In a recent article on Scepticblog entitled 'Towards a Science of Morality', Michael Shermer suggests: 'determining the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality'. I agree, more or less, but see some problems with the reasoning he uses to get to that point, and urge him to consider more explicitly the questions that the science of morality should be seeking to answer or the problems it should be attempting to solve. (By the way, thanks to Steven Pinker for drawing attention to Shermer's article via Twitter.)
Shermer's first proposition is a 'principle of moral good':
'Always act with someone else's moral good in mind …'.
Why? Perhaps I misunderstand, but that seems to imply that it is always good, for example, to sacrifice your health for the benefit of others. I can think of real world situations where in my judgement such conduct has not been good for either the actor or the recipient. I think an impartial spectator would say that it is good for people to act with some regard for their own needs as well as seeking to benefit others.
What is the basic moral principle? My answer is that we should always seek to act ethically. I guess that stems from a belief that moral instincts and a capacity for moral reasoning are part of human nature and exist for good reasons. Humans have a basic need to feel that they are acting ethically.
Shermer's second proposition is that to find out whether an action towards some other individual is right or wrong we should ask them. I agree. We should recognize the rights of other individuals (adults) to decide whether or not to accept proposed actions that are intended for their benefit. But that proposition seems to me to belong after establishing that 'the survival and human flourishing of the individual is the foundation for establishing values and morals'. Acceptance that we all begin our lives with a passion to survive and flourish seems to me to gives greater moral force to the observation that different individuals have different goals in life and a capacity to take responsibility (as adults) for decisions they make.
Is it defensible to argue that the survival and flourishing of the individual is the foundation for establishing values and morals? That seems clearly defensible if we think of the passion of humans to survive and flourish as a product of evolution. The moral intuitions of our ancestors could be expected to have pre-disposed them to favour theories of morality in which human flourishing is viewed as the purpose of life. It is also defensible if we think in terms of codes of morality and as the outcome of cultural evolution. As Hayek and others have suggested, those groups with codes of morality most conducive to individual flourishing – thou shalt not do things that infringe the rights of other individuals - have tended to be more successful.
If we accept that individual flourishing is the foundation on which our moral intuitions are based, does it necessarily follow that 'determining the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality'. No! We can't derive an 'ought' statement from an 'is' statement. Nevertheless, there is nothing to stop us from feeling that there is a smooth transition between the two statements, or that the statements are closely aligned.
As I see it, however, it is worth taking a step back to ask what our purpose is in asserting that some topic ought to be the goal of a science of morality. It seems to me that the purpose is to assert that the science of morality should be aiming to answer a particular question (or set of questions) or to solve some problem.
So, why not simply assert that the science of morality should be concerned with questions relating to human survival and flourishing? The assertion can be justified with reference to evolutionary considerations, by Aristotle's question about the chief good that is desired for itself rather than because it enables us to obtain something else, by introspection or other considerations. The important issue is whether the assertion is able to stand up to criticism.
One possible basis for criticism is that the science of morality should be concerned with questions relating to the survival and flourishing of other living things as well as humans. Perhaps that objection might be overcome by asserting that questions relating to human survival and flourishing are an important part of the science of morality.
However, that still leaves open the potential for confusion over the meaning of 'the science of morality'. What I think it means is that preferences relating to moral proposals should be based on their ability to stand up to criticism rather than that they are falsifiable. (That probably means rejection of the boundary that Karl Popper attempted to draw around science, but it is consistent with his broader views about the importance of criticism.) Some moral proposals involve value judgements that can be criticized, but cannot be proved wrong. Perhaps we can avoid confusion by further rephrasing our assertion along these lines:
Given the importance of human survival and flourishing it is important to for all questions relating to this topic to be fully explored, including the influence of values, social norms, constitutions, laws and regulations.
After asserting that the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality, Shermer proceeds to provide examples of moral actions directed toward survival and human flourishing. These actions included reducing extreme poverty and facilitating economic growth and hence improvement in average levels of subjective well-being.
I agree with the examples that Michael Shermer provides, but having asserted the importance of exploring questions relating to human survival and flourishing it seems to me to be important to attempt to clarify the nature of the problem. In order to do so it would be appropriate to attempt to consider relevant questions in a sequence which recognizes that the way we answer one question may influence the way we frame subsequent questions.
For example, in Free to Flourish, my first set of question was about whether human flourishing should remain largely the responsibility individuals in voluntary cooperation with others, or whether it should be pursued primarily through government action directed toward achieving national goals. My answers to those questions led me to then consider the characteristics of societies that are most conducive to human flourishing. My answer to that question led to a consideration of the main drivers of progress and the greatest threats to progress.