Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Problem with Moral Philosophy as Applied Science

In my article for the Alfred the Great Society titled,  'Defending Christendom With Good Manners', I had occasion to mention the joint article written by Biologist Edward Wilson and philosopher of biology, Michael Ruse. Their article was titled ‘Moral Philosophy as Applied Science’ and contends that all our knowledge, beliefs, appreciation of beauty, sense of personal identity and our perception of right and wrong, are mere illusions caused by our genes and brain neurons. But this is not a bad thing, they say, for human beings function better if they are deceived by their genes into thinking that there is a disinterested objective morality binding upon them, which all should obey.

But hold on. Proving that our brains have tricked us into thinking that we ought to be moral is a long stretch from establishing that we actually ought to be moral. Moreover, it completely undercuts the project of finding an objective basis for ethics since it relegates all morality to a neurological deception. What would we say to a rapist or pedophile who, confronted over his heinous crimes, replied, “I did those things because my brain didn’t deceive me into thinking I ought to be moral.”

A further problem arises from the fact that the evolutionary explanations for the positive spectrum of human behavior can also be used to explain the negative spectrum of human behavior. If being kind  is a survival mechanism for some, why can’t it also be true that being brutish is a survival mechanism for others? If evolution works itself out in some societies being moral, civilized and ethically conscious, might it not be equally true that evolution works itself out in some societies being cruel, barbaric and asserting the will to power?

While the evolutionary account may be brought forward to explain both sets of behavior, it leaves us with no standard for adjudicating which set is right and which is wrong. Indeed, it does not even provide an adequate base for asserting that there is such thing as right or wrong in the first place. It may explain what I in fact do, but it does not answer the question, “what ought I to do?”

Read more about this in my article, 'Defending Christendom With Good Manners.'
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