why a moral science produces good and not (only) truth

In an email response to my post about his book, Walter Fritz asks the following (which he kindly allowed my to quote):

You say a science on ethics should produce good deeds. Why is that so? For instance I read interesting books on astronomy, but have never looked through a large telescope. Why is ethics an exception?

here is the tentative answer i had to offer:

I have been wondering myself why a science of ethics should differ from other types of science and am convinced it should without quite having good arguments yet to support this position; but i’ll try nonetheless.

All other types of science are indeed structured so as to produce knowledge. This is their final end. Applying that knowledge is secondary and optional to the pursuit of those sciences. Ethics has usually also been considered a standard form of enquiry that has the purpose of producing knowledge about what is good or bad. That is the point of aristotelian, kantian or utilitarian ethical theories. This type of ethics is trying to come up with true theories that tell us what the good is.

The good is not on my view a “feature” of the world that can be described with a theory: it is ineradicably relative to our situation in the world. Thus, not only will traditional ethics continue to produce divergent theories about the good, but these theories will never converge towards a truer formulation (as say newtonian physics was clearly improved by relativity). There is therefore no way to build on previous ethical theories. There can be no progress in our knowledge.

The reason is that ethics is the most recursive form of knowledge: it is not knowledge applied to non-human stuff, nor even to human society or human brains; it is knowledge applied to ourselves. Thus we can only know if something is good by trying it out. Astronomical theories can be verified with telescopes; economic theories with census data and psychological theories with fMRI scans of some else’s brain. But ethical theories can only be verified by trying them out on ourselves (as individual researchers or as society) and seeing if they work.

A moral science might well produce theories of the good, but it must at the same time implement those theories in order to verify them. A moral science is forced to produce good deeds in order to make progress. This is, i believe, the special character of moral science as opposed to all other heretofore known sciences.

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2 Comments to “why a moral science produces good and not (only) truth”

  1. What about trying them out on monkeys?

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