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IN WHAT WAYS ARE RECENT DEVELOPMENTS IN BIOLOGY AND SOCIOBIOLOGY RELEVANT TO ETHICS? ARTHUR L. CAPLAN* I It would be a gross understatement to claim that empirical work in die social, anthropological, and biological sciences has greatly influenced die direction of twentieth-century ethical thought. It would bejust as great an understatement to claim that empirical scientists are continually amazed and puzzled by the seeming indifference of moral philosophers to the findings and dieories ofscientific inquiry. This odd state ofaffairs has had its most recent instantiation with the publication of E. O. Wilson 's massive new book, Sociobiology [I]. In his book, Wilson issues a clarion call for the reduction of the humanities in general, and moral philosophy in particular, to the general tenets ofpopulation biology and ecology. Since, Wilson argues, the same fate awaits much of sociology, anthropology, comparative psychology, and ethology, there may be a tendency to lose track ofethics in aU this reductionistic hustle and bustle. But in many ways it is die most interesting of aU die reductionist theses, impUcit and expUcit, in Wilson's book. For in spite of the critical attention that has been focused on the ethical legitimacy of attempting to analyze human behavior in terms of the tools of modern population genetics, behavioral genetics, and ecology, the more substantive issue arising from Wilson's book is an important new phrasing ofan old question : To what extent is science in general, and biology in particular, relevant for ethics? There can be little doubt that ethicists and political philosophers have historically felt that scientific theories of human nature, human behavior , and human social organization were somehow relevant to die construction ofmoral and political systems. For Aristotle, die determination *Institute of Society, Ethics, and the Life Sciences, Hastings Center, 360 Broadway, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York 10766, and School ofPublic Health, Columbia University, New York, New York 10032.© 1978 by The University of Chicago. 0031-5982/78/2104-0028$01.00 536 I ArthurL. Copian · Biology, Sociobiology, andEthics of the ends of morality and politics depends upon the facts available about the nature ofpersons and their aims. Hobbes, Buder, Machiavelli, and Hume all attempted to build their moral and poUtical theories in light of various empirical theories of human nature. Mill in attempting to provide a proof for his principle of utility in Utilitarianism tells us that die fact that men do in fact desire certain ends, objects, or states is of no little relevance to the justification of a particular standard of morality and conduct [2]. Much of twentieth-century moral philosophizing about metaethical dieories of values can be seen as a reaction to the arguments of Moore and nonempiricists such as Ross and Prichard, and emotivists such as Ayer and Stevenson, that scientific, empirical demonstration or observations concerning human nature and human behavior are of no relevance whatsoever to much of ethical analysis [3]. Unfortunately, in some ways it is just this long history of attention to the question of the relevance of empirical facts to ethics that makes Wilson's reductionistic claims so frustrating and unpalatable. Wilson is far from being the first scientist to suggest diat moral and political thought should be or is, in fact, reducible to or derivable from empirical observation and scientific findings. Surely both Herbert Spencer and Sigmund Freud at various points in their writings expressed belief in the ultimate reducibility of conscious human ethical behavior to a set of scientific theories and empirical findings. And modern scientists such as Peter Kropotkin, T. H. Huxley, W. C. Allee, C. D. Darlington, Konrad Lorenz, Ashley Montagu, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Rene Dubos, Lionel Tiger, and Clyde Kluckholm have all written extensively on topics such as the ultimate superfluousness of ethical theory and die ultimate generability ofethical standards and norms from scientific findings concerning man [4-14]. Wilson's book, and the subsequent work it has inspired among population biologists, anthropologists, and sociologists, surely differs from these genealogical predecessors in its degree of scientific sophistication and theoretical elegance. However, it does not differ greatly in the degree to which it attends to philosophical attempts to come to grips with the question of the relevance of science for ethical and political theorizing...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 536-550
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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