[Paleopsych] Paul Kurtz: Can the Sciences Help Us to Make Wise Ethical Judgments?

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Paul Kurtz: Can the Sciences Help Us to Make Wise Ethical Judgments?

    Scientific knowledge has a vital, if limited, role to play in shaping
    our moral values and helping us to frame wiser judgments. Ethical
    values are natural and open to examination in the light of evidence
    and reason.


    Can science and reason be used to develop ethical
    judgments? Many theists claim that without religious foundations,
    "anything goes," and social chaos will ensue. Scientific naturalists
    believe that secular societies already have developed responsible
    ethical norms and that science and reason have helped us to solve
    moral dilemmas. How and in what sense this occurs are vital issues
    that need to be discussed in contemporary society, for this may very
    well be the hottest issue of the twenty-first century.

    Dramatic breakthroughs on the frontiers of science provide new powers
    to humans, but they also pose perplexing moral quandaries. Should we
    use or limit these scientific discoveries, such as the cloning of
    humans? Much of this research is banned in the United States and
    restricted in Canada. Should scientists be permitted to reproduce
    humans by cloning (as we now do with animals), or is this too
    dangerous? Should we be allowed to make "designer babies?" Many
    theologians and politicians are horrified by this; many scientists and
    philosophers believe that it is not only inevitable but justifiable
    under certain conditions. There were loud cries against in vitro
    fertilization, or artificial insemination, only two generations ago,
    but the procedure proved to be a great boon to childless couples. Many
    religious conservatives are opposed to therapeutic stem-cell research
    on fetal tissues, because they think that "ensoulment" occurs with the
    first division of cells. Scientists are appalled by this censorship of
    scientific research, since the research has the potential to cure many
    illnesses; they believe those who oppose it have ignored the welfare
    of countless numbers of human beings. There are other equally
    controversial issues on the frontiers of science: Organ
    transplants-who should get them and why? Is the use of animal organs
    to supply parts for human bodies wrong? Is transhumanism reforming
    what it means to be human? How shall we control AIDS-is it wicked to
    use condoms, as some religious conservatives think, or should this be
    a high priority in Africa and elsewhere? Does global warming mean we
    need a radical transformation of industry in affluent countries? Is
    homosexuality genetic, and if so, is the denial of same-sex marriage
    morally wrong? How can we decide such questions? What criteria may we
    draw upon?


    Many adhere today to the view that ethical choices are merely
    relativistic and subjective, expressing tastes; and you cannot
    disputes tastes (de gustibus non disputandum est). If they are emotive
    at root, no set of values is better than any other. If there is a
    conflict, then the best option is to persuade others to accept our
    moral attitudes, to convert them to our moral feelings, or, if this
    fails, to resort to force.

    Classical skeptics denied the validity of all knowledge, including
    ethical knowledge. The logical positivists earlier in the twentieth
    century made a distinction between fact, the appropriate realm of
    science, and value, the realm of expressive discourse and imperatives,
    claiming that though we can resolve descriptive and theoretical
    questions by using the methods of science, we cannot use science to
    adjudicate moral disputes. Most recently, postmodernists, following
    the German philosopher Heidegger and his French followers, have gone
    further in their skepticism, denying that there is any special
    validity to humanistic ethics or indeed to science itself. They say
    that science is merely one mythological construct among others. They
    insist that there are no objective epistemological standards; that
    gender, race, class, or cultural biases likewise infect our ethical
    programs and any narratives of social emancipation that we may
    propose. Who is to say that one normative viewpoint is any better than
    any other, they demand. Thus have many disciples of multicultural
    relativism and subjectivism often given up in despair, becoming
    nihilists or cynics. Interestingly, most of these well-intentioned
    folk hold passionate moral and political convictions, but when pushed
    to the wall, will they concede that their own epistemological and
    moral recommendations likewise express only their own personal

    The problem with this position is apparent, for it is impaled on one
    horn of a dilemma, and the consequence of this option is difficult to
    accept. If it is the case that there are no ethical standards, then
    who can say that the Nazi Holocaust and the Rwandan, Cambodian, or
    Armenian genocides are evil? Is it only a question of taste that
    divides sadists and masochists on one side from all the rest on the
    other? Are slavery, the repression of women, the degradation of the
    environment by profit-hungry corporations, or the killing of
    handicapped people morally impermissible, if there are no reliable
    normative standards? If we accept cultural relativity as our guide,
    then we have no grounds to object to Muslim law (sharia), which
    condones the stoning to death of adulteresses.


    What is the position of those who wish to draw upon science and reason
    to formulate ethical judgment? Is it possible to bridge the gap and
    recognize that values are relative to human interests yet allow that
    they are open to some objective criticisms? I submit that it is, and
    that upon reflection, most educated people would accept them. I choose
    to call this third position "objective relativism" or "objective
    contextualism"; namely, values are related to human interests, needs,
    desires, and passions-whether individual or socio-cultural-but they
    are nonetheless open to scientific evaluation. By this, I mean a form
    of reflective intelligence that applies to questions of principles and
    values and that is open to modification of them in the light of
    criticism. In other words, there is a Tree of Knowledge of Good and
    Evil, which bears fruit, and which, if eaten and digested, can impart
    to us moral knowledge and wisdom.

    In what sense can scientific inquiry help us to make moral choices? My
    answer to that is it does so all the time. This is especially the case
    with the applied sciences: medicine, dentistry, nursing, pharmacology,
    psychiatry, and social psychology; and also in the policy sciences:
    economics, education, political science; and such interdisciplinary
    fields as criminology, gerontology, etc. Modern society could not
    function without the advice drawn from these fields of knowledge,
    which make evaluative judgments and recommend prescriptions. They
    advise what we ought to do on a contextual basis.

    Nonetheless, there are the skeptical critics of this position, who
    deny that science per se can help us or that naturalistic ethics is
    possible. I think that those critics are likewise mistaken and that
    naturalism is directly relevant to ethics. My thesis is that an
    increase in knowledge can help us to make wiser decisions. By
    knowledge, I do not refer simply to philosophical analysis but
    scientific evidence. It would answer both the religionist, who insists
    that you cannot be moral unless you are religious, and the
    subjectivist, who denies there is any such thing as ethical knowledge
    or wisdom.

    Before I outline this position, let me concede that the skeptical
    philosophical objections to deriving ethics from science have some
    merit. Basically, what are they? The critics assert that we cannot
    deduce ethics from science, i.e., what ought to be the case from what
    is the case. A whole series of philosophers from David Hume to the
    emotivists have pointed out this fallacy. G.E. Moore, at the beginning
    of the twentieth century, characterized this as "the naturalistic
    fallacy" [[40]1] (mistakenly, I think).

    But they are essentially correct. The fact that science discovers that
    something is the case factually does not make it ipso facto good or
    right. To illustrate: (a) Charles Darwin noted the role of natural
    selection and the struggle for survival as key ingredients in the
    evolution of species. Should we conclude, therefore, as Herbert
    Spencer did, that laissez-faire doctrines ought to apply, that we
    ought to allow nature to take its course and not help the handicapped
    or the poorer classes? (b) Eugenicists concluded earlier in the
    century that some people are brighter and more talented than others.
    Does this justify an elitist hierarchical society in which only the
    best rule or eugenic methods of reproduction be followed? This was
    widely held by many liberals until the fascists began applying it in
    Germany with dire consequences.

    There have been abundant illustrations of pseudoscientific
    theories-monocausal theories of human behavior that were hailed as
    "scientific"-that have been applied with disastrous results. Examples:
    (a) The racial theories of Chamberlain and Gobineau alleging Aryan
    superiority led to genocide by the Nazis. (b) Many racists today point
    to IQ to justify a menial role for blacks in society and their
    opposition to affirmative action. (c) The dialectical interpretation
    of history was taken as "scientific" by Marxists and used to justify
    class warfare. (d) Environmentalists decried genetics as "racist" and
    thought that changes in species should only be induced by
    modifications of the environment. Thus, one has to be cautious about
    applying the latest scientific fad to social policy.

    We ought not to consider scientific specialists to be especially
    gifted or possessed with ethical knowledge nor empower them to apply
    this knowledge to society-as B.F. Skinner in Walden II and other
    utopianists have attempted to do. Neither scientist-kings nor
    philosopher-kings should be entrusted to design a better world. We
    have learned the risks and dangers of abandoning democracy to those
    wishing to create a Brave New World. Alas, all humans-including
    scientists-are fallible, and excessive power may corrupt human
    judgment. Given these caveats, I nevertheless hold that scientific
    knowledge has a vital, if limited, role to play in shaping our moral
    values and helping us to frame wiser judgments of practice--surely
    more, I would add, than our current reliance on theologians,
    politicians, military pundits, corporate CEOs, and celebrities!


    How and in what sense can scientific inquiry help us?

    I wish to present a modified form of naturalistic ethics. By this, I
    mean that ethical values are natural; they grow out of and fulfill
    human purposes, interests, desires, and needs. They are forms of
    preferential behavior evinced in human life. "Good," "bad," "right,"
    and "wrong" relate to sentient beings, whether human or otherwise.
    These values do not reside in a far-off heaven, nor are they deeply
    embedded in the hidden recesses of reality; they are empirical

    The principle of naturalism is based on a key methodological
    criterion: We ought to consider our moral principles and values, like
    other beliefs, open to examination in the light of evidence and reason
    and hence amenable to modification.

    We are all born into a sociocultural context; and we imbibe the values
    passed on to us, inculcated by our peers, parents, teachers, leaders,
    and colleagues in the community.

    I submit that ethical values should be amenable to inquiry. We need to
    ask, are they reliable? How do they stack up comparatively? Have they
    been tested in practice? Are they consistent? Many people seek to
    protect them as inviolable truths, immune to inquiry. This is
    particularly true of transcendental values based on religious faith
    and supported by custom and tradition. In this sense, ethical inquiry
    is similar to other forms of scientific inquiry. We should not
    presuppose that what we have inherited is true and beyond question.
    But where do we begin our inquiry? My response is, in the midst of
    life itself, focused on the practical problems, the concrete dilemmas,
    and contextual quandaries that we confront.

    Let me illustrate by refer to three dilemmas. I do so not in order to
    solve them but to point out a method of inquiry in ethics. First,
    should we exact the death penalty for people convicted of murder? The
    United States is the only major democracy that still demands capital
    punishment. What is the argument for the death penalty? It rests on
    two basic premises: (a) A factual question is at issue: capital
    punishment is effective in deterring crime, especially murder; and (b)
    the principle of justice that applies is retributive. As the Old
    Testament adage reads, "Whatever hurt is done, you shall give life for
    life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. . . ." [[41]2]

    The first factual premise can be resolved by sociological studies, by
    comparing the incidence of murder in those states and nations that
    have the death penalty in force and those that do not and by states
    and nations before and after the enactment or abrogation of the death
    penalty. We ask, has there been an increase or a decrease in murder?
    If, as a matter of fact, the death penalty does not restrain or
    inhibit murder, would a person still hold his view that the death
    penalty ought to be retained? The evidence suggests that the death
    penalty does not to any significant extent reduce the murder rate,
    especially since most acts of murder are not deliberate but due to
    passion or are an unexpected result of another crime, such as robbery.
    Thus, if one bases his or her belief in capital punishment primarily
    on the deterrence factor, and it does not deter, would one change
    one's belief? The same consideration should apply to those who are
    opposed to the death penalty: Would they change their belief if they
    thought it would deter excessive murder rates? These are empirical
    questions at issue. And the test of a policy are its consequences in
    the real world. Does it achieve what it sets out to do?

    There are, of course, other factual considerations, such as: Are many
    innocent people convicted of crimes they did not commit (as was
    recently concluded in the State of Illinois)? Is capital punishment
    unfairly applied primarily to minorities? This points to the fact that
    belief in capital punishment is, to some extent, a function of
    scientific knowledge concerning the facts of the case. This often
    means that such measures should not be left to politicians or jurors
    alone to decide; the scientific facts of the case are directly

    The second moral principle of retributive justice is far more
    difficult to deal with, for this may be rooted in religious conviction
    or in a deep-seated tribal sense of retaliation. If you injure my kin,
    it is said, I can injure yours; and this is not purely a factual
    issue. There are other principles of justice that are immediately
    thrown into consideration. Those opposed to the death penalty say that
    society "should set a humane tone and not itself resort to killing."
    Or again, the purpose of justice should be to protect the community
    from future crimes, and alternative forms of punishment, perhaps
    lifetime imprisonment without the right of parole, might suffice to
    deter crime. Still another principle of justice is relevant: Should we
    attempt, where possible, to rehabilitate the offender? All of the
    above principles are open to debate. The point is, we should not block
    inquiry; we should not say that some moral principles are beyond any
    kind of re-evaluation or modification. Here, a process of deliberation
    enters in, and a kind of moral knowledge emerges about what is
    comparatively the best policy to adopt.

    Another example of the methods of resolving moral disputes is the
    argument for assisted suicide in terminal cases, in which people are
    suffering intolerable pain. This has become a central issue in the
    field of medical ethics, where medical science is able to keep people
    alive who might normally die. I first saw the emergence of this field
    thirty years ago, when I sponsored a conference in biomedical ethics
    at my university and could find very few, if any, scholars or
    scientists who had thought about the questions or were qualified
    experts. Today, it is an essential area in medicine. The doctor is no
    longer taken as a patriarchal figure. His or her judgments need to be
    critically examined, and others within the community, especially
    patients, need to be consulted. There are here, of course, many
    factual questions at issue: Is the illness genuinely terminal? Is
    there great suffering? Is the patient competent in expressing his or
    her long-standing convictions regarding his or her right to die with
    dignity? Are there medical and legal safeguards to protect this system
    against abuse?

    Our decision depends on several further ethical principles: (a) the
    informed consent of patients in deciding whether they wish treatment
    to continue; (b) the right of privacy, including the right of
    individuals to have control of their own bodies and health; and (c)
    the criterion of the quality of life.

    One problem we encounter in this area is the role, again, of
    transcendental principles. Some people insist, "God alone should
    decide life-and-death questions, not humans." This principle, when
    invoked, is beyond examination, and for many people it is final.
    Passive euthanasia means that we will not use extraordinary methods to
    keep a person alive, where there is a longstanding intent expressed in
    a living will not to do so. Active euthanasia will, under certain
    conditions, allow the patient, in consultation with his physician, to
    hasten the dying process (as practiced in Oregon and the Netherlands).
    The point is, there is an interweaving of factual considerations with
    ethical principles, and these may be modified in the light of inquiry,
    by comparing alternatives and examining consequences in each concrete

    I wish to illustrate this process again by referring to another issue
    that is hotly debated today: Should all cloning research be banned?
    The Canadian legislature, in March 2004, passed legislation that will
    put severe restrictions on such scientific research. The bill is
    called "An Act Respecting Assisted Human Reproduction" (known as
    C-56), and it makes it a criminal offense to engage in therapeutic
    cloning, to maintain an embryo outside a woman's body for more than
    fourteen days, to genetically manipulate embryos, to choose the gender
    of offspring, to sell human eggs and sperm, or to engage in commercial
    surrogacy. It also requires that in vitro embryos be created only for
    the purpose of creating human beings or for improving assisted
    human-reproductive procedures. Similar legislation was passed by the
    U.S. House of Representatives and is before the Senate. It is still
    being heatedly debated. It includes the prohibition of reproductive
    cloning as well as therapeutic stem-cell research. Two arguments
    against reproductive cloning are as follows: (a) It may be unsafe (at
    the present stage of medical technology) and infants born may be
    defective. This factual objection has some merit. (b) There is also a
    moral objection saying that we should not seek to design children. Yet
    we do so all the time, with artificial insemination, in vitro
    fertilization, and surrogate motherhood. We already are involved in
    "designer-baby" technology, with amniocentesis, pre-implantation,
    genetic testing, and chorionic villus sampling (the avoiding of
    unwanted genes by aborting fetuses and implanting desirable embryos).

    If it were to become safe, would reproductive cloning become
    permissible? I can think of situations where we might find it
    acceptable-for example, if couples are unable to conceive by normal

    It is the second area I mentioned above that is especially telling-the
    opposition to any forms of embryonic stem-cell research. Proponents
    maintain that this line of research may lead to enormous benefits by
    curing a wide range of diseases such as Parkinson's disease,
    Alzheimer's, or juvenile diabetes. Adult stem cells are now being
    used, but embryonic stem cells may provide important new materials.
    The criterion here is consequential: that positive outcomes may
    result. Opponents maintain that this type of research is "immoral"
    because it is tampering with human persons possessed of souls. Under
    this interpretation, "ensoulment" occurs at the moment of conception.
    This is said to apply to embryos, many of which, however, are products
    of miscarriages or abortions. Does it also apply once the division of
    stem cells occurs? Surely a small collection of cells, which is called
    a blastocyst, is not a person, a sentient being, or a moral agent
    prior to implantation. Leon Kass, chair of President Bush's Council on
    Bioethics, believes that human life cannot be treated as a commodity
    and it is evil to manufacture life. He maintains that all human life,
    including a cloned embryo, has the same moral status and dignity as a
    person from the moment of conception.

    This controversy pits two opposing moral claims: (a) the view that
    stem-cell research may be beneficent because of its possible
    contributions to human health (i.e., it might eliminate debilitating
    diseases) versus (b) an ethic of revulsion against tampering with
    natural reproductive processes. At issue here are the questions of
    whether ensoulment makes any sense in biology and whether personhood
    can be said to have begun at such an early stage, basically a
    transcendental claim that naturalists object to on empirical grounds.
    These arguments are familiar in the abortion debate; it would be
    unfortunate if they could be used to censor scientific stem-cell

    This issue is especially relevant today, for transhumanists say that
    we are discovering new powers every day that modify human nature,
    enhance human capacities, and extend life spans. We may be able to
    extend memory and increase human perception and intelligence
    dramatically by silicon implants. Traditionalists recoil in horror,
    saying that post-humanists would have us transgress human nature. We
    would become cyborgs.

    But we already are, to some extent: we wear false teeth, eyeglasses,
    and hearing aids; we have hair grafts, pacemakers, organ transplants,
    artificial limbs, and sex-change/sexual reassignment operations and
    injections; we use Viagra to enhance sexual potency or mega-vitamins
    and hormone therapy. Why not go further? Each advance raises ethical
    issues: Do we have the reproductive freedom and responsibility to
    design our children by knowing possible genetic disorders and
    correcting them before reproduction or birth?


    This leads to an important distinction between two kinds of values
    within human experience. Let me suggest two possible sources: (a)
    values rooted in unexamined feelings, faith, custom, or authority,
    held as deep-seated convictions beyond question, and (b) values that
    are influenced by cognition and informed by rational inquiry.

    Naturalists say that scientific inquiry enables us to revise our
    values, if need be, and to develop, where appropriate, new ones. We
    already possess a body of prescriptive judgments that have been tested
    in practice in the applied sciences of medicine, psychiatry,
    engineering, educational counseling, and other fields. Similarly, I
    submit that there is a body of prescriptive ethical judgments that has
    been tested in practice and that constitutes normative knowledge; and
    new normative prescriptions are introduced all the time as the
    sciences progress.

    The question is thus raised, what criteria should we use to make
    ethical choices? This issue is especially pertinent today for those
    living in pluralistic societies such as ours, where there is diversity
    of values and principles.

    In formulating ethical judgments, we need to refer to what I have
    called a "valuational base." [[42]3] Packed into this referent are the
    pre-existing de facto values and principles that we are committed to;
    but we also need to consider empirical data, means-ends relationships,
    causal knowledge, and the consequences of various courses of action.
    It is inquiry that is the instrument by which we decide what we ought
    to do and that we should develop in the young. We need to focus on
    moral education for children; we wish to structure positive traits of
    character and also the capacity for making reflective decisions. There
    are no easy recipes or simple formulae that we can appeal to, telling
    us what we ought to do in every case. There are, however, what W.D.
    Ross called prima facie general principles of right conduct, the
    common moral decencies, a list of virtues, precepts, and
    prescriptions, ethical excellences, obligations, and responsibilities,
    which are intrinsic to our social roles. But how they work out in
    practice depends on the context at hand, and the most reliable guide
    for mature persons is cognitive inquiry and deliberation.

    Conservative theists have often objected to this approach to morality
    as dangerous, given to "debauchery" and "immorality." Here, there is a
    contrast between two different senses of morality: (a) the
    obedience/authoritarian model, in which humans are expected to follow
    moral absolutes derived from ancient creeds, and (b) the encouragement
    of moral growth, implying that there are within the human species
    potential moral tendencies and cognitive capacities that can help us
    to frame judgments.

    For a naturalistic approach, in the last analysis, ethics is a product
    of a long evolutionary process. Evolutionary psychology has pointed
    out that moral rules have enabled human communities to adapt to
    threats to their survival. This Darwinian interpretation implies a
    biological basis for reciprocal behavior- epigenetic rules-according
    to E.O. Wilson (1998). [[43]4] The social groups that possessed these
    rules transmitted them to their offspring. Such moral behavior
    provides a selective advantage. There is accordingly an inward
    propensity for moral behavior, moral sentiments, empathy, and altruism
    within the species.

    This does not deny that there are at the same time impulses for
    selfish and aggressive tendencies. It is a mistake, however, to read
    in a doctrine of "original sin" and to say that human beings are by
    nature sinful and corrupt. I grant that there are individuals who lack
    moral empathy; they are morally handicapped. Some may even be
    sociopaths. The salient point is that there are genetic potentialities
    for good and evil; but how they work out and whether beneficent
    behavior prevails is dependent on cultural conditions. Both our genes
    (genetics) and memes (social patterns of enculturation) are factors
    that determine how and why we behave the way we do. We cannot simply
    deduce from the evolutionary process what we ought to do. What we do
    depends in part upon the choices we make. Thus, we still have some
    capacity for free choice. Though we are conditioned by environmental
    and biogenetic determinants, we are still capable of cognitive
    processes of selection, and rationality and intentionality play a
    causative role. (Note: There is a considerable scientific literature
    that supports this evolutionary view. See Daniel Dennett, Freedom
    Evolves [New York: Viking, 2003] and Darwin's Dangerous Idea [New
    York: Simon and Schuster, 1995]; Brian Skyrm, Evolution of the Social
    Contract [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996], Robert Wright,
    The Moral Animal [New York: Pantheon Books, 1994] and Nonzero [New
    York: Vintage Books, 2001], Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue [New
    York: Viking, 1996], and Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson, Unto
    Others [Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998].)

    Ethical precepts need not be based upon transcendental grounds or
    dependent upon religious faith. Undoubtedly, the belief that they are
    sacred may strengthen moral duties for many persons, but it is not
    necessary for everyone.

    I submit that it is time for scientists to recognize that they have an
    opportunity to contribute to naturalistic ethics. We stand at an
    interesting time in human history. We have great power to ameliorate
    the human condition. Biogenetic engineering, nanotechnology, and space
    research open new opportunities for humankind to create a better

    Yet there are those today who wish to abandon human reason and freedom
    and return to mythological legends of our premodern existence,
    including their impulses of aggres- sion and self-righteous vengeance.
    I submit that the Enlightenment is a beacon whose promise has not been
    fulfilled and that humankind needs to accept the responsibility for
    its own future.


    A caveat is in order. In the last analysis, some degree of skepticism
    is a necessary antidote to all forms of moral dogmatism. We are
    continually surrounded by self-righteous moralists who claim that they
    have the Absolute Truth, Moral Virtue, or Piety or know the secret
    path to salvation and wish to impose their convictions on all others.
    They are puffed up with an inflated sense of their own rectitude as
    they rail against unbenighted immoral sinners who lack their moral
    faith. These moral zealots are willing to repress or even sacrifice
    anyone who stands in their way. They have in the past unleashed
    conquering armies in the name of God, the Dialectic, Racial
    Superiority, Posterity, or Imperial Design. Skepticism needs to be
    applied not only to religious and paranormal fantasies but to other
    forms of moral and political illusions. These dogmas become especially
    dangerous when they are appealed to in order to legislate morality and
    are used by powerful social institutions, such as a state or church or
    corporation, to enforce a particular brand of moral virtue. Hell hath
    no fury like the self-righteous moral fanatic scorned.

    The best antidote for this is some skepticism and a willingness to
    engage in ethical inquiry, not only about others' moral zeal, but
    about our own, especially if we are tempted to translate the results
    of our own ethical inquiries into commandments. The epistemological
    theory that I propose is based upon methodological principles of
    skeptical scientific inquiry, and it has important moral implications.
    For in recognizing our own fallibility, we thereby can learn to
    tolerate other human beings and to appreciate their diversity and the
    plurality of lifestyles. If we are prepared to engage in cooperative
    ethical inquiry, then perhaps we are better prepared to allow other
    individuals and groups some measure of liberty to pursue their own
    preferred lifestyles. If we are able to live and let live, then this
    can best be achieved in a free and open democratic society. Where we
    differ, we should try to negotiate our divergent views and perhaps
    reach common ground; and if this is impractical, we should at least
    attempt to compromise for the sake of our common interests. The method
    of ethical inquiry requires some intelligent and informed examination
    of our own values as well as the values of others. Here we can attempt
    to modify attitudes by an appeal to cognitive beliefs and to
    reconstruct them by an examination of the relevant scientific
    evidence. Such a give-and-take of constructive criticism is essential
    for a harmonious society. In learning to appreciate different
    conceptions of the good life, we are able to expand our own dimensions
    of moral awareness; and this is more apt to lead to a peaceful world.

    By this, I surely do not mean to imply that anything and everything
    can or should be tolerated or that one thing is as good as the next.
    We should be prepared to criticize moral nonsense parading as virtue.
    We should not tolerate the intolerable. We have a right to strongly
    object, if need be, to those values or practices that we think are
    based on miscalculation, misconception, or that are patently false or
    harmful. Nonetheless, we might live in a better world if inquiry were
    to replace faith; deliberation, passionate commitment; and education
    and persuasion, force and war. We should be aware of the powers of
    intelligent behavior, but also of the limitations of the human animal
    and of the need to mitigate the cold, indifferent intellect with the
    compassionate and empathic heart. Thus, I conclude that within the
    ethical life, we are capable of developing a body of melioristic
    principles and values and a method of coping with problems
    intelligently. When our ethical judgments are based on rational and
    scientific inquiry, they are more apt to express the highest reaches
    of excellence and nobility and of civilized human conduct. We are in
    sore need of that today.


    1. G.E. Moore. Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University
    Press, 1903).

    2. See Exodus 21.

    3. Kurtz, Paul (ed.). The New Skepticism: Inquiry and Reliable
    Knowledge (Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 1992), chapter 9.

    4. Wilson, E.O. Consilience (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1998).

About the Author

    Paul Kurtz is a professor emeritus at the State University of New York
    at Buffalo, and chairman of the Center for Inquiry - Transnational.
    This article is a portion of the keynote address delivered at the
    conference on "Science and Ethics" sponsored by the Center for Inquiry
    in Toronto, Ontario, on May 13, 2004.

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