Foundational Postulates for Ethics
Part Two: Seeking Solid Ground

“Foundational postulates” is a mouthful. What does it mean? The term is normally used to refer to core findings and the theories derived from the lowest substrate in a hierarchy of analysis. Can we do this for ethics? Is there a “ground zero” we can use to build a solid structure for moral reasoning from within science?

In short, ‘No’. At least not in a way that produces definitive answers or specific rules of behavior with a laboratory stamp of approval. A longer answer is more fun, though.

Naming Is Not Knowing

Scientists are quite leery of attempts to assign any direct correlations between science and ethics in particular. Crossing from description to prescription, from “is” to “should,” can be a switch from familiarity to ignorance. For this reason, there is a view that good science deals properly with “the facts,” other messy and imprecise disciplines deal with human foibles and preferences.

Science can describe human behavior, and track its sponsors in the brain mechanically or mentally. Psychologists, for example, can describe thoughts and motives, and explore the reasoning (or physical pathologies) that can explain behavior. It is therefore possible to see which types of reasoning lead to different behaviors. But in order not to force a false “should” on others, good science uses “average” or typical behavior as norm, and designs treatment on that basis, and not on a set of predefined ethical rules.

But that does not seem to stop frequent claims implying the opposite from many quarters. Everyone likes to have a good and solid foundation for opinion, and we look to justify our views so others will agree. It is very tempting to mistake good analysis and handy abstractions for hard truths. These flights of fancy, the “shoulds” of individual preference, can escape from the confines of good analysis and end up advocating dangerous utopias as scientific theories (Karl Marx), or simply make us confuse theoretical models with a reality never observed, and make bad policy (“pure market” capitalism).

But has science found anything at all to help us with ethics? Some, but nothing that will provide direct answers. That is up to us.

Up or Down, No Sign Around

So, where does one look for any foundational postulates for civilized ethics (“secular” would restrict here), meaning for our purposes, a common agreed ground that is acceptable to both believers and nonbelievers? Not one fully conceived in the same ways, but supportive of common action, say, in protection of the innocent against acts of terror?

On the science side, no grounds for directly formulating ethical statements are forthcoming. This understanding does yield some nice observations of use, however.

One is that reductionism, for simplicity described here as breaking down the physical sciences into progressively more basic, or foundational, observations, leads to a hierarchy starting in physics, but not to any ground level “meaning.” Science does not provide a large sense to existence in the way religious belief attempts to do. It does not ask “The Big Why,” and frankly does not care to do so. Not science’s domain.

Going in the other direction, toward more complex aspects of the physical world, does provide new observations that are not predictable “from below,” but these are also mere physical phenomena and cannot provide much guidance for ethics. As none break any laws of lower levels, the emergence of new phenomena at higher ones is not a fresh source of new meaning, in the “biggest picture” sense. None of the mysteries of science, from quantum mechanics to the exact workings of the brain, sheds any light on the most profound meaning of our existence. It does not tell us why we are here, nor give a purpose.

What is “meaning” in science, then, if it applies at all? Meaning is restricted to the attributes of any elements in a system, and the relations among them. It is purely descriptive. In fact, science could start with any given phenomenon and then derive the rest of its results progressively from there. Say, from biology to chemistry to physics, or starting with any discipline in any order. You end up with the same results. (As in language: All words in the dictionary are defined with others, and you can start anywhere. Both are closed systems, one reference, the other referent, so no surprise.)

So, no profound meaning, and no starting point, either! What hope for civilized ethics? The answer is deceptively simple. Moral reasoning can be dealt with as a matter of preference alone.

Coming Up: Part Three: Does Consensus Open the Gates of Hell?

Previous: Part One: Speaking With Faith and Reason