This is the third in a series of posts on philosophy. It would be immoral to read it without having read my first and second posts. –John Horgan

It must irk philosophers that any idiot thinks he can do what they do. Take Stephen Jay Gould. He wasn’t an idiot, but he wasn’t a philosopher, either. He was an evolutionary biologist who often pontificated on philosophical conundrums, like whether science and religion are compatible.

Gould didn’t denounce religion as superstitious claptrap that we'd be better off without, as his fellow biologist (and bitter rival) Richard Dawkins did (and does). Gould suggested that science and religion can peacefully co-exist, because they occupy different realms, or “magisteria.” Science addresses what is, religion what ought to be. Gould called his scheme “non-overlapping magisteria,” or NOMA.

NOMA never caught on, because each side thought it conceded too much to the enemy. Atheists won’t let religion dictate values, theists don't want science to monopolize facts. But perhaps NOMA can answer the question of what philosophy should do in a scientific age. Philosophers should leave facts to scientists and focus on ethics.

After all, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Socrates and other founding fathers aimed primarily at moral self-improvement. Enlightenment figures such as Locke, Voltaire and Kant sought to wrest morality away from religion and tradition once and for all. Morality, they contended, should be based on reason rather than whims of Popes and kings.

These arguments, which inspired the American and French revolutions, represent one of humanity’s greatest achievements, right? Wrong, according to members of my philosophy salon. As we were mulling over David Chalmers’s paper “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?”, I felt sorry for my philosophical pals.

Hoping to cheer them up, I proposed that Enlightenment philosophers should get credit for humanity’s moral progress. What moral progress? "Nigel" retorted. Um, I replied, the end of monarchy and slavery? The rise of democracy and rights for women and other oppressed groups?

Another philosopher said glumly that philosophy doesn’t deserve credit for these social transformations, because it never really alters peoples’ behavior. I mentioned a friend who stopped eating meat after reading Peter Singer’s 1975 manifesto Animal Liberation. My comment was met with shrugs. Philosophers were rejecting their own powers of persuasion! [Postscript.]

They were also evincing the self-doubt that riddles moral philosophy. Philosophers resemble Sisyphus with a twist: they roll the stone to the mountaintop and shove it down again. Thus, after Kant, Bentham and others painstakingly constructed their ethical edifices, Nietzsche blew them up.

Nietzsche disdained Kantian ethics, which emphasizes our moral intentions, and utilitarianism, which focuses on our actions’ consequences, as much as he disdained Christianity. He urged us to go “beyond good and evil.”

As indicated by his famous spat with Karl Popper (mentioned earlier in this series), Wittgenstein held that moral propositions, when scrutinized, crumble into incoherence. Others have continued in this skeptical vein. Last year, my salon mulled over “Morality, the Peculiar Institution,” a chapter in the 1985 book Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy by Bernard Williams.

Williams admires Kant but rejects his ethics, just as he dismisses utilitarian, Marxist and Darwinian accounts of morality. Williams concludes that “we would be better off without” morality. Not that we should behave like sociopaths, but we should abandon the quest for a universal moral system, because any such system fails to do justice to the boundless complexity and contingency of life.

Ironically, Williams’s chapter is suffused with a humane, ethical sensibility. John Gray, in contrast, expresses his doubts about ethical systems with gleeful mean-spiritedness. In books such as Straw Dogs and Black Mass, Gray derides our belief in moral progress as narcissistic and delusional.

Just as diet “experts” keep churning out new diet books although diets invariably fail, so philosophers keep batting around ethical propositions in spite of their doubts. But some of their efforts approach self-parody.

Last fall, I attended “Ethics of Artificial Intelligence,” at which speakers considered whether we must grant rights to sentient sex robots; whether super-smart robots will be nice to us; and whether we should let a trolley kill a dumb human rather than a smart robot. (If the human was a trolleyologist, I'd save the robot.) Everyone was having fun until Thomas Nagel, that killjoy, reminded us that millennia of philosophizing have yielded no consensus on ethical questions. [See Post-postscript.]

A few brave souls insist that “moral truth” is not an oxymoron, and moral philosophy still matters. Peter Singer, mentioned above, presents arguments for altruism—more specifically, for giving money to the poor instead of spending on stuff you don’t need--that I find disturbingly persuasive. [See Post-post-postscript.]

Derek Parfit, who died earlier this month, strove to prove the existence of objectively true moral laws. In a 2011 profile for The New Yorker, Larissa MacFarquhar writes: “Parfit believes that there are true answers to moral questions, just as there are to mathematical ones.” But Parfit is admired less for being right than for being “brilliantly clever and imaginative” (as Bernard Williams put it in a review of Parfit’s 1984 book Reasons and Persons).

In short, Gould’s non-overlapping-magisteria concept won’t work for philosophy, because too many philosophers would reject it—as would some scientists, or rather, scientism-ists. [See Post-post-post-postscript.] Philosophy’s efforts to deduce the Good have yielded what Chalmers calls “negative progress,” or ever-more-sophisticated disagreement. [See Post-post-post-post-postscript.]

And so we circle back to the question: If philosophy can’t tell us what is or ought to be, what good is it? In my next post, I’ll explore whether philosophy can serve as a form of art. If it can’t reveal the True or the Good, maybe it has a shot at the Beautiful. [See Post-post-post-post-post-postscript.]

Postscript: Socrates (and Buddha for that matter) assumed that deep reflection will make you more virtuous and happy, but modern philosophers doubt that precept. Owen Flanagan, who focuses on mind and morality, shook his head when I asked whether philosophers are more moral and content than others. “Absolutely not,” he said. Philosophers “are more ill-formed than your average person.” Other philosophers have given me similar responses, and they don’t seem to be indulging in false modesty.

Post-postscript. The devotion of smart people to silly problems frustrates me. If I were King of the Philosophers, I would command them to focus on just-war theory. When, if ever, can a state resort to deadly military violence? When is killing civilians justified? Given that the United States has killed tens of thousands of civilians—including many children--in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere over the last 15 years, these questions are woefully neglected by philosophers.

Post-post-postscript: In “The Singer Solution to World Poverty,” Peter Singer uses a variation of the trolley problem to guilt New York Times readers into donating more to the poor. He asks us to imagine a man, Bob, watching a train bearing down on a child. Bob can pull a switch that diverts the train onto another track, but then the train will destroy Bob’s Bugatti sports car. Any sane person, Singer writes, knows that it would be "gravely wrong" for Bob not to pull the switch and save the child. It is equally wrong, he asserts, for us to spend on stuff we don’t really need rather than donating to groups that can save the lives of poor children. I was relieved when the Times published a letter that pointed out a kink in Singer’s reasoning. According to a strict utilitarian analysis, Bob should let the train kill the child, because he could then sell the Bugatti and donate the proceeds to a charity that would save lots of children.

Post-post-post-postscript: In The Moral Landscape, neuroscientist and militant atheist Sam Harris argues that we don’t need either religion or philosophy to tell us how to behave, because science can do the job; we can determine what's good and bad for us with brain scans and other tools. "There are right and wrong answers to moral questions," Harris asserts, "just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics." Harris’s book was lavishly praised by his fellow scientism-ists, Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins, but I found its thesis empirically and ethically flawed. See my critiques here and here.

Post-post-post-post-postscript: Philosopher/novelist Rebecca Goldstein, author, most recently, of Plato at the Googleplex, has bucked the trend toward complexifying ethics. “This might sound crazy, and I might take it back, but I don’t think morality is actually that complicated,” Goldstein said when I interviewed her last year. “Our moral emotions, of outrage, and indignation, that’s there in two year old kids. ‘It’s not fair, my sister got more than I did!’ You know, it’s impossible to be a human and not make these claims at least on behalf of one’s self.” Morality, Goldstein proposed, consists simply in recognizing that others deserve to be treated fairly, too. “If you’re going to make these demands, you have to universalize it to everybody. Voila! There’s morality.” Ironically, the characters in her novels, notably The Mind-Body Problem, agonize over moral decisions. Goldstein is speaking at Stevens Institute of Technology on April 27, and I can’t wait.

Post-post-post-post-post-postscript: Moral philosophers who don’t mind affectionate joshing should check out NBC’s “The Good Place,” a smart, witty sit-com about the afterlife. Its two main characters are Eleanor, who is ethically challenged, and Chidi, a professor of moral philosophy, who tries to help Eleanor become a better person. The running joke is that Chidi, while he can instruct Eleanor on Plato, Aristotle and Kant, stinks at solving real-world ethical quandaries. His insistence that people adhere to rigid ethical rules leads a friend to say, “This is why everybody hates moral philosophy professors.”

Further Philosophical Reading:

What Is Philosophy's Point?, Part 1 (Hint: It's Not Discovering Truth)

What is Philosophy's Point?, Part 2. Maybe It's a Martial Art

What Is Philosophy's Point?, Part 4. Maybe It's Poetry with No Rhyme and Lots of Reason

What Is Philosophy’s Point?, Part 5. A Call for “Negative Philosophy"

The Rise of Neo-Geocentrism

The Mind–Body Problem, Scientific Regress and "Woo"

Dispatch from the Desert of Consciousness Research, Part 1

My Modest Proposal for Solving the “Meaning of Life Problem”—and Reducing Global Conflict.

Is Scientific Materialism "Almost Certainly False"?

Why I Don't Dig Buddhism

Should the Humanities Embrace Scientism?

Can Faith and Science Coexist?

Was Philosopher Paul Feyerabend Really Science's "Worst Enemy"?

What Thomas Kuhn Really Thought about Scientific "Truth"

Is Lawrence Krauss a Physicist, or Just a Bad Philosopher?

Will This Post Make Sam Harris Change His Mind About Free Will?