this not surprising recalcitrance, the sensible procedure is perhaps to cease sighing for a unanimity that is not to be expected in this stage of man's reflection on moral issues, and turn to an examination of what the various attacks on these issues are.

If moralists insist on arguing even over the nature of those questions which they become moralists by asking, we are at any rate not prevented from distinguishing and sorting out the various questions they ask or from examining and evaluating the answers they give. Whatever conclusions we may reach as a result of this examination will at least have run the gauntlet of the best in historical and contemporary opinion on these matters. This includes even the opinions of those who are convinced that there are no meaningful ethical questions to be asked at all and that the whole of what has passed for morality rests on a huge illusion.

Before leaving the subject of the nature of ethical inquiry, a brief comment on our own procedure may seem desirable.

This book is not written as ethical propaganda--and we hope that it will not be so construed. We hope that the student will feel, as the various ethical views are unrolled before his mind, that he is examining them for himself, under guidance to be sure, but under guidance which is not to be thought of as in any sense authoritative or importunate. As in all conducted tours, your guide can be expected to intersperse his designation and description of objects of interest with his own critical comments about them. You may, in fact, come to regard him as a very opinionated person and feel like requesting him to confine himself to the business of pointing out -- which, in the last analysis, is all that guides are paid for. Since, however, there is no chance in this instance, to suppress your guide's enthusiasm for declaring his own convictions, other courses of action must be considered. One is to ignore him, that is, to skip those passages that carry the odor of intellectual autobiography. (As you proceed you will doubtless learn to recognize these passages even from a distance.) The other alternative--the one that your "guide" would naturally prefer to think of as the more intelligent course--is to pay a modicum of attention to his views, according them what seems their due, but no more than their due, in terms of the strength of the evidence offered in their support--and remembering that the discriminating student will wish to gird his critical loins by consulting at first hand the arguments of those who hold beliefs differing from the ones here defended.

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