Here is my concern with this: if we want to have a science of morality, shouldn’t the limited set of values that are needed for science in general be sufficient? The need to introduce a moral axiom seems to indicate some misfit between science and morality.
Spoken like a true Skeptic, Midwest. I definitely agree that scientific values are moral values. But I think they are only a subset of all moral values. Medicine introduces new values other than purely scientific ones: health and doing no harm. A science of morality has to introduce extra values also: the well-being of conscious creatures (may I also suggest obliging no-one?). As Sam has said, he is really merely advocating that the field of Mental Health become our moral compass.
We do have axioms in some fields such as math, but we accept those axioms because they so absolutely and unfailingly ground out in the empirical observation. But a moral axiom seems resistant to this type of grounding out. We can confirm that 2+2=4, and it always turns out to be true no matter if we are counting fingers, toes, or Justin Bieber posters. How do we empirically verify that well-being is good?
All of arithmetic is counting. Counting is a human activity that maps very clearly onto the real world at the human-scale but gets fuzzier as you look more closely. I have a cookie and you have a cookie. Great 1 + 1 = 2. Or does it? Actually both cookies came from the same batch that was split into 24 and we already at the other 22. And look… you’ve already dropped several dozen crumbs from your cookie all over the floor (messy messy!). And wait… the cookies are still hot and moist (we sure ate the other ones fast!) look at all that steam coming off your cookie… the moisture is leaving. But isn’t that moisture part of the cookie? Now I put my cookie over your cookie. The steam from your cookie is hitting the bottom of my cookie and being absorbed. Now let’s look microscopically. Where is the actual boundary between your cookie and my hand (oops… here’s your cookie back) your cookie and your hand, your cookie and the atmosphere. There’s a whole science of surface chemistry for this. There is also Xeno’s Paradox, if you are familiar with that. Calculus did not ‘solve’ Xeno’s Paradox. It just got around it. We still do not know if the universe is fundamentally discrete or analogue or if that even makes sense to ask.
And yet… you clearly have 1 cookie, and I clearly have 1 cookie. Counting is a useful thing people do, it describes the world in a very useful way and absolutely has right and wrong answers, but we’ll just get lost if we dwell on the objective basis of counting. And so with morality - it’s a useful thing that we do, it describes the world in a useful way, it has right and wrong answers, but we’ll just got lost if we dwell on the objective basis. Sam are you writing this down?
Consider these questions:
(1) Water is made of hydrogen and oxygen.
(2) We have an obligation to help people in need.
I can think of a number of ways to confirm (1). But I don’t see how to experimentally test (2).
‘We have an obligation to help people in need.’ is a categorical imperative. Let’s look at the sorts of imperatives found in medicine:
Get 6-8 hours sleep. Get 4 x 45 minute sessions of exercise at your target heart rate per weak. Eat a balanced diet. Don’t over eat. Don’t take harmful amounts of toxic substances. Avoid physical injury. Have good relationships with other people.
Medicine does not say: Sleep. Exercise. Eat healthy food. Don’t do drugs. That’s not a prescription for health. Categorically following these obligations is a good way to become unhealthy.
If you want to test (2) try it… sell everything and give it all away except for an amount that will keep you from being ‘in need’. Well, there are people who have done this. There are also people who are/were in need and have been given charity. We can do a scientific study on these people that includes before/after neural scans and get some pretty good experimental results to help us evaluate the hypothesis.
What I want to know is, what would be the basic metrics of ethics? Medicine has basic metrics beyond Sam’s droll example of “not vomiting all the time”: it has blood pressure, pupil dilation, pulse, reflexes, and a host of blood tests.
What would it look like to go for an ‘ethical checkup’ ? Would you read statements about your well-being and look at pictures of your family, friends, and enemies while in a brain scanner? Would you then be prescribed things to meditate on and given a sheet on how to have a mature conversation with your brother-in law?