Thursday, August 2, 2012

Science and the Is/Ought Distinction...and the Titanic

The Socratic thesis that knowledge is indispensable to virtue has never really been refuted, so far as I know. The ability to do right must entail the ability to know the right and the ability to accomplish the right. Virtue, in other words, which is a synonym for good and power. Virtue and morals and ethics are normative principles about how to deal with other people, when you consider it from the ideal ego's point of view. From a non-philosophical point of view, how other people, individually and in the form of society, treat you are also part of virtue, morals and ethics. When we remember this, the question of how we as individuals deal with the moral claims on and by others demands some sort of response. We personally can use violence or claim supernatural authority, but then, so can others. In practice, in dealing with others we make some sort of objective argument, especially when dealing with greater powers. There is an individual utility in making those arguments that others can accept, and ally with us, in dealing with yet other people and society or government at large. This usefulness is the basis for debate on morals. Every individual when dealing with morals imposed on him or her would wish to appeal to objective argument for selfish reasons.

The most important contribution science makes to the debate is the discovery that no argument from religious (or speculative philosophical) authority is valid. Another connection to science of course is that science is the only form of knowledge about the real world. As such it is essential to our ability to make objective arguments on particular issues, as well as categories of argument. In practice, much of our practical knowledge is empirical, and more is from authority.  But the sources of error in our senses and the imperfecions of unaided reason makes it imprudent to consult personal experience alone. Fullest use of scientific knowledge (broadly defined) is more an ideal than a reality, sadly.

But what has science, which tells us what is true, to tell us about what should be? Hume famously claimed that you couldn't draw a conclusion about what ought to be from what is. As popular as it is to repeat this, it is decidedly misleading. Science can tell us what cannot be, and what must be, and what can be. A moral imperative than cannot be accomplished because it is against nature cannot be meaningful. Behavior in individuals and society that are inevitable because of their natures are not moral, because we have no power to do else. What can be is the area of moral choice.

A trivial example of the first is the insistence that a parent must not sleep but watch over children. Demanding an impossibility is itself immoral, obviously. A trivial example of the second is insisting that dreaming is an expression of individuality. Demanding that people dream is obviously nothing to do with morality, they have no choice. A trivial example of the third is help sick people by nursing them. The ability to help sick people raises the moral question of whether to do so.

These trivial example show the principle at work. These are obviously true, so it should be obvious the principle is correct, no? Remember, and consider:

A serious example of the first is the discovery that popular notions of free will are contradicted by the facts of neuroscience. Punishing some behaviors as immoral choices when there are no choices is itself immoral. Punishment as deterrence usually is a different kind of punishment, after all. Many people wish to deny the obvious conclusion precisely to keep to the old standard of moral responsibility, regardless of the facts.

A serious example of the second is heterosexual passion. You cannot credit a person for wanting sex with another person of the opposite sex. Obviously, if you cannot credit this, you cannot discredit a person for wanting sex with another person of the same sex, either. Although fewer people would refuse to accept that sexual desire is not a conscious choice, this too happens.

A serious example of the third is vaccination for STDs. We can do this. If we look at it from the perspective of medical science, the question is, what benefit is there from not doing this, looking at it objectively from no specific personal view? Any person might contract a disease and benefit from a cure, and any vaccine may prevent any specific person from being infected. But when we try to see how a specific person might suffer from such vaccinations we cannot even find such people, much less weigh their harms against others' benefits. No one has yet established a harm to larger, collective entities.

We are already seeing that science narrowly construed has quite a bit of relevance to "ought," no matter what Hume says. Repeating him is refusing to consider these issues seriously.

The really tricky part comes from the refusal to grant the status of science to social sciences. There will be vested interests who pervert science for personal gain. Every fraudulent report of lab results comes from this, whether the gain is fame or money. In social sciences, vested interests have powerful influence in systematically turning would-be sciences into ideologies. Economics and evolutionary psychology are of course the great offenders of the day.

For example, the New Scientist website had an article about an economist's study of survival rates of British shipwrecks. It claimed that the record of 18 shipwrecks showed that it was every man for himself, despite the movies about the wreck of the Titanic. It also cited a claim that the story of women and children first was promoted as an argument against woman suffrage. The author of the study is an economist. When asked, he explicitly said that he was testing the economists' assumption that people are "self-interested and act to maximize their their own well-being," instead of cooperating and acting at the expense of their own survival. In other words, he was aiming pretty explicitly to shore up a specific notion of human behavior. Given this agenda of course, it is likely that he found what he wanted. This article talks of survival rates but gives no indication of what the circumstances were. The faster the shipwreck of course the more likely only the crew and the more physically fit of the passengers can survive. There could be a gross systematic error in this study, ignored because it fit a preconceived thesis. I for one will put zero stock in this report because my experience is that people like this habitually do that kind of bad science.

The thing is, the article did specifically relate the study to the desire to refute a certain view of human nature. That doesn't refute the article of course. That's the genetic fallacy. It can raise a red flag, though. It can make one analyze more carefully, as I did when I asked myself if there was any reason why captain and crew, then males, might have higher survival rates. The answer to that question, yes, then justifies dismissing the report, a posteriori. The problem of course is that the article didn't report the necessary information. Another person, who favors the sociopathic ideal of humanity the economist is defending, probably wouldn't see any problem, and wouldn't ask the right question. Not asking the question means the blindingly obvious possibility of systematic error would be overlooked.

The problem of which view is correct cannot be solved by pretending there is no such thing as social science. The problem can't be evaded because moral issues depend upon the answers. The problem can't be solved by philosophical logical a prioris because human nature is a matter of fact, not logic. Well, to be precise, a matter of many, many, many such facts. This is a nice illustration of how induction and (supposedly) simple facts are a major part of scientific knowledge, incidentally. Again, part of the problem in the social sciences is the pervasive acceptance of nonmaterialist concepts. The notion of human nature as a metaphysical entity for example seems to propel this particular person's excursion into bad science.

My guess is that women and children first is in fact a sentimental myth in the sense that it is not what automatically happens, that instead, the physical circumstances, the cultural teachings for the people involved, and random variations in personalities and other idiosyncratic factors mean sometimes it is women and children first, sometimes it's devil takes the hindmost and other times you see people in the same wreck showing both behaviors. My guess is that the small sample size makes the conclusions to be drawn uncertain, even if the study were properly conducted. My judgment is that the extremity of the circumstances limit the importance of the conclusion, no matter what, to normal societies. What I know is that categorically declaring such questions impossible to answer is obscurantism.

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