Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Ethics as a science

It is a recent underlying theme that I have been promoting in this blog that ethics is not just a philosophical pursuit but can also be a science. I have searched for the best empirical framework within which to do ethics as a science and to date the best I have found is Desire Utilitarianism. I want to focus on this framework, as a scientific research program, here.

This is the study of human social interactions. There are many questions here but the dominant one of relevance, in one way or another, to everyone, is that of problematic social interactions and their resolution. This is what Desire Utilitarianism is designed to address. Historically, many of these solutions have been presented as moral codes with differing foundations e.g. gods and different and disagreeing gods to boot , social contracts, universal rights, intrinsic value and so on and so forth. Ironically while many codes - but certainly not all - are roughly congruent, still there is widespread disagreement over these foundations and, most importantly, the differences between such codes,as themselves being a major source of problematic social interactions.

Preference Satisfaction
There has been interminable debate over these as philosophical issues - rational inquiry - more so in the popular arena, where the same well recognised and long refuted mistakes are repeated ad infinitum. Meanwhile, within the the specialist community of those who study these issues full-time, even as they differ on different bases for morality, there is widespread convergence on various forms of utilitarianism, most broadly stated as Preference Satisfaction.

For example Mackie with his error-theorist cognitivism and who is sometimes and, in my opinion, mistakenly called a moral anti-realist, Hare with his non-cognitivist universal prescriptivism, Singer with his act utilitarianism, Mills with his rule utilitarianism, Griffin with his informed desire fulfilment and even Moore with his moral intuitionism as well as numerous others including Hume, all with sometimes radically different bases do converge on something which can be loosely called preference satisfaction. Of course there are dissenting, significant and complementary voices (aretists, deontologists etc.) and these are not be ignored but I hold that this distinction - a broad agreement over a broad conception over Preference Satisfaction - serves as a major distinction between popular and specialist debates in morality.

However, whilst this alone is insufficient to be a science of ethics, this academic basis serves as the most likely best starting point to develop such a science. This is the angle that I have pursued. To choose to be as most orthodox as possible, or to assume the minimum amount of alternate and hence more controversial approaches, in developing this, maybe one could call it, a, for now, proto-science. This begs the question of what for our purposes here serves as a science?

A scientific standard

There are many discussions over what science is and I do not want to go over well trodden ground. Instead I want to focus on what particular aspect of what could be called a scientific standard. For any given domain the standard is partly specified by eliminating errors and minimising mistakes such that for any proposed solutions that persistently ignore identified and identifiable errors and mistakes are not science and can, sometimes, be labelled as pseudo-science. There is no justification for allowing and permitting or even encouraging such errors and mistakes and calling it a scientific endeavour. Here errors and mistakes are meant quite broadly and with overlap, with, if they are not synonyms, errors standing more for those due to a philosophical - a priori and logical - and mathematical - calculation - nature and mistakes more pertaining to data collection, cleaning and measurement as well empirically introduced and avoidable biases and distortions. This distinction is not important, but whether one encourages or discourages them is. Regarded this way when I say that Desire Utilitarianism is currently the best approach is not to deny that this is still provisional and is open to review, revision, replacement or rejection. It is, in my view the best, because it makes less errors and mistakes than any other proposed approach. This is a necessary but not sufficient condition to qualify as a full science, but is a minimum standard which other approaches fail to meet. This is a work in progress and there is much work to compare, contrast and criticise this with other approaches which will be developed in forthcoming posts, although many of these issues have already been mentioned in passing and already I believe are sufficient to make a case for Desire Utilitarianism (that it makes less errors and mistakes than other approaches).

Blockers to ethics as a science

There are a number of well known challenges to anyone who attempts an empirical, material, physical model of and application of moral prescriptions. I have already covered these at some length such as Hume's Is-Ought distinction, fact-value dualism and Moor's naturalistic fallacies and Open Question argument. These objections need to be taken seriously and not ignored, as other appoaches have and I have been quite specific as to how these can be dealt with and that they do not absolutely (sic) block a science of ethics. For a tentative summary see Objections to Ethical Naturalism and for earlier drafts see Hume's Is-Ought Problem, Facts and Values and The Naturalistic Fallacy Fallacy .

Another related criterion for a scientific standard is that of Popper's demarcation criterion - falsifiability. This again, is a necessary but not sufficient condition to qualify as a science but if not met it clearly is not science (or proto-science) but is a pseudo-science to the degree it is claimed to be a science and, where there is no such claim nor implication, it is just metaphysics. So the question is whether the framework I am arguing for here, Desire Utilitarianism is defeasible or not. Again this has been mentioned in passing but I will address this point directly now.

External Falsifiability
This is criticising the framework itself.

Desire Utilitarianism holds that value is the relation between desire and states of affairs and that moral value is the relation between malleable desires - that can be influenced by social forces - and their affects on all other relevant desires. Morality is then about promoting desires that tend to fulfil other desires and demoting desires that tend to thwart other desires, promotion and demotion being done by social forces such as praise, condemnation, reward and punishment. Apart from desires there are no other motives that exist.

There are a number of claims here which are falsifiable. They will be just listed for now and it should be clear that these are defeasible claims. Future posts will examine this points in detail but much of this has already been covered and argued for previously.
  • Desires exist.
  • Malleable desires exist.
  • Desires are the only motives that exist,
  • Malleable desires can be influenced by social forces.
  • Relations between desire and states of affairs exist.
  • Relations between desires exist.
(Note this is not an exhaustive list but is sufficient for our purposes here) Indeed in setting the tone for a discussion the introduction of Desire Utilitarianism as in the above paragraph really just is a statement of falsifiable claims, and is also asserting that these that have not yet been falsified. Challenging these claims is an external critique of Desire Utilitarianism. Any other ethical framework needs to make equivalent falsifiable claims and where it differs from Desire Utilitarianism needs to falsify the relevant claim here to argue for such an alternative framework. (Desires as the only motives being the most likely to challengeable and will be examined sooner rather than later in future posts).

Internal Falsifiability
This is accepting the above falsifiable claims as not being falsified and to apply them in whatever scenario is required. There are many challenges here between Desire Utilitarians - or those just using this framework to test it out - and upon which they can differ and disagree. Some key ones are:
  • Causes: have all the desire under question been established
  • Scope: what desires are affected?
  • Temporality: are future desires relevant ort discounted
  • Duration: does the time frame capture all relevant desires
  • Type: (related to scope) does one include the desires of babies, children, the senile, foetuses, animals?
  • Measurement: How confident can the conclusions be, given the limitaion of data collection
  • Target: What is being examined - actions, rules, laws, principles, cultures
Like any empirical inquiry any conclusions are at best provisional and open to review based on new evidence and argument. One common confusion to mix an external and internal critique. Any alternative framework should permit the equivalent internal critique and debate.

This has not presented the specifics of Desire Utilitarianism in detail as a science but initial drafts for this are in two previous posts Science and Ethics 1 : A Theory of Value and
Science and Ethics 2: A Theory of Prescription. To conclude Desire Utilitarianism is an empirical ethical framework and meets the requirements to qualify at least as a proto-science and any other ethical system needs to do the same or be discarded. A new task will be to examine the alternatives even if they do not or even deny the possibility of ethics as a science.


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