Understanding a Science of Morality

Photo via Alexandra

In the following post I will attempt to organize some of my thoughts on what constitutes a “science of morality.” I believe there are two main projects for science as it relates to morality:

  1. Explain human behavior through the evolutionary process
  2. Rationalize patterns of behavior we ought to follow or avoid via utility or “well being”

These projects should be considered distinct from one another and we should be careful not to conflate them. Conflating projects 1 and 2 would make the mistake of committing the naturalistic fallacy. Just because something is natural does not make it good. Likewise, just because something is unnatural does not make it bad. Social Darwinism is in no way a moral ideal- but understanding the implications of natural selection is of great importance for developing a science of morality.

Let’s look at project 1 more in depth. Evolution not only provides the basis for the physical structures of organisms, but the foundations for behavior of organisms as well. This of course includes humans. Evolution can thus provide powerful explanations for our ancient and intuitive ideas about our actions. Vividly so in contrast and comparison with other animals.

Before diving into evolutionary explanations for human behavior, it’s essential to understand the material basis of reality and how human brains perceive reality. It is true that a material reality exists external to the mind. However, we do not perceive this reality directly. Rather, what we experience is a model of reality that is constructed in our minds via the filters of our senses.

Perhaps you’ve heard of this famous philosophical thought experiment: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Well to be frank- the answer is no, there’s no such thing as sound if there is no one to perceive it. Likewise, color, smell, taste, and other sensations are not “real” in the same way. What actually exists are compression waves that travel via the laws of nature, but sound itself is a product of brains.

This is important to understand because what this means is that different organisms and even different people experience and model these waves in completely different modes. Knowing this fact, we can deduce and study how and why evolution gave rise to these different models and experiences of reality. Take for example the smell of human feces. Why does it smell bad to us?

R.G. Price explains it succinctly in one of his essays on evolution:

“It’s not because feces inherently stinks, it’s because our brains have evolved to perceive certain chemicals in feces negatively.

Volatile chemicals emanate from feces and become airborne, where those chemicals are detected by our nose. Feces, especially human feces, is a very common carrier of diseases that can affect humans. Coming into contact with feces dramatically increases an individual’s chance of contracting diseases and therefore dying. A negative perception of the chemicals commonly found in feces results in affecting an individual’s behavior so that they shun feces. The process of evolution selects for individuals who have a negative perception of feces because these individuals have a higher rate of survival as compared to individuals who do not have a negative perception of feces.

Individuals who either don’t smell the chemicals in feces, or who find those chemicals to be attractive, would be more likely to come in contact with feces, and thus they would be more likely to contract a disease and die.

Now, if we compare the human perception of the chemicals in feces to the perception of these same chemicals by flies, then we can conclude that feces probably smells good to flies. When a fly detect the chemicals in feces it most likely creates a pleasurable perception to the fly. This is because feces is a source of food for flies. Flies, since they are insects, are not generally vulnerable to mammalian diseases, so mammalian feces poses no health risk to them. Instead, the organic molecules in feces are a source of nutrition for flies.”

Perception drives behavior. Thus we can explain, at least in part through evolution, how and why our intuitive ideas relating to morality gave rise. From this knowledge we can help distinguish project 1’s “natural” morality from that of an objective morality being established in project 2.

Project 2 deals with the development of a morality of science. While the merits of project 1 is hardly debatable (because it is simply telling us what is influencing human behavior), project 2 seems to be a bit more controversial because it attempts for science to tell us what we ought to do. This criticism, while legitimate, seems to miss the point. Let me explain why.

Values are a specific type of fact. They are empirical statements about the flourishing of conscious creatures in society. Values are by definition what we mean by the word “good.” However, there exists a spectrum of competing values. People and societies make claims that some values are greater than others. This takes the proposition:

X value creates more flourishing of conscious creatures than Y value.

We can therefore use the scientific method to test these claims to see whether or not they are in fact true. For example:

Telling the truth creates more flourishing of conscious creatures than lying.

Often times we intuitively have ideas about the truthfulness to these propositions. However, a science of morality would allow us to test these claims along with our intuitions empirically. What this means is that we must apply additional real world context to these propositions. While it may be true that telling the truth creates more flourishing for conscious creatures in most situations, it may be false in the context that someone would die if they told the truth. In that case however, the original proposition would be misleading because it does not include the value of saving a life. What the proposition should have looked like is this:

Telling the truth creates more flourishing of conscious creatures than lying + saving a life.

The point here is that there is a spectrum of competing values always at play in the real world or in other words a Moral Landscape with peaks and valleys. We can use the scientific method to test these claims and begin the drawings of that moral map.

There is no doubt that a science of morality is in its infancy. Defining the flourishing of conscious creatures is difficult enough- how would we measure this? Wealth? Happiness surveys? Health? Brain Scans? A cluster of factors? There are still limits to our tools and understanding. Nevertheless, the foundations of a science of morality are forming and can ultimately shape the morality of our future. The purpose is to expand on it, progress and educate the population like we would with any other science. That is something we certainly ought to do.


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