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.


Philosophers Worth Listening To

Sam Harris @SamHarrisOrg

Sam Harris is a philosopher, author and neuroscientist. Sam’s values of discovering truth and having a rational mindset is something I’ve always admired and have tried to follow in my own life. His ability to discuss controversial issues in objectively is something I think everyone can aspire to. I recommend Sam’s Waking Up Podcast in addition to his books.

Science Can Answer Moral Questions

The God Debate II: Harris vs. Craig

Sam Harris – It Is Always Now

Alain de Botton @alaindebotton

Alain is a Swiss-born, British-based philosopher that runs the popular web series The School of Life. He covers a variety of topics including: psychotherapy, relationships, literature, art, economics, and my favorite- the ideas of past philosophers. Alain offers something for everyone and I highly recommend checking out his videos in addition to his books.

PHILOSOPHY – Nietzsche

Being A Good Listener

Stay in – or Leave – a Relationship?

Maria Popova @BrainPicker


Maria is a writer and philosopher known for her popular blog BrainPickings. Her writings focus on culture, history, books, philosophy and eclectic subjects from around the internet. I’ve been reading her blog for the last two years and I’m always consistently thrilled to read the new articles she publishes. I highly recommend following Maria on Twitter for some funny banter and checking out some of her articles.

The Science of Stress

An Antidote to the Age of Anxiety

Famous Advice on Writing

Morality and Head Transplants

Valery Spiridonov, a computer scientist from Russia, will become the world’s first head transplant patient in December of 2017. Spiridonov was diagnosed with Werdnig-Hoffmann disease at an early age which has left him immobile his entire life. Now at age 30, Spiridonov wants a chance at a new body before he dies.

“I need help every day, every minute. I am now 30 years old, although people rarely live to more than 20 with this disease,” Spiridonov said in an interview.

The procedure will involve over 100 surgeons and is expected to last up to 36 hours. The procedure will be led by surgeon Dr. Canavero who will attach Spiridonov’s head to a donors body through spinal cord fusion. Many skeptics have branded Dr Canavero as “nuts” arguing that reconnecting a severed spinal cord and stopping the immune system from rejecting the head is impossible.

There is evidence to the contrary however. Organ rejection is the main problem with any transplant, but modern drugs have the ability to strongly suppress and weaken the immune system to allow the new organ to thrive. This is how we are currently able to transplant foreign organs such as hearts, lungs, kidneys and pancreases into recipients. Furthermore, there has already been success with animals. I personally remain extremely skeptical, but I’m optimistic of its potential over the next several decades.

What I find most fascinating about this, however, are the ethical implications of the procedure if it works. Are we creating a real life Frankenstein? Should people be able to “buy” new bodies? Should head transplant procedures be performed at all?

Imagine that we wake up tomorrow and discover that head transplants have a 99% rate of success. Finally people with muscle atrophy, cancers and various other issues have a solution to their problem- they can throw away their disease ridden body and get a new one! Well there would be a few problems:

  1. The procedure would be insanely expensive. Not only would the 100+ surgeons and 36 hours needed to perform the procedure send your bill skyrocketing, but you would be paying for the cost of an entire human body. To put this in perspective, in the United States it costs 200k – 1.2 million for a single organ to be transplanted. Organs are already extremely scarce, but a healthy, fit and functional body would be on an entire different level. Canavero has estimated the total cost at $13 million dollars. Only the extremely rich would be able to afford the procedure.
  2. The Rich could buy bodies for aesthetic reasons. If it comes down to who has the most money (which so many times it does) rather than who has the greatest need for a new body, rich folk could literally buy a new body simply because they don’t like the one they’ve got. I can see the TV commercials already, “Don’t like to work out and stay in shape? Don’t like that weird birth mark on your back? Have a lot of money? Ask your doctor if a head transplant is right for you!” Gag.
  3. The poor could easily be exploited. This is already a problematic issue around the world. If a poor person is in need of money, they might sell their kidney to try and feed their family or pay back a debt. The same applies with a full body: If a close relative dies during difficult times, a poor person may be pressured to sell their body.

Despite the issues that may arise, I believe head transplants can be ethical in many cases. If we can decrease the suffering of someone like Valery Spiridonov, I believe we have the obligation to do so. In fact, one could even argue it would be immoral to prevent the option of this treatment to people that just want to live a normal human life.

As medicine and technology continues to evolve, so will morality and the ethics of human well being. Head transplants may still seem like part of a fantasy horror novel concoction to many, but I think we may be looking at the tip of the iceberg of human evolution.

Stereotypes and Uncomfortable Truths

Humans like to categorize things. The world is a complex place, so in order to better understand how things work we simplify them down. And given the limited information of our personal experiences, we often jump to conclusions.  We’ve been doing this since the dawn of language- sometimes for our benefit, but often times for worse.

The poor are lazy. The rich are greedy. Muslims are terrorists. Christians are xenophobes. Irish are drunks. Asians can’t drive. Southerners are stupid. Politicians are corrupt. You get the idea.

Unfortunately, there is something very uncomfortable about some stereotypes: they may hold a comparative truth. In other words, when comparatively speaking between multiple groups of people, stereotypes may represent a larger percentage of a specific group then they would compared to another. This is often why the stereotype exists in the first place. Of course, many stereotypes are complete nonsense and founded in ignorance. But for others, science even provides evidence to confirm them.

For example: It’s a fact that within the European Union, Ireland ranks the highest for per capita consumption of alcohol. Does that mean that all Irish people are drunks? Or even that the majority of them are? Of course not, but comparatively speaking they drink more alcohol than other European countries.

The problem with stereotypes isn’t the fact that it oversimplifies things, but rather that it can potentially enable people to avoid critical thinking. Stereotypes are natural ways our brains can store and retrieve information, and they’re useful so we’re not overloaded with details of everything. However, this means the world can begin to look very black and white. Critical thinking allows for nuance and shades of grey to appear.

We need to be able to acknowledge stereotypes for what they are, but think critically about what they actually mean. This can be done by thinking slow. By doing this we can speak with more clarity on important topics and not confuse nuance for bigotry. So let’s be clear to help prevent misunderstandings of this kind.