Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun


Ethics, Science, and Religion

This week I’ve had the very great pleasure of watching The Archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Dawkins and Anthony Kenny debate the nature & origin of human beings thanks to a video posted online by Oxford University. I recommend you take some time to enjoy it too.

That debate prompted me to follow up by reading the entry on Ethics, Science, and Religion by Simon Blackburn in the Routledge Companion to Ethics. These topic are connected because both science and religion tell us about our lives and our natures and thus have bearing on how we ought to behave, which is the realm of morality.

Religion tends to claim that the source of values is divinity. The Euthyphro Dilemma that I’ve mentioned a few times now shows why this view is problematic, and Blackburn uses it too. Are the values we take to inform our morality merely the preferences of divinity, in which case why obey seemingly arbitrary diktats, or are they separate from divinity, in which case, why look to divinity to inform our morality? On top of this, we have the problem of choosing which favoured values of which divine power to chose, and addressing the issue that those values, as Blackburn tells us, are prone to change over time and place. As an ethicist I find lots to trouble me in the idea that values come from God, but that still leaves at least two significant areas of interest. One is the rather obvious follow-up question of where values do come from if not from a god, and the other is about the appeal of religion as a source of morality. Not being a sociologist or psychologist I’m not going to demonstrate my ignorance by trying to explain why faith is appealing, not least because I can’t really understand it myself. Blackburn though, suggests that one reason for the appeal is that religions must reveal important truths about ourselves. Humans need mechanisms for coping with fear and vulnerability, and religion provides mechanisms of hope and consolation in ways that are communal expressive of a culture. Another possibility is simply that without religious authority people fear that there is no morality – they need reassurance that the universe is not an immoral place and that the values of a community are shared by its members. Those are interesting theories, and I’m sure there’s more than a grain of truth to them, but providing functional explanations for religion doesn’t really tell us about the source of values, and this is where science supposedly comes in.

Blackburn introduces the relationship between science and ethics by speaking of the problem of deriving moral facts from natural facts (the ought-is distinction), and he makes the claim that the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ is incorrect. He provides the example that it seems perfectly natural to infer from the fact that a child is injured, and we are the nearest person able to help, that we should help the child. He writes ‘Good people will be guided by the fact to the appropriate belief about what they should do’. I’m not sure how goodness got smuggled in here; it seems to me that we need something more to tell us why helping is the appropriate response to need and why that makes us good. Rather than adequately explaining how he has inferred facts from values Blackburn simply slips into a virtue ethics account or right action. The discussion then moves on to whether science can uncover whether certain moral attitudes are universally held across cultures – whether certain moral values are an innate part of our nature. The Aristotelian virtue ethicists’ idea that there is a describable human nature that we should strive to act in accordance certainly appears to be influencing this line of thought. Blackburn does raise the spectre of the is/ought distinction again here, pre-empting any potential criticism, but then goes off on a foray into Humean understandings of the passions and at that point I lost the thread in his argument.

In the end I was rather puzzled by Blackburn’s conclusion. He argues that we need not fear the absence of morality if we deny religion because it is in our nature to be moral. Our nature determines our desires and needs, and the necessary conditions of harmonious social behaviour, thus ethics must be derived from interpreting scientific knowledge about human experience. He then goes on to suggest that which qualities help us live socially are self-evident (I presume this is because of the moral aspect of our human nature). Even the child knows which ‘endeavours are named with words of admiration and praise [and which] are talked of with dislike or contempt’. Blackburn’s position rather seems to beg the question about whether we should behave ethically towards non-humans, the environment, alien races and so forth. It also assumes cooperative endeavour is good, and relies upon the moral emotions that have evolved in us to derive values – explaining any that might lead to actions we disapprove of as being self-evidently wrong. It all looks a little flaky to me, but then this may simply be because I’ve missed or misunderstood something. Still, it’s another chapter chalked up, meaning I can devote some time to reading the copy of the Journal of Applied Philosophy that popped through my letterbox earlier.