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How should we explore our moral nature?

Dr Alberto Vanzo, Department of Philosophy

Published in September 2013

Are moral dilemmas the abstract, intangible stuff of philosophy or religion alone, or can science also shed some light on how we approach ethics? Dr Alberto Vanzo introduces us to the experimental philosophers of the eighteenth century, who explored ethics by combining their theoretical philosophy with the empirical approach of scientists, and their influence on today's scientists of morality.

w_armchair_pug.jpgCan science solve moral dilemmas? A wave of popular books and magazine articles by superstar scientists tells us that it can. Well-known primatologists, evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists advocate replacing ethics with 'empirical science of morality', 'the science of good and evil', 'the science of our moral dilemmas', and so on. We are told that what appear to be unsolvable moral puzzles will be being 'quickly and distinctly resolved with modern brain imaging'1, that we will be able to understand and encourage moral sentiments by studying oxytocin, 'the moral molecule', or that neuroscience will someday even 'dominate the entire legal system and settle thorny issues of moral and legal responsibility'2.

These attempts to develop an empirical science of morality are not entirely new. They resemble early modern attempts to develop what was then called an "experimental moral philosophy". This was part of a broader movement - called "experimental philosophy" by its exponents - that started off as a somewhat iconoclastic approach to the study of nature and medicine.

Isaac Newton regarded his Principia, which is often seen as the most important book in the history of physics, as deriving from his commitment to experimental philosophy.

From around 1660, dozens of writers in England, France, and Italy (and later in Germany, Scotland, and Spain) decried what they saw as the bookish, ineffective approach of traditional Aristotelian philosophers to the study of nature. They criticized them for following ancient authors blindly, clinging onto unwarranted theories and prejudices, and refusing to get their hands dirty by engaging in extensive experiments and observations. They claimed that we should stop concocting theories and hypotheses and develop a huge databases of experiments and observations about natural phenomena of all sorts. Only once this endeavour will be near to completion should we start developing theories on the natural world. Whether because or despite these views, experimental philosophers quickly built an impressive scientific record.

Within three decades, they discovered capillaries, red blood cells, the vascularization of the kidney, the relation between pressure and temperature in closed systems (what we studied in high school as Boyle's law), and much more. Isaac Newton regarded his Principia, which is often seen as the most important book in the history of physics, as deriving from his commitment to experimental philosophy.

Spurred by Newton's successes, eighteenth century experimental philosophers attempted to apply the same method to the study of morals. They thought that the 'application of experimental philosophy to moral subjects' would allow them to derive the laws of good and evil from a set of natural, observable facts. Were their attempts to build an empirical ethics successful? To my mind, they ran into two main issues.

The first issue concerns the data on which their theories were to be built. If we want to answer questions on the natural world, we can get our data by running experiments or performing observations. If, however, we want to establish whether we have a duty to give money to charities or if we are all bound by universal moral laws, how can we get the relevant data? As Juan Gomez noted, many early modern authors thought that we obtain the relevant data by "experimenting in our mind": turning our attention to ourselves so as to discover what we take to be right and wrong, what circumstances elicit our approval and disapproval, what feelings accompany moral reactions and judgements.

How can we derive an ought from an is - moral norms from actual facts?

Unfortunately, it is far from clear that recourse to introspection is a good replacement for the experiments and observations of scientists. On the contrary, introspection looks suspiciously similar to the sort of armchair theorizing dreaded by experimental philosophers. Current-day proponents of an empirical science of ethics may avoid what Gomez calls the dangers of introspection by relying on data generated by actual experiments, such as brain scans. However, this approach runs straight into the second issue which their early modern predecessors faced.

In their view, we can derive moral norms from moral observations in the same way in which Newton derived laws of nature from empirical data. Yet there is an important asymmetry here. Laws of nature explain how bodies actually behave. Moral laws are supposed to explain how we ought to behave or react in given circumstances. This often differs from our actual actions or reactions: we fail to do what we ought to do. How, then, can we derive an ought from an is, moral norms from actual facts?

Scientists advocating empirical ethics tend to dispense with this question all too quickly, if they consider it at all. Yet this is a very thorny question, and it is unlikely to be one that we can answer by performing an experiment or running a lab test. Despite rumours to the contrary, there still is work to do for armchair moral philosophers after all.

1. Gazzaniga, Michael S. The Ethical Brain: The Science of Our Moral Dilemmas, 2006 Harper Perennial.
2. ibid.


Alberto VanzoAlberto Vanzo is a Marie Curie Research Fellow at the Department of Philosophy. After receiving his PhD from the University Ca' Foscari of Venice, he has held postdoctoral or research positions at the universities of Birmingham, Essex, Otago, and Padua. He works on Kant's philosophy, the history and methodology of philosophical historiography, and early modern natural philosophy.

Image: Peaches by Peter Kemmer (via Flickr)