I am always a little surprised to read that there is still a debate as to the source of supposed moral obligation - the view that we ought to behave in a particular way. In an article "Science & Philosophy a beautiful friendship" (Philosophy Now Issue 109, Aug 2015), Amy Cools suggests that science cannot tell us what to do because, as David Hume pointed out, is cannot imply ought. They are in different categories. The mere fact, for instance, that evolution depends on the survival of the fittest does not mean that we should encourage that survival e.g. by state sponsored eugenics.  If nothing-else, we cannot see what traits will, in the long term, prove to favour survival and which will not. It may be that something quite unexpected will turn out to have a major influence. But even in the absence of that, the fact that evolution happens does not mean that we ought to do anything which we think will promote its workings.  We may in particular cases see an action as being beneficial to us e.g. acting on the counter-intuitive evidence that improving neonatal survival rates brings about a diminution in the growth of the world's population*, but that is entirely different to being morally obliged to act in that way.

*  http://www.gapminder.org/videos/dont-panic-the-facts-about-population/

However surely the same difficulty applies to philosophical strictures, notwithstanding Ms Cool's implication to the contrary. Socrates told us that the good life, the one to which we ought to aspire is one in which we strive to make both ourselves and those around us happier and better off. He told us that the only way to achieve this is to pursue wisdom and self-knowledge. Now it may be that being happier is very nice, but I'm not sure how this turns into a duty to try to produce happiness all around us. Neither am I sure that research shows that the pursuit of wisdom and self-knowledge actually beats other ways of increasing the sum total of happiness. People out on a Saturday night rarely engage in Socratic dialogue but seem to have quite a lot of fun. Indeed, it is quite rare for people at any time of the week to engage in Philosophical debate. They generally just get on with their lives. Perhaps the happiness index would go up if they did. But that doesn't seem to be the result of the now extensive research into happiness. That points to things like a genetic predisposition to happiness coupled with sufficient money, job satisfaction and having a good social life as being significant factors rather than the ability to engage in philosophical thought.

'Ought' is not without its problems even for those who are subscribed to one of the many religions. The nature of the 'ought' seems to vary not only from religion to religion, but also from era to era - compare the morality of the Old Testament with that of the New.  But the idea is intrinsic to that way of life, not to mention the sanctions temporal and eternal for those not following the true way.  For the rest of us, however, 'ought', if it has any meaning, has a somewhat different connotation.  I ask myself what I want to do on this occasion or, more generally, with my life and then how best I can achieve it.  At a group level we ask ourselves similar questions, but may arrive at different answers in which case we, as individuals, have to decide whether to subordinate our individual wishes in order to remain in good standing with the group.  At national level, we take this one step further and rely on one of the various democratic systems to decide how our laws will be framed and so how we can be compelled to act. 

But none of these things imply an 'ought' in the sense that any such decision is somehow intrinsically 'right'.   After all It may or may not achieve the desired object, and the objective once attained may prove not to be what we would have wanted after all had we thought it through more carefully or been in possession of more facts.  In this context, 'ought' is simply a short-hand way of saying that that's what we think we need to do in order to meet our self-imposed aims.

Science is beginning to be able to tell us how our decisions can be arrived at in a more rational way, by highlighting the numerous biases to which our thinking is subject.  We have for example: Group thinking, Loss aversion, the Confirmation bias (we always knew that we were right), a Framing bias - being influenced by the way the question is put - and the Overconfidence bias e.g. the near universal certainty of being a better driver than everyone else.  And then there is the Clustering illusion - the tendency to attribute patterns and underlying causes to random events which occur together when there are none. Although one can see that looking for patterns can be a useful trait in general terms, when it is taken to excess it becomes a problem.  Indeed this is probably one of the reasons that we came up with the idea of a god.  It would after all enable us to explain those nasty apparently random accidents and illnesses and give us the potential to placate the god responsible by way of offerings or sacrifices. 

Of course, science can now give us an alternative explanation for natural disasters and illnesses and it can also confirm, for example, that we have an innate tendency to cooperate and an inbuilt sense of empathy.  Which means that even if nature in its raw form is based on remorseless competition to survive, as human beings we are not by nature the selfish machines of early evolutionary thinking or of economic models.

Philosophy can tell us how to reason and can encourage us to think more clearly. But neither philosophy nor science can tell us what we ought to do.  Neither can I see how they can somehow be combined to produce what neither can produce on its own - a moral code.  That would be a miracle! There is no reason to suppose that we can derive such a code from what happens naturally.  Of course I may well confuse my habitual way of dealing with situations with a moral imperative to act in that way, but If I stop and think for a moment I can see that ultimately what I do can only be my decision.  And I claim no divinity or moral insight.  The same is true at group level and at national level.  And all this explains why it is that so-called moral codes change with time, I'm pleased to say.  Why should the norms by which we live our lives, our 'morality', be the only thing not permitted to change?  If we see the results of previous versions of these various codes and decide that they are wanting, isn't change just what is needed?  Just imagine being stuck with a moral code from Victorian times or even from the 50's!

As a postscript, I should say that from time to time I remind myself of the shocking fact that Pope Benedict 16 (the Pope who retired) made a disparaging reference to democracy as "the majority of the moment".  He went on to describe it as a form of 'soft' totalitarianism because it is not constrained by the 'objective' view of man and the morality to which he is subject and which comes (of course) from the Church.  It seems to me that we 'ought' frequently to remember to give thanks for our liberation from that sort of dictatorship.

Paul Buckingham


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