There has been some local discussion of the scientific approach to morality. Unfortunately some of this has concentrated on only one source (a TED talk by Sam Harris – see Can science answer moral questions?). I believe Sam makes some interesting points and am eager to read his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values which will be published next month. (I am planning to review it then). However, he is just one person, has tended to concentrate only on the problem presented by advocates of moral relativism, and has not actually done any significant research in this area.
I posted previously about the Edge Seminar last July on the science of morality (see The new science of morality and Is and ought). This brought together eight researchers, including Same Harris. (Well nine actually, but Marc Hauser’s contributions have been removed – that is another story; unfortunate but significant). The videos and transcripts of the conference are available at the Edge site and are well worth viewing.
Below I have reproduced the Consensus Statement made by the scientists at the seminar. It’s a useful summary of where the science of morality currently stands – at least in the minds of eight significant scientists working in the area. Its taken from Edge 327.
1) Morality is a natural phenomenon and a cultural phenomenon
Like language, sexuality, or music, morality emerges from the interaction of multiple psychological building blocks within each person, and from the interactions of many people within a society. These building blocks are the products of evolution, with natural selection playing a critical role. They are assembled into coherent moralities as individuals mature within a cultural context. The scientific study of morality therefore requires the combined efforts of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.
2) Many of the psychological building blocks of morality are innate
The word “innate,” as we use it in the context of moral cognition, does not mean immutable, operational at birth, or visible in every known culture. It means “organized in advance of experience,” although experience can revise that organization to produce variation within and across cultures.
Many of the building blocks of morality can be found, in some form, in other primates, including sympathy, friendship, hierarchical relationships, and coalition-building. Many of the building blocks of morality are visible in all human culture, including sympathy, friendship, reciprocity, and the ability to represent others’ beliefs and intentions.
Some of the building blocks of morality become operational quite early in childhood, such as the capacity to respond with empathy to human suffering, to act altruistically, and to punish those who harm others.
3) Moral judgments are often made intuitively, with little deliberation or conscious weighing of evidence and alternatives
Like judgments about the grammaticality of sentences, moral judgments are often experienced as occurring rapidly, effortlessly, and automatically. They occur even when a person cannot articulate reasons for them.
4) Conscious moral reasoning plays multiple roles in our moral lives
People often apply moral principles and engage in moral reasoning. For example, people use reasoning to detect moral inconsistencies in others and in themselves, or when moral intuitions conflict, or are absent. Moral reasoning often serves an argumentative function; it is often a preparation for social interaction and persuasion, rather than an open-minded search for the truth. In line with its persuasive function, moral reasoning can have important causal effects interpersonally. Reasons and arguments can establish new principles (e.g., racial equality, animal rights) and produce moral change in a society.
5) Moral judgments and values are often at odds with actual behavior
People often fail to live up to their consciously-endorsed values. One of the many reasons for the disconnect is that moral action often depends on self-control, which is a fluctuating and limited resource. Doing what is morally right, especially when contrary to selfish desires, often depends on an effortful inner struggle with an uncertain outcome.
6) Many areas of the brain are recruited for moral cognition, yet there is no “moral center” in the brain
Moral judgments depend on the operation of multiple neural systems that are distinct but that interact with one another, sometimes in a competitive fashion. Many of these systems play comparable roles in non-moral contexts. For example, there are systems that support the implementation of cognitive control, the representation of mental states, and the affective representation of value in both moral and non-moral contexts.
7) Morality varies across individuals and cultures
People within each culture vary in their moral judgments and behaviors. Some of this variation is due to heritable differences in temperament (for example, agreeableness or conscientiousness) or in morally-relevant capacities (such as one’s ability to take the perspective of others). Some of this difference is due to variations in childhood experiences; some is due to the roles and contexts influencing a person at the moment of judgment or action.
Morality varies across cultures in many ways, including the overall moral domain (what kinds of things get regulated), as well as specific moral norms, practices, values, and institutions. Moral virtues and values are strongly influenced by local and historical circumstances, such as the nature of economic activity, form of government, frequency of warfare, and strength of institutions for dispute resolution.
8)` Moral systems support human flourishing, to varying degrees
The emergence of morality allowed much larger groups of people to live together and reap the benefits of trust, trade, shared security, long term planning, and a variety of other non-zero-sum interactions. Some moral systems do this better than others, and therefore it is possible to make some comparative judgments.
The existence of moral diversity as an empirical fact does not support an “anything-goes” version of moral relativism in which all moral systems must be judged to be equally good. We note, however, that moral evaluations across cultures must be made cautiously because there are multiple justifiable visions of flourishing and wellbeing, even within Western societies. Furthermore, because of the power of moral intuitions to influence reasoning, social scientists studying morality are at risk of being biased by their own culturally shaped values and desires.
Roy Baumeister, Florida State University
Paul Bloom, Yale University
Joshua Greene, Harvard University
Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia
Sam Harris, Project Reason
Joshua Knobe, Yale University
David Pizarro, Cornell University
Footnote: I liked the wired.com comment on this consensus statement: “I dunno why these big-brain ’EDGE’ guys are making such a fuss here about ’morality.’ Everybody knows that morality is whatever God says. And God says, whatever me, my best friends, and my hierarchical coalition say that God says.”
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- Consensus Statement on Morality (wired.com)
- The new science of morality (openparachute.wordpress.com)
- Evolution of gods, morals and violence (openparachute.wordpress.com)
- The Moral Landscape: Q & A with Sam Harris – Sam Harris – samharris.org (richarddawkins.net)