Ethical Disagreement - Can Science Ever Resolve a Moral Disagreement?

Charles L. Stevenson’s “The Nature of Ethical Disagreement” 

Today we’re discussing an influential reply to a challenge to morality. The challenge is that moral disagreements are unresolvable by scientific means. Disputes in science can be settled through data confirming or disconfirming hypotheses. Yet, moral disputes cannot be resolved through scientific methods.
But, what if science can help resolve ethical disagreements? Is that possible? Wrestling with is challenge will help you better strategize how to resolve ethical disagreements in your life. Welcome to The Philosophical Life!
Watch a video version of this post below. Or, skip over the video to read the post.

Two Kinds of Disagreement 

Stevenson identifies two types of disagreement. The first kind is disagreement in belief. Let’s illustrate this form of disagreement by way of a current example.
Right now in the United States we’re still actively trying to flatten the curve of the spread of the virus through sheltering in place and social distancing. The economy is still largely shutdown minus essential services. A debate is raging over how to open back up the economy. Public Health advocates are urging us not to simply turn back on the economy full tilt. Others view keeping the economy in skeletal form as causing a far worse disaster in human harms from lost wages, deepening recession, and mental health and substance abuse issues that become more prevalent during social isolation and lack of employment.
Let’s imagine Ann believes we should fully open back up the economy, and Asher believes we should not. They have a disagreement in belief because they believe incompatible things that can’t be true at the same time. If they’re not content to let each other’s beliefs go unchallenged, then Stevenson thinks scientific methods are the only proper way to resolve the conflict. 
Ann would likely cite financial stats and the impact of previous recessions on the economy and human well-being. Asher would likely cite stats about the curve of spread of the virus, including how other countries have gone through the virus’s progression. Perhaps with enough stats and discussion Ann or Asher might be won over to the other side.
The second sort of disagreement is a disagreement in attitude. This is where I am for something, and you are against it. I might be for capital punishment, and you are against it. Our disagreement in attitude may or may not be based in disagreement in belief. We might both be in total agreement over the facts. We might agree how much pain and suffering the execution causes the condemned. We might agree over the stats about deterrence of crime where capital punishment is practiced. Yet, we might maintain opposing attitudes toward the morality of capital punishment.
As Stevenson concludes,
"The difference between the two senses of ‘disagreement’ is essentially this: the first involves an opposition of beliefs, both of which cannot be true, and the second involves an opposition of attitudes, both of which cannot be satisfied.”

Predominance of Disagreements in Attitude in Ethical Conflict

When we think about moral disagreements we often think of them as disagreements in attitudes. Yet they often involve disagreement in belief and in attitude. Here’s an example Stevenson gives first showing the disagreement in attitude:
“Suppose that the representative of a union urges that the wage level in a given company ought to be higher—that it is only right that the workers receive more pay. The company representative urges in reply that the workers ought to receive no more than they get. Such an argument clearly represents a disagreement in attitude. The union is for higher wages; the company is against them, and neither is content to let the other’s attitude remain unchanged.”
Next Stevenson shows a disagreement in belief: 
“Perhaps the parties disagree about how much the cost of living has risen and how much the workers are suffering under the present wage scale. Or perhaps they disagree about the company’s earnings and the extent to which the company could raise wages and still operate at a profit. Like any typical ethical argument, then, this argument involves both disagreement in attitude and disagreement in belief.”
Disagreement in attitude plays a leading role in the argument in two ways. It determines what beliefs count as relevant in deciding the argument. As he says:
“Suppose that the company affirms that the wage scale of fifty years ago was far lower than it is now. The union will immediately urge that this contention, even though true, is irrelevant. And it is irrelevant simply because information about the wage level of fifty years ago, maintained under totally different circumstances, is not likely to affect the present attitudes of either party. To be relevant, any belief that is introduced into the argument must be one that is likely to lead one side or the other to have a different attitude, and so reconcile disagreement in attitude.”
Why is this the case? Attitudes often arise out of beliefs. And when we come to believe new things we often change whether we’re for or against that thing. Beliefs likely to change attitudes will be considered as relevant by both parties to the ethical dispute. Considerations of cost of living or the financial health of the company might be relevant beliefs admissible in the current debate over the wages of the union workers. And agreement in belief about changes to the cost of living or financial health of the company make lead to agreement in attitude about whether the pay scale for workers needs to be raised.
Secondly, disagreement in attitudes a hallmark of ethical disagreements because, even if some disagreement in belief persists, moral disagreements often are counted as resolved when there is agreement in attitude by both parties. Yet, even if there is total agreement in belief the moral dispute may still persist at the level of disagreement over attitudes. At that point, other means of resolving the dispute must be entertained.
In summary, persistence or resolution determines whether the conflict has been settled. Ethical disputes can persist despite agreement over facts, and agreement in attitude usually terminates ethical dispute.

Science and Resolving Ethical Disagreements

Remember that the challenge is that ethical disputes are not resolvable by scientific means. Yet, Stevenson responds in two ways. First, scientific methods can resolve disagreement about facts. Second, science can only resolve disagreement in attitude indirectly.
Stevenson makes an interesting insight about an assumption: "Agreement in attitude will always be consequent upon complete agreement in belief, and science can always bring about the latter.” Such an assumption is useful because it forces people to rationally resolve their differences in attitudes toward a moral issue. Science can help with such an endeavor. Thus, even if science cannot always resolve ethical disputes, it’s a valuable heuristic or shortcut to resolving disputes to think that science can always settle moral disagreements.
Yet, for Stevenson, science cannot always settle moral disputes. Expanding our scientific knowledge doesn’t always settle moral disagreements. Think about how medical imaging and clearer knowledge of the development of human fetuses in utero did not resolve disagreements in values concerning abortion. 
Let me leave you with some questions for reflection. Please leave your initial responses to the questions in the comments section below.
  1. When you see ethical disputes about conronavrius are they predominately disagreements in belief or disagreements in attitude?
  2. Can science ever help resolve a moral disagreement concerning coronavirus?


Charles L. Stevenson, "The Nature of Ethical Disagreement," Chapter 10 in Exploring Ethics (5th ed.), Steven M. Cahn (editor).

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