306 Research Portfolio Post #3: Grappling with Ethical Naturalism (and Positivism)

I find Gorski’s “ethical naturalism” convincing as it suggests that social science can offer genuine insights into human well-being.  Ethical naturalism maintains that “values are fact laden” and that “the natural and social sciences can correct and expand our ethical knowledge.”[1] Gorski acknowledges that while values and facts influence one another, we should not address moral questions directly.  Rather social sciences help us investigate values that are open to change.  Facts and values are not inseparable but independent.  Scientific inquiry might help us achieve a deeper understanding into what it means to flourish as a human.  For example, Gorski mentions Sen’s “capabilities approach.”[2]  I find that Gorski’s position addresses many of the shortcomings of both extremes (positivism/moral relativism).  By understanding the social sciences more deeply we may be able to even change our values toward those more favorable of human flourishing.  Still, Gorski does not advocate for end-all-be-all answer to human suffering through moral and scientific truths.[3]

Both Harris and Comte take positions at the positivism end of the spectrum of the social sciences.  Harris argues that the separation between science and values is an illusion and that the discussion of values is the discussion of facts.[4]  Further, he argues that on the continuum of facts there are truths about human flourishing.[5]  He argues for the need of a universal conception of human values and the disregard of certain cultural opinions. We must admit that we do have the answers to needless human suffering.  This positivist view contradicts Gorski’s distinction of the extent to which values influence social scientific inquiry by asserting that values are facts in themselves.[6]

Comte takes a radically positivist view by asserting that “there can be no real knowledge but that which is based on observed facts.[7]  In other words, true knowledge about human well-being cannot be derived only from theological tradition.  He argues that over time morality will fall under the umbrella of “positive philosophy” much like the other hard sciences.[8]  Through this process, a unified doctrine will emerge that will transform the human race.  His view agrees much with Harris’ notion of values as facts.  However, it contradicts Gorski’s ethical naturalism by disregarding the possibility of change in values informed by fact.  If philosophical values become positivist truths then they cannot be altered.[9]

I do not believe that my own research lends itself to normative discovery that will uncover the truth to human well-being.  My project relies on the normative assumption that international organizations construct female education as an unquestionable good.  5566I think that my project most closely corresponds to Gorski’s ethical naturalism by aiming to understand empowerment.  I acknowledge the ethical implications of my research.  Understanding empowerment might help to develop more effective programs to help human flourishing.  However, the aim of my project is not to discover the positivist truth to human well-being through empowerment.  In its constructivist methodology, I believe that it naturally shies away from such extreme normative discoveries and rather focuses on meaning making.

[1] Gorski, Phillip S. “Beyond the Fact/Value Distinction: Ethical Naturalism and the Social Sciences.” Springer Science+Business Media 50 (2013): 543,551.

[2] Ibid., 551.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Harris, Sam. “Science can answer moral question.” Ted2010

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gertrud Lenzer, ed., Auguste Comte and Positivism: The Essential Writings (New York: Harper, 1975). 2.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

One thought on “306 Research Portfolio Post #3: Grappling with Ethical Naturalism (and Positivism)”

  1. This is an excellent post, Annie. You do an especially good job distinguishing between these different thinkers and most of what you say is spot-on. Nice work.

    One fussy point I want to make concerns this claim of yours: “Gorski acknowledges that while values and facts influence one another, we should not address moral questions directly.” Now, while you are exactly right when you say that Gorski is much less attached to the idea of lasting universal moral truths than the other two thinkers, and you are right to emphasis his pluralism, the claim that he does not want social scientists to address moral questions directly is slightly off. Partly what he is seeking to do in this piece is to push social scientists to be more direct and explicit about the normative possibilities inherent in their work. In other words, he wants to explore the ways in which social scientists can be much more direct about moral questions in their work, without ending up with Comte and Harris in the world of dogmatic positivism.

    This has implications for how you describe your own work. Do you see the difference here, and do you see how this might impact some of your claims in final paragraph?

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