power, complexity & ethics

Two things (neither good/evil of themselves) which will not make humans more moral are technology & science.

  • Technology gives us ever-increasing levels of power; and this power can be used to do both good and evil.  Spiderman, anyone ((“With great power comes great responsibility.”))?
  • Science gives us an ever-increasing amount of data/facts; which make ethical choices more complex/detailed/varied – but which do not help us in the slightest bit to either know or do the right thing.

33 thoughts on “power, complexity & ethics”

  1. That’s an extraordinarily narrow definition of science. Gathering data is surely a component and not a description of science. Science uses data/facts as a basis upon which to build knowledge that is reliable, practical, and works consistently well. In this sense, science can help us to inform our morality by increasing our knowledge about what we mean when we use the term ‘moral’ to define some aspect of an issue. Questions about what is right and wrong must have a goal against which comparisons can be made; how best to achieve that goal can be helped by being knowledgeable about causes and effects and mechanisms that are germane.

    I think science has a very important role to play in morality. Will that knowledge translate into helping us to be more moral? I think so.

  2. It was extraordinarily brief, and not intended as a definition… it doesn’t read “science is…”, but “science gives…”.

    I actually fully agree that without a presumed goal/telos, and without basic value judgments of what is good/bad, morality is nothing. Yes, once a goal is ‘known’ (by other than scientific means) to be a good goal, then scientific knowledge can indeed help. But science as science (including the knowledge we get from it), doesn’t ‘do’ anything, and can be accommodated within ‘evil’ or ‘good’ schemes. It can’t help us ‘know’ or ‘do’ what is right (or wrong).

  3. I’m glad you agree that science cannot. However, I think ‘religion’ not only can, but does all the time – and I take ‘religion’ in a very broad sense, inclusive of all religions and even those who don’t call themselves ‘religious’. In this sense, all humans share a ‘religious’ ethic for humanity and (related to this post) share values and goals and assumptions about good/evil and ‘work out’ what is moral. Of course I don’t think we totally/completely ‘know’ right/wrong, but we don’t “not know” either. Our knowledge as humans (this includes Christians) is always partial.

  4. But Dale, you merely assign ethics to the realm of the religious while denying exactly the same thing to science. It is the assignment without justifiable cause that is the issue.

    Whereas you assign ethics to some religious impulse, I think the case is very much stronger and informed with evidence that this ethical impulse resides firstly in our biology (and not just ours but in many animal species). The study of this impulse, therefore, falls much more securely in the realm of biology which, as I’m sure you know, falls under the category known as ‘science’. If our ethical basis is biological (and subject to development through our interaction with our environment) then surely any study of morality must account for this basis. In comparison, I simply don’t see how religion can address this aspect before merely assigning some supposedly better justified goal any better than science.

  5. massive distinction –> a) the biological phenomena related to ethical impulses, feelings, etc. b) the metaphysical questions that ethics ask about how we should act.

    In other words, I agree 110% that we have physical bodies and that science can (and should) study the biological phenomena that correlates our ethical thought (and action), etc. However, this endeavor is completely distinct from ‘ethics’ as such, which asks not about what ‘is’ happening (i.e. in the body), but what ‘ought’ to happen.

    Yes, I just played the ‘is/ought’ card. That’s coz I’ve yet to see any evidence that it’s not a fully appropriate distinction.

  6. Ethics asks no questions. WE ask questions and then categorize them.

    When we raise the should/ought answer, we must compare and contrast it against a pre-determined goal. How does religion specifically do any better a job at helping assign this goal rather than that one?

  7. Hey Dale, been a while. This is a familiar discussion :)

    I can’t remember if we ever discussed this aspect before:

    I maintain that if x “ought to happen” it therefore IS that it “ought to happen”. I don’t think any such oughts exist but if they do then they “is”. Anything that “is” will be subject to scientific inquiry.

    Going back to the OP, science and technology don’t make ethical judgement, people do, but that doesn’t mean that science and technology can’t potentially describe, explain, predict, aid or even ultimately replicate them.

  8. Tildeb,
    yes, ‘informs’, not ‘forms’ though… and only with the assumed goal that tooth pain is ‘bad’.
    And yes, indeed, humans ask ethical questions. And humans assign goals, not science or ethics. I take ‘religion’ in different senses (here), and concerning ethics, I think all humans are ‘religious’ in that they all have a worldview with values, goals and practices shaped by these. There are also micro-goals (i.e. ‘going to bed tonight soon’), and macro-over-arching-goals (i.e. ‘improving humanity’). Often ‘assigning this goal instead of that one’ is a matter of prioritising one goal over another. The difference will depend on basic presuppositions of value (metaphysical ‘value’ rather than ‘physical’ value – i.e. a truckload of soil weighs more than a baby, but a baby has more ‘value’). Another post of mine explores the idea of a progression from ontology to teleology, to ethics, and then to laws.

    Ian,
    I wonder if you’re only getting that ‘is’ from the way you’ve worded your sentence? I’d say the relevant sense is that if x “ought to happen”, then it corresponds to truth that it “ought to happen”. And yes, all physical phenomena are subject to scientific enquiry, but an ethical goal (on which all oughts rest) is not a physical phenomena. Sure the ethical goal (in a human ‘mind’ – let’s not raise the mind/mody question) will have neurological correlates, but this is a descriptive analysis and not a prescriptive one.

  9. But Dale, you assume that we derive values, goals, and practices from a worldview. That is what I think is merely an assignment by religious belief: this starting point you call a worldview.

    If this starting point is wrong or inaccurate or uniformed or ‘bad’ or whatever, then according to your reasoning the following values, goals, and practices derived from it must be adversely affected or at least open to the possibility that it may be dead wrong. And this is my point: IS religion – meaning an assigned worldview – a good place to start IF we do not know or have no way OF knowing if it is right, accurate, informed, and ‘good’? Unless and until the worldview ITSELF can be tested for accuracy, then whatever derived ethics and values come from it at the very least are questionable. To then argue that goals are value statements informed by this worldview is circular reasoning.

  10. I think it’s still linear (though I’m not certain that any account of ethics is free of circular reasoning). The point is that far from science making the dangerous and subjective domain of ethics safe and objective, it’s more accurate to say that ethics remains (philosophically speaking) richly subjective, and science makes its subjectivity more complicated and/or rich.

    Indeed, testing worldview against worldview is an interesting exercise – I happen to think worldviews fall into three VERY broad categories: pantheistic types, dualistic types & somewhere in between, a kind of integrated/relational type. I think things like Ockham’s razor can help when evaluating worldviews. A worldview, like a theory, is stronger a) the more it can account for, and b) the simpler and more elegant it is.

    Of course, the foundational discipline of any worldview is its ontology – which includes basic assumptions of value. A purely ‘scientific’ ontology cannot produce any notions of ‘good’ or ‘evil’. (it cannot have any teleology either, so no goals out of which to work out ethical considerations)

  11. I wonder if you’re only getting that ‘is’ from the way you’ve worded your sentence?

    I think I’m getting it from the way you describe it.

    I’d say the relevant sense is that if x “ought to happen”, then it corresponds to truth that it “ought to happen”.

    That feels far less natural than saying the ought is real which means it “is”.

    And yes, all physical phenomena are subject to scientific enquiry,

    I’d say all phenomena (physical or otherwise) are subject to scientific inquiry, including. If it exists, and it has some influence over the behavior of things, then it is subject to science.

    but an ethical goal (on which all oughts rest) is not a physical phenomena. Sure the ethical goal (in a human ‘mind’ – let’s not raise the mind/mody question) will have neurological correlates, but this is a descriptive analysis and not a prescriptive one.

    Unfortunately I don’t think we have anything to work with except descriptive analysis in any frame of discourse. Something like energy is an arbitrary description of a pattern of behavior of things. I argue that something like prescriptive reasoning is also an arbitrary description of a pattern of behavior of things. Should there be some built in prescriptive valuation process in the mind then this is surely subject to investigation since it clearly doesn’t operate in isolation from everything else.

  12. 1) If I remember correctly, Ian, you were quite happy with the statement that morality is completely relative (i.e. The universe, of which we are a part, does not care about anything, so at bottom, our moral dramas are of our own making, etc.). If this is still the case, I have no logical problem with that.

    2) Ethics, as such, is on the metaphysical side of the physics/metaphysics distinction. Science can study the physics side of ethics (neurology, social data, etc.), but not prescribe what is good or evil action. If you agree that science cannot prescribe, then I also have no logical qualms with you.

  13. Dale, I think you are purposefully confusing the role of science informing a worldview in principle with informing a worldview in practice… but you are calling the principle prescriptive and the practice descriptive and then assigning science only to the descriptive. That may be true but… I think this is a rather arrogant and unwarranted assignment of science to this role if you then turn around and simply assume that religion should be awarded a carte blanche to assign a prescriptive principle. Of course, you then claim this is just the way it ought to be because the ought belongs to religion!

    If we assign human well-being to be the goal of some foundational principle of ethics (which makes us autonomous and responsible agents) rather than what some god seems to want (which makes us property of that god) that places actions (practice) on a moral spectrum for all to see, then I fail to understand how scientific findings (measurable effects from certain ethical causes) cannot help but inform our morality.

  14. would you have less of a reaction to the distinction if I said physica/metaphysics instead of science/religion?

    Re your 2nd paragraph, you setting up a bit of a straw man there. I’m not going to go into analysing it, because I’m not arguing for what is called divine command theory here. This post was concerned with how the scientific project relates to ethics. And again, I AGREE that science informs our morality – I just add that it cannot form or shape or guide or determine it.

  15. I Agree with (1) and will leave that there. With (2) I’d note the following:

    1. I think the physics/metaphysics distinction is meaningless at best (but we can skip that for the moment if you want)
    2. I don’t think anything else can contribute to ethics over and above tradition, and description/analysis of what we observe. This is not because nothing else could possibly do so but because nothing else actually seems to.

    In order to make religious belief “special” in a moral sense, you have to show how such belief can aid forming, shaping, guiding or determining morality in a way that simple observation cannot. The problem is that as soon as you do that you have successfully pulled the special religious contribution to morality into the realm of science… so either you can’t show religious belief has any contribution to morality or science is involved :) (and therefore ought = is).

  16. Ian,
    Have a look at my proposal of the relationship between ontology, teleology and ethics (and laws, but that’s not the subject here). All people, religious or not, have at least an ontology. Atheists have (i know not a better term) a naturalistic (non-supernatural) ontology. As for teleology, since nature or the universe has no intentions or purposes, any all goals (‘telos’) are subjective human constructs. Ethics (based as it is on goals), is thus also subjective. I find these relationships quite helpful in talking/thinking about this stuff.

  17. Just because there is some element of subjectivity in ethical matters does not mean that all ethical matters are equally relative. Again, you assume because there is no ONE answer in practice (without an arbitrary one selected by religious proclamation) means there that there can be no way to determine any qualitative difference in principle (without such a religious proclamation). This is plainly wrong. “Thou shalt not kill any living thing, for life is given to all by God, and that which God has given, let not man taketh it away,” is plainly relative to ethical considerations outside of the religious proclamation. All life must kill other life to live. But this does not mean all ethical considerations about killing are equally relative. Western civil society grants precedence to secular law to define when killing becomes unethical. And the religious proclamations in no way informs how to balance these necessary yet subjective ethical considerations. There is an arbitrary boundary set to differentiate when killing becomes unethical, to be sure, but that boundary can still be set in principle even if we alter it depending on other considerations in practice. That doesn’t make killing in the absence of religious proclamations equally relative in ethical terms, nor does the inclusion of religious proclamations somehow magically remove ethical considerations in practice. But assigning religious proclamations to be necessary for there to be some foundation for ethics is obviously incorrect.

  18. Tildeb,
    you seem to see a massive chasm between considerations which are religious and those “outside of religion” (secular). I think this is a problematic. I do think it was you that first mentioned religion in this thread.

    The point is that all ethical ideas (obviously religious or not so obviously so) are based on goals and values. Science deals in quantitative value (rates, amounts, size, etc.), not qualitative values (goodness, worth, dignity, etc.). The most humanistic atheist believes that killing is wrong for ultimately non-scientific reasons.

  19. Your proposed ladder is interesting and I think on the whole it makes sense. I’m not sure it addresses my comments though since it is quite a scientific approach? :)

  20. The term metaphysics doesn’t really mean anything to me. I know what it means but I can’t relate that meaning to anything that actually seems to exist. I also don’t really see what one gains by distinguishing the two categories even assuming something that fits into the latter category could be properly identified.

  21. literally any non-metrical, non-numerical account of anything is a metaphysical account. Even ‘scientific’ accounts will have metaphysical ideas within them.

  22. I am not sure what else there is to any analysis other than measuring, pattern identification and categorisation, all of which I would consider science. Perhaps a concrete example of something obviously metaphysical would help?

  23. I think you’re taking a fairly hard position that can fairly be called ‘scientism’ (which I don’t bandy around loosely), and I suspect you probably don’t mind being associated with the term? (Ken hates it!) So whatever example is put forward, you will instantly go into a mode of analysis which looks for a way to describe the example in scientific terms.

    Logical laws are a good example of the metaphysical, though – and they evidence that physics actually relies on metaphysics. Science requires (at least) three metaphysical assumptions: a) there is (contra solipsism) an actual world to study; b) the world and knowledge of it have enough ‘value’ to justify studying it; and c) the world is ordered enough to perform experiments.

    Other examples of metaphysical things would be worth, intellect, beauty, dignity, purpose, (physical laws? – see other post), etc. The neurological phenomena that accompanies human thought about each can be studied, of course, but this does not mean that they don’t have a basis in reality. ((and no, I don’t really think there is a little invisible room in the sky with boxes of ‘dignity’ in them))

  24. (eight quotes – methinks I’ll reply within your comment, coz I’m lazy, it’s my blog and I can :D – I wish there was an easy way – maybe there is? – to set this up replies within replies??)

    I think you’re taking a fairly hard position that can fairly be called ‘scientism’ (which I don’t bandy around loosely), and I suspect you probably don’t mind being associated with the term? (Ken hates it!)

    Up to a point I don’t mind it. However some use it to imply that such people are blinkered to things that can’t be expressed scientifically. I believe anything can be expressed scientifically regardless of its nature or type including feelings, values, ghosts, spirits or gods.
    Dale: In a theological sense, the entire creation is a ‘scientific’ expression of the creativity of the creator – or an expression of the creator itself if you’re a pantheist ;) But from your POV, what would a scientific expression of a god look like?? how would you know when you saw it?

    So whatever example is put forward, you will instantly go into a mode of analysis which looks for a way to describe the example in scientific terms.

    Not quite – I believe everything we know something about boils down to observation (because I can’t think of any other possibilities) and observations are subject to science.
    Dale: If you used the word perception I’d agree – observation implies ‘seeing’ (to me at least).

    Logical laws are a good example of the metaphysical, though – and they evidence that physics actually relies on metaphysics.

    As far as I can tell, logic is just an organisational language that seems to work when applied to observations. I don’t think it’s much more than that?
    Dale: It’s not language at all. Language expresses ideas. I’m not a substance dualist, but when we speak of one idea ‘clashing’ with another, or seeing someone’s ‘point’, we’re using metaphorical language that speaks of metaphysical phenomena. This gets into mind/brain stuff though… which I’ve not got time for (this will actually have to be my last comment today, btw).

    Science requires (at least) three metaphysical assumptions: a) there is (contra solipsism) an actual world to study;

    We don’t actually have to make that assumption – we can get there by observation (up to a point, after all no-one has fully discredited solipsism lol).
    Dale: …which is the whole point – if solipsism is true, observation doesn’t ‘get’ us anywhere, up to any point…

    b) the world and knowledge of it have enough ‘value’ to justify studying it;

    I’m not convinced it has any intrinsic value over and above the practical offshoots of doing so.
    Dale: more than that, we don’t know what is ‘practical’ or ‘impractical’ without making a metaphysical judgment.

    and c) the world is ordered enough to perform experiments.

    We could still perform experiments in an entirely random world – they’d just produce arbitrary results each time which is still a valid pattern observation.
    Dale: I’m not convinced life or consciousness, let alone experiments would take place in an entirely random world?

    Other examples of metaphysical things would be worth, intellect, beauty, dignity, purpose, (physical laws? – see other post), etc.

    Except that we don’t observe these things, they are just words used to describe commonalities (patterns) of behaviour or thought in people.
    Dale: As I said, you’ll reach for descriptive analysis. And while we don’t ‘observe’ them (like, with our eyes…), we do ‘perceive’ them with our minds.

    The neurological phenomena that accompanies human thought about each can be studied, of course, but this does not mean that they don’t have a basis in reality. ((and no, I don’t really think there is a little invisible room in the sky with boxes of ‘dignity’ in them))

    To take this dignity thing further, what is there to the word other than a description of a feeling, thought or custom that people tend to share?
    Dale: Certainly there are bio/neuro events which correlate our thinking the thought, “Life precious”, but for that statement itself to be true (to correspond to reality), the preciousness has to be an actual metaphysical quality.

  25. I’m not sure if there is an easy way – I tend to find putting my replies next to what I am replying to saves me having to paraphrase what you said in order for my comment to make sense… :) Perhaps numbering is easier (in order of quotes above):

    1. I honestly can’t translate “god” into something meaningful which is one of my biggest problems with the concept in the first place. However if someone was to rigorously define “god” then that shouldn’t be too hard to do.

    2. See 7.

    3. I can accept metaphysical as a description of language as a secondary descriptor of observation but I don’t think that is what you mean and I’m not sure it exists in parallel to physics.

    4. Sure it does, in fact observation could well identify that you really are just a figment of my imagination :) (I’m not sure what else would lol)

    5. It sounds now like metaphysics becomes a definitions issue? Are you arguing that certain things have intrinsic as opposed to arbitrary definitions?

    6. I tend to agree and made that comment in the other thread, but its by no means guaranteed. After all any sufficiently large random set has patches of apparent order in it.

    7. I define observation much more broadly than you – loosely speaking, to me an observation is simply something that occurs that is noticed by someone.

    8. The only reason to suppose anything has value is because we observe people (both ourselves and others) acting as if they do. There is no other reason to suppose that right? It seems to me that you see this as a manifestation of something – I don’t know what entirely (and would like to know :)) – whereas I simply take that as another observation and try and connect it to other observations.

  26. Lots of directions to go here – I guess that’s the nature of the discussion! I’m keen to steer this back onto ethics, but the point about metaphysics is key.

    Ethics is a prescriptive endeavour, is metaphysical and is based on a qualitative (rather than quantitative) ontology – not to mention a teleology that is prescriptive rather than descriptive. Science, with it’s naturalist ontology (and methodology), and descriptive teleology cannot engage in prescriptive ethical consideration.

  27. to expand on that:

    Whilst a quantitative ontology is perfectly useful for scientific study, only a qualitative ontology can make the necessary (qualitative) value judgments that form the foundation of ethics. Even the ‘obvious’ idea that suffering is ‘bad’ is a qualitative ontological statement.

    And whilst a descriptive teleology is wonderful for observing how things ‘do’ tend to behave, only a prescriptive teleology can provide goals against which actions can be said to be ethical or not. A descriptive teleology can describe the tendency of rapists to rape. But only a prescriptive teleology can establish goals which rape can be said to be inconsistent with.

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