Most Humanists believe that ethical and moral values are created by humans to serve human needs and underpin a smoothly functional society. After all, if we cannot appeal to a ‘higher authority’ for these values, they can only arise from our evolutionary experiences (both past and present) and must therefore be based on agreed upon principles so we can live our lives in as a fulfilling and meaningful way as possible. Yet despite these rather apparently simple statements, many Humanists (especially those that steep themselves in philosophy) cannot stop discussing (and arguing) about what the ‘foundations’ of ethics and morals are.
The basic issue revolves around whether one can extract ‘universal’ ethical principles from the human condition or must we sink into the post-modern pit of pure subjectivism where everyone’s moral stance is valid. If so, can we successfully apply these principles to practical ethical problems that arise in the world and in our lives?
A recent example can be found in the pages of the August/September issue of Free Inquiry, the flagship magazine of the Council for Secular Humanism. Therein, Reynold Spector, an MD and frequent contributor, lays out a rather detailed landscape of the various ethical theories. If you are into the alphabet soup of philosophical terms and want to know what Intuitionism, Prescriptivism, Consequentialism, Non-Consequentialism etc. systems are, I advise you to read the article. For our purposes it is enough to know that the theories fall into two categories: meta-ethical, which deals with how one comes to moral judgments, i.e. what do we mean by ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ (self-evident truths, empathy, the ‘golden rule’ etc.); and normative ethics, which deals with what is, or becomes, the standards in a society for determining right from wrong. Modern philosophers devote their attention to normative ethics, of which there are many theories. In fact, many philosophers maintain that by studying normative ethics, meta-ethical theories will be derived.
Spector, not surprisingly, fails to find any of the classical normative theories helpful in justifying a course of action for many of the ethical problems he was contemplating. He then goes on to discuss how newer philosophers have tried to stitch together various aspects of different theories to overcome this issue. He particularly takes issue with Michael Shermer and E. O. Wilson, who use lessons learned from scientific studies of human evolutionary behavior to posit basic ethical norms. In each case, he declares them to have failed, usually by invoking Hume’s Law, the observation made by the 19th century philosopher David Hume that one cannot deduce an “ought” from an “is”, and therefore any “ought” argument is subjective. He then goes on to state his own view, which is that we should take American Law as the basis for our ethics and morals, since it has evolved (and will continue to evolve) in a thoughtful and deliberate manner as it deals with societal issues and problems of right and wrong.
This article is immediately followed with one by Ronald A. Lindsay, president of the Center for Inquiry and a bioethicist who takes Spector to task for a) overextending Hume’s Law so that everything appears to be entirely subjective (Hume was not a subjectivist and believed that from facts combined with principles, ethics can be deduced; his ‘Law’ was intended to be used as a check on faulty reasoning), and b) for looking to America’s laws for guidance when, in fact, ‘morality should undergird the law, not vice versa.’
A third article follows the two above which I mention only because I found it somewhat amusing. It is written by Amir Salehi, an associate professor of philosophy. In it he takes Sam Harris to task in his work, The Moral Landscape, for ‘falsely positioning himself as a realist’ when he is in fact a ‘pragmatic naturalist’ (In a nutshell, Harris believes that ethics should be based on actions that promote ‘human flourishing’ … read the book). In the end he agrees with Harris’ premise and the positions he takes but doesn’t like his ‘sloppy’ language which he thinks hurts him in philosophical circles and let’s others “misunderstand him and use it against him.” Hmmm.
In conclusion, the humanistic (or should I say the naturalistic) stance of using scientific inquiry to derive ethical principles makes many uncomfortable and the world, as a whole, still clings to an 'objective rationalist' view which holds that there are objective truths independent of human experience (think ‘religion’). Using scientific studies to help define ethics is not universally accepted, and doing so means that many situational ethical questions will not be answered until the science is better developed and that could take some time. Even those that believe in using science, tend to get their emotional biases into the act and come to conclusions that are not necessary well underpinned (as Spector has done and Lindsay has taken him to task for.)
It would appear that outside of the simple statement I set out at the beginning of this article, it is very difficult for philosophers and bioethicists to come up with agreed upon definitive, concrete principles (and language) that lead to courses of actions to handle all the varied issues that arise in our global society. Using evolutionary science we can come up with some (i.e. ‘thou shalt not commit murder’) since they seem to have survived the test of evolutionary time (allowing rampant murder hasn’t led to evolutionary success), but the extension to large generalized principles which doesn’t take individual circumstances into account is still heavily argued. As Humanists, getting to large scale universal agreement on such principles is an important goal toward achieving a just and mutually supportive global community.
As an aside, I had a discussion on ethics with my 25 year old daughter who is deeply into anthropology. She stated, quite flatly, that she sees three broad principles by which humans should establish ethics: 1. Need to protect their species (the ‘selfish gene’ principle); 2. Reciprocity (co-operation, group safety); and 3) Empathy (recognizing others as being the same as you and thereby receiving equal treatment). Not bad!
(Postnote: Just as I finished writing this piece, the latest issue of Free Inquiry has come out. Needless to say the commentary in the ‘letters’ section on the Ethics and Morality articles is ‘over the top’. One of the observations I have is that since most English words have multiple meanings, it is very easy for someone to misinterpret (deliberately or not) what another says. It is for that reason that philosophers have invented words and attached precise meanings to them. But for the rest of us, we will just have to muddle along!)