Since this week’s topic appears to be accommodationism, I need to address one of the most common claims of accommodationists and theists: Science is great at describing objective reality, such as comets and DNA, but it can’t address philosophical or metaphysical questions of meaning, especially morality. The idea is that religion contributes to the collective discussion on morality, while science sits by, incapable of comment.
To put my response in a nutshell… horse hockey!
In the first place, I’ve addressed religion’s inability to contribute to the collective moral compass. Even though that article was specifically directed towards Christianity, the concept can be expanded to any religion which claims any “revealed” moral convention. As we all know (but some of us are reluctant to admit) religions without a claim of moral revelation are about as rare as hen’s teeth.
In the second place, the argument that morality is beyond science is ignorant in a quaint, first year philosophy student kind of way. Pardon me for being harsh, but quoting enlightenment philosophers is great for impressing geek girls, but it doesn’t contribute much to a discussion of morality. The bulk of our knowledge of the evolutionary foundations of morality, our understanding of the neurology of morality, and the investigative tools necessary to evaluate morality objectively all date to the mid to late 20th century. We might as well talk about evolution using only texts from before Darwin.
In a broad sense, morality is the box that holds all actions by social animals which affect the social environment. In a specific sense, human morality is the evaluation of actions which change the environment for other humans (or potentially, other living beings). We’ve been talking about human morality in this sense for a long time, but the realization that morality is an evolutionary adaptation, and that it has specific genetic underpinnings, is recent news. We now know that just about every social animal has “moral mandates” which are enforced by the group. We now have the tools to run incredibly complex simulations with enormous populations to demonstrate the macro-effects of sets of moral algorithms.
I’m getting ahead of myself…
Obsolete Conceptions of Morality
The argument that science cannot address morality is based on one of several misconceptions about the nature of morality. In religious context, “good” and “evil” are qualities like “green” or “loud.” Indeed, mythology and oral history are full of references to objects or locations that are good or evil. Satan is seen as the embodiment of evil in the same way that god is the embodiment of good.
Scientists are happy to admit that empirical testing cannot address questions involving the objective qualities of good and evil. But this isn’t an indictment of science. It’s a refutation of the invalid categorization of the concepts. To put it bluntly, it’s a polite way of calling bullshit on the religious claims that good and evil exist as metaphysical or supernatural “things.”
Another misconception is the belief that morality is completely subjective, and therefore falls into the same category as taste in music or art. Science can address the neurology behind pleasure receptors and dopamine and such, but it can’t explain why I like Led Zepplin. In the same way, it can’t decipher the arbitrary whims that lead to cultural moral standards.
As I mentioned previously, this is just scientific ignorance. We have discovered that morality is driven by several hardwired instincts. In its most simple form, we can say that morality is the expression of our drive to create fairness. (It’s more complicated than that, but that’s another post.) The famous Trolley Problem and other such tests have demonstrated that we have an innate template for determining the value of human life. (Spoiler: It’s not priceless. The Hallmark Channel Movie of the Week is wrong.)
As a final fall-back position, some people will assert that even with our knowledge of the origins and genetic underpinnings of morality, it is still ultimately ineffable. It is simply impossible, they claim, to predict individual morality with any degree of accuracy. There is still a degree of subjectivity that accounts for intricacies and wide variances of moral evaluation that are so removed from “base genetic drives” that we might as well admit that it’s a problem for philosophers, not scientists.
This approach seems to rely on an implicit inclusion of free will. That is, it relies on humans making decisions which are genuinely arbitrary. In a way, it’s just a more “sophisticated” way of saying that morality is subjective and therefore exempt from scientific evaluation. The thing is, all the evidence (and all the good critical thinking) points away from the existence of free will. Anytime we examine humans in large groups, we discover that individual decisions are far from arbitrary. In fact, the advertising and marketing industries are founded on the observation that manipulating the environment alters the decisions that we make.
Additionally, we have ways of scientifically describing stochastic processes. Even if there is an element of practical arbitrariness in moral reasoning, this is not a problem for science. We have proven repeatedly that we can model such systems and even make rather specific predictions about them.
Can Science Tell Us How To Behave?
Having dispelled the myth that science cannot describe morality, we are left with one final claim: Science can tell us why morality exists, but it cannot tell us what to do. Of all the objections, this one is the most valid. Science is descriptive, not prescriptive. Because of this, “pure science” cannot give us a moral framework in the same way that a religion can.
However, this observation doesn’t save the argument. Science can offer us far more than a set of inscrutable moral dictates. If we begin with an accurate understanding of what our instinctive moral drives are, why they exist, and what they represent from an evolutionary perspective, we can examine our own emotions and beliefs about our own moral actions. We can then evaluate our actions using science. We can determine whether what we believe about our actions translates to objective results.
So in a very real sense, science can tell us how to achieve our moral goals. It can tell us that X action is likely or unlikely to create happiness, fairness, respect, or anything else we want to gain. Perhaps more importantly, it can tell us that some of our emotional moral responses are misplaced. Science is the litmus test for our moral intuition.
This last point has far-reaching implications. Science has taught us that our moral instincts are not designed to tell us the best thing to do in every situation. They are blanket templates which, when applied to whole populations, will benefit the species in evolutionary time. The flip side of this is that our moral instincts sometimes fill us with emotions which lead us to morally wrong actions.
Did you get that? It’s very important. Our emotional intuition — our conscience — is sometimes wrong. Our current society is evolutionarily novel. There are a lot of situations for which evolution has left us completely unprepared. Scientific evaluation can tell us when our emotional feelings about moral decisions are based on evolutionary models that are not applicable for us today. We can make better moral decisions by understanding the objective, scientific qualities of our moral instinct.
With all the objections out of the way, we need one more piece of the puzzle to completely dispense with the idea that science and morality are incompatible. There is a long-standing myth that is part and parcel of Western monotheist society. (I made reference to it in this article.) We in the West are inculcated into the belief that humans are morally “broken” and require “fixing.” We believe that without some sort of external force exerted upon humanity, we will descend into depravity and destruction.
Science has dispelled this myth. Like the “debate” between creationism and evolution, the myth of “evil humanity” is over before it begins. Humans are neither inherently good or evil. We are, however, inherently moral. This distinction is critically important. Except for the extremely rare incurable sociopath, all humans have an innate moral drive. We want to be moral. This is not to say that we always want to do the most selfless thing. It means that we cannot help but participate in the evolutionary process of morality. It is intrinsic to humanity.
Not only should we not remove morality from science, we must recognize the moral imperative to use all of our resources to learn as much as we can about it. The more we know about our moral drives, the more power we have to shape our environment in ways that foster more desirable actions and discourage undesirable behaviors. The better we understand why people behave badly, the more tools we have for preventing bad behavior. The more we understand cultural influences, the better we can evaluate which social conventions are valuable and which contribute to societal dysfunction.
Can Science Design the “Perfect Morality”?
Before leaving this topic, I need to make one important disclaimer. Some philosophers of science are interested in discovering the “one true scientific human moral code.” That is, they want to demonstrate that there is a set of human behaviors which is objectively “the best way to behave.” I believe this is an exercise in futility. One of humanity’s most valuable adaptations is its behavioral flexibility. From our ability to live in virtually any earth environment to our mating flexibility to our moral flexibility, we are blessed among “higher animals” with an unprecedented capacity for making the best of our environment.
The “best way to behave” is a function of the environment. Because our environments are incredibly diverse, the value of various human actions is also incredibly flexible. Since morality judgment is a reflection of relative value, we must concede that any objective moral framework we come up with will only be valid when the relative value of moral variables remains consistent. When value changes, the morality of actions change.
Furthermore, we’re still stuck with the age-old question: How do we objectively decide the “ultimate goal” of morality? Is it better for everyone to be equal or for everyone to have as much freedom as possible? What about reproduction? How do we value our own reproductive “rights” against our impact on the environment? Is happiness or healthiness more valuable? Long life or rich life?
Science tells us that we cannot hope to attain “perfect morality.” Our moral instincts are a hodge-podge of adaptations which often contradict each other — for instance, our drive to survive vs. our drive to reproduce vs. our drive to protect our family. In the same way, moral systems overlap, even within a single society.
We can, however, achieve very good societies by recognizing the limitations of moral systems and incorporating our scientific knowledge into each moral decision, recognizing that we can certainly speak of morality in terms of “better” and “worse” with respect to our current environment and its inherent moral valuations. We can recognize that some cultural norms are causing more objective harm than good and attempt to promote more functional norms.
But we should be careful to recognize that some cultural valuations — such as individualism and collectivism — are functional in their own ways, and come with their own limitations. A historical survey of “pure communism” and “pure capitalism” ought to demonstrate that a balance between individualism and collectivism is the only sane way to structure a society. We in the west believe that nothing is better than self-determination and freedom. We feel intuitively that individualism is better than collectivism. But there is a giant continent over there on the other side of the world that has been functioning very well for thousands of years with an equally strong “innate” belief that collectivism is better, and that things work out best when duty to society supersedes individual freedom. In truth, we’re both right and we’re both wrong. Humanity is flexible enough that we can function and be happy in both settings.
So what is the answer to the question? Can science talk about morality? Absolutely. It already has. Can science tell us what to do? No, but it can tell us what is likely to happen if we do something. It can give us tools to help us achieve our moral goals and to understand why we have those goals. It can help us evaluate the outcomes of our moral actions, which can in turn help us shape our moral beliefs. Can science create a perfect morality? No. “Perfect Morality” belongs in the history scrapbooks along with the “universal man” and the “pillars of the earth.”