Posts in Category: Mentorship

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

Gorski argues that the social sciences can shape our values and morality. They can show us what we, as human beings, ought to be doing. There exists, independent of the human mind, moral truths of which humans have no genuine knowledge, but of which social sciences can enlighten us.[1] And these values and moral truths shape human existence and the facts we hold, and vice versa. He argues that human well-being can be determined by the type of social order in which we live; that the social sciences provide a lens into genuine human well-being.[2] He claims the distinction between sciences and morality is fluid, if existing at all.

Though I think it is a noble endeavor to show how science can offer insights into human well-being, I am not fully persuaded by Gorski’s argument. Although I agree that there certainly exists a relationship between values and facts I do not think that we necessarily look to science to inform our values or vice versa. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that morality and science exist on completely separate planes, and I do think that social sciences do offer some insight into the human condition, but I think that people ultimately look elsewhere for their moral truths.

Comte claims there is no real knowledge beyond that based on observable facts and that positive philosophy dominates over the scholastic systems. He would probably disagree with Gorski’s claim that there exist moral truths beyond human knowledge. Comte claims that religion has no purpose in the pursuit of true knowledge and that science holds the key to obtaining facts, though he does admit there can be no facts without some guiding theory and foundation in social science.[3]

Harris claims that science could be used to map the moral landscape, and that perhaps, one day, science could be the key to determining moral truths. He makes many good points throughout his talk: why do we view morality as less factual than other sciences, when nearly all sciences are open for revision? Why are there not allowed to be moral experts when there are experts in nearly every other field? Though his cultural and religious insensitivity undermines much of his argument, he makes some interesting points about how science could hold the key to determining the ethical truths humans have grappled with for centuries.[4]

My own research has numerous normative assumptions, including believing human rights should be protected, that cultures should be respected regardless of how the west might view them, and that the laws and norms that govern our international society are good. Such normative beliefs are implicit throughout my research and will be backed up with much more explicit factual claims, yet these are precisely the sorts of norms that pure science does not uphold. Science is inherently descriptive while morality is prescriptive. Thus, facts obtained from science can help inform moral decision, but cannot be a source of sound values. While social sciences are very important for informing moral decisions, the basic values one holds comes from a higher authority. My research though will not be intended for the use of legislators, which Gorski would appreciate.

[1] Philip S. Gorski, “Beyond the Fact/Value Distinction: Ethical Naturalism and the Social Sciences,” Symposium: Facts, Values, and Social Science (n.d.), 549. Philip S. Gorski, “Beyond the Fact/Value Distinction: Ethical Naturalism and the Social Sciences,” Symposium: Facts, Values, and Social Science (n.d.).

[2] Ibid., 543.

[3] Auguste Comte, Course of Positive Philosophy, n.d.

[4] Sam Harris, Science Can Answer Moral Questions, n.d., accessed February 14, 2018, https://www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right.