Historically, morality has not been considered a topic of discussion within the domain of science. Instead, this issue has almost exclusively been within the purview of religion. Increasingly, however, concepts such as moral instinct have gained legitimacy as discussed by scientists such as Steven Pinker and Jonathon Haidt, who argue that there are neurological factors associated with morality and that natural selection has played a fundamental role in shaping universal instinctual moral truths. The evidence for this position is compelling. The question remains: “Can science offer moral guidance?” In other words, should science play a role in helping us discern what is right or wrong? Or does science have to relinquish issues of morality to other social systems based solely on historical precedence?
First of all, the definition of morality has to be accepted. Dictionary.com defines morality as “conformity to the rules of right conduct; moral or virtuous conduct.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy definition of morality reads as follows “descriptively to refer to a code of conduct put forward by a society or, some other group, such as a religion, or accepted by an individual for her own behavior; or normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.” These definitions are devoid of the de facto notion that this concept is values based. Sam Harris argues, and I believe most people would agree, that human values pertain to circumstances that have the positive affect of enhancing the well being of conscious beings. As such, it does not seem like a reach to suggest that science can play a role in setting the parameters of morality.
Quite simply, it can be suggested that there are certain conditions under which humans are more likely to prosper and other conditions under which they are more likely to falter. For instance it is known that children raised in a loving environment where life’s basic needs are provided for, are more likely to grow into happy and productive adults than those raised in hostile and deprived environments. We may intuitively know this, but it is science that provides the evidence for such claims. The profession of psychology devotes considerable resources to this pursuit. As a psychologist myself I employ evidenced based practices as I endeavor to facilitate the betterment of my clients’ lives. Why is it then, that we dismiss the influences of science when we discuss morals? At a recent TED Conference Sam Harris posed this very question.
I suggest, as did Harris, that science is very capable of pointing us, as a society, in the right direction when it comes to morals and values. Russell Blackford wrote in his post on Harris’ speech that “…science can give us information about what individual conduct, moral systems, laws, and so on are likely to lead to such plausible goals for ….. individual and collective human flourishing, social survival, and reduction of suffering. Any source of information about what will lead to goals such as these has some moral authority.”
Harris argues that it boils down to understanding the conditions that lead to human flourishing – and accepting that these conditions are fundamental facts that should serve as the basis of universal morals. He further contends that there are distinctly problematic values within our current human systems that run counter to human flourishing. For example he discusses the costs of the extremist cultural expectation for women of Islam to wear burkas (and the brutal costs of non-compliance). He contrasts this with the unrealistically perfect portrayal of the female body in modern western cultures. Neither of these circumstances promotes healthy thriving circumstances for young women.
He also argues that religion should not be given a pass when it comes to the values they promote just because of their religious status. The natural deference given to religion in our “pluralistic” society in fact, promotes many clearly harmful practices (including the prohibition of birth control, the denial of civil liberties for homosexual couples, sanctioned murder of victims of rape to preserve the honor of the family, male foreskin and in some cultures clitoral circumcision, and the application of prayer in lieu of modern medical services particularly for ill children). Values rendered in distant Bronze Age cultures and sustained based on ideology are far from being in touch with those values that are likely to promote healthy human development today.
Individuals suffer, indeed society as a whole suffers when these or similar prohibitions and/or expectations thrive. Science, it seems to me is far more capable of really looking at the human and societal costs of such “values.” Harris suggests that “Morality is certainly a domain where knowledge and expertise applies.” We need to “bring into our dialogue the issues of these truths of right and wrong.” By accepting that values are drawn based on quality of life issues pertaining to the greater good of all, and by accepting that there are certain truths pertaining to life experiences that either enhance or impinge upon the well being of the human conscious, then isn’t the domain of science to draw out these truths?
Blackford, Russell. 2010. Sam Harris on Science and Morality. Metamagician and the Hellfire Club. http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2010/03/sam-harris-on-science-and-morality.html
Harris, Sam. 2010. Science can answer moral questions. TED Conference. http://www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right.html