Science and the Good
The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality
Series: Foundational Questions in Science
- ISBN: 9780300196283
- Published By: Yale University Press
- Published: October 2018
Why have the natural sciences, so successful in in the sphere of speculative knowledge, failed to provide a sound basis for moral knowledge? This is the question that sociologist James Davison Hunter and philosopher Paul Nedelisky seek to answer in their wide-ranging study Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality. In answering this rather ambitious question, the authors provide an account for how the natural sciences became a model for moral inquiry, and why this methodological shift has remained unsuccessful in reaching the goals of its practitioners. As its subtitle suggests, this text’s aim is decidedly critical in nature, presenting a narrative of philosophical failure to accompany more typically celebratory histories of scientific breakthrough and advancement.
Hunter and Nedelisky divide their work into four parts. The book’s preface and part I offer a helpful introductory summary of their argument. Parts 2 and 3, about half of the book, are dedicated to a historical overview of the project of seeking a scientific revolution in the sphere of ethics. Part 2 (“The Historical Quest”) tells the story of how a unified, broadly teleological medieval Christian ethic gave way to religious division, internecine warfare, and a new, quantitatively reductionistic approach to natural science. With religious authority undermined by the Protestant Reformation and the Wars of Religion, scholastic authority confronted with new scientific discoveries, and a complacent European ethos challenged by processes of global exploration and colonization, philosophers such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Hugo Grotius sought new foundations for political and moral authority.
The authors continue this narrative by focusing on three of the most prominent Enlightenment attempts at scientific morality: sentimentalism, utilitarianism, and evolutionary ethics. The failure of these new philosophies to achieve intellectual and societal dominance further fostered moral skepticism. As Hunter and Nedelisky write, “In an environment of growing social and cultural fragmentation, the cynicism of commercial culture, and the failure of science to forge a foundation for morality, moral skepticism, in its varied expressions, would proliferate” (79). This part closes with a chapter largely devoted a critical but not unsympathetic discussion of E.O. Wilson’s sociobiology as an updated version of evolutionary ethics.
Much of this historical account is compelling, and even controversial points of philosophical interpretation and evaluation are well-argued. One glaring omission, however, is the author’s neglect of Immanuel Kant. Given Kant’s status as arguably the preeminent Enlightenment philosopher, and more particularly his efforts to reply to skepticism and propose a moral philosophy compatible with the world picture revealed by Newtonian physics, it is unusual that Hunter and Nedelisky have exceedingly little to say about the merits of Kantian moral philosophy. This is even more strange, given how some contemporary Kantians have interpreted their moral project in ways that line up quite well with Hunter and Nedelisky’s historical narrative. For example, Christine Korsgaard, in The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge University Press, 1996), depicts Kantian morality as a response to the loss of Aristotelian teleology and the rise of modern scientific and religious values. Insights and challenges of earlier ethicists, such as the sentimentalists and David Hume, are assimilated by Korsgaard into the structure of Kant’s deontological (i.e., rule-based) moral philosophy. It would be quite interesting to see how Hunter and Nedelisky would respond to a competing but significantly overlapping narrative such as this. If a Kantian narrative such as Korsgaard’s is correct, then many of the controversies accounted in Science and the Good would be rendered philosophically moot, albeit still of historical interest.
With part 3 (“The Quest Thus Far”), the authors turn to some of the most recent attempts to use the natural sciences to inform or replace moral philosophy. Maintaining a difficult balancing act, Hunter and Nedelisky identify and examine representative applications of primatology, evolutionary psychology, moral psychology, and other scientific disciplines to moral questions, sifting genuine contributions relevant to understanding moral concepts (e.g. altruism studies, the dual process character of moral psychology, etc.) from conceptually confused or underdetermined claims about ethics. Part 4 (“Enduring Quandaries”) concludes the book on a contemplative, forward-looking note, arguing for the importance of reclaiming non-reductive concepts such as “intentionality,” “free will,” and “purposiveness” for moral discourse (173-74). The authors also issue a call for a more inclusive, pluralist discussion around ethics, one less weighted by scientific pretensions.
What kind of positive project remains for those persuaded by Hunter and Nedelisky’s critique of “scientific” ethics? One possibility, albeit one largely undiscussed in this volume, is the various projects attempting to restore and rejuvenate Aristotelian approaches to nature and normativity. In works such as Philippa Foot’s Natural Goodness (Oxford University Press, 2001) and Michael Thompson’s Life and Action (Harvard University Press, 2008), there are efforts to salvage aspects of Aristotelian philosophy as both compatible with modern science and constitutive of genuine normative theory. While these projects seldom appear in Hunter and Nedelisky’s book, there is certainly much shared between these authors, particularly regarding intellectual genealogy and the assessment of contemporary ethics. Hunter and Nedelisky and the neo-Aristotelians both locate the difficulties of modern philosophy primarily in the attempt to limit metaphysics to the entities admitted by early modernity’s scientific revolution. Moreover, both see this metaphysical austerity as particularly corrosive of moral philosophy.
Philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, in her groundbreaking 1958 essay, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” proposes that “It is not profitable for us at present to do moral philosophy; that should be laid aside at any rate until we have an adequate philosophy of psychology, in which we are conspicuously lacking.” Hunter and Nedelisky have partially confirmed Anscombe’s judgment here, recounting in extensive yet lively detail the many failures of modern scientific thought to achieve an objective, universal basis for morality. The resulting judgment of scientific morality, while negative in character, is nonetheless an achievement. Hunter and Nedelisky do not tell the reader what methods will lead to genuine moral knowledge, but they do indict some false starts and misleading thoroughfares of normative theory. In doing so, they have done the service of helping to focus their reader’s attention back on the still necessary work of moral philosophy.
Kevin M. Scott is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.Kevin M. ScottDate Of Review:January 30, 2022