What can empirical science prescribe with regard to values and goals?
Empirical science can give us the means to pursue the goals we wish to achieve, but can it tell us
which goals we ought to choose?
Consider first a plausible case where science describes a goal, which, from its very description, we
recognize that we have reason to pursue. Medical science tells us that there are certain conditions of
the human body which are states of health,and certain other conditions which are states of unhealth.
It would seem to follow, other things being equal, (i.e. there are no other relevant considerations to
take into account) that presented with two courses of action, one of which would result in our being in
a state of health and the other a state of unhealth, we should choose the first rather than the second.
According to G.E. Moore, this would be an example of the naturalistic fallacy.Moore would point out
that we first have to ask whether it is a goodthing to be in a state of health rather than a state of
unhealth. What is good about being fit and living to a ripe old age? Why should be prefer that to being
unfit and dying young? If you try to say what health is good for, you merely give a list of other things.
Of each of those things, one can ask the further question whether it is in fact good.
One version of ethical naturalism involves the idea that there are certain mental traits which are
intrinsically preferable to other traits. The preferable mental traits are the moral virtues, and the traits
to be avoided are moral vices. The empirical study of what is psychologically good for us, what makes
for a good character, a good life, leads to the prescriptionthat one ought to pursue certain moral
goals. The reason ethical naturalism fails, according to Moore, is that it has no means to justify the
claim that, e.g. it is good to be courageous, and bad to be a coward.
There is one way for our ethical naturalist to resist Moore's argument. The philosopher Aristotle, the
originator of this notion of ethics as based on a study of the virtues and the 'good life', never doubted
that the world conformed to certain teleological principles. In other words, the world we inhabit has
telos,purpose, built in from the beginning. The major task of the moral philosopher is to discover what
is the telosof a human being. On this metaphysical view, the empirical study of causes and effects is
part of a wider scientific study of our place in the universe. With this assumption in place, there can
be an unequivocal answer to the question which human traits are virtues and which traits are vices.
I have encountered one example of a contemporary 'philosophy of nature' according to which the
universe possesses an intrinsic teleological structure, in the work of the neo-Hegelian philosopher
Errol E. Harris. While the idea of a teleological science remains alive, it holds out the hope —
admittedly slim — that 'empirical science' can, in Aristotelian fashion, prescribe values and goals.