I think we’ve recently discovered several important moral truths: equality for people of different races (The Civil Rights movement), equality for women, equality for people with different sexual orientations. Human moral knowledge is slowly expanding, facilitated by medical, social, educational, and economic advances, that are making possible the expansion of the sphere of inclusion. As humans on the planet get more prosperous, standards of living rise, and education levels rise, more of us come to appreciate the implications of some of the fundamental moral truths, and then we improve our social structures, our legal structures, and our cultures to reflect those improvements. The expansion of the sphere of inclusion, and the broadening of the class of beings whose interests should count, suggest that in the future many of the entities who we afford less consideration now will come to be treated with equality and rights entitlements. So irreligious minorities, who are currently some of the most reviled people in the country, more non-human animals, and even artificial intelligences are on the moral horizon next.
I’m wary of the implied assertion that we make “discoveries” in the same sense in morality as in science. But, I suppose, when we come to discern our practices as conflicting with moral principles or values, it is a discovery of sorts, akin to the observation that light contradicts classical physics’ wave theory and participle theory, made way for relativity and quantum theory. Similarly, the inadequacies of ethical realism and ethical intuitionism to account for moral action move us to develop alternatives. But it’s not like you lift up a rock, long untouched by human or other forces, to find a moral principle, as you might to discover a new species of nematode; or look to heaven for moral values written in the stars, as you might for evidence of the movement of Jupiter’s moons. Are there clear examples in morality? Yes, about as clear as they might be in science. But, like the latter, their conditions for truth, clarity, or indisputability have to be stipulated or framed. I use the example, “It is wrong to pull the heads off of kittens.” It is wrong by several measures, by appeal to values and principles which we accept as true and use regularly in our everyday lives. If questioned, we confirm their truth by example. I even confirm students’ agreement that it is wrong by demonstration, much as my chemistry colleagues mix sulfuric acid with sugar to demonstrate exothermic reactions.
Similarly I think that if an action advances knowledge, promotes social cooperation, or cultivates harmonious relationships, these things would count in favor of doing it.
A good candidate for an uncontroversial moral discovery is the principle that slavery is wrong. This principle has been denied in the past by philosophers that are otherwise widely respected and admired, e.g. Aristotle, Aquinas, and Locke. But it’s hard to imagine any paper being accepted for publication today, in a peer-reviewed journal, that defends slavery. I offer two qualifications here: (1) This discovery can’t be identified with a particular event, like an experiment or the publication of a particular book. (2) There are surely people alive today who think slavery is morally permissible. But universal agreement can’t be a criterion for something’s being uncontroversial, since otherwise the theory of evolution would not qualify- nor would the claim that the Earth is round.
This question presupposes a distinction between moral facts and empirical facts that one might simply reject. A utilitarian, for example, would say that the answer is clearly yes. We have discovered a great deal about what sorts of practices increase and diminish happiness. Diminishing marginal utility is a profound moral discovery from this perspective.
The idea of gradual moral discovery is perhaps more plausible, but it is still dubious. Copernicus provided the original model for an earth in motion, but it took over 100 years for this fact to become known. Still it was a discovery; the earth's motion was a fact about the universe hidden from view.
The quick answer is “yes” to both questions. It is easy to give the following uncontroversial examples of important scientific and mathematical discoveries: (i) Physics: Four-dimensional space-time has both negative and positive microscopic curvature. (ii) Mathematics: Every elliptic curve can be associated with a unique modular form. (iii) Chemistry: 2-deoxy-2- [18F]fluoro-D-glucose is a stand-in for glucose in pharmacokinetics. These three examples are easy to give, but not easy to explain, to the non-experts.
It is also easy to give the following uncontroversial examples of important moral and normative discoveries: (i) Garrett Hardin discovered a thought experiment involving the dilemma of members of a lifeboat deciding under what circumstances some of the surrounding swimmers should be taken aboard the lifeboat. (ii) John Rawls discovered a new social-contract-type thought experiment: the Original Position. (iii) Philippa Foot discovered the runaway-trolley problem. The conclusions that Hardin, Rawls and Foot draw from their thought experiments are controversial, but what is uncontroversial is that their thought experiments help clarify the moral issues. These moral discoveries are both easy to give, and easy to explain, to the non-experts.
So, my conclusion is that moral knowledge of this sort is easy to explain to the non-experts, but scientific and mathematical knowledge is not.
However, a more interesting question is whether the discovery of moral thought experiments is really representative of all moral knowledge.
There are moral facts and principles which ethical deliberation discovers by reason alone or in concert with empirical observations. For example, consider principles that Thomas Hobbes calls “Laws of Nature” in his Leviathan. He argues for adopting a social contract, because doing so produces a more desirable state of affairs within which to live than simply following our natural appetites and aversions to the detriment of those around us. We may infer the truth of such principles by assessing the effects of abiding collectively by such contracts.
Hobbes’ normative rules: Seek peace. Lay down one’s right to all things when others do so also, so that peace and security can be maintained, otherwise use all the advantages of war. Keep promises and honor contracts. Be grateful for gifts. Be sociable by accommodating and cooperating with others.
Where people adopt such rules, objective well-being (OWB) and subjective well-being (SWB) are high, people thrive. OWB describes a standard of living. When disease, poverty, crime, and economic inequality are high, OWB is low. SWB refers to the self-described quality of one’s life, health, emotions, judgments, happiness. Among people with high SWB, there is less disease, less anti-social behavior, greater longevity, more optimism, and higher prosperity.
One moral, non-trivial, uncontroversial implication: If people desire to preserve life and liberty, then they ought to form and obey a social contract, and punish or banish those who don't. This isn’t rocket science, but it also isn’t obvious to selfish bastards among us.
Yes, and I think so.
My example is the rejection of general natural moral hierarchies; alternatively, the widespread acceptance of the idea that there is no moral obligation to submit to subjugation because everyone has the equal moral authority, as Mill said, “to employ their faculties, and such favorable chances as offer, to achieve the lot which may appear to them most desirable.” In other words, the days of, e.g., the divine right of kings are well behind us. We now regard it as unreasonable for people to expect others to comply with their assertion of control over what these others have reason to do. When they reject the assertion of this control they are demanding that people leave them sufficient authority to act in accordance with their deliberations about what they should do or what kind of life is best.
The fact that this demand to be treated as moral equals is legitimate, while the demand to submit to another’s control isn’t, suggests (at least to me) that moral reasoning is deeply reciprocal and that moral rules are practices based on reciprocal demands. When, for example, Lucy rejects Ellie’s subjugation, she only insists on the very thing that everyone, including Ellie, presumes – the standing to order her life in light of considerations that make normative sense to her. Likewise, when Ellie subjugates Lucy, she insists on the very thing that she herself would reject were Lucy, or anyone else, to presume to direct her reasoning.
Q1: C. S. Lewis claimed that
“The first thing to get clear about Christian morality between man and man is that in this department Christ did not come to preach any brand new morality. The Golden Rule of the New Testament (do as you would be done by) is a summing up of what everyone, at bottom, had always known to be right. Really great moral teachers never introduce new moralities: it is quacks and cranks who do that.”
Q2: Yet when Lewis discussed morality through the lens of virtue, he claimed that
“According to this longer scheme there are seven “virtues.” Four of them are called “Cardinal” virtues, and the remaining three are called “Theological” virtues. The “Cardinal” ones are those all civilized people recognize: the “Theological” are those which, as a rule, only Christians know about.”
P1: Perhaps some moral knowledge is (near-) universal and ancient—if so, our oldest records everywhere should testify to that knowledge even if they do not testify to its ‘discovery’.
P2: Perhaps some other moral knowledge is particular and (relatively) recent—if so, not all persons and communities had it (or have it now).
I1: If we want to think about discoveries, we should not just look back decades or centuries, but millennia (think: fire).
I2: We should look for such discoveries, not just in one branch, but in many (think: biology and astronomy; obligation and virtue).
Are there uncontroversial examples of ‘discovery’ in science and mathematics? A conceptual relativist like Ernest Sosa would deny it.
But let’s take ‘what-sometimes-happens-in-science-and-mathematics’ as what this prompt means by ‘discovery.’
Moral facts are fixed only in part by natural facts; there is also an indispensible role for convention. It is a truism about conventions that, even while following the convention, the parties may have only very limited cognitive access to its content.
A fundamental feature of all human societies is conventional division of social roles. Og makes flint weapons; Glug gathers roots and berries; Reginald hunts for meat.
How do we commensurate these goods?
The core meaning of ‘market’ is a kind of event. We all meet in one spot at the same time, ‘Market Day,’ with what we have to obtain what we want. Goods get commensurated by exchange.
But for millennia the effort to produce the good was identified with the good. Tool-making and hunting were different activities. Plato makes the incommensurability of the basic social activities the foundation of his Republic.
Then Adam Smith saw that these different activities were commensurated after all. Human effort forms a market too. We just hadn’t realized it before.
Coming to understand that the effort used to produce goods is just like the goods themselves in this respect is an astonishing discovery.
For millennia the motion of a freely-falling body (natural motion) and projectile motion were similarly incommensurable. Adam Smith’s discovery is on a par with Galileo’s .