Ethics is a Science (domain of knowledge)

Ethics is a Science (domain of knowledge)

When we think of ethics as a science (domain of knowledge) we can concentrate on learning the principles of ethics just as we would any other science. To be skilled in any science we must comprehend the fundamental principles of that science and we must learn how to utilize those principles in an objective manner.

Although ethics can be studied as a science it must also be studied as a matter of judgments made by humans under great sociocentric forces. Ethical principles must be applied in very complex situations in which we have only partial comprehension and are forced to make quick judgments.

What strategic elements can we rely on to help us in our effort to become sophisticated ethical agents? I think there are three such elements necessary for consideration when difficult ethical questions must be considered.
• Mastering ethical concepts and principles
• Distinguishing the science of ethics from other sciences or thinking
• Mastering the self when great ego, economic, and socio centric forces are in play

I think that at least some ethical principles are universal and to look for those principles I turn for guidance to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established in 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Here are a few principles laid out in the 30 articles of the declaration:

  • All humans are equal in dignity and rights.
  • All humans have the rights of life, liberty, and security.
  • No human shall be enslaved.
  • No human shall be tortured.
  • All humans have a right to an adequate standard of living.
  • All humans have a right to education.
  • All humans have a right to peacefully assemble.
  • All humans are equal under the law.

Many of these ideas come from “Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Professional and Personal Life” by Paul and Elder.

I think that we should study ethics both as a science and as a judgment made by humans under very difficult situations. What do you think about this matter?

Hmmm… I see what you mean, and I agree that ethics should be something that can (and should) be intensively studied; it’s the ‘science’ bit that I have a problem with. Of course it’s a science in the broad definition of the term, but I think it’s potentially misleading to say that it can be studied just like any other science, because, as far as I can tell, ethical principles are not absolute and objective; they are defined by us, rather than out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered by the scientific method.

But I’m happy to be corrected on this.

Exactly. When it comes right down to it, ethics is based on arbitrary values and opinions. The principles laid out by coberst are habitually and systematically violated every minute of every hour of every day, apparently by people who do not agree with them. Can those people in any way be shown that they’re wrong? Only if their ethical worldview is internally inconsistent. Otherwise, we can just rage at the tide.

Also, even if the principles were universally observed (say, if everyone in the world agreed that it is a bad thing to boil puppies alive), that still doesn’t necessarily mean the principle is absolute or objective; it just means that the whole set of individuals under consideration happens to agree on the same arbitrary principle.
Furthermore, this situation can be manufactured by simply reducing the set of individuals being considered; if I wave my nuclear wand and remove all living humans (except myself) from the Earth, I will find myself in a situation where nobody disputes anything I say or do; does that mean I’m no longer a bad guy for cooking up a big pot of live puppy stew?

The attempt to put ethics into a scientific framework has been attempted (without success) for centuries.

There’s the problem, right there… even Immanuel Kant had trouble formulating a meaningful universal ethical principle.

For every ethical norm you say is universal, I will find you someone who disagrees.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a product of its era… show those same “univerals” to a Roman senator, or Somali war-lord, or Victorian slave trader and suddenly they ain’t universal any more.

Ethics is simply our “boo” or “hooray” to certain situations - with no externally validated universalising normative force.

Ethics are just a set of rules, they rest on value judgments, so their application bears more relation to formal logic than ‘science’.

Formal logic is ultimately pretty stale, since it is based on implication.

The major jump is getting people to understand what ‘ethics’ are, and to stop them wandering off into ‘morals’.

Personally I consider the whole ‘uman rites’ stuff a load of tosh
How about Rodent Rights, Earthworm Rights, Amoeba Rights ?

Social Rights are fine, because it is clear where they come from.

  • and it is also clear that they are not enjoyed simply because of ones DNA

Consider this nonsense :-
All humans have a right to an adequate standard of living

Ok, we have some unknown tribe in the Amazonian jungle, assuming they intuitively discovered that they enjoy a ‘right’ to have a DVD player, who are they going to pester, who is going to supply the thing ?

All humans are equal under the law.

Right, really, empirically this is not the case, but of course ‘equal’ is a weasel word.

Aristotle did better:
Treat equals equally, unequals unequally, with due regard to the relevant difference

Now that is full of weasel words, but they are not concealed under a sugar coating, they are in your face and demanding clarification.

Paul and Elder appear to be woolly minded windbags with a knack of using jargon and hijacking arrant nonsense.

Coberst, from your post in another thread, I can see where you are coming from, but you would be a lot better off starting off from first principles rather than increting pilpul.

Chew this over, ‘why does Law exist ?’

Go for the stick, discard the candyfloss

The study of ethics can certainly be done in a scientific manner, just as the study of socieities is. That does not mean that society is a science, but merely that Sociology is a science.

I think that this is an important matter that needs careful consideration. If we cannot consider this domain of knowledge in a scientific manner how can we resolve our emotional differences? The eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment was a somewhat successful attempt to make it possible for the common person to deal with matters such as this in a scientific manner.

I don’t believe we can.

Subjectively, and by consensus. Imperfect, but the best you’re going to get, I think.

Priceguy and Mangetout have it right.

Ultimately, ethics is totally contingent on an individual’s point-of-view.

All we can do is study the way different individuals act, and assign various actions an “ethical” status… but it’s no more useful in the real world than considerations of artistic or musical merit, which also differ from individual to individual.

I tend to agree with Thrasymachus’ observation in Plato’s Republic that ethics “is nothing else than the interest of the stronger”.

The ethical opinions of a dominant group in any era become the “given” norms against which “abberant” ethical behaviour is measured. Change the group holding dominance, and you’ll find different ethics… in as many combinations as it’s possible to imagine.

In the 18th century the ‘common person’ was probably illiterate, possibly syphillitic, and definitely incapable of understanding the pontifications of some very uncommon people.

In the UK they were recovering from, or had just recovered from, a rather nasty religious (and other things) spat. Curiously the ancient wisdom of Rome and more significantly Greece was establishing a foothold, no ‘church’ held the bank.

That was the period of the rise of the ‘Classical’ education.

Same goes for the USA, at that time they were primarily British emigrees.

In today’s context, an Islamisist nation manages to confine Mullahs and starts looking at an old cache of educational DVDs.

Personally I reckon that this sort of stuff does not need careful consideration, it is pretty trivial

  • bigotry bludgeons brains
  • peasants revolt - and are revoltingly thick

Mostly these things are a game of ‘Snap’, with each player appealing to a higher authority - and if they win a round, they declare their ‘higher authority’ as trumps.

What gets interesting is when chaos, or econonomic prosperity, sets in and a new suite overturns the old one.

I must admit you people certainly know how to depress a guy. Not a single voice in this membership to take a different view!!??

Well, you did come here looking for something universal! :wink:

Chew this over, ‘why does Law exist ?’

It is a fascinating question, the answer is obvious, so obvious that an engineer or a lawyer would not know.

To give you a hint, what is an inch or a centimetre

  • or perhaps a Carob seed ?

You are tackling things from the wrong end

  • by that I mean you are confusing yourself with blabber

Go for it in the Socratic fasion, you know the answer, but you don’t know that you know it.

On the other hand, your opening post in this thread is very lucid and thoughtful (I still think it’s wrong, but…); so there is at least one different voice on the SDMB : - You! Why not just argue your case?

If you were to explore ethics as a science, what kinds of hypotheses would you test? What experiments would you perform? What predictions would you attempt to make?"
I would not study its methods of operation, I would probably perform no experiments and I guess I would not make any predictions. I would study its principles and concepts.

Webster says science is --a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study.

When I study chemistry I can study it as an occupation, as a history, as a domain of physics, as a domain of knowledge, etc.

When I study chemistry as a domain of knowledge I will study it by comprehending its principles and its concepts (maybe more).

When I study ethics as a domain of knowledge I will study it by comprehending its principles and its concepts (maybe more).

Whenever I study any department of systematized knowledge I will study it by learning its principles and its concepts (maybe more).

The hang-up comes because we use the word ‘science’ in a popular fashion that is not related to this meaning of ‘science’.

I think ethics can be partially scientific, but contains too many subjective factors and vaguely defined principles to be fully scientific.

For example, the consequences of an ethical system can be studied objectively and scientifically, and compared to the stated goals and principles of that system. If the system fails to achieve it’s goals, then it is an objective, scientific failure. That won’t tell you if it is a good ( in the moral sense of the word ) ethical system, but it will tell you that it is a valid one, it the sense that it does what it says it does.

I also think that ethical systems are not as subjective as people like to claim. I think that one can at least partly objectively define them, and objectively determine whether or not they are compatible with your own ethics, or your own self interest. People who take the attitude that they can exploit anyone they feel like are objectively dangerous to everyone else, and are objectively opposed to the ethical values of those whose consider the lives/feelings/interests of others important. Like matter and antimatter, some ethical systems are innately opposed/hostile to each other; that is an objective difference.

I think this puts the systems that strive for fairness/freedom/equality and so forth in a special category; you call call it “Ethical System Cluster Alpha” or something similar if “good” bothers you. People who practice systems that value tolerance and consider the lives and interests of others important can agree to disagree. People that practice intolerance and ruthlessness don’t get along well with even slightly different groups of people.

That’s an objective difference. It also makes the two “Ethical System Clusters” fundementally hostile to each other. Just because you refuse to use the label “good” and “evil” doesn’t negate that; you can label tolerance and mercy evil, and you can call intolerance and ruthlessness good - they’ll still be opposed principles.

To sum up, I think much of the claim that “there is no objective good” is a matter of word games and misreading of history. An ethical system is what it is, and calling it good or evil doesn’t change what it is. Someone who preaches equality while holding slaves is not following different principles than ours; he’s violating his own.

(Blatantly off-topic)

FRDE, I’m noticing lately that you have some interesting things to say, but your posting style—sort of an “e. e. cummings meets Microsoft Word Outline View”—distracting, to put it charitably. Any chance you could knock it off?

What do you mean by scientific manner?
Ethics are a set of principles, based on a set of assumptions and postulates. The ethics of meat eating are very different depending on how you see animals as the objects of ethical actions. If you consider a certain animal as basically a walking piece of wood, you treat it one way. If you consider it as a sentient being who cannot talk, you consider it quite a different way.

Though you can analyze an ethical system for self-consistency, you cannot test it in the way you’d test a scientific hypothesis. Even the success of people or societies applying the system does not count - there are ethical societies that were not successful, and unethical ones (by our lights) that were.

I don’t even know what the body of knowledge of ethics consist of, except a collection of the principles proposed in the past and the rules of logic. Could you expand on this?