Can science tell us how we should act?

DPS meeting
Can science tell us how we should act?
Wednesday 9 March from 5-6.30pm in ib3.307 on Deakin's Waurn Ponds campus

Over the past few weeks we've been tackling, in a round-about way, the question of whether or not science can tell us anything about how we ought to act. This question underlies our discussion of Aubrey de Grey on immortality, Matt Ridley on behavioural genetics and, particularly, Sam Harris's TED lecture on how science can answer moral questions.

This question has a long history in philosophy. The central figure that philosophers mention when attempting to answer it is David Hume and his distinction between ‘is’ statements — the findings of science, statements about the natural world — and ‘ought’ statements — the statements of ethics. Here's what Hume says on the matter:

In every system of morality which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded that this small attention wou'd subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv'd by reason.
(Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book III, Part i, Section i,)

This week we'll look at Alasdair MacIntyre's reading of this passage in his article ‘Hume on "Is" and "Ought"’. A PDF copy of the article is available at For those of you who are pressed for time, sections I and V are of particular interest for our discussion. For those of you who are really pressed for time, here's MacIntyre's reading of the passage:

Hume is not in this passage asserting the autonomy of morals—for he did not believe in it; and he is not making a point about entailment—for he does not mention it. He is asserting that the question of how the factual basis of morality is related to morality is a crucial logical issue, reflection on which will enable one to realize how there are ways in which this transition can be made and ways in which it cannot. One has to go beyond the passage itself to see what these are; but if one does so it is plain that we can connect the facts of the situation with what we ought to do only by means of one of those concepts which Hume treats under the heading of the passions and which I have indicated by examples such as wanting, needing, and the like. Hume is not...trying to say that morality lacks a basis; he is trying to point out the nature of that basis.
(MacIntyre 1959, pp. 465-66, italics added)

Our discussion will be framed around, but by no means limited to, this article. The central question for discussion remains ‘Can science tell us how we should act?’ And if you think you have an answer, come along.

Also, I'll have the membership forms at Wednesday's meeting. So bring your $10 if you wish to join the DPS for 2011.

Kind regards,

Dylan Nickelson,
President, Deakin Philosophical Society.

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