A framework for assessing empirical approaches to moral philosophy. (2020)
Type of ContentElectronic Thesis or Dissertation
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
PublisherUniversity of Canterbury
AuthorsThomson, Danielshow all
In this thesis I examine the question ‘What are the implications of our growing scientific understanding of moral phenomenon for ethics?’ I assess what moral philosophy can gain, if anything, from the rapidly growing body of literature on the evolutionary genealogy, psychology, and biology of morality. Historically, there have tended to be two kinds of responses to such questions: either great enthusiasm about the potential to revolutionise ethics followed by dramatic conclusions without adequate rationale; or empirical considerations are rejected as irrelevant by invoking ‘Hume’s law’ (that one cannot derive normative conclusions from descriptive facts) and not examined further.
I argue for an approach that takes a middle ground; that our growing scientific understanding may have implications for a number of debates in moral philosophy, but that at the same time, there are few conclusions that are obvious or straightforward. Due diligence must be given to philosophical analysis to adequately assess relevant empirical research. There is in general no principle that allows us to determine whether empirical research is relevant to its related areas of philosophy, thus I argue that any such evaluation, at least initially, must be done on a case by case basis. I examine a number of case studies of different authors who try to derive implications for ethics from empirical research into morality. From looking at these cases I also evaluate what can be learned from these attempts and present the findings as a framework that can be used when assessing the philosophical merits of empirical approaches to moral philosophy.