- Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality, by James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky
Denunciations of “scientism” are a dime a dozen these days, but this isn’t that kind of book. (It doesn’t even use the term “scientism.”) Rather, it’s a patient and careful exploration of the question, “Can science demonstrate what morality is and how we should live?” — and more than that, a genealogy of the question. Hunter and Nedelisky (H&N) are especially skillful in exploring why and how so many people came to believe that science is the only plausible “rational arbiter” of our disputes about how best to live, individually and collectively.
The core finding of the book is that the “new science of morality” is able to use science to establish our moral path only by defining morality down — by simply ignoring ancient questions about how human beings should live in favor of a kind of stripped-down utilitarianism, a philosophically shallow criterion of “usefulness.”
Here’s a key passage from early in the book:
While the new science of morality presses onward, the idea of morality – as a mind-independent reality — has lost plausibility for the new moral scientists. They no longer believe such a thing exists. Thus, when they say they are investigating morality scientifically, they now mean something different by “morality“ from what most people in the past have meant by it and what most people today still mean by it. In place of moral goodness, they substitute the merely useful, which is something science can discover. Despite using the language of morality, they embrace a view that, in its net effect, amounts to moral nihilism.
H&N are clear that very few of these “new moral scientists” believe themselves to be nihilists, or want to be. They have fallen into it inevitably because they are not equipped to think seriously about morals. Much later in the book, H&N comment that
What is confusing [about this situation] is that the language of morality is preserved. The new moral science still speaks of what we “should“ or “should not“ do – but the meaning has been changed. Normative guidance is now about achieving certain practical ends. Given that we want this or that, what should we do in order to obtain it?
The quest, then, has been fundamentally redirected. The science of morality is no longer about discovering how we are to live – though it is still often presented as such. Rather, it is now concerned with exploiting scientific and technological know-how in order to achieve practical goals grounded in whatever social consensus can justify.
For this reason, “in their various policy or behavioral proposals, the new moral scientists never fail to recommend that was sanctioned by safe, liberal, humanitarian values.“ Science done in WEIRD societies, then, faithfully reflects WEIRD values — a phenomenon that, H&N point out, proponents of the science of morality seem constitutionally unable to reflect on. They think they are just doing science, but it it really likely that the assured results of unbiased scientific exploration will unfailingly support so consistently the policy preferences of the educated elite of one of the world’s many cultures?
It’s not likely that this book will convince many proponents of the new science of morality that their quest is quixotic; such people are deeply invested in believing themselves Objective, able to achieve the view from nowhere; moreover, the depth of our social fissures really does call out for some arbiter, and the idea that science, or SCIENCE, might be that arbiter is both attractive and superficially plausible. But upon reflection — the kind of reflection offered by this book — the claims of these new scientists become harder to sustain.
One can only hope that Science and the Good will prompt such reflection. For if we must have a morality guided by science, we need that science to be better than it currently is — and that will only happen if the moral thought prompting it is better. At the very least, we need some New Scientists of Morality to turn some of the skepticism on their own assumptions and preferences that they so eagerly devote to all previous moral traditions.