Tom Clark, Empiricism, and Ethics

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Tom Clark and Naturalism

After a two-month hiatus, it’s my pleasure once again to take up conversation with Tom Clark, director of the Center for Naturalism, who also runs the website Naturalism.org and the Memeing Naturalism blog. Our first three rounds on this were interesting and productive, in my opinion, and apparently also Tom’s.

Previously we discussed whether his approach to epistemology was adequate and supportable, which I do not intend to raise for discussion again here; I think we’ve covered that, even though we did not come to agreement. The great remaining question has to do with his position on the ethics of naturalism. I will illustrate his position with a series of quotes from his paper Reality and Its Rivals: Putting Epistemology First.

This statement of the obvious – that respect for empiricism matters, crucially – simply sets the stage for the central argument of this paper: that when it comes to representing reality, there is no coherent, ethically responsible substitute for science and other empirical disciplines.

But the empirical imperative is not only rational, it becomes a positive ethical obligation when we engage in collective projects that affect the lives of millions.

A little epistemic humility would go a long way toward reducing the ideological tribalism underlying the culture wars.

So we see that Clark values, and seeks to be guided by, responsibility and humility, and he acknowledges that there are ethical obligations upon humans. On these things we are quite in agreement. He shares more detailed ethical views in passages like this one:

Religiously motivated opponents of birth control, abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage have sought to disseminate information at odds with science: about the supposed inefficacy of condoms in preventing the spread of HIV, the purportedly dire psychological impact of having an abortion or growing up with two mommies or daddies, and the supposedly superior feasibility of some alternatives to embryonic stem cells.

(I note in passing that the “superior feasibility of some alternatives to embryonic stem cells” is, at least at this stage of research, quite empirically factual. But that is not my main point here.)

Now, all of this is in context of an impassioned call for empiricism, Clark’s position that nothing is known unless it is knowable through science or means very much like science, i.e., intersubjective empiricism. In a spirit of epistemic humility, no belief or opinion should be regarded as knowledge unless the object of that belief is a public object, capable of being examined by anyone (theoretically at least), and on which other persons generally find agreement.

Clearly, though, he takes ethical obligations to be an object of knowledge. How can he do this on his empiricist epistemology? One potential difficulty with his position comes to mind but must be discarded immediately. By public object, we can be sure Clark does not necessarily mean a physical object; I’m sure he also includes abstract objects like, say, the triangle formed by our sun, Betelgeuse, and Sirius; or numbers; or logical relations. So even though ethical obligations are not touchable, countable, or measurable, that in itself does not automatically rule them out under his epistemology, provided they can be tested by some appropriately empirical means.

Clark suggests that this is possible. He says that “empiricism and equality go hand in hand,” producing a basis for ethics that stands, by the way, in sharp contrast to religiously based ethics:

The primary justifications for discrimination against women, racial, ethnic and religious minorities, atheists, homosexuals, and other out-groups are found in traditional faith-based religions such as Christianity and Islam, and in non-empirical secular ideologies such as Nazism, social Darwinism and white supremacy. There are no good science-based reasons for such discrimination, so to the extent that we can divest people of their factually unfounded prejudices we’ll move toward a more tolerant, pluralist, egalitarian culture of universal human rights.

In an earlier paper of his he expresses this view in further detail:

By contrast, there is no science-based, empirically derived justification for supposing any class of individuals merits fewer opportunities for self-development, or for limiting their rights to education, political participation, owning property, or any other right commonly held by individuals in liberal secular societies. Such limitations and discriminations can only find justification in non-empirical beliefs about the privileges owed those ranked higher in a social hierarchy, or belonging to certain in-groups, whether based on gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, religious identification, or other denomination. The history of progress in human rights (progress as progressives see it) is the dismantling of such justifications, of showing them to have no basis in empirical fact.

Whatever biological and cultural differences exist between genders, races, ethnicities, religious groups and nationalities, there are no scientific grounds for supposing members of out-groups, or low status members of in-groups, deserve not to have their human needs met, or not to develop their full potential by according them the same rights as others. As scientific empiricism has won allegiance as our guide to reality, displacing faith and other non-empirical grounds for belief, the discriminatory social practices built on such beliefs have been deprived of their rationales, making the presumption of equal rights more and more the norm.

In summary, then, Clark holds to an ethic including responsibility, humility, and human equality (a generally liberal approach to this, as stated elsewhere in that paper); and he considers that there are obligations attached to all of these. He maintains that there is an empirical basis to his ethic.

Two questions come to mind in response. First, is there any place where he proposes to bridge the is-ought gap? This is the famous issue posed by David Hume and described as the naturalistic fallacy: that one cannot derive an ought from an is. Christian theism has no problem with this, for the ought is as much an aspect of the character of God, and thus the foundation of reality, as any other aspect of his character. The oughts of human ethics do not start from an is, they derive from the original oughts of basic reality in God.

Second, is there really an empirical basis for any of his ethics at all? What is the empirical basis for supposing we have an ethical obligation to empiricism? Is that not somewhat circular? In his paper he poses this ethical obligation as being demonstrated in its results; that it leads to more equal treatment for humans, more respect for public health and the environment, and so on. These imply values attached to the environment and to human equality. Do these values flow from empirically-based knowledge?

To the second of those, human equality, he proposes an answer. He says there is “no empirically derived justification for supposing any class individuals merits fewer opportunities…. there are no scientific grounds for supposing members of out-groups, or law status members of in-groups, deserve not to have their human needs met.” But what is the empirical study that supports this? Is it not empirically obvious that persons are not equal? As individuals, some of us are more intelligent, some less; some more emotionally intelligent, some less; some more athletic, some less; some more productive in giving to society, some less, some even taking more than they give. Now, it’s true that science has shown that, taken as groups, we are all very much the same (some highly controversial studies even differ on that). But individuals are not at all the same.

People as individuals differ, groups are similar, at least on a biological level. What ethical imperative flows from that? About a hundred years ago, it was forced sterilization and other eugenics programs. Now, Clark says that the ruling value is that people should be allowed to “develop their full potential.” This sounds suspiciously like Maslow, whose “Hierarchy of Needs” has, unfortunately for Maslow and possibly also for Clark, not been supported by empirical research. Regardless of that, what empirical study showed that individuals developing their full potential is more important than the improvement of the race? Now, I certainly do believe that individual growth is a better ethical idea than eugenic manipulation, but I didn’t get gather that opinion from an empirical study, and I don’t think Tom Clark could have, either.

Further, suppose people were much markedly similar to each other than they are in fact. How would that fact make equal treatment an ethical imperative? It seems that “equal treatment” was picked out of the empirical air.

But in fact it wasn’t. It comes from historical roots, for example, “All men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator…” And those historical roots have roots themselves. The principle of equality was never one of empirical observation, but of theological reflection. The only relevant sense in which humans are equal is in worth, but worth is not an empirical concept at all. How is it measured? How could it be? No, equality is a matter of our standing before God. As a matter of historical fact, this conception of human equality arose out of Christian roots. Agreed, it took time to flourish, but it’s no accident that is has never flourished anywhere but in lands informed by Biblical beliefs.

Now, this post is running long, and it was not my primary purpose to establish the validity of Christian ethics or to defend their historical expression. (Timothy Keller does a great job of this in this talk: mp3 download.) Rather, my main purpose has been to explore two of Tom Clark’s central beliefs: that the only reliable route to knowledge is the empirical one, and that there are ethical obligations binding upon us, including the obligation to be empiricists. I think he can maintain those two beliefs as long as he does not try to impose the first one on the second one. If he does, he will find that on his terms of knowledge, his knowledge of ethics has no standing.

Series Navigation (Tom Clark and Naturalism):

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Comments 4
  1. Morgan

    Empiricism is a great thing except for its profound limitations. In theory, it ought to work, but the reality is that science takes us only a little beyond the obvious empirical sentiments we all share by our common experience: the sky is blue, crops must be planted in their season, George is beating Alice and she doesn’t like it. Science is a set of tools that attempt to allow us to extend our insight about the world to things that are less obvious: the earth is round, disease can be caused by things called germs, Alice’s beatings harm her psychologically as well as physically.

    Well and good. The difficulty is that the more complex the issue trying to be understood the more likely it is that scientific tools and language will be abused and misused. The Nazi’s used people in white lab coats and tweed jackets to justify their notion of the subhuman nature of Jews. Never mind that in that instance real science eventually prevailed. The fact is that from around 1900 on many intellectuals in many countries were persuaded by the idea of racial superiority. They were smugly secure in their opinion, supported as it was, empirically. Yet others, pricked by their conscience and informed by their religion, defied reason and simply ignored the carefully argued proofs, and opposed the idea.

    The community of scientists, and the rest of us, have no way of resolving the ambiguity caused by the increasing reliance on science to drive personal decisions as well as public policy. Competing factions now routinely trot out their scientists to give moral credence to their point of view on: how to properly raise children, who should own guns, what food you should eat, what kind of car you should drive, and how much power the UN should have.

    In the past, the best means of justifying your opinion was to harness the doctors of the church. Now we harness science. What we get are dueling PhD’s who babble in sound bites made of half truths.

    In the end, there is but one guide to our conduct, our own conscience—if we are blessed to have one. We must use the limited information we have, both empirical and intuitive, and do the best we can.

  2. The Deuce

    He says that “empiricism and equality go hand in hand,” producing a basis for ethics that stands, by the way, in sharp contrast to religiously based ethics

    I think this is absolutely fatal to the position of any naturalist that buys into it. The fact is, there isn’t a single scrap of empirical evidence for human equality. None. Not a bit. Not even a tiny little scrap. Human equality is not a public object, and it’s not observable by anyone, much less everyone. It’s an entirely abstract concept, derived entirely from what Tom Clark would consider religious premises, or in the case of the naturalist who believes in it, from wishful thinking.

    Even human racial groups differ in every single category that has been verified to have a genetic component and to vary within those groups. Height, body shape, skin tone, tendency towards obesity, susceptibility to various diseases, etc. There’s even evidence for racial variation in average intelligence, and the only real evidence against it is that the evidence for it is not conclusive.

    There are no good science-based reasons for such discrimination, so to the extent that we can divest people of their factually unfounded prejudices we’ll move toward a more tolerant, pluralist, egalitarian culture of universal human rights.

    Perhaps, perhaps not, but there are certainly no science-based reasons in favor of treating people equally, who, scientifically speaking, are not equal.

    Whatever biological and cultural differences exist between genders, races, ethnicities, religious groups and nationalities, there are no scientific grounds for supposing members of out-groups, or low status members of in-groups, deserve not to have their human needs met, or not to develop their full potential by according them the same rights as others.

    So, despite inequality in scientific terms, there is no scientific groups to treat different groups unequally. By this counter-intuitive logic, there’s no scientific reason not to treat amoebas as humans.

  3. Kevin Winters

    Tom,

    No, equality is a matter of our standing before God. As a matter of historical fact, this conception of human equality arose out of Christian roots. Agreed, it took time to flourish, but it’s no accident that is has never flourished anywhere but in lands informed by Biblical beliefs.

    Odd, because it has also flourished in Buddhist communities and is ubiquitously present throughout all Buddhist scripture. Equality is not the sole possession of “lands informed by Biblical beliefs”.

  4. Tom Clark

    Hi Tom G.,

    Thanks for raising these objections, it’s always good to be challenged – it presents an opportunity to take stock of arguments and clarify/correct/consolidate them.

    Re public objects: I agree that they include as you put it “abstract objects like, say, the triangle formed by our sun, Betelgeuse, and Sirius; or numbers; or logical relations.” These are things about which there is widespread intersubjective consensus.

    Ethical principles as we talk about them and try to justify them are also abstractions, but of course they find concrete expression in human behavior. You raise the question of how naturalists can justify ethical principles, for instance the principle that we have an ethical obligation to one another to be empiricists, or the principle that all human beings, whatever their characteristics, should be granted the same rights. Given that I say naturalism is based in empiricism, you ask if there is sufficient empirical basis for these ethical principles: “Do these values flow from empirically-based knowledge?” And you raise the question of how naturalism bridges the notorious is-ought gap. Given the nature of this forum, I’ll just sketch an answer to these questions, which will still be too long. See the morality page at Naturalism.Org for details; short overviews are here and here.

    For naturalists, values flow from human nature as modulated by human culture since we hold there is no supernatural source of value. It’s empirically the case that human beings share a genetic endowment that builds into each of us strong desires for things such as self-preservation, self-actualization, companionship, community, etc. We each have a set of value-creating motives that defines us as simultaneously self-interested and socially interdependent beings. It’s also the case that we are hard-wired to have behavioral dispositions related to such things as harm, fairness, reciprocity, loyalty, authority and purity, see Jonathan Haidt’s empirical work on what he calls the 5 foundation model of morality. Moreover, we’re hard-wired to take our moral intuitions very seriously – indeed, to see them as universally binding, as Ted Slingerland pointed out at Beyond Belief 2.

    The evolutionary basis for such dispositions – what’s sometimes called the moral sense – is the focus of considerable research and theorizing. See for instance Steven Pinker’s New York Times Magazine article The moral instinct, plus the many recent books on the natural origins of morality by Robert Wright, Franz de Waal, Mark Hauser and others. We can safely say, therefore, that there’s good empirical evidence for a robust natural motivational basis for the problem morality addresses: conflicts of interests and values among self-interested individuals who can only survive and flourish within a group – and the behavioral dispositions that help to solve that problem: intuitions about harm, fairness, reciprocity, etc.

    But of course the question remains of how the naturalist justifies a particular set of moral principles, perhaps exemplified by a particular culture, against competing principles. For instance, how does a liberal-progressive Western naturalist like myself justify the proposition that all humans have equal claim to the same set of rights against the opposing conservative-regressive claim, advanced by some Eastern Muslim theocracies, that certain classes of humans (gays, women, minorities, non-Muslims) should not be granted equal rights? This is a quintessentially normative, not empirical question, but it is informed by empirical considerations. The basic argument, some of which you kindly quoted, is that all classes of human beings have, in empirical fact, more or less the same desire for self-preservation and actualization – for human flourishing – and there’s no empirical basis to deny any class the opportunity for such flourishing. So, absent any countervailing considerations, they should be granted such opportunities.

    But you say:

    The principle of equality was never one of empirical observation, but of theological reflection. The only relevant sense in which humans are equal is in worth, but worth is not an empirical concept at all. How is it measured? How could it be?

    The claim that all humans are of equal worth flows from the fact that each of us has more or less the same desire for flourishing, and the fact that there’s no basis to suppose some classes of humans should be thwarted in that desire. The value, the worth of each human being, is rooted in human nature itself, namely in each and every person’s strong innate desire to live and thrive. It doesn’t need a supernatural basis. That people are often dissimilar in other respects, such as intelligence, talents, productivity and personality, doesn’t affect the principle that they should be treated equally with respect to human rights.

    How do we get an ought from an is, under naturalism? As suggested above, moral oughts are motivated by the existence of human needs and desires, and they are shaped by our innate moral sense as modulated by culture. For instance, given the universal desire to flourish (an is), we should behave in ways that maximize flourishing for all persons (an ought). And, regarding the ethical obligation to be empiricists: given our need and desire to model the world accurately for the sake of each others’ well-being, we should be empiricists. As a matter of observational fact, we can see that oughts come naturally into existence as normative recommendations about how best to achieve the objects of desire. But of course the difficulty, again, is how to justify both the ends (the particular desires) and the means (the oughts) against competing conceptions of human flourishing. Owen Flanagan takes up the question of flourishing (“eudaimonia”) in his book The Really Hard Problem: Finding Meaning in a Material World.

    For the naturalist, justifications for moral principles must ultimately flow from human desires since they have no other basis. So for instance, we appeal to the universal desire for personal flourishing as the reason we should grant all persons equal human rights. But of course there also exist human desires to dominate, enslave, and marginalize others, or perhaps to subordinate the welfare of particular classes of individuals in order to pursue certain goals (e.g., to perfect the human species via eugenics, the example you raised). Why not premise our oughts on those desires? Naturalists admit that there’s no cut and dried, non-partisan argument that can decide this question in favor of the liberal or the conservative; there is no naturalistic counterpart to God’s command. If there were, the whole project of naturalistic philosophical ethics extending back 2,500 years wouldn’t exist – it would be superfluous. But it does exist, and the naturalist must perforce engage in it to make her case, whichever side of the debate she’s on.

    Because there’s no value-neutral criterion (such as God’s authority) by which to decide between competing moral principles, arguments for them necessarily involve appeals to pre-existing values. So, progressive naturalists appeal to the innate moral sense (Is it fair to marginalize or exploit those who are just like you in their desire for freedom? How would you like to be enslaved, denied marriage and reproductive opportunities, etc.?), and they cite the virtues of existing cultural traditions and political arrangements based in progressive values (see Naturalism and normativity for more on this). And of course we will challenge the non-empirical justifications for supposing some classes of people are not of equal worth, a challenge which involves normative claims about how best to ground beliefs about reality (the burden of Reality and its rivals). However, given sharp differences in cultures and worldviews, there is no guarantee such arguments will cut any ice with the opposition, and sometimes we are forced to use force in defending our principles. This point gets elaborated here.

    I don’t expect this sketch of the naturalistic basis for (progressive) morality to persuade you and others convinced of the necessity for and existence of supernatural justifications for moral principles (of course there are much better sketches out there, not to mention full treatments such as Flanagan’s book). I only hope to have shown that it’s at least somewhat coherent and that it’s non-circular: morality, based in human nature, arises from a non-moral natural process, evolution. As I argued in our exchange on epistemology, I don’t think we have good reason to suppose God and the supernatural exist, and the fact (if it is a fact, which I doubt) that God could supply compelling reasons to hold particular moral principles doesn’t count in favor of his existence – that question has to be decided on independent cognitive grounds.

    Agreeing with Kevin Winters, it’s empirically the case that non-Christians (pre and post Christ) have been and can be moral in all the ways that Christians endorse, which shows that belief in God and exposure to the Christian tradition isn’t necessary to be good. Absent God and given naturalism, justifications for that way of being can’t involve appeals to non-partisan authority or the intrinsic goodness of ultimate reality. But, given our natural moral endowment and the recent progress in expanding human rights to all classes of individuals, we can still find non-theistic justifications for liberal ethical principles persuasive.

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