What the Wise Only Know: The Unrealizability of Ethical Demonstration
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The motivation for my honors thesis springs from our often irresolvable disagreements about moral and political issues in the public square: issues ranging from educational and economic reform to health care and immigration policy, in which we often disagree about not just the answers to our questions but the standards that will justify them. Such intractable disagreements, and the incompatible ethical theories that often lie behind them, led me to address in my honors thesis the following question: “How far we can make ethics scientific?” As a result of my research I claim that although acculturation and character development play a major role in determining the ethical claims we find persuasive, a rigorous empirical science of ethics could still be an attainable goal for us. If undertaken, such an approach to ethics could go some way toward providing potential methods of resolution for our fiercest moral and political disagreements. Although I treat this question primarily via engagement with Aristotle and contemporary philosophers in dialogue with him, my resulting argument bears directly on the possibility of maximizing ethical theory’s scientific rigor today. By engaging with the scientific and ethical works of Aristotle, whose models of scientific demonstration became the basis of our own modes of scientific explanation, I developed an account of how an ethical science would operate. I argued that we can explain and evaluate ethical claims on the basis of a foundational definition of flourishing human life. A science of ethics would therefore investigate the necessary components and conditions of a flourishing life and demonstrate its findings on the basis of that definition. What complicates the issue is how one would arrive at the definition: upbringing and acculturation shape our understanding of what activities are worthwhile, and no aspiring ethical theorist could reverse this process or step outside her own character when searching for the definition. I argue that this difficulty should serve as a sobering reminder of the deep investment we have in our ethical theories, without, however, discouraging us from seeking an ultimate explanatory basis for the ethical claims we make on one another. I recently developed my research thus far into a reduced, 20-page version of my honors thesis, which I presented at Emory University for the 2013 Southeastern Regional Conference of the Mellon Mays Research Fellowship Program. I now continue to work toward the completion of my honors thesis, which I intend to make the basis of my graduate research on the possibility and practice of an ethical science.
CitationGibson, Marcus (2013). What the Wise Only Know: The Unrealizability of Ethical Demonstration. Honors thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/8104.
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