Arthur M. Jackson’s Science of Ethics

Arthur M. Jackson has put a whole book online about a “Science of Ethics“. His ideas seem promising, and i will in the days to come blog my perusal of his book (he advertises 300.000 words!).

The preface and introduction give an overview of this science of ethics, explaining that it is a form of knowledge, based on an understanding of the meaning of life. The goal is to become “enlightened persons” living in “enlightened communities“. The stated goal seems general enough, though i am wary of basing the science on the concept of “meaning of life”, because even if the author rightly refuses to define the content of this meaning, the very idea that the meaning of life is paramount is most certainly subject to change.

The first chapter sets the idea of a science of ethics as the culmination of human social evolution. A number of natural but undesirable “propensities” are outlined that need to be overcome:

A science of ethics must help individuals become more aware of their self-defeating inclinations that stand in the way of achieving what is in their long term best interests. This knowledge needs to be available so they can more effectively deal with these tendencies. Understanding that these propensities exist is not taken as justification for succumbing to them, just the opposite. Knowing about them helps us to become aware of such behavior and do what it takes to interrupt or redirect it. Because such patterns develop in puberty, or even before and are found in all adult human beings to varying degrees thereafter, they are something we all have to learn how to deal with, if we are to become enlightened persons. And, we must do this in new ways never widely applied in any society or group before.

Sadly large amounts of “positive ethics” (by which i mean a prescriptive, dogmatic morality) appear here as the desirable alternatives to the undesirable propensities: “Monogamy, or at least serial monogamy”, “All of humanity is us”, or “We each have our private space, but the earth belongs to everyone”. Even if it is emphasized that such ideas will themselves have to evolve, it is a shame that they are included in the idea of the science. Science is a method and all content should be avoided when describing its principles.

The first chapter then closes with the idea that western thinkers have usually opposed the individual and society, but that the goal of humanity is to rise above its natural propensities by using the “symbolic thinking” made possible by language so as to bring harmony between the individual and society.

All in all, the first bit of the book offers an interesting idea, that of a science of ethics, but does not deliver on explaining how that science will work. Moreover, no clear line is drawn between scientific method and the knowledge that is to be produced via that method. But perhaps chapter 2 will provide some answers…


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