So far I’ve talked about the shadiness of sliding from factual premises to an evaluative conclusion. But a naïve commitment to naturalism sometimes leads people who start with strong values to think that based on these values, they can determine what the facts are. This may sound crazy to you: after all, how could we learn about the natural features of the universe without investigating them empirically? And yes, it is indeed crazy. Yet it happens. Don’t let it happen to you!
Consider the following argument: Obviously, people of all races are all morally equal and deserve equal treatment. Therefore, we know that no race is more intelligent than any other. I suspect that the conclusion of this argument is true, that the human races are on par in native intelligence. But the reasons why I think this are scientific, and have nothing to do with values like egalitarianism! Unfortunately, there are many smart people, including some of your professors, who think the ethical premise is enough to settle once and for all the factual conclusion. When you meet such people, ask them this: “Suppose scientists discovered definitively that East Asians really are on average smarter than other people. Would you then stop thinking that all races are morally equal and deserve equal treatment?” I hope they would immediately say that this wouldn’t change anything about all people deserving equal treatment. That is just a fundamental value, and we should remain committed to that value whatever facts we may discover. To think that scientific results could bind our hands ethically so much that we are forced to question this fundamental value is an especially silly manifestation of naturalism. It’s just messed up to think that our deserving equal treatment depends on our first having equal intelligence or equal capacity. We deserve equal treatment no matter what our capacities are! If everyone would grasp this simple point, there would be no need to fear and stigmatize research on variations in human intelligence, or human culture, human criminality, etc. Even before we know the empirical results, we know that our values will not be affected, because those values are not contingent on the facts that scientists discover. Nonetheless, there are people would instead prefer to entirely prevent this kind of research for what they take to be moral reasons. What could these moral reasons be? What moral principles could natural science place into danger?
Let’s take the case of rape. For each of us, many conceptions in our family happened because our forefathers raped our foremothers. Mass rape is a part of almost every major war that history has recorded. Male chimpanzees assemble rape gangs and assault nearby troops. The human vagina has even been led by evolution to lubricate during rape, despite there being absolutely no sexual arousal. This mechanism prevents further physical damage. Rape is simply a part of what made us who we are.
Still, even if all this is true, can we have any doubt that rape and all non-consensual sexual activity is absolutely wrong and that we should have zero tolerance towards it? What does it matter that rape is “natural”? After reading this far, the rebuttal should feel like old hat: Rapists deserve our deepest condemnation and vengeance. So what if many humans have raped throughout history? How could that possibly be an excuse? Rape is wrong, no matter what its history happens to be! You would think that this point would be so clear that when well-intentioned anthropologists published a book-length study called “The Natural History of Rape”, academics would immediately see that it posed no ethical threat. But sadly, that’s wishful thinking. The authors were instead subjected to an intense witch-hunt by people (almost exclusively on the political left) who were confused enough to think that scientific research into factual questions might pollute us morally. But how could it? Did these people actually think that the wrongness of rape depended on rape being rare and recent? Of course not. My guess is that they were perfectly capable of seeing that rape was wrong no matter how “natural” its history was. They simply worried that “ordinary” people were so philosophically dull that they would equate the naturalness and historical commonness of rape with its moral permissibility. To prevent this odious outcome, these academics thought it wiser to suppress science, rather than work to modestly improve the public’s philosophical sophistication. I think we should prefer the more honest option. This requires us to uproot every last remnant of Natural Law Theory. I hope you now see how this is to be done.
By the nature of the fact-value distinction, it simply can’t happen that the discovery of facts could undermine values, because our most fundamental values are simply not grounded in or dependent on natural facts.
Many of us want to believe that colonizers were violent people, while their victims were idyllic and peaceful. But if it turns out that the indigenous people who were colonized were actually more violent – more likely to kill each other than were their contemporaries in Europe – this in no way excuses colonialism or reduces the wrongness of the violence perpetrated by the Europeans. What makes European colonization wrong is not that “nice people were replaced by mean people”, but simply that the Europeans had no right to invade and forcefully settle the territories that were already inhabited.
In summary, there is no need to lie to ourselves about natural facts, or to suppress them and hide from them, simply because we’re serious about our ethical commitments. For deep, logical reasons, natural facts can simply never show an ethical commitment to be mistaken. Any such attempt could be adequately rebuffed with a “So what?”.