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Mike D’s excellent blog The A-Unicornist has some real gems, and if only I had more time I would hang out there more often (I am trying to get a sidebar widget to link to offsite blogs). His latest post concerns the is/ought debate, especially dealing with Sam Harris/Richard Carrier and the great philosopher of science, Massimo Pigliucci.

The problem, as Mike puts it, is that people see morality as scientifically derivable:

The big question up for debate is whether moral questions are scientific questions. If they are, then questions like this…

  • In a crisis that causes a hospital to overflow with patients, how should patients be prioritized, and how many resources ought to be devoted to each person?
  • Is it right for me to pursue my career to ensure greater financial stability for my family, but in doing so sacrifice the amount of time I will be able to spend with them?
  • Is collateral damage justified in war, and to what extent?

…. all have objectively correct answers that can be answered empirically.

But, as he continues, the issue is:

The main reason, as I see it, why ethics cannot be a science is that while I acknowledge that moral values exist (as abstractions, at least), objective moral truths do not exist independently of the concern of conscious creatures. So while one can draw a perfectly sensible analogy like the old “surgeon” one (which I am paraphrasing) repeated by both Harris and Carrier – which simply states that a surgeon concerned with maximizing the well-being of their patients ought to sterilize their equipment – it doesn’t follow that we should assume that the surgeon ought to be concerned with the well-being of their patients. And I’m not raising that objection because of the possibility that the surgeon in question is a Nazi doctor or some such thought experiment – I think Harris pretty well tackled those type of objections in his book. Rather, I’m raising that objection because there is no empirically discoverable ought in nature. It’s not a part of our external reality. Moral proscriptions, or ‘how we ought to behave’, only arise from the interrelated concerns of conscious creatures living in cooperative social hierarchies in which the moral behavior is seen as an end to some other goal.

Check out his whole post here.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...