Hi everyone, hard to believe Science and Ethics is almost over - but here we are.
For your oral exam, here are the questions and conversation themes I have in mind. We'll discuss two or three of them, and to do well you should know (a) how these topics came up over the semester and which philosophers have something to say about them, (b) some of the philosophical problems surrounding these questions, and (c) you should have given some thought to how you would answer the question, because as always, I am interested in your considered opinion on the matter.
(1) Are the social (or soft) sciences inferior to the hard (or natural) sciences?
(2) Does science progress?
(3) Are the entities described by theories but not directly experienced (e.g. electrons, black holes) real?
(4) Do we have duties (or other moral obligations) toward islands?
(5) Do we have duties (or other moral obligations) toward animals?
(6) If we could manipulate embryos to make children stronger, healthier or more intelligent, should we, or must we?
(7) Do we need to understand something about ethics if we want to understand science?
Today we talked about environmental ethics.
Mary Midgley argued that it makes sense to talk of duties to things like islands - and that in fact we have duties to many things that are not other human beings, including animals, works of art, and so on.
Midgley considers a few ways that philosophers have resisted these duties. Some, like H. P. Grice, suggested that we must get used to the fact that children - like islands - are not part of the moral community and so that we have no moral obligations to them. Midgley finds this view untenable due to its repugnant conclusion. Others, like John Rawls ignore duties to islands; others still, like Immanuel Kant, interpret them as duties to ourselves. Midgley thinks that Rawls downplays the importance of these duties, while Kant's account misses the point that islands, children, animals and so on are fitting objects of moral duty.
How might we formulate such duties? Midgley does not say, so we looked at a few accounts.
Aldo Leopold thinks that our moral duties are based around a central duty: to protect the beauty, integrity and stability of the biotic community. Leopold sets no limits on this principle, meaning that culling human beings may be permitted.
Arne Næss tried to offer a more moderate alternative to Leopold. Næss recommends that we learn to identify ourselves with the biotic community, and learn to distinguish both a self (i.e. our human selves), and a Self (i.e. the biotic community, of which we are all parts). This would allow us to avoid actions that harm the Self, just as we would avoid anything that would harm the self.
Both Leopold and Næss are on the political left, searching for global solutions. Sir Roger Scruton comes from the political right, and he argues that just as an unregulated market achieves stability, so might an environment. What would stabilize it, he thinks, is the actions of many individuals striving to preserve the home and the nature they've grown up with and loved. If you preserve the parks where you grew up, and I preserve the ones where I grew up, and if everyone does the same - if we manifest what Scruton calls 'oikophilia' - then don't we end up preserving the environment by our local actions?
The third essay is now available here. It's due Apr 11, at 11:59 PM.
Today we compared the philosopher Peter Singer and the judge Richard Posner on the question of whether our moral duties extend to animals. We saw that Peter Singer argued that if suffering is an evil, and if there is no way to draw a morally significant line between human beings and animals, then animal suffering is an evil that ought to concern us like any other evil. Posner thinks that Singer is committed to certain views that Posner finds unpalatable, for example that in certain contexts it would be good to sacrifice one human for many chimpanzees (Singer denies this but it is not clear why). Posner also objects that Singer’s conclusion shows that his argument must have gone wrong, and suggests that he does not need to show where or why.
Today we looked at articles from two sides of a discussion about whether human beings should be the focus of science through enhancements of our bodies and minds. On the one side, bioconservatives say that we ought to use great caution when altering human nature. On the other, transhumanists enthusiastically embrace an enhanced future.
We considered a number of ways to alter humanity, including enhancing the length of our lives, our bodies, our moods, our intelligence, and our children. At each stage, we saw the transhumanists Nick Bostrom and Rebecca Roache arguing that we are already committed to some level of enhancement. We try to eat well, we train our bodies, we improve our moods with medications or alcohol, we study to improve our intelligence and we immunize our children against disease. In each case, it seems hard to draw a line between therapy on the one hand, and enhancement on the other. The challenge for the position that Bostrom calls ‘bioconservatism’ is to explain how all these activities are not really enhancements, but some sort of therapy.
Leon Kass, speaking for the bioconservatives, would disagree. Kass points out that any concept of enhancement depends on some conception of what is being enhanced, which is to say a concept of human nature. But when Kass spells out his tentative concept, he finds it largely incompatible with enhancement. The notion that we can master nature, what he calls the “attitude of mastery”, is odd, because we find that human beings are parts of nature, and the desires we impose on nature are parts of it too. Moreover, we want our desires to be manifest through our own agency, rather than being handed to us as passive agents. Finally, Kass thinks, our lives and our minds have a natural shape, and any serious enhancement distorts this. We ought, therefore, to be very suspicious of those who would enhance us.
This week we spoke a little about Aristotle’s virtue ethics. Virtue ethics is based on a belief in character traits: states of mind which prepare us to act in certain ways across a variety of situations. According to Aristotle, when we stabilize these traits, we are successful at being human.
We then discussed an article by Gilbert Harman which put the very existence of character traits in question, and which proposes a situationist reading of Stanley Milgram’s experiments (and other experiments in social psychology). The Milgram experiments seem to show that ordinary human beings will perform evil acts under the right circumstances. Harman concludes that situations, not character traits, explain our actions. For a modern take on the Milgram experiment, have a look at the Jeu de la Mort (2010).
We considered a few answers that Aristotle might give to Harman, such as (a) that perhaps most people have character traits, but are too weak to act on them (i.e. most people are incontinent), (b) that the Milgram experiments selected people unlikely to be virtuous in the first place.
Finally we considered Charles Taylor, who proposes an alternative approach to social science. Our lives evidently have meaning, but this meaning does not seem to be captured in the data-gathering, empirical approaches to social science we have seen thus far. Taylor thinks that studying people is like reading a text, and that so to fully grasp what is going on we must grasp it as a whole, as we understand a novel or a play. We must be interpreters of human life, in part because human life is like a novel. Our lives consist of meaningful experiences in fields of other meaningful experiences, and to grasp what our lives are about you need to understand them all together. That’s why it’s one thing to describe how people behave when they are ashamed, and another to understand what shame is. Taylor doesn’t tell us much about what this sort of social science would be like. What he does tell us is that it won’t have great predictive power and it will allow for exceptions - but these are prices he is willing to pay.
Today we considered Carl Hempel’s discussion of science and ethics. Hempel asked whether value judgements could be grounded in science, or whether perhaps science is in part or wholly grounded in value judgements. No, Hempel concluded, ethics cannot be reduced to science. Science cannot generate normative statements, since normativity does not seem to be testable. Even the perfect scientists (Laplace’s demon) couldn’t get normativity from all his scientific knowledge. Yes, Hempel then concluded, science is in at least one way founded on ethics. Ethical considerations, about what kind of discoveries we care about do guide the pursuit of science. Like Rudolph Carnap, Hempel supposed that value judgments stand outside science and organize it. They decide how science will work.
Next we discussed Richard Rudner’s view. Rudner thought that a scientist makes value judgements in the course of scientific research. That is because in order to reach a conclusion, the scientist must make a value judgement about the consequences of getting things wrong. Until that judgment is made, the scientist won’t know how much testing is necessary. Like W. V. O. Quine, Rudner thought that science and ethics are really two ways of investigating the world, and that there is no reason to try to separate the two. Making value judgments is part of doing science.
For Hempel, value judgements are necessary for science to get started, but they are not part of what scientists do everyday. Rudner disagrees: he thinks even when the scientists is doing science, that involves making value judgments.
Today we considered the question of the role of the social sciences. Social sciences sometimes need to allow exceptions to their laws. Hard, or natural sciences don’t. Does this make the hard sciences better?
Alexander Rosenberg thinks so. He criticizes economics for two reasons. The first is that it is ‘extremal’. All theories have core hypotheses and auxiliary hypotheses. But extremal theories have just one core hypothesis, and they apply it to everything. Extremal economists think that everyone acts to maximize utility, just as extremal Darwinists think that every organism maximizes its survivability. There’s nothing wrong with extremal theories, but they are hard to falsify. That’s because if the economist does not get the results he expects, he has to chose between changing his auxiliary hypothesis and giving up his core assumption which means giving up his whole theory. It’s always going to be easier to modify an auxiliary hypothesis. The result is that economists should be humble, because their views are hard to give up. They should be worried about the fact that they do not make good predictions.
The reason that economics doesn’t make good predictions, Rosenberg thinks, is that it is based on a mistaken view of human nature. Economists think that human beings are maximizers. We’re not! Economists should recognize that they are actually doing abstract math, not studying people.
Fritz Machlup has a much more optimistic view. He thinks that social sciences are almost equal to hard sciences. His innovative argument has to do with his distinction between the real world, the laboratory world, and theories. He thinks that if we recognize that social scientists can’t really test things in labs, we can see that social science is about equal to hard science. Both of them are poor at making predictions about the real world, and both are good in theory. Hard sciences shine in the lab - but social sciences don’t have a lab, so it’s not a fair point of comparison. And indeed, if we count all the adjustments to lab equipment as false predictions, hard sciences aren’t even that good in the lab.
The issue between these two philosophers is reductionism. Rosenberg thinks that we should reduce terms in the social sciences to simpler, more basic terms. Machlup thinks the social sciences do valuable work on their own. At the end of class, we considered the possibility that some things are multiply realizable, meaning that there are many ways to make up certain things. Prison wardens discover that there are uncountably many ways to make a weapon. If a physicist tried to study all the weapons, he would be looking at a huge number of different physical things. But doesn’t that show that when we reduce our social sciences we can lose track of what is important, which is in this case the multiply-realizable concept ‘weapon’?
Today we considered three answers to the question “What is the status of scientific theories and the things they describe?” First, we considered instrumentalism. Instrumentalists believe that all the unobservable things that scientists talk about (e.g. forces and microscopical entities) are not real things, but tools for predicting changes in observable things. Because our theories are about unobservable entities, our theories do not say true things but are best understood as tools also. W. T. Stace combined his instrumentalism with the odd claim that only the world of experience was real, but it is his instrumentalism that most interested us.
Grover Maxwell, by contrast, is a realist. Maxwell thinks that our theories are true and the things they talk about are real. Maxwell offered two arguments for this. The first is the argument from the continuum of size. At one end of the continuum are unobservables like atoms, and on the other end are observables like tables and chairs. No one denies that tables and chairs are real, but instrumentalists deny that unobservable things are real. Is it reasonable to draw a line between observable and unobservable things on this continuum? Maxwell doesn’t think so, but the instrumentalist would disagree - after all, aren’t some distinctions real but vague? Maxwell points out that things that were once unobservable, like microbes, became observable by using instruments, for example microscopes. And yet the instrumentalist might deny that what we see in a microscope is anything but a tool. When our burglar alarm is triggered by a burglar, we do not say that we hear the burglar, but the alarm. Microscopes and other tools could be similar, in that they let us manipulate the world but do not show us anything that is real.
Finally, we had a quick look at entity realism. The entity realist does not make any claim about whether theories are true. Instead, he focusses on the claim that entities that we can interact with and manipulate are real. This means the entity realist believes in the reality of atoms and microbes, but not of things we cannot effect, like black holes.
Every week I'll add some information about what we discussed in class.