Posted by: gcarkner | June 9, 2020

Quality of the Will Series: Post 8.

Science of Ethics, Science and Ethics, Ethics of Science

To continue our theme on human flourishing through finding a coherent frame for ethics and meaning, we now visit the important subject of the relationship between science and morality, science and ethics. In this blog series, we have been pushing to increase the gain as we go, to ramp up our knowledge of the power and fecundity of morality. Morality has muscle, it delivers impact, it is like gold relationally. It increases social capital and builds trust. There are some tensions and confusions in this topic as depicted wisely and critically by renowned University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter and philosopher Paul Nedelisky in Science and the Good. People’s moral vision can and has come into conflict over the years. We do rub against each other given our different sacred values. We need a way to discern between them. Sometimes these conflicts are intense, even dangerous. But can science solve this problem, demonstrate what morality is and how we should live? Can it help us avoid radical evil? Can it serve a pluralistic world with a common foundation for ethics and promote harmony? People such as Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape) believe passionately that it can. Hunter and Nedelisky are more skeptical about some of the claims made about a science of morality.

This process of searching for coherence within ourselves, within our moral framework, is essential to a healthy, robust identity. It is essential to our own integrity, our ability to like and live with ourselves and overcome shame. In this post, we explore the long-standing question of the relationship between science and ethics, science and morality, which is at the heart of some current tensions. Some have thought that science makes ethics irrelevant, especially the ideology of scientism. What are the similarities and difference between scientific language and moral language? This issue is highlighted in the compelling critique by James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky in Science and the Good: the tragic quest for the foundations of morality. Hunter wryly notes: “To be human is to be an active agent within a moral universe.” The field of positive psychology makes claim to a science of virtue (Mark McMinn). Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape: how science can determine human values.) is one of the most outspoken advocates for a scientific foundation for ethics. He and others believe they can employ science and technology to build a new alternative foundation to morality, one to avoid the disagreements between religions or the pluralism of cultural traditions. He is bullish on science and feels that it has the real hard answers to our current dilemmas and disagreements. He is keen to avoid dreaded moral relativism, which he believes will be the downfall of Western civilization. Indeed, without a moral compass, societies and culture are headed for the abyss of nihilism, more division, violence, riots and self-destruction. Then, there is the Moral Foundation Theory of popular NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He applies his science to right and left wing US politics. Thus, powerful minds are at work on this all-important subject. While there has emerged new insights about the building blocks of moral decision making, what Hunter finds is that, “The new synthesis have provided no clear empirical support for any moral theory, let alone for any claim about what is right or wrong, good or evil, or how we should live.” (117)

This process of searching for coherence within ourselves, within our moral framework, is essential to a healthy, robust identity and substantial meaning in our lives. It is also essential to our inner-direction, integrity, our ability to like and live with ourselves, overcome shame, narcissism and nihilism (even psychopathy and sociopathy). In this post, we explore the long-standing question of the relationship between science and ethics, science and the moral good, an issue at the heart of some current tensions. In modernity, some positivists like A. J. Ayer have thought that science makes ethics irrelevant, especially within the frame of the philosophy (ideology) of scientism. Harris is the opposite, believing that we can apply science to ethics. What are the similarities and differences between scientific language and moral language? This issue is highlighted in the compelling critique by James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky in Science and the Good: the tragic quest for the foundations of morality. Hunter wryly, yet profoundly, notes: “To be human is to be an active agent within a moral universe.” Humans are hard-wired as moral and social animals, they cannot escape it. There is no morally neutral space on this planet.

The field of positive psychology (new since 2000, invented by Martin Seligman) makes claim to a science of virtue (for example, Mark McMinn’s work). We see some real value in this approach–a creative and capacious discourse involving a large eclectic contingent of scholars and psychologists. Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape: how science can determine human values) is one of the most outspoken advocates for a scientific foundation for ethics. He and many others believe they can employ science and technology to build a new alternative foundation to morality (replacing religion and philosophy). It is thought to be one that avoids the disagreements between religions or the pluralism of cultural, political and family traditions. A bold claim, it is an attempt to simplify ethics and get rid of the messiness of the variety of moral convictions and the many different moral goods on offer. Harris is bullish on science and feels that it has hard answers to our current moral dilemmas and disagreements. He is especially keen to avoid dreaded moral relativism, which he believes will be the downfall of Western civilization if we allow it to remain unchecked. His longing for a comprehensive, common ethics is admirable. We need ideas that unite us–a common good between us. Without a moral compass, societies and culture are headed for the abyss of trivialization, division, racism, oppression, violence, riots and prideful self-destruction.

Then, there is the Moral Foundation Theory of articulate and popular NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He applies his psychological science of morality to deciphering right and left wing US politics in The Righteous Mind: Many powerful minds are at work on this all-important subject and we need all the wisdom we can gather at the table. But while new insights have emerged about the building blocks of moral decision-making, what Hunter and Nedelisky reveal is that, “The new synthesis has provided no clear empirical support for any moral theory, let alone for any claim about what is right or wrong, good or evil, or how we should live.” (J.D. Hunter and P. Nedelisky, 2018, 117) They note how Harris attempts to use the scientific culture sphere to dominate the ethical culture sphere inappropriately. In this ledger, ethics must be interpreted in terms of science, another version of scientism. Science and ethics must encounter and engage each other in dialogue, even dialectic or tension, but not in domination. That leads to dysfunctional abuse.

“Harris’ defense is that values are intrinsically tied to science from the outset, … but in the end, what [Harris] is proposing is not scientific determination of values, but that science can show us how to promote something we’ve already assumed is valuable, independent from science. So what he presents isn’t really science but is rather science-plus-a-value-assumption, where the value-assumption cannot be demonstrated empirically.” (J.D. Hunter and P. Nedelisky, 2018, 158)


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.  ~Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities

The Dickens quote above indicates the confusion, ambivalence and disenchantment of our age of uncertainty, as it did the age of the French Revolution in the 18th century. What will give us more moral clarity, more certainty, more hope, more vision? What is it that constitutes and animates the good life, the good society, and the good world? Heavy weight Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor weighs in on this topic in his most recent tome, The Language Animal. It is a truly brilliant piece of work that took thirty years to write. He is that kind of several-decades-thinker, building out from core ideas, recovering what is good from the past, in dialogue with a vast array of thinkers. I have followed his work closely over three of his great books. A big sky thinker, he explores the breadth of the full human linguistic capacity—including the oft-missing constitutive-expressive elements. He examines the nature of scientific (designative) versus moral (constitutive) language. These he claims are two distinct semantic logics, but they can complement one another, and in fact need each other. He demonstrates clearly that humans need much more than empirical-scientific language alone to flourish. Constitutive language (CS) can open up whole new worlds for Millennials and other generations in their quest for identity, purpose and significance, offering reasons why we should take each other much more seriously. For example, contemplative Thomas Merton notes that to work out one’s identity in God, which the Bible calls “working out your salvation,” is a labor that requires sacrifice and anguish, risk and many tears (T. Merton, Seeds of Contemplation, 32). Sometimes it requires a new vocabulary. Simon Sinek Seeking to Understand and Support Millennials

CS can also provide a space for healing, personal creativity and social change or reform, which Millennials often desire (for example, the Black Lives Matter movement). CS offers new tools, a new expansive skill set that is essential for human empowerment and imagination. This zone is the site where we can open new gates for identity. Millennials currently experience accelerated diversity due to immigration, education, technology, and globalization. Greater diversity is associated with unprecedented choices and a rise of radical individualism and a philosophy of self-interest. Access to the current tsunami of information is indeed unprecedented in history. This can be a challenge to one’s discernment, to centring one’s life and finding one’s calling. Eugene Peterson is quite articulate in the use of CS language about identity in Christ in Practice Resurrection. He decries reductionism (dumbing down) of human persons when he writes: “In our identity-confused society, too many of us have settled for a pastiche identity composed of social security number, medical records, academic degrees, job history, and whatever fragments of genealogy we can salvage.” But there is so much more to being human. Now, we take a closer look at these two types of language, or linguistic traditions.

A. Designative/Instrumental (Hobbes-Locke-Condillac): the language of science, statistics, biology (Chapter 6 of The Language Animal, 252-63). Language is taken strictly as an instrument, a pointer to objects in the world.  The object exists first, then we name it. Designative language is inherently restrictive and reductive. In its roots, it was never meant to provide the full scope of human language, the full meaning of us. It is clearly insufficient for robust, wholistic human self-understanding. HLC is not fully adequate for the discourse of Canadian multiculturalism, for example. We have to do much better than statistically log the various ethnic groups in our communities.

B. Constitutive/Expressive (Hamann-Herder-Humboldt): This tradition is important to meta-biological (human) meaning, and such things as purpose, call, identity, moral understanding, spiritual direction and higher aspirations to connect with the transcendent. Language impacts what we see and how we experience the world–it is hermeneutical, interpretive in force. It evolves as we invent new terms, new expressions, even whole new fields of articulacy, as we employ new symbols and metaphors. We recognize and creatively bring to expression new domains of meaning through such language: words help us to create world. Taylor notes an antiphonal relationship between such language and enactments or practice.

Taylor speaks on his work in The Language Animal

Homo sapiens is the animal with logos (the one possessing language), writes Aristotle. Human meanings, metabiological meanings, require constitutive use of language. “The emergence of language seems to have introduced much greater flexibility [into the species], a capacity to change, even to transform ourselves, which has no parallel among other animals.” (C. Taylor, 2016, 339). Taylor contrasts the scientific type of language as designative/instrumental—naming the objects in the world amidst cause-effect relations. Language is an important entity between people, a basis for communion, conversation, covenant, an attentiveness that we share. It shapes us as interlocutors and helps us see better, know where we stand with respect to each other. Dialogue is an essential human cultural phenomenon, we know how dialogue shapes us in the academy. In a tangible sense, morality is a dialogue about appropriate behaviour and attitudes, protocols, commitments and obligations, personal character and virtue. Language is a key part of human moral agency, and the way we position ourselves in and towards the world, including our stance towards the good and others, or the transcendent. It has vitality, it helps us find ways of dealing with the existential challenges of our lives. But also, it has burdened us with the charge to consider the meaning and calling of our existence, i.e. those elements that take us beyond mere physiological survival, the poetry of life. It is very much to our advantage to discover and learn about all the various linguistic tools available to us no matter what field in which we are employed. University should enhance our linguistic capacity substantially, this is a big take-away of a college degree.

Constitutive language can open new spaces for human meanings and identity: new terms, new expressions, enactments, new fields of articulacy. It reveals how to recognize and bring to expression new domains of meaning. Such language is wonderful and imaginative, life-giving. The disciplined languages of objective description suitable for science are comparatively late achievements of human culture. Taylor concludes: “In light of all this, it is clear that the regimented, scientific zone can only be a suburb of the vast, sprawling city of language, and could never be the metropolis itself”  (C. Taylor, 2016, 263). It is never appropriate for science to claim that it has all truth or insight. Why then do so many see the designative tradition as the most important if not the only theory of language? Why all the rage against metaphors? Taylor challenges us to ask: What are we humans like at our best (Arête), at our fullest, richest linguistic capacity? How can we access and employ that abundance and beauty in our life and work?

Discourse: Taylor also uses the term footings here in Chapter 7 of The Language Animal, (264-288). Language is also a shared consciousness of the world. We are particular voices in an ongoing conversation that cuts across mind/body, dialogical/monological, arbitrary/iconic speech. Such is the language of a national covenant or constitution. More, not less, language is desired for adjudicating life, to deal with morality and the whole person, its relationships, rights and responsibilities. We can ill-afford to let power, wealth, greed, strength and violence be the determinant factor in the right way to live or govern. But Taylor in his other tome, A Secular Age, notices a significant problem in our contemporary conversation. How can we empower and enrich our language once again?

“Our language has lost its constitutive power. This means that we can deal instrumentally with realities around us, but their deeper meaning (the background in which they exist), the higher reality which finds expression in them, is ignored and often invisible to us. Our language has lost the power to Name things in their embedding, their deeper, richer and higher reality. Our language, our vision and our lives often remain flattened in late modernity.” (C. Taylor, 2007, 761)

Taylor’s Hermeneutic Approach:

  1. Ethical stances or footings start in human culture as inarticulate intimations called a habitus. Footings involves a cultural discourse or conversation that carries the weight of our values and commitments. This is the first rung of the three-part ladder of meaning. These have to be given some shape, some interpretation—definition and clarification. The tacit experience (social imaginary) must be made explicit for us to talk about it, critique and engage it. Articulate speech is essential power, the second rung of the ladder. We start here and begin to make sense of it all. It is a wonderful experience to gain an articulate grasp of an issue, a value, or a wrong.
  2. The third rung is interpretation or hermeneutics. These meanings are interpreted and articulated differently by different people within different cultures, which inevitably results in debates, disagreements and conflict. This is a healthy process overall. They can also result in mutual learning and collaboration from a position of difference, one with understanding of the other, and hospitality. Conflict is possible, but not inevitable, where attempts are made to reach out and listen to others, to difference. For example, we have made great leaps forward in discerning a universal code of human rights globally amidst a vast diversity of cultures and histories. Charles Malik, President of the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly, was quite involved in shaping this vital charter.
  3. These meanings are defined, not singly and separately, but in skeins of constellations, where meanings of individual terms are defined in terms of each other. There are various forms of visual and oral gestalt/take or sense of the whole: for example, the good life or a life worth living. Hermeneutics indicates that the parts are only fully understood in terms of the whole. “Whatever meaning we attribute to the part has to make sense within the whole, whose meaning it also helps to determine” (C. Taylor, 2016, 218). Such is the beauty and complexity of meanings. Hermeneutics (interpretation), the third rung of the ladder, helps us make sense of human actions and reactions, responses and attitudes, behavioural causes and effects. This kind of reflection makes these humanly understandable, graspable, palpable or real for us. We can engage them, examine and question them. Such interpretation of self happens against the backdrop of a whole “landscape of meaning” within which an agent operates. This includes a whole constellation of motives, norms and virtues. Such packages of interpretation are rooted in an overall philosophical anthropology. So it is clear that philosophy is important to shaping ethics. This process of searching for coherence within ourselves (to re-frame), within our moral map, is essential to a healthy, robust identity. Reginald Bibby speaks to such dialogue for the health of Millennials:

Moving beyond tolerating each other to talking to each other gets us a junior high certificate. Enjoying each other and learning from each other results in a high school diploma. Incorporating into our lives the best features of our respective cultures and lifestyles—along with feelings of inclusion, belonging, engagement, and citizenship—gets us a university degree.   (R. Bibby et al, The Millennial Mosaic, 242)

A Dialogue on What Makes Us More Human

4. Ethical meanings involve a sense of call, one which can be either transcendent or immanent, to which someone can respond, and which brings about a counter response (guided by a sense of rightness). Taylor writes: “Language can only be understood if we understand its constitutive role in human life…. Language is the domain of right and wrong motives” (C. Taylor, 2016, 261). Meanings call us to live up to what is important, as we get it more clearly in focus, strive for a higher, fuller, truer form of human life as individuals, as societies, and as humanity in general. This invokes the concept of human excellence (arête) as a trajectory for life—a greater good. This is really important today amidst the weaponized lies and spin. There is, of course, the challenge of praxis of such high views, but the call is crucial, a motivating concept. In John 15, Jesus invites his disciples to step up, to lean into his love, to “abide in the vine.” This brilliant insight offers hope for change, for grasping afresh one’s evolving identity, as ones sheds triviality and selfish motives. Language has an important influence on developing both character and culture—it has constructive capacity.

Bernard Lonergan’s Four Wise Principles of Self-Transcendence

  • Be Attentive: pay attention
  • Be Intelligent: examine your assumptions, self-criticize 
  • Be Reasonable: speak carefully and listen to others
  • Be Responsible: own your part in the greater scheme

5. Narrative Progress: Moral growth (C. Taylor, 2016, 222) also entails growth in ethical insight or knowledge. This involves a tweaking of our present position, “getting better through seeing better,” as Taylor puts it. Articulation, reflection and self-critique are involved. A healthy hermeneutical circle is active, a back and forth between enactment/praxis, coming up with new language and interpretation—with a view to improving/refining and getting it more correct. This dynamic process is essential to human freedom, maturity and healthy agency. Openness here allows us to understand others better, reduces interpersonal conflict, and continually improves our moral applications/implementations. This includes a recognition and respect for difference that others embody as their “take” on moral meaning or the good.

In summary, the three rungs in Taylor’s ladder of moral meaning involves the following: a. pre-articulate enactment/embodiment/performativity (existential habits, covenants and commitments); b. verbal articulation/naming of a norm with its crucial features (for example, a code, principles to live by, virtues to emulate). This can also be done as a work of art or music, symbol, metaphor  or a meaningful novel or story such as Les Misérables; c. fuller hermeneutical account of its overall role in our lives (rationale for the code). Thereby, suggests Taylor, human rationality gainfully engages human morality. We don’t throw up or hands at moral challenges, we have more of an articulate grasp of the moral landscape and our place within it. We can examine our motives, our assumptions or even our presumptions–through a process of transformation. This is a critical thinking approach to morality-meaning-identity. The idea of moral growth has implications for the meaning of one’s personal unfolding story (Bildungsromans). Moral growth is a key reason for our existence, especially when it involves suffering? Good suffering can be a path to moral growth and self-understanding.

6. Ritual is also a form of constitutive enactment or portrayal that can provide restoration and healing with respect to a bigger story or myth, the social whole. This is how a worship service operates in a church or concert. It can help reconnect the individual with the cosmos and with other selves (re-enchantment), help one see how things relate to each other within a whole. Poetry was key for Post-Romantics here—also connecting people to meaningful lived time. Without discernment of such connections, we feel anguish or angst. Music offers a form of meaning, as many Post-Romantics like Schopenhauer understood, expressing a subject’s feeling and/or take on the world. These powerful works of art provide epiphanies or sources of identity, sources of the good, sources of the self: Sources refers to “the realities contemplation of which, or contact with which, strengthens our commitment to or élan [momentum] towards the good, or God, or Nature, the good society, or a force that lies beyond us.” (C. Taylor, 2016, 249). Thereby, the artist or poet can be impacted by her own art, which has a voice speaking back to her, giving her insight into life–here creation meets discovery. This is that feedback loop between expressive experience and articulation. This aspect of Taylor’s discourse on meaning is quite enlightening and profound. In this register, transcendence and theology can break through in the quest for re-enchantment of the world, and the opening up of one’s identity to the divine. Humanists like Jens Zimmermann (Incarnational Humanism) can help shape this linguistic bridge.

Ethics of Science & Technology

A further discussion on science and ethics would be how ethics asks science and technology for accountability. How can science be used for the common good? In his recently published Technology and the Human Future, Dr. Craig Gay of Regent College opened up one of the most critical conversations of our day: How do we manage the current technological revolution and mitigate its ill effects? How do we handle the exponential growth in machine learning and artificial intelligence that intersect with our lives and shape our world, without becoming disembodied machines ourselves, the victims of mechanism? He provides a lucid and chilling overview of what we all know, but often find it hard to talk about coherently: the more that technology, especially automation, our devices, and the internet, makes our life easier, the less that increasingly disembodied life seems to flourish. Dr Gay issues a call to a discerning stewardship of modern technological development, a perspicacious contribution to cultural self-reflection. UBC has several strong technological development programs, but they can also benefit from some social and moral reflection on their work.

Craig welcomed all the benefits of technology (he owns a smart phone), but asks his readers to think critically about what he calls the machine mindset, an ideology which can lead us into some unhealthy directions. Like the great French philosopher Jacques Ellul and American philosopher Albert Borgmann before him, Dr. Gay lays out four key contemporary concerns about our technological age. He also encourages us to think theologically and philosophically about technology, employing the hermeneutical themes of creation, incarnation, and resurrection. As he put it in his Christian critique, “When the trajectory of modern technological development loses touch with ordinary embodied existence, it is at odds with God’s purposes for his world.” The book offers a robust and lively exchange of ideas and insights, relevant to everyone living in our technological age, both boosters and critics. The book leaves us with several important issues to ponder. When Einstein realized that his breakthroughs in physics could lead to a nuclear bomb, he knew that science was not morally neutral, that the fact/value dichotomy was inadequate. See also Jaron Lanier below in this space about social media. See also this article on values & science:

Jaron Lanier

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, Philosophical theology, meta-educator with postgrad students.

Bibby, R., Thiessen, J., Bailey, M. (2019). The Millennial Mosaic: How Pluralism and Choice Are Shaping Canadian Youth and the Future of Canada. Toronto, ON: Dundurn.

Gay, C.M. (2018). Technology and the Human Future: A Christian Appraisal. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Vintage.

Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape: how science can determine human values. New York: Free Press.

Hunter, J.D. and Nedelisky, P. (2018). Science and the Good: the tragic quest for the foundations of morality. New Haven, NJ: Yale Press

Merton, T. (1961). New Seeds of Contemplation. New Directions Publishing.

McMinn, M. (2017). The Science of Virtue: Why Positive Psychology Matters to the Church.

Pannenberg, W. (1976). Theology and the Philosophy of Science.

Taylor,C. (2007). A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, C. (2016). The Language Animal: the full shape of the human language capacity. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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