What could experimental ethics be? A quick google search ensures that the concept is not new. The top two hits pointed to a chapter of Walter Fritz’s free ebook Intelligent Systems and Their Societies titled “Ethics as a Science” (with a sub part called “Experimental Ethics”). In this chapter he explains how Intelligent Systems and namely human beings can develop a science of ethics that would produce ethical knowledge independent of religious or other presuppositions. This scientific ethics is a calculus based on a basic ethical principal that you should only do those things that will achieve your goal while not harming anyone else. (We are here very close to Rawl’s minimax rule or Kants categorical imperative.) The idea is not new (indeed these Intelligent Systems sound quite a bit like Kantian reasonable beings) and also not objectionable.
However, this ethical science falls short of being very useful. The main problem is that it remains theoretical, in the sense that it is a form of knowledge about ethics and not an actual being good. The science is too formal and abstract to really be able to answer such questions as “Should i get an abortion?” or “How should i deal with my messy roommate?”
The sub section on “Experimental Ethics” is very short and suggests that the experiments in question be carried out on computers in artificial simulations. Again, the problem with such an approach is that it would only produce (highly abstract) information about how one should be ethical and would not even supply a “How To” guide for getting the ethics from the printout into real-world institutions.
If ethics is going to be experimental and thus scientific, it is going to have to adapt science to itself and squeeze into the current mould of “science”. Ethics is about doing good and an experimental ethics should not produce theories about how to be good but should produce actual good actions.
The natural and social sciences have the goal of producing knowledge. Any application (ipods and central banks) are of secondary importance and not essential to the pursuit of the science. Physics and Economics produce Textbooks and Theories. Though Ethics has indeed also been traditionally considered a theoretical discipline, this position can no longer be held because (1) biologists, among others, have shown us that our ethical intuitions are evolutionarily contingent and (2) because ethics is a fundamentally different type of investigation as other sciences: ethics deals with the good and not the true. Ethics therefore should not produce textbooks but good deeds. Ethical textbooks, of course, exist, but they should only be seen as a means to an end.
An ethical science should not therefore produce knowledge, but action. And an experimental ethics should therefore experiment not on computers but on us people. What would that look like? It would look like people (a) describing a situation, (b) proposing a solution they suppose good, (c) implementing the idea and (d) evaluating the result, which might lead to (e) proposing a modified solution, etc. Such an experimental ethics would have the great advantage that it would produce good during the experimental process.
To return to Walter Fritz’s science of ethics, what he proposes does not do justice to the particular nature of that branch of human inquiry called ethics. What we often forget, and what philosophers and university rectors have for centuries now forgotten, is that ethics cannot be known (or taught) without being at the same time implemented. A good ethics teacher is a good ethics teacher. And a good ethical scientist can therefore be none other than a scientist who is becoming good.