Science and Morality Wrapup

In this last post in this series on morality I want to try to tie together some of the seemingly disparate paths we’ve traveled down these past two weeks. I began with an argument for the need to consider scientific knowledge when thinking about morality and moral standards, and further made the argument that any defense of absolute moral standards without taking this knowledge into consideration is doomed to fail.

The studies discussed in this series are important for us to consider, because they show that our moral standards are fundamentally based on our moral intuitions, and that these moral intuitions exist because of the particular neurophysiological make up of our brains. Further, this physiology exists in a particular state because of the evolutionary history that our brains evolved under. This indicates that our moral standards, far from being self evident truths of the universe, are themselves dependent on very particular physical manifestations of genetically replicating organisms. The very basis for making a statement like “treat equals equally” falls out from under us, in light of considerations such as the fact that how we treat other people, may be dependent on certain areas of the brain that allow us to understand the intentions of those people. A statement like “unnecessary suffering is wrong” is dependent on systems able to manifest pain and suffering. Whether we help a drowning child at cost of $500 to us or choose not to help countless children for that same $500 may depend more on the relative activation of specific cognitive subsystems that evolved throughout our evolutionary history, and not so much on a process of rational moral deliberation.

This is all description though, and tell us nothing about how to act. For those that have been reading this series with the hope that I would discuss whether science can tell us right from wrong, I feel I owe a short discussion of some ways to proceed from here. Are there any substantive claims we can make with which to base a moral system off of? I’ve taken pains not to defend any particular moral system, only to talk about the factors that can influence one. But I would like lay some very basic groundwork. This isn’t a fully developed system by any means, but something to think about. While considering all the facts we’ve been discussing we can state two important truths about the nature of our existence. We have evolved to in general avoid harm and to seek pleasure. Or to be more accurate, we evolved mechanisms to produce pleasure in response to, or to promote, behaviors that helped our ancestors propagate. And conversely, we evolved mechanisms to produce pain in response to, or to discourage, behaviors that were a detriment to survival. Given the nature of our neurobiology we have strong negative reactions to pain, both physical and emotional, and strong positive reactions to pleasure. This is a valid starting point, but left alone leaves the door wide open for hedonistic systems of morality that few would argue would be truly moral. A further fact worth considering is that we evolved in social groups, and individuals that were best able to propagate within those social systems, partly by understanding and relating to their group members, passed on their genes. It is easy to understand how systems of reciprocal altruism could have developed, increasing the reproductive success of both the individual, and the group. This leaves us today in a state where emotions, such as guilt and shame, and happiness and pride, do not exist within vacuums, but are inextricably linked to how we interact with others in our social environment.

Ethics in the end is about the differential mental states of conscious beings. The endeavor of ethics and morality is to determine which states we wish to promote and which states we wish to discourage. Accepting this allows us to evaluate behaviors that can best lead to produce positive outcomes for the individual, taking into account the link these positive outcomes have with our broader social networks, and the social nature of our psychological makeup. While a comprehensive scientific algorithm for moral behavior may forever be out of our reach due to the sheer complexity of the undertaking, by viewing morality through the lens of science we can realistically expect to at the bare minimum determine valuable guidelines that will maximize the well being of conscious creatures.