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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, October 25, 2010

Cushman on the scientific investigation of morality

Fiery Cushman (what a wonderful name) has a solid article in New Scientist about the scientific investigation of morality - such as why there is a moral taboo against incest. Much of what is contained here is not all that new, but it gathers some of the findings in a nice, clear package.

The article concludes:

As we come to a scientific understanding of morality, society is not going to descend into anarchy. Instead, we may be able to shape our moral thinking towards nobler ends. Which norms of fairness foster economic prosperity? What are the appropriate limits on assisting a patient's end-of-life decisions? By recognising morality as a property of the mind, we gain a magical power of control over its future.

I'm fairly much on-side with this, but of course it raises the question of how we judge what counts as a "noble" end. Our concepts of what is or is not "noble" must themselves have some kind of evolutionary or cultural genealogy. I'm not suggesting that that totally debunks them. We can certainly engage in rational reflection on what we consider to be noble in the sense that Cushman has in mind, and we may reach various answers. We may even converge on an answer if we reflect and discuss in good faith (but what if we don't?). Nonetheless, there's a problem that should be acknowledged. Once you think that our conception of what is morally good can be altered to track our concept of what are "nobler ends", there's then a further realisation that our conception of what count as noble, nobler, and noblest ends can also be altered.


stevec said...

Fiery Cushman?

Yes, the internet has that.

fiery cushman.

March Hare said...

I agree Russell, we always end up having to make an assumption of what is 'right', 'noble' or 'moral' that is not objectively measurable.

e.g. To say that we can find a norm of fairness that fosters economic prosperity is to ignore the fact that the greatest economic prosperity (usually) comes at the cost of economic disparity. Everything is a trade off between one thing we value and another and while I value x over y you may value y over x. Only very occasionally can we find examples where x is universally valued over y, or where we can increase x without sacrificing y. Have to go read Sam Harris now as he seems to think he has squared this circle - can I get a refund if he hasn't?

March Hare said...

Sorry, meant to add that happiness, as reported by the people, is inversely proportional to economic disparity.

Hence economic growth tends to increase actual well-being but decreases happiness. Which is somewhat counter-intuitive.

Kirth Gersen said...

Interesting subject, as always, and as March Hare points out, Hume's limit seems always to apply, despite our best efforts to break past it.

One minor typo you might wish to correct:

"... such as why their is a moral taboo against incest."

Russell Blackford said...

Oops, thanks - mea culpa. Fixed.