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20190616 – Science and the Good



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The main idea of this book is to examine quest by scientists and philosophers for understanding biological, evolutionary, and historical origin of the notion of good and how to build “good society” based on of scientific foundation of morality. The conclusion is that science is far from meeting challenges posed by these questions and as of now science failed as well as religion failed before provide foundation for morality strong enough to be generally accepted.


Preface: The Argument, in Brief

Here author explicitly formulates his objectives in this book, which is to demonstrate failures of religion to bring order and peace, followed by similar failure of Enlightenment and science, then redirects this question to finding just “useful solutions“ that science can discover, which per author could lead to “moral nihilism”.

PART I: Introduction

1 Our Promethean Longing

Here author is looking at the question “ if science can be foundation of morality.

He discusses “the Dilemma of Difference”, which is resulting from the need to find common moral ground for multitude of different cultures that now encounter each other in common place of interconnected world of economics and politics.  The difficulties are greatly increased by the problem of complexity that resulted from overload of information. Author then moved to the promise of science that was supposed to provide common language and objective methodology to define good and bad, but could not do so.  After that author discusses his method and approach to the problem of finding objective and universal criteria of good and bad.

PART II. The Historical Quest

  1. Early Formulations

Author starts with 3 challenges to traditional philosophy that where posed by Europe social transformation: These challenges included:

(1) The inability of old ways of knowing—philosophy, religious authority—to resolve exploding moral and political conflict;

(2) A need for a convincing basis for shared international trade laws as global commerce swelled and broadened;

(3) A sense that the world was bigger and more complex—in terms of natural, cultural, and moral phenomena—than older medieval conceptions could account for.

Author looks at Aristotelian Scholasticism, then at the conflict and complexities of medieval Europe, which moved morality foundation away from the god mainly due to consequences of religious wars. The Enlightenment, Reason and Science seem to promise scientific solution to the problem of absolute good. Author looks at ideas of lawyers Hugo Grotius (1583-1645 and Samuel von Pufendorf (1632-1694) and philosophers Thomas Hobbs (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704)

  1. Three Schools of Enlightenment Thinking And One Lingering and Disturbing Worry

The first school author discusses is Sentimentalism as represented by Anthony Ashley Cooper, better known as the Third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713); Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746); and, of course, Adam Smith (1723–1790) among them. The central figure was David Hume (1711–1776).

The main point here is empirical impossibility in Hume’s opinion to derive “ought” from “is”. The second was Utilitarism with its Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and ideas of nearly mathematical balance of pain and pleasure. Author also discusses consequent developments of Utilitarism with John Stuart Mills (1806-1873). The third and school came with Charles Darwin (1809-1882) –Evolutionary Ethics. Author looks at each school and especially at the logical and ideological problems that could not be overcome. A bit outside of schools framework author discusses attempts for empirical finding of solutions via behaviorism with its raise and fall during XX century.

4 The New Synthesis

In this chapter author moves to our time and discusses Sociobiology of Edward O. Wilson and its transformation into Evolutionary Psychology. It led to the new synthesis, which author defines in such way:

This new-synthesis view of morality has four basic elements:

(1) Humean mind-focused sentimentalism,

(2) Darwinian evolutionary account of why the mind has the traits it does,

(3) Human interest–based utilitarianism about morality, all embedded within

(4) Strident naturalism committed to empirical study of the world.”

PART III. The Quest thus Far

5 What Has Science Found?

This starts with discussion of meaning of science and author properly stresses that science could not be settled on anything, ever. In relation to morality author suggested existence of 3 levels of scientific results:

  1. Foundation of morality that would settle existing moral issues
  2. Scientific facts that, while not settling issues would give same material to support or reject a moral claim
  3. Finding that would demonstrate origins and meaning of morality, even if they would not support or reject any specific moral doctrine.

He then discusses how different fields of science approach to moral issues like altruism, other-regarding behavior and such. After reviewing some finding from Evolutionary Biology, Psychology, Primatology, Neuroscience, and Social Psychology, he concluded that results are very modest indeed.

6 The Proclivity to Overreach

Here author refer to tendency to overstate scientific achievements in relation to morality when there are claims of achieving levels 1 and 2 when in reality they are not even close. After that author refers to a number of works that demonstrate philosophical and methodological limitations in this area. Then he discusses some cases of oversimplification such as oxytocin. Finally he points out to blurred boundary between “Is” and “ought”, in other words between empirical and moral statements, that so far nobody was able to breach.

7 Intractable Challenges

He details the following challenges for scientific approach to morality:

  • The Challenge of Definition
  • A Lexical Range
  • Neuroscientific representation of “Ought” vs. “Is”
  • Altruism
  • Virtue
  • Specificity
  • The Challenge of Demonstration
  • Happiness and Well-being
  • An Internal Barrier

PART IV. Enduring Quandaries

8 The Quest, Redirected

Here author claims that scientific approach to morality should not be forfeited despite lack of significant results so far. He rather suggest that it makes some turns in more productive directions, the first toward a Disenchanted Naturalism and he provides duality of approaches between enchanted and disenchanted:

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Then the second turn: The Original Quest Abandoned that author treat as failure of science to provide foundation for morality similarly to the previous failure of religion.

9 The Promethean Temptation And the Problem of Unintended Consequences

This is the summation of the narrative of this book, which provided plenty of evidence of science failing in the area of morality. At the end author recommends not to give up and try to find some foundation of morality that would overcome moral differences between people and cultures. It just requires more understanding, interaction, and discourse that would hopefully lead to some accommodation between varieties of moral views.


I think that the core of problem is that people do not really understand meaning of morality, which in my view comes from duality of human as a product of evolution of individual organism fully integrated into the group without which it cannot survive. Consequently it causes development of dynamic interplay between actions of individual directed to survival of organism and actions of individual directed to survival of the group. The morality is just a set of rules developed by individuals within group over long period of time that would provide for group survival even at the expense of individual survival. These rules are culturally transferred to every individual via process of socialization that individuals of each generation sometimes adhered to and sometimes change, depending on personality and place of individual within group and in lifetime point. If morality rules are sound in support of survival in the given environment and flexible enough to change with the change of environment, the existence of group will continue indefinitely and existence of individual would be successfully maintained at last until the next generation of individuals of this group matured enough to carry it on. The rules of the group morality that are not allow flexibility enough could lead to group disappearance with individual members of the group, if they survived group destruction, joining some other group and internalized the morality of this more successful group.


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