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Could Science Replace Ethics?

Q&A with Valerie Tiberius
January 21, 2015

A quick scan of the latest news headlines, and we’re led to believe that scientists have found the answers to age-old questions, like the secret to happiness, the path to a fulfilling life, or the reason for good and evil.

All of this raises even more questions, namely: Do we even need philosophical ethics anymore? Isn’t science enough?

To get answers, we sat down over coffee with Valerie Tiberius, professor and chair of the philosophy department at the University of Minnesota. Tiberius will share even more insights during a presentation she will give at a A Brighter U on Feb. 28, 2015, but here’s a taste of the conversation to come.

How did you first become interested in philosophy?

My dad was trained in psychology, but he loved philosophy and had a lot of philosophy books at our home in Toronto. I enjoyed having discussions with him as a kid.

One of the main conversations I remember was about religion, because my father was an atheist and we didn’t go to church. I asked him why, and he gave me the problem of evil, which is the problem of reconciling the existence of an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing God with the existence of evils in the world. Kind of a heavy topic for a five-or-six year old, but that’s an early memory that stands out.

What’s your definition of science versus ethics?

One way you can think of the differences is in terms of what questions they’re trying to answer. Science is trying to discover and describe how things are, using the scientific method. Ethics aims to guide us in our actions and choices by putting together a picture of what we ought to do, what we should care about, and what things are good for us.

If the two are exploring different questions, then why would one ever replace the other?

To me, the zeitgeist of the moment seems to be that science is filling in all the gaps for us. If you read the New York Times and other media, you might think that once we know enough about the brain, we don’t need to study anything else about human nature or society because neuroscience will tell us everything.

Portrait: Valerie Tiberius
Valerie Tiberius
Photo by Eve Daniels

It’s not so much that I think there’s a real risk of science replacing ethics. For the most part, scientists are very careful about not drawing ethical conclusions directly from their data. But once their work gets translated through the popular media and into pop culture, it starts to sound like we’re going to get all of the answers from science, without having to do any extra reflection.

Can you give some recent examples of where science is crossing into ethics territory?


Free will is a good example. Some researchers have said that neuroscience is going to answer the question of whether people have free will and should, therefore, be held morally responsible. But many philosophers argue that even if our actions are caused by our brains, that does not mean we are not responsible. Whether it’s reasonable to hold each other responsible, and under what conditions, is a separate, ethical question.

Happiness is another example. There’s all of this scientific research on happiness lately, which I think is great and important and fascinating. But I also think it doesn’t answer the perennial question of what is a good life for a human being. Because for psychologists to study happiness, they have to define it as something they can investigate. The researchers have to start with some assumptions. Should we investigate pleasant moods, feelings of joy, life satisfaction? What constitutes happiness or a good life? That’s where philosophy and ethics are needed.

In what ways can scientists and philosophers work together on solving ethical problems?

We can look at the University of Minnesota’s strategic planning initiative for an example—the plan is organized around several grand challenges. One focus area is how to create vibrant communities, and another is sustainability. These are both challenges that the liberal arts, and philosophy in particular, can help scientists to address. 

Because first, we have to answer some ethical questions: What is a happy individual and an ideal vibrant community? What counts as a sustainable environment? Who are the stakeholders? How do we share the benefits and burdens as a society? 

Once we’ve established those starting points, then science can help us figure out how we get from where we are now to where we ought to be.