Questioning the Quantified Life   /   Summer 2020   /    Questioning the Quantified Life

The Calculus of Ought

Quantification is more than merely a means of communication and persuasion in a fragmented culture.

James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky

Detail from an illustration by Julia Geiser, used by permission.

There was a time not long ago when most educated people believed that science would one day explain everything—not only the workings of the physical world but also the secrets to the good life. Such confidence perhaps peaked in the early nineteenth century, when Jeremy Bentham proposed utilitarianism as a way of making happiness quantifiable and the positivist Auguste Comte sought a social physics to apply immutable scientific laws to all aspects of human life. But by the early twentieth century, that boundless faith in science had been badly shaken. Within the academy, philosopher G.E. Moore was widely thought to have refuted empirical approaches to ethics. Within the Temple of Science, the pace of new discoveries forced researchers to acknowledge how tentative and contingent their findings were. And ever newer sciences such as quantum physics made people wonder whether there was anything regular or predictable (or even ultimately material) about even the physical world. As for relying on science and the calculus of the greater good to tell us how to live our lives—particularly after the serial horrors of two world wars—that notion increasingly met with skepticism, if not outright derision. Today, most thoughtful people dismiss the old scientism as crudely reductive, and certainly irrelevant as a source of moral and ethical guidance. Except….

Except, as it turns out, when it comes to a new kind of moral science that dare not speak its name. Growing out of an assortment of social and psychological sciences, with a fair amount of neuroscience thrown in, this new “science of human flourishing” purports only to identify and quantify the ingredients of human thriving and well-being, but, in doing so, implicitly (and often inadvertently) ends up sneaking moral prescription through the backdoor. Today, to cite a major example, an entire school of academic psychology—positive psychology—and a broad swath of behavioral economics are given over to the science of well-being, a doctrine that researchers elaborate and promote in such prestigious academic centers as the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Boston College, the University of Southern California, and Columbia. In these institutions and elsewhere, hundreds of quantitatively oriented professors and postdoctoral students toil in the vineyards of highly dubious psychological research, much of which draws its data solely from college students’ self-reported accounts of happiness. These departments, laboratories, and programs connect via such pan-university networks as the Moral Psychology Research Group, the Moral Research Lab, and Those networks, in turn, receive generous financial support from a host of deep-pocketed foundations.

To be sure, few serious scholars involved in these enterprises would defend the idea that their rather modest descriptive science can be justifiably linked to moral and ethical prescription. But in popularizing this work, researchers and science writers consistently tend to overreach, making the findings sound more robust than the evidence warrants, and thereby leading the general public and policymakers to draw sweepingly unfounded inferences.

Take, for example, a special edition of Time magazine published this past December, “The Science of Success.” Here, in some 100 pages, successive articles tout the importance of grit, attitude, the right sort of relationships, and the determinative influence of brain chemistry. The magazine wraps things up with a glossy tableau and inscription: “Continued research shows how the right measures of grit, optimism, experience, and a dash of self-made luck can add up to success in all walks of life.”11xEditors, “The Science of Success,” special issue, Time, December 20, 2019, 5.

The Morality Menu

Obscuring the line of distinction between “Is” and “Ought”—between description and prescription—such inflated claims leave the impression that practical moral implications can be deduced from empirical findings and that a special moral authority derives from scientific expertise. This nifty trompe l’oeil is widely deployed, nowhere more deftly than among the brighter lights of the new moral science.

Some—such as the philosophers Owen Flanagan and Philip Kitcher—simply ignore the question of what goals are worth pursuing, asserting merely that science can show us how to achieve our goals.22xOwen Flanagan, The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 121, 124; Philip Kitcher, The Ethical Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 262, 315. For commentary, see our Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality (New Yaven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), chs. 4 and 7. Others—such as the psychologist Joshua Greene—argue against the legitimacy of rights and duties, advocating a morality based only on calculations of maximal positive outcome.33xJoshua Greene, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them (New York, NY: Penguin, 2013). For instance, Greene notes that neuroimaging divides moral thought into two kinds—visceral, emotional, intuitive judgments regarding apparent rights and duties and cerebral, disinterested, calculative judgments regarding the value of outcomes. He then argues that speculative evolutionary psychology shows that our intuitive judgments flow from cognitive faculties shaped by humankind’s early hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Our felt duties to kith and kin are residues of Neolithic times, when tribes with a bias toward caring for their members prevailed over less exclusively inward-oriented tribes. Today, Greene argues, respecting these duties to prefer family and friends gives rise to varieties of tribalism that make peace—both within and among nations—unlikely, if not impossible. Better, therefore, to reject these impulses and turn moral reasoning over entirely to calculations aimed at maximizing subjective happiness. In short, Greene deploys an evolutionary neuropsychological argument to resurrect the ethical calculus of utilitarianism.

Yet other contributors to the new moral science—including “neurophilosopher” Patricia Churchland—redefine moral language, purging it of all actual moral content and instead making it about social norms that have arisen from our neurochemistry due to evolutionary pressures.44xPatricia S. Churchland, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011). See also our Science and the Good, 144–48. In her 2011 book Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality, she asserts that morality is not importantly different from mere sociality, but rather falls within the social spectrum. What distinguishes the moral part of sociality from the rest is just how seriously we take it. And what we take seriously is accounted for in our care for self and others, which arises from the way natural selection has shaped our neural circuitry. As Churchland puts it, “Why do we, and other social mammals, care for others? This much we know: On average, such behavior must, either directly or indirectly, serve the fitness of the animals involved.”55xChurchland, Braintrust, 13. For Churchland, “value” is collapsed into what we see as socially important, as directed by neural circuitry aimed at producing organisms fit for survival. And “relative to these values, some solutions to social problems are better than others…relative to these values, practical policy decisions can be negotiated.”66xIbid., 8–9. The realm of morality—the rights of individuals, our duties toward others, the good of society—becomes whatever best comports with our impulses toward species survival.

However varied the approaches within this new science, a common template emerges: The Good is reimagined in subjectivist, empirical terms as whatever we happen to want, on either an individual or social level; ethics is about how to get these things we want; and since everything is now a matter of utility and pragmatic problem-solving, science can play the lead role. By translating questions of value (which can’t be measured) into the quantities of utility (which can be measured), these magicians of the new moral science create the illusion of deriving “Ought” from “Is.”

The emergence of the science of well-being is not just historically unusual. It is philosophically perverse. Attempting to derive “Ought” from non-“Ought” reveals, at best, a tacit commitment to ethical nihilism, and at worst, total incomprehension of the subject matter. Given the gravity of this mistake, how then do we account for its current appeal?

Quantification as Lingua Franca

There are at least two explanations for this acceptance of moral science: one arising from what might be called the logic of pluralism, the other from something like class interest. Both of these make intuitive sense once they are set against the background of late modern societies and the social and cultural dynamics by which they work.

The late modern world is a highly technocratic world, run, in large measure, by a managerial, professional, and technocratic elite. Its culture is secular, its frameworks of knowledge are rationalist, its ethics are largely utilitarian—and all of these elements are guided by a telos of problem solving. At the same time, the institutional spheres that define modern life—business, finance, medicine, education, philanthropy, the military, and technology—are each highly diverse and highly specialized. And this institutional differentiation operates in a fragmented and polarized political culture incapable of finding any agreement on the ends to which policy and the resources of these institutions might be deployed.

In the absence of an encompassing universe of meaning, numbers and regression equations become something of a shared idiom in which people from different backgrounds and with different interests can communicate. Take a (not so imaginary) debate in education policy: Suppose one side argues that what’s most important is that everyone commit to public education because it fosters greater social unity and equality, while the other thinks that what’s most important is access to school choice, because that fosters greater freedom of education for individual families. Equality versus individual freedom is not a debate we’re likely to resolve. However, we may be able to agree that this or that policy is more cost efficient or has measurably better specific educational outcomes. In the absence of any way to break the gridlock over basic values, a pragmatic appeal to quantitative factors may be the only way to move forward. For these reasons, quantification becomes something of the lingua franca of public life.

But quantification becomes more than merely a means of communication and persuasion in a fragmented culture. For if quantification is the lingua franca of public life, then what does it mean for those most proficient in the tongue? Writing in the 1970s, the sociologist Alvin W. Gouldner noted that having this sort of proficiency functions much like having capital in the traditional sense.77xAlvin Ward Goulder, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class (New York, NY: Seabury Press, 1979). Having control of the means of production conduces to the power and advantage of those with capital. Similarly, this “cultural” capital of technical managers is “a produced object whose…latent function is to increase the incomes and social control of those possessing it.”88xIbid., 22. Further, “because of its technical knowledge of the forces of production and means of administration,” this new group “already has considerable de facto control over the mode of production and hence considerable leverage with which to pursue its interests.” Ibid., 12. In taking human well-being to be yet another domain in need of quantitative analysis, the technocratic elite arrogates to itself “not only administrative decisional competence but, finally, even the role of judges and regulators of the normative structures of contemporary societies.”99xDutch sociologist Cornelis Disco in a letter to Gouldner. See Gouldner, The Future of Intellectuals, 14–15.

Masters of Human Flourishing

Like those challenges faced in finance or technology, well-being, too, is presented as a problem in need of a technical solution. Technical experts become the masters of human flourishing. Here, perhaps, lies the deeper significance of the science of well-being: In placing human flourishing in the quantitative realm, it provides moral legitimation for technocracy. For to whom shall we go, if they have the words of life?

But this is not a story of unalloyed triumph. The upper-middle class of managers, professionals, and technocrats lives and breathes and has its daily being in this technocratic and instrumentalist ethos. For those who learn how to live and work within it, the payoff is relatively great financial reward, prestige, and influence. The cost of that success in this culture is also considerable. The everyday suffering of this social class is characterized by an unrelieved sense of loss. Sadder yet, the anxieties of this class—the fears of failing and falling—are visited upon their children, who, from their earliest age, are made to understand that having a good life means getting into the right school, getting the right grades, getting the right letters of recommendation, and proceeding ever onward and upward into the best universities, the best graduate schools, the best jobs. No wonder Yale University has instituted what it calls, presumably with a straight face, “The Good Life Center,” the mission of which is “to spread good vibes and provide a refuge from the daily grind…outside the stress of academia, and inside the other exhilarating parts of humanhood.” The Good Life Center cultivates wellness by “putting into practice scientific insights about happiness, providing free well-being programming, including physical and mental health education, [and] teaching and coaching healthy habits, coping mechanisms, resilience training, mindfulness-based stress reduction, and cognitive behavioral therapy.”1010x “Mission,” Good Life Center (Yale University), accessed March 26, 2020, As this and so many other well-being programs suggest, the aridity of an instrumentalist and technocratic culture simply cannot sustain life-giving meaning and purpose. So into the void the scientific “ethics” of well-being comes rushing.

In the end, while the quantitative turn appeals to a slender commonality, it fails to address our deepest and most important differences. It merely provides us with a way to ignore them by reorienting attention to more trivial matters on which we come to a bland sort of consensus.

As a source of cultural solidarity, this consensus is weak indeed. For those who have put their hopes in quantification as something like a way of life, the situation is bleaker still. Technical skill in solving quantitative problems does confer financial rewards and prestige. But success defined merely in terms of solving so-called problems, which themselves have little ultimate significance, is a hollow victory. It is an ethos dedicated in every case to finding the means, while telling us little about ultimate ends. As such, it is no kind of theodicy for making sense of life’s strivings.