Near the end of his wildly popular 1975 tome, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, E.O. Wilson declared that it was time for biologists to, at least temporarily, take over the study of ethics from the likes of Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Rawls.1 In Philip Kitcher’s classic reply, he identified four ways biology could possibly inform ethics. The first is that science could just explain how people come to accept ethical principles and make ethical judgements. The fourth is that science can be a source of ethical principles: science can tell us how we ought to behave.2
Wilson, at least in Sociobiology, could be read as merely arguing for the first way, which isn’t very controversial. However, Kitcher, considering Wilson’s further work, argued that Wilson actually endorsed all four ways. This interpretation makes sense given that Wilson wanted biology to take over ethics, not just contribute to its study. As far as I am aware, most philosophers agree with Kitcher, following David Hume, that the fourth way is simply not possible. Nothing we could ever conceivably learn from biology could inform us about which fundamental ethical principles we ought to adopt.
Now, 35 years after Wilson, we have Sam Harris:
Harris has expanded on his argument here and here, and has a forthcoming book on the topic, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.
Let there be no doubt, Harris is arguing for the fourth way:
I was not suggesting that science can give us an evolutionary or neurobiological account of what people do in the name of “morality.” Nor was I merely saying that science can help us get what we want out of life. Both of these would have been quite banal claims to make (unless one happens to doubt the truth of evolution or the mind’s dependency on the brain). Rather I was suggesting that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, perforce, what other people should do and 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, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind.
So what do you think? Is Sam Harris just repeating Wilson’s mistakes, or is Hume’s is-ought divide best forgotten? Can we really find new ethical principles by studying biology, psychology, or neuroscience? What would they look like? What do you think of the principles Harris proposes in his TED talk?
- E.O. Wilson. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) pp. 562-4. ↩
- Philip Kitcher. “Four Ways of Biologicizing Ethics” in Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology, Elliot Sober, ed. (1993).
Kitcher’s four ways:
1. Sociobiology has the task of explaining how people have come to acquire ethical concepts, to make ethical judgements about themselves and others, and to formulate systems of ethical principles.
2. Sociobiology can teach us facts about human beings that, in conjunction with moral principles that we already accept, can be used to derive normative principles that we have not yet appreciated.
3. Sociobiology can explain what ethics is all about and can settle traditional questions about the objectivity of ethics. In short, sociobiology is the key to metaethics.
4. Sociobiology can lead us to revise our system of ethical principles, not simply by leading us to accept new derivative statements—as in number 2 above—but by teaching us new fundamental normative principles. In short, sociobiology is not just a source of facts but a source of norms. ↩