The claim is so often made that it has become a cliche: “Science cannot tell you what you ought to do”. The mantra that morality is a domain to which science has no access is oft-repeated by the religious, anxious to demark some sphere where religion can reign, free of irritating demands for evidence.
Such attempts to limit science’s scope are often accepted by scientists, notably Steve Gould’s tribe of NOMAds, who divide the world’s knowledge into “non-overlapping magisteria”, among which science is only “one way of knowing”. Any suggestion that science applies everywhere is derided as “scientism”. Indeed, some, such as C.S Lewis and Francis Collins, will go further, and argue that the inability of science to explain morality is an argument for God.
Yet, to many scientists, the world doesn’t seem to be divided into different spheres, with clearly demarked no-go zones where science’s methods suddenly cease to work and science comes to a shuddering halt. For example there is no clear divide between biology and chemistry, only a seamless transition that we call biochemistry.
And, if the world is seamless, then, for any question knowable to humans, science is the tool for knowing the answer (or, stating the same less provocatively, any tool that produces such an answer is a tool under the broad umbrella of science, using the same methods that work elsewhere in the seamless realm of knowledge).
So, can science answer questions about morality? Yes it can. After all, moral judgements by humans are a feature of the natural world and so are just as accessible to science as other aspects of the natural world.
The suggestion to the contrary arises principally from a fundamental confusion about what morality is, such that moral questions are often ill-posed. To explain why science can indeed answer moral questions I thus need to start with explaining morality.
1: Absolute Ethics
Perhaps the biggest red-herring in mankind’s history has been the quest for the false grail of Absolute Ethics, the idea that there is an Absolute Shouldness Scale, and that if we could consult the scale we would know for sure whether we “should” do X or “should” do Y or “should not” do Z.
Well, there isn’t. At least, no-one has ever found one, nor has anyone produced a coherent account of how such a scale could have arisen or even what it would mean. While some might want to regard “shouldness” as one of the fundamental properties of the universe, along with gravitational mass or electric charge, they have produced no good reason for so thinking.
Hankering after Absolute Ethics is the source of nearly all the confusion about moral questions. In order to think clearly about morality one needs to reject any concept of Absolute Ethics, no matter how intuitive the idea may seem to humans.
So what is morality? Our moral senses are part of our evolutionary programming. Humans are highly social and highly cooperative animals, and in order to interact with each other productively we need rules and mores for how we interact. Our moral senses are thus a social lubricant and a social glue. And, as with anything produced by evolution, they have been cobbled together in a pragmatic and utilitarian way, that will have depended only on whether they worked (in the sense of enabling our cooperative and social way of life).
Thus there is nothing Absolute about our moral senses, they are cobbled together to be effective enough for the job, in the same way that our livers, lungs, immune systems and visual systems have been cobbled together as effective enough to do their job. We do not need an Absolute ethical system, any more than we need an Absolute immune system or an Absolute liver; a functional one is quite sufficient.
Our human moral senses will be specific to our species, because that’s their job, enabling social cooperation within our species. Other species would evolve different and incompatible moral senses in the same way that they evolve different and incompatible livers and lungs and visual systems.
Thus moral judgements are human “ought” feelings about the behaviour of other humans (though other species might also have their own morality). In this sense “moral” judgements are among a range of emotions and feelings that evolution has equipped us with, along with aesthetic senses and sexual feelings.
In order for our moral senses to do their job, a moral judgement needs to matter to the person who makes it, it needs to seem important. And it will carry more weight if it seems to be not just an arbitrary opinion, but instead to be Absolute. And thus, in order for our moral senses to best do their job, evolution will have programmed us with the illusion that they are a manifestation of Absolute Ethics, and that our moral judgements are Absolute. And because evolution is an effective programmer, many people cling to that illusion.
Humans are one of the most homogeneous animals, with low levels of genetic diversity, and thus human nature is very similar across our species. This means that moral judgements will have strong similarities across our species, and this might reinforce the impression that they relate to an Absolute Shouldness Scale; but that would be anthropocentric projection of what matters to humans onto nature and onto the universe as a whole.
Anthropocentric projection of human concerns onto nature is, of course, a speciality of theologians, and hence, throughout history, they have attempted to project their illusory Absolute Shouldness Scale onto either a panoply of gods or a lone supreme God.
2: Divine Ethics
The commonest attempt to establish an Absolute Shouldness Scale is to embody it in a god: “It is right because my god says so”. Since our moral senses are human moral senses, it makes sense to embody them in an Absolute version of a human, imagining God in man’s own image, as an idealised tribal patriarch. By doing so one can ignore the reality — that religions get their morality from people — and claim instead that people get their morality from religion.
Unfortunately, any attempt at establishing Divine Ethics suffers from fatal flaws, the most blatant being that there is no evidence for any such divine being. Equally problematic is that it doesn’t actually explain morality. Just saying “it’s a property of god” is not an explanation, it is accepting morality without explanation. By contrast, an emergence of morality in social animals, as evolutionary programming to facilitate cooperation, explains what morality is and where it comes from.
Since appeal to Divine Ethics provides no actual explanation, it leaves divine morality entirely arbitrary. This was noticed long ago by Socrates, who asked, in what has become known as the Euthyphro dilemma: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”
If the former, then there needs to be a standard of morality independent of God, which refutes the whole point of appealing to God as the anchor of ethics.
If the latter then that admits that morality is arbitrary: under the “divine command theory”, if God were a vicious sadist, then vicious sadism would be “moral”. Unless you subscribe to “might makes right”, there is no more reason to make God the arbiter of morals than there is to make a random person living in San Francisco the arbiter of morals.
One alternative to “might makes right” is to claim that an act of creating people confers a right to dictate their morality. However, this is again an arbitrary claim, and would imply that if a sadistic God created people in order to enjoy torturing them then torture and sadism would be good.
Some theologians will indeed follow this logic. For example William Lane Craig has argued that mass slaughter and genocide (as reported in the Old Testament) was not immoral because it was willed by God. One can have a certain admiration for someone who sticks to his guns, following a train of reasoning to a crackpot conclusion, long after the point when sensible people would have started to doubt their premises.
For those theologians who recoil from the implications of arbitrarily slapping the label “good” onto whoever is the Biggest Cheese in the universe, the usual attempt at rebuttal is to argue that goodness is encapsulated in God’s “nature”, and that God could not be anything other than “good”. This appeals to theologians because they conceive of their god as an embodiment of everything they most value in humans, and so include the best of human morality as a key part of their conception.
However, this is simply wordplay to confuse the Euthyphro dilemma rather than rebut it. What does the statement “God’s nature is to be good” mean? It either means that when judged against some standard of goodness independent of God, that God is found to be “good” (in which case we’re back to square one in defining “goodness”; though the honest answer would be that their god-conception is good as created by and judged against their own human moral standards), or it means that whatever God’s nature is, we’ll call it “good” (in which case we’re back to the arbitrariness of divine command theory, including the idea that under a sadistic god sadism would be “good”). The theologians may attempt to confuse the issue with verbiage, but they have not produced a rebuttal.
The last major flaw in ascribing morality to the omnipotent God envisaged by the Abrahamic religions, a flaw noted long ago by Epicurus, is that there is no evidence in the world around us for divine interventions for moral purposes, even where any moral human with the power to intervene would do so. This “problem of evil” can only sensibly be explained by the non-existence of God, though some theologians will try to get round it by redefining “moral” or “omnipotent” to something other than “moral” and “omnipotent”.
For example theologians might appeal to “free-will” as a good that necessitates and outweighs any resulting evil. However, a God who cannot achieve a higher good without unpleasant side effects is not omnipotent. Such a God is not the designer of the logic and nature of the universe, but is instead a constrained being, subject to the universe’s nature (and, further, the free-will plea doesn’t even begin to defend God against natural evil).
So where are we with morality? We are left with two possible meanings of morality.
3: Emotion Ethics
The only anchor for “morality” is in the feelings and emotions of humans. This is the primary meaning of “morality”, and has to be primary because our morality originates out of the feelings and emotions that evolution has programmed us with. One immediate clarification: it may seem that in anchoring morality in “mere” feelings and emotions I am (compared to the dream of Absolute Ethics) somewhat belittling it. I am not: human feelings and emotions are the only things that are important to us; I am thus attaching to morality the highest importance.
So what is moral, to a human, is what that human feels to be moral. (That is close to a tautology, but isn’t, since it precludes any of the other possible meanings of “morality” discussed above and below.)
But, you might point out, two humans may and often do differ in their moral judgements. Indeed so. So which of them is right? If you ask that question you are hankering after Absolute Ethics; you are asking where on the Absolute Shouldness Scale comes Jim’s opinion compared to Fred’s. But there is no such scale, so the question “which is right?” is ill-posed and can’t be answered. And it can’t be answered not because “science cannot answer it”, but because it has no answer. So, “Jim judges X to be moral” is meaningful, as is “Fred judges X to be immoral”, but the question “which of them is right?” is nonsensical, because the word “right” in that isolated sentence is not anchored, since there is no Absolute Shouldness Scale.
Since human nature is similar worldwide there will be wide agreement on many moral issues across society and internationally. Of course, though, on many issues opinion will differ. So which course of action should society adopt?, and can science tell us?
Again, the very question hankers after Absolute Ethics, since the unspoken meaning of “should” as used in that question is how it scores on the Absolute Shouldness Scale. You can argue for your moral opinion, but you can’t argue that it is more “right”, no matter how much evolution may have programmed you to consider your own opinion to be the “right” one in an absolute sense. On which point, recent studies reveal that humans tend to project from “I want X” to the claim “God wants X”.
4: Consequence Ethics
One can argue that “morality” is aimed at increasing human contentment and quality of life, and can suggest that whatever leads to the greatest contentment is the most moral action. This stance has a long history, from the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill to writers today such as Sam Harris.
There is a lot to be said for this stance. It is, indeed, close to the “human emotion” explanation of ethics, since human contentment and quality of life can only be determined by reference to our emotions and feelings. There is a difference, though, in that a person might be mistaken about the consequences of their morals. Thus there is a distinction between what a person judges to be moral and whether it does lead to a greater contentment and quality of life.
The classical Utilitarians, Bentham and Mill, wrote extensively about how to aggregate the “quality of life” calculation across all the peoples of society, to arrive at an overall most-moral instruction. And they floundered badly, coming up only with arbitrary summations (ones often biased to people like themselves). That whole attempt at aggregation was misguided: it was essentially an attempt to map utilitarian ethics onto an Absolute Shouldness Scale, and thus attain an Absolute judgement of what is moral. But there is no such scale, no matter how much we or they might hanker after it.
So can science answer moral questions?
Where does this leave morality and can science answer moral questions? Let’s list some moral questions which are properly posed and thus have answers:
Does Fred judge X to be moral? Do the majority of people in France judge Y to be immoral? Would implementing Z lead to increased quality of life? If we implement W, which many people want, will that lead to a minority being very unhappy? Is that unhappiness going to lead to social strife that would leave the majority less content? Can we educate people such that they change their opinion that Q is immoral to the opinion that Q is acceptable? Would people come to like or accept R over time?
All of the above are properly posed questions. And all of them can be answered by the tools of science. Humans are, after all, natural animals, and the study of them and their attitudes and feelings is just as properly a scientific subject as the study of sub-atomic particles. This science we call anthropology, with subdivisions such as social anthropology.
Admittedly humans are vastly more complicated than sub-atomic particles, so the task may be much harder, but that doesn’t mean science cannot address it; nor does it mean that science is the wrong tool to address it; nor does it mean that some other tool from some other “magisterium” (such as theology) would succeed better.
Let’s also list some other statements that are properly constructed statements about morality:
Paul thinks that X is immoral, and argues vociferously with this acquaintances to persuade them of this. Jim would like society to adopt Y, and is campaigning for that end. David thinks that Jim is wrong, and is standing for election to try to vote down any such law. The people of Murabia think that Z is highly moral; however the evidence is that a society where Z is prevalent is overall more unhappy with a lower quality of life than similar societies where people readily accept Z. Implementing Q increases the contentment of some of the population but decreases it for others.
Again, all of those statements are ones for which science — interpreting “science” in a broad sense of evidence-based enquiry and reason-based interpretation of data, and encompassing the social sciences — is the correct tool to discern truth.
Now let’s consider some moral statements and questions that are ill-posed and invalid because the question has no meaning, unless it is re-phrased and turned into a properly constructed statement or question, similar to those above.
Should we do X? The majority favour Y, but a vociferous minority oppose it, so would it be wrong for the majority to impose Y? It would be wrong to do Z, since Jane and Sarah would be unhappy about it. We should not allow Q, even though many want it.
Taken in the abstract, these questions and statements are all attempts to read off a yes/no answer from the Absolute Shouldness Scale, and as such they cannot be answered since there is no such scale.
They are akin to asking “Does chocolate taste nice?” Not, “Does Fred think it tastes nice?”, or “Do most humans think it tastes nice?”, but an abstract “Does it taste nice?” as though there were an Absolute Taste-Niceness Scale.
Similarly, “should” questions only make sense referred to some goal or to someone making the judgement. “Should I take the parcel or leave it here?” cannot be answered in the abstract, and nor can moral “should”s. This stance does not take the “should” factor out of morality, instead it explains it and properly locates it as the value judgement of a human.
One could argue that the question “Should we do Y?” is a shorthand for “Do *you* think we should do Y”, or “Would doing Y increase our contentment?” If so, then fine. And then the long-form of the question is properly posed, and can be answered by science.
However, the oft-stated claim that “Science cannot tell you what you ought to do” is essentially the statement that science cannot give you a mapping onto the Absolute Shouldness Scale of Absolute Ethics. Yes, we know that, but that’s not because of any limitation of science, that’s because there is no such scale, no such Absolute Ethics. Science cannot give you a trajectory to the planet Vulcan either.
But science can indeed answer any properly posed moral question. All that is needed is clarity of thought about what question you are actually asking. So science can indeed answer moral questions; but don’t expect any easy answers about what you “should” do.