Philosophy is not an empirical discipline and it cannot be conducted as such. Though it may make use of empirical observations, and although many philosophers insist upon an empirical origin of our knowledge, the process of philosophical reasoning itself is not contained within the boundaries of an empirical nor an empiriometric methodology. In point of fact, empiricism without the context of philosophy is an incoherent approach to understanding anything.
Among the most important of philosophy’s lessons is that the more we know, the more we realize that we do not know. True comprehension is an elusive goal; and, yet, today, an arrogant presumption about the extent and profundity of human understanding is taken up in every quarter. It cannot be doubted that the amount of information available far exceeds what was held by previous generations, but to confuse this information with knowledge (a habit), let alone understanding (an act), is to confuse the severed parts with the whole. A pile of information no more makes understanding than a clump of atoms makes a human being.
The notion that empirical science will provide knowledge of any kind, therefore, seems rather misguided; for the empiriometric method provides us the means to gathering information, but not to incorporating it into the narratives whereby that information is made meaningful. It is ironic that Western civilization purchased the means to improved information access and collection at the cost of the means to understand it. This is especially true in questions of morality: what is revealed by empiriometric inquiries can be manipulated to fit whatever narrative, promoting or denigrating whichever agenda, and therefore gives us no foundation for saying what is right or wrong.
So how are we to reconcile the discoveries of science with our moral sentiments? Of foremost importance is that we insist upon an approach to morality which makes of it something other than mere sentiment. Empathy, like all feelings, follows the determinations of cultural contextualization. That someone might feel empathy for another human being, or at least act with sympathy, in an idealized transcendence of distinctions of gender, race, sexual orientation, religious belief, and so on, is not a given. The hows and whys of our positive and negative affections are indeterminate and open to nigh infinite degrees of alteration.
That said, I think it prudent to respond to three claims recently made by Brian Boutwell on Quillette.com:
1) We do not need specific versions of empirical realities to exist in order to realize that we’re all capable of suffering, that the properties of our central nervous system equip us to feel sorrow and anguish. We already have every reason we ever needed to advocate fairness and decency.
I do not mean to belittle a fellow academic, but this first sentence–and I promise you, it is not improved by context–is downright silly. While Boutwell is doubtlessly trying to say that we do not need an empirical proof of equality to demonstrate our universal capacity for suffering, that universal capacity is itself a kind of equality shown by empirical evidence. In other words, the claim is that we do not need an empirical account because we have an empirical account.
The second sentence is a more sophisticated piece of sophistry. Everyone likes pleasure and no one likes pain (except those fun individuals who derive pleasure from pain; and even then, the pain is liked only because the derived pleasure outweighs the pain). But this preferentiality gives us no reason, as such. Why should the universal capacity for suffering be sufficient reason to advocate fairness and decency? The statement resounds with the philosophies of the Enlightenment–Mill, in particular, comes to mind–but the classical liberalism theory of natural human rights rests always either on a belief in empirically-discerned nature (discerned, at least, in outline), or on a belief in the divine granting of human rights; or, in the counter-Enlightenment, solely upon social convention.
2) My hero Charles Darwin, by all accounts a good and decent man, stole from us the idea that we are products of special creation, made in the image of a loving god. We were clumsily assembled piecemeal by an emotionless process of selection. And yet, our worth—the worth of all human beings—is not diminished one iota because of it.
Anyone who thinks that the Darwinian theory of evolution undermines belief in a divine creation does not understand the idea of creation as presented in any of its more intelligent articulations. You might as well say that the Big Bang disproves that there could be a God (Fr. Lemaitre would disagree with you on that, I’m sure). I am quite certain, at any rate, that Thomas Aquinas–who admitted that the eternal motion of the celestial spheres was merely an account which saved the appearances, and not a certitude at all–would tell you that the how of a divine generation of human beings, of whom the image and likeness of the divine consists essentially in species-specific human intelligence, is of little importance.
At any rate, the idea that our worth is not diminished by discarding the belief that human beings are of a special divine provenance sounds like boastful posturing. As aforementioned, the classical liberal belief of the Enlightenment in human rights requires either that they be divinely granted or grounded in nature. Otherwise, we must turn to a contractarian position, in which social agreement alone grants us this “worth”. The dangers of such a turn should be quite evident; society is fickle, and the culture by which any society is united, malleable, open to perversion every hour of every day.
3) We should be united in the idea that nothing in science will overturn the imperative to treat all individuals as sentient creatures capable of feeling great happiness, and also great suffering. We do not need the natural world to exist in a certain way in order to ensure the moral worth of all creatures who inhabit it.
At this point, I must say–as a graduate professor of mine often would–that I’m confused. I am pretty certain that either the contradiction has come full circle or a really unjustified and extraordinarily dangerous claim has been. In the first case, Boutwell is saying that because the natural world exists a certain way we do not need the natural world to exist a certain way; because we exist with a capacity for “feeling great happiness” and “great suffering”, by nature, we do not need–what? An equal capacity for such feelings? (Then, I ask, why is it that people should be treated equally if their capacities are unequal?) Or perhaps I am missing something?
Or perhaps it is the second case: that Boutwell is saying we designate human beings equally worthy and thus deserving of fair and decent treatment out of a pure volition. That we should be nice to one another because we want to; or because we fear what will happen to us if we do not. If the only reason to advocate for fairness and equality is the fear that failure to do so might result in our being victimized in turn, then Glaucon and Adeimantus would like to sell you Thrasymachus’ house. If, contrariwise, the only reason to advocate for fairness and equality is that we want to, that seems no stronger a reason than to advocate for survival of the fittest, for right of the strongest.
If we divide nature from culture (as do counter-Enlightenment figures, and which divide grows organically out of the philosophical presuppositions of Enlightenment figures, as well), and place the value of human life–and all the consequent considerations of a moral kind–squarely in the realm of culture, we cannot be surprised when there develop certain cultural perspectives which attack our own. For culture stands on no firm, timeless, or cognition-independent grounds, but begins anew in the cognitive life of every human individual.
Perhaps what it needs is less sentiment, such as permeates Boutwell’s piece, and more reason; a reason granted not by empiriometric science, but by philosophical inquiry. Perhaps if we want to understand what makes human beings worthy of being treated with dignity, we should try looking for a way to make the empirical meaningful.