Re: Ethics as Science (was: deconstructing Derrida & 3rd culture)

From: Dan Fabulich (
Date: Thu Mar 02 2000 - 09:18:23 MST

> >the sociobiologist's move to make ethics a science ... The problem with it
> >is ... no empirical facts by themselves can establish that an action is right.
> I responded:
> >[In principle, science] could find out everything that Dan Fabulich
> >would ever think about ethics under any circumstances. And isn't that
> >the closest Dan Fabulich could ever get to knowing what is ethical? Sure
> >there might be some things about right and wrong that Dan Fabulich
> >could never know. But no other approach to ethics could possibly reveal
> >more to Dan Fabulich than this.
> Dan replied:
> >True enough, but we'll never HAVE a magic wand like this. The prediction
> >would surely affect my way of thinking about ethics, so the prediction
> >would have to not only model my thoughts on the matter but its own effects
> >on my thoughts on the matter.
> [The conversation continued for two more posts, but let me return to here.]
> It seems you have granted that your first statement was wrong. Everything
> we can know about ethics *is* in principle learnable via science. You
> might claim that progress in this science will be terribly slow, or that
> it will stop at some fundamental limit to scientific progress. But I
> dispute this skepticism if it is mainly based on the possibility that
> people will react to learning the theories that describe them. This is
> the standard situation in cognitive and social sciences, and yet these
> sciences are making great progress.

No, I haven't contradicted myself. The hypothetical you offered me was
that, through some scientific process, we might predict what I would think
about ethics at the end of inquiry. Surely, then, I can't know more about
ethics than I would know at the end of inquiry, so, you argue, everything
I can know about ethics is an empirical matter.

However, if no scientific process can DO that, then everything I know
about ethics is NOT an empirical matter, since we can't actually run the
experiment. So if you agree with me that we'll never have a process like
this, then you'll be forced to agree with me that ethics cannot be done
purely empirically.

I countered with TWO objections, the main one being the first, that, a
priori, a prediction like that is impossible. (I'd primarily hinted at
this argument, since you seemed to agree with me that it couldn't be
done.) To predict what I would think about ethics at the end of inquiry,
the process would have to predict what I would come to believe on the
basis of the answer that it would give me; in other words, it would have
to predict the result of its own computation. A priori, this can't

This problem is compounded if there IS no end of inquiry: if I live
forever, make it to an Omega point, etc. And, finally, it may run up
against thermodynamic information limits on top of these difficulties.

In short, it can't ever happen, not even in principle.

And, unfortunately, getting close just doesn't cut it in this case, as it
might in sociology, economics, or general psychology. Knowing a little
about human interaction is useful, but I already know A LITTLE about what
I think about ethics (and what I'm going to think). Knowing somewhat
more, while potentially helpful, still won't render ethics a purely
empirical matter unless it can tell me EVERYTHING I'll think about ethics,
which it can't, thanks to the problems I describe above.


      -unless you love someone-
    -nothing else makes any sense-
           e.e. cummings

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Thu Jul 27 2000 - 14:04:26 MDT