Ethical Naturalism and Value Systems: The Illusion of Moral Landscapes (part 1)

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 E.O. Wilson


            The ideological tendencies of scientism seek to scrap traditional philosophically based ethics and produce a whole new ethical system based upon a scientific understanding of human biology. The official name for the school is “ethical naturalism.”[1] “Bio-ethics” implies the genuine ethical issues that emerge from biologically based intrusion of humanity into the natural processes of living; cloning, artificial insemination and the like. What I call “Ethical naturalism” is an attempt to actually replace the philosophical discipline of ethics with one derived from science.[2] Of course the major issue is that science has no mission to determine how we should live. Ethics is primarily about understanding how we should live, how we treat others, how we decide what actions to take in a given situations. These are not scientific questions they are philosophical questions. In their attempt to wipe out all other forms of knowledge the scientism movement seeks to eradicate philosophy from human thought. In this chapter I will argue that applying science to ethics is the fallacy of trying to derive an “ought” form an “is.” I also argue that the diversity of ethical theory is not a weakness but a strength and one that disproves the wisdom of this urge to reduce ethics to science.
            Most people find ethics very frustrating to study because it is complex, based upon a lot of rules, and one never finds a clear cut exposition of what it all means. Another reason people find the academic study of ethics frustrating, I think, is that church conditions them to expect a simple list of rules. We are given to understand form Christian devotionals that it’s a simple straight forward thing to “love everyone” or something. The actual study of ethics is not only complex but based upon many texts. There is no one authority that ethicists look to but there is a multiplicity of schools and theories and it’s hard to get any leverage for one view. It takes years of study to come to a conclusion that one theory really captures it all and even then there’s no guarantee you’ve got it right. While I would argue that this is a necessary and desirable state of affairs it’s the opposite of what most people come to expect from religious training. Moreover, modern ethics is descriptive and not prescriptive. This is something most people can’t accept, or even understand. People not trained in philosophical ethics expect that modern ethicists are supposed to be telling us the best ethical view rather than just analyzing what goes into the making of the various views.
            Ethical thinking is divided into two major schools of thought: deontological ethics and teleological ethics. The former is based upon the notion that ethical thinking proceeds from rule keeping, that the good is derived from an understanding of duty and obligation. There’s a specific aspect of deontological thought called ‘rule deontology’ which says that ethical thinking should be understood in terms of rule keeping, or that the nature of duty and obligation is         best understood by an understanding of  rules. A lot of people think deontology is just a simple rule keeping mentality; just follow the rules and don’t understand them. That’s the simplistic version. The rules have reference to duty and obligation which is the real meat of deontological understanding. The latter school, the teleological says that ethical action should be judged by the “consequence” of that action. The outcome is where we determine the right or wrong, the “do” or “don’t” in a situation. This kind of thinking is also called ‘consequentialism.’ What both of these have in common is that they each seek to find the “good” in actions. That means they are about values. The good isn’t some natural substance we can discover in parts per million, it’s not a molecular structure; it’s a result of the valuations we place on concepts, ideas, and actions.
            Beginning ethics students have a tendency to try and unite deontology and teleology. “Why don’t we just combine them and say we get at that which is good by both,” or “why does it matter?” We can’t combine because either one is exclusive of the other. Either the valuation of good is loaded in the front and is there before we begin or what comes first is neutral and it’s not made good or bad until we attach value to it. Thus it’s outcome that determines the valuation. That doesn’t mean that deontological ethics is not about values too. The values in deontology are front end loaded so to speak: duty and obligation. In teleological ethics they come out of the result in relation to the values of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. In a way we could say that teleological ethics only real value is avoiding pain. If the outcome determines it then we can’t say that part of it is outcome and part is before hand. Of course there are exceptions to every rule. So we find that Kant has a hybrid system where he uses both. He uses them in different ways, at different points. That way they don’t get in each other’s way.
             Most ethical systems are going to be one or the other of these two schools. The attempt to make a scientifically determined ethical system from understanding human biology is a version of teleological ethics. They seek to derive the good from the outcome; that fits values of a utilitarian nature. So ethics is about values. We made ethical axioms based upon the values that we take to a given issue. It’s the subjective aspect of value-based thinking that scientism finds so objectionable. Ethics doesn’t give us clean neat little paint-by-numbers solutions. It’s not totalitarian. It requires reflection, it offers conflicting solutions. As Dorothy Emmett put it “morality is always contestable.”[3] Those who seek scientific precisions and no need to question further don’t like traditional ethics because it doesn’t yield neat easy solutions but requires a life-time of study and thought. Those who seek cold hard objective fortress of facts don’t want to have to spend years thinking about it and then still risk being wrong. James Rachels made a famous defense of ethical naturalism in which he expressed the idea that ethics not being based upon scientific fact is an oddity:

Ethical naturalism is the idea that ethics can be understood in terms of natural science. One way of making this more specific is to say that moral properties (such as goodness and rightness) are identical with natural properties, that is properties that figure into scientific descriptions or explanations of things. Ethical naturalists also hold that justified moral beliefs are beliefs justified by a particular kind of causal process. Thus C.D. Broad observed that ‘if naturalism be true, ethics is not an autonomous science, it’s a department or an application of one or more of the natural or historical sciences.’ [4]

We see there the tendency to crowd out all other forms of thought but the scientistic ideology. Rachels expresses surprise that no one thought this way before, for example in the early twentieth century. “During this period philosophy was thought to be independent of the sciences. This may seem a strange notion especially where ethics is concerned. One might expect moral philosophers to work in the context of information provided by psychology which describes the nature of human thinking and motivation.”[5] That would only be strange if one based right and wrong upon desires and motivations rather than something beyond human valuation, or if one based ought upon something other than what is (such as what should be). The ethical naturalists remove the transcendent grounding and based ethics squarely upon scientific data as though it’s perfectly natural to think science tells us how to live, or as the values are built into nature and all we have to do is get some scientific data. Examining the thought of three famous ethical naturalists this becomes apparent.

E.O. Wilson

            We can see this motivation in the thinking of E.O. Wilson, who in this generation is probably the grand daddy of scientific ethics:

Centuries of debate on the origin of ethics come down to this: Either ethical principles, such as justice and human rights, are independent of human experience, or they are human inventions. The distinction is more than an exercise for academic philosophers. The choice between these two understandings makes all the difference in the way we view ourselves as a species. It measures the authority of religion, and it determines the conduct of moral reasoning.

The two assumptions in competition are like islands in a sea of chaos, as different as life and death, matter and the void. One cannot learn which is correct by pure logic; the answer will eventually be reached through an accumulation of objective evidence. Moral reasoning, I believe, is at every level intrinsically consilient with -- compatible with, intertwined with -- the natural sciences. (I use a form of the word "consilience" -- literally a "jumping together" of knowledge as a result of the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation -- because its rarity has preserved its precision.)[6]

The first problem loaded into this quotation is the implication that there is no value in back of ethics; the value application is so obvious that just knowing the fact will obtain it for us. Notice that eliminates any sort of value oritend thinking, such as philosophy and religion. It’s all just a matter of logic and facts. What facts, how do we interpit them? That seems not to occur to him. He brings it all down to religion vs science. Notice there is no philosophy in his world. It’s not a matter of philosophy, religion and science, but just religion and science. Philosophy has ceased to exist for him. It seems to be a matter of hard fast get it right with scientific precision vs. the shaky nature of religious faith which has nothing to offer apart from faith. He asserts in the second paragraph that science and religion are competing. Competing for what? They exist to provide two totally different kinds of knowledge. Science is about the workings of the natural world, which has nothing to do with determining what should be done and religion is there to give us an understanding of aspects of reality that are beyond scientific understanding. That would seem to be scientism’s point; there is nothing beyond their grasp. In the second paragraph he asserts that logic and empirical evidence will agree in the end. Is this a statement of faith? Logic can’t be decided by empirical matters, Popper told us this in the chapter on Fortress of facts. We can’t prove a universal principle with empirical evidence. Wilson says that “moral reasoning” will dove tail with scientific objective evidence, yet I say the implications of scientism will destroy ethical thinking altogether. Look at the ominous beginning to the subject; ethics requires a multiplicity of views it’s about the subjective issue of values yet these are the aspects Wilson sees as the problem that he wants to eliminate.
            Wilson seems to indicate that through scientific understanding we will bring together different disciplines. Of course the implications are clear that theology won’t be one of them and it seems as though philosophy doesn’t exist for him. So he’s really talking about bringing together different kinds of scientific disciplines to take over a form of thinking that has never been understood as part of the scientific domain (remember, as we said in chapter one, the title of his book—consilience—refers to the reduction of all forms of knowledge to science alone). In this sense there’s a strange reversal of roles. Traditionally the religious ethical thinking tends to be the one pursuing for objective ethics on the grounds that God’s word gives us a universal inviolable standard that makes moral decisions clear. The atheist is usually the relativist. Here the atheist takes over the objectivists’ ground; science will establish facts of ethics so we don’t need to wonder anymore. The religious thinker winds up recognizing the relative nature of a value based assumption. What we need to realize at this point is that conservative types of Christian thinkers have always made a mistake in thinking that the issues in morality are about objective proof. Because they have made an issue of objectivity, they have played into the hands of the biologically based ethicists. Objectivity and certainty are not the big issues in ethics. They never have been. He seems to assume that all religious ethics and philosophical ethics rely upon transcendence, nor does he seem to see the difference in transcendence and transcendentalism.  “The choice between transcendentalism and empiricism will be the coming century’s version of the struggle for men’s souls. Moral reasoning will either remain centered in idioms of theology and philosophy, where it is now, or it will shift toward science-based material analysis. Where it settles will depend on which world view is proved correct…”[7]

            The myth of ethical uncertainty and fear of ethical uncertainty are seen in Chruchland and Harris re-telling of the myth of the enlightenment. By re-telling the myth of the enlightenment I mean the old idea: religion is stupid and oppressive and stifles scientific knowledge and keeps us bogged down in superstition, while science frees us (from religion and superstition) for a bright shining future of gadgets and control of nature and getting things right.


            Patricia S. Chruchland, (1943--) is a Canadian-American Philosopher who works in the filed of  neurophilosophy. She has taught at University of California, San Diego since 1984. In Braintrust: What Neuro Science Tells us about Morality[8] Chruchland’s basic argument is that morality is social, and social life is essentially the interactions of different sets of neurons. Values originate in the brain and grow out of the social interaction of these sets of Neurons. Thus there’s no trick to moral values, they are just imposed upon us by the goals our neurons set for us and the demands of social interaction. The title of the second chapter is “Brain Based values.”

Moral values ground a life that is a social life. At the root of human moral practices are social desires; most fundamentally these involve attachment to family members, care for friends and need to belong. Motivated by these values individually and collectively we try to solve problems that can cause misery and instability and threaten survival. Since are brains are organized to value self welfare as well as welfare of kith and kin, conflicts frequently arise between the needs of self and the needs of others. Social problem solving grounded by social urges leads to ways of handling these conflicts…robust institutions about right and wrong take root and flower.[9]

So right and wrong are just a concept that has grown out of the need to solve social conflicts and resolve tension between the needs of the individual and those of the group. The most troubling aspect of the way she talks is that the brain seems to be a little man inside who is doing the real thinking and then fooling us into thinking it’s our idea. Brains care. Neurons care. We don’t care, we just think we do, brains do. She goes on to ask “how do brains come to care about others?”[10] It’s actually the unseen pilot, the real us inside us that does the caring. She gives a naturalistic take on how caring forms as a biological urge, of course it’s totally divorced from even an ideal much less a spiritual reality of love. Her answer is rooted in self preservation, and somehow the sense is turned outward to others, probably because we depend upon others for our own survival.[11] She discusses the evidence that mammals understand the way in which their own survival is tied up with the survival of the group.
            Thus what she’s doing is building a biological basis for social contract theory. The fact of it being grounded in nature and brain chemistry is supposed to give it a magic “ought” that makes it right. After all, the concept of right is nothing more than a chimera designed to cover up the practical need for social alliances. “Depending upon ecological considerations and fitness considerations, strong caring for the well being of offspring has in some mammalian species has extended further to encompass kin or mates or friends or even strangers as the circle widens. This widening of other caring in social behavior marks the emergence of what eventually flowers into morality.”[12] So caring is just an accident of having peptides like Oxycotin. [13] It doesn’t mean anything accept in pragmatic terms. Chruchland shows total unconcern for moral philosophy in her understanding of the moral dimension. She’s supposed to be informing us about what science tells us about morality but it sort of slips out that the moral thing is just a joke, charade, delusion or gimmick. “We could engage in a semantic wrangle about weather these values are really moral values (emphasis hers) but a wrangle about words is apt to be unrewarding.”[14]  A wrangler over words is apt to be quite unrewarding, especially when it might disprove your thesis. “Of course only humans have human morality. But that is not news only a [15]tedious tautology. One might as well note that only marmosets have marmoset morality…” Her whole concept of morality apparently is just a semantic game. At that rate informing us of what science tells us about morality is a joke; apparently it’s telling us that morality is just a word game. She goes on, however, in trying to construct a meaningful social contract theory.
            Indeed she does define morality as something basically akin to science:

Morality seems to me to be a natural phenomenon—constrained by the forces of natural selection, rooted in neurobiology, shaped by the local ecology, and modified by cultural developments. Nevertheless, fairness requires me to acknowledge that this sort of naturalistic approach to morality has often seemed insensitive to metaphysical ideas about morality, such as that morality is essentially dependent on a supernatural source of moral information and moral worth. Because this is a not uncommon view, it may be useful to consider what a supernatural approach can teach us.[16]

Of course there is also the idea that morality has a lot to do with such supernatural entities as Immanuel Kant, and we might also ask what concepts of duty and obligation and the kingdom of ends has to tell us about morality. Churchland doesn’t mess around with armatures in moral philosophy such as Kant, nor with Moore, Macintyre, or Rawls. Instead, she arbitrarily defines morality by the biological basis for behaviors labeled as “moral” rather than by the subject matter or the logic or some ontological basis. This relates to what we said about reductionism in that chapter (5) because it’s simply re-labeling and losing of phenomena. Any aspects of moral thinking not reducible to brain chemistry are just assumed not to matter and to merely be a matter of semantics.
            Of course when it comes to exploring what “a supernatural view has to teach us” she just plays the same trick again; reduces the supernatural out of existence and reduces moral thinking to biology. Rather than argue against the existence of God, however, she merely “deconstructs” morality by first taking apart conscience. Appealing to Socrates she points that conscience doesn’t always advise us the right way, it doesn’t always tell us the same things.[17] Of course there are not very many moral philosophers of the stature of Kant who tells us about conscience. Who is to say that Socrates didn’t take the right way given the circumstances?


            Sam Harris wrote the Moral Landscape, subtitle: “how can science determine human values?” So it’s not going to just inform us of our values but “determine” them. Presumably regardless of what we do value, the priests of knowledge, those lucky enough to go to big name universities and major in genetics will determine what we want in the future. Harris begins by observing that he’s talked with thousands of people, most of them well educated, who believe that human values are not based upon truth content, and that well being and misery are so poorly defined we can’t know what they mean.[18] He warns that he’s not trying to give a scientific account of what people do in the name of morality. Nor is he suggesting that science can help us get what we want out of life. “Rather I am arguing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want –and therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, such answers may one day fall within reach of maturing science of the mind.” [19] So apparently it’s not just a matter of understanding what human beings value and want, but of teaching them what they should value and want? Who is to decide this? Science can tell us what to think is, but it can’t tell us what is right. According to Churchland there is no true “right and wrong,” just brains wanting things. Science can make it seem right in our minds through control so that what we want is what science tells us to want. But of course this is “helping” we who are too feeble to help ourselves, we who are stuck in the religious thinking. He just told us science we can’t help us get what we want then he tells us that it will. How can this be? Because he wants to use science to change what we want to what he wants us to want. But of course he masks this in terms of what we should want. Then what does it mean that he includes telling others what they should want? Then falling within reach of the science of the mind? That’s not a hint about control? He wants science to reach beyond the mere ability to explain the physical workings of the world and to become the orbiter of values. Of course that means arbitration of values would be controlled by scientists. None of these would be Svengalis can ever explain how science can know what the proper values are in the first place. Presumably they will choose pleasure over pain for the greatest number, but how do they know that’s what should be?
            He goes on treading on the toes of ethicists. He says, “Once we see that a concern for well being (defined as deeply and inclusively as possible) is the only intelligible basis for morality and values, we will see that there must be a science of morality.”[20] In light of this quotation it is apparent that Harris’s ethics are basically teleological. He’s clearly a consequentialist if not a utilitarian.[21] In other words, it is the end result that makes an action moral, not duty or obligation to act, but how the action turns out. The extent to which it conforms to the desired goal is what makes it moral. The way he works it out is that science will tell us which of the problems is more devastating and which hurts more people that will tell us how to spend our resources. “…would it be better to spend our next billion dollars eradicating racism or malaria?”[22] So he’s already working from an implicit value system that’s based upon an ethical philosophy which has already put in place well being as the end toward which ethical thinking must strive, and the underlying value behind ethical theory, to the exclusion of deontology (duty and obligation) and all other theories. He does this before he has the scientific means to determine the value system. So this is really a shell game. He’s going to give us the means to determine what’s best for us but we have to determine it within a framework he’s already picked out that excludes alternatives. Not that we all wouldn’t agree that we should do “what’s best” but the issue is how we know what’s best. He’s already decided the supreme issue is the outcome in terms of physical comfort and avoidance of physical pain. He doesn’t recognize that this a value that he’s put in place as a philosophical underpinning, so we don’t get a answer to weather or not we embrace that as a value.
            He deals with the issue of the subjective nature of ethics, which is the basis of relativism. He distinguishes between subjective/objective in two senses, practice and principle. He’s opposed to ideals of good, such as Platnoic forms. He’s only speaking in terms of a diminished naturalistic sort of good that comes as a side effect of the way we do things. That’s good in terms of our value system, he assumes we all value outcome as a moral goal. His distinction between experience (practice) and ideal (principle) allows him to say that we can do things better without trying to establish the moral good, but then that’s supposed to give us a moral good.[23] When he brings religious views into it he thinks that ideas of heaven and hell prove that religious views are really based upon pleasure and pain too. They are not really concerned with the good for its own sake but with avoiding hell. [24] In this manner he seems to be attempting to reduce all value systems to his own. One of the major problems with his handling of value systems is the basis for adopting one. It’s obviously simplistic and self serving to just assume everyone is about the same value system I want. It’s also delusion to assume that there are not hidden subtexts in one’s value system.  One of the major problems in determining a value system is in assuming that the “ought” or “one should” aspect of a valuation of actions can be determined by factually ascertaining the nature of things. We see this assumption in Harris’s statement about science as coming to understand what’s going on in the universe. What do we mean by “going on?” There are multiple aspects to what’s going on, how we determine which of those is crucial? What if we decide that what’s going on is going on spiritually? We are not supposed to think that because that’s not what science tells us. Science isn’t going to tell us what’s “going on” in any but a materliasitc framework. So the reductionist view has so truncated reality that it dictates the disappearance of a whole aspect of reality embraced by the vast majority of people to suit the ideological framework put in place by a tiny elite who want us to accept their values as facts. This is the bias we set in place just by reducing the field of ethics to scientific proof.
            There is another troubling aspect to Harris’s take on science and ethics. Brain Earp, Research Associate, Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics tells us that Harris tries to subsume ethics under the banner of science.[25] We can see that in the wording of Harris’s argument. In saying that science is about finding “what’s going on in the universe” that pretty much subsumes everything that isn’t excluded form existence. Earp talks about a lecture that Harris gave at Oxford, hosted by Richard Dawkins, called ““Who says science has nothing to say about morality?” When prompted by Dawkins interview that he was going up against questions with which moral philosophers had grappled for centuries Harris said: “Well, I actually think that the frontier between science and philosophy actually doesn’t exist… Philosophy is the womb of the sciences. The moment something becomes experimentally tractable, then the sciences bud off from philosophy. And every science has philosophy built into it. So there is no partition in my mind.”[26] If there is no ground between philosophy and science then he’s subsuming ethics under the banner of science and there need be no difficulty. The problem is he’s not content to just allow philosophy to continue doing it’s thing, he wants to take over its ground but then impose his reduction and re-label everything and replace real moral philosophy with ideology (see the C.D. Board quote fn 4). He takes out moral reasoning and replaces it with reduction to numbers. Imposes a surreptitious value system in the guise of “facts,” and replaces duty and obligation with teleological thinking. This view is supposed to carry the assurance of being factual proof of what’s “going on in the universe” yet this just transgresses one of the basic concepts of modern thought. This is a problem sometimes referred to as “Hume’s Fork”[27] but more commonly called ‘the is-ought

part 2

[1] James Rachels, “Naturalism” pdf,  accessed 5/27/13. Originally published in Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory, Hugh Lafollette, ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000, 74-91, 2.
[2] Ibid. 2
[3] find Dorothy Emmett, morality is contestable.
[4] C.D. Broad quoted in Rachels, Op cit., 2. Original quotation by Broad, C. D.: “Some of the Main Problems of Ethics,” Philosophy, 31 (1946) 99-117
[5] Ibid.,1.
[6] E.O. Wilson, “the Biological Basis of Morality.” The Atlantic Online: The Atlantic Monthly Digital Edition (April, 1998) URL:  visited July 25, 2012.
[7] E.O. Wilson, Consilience, New York: Knopf, Inc., 1998, p.240
[8] Patrcia S. Churchland, Braintrust: What Nueroscience tells us about Morality. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 2011, 12.
[9] Ibid., 12.
[10] Ibid., 12.
[11] Ibid., 13.
[12] Ibid.,14.
[13] Ibid.,14.
[14] Ibid., 26.
[15] Ibid.,26.
[16] Ibid., 191
[17] Ibid., 193
[18] Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values.” New York: Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc., 2010, 28.
[19] Ibid. 28 (emphasis his).
[20] Ibid 28
[21] One difference in being a utilitarian as opposed to a general consequendtilsit would be that the utilitarian. would be that the utilitarian has the dictum of “greatest good for the greatest number.” Whereas a consequentialist who is not a utilitarian my try to forgo that idea.
[22] Ibid., 28
[23] Ibid., 30
[24] Ibid., 33
[25] Brain Earp, “Sam Harris is Wrong About Science and Morality,” Practical Ethics, ethics in the news, blog, University of Oxford, Nov. 17, 2011.  accessed 5/21/2013
The Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics  is at Oxford it’s a major think tank that deals with modern concerns of ethics and science.
[26] Ibid.
[27] “Hume’s fork” really refers to several things that all fall under the general category of “synthetic and a pripori.” The is-ought dichotomy falls under this rue brick in the sense that it’s a juxtaposition of a practical empirical sate of affairs “the is” vs a an ideal transcendent concept (the ought). The “is/ought” problem originally appears Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature, book III, part I, section 1.

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