What role should science play in ethics?


A belief in universal, absolute moral values is central to Christian theism. It is the necessary by-product of belief in an absolute, unchanging God. Undermine belief in the one, and the collapse of the other is sure to follow. The notion that one can build an ethical system that is rooted in scientific experimentation, or that empirical research should have any bearing on our moral deliberations and judgments, would seem to do just that. With this in mind, the goal of Experiments in Ethics is to present a positive case for just such an ethical naturalism. Arguing against any notion of a transcendent, autonomous ethic, Kwame Anthony Appiah sets out to construct a more immanent one, removing the wedge between moral value and science (185) and returning philosophical ethics to its scientific roots (when psychology, economics, anthropology and sociology were commonly referred img_5572to as the “moral sciences”). His premise is simple: what we should do depends on how the world is. Appiah begins this task by acknowledging the worrisome questions that such a venture may elicit. “What happens when moral theory is called before the tribunal of psychology – when fact interrogates value? Will the blurring of boundaries advance the aims of ethics or lead to its eclipse? Can moral philosophy be naturalized?” As Christian Theists, it is up to us to determine just how far the relationship between ethics and science should be taken and what our response to naturalism should be. While it is clear that Appiah does not have a Christian audience in mind, it is fitting that this work has its origins as a lecture series given at Bryn Mawr College, as part of the 2005 Mary Flexner Lectures. Bryn Mawr’s Quaker history was not lost on Appiah, especially since he cites the Quaker abolition movement in one of his illustrations. Given his propensity to incorporate numerous allusions to popular and intellectual culture throughout this work, I do see several veiled references to religious ideas, and feel that he is most certainly challenging the traditional notions of morality most commonly articulated by those who would denounce science as quickly as they “denounce Satan.”

This book will force Christians to re-examine the question of the compatibility of science and ethics. While Christian philosophers have been making significant ground in regard to the integration of science and Christian faith as a whole, much more needs to be said concerning the appropriate relationship between science and Christian morality. With the rise of naturalistic ethics and experimental philosophy, the question of whether Christian ethics should maintain a noninteracting, compartmentalized approach to science needs to be adequately addressed. J.P. Moreland states in Christianity and the Nature of Science, “If the church is to speak to the modern world and interact with it responsibly, it must interact with modern science.” While such words have generally been misinterpreted to apply only to the integration of science and the question of origins, it is time for the Christian intellectual community to more fully explore their application to the field of ethics. Albeit, not in the manner in which Appiah suggests. Why should this one area of theology continue to be dichotomized from science? I believe it has a great deal to do with fear and bad theology.

In regard to the fears we have, one can see many dangerous ideas present in Appiah’s proposal. The ethical world which he advocates is one which is heavily influenced by the situation. For Appiah, this is a natural conclusion based upon empirical research demonstrating that moral intuitions fluctuate and depend upon circumstances (most of which are insignificant, yet have substantial impact). This is the point of his chapter entitled The Case Against Intuition, which does not set out to destroy intuitions all together, but seeks to redefine them in light of scientific investigation and observation, ultimately showing that they can’t be trusted as reliable guides. Far from being self-evident transcendent absolutes, intuitions are little more than primal gut reactions that have been shaped by our “evolutionary and cultural histories,” changing on the basis of such things as circumstances, framing effects, cue words and ordering, emotional traction, and the like. In other words, our morality is a function of whatever situation in which we find ourselves. This has significant consequences. How we are psychologically constructed and the cultural context in which we live cannot be irrelevant to how we should be expected to conduct ourselves. Stated more bluntly, “we cannot be obligated to be a kind of creature that we have realized we cannot become.”


  Kwame A. Appiah

Out of the moral flux generated by incoherent subjective intuitions, Appiah turns to psychology for assistance. “Empirical moral psychology can help us think about how to manage our lives, how to become better people.” It does this, not through character education, but through behavioral engineering. It seems the new moral authorities are not self-evident absolutes, but rather lab-coated psychologists seeking to discover the circumstantial stimuli that trigger desirable tendencies in human behavior, adjusting the environment accordingly. Appiah enthusiastically quotes Gil Harman, who says we need to have “‘more emphasis on trying to arrange social institutions so that human beings are not placed in situations in which they will act badly.'” Here, psychological considerations and our cultural/communal situations merge. “What would be the point of norms that human beings were psychologically incapable of obeying? . . . If you say somebody ought to do something, you must be supposing that it is something they can do.” Appiah is proposing the derivation of an “ought” from an “is.” This exposes ethical naturalism to the criticism that it commits the naturalistic fallacy. Appiah vigorously defends this jump from the observation of what is, to the conclusion of what ought to be, on the basis of the practical nature of ethics.

In regard to bad theology, let me refer to Appiah’s use of Socrates’ question in the Euthypho: “Is an act loved by the gods because it is good or is it good because it is loved by the gods?” This question harkens to the essentialist/voluntarist debate. Is something good simply because it is willed thus by God, or does God will something as good because it is already essentially so, in accordance with his nature? William of Ockham maintained the voluntarist position, arguing that if he so willed, God could have decided differently about what he declared to be right and wrong. Empirical research seems to support the criticism that such a view is arbitrary. Appiah makes reference to a survey of Amish students conducted by Shaun Nichols. One hundred percent of these students responded that it would be all right to work on Sunday if God had made no such rule against it. When asked how they would react if God made no rule against hitting, the majority responded that hitting would still be wrong. This seems to reinforce the essentialist position that things are right or wrong regardless of any divine pronouncement. Universal moral values flow from God’s rational, moral character, and are thus essentially good. While it is inappropriate to adopt Appiah’s approach and build an ethic from the bottom up, basing it on what is, it seems theologically correct to expect a correlation between morals and science, built from the top down. Faith is not blind and opposed to reason and scientific evidence, as many would suppose. If God created the universe and it bears his imprint, then it cannot be contrary to him. Science will support morality as an apologetic of moral absolutism. What we should do, will correspond to how the world is.

This fact is demonstrated in an interesting chapter on the varieties of moral experience (although Appiah is setting out to demonstrate the exact opposite). Appiah draws upon recent developments in experimental moral psychology to provide the reader with a rudimentary “taxonomy of moral cognition.” He cites several specific moral modules, originally elaborated by psychologist Johnathan Haidt. Among these are compassion, reciprocity, and purity. Taking compassion for example, we see that the human psyche is hardwired such that “people everywhere seem to be able to distinguish between violations involving harm or suffering and violations of convention.” Reciprocity helps explain our universal intuitions about fairness and the notion that we should act as we would have others act. As expected, Appiah approaches this from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, maintaining that these phenomena are the result of natural selection genetically inscribing behavioral dispositions. However, might these moral modules also reinforce the theistic contention that we are designed by God? If Christ’s command that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us is to be taken as a moral law of the universe, then might we expect to find it hardwired into our minds (as part of the neural architecture of the brain)? This is exactly what the moral module of reciprocity shows. To play on Appiah’s words cited earlier, God is not going to give us a command that we are not able to obey.



One interesting facet of Appiah’s work is its analysis of what is referred to as “quandary ethics.” At times Experiments in Ethics comes across as a sort of compendium of moral dilemmas. All of the most famous dilemmas make an appearance, most notably is Philippa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thompson’s runaway trolley and footbridge scenarios. While “trolleyology” makes for fascinating discussion, Appiah points out that such moral problems are “too abstract,” ignore “our particularity,” and make the mistake of presenting “moral judgment as a solitary act.” These weaknesses strike at the very heart of what Appiah is hoping to accomplish in arguing that ethics is a shared human endeavor. However, they do serve a valuable role in making his overall thesis for ethical naturalism. Surveyed responses to these and other such conundrums reveal the shortcomings of basing our moral judgments on intuition. Appiah argues that intuition must be brought under the authority of rational reflection and empirical research. We must draw upon the perspective of the Sinnenwelt, the world of the senses, making use of scientific data to confirm, refine or reject our subjective moral evaluations to make a better life.

There is at least one thing in Appiah that the Christian ethicist can find agreeable: moral dilemmas reduce morality to a form of “clinical intervention.” This is dangerous because it gives students the false idea that ethics is only concerned with moral emergencies that are far removed from the reality of everyday life (practical for generating lively discussions, impractical for real life application). The truth is that ethical considerations should pervade every aspect of our lives. If our goal is to get students to be moral people, then we need to present a picture of ethics that is true to its nature.

With this in mind, I believe that this book presents a popular case for naturalism and would thus be a fitting secondary text for an undergraduate course in Christian ethics. Appiah’s clear and engaging style makes for an enjoyable read, at least for those theists whose skin is not too thin. While he makes frequent references and allusions to key philosophers and ethical concepts, he does so in a manner that even the philosophically uninitiated may understand. Appiah provides approximately fifty pages of notes that are equally lucid, providing additional commentary to help fill in any gaps that a novice may encounter. Let us not repeat the mistakes of the past in putting up a dividing line between Christian faith and science. Doing so will result in religious leaders (the traditional beacons of moral guidance) being left out of the contemporary discussion. We can embrace the findings of the moral sciences, knowing that they provide much needed support for ethical absolutism. We can be confident that in this rationally constructed universe, faith and science should naturally work hand in hand. In our apologetic endeavors, we must incorporate a proper understanding of the relationship between ethics and science, and be able to articulate a proper response to Appiah and other naturalists. In the final chapter Appiah dares us to take on this challenge, quoting philosopher Richard Joyce, who says, “‘If uncomfortable truths are out there, we should seek them and face them like intellectual adults.'”

Experiments In Ethics. By Kwame Anthony Appiah. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008. 274 pages.


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