Some philosophers, including the present writer, accept what I call the rational model. According to this model, we should accept (or reject) a statement solely based on evidence. Insofar, intuition, gut feelings, the pronouncements of horoscopes, gurus, or of deities, and the like, don’t count as bases for accepting or rejecting statements. Evidence for a statement consists of statements that support the given statement. We present evidence in good arguments. A statement is what we assert – typically – by means of a declarative sentence. Statements are the bearers of truth and falsity. They are what is true or false, although we commonly extend the usage to items that take statements as their contents, such as beliefs, opinions, judgments, ideas, and the like. Evidence is, thus, the sole determiner of what we accept as true and reject as false – on the rational model. A good argument is valid, sound, or inductively strong. You can see that evidence comes in varieties and degrees of strength. A discussion of the criteria for an argument’s goodness belongs in another setting.
When we think of outstanding users of the rational model, science immediately comes to mind. We tend to think of science as a cut-and-dried affair, consisting of statements whose truth evidence completely determines. That’s what makes science objective and certain, we think. The rational model comes into play most dramatically to resolve scientific disputes, such as over the correct explanation of combustion – it’s not the release of phlogiston but the combination with oxygen; and the correct location of the earth – it’s not at the center of the universe but in orbit around a minor star nowhere near the center of the universe, supposing the universe had a center. But can we use the rational model in ethical matters? If we could, we would view ethics as being just as objective and certain as science.
Unfortunately, for those who like smooth views of things, the view of science just described is not wholly accurate: it ignores the histories of the sciences. Luck, uncertainties, wild guesses, foolish pronouncements, even mystical insights, and often painful groping after truth constitute an integral part of the histories of the sciences, as do heated debates and controversies that, while ongoing, seem to have no end in sight. Scientists once disputed over the divisibility of atoms; early failed to distinguish between atoms and molecules; disputed over the existence of an élan vital that allegedly distinguishes living from nonliving things; and pondered the mysteries of an orgonic psycho -sexual energy supposedly capable of concentration in orgone boxes. Nothing has changed. Today, psychologists dispute about whether heredity, environment, or choice determines homosexuality; cognitive scientists debate the possibility of creating human intelligence artificially; and physicists dispute over the structure of matter, for example, whether the fundamental entities are stringlike. Here’s what Sheldon Glashow, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, has to say about string theory:
I’m particularly annoyed with my friends, the string theorists, because they cannot say anything about the physical world. Some of them are convinced in the uniqueness and beauty, and therefore truth, of their theory, and since it is unique and true it obviously includes a description of the entire physical world. It does not seem to them to be necessary to do any experiments to prove such selfevident truth; to they begin to attack the value of experiments from this end — a highly theoretical, abstract, mathematical end . . . 1
The sciences have products: the statements at the moment largely confirmed by evidence and widely accepted by scientists. They also have histories: the ways that scientists generated the products. We come to the view of science as an objective, cut-and-dried affair consisting of certainties only by looking at the current products of the sciences and ignoring their histories. This is the view of science as a solid thing, rather like an unfinished building made up of solid parts, like Lego® construction pieces, that scientists discover and fit into place.
For those of us who consider both science’s products and its history, however, science looks a lot less solid—more like a moving cloud teased by winds: at the center, comparative stability, however temporary; at the periphery, shifting, changing patterns, and always movement, and nobody can predict what will happen, what the eventual pattern will be. Here’s Glashow, again:
Standard theory [i.e., current physics] tells us that we shall see standard things. We shall see the sorts of jets and other curious phenomena that we see at lower energies, simply extrapolated to higher energies. We will be able to test the theory of quantum chromodynamics and the electroweak theory better. But our standard theory predicts standard results. What the ‘real’ theory — the theory that is not today’s standard theory — says, we simply don’t know. There’ll be new forces perhaps, there’ll be new particles, there’ll be things that have been variously called glints, or other strange names, by some of my theoretical colleagues. We can’t predict exactly what they’ll be. . . . Or perhaps there’ll be something else that I can’t tell you, because it is, after all, a surprise. That’s the name of the game. 2
The center of science consists of statements largely confirmed by existing evidence and widely accepted by scientists; its periphery consists of ongoing research, hypotheses, sometimes conflicting hypotheses, some evidence, but often conflicting evidence, and sometimes a lack of evidence. But, as in any cloud, the center can change: what once was the center can later become part of the periphery or disappear altogether. Even science’s center thus has no immunity from change as evidence grows. Newton’s physics constituted the center of science for around two hundred years, to be replaced—at least at the center – – by relativity theory, in the early twentieth century. Nor is relativity theory immune from change, either. Likening nature to mystery books and scientists to their mystery-solving readers, Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld note that:
This great mystery story is still unsolved. We cannot even be sure that it has a final solution. . . . in spite of all the volumes read and understood we are far from a complete solution, if, indeed, such a thing exists at all. At every stage we try to find an explanation consistent with the clews already discovered. Tentatively accepted theories have explained many of the facts, but no general solution compatible with all known clews has yet been evolved. Very often a seemingly perfect theory has proved inadequate in the light of further reading. New facts appear contradicting the theory or unexplained by it. The more we read, the more fully do we appreciate the perfect construction of the book, even though a complete solution seems to recede as we advance. 3
In science, evidence has the last word: no scientific statement is sacrosanct; no scientific theory is sacred. That’s why the sciences count as among the more successful users—not the only ones or necessarily the best ones—of the rational model. Those who believe that ethics lacks objectivity use the view of science as an objective, cutand- dried affair consisting of certainties to contrast with ethics. They point to the many ethical problems, such as about the rightness or wrongness of abortion, or of euthanasia, that seem mired in never-ending disputes. Ethics, they argue, can’t be like science, because problems about the truth or falsity of scientific statements don’t become mired in never-ending disputes. Evidence solves the scientific problems once and for all. If we can’t use evidence as the basis for accepting or rejecting ethical utterances—and we can’t—then ethics can’t be objective. Thus, they reject the rational model for ethics and use this as the basis for denying objectivity to ethics.
However, as you just read, plenty of scientific statements have been exactly like currently contentious ethical utterances, for example, the statement that the earth orbits the sun. In 1633, the Inquisition tried and punished Galileo Galilei for advocating the view that the earth orbits the sun. Rene Descartes suppressed his work, Le Monde, on learning of Galileo’s fate. It wasn’t until 1983 that the Catholic Church laid its dispute with Galileo to rest—a dispute that lasted for over three hundred years. Currently, the statement that human beings evolved through natural selection from more primitive creatures, expressed (in so many words) by Charles Darwin in 1859, continues to be disputed. There are individuals today who believe that the theory of evolution, as applied to human beings at least, is utter rubbish. Compare that to the current turmoil over the morality of abortion. Only those who attend to the products of science and ignore its history could make the mistake of supposing that scientific statements can’t be the subjects of disputes—even quite acrimonious disputes—that never seem to end. The stage in a scientific statement’s history determines whether it is uncontentious. Scientific statements and ethical utterances can equally be capable of being the subjects of disputes, so ethical utterances can’t differ from scientific statements in this way.
But in the case of scientific statements—the argument continues—we come to final decisions to accept them as true or reject them as false, and this does not happen in the case of ethical utterances. Thus, although scientific disputes may seem never-ending, they do end, whereas ethical disputes never end. However, this just isn’t so. Most people accept the ethical utterances in List A as true:
List A: Murdering newborn babies is morally wrong. Owning human beings is morally wrong. We should not torture human beings for fun.
Murdering newborn babies is morally wrong. Owning human beings is morally wrong. We should not torture human beings for fun.Whereas, most people reject the ethical utterances in List B as false:
List B: Murder for fun or profit is morally acceptable. It is morally right to exploit weak and helpless human beings. We should use pre-teenage children as workers in the most dangerous jobs. We have come to final decisions about them.
Murder for fun or profit is morally acceptable. It is morally right to exploit weak and helpless human beings. We should use pre-teenage children as workers in the most dangerous jobs. We have come to final decisions about them.You shouldn’t read anything into the fact that we write that “most people“ accept the utterances in List A and reject those in List B. The same sort of thing holds for scientific statements: most people accept the statements at the center of science. There’s no such thing as a statement that everybody accepts – even that sine qua non of rationality, the law of noncontradiction. We can choose to reject even the law of noncontradiction, for we assume that we’re free to choose our beliefs and actions, including our actions in choosing how to believe. That means that we can choose to disbelieve the law of noncontradiction. The rational model is a philosophical model of how we choose beliefs, not a psychological one: we’re not discussing the case in which someone can’t control his/her behavior, including his/her choices of beliefs, quite the contrary. We can sometimes be rational, other times irrational, and we can choose each of these sorts of behaviors. Of course, if we choose to disbelieve the law of noncontradiction, we’re choosing to behave quite irrationally. Our model of rational belief acquisition requires that we assume this freedom to choose. If we’re not free in this way, then we’re just like falling rocks, planets, amoebas, frogs, and trees—not behaving on the basis of beliefs, but interacting with our environment on the basis of scientific laws. In which case, this whole discussion makes no sense. The stage of an ethical utterance’s history determines whether it’s acceptable to most people. Scientific statements and ethical utterances can be equally capable of being accepted by most people. Consequently, this can’t be a way that ethical utterances differ from scientific statements.
Moreover, notice that whether or not a statement is acceptable to many people can’t be what makes for a statement’s truth. Many people have found plenty of nonsense, including utter falsities, to be quite acceptable. Consider the patent falsity that women differ from men in that the former can’t reason as well as the latter, or even that women, unlike men, can’t reason at all. Let’s grant that some scientific statements have been the subjects of disputes and that some ethical utterances have wide acceptance. Even so, science still looks different from ethics to those who reject the objectivity of ethics. They argue that we can’t decide to accept (or reject) an ethical utterance, like “Abortion is morally right,“ in the way that we can decide to accept (or reject) a scientific statement, like “Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.“ In the case of the scientific statement—they argue—evidence decides the matter, but there’s no such thing as evidence in the case of the ethical utterance, so whether we accept or reject an ethical utterance is just a matter of mere opinion or how we feel about things. But recall how we construe evidence: evidence consists of statements that support a given statement, presented in one or more good arguments. Now consider the utterances in Set A:
SET A Whatever is irreplaceable has value. The life of a human being is irreplaceable. So the life of a human being has value. A human life has a greater value than anything else. The wanton destruction of things that have value is immoral, so the illegal, premeditated taking of a human life is immoral. Since the value of a human life is far greater than the value of money, murder for profit has to be morally unacceptable.
Whatever is irreplaceable has value. The life of a human being is irreplaceable. So the life of a human being has value. A human life has a greater value than anything else. The wanton destruction of things that have value is immoral, so the illegal, premeditated taking of a human life is immoral. Since the value of a human life is far greater than the value of money, murder for profit has to be morally unacceptable.Set A consists of utterances that attempt to present evidence in favor of the ethical utterance that murder for profit is morally unacceptable. Unless we’re prepared to accept that such behavior always fails, that no instance in which we attempt to present evidence in favor of an ethical utterance can succeed, we have to accept that the utterances of Set A genuinely constitute evidence in favor of an ethical utterance.
Well, some philosophers do argue that no instance in which we attempt to present evidence in favor of an ethical utterance can succeed. But, then, they‘ll have to explain how we can be so utterly deluded as to suppose otherwise. For, it is undeniable that we think that we do: we engage in presentations of ethical evidence all the time and we accept ethical utterances on the basis of such presentations all the time – even ethical relativists argue for moral positions. Moreover, this sort of behavior leads us to success more often than not: ethical reasoning leading to ethical behavior works. Whereas, on the contrary, not engaging in this sort of behavior leads us to failure more often than not. To accept mass delusion in the ethical sphere thus goes against the facts about how we live. We therefore accept that we can present evidence in favor of an ethical utterance.
Notice that whether such presentations convince or fail to convince skirts the issue: they don’t try to convince, but to demonstrate truth. Notoriously, demonstrations of truth can fail to convince; and we can be convinced of utter falsities – you know that by now, if you didn’t before you read this paper. To suppose otherwise is to confuse logic with rhetoric—a very common confusion.
Return to the utterances in Lists A and B, as well as those in Set A. We’ve been calling them “utterances“, instead of “statements,“ because some people who reject the objectivity of ethics deny that there are any ethical statements and we didn’t want to prejudge the issue.4 But now we see how odd this really is. The utterances look, for all the world, like statements. They sure function like statements. Calling those of List A “true“ and those of List B “false“ doesn’t seem contrary to the facts, inappropriate, odd, or mysterious—nor a violation of any linguistic or logical rule. It also doesn’t seem contrary to the facts, inappropriate, odd, or mysterious—nor a violation of any linguistic or logical rule—to call the utterances in Set A “statements“. Isn’t it true that murdering someone for profit is immoral? And if it’s not true, then what is it? Morally correct? But why is it morally correct? Because it’s acceptable to most of us? But why is that? Because it’s true? Set A consists of statements provided as evidence for the truth of the statement that murder for profit is morally unacceptable. If they succeed and we accept the statement that murder for profit is morally unacceptable as true on their basis, then we do so on the basis of evidence. In this respect, the statements of science and those of ethics are exactly on par.
Does the evidence for a scientific statement differ in kind from the evidence for an ethical statement? You will note that some of the statements of Set A express value judgments, such as “The life of a human has value,“ and “Human life has greater value than anything else.“ But some legitimate scientific statements, used by science to provide evidence, also express value judgments, such as “The hypothesis that combustion consists of the chemical combination of oxygen with other substances is good,“ and “The hypothesis that combustion consists of the chemical combination of oxygen with other substances is better than the phlogiston hypothesis.“ To be sure, the bulk of scientific statements don’t express value judgments, and, in the end, this makes for a real distinction between science and ethics. But, then, some statements, used by ethics to provide evidence, don’t express values. Consider, “Murder is the illegal, premeditated destruction of a human life“ – a legality; and “The process that leads to the creation of a human fetus begins with the fertilization of a human egg by a human sperm“ – a fact. It follows that scientific evidence and ethical evidence don’t differ in that ethical evidence expresses value judgments but scientific evidence does not. In any case, raising alleged differences between scientific evidence and ethical evidence assumes the point at issue, which is whether we can present evidence in favor of an ethical utterance. However different from scientific evidence ethical evidence may be, it is nonetheless evidence.
Those who claim that the statements of science differ from ethical utterances because evidence decides the truth or falsity of the former, but there’s no such thing as evidence for (or against) an ethical utterance, construe evidence in a very peculiar way. We should reject this construal. Common practices, both linguistic and nonlinguistic, tell us something quite different. Just consider our statements in Set A. Inasmuch as we can present evidence in favor of the truth of ethical statements, we accept the rational model for ethics: we can use the rational model to solve problems in ethics. This makes ethics just as objective as science, on this score. The person who argues for the objectivity of science and against the objectivity of ethics on the grounds that we can’t use evidence as the basis for accepting or rejecting ethical utterances, but we can do so in the case of scientific statements, makes an error. And, after all, we show why our ethical beliefs are true all the time. So, is it really so odd to suppose that we can do so?
You should be aware that some people try to use real or perceived similarities between ethics and science, like some of those you’ve just been reading, to turn the tables on science. They argue skeptically against the objectivity of science. But, as Steven Weinberg, physicist and winner of the Nobel Prize, writes:
Among skeptics outside the sciences, there are those multiculturalists who don’t so much disagree with the standard cosmological theory as avoid the question of its objective truth. They see modern science as an expression of “Western“ civilization; it works for us, but the belief that the Milky Way is a river in the sky worked for the Mayans, and the belief that the Milky Way is a great canoe rowed by a one-legged paddler worked for the early peoples of the Amazon basin, so who can say that one belief is better than another? I can. 5
By comparing ethics with science, we haven’t been arguing against the objectivity of science, of course, quite the contrary. We’ve been showing that ethics and science are equally objective, not that science and ethics are equally subjective. (I do not know whether Weinberg would agree with our position.) To be sure, ever since the positivists, philosophers tend to distinguish between facts and values. But so do we. We just don’t think that the differences between facts and values make values subjective. Like science, ethics has a center and a periphery. The ethical center consists of statements—like those in List A—largely confirmed by existing evidence and accepted by most people. The periphery consists of ongoing research, statements whose truth has not been established, conflicting statements, some evidence, but often conflicting evidence, and sometimes a lack of evidence. The truth of a statement like, “Abortion is immoral,“ has not been established by evidence and neither has the truth of “Abortion is moral,“ and these statements conflict with each other. Not that plenty of people on both sides aren’t convinced of the truth of their side, but that’s a matter of rhetoric and psychology, not logic. Those who focus on currently contentious ethical statements, and ignore ethical statements whose truth is well established, to reject objecti vity and the rational model for ethics, ignore evidence that would show their position to be false. To do so knowingly is to behave irrationally. We behave irrationally when we knowingly accept a self-contradiction as true; or knowingly accept a belief as true (or reject a belief as false) on the basis of a fallacy; or knowingly accept a belief as true (or reject a belief as false) despite evidence to the contrary, that is, despite having evidence that shows the belief to be false (or shows the belief to be true).
Now there’s a fear, and quite a legitimate one, at the heart of the rejection of ethical objectivity. Human history overflows with cases of persons, and groups of persons, attempting to impose their ethical beliefs on others, often by force, and sometimes succeeding. There can be no doubt that there have been, and continue to be, moral fascists. And they have all claimed objectivity for their ethics as a basis for their behavior. Fearing ethical fascism, some people tend to fear ethical objectivity, which they identify with moral fascism. But does ethical objectivity entail moral fascism?
The ethical objectivist claims that one set of ethical principles applies to everyone, regardless of time, place, or the circumstance that a person, or group of persons, has beliefs. We may not know what those principles are, of course, but that’s a matter for the evidence to decide. From the ethical objectivist’s claim, it follows that everyone’s ethical beliefs are not equally good. Some ethical beliefs are better than others: the true ones are better than the false ones. And the true ones deserve more respect than the false ones. But, from the ethical objectivist’s claim, it does not follow that the true ethical beliefs ought to be imposed on others.
According to the ethical objectivist, persons have an equal right to believe ethically as we choose. The ethical objectivist must believe this because, otherwise, s/he has to accept that others can legitimately try to impose their ethical beliefs on him/her, and, possibly, succeed. But, if so, then the ethical objectivist wouldn’t have the right to accept the true ethical beliefs, if they differed from the imposed ones. Insofar, s/he could be forced to accept immoral beliefs, and this won’t do. It follows that the ethical objectivist must be tolerant of another person’s ethical beliefs, however wrong s/he may think that they are, because s/he respects that person’s right to have those beliefs; and the ethical objectivist has to oppose moral fascism because, otherwise, s/he can’t hold that persons have an equal right to believe ethically as we choose. For the ethical objectivist, the evidence justifies us in counting, as moral principles: the equality of our right to our ethical beliefs, tolerance for divergent ethical beliefs, and opposition to moral fascism.
Touted for its moral tolerance, ethical relativism stands opposed to ethical objectivism, which it views as intolerant. But can the ethical relativist consistently lay claim to tolerance, respect for divergent ethical beliefs, and opposition to ethical fascism as the ethical objectivist can? No. The relativist believes that everyone’s—or every group’s (I suppress this qualification, in the sequel) — ethical beliefs are equally good. Consequently, if I believed that ethical intolerance is moral, that respect for other persons’ ethical beliefs is wrong, and that it’s quite alright, ethically, to try to change other peoples’ ethical beliefs, if they conflict with mine, the ethical relativist has to accept that I’m right—and would have to sanction my actions that were consistent with these beliefs. Whither tolerance and opposition to moral fascism? Of course, if you believe that tolerance is morally good and that ethical fascism must be opposed, morally, then the relativist also has to accept that you’re right. That’s just another of the ethical relativist’s problems.
For the ethical objectivist, tolerance and respect for others’ ethical beliefs is a matter of equality of rights. The fear of ethical objectivity on the grounds that it entails ethical fascism is quite misplaced.
1 “Sheldon Glashow,“ in P.C.W. Davies and J. Brown, eds., Superstrings: A theory of Everything? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 182.
2 “Sheldon Glashow,“ in Davies and Brown, eds., Superstrings, 188.
3 Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld, The Evolution of Physics: From Early Concepts to Relativity and Quanta (New York: A Clarion Book, Simon and Schuster, 1938), 4-5.
4 According to them, because such utterances look like statements, and appear to function like statements, but really have no truth-values, they can’t really be statements, they constitute pseudo-statements.
5 Steven Weinberg, “Before the Big Bang,“ The New York Review of Books, Volume XLIV, Number 10, (January 12, 1997), pp. 16-20. P. 20.
Rationality, Objectivity, and Ethics by Lorne A. Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org)