Science and Morality

Class notes for 4 May

Main points

Today’s discussion introduced the questions that we will try to answer in the rest of the course:

  1. How exactly should we characterize the apparent difference between the beliefs that figure in natural science and moral beliefs?
  2. Does this difference, if there is one, show that there is something wrong about our moral beliefs?

Harman maintains that the difference consists in the presence or absence of facts: science has ‘em, morality doesn’t. Facts are objective because their existence is independent of whether anyone believes that they exist. The wall is solid whether you, I, or anyone else thinks that it is.

His argument for this conclusion is that the best explanation of scientific observations, such as “that’s a proton!”, is that facts cause the observations. The best explanation of moral observations, such as “cat burning is wrong!”, does not require moral facts but only moral education.

I said that he hadn’t proven his point because he hadn’t shown that these really are the best explanations. Nonetheless, I said that I suspect he might be onto something.

The relationship between theories and facts

There were a fair number of questions about the relationship between theories and the facts that they predict. In particular, it was frequently pointed out that the facts just seem to be particular instances of the theories. That’s true in both the physical and moral cases.

The theory in the physical case is a law describing the motion of particles. The putative fact is that a particular particle moves in a particular way. The observation is of a trail in the cloud chamber.

The theory in the moral case is a moral principle describing a kind of bad behavior: causing gratuitous pain is wrong. The putative fact in that case would be that cat burning is wrong. The observation is that what the kids did, burning the cat, is wrong.

In both cases, the putative facts are particular instances of the theories. So I don’t think that separates them from one another.

Harman claims distinguishes the two cases as follows. The best explanation of the observations in the physical cases is that they are caused by facts: the observation of the trail in the cloud chamber is caused by the proton’s movement. In the moral case, he maintains, the best explanation of the observation does not involve the putative fact that cat burning is wrong; rather, it is that the observer was brought up to believe that it is wrong.

Does it matter?

Both Anthony and Rachel said that it does. If there are no moral facts, then our moral beliefs are not based on anything.

But what follows from that? Does it follow that we should abandon our moral beliefs? Not act on them? What? That’s the question that we’ll pursue for the rest of the quarter.