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Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Science of Dignity

In my previous post I said "x ought to y" just means "if F(x,y), then x will foster x's dignity." [On second thought, since the moral "ought" implies an obligation, I think "x ought to y" rather means "if not-F(x,y), then x will not foster x's dignity."] This means that "we ought not foster our own dignity" is a logical absurdity. This might seem intuitively obvious to many people, but it might not be that easy to understand. Why is it absurd to say that somebody shouldn't foster their own dignity? Here's an attempt to answer that question, and also to work out some related knots.

Dignity is what defines us as moral agents. The imperative "should" implies an appeal to one's sense of moral agency, and we cannot simultaneously appeal to and negate somebody's moral agency. So, when I say morality is the process of fostering dignity, I just mean it is the process of fostering moral agency. This leaves completely open the question of whether or not there are objective moral truths, or whether any particular actions are morally permissible or impermissible. Though it does suggest that there might be a set of objectively immoral actions: namely, acts of abjugating moral agency. Perhaps we can, with full objectivity, say that people should not abjugate their moral agency. However, doing so may sometimes be necessary to foster dignity. For example, I might sabotage my future ability to be a moral agent because it is the only way I can foster my moral agency today.

Are there scientifically discoverable means of fostering dignity? Are there scientific methods of being moral? I would say yes, in a sense, and no, in another sense. Yes, in the sense that we can scientifically discover methods for enhancing our moral drive. The drive to dignity is surely based on physiology, and this can be manipulated with science. So I don't see why science cannot help us foster dignity. The question is, while this would make us more moral in one sense, it wouldn't necessarily make us more moral in another sense. It wouldn't help us establish objective foundations for morality. It wouldn't even necessarily make us "good people" by any given standard.

Dignity can be fostered in a great many ways, possibly an indefinite number of ways, and I don't see how there could be objective truths about the relative values of different ways of fostering dignity. When we foster dignity, we are not thereby getting something right. We aren't discovering a fact. We're establishing and/or following social norms. We're (1) helping define what it means to be a good person and (2) evaluating ourselves with respect to the rules we have helped create. The process of fostering dignity includes a process of creating moral precepts, and these are not justifiable with science alone. We might be able to use science to enhance our moral impulses, and we can certainly use science to better understand how the world works and thus better understand what might or might not be valuable to us. However, we cannot use science to discover moral precepts which are "right" in any objective sense. Science can help us foster dignity, but it cannot help us find "the right moral precepts," as if there were any such thing.

Edited on January 23, 2011 21:45 GMT