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Can Ethics be a Science?

Can Ethics be a science?

Evidently this is a controversial question. Many scientists would like to help solve the world's problems, but they are told that the scientific method limits them to "describing what is, but not what should be." This is necessary so that a scientist remains objective.

However, when people have disputes among themselves, they often wish that the matter could be solved by an objective opinion that they would all agree with. This is desirable because it might eliminate wars and other problems that people suffer from. Therefore, if there was some way science could offer objective advice, it could be very useful.

The story of the Tropical Island

To explain the desire for objective advice, let's imagine an island populated by a dozen inhabitants who live a simple life. They get their food by picking fruit from the trees. One of those inhabitants, Fred, doesn't pick any fruit himself. Instead he takes fruit from the others against their will. On any occasion when he takes fruit from an islander and the islander objects, then Fred offers to punch the islander in the nose. Not surprisingly, none of the others are pleased with that. Fred was a boxing champion when he was young and none of the islanders can stand against him.

Mark, one of the islanders, was wondering what he might do about this.

To you it may seem obvious that the islanders might band together, so that with their combined strength they could stop Fred. Mark might have thought of this too, but he wasn't sure if the other islanders would agree with him. Thus far, the only authority figure on the island was Fred, whereas Mark was a "nobody."

Mark had heard that a true scientist could offer an argument that "any rational person" would agree to. He figured that all the islanders were rational. Therefore he wanted a scientist to come and offer some objective, provable recommendation, so that all the islanders would know exactly what to do and so they would agree upon it.

Turning an observable fact into advice

Before we continue the story, let's ask: Is it possible that a scientist could actually do what Mark is asking for? How would Mark even suppose that a scientist could help?

As it turns out, Mark took an economics class once long ago, before he came to the island. He remembered that economists would make predictions about what any "reasonable person" would do. For example, an economist can predict that if a product is sold for a lower price, more people will buy it than otherwise, given that all other conditions remain the same. This can be proven by an empirical method: lower the price of an actual product and observe what happens. This cause-effect relationship is not perfect because a few people might buy a more expensive product instead. However, ever since the invention of statistics, a theory that produces results that differ significantly from random chance is still considered to be scientific.

If Mark was going shopping for one of those products and he asked the economist which he should buy, the cheaper product or the more expensive one, what would the economist answer? The standard answer would be that no scientist can tell anybody what they should do. However, is it really such a big stretch to pass a recommendation to buy the cheaper product, on the basis that it is what most rational people will prefer?

Of course, the economist might not know if Mark is a rational person, but he could nevertheless make a recommendation based on the most likely scenario, which is that Mark is like everyone else. In that case, maybe it would be permitted for a scientist to advise the islanders?

Before we answer that, let's give a little more thought regarding science, objectivity, and the boundary between science and other disciplines such as mathematics, engineering and politics.

Empirical Science

Science discovers nature and "how things work" by the use of experiments and observation. The discoveries are presented as theories or scientific laws. For example, in an early experiment regarding electricity, a battery was connected in a circuit that contained a resistor, and the electrical flow (current) was measured. By using materials with different properties (different resistance), eventually Ohms law was discovered: current, measured in amperes, equals voltage measured in volts divided by resistance measured in ohms.

Suppose that someone wants to make an electrical circuit with a current of 2 amps (amperes). He has a 12 volt battery, and he asks a scientist what size of resistor he should use. Although it is not the role of the scientist to tell him what to do, nevertheless it is a simple calculation, so the scientist might tell him to use a resistor of 6 ohms. Notice, however, that the person asking the question has supplied all of the variables but one, and those variables include the goal to be achieved (a current of 2 amps).

Now suppose that the person asking the question does not indicate the goal. To illustrate, Jane goes to the scientist, Zeke, and says, "Hey, I have a 12 volt battery and a box of various resistors. What should I do?"

To this, Zeke answers, "Tell me first what result you want."

Jane's response: "I can't tell you that. You're supposed to know that already."

Zeke is somewhat surprised: "Can't you give me some clue?"

Jane says: "All I can say is that I want to be happy."

Zeke's answer: "That narrows it down. Tell me, can you swim?"

Jane: "No"

Zeke: "Well, then I guess I won't advise you to go jump in the lake!"

Although Zeke is frustrated, nevertheless he did make a scientific conclusion. He did deduce that Jane would not wish to jump in the lake. If he wished to test his theory empirically, he could imagine an experiment in which he would throw a bunch of non-swimmers into lakes. No doubt he would observe that they are all displeased!

Zeke can by such means divide outcomes into two groups: those that would be pleasing to Jane and those that would not be pleasing to Jane. However, given the information he has received, he cannot tell Jane specifically what to do right now.

Does this mean that science cannot advise Jane what she should or should not do? Not quite. It only means that science cannot give precise advice in such an ambiguous situation.

Does all science have to produce a precise result? Not necessarily. Some things in science are described using statistics, as odds. Also we must remember that a scientific equation doesn't have to contain an equal sign. It may contain a "greater than sign" or a "less than sign". Just because a theory doesn't yield a single result, that doesn't mean it can't be scientific.

More than one correct answer

Sometimes there is more than one correct answer, and this affects not only science but ethics as well. To demonstrate this, I like to use the example of the "rules of the road". In order that people can drive vehicles at high speeds without crashing into each other, nations define rules for traffic. In some nations, there is a rule that all vehicles should travel on the right side of the road. In other nations the rules is to drive on the left side. Which rule is the best?

There is no "one correct answer" to this. As long as drivers don't pick between the rules at random, either rule will prevent collisions. It is the agreement of the rule that makes it effective at achieving the result that the drivers want.

Inventions vs Discoveries

If one looks at "rules of the road" over time, one will observe that they have changed. There have been inventions such as stop signs, yield signs, traffic lights, traffic circles, and interchanges. At any point in time people might suppose that they have the perfect set of rules, but it is always subject to improvement from new inventions. In the future we can expect yet more inventions and new rules that will make transportation faster and safer.

The point here is that many rules that govern behaviour are invented, not discovered. Invention is the discipline of engineers, not scientists. No matter if a scientist should look in a microscope or in a telescope, they will not "discover" any rules of behavior. Nevertheless, it may still be possible for scientists to group inventions into sets, in order to determine which ones achieve desired results and which do not.

The main difficulty we have now is to establish a criterion for "desired results". In the examples above, the desired result was always given. In the ohms law example, it was "given" that a particular current was to be produced. In the economics theory example, it was assumed that rational people would wish to minimize the resources they expend for things they want, and therefore they would prefer the cheaper product "given that all other conditions remain the same." But what if all other conditions don't remain the same? Suppose for example that the price is lowered on one product, but on a competing product the warrantee is improved. Now which one will people choose?

Now it is much more difficult to make a prediction! There are some variations among the people (different values) so their preferences may vary. Moreover they are in different situations. A rich person might be willing to take a risk of the product breaking because they can easily afford a replacement, whereas a poor person might prefer to have the better warrantee. If the economist cannot predict what people will want, neither can he offer a recommendation to anyone who comes to him at random and asks him "which shall I pick?"

This problem occurs in ethics too. There are variations among people, and different people are in different circumstances. There is no single variable to optimize. It's like the question about the electrical circuit, where the specific desired outcome is not given. If the only goal that can be given is "we want to be happy," and if there are multiple people, this is not a single variable.

In this situation, one might apply both science and ingenuity in search of a solution that has the broadest possible applicability. This solution might be less than ideal, but it may be more pleasing to the scientist and the inventor than merely leaving people to suffer. Therefore, let's revisit the problem of the tropical island that was introduced at the start of this article...

The story continued...

As you recall, Fred was taking fruit from the islanders by force. His philosophy was that "might makes right". Mark and the other islanders were not pleased with this situation.

Now to continue our story: Mark phones his former economist teacher to ask his advice. His teacher tells him that a scientist cannot offer advice, but he points out that if the group makes some rule about the disposition of the fruit the group could likely enforce such a rule. Mark is disappointed with this response, but he is a bit of an inventor and a politician at heart so he decides he'll try to convince the islanders by himself.

Mark is successful in this endeavour. All the islanders but Fred agree upon a rule whereby each person has the right to decide what shall be done with the fruit that the person picks. There shall be no more bullying, and if any person should try to take fruit from someone else without permission, the other members of the group shall defend that person against the bully. As a result of this, Fred is no longer able to take fruit from the islanders.

When I tell this story to other people, I typically ask them if the islanders have made a good decision, or if they have merely adopted Fred's philosophy of "might makes right". Typically I find that people do not think of this solution as being merely an enforcement of power. It is a solution that relies on cooperation to prevent ongoing violence or threats of violence. Rather than "might makes right" this is generally accepted as a case of "right makes might."

Now Mark and all the other islanders except Fred are much happier. They are satisfied that they have made an ethical decision. Also, Mark isn't much worried anymore about whether it is a truly objective and scientific decision. If perchance his former teacher were to tell him that it wasn't scientific, and that he ought instead to do something that would make him and the islanders miserable, he would be unlikely to accept that advice anyway. He has the solution he wanted.

This might sound like a fine ending to the story, but actually the story isn't over. Thus far, nobody ever thought to check why Fred insisted on snatching fruit from the islanders. As it turns out, Fred can't climb trees to pick fruit! He's even afraid to climb a ladder. Fred is unhappy because with the new rules in place, he will eventually starve to death!

When the other islanders discover this, they will seek for ways to correct the situation. This is predictable, because the islanders have empathy for each other. (I say it is predictable because this motivational trait evolves in any advanced group-forming animal. Empathy increases the solidarity of a group, which gives them an evolutionary advantage. This can be demonstrated by means of a computer simulation such as the Project Newworld simulation.)

Therefore, even though the islanders have been dismayed at Fred, when they discover the cause of his behavior they are motivated to find a solution. Mark might call his scientist teacher again, but he realizes that he needs the help from someone who is an inventor, not just a scientist. Fortunately, the islanders themselves are pretty creative, so they all discuss the matter together.

They decide that their original rule against stealing and violence is O.K., but they would benefit by adding some more rules to it. For a start, they decide that the group members shall teach every child how to climb so that they can harvest fruit, and that if someone doesn't learn as a child they will teach them as an adult. This will require some effort on the part of group members, but they consider it to be worth the effort because of the benefit it brings.

Upon further investigation they discover that even if Fred is taught, Fred would have difficulty climbing trees or ladders because his left hand is injured. His right hand is strong (he's good at punching) but to climb he would need two hands. However, there are lots of other useful things he could do to help the group in exchange for fruit. The group appoints a representative to meet with Fred, and together they work out a mutually agreeable solution. Now Fred no longer threatens to punch anybody. He agrees to all the rules. Everyone is happier than they were before, including Fred (who was never really very happy before, having always been in a state of anxiety).

Back to the real world...

This story is indicative of the way that ethical rules have been devised over the course of human history. It is an evolutionary process in which rules are invented, tried, and more rules created. It is a process that involves some science, some invention, and some cooperation. The primary force that guides the results is the power of cooperation applied by individuals in their search for happiness.

Sometimes a group may make a decision that they regret. In the 1960s, more than half of the adult population in North America smoked. The fact that the majority thought it was O.K. at the time didn't make it an ideal solution. Later when it became widely known that smoking shortened peoples' lives, the majority made a different decision. The best decision for a group is one a) that gains agreement insofar as possible, so that nobody is excluded who is capable of cooperating, and b) that people would agree to if they had perfect knowledge and unlimited creativity.

So, back to the original question: can Ethics be a science? I would suggest that Ethics needs to draw upon science. People who ignore science may destroy their ecology or suffer other setbacks that could be avoided. As to whether you call ethics a science or not, that may vary depending on your definition of science. The way I have defined science here, ethics is more than just a science: it is a science, a cooperative art, and ingenuity combined.

Rules of ethics may contain well established principles, the effect of which has been established over many generations of trial-and-error, but the study of ethics also offers the possibility of developing even better rules and advice. In that respect it is not unlike science, which seeks to continually correct and improve its theories.

- Arthur de Leyssac, February 10, 2013.


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Can Ethics be a Science, copyright Arthur de Leyssac, 2013, All rights Reserved.