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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