The latest conversation with my friend and colleague Dan Kaufman (he of The Electric Agora) was on what, exactly, science can tell us about morality, meaning not the trivially misguided notion that somehow ethics can be reduced to neuroscience, or evolutionary biology, or whatever, but rather the more nuanced question of whether and how science can inform philosophizing about ethics.
Did the ancients get it right? Indeed, better than the moderns? No, this conversation between Dan Kaufman and I is not about mystical insights or the secret scientific knowledge of the people who built the pyramids. Rather, it’s about what, if anything, ancient philosophers understood about the human condition that was then lost by the philosophy that developed during and after the Scientific Revolution.
Recently Dan Kaufman and I have had another of our recurrent conversations, this time a second installment of an occasional series that we might call “philosophers who influenced us” (the previous one featured Bertrand Russell, on my part, and Gilbert Ryle for Dan).
This time I picked David Hume, the empiricist and skeptic who famously awoke Kant from his “dogmatic slumber,” and who — I think — is still not appreciated as much as he should be for his impact not just on subsequent philosophy (including epistemology, ethics and aesthetics), but on science as well. Dan’s pick was the philosopher of aesthetic and highly impactful critic of art Arthur Danto, who developed one of the most recent and compelling theories of art to date.
Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus)
Death is one of the major issues in human life, to put it mildly. Because we are blessed and cursed with self-awareness, we know we are mortal, so one of our problems is how to deal with the prospect of our own demise. A lot of religious and philosophical thinking as well as, lately, scientific research, has gone into this. Seneca famously wrote that the point of philosophy is to learn how to die, since death is the ultimate test of who we are. And things don’t seem to have changed much in that department over the past two thousand years.
Last month I published an essay on alleged empirical evidence that Kant’s idea that ought implies can (OIC) is false. To refresh your mind, the paper I discussed was published by Vladimir Chituc and co-workers, who claimed that — because a good number of random folks say that someone ought to do X when it is plain impossible for X to actually be carried out — then Kant’s famous dictum from the Critique of Pure Reason: “The action to which the ‘ought’ applies must indeed be possible under natural conditions,” must be wrong. I suggested instead that the folks used as subjects by Chituc and colleagues simply didn’t understand basic logic. An epic Twitter battle ensued.
“Ought implies can” is one of those elementary notions that every philosophy student learns in introductory courses. Specifically, she will come across two formulations of the principle, both due to Kant. In his Critique of Pure Reason, he says: “The action to which the ‘ought’ applies must indeed be possible under natural conditions.” And in Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason he explains: “For if the moral law commands that we ought to be better human beings now, it inescapably follows that we must be capable of being better human beings.” (Of course one could deny the antecedent “if” condition, but the idea is that if one accepts it then what follows is entailed.)
This seems a pretty straightforward logical principle, i.e., entirely independent of empirical verification. Or is it? A recent paper by Vladimir Chituc, Paul Henne, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Felipe De Brigard argues otherwise. Published in the journal Cognition with the title “Blame, not ability, impacts moral ‘ought’ judgments for impossible actions: Toward an empirical refutation of ‘ought’ implies ‘can'” is one of the latest salvos in the controversial field of experimental philosophy.
As usual, the two of us differ enough — and yet listen sufficiently carefully to each other — that the ensuing conversation provides, I think, plenty of food for thought (so to speak) for anyone interested in the topic. Which, really, should be anyone who eats anything at all…