What can science tell us about morality?

This is the first in a series of six posts on the relationship between science and morality. A new entry will be posted every other day until the series is complete. Enjoy!

There is a famous philosophical thought experiment created by Peter Singer that goes something like this; you are walking down the street and you see a small child drowning in a shallow pond. You can jump in and save the child easily, but in the process you will ruin your $500 suit. Any sane person would say it is your moral obligation to save this child, and if you didn’t, I think most people would judge you very harshly to say the least. That same $500 can prevent the death of one, if not many more children if you give it to charity. But if you choose not to give this money to charity, and instead buy a new $500 suit, few people would express scorn or indignation towards you. We judge these two scenarios differently. Why? What does this tell us about our moral standards, if anything?

It would be presumptuous of me to jump to the conclusion that human beings follow a moral precept that says, “help those in need…IF they are within eyesight.” And yet if we really take a minute and think about the predicament of countless people we could help every moment of our lives, but choose not to, it would be difficult to create a logically defensible argument about the different moral judgments of these contrasting situations. Not impossible mind you, but the very fact that we can recognize a defense does need to be made, should make us question our intuitions. Is the thought experiment above truly a situation where our moral intuitions are in error? Or is there a moral prescription which could be said, at the very least, to explain that the decision to refrain from donating that expendable money was not in fact an immoral one? And while we’re at it, are there specific moral prescriptions we should live by? Is morality absolute or is it relative? How do we know what is right and what is wrong?

These are some of the oldest questions in philosophy, and research in the cognitive sciences in recent years has opened up new ways to think about these old philosophical debates. Moral dilemmas and decisions, like in the drowning child story, are always about specific actions and situations, but what we do in those situations is based on values. It is these values we must address in a conversation about morality. So before I delve into the specific scientific research I find relevant, I want to lay some groundwork by thinking about a hypothetical moral prescription that said, “unnecessary suffering is wrong” and how it could be analyzed philosophically and scientifically. Few of us would disagree with this statement about suffering. And yet how do we go about analyzing its truth value? There are very few serious moral relativists these days, even those of us without religious reasons for believing so, will tend to find ourselves defending some notion of universal moral truths. Of course unnecessary suffering is wrong! It’s so obviously true we might as well call it an absolute truth.

But I want to argue that we need more justification if we want to make this claim. Why? Here is just one example of an argument I find compelling. The very idea of suffering is contingent on an organism able to suffer, able to feel pain. Feeling pain is contingent on having pain receptors that send signals to a brain awash in neurotransmitters, which facilitate conscious experience for an organism. Those systems are contingent on an evolutionary history, where the differential survival of an organism depended on its ability to react negatively to averse or harmful stimuli in its environment, thus allowing it to successfully pass on its genes. In short, pain evolved so we would know to stay away from it. Without this very specific series of steps, the whole idea of suffering is non-sensical. Can a creature that doesn’t feel pain (or feel anything) suffer?  Does a rock suffer? The notions of pain and suffering turn out to be dependent on certain conditions holding.

For an absolute moral truth like this to exist in the universe, you would have to argue that organisms that can feel pain are an inevitable result of evolution by natural selection. Not only that, you would have to argue that natural selection itself is an intrinsic property of a universe, and that organic life is the inevitable result of the existence of that universe. I see no reason to make that claim, and imagine anyone would be hard pressed to defend it. Also worth mentioning, is that if that statement IS true, it begs the question of WHY it is an objective truth of existence that suffering is bad. How does an abstract concept weave itself into the fabric of space/time? Who or what infused the universe with this truth? These are questions either without answers, or answers we will never have. I present a more practical approach.

When contemplating our moral roots, let’s not forget that we are physical creatures that evolved in a three dimensional environment, to survive in the conditions in which our ancestors lived. Seasoned philosophers will accuse me of committing the naturalistic fallacy (that which is natural is good), to which I say…hear me out. I am not making the claim that the tendencies we evolved are automatically “good”, but more uncontroversially (hopefully), that understanding our morality descriptively, is a necessary precursor to forming a prescriptive moral theory. Creating an ethical system, of system of “how” to act, first involves understanding “why” we act. How did we come to be the way that we are?

This is no easy task. It involves integrating information from biology, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, and our evolutionary history. It takes an understanding of how we’re wired up, what our predispositions and tendencies are, how those tendencies developed, and how they helped us in the past. What makes us feel bad and why? Why do we have certain senses of what is right and what is wrong, and where did they come from? Can we explain why we think buying the $500 suit is okay, but refusing to ruin it is not okay? And if so, where do we go from there?  I believe these questions can be addressed by looking at the facts of our ancestry, and our current society, and the nature of its social communities. Not so we can dictate that we must act on all those influences (every time we use birth control we act against our biology), but to have a larger base of understanding from which to judge our behavior. This is where science can play a crucial role in understanding and explaining morality, and next time we’ll began exploring how.

  1. Science and Morality
  2. Moral Intuitions vs. Moral Standards
  3. Philosophical Hypotheticals
  4. Emotion and Rationality
  5. Theory of Mind and Moral Judgments
  6. Morality Wrap-up
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