The Natural-Objective Model
Ethics as a Science
In one sense, ethics are already studied as a science. The social sciences include not only ethics, but all human social behaviors across many cultures. Sociologists may study differences in cultural norms and how they evolve over time under varying conditions. More recent studies involve complex systems theory and the evolution of how and why our moral ideals came into being. However, this is not what I refer to when I use the phrase “ethics as a science”.
Instead, what I mean is that the field of ethical inquiry, development, and even advocacy itself can be a science. Rather than “the study of ethics” I am referring to “the pursuit of ethics”. This is the process whereby ethics are evaluated and arguments are formed for or against different morals, behaviors, and choices in a scientific manner. The difference would be akin to the difference between the anthropologist who studies and records the dental hygiene habits of different peoples, and the biologist who, after studying the effects of brushing teeth, recommends that we ought to do so.
I do not mean to suggest that other fields of science can tell us what is ethical. For example, some biologists point out the anatomical or evolutionary reasons behind our various behaviors, including unethical ones. This explanation is not an excuse to label such instincts as “right” or “wrong”. Biology and other sciences tell us only what is, and why it is, not what it ought to be. So, in a manner of speaking, it is true that current branches of science cannot tell us what is right and wrong.
But that is simply because the branches of science that currently exist are not designed to study what is right and what is wrong; they are meant to study biology, physics, astronomy, and so on. Nevertheless, there is nothing about the scientific method that would keep it from addressing the matter, and everything to make it very adept at it.
By saying that ethical inquiry can be conducted in a “scientific manner” what I mean is that we can do so via the same process by which all other science is conducted. This involves forming hypotheses, gathering empirical data, making predictions, and testing those predictions and hypotheses against further data which strengthens or weakens current theories. The issues to be addressed include what objective standards should be used in evaluating the morality of behaviors and what empirical data is relevant to that evaluation.
The Function of Ethics
The process of ethical deliberation is one whereby the merits of various ethical principles and options are measured up. The first step in measuring anything is to strictly define what is being measured and how it is to be measured. In looking at ethics, we must begin by considering the function of ethics. To do so we must look existentially at the Homo Sapiens.
From the “outside looking in” we see that, regardless of their circumstances, human societies tend to form moral norms and principles over time. These principles may be vastly diverse and often at odds with one another. But what is consistent is that the species appears to have the innate tendency to form commonly accepted standards of behavior within its population group. It then enforces these behaviors through social pressures and, in more severe violations, through direct punishment.
So then we must ask, why? Why is it that Homo Sapiens will tend to do this?
• The survival power of cooperative behavior between humans cannot be denied. Many morals of a society tend to focus on the reciprocal process of behaviors that govern how the individuals are to interact with one another for their mutual benefit.
• Of the various morals, some are more strongly enforced than others. Often, the most strongly enforced morals are those which center around matters of mating, reproduction, birth, death, and other parts of the life cycle. These norms are often shrouded in religious ritual – a sign of their primal importance.
• Although many moral customs involve only the individual, those with a primarily secular basis will tend to be largely social in nature. Therefore, strictly non-social morals can often be seen as an anomaly due to misunderstood or improvable beliefs that a population has about its environmental circumstances.
In this essay, I refer to “morals” as a society’s model of what it thinks is “ethical”. Ethics, then, I use to refer to what really is ethical, not just for that society, but the universal ethical system for all Homo Sapiens.
When looking at these tendencies, it appears that the primary function of forming social behavioral standards (i.e. morals) is primarily one of enhancing survival and prosperity for the species. This would likely be the conclusion of any objective being looking at humanity from the outside.
The Measure of an Ethic
It is important to point out that although naturalistic objective ethics are not reliant on cultural understanding, they do not exist without human beings, or independent of them. Here is where the apparent oxymoron must be explained thoroughly.
When humans develop moral standards, they are not simply making choices of preference, but they are endeavoring to do something (whether always conscious of it or not). They are endeavoring to determine a set of behaviors for interacting with one another, which will most affect their survival and prosperity in their current environment.
The environments that human population groups find themselves in are objective. They face definite conditions of food, climate, terrain, reproduction, hostilities, and so on. Homo Sapiens as a species is an objective entity with definite physical and mental needs, abilities, and inclinations. This being the case, various moral models will and do have an objective affect on the survivability and prosperity of a population and a species.
With environmental, physical, and mental abilities objective and finite, it stands to reason that there would be one set of behaviors that would most efficiently achieve the maximum survivability and prosperity for a species. This would be “ethical” by definition, and “morals” would be those social norms which attempt to match and encourage what is believed to be ethical.
Take the following hypothetical if you will. If we were a minor god or sorts with only two powers, we might be able to see the effect of various moral norms first hand. Suppose that we had the ability to arbitrarily and immediately set the moral norms in a society. This would not mean that everyone would always obey them, but simply that our rules would be considered by everyone to be the socially accepted behavior, and it would not change over time, unless we ourselves magically changed it. For our second godly power, imagine that we are able to travel forwards and backwards through time at will. Now we set the ethical norms in a particular manner, according to what we think best, then we travel 1000 years in the future to see how things have come along.
Since omniscience and omnipotence are not within our power, we would probably discover that there are some things that had occurred historically over the past 1000 years which we didn’t care for or anticipate. Perhaps they have a wonderful respect for the ecology now but a terrible problem with poverty. So then we decide to go back 1000 years and make some adjustments to the ethical norms.
No matter how many times we do this, we would probably never get everything perfect, since we cannot know what effects even the smallest of changes would have 1000 years down the line. Nevertheless, each time we made a change in the ethical rules, this would have an objective effect on the society, for better or worse. While we would not have our utopia, we would have one set of ethics that we had tried, and gotten the best results. Maybe if we tried a hundred more times we might even find a better set than that.
What this fantasy points out is that our ethics have objective effects on the ability of human beings to thrive and survive and this, as we have established, is the functional purpose of ethics for Homo sapiens, whether we are aware that this is its purpose or not. It therefore stands to reason that, at least in principle, there are one set of behaviors that yields the greatest likelihood of prosperity for this particular species, with all other factors being equal - hence objective ethics.
Another good analogy might be the design of an airplane wing for one particular plane. There may be all manner of shapes and angles used, and they may be tested in wind tunnels and computer simulations. But, even if we do not ever discover it exactly, there should be one particular shape that will yield the greatest efficiency. More importantly, there are objective qualities that make one wing design superior or inferior to another. Although airplanes are a human invention, and nowhere may such a wing actually exist physically, there is an “answer to the equation” that is objectively true, regardless of our understanding of it. We may build wings that achieve 98-99% of that potential without ever realizing that we need to make one small adjustment to perfect it, but those facts would remain nonetheless. Like all sciences, the entire endeavor of aerodynamics is predicated on the assumption of objective qualitative measure. Can you imagine development of wing design in an environment where all shapes are considered equal and merely different, and where preference for one over the other were considered merely human subjective bias? One can see here how ethics is objective and independent of cultural understanding, while at the same time a product of the human condition and meaningless apart from Homo Sapiens.
With understanding of the purpose of ethics, measurement and evaluation of various ethical models can take place in a scientific manner by looking at the efficacy of those models on that purpose. In this manner, ethical models are theories, which are supported or undermined by the continuous collection and analysis of evidence. They attempt to make predictions (such as, “this will lower crime” or “this will increase happiness”) and they are evaluated on the social evidence generated. Based on these standards, one can have an objective basis for arguing something as ethical or unethical. This is no less subjective or precarious an endeavor than the field of meteorology, cosmology, sociology, or the cognitive sciences (or for that matter - even experimental physics).
Of course, if a moral system were especially specific to deal with local or transient issues, it’s utility would be limited to those conditions it was born out of. Often, subjectivists point to the variability of moral systems with respect to environment and culture as evidence that universal ethics are unlikely and an impractical concept. They use local variability to support claims of subjectivism.
But this variability shows nothing of the sort. The very same people, when explaining local variability in moral norms will explain that x might be ethical in one culture, but unethical in another. When asked why they will point out the biological, historic, and environmental reasons behind the development of those morals.
But even in the act of explaining why x is believed good in one place/time and believed bad in another, we speak from an overall point of view - an umbrella set of principles that tells us why x is moral here and not moral there. When these arguments are analyzed, they invariably come down to matters of survival and prosperity for that group. This means that, it is through universal principles of ethics that we assess the need and purpose for variation between cultures, individuals, places, and times.
Yet another analogy may explain the concept. When we look at the tread of a tire, we see that all manner of designs, shapes, depths, and angles is possible. Yet, we can measure the effectiveness of different treads by their performance according to their purpose (in this case traction).
In some cases racing slicks may be the more efficient, whereas in other cases a deep tread may be the proper design, depending on the surface. Nevertheless, one would not say that the design of tire treads is subjective - simply a matter of taste. Even though there are different treads appropriate to different conditions, there is one overall set of principles on which we measure treads, and by which we measure when variation is proper. In this analogy, that set of principles would be such things as distance over time, revolutions, wear & tear, and so on.
In the very same manner, local variability of moral norms does not suggest subjectivity. Like the tire tread, different models may be appropriate to different conditions, times, and places. Nevertheless, we can plainly see what the purpose of moral norms are among Homo Sapiens (i.e. behavioral norms moderating social interaction for the purpose of enhancing survival & prosperity, enforced through social pressures). Given that, ethics can be evaluated by how well they accomplish that purpose - by their effects or best estimations of future effects. Therefore, this provides one overall set of standards by which moral norms can be measured. These standards amount to universal, naturalistic, objective ethics.
The Nature of Objective Principles
What I am saying here is that where ethics are concerned, there is an “answer to the equation” that is finite, objective, and true. There is one set of overall behavioral principles, malleable to local variation, that would yield the greatest benefit to Homo Sapiens.
Some immediately imagine some sort of “ethicocracy” or oppressive cultural regime imposing strict robotic behavioral controls to the “one true” ethical system. But in order to truly accomplish long term survival and prosperity for humanity, the needs and desires of humanity would have to be taken into account. These principles could not treat humans as robots or subjects. Nothing that truly benefits humanity could ever be dehumanizing. Instead, such principles would have to embody concepts of rights, compassion, individualism, and other human values & inclinations.
Another aspect of universal ethical principles would be that they be complex enough to address variability with different environmental and cultural conditions. In other words, they would not be a simplistic set of commandments, but rather, a set of priorities providing a framework and basis for moral deliberation.
The central thesis of Natural-Objective Ethics is that there is a true and objective ethical model for Homo Sapiens that is independent of culture or the level of human understanding on the matter. However, it is critical to point out that the thesis only claims that such a model exists, and on what basis it exists. My thesis is not to make claims as to what the exact content of that ethical model is.
The objectivity of ethics means that it is a legitimate pursuit of science – that matters of “right” and “wrong” can be investigated on a scientific basis. However, this also implies that, while ideal ethical principles are objective, our knowledge of them is subjective and tentative, as is the case with any field of science. Therefore, any theory concerning whether one ethic is superior or inferior to another, or whether something is unethical, must be exposed to the same scrutiny and evaluation based on the evidence as any other scientific postulate.
The Propagation & Progress of Moral Norms
How then are we to proceed if knowledge of ideal objective ethics is subjective? Does this bring us back to relying on authority or subjectivity? Not at all. It is precisely because the field of ethics is objective, that we can pursue knowledge of it scientifically.
As stated, we know what the purpose and function of ethical norms are for Homo Sapiens. We can therefore measure the functionality of ethical principles by their impact on that purpose. This means we must look at psychology, human needs, and social/historic evidence.
Through sociological and historic analysis, we can build theories about the effects of different ethical concepts in a society. We can then test the predictive power of these theories as events unfold and new data is collected. Since the purpose of ethical norms is to allow greater ability of Homo Sapiens to cooperate for mutual survival and prosperity, those social value systems that have the most beneficial effect in this regard are, by definition, “more ethical”. Those morals and behaviors having a negative affect on survival and prosperity can be considered “less ethical” or “unethical”.
Who then is to be considered the “moral authority”? In essence, everyone and no one. As is the case in the scientific community, consensus tends to build over time, with the clearer data resulting in more unity of opinion than the more ambiguous data. In the marketplace of ideas, society works out its moral norms as individuals and groups argue their side and present their evidence and rationale. The most immediately important ethics tend to emerge with greater consensus than the more complex issues.
In this sense, moral norms develop much like a language. Although we have books telling us how it’s done, and we have teachers who present the way it should be done, it is a constantly evolving system. Critics of secular ethics tend to paint them as though they supported individuals simply doing as they please, or “if it feels good, do it”. But in language no one can simply “make up” how to speak completely on their own, lest they be unable to communicate. Instead, the norms change with the collective trends in the population. At the same time, there are solid arguments to make about how a language should be structured or how something should be communicated for best effect. These arguments are based on their effectiveness in communication. More often, the norms simply change because human beings will gravitate to what works best, and ethics works much the same. It is dependent on human preference and needs, but it does not allow unbridled individual action apart from the norm. Those babbling in their own homebrewed tongue would see their language not fulfilling its function (communication). By the same token, those making up their own rights and wrongs will see their morals not fulfilling their function (mutually beneficial relations with others). In both cases, social pressures react to enforce blatant disregard for norms.
Significance of the Distinction
So, if moral norms evolve through consensus over time, and our knowledge of ethics is subjective, one might ask what difference it makes that ethics are actually objective. The purpose of the distinction is extremely important in my view. When we make arguments for or against different behaviors and values in an ethical context, we must have some sort of basis on which to make those arguments. If not, then ethical deliberation simply becomes, at best, a matter of who can persuade whom through emotional manipulation and subterfuge. At worst, it breaks down to a matter of physical violence and domination.
However, if we acknowledge that there truly is a better and a worse way to conduct ourselves (regardless of our knowledge of that way), then we have a framework within which we can present hard evidence supporting various ethical claims. We can take up moral positions in support of or in opposition to certain behaviors and policies, but be open to changing those positions based on new evidence.
Some may attempt to argue against this course of action, but I am not suggesting a new course, so much as I am merely describing what is already the usual manner in which ethical arguments are made by absolutists and relativists alike.
Next Chapter: Conclusion