There are some famous thinkers, Sam Harris and Michael Shermer, among others, who are currently attempting to sell the idea that we should have a “science of morality“. They assert that moral propositions reduce to matters of fact about the wellbeing of conscious creatures. Many philosophers, such as Massimo Pigliuci, take umbrage at this, seeing morality as the purview of philosophy. And, of course, many religious believers think that morality can only come from religion, often preferably their own. I think all of them oversell their respective areas.
First religion. Different religions, different denominations and sects within the same religion, different scriptures, and often even different sections of scripture, all contradict each other on many moral commandments. Believers are forced to choose which commandments they will obey. Which ones they choose and which ones they ignore will be due to their pre-existing moral values.
Ethics, moral philosophy, is the endeavor of using logic to decide what our codes of conduct should be. There are three major moral frameworks: consequentialism (which includes utilitarianism), deontology, and virtue ethics. Which one of these you favor depends on your pre-existing values. (I personally lean toward virtue ethics.) In consequentialism, you judge the consequences of an action according to those pre-existing values. In deontology, you evaluate proposed categorical imperatives by those values. In virtue ethics, your stance on what is a virtue or a vice will be based on those pre-existing values.
Now for science. If someone doubts e=mc2 or some other scientific theory, we can conduct experiments to determine if it’s right or wrong. (At least in principle.) What experiment could ever be conducted to determine the morality of corporal punishment? Or any of the issues that Pigliucci lists?
It’s important to understand that what people like Harris are arguing for is, first and foremost, a particular type of morality. Only if and when that morality is accepted would empirical work on it be authoritative.
I do think science can inform morality in a major way. We can’t scientifically determine whether or not corporal punishment is wrong, although we can scientifically explore the psychological and developmental consequences of it. But we will still judge whether or not those consequences are bad or good according to our pre-existing values.
So where do those pre-existing values I keep mentioning come from? Another name for these pre-existing values is conscience. Many religious believers, many of whom have also reasoned themselves to this point, say that our conscience is the voice of God (or the gods) talking to us, and that it should be obeyed. More scientifically, this conscience, these pre-existing values, arise from our evolved instincts as social animals. In other words, it’s a survival tool, an adaptation.
The problem is that these instincts, these intuitions, often conflict with each other. People feel some of these intuitions stronger than others, but the relative strength of the different moral intuitions vary from person to person. Societies devise rules to resolve these conflicts, with different societies resolving them in different ways. Cultural rules and norms influence how we perceive and process these intuitions. In other words, moral intuitions vary between people and cultures.
What are these intuitions? Jonathan Haidt has written a book on his theory of moral foundations. If you’re interested in learning more about these foundations, I strongly recommend it, ‘The Righteous Mind‘. It details why different people, notably conservatives and liberals, can sincerely disagree with each other about ethics.
Here are the foundations according to Haidt’s theory (he admits that there may be more):
- Liberty / freedom
- Sanctity / Purity
So, where does this leave us with regard to determining morality? We have no choice but to do the hard work of finding codes of conduct that the majority of us can live with. Science and philosophy (and for many, religion) can help, but ultimately they can’t make the decisions for us, as much as we might wish they could.
- Virtue Ethics Primer (truegoodbeautiful.net)
- design approach to ethical decision making (eliteacademicessays.wordpress.com)
- Morals (jackseminar.wordpress.com)
- What is the difference between ethics and morals? (ahmedkhalilais.wordpress.com)
- Intro to Ethics (erindaniellerhynes.wordpress.com)
- Is Greed Amoral or Immoral? (jimritchiedunham.wordpress.com)