A method for a science of ethics

Total Posts:  135
Joined  22-08-2005
11 May 2010 19:32

I may have a methodology for an empirical study of ethics, which may bypass most of the philosophical objections to a science of ethics

Let’s start with a list of all possible goods and values. Throw them all on—you don’t have to choose between them at this point. The original proposals of these values are historically subjective, so yes, this is a combination of subjective and objective. The objective part comes by examining the results achieved by people who stress a particular value, and judging those results by the standards of the other values on the list. For example, self esteem was added to the list about forty years ago, but we have discovered that high self esteem is common amongst criminals and narcissists. So self-esteem gets demoted. Another example is Jonathon Haidt’s moral foundations of ingroup/loyalty, purity/sanctity, and authority/respect. These have a bad history—they map directly onto the slogan “Ein Reich, ein Volk, ein Fuhrer!” So academics, who are aware of this historical record, discount these foundations. They get dropped down the list. Others, like fairness, compassion, empathy, and caring, have a near perfect yield. These get promoted up the list. In the 80’s Ivan Boesky and the Wall Street crowd threw greed onto the list. I think we can now safely kick that one off the list. And so you continue through the list, demoting those that run afoul, in practice, of the majority of the others, promoting those that are empirically shown to be conducive, or at least compatible with, the greatest number of values on the list. You end up with a graph of values, with arrows of antagonism and support. Each antagonism is a negative, each support is a positive. The highest score sits on the top of the list, the lowest sits at the bottom. By doing so, the true value of a value becomes quantifiable. The result is a hierarchy of values, derived from empirical observation.

What I am talking about here is experimentation and observation in the real world, combined with peer review. The resemblance to science is not accidental. We do this now, and we do it all the time. We cite evidence of the failure of a particular ethical position—faith, communism, libertarianism, etc, all with emphasis on certain values—to discredit those values. We are already doing empirical research into values, and exercising peer review over claims for those values. But we’re doing it piecemeal and haphazardly. Why not do it more methodically?

The problem with citing well being as a criteria is that it seems both too broad and too specific. Rather than use a catch all term, throw everything into the hopper. Let all the values in—ancient, modern. enlightenment, religious, ideological, what have you. Then draw the graph, based upon evidence from history, anthropology, economics, computer science, political science, psychology (including evolutionary psychology), neuroscience, and all the other social and human sciences. Nearly all of the objections to Harris’ position are nitpicking about the meaning of well being, how people might interpret it, how one person’s well being may contradict that of another, and so on and on. So don’t pick a definition or criteria. Let them all in, and let the research choose between them.

This will not be instantaneous, but finding the truth never is. To complicate things, the values advanced by a particular group may be cover values, while the real values they encourage may be quite different. The Catholic Church, for example, may pretend to champion the values of truth,  faith, hope, charity, etc, when in fact the values they are actually pushing are ingroup/loyalty, purity/sanctity, and authority/respect (hence the church’s historical ties to fascism.) The communists advanced similar values, under the cover of charity, equality, and solidarity—but as Orwell discovered, some where equaller than others. Indeed, it may well be that the only value that survived under Soviet rule was self preservation, while everything else was mere propaganda. All this has to be taken into account as well.

It won’t be easy, but I think it is possible.

Total Posts:  4
Joined  29-06-2010
30 June 2010 13:21

I too am interested in the method for building a science of ethics/morals.  Historically, experiments precede the development of a new branch of science.  I would like to run some repeatable experiments with concrete hypotheses and measurable results to begin investigating Morality.

Graphing all possible character traits and behaviors on a scale of immoral to moral based on historical research is an interesting idea.

But Sam Harris seems to indicate that we can establish a more absolute standard for Morality.  Can anyone think of a simple, repeatable experiment for an individual to perform that would advance this concept?