Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Rational Force: science vs. ethics

It's a widespread view that science, but not ethics, has rational force. Creationists are irrational, whereas fascists are merely nasty. Is this alleged asymmetry defensible? I'd recommend rejecting the instrumental conception of rationality, so I think both have rational force. But Railton suggests the opposite approach in his 'Moral Realism' (1986, pp.166-7):
From the standpoint of instrumental reason, belief-formation is but one activity among others: to the extent that we have reasons for engaging in it, or for doing it one way rather than another, these are at bottom a matter of its contribution to our ends. What it would be rational for an individual to believe on the basis of a given experience will vary not only with respect to his other beliefs, but also with respect to what he desires. From this it follows that no amount of mere argumentation or experience could force one on pain of irrationality to accept even the factual claims of empirical science... Unfortunately for the contrast Ayer wished to make, we find that argument is possible on scientific questions only if some system of values is presupposed.

This need not imply epistemic relativism, since "epistemic warrant may be tied to an external criterion - as it is for example by causal or reliabilist theories of knowledge." (p.171) Still, on this account we cannot say that creationists are irrational. They merely fail to adhere to the objective, external norms we would hold them to -- same as the fascists. In either case, we (generally) have plenty of good reasons to care about those external norms. So what grounds are there for thinking the rational status of ethics and science differ?

5 comments:

  1. I don't know. It might be possible to show the creationist to be irrational. Maybe something along the style of immanent critique--show that he is irrational by his own lights. For I suspect that many of those creationists in fact DO adhere to the same objective, external epistemic norms that the rest of us do; they just make exceptions to their own norms in ways that are, perhaps even by their own norms unjustified. One style of argument could attempt to point that out to them--from within, as it were.

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  2. A rational action seems to be a different kind of thing, than a rational belief. A belief is rational if it doesn't contradict our other beliefs. An action is rational if our beliefs suggest it will advance our desires more than other options (or perhaps the definition of rational is more complicated?). Thus if one was able to consciously change one's beliefs, then it could be possible to rationally decide to adopt an irrational belief set. For example if someone say, believe this irrational thing or I'll shoot you.

    That aside, I don't think science or ethics can be founded purely on rationality. Science assumes things like Occams's razor, that the future will be (on some level) like the past, that we live in a probable universe, and probably a lot more. The difference, I think, is that this set of starting assumptions has been incredibly successful and has beaten out the competition, whereas in morality there has been no obvious winner in the same way.

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  3. The grounds for thinking that the rational status of ethics and science differ is in the fact that we cannot test an ethical claim in the same way that we test scientific claims. A chemistry experiment gone wrong is not the same as a court trial gone wrong; we can amend the conditions of both by reviewing equations or revising laws once we realize our mistake, but in the case of a trial--even in one that has seemingly little significance, like a traffic violation--there is a sense that considerable harm has been done. I think this sense of harm in ethics considerably outweighs any desire for truthfulness in science, and for that reason, people are more likely to seek an irrational ethical outlook (religious doctrine, fascism) in order to avoid that harm.

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  4. it seems nasty is usually a term to avoid debate and prepare you for a simple solution ie "the criminal is just nasty".

    I also think it trumps irrational - ie you use nasty as a term to describe an irrational nasty person in common language.

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  5. An action is rational if our beliefs suggest it will advance our desires more than other options (or perhaps the definition of rational is more complicated?). Thus if one was able to consciously change one's beliefs, then it could be possible to rationally decide to adopt an irrational belief set.

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