The Science of Morality

September 7, 2010

When there is talk about science helping to decide morality, all sorts of objections arise. It can’t be done, say skeptical onlookers. “Science only decides what is true about nature,” the typical objection goes, “yet morality isn’t about what nature is like, but only about what humans ought to be doing with their lives.” Indeed, if science is only about what nature has been doing, and what it is doing now, such facts seem very different from what people ought to be doing into the future. But we should look closer to find out where there may be “oughts” in science.

Science is designed to figure out how natural processes work – what events in the world are connected to other events, and what underlying mechanisms are responsible for those connections. Science basically studies things in their relations, and tracks the energetic activities of things as they relate to each through time and space. Advanced science tries to grasp how dominant features of the universe, such as space, time, energy, and mass ultimately relate to each other.

Predictive power is also a result of successful science. With enough information about a situation, science can suggest predictions about how that situation will evolve into the future. This predictive power makes construction and engineering far more effective. Scientific engineering applies the predictive power of science to actual concrete situations where people are trying to modify and control their local environment. Scientific engineering makes better bridges, buildings, and cities possible, along with much of the rest of our modern landscape. Science translates from factual knowledge about what nature is like, into constructive hypotheticals about what humans can do.

Because science yields knowledge about relations, and how those relations can be manipulated into the future, science yields a vast number of constructive hypotheticals for us to apply. These hypotheticals have a basic pattern: If you want to achieve A in situation B, try doing C with your available materials D. This is a proposition with four variables. Applying such constructive hypotheticals requires that you first fill in the three variables A, B, and D. When A, B, and D are set, and placed into the hypothetical proposition, science can often help with determining C – the “constructive” suggestion for what to do to get what is wanted. In a sense, when science determines C in a situation, science determines what people ought to do. This is applied science in the form of constructive engineering.

Like basic science, constructive engineering can be experimentally tested. You can test whether some specific C actually works by executing the completed hypothetical: try doing C in that situation and then verify whether A is later achieved because C was done.

Could science determine morality through application of constructive engineering? The answer is yes. Since morality is a natural feature of human societies, the moral relations among humans is quite visible to the eyes of the sciences, from neuroscience and psychology to sociology and cultural anthropology. Consider the following constructive engineering proposal:

If you want to achieve greater “human flourishing” in “our country,” try “adding civil rights” with your “political structure of society.”  
Whether adding some civil rights is moral, on this constructive model, depends on whether greater human flourishing is achieved as a result. Sounds simple and easy, right?

Well, several curious features of this kind of constructive “social” engineering are obvious. Questions pop up fast. First, who gets to define the criteria for what “human flourishing” specifically is? Second, how can human flourishing be reliably measured across people and populations? Third, is morality really just a means to human flourishing, as if morality is just a means to well-being and happiness? Fourth, what do you do if lots of people regard morality as independent from whatever increases flourishing and happiness? And so forth.

Science could be relevant to determining morality. IF we could agree that morality functions to serve human flourishing/happiness, and IF we could agree on some details about what flourishing/happiness specifically looks like, then constructive social engineering would be possible. But we must first figure out what the proper function of morality is, and what flourishing/happiness looks like. The field of inquiry assigned to pondering these questions has always been ethics.

Two deep questions now arise. First, could science help do the work of ethics, or even replace ethics? Second, even if science can’t directly substitute for ethics, could ethics become more scientific?

I judge that science cannot replace ethics. No scientific field could possibly be designed to empirically confirm that some criteria for flourishing/happiness is correct. A scientific field could start from some chosen criteria (such as what Americans generally regard as flourishing/happiness) and proceed on from there. But that arbitrary selection would limit constructive social engineering to a form of cultural relativism. We can do better than just cultural relativism, as will be explained below. However, cultural relativism is progress over worse alternatives, like leaving morality up to one’s religion or personal whim. To go futher to overcome cultural relativism, we need the sort of objectivity supplied by scientific method. 

Even though science cannot replace ethics, I also judge that ethics can become more scientific. What makes a field of inquiry “scientific” in a general sense is its methodological approach to testing hypotheses and revising hypotheses after observing the consequences. This is the method of intelligence in action. How could ethics become scientific? Only the briefest of hints could be suggested here. Since ethics must look to observable consequences, it must give up any notion that morality is supposed to deal with matters beyond the scope of observable daily life in human experience. The subject matter of a scientific ethics must be objectively natural. A scientific ethics must regard morality as a natural feature of the organic world (and specifically human world, for the most part) since it is us living creatures using morality in our lives. By calling for scientific ethics to be natural, we are not limiting ethics to studying just physical things. This is not a call for materialistic reductionism. Morality will not be discerned among the atoms or the neurons. Morality exists where it is naturally observed to exist: among the interrelations and coordinations of the behaviors of humans (and possibly other species) living in societies.

If ethics can be scientific in its subject matter (inquiring into a natural phenomenon), then it can also (potentially) be scientific in its methodology. A methodology becomes more scientific to the degree that it permits independent duplication and confirmation of its experimental results. The greater the potential independent confirmation, the greater the objectivity of its methodology, and the more secure and trustworthy are any conclusions. Here, the greatest obstacle to universal independent confirmations are disagreements over what constitutes human flourishing. Once again cultural relativism raises its objection: across human cultures, no large agreement over the best way of life could be achieved. Perhaps this is so. However, we would be wise to inaugurate a scientific ethics by first asking where there is widespread agreement across cultures about the minimum conditions and aims of human flourishing and happiness.

Do we see most cultures promoting a roughly similar picture of basic happiness – opportunities for growing and learning, for working and raising families, for contributing to the social life of the community, for some independence of thought and initiative, for some important virtues of wit and character? Indeed we can see such common ground, and the field of ethics should explore this moral landscape. Furthermore, where cultures can agree that promoting basic flourishing is a common problem needing common solutions, then planetary cooperation on morality makes sense to those cultures. The cultures unwilling to promote basic human flourishing, and unable to cooperate with raising basic standards of human well-being, would be diverging from a planetary consensus about ethics. Farewell to ethical relativism -- a global objectivity about morality can be established. The last holdouts would stubbornly cling to conservative tradition or religion, unable to justify their cultural ways.

But everyone had better be ready for criticism -- no sacred cows or ideologies get an exemption from critical intelligence. A scientific ethics will investigate all social institutions and propose reforms to anything involving human well-being. Any family institution, any economic system, any political structure: there will be no public-private divide where some activities are untouchable and privileged. Whether there ought to be boundaries to the social reforms proposed by a scientific ethics cannot itself be a question for scientific ethics. A scientific ethics cannot respect any arbitrary stop-sign that says, "Beyond here you cannot ask about human well-being." Something else, something unyieldingly unintelligent would put a halt to investigations into human flourishing. A judgment that scientific social reform cannot be considered must come from beyond ethics. Religion (God says so), or politics (We've always done it that way), or economics (Beware the iron laws of economics)  usually claim that privilege of halting ethical questioning.

Regardless of where the proper limits to scientific ethics may be, a scientific ethics is entirely possible. We want to be able to promote morality within cultures, and between cultures. Constructive social engineering within cultures is hardly a fantasy. Once you know where to look, it is obvious that cultures (especially modern scientific-minded cultures) have been doing this for a long while. Transcending culture to an even greater objectivity of global morality will require even tougher ethical thinking that few have dared. The hopes for a planetary ethics of constructive social engineering are not foolish, however. Science itself tells us that where people have common experience and common problems, critical intelligence can shine a helpful light.