Experimental philosophy and empirical ethics: a historical reconstruction and philosophical assessment

Lead Research Organisation: University of Warwick
Department Name: Philosophy


One of the most prominent current trends within philosophy is represented by the attempts to naturalize philosophical disciplines, from epistemology to ethics, and to tackle their problems with the tools of empirical sciences. An analogous naturalistic trend was prominent between 1660 and 1800. In this period, a large group of self-proclaimed experimental philosophers promoted an approach to the study of the natural world, ethics, and aesthetics which was based on the rejection of substantive a priori claims and the reliance on extensive observation and experimentation.

Initially, Robert Boyle, John Locke, members of the early Royal Society and like-minded authors in France and Italy applied this approach to empirical issues within physics and medicine and to metaphysical questions concerning, for instance, the nature of causation and the basic structure of the material world. Later experimentalists extended their rejection of 'first philosophy' and application of empirical methods to the fields of ethics and aesthetics. Scottish and German authors, like David Hume and J. G. H. Feder, advocated the 'application of experimental philosophy to moral subjects' (Hume) and relied on empirical claims to promote sentimentalist ethical theories.

Nowadays, many ethicists endorse the same methodological outlook of eighteenth-century experimental philosophers, claiming that we should study morality with methods 'suitable to the investigation of natural facts' (Jesse Prinz). We are told that the results of fMRI scans refute deontologism (Joshua D. Greene, Peter Singer), that experimental psychology refutes moral intuitionism (Walter Sinnott-Armstrong) and virtue ethics (Gilbert Harman, John Doris), and that Humean moral sentiment derives from oxytocin, 'the moral molecule' (Paul J. Zak, Patricia Churchland). Along similar lines, a wave of popular books by well-known primatologists, evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists advocates the replacement of armchair ethics with an empirical 'science of morality' (Sam Harris), 'the science of good and evil' (Michael Shermer), 'the science of our moral dilemmas' (Michael S. Gazzaniga), and so on.

The historical component of the project will improve our understanding of early modern experimental philosophy. This will fill a significant gap in current accounts of early modern thought, it will provide a framework for new research, and it will shed light on the historical roots of a scientistic moral outlook which has broad appeal among philosophers and an increasing influence on public perception of the role of science within culture. The philosophical component of the project will assess the viability the methodological outlook underpinning early modern and recent attempts to build an empirical science of ethics.

Planned Impact

The primary non-academic beneficiary of the proposed research is the general public. Many people regard science as the pre-eminent form of learning and scientific knowledge as the most prized form of knowledge. This belief has been strengthened by the publication of several popular books in which scientists and intellectuals explain how brain scans, psychological discoveries or evolutionary biology provide the foundations of a new, empirical science of morals. Discussions of this topic have attracted a large non-academic audience. For instance, neuroscientist Sam Harris' TED talk 'Science Can Answer Moral Questions' has been watched more than a million times. The project will address this large audience with the aim of providing accessible, philosophically informed, and soundly argued contributions to the public understanding of the ways in which science and philosophy address ethical questions. In doing so, the project will help the public appreciate the roles of science and philosophy within society.

A second group of non-academic beneficiaries are those advocating the importance of philosophy and the humanities to policymakers and the wide public. The project will highlight the difficulty of establishing normative claims on the basis of empirical evidence and will warn against the tendency to formulate all-too-quick arguments from scientific evidence to normative ethical claims. By vindicating a role for traditional, armchair ethical reflection, the research will provide arguments that can be used by a wide range of groups advocating the importance of philosophy and the humanities:

- the six 'beacon' centres set up by the British National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement to promote public engagement with higher education;
- the Committee for the Public Understanding of the Humanities of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences;
- organizations that promote the introduction of philosophy in schools, like the Philosophy Foundation in the UK, PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization) in the US, and the Federation of Australasian Philosophy in Schools Association.
- individual academics, like Angie Hobbs and Stephen Mumford, who actively promote the public understanding of philosophy and the humanities.

Finally, the historical component of the project will be of interest to professionals in the communication of science and its history, especially science journalists and curators of museums and exhibitions. The potential for public engagement of the historical component of the project is shown by the success of an exposition of early modern and rare books entitled 'Experimental Philosophy: Old and New'. The exposition was held for three months at the Central Library of the University of Otago in 2011. The opening was attended by approximately 100 people and about 600 visitors accessed the online version of the exhibition in the first two weeks.


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Sorell T (2017) Experimental philosophy and the history of philosophy in British Journal for the History of Philosophy

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Vanzo A (2018) Introduction in British Journal for the History of Philosophy

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Vanzo A (2016) Experiment and speculation in seventeenth-century Italy: The case of Geminiano Montanari. in Studies in history and philosophy of science

Description The research funded on this grant has led to five key findings concerning early modern experimental philosophy and two key findings concerning current-day experimental philosophy.

Findings concerning early modern experimental philosophy:

1. Early modern experimental philosophy originated in mid-seventeenth century England within natural philosophy. It soon spread to medicine. By the eighteenth century, it had impacted political philosophy and aesthetics and exerted a strong influence on ethics. Its important role in early modern philosophy was subsequently eclipsed by the widespread adoption of Kantian historiography, which emphasised the distinction between rationalism and empiricism and had no place for early modern experimental philosophy.

2. Early modern experimental philosophy was not an exclusively British phenomenon. A number of Italian authors, such as Domenico Guglielmini and Geminiano Montanari, were thoroughly committed to experimental philosophy in the second half of the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century, experimental natural philosophy spread to the Netherlands, France, and Germany.

3. In order to be a consistent experimental philosopher, one did not have to suspend all theoretical commitments and be engaged in a purely descriptive, fact-gathering enterprise. Natural philosophers could and, often, did endorse explanations of physical phenomena and make claims on unobserved, theoretical entities in a way that is consistent with the dictates of experimental philosophy. Most notably, experimental philosophers could consistently endorse corpuscularism and mechanism.

4. Some early modern authors posited a strong connection between experimental natural philosophy and theology. Others kept natural philosophy sharply distinct from religious concerns. Whether experimental philosophy was presented as an ally of religion or as distinct from it depended, to a significant extent, on which rhetorical and argumentative strategies were believed to be most likely to ensure freedom of research and institutional support for the work of experimental philosophers.

5. Current-day experimental philosophy has some salient family resemblances with early modern experimental philosophy and a continuity of interests with early modern philosopher-scientists. Nevertheless, early modern experimental philosophy is not a version of experimental philosophy in the current sense of the term, and there are important differences between current-day experimental philosophers and early modern philosopher-scientists.

Findings concerning current-day experimental philosophy:

6. Either experimental moral philosophy is defined so vaguely that there is no difference between experimental and empirically informed philosophy, or else its techniques and findings are not easy to recognize as belonging to philosophy rather than psychology.

7. Those experimental philosophers who believe in the strong continuity of philosophy with empirical science expose themselves to the charge of scientism, that is, they objectionably treat natural science as the preferred body of results and methods for intellectual work of every kind.
Exploitation Route The project's findings concerning early modern experimental philosophy will prompt further research on early modern science and might help establish a new framework for teaching introductory courses in early modern philosophy. The project's findings concerning current-day experimental philosophy will stimulate reflection on the significance and limits of this new trend within philosophy.
Sectors Education,Other

Description Research relating to this project has been the basis for a public debate at the Cambridge Science Festival, leading members of the general public (120 attendees) to reflect on whether morality is rooted solely in our psychology and our genes, or whether it is an authonomous domain, independent from science and evolution.
Impact Types Cultural

Description Aristotelian Society Conference Grant
Amount £365 (GBP)
Funding ID CG041613 
Organisation Aristotelian Society 
Sector Learned Society
Country Unknown
Start 10/2016 
End 10/2016
Description Aristotelian Society Conference Grant
Amount £400 (GBP)
Funding ID CG101505 
Organisation Aristotelian Society 
Sector Learned Society
Country Unknown
Start 05/2016 
End 05/2016
Description British Society for the History of Science Conference Grants
Amount £300 (GBP)
Organisation British Society for the History of Science (BSHS) 
Sector Learned Society
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2016 
End 05/2016
Description Minor Conference Grant
Amount £600 (GBP)
Organisation Mind Association 
Sector Learned Society
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2016 
End 10/2016
Description Debate (Cambridge): Darwin and the Debunking of Morality 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A public debate was organised in Cambridge in October 2016, as part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. Presentations and responses by David Enoch (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Michael Ruse (Florida State University) were followed by questions and a discussion with the audience. The debate was moderated by Adrian Currie (Cambridge). It was recorded by the PI with a view to producing a video to make available online.

The event was fully booked. It was attended by 120 people. The average rating for the event by the participants that filled in feedback form was 4.2/5 and the rating for the question 'did you learn anything new?' was 7.5/10.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.festivalofideas.cam.ac.uk/events/fully-booked-darwin-and-debunking-morality