Skip to main content

Biology and the justification of ethics

Final Activity Report Summary - BIOJETH (Biology and the Justification of Ethics)

The scientific image of the universe makes it hard for us to see what the place of values and ethics in the universe might be. Even human subjectivity, which was once thought to be the ground for granting humans a special role in the universe, as stated for example by Kant, is now explained as a complex property emerging from a recombination of basic particles through the mechanisms of evolution. Given what science teaches us, the question that arises is how we can justify ethics. Currently, two main ways to address this issue are normally attempted, namely evolutionary ethics and normativity of reasons. Both, however, are unsatisfactory, for different reasons. Evolutionary ethics teaches us that the results of science are relevant to our ethical behaviour, but seems to lead to scepticism about the possibility of justifying ethics, thus calling for a revision of our understanding of our agency which is highly counter-intuitive. Normativity theory, on the other hand, is based on a generally Kantian conception of nature, which allows for an account of ethical justification involving the realm of freedom, but makes it very hard to explain how and why the outcomes of scientific research might be relevant for our understanding of our ethical status. The BIOJETH project attempted to overcome the problems faced by these two views through an analysis of human action which might suggest a new framework for the justification of ethics.

BIOJETH started from the recognition that considerations concerning the explanation of human action, in its inseparable individual and social dimensions, called for the deployment of normative concepts, which though could not be accounted for in fully evolutionary terms, although the evolved traits set at least some of the requirements which grounded the justification of human behaviour. It thereby concluded that meeting these requirements called for the relaxation of the generally Kantian conception of reason which was usually assumed in current debates about normativity and, in turn, this involved a revision of the Kantian sharp separation between nature and noumenal reality, i.e. an integrated view of nature in which evolutionary explanations were taken to be independent but not exclusive.

BIOJETH proposed an account of human agency which offered space for the data arising from evolutionary sciences, like evolutionary ethics in the strict sense, but, unlike that, it did not assume that the scientific image was exclusive and recognised that the explanation of actions involved more than causal explanation, and thus required a non-reductionist outlook of nature. The point was that a full explanation of our agency required that we granted agents the capacity to represent a transcendent idea of order. The latter did not involve any admission of a design in nature, but it allowed for the possibility that nature could be looked at as a purposive whole, which was directed towards an idea of an order which was not fully realised in the world of experience. This would be the typical way of looking at nature which was employed in everyday experience, as opposed to scientific experience. This view was not inconsistent with the scientific image, but granted that the outlook of science was partial in that it assumed a particular way of looking at reality which, although useful, was not exhaustive and exclusive.