The death of philosophy?

by Joanne Benhamu

(This essay was published as a Letter to the Editor of The Skeptic magazine, March 2019, Vol 39 No 1)

The philosophy versus science debate has filled the pages of this magazine for some time now, with Gary Bakker1,2 and Ian Bryce3 heaping scorn and derision on the discipline of philosophy. Both claim that philosophy has given humanity nothing of value since it has been unable to answer a single “Big Question”1,3. Tim Harding, James Fodor and Dr Patrick Stokes have already addressed much of Bakker’s arguments in detail, so I will not go over this well-worn ground again. I will address the following: Ian Bryce’s most recent contribution to this discussion and specific claims made by both Bakker and Bryce regarding the role of philosophy and science in morality.

In the most recent edition of this magazine, Ian Bryce writes that he was “puzzled” by Tim Harding’s wish to “exclude science from philosophy”. Ian goes on to describe a face-to-face interaction with Tim Harding in which he asked him directly whether “philosophy should use observations from the real world”3. I asked Tim directly whether Ian’s characterisation accurately represented his position. Tim stated that his argument is that philosophy and science are different but equally valuable disciplines that can work together. Tim’s argument is not that philosophy and science are incompatible, but that they perform different roles, with science using observation, experimentation and the resulting data to discover facts about the world, and philosophy often using these facts, applying reason and drawing conclusions.

In his letter, Ian expands on his account of the discussion with Tim, claiming that those on the philosophy side of the argument were unable to present an example of a “meaningful finding in philosophy which did not use observations of the real world”. Ian goes on to state that he lectures extensively on how “science, not philosophy, has illuminated where the universe came from, how it works, and where it is going”. Ian then states that an unnamed philosopher claimed that 3000 years of debate has not established the origin of human ethics and argues not only that science, but Darwin have answered this question. Ian cites human behaviour systems, genetics and memes as evidence for this claim. This is a curious assertion, as philosophy does not seek to determine the origin of human ethics but to address the ethical questions which humans face as we interact with the world. Here, I note Bakker’s statement1 that “any meaningful question can best, or only, be answered by observation and experimentation, ie (sic) by the scientific method”.

I challenge Bakker and Bryce’s assertion that philosophy has had no real-world impact on human affairs. I refer to Bakker’s statement that the “is/ought” debate in ethics is an empirical not a philosophical question. I will address two of Bakker and Bryce’s claims, firstly that the study of morality is an empirical one rather than a philosophical one; and secondly, Bakker’s statements regarding informed consent.

Bakker essentially argues that experimental evidence on moral reasoning undermines the plausibility of moral rationalism. Bakker is correct that until recently the ideas put forward by moral philosophers regarding moral reasoning were non-empirical. Recent experimental evidence has challenged the rationalist views of Kant, Plato, and Kohlberg that moral judgements are caused by moral reasoning. Our developing understanding of neuroscience, genetics and neurobiology and the application of experimental psychology has allowed us to empirically test claims around moral cognition. Jonathan Haidt presents compelling evidence that cool-headed reason leading to moral judgement formation is an illusion, and posits that reason occurs post-hoc to rapid intuition4. Experimental psychologist Joshua Greene hypothesises a dual-process model of moral intuitions and argues that we should privilege consequentialist intuitions5. Philosophers Richmond Campbell and Victor Kumar draw on the dual-process model with their model of moral consistency reasoning which suggests that reason and emotion closely interact, driving moral change at the societal level6. While they do not have experimental evidence to support their model, they put forward plausible suggestions for hypothesis testing.

Neuroethics

It is true that some moral philosophers have been hostile towards the growing field of neuroethics7. These critics mischaracterise neuroethics by claiming that it seeks to tell us what is right or good. The aim of neuroethics is to understand how our brains come to have values, or, as philosopher Patricia Churchland puts it: “…how can neurons value something?”7. Readers of this magazine would know that understanding our biases is a matter of interest to Skeptics. The work being done in neuroethics could help us to overcome those biases that influence moral cognition, and potentially provide us with the tools to achieve better outcomes for society7,8.

So, as you can see, I do not disagree with Bakker and Bryce that an empirical approach to ethics is both necessary and useful. However, the field is not without its critics and for good reason. As an example, Berker points out that the hypothetical scenarios that Greene tests in his laboratory using fMRI may not represent how we make moral judgements in real-life9. Of course, one of the major limitations of neuroethics is that it would be unethical to test how we would really respond if asked to push the fat man off the bridge to stop the trolley.

A different empirical approach to morality has been taken by Paul Zac, who has been lauded in the media for his work on oxytocin or, as he calls it, “the moral molecule”. I highly recommend that interested readers explore science journalist Ed Yong, and economist John Conlisk’s excellent critiques of Zac’s research. Yong10 expresses concern that Zac’s promotion of the molecule as being the driver of morality is not just stretching the science, but stretching the truth, and wildly oversimplifying a complex issue. Conlisk11 directs his criticism towards Zac’s claims regarding the effect of oxytocin on market behaviour, citing, among other things, concerns regarding methodology, data quality and reliability. There is certainly growing evidence of biological drivers of moral behaviour, however, we must exercise scepticism as the experimental evidence is in its infancy and in some cases unreliable. I find it concerning to see some moral philosophers – Peter Singer as an example – jumping on board the neuroethics train when a particular body of empirical work appears to suggest that our brain may preference their particular moral view.

This leads me to Bakker’s claim that the is/ought question is empirical not philosophical, leading me to conclude that Bakker does not understand the question in the first place, nor the types of questions moral philosophers engage with. What, if anything, does experimental evidence say about the purpose moral judgements serve within a society, and does this mean anything for a normative ethical theory? Understanding how the human brain processes information relating to moral decisions, or that we are prone to treat a particular moral decision in a particular way, tells us nothing about the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of any moral judgement. Neuroscience can tell us what ‘is’ about our moral judgements, but not what is good – the very question that moral philosophy wrestles with. It is fair to ask whether rational theories can provide guiding principles by which to live a good life if they do not incorporate the neurobiology underpinning how humans make moral judgements. I think it is a mistake, especially with the science being in its infancy, to place too much weight on the findings within neuroethics or to disregard the role of moral philosophy in guiding moral decision-making and developing moral frameworks.

Both Bakker and Bryce argue that observational evidence is sufficient to answer these moral questions, however they fail to recognise that scientific and moral observation are different. G. E. Moore argued against ethical naturalism that what we call “goodness” or “the good” is not a natural property12. I refer readers to the entry in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy12 for a more detailed explanation of Moore’s argument. Gilbert Harman draws from Moore’s work, giving the example of a proton going through a cloud chamber resulting in a vapour trail which can be observed. He notes that the scientific observation is itself evidence for the physical theory – the physical theory explains the proton, which explains the trail which explains your observation13. Harman gives an example of a moral observation, in this case seeing a group of children setting a cat on fire and observing that the act of setting a cat on fire is wrong13. Seeing the cat set on fire and making the moral observation “that’s wrong” does not explain the “wrongness” of the observed act. He explains how making the moral observation does not appear to be evidence for the moral principle because the principle does not help explain the moral observation13, demonstrating that science and philosophy are not guided by the same principles.

Bakker states that “Rationalists and humanists decide on what laws and social mores to advance and adopt according to what history and thought experiments tell us will best achieve society’s goals. And those goals … are determined not by theology … or philosophy … but by systematic observation of what human beings are actually found to value…The goals of a person, of society, or of humanity are to be discovered, not imposed. They are an ‘is’ not an ‘ought’.”1. Bakker would have you believe that science can answer the is/ought question by telling us what works. This fundamentally misses the point of the is/ought argument. The type of empirical findings Bakker refers to may tell us that ‘x’ will work, but this does not tell us that ‘x’ is good, nor does it tell us whether a particular societal goal is good.

Informed consent

Moving to Bakker’s comments on Harding’s example of informed consent in clinical trials. Bakker argues that consent is sought “not because of some absolute moral law, either conferred by a deity or deduced by a philosopher; but because of the consequences for science, medicine and society of not having such a consensual system”. Bakker’s point here suggests a lack of both knowledge and understanding of the intense and lengthy debates in the bioethics literature regarding the nature of informed consent. Indeed, the field of bioethics is an example of applied philosophy, thus calling into question both Bakker and Bryce’s claims that philosophy is of no value in the real world.

Informed consent, as it is currently conceived, stems from those historical atrocities carried out in Nazi Germany; at the hands of researchers in Tuskegee, and other notorious examples of how human beings have been sacrificed in the pursuit of empirical facts – the irony should not be lost on the reader. When Bakker states that consent is not sought because of “some absolute moral law” but because of “the consequences for society” he seems oblivious to the fact that once again he is taking a philosophical position. What are the consequences of not obtaining consent from patients? We can see from historical examples that a deficit in trust towards the medical and research community can result, as we see among African Americans who suffered gross injustices at the hands of doctors and scientists. Once again, the irony should not be lost when we consider how the scientific community and society at large have benefited from the use of Henrietta Lacks’ tumour tissue to develop the first immortal cell line14. It is the world of philosophy – specifically the bioethics community – which has truly engaged with the ethical implications of how HeLa cells were obtained. It is the bioethics community which seeks to engage with the implications of dual-use research while many scientists protest that we are an impediment to progress.

But returning to the is/ought question, the focus of the moral philosopher turns to whether, for example, trust itself is good. Assuming that the answer to this and similar questions are implicit is a mistake. In order to promote what is good, we need to demonstrate its goodness and wrestle with what makes it so.

As Bakker suggests, we can operationalise everything, but too often researchers are unaware of how they can impact patients and participants, how they may undermine justice. Bakker overlooks the fact that the discussion of evidence is itself a subset of philosophy, that the factual knowledge that empiricism has given us is diminished without the philosophical study of the nature of knowledge itself. That being said, part of the ethical justification for offering any intervention to a patient is the prior plausibility and empirical evidence substantiating that intervention. Philosophical debate about informed consent has centred on various notions of autonomy; the principles of respect for autonomous choice, beneficence and justice; the role of trust; the fiduciary duty doctors have to patients, and further, how we conceive of and relate to our bodies; the role of power in the investigator participant relationship; the notion of the self in the present state and over time; the role of values and preferences and consideration thereof; our duties to ourselves and to others; the goals of research itself. My recently completed Masters thesis took a hard philosophical approach to informed consent to clinical trials drawing from epistemology and philosophy of language but providing real-world solutions for how we can best protect research participants.

In both Bakker and Bryce’s arguments there is a hubris that I find concerning. Too often science is called into question by those who are disgruntled when the facts challenge their worldview. We in the skeptic community challenge these individuals by highlighting that while the scientific method is imperfect it is the best tool we have for understanding the natural world. Those who would argue, as Bakker and Bryce do, that philosophy is unimportant and irrelevant in this scientific of all ages fail to see that so much of what we do in science is imperfect. It is because of our very humanity that we frequently fail in our scientific endeavours. The replicability problem in psychology stands as a stark example, as does the recent use of CRISPR in China and the ethical problems with this research.

By misconstruing the goals, methods and intent of philosophy, Bakker and Bryce fail to recognise its value in the same way that proponents of pseudoscience who question climate change, vaccination and GMOs dismiss the scientific method. Bakker’s assertion that his undergraduate degree confers on him an expertise in assessing the value of this vast and complex discipline demonstrates a lack of humility; and humility, I would argue, is critical to both good philosophy and good science.

References

  1. Bakker, G., “Science & the Real World”, in The Skeptic, December 2017, Australian Skeptics Inc: Sydney, Australia.
  2. Bakker, G., “More philosophising”, in The Skeptic, June 2018, Australian Skeptics Inc: Sydney, Australia.
  3. Bryce, I., “No contest”, in The Skeptic, December 2018, Australian Skeptics Inc: Sydney, Australia.
  4. Haidt, J., “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment”, Psychological Review, 2001. 108(4): p. 814-834.
  5. Greene, J., The Secret Joke of Kant’s Soul, in Moral Psychology, Vol. 3, W. Sinnott-Armstrong, Editor. 2008, MIT Press.
  6. Campbell, R. and V. Kumar, “Moral Reasoning on the Ground”. Ethics, 2012. 122(2): p. 273-312.
  7. Churchland, P.S., Braintrust What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality, 2011, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
  8. Christensen, J.F. and A. Gomila, “Moral dilemmas in cognitive neuroscience of moral decision-making: A principled review”, Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 2012. 36(4): p. 1249-1264.
  9. Berker, S., “The Normative Insignificance of Neuroscience”, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 2009. 37(4): p. 293-329.
  10. Yong, E. “The Weak Science Behind the Wrongly Named Moral Molecule”, The Atlantic, 2015.
  11. Conlisk, J., “Professor Zak’s empirical studies on trust and oxytocin”, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 2011. 78(1–2): p. 160-166.
  12. Baldwin, Tom, “George Edward Moore”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2010/entries/moore/.
  13. Harman, G., The Nature of Morality – An Introduction to Ethics, 1977, New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  14. Skloot, R., The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. 2011, New York, USA: Broadway Books.

Joanne Benhamu is a Senior Oncology Research Nurse with a Masters in Bioethics.  Her research thesis considers the ethics of informed consent in the light of new scientific developments in medicine.  Joanne is also Vice President of Australian Skeptics Inc.  Reblogged with permission of the author. 

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  1. Pingback: More of the same – Circling The Abyss

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