31 October 2006


Towards a Science of Ethics

This post was stimulated by an email from Ollie Killngback:

I'm away on holiday in Texas at the moment ... From my privileged position on the buckle of the Bible Belt (Irving Texas, where I am in order to watch a crucial game for the Cowboys on Monday night) I found the following item in the Dallas Morning News which I thought might be of interest to students of Christian ethics ...

It's from the 2006 Josephson Institute Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth. 94% of teens surveyed said "trust and honesty are essential" in the workplace. 89% said "being a good person is more important than getting rich." However, 59% overall and almost 66.67% of boys said that, in business, successful people have to do whatever they can to get ahead, even if that means cheating.

Somehow I can't make the sums add up.

My response to this was:

Surely the explanation is obvious. When they answered the first two questions they were practising the ethics they advocate in the other answer!

Here's a link to the Josephson Institute report.

Coincidentally I've been reading George H. Smith Atheism: The Case Against God (which is in our LSS Library). It has a short section on ethics. He writes: "I shall defend the thesis that ethics, while a branch of philosophy, is also a kind of science, specifically, the science of human values."

He bases his approach on that of Ayn Rand in her 'Objectivist' writings, quoting her as saying: "The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept? The first question is: Does man need values at all - and why?" also: "It is only the concept of Life that makes the concept of Value possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or bad."

Many philosophers (for example the early 20th century logical positivists) have denied any meaning to value judgments, other than expressing personal opinions. However, Smith points out that many sciences other than ethics employ 'ought' judgments, medicine and architecture for example. He distinguishes between descriptive sciences which are concerned with "pure" facts and theories and normative sciences which "are concerned with those facts and theories as they apply to human goals.

An example of a normative judgment is: 'A doctor ought to do X if he wants to cure his patient.' A few quotes: A normative science is only as good as the facts on which it rests. Ethics deals with the facts of value as they apply to human action and the achievement of human goals. A rational morality is based on standards; a religious morality on rules. In rational morality there can be no 'ought' divorced from purpose. Ethics enables man to project the long-range consequences of his actions, and to evaluate the desirability of specific actions in terms of their effect on long-range goals.

[This is topical in view of the current fever of activity over the politics of global warming and climate change: definitely a long-term problem.]

To continue: "... a valid science of human values must be rooted in the nature of man as a biological and psychological organism." What conclusions the science of ethics comes to must thus depend on what are the true facts of human psychology. To this end he often quotes another follower of Ayn Rand (who fell out with her however): Nathaniel Branden: The Psychology of Self-Esteem. However in Psychology Today's Loose-screw awards his ideas are classed as "the most over-rated". However he is also listed among those influential in the development of Cognitive Psychology, which seems to be the modern most scientific approach.

George writes "This is topical in view of the current fever of activity over the politics of global warming and climate change". Coincidentally John Bell of the Christian Iona Community discussed this topic on Thought For The day this morning (1 Nov 2006). I usually rail against this programme where religious speakers often have a go at secularism in the cosy protection of a ban on secular speakers. But today Mr Bell spoke about the wrongs of using fiscal policy to protect the environment - basically (I hope I don't misrepresent here) the rich will continue to live it up and do their disproportionate damage regardless of money cost, while the poor will have yet another burden in their attempts to make ends meet. The government must use other measures to enforce environmental protection. This is a secular message which many people with a social conscience might agree with (as I do), religious or not. Nice one John!

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