Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Science of Morality

This post is a continuation of my thoughts from a few weeks ago, on the Collins nomination and the scope of science. I’m finding myself coming back to this issue of what science can tell us about morality–and the sort of knowledge we can expect to get from science about human nature. To start, we know the type of knowledge we are likely not going to get from science: Alongside the electron and proton, scientists have discovered a new “moral” particle: the moron!* Instead, science will most likely describe our moral practices and possibly hint at how we came to acquire them. For example, a growing body of data shows that people with vastly different cultural practices will still show similarities in their moral judgments. Some scientists (I’ve mentioned Marc Hauser before) are attempting to give an evolutionary account of how we got this way; essentially trying to explain a moral universality through biology. With this and other scientific work we may begin to learn more about the evolution of pro-social or moral intuitions; perhaps we’ll discover that a sense of spirituality was evolutionarily beneficial, or we’ll uncover an underlying universal moral grammar (similar to Chomsky’s theory of language). Animal studies may reveal shared biological mechanisms that drive moral judgments. Brain damage studies may give us more information on how our moral capacities are affected by different parts of the brain and emotional processing. Surveys may tell us more about the types of principles we use to decide whether an act is morally permissible or not. In the past few years, in fact, there has been an explosion of empirical work in exactly these directions. From game theory to neurobiology, science can tell us a lot about morality.

What science cannot tell us is specifically what that morality ought to look like. Science is descriptive (it can tell us how we are) but not prescriptive (it can’t tell us how we should be). So just because our moral intuitions incline us to act a certain way, it doesn’t make it right to act this way. But I don’t think the discussion ends here. It doesn’t make it right, but can a greater knowledge of the science of morality have any implications for what shape that morality should take? I think so. A scientific theory of morality may give us some guidance as to what we, as humans in society, can achieve easily or even reasonably strive for. It could provide some information about to what sort of legal policies will be easier or harder to change, depending on whether they are in accord with our evolutionary intuitions or run counter to them. It may inform how we think about personal responsibility and how we carry out punishment. A notion of a shared morality may even ease some of the conflict between groups of people, who may be able to appreciate underlying similarities rather than differences (optimistic, I admit).

A scientific theory of morality could also help explain why our initial intuitions about particular moral scenarios are so strong, despite the fact that, upon reflection, the morality seems weak. An example from Peter Singer: most people would agree that walking past a child drowning in a pond and doing nothing, when you could easily reach in and save the child, is morally wrong. However, doing nothing to save a starving child in another country, when you could easily donate a few dollars, is arguably the moral equivalent. Yet intuitively these cases seem very different. The evolutionary reason for our making this distinction is not hard to imagine–we evolved in small, isolated groups and had no means of knowing about people hundreds of miles away, let alone helping them. But in our modern, global society, the distinction virtually disappears. If I reflect on these two cases and decide that, in fact, I am morally obligated to send aid to other countries, I will have proven my initial intuition wrong. In other words, moral intuitions might be explained through science, but there is no reason to think that they will necessarily point us in the right moral direction. The fact that we can revise our moral judgments means that we are able to use other human capacities, like reason and empathy, to guide our morality. A scientific understanding of morality cannot dictate how we ought to act, but it can tell us how we are likely to respond to certain moral arguments. Ultimately, it will take careful thinking and a concern for others to provide us with the reasons and motives to change our behavior.

*taken from an essay by Austin Dacey

1 comment:

  1. The should and ought argument is a canard. You explain quite well why an evolutionary understanding can be prescriptive. If grizzly bears are migrating into the snowy north, then evolution can prescribe that they will have better chances of surviving if they get light coloured fur. And so they did.

    If morality is an adaptation to being a social animal, then it must mean being nice to others, caring for each other, helping to feed each other, helping to defend each other, and not deliberately hurting them, robbing them of their sustenance, and murdering them. A social animal ought to be like that to survive.

    A social animal ought to help a drowning child. It cannot help a starving child 6000 miles away. Moreover, if we could not directly help the child but could pay a boat owner, say, to do it, we would baulk at it if we knew the boat owner was a cheat. He might take our money and get away as fast as he can without helping the child. That I fear is the problem with helping via charities. Half the money given to the asian tsunami relief fund was never delivered, I gather.

    It is also grossly hypocritical of everyone to be concerned about children in Haiti when they support western governments killing children elsewhere, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. The basis of this is as you said. We have a small group mentality in a large nation state and imperial world. Our neighbours now are Afghans and Palestinians, as well as those singing in the same congregation.