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Toward a Science of Morality

Massimo Pigliucci

February 19, 2013

An annotated response to Michael Shermer: Michael Shermer and I have been engaged in what I hope has been a productive discussion on the relationship between science and philosophy as it concerns the field of ethics. Roughly speaking, Michael contends that science has a lot to say about ethical questions (though he is not quite as reductive as Sam Harris, who contends that science is pretty much the only game in town when it comes to ethics). I respond that science provides informative background but grossly underdetermines ethical issues, which therefore require philosophical reflection. Michael’s opening salvo was followed by my response, with Shermer recently adding some thoughts, further articulating his position. The notes below are my point-by-point commentary on that third round. (Throughout, italics indicates Michael’s writing, with my comments immediately following.)


Complete entry


Posted by b.  on  02/19  at  11:53 AM

Thank you for posting. While I’m not clear on the continuity (or lack thereof) between morality and ethics, I agree with the author that science as the defacto base of morality is problematic.

I think there is a false separation between cultural values and science. Science is inherently dependent on cultural values that influence what questions are worth asking and what properties are worth measuring. The products of science are communicated through cultural means (language) that is subjective and imprecise. Science can tell us the difference between X and Y, but can’t compare them ethically.

We know there are general differences between make and female humans (lets set aside the fact of many who biologically and socially fit somewhere in between those attractors), and those differences were exploited to “prove” that women are the “weaker sex” and therefore subject to different moral and ethical behaviours. Same goes for skin colour and religion.

We treat non-human animals in a totally non-compatible way (in particular in science) with human animals, yet there is little biological difference between non-human mammals and ourselves. (Why would we study them to understand ourselves if they were not highly biologically similar?)

It seems obvious that any moral position could be supported by empirical evidence simply by controlling the variables to be measured, and the definitions of the terms.

If the aim is only survival and reproduction, then those domesticated animals that many of us consume are being morally tortured. Its quite clear you can increase the survival of a creature at the same time as robbing him/her of any quality of life or dignity. Indeed survival != flourish.

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