Monday, September 22, 2008

Minimization of suffering : a principle for every science

Stanislav Kovac published in the journal Evolution and Cognition (2000, vol. 6, pp. 51-69) an article on the Fundamental principles of cognitive biology, among which figures the minimization of suffering principle.

Kovac quotes Linus Pauling's "Scientists in Politics", a 1970 text that is reminiscent of Karl Popper’s negative utilitarianism:

"(…) I want to be free of suffering to the greatest extent possible. I want to live a happy and useful life, a satisfying life. I want other people to help me to be happy, to help to keep my suffering to a minimum. It is accordingly my duty to help them to be happy, to strive to prevent suffering to other people. By this argument I am led to a fundamental ethical principle: the decisions among alternative courses of action should be made in such ways as to minimise the predicted amounts of human suffering. (...) Suffering and happiness are, of course, closely related. I might take as the basic ethical principle that decisions should be made in such a way as to maximise human happiness, human welfare. I feel, however, that there is so much suffering in the world, much of it unnecessary and avoidable, that it is better to place the emphasis on minimising suffering. (...) I have contended that the principle of the minimisation of human suffering is a scientific principle, with a logical, scientific basis. (…) I feel that, although we have theoretical freedom allowing various ethical systems to be formulated, the choice of a reasonable and practical ethical system is highly restricted by our knowledge about the nature of the physical and biological world, and that the only acceptable ethical systems are those that are essentially equivalent to that based upon the principle of the minimisation of human suffering."

Kovac stresses that the minimization of suffering principle in cognitive biology is descriptive rather than prescriptive:

The "search for truth" has been often presented as an internal norm of science. It is not: science with lies is simply no science. In the same vein, the principle of minimisation of suffering gives science and additional dimension. Not as a norm: the more "genuine" science is, the closer it is to this extremum principle. While Pauling's reasoning ended with a normative proposal of a basis for an ethical system, this statement is purely descriptive. The origin of science, and its subsequent evolution as an institution, have been inherently linked with the reduction of human worries: pain, distress, labour, misery, anxiety.
Science has become the main instrument in human efforts to minimise pain and to maximise pleasure. Cognitive biology just explains why it is so. This is not to say that a research in which suffering, unintended or intended, is incurred, is no science. It is a science with a large proportion of ignorance. As life on earth, as life in the universe, science itself progresses forward in a maze: there is a major evolutionary tendency, but they are also many false paths and deadlocks. The success is not prescribed.

Thanks to Stanislav Kovac for showing so basically how algonomy belongs within every discipline epistemological and axiological principles.


Blogger Alan Dawrst said...

It is, of course, unfortunate that Kovac includes the word "human" in his "principle of the minimisation of human suffering." Suffering is suffering, and whether the collection of atoms experiencing in it can breed successfully with a member of the species Homo sapiens ought to be irrelevant.

Thanks for the article quotations.

2:30 PM  

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