It is a commonly held belief that scientific inquiry is a value-free endeavor. This ideology of science states that because ethical claims, concepts, and ideas cannot be verified empirically, they are not real in a sense that is relevant to science. This position has recently been widely challenged, and this ideology continues to erode under the pressures of philosophical criticism. The question of exactly what the sciences can teach us about ethics, however, remains.
Because the sciences cover such a breadth of topics, I want to limit discussion of this question to the discipline of biological sciences. Biology is roughly the study of the living world. It is an effort to understand what organisms do, how they do it, and why. There are two senses in which we might be able to extrapolate ethical conclusions from biological inquiry. First, we might notice that humans are themselves organisms that evolve and adapt to their surroundings. Moral thinking, as an endeavor that is natural to human organisms, might be explicable by considering some aspect of human biology.
This position, or something like it, is categorized under the title of ethical naturalism. Ethical naturalists try to account for morality as a product of human nature. For example, the ethical naturalist might argue that morality developed as a means of successful human social interactions, and that we can best understand morality as an evolutionary adaptation. Morality is thus a subset of general adaptive behaviors that support survival of the human species.
Many professional philosophers are ethical naturalists, and there is a substantial effort underway to try and make ethical concepts consistent with the sciences. Theories that describe morality as somehow separate or distinct from the natural world struggle to explain how moral features can connect to a world that is so unlike them. If “rightness” is a property of actions, how exactly does murdering someone possess this property? A clear connection between the moral realm and the rest of nature is a distinct advantage of ethical naturalism.
There is, however, another way to think about how biology might teach us about ethics. One way of characterizing ethics is to view it as the study of how we ought to live. The Aristotelian virtue tradition is clearly committed to this type of outlook, and to some extent all ethical theorizing is about how we ought to live. The question, then, is whether biology has anything to say about that.
Consider the following. Most organisms live in some degree of harmony with their environment. Predators kill their prey, and sometimes herbivores overgraze their food sources, but the system remains somewhat in balance over time. It is far less common in the non-human animal kingdom for creatures to live in harmony with other creatures, and with the natural resources that they depend on.
Notice that the same cannot be said for human animals. We typically eliminate other organisms when their survival stands in the way of our own interests, and we tax our natural resources to the greatest possible extreme. If the behavior of other organisms is any sort of indicator of how we ought to live, our relationship with the natural world is one that we rightly ought to question.
It’s not clear that this method of biological appeal is an all-encompassing, or even an effective means of resolving ethical questions. Perhaps it is, but perhaps not. The important point for our purposes is to recognize that there are multiple ways that biology might have something to say about ethics. Ethical naturalism is an explanatory mechanism for the way morality came to exist, and what it’s really all about, while biology as a kind of metaphor for how we ought to live allows us to extrapolate from the behavior of other living beings in order to answer certain questions about what we ought to do. After all, some organisms have an ancestry that goes back much further than ours, and many others have been on the planet for centuries in their current form.
If ethics is really just a survival mechanism, as the ethical naturalist claims, we would be wise to examine the success stories of other creatures. Survival is survival, and we need an argument for why crocodile survival is different from human survival. If it isn’t, perhaps we ought to stop theorizing so much, and see what the crocs have to say.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.