Can Science Determine Morality? Part 1

Thank you to Vicki Lorrimar for this post. The full version of this essay with references and notes can be found at Vicki’s page.

Picture by obviouslycloe; see

Many consider morality to be the purview of religion and not science. Stephen Jay Gouldarticulated this thinking best in his argument that science and religion each have “a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority,” and that these magisteria do not overlap. For those who subscribe to this view, science deals with facts about the natural realm, while questions of morality or purpose fall exclusively within the domain of theologians and philosophers.

Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, challenges this prevailing understanding that science has little to contribute to moral discourse. Instead, Harris defines morality in terms of human flourishing and locates a moral compass in biological sources. According to Harris, “only a rational understanding of human well-being will allow billions of us to co-exist peacefully” – and such a rational understanding precludes any input from religion. Drawing momentum from the current popularity of behavioural economics and the science of ’happiness,’ Harris argues that an increasing understanding of neurophysiology promises a morality that is entirely determined by science.

Harris departs from traditional atheist arguments concerning morality, which often invoke evolutionary pressures as the source of our moral code. Rather, Harris argues that we must often oppose these natural tendencies and transcend them through reason, for “our modern concerns about meaning and morality have flown the perch built by evolution.” He spurns moral relativism, the notion that moral truth does not exist and that right and wrong are merely constructions. The title Harris gives to his work represents his own understanding of morality – that there are multiple answers to moral questioning. For Harris, ‘the moral landscape’ describes “a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible human suffering.”

Harris challenges the “firewall” that has been in place between facts and values ever since Hume drew his ‘is/ought’ distinction. Values, according to Harris, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood. As a neuroscientist, Harris considers the human brain to be the nexus of social, emotional and moral development. Beliefs about values and beliefs about facts seem to arise from similar brain processes – therefore values are derived from facts about how our brains interact with the world.

Harris proposes that advances in our knowledge in areas such as the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, the effects of social institutions on relationships, and retributive impulses will provide all the necessary tools to identify right and wrong with respect to human values. This leads him to suggest that morality is not philosophical or religious in essence but rather an undeveloped branch of science. “If there are objective truths to be known about human well-being… then science should one day be able to make very precise claims about which of our behaviours and uses of attention are morally good, which are neutral, and which are worth abandoning.”

Harris contends that “science can help us find a path leading away from the lowest depths of misery and toward the heights of happiness for the greatest number of people.” Chopra is quite right when he describes Harris’ account as “gussied up old-fashioned utilitarianism.” The inherent problems in such an approach have long been established in the literature. Ewing, for example, posed the question: “Suppose we could slightly increase the collective happiness of ten men by taking away all happiness from one of them, would it be right to do so?” Harris would answer ’yes’ – in fact he poses an even more extreme version of this question himself and answers in the affirmative. Harris does acknowledge the dilemmas arising from consequentialism, however persists in his belief that it must form the basis of morality.

The issue of individual justice aside, there remains in the utilitarian approach the challenge of discerning which actions will result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number. According to Harris, science is much more clear-sighted in determining the consequences of behaviour than we are! In reality, it is often difficult to weigh the far-reaching effects of any given action, another problem acknowledged yet not addressed by Harris.

If a consequential approach to ethics were to be accepted, is well-being the most appropriate criteria by which actions are assessed? The term itself is rather vague, although Harris appears to employ it interchangeably with happiness and human flourishing. All religious and philosophical notions of morality are reduced to a common concern for well-being. Harris imagines an unlikely scenario in which an honour culture might result in a high level of human flourishing, and concludes that killing for the sake of honour would then be morally acceptable. This moral reasoning appears dubious at best.

Even if maximal well-being were considered a sufficient basis for morality, we must ask how this end goal is selected in the first place. Harris claims that “once we begin thinking seriously about human well-being, we will find that science can resolve specific questions about morality and human values.” However, what directs us to consider human-wellbeing seriously? Science does not supply us with the notion that well-being should be our ultimate concern – Harris has arrived at this conclusion by some other means.

Let us again assume for now that the optimisation of human well-being is indeed an adequate foundation upon which we may construct an ethic. In yet another statement of his thesis, Harris argues that “science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want – and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible.” Having attained such knowledge, how do we then put it into practice? We already know that driving our cars at reduced speeds, or removing unhealthy sugars from our diet, has a positive impact on well-being – but this does not stop many people from speeding on a regular basis or reaching for the slice of cake instead of the piece of fruit. There is a significant gap between knowing what is right and doing what is right.

Continued tomorrow

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