On the Relevance of Science to Morality

In a critique of the recent Pinker essay on “scientism,” Jalees Rehman writes,

While a question such as “Can issues of morality be answered by scientific experiments?” may be important, introducing the term “scientism” with all its baggage distracts from addressing the question in a rational manner.

He certainly has a point, but what about the question itself?  Can issues of morality be answered by scientific experiments?  One answer to the question, as absurd as it is famous, was given by Steven Jay Gould.  He claimed that science can’t answer moral questions because science and religion belong to “non-overlapping magisteria,” and issues of morality belong in the magisterium of religion.    This “solution” relies on two separate fallacies of objectification; that there is a “science” object, and that separate, independent objects known as “issues of morality” also exist.  In the first place, there is no such thing as a science “thing,” and in the second, good and evil have no independent existence as things-in-themselves.

In fact, issues of morality can’t be answered by scientific experiments because there are no such entities as issues of morality.  Experiments can’t examine things that don’t exist.  No one has ever invented a butterfly net good enough to capture so much as a single “good” or “evil” as it floats about through the ether.  It turns out that they are more elusive by far than magnetic monopoles, for the very good reason that they don’t exist.  It’s amazing how few evolutionary psychologists and others who appear to accept the evolutionary origin of moral emotions fail to grasp this fundamental fact.  Moral emotions are part of the behavioral repertoire of several species of animals, including human beings.  As such they cannot somehow transcend their fundamental nature as emotions in the minds of individual animals and acquire some sort of independent legitimacy.  It is a testament to the power of these emotions that these seemingly obvious implications of their evolutionary origins are so often simply overlooked.  It is not uncommon to find people who should know better alluding to a transcendental morality complete with “good” and “evil” objects in the very context of discussions of those origins.

A typical example appears in an essay by Michael Price on the This View of Life website of group selection proponent David Sloan Wilson.  In an essay entitled “Why Evolutionary Science Is The Key To Moral Progress” he writes,

We’d be better able to move on from these disputes in productive ways—and thus to make moral progress—if we could better understand our own moral beliefs. But how can we do this when our beliefs seem so opaque to introspection? It’s easy to feel passionate about our beliefs, but how can we see behind our emotions, to find out where our beliefs came from and whether they are leading us to where we want to go? Evolutionary science provides the key to such moral progress.

When I say that evolutionary science is the key to moral progress, there’s at least one thing I don’t mean and two things I do mean.

What I don’t mean is that the evolutionary process itself can provide guidance about right or wrong. If something increased or increases reproductive fitness, does that mean we should judge it as morally good? Of course not; I agree with philosophers who identify such thinking as a flawed ‘appeal to nature’ or ‘naturalistic fallacy’. Consider behavioral outputs of what are probably evolved psychological adaptations: many of these (e.g. xenophobia) could usually be considered bad, whereas many others (e.g. parental investment) could usually be considered good. By the same token, many behaviors that are probably by-products of evolved adaptations (e.g. reading and mathematics) could be judged as good, whereas many others (e.g. crippling drug addiction) could be judged as bad. Suffice it to say: whether or not a behavior is adaptive, or whether it is the product or by-product of an evolved adaptation, implies nothing about its moral value.

Here, in the very context of a discussion of “evolved psychological adaptations,” we have an explicit statement of faith in the objective existence of such mystical entities as “good,” “bad,” “moral progress,” and “moral value.”

Obviously, Price does not consider it in the least necessary to explain his bald assumption that such objects actually exist independently of his own subjective perceptions.  However, he can get away with this rational disconnect, because he can safely assume that his readers experience similar subjective perceptions.  They, too, perceive “good,” “bad,” etc., as things.  They do so, not because they really are objects and things-in-themselves, but because their perception as such has enhanced the probability that the individuals who experience them in that way will survive and reproduce.  As far as evolution by natural selection is concerned, that’s all that matters.  Evolution is a process, not a thing, and as such is not equipped to appreciate the rational inconsistency of “seeing” things that don’t exist.

Which brings us back to the title of this essay.  Is science relevant to morality?  Assuming we are not too finicky about the meaning of the word “science,” we can say that it is relevant to understanding the nature of moral emotions, and the reasons for their existence.  However, when it comes to understanding “good” and “evil” as things, science is, indeed, useless.  It is not possible to investigate objects that don’t exist using the scientific or any other method.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

3 thoughts on “On the Relevance of Science to Morality”

  1. Interesting critique, but here’s a problem for you. Price mentions xenophobia as an evolved behavior that we can nevertheless object to as immoral. If morality is defined by whatever we have evolved to feel like doing, however, then I don’t understand how it’s possible for the human mind to consider his own evolved behavior as “evil” and seek to suppress it. All of our moral systems would be predicated on the assumption that xenophobia and we would not have the phenomenon of anti-racism or what not. But if it turns out that we CAN critique our own behavior, where does that come from?

  2. You appear to be assuming that (Michael) Price is a genetic determinist, that is, one who claims that xenophobia is hard-wired in our genes. I doubt it, although he was sloppy in the way he expressed himself on the subject. It’s more likely that what he meant to say was that xenophobia is a potential behavior that may result, depending on experience and culture, from the human tendency to perceive the rest of humanity in terms of ingroups and outgroups. That predisposition is, indeed, “hardwired,” but the particular identity of ingroups and outgroups is not.

    Given the open-ended nature of outgroup selection, there is nothing particularly surprising about criticism of those who we imagine have selected what we consider an inappropriate outgroup. In terms of moral behavior, it merely amounts to perceiving those who choose the “wrong” outgroup as themselves an outgroup.

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