Q: Ethics … is that a science?

A: That depends on what you mean with ‘science’. If you mean ‘a field of knowledge’, then yes: ethics is a field of knowledge—arguably one of the oldest. But if you mean ‘a natural science’, then no: ethics is not a natural science. For a more elaborate answer, let me discuss three major branches on the tree of knowledge.


There are the natural sciences (‘beta’ in Dutch), which study the natural world, such as physics, chemistry, biology, life sciences and earth sciences—and often mathematics, informatics and engineering are included, as fields of knowledge to model the world and intervene in it. Furthermore, there are the social sciences (‘gamma’ in Dutch), which study people and social phenomena, such as psychology, sociology and economics, and business and management studies.

Moreover, there are the humanities (‘alpha’ in Dutch), which study the products of people and cultures, such as history, literature, media studies and philosophy. Finally, we can break down philosophy into several branches, one of which is ethics: the area of knowledge that aims to support people in articulating and dealing with questions like ‘what is the right thing to do?’

Maybe you know all this already. You know there are different fields of knowledge, each with its specific methods and ways of working. Maybe your question—whether ethics is a science—implied another question:

If ethics is a ‘science’, then why is it so different from what I am used to, in physics, in computer science, in engineering? I am used to measuring stuff that can be measured, drawing models with blocks and arrows, making calculations, building experiments and trying-out whether things work—whether they work as predicted and practically.

So, how does ethics ‘work’?

That will be the topic of next week’s post.


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