Mapping out a reasonable moral groundwork
Posted on January 16, 2013
Steve Novella, who is an academic neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine but perhaps better known as the main host of podcast The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, has just penned two thoughtful essays on his NeuroLogica Blog in which he tries to outline his positions on two central questions in ethics:
I would advise those interested in this subject to read both essays in full (links above), but I’d like to pull out an excerpt from each essay to give you an idea of what to expect.
On the best approach to moral thinking:
The best approach to morality and ethics, in my opinion, is a thoughtful blend of philosophy and science. I do not see a legitimate role for religion itself, however, cultural traditions (many of which may be codified in religious belief) are a useful source of information about the human condition and the effect of specific moral behaviors. There may be wisdom in such traditions — but that is the beginning of moral thinking, not the conclusion. Religious traditions also come with a great deal of baggage derived from the beliefs and views of fairly primitive and unenlightened societies.
On objective vs. subjective morality:
Because we are talking about values, a moral principle can never be a completely empirical fact, and therefore cannot be completely determined by scientific investigation. That science can determine morals is the position of Sam Harris and others, which I have rejected in a previous post (echoing the thoughts of Massimo Pigliucci, a professional philosopher).
Much of the prior discussion came to an impasse over this issue — are moral first principles, therefore, objective or subjective. This, I maintain, is a false dichotomy. They are complex, with some subjective aspects (the values) and some objective aspects (explorations of their universality and implications).