WeeklyTech #101

A conversation with Drs. James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky on science and morality

This is a transcription of the WeeklyTech Podcast interview with Drs. James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky. Subscribe in your favorite podcast app to get new episodes each Monday morning or listen online.

Jason: In this episode of WeeklyTech, I’m joined by Drs. James Davidson Hunter and Paul Nedelisky, both professors at the University of Virginia and we talk about the nature of science and morality based on their book, The Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundation of Morality from Yale University Press. Dr. James Davidson Hunter is the distinguished professor of religion, cultural and social theory at the University of Virginia and also serves as the director of the Institute for Advanced Studies and Culture. He’s the author of Culture Wars, as well as The Death of Character. Dr. Paul Nedelisky is the assistant director and fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies and Culture at the University of Virginia. His research interests center on issues of Metaphysics and Ethics, and Nedelisky received a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Virginia in 2013. And now let’s join our conversation. Dr. Hunter and Dr. Nedelisky, thank you so much for joining us here on Weekly Tech. As we get started, can each of you tell us a little bit about your background and how you ended up writing this Science and The Good book together?

Dr. Hunter: Sure. Why don’t I jump in first. I’m a historical and cultural sociologist and I’m interested in understanding some of the really complicated changes that are taking place in our world today. I think most Americans, people of faith, most people in the world in general, find the pace and complexity of change that’s taking place in our world today utterly mystifying. And part of what I have done over the course of my career is to try to make sense of that. So I do this in my own work and years ago, I founded the Institute for Advanced Study and Culture at the University of Virginia and Paul is my colleague there. We looked at each other and said, let’s combine our interests and our different backgrounds and address something that is just profoundly important and getting a lot of attention but needs to be demystified.

Dr. NedeliskyThanks, James. My background is in philosophy. I did a Ph.D. in analytic metaphysics here at the University of Virginia and during that time, got to know James at the Institute for Advanced Studies and Culture. My attraction to this project was a little more narrow. As a metaphysician. I think a lot about what is the nature of reality, especially in these fundamental categories, like, what is good and what is evil and what is right and what is wrong. And I was coming across these books and articles where people were saying, “well, we can tell you how to live. What’s good and bad, right and wrong through science.” It doesn’t matter. And I kept thinking, “this is impossible, you know, good and bad. They’re not the sorts of things that you didn’t know about through science.” And when I started talking to James, and James reached out with an opportunity to collaborate, he’s able to give the social and historical significance to a project that I knew was worthwhile. But he really was able to put teeth in our efforts to address this question in a way that for me, had just been sort of something that was unsettling, but I don’t think I could have explained why I was so potentially pernicious.

Dr. Hunter: And from my vantage point, Paul could bring philosophical sophistication to the issue that I just didn’t have access to in my background. So, it was a wonderful collaboration, a real joy to tackle this together. And the book, Science and the GoodThe Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality is the result.

Jason: And one of the things that I really enjoyed about your book is, I read it for a doctoral seminar last fall, actually, and really benefited from it, because for me, even though it was published under an academic press, it’s also very accessible. I think you both do a really good job walking through the concepts, explaining kind of putting this in, as you guys said, a historical perspective and helping us to understand some of the modern challenges, not only to faith, but even to a very kind of modern ethical systems and a lot of the questions that are being asked in light of modern technologies. In the book, you all argue that the pursuit of what’s called the “new moral science” that we see today in figures like Patricia Churchland, Sam Harris, Jonathan Haidt and others, is actually a centuries long failed quest to discover a scientific foundation for morality. Can you give a little bit of background or historical insight into this quest and what brought it about?

Dr. Hunter: Yeah, I think this is a question that emerged roughly in the 16th century at a time during the great religious wars between Protestants and Catholics in Europe. There were competing religious claims about what is the nature of truth, what is the nature of the good, what is truly moral and Protestants and Catholics not only could not agree, but they fought promiscuously bloody wars over their differences. So the backdrop for this question was really humanistic. It was an attempt by people who believe that understanding the true nature of morality, what was truly good, what was truly right, how to form a truly good society, we needed an answer to that. And Protestantism and Catholicism each had their own perspectives. They were fighting each other over it. Maybe science could provide an impartial answer to that question. And this, of course, is at the start of the great scientific revolution. So, science emerged, the question emerged around the dilemmas of how to form and reform a truly good society, and since religion wasn’t answering that question in any other way than sectarian and contentious, science presented itself, or it was thought that science could offer a neutral, impartial way to address that question.

Dr. NedeliskyYeah, and picking up the thread there, the quest continued on. There was not an immediate discovery during the scientific revolution that this solve dthese problems. You know, that was the hope, that science had been making these great strides in a lot of areas and telling us things we didn’t know about the world prior to that. So wouldn’t it be great if it could do the same for these tough moral, and oftentimes political, questions. So over the next three hundred years, a number of different theories took a shot at this project. One of the first was Hugo Grotius, a natural law theorist. And he said, “Oh, I think I think I can give a scientific account of international law.” He gave it his best shot, but it was too thoroughly moral and ethical. It would involve things that he thought were empirical. But as it turned out, others disagreed with him and he wasn’t able to point to anything in nature in some kind of demonstrative way to clear up that disagreement. But after him, John Locke made another attempt, kind of coming at it from another angle. After Locke, one hundred years or so, you have the utilitarians in England, Bentham and Mel. And on through the 19th century with Darwin, providing more of an empirical account of how human beings could have developed our ethical sensibilities, you know, giving some sort of story that people could accept in a broad way about how and how we might be able to know about right and wrong. What was happening over this long progression is that what ethics and morality were understood to be was slowly changing. In the early part of the 20th century, for a variety of sociological reasons in the academy and also due to some philosophical criticisms, people stopped the project briefly. But the standard was picked up again, late 20th century, and the ethics of morality returned with the socio-biologists. What was not noticed, and I would say not noticed even by James and myself until we sort of got into the research here, is that this project, which looked very similar to this longstanding four hundred year quest to find some objective way of helping everybody get along, it had changed because even though the Churchlands, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Owen Flanagan, these other folks working in the last 20 or 30 years, even though they’re using the same terms, good and bad, here’s what science tells us about good and bad. They were actually talking about a different thing. 

They had finally fully embraced this kind of decline or waning of ethical concepts. And finally, there was nothing left. They don’t really think there’s good or bad or right or wrong. The entire universe has to be the sort of thing that you could build up out of little physical particles and that doesn’t work for ethics, for moral property so there’s no such thing. But, and this is getting long but here’s the last little piece, they recognize humans still have to do things. We face practical problems. We have to come to decisions as communities, as societies. How should we do that? On what basis? So they continue to use the language of “we should do this or we should do that.” And they appeal to science to answer these questions. But what’s happening at this stage isn’t using science to look at the world and see the good making properties or somehow detecting rights and duties. It’s saying, well, assuming that what we want for our society is correct, how can science and technology help us get those things? And that’s really what’s happening now when these people talk about a science of morality,

Dr. Hunter: The question of “can science be the foundation of morality?” has waxed and waned over the last four hundred years. And as Paul said, it waned in the early part of the 20th century and only reemerged in the post-World War Two period with the rise of virtue ethics and these questions started to be raised again. But then really at the end of the 20th century and into turn into the 21st, we see this flurry of activity from the people that Paul mentioned, the Owen Flanigan’s, and the Steven Pinker’s, and Patricia Churchland and so on, just and all writing very authoritative treatises about the science of this and the science of that, bearing on ethical questions. And in my field, sociology, I make the case that the central questions of our field is: why here and why now? And the answer to that question, I think, in broad brush strokes is that we are living in a time in which religion is reemerging. Of course, it never left, but with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the persistence of Christianity, and the kinds of claims that are made by different religions around the world, people are scared to death of that, especially in the academic world. And yet the academic world is both a kind of religious and ethical wasteland. I mean, what we are living in the moment of a technological and technocratic epoch that doesn’t have an ethics. And so, the science of morality emerges as an effort to fill that void, that is not religious in nature. And so, because they’ve essentially deconstructed ethics as such, morality as such, they use the language of Aristotle. But what they’re really offering is Bentham and Mill. They talk about flourishing, but they’re really talking about utility.

Jason: That was a concept that was really hit and came home to me reading kind of the popular book, Harari’s Homo Deos, which is his brief history of tomorrow, where he gets into a lot of that about the nature of religion and how religion used to be able to explain a lot of these phenomena. But now we’ve kind of woken up, we’ve been enlightened. We understand why things happen the way they do. And so, we don’t need religion. You even see this in Neil Postman’s really popular work Technopoly, where he kind of goes through a technological understanding, historical look at these big shifts that we’ve already been talking about, as he categorizes that we’re now in a technopoly. And so, I think those are some really important concepts. And I really appreciate what you said, Dr. Hunter, that we’re kind of in a moral wasteland in some sense, and I don’t want to jump too far ahead in our talk, but you get to the point we’re talking about moral nihilism is really what’s driving the day. But I know early on, you know, importantly, that there’s kind of a popular misconception that the nature of science is settled. I think often we hear things like that, especially in pop culture, “Well, the science is settled. This it’s done. It’s over. Just accept it and move on.” Can you all give some insight into the current debates, even over the nature of science and one of the things that I found really helpful that I’d really love for you to explain for listeners, is that tiered system, the level one, two and three moral claims and that you see in kind of this nature of morality and ethics?

Dr. Nedelisky: So, in terms of the unsettled nature of science, I don’t have a ton to say about that. I mean, as I recall, part of what I, in my opinion, made the book difficult to write is that there’s so much confusion about what a science of morality is and what it would hope to show. We put the tiered system in place to try to resolve some of that unclearly. And what we went with is saying, well, let’s say there are three levels, three levels of results that a scientific study of morality could give us. Level one: that’s the gold standard. That would be some kind of demonstrative, empirical, tangible proof, or at least evidence that the something or other is right or wrong, that this or that is good or bad. They could tell something that directly impinges on how we ought to live. Level two, backing off from that a little bit but still connecting with the realm of ethics would be evidence from science that helps us decide which theory of morality is right or wrong. So maybe it’s not some kind of proof or demonstration that it’s good to love your spouse or your neighbor or something but it might say, maybe there could be some kind of experiment that showed us that virtue ethics was was false. You know, that that would be an example of a level two result ,if that could be achieved. Level three is the weakest level, and this results in a level three category. Our results say, look, here’s something true that we discovered through science about morality or about ethics or about human cognition on ethical questions. And so, pretty clearly, there are a lot of good empirical results here. They put people in brain scanners and ask the moral questions and we find out that with certain kinds of questions, certain, you know, the neural correlates of thought happen in different places. You know, things like this: we’re learning information that’s connected in some way to moral issues, but none of that can really tell us what’s good or bad, right or wrong, or does it impinge on practical questions about how to live?

Dr. Hunter: Well, let me just add a little bit to that. Part of the reason we deconstructed or at least posed questions about the nature of science itself and tried to articulate different understandings of what a science of morality would look like, what kind of findings it could achieve was to, again, to demystify something that is often presented as much more certain, much more authoritative, than it actually is. At the end of the day, science is a method and it’s a useful method and Paul and I are very pro-science. But, we are also are pro-science in the sense that we believe it is a useful method, it is not authoritative for saying all things and in fact, the methods themselves have to be interrogated. And that task of interrogating the nature of science itself, but also the science of morality is set against the backdrop of statements by some very famous public intellectuals in America who are speaking with great authority about what science tells us about how we should live or what’s right and wrong and so on.

Jason: So, I know early on, you mentioned how a lot of the moral scientists have ultimately substituted moral goodness for what’s useful while they’re still using the language of morality. You argue that this kind of ultimately is embracing moral nihilism. Can you expand on that shift in language and why you think this ultimately leads to moral nihilism in society?

Dr. NedeliskyI think that the transition happens more in the other direction. My sense is that, there was a change in what a prevalent or therewas a change in what a lot of academics thought about the way the world is. And, you know, I do want to emphasize, I don’t think there’s any sort of sinister project by these people we call the new moral scientists to trick the public. You know when you interact with them, you get the feeling that they usually only converse and talk to other people who have the same beliefs they do, most of the time. So, their beliefs do not seem remarkable to them, you know, being moral nihilists. But I think that’s what comes first sort of in the order of explanation. There is a shift in how a lot of scientists and people who worked in both philosophy and science, whether it be psychology or biology, there’s a shift in their basic understanding of the world at a metaphysical level and so the older traditional ways of understanding ethics and morality no longer made sense. But their thinking would be, well, we still have to talk about what we should do and the words should and ought and good and bad are as good as any other so of course, we should keep using the same the same words. But for people like myself who still persist in thinking there is a genuine good and bad, you know, things you should and shouldn’t do, things that are worthwhile in an objective sense, independent of what anybody thinks, you know, this sort of stuff. They’re talking about something totally different. And so, I think something that we can do in our book that is helpful is just making very clear that while the words have remained the same, their meanings have changed. And for this new spate of scientific approaches, morality, it looks like a continuation of this centuries old project. But it’s not clear or maybe more strongly, it is not the same project. They no longer are really putting a lot of stock in the idea that science could resolve our deep moral disagreements. You do see that some, but more often, what you see is a desire to move past discussion of moral issues and just “solve these problems” through scientific technical assessments. We know the society wants X and such. So how can the empirical understanding of the world give us the levers and pulleys to bring this about? It becomes very pragmatic.

Dr. Hunter: Let me just highlight this point, that the folks who are writing these books and who are advocating for a science of morality would never call themselves moral nihilists. That’s really our conclusion, when after reading carefully into their footnotes, into the texts where they essentially say there is no archimedean point, there is no moral foundation, that ethics at the end of the day is entirely relative. There’s just no there there. That they end up with moral nihilism is a conclusion. It’s the only conclusion you can draw when you read the fine print. One of the most famous players in this space simply argues that the good and the true is what the current social consensus tells us. It is. The arbitrary quality of that statement tells us that he doesn’t believe that there is anything there, that there are no moral foundations.

Jason: I think as we continue to pursue ethics and morality, especially as we have a lot of pressing questions surrounding the development of technology and artificial intelligence, which is one of the areas that I’ve done a lot of research in, you start to notice that it’s hard to draw a kind of societal wide consensus on what is good or what is bad and I think you’re starting to see that and you guys pick that up in the book so well. And I think it really does help to open up and to understand where other people are coming from. The perspectives and the philosophies that they’re working from. I wanted to ask you how you guys see this affecting the new science of morality in the debate surrounding what is good in our society, how we see this playing out in our public discourse or even in our societies were pursuing these innovations but at the same times, we’re having such difficult ethical and kind of thorny ethical questions that we’re having to answer. How do you see that playing out in our public discourse in our society today?

Dr. Hunter: Well, in the early 1990s, I wrote a book called Culture Wars The Struggle to Define America that introduced that concept to our public discourse and I would say that that book addresses that question. How does it play out? It plays out conflictually. The conflict over abortion, over sexuality, over church and state issues, over Supreme Court justices, over immigration policy, over issues of racial equity and justice. You name the issue, and it is contested, and it is contested precisely because we not only don’t share a common moral vocabulary, but we also don’t share a method by which we could achieve any kind of moral consensus. So how does this play out? It plays out in a culture war.

Jason: Well, I know that as we’ve covered a lot of ground. I know some listeners, this might be a brand new thing for them. For others, this might be waters that they’ve been waiting in for a while. But as we end our time together today, I wanted to ask: what are maybe a couple of books or resources that you might point listeners to if they wanted to go a little bit deeper. Obviously, Dr. Hunter, we’ll make sure to link to your book on the culture wars and kind of a lot of those type of things. But is there other books or resources that you would recommend to listeners to pick up if they wanted to dive a little bit deeper?

Dr. Nedelisky: Yeah, apart from our book, there’s a there’s a book by the philosopher Kwame Appiah called Experiments in Ethics that’s a little more narrowly focused within the philosophical debates. He looks at some issues in psychology, but he’s mostly interacting with other philosophers. But it’s beautifully written. It’s very intelligible. But zooming out a little bit, I think a great thing to look at if someone is curious is a book by one of these numerous scientists that we talk about Science and The Good named Alex Rosenberg is a book called The Atheists Guide to Reality. And there he basically draws the logical conclusion of the background, metaphysical view that the new moral scientists have, what some people call philosophical naturalism, that everything in reality can be built up out of little physical pieces. But, he says this is how the world is and here are the implications: there’s no self, there’s no consciousness, there’s no rationality, there’s no morality. You can’t really do history because there’s no such thing as meaning or narrative, and just ruthlessly goes through all the implications in an attempt to make a positive argument for it. But I think he’s so clear, that it also makes a great counterargument because you realize how much you have to give up to go in for that sort of overall view viewpoint, so it’s worth looking at.

Jason: Well, I want to thank you both for this really fascinating conversation. I think for listeners, it’s going to be kind of eye-opening in many ways because I do think that often their popular conceptions that the science is settled and obviously we can find morality from our scientific pursuits, but I really appreciated the work that you guys put into this book. I think it’s very helpful and I definitely encourage listeners to grab a copy of it. But I just wanted to thank you both for taking time out of your schedules to join us today here on WeeklyTech. I’m really grateful for this book and the opportunity to be able to meet with you both.

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