On Expanded Empiricism and Moral Principles

I advocate a kind of expanded empiricism. I hold that we should not believe in a statement if we have neither (1) empirical evidence in support of it, (2) neither cogent reasons for believing in it, nor (3) reliable, direct introspective insight into it. Truth can stand the test of scrutiny; blind faith cannot, and therefore, it is neither justified nor true.

I apply this position to a theology and a metaphysics, a view of the ultimate and the real. This means that I apply it to religious statements as well as a criterion by which to evaluate whether they are worthy of being believed in or not. Leaps of faith are not part of my worldview. Leaps of faith often miss their mark and cause us to be smashed to pieces on the sharp rocks of actuality. This means that I apply it to ‘dogmas’ as well, or ‘religious truth claims.’ Just because authority X or scripture Z said something does not make it true. An appeal to authority is not, for me, an acceptable justification of the truth of a claim. Therefore, all dogmas must be subjected to scrutiny and inquiry.

Most forms of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are all hostile to this approach. Some forms of Hinduism are as well; others, such as jnana yoga, encourage it. Some forms of Buddhism make appeals to blind faith, but the Buddha himself said in the Kalama Sutta that it is good to doubt and to subject teachings to analysis in light of reason, empirical evidence, and direct experience. However, I will never believing something just because the Buddha or any of his Sutras said it. The same is true for anyone else, whether they are religious authorities or scientific ones. The arbiter of truth is not who speaks it but the evidence, reasons, and experience against which it measures up. It either accords with that or it does not.

Now, this viewpoint only applies to statements about how things ‘are.’ It does not apply to moral principles because they are not statements about how things ‘are,’ but about how they ‘should be.’ Therefore, ti does not apply to statements like “abortions should be legal” or “abortions should not be legal.” Statements about how things ‘should’ be are to be evaluated on other grounds, as David Hume famously pointed out (one cannot prove an ‘ought’ statement with an ‘is’ statement).

We can evaluate moral principles on consequentialist, deontological, or virtue ethical grounds. There are no easy answers in secular ethics, which is the type of ethics I promote in most contexts. For this reason, we must continue to dialogue about ethical issues and debate as we look towards better solutions that satisfy the interests and values of as many stake-holders as possible (this includes not only human beings, but nonhuman animals and ecosystems, all of which are worthy of moral consideration).


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