Science and Scientism

There are many philosophers who have written critically about the relatively common modern tendency to derive moral principles from science–to move from science to a reductively naturalistic morality of scientism. From Elizabeth Anscombe and Philippa Foot to Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor, omitting many others before, in between, and after.

Here is a relatively new book that appears to advance a critique of scientism broadly in this line but updated to address new challenges and targets: Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality (Yale University Press), by James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky.

“In this illuminating book, James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky trace the origins and development of the centuries-long, passionate, but ultimately failed quest to discover a scientific foundation for morality. The “new moral science” led by such figures as E. O. Wilson, Patricia Churchland, Sam Harris, Jonathan Haidt, and Joshua Greene is only the newest manifestation of that quest. Though claims for its accomplishments are often wildly exaggerated, this new iteration has been no more successful than its predecessors. But rather than giving up in the face of this failure, the new moral science has taken a surprising turn. Whereas earlier efforts sought to demonstrate what is right and wrong, the new moral scientists have concluded, ironically, that right and wrong don’t actually exist. Their (perhaps unwitting) moral nihilism turns the science of morality into a social engineering project. If there is nothing moral for science to discover, the science of morality becomes, at best, a feeble program to achieve arbitrary societal goals. Concise and rigorously argued, Science and the Good is a definitive critique of a would-be science that has gained extraordinary influence in public discourse today and an exposé of that project’s darker turn.”

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