Should philosophers stick to ethics?

This is the third in a series of posts on philosophy.

It must irk philosophers that any idiot thinks he can do what they do. Take Stephen Jay Gould. He wasn’t an idiot, but he wasn’t a philosopher, either. He was an evolutionary biologist who often pontificated on philosophical conundrums, like whether science and religion are compatible.

Gould didn’t denounce religion as superstitious claptrap that should be eradicated, like his fellow biologist Richard Dawkins. Gould suggested that science and religion can peacefully co-exist, because they occupy different realms, or “magisteria.” Science addresses what is, religion what ought to be. Gould called his scheme “non-overlapping magisteria,” or NOMA.

NOMA never caught on, because each side thought it conceded too much to the enemy. Atheists won’t let religion dictate values, theists won’t allow science to monopolize facts. But perhaps NOMA can answer the question of what philosophy can do in a scientific age. Philosophers should leave facts to scientists and focus on ethics.

After all, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Socrates and other philosophical founding fathers aimed at moral self-improvement. Enlightenment figures such as Locke, Voltaire and Kant sought to wrest morality away from religion and tradition once and for all. Morality, they contended, should be based on reason rather than whims of Popes and kings.

These arguments, which inspired the American and French revolutions, represent one of humanity’s greatest achievements, right? Wrong, according to members of my philosophy salon. During one of our discussions, I proposed that philosophers should get credit for our moral progress.

What moral progress? one philosopher asked. Another said glumly that philosophy doesn’t deserve credit for advances like the end of slavery, because it never really alters peoples’ behavior. I mentioned a friend who stopped eating meat after reading Peter Singer’s 1975 manifesto Animal Liberation. My comment was met with shrugs. Philosophers were rejecting their own powers of persuasion!

They were also displaying the self-doubt that riddles moral philosophy. Philosophers resemble Sisyphus with a twist: they roll the stone to the mountaintop and shove it down again. Thus, after Kant, Bentham and others painstakingly constructed their ethical edifices, Nietzsche blew them up.

Nietzsche disdained Kantian ethics, which emphasizes our moral intentions, and utilitarianism, which focuses on our actions’ consequences, as much as he disdained Christianity. He urged us to go “beyond good and evil.” Others have continued in this skeptical vein.

Last year, my salon mulled over “Morality, the Peculiar Institution,” a chapter in the 1985 book Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy by Bernard Williams. Williams admires Kant but rejects his ethics, just as he dismisses utilitarian, Marxist and Darwinian accounts of morality.

Williams concludes that “we would be better off without” morality. Not that we should behave like sociopaths, but we should abandon the quest for a universal moral system, because any such system fails to do justice to the boundless complexity and contingency of life.

Just as diet “experts” keep churning out new diet books although diets invariably fail, so philosophers keep batting around ethical propositions in spite of their doubts. Peter Singer has presented disturbingly persuasive arguments for giving money to the poor instead of spending on stuff you don’t need.

Derek Parfit, who died earlier this year, strove to prove the existence of objectively true moral laws. But Parfit is admired less for being right than for being “brilliantly clever and imaginative” (as Bernard Williams put it in a review of Parfit’s 1984 book Reasons and Persons).

In short, Gould’s non-overlapping-magisteria concept won’t work for philosophy, because too many philosophers would reject it—as would some scientists. Philosophy’s efforts to deduce the Good have yielded what David Chalmers calls “negative progress,” or ever-more-sophisticated disagreement.

And so we circle back to the question: If philosophy can’t tell us what is or ought to be, what good is it? In my next column, I’ll consider whether philosophy can serve as a form of art. If it can’t reveal the True or the Good, maybe it has a shot at the Beautiful.

John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings. This column is adapted from one originally published on his ScientificAmerican.com blog, “Cross-check.”