Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Ethics as a science?

We are exploring two themes in parallel. The first is the investigation of the possibility of a science of ethics - the empirical study of codes of conduct. The second is a brief overview of minimal code of conduct- to be both guided by and to use to critically examine other such systems. To recap, we stated in as a concise format as possible, three principles:-
  1. Less harm is preferable to more harm
  2. Act so as to minimise harm
  3. React so as to thwart harm
We examined the first principle in the previous post, with an emphasis on using it as a means of empirically validating, pragmatically only, differing codes of conduct. We first discussed the second principle in One or Two Golden Rules and the third in Sophisticated Tit for Tat. We are briefly going to explore these further here with a different scientific emphasis.

The origin of the Sophisticated Tit for Tat strategy was, from what I call the naive, Tit for Tat strategy in solving the iterated prisoners dilemma challenge in game theory. Whilst there are simplifications that need to be expanded in the real world - hence 'sophisticated' rather than 'naive' - there is a useful idea behind this. That is that one could build game theoretic or intelligent agent simulations executing different active and reactive rule sets and see how they perform against each other. This also harks back to Maynard Smiths work in evolutionary biology with 'Hawks' and 'Doves' and evolutionary stable strategies. For example the second principle here corresponds to the active rule set and the third one to the reactive rule set. Other competing ones could be, say, the Prescriptive (what I call pejoratively the Fool's) Golden Rule and "Turn the other cheek" (although as someone once told me with the latter you are likely to get a broken jaw!).

The above is second theoretical way of evaluating codes of conduct. It may agree or conflict with the aforementioned empirical analysis of effectiveness and efficiency of codes of conduct. Now there is, at least, a third method but to examine this, we need to look at the classical objection to this type of investigation from that of the non-cognitivists.

The non-cognitivist position as that moral statements, specifically prescriptions, are neither true or false. One version, based on the Logical Positivist tradition, asserts that the meaning of a proposition is in it's truth conditions. If a moral prescription has no truth conditions, then it is meaningless (or metaphysics...)! I certainly agree that there is nothing external to the human observer's outlook such as values within objects, acts, consequences, states of affairs or facts of the matter. Along with Mackie I think the idea of "intrinsic prescriptivity" is a very queer and indeed a false view. So if moral prescriptions implicitly and conventionally rely upon the assumption that there is an objective, intrinsic prescriptivity, then they are all in error. He calls it error theory. However considered this way they are still meaningful just all wrong!

For now, let us go with the non-cognitivist argument , which rather than saying these statements are meaningless - they appear to have some form of meaning and communicability as a result, that these are non-cognitive. That is they are neither true or false. Most non-cognitivists say these statements are either expressions of emotion - emotivism - or expressions of opinion - expressivism. There are a number of implications of this. If there are no facts of the matter - since nothing is true or false - how can there be moral reasoning - which operates on facts to draw conclusions and similarly moral judgments? So how can there be a science of ethics?

There are two points to consider here and the first brings about, ironically given its inspiration, the third method that could contribute to a science of ethics. That everyone's feeling on matters or their opinions do not come from nowhere. There are many well studied aspects of how emotional reactions are formed and changed and how opinions are molded. Diverse fields such as cognitive psychology, critical thinking, behavioural finance, marketing and even parapsychology have studied the processes of deception, self-deception, cognitive biases, errors and distortions and the techniques of persuasion and "slight of mind". So even if we grant the non-cognitivists view, the formation of emotional reactions, feelings and opinions can still be empirically studied.

Furthermore their position does not preclude the first two methodologies either, since neither of those can say which system is the "right one", rather they just evaluate their performance empirically or in simulations and models. This leads to the final point for now. It could well be that all current or even future possible moral theories are all one way or another in error to some degree. This still does not preclude critical and realistic appraisal of these through empirical field studies; computer simulations and models; analysis of the processes of persuasion, rhetoric and marketing; and any combination of these techniques.

So I will certainly use these tools as and when available and needed in arguing for reducing double standards in society and whether or not one considers these as a basis for a science of ethics is a moot point. They stand on their own anyway. Still my preferred approach is to find the internal inconsistency of those arguing for double standards and the sophisticated tit for tat is a good way of identifying possible conflicts as in my recent mini-series on dealing with the "how to be moral without god" bigoted question. Enough "theory" for now, future posts will look at some real world topical issues.