Science and Philosophy, a Beautiful Friendship: A Response to Michael Shermer

There’s been some very public dig-taking between the science and philosophy camps lately. Lawrence KraussNeil DeGrasse TysonStephen Hawking, and other scientists are saying philosophy’s become irrelevant, little more than an esoteric old boy’s club. On the other hand, philosophers, theologians, politicians, and others criticize ‘scientism‘, the conviction that science, and only science, can and should be the ultimate source for all human knowledge; that all truth claims, that all ethical, metaphysical, and political beliefs, should not only be informed by or founded on, but entirely determined by, empirical evidence.

Michael Shermer’s article ‘A Moral Starting Point: How Science Can Inform Ethics‘ (Scientific American, February 2015) doesn’t dismiss philosophy so directly. He includes philosophy in a list of three other arenas of human thought, with religion and political theory, as those to which most people turn for answers in matters of right and wrong, good and evil. Science can, Shermer says, provide those answers, and goes on to explain why he believes ethics has no better source for them. The history of the human race is rife with slavery, torture, theft, and discrimination, yet all diminish human flourishing. Much of this harmful behavior consists of the group abusing certain of its members for the sake of others. But since it’s individual beings that ‘perceive, emote, respond, love, feel, and suffer’, Shermer says, it’s individual beings that are the ‘fundamental units’ of nature (evidenced by the fact they’re what natural selection targets). The primary purpose of ethics, then, is to promote the flourishing of individual beings, and to denounce all that doesn’t.

Yet as I read Shermer’s article several times, satisfied as I am that he places high value on the importance of empirical evidence, I find I have some objections. He doesn’t discuss how easy it is to jump to conclusions, inferring the ‘ought’ too quickly from the ‘is’. David Hume is the philosopher most famous for describing how tricky it really is to derive the ‘is’ directly from the ‘ought’, or in other words, the problems with assuming that just because something is a certain way, that means it should be that way. For example, how do we go about deciding that one fact, or one ‘is’, is more important than another fact when determining what ought’ to be done?

I also worry his argument helps perpetuate a certain myth, widely maintained by those who feel the need to erect walls around their respective fields of inquiry. In some cases, like Krauss’s, this whole debate appears to devolve into some sort of intellectual pissing contest. The myth is the claim that there’s a sharp dividing line between each field of inquiry, just as the committed political libertarian perceives the divide between the one and the many, the individual and the group. When Shermer includes philosophy in the list of alternate sources for ethics, and, implicitly, dismisses it as the best candidate, I think that he hints, wrongly, that philosophy is in competition with science generally.

A famous example of leaping too quickly from the ‘is’ to the ‘ought’, or in other words, deriving an ethical system too quickly from a scientific discovery, is eugenics. Many were so enthusiastic about the thrilling new scientific theory of natural selection, derived from observations in nature, that they thought it could be applied to all explanatory theories. Just as it is a fact that nature selects against certain individuals based on the ability to thrive in its environment, so it is that human beings should emulate nature and act as rational arbiters of fitness. In other words, we should select select against those individuals we think ‘degrade’ society by their existence and by their capacity to pass on their ‘undesirable’ qualities.
Scientists widely thought, from the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, that the human species could be more efficiently ‘perfected’ through the judicious selection of traits to pass on to future generations.

Here, philosophy and science (and yes, even religion) could have done a much better job at working together: arguably, these eugenic ethicists could have used a lot more Hume, philosopher, and a little less Cesare Lombroso, physician and criminologist who thought all bad human traits were physically inherited. It’s not that the physical sciences should not contribute to ethics, not in the least. It’s that more checks and balances between fields of inquiry could have kept so many over-eager scientists from over-applying their discoveries where there are good arguments to show they did not belong. If eugenicist scientists had paid more heed to Hume’s warning that we can’t so readily derive the ‘ought’ (what we should do) from the ‘is’ (the actual state of affairs in the world), perhaps they may have more carefully considered all of the evidence, including human moral instinct and logical arguments in favor of human equality, done a better job of including all available scientific data in their social theories, and restrained themselves from unleashing such a destructive ideology on the world.

But shouldn’t ethics be informed by facts about the world? If it isn’t, doesn’t that make ethics too arbitrary, or too abstract, to be applied to the lives of actual, living human beings, as members of a society as well as individuals? I agree with Shermer that it should. But I also think that facts about the world aren’t enough, on their own, to fully determine what we ought to do. In fact, these facts can’t be enough, all on their own. That’s because, for one thing, there are so many ‘is’s’ to consider, many of which indicate an opposite course of action would be best. To return to one of the many problems with eugenics: its promoters considered the ‘is’ of natural selection against ‘unfit’ members as the most important fact to consider in deciding which lives society ‘ought’ to consider worth living. After all, it’s selection against weak and ecologically ‘unfit’ individuals which made their surviving descendants ‘superior’. But there are other ‘is’s’: human beings are naturally disposed to empathize with those who are suffering to help them out, even if they are sickly, disabled, or otherwise more susceptible to an early death. This disposition, this instinct, is itself an evolved trait. It’s also a fact that the same cooperative set of instincts that compel us help the ‘unfit’ survive is the same that drives us, as a species, to help each other live happier, healthier, wealthier, and therefore ‘fitter’ lives in the long run, as individuals as well as members of society.
Shermer considers the well-being of individuals the primary goal of ethics, and for scientific reasons. He explains: ‘The singular and separate organism is to biology and society what the atom is to physics—a fundamental unit of nature. The first principle of the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is grounded in the biological fact that it is the discrete organism that is the main target of natural selection and social evolution, not the group. We are a social species, but we are first and foremost individuals within social groups and therefore ought not to be subservient to the collective.’ It’s clear that he, like all rational, well informed thinkers, doesn’t ascribe to the principles of eugenics, now considered not science, but pseudoscience. But it’s not so clear how he’s justified, based on scientifically confirmed facts alone, in saying that because natural selection works on the individual, it’s the individual whose interests should be protected first, and society second. After all, natural selection also works against individuals, culling some for the benefit of the group. So, one could just as well argue that the evidence shows it’s better for individuals, as well as for society, if those who are sickly or more likely to pass on disease and disability to others, should at least be allowed to die off as nature, without our intervention, would have it. Shermer needs more than just an array of facts to show why some, and not others, should inform ethics.
It’s true that, historically, far too much death and destruction have been wrought on individuals when they are perceived as ‘subservient’ to the group. In this, Shermer has much evidence on his side. But it’s also true that much harm results from placing too much emphasis on the rights of individuals over the wellbeing of society. Lax gun regulations make it easy on gun enthusiasts to enjoy their hobby while also making it easy for the murderously criminal and mentally ill to obtain guns too; lax labor laws make is easy for employers to exploit and abuse their workers to the point of disabling injury and death; lax financial regulation allow a few speculators plunge economies into ruin and populations into a state of want; ‘personal belief’ exemptions allow parents not to vaccinate their children, resulting in epidemics of disease and even death; the list goes on and on. Great harm, generally, comes from the attempt to separate individuals and society into two competing camps, or to, as Margaret Thatcher would have it, from acting on the belief that the group, or ‘society’, doesn’t really exist at all.

In our intensely social, emotive, thinking human species, the incredible degree of individualness that individuals can achieve is due at least as much to the contributions of the group, over time, as to the individual’s own efforts. Human beings make art, tell stories, travel, enjoy romance and friendship, build buildings and erect monuments, and create such rich and complex products of thought as history, myth, religion, politics, literature, science, and to my mind the greatest, philosophy (since it overarches and unifies all other systems of thought), precisely because of the level of sociability we have evolved. The rugged, self-reliant individual of American mythology, for example, is precisely that: a myth. No human being could get very far if they didn’t have a society, to help feed, clothe, and equip them with the tools and technology they need to perform their wonderful individual feats, and to restore them to health and pass on their story afterwards. Humans flourish when individuals efforts are promoted and when they’re not allowed to infringe too much on the interests of the group.

The human species, as a whole, flourishes so well because of this two-way dependence between the individual and the group: you can’t have one without the other. The incredible diversity of its individual members should be encouraged and protected because they make our species among the most adaptable, and therefore among the most resilient on earth. When we oppress individuals, when we seek to crush expression of personality, or system of belief, or ability to pursue personal goals and professions, we wrong both the individual and the human species, by undermining individual potential while making the species that much less diverse and therefore, less adaptable. When we undermine the flourishing of society by allowing individuals to pursue purely self-interested whims and goals to the detriment of all, we wrong the individual too. Short-sighted, self-centric market choices leading to mass pollution and climate change, widespread cell phone use while driving, ideologues who keep their children out of the public schools to indoctrinate them in one world view, and one only… when the individual is allowed, by the group, to pursue their own myopic interests to the detriment of all, individuals suffer too.

In all other areas of biological science, it’s essential to understand a species as a whole if you want to fully understand any individual. When you look at an individual being, you see a set of characteristics that could just as well be quirks as traits; when you look at the species as a whole, you recognize which of those characteristics all have in common, and which are necessary for all members of a given species to survive and flourish. Even when it comes to solitary animals, most cats, for example, we consider each one as members of the species cat as well as a particular furry, comfort-loving, furniture-ravaging, mouse-chasing, charmingly mischievous, producer-of-the-cutest-offspring-on-earth-namely-kittens animal. If we didn’t perceive them dualistically in this way, we wouldn’t understand much about any one cat, let alone all cats. If we were to encounter an individual animal with all those traits, and had never encountered or learned about others, we wouldn’t know what to feed them, how we might need to protect the furniture, or why we should keep a video camera handy when they’re around. If we need this dualistic perception of cat as one furry animal and one of many cats in order to understand it, how much more so for a highly social species, such as humans, whose interests and fates are so intertwined. I see no reason, scientific or otherwise, to look at the human species any differently in this regard.
This cat example might seem so illustrate such an obvious point as to be silly, but I think we need to remind ourselves of it every time an intellectual tries to divorce fields of inquiry from one another in the general human project of truth-seeking, or an ethicist, politician, or anyone else tries to completely separate the interests of the individual from that of the group. I think both are mistakes that Shermer comes too close to making in this article.
This whole discussion of how easy it is to draw wrong conclusions from scientific evidence can also serve to buttress Shermer’s initial point about ethics, even if it doesn’t support his overemphasis on the divide between the individual and the group. I agree that scientifically verifiable facts about human beings should inform our ethics; the best system of ethics, to my mind, is a naturalistic system. Here’s where we arrive at what Shermer mostly gets right. Looking outwards at the world provides the raw material for any system of thought, as his title ‘A Moral Starting Point’ more than suggests. After all, all knowledge begins with the information we receive through our senses, as Aristotle, Hume, and the other empiricist philosophers point out. There is no reason to think we could think at all if we have never heard, seen, felt, tasted, or smelled anything to think about. And it’s thinking that gets us to do more than just sensing the world as a microbe, a plant, or a clam does, reacting without reflection. Philosophy is the human species’ way of taking the art of thinking as far as it can go: we examine what the information we receive might mean in a larger context. We question, we look for answers restlessly not only because we want to solve problems: we love to do so. Philosophy, after all, literally means ‘love of knowledge/wisdom’, translated from the Greek. And as we ask and as we look, in the interplay between the input of our senses and the organization of information through thought, science affords reality the opportunity ‘to answer us back’, as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein so puts it so well (Plato, p. 34).Philosophy not only provides the impetus and the direction for the inquiry of science: once we find out the facts, it helps us figure out what to make of them. In every step of the way, the formulation of scientific theories relies heavily on philosophy, from the application of the rules of logic to the justification of why we should value or emphasize one set of facts over another. In fact, until very recently, science was a branch of philosophy (natural philosophy) until that general branch of inquiry about the natural world became so large it specialized and branched off, then branched off again into physics, biology, chemistry, and so forth. Those areas of philosophy that didn’t branch off into the sciences and into theology, came to be identified with the arcane varieties of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and so on, pursued largely behind the walls of academia today.

But philosophy is not limited to an arcane, highly abstract field of inquiry, as fascinating and valuable as that can be. It’s that approach to life as a perceiving, emoting, responding, loving, feeling, suffering, and thinking being, that every person partakes in, to one level or another. Philosophy, from its very beginnings, originates in the public square. It’s welcoming into ones’ self the whole world of things to sense and to imagine with a curious, critical, and interdisciplinary approach, and engaging in that way of thinking with others. I want to know why, and how, and who, and so on, and not only to know what is, but why I care about it and why others should too. Science is a big part of this. Yet philosophy is prior to, and necessary for, the former. In fact, it was my love of philosophy that led to my fascination with science, to question and replace some of the ideas I was taught in my youth (creationism, the doctrine of original sin, the sacralization of virginity, and so on) with a more naturalist system of inquiry. To separate philosophy from science is as unhelpful as divorcing the individual from the species: one does not function without the other.When it comes to understanding the universe, in fact, there is no such thing as ‘nonoverlapping magisteria’ of thought (as Steven Jay Gould put it when he tries, to my mind unsuccessfully, to justify the separation of theology and science). I think it’s a mistake to engage in the kind of intellectual turf war that science, philosophy, and other fields of inquiry are sometimes engaged in, not only because it sets up mental road blocks to incorporating the full range of evidence and ideas available, it sets a bad example for critical thinking. Shermer does well to remind philosophers, many of whom are sadly remiss in this, that they need science to keep them honest, so that subtle errors in logic, mistakes in self-justification, or over-weddedness to a particular tradition of thought can’t lead them too far astray.

But ‘philosophy-jeerers’, as Newberger Goldstein calls them, make a mistake when forgetting how much science owes philosophy, and how heavily they actually depend on it. For example, at the beginning of the article, Shermer refers to rights theory in philosophy as a popular source of ethics, as a contrast to a scientific view. Yet later on in the same piece, he refers to ‘natural rights’ as a scientific ethical principle. Yet rights theory has always been derived, even if indirectly at times, from the application of reason to observed facts about human beings: that they are rational and feeling creatures, that they are capable of autonomous will, that they seek to live ‘the good life’, and so on. To intimate that rights theory is, or has ever been, an alternative to an empirical view of ethics is either to ignore or to misunderstand what rights theory is and always has been.
Darwin's Ghost be Rebecca Stott, Photo Credit: Goodreads
Remember Aristotle, philosopher extraordinaire, one of the earliest and most famous founders of two (among many) of the most influential fields of philosophy: ethics and natural philosophy (better known today as science). As so delightfully described in Rebecca Stott’s Darwin’s Ghosts, Aristotle didn’t remain in his armchair (did they have armchairs in ancient Greece?), spinning abstract theories straight out of his head, arguing tedious points of logic with his fellow philosophers. He looked to the world to provide the raw material with which to craft his theories on the origins and nature of life, diving for specimens of sea flora and fauna, following animals around and recording their behavior. It was his philosophical mind that drove him to ask the questions and look for answers, and it was nature that provided the predicates, the subjects, of his reasoning.

In the words of Humphrey Bogart, we can see, from accounts of her birth, ‘the beginning of a beautiful friendship’ between Science and her parent, Philosophy. The most intimate kind of friendship, where the dialogue is open and honest and each supports the other, guiding one another away from the pitfalls and wrong turns the other doesn’t see.

So from the very beginning, philosophy has always been there to keep science honest, supplying the discipline of logic and helping it avoid methodological errors. It makes it clear to why there are relatively few direct or easy links from the ‘is’ to the ‘ought’ when formulating principles of ethics. It shows science that finding out how things work doesn’t readily indicate how we should apply that information in our daily lives, that even the best scientist is prone to bias, misunderstanding, and underestimation of that which we don’t yet know, and how science can be used to help and not harm.

There is no honest philosophy without science, and there is no science at all without philosophy.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes
* A version of this piece is published in Philosophy Now
*Also published in Darrow

Sources and inspiration:

Anderson, Ross. ‘Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete?’ The Atlantic. Apr 23, 2012

Burnett, Thomas. ‘What is Scientism?’ American Association for the Advancement of Science website.

‘Cesare Lombroso.’ In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Fagan, Andrew. ‘Human Rights’. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Gould, Stephen Jay. “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (March 1997): 16-22

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature, Book III: Of Morals. 1739.
Nerdist Podcast: ‘Neil Degrasse Tyson Returns Again’. March 17th, 2014

Newberger Goldstein, Rebecca: Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. 
New York, 2014

Shermer, Michael: ‘A Moral Starting Point: How Science Can Inform Ethics.’ Scientific American, 
February 2015., Rebecca. Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution. Random House, New York 2012.

Thatcher, Margaret. Quote from interview with Women’s Own magazine, Oct 31st 1987.

Warman, Matt. ‘Stephen Hawking Tells Google “Philosophy is Dead”‘. The Telegraph, May 17th, 2011

Welcome to the Podcast Edition of Ordinary Philosophy!

Hello dear readers, and welcome to the
podcast version of Ordinary Philosophy!

You can listen to the podcast here, on Google Play, or subscribe in iTunes.

Like many of you, I’m a big fan of podcasts, mostly because my life is very busy. One day in the future, I hope to have a lot more time to do each task one at a time, to really be present, as they say, as I wash the dishes, straighten the house, do the laundry, and perform all those other tasks that take up time, but not much thought.

But at this time in my life, between my day jobs, my creative projects, and spending time with friends and family (which I don’t do enough of these days, sadly), I don’t have enough time to keep up the world of ideas as nearly much as I’d like to by sitting down and reading. Instead, I keep myself informed and increase my education by listening to lots of podcasts: discussions with my favorite authors and thinkers, audio renditions of books and essays, debates, recordings of classes on my favorite subjects, and so on. I listen to these podcasts while doing those aforementioned chores, and let me tell you: as one who is not fond at all of household chores like doing the dishes and washing the floor, the podcast is a marvelous invention: they transform boring chore time into great opportunities for learning and exploration. I’m also an avid hiker, and it’s a wonderful thing to be able to immerse myself in some fascinating ideas or discussion as I immerse myself in the beauties of nature.

To begin with, this podcast will simply consist of audio recordings of my Ordinary Philosophy pieces. Over time, I may add commentary and who knows, perhaps interviews and discussions with guests. We’ll see how it goes. In the meantime, here’s Ordinary Philosophy in audio form: I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable!

… And here’s episode 2: Is the Market Really the Most Democratic Way to Determine Wages?
Originally published as an essay Feb 6th, 2014

Virtue Ethics: An Ancient Solution to a Modern Problem, by Peter D.O. Smith


I recently discovered this piece by Peter D.O. Smith in Scientia Salon, a favorite ‘webzine about philosophy and science‘ of mine.

I’m especially interested in philosophy’s attempt to unify ethics, to help bring the various particular ethical systems and local moralities into some sort of accord, or at least to bridge the gaps between them to whatever extent possible. Great harm often results when adherents of different ethical / moral systems come into conflict (religious wars, political gridlock), where instead of seeking common ground in the pursuit of the good, conflicting parties seek to dominate by force and inflammatory rhetoric. Blinded by self-righteousness, these conflicting parties can bring about a situation where at best, no progress is made as each side expends all of their efforts undermining the other, or at worst, inflict death and destruction on each other and on innocent bystanders.
This piece addresses this problem, and offers virtue ethics as an excellent candidate for its resolution.
What do you think? 

This article is neither a defense of nor an attack against either religion or secularism. It treats them as well established sociological facts and no more than that. I take them as given and argue that a greater moral good can be achieved if the two belief systems find common moral ground in virtue ethics.

Why should we care?

Moral choices infuse most aspects of our life, whether we know it or not. And a great number of these moral choices are bad ones. This is why our prisons are filled to overflowing [1], and recidivism is so high at 66% [2]. This is why we have so many war dead and this is why so many die violent deaths at the hands of murderers or radical ideologues. This is also why we have such an inequitable distribution of wealth. This is why cheating is rampant at schools and universities [3]. We maintain large standing armies to protect ourselves from the bad moral choices of others and on occasion we use it to inflict our bad moral choices on others. This is why we have no qualms in spying on our own citizens [4] or in killing without due process. This is why almost everyone has been the victim of crime, unfairness, injustice, discrimination, bullying [5], sexism, racism, ageism or other forms of bigotry, bias, and discrimination. This is why stalking is commonplace [6].

Bad moral choices touch us all and are the major cause of suffering in today’s world. Every person who has been jilted by a cheating partner has felt that suffering. Marital infidelity is the most common cause of divorce and abuse is another important cause [7]. One in five women are sexually assaulted at university [8]. Even natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods are compounded by moral failures as nations don’t respond adequately. Famines become moral failures when we cannot distribute food where and when it is needed. Our economic systems become moral failures when they turn into instruments of greed. Our political systems become moral failures when they are used for the advantage of the powerful, to exploit or neglect the weak.

The point I am making is that moral suffering is real, pervasive and needs attention. We have made great progress in reducing material suffering, but only some progress in reducing moral suffering. This is the important challenge that faces us today, to reduce moral suffering with the same degree of success that we have reduced material suffering.

What then is the problem?

The problem quite simply is that, in comparative terms, we do not give moral problems much attention at all and that we give it the wrong kind of attention, by creating a growing thicket of rules and regulations [9].

Modern society rewards material progress while neglecting moral progress. We have huge budgets for science research and we give large rewards to outstanding achievers in science. But society allocates far smaller amounts to advance moral interests or to reward moral achievers. As a simple example, of the six Nobel awards, only one (Peace) has a moral dimension [10]. Of the other 21 high-honour prizes, only seven have a moral component [11]. School education has a strong science bias but gives little attention to moral education [12]. Our criminal justice system spends a great deal on addressing the outcome of moral problems but little on addressing the causes of moral problems, with the result we have a recidivism rate of 66% [2]. We punish moral offenses but we do not prevent them. We have resorted to a form of legislated morality with our criminal justice and human rights systems. This is a framework with large gaps that does not address or give guidance to private morality.

We are becoming a rules based society, but the rules have only a weak hold because they lack intrinsic motivation [13]. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this was the collapse of the banking system. Banking is one of the most highly regulated parts of the economy, and yet that does not prevent abuse and exploitation [14]. Without intrinsic motivation the rules become a challenge to find means of evasion. We have reacted by adding more rules but it is only a matter of time before more means are found to evade them too. There has been an explosive growth in criminal laws. For the past twenty-five years, a period over which the growth of the federal criminal law has come under increasing scrutiny, Congress has created over 500 new crimes per decade [9]. Adding to this, the Administration is increasingly relying on mandates and directives.

A modern problem

Western society, for a long time, had a broad consensus on morality that was derived from religion. Indeed religion can be seen, in sociological terms, as society’s way of promoting cohesion through moral consensus [15]. Modernity and the Enlightenment have weakened the hold of religious morality, providing space for alternative conceptions of it to take hold. Modernity introduced a spirit of utilitarianism [16] and this has shaped present day society’s concept of morality. But it was not merely the concept that changed, but also the authority of moral systems. Religious moral systems derived their authority from their concept of God and this helped to provide intrinsic motivation. With the new utilitarian morality a new authority was introduced, the individual. Inevitably this has resulted in a weakened and diffuse moral sensibility that contains many contradictions. This new concept of morality has been accompanied by a shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is, by its very nature, less effective.

With this new concept of morality came a changed approach to society’s problems. The spirit of utilitarianism has created a tacit assumption that alleviating material need reduces the impetus for moral wrongs. There is a belief that moral wrongs are largely the outcome of material conditions. Thus effort has been directed to solving material problems, which have in any case been shown to have easy solutions, while true moral problems remain intractable and so are neglected. We have been picking the low hanging fruit.

We are divided by differing concepts of morality

With the weakening of religious morality and the widespread adoption of utilitarian approaches a sharp moral divide has opened up in society.

The secular world has adopted a tacit, inchoate form of moral consequentialism. It believes there is no absolute good or bad, only that acts should be judged by their consequences. It rejects the absolute lawgiver and the laws of religious deontology. It makes the individual the final arbiter of his acts.

The religious world, by contrast, believes in absolute good and bad and that acts can themselves be inherently good or bad. It believes there is an absolute lawgiver that has handed down a set of rules for a good life. The religious world rejects moral consequentialism on the grounds that it is a shifting and dangerous moral system that is easily tailored to suit the needs and desires of the moment.

As consequentialism or utilitarianism rose to the fore, reflecting the material and mechanical spirit of the times, challenging long held moral conceptions, Protestant Christianity (and Islam) retreated into a form of hardline deontology. The result is the strong ethical divide we see today.

There is thus a yawning chasm between the moral concepts of the religious and secular worlds. This chasm weakens the ability of society to address common moral problems since it lacks consensus. Society has reacted to this problem with a growing thicket of laws with no end in sight [17]. This has proven to be a poor solution, since adding rules merely invites further evasion if they are not reinforced or accompanied by some form of intrinsic motivation.

The need for a middle ground

We are a common people with common moral problems that affect us all. To solve these problems we need a unifying moral concept that both the religious and secular worlds can accept. For example, schools are a place where we should also give our youth moral preparation for adult life, and schools serve both world-views. This is one example of why it is necessary that we find common ground. Deontology and moral consequentialism are not acceptable to both sides of the divide and so cannot fulfill this need.

Which raises the question: is there a middle moral ground where the secular and religious worlds can meet and agree? Today’s society places a strong emphasis on the concepts of justice and rights. These can be seen as instances of what are known as ‘virtues’ and it is in virtue ethics, the third major branch of ethical philosophy, that I see an important opportunity for finding common ground between the secular and the religious worlds. Virtue ethics shows promise as the means of filling in the gaps of legislated morality. One can think of it as being the soft flesh on the hard skeleton of legislated morality, making a healthy, functioning body that is directed to the purpose of flourishing. Virtue ethics can be seen as an important form of intrinsic motivation that makes the regulated rules of society more effective while providing strong guidance to unregulated, private conduct. It is not accidental that here has been a sharp increase in academic interest in virtue ethics lately [18].

The appeal of virtue ethics

Virtue ethics is an enduring idea with ancient roots. Aristotle, some 2,300 years ago, clearly articulated the ethical philosophy known today as virtue ethics [19, 20]. Cicero, close to the time of Christ, wrote of it as being one of the three main contending moral systems of the day [21]. Catholicism, early on, incorporated it into its teachings where it continues to this day to be a major influence [22]. The last 50 years have seen a marked revival of academic interest in virtue ethics [18, 23], and Alisdair McIntyre’s publication of After Virtue was a landmark in this revival [24].
Virtue ethics looks neither to rules nor to consequences. Instead it considers internal motivations directed at realizing the telos, or end, of a “good” person, and it is in this that the religious and secular worlds can find agreement. In my mind, the appeal of virtue ethics is fivefold.

First, the generally accepted list of virtues is free of religious terminology or implications. This makes the virtues acceptable to the secular world. At the same time the religious world finds them a natural extension of its beliefs. For example, Catholicism has embraced virtue ethics, and both secularists and theists would readily agree on the list of 52 virtues given by the Virtue Project [25]. Theists would add faith, hope and charity to that list while secularists would ignore them, a minor difference. The differences that the many belief systems bring to this are largely ones of terminology and emphasis. It is an ethical system that is neutral about belief systems and can therefore be accepted by all belief systems.

Second, supplying an internal motivation is a better way of obtaining a good outcome, whether of act or consequence. It is widely agreed that intrinsic motivation is more effective than extrinsic motivation (intrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable, and extrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it leads to a separable outcome[13]).

Third, by supplying intrinsic principles, rather than rules, it is adaptable to a wide range of circumstances. A rules based system can only adapt to new circumstances by adding new rules, something that becomes intolerable in the long run.

Fourth, virtue ethics supplies a means of internalizing and integrating rules into a person’s behavior, making them more effective. It is a powerful way of reinforcing the rules and regulations of society by translating them into intrinsic motivation.

Fifth, virtue ethics can supply a new source of meaning, independent of but complementary to religious belief. It can be an antidote to the angst of modernity. This is a large field that is only touched on here.

In short, virtue ethics is capable of supplying an intrinsic motivation that is acceptable to both the secular and religious worlds. We live in an overwhelmingly rules dominated world. Virtue ethics offers a way of internalizing and then integrating rules such that they become intrinsically motivating. It is a promising field for finding common ground between the secular and religious worlds, to makes rules and regulations more effective, and to provide a source of meaning for the non-religious.

A practical solution

The attraction of virtue ethics is its practicality and simplicity. It can be formulated in simple terms that are appealing to most people. It is independent of belief systems and yet most belief systems can accept it, with only changes in terminology. It can easily be taught at an elementary level while still be challenging at a philosophical level. It is easily incorporated into codes of conduct for organizations.

But it is not just a solution to individual moral concerns. It can also be expanded to any domain of activity as an example discussed by Bruni and Sugden shows in the case of market economics [26]. They describe the market as a practice having a telos of voluntary and mutually beneficial exchanges. They explain: “On the supposition that the telos of the market is mutual benefit, a market virtue in the sense of virtue ethics is an acquired character trait with two properties: possession of the trait makes an individual better able to play a part in the creation of mutual benefit through market transactions; and the trait expresses an intentional orientation towards and a respect for mutual benefit. In this section, we present a catalog of traits with these properties, without claiming that our catalog is exhaustive.” Their catalogue of traits, or virtues, include universality, enterprise and alertness, respect for trading partners, trust and trustworthiness, acceptance of competition, non-rivalry, self-help and stoicism about reward.

Another example is the Character Counts! Coalition for moral education in schools, which uses a virtue ethics framework centered on respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, justice, fairness, civic virtue and citizenship [27].

These examples are intended to show that a virtue ethics framework can readily be adapted to any domain of activity or ‘practice.’ This makes virtue ethics a very flexible approach that can be tailored to all parts of our culture.

The role of secularism

Secularism has defined itself in opposition to theism. Its great achievement was the separation of religion from public life. Going beyond that, some secularists have set themselves the goal of destroying religion. This seems to be an ill advised goal as its chief result has been: to poison the public perception of atheism [28] and to harden the stance of Christian fundamentalism. Religion is a deep seated sociological phenomenon and is not going away. It has been part of human history for at least 40,000 years and remains an important part of all societies. It is far too durable a phenomenon and there is no realistic prospect that it will be ended [29]. The criticisms directed at religion by secularism have prompted strong reforms in religion and so have been useful for that end. The so-called war between secularism and religion is now becoming counterproductive as it obscures the major issue facing society, that of moral suffering. Now it is time that secularism embraces this problem and treats religion as an ally and not an enemy, or at least declares a truce. This does not mean religion should not be criticized when the occasion demands it, and indeed criticism can be a healthy impetus for reform. But attention should be shifted to the real enemy, moral suffering. To overcome this enemy the secular world should make common cause with the religious world. It can do this by embracing virtue ethics and making it the central plank of a morally committed secularism.

A solution to future problems

Population growth and rapid industrialization of the third world will create a situation of resource shortages and ultimately low growth [30]. Coping with this new world will require a major re-adjustment of values away from today’s one of rampant consumerism centered on hedonistic happiness. It will require a strong sense of responsibility and restraint, frugality will become the new watchword. Virtue ethics is our best hope of navigating this challenging new world. As Julia Annas, in Intelligent Virtue [31], explains, the virtues are a template for flourishing, in that to become a virtuous person is to become a flourishing person. It is a move away from hedonistic happiness to the eudaimonia of the virtues. This is a radical move away from the idea of happiness that depends on circumstances or goods, a necessary move in the resource constrained world that lies in our future.

That this goal is not so elusive can readily be appreciated when we compare the levels of positive emotions of some poor countries with those of some rich countries [32]:
Panama 85%, Singapore 46%;
Lesotho 77%, United Kingdom 77%;
Swaziland 76%, Germany, 74%.
Peter D.O. Smith is a foundry metallurgist, quality engineer, software engineer, and corporate manager (recently retired), who lives by the motto fides quaerens intellectum.

[1] US incarceration rate.
[2] Recidivism in the United Sates.
[3] Academic cheating fact sheet.
[4] The Snowden Files.
[5] 44% of children report having been bullied.
[6] Stalking.
[7] Causes of divorce.
[8] Sexual assaults at university.
[9] Revisiting the explosive growth of new crimes.
[10 Nobel prizes, literature, medicine, physics, chemistry, peace, and economics.
[11] Other high honor prizes.
[12] How Moral Education Is Finding Its Way Back into America’s Schools.
[13] Ryan and Deci, Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation.
[14] Why only One Banker Went to Jail.
[15] Nicholas Wade, The Faith Instinct.
[16] Trends in utilitarianism – Google books Ngram.
[17] Business Ethics: The Law of Rules.
[18] Trends in virtue ethics – Google books Ngram.
[19] Nichomacaen Ethics.
[20] Notes on Nichomachean Ethics.
[21] On Moral Ends, Marcus Tullius Cicero, Julia Annas.
[22] The Cardinal Virtues in the Middle Ages: A Study in Moral Thought from the Fourth to the Fourteenth Century.
[23] Contemporary virtue ethics.
[24] Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue.
[25] The Virtues Project.
[26] Reclaiming virtue ethics for economics.
[27] The Six Pillars of Character.
[28] Net rating of religious belief systems.
[29] Growth of Religion.
[30] Paul Gilding, The Great Disruption.
[31] Julia Annas, Intelligent Virtue.
[32] Gallup poll, Positive emotions worldwide.

This piece was originally published on Sept 25th, 2014 at

Money and Human Worth

‘It’s just business.’

This is one of my least favorite phrases of all time. 
It seems to be used, generally, to explain away unpleasant, unkind, or unethical behavior, or to avoid addressing or dealing with the undesirable side effects of a difficult but necessary decision, in a situation where money is involved.

Yet just because the phrase ‘it’s just business’ might be used only in difficult or unpleasant situations, that doesn’t make it wrong, does it? Couldn’t it be a shorthand way of pointing out that it’s impossible to make everyone happy in every business transaction, since it involves two or more opposing sets of interests? In fact, the phrase could be revealing humane concern, a regret that there are often undesirable side effects to the other in conducting business.

Yes, I allow; the utterer could be expressing these sentiments, choosing this phrase because it’s a ready-made, widely understood part of our lexicon.

But we don’t hear it being used this way much, do we? It seems this phrase is almost always used to justify rudeness, treating human beings as if they’re merely a means to an end or taking advantage of an opportunity to exploit others; to explain away bribery, theft, extortion, bullying, abuse… It’s not generally used in cases of honest dealing, of courtesy and respect for other person(s) involved in a transaction, of doing one’s best to make sure an employee is treated or ‘let go’ in as just and fair a manner as possible. In such situations, no such disclaimer is necessary.

So why am I bringing this up? What’s caused me to think about why and how people use this phrase, and for it to rankle with me enough to write this essay?

Full disclosure: I have a working gal’s chip on my shoulder.

I’ve worked for a living my entire life, since I was about seventeen. Most of those years I worked in customer service. I’ve prepared and served food and drink, I’ve sold goods and services, I’ve made art and things to wear, I’ve lifted and carried loads, I’ve decorated and cleaned, I’ve answered phone calls, I’ve scheduled appointments and events… The list goes on. I consider it all honest work, and I think… no, I know, I’ve helped make life better for many, many people along the way.

All this is true, in fact, of most of the people in the world. Behind every counter and cash register, on the receiving end of every phone call and email, in every kitchen and factory and field and warehouse and office and hospital, other people’s work make our lives better. We depend on them for providing the necessities and the luxuries of life. Their hard work makes our lives enjoyable and even possible. Given this fact, it never fails to disappoint me, and sometimes still surprises me, how often people feel entitled to treat working people with condescension, disdain, and even abuse, from the first moment of interaction.

Now most people I’ve worked for and done business with have been decent, many more have been polite, friendly and supportive, and some have been the loveliest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, some have become dear friends. I consider myself lucky that in so many ways, throughout the course of my working life, I’ve enjoyed a great deal of moral and financial support, others’ concern for my well-being, a richness of interesting experiences, of opportunities to improve my situation, of the goodness of other people, and of the chance to expand my talents, exercise my creativity and problem solving skills, and best of all, to never stop learning.

But I also couldn’t possibly begin to make a full account of the number of times I’ve felt dismissed, condescended to, treated like a machine or a servant, and attacked for all manner of disappointments and inconveniences (real or perceived) whether I was responsible for them or not, simply by virtue of being on the other side of that counter, that receipt book, that telephone, that paycheck. I am also keenly aware how instrumental I was, or at least tried to be, in making that person’s life better at that moment. And this, again, is true of every working person in the world. Without us working people, no one could eat food, drink water, keep themselves and their homes and cities clean, travel, heal their ills, enjoy any luxuries, and so on, in comfort and security. And of course, the category ‘us working people’ include the vast majority of humanity. Most of us work for a living, and each job we do involves at least some kind of business interaction. It’s work that provides the (real) goods and services for sale in any business transaction. And almost all of us who live in this world have had many occasions to bemoan ill treatment in our capacities as workers and engagers in business.

This is where we arrive at the connection between the phrase ‘it’s just business’ and why it bothers me so much. I detest it because it expresses an attempt to dehumanize the interaction and, by extension, the person one does business with. It implies that one can remove the ‘human element’, the consideration of the other as a being with moral worth to whom we have certain obligations, from the realm of business. And if it’s not really a human interaction, therefore, one does not have to act with kindness, fairness, or respect.

I argue that this the attempt to dehumanize business is impossible: business is entirely about people. All business transactions are a type of human interaction. It’s true that when we make a bargain, when we exchange money for something we want, certain elements are added to the interaction. There are problems of fairness to be resolved, there’s customer loyalty to be won, the need for expediency may be pressing, and so forth. But all types of human interaction contain unique elements: all involve a particular combination of expectations, obligations, etiquette, and other considerations. The fact that it’s a business transaction, and not another kind, does not subtract from the basic fact that all parties are human beings to whom we owe a basic level of respect and courtesy.

Business, in this sense, is always personal.

Most of us, most of the time, recognize this. Most business, day to day, is conducted in a reasonably courteous and decent way. We greet the other person, we say thank you (if not always ‘please’), we ‘shake hands on it’. We don’t usually lie, steal, or bully to get what we want. We treat our colleagues and employees with decency at least when we come into direct contact with them, we praise their work and give them raises and bonuses if we can, we usually feel regret, at least on some level, if we feel we need to fire them, and we hope they do well in the future. When we consider the phrase ‘it’s just business’, we realize that it holds little meaning when considered in light of how we usually behave. Understood as ‘it’s just a human interaction that involves money,’ we realize it’s a rather meaningless statement.

So it appears clear that we resort to this phrase when doing the right thing by the person we’re doing business with becomes difficult or inexpedient to getting what we want. And I fear it’s became far too widely, and far too unquestioningly, accepted when used this way. Why have we come to acquiesce to the idea that when money enters an interaction, that its appropriate to overlook or cast aside our concern for the cost in human dignity, in respect, well-being, rights, justice, and simple decency? I fear that in our enthusiasm for the benefits of the marketplace, we too easily become complacent to what can be lost.

What we can lose is the respect we should have, as a central feature of our character, for the moral worth of others, and that if we let that slip, we undermine ourselves as social creatures, and in turn, everyone’s prospects for well-being. If our dignity, our moral worth, is up for sale, then the marketplace, ideally a highly cooperative, mutually beneficial institution, devolves into an arms ace where the most ruthless thrive in the short term, while trust erodes and the whole system of collapses in the long run. We can recognize this by comparing and contrasting various societies and their market systems, contemporary and historical. Oligarchies, tyrannies, rigidly enforced class systems and aristocracies, ideologically-based planned economies, are all extreme examples of how the disregard of individual human worth and dignity cause a marketplace to lose its ability to benefit all, and ultimately to self-destruct.

So, from a matter as minor as rudeness to a salesperson, to as serious as slavery, the same principle applies. The exchange of money for something we want or need makes no difference, morally, to the basic way we should treat anyone. That’s because, while goods or services are marketable, a person’s moral worth can never be, and should never be, up for sale.

It’s true that we’re sometimes justified in expressing anger and disappointment when doing business. Sometimes others fail, a little or a lot, in performing their part of the bargain or duties of their job, and we feel quite unfriendly when that’s the case. Sometimes others fail to provide good customer service, and are rude and unhelpful from the start. Sometimes others provide ‘services’ and products that are faulty, useless, or even harmful. In these circumstances it’s just to criticize their work, or to withhold or take back payment if the terms of the exchange aren’t fulfilled, or to let them know that you won’t be patronizing their business again. It’s appropriate, in such cases, and to voice one’s displeasure.

But this just reaction to the failure of the other to fulfill their part of the bargain is not what I’m criticizing here. It’s the unspoken attitude, unfortunately too widespread in my observation, that the person with the money in the exchange is automatically entitled to be abrupt and impersonal, to always demand, command, act impatient, and even abuse those they’re paying, in a manner inconsistent with respect for human dignity. It’s implied in the adage ‘the customer is always right.’ Are you the recipient of a payment, for goods or services, or as an employee on the clock? If so, many think, you are immediately transformed into a legitimate target for frustration, impatience, desire, greed, and sense of entitlement, whether or not you were responsible for the disappointment. In this sense, it feels as if you are no longer a person to them. Because if they consider you a person, wouldn’t they feel that they should be polite, respectful, or at a minimum, not rude or hateful to you, just as they would any other person?

Again, to argue that business is not personal, that it removes much or even all of the human element, is to make a very serious claim, with dire repercussions. It would imply that the moral worth of a human being is calculable in dollars and cents, and that it can be bought and sold. I argue that the number value of money and the degree of significance of a human life can never be aligned, and that you can’t ‘pay away’ your moral obligations towards any human being. When you pay for a good or a service, that, and only that, is what you pay for. Your payment does not apply in any way to your moral obligation to respect others.

One might object: ‘I didn’t choose to enter into any kind of relationship with the person I’m doing business with, they just happened to be the one I had to interact with to get something I need or want. Shouldn’t relationships be a matter of choice? Why, then, can’t a business interaction be impersonal, especially if members of a society agree that it’s impersonal?’

To begin with, all human interactions ultimately belong in the category of unchosen relationships. We stumble upon interactions with people all the time, and it’s a fact of life that all relationships occur because of chance circumstances, at least at first. We don’t choose for ourselves who we pass by on the street, who the open seat on the subway is next to, who our classmates, colleagues, or the new neighbors will be, who the people we already know will introduce us to, or who our parents, siblings, and relatives are. They become part of our world via circumstances out of our control. Since all human interactions belong in the same category. I argue, the same basic obligation to be just, polite, and respectful applies equally in all human interactions.

Secondly: one can no more give away or sell one’s own moral worth than they can choose to negate or buy another’s. That’s because human worth, mutual obligations of respect and duty and mutual dependence, are not merely a part of some unspoken contract. They are a feature of human nature by virtue of the fact that we are social and rational, and therefore, moral beings. ‘X cannot buy or sell away the moral with of Y‘ is equally true, if we are indeed rational, social beings, whether the variables X and Y are replaced in that statement by ‘you’ or ‘I’. (1)

It’s a fundamental part of the human condition that we are all bound together in a mutual web of obligation and dependency. Without one another, we would not get very far in life, and all we achieve, all we do, are the result of the combination of our own efforts with the contributions of others. One needs the ingenuity and knowledge of physics of the inventor and the architect when one needs a car, a bridge, a home, and owes a debt of gratitude for the resulting vast improvement in the ease and comfort of life. The inventor and the architect, in turn, needs the labor of the miner, the smelter, and the carpenter, and owes not only money, but respect and gratitude for supplying the raw material, without which their designs could not be realized, and for being among their clients, without which their wealth could not be earned and their work would not be needed. One needs the knowledge and skill and of the physician when health fails, and owes to her gratitude, admiration, and respect for the services she provides, and the hard work and intelligence it required to attain her abilities to heal. The physician needs the fruit of the work of the laborer in the field to sustain her life, and owes the laborer gratitude, admiration, and respect for the difficulty of the work performed and the fact that her life is sustained through his labor. The exchange of money is simply the means by which the exchange is organized; the basic fact that we all depend on each other, and have moral obligations to each other, is not altered by its usage.

(1) Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011, Viking Penguin, New York. pp 647-648

Hume, Aristotle, and Guns

Photo 2014 by Amy Cools

Antique firearms at the Scottish National Museum, Edinburgh

I’ve been mulling over the issue of ‘gun rights’ for some time now. It’s a pressing issue here in the United States, since more people are injured and killed by citizens wielding guns than in any other state with a stable government and a thriving economy.

It’s also a divisive issue, as it’s generally argued in terms of liberty, a core value in our culture and politics. One side emphasizes the right to self-defense, the other the right to freedom from fear and from the pressure to join the arms race. And whether or not people chose to arm themselves, their fellow citizens feel that they are placed under some kind of obligation or burden as a result.

From the anti-gun perspective: if at least some of your fellow citizens are armed, then you are forced into a position where you must arm yourself too whether you’d like to or not, or remain at their mercy. After all, in a moment of greed, anger, zeal, fear, mental illness, hate, or accident, one person with a gun can permanently remove all freedoms that another could ever enjoy, within seconds, with the simple squeeze of a trigger. When another is armed, they have the potential power to wield complete control as to whether you live or die, and to force you to act according to their will, and against your own.

From the pro-gun perspective: if your fellow citizens choose not to arm themselves, you leave all the work of crime deterrence up to gun owners. Not only that: since a gun is the most effective weapon which can be wielded by a person of nearly any degree of strength, it’s the only available method for many who feel the need to defend themselves and others. In other words, it’s the one real equalizer: anyone with a gun has as much power as any other, so long as they know how and when to use it.

What would help us decide how to settle this, since the freedom to live the life we want, and the freedom to live at all, are in direct conflict here? We’re still figuring it out here in the US. Some nations have chosen in favor of individual gun rights, and others have disarmed their citizens, with varying results. While, generally speaking, nations and states with low gun ownership rates have much lower rates of gun violence, there are some exceptions. The gun rights dilemma, therefore, is not simply and immediately solved through legislation designed in favor of one set of rights issues over another.

Putting the conflicting liberty and rights issues aside for the moment, perhaps it would help to consider the relevant moral issues. Here, we can look beyond local, cultural considerations to a broader source of guidance as to what we should do about guns. What does it mean to be a good person, a virtuous person, and how do we cultivate that in ourselves and in each other? How does a society cultivate that in its citizens? Can these and other considerations help us decide what’s right, morally, when it comes to the rights and responsibilities of owning a gun? What should we do about it? Is it right or good for people to hold so much power over life and death? Permissive gun laws, which make it easy for responsible gun owners to trade in guns, also make it easier for members of drug cartels and other criminals to get their hands on them, too; that being known, are those laws right?

I think two of the greatest thinkers on morality and virtue, David Hume and Aristotle, can do much to help us discover some answers to these questions. Let’s explore their ideas, look for some answers there, and see how they fit with modern discoveries in behavioral science, psychology, and neuroscience.

According to David Hume, morality originates in the ‘passions’, or feelings. We can see ourselves as naturally moral creatures, since we come equipped with those emotions, those motivations, that make morality possible. We demonstrate altruistic, ‘pro-social’ (not Hume’s term, a more modern one), even as children, though we develop our moral character as we grow, through life experience, conversation with other moral beings, and by acquiring and developing the use of reason. For example, from the earliest age, we approve of kindness and disapprove of cruelty. We desire happiness, love, and generosity, and detest pain and avoid selfish people; we crave learning, and enrichment, and the approval of others. Those ‘sentiments’ ennoble us, and are responsible for that which is best in our characters. Yet the emotions we come equipped with are not sufficient, in themselves, for a morally developed person. Reason also plays a key role, enabling us to universalize and expand morals, and to apply these needed in any given situation.

Yet morality cannot be founded on reason alone: as Hume points out, reason is the means to means to link one true proposition with another, but cannot, on its own, show us what to value, or make us care about each other or anything else. It’s moral feeling, the passions, that provide the motivations, and provide reason the materials to work with to develop our morality. So as we grow up, we learn to develop our moral instincts, to ‘expand our moral circle‘ through conversation and the use of reason. By spending time with others, by being exposed to diverse ways of thinking and being, we learn that others have emotions and interests just like we do, that are just as important to them as ours are to us. Emotionally, we empathize with others; rationally, we know that what we expect of others is no more or less than what we must demand of ourselves. A very young person has the instincts for morality, but prior to experience of the world and the use of reason, it’s a very limited morality, or can even be considered a sort of proto-morality. Experience of other moral agents, through discourse with them, reveals there are others whose feelings and interests matter just as much to them as ours do to us, and finally reason shows that there is not particular reason to favor oneself over another when determining moral rules and guides of behavior. A morally good person, then, will seek to be pleasant and generous, to make others happy and improve their well-being, to respect and protect their interests as much as possible, just as we desire and expect they will do for us.

Hume’s account of how morality works, combined with the body of knowledge we’ve discovered since his time, reveals that it’s as much a natural part of the makeup of the human personality as any other, as are creativity, romantic passion, mother love, curiosity, and hunger, as well as (sadly!) rapacity and cruelty. A natural explanation of morality does not require a complex suite of arguments to found its origins in logic and reason, nor does it require some cause outside of ourselves, as traditional explanations claimed. To find out what morality is and how it works, we observe human beings, how they act and how they desire themselves and each other to act; we explain how and why morality developed as a natural adaptation for human beings; and we apply reason to determine what kinds of mindsets, rules, and behaviors lead to their flourishing.

Behavioral, biological, and evolutionary sciences have, over the years, lent support to Hume’s explanation of morality. Rebecca Saxe and Alison Gopnik, among others, has closely observed the behavior of infants and very young children over time, and has gathered a large body of evidence that people demonstrate moral instincts from the very earliest age, recognize that others are moral beings with their own interests and emotions just like us, and make moral judgments accordingly. Evolutionary psychology (Darwin considered Hume one of his great influences), in which morality is considered as much an adaptation as our opposable thumbs and long limbs, inherit much from Hume’s account. In fact, Hume is widely considered a founder of naturalistic moral theory, and a father to modern cognitive science.

Aristotle’s grounds the origin of morality more on reason, though his theory is founded, like Hume’s, from his observation of the world and how people behave. His elegant ‘function argument’ is the centerpiece of his moral theory. When you consider what something is for, and observe what it does and how it functions, you’ll know where to start. The quality of goodness in material things is closely related to the quality of goodness when it comes to actions and moral feelings. A musical instrument is for making music; therefore, an excellent, or good, musical instrument is that which produces the best music. Further, if we consider a case in which we’re deciding who the musical instrument should belong to, it would be the right thing to do to give it to the best musician. Not to the nicest person, or the one who can pay the most for it, or even to the person who made it; those considerations are irrelevant since none of those have anything to do with the proper function of the instrument.

To Aristotle, reason is the one definitive human trait that no other creature on earth possesses. That’s what we do uniquely, and what we’re best at, or at least, that’s what we do when we’re at our best. So what we should do, the moral thing to do, is what’s most reasonable, what’s most in keeping with our nature as reasonable beings. What helps us recognize that, in turn, is called the ‘Golden Mean’: consider all those traits we have, see how they fall on a spectrum, and we will see that the virtue consists of the happy medium between extremes. For example, bravery would be the virtuous golden mean between cowardice and recklessness, love between disdain and fawning or obsession, and so on. (Fun fact: Hume himself placed great importance on moderation, temperance, and fairness, eschewing divisive party politics, for example, as if it was part of his mission to live out the ideal of the Golden Mean!)

Making the leap from the function of a thing which is an artifact of intentional human creation, to the function of a human being itself, is quite a leap. Aristotle recognized this and sought to address it, but did not yet have the modern knowledge of the theory of evolution, and of evolutionary psychology, and how well they account for the origin and development of moral virtues such as kindness, sympathy, generosity, bravery, and so forth. Nor did Hume, but he did not consider it justified to form conclusions by building a logical case as far removed from original observations as many who followed Aristotle later. Hume saw human beings as much a product of the natural world as any other, and their nature as fully explicable in those terms. So leaving the function argument aside for the time being, let’s consider another important contribution of Aristotle’s to moral philosophy: the importance of habit.To Aristotle, habit is essential to the practice of virtue. By emulating virtue, we habituate ourselves to it. Over time, morality, the practice of virtue, becomes second nature. Here, Aristotle proves himself a keen observer of human psychology, and his emphasis on habit as a central driving force behind human thought and behavior, as well as something which can be deliberately instilled through practice, is confirmed by the findings of modern psychologists and neuroscientists. A recent article in Scientific American outlines some of the ways in which habits are formed, and how necessary they are if we wish to improve our behaviors systematically. Cognitive behavioral therapy, now widely considered among the most effective ways to overcome addiction and anxiety-depression, among other disorders, is also founded on these scientific discoveries.

Here’s where I find a link between these two moral theories: Aristotle’s emphasis on habit works hand in hand with Hume’s account of how moral sentiments arise from human psychology. Whether it be from habit or other mental processes we are naturally equipped with when we achieve consciousness, moral behavior is largely a spontaneous reaction to the situation at hand. Early in our development, as Saxe and Gopnik describe, a basic set of moral instincts are included in human consciousness in its earliest stages. As Hume observes, experience and reason help us expand, develop, and perfect our moral characters over time; the moral character, as Aristotle recognizes, is the set of, and relationships between, the virtuous habits we’ve cultivated through practice.

This also consistent with other findings of modern neuroscience and psychology. The way we tend to act in any given situation, the emotions and motivations that arise in us as we respond to stimuli, are formed as we react to circumstances, and by engaging in patterns of action, reactions, thoughts, behavior, we create mental channels, so to speak, or ‘paths of least resistance’, which predict our reactions, our thoughts and behavior, given similar circumstances. We usually act and think in accordance with how we’ve been given to act and think before, and only change when some new consideration(s) arises that makes us stop and consider whether to do something else this time. These considerations, the combination of reason and emotion (how do I act that will make me feel good about it, given the consequences of my actions for myself and others? How did the decisions I made last time the sort of thing came effect me and the world around me? How do others act in these situations, and what are the effects then?) inform how we habituate ourselves to new and improved moral actions and reactions.

Let’s pause for a moment. So far, we have these two thinkers’ descriptions of morality and virtue, supported by the findings of modern psychology and neuroscience.  Hume and Aristotle show us where they think we should look for virtue, how to recognize it, how to describe and explain it, and where it originates. In other words, they are engaged in metaethics. But as you may have noticed, this tells us only how people actually do think and behave; what about telling us what we should do? What are the criteria for deciding what’s right and what’s wrong?

Arete (Virtue)

I think Hume and Aristotle point us in this direction: human beings not only do, but should habituate themselves to those practices which form in us the best moral character. While both men don’t explicitly tell how we can definitely say what’s right and wrong, they go to great lengths to show us what an admirable character looks like, and how they think and behave. I think they do so in order to reveal to us not only how we could be, but how we should be. In his writings as well as by example (he was widely known to have a particularly admiral character), Hume emphasizes such virtuous sentiments as sympathy, sociability, amiability, beneficence, generosity, and so on, and advocates the cultivation of these traits, especially through conversation and spending time in the company of others, especially those who can broaden your understanding of the world, and by avid reading and study of philosophy, literature, and history. Aristotle emphasizes the virtue of moderation in all things, of wisdom, self-control, courage, and nobility. Both men emphasize, to the highest degree, the use of reason, and the value of its careful and consistent application in all matters of life. It appears that they go through all this trouble not only to show us what a good person looks like, but to offer us something to aspire to: the formation of an excellent, moral character, which leads to the best life a person can achieve.

So, finally, we return to the gun issue. What does all this have to do with owning them, and using them? What does this have to do with what we observe in human behavior when people own guns? How about when people value, or even glorify, guns?

Let’s return to the consideration of the evidence, which can reveal how attitudes and practices relating to guns manifest themselves in human behavior; in other words, what habit or habits does a gun-owning society promote?

There are conflicting statistics to when it comes to gun-related behavior. For example, people in the United States own almost twice as many guns per-capita as Canadians and Germans. Canada and Germany, in turn, have a much higher rate of gun ownership compared to most other developed nations. Yet among these three nations, the United States has a far higher gun-related death rate, about four times that of Canada, and about 8 times that of Germany, though the three share many key cultural and political traits: they are democratic, capitalistic, and culturally and historically Christian. There are also examples where lower gun-related death rates correlate with higher per-capita gun ownership. This is the case for some states in the U.S, and for Switzerland, a country that, interestingly, imposes a requirement on all households to own a gun.Yet given such outliers, most states in the US, and most countries in the world, see a strong correlation between lower rates of gun-related death and injury and lower rates of gun ownership. The U.S. ranks near the top in gun-violence rates, just under Mexico’s, a country overrun with trigger-happy drug cartels, and outranked almost entirely by countries with weak, unstable governments, poor human-rights records, and high rates of poverty and income inequality. The very lowest rates of all, by contrast, are enjoyed by those countries who possess a high degree of personal liberty and human-rights protections while at the same time restrictive gun-ownership privileges, or none at all. Even in Switzerland, often cited by gun-rights advocates as an example of how high rates of gun ownership can correlate with low levels of violence, there are 16 times as many gun deaths as in the U.K, and 64 times as many as Japan. The rates are low in Switzerland only as compared with the most violent countries, but not in comparison with the least violent.

Photo 2014 by Amy Cools

Antique long guns at the Scottish National Museum, Edinburgh

Returning to the liberty issue for a moment, it seems that overall, since you must be alive to enjoy any liberty at all, liberty is best served when there aren’t many guns around. When a fight ensues, or the home is broken into, or a child has figured out how to get into a locked cabinet, or a person goes on a violent rampage due to mental illness, few, if any, people actually end up dying or disabled when there’s no guns nearby to reach for. It’s relatively difficult and messy to kill someone with a knife and other non-gun weapons, and the planning that goes into other kinds of homicide, like poisoning, gives people more time to consider the consequences of their action, decreasing the chance they’ll go through with it, or decreasing the chances of success at homicide.

As we’ve seen, however, the liberty issue can’t be the only determining factor in deciding the gun issue, since liberty considerations conflict so sharply when one’s liberty interests run counter to another’s. There are still compelling arguments to be made that individual liberty requires the right for each person to make their own decision in the matter, from the right to self-protection and self-determination. There’s also the fact that there are some states and countries where higher rates of gun ownership do correlate with low gun violence, especially in places where the population is more homogeneous, ethnically, religiously, racially, economically, and so on, even if they are relatively few. Conversely, there’s the liberty considerations of those who wish to be free from the fear of coercion and bodily harm, ever-present dangers that usually result from a heavily armed population, as the statistics reveal.

This is where the law comes in. One main purpose of the law is to defend the rights and liberties of the citizenry at large, and this involves protecting citizens from each other. A population is always composed of people who have conflicting interests, needs and desires, so to keep a society functioning, prosperous, and harmonious as possible, the law (ideally) is crafted to balance the rights, responsibilities, and interests of each citizen, impartially, with the other.Another purpose of the law is to codify, universalize, and enforce the mores of a given society, or at least those that harmonize with the principles of justice, equality, liberty, and so on that are central to the political system of that society.And last but not least, the law encodes a system of rights, responsibilities, and prohibitions, the practice of which is requisite to being a good citizen. In other words, the law is a society’s (in a democracy, the people’s) way to habituate its citizens to those practices which form a virtuous, a good citizen.

Gun law is no exception. Prior to passing laws relating to gun ownership, there are societal attitudes towards guns that people possess, cultivate, and enforce not only through custom and discourse, but eventually through law. Famously, in the 1990’s, the Australian government, with widespread support from its citizens, collected and destroyed a large proportion of the country’s firearms, and imposed restrictive gun laws. These laws were a direct result of the public’s horrified reaction to a series of gun-related mass murders that had happened in the decade prior. The public’s new attitude towards guns was made manifest in the law. It’s still in debate whether the sharp decline in gun violence that followed the new laws were a result of the laws, or vice-versa. It appears most likely that it’s some combination of the two: after all, as we’ve observed throughout history, there’s a feedback loop between the law and a society’s moral progress.

Consider the history of civil rights legislation in the United States: desegregation and other civil rights protections happened gradually, with each disenfranchised group demanding the full rights of citizenship, despite the current will of the majority to keep those groups subjugated and oppressed. Over time, the use of reason (in these cases, legal reasoning) and consideration of the values underpinning the foundational political philosophy and documents (in this case, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) led to new laws which not only enforced better practices, but habituated citizens to more virtuous thought and behavior, often in spite of themselves. We see this time and time again in American history: the disenfranchisement and oppression of black people, religious minorities, the poor and non-landowners, women, Jews, gay people, and so on, once common practice, came to be looked upon with righteous distaste, worthy of contempt. In so many of these cases, it was the law that changed commonly held attitudes, more than the other way around, and the change in attitudes and behavior often happened far more quickly than it would have otherwise if the practice of virtue wasn’t inculcated through law.

In sum: Considering the lessons of history, the evidence of the current states of affairs in which high gun-ownership rates correlate strongly with destructive attitudes and behavior when the entirety of the evidence is considered, and how the wisdom of two of the greatest moral thinkers is confirmed by the findings of modern science, I think that laws restricting, even eliminating, gun ownership by most individuals help lead to a wiser, more prudent, more beneficent, more amiable, more free society.

What do you think?

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– I’d especially like to thank Guy Fletcher, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, who kindly gave me some of his valuable time (despite it’s being finals week), invaluable insights, and excellent pointers regarding the subjects covered in this essay, especially in reminding me to make clearer the distinctions between meta-ethics, morality, and ethics.


Sources and inspiration:

Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. About 350 BC. 

Boseley, Sarah. ‘High gun ownership makes countries less safe, US study finds‘. The Guardian, Sep 18, 2013.

De Waal, Francis. The Bonobo and the Atheist : In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, 2013.

Gopnik, Alison. The Philosophical Baby, 1998.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind, 2013.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature, Volume III – Of Morals. Printed for Thomas Longman in London, England, in 1740. (I had a glorious time referring to versions published in Hume’s own lifetime during my trip to Edinburgh!) Online version:

David B. and Stephen D’Andrilli. “What America can learn from Switzerland is that the best way to reduce gun misuse is to promote responsible gun ownership.” American Rifleman, Feb 1990

Kraut, Richard, ‘Aristotle’s Ethics‘. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2014 

Morris, William Edward. ‘David Hume‘. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009.

Saxe, Rebecca. ‘How We Read Each Other’s Minds‘. TED talk, 2009

Tucker, Abigail. ‘Are Babies Born Good?’ Smithsonian Magazine, Jan 2013.