Hypotheses and Beliefs

    If then we are to give no faith, but only a provisional credence, to any scientific hypothesis, should we ‑ can we ‑ inflict on ourselves the austerity of no beliefs? Each of us has his own world of values, in which all tenets are in the nature of articles of a creed and cannot claim to be logically necessary consequences drawn from the public domain of observable reality. However, it should be possible to build a bridge between the two, given a single axiom of universal acceptability. The discourse of values would still be without logical foundation in the discourse of fact, but it could proceed logically thereafter, by building on that bridge. This was the method used by the Greek geometricians, and got us so far that in a later era the systematic overthrow of their axioms could be undertaken without pulling the whole structure down about our ears. What kind of axiom should we be looking for? Does nature, or the evolutionary process, or the mind of man offer us in any dimension a contrast of observable states to which we would all agree in assigning a plus or minus sign in the scale of values? On this issue I should like to return to a point of view developed during the war years (Slater and Woodside, 57).

    When we examine human behaviour we find that the individual man is faced at many moments of the day with alternative courses of conduct. He has to make a choice, and he formulates this for himself by trying to decide which of two modes of procedure is the "better." The primary datum is the contrast between "better" and "worse," and "right" and "wrong," "good" and "evil" are secondary construc­tions from this. With the idea of an absolute goodness we have now come to associate the idea of God; and from the idea of God we reach such insoluble dilemmas as, how could a perfectly good and omnipotent God make a world in which evil abounds? Such questions are seen to be meaningless when we return to the more fundamental contrast between the comparatives "better" and "worse" and see them as merely alternative directions in which one may move, as in fact a necessary dimension of any world in which there is self‑consciousness and in which development is occurring. If we can take this step, the study of ethics becomes an experimental science. We are faced with the work of finding out what things are preferred by human beings and of extracting from a multiplicity of observations general principles of universal validity.

    Seen in this perspective, human beings appear as individuals each of whom is endowed with a polarity, leading him to orientate himself in a particular way towards the environment and to turn his steps in a given direction. In the same way, the free‑swimming animalcule in a bath of water moves away from regions of exces­sive salinity, or towards a food particle. The direction chosen by human beings is away from circumstances which on the whole are disliked towards those which are felt to be preferable. As all human beings share much that is common in their mental and physical make‑up, humanity as a whole seems to be striving towards a vaguely apprehended goal. It would be the task of experimental ethics to discover, by the analysis of processes of choice, what is universally felt to be desirable.

    From this point the argument went on to consider some of the snags that would be met; for instance, what people imagine they desire may not be what their be­haviour shows they do desire. Pending the solution by exhaustive experiment, it was proposed, in the best medical tradition, that good health might have sufficient universality of appeal, and be sufficiently precisely definable, to provide an ethical yard‑stick for measuring social changes, or behaviour, etc.

    Is it possible to jump the gap from what we know to what we value by assump­tions which few would be willing to deny, such as that health is better than sickness, that a rich world would be a better place than an impoverished one, that the vigorous use of one's capacities is better than letting them rust, that diversity is better than uniformity, that it is a wise policy to keep one's options open? If it were possible to assume these values, guide‑lines for the management of community af­fairs could be drawn.

    One of our recent acquisitions of knowledge is an understanding of the unique­ness of the human individual. Though we have only begun to explore the range of genetic variability in man, we already know enough, say about protein and enzyme systems, to be able to calculate that each single individual is an extremely improba­ble event ‑ perhaps so improbable as not likely to be duplicated (except rather roughly in a monozygotic twin partner) either elsewhere on the face of the globe, or potentially for all time. A fact so fundamental should be part of the foundations of all the life sciences, and, by extension, of the social sciences. We do not begin life as a tabula rasa, a clean slate of uniform manufacture, differing from one another afterwards only by what has been written on us. We are not stamped out of one common metal, but are made of different alloys. We vary in refractoriness to all the moulding processes through which we are forced, and we take the imprinting to which we are subjected with very different degrees of fidelity.

    We know that when a species loses its genetic variability it is in danger of extinction. The genetic variability of man is certainly no less than that of most other species; but in spite of ‑ perhaps because of ‑ our immense numbers, we face a variety of threats. Should we aim at conserving this variability? Does the uniqueness, the irreplaceability of the individual lend anything to the dignity or the moral stature with which we should think him endowed? We shall never have another Mozart, not if the world goes on for another billion years. We did not treat him very well when he was with us, and he died very young. Was that a fault of the generation in which he lived? And how are we doing today?

    The story of evolution makes it plain that all living things are of one kin. Is this something that we should feel, that should be part of our Weltanschauung? Is the ruthless exploitation of, say, our cousins the mammals in any way an ethical issue? The biology of the pollutants has brought it home to us that we and all our kin are in one universal life‑cycle. We cannot poison our pests without poisoning more friendly relatives and in the end poisoning ourselves. Empty the stuff into the rivers, and a little later it will be found in the fish we trawl from Arctic fisheries. This is a brute fact. Does it carry any moral overtones?

    While we occupy the world, we are its masters. We can beautify it very little; we can conserve it only with difficulty; we can smash it, or destroy it by negligence, with ease and nonchalance. There is no logical reason why we shouldn't. We are here on a very short tenancy, and it will be later generations which will have to try to pick up the bits. Realists will agree that that will be their problem, and it is not ours. So let us casually eliminate our wild life, species by species. Let us turn our towns into confluent conurbations, and cover our countryside with motorways. Let us watch Venice sink under the sea. We shall not be here when they start to blame us.