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Dr Richard Carrier

There has been a lot of debate recently about the role of science in deciding moral questions. And I am sure this will continue as scientific investigations reveal more about our morality.

One issue which keeps coming up, though, is the question of telling an “ought from an is.” Often this is presented dogmatically (“You can’t tell an ought from an is”) and justified as almost an ancient philosophical truism.

But this is now being challenged by some of the participants in this debate. recently I heard Richard Carrier, a philosopher and historian of science, on this. He rejects this specific dogma. In the interview Richard supplies a clear example:

“A surgeon ought to maintain high levels of hygiene in her work.”

Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it. And we can get there from two “is’s.”

  1. Unhygienic surrounding enable fatal infections, and
  2. A surgeon protects human life.

I thought it useful for him to divide the argument in this way. Too often we think only of the first is – the facts which have an immediate effect. Most people will acknowledge that science usually has a role in this area – and that is clear in our example. Science has established the role of hygiene in prevent fatal infections.

So there is wide acceptance that science can “inform” moral decisions such as these. But Many people, not just religious believers, will maintain that step 2 is not an “is.” One can’t prove logically or scientifically that “A surgeon protects human life” or the equivalent.

Well, I think in the case of surgeons it goes with the job, the definition of the profession., But the more general case would be the “is” that humans have such attributes. The claim that you can’t prove it is human to protect life, to desire the flourishing of human life, etc.

Getting rid of dogma

Personally I think this is another dogma that the philosophically, or religiously, inclined often cling to. But science is telling us a lot about ourselves these days. Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have helped us understand our biological and social evolution. Cognitive scientists and psychologists have provided understandings of our human thinking and instincts.

Consequently we have a better idea now of this second “is” – our human nature. We can appreciate how our social relations have developed, how our intuitions have evolved to aid social interaction. We can understand some of the physical and social reasons for our empathetic intuitions. Both in terms of basic nature but also in the way these adapt to social interactions and learning. And our knowledge about the differences and similarities of human societies today and historically help us overcome old racial and sexual biases which influenced our social interactions and our morality.

In effect this second “is” refers to our nature as sentient, conscious, intelligent, social, and empathetic beings.

So I agree with Richard. It’s about time we stopped repeating the old dogmatic mantra “You can’t get an ought from an is.” Lets realise we can do a lot to provide an objective basis for human morality. And we should not be intimidated into accepting an imposed “morality” which doesn’t have such an objective basis.

Incidentally, look forward to me from Richard Carrier on morality. He has three chapters in the book The End of Christianity published next July. One of them, Moral Facts Naturally Exist (and Science Could Find Them), provides a philosophical grounding for an objectively based morality.

See also:
The End of Christianity (Table of contents).
Skepconnect Richard Carrier interview

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