Oh dear! I am back in hot water. First it was the Mormons upset at my laughing at sacred underpants. Now it is the New Atheists upset at my denial that science is the only source of knowledge. You sure do get scratched up when you enter the thorny thickets of American religious belief.
My three examples of nonscientific truths were mathematics, morality, and answers to those kinds of philosophical meta-questions, like – “What is the truth status of claims that only scientific claims are knowledge claims?” I will leave the first and third categories for discussion at another time, although frankly I will say that if someone really thinks the Euler identity (my example) is a generalization from experience then they are in the right state of mind to accept the validity of the ontological argument.
Let’s focus in on moral claims. My most doughty critic Jerry Coyne (really, I should pay him a retainer) says “while science can inform moral judgments, in the end statements about right or wrong (or, in Ruse’s case, whether one should feel ashamed of an action) are opinions, based on subjective value judgments.” And he goes on to say “I think that’s true.”
Let me say bluntly – and it really is nothing personal because if it were I would be including a lot of my fellow philosophers including some of my teachers – I think this is just plain wrong. I want to say that what Jerry Sandusky was reportedly doing to kids in the showers was morally wrong, and that this is not just an opinion or something “based on subjective value judgments.” The truth of its wrongness is as well taken as the truth of the heliocentric solar system. It’s just not an empirical claim.
A subjective value judgment is something on which decent, thoughtful people can differ. I think Grace Kelly was the most beautiful film star we saw in the philosophy of film course this last semester. Some of my students thought that Catherine Deneuve was. Who is right? Who is wrong? And what about the chap who voted for Marilyn Monroe? Decent, thoughtful people do not differ on Jerry Sandusky’s alleged actions.
Why is a moral claim not an empirical claim, except in the sense that one might have empirical elements informing the moral claim? (As in a claim about the morality of capital punishment that is informed by supposed facts about its effectiveness. Here the ultimate moral claim is about the sanctity of life and that is not empirical.) The answer was given to us by David Hume. “Is” claims do not justify “ought” claims.
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ‘tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.
So how do you justify moral claims? Some philosophers and theologians think you can do it by reference to so-called non-natural properties or perhaps the will of God. Others, and this includes me, think that perhaps morality has no objective justification in this sense. (Although there is a subset that includes me who think that part of our psychology is to think that there is such an objective justification.)
I will leave the so-called moral realists to make their own cases. How does a non-realist like me proceed? One could be some kind of social contract theorist and think that a group of wise old people sat down one day and made up the rules of morality. This seems to me to be unsatisfactory both as history and philosophy. I go rather with the late John Rawls in his Theory of Justice, thinking that natural selection put morality into place. Those proto-humans who thought and behaved morally survived and reproduced at a better rate than those that did not. (There are all sorts of good biological reasons why cooperation can be a much better strategy than just fighting all of the time.)
So what does this make of morality? Sure, it is something that is part of our psychology. Frankly, who would ever doubt that? If you like, the controversial part is that it is only part of our psychology. I think that is the world into which David Hume pushed us. But because it may be the case that we can do what we like, it doesn’t follow that we should do what we like. As evolved human beings, the rules of morality are as binding on us as if we were the children of God and He had made up the rules.
So that is why what Jerry Sandusky allegedly did was wrong – really and truly wrong. That is not a matter of opinion. It just isn’t a scientific statement.