The Science of the Good

The Science of the Good September 12, 2019

Can science determine morality?

Since the Scientific Revolution, there have been various attempts to ground human morality in science. The goal to discover moral laws in the same way that science has discovered physical ones is a Promethean project that continues to occupy thinkers and writers to this day. Most notably, Sam Harris wrote a book called The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values that defended his moral realism with appeals to science. Considering Harris’s defense of torture and his backslapping of racist pseudoscientists, we may wonder whether he has applied the scientific method rigorously enough to his approach to morality. However, his perspective is shared by many leading lights in science writing; people are convinced that there can be a “science of right and wrong.”

But the quest has been in vain, according to James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky. Their book Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality examines the problems in the project.

Levels of Findings

First off, the authors admit that the search to find the science of morality is a worthwhile cause. Social conflict, discrimination, and oppression are moral matters, and discovering what’s right and wrong in them could also uncover solutions to these intractable problems. The authors claim that their issue is in the way the search has been defined. There seem to be different categories of findings we’re being told to expect from the research program:

[S]cience might tell us something about the moral realm in different ways. Consider three: The most interesting way—always the highest aspiration of those who have sought a scientific foundation for morality—would be if science could settle longstanding moral questions. Call this level of scientific results “Level One.” Level One results would provide specific moral commands or claims about what is genuinely valuable. They would demonstrate with empirical confidence what, in fact, is good and bad, right and wrong, or how we should live.

“Level Two” findings, while falling short of demonstrating some moral doctrine, would still give evidence for or against some moral claim or theory. For instance, if there was empirical evidence that virtue theories of ethics [“theories that emphasize the role of character and virtue in moral philosophy rather than either doing one’s duty or acting in order to bring about good consequences”] were false, but the evidence fell short of settling that this or that moral claim was correct, that would constitute a Level Two result.

“Level Three” findings would provide scientifically based descriptions of, say, the origins of morality, or the specific way our capacity for moral judgment is physically embodied in our neural architecture, or whether human beings tend to behave in ways we consider moral. Evidence for these sorts of views doesn’t tell us anything about the content of morality—what is right and wrong—but they speak to the human capacity for morality and in that sense are interesting. […]

In fact, nearly all of the actual science attempting to deal with morality lands at Level Three findings.

This is no mere quibble. In terms of scientific success, this would be like not being able to tell us what the Sun is, but rather examining the neural and physical basis of the human capacity for perceiving the light and heat of the Sun. As the authors admit, these are interesting findings in themselves; however, they tell us nothing in terms of what’s right and wrong.

Critique of Pure Nihilism

This bait-and-switch is made necessary by the consensus among these science writers that there can’t be moral facts in the same way as there can be empirical facts. “In a world where physics fixes all the facts,” says one writer, “it’s hard to see how there could be room for moral facts.” It seems to me that this puts the cart in front of the horse: if physics can’t detect something, then it doesn’t exist. Couldn’t you say the same thing about any non-empirical cultural construct? Couldn’t there be a mode of inquiry appropriate to moral facts, the same way that we use different modes to study living organisms rather than black holes? If our most reliable methods of inquiry aren’t equipped to detect moral facts, then in seeking a scientific foundation for morality we need to either redefine science as just a vaguely coherent process of reasoning, or redefine morality to mean something very different than what’s right and what’s wrong. We end up with a moral nihilism that renders the quest irrelevant even before it’s started.

The Light’s Much Better Here

Hunter and Nedelisky conclude that one major obstacle to the program of the moral scientists is the “effective absence of any working awareness of or engagement with history, culture, or political economy.” The idea that we can examine morality as a neurological phenomenon, or as the outcome of selective battles and differential reproductive success, ignores so much social and cultural context that it’s absurd:

Invariably, the science of morality is directed toward unearthing universally shared moral principles. These are ethical generalities that take shape as moral-philosophical abstractions. The evidence used to address this moral reality purports to be species-wide, whether it is drawn from data from neurochemistry, the evolutionary record, or public opinion surveys.

This is fine as far as it goes, but it barely scratches the surface of morality as it exists in the lives of individuals, groups, communities, and nations. While it may be possible to speak of universal moral principles, nearly all of what we actually know and experience of morality exists only in its particularity: in a bewildering array of complex and contradictory moral traditions, stories, and ideals—made all the more complex by race, ethnicity, gender, region, political economy, and history. This empirical complexity arouses little curiosity from the new moral science. It is as if the best way to address empirical difference were to ignore it altogether.

In other words, it’s odd to think that we’re studying a phenomenon if we’re saying so little about how it functions in the world. Unlike the other objects of scientific inquiry, moral decision-making wouldn’t exist without humans and human societies. The moral scientists assume that the study of morality can be conducted in the same objective, dispassionate manner we use when we’re studying planets or molecules:

There is a temptation to assume that the world of science or the world of philosophy is the world, and that the pursuit of truth somehow rises above the push and pull of social life and the swirling dynamics of the historical moment. what is arguably missing within this discourse is the caution that comes from reflecting on its human and thus contingent nature. One rarely finds in the philosophical or scientific literature any self-consciousness about the ways in which science and philosophy are embedded within a social and historical context and thus operate alongside a range of exogenous—that is, nonphilosophical and nonscientific—social dynamics. […] Although [the epistemologies of philosophy and science] aspire to an ideal of objectivity, the history of science offers a practically endless catalogue of researchers seeing and understanding what they were socially conditioned to see and understand.

What’s your opinion? Can science determine morality?

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  • My observation is that what is or is not moral is determined by the wiring and chemistry of our brains (which includes both nature and nurture components). An action taken (or considered) fires off a largely autonomous response of “good” or “bad” (or a signal along a continuum between the two). But outside of some very primitive moral strictures that might be substantially innate (related to fairness, in particular), I see no evidence that nature provides any sort of absolute moral strictures. And if they are not provided by nature, they seem largely outside the realm of science to treat. Intrinsically, no stricture is moral or immoral- not killing, not rape, not slavery. These things are accepted by some people and cultures, not by others. The only thing that determines their morality is whether they are cultural norms or not. As such, science might be useful (indeed, has been useful) in teasing out the mechanisms in our brains that assess morality. But not in identifying any strictures that are or are not, in some way, intrinsically good or bad. Those are nothing but personal and social values.

  • I think you’re closer to the mark when you say that morality involves some process of cultural validation rather than when you claim that morality is determined by brain function. It’s an extremely complex matter, no doubt about it. Obviously it can’t be completely determined by cultural consensus, since (as you say) many cultures accepted or accept behavior that we consider unconscionable. But reducing morality to brain function ignores nearly everything we know about the way morality develops in terms of forms of authority, institutions, traditions, and power dynamics. It’s as mistaken as expecting each individual to take responsibility for his or her use of language; obviously the way these phenomena develop isn’t just a personal matter. The contexts in which we define morality have to do with our acknowledgment of the well-being of other agents as well as the effect of our behavior on the environment. By the same token, we shouldn’t mistake the selfish acts of bigoted and cynical people (like those who countenanced slavery for so long in the USA) for legitimate moral reasoning, when they were truly the exact opposite: the refusal to accept the consequences of valid ethical reasoning.

    I was a little puzzled that Hunter and Nedelisky were so dismissive of moral pragmatism—the idea that while it may be problematic to hypothesize universal morality, we can discuss what behavior is good and bad in achieving certain ostensibly positive social objectives—since I’m at a loss to understand why they object to the notion that moral decision making is goal-oriented in the first place. I’ve often used the metaphor of architecture when I talk about morality, because it seems obvious that there’s “right” and “wrong” in constructing a building in reference to the conditions in which it’s being built, the function of the structure, and the materials available. In the same way, we need to assess the goals of a society and the needs of the environment if we’re going to define what’s right and wrong in terms of the behavior of citizens and policymakers, and those may vary greatly.

    Thanks for contributing!

  • Supposedly some characteristics that are universal (kindness, compassion, etc.) exist because of us being social species, have been selected by evolution for its advantages.

  • Sure. But the authors point out that there’s a difference between selected-for traits and moral reasoning:

    But two different senses of altruism are at play in [E. O. Wilson’s] argument—one prescriptive and the other descriptive; one ethically intended and directed and the other biologically elucidated. In biology, altruism means one organism increasing another organism’s reproductive fitness at a cost to its own. This stands in contrast to an ethical understanding of altruism, where the idea is framed in terms of one’s acting with the intention of benefiting another, without regard for the cost to one’s self.

    In evolutionary terms, altruism would have to pay for itself through a corresponding benefit to the organism acting altruistically; in ethical terms, altruism is only altruism if there’s no concern for a return on the altruistic behavior.

  • Anthrotheist

    I suppose that I see two fundamental issues with scientific study of morality.

    First, science is generally understood to be descriptive; it attempts to describe and explain phenomena that are observed through controlled interaction (i.e., experimentation). Morality on the other hand is by definition prescriptive and proscriptive, not descriptive. The point that the authors make about all of current science focusing on neurology and evolutionary biology illustrates this firs issue. It also points to the difficulty of the social sciences; what is the point of a statistical observation of social phenomena by sociologists without any usable lessons that can be gleaned from the effort? The advance of physical sciences allows us to more powerfully manipulate the physical forces and objects in our universe; I think it is right to be disturbed by the notion of following that same motivation for advancing social or moral study.

    The second issue I see is that morality is more like weather than it is gravity. We understood evaporation, vapor pressure, air density, thermal convection, and other principles of material science long before we began to accurately predict weather patterns (outside of looking at the last 100 years of records and setting a percentage chance of rain based literally on how many of those 100 prior calendar days had rain). Two things advanced meteorology more than anything else: satellites in space, and computers capable of running complex predictive models from massive repositories of historical data in near-real-time. What a space-level view of morality would mean is a bit beyond me, and modelling morality still falls back to the first objection I described: those models would have to be designed with judgments built into the mathematics, and run for an ultimate purpose of social-moral manipulation.

  • To be clear, I think that our moral response is largely innate and unconscious… part of our brain structure. I think our moral strictures are cultural inventions.

  • Carstonio

    Rudimentary moral behavior has been observed in other animal species, so it’s likely that the moral sense is an evolutionary adaptation that aids in species survival. We probably perceive the sense in the same way we see faces in inanimate objects like cars. (I detest the “evil jeep” aftermarket grill covers, which seem to embody the same spirit as the Punisher logo stickers.) As much respect as Francis Collins deserves for his work with DNA, he errs in his assumption that natural selection is inadequate to explain the origin of the moral sense – he’s using the argument from incredulity.

    But the question of what constitutes right and wrong is probably not empirically discoverable, since our concept of morality is shaped to some degree by social conditioning. I don’t know how one would prove that right and wrong exist as Platonic ideals. They might be more like a debate over who is the best rock guitarist of all time – a somewhat subjective question that still relies on shared principles.

    Looking at Haidt’s moral foundations theory, the three that conservatives throw in (loyalty, authority and sanctity) all have to do with hierarchy, which is how conservatism tends to define society. This may be related to research on brain structures that suggest that conservatives have a stronger sense of fear. (Which could explain why many of them confuse a visceral reaction of disgust, such as I might have to sauerkraut, with actual moral revulsion.) My stance is, if one’s argument for a particular concept of right and wrong is based on a concept of what is best for society, one is already conceding the liberal moral foundations of harm/care and fairness/proportionality, since the whole point of a society is mutual benefit.

  • The authors rightly point out that calling animal behavior moral or altruistic is problematic. Sure, there are behaviors that appear to benefit another organism at the expense of the acting organism; in terms of evolution, though, this requires some sort of corresponding benefit to the organism being inconvenienced. This is the problem with hypothesizing natural selection as the source of morality. We can propose all the selectionist just-so stories we want, but morality is a lot more than trade-offs involving resources and reproductive success. Some awareness of the ethical context of our behavior is essential in defining the behavior as moral.

    Saying that our concept of morality is shaped to some degree by social conditioning is a real understatement. As you say, the many hierarchies established in human societies—in families, communities, and societies—and one’s sense of place within them are staggeringly complex and yet they influence our moral sense in various ways for good and bad. And if we can’t even agree on what society is for, then any consensus about what constitutes morality is impossible. I can appreciate the need to find some basis for morality in reliable methods of inquiry, but I’m just as skeptical as the authors that it’s a realistic goal.

  • Carstonio

    Sure, there are behaviors that appear to benefit another organism at the expense of the acting organism; in terms of evolution, though, this requires some sort of corresponding benefit to the organism being inconvenienced.

    That’s overly simplistic. Natural selection is less about the survival of the individual organism and more about the survival of the species, and the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. The benefit from the behaviors isn’t an absolute dichotomy either. A dog that would try to take all the kill for itself risks its long-term survival, because of the protection that the pack affords all its members, whereas a dog that takes only its share helps promote that protection.

    Very true that awareness of ethical context is essential. We can’t assume that species that exhibit rudimentary moral behavior lack any amount of that awareness.

    I’m really challenging Collins’ “God did it” assumptions regarding the origins of morality.

  • PD

    Hi Shem, I just wrote a long comment (what else is new) which got caught in the spam filter. Would you please release it from cyberlimbo? Thanks.

  • PD

    A few thoughts on the fact/value dichotomy you discuss..

    The commonly held view (at least since Hume) that there is a hard and fast dichotomy separating description/facts and prescription/values has been called into question by several interesting philosophers, including John Dewey and Hilary Putnam in the US. I think it’s reasonable to talk about a fact/value *distinction* in which the 2 can overlap or become, in Putnam’s words, “entangled.” (see his book The Collapse of the Fact-Value Dichotomy).

    One example of overlap is our use of certain *thick* concepts like rape or murder. Let’s say you’re reading a news report and come across a sentence like, “Jones was convicted on multiple charges of rape, one of which was perpetrated against an innocent 17 year old girl.” This is descriptive, of course, but the word ‘rape’ is simultaneously descriptive and evaluative. It’s a *thick term/concept.* Nor should this be terribly surprising. After all, we internalize norms and values in social contexts, in situations that can be described. Some of these situation (such as cheating on an exam) are described not just as factual events (“So and so cheated again!”) but as events deemed undesirable or in your words “proscribed”– where that also implies the prescription of honesty and independent effort as desiderata. We can easily observe as children that the teacher accusing a kid of ‘cheating’ is none too pleased. That is– cheating is discouraged or as you say, proscribed.

    We can distinguish factual statements like “There is a house on 1st and Broadway” and evaluative ones like “Jones is a bad person” largely because the latter is decontextualized. The reification of “goodness” and ”
    badness” as metaphysical properties in-themselves removes them from more practical and observable contexts. Ask what makes Jones so bad and you may end up hearing lots of descriptions of his behavior. Thick terms that catalogue his misdeeds might include descriptions of him or her cheating, stealing, committing fraud, vandalizing, spousal abuse and so on. These are descriptive terms which happen to encode both information about specific behavior and judgments *of* those behaviors. Sure, a subjectivist can argue that the behavior is “intrinsically neither good nor bad.” But the cultural relativist (like myself) has no such luxury.

    Re: radical subjectivism: We learn to function in society, I think, by internalizing norms, values, roles and the like. We don’t first learn a bunch of facts and then ‘subjectively’ come to evaluative conclusions for ourselves in isolation (I would argue); but rather we learn how to do things the *right* way relative to social context, as with Wittgenstein’s idea of Forms of Life/Language Games. We learn about rules that reflect the strongly held values, ideals and attitudes of those who raise us (family, teachers, friends, the babysitter, media etc.) We may later engage in practical reasoning within the languages we’ve learned and come to specific conclusions (whether to do x or y in a moral dilemma) more or less independently. But even this skill of practical reasoning is, as Aristotle says in his Nich. Ethics, the result of habituation until it becomes “2nd nature.”

    By pressuring the fact/value dichotomy (not dissolving it but relaxing it) we see that the whole topic is so complex that it’s really preposterous to suppose that empirical science can provide that “space-level view” of morality, as you rightly suggest. It seems that the best view is not from outer space but from *within cultures and subcultures* that we learn to understand rationally, emotionally and behaviorally at the same time so that we can get on with people and live hopefully productive lives. Over time, members of culture do things like reevaluate the laws, mores, customs, values and beliefs that constitute the normative sphere so that these things are not static and there is some kind of agency ( another complex topic). But the main point is that when we stop looking for morality in some Platonic realm of “ideas” or in essential definitions of “The Good” or perhaps some alleged “morality module” in the brain, and instead look at the concrete practices that cause moral upset, conflict (abortion, foreign policy, how to define a marriage, etc.), I think we’ll notice that values and norms are nested in situations that can’t be described without these thick terms, especially those that are important enough to be codified into laws (e.g.’murder’).

  • Bridging the gap

    Social science certainly can help us understand how morals evolve. Science can clarify how we are biologically prepped for certain ethics. Even that strong that some geneticists claim that our political preferences are partly predisposed. Frans van der Waal and other scientist have shown morals are not uniquely human. Therefore it is. Ery unlikely that morals need religion or God as their origin.

    Science itself is biased and is not unfallable. Social darwinism abused Darwins theory of evolution to justify European imperialism and later Nazism. For along time Anthropologists and genetecists supported those ideas as if they had a scientific justification. Even if they had to adopt data to make it fit the political theory.
    The same happened with Marxism. Marx original observations were bent into a killing doctrine.

  • Jim Jones

    We’re a very long way indee from understanding the human brain, however we don’t KNOW as yet that this is impossible. If it isn’t, it can be solved.

  • Paul Nedelisky

    Hi Shem, thanks for reviewing James Hunter’s and my book. Just read your response to Peterson’s comment and thought I’d address your concern about our dismissiveness towards moral pragmatism. Basically, this is because while a course of action can be called “good” or “bad” relative to achieving some goal, this doesn’t get us to what we understand as genuine goodness or badness. I think the example we use in the book is that an action can be “good” relative to the goal of robbing a bank, i.e., disabling the alarm system. But of course that doesn’t make it or the goal genuinely good. Put even more starkly, concentration camps may have been “good” relative to Hitler’s goal of exterminating Jews, in the sense that they helped him towards his goal, but they certainly weren’t genuinely good, in an ethical sense. Too often, the alleged moral guidance science offers is merely of this instrumental/relative-to-a-goal sort. So while we’re fine with speaking of actions as “good” or “bad” relative to their goals, we want to be clear that this isn’t genuine ethical goodness and badness, and hence is no substitute for addressing whether the goals in question really are good or bad. Hope that makes sense!

    All best,

  • While I can only comment on what has been presented here, in terms of Hunter’s and Nedelisky’s points of view, there are at least two startlingly odd claims I see being made. It will, I think, be more straightforward to start from the end and return to the beginning, so I’d like to look more closely at this comment:

    While it may be possible to speak of universal moral principles, nearly all of what we actually know and experience of morality exists only in its particularity: in a bewildering array of complex and contradictory moral traditions, stories, and ideals—made all the more complex by race, ethnicity, gender, region, political economy, and history. This empirical complexity arouses little curiosity from the new moral science.

    One might as well condemn astrophysics for failing to have even a little curiosity about human anatomy. Of course human anatomy arises from the physical laws studied in astrophysics, but it isn’t the role either of astrophysicists or of anatomists to discover this process, and there are entirely different schools of scientific inquiry dedicated to doing so.

    What Hunter and Nedelisky seem to be arguing here is that the particularities and complexities of morality as practiced constrains the usefulness of scientific inquiry into “universal moral principles”. In raising the point this way, H & N suggest a conflict between the objectivity of science and the subjectivity of our lived experiences, and suggests in a way that science isn’t up to the task of managing the latter.

    Well, that’s not quite right. What H & N are objecting are scientists approaching the subject from certain perspectives. Neurology and evolution are mentioned specifically, as is somewhat confusingly “public opinion surveys”. I say confusing because public opinion surveys are a way of getting specifically at what they claim is missing, which is the personal perspective of lived experience. So it seems to me that we must omit this last category, as it isn’t truly in keeping with the authors’ key point. What they really seem to be implying is that the physical sciences, what is sometimes called “hard” science, cannot resolve moral particularities. They warn against failing to recognize the ways in which scientists are socially conditioned to understand their own work.

    That’s an apt warning, I think, from two social scientists who don’t seem entirely clear as to how other scientists actually work, and thus betray their own social conditioning.

    To return to the beginning, as it were. If we agree that particularities limit and refute claims of universal principles, we might be inclined to agree that science has not provided their self-described first order moral findings. They describe this first order moral truth as:

    Level One results would provide specific moral commands or claims about what is genuinely valuable. They would demonstrate with empirical confidence what, in fact, is good and bad, right and wrong, or how we should live.

    They then go on to state that “nearly all” scientific findings fail to meet this criteria which, I must say, I find absolutely bizarre. If in fact they believe this, then the authors have committed themselves to the idea that no moral good has arisen at all from the entirety of medical science. Surely they do not themselves actually accept this absurd idea, and if they do not then they cannot stand by their prior claim. If they are willing to accept that medical science does moral good, then they must largely abandon this idea of particularities. It is true that there are many cases in which the complexities of individual cases exceed the ability of medical scientists to treat them, but by far the vast majority of cases are examples of the universal principles determining outcomes in specific circumstances.

    I can only assume that the authors are aware of this larger problem, and have recognized that the answer to it lies in how one defines “morality” and “the good”. I suggest however that whatever their points of view on this question, it will be a difficult task indeed to demonstrate that “the good” is not something which can be described in terms of medical science.

  • Bridging the gap

    One should read what Frans van de Waal writes about the ‘natural’ origin of morality. To me these are strong ‘level 3’ indications morality is not unique to humans but is widespread among social mammals. In addition psychologists have strong stastical case that our behaviour and morality is determined by social interactions as well as our genes (biology).
    But people do not like that narrative. As it suggest our consciousness is just a social mask. Or like someone wrote: we are free to do what we think but we are predisposed in our thoughts.

  • Tangent002 ✓

    Science is a methodology, it has nothing at all to do with morality. Morality is a human construct that varies across cultures.

  • Level One results would provide specific moral commands or claims about what is genuinely valuable. They would demonstrate with empirical confidence what, in fact, is good and bad, right and wrong, or how we should live.

    They then go on to state that “nearly all” scientific findings fail to meet this criteria which, I must say, I find absolutely bizarre. If in fact they believe this, then the authors have committed themselves to the idea that no moral good has arisen at all from the entirety of medical science. Surely they do not themselves actually accept this absurd idea, and if they do not then they cannot stand by their prior claim.

    I agreed with the way the authors described the shortcomings of the proposals for a science of morality so far, but I had a question about their dismissal of moral pragmatism, i.e. whether something is good in terms of achieving a socially positive outcome. Your example of medicine is the same sort of answer to their dismissal: doesn’t every moral question assume that there’s some outcomes that can be said to be superior to others? If medicine (or nutrition, etc.) can be said to improve the well-being of sentient creatures, aren’t we making moral claims when we talk about the use of medicine?

    You’ll notice that one of the authors responded here, reiterating that “should” statements relative to a goal are different in kind from statements about what is moral. In fact, the author even states that questions about what actions are good in achieving a goal can’t tell us whether the goal itself is good or not. However, your example of medicine is just that: why should we assume that health is not a universal good?

    Nice to see you again! Hope all’s well at the new blog.

  • Congratulations on the attention this OP is getting. You present a well considered challenge to the “consensus quo”, if you will, as always!

    If you don’t mind, I’m going to respond to Nedelisky directly and pull you in on the question of good actions and good outcomes – or really, the is / ought problem.

  • @shemthepenman:disqus pointed me in the direction of this response in our conversation above, in which I suggested that to hold the position expressed in the passages presented in the OP necessitates one to repudiate the idea that medical sciences contribute to “the good”. I considered the apparent dissonance of this position a result of the failure to identify what morality – and “the good” – really is in the context of the OP.

    It seems Dr. N and I agree to some extent, as his comment regarding fitness to a goal and the goal’s moral character suggests. This is really a restatement of the is/ought problem, with its contention that one cannot derive an ought from an is. The implication that while medical science offers the most likely path to a successful outcome – the “is” – one cannot conclude from this that a medically successful outcome – the “ought” – is good.

    This is true from the perspective of formal logic, since the characterization of “the good” is not present in the premise, it cannot be construed in the conclusion. This is only true of open ended statements, however. The is/ought problem disappears in terms of contingency: if being healthy is good, then proper medical science is an ethical strategy more likely to result in a moral outcome. Now “the good” is present in the premise, and can be derived in the conclusion.

    This just serves to reinforce my earlier point, however. Moral questions of “the good” depend for any meaning on the definition of “good”. The Aristotelian tradition of “the good” as eudaemonia offers this meaning in the form of wellbeing. If we take this for our goal, then the question of scientific inquiry into morality turns on whether or not science can address the wellbeing of humans – or indeed any living thing. Not only is the answer an obvious “yes,” but this demonstrates that the traditional understanding of morality has an objective basis, which is the biological organism under study.

  • The “fact/value” or “is/ought” problem is a consequence of logic: since a description of the fact does not entail valuation, the “ought” is missing from the “is” premise, and cannot be construed as a conclusion. This problem can be resolved by including the value in the fact description, however, by means of contingency. If one wished to accomplish outcome O, and strategy S will accomplish it, then S is implied by O. This is simple modus ponens.

    The problem then shifts from contested or complicated language questions to more discrete analyses of whether S is actually implied by O. I’ve been using medical science as an example elsewhere in this conversation, but I usually refer to nutrition. Thus where O is human wellbeing, then it follows that nutrition is objectively moral, just as surgery is for specific types of disease.

    So while I agree that unbounded universals – “space-level views” – are preposterous, bounded universals are not. We can say that nutrition is a moral imperative for all human beings, and as a consequence it is not necessarily true that morality is best viewed from within cultures or subcultures.

  • PD

    I responded to TJ below, but my reply is caught in the filter. Would you please approve it?

  • PD, sorry I didn’t get back to this post sooner.

    I have to say that I agree with the authors that most of the science-of-morality rhetoric out there falls far short of its stated aim. How concepts of morality developed in human societies and how moral concepts are processed in the brain are fascinating subjects, but they’re being made to stand in for the question of what is good? Like Carstonio here, science writers make fact-free pronouncements about the evolution of morality and make it sound like the only conceivable alternative to morality being God-given is that it’s an obvious outcome of natural selection and that’s the whole story. This facile selectionism ignores so much cultural and historical context that it’s virtually self-refuting.

    I share your suspicions about Haidt, chiefly because of his noxious vendettas against academia and student activists. Trying to make his thesis of “The Coddling of the American Mind” seem scientific rather than ideological is simply outrageous.

    I’ve expressed some reservations about the way the authors distinguish between morality and goal-oriented reasoning. I understand the point they’re making, but isn’t there more gray area than they acknowledge? If a good part of moral reasoning involves the weighing of outcomes, then it seems like morality is more goal-oriented than the authors admit.

    To answer your question about moral realism, it seems to me the authors are at least amenable to the idea. Particularly from the way they accuse the moral-scientists of moral nihilism, I get the feeling they believe that the dismissal of the concept of “moral facts” is premature. Which makes it all the more puzzling that their final words (the ones I quoted in the OP) appear to lean heavily toward cultural relativism.

    I’m glad you keep bringing up Sartre’s dilemma, because it gets to the heart of morality as a decision-making process. We’d like to be able to appeal to religion or science to give us the key to moral problems, but the crux of the human condition is that there’s no such quick-and-dirty guide to ethical behavior.

    Thanks for contributing! Nice to see you again, and hope all’s well.

  • PD

    >>>”I have to say that I agree with the authors that most of the science-as-morality rhetoric out there falls short of its stated aim.”

    As do I, Shem. I’m not sure what makes you think otherwise.

  • I wasn’t implying that you didn’t. I was just making a general statement about what I liked in their analysis, regardless of the specific misgivings I mention.


  • Thanks for your thoughtful as always, PD. We do have some disagreements.

    You’re describing *hypothetical imperatives*. These are based on instrumental rationality (means-end thinking) and cannot justify universal maxims.

    I don’t think that’s true. For Kant, hypothetical imperatives involve exercising the will, and represents a choice, a desire which is acted upon. What I’m describing are contingent statements which, strictly speaking, require neither choice nor desire nor in fact action.

    Nor is it true that the biological requirements of human beings is dependent on desire, or will. That the human body will suffer and ultimately die as a consequence of starvation is no more up to us than our biological imperative to eat is. Having this motivation is not the same as mere desire, since it arises not from choice or mental cognition but from our biology. This is as true for you and I as it is for Gandhi or Holger Meins. That they, through a willful decision, overcame this motivation does not mitigate the damage done to their bodies, hence the imperative remains, and their wellbeing suffered the inevitable result. Whatever good might have come from their decision, physical suffering and death is not it. This remains an immoral outcome even if in service to a “greater good”.

    As such I don’t see why self-sacrifice is a problem. I often describe my argument in the context of a lion and a gazelle. If the lion kills the gazelle, it obtains the moral end of sustenance. The gazelle still dies, however, and obtains the immoral end of suffering and death. If the gazelle escapes, it obtains the moral end of continued health, and if the lion should die of starvation as a consequence, that death too is immoral. And if the gazelle should die and the pride should feed, then moral outcomes are multiplied, but the immoral end for the gazelle remains just as immoral. Here there are moral principles which are in opposition with one another, and whatever the resolution might be, that opposition will inevitably manifest as at least one immoral outcome, and one moral outcome.

    In any case this is getting rather far afield from the point I was making in my earlier response to your comment about the proper context of moral principles. Kant’s moral philosophy takes on a rather monstrous aspect I think, if one denies the connection between wellbeing and “the good”. We are forced in doing so to hold that “the good” can include disease, discomfort, suffering, and death. Now it is universally true that humans must find sustenance to remain healthy, and because this is not a choice or desire it cannot be, in my understanding, a hypothetical. It is contingent ( “if” one is a human being… ) but our membership in that group is not up to us, hence choice – and therefore will – are not at issue.

    Ranking has little to do with objective morality, in my view. Indeed, the point of moral philosophy is to discover truths which remain so despite our consideration of them. There are no humans who do not share this need for sustenance, in any context. While I do recognize that not all problems are as straightforwardly objective as this, and agree with you about the resulting complications, it is not true that there are not objective foundations to our moral circumstances. If my claim here is true, then it follows that science can offer meaningful insight into morality, and the claims of Dr. Nedelisky that it cannot are false. I think fields such as biological and agricultural science demonstrate my point, and prove Dr. N. wrong.

  • I agree with most the points you summarize. Indeed, science as we know it is not able to do more than address “Level 3” which has to do with explaining some aspects of morality (how we form such judgments, whether these capacities have deep roots in evolutionary processes, which parts of the brain might be involved in different kinds of moral reasoning and decision-making). But faced with moral dilemmas in everyday life, there’s a reason we usually don’t run to the nearest physicist, but rather talk things through with friends and loved ones or counselors/therapists etc.

    Just to extend our other conversation into this context, I think I can demonstrate how science does achieve “Level 1” results and does affect us on an everyday level.

    1) Science objectively describes the human organism, and its need for sustenance.
    2) Science objectively describes the needs for food products to flourish, and thus strategies about how to cultivate it most effectively have an objective, scientific basis.

    So faced with the moral dilemma of limited resources and the need to eat, we might not run to the nearest physicist or biologist, but we do indeed run to the nearest product of their work. It’s as close as the grocery store.

    That being said, I agree with your views of Harris and Haidt and I don’t think my argument depends on absolute physicalism.

  • PD

    Shem, sorry but none of my comments with multiple paragraphs ever make it through the filter here. Would you please approve my latest response to TokyoJones? Thanks.

  • PD

    All this is addressed implicitly in the response I just wrote which is caught in the filter now. I’ve asked Shem to approve it. I’ll be busy doing other things later, so I hope my response suffices. I don’t expect to convince you of anything, but I don’t think you’ll convince me with the arguments that you have made in these posts. I’m fine, as you know from the past, with agreeing to disagree after 1 or 2 in-depth exchanges.

    I hope all is well at your end, TJ. Talk later. –PD

  • Shem, when you have a moment, will you look into my comment at which has been tagged for moderation?


  • Paul Nedelisky

    TokyoJones, yes–I think we basically agree. Hunter and I argue in the book that medical science can demonstrate a great deal of good, but only for those who already accept that health and life are good. Nearly everyone agrees that health and life are good, so this might initially seem like a cheap point. But what’s important to note is that medical science cannot demonstrate that fundamental value claim. And once you get outside medicine to, say, the science of happiness, or Sam Harris’ slippery arguments for the science of well-being, then that indemonstrable fundamental value claim becomes the whole ballgame.

    Harris will often begin his arguments by saying things like “Once you admit that consciousness is the only valuable thing, then it becomes easy to demonstrate the good…” Well sure, all we have to do is all agree on what’s fundamentally valuable–and what physical properties it’s correlated with–and then we can demonstrate its presence and extent. But that’s the very issue we can’t agree on. No one holding to the importance of fundamental human rights, or the moral legitimacy of Sharia law, or the sanctity of the unborn, etc. is going to accept that only conscious enjoyment really matters. So this is exactly where we would need the demonstrative power of science to clear up disagreement, and yet exactly where we can’t get it.

    So, yes, when we all agree on what’s good and how to empirically approach it, there can be scientific progress towards the good. But when there’s disagreement over the basic goods, then there isn’t going to be any empirical demonstration to show us what’s good. And sadly, the latter scenario seems far more common.

  • PD

    I’m sorry TJ, I can’t do any more to clarify this. As I said, I’m busy with other things. I also said that I hoped my last and detailed comment would be sufficient, but that it probably wouldn’t convince you. I let you know earlier that if *that* comment didn’t suffice to settle all differences, I’d be fine with “agreeing to disagree.”

    I see that Nedilisky has responded to you. I agree with his argument. It’s actually the same point I made about hypothetical vs. categorical imperatives. Only, I can’t revisit all that or defend my views more than I already have. Since he’s’ also a philosopher, maybe you should present your argument/s and rebuttals to him. It might be interesting to see what he says, since he’s much more involved with these questions than I am, having written a book on related topics.

    Meanwhile, I’m sure we’ll enjoy discussing other topics as usual soon enough!


  • Ellabulldog

    Morals can be explained by studying human behavior and the brain. Certainly we don’t have a complete answer yet but quite a bit of knowledge is accumulating.

    Can science determine morality is different from asking if science can explain morality.

    Science is a process. It doesn’t make such determinations.

    Science can explain why humans go on genocidal rages. Science can explain why some murder. It can explain why people lie, cheat and steal.

    Morals or laws are simply things humans have learned to use in order to live together more peacefully in large groups.

  • Morals can be explained by studying human behavior and the brain.

    Um, yeah. I’ve always said you can tell a lot about people from what they think, say and do.

  • Ellabulldog

    Cooperation can lead to what we perceive as morality.

    I won’t kill you if you wont’ kill me. I won’t steal from you if you don’t steal from me.
    It works within groups somewhat. It’s not perfect.
    Outside our groups we don’t have that shared sense of cooperation. So we kill other humans by the millions quite easily.

    It’s not morals though. It is tribal cooperation within groups.

    Even then these morals are subjective and change over time and from culture to culture.

    We make some choices that appear to be free will.

    I don’t see choosing Coke over Pepsi as an example of free will. Especially when one is addicted to caffeine and HAS to drink one or the other or suffer from withdrawal.

  • Thank you for taking the time to respond, Dr. Nedelisky.

    I agree with your criticisms of Harris, and with the implicit criticisms of reductive physicalism. What’s really at issue doesn’t appear to be the validity of medical science, or the recognition that human wellbeing is objective in terms of biology. Rather, it appears the concern is with the need for a philosophically binding ground for everyone to agree on the definition of “the good”. In other words, the substance of your criticism is opinion rather than fact regarding morality. That seems rather a large step back from the views on science and morality as expressed in the quoted passages in the original post.

    For instance, Level One findings are described as providing

    …specific moral commands or claims about what is genuinely valuable. They would demonstrate with empirical confidence what, in fact, is good and bad, right and wrong, or how we should live.

    Subsequently it is claimed that science almost never meets this standard. It certainly does meet this standard, and quite a lot, where physical health is concerned. Obviously it doesn’t matter whether one agrees that health is “good”, and the benefits of medical science are real whether or not one accepts the value of vaccines, or of cancer treatments, or of SSRIs. The same is true of agricultural science and pesticides, and of climate science and global warming. Should we dispute the value attributed to scientific findings because not everyone agrees it is valuable?

    You suggest it is not a universal human trait to value health and wellbeing. I wonder if this is true. Clearly there are individuals and cultures in which sacrificing one’s health and even life are valued, but it seems to me this is valued precisely because of this sacrifice, because health and life are precious and thus that giving them up for “the cause” is a powerful gift indeed. This is after all the foundational ethic of Christianity.

    So the question turns, it seems to me, to whether or not there is a culture in which disease, death, and the failure to thrive are valued in place of health and vigor. Or perhaps more to the point, whether there is a people for whom these traits are inborn. Babies who cry when they are full, and who laugh when they are hungry, for example.

    If science can show there are no such cultures, no such peoples, then it seems to me that science will have shown that the goodness of wellbeing does have a universal agreement among humans. But even if this could not be shown, even if there was a tribe whose infants displayed such dismaying characteristics, they would still bear the physical consequences of it. Children who will not eat will not thrive. They will not survive, except by the cruelest of measures. That physical health is central to our wellbeing is a universal fact, as is the inborn imperatives we have to be healthy. We are physically and emotionally compelled to eat, to sleep, to shelter ourselves, etc. To me that sounds an awful lot like an “is” and an “ought”.

    Thanks again for your kind response. Clearly I need to read your book to better understand your arguments!

  • Paul Nedelisky

    No, our criticism here turns on the fact that oughts cannot be derived from non-oughts (what “no ought from is” really means), and since science can only demonstrate non-oughts, it can’t demonstrate oughts. I’ve taken no steps back; science—including medical science—cannot empirically demonstrate good, bad, etc. That science can be taken to demonstrate this or that given some realm of agreed upon values isn’t the same thing as science really demonstrating something. If you and your friends think the goodness = whatever is done on a Tuesday, then you can take confirmation that something was or was not done on Tuesday as “demonstration” that the action is good or bad. But this is of course no real demonstration–you have no way of demonstrating that goodness = done on a Tuesday. On the other hand, science can/has demonstrated various non-ethical facts to pretty much everyone’s satisfaction. But no—science has not demonstrated the goodness or badness of anything in this sense; it can merely tell us which physical properties correlate with which others. We might have reasons for thinking certain of those features correlate with ethical properties, but those won’t be scientific reasons. You have to bring the ethics into science for science to have anything to say about it, and then what science says about it is only as good as the ethics you brought in.

    I don’t suggest that it’s not a universal human trait to value health. But it’s certainly true that not everyone values well-being, given any plausible and specific definition of ‘well-being’.

    Yes, everyone must eat, sleep, etc. in order to live. And *I* think these are valuable. And so I think it *is* the case that we *ought* to do these things. But this isn’t the sense in which ought can’t come from is. If any moral claims are true, then what is will include morality (to deny this is simply to deny ethical realism). What we can’t do is obtain moral claims from claims that lack moral content, e.g., “The spin of this particle is X;” “the necessary conditions for photosynthesis are X, Y. Z,” etc.

    I won’t be able to respond further, but yes: everything we’re discussing here is explained in the book, so if you’re curious, I do think you’d enjoy reading it! Best wishes!

  • Thanks again for taking the time to respond – I look forward to reading your book!

  • Hi Shem. I just posted a comment, but it is hung up in moderation. Thanks.

  • PD

    I responded under your related DP post, “Biased Political Attitudes Towards Science.” Hope those comments are helpful.

  • OK, Thanks.

  • Thanks for contributing! Your post gave me a lot to think about comme d’habitude, and I wanted my response to do it justice.

    I have a lot of problems with the way we frame moral issues in the abstract, and your statement about the ineluctably context-sensitive nature of morality really hits home for me. Thought experiments like the Trolley Problem are fine for what they are, but they ignore the larger social and cultural context of our ethical decision-making. It’s as if we’re in some Beckett netherworld where everyone else is a cipher, where power, privilege and authority are totally irrelevant and ethical reasoning boils down to making utilitarian cost-benefit analyses. We ignore the effect that power and authority have on our values and, consequently, the lens through which we interpret ethical behavior.

    At the same time, we ignore the dimension of power dynamics in how we frame moral behavior. The elephant in the room is that we never formulate thought experiments on the ethics of how we act in authority over others, what constitutes oppression, or how our local decision-making affects the well-being of people elsewhere in the world. It’s never been more important to understand how our behavior fits into the framework of power, but we seem intent on defining moral principles as if the framework is of no consequence whatsoever.

    Call me a social-constructionist jerkoff if you like (but smile when you say it), it’s just obvious to me that defining things as true or right or moral presupposes a complex and collective process of justification that our society is basically engineered to circumvent. We’ve developed hierarchies, systems of communication and public institutions that relieve us of the responsibility to create and maintain a society that works for everyone. Our political, corporate and military leaders only pretend to be responsible. We only talk to each other about these value-laden issues through social media that are only geared to grandstanding and monetizing traffic rather than establishing provisional mutual agreement on important matters.

    The idea of using science to determine human values or formulate morality seems like just another way to circumvent this justification process by appealing to the authority of science rather than responsibly engaging with the value systems of others. I’ve always referred to this as the Street Light Effect, applying an approach that’s effective in one context to a problem for which it’s completely inappropriate. The strength of science in creating consensus is proportional to the empirical content of the issue in question; the more values and other sociopolitical considerations are involved in the discussion, the less effective science can be in establishing agreement across cultural lines.

    Research data says that most people believe they usually rely on facts and sound reasoning or logic, but that is usually not true to some non-trivial extent.

    I agree wholeheartedly, and this is the crux of the problem with the way our discourses compete. That statement applies to us as well; any ideal of epistemic humility compels us to acknowledge that we too emphasize the facts that appear to bolster our position and de-emphasize or ignore those that don’t.

    I’ve been in the trenches of the atheist blogosphere long enough to realize that people who claim to be dedicated to facts and evidence simply have more effective methods of rationalizing their prejudices than their online foes. It makes my skeptic alarm ring whenever I hear people making appeals to facts, not because I don’t think facts are important but because the conflict is usually between different mindsets or value systems and not simply one person correcting another on points of fact. It’s a sign that we want to use terms like science and reality to impose conformity of opinion rather than engage with what our knowledge means to ourselves and others, as well as how it’s used by those in power.

    Science as a model for defining processes of justification could definitely guide us in discussing morality. Evidence doesn’t have the magic power to compel consensus, it’s all about the process of convincing others. In Cogent Science in Context, MIT’s William Rehg even claims that conducting experiments is a form of argumentation. Realizing that it’s not truth but cogency that’s the most important aspect of an argument at least acknowledges that we need to approach important matters like ethics as an ongoing dialogue with reality and with each other.

    Once again, I appreciate your input. Hope everything’s going well with the new blog and that you can spare some time to share your thoughts here in the future.