Understanding a Science of Morality

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:

Honesty creates more flourishing of conscious creatures than lying.

Often times we already have intuitions about the truthfulness of certain values. However, a science of morality would allow us to test these intuitions against real world world empirical tests. We can do this by performing simulations and then comparing their outcomes. This could even account for rarities. For instance it may be true that honesty creates more flourishing for conscious creatures in 99% of situations, but it may prove to be false in the context of honesty resulting in death or great suffering.

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 compare these values 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? AI Simulations? 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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Third Wave Feminism and Equality

From new workplace and education opportunities to reproductive rights and the ability to vote, womens rights have come a long way in the last century throughout the developed world. Today, women experience more freedom and personal choice than any other time throughout history. However, this isn’t true for women in all societies. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.

In this post I want to focus on feminism in the west specifically, because it is this kind of feminism that seems to be so controversial. No rational person is arguing against human rights for women in Yemen. So why is it then that so many people in the west are hesitant to call themselves feminists? What is third wave feminism and why is it so contentious?

Before we can answer these questions, we must recognize a couple of things. First, third wave feminist issues are of less significance than first and second wave issues. That’s not to say that third wave feminist issues don’t matter or that they are insignificant, but that the issues third wave feminism faces are much less visible and pale in comparison to the issues millions of women face in developing countries.

One of the few ways we can shine light on these third wave feminist issues is through transparency. The insight we can gain from, for example, the Gender Gap Report is of great value. A common theme across the best ranking countries is that in 2 of the 4 categories measured, health and education, are nearly identical. We begin to see some discrepancy when it comes to economic standing and large differences in political empowerment.

Since these issues are less visible, it is difficult to see exactly how much of a role biology plays versus culture when looking at these discrepancies. One of the most obvious biological differences is testosterone. On average, in adult males, levels of testosterone are about 7–8 times as great as in adult females. Why is this important? Because testosterone increases aggression and risk-taking.

(UPDATE: After reading Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst I’m much more skeptical of this claim. Sapolsky argues testosterone increases status seeking behavior. Evolutionarily this has generally correlated with aggression, but it can swiftly change based on a number of factors.)

If men are more aggressive and more prone to risk-taking, shouldn’t we see some differences between the sexes? And we do. This may explain why men make up 93% of inmates in the United States. It may also explain, at least partly, why there are more men in leadership roles and make more money for the same work (aggressively negotiating pay raises).

Of course, culture plays a significant role as well. Just look at any of the Abrahamic religions with their uncanny obsession with virgins and blaming of women for literally everything. The majority of religious communities still believe women should hold traditional roles in society. Not surprisingly, the least religious countries in the world are rated the highest in gender equality.

So lets go back to that original question- why is it that many people don’t like calling themselves feminists in the west?

In the internet era, the loudest and most fringe groups of people are given the largest platform. The third wave feminist movement is no different. Month after month, new videos have emerged online of self described feminists and some of there more absurd radical beliefs. A quick search of the word “feminist” on YouTube prompts words like ‘crazy’, ‘triggered’, and ‘cringe’. To my surprise, #KillAllMen isn’t satire to some.

Regardless of whether you consider these actions representative feminism is irrelevant. Guilt by association has done damage to the perception of feminism in western societies. Furthermore, I think many feminists simply don’t find the amount of focus on third wave feminism appealing. Many people believe that equality between the sexes already exists, and in many circles I don’t think this is an unreasonable position. However, with that said, I don’t think the issues third wave feminists face are completely insignificant. Just because there are more crucial issues in the world doesn’t mean the lesser ones don’t matter.

At the end of the day, we must be able to acknowledge gender differences while simultaneously encouraging greater equality. The debate on the significance of third wave feminism will continue, but in the meantime, let’s not argue over the semantics of a label.