The Dangers of a Science of Morality

How close do you have to zoom to see evil? Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash

Treating values like physics could be a trap

Humanity has advanced tremendously in our understanding and control of the world around us. We’ve created institutions and a methodology that keep this momentum going with no end in sight. Progress has become our default state. This continual advancement sits uneasily with our gradual, stumbling, ambiguous moral development.

There’s a hope that we could science-ify morality and improve our values at the same breakneck speed as we improve our knowledge and technology. Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes is an example of this dream. Sometimes it isn’t expressed as a hope, but as a Jurassic Park-style warning that we must gain wisdom as fast as scientific knowledge or we’ll be destroyed by our own creations.

A scientific approach to morality is more likely to be Frankenstein’s monster that destroys us than our salvation.

We ought to avoid the “is-ought” problem

The Scottish philosopher David Hume warned of the “is-ought” problem. This is when we confuse the way things are with the way things should be. For example, most human cultures through history have had slavery. That doesn’t mean slavery is a morally acceptable institution.

For a more controversial example, take arguments about homosexuality. Some gay rights advocates point to examples of homosexual behavior throughout history as proof that it’s not wrong. There are many fine arguments for gay rights, but this is not one of them.

Granted, scientists could avoid this mistake. Take Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, for example. Haidt simply describes different moral perspectives without endorsing any. Anthropologists are also trained to describe values, rather than prescribe.

There are as many examples of failure as success, though. The field of psychology in general has an extreme problem with the is-ought distinction. The bible of psychology, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), looks at the world of upper middle-class American professionals and considers it the way things ought to be. Deviation is stigmatized as “disorder”, at least until favored activists lobby to change it.

Science is done by scientists

It sounds obvious, but scientific research is done by scientists in that field. There’s not much room for dilettantes and amateurs. That’s a necessary part of advancement: keeping up with research and having access to the latest tools and methods is a full-time job. That means scientists will inevitable create a group identity.

No matter how you educate a group of people, they’ll still have the heart of a primate tribe. They’ll still uncritically absorb a set of shared values that they’ll eventually consider above criticism. They’ll still separate “us” from “them,” and view criticism from “them” as being an attack on “us” that requires rallying together and hiding any weakness. They’ll still ascribe nefarious motives to “them.” They’ll still use motivated reasoning to justify their own values and diminish outsiders’.

That’s a problem for a field like psychology that has a suite of tools to pathologize its critics. Scientific moralists would be even worse. They wouldn’t just imply that critics are crazy, they’d accuse critics of being evil people.

In the Middle Ages, the Church was the center of morality, and when you criticized it you were practically standing against Goodness. Imagine that the Church also claimed to be part of a group that was responsible for all progress in knowledge and technology. Even the most devout Christians during the Middle Ages saw some pre-Christian thinkers (e.g. Plato) as being brilliant, important figures. The Church couldn’t claim a complete monopoly on reason and progress the way a scientific morality institution could.

Think of the late 18th and early 19th century. There was a fad for phrenology and ‘scientific racism’ among intellectuals. They were confident that they could scientifically determine the worth of people (by measuring their skulls, for example) then institutionalize or sterilize the unworthy. That would be just the beginning.

Occam’s Razor will cut our heart out

Our sense of right and wrong is complicated. We value competing goods like happiness and justice. We’re sensitive to context. We use morality differently in different situations; for example, how we should react to a friend’s misbehavior versus what kind of legislation we should support. This would all be hurt by a naïve attempt to make morality scientific.

Science involves breaking complicated, poorly understand processes into simple factors that can be understood. Think of Newton’s Laws of Motion or the Periodic Table of the Elements. Occam’s Razor encourages us to eliminate any factors that we don’t think we need.

Human beings, however, resist being broken down into simple factors. The social sciences have had trouble advancing at the pace of the physical sciences, and achieving the same kind of successes, because there’s so much irreducible complexity in the human mind and in human societies. Reductionism hasn’t had much success.

The ne plus ultra reductive approach to humanity is a moral philosophy called utilitarianism. Utilitarians believe that increasing happiness is the only thing that matters. They don’t just think that the ends justify the means, they think that the means don’t matter at all: whatever you do should be judged only by its consequences. Specifically, it should be judged by how it effects the net global amount of happiness. Everything from breaking a promise to murder is fine so long as people like it more than they’re made unhappy by it.

It sounds absurd when you first hear about it. It sounds absurd to most experts on it, too. But there’s a deep psychological appeal, especially to numerate intellectual, to deriving right and wrong from a simple equation.

That makes it appealing to would-be scientific moralists. Even if they didn’t adopt utilitarianism whole-heartedly (though some, such as Joshua Greene, already have) they would be drawn to reductive views for the same psychological reasons. If there isn’t room in their theory for moral concepts like duty or honesty, they could just dismiss them. They’d be the same as the aether or phlogiston. Outdated explanations that no longer serve a purpose.

There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a long tunnel

Maybe one day it will be possible to reduce the evils of the world and the human heart through research and engineering. That day has not yet come. In the 19th century, people believed that humans had nearly completed their understanding of a mechanical, clockwork universe. Then the 20th century came and blew apart everything we knew about the universe. We can’t afford to have the same hubris about morality as we had about physics.

Originally published at on April 29, 2019.

Armchair historian, working class philosopher.

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