IEET > Rights > HealthLongevity > Vision > Contributors > Massimo Pigliucci > FreeThought > CyborgBuddha
Toward a Science of Morality

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.)

...I begin with a Principle of Moral Good: Always act with someone else’s moral good in mind, and never act in a way that leads to someone else’s moral loss...

Well, that sounds good (and mighty close to Kant’s famous categorical imperative), except for the significant degree of begging the question hidden in Michael’s principle (but not in Kant’s). What is a moral good? Reading the principle as it stands I would have pretty much no idea of how to actually act, or whether my acting would lead to someone else’s moral good or loss.

...Even if there is a God, divine command theory was refuted 2500 years ago by Plato through his “Euthyphro’s dilemma”...

Good point. So we have at least one example of a philosopher arriving at a major — and still standing — conclusion about morality regardless of empirical evidence or scientific insight...

...The Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) has a severe limitation to it: What if the moral receiver thinks differently from the moral doer? ... This is why in my book The Science of Good and Evil I introduced the Ask-First Principle: To find out whether an action is right or wrong ask first.

Besides the fact that the golden rule is strictly speaking a religious, not a philosophical precept, I don’t see the difference at all. The ask-first principle seems to suffer from precisely the same problem as the golden rule. What if someone wanted to be hurt, or humiliated, or being treated as inferior? Would that make it ok? It’s not just 12-yr old girls belonging to the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (to use Michael’s example) who may be morally incompetent or not sufficiently mature.

Most men, for example, are much more receptive toward unsolicited offers of sex than are women.

This is just a parenthetical observation, Michael, but that study has been debunked, together with a lot of the other questionable “science” about gender we get from a certain brand of evolutionary psychology...

... applying evolutionary theory to not only the origins of morality but to its ultimate foundation as well, it seems to me that the individual is a reasonable starting point...

Two problems here: first, Michael confuses evolutionary explanations for the origin of morality with the much more complex, and extremely culturally dependent, context of modern-day moral decision making. Natural selection has pretty much nothing to tell us about under what circumstances abortion may be acceptable or not, whether we should pursue drone warfare, or whether health and education should be considered as human rights. Second, morality is an inherently social phenomenon, so I’d say that the individual is precisely the wrong place to start.

... The survival and flourishing of the individual is the foundation for establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality.

Natural selection has everything to do with survival (and reproduction), but pretty much nothing to do with flourishing. The latter, in turn, is an inherently cultural concept, that is difficult to articulate and whose specifics vary with time and geography. Which means that Michael’s “smooth transition” between is and ought is anything but smooth.

In his annual letter Bill Gates outlined how and why the progress of the human condition can best be implemented when tracked through scientific data...

This seems to me a good example of a recurring confusion on the part of those who claim that science can answer moral questions. No philosopher would doubt Gates’ statement. But that data becomes relevant only after one has already engaged in moral judgment and decided that we ought to reduce poverty. It is, rather, a very sensible way to check whether our actual policies are having the desired effect. Shermer et al. seem to confuse ethics with social policy. It is the first that informs the second, not the other way around.

This is why Bill Gates is backing with his considerable wealth and talent the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals program...

Good for Gates. But Bill Gates has also decided that public education is a rotten concept and has put his considerable wealth and talent in the service of undermining it. I think that was a bad decision, and yet I’m sure Mr. Gates can easily produce statistics that measure how well his misguided policy is being implemented.

A second example may be found on the opposite end of the economic scale in a study conducted for the National Bureau of Economic Research entitled “Subjective Well-Being, Income, Economic Development and Growth” by the University of Pennsylvania economists Daniel Sacks, Betsey Stevenson, and Justin Wolfers, in which they compared survey data on subjective well-being (“happiness”) with income and economic growth rates in 140 countries.

I am aware of that sort of survey, and I appreciate their value, as is clear in several chapters of my Answers for Aristotle (where I explore the relationship between science and philosophy in a number of areas of human interest, from morality to love). But “subjective” well-being has little to do with morality, since it is about the psychological satisfaction of an individual. That satisfaction can be easily increased by just hooking said individual to a perpetual drug machine, as philosopher Robert Nozick famously pointed out, something that can straightforwardly be argued would actually be morally wrong. Besides, again, morality is about how we behave towards others, not about how happy we feel.

Why does money matter morally? Because it leads to a higher standard of living. Why does a higher standard of living matter morally? Because it increases the probability that an individual will survive and flourish. Why does survival and flourishing matter morally? Because it is the basis of the evolution of all life on earth through natural selection.

Given what I have written so far, and in my previous post, I’ll leave it to the reader to unpack the above chain of reasoning and show where he goes wrong (hint: there are at two problems with it, but I may have missed an additional one or two).

The fact that there may be many types of democracies (direct v. representative) and economies (with various trade agreements or membership in trading blocks) only reveals that human survival and flourishing is multi-faceted and multi-causal, and not that because there is more than one way to survive and flourish means that all political, economic, and social systems are equal.

I’m afraid this is a straight straw man. To my knowledge, no moral or political philosopher has argued that “all political, economic, and social systems are equal,” so I don’t think this requires a response, except insofar as it shows that science enthusiasts tend to read little philosophy, moral or otherwise. (Which, of course, is fine, except when they then go on to make major claims about the limitations of moral philosophy.)

We know that belief in supernatural sorcery and witchcraft and their concomitant consequences of torturing and murdering those so accused is wrong because it decreases the survival and flourishing of individuals — just ask first the woman about to be torched. ... The ultimate solution is science and education in understanding the natural causes of things and the debunking of supernatural beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft. And it is science that tells us why witchcraft and sorcery is immoral.

Not at all. Science tells us that witchcraft and sorcery are unfounded superstitions, not that they are immoral. If they were real, and people really used them to kill innocents, then it would be perfectly moral to prosecute the perpetrators (though not to burn them alive. But again, why not? Because we think torture and the death penalty are immoral on ethical grounds, since they respectively cause needless suffering and are done out of revenge, neither of which are morally salient reasons). Also, about Shermer’s “just ask” principle: clearly it won’t work. Just ask the murderer who is serving life in prison if he’d rather do something else with his life. Certainly his ability to flourish has been curtailed by society, but presumably this is happening because of a (philosophically) justified moral judgment.

There seem to be two major sources of error in Michael’s reasoning about science and morality. First, his insistence on evidence-based decisions is perfectly appropriate to the implementation of policies, but it is entirely unclear how it applies to the sort of issues that moral philosophers actually discuss. Just as an exercise, try reading any chapter of Michael Sandel’s Justice and let me know which of the questions that Sandel discusses so clearly would be settled by empirical evidence. Again, empirical evidence is relevant to our ethical choices but it grossly underdetermines them.

Second, Michael keeps talking about survival and flourishing in a single breadth, invoking natural selection as working to increase both. This is absolutely wrong. Natural selection increases survival, and even that only insofar as it assures reproduction (after that, good luck to you, my friend!). Selection has nothing whatsoever to do with flourishing, the realization of which completely breaks any evolutionarily based “smooth transition” between is and ought. Not to mention, of course, that Michael should know that natural selection likely also produced a number of nasty behavioral patterns in humans (e.g., xenophobia), which we have been trying  — in good part through philosophizing about them! — to get rid of throughout the past couple of millennia.

So, again, science — or more broadly, factual evidence — most certainly has a place at the high table of any meaningful discussion about how to achieve human goals and fulfill human desires. But philosophical reflection remains central to ethics because ethics is about reasoning on the implications of and conflicts generated by those goals and desires. To put it as Kant did: “Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.”

Massimo Pigliucci has a Doctorate in Genetics from the University of Ferrara (Italy), a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He has done post-doctoral research in evolutionary ecology at Brown University and is currently Chair of the Philosophy Department at Lehman College and Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of biology, in particular the structure and foundations of evolutionary theory, the relationship between science and philosophy, the relationship between science and religion, and the nature of pseudoscience.


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.

YOUR COMMENT Login or Register to post a comment.

Next entry: Urban Data Challenge

Previous entry: Things only a zillionaire could do to save America