Waking up to morality

By Ken Perrott 27/10/2010

I have come to the conclusion that a lot of what is said and written about morality is rubbish. So I am pleased to see that, at last, science is opening up to the idea that it can investigate this area of human interest.

Part of that rubbish has been the idea that morality is “off limits to science.” That it is ring-fenced. I think this attitude partly explains the hostility we see expressed towards the scientific study of morality and scientists speaking out on the topic. And this hostility is coming from some scientists, as well as theologians and philosophers.

So I am looking forward to any debate resulting from the recent New Scientist opinion special “Science Wakes up to Morality.” (See October 16 issue No 2782).

This includes short articles by eight scientists, philosophers and journalists. Well worth reading.

Fiery Cushman, a moral psychologist at Harvard University, writes in Don’t be afraid — science can make us better:

“We have long thought of moral laws as fixed points of reality, self-evident truths rooted in divine command or in some Platonic realm of absolute rights and wrongs. But new research is offering an alternative, explaining moral attitudes in the context of evolution, culture and the neural architecture of our brains. This apparent reduction of morality to a scientific specimen can seem threatening, but it needn’t. Rather, by unmasking our minds as the authors of morality, we may be better able to bend its narrative arc towards a happy end.”

Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, writes in Beyond intuition:

The Enlightenment philosopher David Hume pointed out long ago that no combination of statements about what “is” the case could ever allow one to deduce what “ought” to be. After all, in deductive arguments, the truth of the conclusion is already contained in the premises. But when scientists deal in morality, deducing an “ought” from an “is” is often precisely what they attempt to do.”


“So let’s assume that we have instinctive moral responses to a variety of situations of the kind encountered by our ancestors throughout our history, though modified by our culture and upbringing. What would follow from this about what we ought to do?

It certainly doesn’t follow that we ought to do what our instincts prompt us to do. That might have enhanced our survival and reproductive fitness in an earlier period, but may not do so now; even if it did, it could still be the wrong thing to do. Consider the ethics, for example, of having a large family on an overpopulated planet. Rather, by undermining the authority that some philosophers have given to our intuitive moral responses, the new scientific lines of evidence about the nature of morality open the way for us to think more deeply, and more freely, about what we ought to do.”

Singer’s most recent book is The Life You Can Save: How to Play Your Part in Ending World Poverty.

Paul Bloom, a developmental psychologist at Harvard University, writes in Infant origins of human kindness:

“A theory of human kindness needs two parts. the core of our moral sense is explained by our evolved nature, but its extension to strangers is the product of our culture, our intelligence and our imagination.”

Joshua Knobe, an experimental philosopher at Yale University” writes in Our hidden judgements:

“It seems that our whole way of thinking about phenomena that appear to lie outside the bounds of morality may actually be rooted in hidden moral jusdgements.”

Pat Churchland, a philosopher of neuroscience at the university of California and the Salk institute, says in Brain roots of right and wrong:

“Morality seems to be shaped by four interlocking brain processes: caring, rooted in attachment to and nurture of offspring; r4ecognition of others’ psychological states, bringing the benefit of predicting their behaviour; problem-solving in a social context, such as how to distribute scarce goods or defend the clan; and social-learning, by positive and negative reinforcement, imitation, conditioning and analogy.

These factors result in a conscience: a set of socially sanctioned responses to prototypical circumstances”


“The interplay of our neural and cultural institutions comprises our moral history.”

Martha J. Farah, Director of the Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, argues that we will be required to rethink our sustice system to take into account how morality is linked to brain function (see My brain made me do it).

Sam Harris, author of The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, is interviewed by Amanda Gefter.

I like his comment rejecting religious notions of morality:

“Consider the Catholic church. This is an institution that excommunicates women who attempt to become priests, but does not excommunicate priests who rape children. This church is more concerned about stopping contraception than stopping genocide. It is more worried about gay marriage than about nuclear proliferation. When we realise that morality relates to questions of human and animal well-being, we can see that the Catholic church is as confused about morality as it is about cosmology. It is not offering an alternative moral framework; it is offering a false one.”

Having just started reading his book, I am going to write more about Sam’s ideas later. Some early reviews are in and he is certainly getting some debate going.

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