Saturday, January 24, 2009

Can ethics have the same objectivity as scientific research?

Jim has many annoying habits. One of his most annoying habits is to pick up books that he sees lying around my office and then to read passages at random. I wouldn’t mind if he just read to himself, but after he has been reading for a while he reads selected passages aloud and then asks me what they mean. It is as though he is testing whether I have actually read the book.

When Jim saw my copy of “Invariances”, by Robert Nozick he asked: “Have you read this book?” Without thinking I admitted that I had read it and immediately began to wonder whether it had been wise to claim to have read the book. I added: “But there is a difference between reading and understanding.”

I think Jim sniffed blood. He opened the book about a quarter of the way through and started reading, while I pretended to continue to read a different book. After a minute or two Jim asked: “What does Nozick mean when he states: ‘... we can hold that something about the world makes true statements true’.” (p 74). I suppose I could have admitted that I wasn’t sure what Nozick meant, but I tried to bluff my way through. I said: “I can’t explain it more simply than that.” Jim asked: “Is he saying that people who believe that all truth is relative are out of touch with reality?”

I thought of saying that such people must think they live in different worlds from the one we live in, but I decided the time had come to acknowledge the limitations of my understanding. I told Jim that I actually found the final chapter of “Invariances” a lot easier to understand than the first chapter. Jim flipped to a point about three-quarters of the way through the book and began reading. After a while he asked: “What did Nozick mean when he wrote: ‘an objective belief or judgement is one that arises through a process that does not tend to be directed away from the truth by the operation of biasing factors’.” (p 287) I explained that Nozick argued that it was possible for scientific research to be a reliable process for arriving at true beliefs. For example, while an individual scientist’s bias in favour of his pet theory might lead him astray, the scientific process can still be objective as long as other scientists are free to try to disprove his theory.

Jim read on for a while, and then asked: “Is Nozick actually saying here that ethical statements can be objective in the same way that scientific statements can be objective?” Fortunately, I was able to refer Jim to the following notes I had made when I read the book:

  • Ethics evolved to enable us to co-ordinate our activities with others for mutual benefit.
  • The ethics of respect is the first layer of ethics – mandating cooperation for mutual benefit e.g. respect for life and property, non-interference with others etc.

  • Objectivity is required in ethical judgements to shield people from bias. Various devices have been proposed to promote objectivity e.g. Adam Smith’s ideal of an impartial observer and Rawls’ concept of a veil of ignorance.

  • Objective ethical truths are held to have symmetry, or invariance, in their application e.g. the golden rule and Kant’s categorical imperative.
  • The adoption of greater ethical symmetry (e.g. through rule of law) has extended the scope of impersonal dealings with non-relatives which in turn has enabled huge improvements in living standards in many countries.

After looking at my notes Jim flipped to the end of the book and began reading again. A little while later he made a loud noise. In fact, he uttered a profanity - one that some readers of this blog might find highly offensive. If Jim’s wife, Agnes, had been present she would have told Jim that what he said was “unnecessary”. Nevertheless, the profanity did serve to get my attention.

Jim said: “ Nozick was brilliant! Look, he makes the point here that the evolution of conscious self awareness – the attribute that marks us as human - was crucial to enable us to reflect on our own behaviour. And this reflection helps us to act in accordance with norms of cooperation for mutual benefit. Now listen to this.”

Jim then read aloud from one of the final paragraphs: “ ...if conscious self-awareness was selected for because it makes us capable of ethical behaviour, then ethics, even the very first layer of the ethics of respect, truly is what makes us human.” (p 300)

Jim added: “Don’t you wish you had written that?”

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