Can philosophers, or anyone, tell us what is “right” and “wrong”?


Credit: Descartes Centre

It’s no secret philosophers and scientists sometimes seem to be in conflict. I’m not talking about philosophers of religion (there are epistemological grounds for an inevitable conflict with science there). No, I mean philosophers in general. And the conflict usually involves claims being made about the respective roles of science and philosophy. A sort of professional demarcation issue.

Massimo Pigliucci often seems to go into battle on the philosophers side. I often think this reflects his own sensitivity to any real, or perceived, criticism of the role of philosophy. For example, in his recent article Michael Shermer on morality he referred to the “simplistic dismissal of philosophy a la Harris-Krauss-Hawking.” He seems to be reacting to provocation!

But at other times he goes deeper and critiques what he sees as “scientism,” intrusion of scientists into areas he feels should not concern them, or claims that he feels are being made for science outside its special domain. Morality is an area he is sensitive to and he confesses (in the above article) to taking upon himself the role of “chastising skeptics like Sam Harris* on the relationship between philosophy, science and morality.”

Some critics seem to have knee jerk reaction to any scientific investigation of human morality, or to scientists who comment on morality. Pigliucci is not one of those – he will concede that science can properly investigate many areas of morality. For example, he says in the above article:

“This is not at all to say that science is irrelevant to ethical reasoning. No philosopher I know of holds to that absurd position (except perhaps a dwindling band of stubborn theologians).”


“we need an evolutionary understanding of where a strong sense of right and wrong comes from as an instinct, and a neurobiological account of how our brains function (or malfunction) when they engage in ethical reasoning.”

But he adds the following (and this may indicate where he sees the problem):

“But it is the moral philosopher, not the evolutionary biologist or the neurobiologist, we should check with if we want to know whether a particular piece of ethical reasoning is logically sound or not.”

I interpret this to mean that it’s OK for the relevant scientist to investigate morality in their area of speciality – evolutionary psychology, cognitive biology, etc. But when it come to actually using logic, doing ethical reasoning, that’s the job of the philosopher, in particular the moral philosopher.

Must we always rely on philosophers for logic?

On the surface that seems reasonable – specialists have their speciality and non-specialists  should defer to the specialist when considering relevant areas. Mind you, I don’t accept that reasoning and logic are the exclusive domain of philosophers. Science does involve reasoning and logic – even in highly developed forms like mathematics.

We in fact receive a certain amount of training in such areas as part of a science degree. Consequently a chemist, physicist or biologist may be quiet proficient at applying mathematics in their area. Although the wise individual recognises their level of understanding and will involve the mathematical specialist if they feel it necessary. In my own research I always involved statisticians – and while I often carried out my own statistical tests I always checked later with a statistician.

And in ethical areas – how complex is the logic involved? Does one have to be able to express each proposition in the appropriate academic notation and be aware of all possible transformations before one can decide, on the basis of the facts and one’s values what is “right” and “wrong?” How would the “person in the street” react to that suggestion?

Who does the lay person trust on moral questions?

I am very sceptical of any group claiming for itself a special role on moral questions. And I don’t think that attitude is unusual. When it comes to decision making in social and ethical areas these day I think the individual herself usually wants to be involved. They won’t automatically just rubber stamp decisions made by specialists – scientists or philosophers.

Take climate change. I think most members of the public actually do accept what climate scientists say about human influence on the planet’s climate. After all, a lot of effort and money has gone into the research. It has been reviewed extensively, there is a wide scientific consensus about the science, and honest awareness of gaps in knowledge. And the conclusions are conservative and  usually presented moderately, with scientific qualifications.

But the climate scientists do not tell us what we should or shouldn’t do politically. Their science informs our decisions (and the decisions of our governments), but it doesn’t determine them. Economic specialists will also have input into recommendations for mitigation of, or accommodation to, climate effects. They will also inform. And while governments and democratic institution in each country make the final decisions on any resulting plans, we all expect that we should have the ability to influence those decisions.

I think this is even truer on moral issues. In the end morality concerns individuals and their actions. We insist on making those decisions ourselves. And especially in this sort of area our decisions and actions are not based only on evidence or logic – inevitably our emotions and value judgements are involved. So we are understandably not happy about any suggestion  that others, specialist or not, make those decisions for us.

So scientists can inform us regarding moral issues. They might give us facts – like when neural activity is present in a foetus, do animals feel pain, is sexual preference innate or learned, etc. But its up to us to use that information when we make decisions on moral questions like abortion, factory farming and eating meat or marriage equality. And we insist that this final decision is for us alone – not the scientist.

I think we would have the same attitude toward the moral philosopher. We might listen to their reasoning (if they communicate it properly), maybe even take it on board, but will still make the final decision ourselves. Because that decision involves far more than the scientist’s evidence and the philosopher’s logic. It also involves our own values and emotions.

We have got used to saying that while science can inform us on moral issues it cannot tell us what is “right” and “wrong”. I think most people today will also want to extend that to say that neither can philosophy tells us what is “right” and “wrong.”

Today we (or at least those of us who value autonomy) no longer allow priests and theologians to make moral decision for us. Why would we allow philosophers to do so – even if they are “moral philosophers.”

* It has become fashionable to criticise Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values because of its probably over-optimistic predictions of a future role of neuroscience in moral decision making. However, I think there is a lot of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” here. The main purpose of Harris’s book was a strong (and some would say overdue) criticism of moral relativism –  and this is often ignored by his critics.

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4 responses to “Can philosophers, or anyone, tell us what is “right” and “wrong”?

  1. Pingback: Can philosophers, or anyone, tell us what is “right” and “wrong”? | Open Parachute « Colin's mind

  2. I think you misunderstand what’s meant by the ‘soundness of ethical reasoning’. I’d say most ethically philoposphy is based on the idea that it’s sensible to ask someone why the come to a particular ethical judgments, and (again, mostly) that this explanation should make sense alongside their other ethical judgments. The soundness refers to the reasoning – that it’s not incoherent or indefensible – rather than whether an actual judgment is ‘correct’ or not.

    And yes, in identifying the relevent matters of fact and untangling the principles involved in making moral judgments – or formulating guidelines – it really can be quite complicated and having a toolbox helps.

    What Pigliucci seems to be responding to is the claim neurological descriptions (or what have you) or moral judgments is the same thing as – or superior to – morality. I take it you would deny that priviledge to science as much as to philosophy.


  3. Lyndon, I think the science is actually telling us the opposite. When we “ask someone why the come to a particular ethical judgment” very often we get an explanation that actually doesn’t make sense, is an invented story or even an admission of not knowing why. Because such moral actions don’t involve reasoning – there just isn’t time for it. If we have to consciously deliberate each social and ethical reaction we would have become extinct long ago.

    Inevitably morality involves instinct and emotion. There is a place for reasoning, but often that is only at times of reflexion or rehearsal of arguments – necessary for learning. Haidt has differentiated these two approaches as the “auto” and “manual” modes and I think that metaphor is useful.

    I think that because of the powerful role of emotion and instinct in human morality, and the extremely strong emotions underlying the concepts of “right” and “wrong,” we humans jealously guard our autonomy on such issues. I don’t see us handing over our moral decisions to “moral philosophers” any day soon (and they hardly tell a uniform story anyway)).

    But I agree that there is a place for a philosophical or ethical toolbox – when in the “manual mode.” Absolutely of no direct use in the “auto mode” – but of course our “auto mode” does adjust over time as the learning while in the “manual mode” becomes incorporated into our subconscious.

    I am mainly trying to get across the point that the concept that scientists cannot tell us what is “right” and “wrong” should also be extended to philosophers. They too have their limitations in this area.


  4. I think only religions try to tell us what is right and wrong. Secular philosophers are more likely to propose some system for making an informed decision on the subject. Remember, to a consequentialist virtually anything could be right or wrong depending on the circumstances. To someone who takes an evolutionary view of morality what is right or wrong within a particular society depends on what sort of existential threats that group is trying to combat.
    So I would say secular philosophers shouldn’t try to tell us what is right or wrong and that they do a reasonable job of analysing the problems and making known their findings.


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