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Where the New Science of Morality Went Wrong

Nov. 18 2016

As the fields of neurobiology, evolutionary biology, and social science have yielded better understandings of moral reasoning and its origins, some have claimed that their findings can be used to establish moral truths. James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky, reviewing three recent books on the subject, argue that the authors engage in a bait-and-switch: advertising a new science-based morality that can sweep away the confusion generated by philosophers and religious thinkers, while offering nothing of the sort:

[This new] scholarship presents itself as addressing questions of prescriptive morality, but through a sleight of hand it puts descriptive and instrumental definitions of morality into play in ways that conflate the meanings of the terms. This is confusing, to say the least.

Yet there is another fundamental problem. . . . Invariably, the science of morality is directed toward unearthing and understanding universally shared moral principles. These are ethical generalities that take shape as moral-philosophical abstractions. The evidence used to address this stratum of moral reality is presumed to be species-wide, whether it is drawn from data from neurochemistry, the evolutionary record, or public-opinion surveys.

This presumption is fine as far as it goes, but it barely scratches the surface of morality as it exists empirically in the lives of individuals, groups, communities, and nations. . . . In this empirical complexity, the new moral science shows little interest or curiosity. It is as if the best way to address empirical difference is to ignore it altogether. But any intellectual inquiry that disregards empirical specificity, especially in its messiness, fails to meet the most rudimentary requirements of a science. . . .

[Furthermore, for] a theory of morality to be scientific, it must tie its claims about the nature of morality to observable reality strongly enough to demonstrate that it is getting the nature of morality right. Put more sharply: a science of morality must be able to demonstrate empirically that its claims about morality are true.

Read more at Hedgehog Review

More about: History & Ideas, Morality, Neuroscience, Science

 

Toward an Iran Policy That Looks at the Big Picture

On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech outlining a new U.S. approach to the Islamic Republic. Ray Takeyh and Mark Dubowitz explain why it constitutes an important and much-needed rejection of past errors:

For too long, a peculiar consensus has suggested that it is possible to isolate the nuclear issue from all other areas of contention and resolve it in a satisfactory manner. The subsidiary [assumption] embedded in this logic is that despite the bluster of Iran’s rulers, it is governed by cautious men, who if offered sufficient incentives and soothing language would respond with pragmatism. No one embraced this notion more ardently than the former secretary of state, John Kerry, who crafted an accord whose deficiencies are apparent to all but the most hardened partisans. . . .

A regime as dangerous as the Iranian one requires no less than a comprehensive strategy to counter it. This means exploiting all of its vulnerabilities, increasing the costs of its foreign adventures, draining its economy, and aiding our allies. Most importantly, the United States must find a way of connecting itself to domestic opposition that continuously haunts the mullahs.

Washington should no longer settle for an arms-control agreement that paves Iran’s path to a bomb but rather a restrictive accord that ends its nuclear aspirations. The United States should not implore its allies to share the Middle East with Iran, as Barack Obama did, but partner with them in defeating the clerical imperialists. And most importantly, the United States should never forget that its most indispensable ally is the Iranian people.

Read more at Foreign Policy

More about: Iran, Iran nuclear program, Mike Pompeo, U.S. Foreign policy