SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

Towards a Science of Morality:
A Reply to Massimo Pigliucci

by Michael Shermer, Feb 12 2013

In this year’s annual Edge.org question “What should we be worried about?” I answered that we should be worried about “ The Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality.” I wrote: “We should be worried that scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong and which values lead to human flourishing”. Evolutionary biologist and philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci penned a thoughtful response, which I appreciate given his dual training in science and philosophy, including and especially evolutionary theory, a perspective that I share. But he felt that my scientific approach added nothing new to the philosophy of morality, so let me see if I can restate my argument for a scientific foundation of moral principles with new definitions and examples.

First, morality is derived from the Latin moralitas, or “manner, character, and proper behavior.” Morality has to do with how you act toward others. So I begin with a Principle of Moral Good:

Always act with someone else’s moral good in mind, and never act in a way that it leads to someone else’s moral loss (through force or fraud).

You can, of course, act in a way that has no effect on anyone else, and in this case morality isn’t involved. But given the choice between acting in a way that increases someone else’s moral good or not, it is more moral to do so than not. I added the parenthetical note “through force or fraud” to clarify intent instead of, say, neglect or acting out of ignorance. Morality involves conscious choice, and the choice to act in a manner that increases someone else’s moral good, then, is a moral act, and its opposite is an immoral act.

Given this moral principle, the central question is this: On what foundation should we ground our moral decisions? We have to ground the foundations of morality on something, and we secularists (skeptics, humanists, atheists, et al.) are in agreement that “divine command theory” is untenable not only because there probably is no God, but even if there is a God divine command theory was refuted 2500 years ago by Plato through his “Euthyphro’s dilemma,” in which he asked “whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods?”, showing how it must be the former—moral principles must stand on their own with or without God. Rape, for example, is wrong whether or not God says it is wrong (in the Bible, in fact, God offers no prohibition against rape, and in fact seems to encourage it in many instances as a perquisite of war for victors). Adultery, which is prohibited in the Bible, would still be wrong even if it were not listed in the Decalogue.

How do we know that rape and adultery are wrong? We don’t need to ask God. We need to ask the affected moral agent—the rape victim in question, or our spouse or romantic partner who is being cuckolded. They will let you know instantly and forcefully precisely how they feel morally about that behavior.

Here we see that the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) has a severe limitation to it: What if the moral receiver thinks differently from the moral doer? What if you would not mind having action X done unto you, but someone else would mind it? Most men, for example, are much more receptive toward unsolicited offers of sex than are women. Most men, then, in considering whether to approach a woman with an offer of unsolicited sex, should not ask themselves how they would feel as a test. This is why in my book The Science of Good and Evil I introduced the Ask-First Principle:

To find out whether an action is right or wrong, ask first.

The moral doer should ask the moral receiver whether the behavior in question is moral or immoral. If you aren’t sure that the potential recipient of your action will react in the same manner you would react to the moral behavior in question, then ask…before you act. (This principle applies to rational sane adults and not to children or mentally ill adults. Asking a 12-year old girl raised in a polygamous family belonging to the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints if she feels it is moral to marry a man in his 60s who is already married to many other women is not a rational test because she does not have the capacity for moral reasoning.)

But what is the foundation for why we should care about the feelings of potentially affected moral agents? To answer this question I turn to science and evolutionary theory.

Given that moral principles must be founded on something natural instead of supernatural, and that science is the best tool we have devised for understanding the natural world, applying evolutionary theory to not only the origins of morality but to its ultimate foundation as well, it seems to me that the individual is a reasonable starting point because, (1) the individual is the primary target of natural selection in evolution, and (2) it is the individual who is most affected by moral and immoral acts. Thus:

The survival and flourishing of the individual is the foundation for establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality.

Here we find a smooth transition from the way nature is (the individual struggling to survive and flourish in an evolutionary context) to the way it ought to be (given a choice, it is more moral to act in a way that enhances the survival and flourishing of other individuals). Here are three examples:

In his annual letter Bill Gates outlined how and why the progress of the human condition can best be implemented when tracked through scientific data: “I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve amazing progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal.”

Halving Extreme Poverty (graph from Bill Gates' Annual Letter

One notable sign of progress is seen in this graph from Gates’ Annual Letter (right).

If the survival and flourishing of the individual is the foundation of values and morals, then this graph tracks moral progress because we can say objectively and absolutely that reducing extreme poverty by half since 1990 is real moral progress. On what basis can we make such a claim? Ask the people who are no longer living on less than $1.25 a day. They will tell you that living on more than $1.25 a day is absolutely better than living on less than $1.25 a day. Why is it better? Because individuals are more likely to survive and flourish when they have the basics of life.

This is why Bill Gates is backing with his considerable wealth and talent the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals program that is supported by 189 nations, in which the year 2015 was set as a deadline for making specific percentage improvements across a range of areas including health, education, and basic income. Gates reports, for example, that the number of polio cases has decreased from 350,000 in 1988 to 222 in 2012. Is that a moral good? Ask the 350,000 polio victims. They’ll tell you. Or ask the 5.1 million children under the age of 5 who didn’t die in 2011, who in 1990 would have died (Unicef reports that the number of children under 5 years old who died worldwide was 12 million in 1990 and 6.9 million in 2011).

Bill Gates delivering report

Caption from Gates’ Annual Letter: Getting a closer look at charts documenting rural health progress at the Germana Gale Health Post in Ethiopia. Over the past year I’ve been impressed with progress in using data and measurement to improve the human condition (Dalocha, Ethiopia, 2012).

A second example may be found on the opposite end of the economic sale in a study conducted for the National Bureau of Economic Research entitled “Subjective Well-Being, Income, Economic Development and Growth” by the University of Pennsylvania economists Daniel Sacks, Betsey Stevenson, and Justin Wolfers, in which they compared survey data on subjective well-being (“happiness”) with income and economic growth rates in 140 countries. The economists found a positive correlation between income and happiness within individual countries, in which richer people are happier than poorer people; and they also found a between-country difference in which people in richer countries are happier than people in poorer countries. As well, they found that an increase in economic growth was associated with an increase in subjective well being: “These results together suggest that measured subjective well-being grows hand in hand with material living standards.” How much difference? “A 20 percent increase in income has the same impact on well-being, regardless of the initial level of income: going from $500 to $600 of income per year yields the same impact on well-being as going from $50,000 to $60,000 per year.” Contrary to previous studies, the economists found no upper limit in which more money does not correlate with more happiness. As well, on a 0–10 scale measuring “life satisfaction,” people in poor countries averaged a 3, people in middle-income countries averaged a 5–6, and people in rich countries averaged a 7–8 (Americans rate their life satisfaction as a 7.4). The economists’ conclusion confirms my moral science theory that the survival and flourishing of individuals is what counts:

The fact that life satisfaction and other measures of subjective well-being rise with income has significant implications for development economists. First, and most importantly, these findings cast doubt on the Easterlin Paradox and various theories suggesting that there is no long-term relationship between well-being and income growth. Absolute income appears to play a central role in determining subjective well-being. This conclusion suggests that economists’ traditional interest in economic growth has not been misplaced. Second, our results suggest that differences in subjective well-being over time or across places likely reflect meaningful differences in actual well-being.

Here is the figure for the relationship between happiness and GDP from this study:

Happiness and GDP chart from World Values Survey

World Values Survey, 1999–2004, and author’s regressions. Sources for GDP per capita are described in the text. The happiness question asks, “Taking all things together, would you say you are: ‘very happy,’ ‘quite happy,’ ‘not very happy,’ [or] ‘not at all happy’?” Data are aggregated into country averages by first standardizing individual level data to have mean zero and standard deviation one, and then taking the within-country average of individual happiness. The dashed line plots fitted values from the reported OLS regression (including TZA and NGA); the dotted line gives fitted values from a lowess regressions. The regression coefficients are on the standardized scale. Both regressions are based on nationally representative samples. Observations represented by hollow squares are drawn from countries in which the World Values Survey sample is not nationally representative; see Stevenson and Wolfers (2008), appendix B, for further details. Sample includes sixty-nine developed and developing countries.

Why does money matter morally? Because it leads to a higher standard of living. Why does a higher standard of living matter morally? Because it increases the probability that an individual will survive and flourish. Why does survival and flourishing matter morally? Because it is the basis of the evolution of all life on earth through natural selection.

There are many more examples like these in which we can employ science to derive all sorts of findings that show how various social, political, and economic conditions lead to an increase or decrease of the survival and flourishing of individuals. This is why in my Edge.org essay I discussed data from political scientists and economists showing that democracies are better than dictatorships and that countries with more open economic borders and free trade are better off than countries with more closed economic borders and restricted trade (think North Korea, whose citizens are on average several inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts because of their crappy diets). These are measurable differences that allow us to draw scientific conclusions about moral progress or regress, based on the increase or decrease of the survival and flourishing of the individuals living in those countries. The fact that there may be many types of democracies (direct v. representative) and economies (with various trade agreements or membership in trading blocks) only reveals that human survival and flourishing is multi-faceted and multi-causal, and not that because there is more than one way to survive and flourish it means that all political, economic, and social systems are equal. They are not equal, and we have the scientific data and historical examples to demonstrate which ones increase or decrease the survival and flourishing of individuals.

woman burned alive in papua new guinea

In this Feb. 6, 2013 photo, bystanders watch as a woman accused of witchcraft is burned alive in the Western Highlands provincial capital of Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea.
(Credit: AP)

One final example on the regress side of the moral ledger: On Wednesday, February 6, 2013, a 20-year old woman and mother of one named Kepari Leniata was burned alive in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea because she was accused of sorcery by the relatives of a six-year-old boy who died on February 5. As in witch hunts of old, the conflagration on a pile of rubbish was preceded by torture with a hot iron rod, after which she was bound and doused in gasoline and ignited while surrounded by gawking crowds that prevented police and authorities from rescuing her. Tragically, a 2010 Oxfam study reported that beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft are not uncommon in the highlands of New Guinea, as well as in many parts of Melanesia in which many people still “do not accept natural causes as an explanation for misfortune, illness, accidents or death,” and instead place the blame for their problems on supernatural sorcery and black magic.

By now it seems risibly superfluous to explain why this is immoral and what the solution is, but in case there is any doubt: We know that belief in supernatural sorcery and witchcraft and their concomitant consequences of torturing and murdering whose so accused is wrong because it decreases the survival and flourishing of individuals—just ask first the woman about to be torched. The immediate solution is the enforcement of laws prohibiting such acts. The ultimate solution is science and education in understanding the natural causes of things and the debunking of supernatural beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft. And it is science that tells us why witchcraft and sorcery is immoral.

Note to my readers: What I am outlining here is the basis for my next book, The Moral Arc of Science, which I am researching and writing now, so I ask you to post your critiques here or email me your constructive criticisms. My role model is Charles Darwin, who solicited criticisms of his theory of evolution and included them in a chapter entitled “Difficulties on Theory” in On the Origin of Species. Of course, if you agree with me, and/or think of additional examples in support of my theory, then I would appreciate hearing those as well!

Recommended Reading

78 Responses to “Towards a Science of Morality:
A Reply to Massimo Pigliucci

  1. Laura says:

    To find out whether an action is right or wrong, ask first.
    This principle applies to rational sane adults and not to children or mentally ill adults.

    A chilling idea, that the objections of children or “mentally ill” people don’t matter. Especially since the attribution of mental illness is influenced by prejudice, social norms, ulterior motives.
    I’d say, ask anyway. If they object it matters. If they don’t, the action might still be wrong.

    • Ilene Skeen says:

      For what it’s worth to the discussion, here is Schermer’s original mistake:

      “First, morality is derived from the Latin moralitas, or “manner, character, and proper behavior.” Morality has to do with how you act toward others.”

      There is nothing in the first sentence which implies or necessitates the second. Morality has to do with the fact that action is required by you (or someone else) to sustain YOUR life. Without positive action on your part (or the part of someone who supports you), you will die. So what should that action be? What actions are proper to a man to sustain his own life? If a person assumes that morality begins when one is dealing with “others,” then no objective definition is possible.

    • Luigi Novi says:

      A chilling idea, that the objections of children or “mentally ill” people don’t matter.

      He did not say that the objections of children or mentally ill people don’t matter. He was making a point about this principle applying only to those who are capable of moral reasoning. This is made clear when you look at the entire passage, and not just the portion you quoted:

      This principle applies to rational sane adults and not to children or mentally ill adults. Asking a 12-year old girl raised in a polygamous family belonging to the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints if she feels it is moral to marry a man in his 60s who is already married to many other women is not a rational test because she does not have the capacity for moral reasoning.)

  2. Dante says:

    Be careful. You are drifting from a discission on objective moral values to a study on subjective well being. Also, your Principle of Moral Good does not take into account failure to act, for example, when the Vatican chose not to act when any of the heinous crimes of the past were carried out, such as the Holocaust.

  3. Luis Tovar (@Luis_Tovar) says:

    We cannnot ask to other animals. They can´t give informed consent. So it is immoral to use them for any purpose. Specially, when using them means causing them harm, suffering or death. We know that all animals want to live, and want to avoid harm and suffering. Why don´t respect their interests only because they are not humans? Species (like race or sex) is morally irrelevant as moral criterion. Sentience is only what matters.

    • Max says:

      Humans are better off when we don’t respect animals’ interests. Cheaper food, better medicine.
      Killing animals doesn’t cause suffering if they don’t expect it and don’t feel it.

      • Other Paul says:

        If they don’t feel it then it couldn’t be called suffering in any case. So you can infer that the unexpectedly dead animal’s mate (or parent or child or whatever) cannot be suffering the loss. It must be something else they’re feeling.

      • Alex says:

        “Humans are better off when we don’t respect animals’ interests.”

        One does not win a moral argument by touting one’s own (or one’s own species) interests as being superior to another’s, merely in virtue of them being yours. We respect the interests of other humans because of their capacity to suffer, not because they happen to be homo sapiens (at least, we ought to). Creatures that share this capacity to suffer are those to which we have moral duties to (no matter how inconvenient this is to humans who want cheaper food).

        The suffering that 100 billion ‘food animals’ experience every year as a result of human-induced misery is very real, deeply immoral, and is anything but quick.

      • oscar says:

        Partially true. But: We still (for good reason) respect others exactly only because they are homo sapiens. Would you like to describe or even judge the capacity to suffer of somebody unconscious or mentally ill? And even more, use this judgement to decide if she or he may live or die? Sadly, if animals suffer or not has no other than relative importance to any discussion related to human affairs.

        However, referring to the initial comment: as long as there is no (or no more) conflict about ecological niches, animal rights based on sentience are more than worth to be explored.
        But sole categorial distinctions are more important and sticky than ratio would like to have it, and Shermer will face that problem too. How he will escape such problems, I will be interested in.
        “Ask it” is good (necessary), but not good enough (i. e. sufficient). The problem of animals, as given above, is a good example for that.

      • Stef says:

        “The suffering that 100 billion ‘food animals’ experience every year as a result of human-induced misery is very real, deeply immoral, and is anything but quick.”

        That fact strikes even harder against Shermer’s position: not only does Shermer’s proposed view make almost all human killing of animals deeply wrong. It also changes Shermer’s story of progress over time to a story of worse and worse atrocities, since the 100 billion figure has been steadily rising.

  4. Max says:

    “To find out whether an action is right or wrong, ask first.
    This principle applies to rational sane adults and not to children or mentally ill adults.”

    Heh, should’ve asked Bin Laden before shooting him? You could say this principle doesn’t apply to criminals, but first you’d have to use the principle to define crime.

    • Laura says:

      The devil crawls through loopholes.
      Yes, if Hitler’s in his bunker, the Allied forces are approaching, do we ask him if it’s morally right to capture him?
      I don’t know that Shermer’s principle does much to illuminate morality.

  5. Max says:

    Any idea why the poorest, most superstitious countries, Nigeria and Tanzania, are the happiest?
    The happiness vs. GDP plot looks pretty scattered, but there’s a pretty good ‘V’ trend on the minimum happiness. Looks like it would hit the ceiling of 4 by GDP=64.

  6. Max says:

    In practice, you do onto others as others do onto you, which is why your treatment of others affects how others treat you, and why we don’t ask Bin Laden if it’s ok to shoot him.

  7. Peter says:

    “it seems to me that the individual is a reasonable starting point because, (1) the individual is the primary target of natural selection in evolution, and (2) it is the individual who is most effected by moral and immoral acts. Thus:
    The survival and flourishing of the individual is the foundation for establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality.”

    Now try a simple thought experiment. Cast your mind to the warm pre-cambrian seas, and replace the word ‘humans’ with ‘trilobites’. By inference, the individuals referred to are also trilobites.

    The religion of secular humanism expressed here makes as much scientific sense as the ‘save the trilobite’ faction – it stands resolutely opposed to evolution, which is characterized by global extinctions of planet-dominating species, to be replaced by something ‘fitter’, not ‘morally superior’.

    The best and brightest of the trilobites did not survive, despite enormous numbers and planetary ubiquity, as I see it because the primary target of natural selection is clearly entire species. Our species reigns currently, but only because trilobites, tyrannosaurs or Neanderthals no longer rule the planet.

    “democracies are better than dictatorships and that countries with more open economic borders and free trade are better off than countries with more closed economic borders and restricted trade (think North Korea, whose citizens are on average several inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts because of their crappy diets). These are measurable differences that allow us to draw scientific conclusions about moral progress or regress, based on the increase or decrease of the survival and flourishing of the individuals living in those countries.”

    This again fails as science, because it assumes that individuals matter in some way. Looking at the North Korean dictatorship, I see a political dynasty which bests any Kennedys or Bushes, transferring power and privilege over 3 generations. They clearly do not care about other individuals, and disregard human welfare as being not ‘morally’ superior to trilobite welfare. Their relentless logic is beneficial to their personal welfare.

    Robert Mugabe is the other great contemporary political example, having ruled beyond Reagan, Clinton, 2 generations of Bushes, and probably outlasting Obama. He will leave his country much worse than it was before his rule, but he has acted rationally in his own interests.

    The quintessence of science is reproducibility – the speed of light is the same when measured by my trilobite great-uncle, by me, or by my great-nephew, HAL 9000.

    The so-called ‘science of morality’ is purely subjective, not a science, because its application by a trilobite or Neanderthal would have precluded the evolution of humans. Applying these principles now would preclude the evolution of fitter successors to humans, given that such successors must wipe out our species.

    For a scarier thought experiment, try explaining the ‘science of morality’ to Harlan Ellison’s AM, the self-aware computer which was the inspiration for the ‘Skynet’ of the Terminator movies.

    So many commentators make the mistake of attributing some sort of inherent ethical or moral basis to science. Science is simply a means of studying our universe, not of explaining what to do with it or how to live in it.
    If an astronomer discovers a 500Km diameter asteroid which will hit Yellowstone at 5 am on Jan 25, 2020, that is science.
    Whether that is moral or immoral, because it sure as hell ain’t going to allow any individual survival or flourishing, is immaterial.
    The social sciences can inform us of the likely behaviour of humans on hearing the discovery – rioting, panic, looting, raping etc, but again, there is no scientific basis for judging such actions as good/bad, moral/immoral.

    Burning a ‘witch’ causes pain and death to the putative sorceress, but joy/relief/emotional security to the killers. The large number of mammalian predators seen in the photograph survive and flourish, a single mammalian prey does not. We can assess the various harms and benefits by rational analysis using Utilitarian or post-modern philosophical approaches. One day their entire species will be wiped out by a supercomputer/asteroid/virus/giant flying vampire toad (thankyou Norman Spinrad!).

    Science, red in tooth and claw.

    • David says:

      Have you read Sam Harris’s, “The Moral Landscape”? In it, he makes a pretty compelling case that science can indeed address moral questions. It’s hard to argue against the case he makes in the book.

  8. Thomas says:

    Survival alone is too weak a concept: Consider the case of an extremely healthy slave. Questions of moral value demand more than appeals to survivability can provide.

    Unfortunately, a definition of what “to flourish” is unlikely to be provided by science alone. In evolution it means to pass on one’s genetic material. However, to use the word more broadly than that, involves adding subjective content. So whether it’s “flourishing”, the Aristotelian “good life” or Nussbaum’s “capabilities”, using science to ascribe meaning to these terms only gets us so far.

  9. Alex says:

    To Dr. Shermer: I might be advisable to be more clear what you mean when you invoke evolution as a foundation for a scientific theory of morality. I understand that you’re attempting to point to the evolutionary basis for both our moral cognitive abilities and certain traits we have that were likely shaped by kin selection. This seems rather indisputable as far as evolutionary psychology goes.

    However, it is very easy to get this sane/rational view mixed up with it’s crazy cousin, the view that what is good for genes is what is good for people. The proper domain of evolution is gene proliferation; the proper domain of morality is the flourishing of conscious creatures capable of having positive affective experiences. To claim that evolution informs morality seems (to me at least, if left unqualified) to make the claim that the interests of genes and the interests of people are identical. Clearly, this can’t be true as there are many strategies for gene replication that we would consider immoral (like rape/war) and amoral (spending all your spare time donating to as many sperm banks as possible).

    While I’m *fairly* sure you did not intend the above idea to be your thesis, it will likely save you many headaches in future book reviews to spell this out explicitly.

  10. Daniel says:

    “And it is science that tells us why witchcraft and sorcery is immoral.”

    Science does no such thing, just as science can’t tell me why it’s wrong to rape, pillage and murder. Maybe science can tell me why it feels icky inside to do stuff like that, but it has nothing to say one way or another as to whether that it’s wrong.

    The Nazis could have achieved their goal of world domination. They would have some brilliant scientists who very well might be writing an article in “Der Skeptoid” on why was ok, if not a moral imperative, for the Aryan Superman to eliminate those no good Gypsies. Indeed, they might be saying it was only those bible-thumping Americans that the Germans defeated that felt the life of the untermenchen was as valuable as everyone elses.

    • David says:

      You have to agree on a definition of morality as a starting point. If you accept that morality has to do with, say, human and animal happiness and human and animal suffering, or well-being in general, then science can certainly tell us that certain acts are moral or immoral.

  11. Troy Jordan says:

    I hope you will wade into a discussion of the morality of government forcefully extracting wealth from one individual for the benefit of another.

    • David says:

      If the extration of wealth, as you put it, results in greater well-being for society as a whole, then there is a strong arguement that it is the morally correct thing to do. Indeed, this is the society we live in. Hasn’t the United States been a spectacular success by historical standards?

  12. Carl Morano says:

    Robert Mugabe is the other great contemporary political example, having ruled beyond Reagan, Clinton, 2 generations of Bushes, and probably outlasting Obama. He will leave his country much worse than it was before his rule, but he has acted rationally in his own interests.

    >> An absurd, ignorant statement. Your concept of ‘rational’ and the ‘invidual’ are pretty wacky. Mugabe is NOT acting rationally in self-interest. He is thinking in a primitive caveman mode that the individual does not matter and that he is rationally acting in the ‘common good.’ This is the EXACT mode of thinking that dominated the brains of Hitler, Mao, Stalin and other tyrants. It’s always for the common good and all these tyrants stressed the unimportance of the individual. I guarantee, cash down, that Mugabe believes he is doing what is right for the ‘group’ or ‘tribe.’ Wake up man!

    • Daniel says:

      If Mugabe suddenly brought out the velvet glove, he’d probably end up hanging upside down from a lamp post in due course.

      Stalin and Mao ended up living fairly long and comfortable lives, certainly compared to the poor souls they ruled over. If all we are is a bunch of decaying matter, they did fairly well for themselves.

  13. Jonathan Kwiat says:

    I read all the replies so far and was very impressed and I will have to add my two cents with some chagrin.

    Look science if done properly tells us what IS but it does not tell us what to feel about it or what we should do it. Science for instance can tell us global warming is happening but my reply could be “Screw it! Let the oceans rise!” To which science would be mute.

    Mr. Shermer you have a declared an axiom, a faith statement that “We should be concerned with the benefit of the other and their flourishing” and then have stated that science can help us determine how to best achieve this faith statement.

    I agree Science can help us achieve your faith statement. Of course we can scientifically measure people’s flourishing and systematically try interventions to improve this flourishing and gather evidence on what actually works. Positive psychology is obsessed with this goal.

    But what you cannot do Mr. Shermer is tell is that you goal is in some sense scientific, inevitable, imperative. You can’t wrap yourself in science and say “my morality, my goal is in some sense superior to anybody else’s on this planet.”

    There is a good reason most Scientist’s won’t comment on right and wrong as a scientist. It’s not scientific to do so. You seem to want a new religion which is perhaps not a bad thing to do.

    However you will never be able to say with a straight face “I scientifically know it is wrong for people to institute a dictatorship rather then a democracy.” The Universe is an amoral place Mr. Shermer. Morality is an emergent property of the human brain. Lastly the morality we are endowed with does not make it inevitable that we should someone make it our goal in life to be concerned with the welfare of others.

  14. Trimegistus says:

    The trouble with any reason-based, “scientific” attempt at morality is that it ultimately becomes a vast exercise in question-begging.

    What objective, provable reason is there for a person to behave morally at all? Before we can come up with any moral calculus or universal principles, there’s that troublesome Rule Zero which all moral systems assume: “You should try to behave morally.”

    But of course there’s no proof for Rule Zero. It’s an axiom. It’s “because I said so” or just “because.” And thus all rational, “scientific” morality crashes straight into the obstacle that sometimes people’s self-interest is served by non-“moral” behavior. Why should I put morality ahead of what I want? Because it’s moral? It’s an endlessly repeating loop.

    We can take the “democratic” or utilitarian approach: morality is what most people say it is. And if the Hutu majority think that hacking Tutsis to death with machetes is right and good, then it’s time to start rummaging in the tool shed for the machete-sharpener.

    You say that goes against universal principles? Sure, but so what? That just brings it back to Rule Zero: why should I try to follow universal moral principles? Because it’s moral to do so? Infinite loop again.

    Morality is not a rational construct. It is not scientific. Trying to make morality “scientific” is just bowing to the current God of the Marketplace. The Gods of the Copy-Book Headings always have a good laugh about that.

    • David says:

      I couldn’t disagree more. Just because we don’t know the answers to certain moral questions, does not mean that the answers don’t exist. Just because there are sometimes conflicts between individual self-interest and what’s best for the group does not mean we should simply give up on what science may tell us about moral decisions.

      • Daniel says:

        After a long blog post and numerous comments, no one has yet to put into plain English what science has to tell us about moral decisions.

  15. Remo "Uzi" Gwaldabi says:

    Very thoughtful and mostly constructive criticism on the part of the contributors here but I think the focus should remain on the idea that morality, just like everything else in the universe, has nothing to do with a deity or the supernatural. And that biological entities behavior has a significant measure of subjectivity. Pure science only works on matter and energy. They don’t appear to have desires.

  16. Robert St. John says:

    Scientific method is not a very clean method of defining morality, but neither is any other method. Philosophers have been telling how to live but that means you must pick the philosopher to follow or you are on your own. Well, we are on our own in the end anyway.

    It seems to me that Dr. Schermer’s conclusions are as good as any and better than most. However it also seems that the science is a bit forced.

  17. Roy Niles says:

    “Why does survival and flourishing matter morally? Because it is the basis of the evolution of all life on earth through natural selection.”
    No, the basis for evolution is life’s intelligent competition for scarce resources. Both you, Shermer, and Massimo have never understood the role that intelligence plays in the selection process – which means intelligence in life, if not also in the natural laws that govern it. But it’s life’s intelligence that takes advantage of nature’s randomly directed acts, not unintelligent randomness somehow conferring intelligent behaviors and intelligent constructions on life.
    To bolster his beliefs in the stochastic system, Massimo denies that evolution either has or serves a purpose, and it seems that you have the same intellectual problem.

  18. Fred Kohler says:

    Reading the many thoughtful replies to Shermer and Massimo convinces me that the topic what makes for ethical behavior in human society is maximally confusing. I much prefer the word ‘ethical’ to ‘moral’, because morality is so very culture-bound. For an entirely different slant on this topic I would like to suggest that you read the essay I have published on the net, accessible under ‘Fred Kohler” + reflections.

    You may only care to read the 4 pages of it, unless this stirs up your interest. That essay may be be my ‘last hurrah’ as I am almost 93 years old. I am convinced, even more when I wrote a book on the human future 62 years ago, that we are going through a fundamental evolutionary transition to a ‘societal organism’. We may be the only SCIENTIFICALLY CONSCIOUS life in the the galaxy, or maybe the whole universe, a ‘miracle’ considering the fantastically low probability that deserves preservation beyond any other consideration

    • Fred Kohler says:

      Put the word ‘last’ in front of the 4 pages in my comments, if I did not inadvertently cancel them.

  19. DC says:

    I like the idea of morality based on science, and I wholeheartedly agree that science is an excellent tool for determining how to reach moral goals.

    But, I’ve recently been swayed the other way on a key point – whether science can help us to set those goals. Certainly survival and flourishing (however you end up defining that) are important aspects of evolution, in that which individuals survive and which do not determines the path of evolution. But what can the science of evolution ever say about whether the survival of any particular individual is “good?” Or, more specifically, and especially, whether the survival of one individual is “better” than the survival of another?

    Science is the study of nature, and nature does not care who lives or dies.

  20. @blame says:

    scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong” is the first mistake, because personally & professionally those individuals CAN and DO approach their understanding of morality as rejecting traditional norms with –subjectively– BETTER ones.

    Here on the left, morality isn’t one size fits all.

    I see no reason why liberals must buy into the black-and-white, with us or against us, morality framework of monotheism.

    Objectivity needn’t even by a criteria since even the simplest “love thy neighbour” approach depends almost entirely on who the individual feels (then thinks) isn’t 100% their neighbour and therefore needn’t be extended 100% of their heart.

    Morality –as she is played– is about brainy primates prioritising their own tribe’s value judgements, and most of it is happening before clear thoughts & words are formed to justify one’s own personal preferences, apathies, & motivating (dis)comforts levels.

  21. Jeff M says:

    Micael Shermer:

    First of all, I think your points about the necessity of science for reaching ‘ought’ in relation to matters of public importance are correct. What I do not understand is why you think you need to invent moral theory in order to do that.

    For instance, Derek Parfit’s ‘Reason Implying Sense’ has a nice set of normative concepts that define how reasons with verified facts have more importance in this sense. The kind of facts you describe fit very well, and put your arguments on solid philosophical ground, without re-inventing the wheel.

  22. Roo says:

    Really enjoyed this post overall, but one question:

    How do we know that rape and adultery are wrong? We don’t need to ask God. We need to ask the affected moral agent—the rape victim in question, or our spouse or romantic partner who is being cuckold. They will let you know instantly and forcefully precisely how they feel morally about that behavior.

    Yes, but not all societies are monogamous, and to some degree it’s culture that teaches us we should be upset by adultery. By that logic, isn’t it immoral to commit other actions that cause suffering via cultural indoctrination? How do you speak to the idea, for example, of people who truly suffer when you show a lack of respect while handling a particular holy book or sacred object? Is the offending person then, in fact, immoral because the suffering is real? Does any cultural tradition that causes suffering apply, no matter how arbitrary?

  23. Lawrence Sheraton says:

    Morality is knowable through culture (it is taught via authority; or meme acting as authority); where as Ethics is inherently knowable. “I feel therefore I have knowledge of Ethics” is an axiom that proves the innate knowledge we are born with.

    Morality is inherently relativist, ethics is inherently universal. While they seemly overlap they are knowable through different means. Proper understanding of ethics requires one understand the distinction between the two. Visit http://www.EthicsDefined.org for a more in depth discussion of Ethics.

  24. Charles Sullivan says:

    Three things:

    1). The ‘Principle of good’ is a value that you already had. In other words, science can never recommended that principle, no more than it can recommend the ‘Principle of combat’. Once you pick your principle, then you can use empirical means to uncover the best approaches to its ends. Philosophers figured this out 200 years ago, at least. Pigliucci is correct. Nothing new here.

    2). ‘The individual is the primary target of natural selection in evolution’. Compared to what? The genes? So the genes are not the primary target of natural selection in evolution?’ Have you proved Dawkins wrong? Show us the evidence.

    3). Again, the individual compared to what? The group? But isn’t morality about how we treat others (plural) in our group (or others outside, plural)? Sure, often our moral engagement is one-to-one, but often our decisions can affect many, and if we think about parliaments and legislatures and senates, and employers, their decisions affect multitudes. Surely, there are moral and immoral actions here, whether our actions affect one or one million.

  25. Jonathan Simmons says:

    I think you’re going to run into the same problems Sam Harris did, which is that people who should know better will treat the issues you plan to raise as already settled, i.e., not a source of debate or controversy within philosophy; make an attempt to strengthen the boundary between science and philosophy; and finally, repeat, parrot-like, the importance of the fact-value distinction or claim that science is descriptive and not prescriptive.

    A good portion of your critics will be scientists, who likely haven’t read anything serious on the subject. Don’t concern yourself with them. It’s the philosophers that you will have to deal with. I suggest ignoring them in your main text unless absolutely necessary, but include an appendix where you demonstrate your familiarity with contemporary philosophy of science and meta-ethics.

    Dig into all the stuff about the value-free ideal, its critics, and alternative models. You might as well address the whole descriptive/prescriptive thing, even though it has been beaten to death by philosophers. As long as you mention all the people that disagree with you, you should be able to just pick a side and stick with it. Philosophers like Massimo, in my experience, just want recognition. They want to be noticed. The people who specialize in this stuff will probably agree with you anyway, but they won’t come to your defence because they’re busy publishing. I also suggest identifying yourself as a moral realist, preferably in the introduction. That way, the people who aren’t moral realists can just put down your book and pretend it was never written. When philosophers like Massimo come across a moral realist position that isn’t explicit, they don’t know what to do with it, and assume that someone has made a grave mistake.

    Mention David O. Brink.

    The thing is, most critics of your position don’t really have the expertise to tackle it. Massimo SHOULD have the expertise, but he consistently confuses his position with some sort of consensus within philosophy. He knows that most people he disagrees with haven’t done any heavy lifting in philosophy, so he doesn’t have to address any internal debates within his own discipline. Take that into account.

  26. Dr. Strangelove says:

    Dr. Shermer,
    It seems to me the problem in reducing morality to a science is the very concept of good and evil is a human invention and not inherent in nature. Science is about discovering the laws of nature. Morality isn’t a law of nature.

    Humans call actions that promote their survival and well-being as “good” and the opposite as “evil.” That’s completely arbitrary and subjective. Nature does not distinguish between humans and pigs. To mother nature, killing humans is no different from killing pigs.

    We cannot extract value judgment from science. It cannot tell us what is the higher goal from a hierarchy of goals. But we can discover causality through science. If we know what we want, science can inform us how to get it.

    Shermer seems to be more interested in the “how.” The value judgment of what is good and evil is simply assumed to be self-evident. In that sense, science is useful but he is no longer in the realm of morality. He is not trying to discover what is good but how to get it.

    • Dr. Strangelove says:

      I actually agree with Shermer’s approach. My disagreement is in calling it morality. IMO if you want to be truly scientific, do away with the concept of good and evil. No value judgments. Just deal with the “how.” This would be psychology, politics, economics, sociology.

  27. Vern says:

    I’m not sure I’m in the right league to make a comment, based on the high quality and intellectual level of comments posted here, but this is the way I see it.

    Morality is entirely subjective. It is neither scientific nor innate to the human condition. It evolved in its many forms as a method of survival, enabled by virtue of our higher level of consciousness from the rest of the animal kingdom.

    There is no right or wrong in the absolute; there only is what is. Similarly, there is no left and right or up and down in the absolute. These are relative labels that we assign and use to make sense of the relative realm in which we exist. They only apply with reference to the observer’s location and neither can exist without the existence of the opposite. When Neil Armstrong looked at the Earth from the Moon, was he looking up or down? When an Australian looks up, spatially he is looking in the same direction as when we look down. When approaching a ‘T’ intersection from one of its arms and traffic is approaching from the other arm, if you turn left and he turns right you both end up going in the same direction down the stem.

    Right and wrong are merely subjective values established in our societal construct, invariably generated and evolved by influence of religions, which drafted up common sense rules for control and survival of the human species, and then, to give the rules a validation of authority, declared them to be from a supernatural source, who, of course can’t be questioned. Whether an action is considered right or wrong depends entirely on cultural and social context, which themselves are in a constant state of flux and evolution.

    That is why multiculturalism is not feasible. Different cultures with different societal values cannot effectively coexist in one society as separate entities following different customs and values. Assimilation of immigrants into the culture of the host society is the only way to ensure successful coexistence. Pardon the diversion.

    Even within a given society, what is generally considered to be wrong can be right, depending on the context. In our society, killing another human is wrong, yet we train and encourage young people to do just that, under the banner of war and even give them medals for doing so. Some governments kill their own citizens in the name of criminal justice. In most societies, killing in self-defence is permitted. It all boils down to the observer’s reference point. To the killer it may be right or wrong; to the victim it’s always wrong regardless of the reason, rationale or method. While it may be legally wrong, is it morally wrong for a person, whose family is starving, to steal $50 from Bill Gates, in order to feed his family?

    The genesis of an individual’s morality is primarily a result of conditioning within the individual’s family, society and culture (including religion), and while for the most part is pretty well defined, in actual fact is quite subjective, flexible and arbitrary. The best we can hope for is to do what we feel is right and hope it’s what society agrees with. My judge is the guy in the mirror.

  28. Ana Coats says:

    Lucid and insightful. We will be hashing this out until the end of our days and what is certain is that reason, science and philosophy will be our most helpful tools. What will certainly thwart us in our efforts to live moral lives is invoking supernatural entities and wading through the never ending flimflam. Would love to see a Shermer/Harris collaboration. Any plans?

  29. Nick r says:

    I’m a huge fan. Very insightful.

  30. davidsonff says:

    Well, I don’t think you get out of the “is/ought” dilemma at all. I think both your “Principle of Moral Good” is unsupported and that your assertion that “determining the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality” is similarly unsupported. A sociopath can easily argue that since he cares not one whit about either of those two assertions, why should he abide by rules derived from them?

  31. Callum says:

    Dr Shermer,
    Very well done, I look forward to moral philosophy being more integrated into science and I especially like your focus on our obligation to alleviate global poverty, which is strangely absent from some discussions of what we ought to value.

    My only criticism is that you didn’t mention the human/animal relationship, and I think moral philosophy has to condemn the immense suffering that is inflicted on billions of animals every year, particularly in our food system. The best and most convincing short essay I’ve ever read is this one by Mylar Engel, which I recommend to anyone who wants to think seriously about the subject. I hope at the least that our definition of flourishing, whatever that turns out to be, can include the interests of non-human animals as well. I look forward to reading your new book.

    https://www.morehouse.edu/facstaff/nnobis/courses/immorality_of_eating_meat.pdf

  32. Another Point of view says:

    Ethics is a means by which a society may be able to improve it’s chances to survive. Each individual may also be able to improve his lifestyle. Increasing the chance for each individual to survive may at the same time decrease the likelihood for the species to improve. The survival of all genes is not necessarily in the best interest of the species. Preventing natural selection from working may, in the long run, be harmful to the species, even though it may seem to be the kindest thing.
    My preference is a modification of the “The Golden Rule”. “What you do is what you consider proper behavior, therefore it is proper for others to act that way towards you”. If you steal, you are giving others permission to steal from you. If you kill, others may take your life. When society responds to your behavior it does not mean that that is their morality, only yours.

  33. Vern says:

    @Another Point of view: Your comment, regarding the Golden Rule, is an interesting and thought provoking “other point of view.” Your interpretation of the Golden Rule ties in with the connection between society and the individual, both in the genesis of morality as well as the application of it.

    I have always strived to live by the Golden Rule and it is primarily the basis for my philosophical, moral and ethical values, and my actions in life. The Golden Rule states, “Do unto others that which you would have them do unto you.” Simple and easy to understand and follow, but it seems to me to be a bit too simplistic. It ignores the other side of the equation. I firmly believe that people will treat you as you let them treat you. I strive to live by the Golden Rule, as far as possible, but I refuse to be used or abused. So, like yourself, I have modified the Golden Rule by adding my own corollary, “Do not accept from others, that which you would not do unto them.” This then possibly leads to a second corollary, which you allude to, and which may be necessary to preserve the safety of oneself (e.g. self-defence when being assaulted) or of society, “Do unto others that which they have done to you.” I see life as an application of the Golden Rule and a progressive utilization of the corollaries, only if necessary. I’m quite happy if I can live my life with just the basic rule, but the realities of human interaction sometimes necessitate progression.

    • Max says:

      That’s what I said above, “Do onto others as others do onto you.”

      It’s the Golden Rule of the Satanic Bible
      http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Anton_LaVey
      “Satanism advocates practicing a modified form of the Golden Rule. Our interpretation of this rule is: ‘Do unto others as they do unto you'; because if you ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ and they, in turn, treat you badly, it goes against human nature to continue to treat them with consideration. You should do unto others as you would have them do unto you, but if your courtesy is not returned, they should be treated with the wrath they deserve.”

      It also sounds like the Old Testament’s “eye for an eye.”

  34. Adrian Morgan says:

    I’m sorry, but you lost me in the third paragraph by not defining what you mean by “moral good” and “moral loss”. To me, acting in a way that “leads to someone else’s moral loss” can only mean acting in a way that causes someone else to behave unethically. And while obviously making other people do bad things is immoral, it’s hardly Rule One.

    Also, while I don’t defend Divine Command theory, I think it only intellectually honest to acknowledge that only the most naiive forms of it postulate a god who can arbitrarily deem things to be moral or not.

    The Golden Rule has to be interpreted on a higher level of abstraction, I think. Not “I like X so I will give X to you”, but “I like X, X to me is as Y to you, so I will give Y to you”. And of course, children and mentally ill adults are not exempt from our obligation to treat people respectfully; I know you didn’t really mean to imply otherwise but you worded your point very clumsily.

  35. Dr. Strangelove says:

    Dr. Shermer,
    The attempt to discover morality from the study of the natural world is futile. Nature is neither moral nor immoral. It’s like trying to determine whether a piece of rock is male or female. It has no gender.

    To illustrate, you programmed an intelligent machine to act in a certain way. Using the scientific method, the machine explains why it is acting that way. Fine. That’s computer science. Then the machine argues that its actions are moral. Now we are in the realm of philosophy.

    To make sense of that philosophical argument, we have to define “moral” as actions resulting from the computer program of the intelligent machine. This is merely semantics. It is only true because we defined it that way. A circular reasoning. It is logic. Not a law of nature that we discovered by using the scientific method.

  36. Chris R. says:

    Individualism vs. Socialism and the Morality of Taxation.

    If someone asked me whether I wanted my taxes raised above the absurd amount I already pay I would say absolutely no way. In fact I think I’ve described it as ‘rape.’ To me, in my mind, It creates hardship – extension of retirement age, one less vacation, next year it will be very difficult to pay for my kids private school, etc… Perhaps these are problems I suppose everyone would love to have, but the bottom line is that more taxes takes away some of the freedom that I have and value. It is an imposition forcing unwanted change on my part. A downgrade in my well being. Laugh if I sound like an elitist – I might be – but the point is important:

    Is wealth redistribution moral? Are grossly progressive taxes moral?? Is democracy moral???

    Or do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?

  37. Dr. jack L. Edwards says:

    Schermer says, “Morality has to do with how you act toward others.” Although this is important it is incomplete and may not be the most important question about morality for a scientist. The most important question beyond the topography, or form of behavior is “Why do you act the way you do?,” that is, what causes you to act morally. If we are to achieve a scientific understanding of how people become moral we need to understand what causes them to become that way and others not.

    This point is further illustrated in Schermer’s Principle of Moral Good, which is an example of “good moral advice” but does not give us any reason for acting that way, that is, it does not tell us what might cause us to do so. The addition of “through force or fraud” is useful and Schermer has added it “to clarify intent.” This again raises the question of why someone would act with such intent. What might make them do so?

    Schermer seeks to apply evolutionary theory to the origins and ultimate foundations of morality, an excellent approach in seeking to give morality a natural rather than a supernatural basis. Again, it is incomplete since the vast majority of our behavior is not strictly determined by evolution but by what we have learned since birth. Also, his appeal to “intent” should be viewed in the context of how intent is viewed within evolutionary theory as described in the 4th edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia:

    “A still prevalent misunderstanding of evolution is the belief that an animal or plant changes in order to better adapt to its environment; e.g., that it develops an eye for the purpose of seeing. Since mutation is a random process and since most mutations are harmful rather than neutral or beneficial to the organism, it is evident that the occurrence of a variation is itself a matter of chance, and that one cannot speak of a will or purpose on the part of the individual to develop a new structure or trait that might prove helpful.”

    In a similar way, we cannot seek reasons for acting morally in the inner life of a person but must look to the environments that support moral behavior. The examples Schermer provides are clearly consistent with this point. They begin to get at causes that promote what he terms “survival and flourishing of the individual.” This despite Pigliucci’s disclaimer that the “goal of increasing human flourishing” is “the result of a value choice that cannot possibly be grounded in empirical science.” If you can explain why a man has made a choice, that is, what caused him to do so, you have grounded it in science.

    One important question Schermer’s moral advice and examples raises is whether all that he describes will be effective in making people more moral. The answer is that it will help but does that move us toward a science of morality. I think, likely, in the end it is just good advice with some fine examples of what many will agree are moral actions; the New Guinea example being an immoral action.

    I do not believe the article does much to advance a science of morality, which must discover the reasons why we behave in ways we call moral, why we call them moral and what will cause us to arrive at a common understanding of morality. Those answers lie not only in the topography of behavior but, more importantly for science, in its causes and, at a different level altogether, in the topography and causes at the level of physiology.

    • Dr. Strangelove says:

      “The most important question beyond the topography, or form of behavior is “Why do you act the way you do?,” that is, what causes you to act morally”

      I think the most fundamental question is “what are moral acts?” Can scientists study nature and come up with unambiguous definition in the same way “evolution” or “survival of the fittest” are unambiguous? This is like asking what is beautiful? Anybody can come up with an answer but why should everybody agree with that?

      “the result of a value choice that cannot possibly be grounded in empirical science.” If you can explain why a man has made a choice, that is, what caused him to do so, you have grounded it in science.”

      You have only explain why he did it, not why it is moral. If a girl curls her hair, we can explain why she did it but not why it is beautiful. You have to define first what is beautiful, which is subjective. We can make measurements and study symmetry but not everybody will agree it’s beautiful.

      • Dr. jack L. Edwards says:

        B. F. Skinner answered your question about what is moral in the following ways:

        “Things are good (positively reinforcing) or bad (negatively reinforcing) presumably because of the contingencies of survival under which the species evolved.…

        As a result it is part of the genetic endowment called “human nature” to be reinforced in particular ways by particular things….

        To make a value judgment by calling something good or bad is to classify it in terms of its reinforcing effects…….things were reinforcing long before they were called good or bad—and they are still reinforcing to animals who do not call them good or bad and to babies and other people who are not able to do so.”

        Skinner’s concerns focused on morality as that which contributes not only to the survival of the individual but to the culture, the latter being a key support to the survival of the individual in it. Given that focus, he was particularly concerned with delayed reinforcements on the part of individuals in the interest of the future survival of people. That led him to write about both the evolution and the design of cultures.

        Thus, to your second point, having explained what is moral, explaining why it is done is to ground morality in science.

      • Dr. Strangelove says:

        The grand vision of Skinner and Shermer to ground morality on science is just that – a vision. Not a science. To equate reinforcing to good and bad is another definition of terms quite common in logic and philosophy but isn’t necessarily science. If the Spartans were positively reinforced to kill since childhood, does it make killing good?

      • Dr. jack L. Edwards says:

        Certainly Harris, in addition to Schemer, is among the recent contributors to try and bring morality into the purview of science. Skinner is the most complete at the level of behavior and there is still much to be done at both that level and, especially, the level of physiology (as it relates to behavior and the environment).

        Bringing moral behavior (including verbal behavior about morality) into the purview of science is indeed a vision and one actually based in science. Skinner’s assertion that “To make a value judgment by calling something good or bad is to classify it in terms of its reinforcing effects” is a reasonable one about morality and it is up to those who would object to its validity to demonstrate that the assumption is incorrect. “Reinforcing effects” have been demonstrated scientifically for more than seventy years now in many venues for humans and other animals.

        Your question about the Spartans is a good one. One of the evolved aspects of human nature seems to be the reinforcing effects of damage to others. This has served the survival of the individual, when attacked, and the culture, when invaded. Changing that will require environments in which there are limited opportunities for hurting others. Schermer’s set of examples of increasing economic advantages is part of that realization. As long as there are threats to the survival of individuals from others, however, some people and organizations that protect the rest of us will be necessary and thus moral in the sense of supporting our continued survival.

        A non-exclusive vision of a science of morality, “the survival and flourishing of the individual” in Schermer’s terms, will take time to be realized by the entire extant human race. Bringing morality into the purview of science holds the promise of hastening that by “deliberately” designing and implementing a moral culture.

    • Dr. jack L. Edwards says:

      Perhaps a better phrasing of the last sentence in my reply would be: “Thus, to your second point, having grounded “What are moral acts?” in science (which is just explaining the “why” of another kind of behavior: “why do we call an act ‘moral'”), explaining, more specifically, why people behave in ways we call “moral” is to take just a more detailed step.

  38. Heather Marie says:

    Mr. Shermer
    I believe, of all the previous comments, the only one relevant to your essay is Dr. jack L. Edwards’.
    I believe the very existence of the concept of morality or ethics is a question for science. Where has it come from, if not from some natural consequence? (Barring a supernatural entity obviously.) I agree that the best way humans have of addressing this question is through the application of science.
    I have to assume, as Edwards seems to have done, that your thoughts are incomplete. For me, this is referring directly to your “ask first” test. I think previous commenters have misconstrued your exemption of children or the mentally ill from this test means you qualify them as being unworthy of moral attention. I took your statements to mean simply that you can not ask a question of someone who does not have the ability to give you a reasonable answer. But this does then leave a gap in how you address morality questions where they affect these children or the mentally ill. If you can’t ask them as a means to judge the morality of your actions concerning them, how do you determine the morality?

    • makagutu says:

      I agree with you and I think the scientists should altogether drop the value judgments of good and bad but limit themselves to answer the how question. And I don’t think he can exclude the mentally ill and children out of those to be asked first.

  39. Retired Prof says:

    Yes, Heather Marie and makagutu, value judgements are axioms in a moral system–accepted a priori as starting points for decisions.

    Take Luis Tovar’s statement, “Sentience is only what matters.” Science can test whether an organism is sentient or not, but it is blind to whether sentience matters or not. Obviously it matters to Luis Tovar, but how about to an orca playing torturous games with a seal before eating it, or a coyote repeatedly tossing a mouse in the air? All four animals are sentient; who can decide whether the fun of the predators or the terror and agony of the prey is what matters?

    No scientific study can determine that we humans must make sentience our only criterion for dietary choices. The only thing that will work is a binding cultural convention, the kind of thing that is enforceable by public disapproval, legal penalty, or metaphysical threat, often in combination.

    I for one resist any attempt to make me spurn the examples set by my human and pre-human ancestors and by bears, raccoons, robins, and other fellow omnivores. I learned about those examples through science, but science cannot tell me whether I should follow them or not. That’s all on me.

  40. Peter says:

    The most successful human ever was Genghis Khan.

    He rose from poverty and obscurity in a primitive country, to be emperor of most of the world’s population.

    Modern genetic evidence shows he fathered more offspring than any known human (given that our mitochondrial ‘Eve’ is pre-historic). Indisputably the alpha male of human evolution.

    Yet his courtship technique – kill all the males, impregnate all the females – would be anathema to Dr Schermer’s moral sensibilities. Ironically, a male chimp, lion, dog, or even a primitive mammal such as a kangaroo, would approve of his polygyny. Fellow mammalian alphas would also commend Genghis’ lack of concern for the welfare of others, and his repression of mammalian altruistic urges with free expression of aggressive urges.

    ‘The Moral Arc of Science’ should be a short book, because there is no morality in science, only objective measures like reproductive success, standard of living etc. The flaw in Dr Schermer’s scientific argument is in attributing a meaning or significance to these parameters. Genghis Khan lived well, probably enjoyed his life, and remains dead. His species will become extinct. None of this matters in any scientific way, unless one invests human (or trilobite, etc ) existence with an inherent significance, which I would call religious, for want of a better term.

    • Dr. Strangelove says:

      If Dr. Shermer wants to stick to science, stay away from morality and just deal with psychology. For example, when facing a moral choice do you consult a moral counselor or a psychologist? The former will prescribe the correct moral choice but science cannot prove it is true. The latter will give you sound scientific advice but he will be talking about your mental and emotional health and depression therapy.

      The counselor is doing moral philosophy. The psychologist is doing science but I doubt you can call that morality. So in writing a science book about morality (that might be an oxymoron) follow how the psychologist deals with a moral issue. No value judgment, just deal with the processes of the mind.

  41. Phea says:

    Dr. Schermer, morals have always been a matter of opinion at best, and bad laws at worst. They are constantly changing. You state, “We should be worried that scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong and which values lead to human flourishing”. I fail to see how science can determine what a proper opinion should be. Instead of tackling the whole range of moral behavior, I would be interested in seeing how, using science, you could answer one or two very basic, moral questions.

    Euthanasia would be an interesting subject. Can science tell us if, and/or when it’s right or wrong? How would science answer the moral question of homosexual behavior, and gay marriage? How would science have answered the same questions 50 years ago? I’m OK with science giving up on questions like these. I think it might worry me if science was seriously trying to answer them.

  42. Dre53 says:

    Dr. Shermer, I agree with your general premise that science can and should attempt to answer (or at least shed light on) moral questions. Morality involves the maximization of well-being and minimization of suffering among conscious creatures. Given the vast amount of consequences of government policy and individual action we know about, it is clear that there are better and worse ways to do this. Hypothetically experimenting and researching history about what works best is an extremely useful endeavor, and I think it really is an example of a study of morality. It is already commonly done in the social science fields.

    However, I have a major issue with your use of evolution and natural selection as the basis for morality. You say, “Why does survival and flourishing matter morally? Because it is the basis of the evolution of all life on earth through natural selection.”. Survival and fluorishing is not really the basis of all evolution, the basis is reproduction. Survival and fluorishing often help to maximize reproduction, but on their own they do not pass on one’s genetic material. It isn’t hard to imagine someone living a long, fulfilled, tremendously happy life who nonetheless does not reproduce. Conversely, somone could father 10 or more children yet still struggle to earn enough to feed himself, never mind his children. On strictly evolutionary terms, the former situation is a failure, the latter one a success. Yet in moral terms, the former is a success, the latter likely a failure. Evolution is indeed why we are here, it programs our thoughts, feelings, and intuitions. But it is clear that what is best for us evolutionarily does not maximize happiness or minimize suffering. It often can do the opposite. I don’t think it will be effective to claim to draw your moral compass from evolution. Ulitmately I think Sam Harris had it right in The Moral Landscape when he suggested the true basis of morality has to come from positive and negative brain states. Since these can be so subjective (I may enjoy somthing others hate), I think finding concrete, indisputable truths in this area will be extremely difficult. Answers may exist, but they will be difficult if not impossible to find. This doesn’t make the endeavor useless; certainly there are some cases we can all agree upon and better and worse ways to move towards what we agree on. Overall I strongly agree with the premise here but I think making evolutionary success the ultimate root of morals is a big mistake. Still I love the article and look forward to the book!

  43. Asher Kay says:

    My recommendation would be to respond to Pigliucci’s criticisms. Re-stating your argument with new definitions and examples doesn’t do that.

  44. Kent McManigal says:

    If you cannot ask “a 12-year old girl raised in a polygamous family belonging to the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints if she feels it is moral to marry a man in his 60s who is already married to many other women”, then you can’t ask of anyone questions that relate somehow to the culture they have been raised in.

    You can’t ask a person in the US whether “taxation is moral”, or whether “the War on Politically Incorrect Drugs” is moral, because they have been raised in a culture that says (with few exceptions) that both things are moral, even though both lead to some other individual’s “moral loss” even when they are not damaging any other individual.

    Yes, “morality” (or better, ethics) is falsifiable. But that doesn’t mean that culturally based assumptions- such as whether polygamy is right or wrong- are accurate. Each of you has a bias in looking at the question. But, either way, as long as it is consensual, who is hurt? Who is being violated? Does it harm you when others choose this path? How? Are others harmed by your choice, as long as you don’t impose your views on them and make them live by the standards you assume? It’s just Sharia Law by another name- imposing religious/cultural “values” on people who do not share them.

  45. David says:

    Dr. Shermer: I think this is an extremely important topic and I am gratified that you are pursuing it. My own view is that not only can science inform our moral choices, but ultimately, it must.

  46. David says:

    Clearly, we can ask if taxation as an efficent means to provide for the public good is moral, regardless of culture. Indeed, we can study this question scientifically. Also, concluding that taxation always results in an individual’s moral loss is absurd. I gladly pay my taxes in order to enjoy government services and live in a civil society. Don’t we all agree that living in a representative democracy with a central government is preferable to the alternatives?

    Regarding the 12-year old girl scenario, this is where science can inform our moral judements, without the bias of culture. Can we not study polygamous cultures and determine how these cultures, and the individuals in them, fare on various measures of well being? Indeed, isn’t this how we should approach all moral questions whose answers are not immediately obvious?

  47. Peter says:

    Again, the 12-year old girl scenario fails any ‘moral’ implication test when placed in the context of the highly polygamous Genghis Khan. His polygamy boosted his reproductive fitness far beyond what any monogamist could achieve. His pick-up line: “sleep with me or die”; was an efficient way of mate selection.

    The scientifically rational 12-year old can choose between these clear alternatives, and thus choose to propagate her genes or end her line. Polygamy clearly is the fitter evolutionary strategem, for her as well as Genghis, given he has also chosen violent conquest as his evolutionary tactic.

    “We have to ground the foundations of morality on something” is Dr Shermer’s correct assumption, but I can see no way to ground morality on objective physical laws and constants, the stuff of science.

    “Rape, for example, is wrong whether or not God says it is wrong” – well, it is scientifically proven to be reproductively effective by our ancestor, the imperial empiricist Mr G. Khan. The pre-christian Greeks, who gave us many of our early scientific concepts, had no problem with buggering a 12-year old boy. To them, a detached state of equanimity was important, and compassion was seen as a character flaw. The well-being or “flourishing” of a child/ slave/ foreigner was of no consequence.

    The foundation of morality can thus be popular consensus, ie paedophilia was ‘moral’ to ancient Greeks or English boarding school boys; genocide was ‘moral’ to German citizens in the 1930s/40s (hell, considering Dresden, the Ukraine, Hiroshima, Manchuria…. genocide was ‘moral’ to everyone back then) or to Hutus and Tutsis in the 1980s/90s.

    Morality can be founded on the laws of the strong, so that the decisions of Genghis Khan, Kim Jong Un, or an armed New Guinean lynch mob are always right. This has excellent scientific credence, being universal in mammalian societies, and in objective measures such as reproductive fitness of the alpha males.

    Alternatively, the foundation of morality can be religious, ie an objective set of standards imposed by a divine being. The pre-christian Graeco-roman world had no ‘moral’ problem with slavery, or with the sacrifice of an individual soldier/gladiator either to defend society, or for pure entertainment. The teaching of Jesus: “love one another” as a command from God, validates the concept of individual flourishing as having cosmic importance.

    This quintessentially Christian message was slow to catch on, because it threatens the absolute rule of alpha males, from Nero to Genghis Khan, from Mao to Pol Pot. Anti-slavery abolitionist movements were led by Christian morality against rational mercantilist arguments – you can look from the Pyramids to the Taj Mahal to the mansions of Savannah and Atlanta, to see that slavery is empirically effective as a means of wealth creation/labour-force management.

    The reaction of Westerners, even atheists like Dr Shermer, to the recent pack rape and murder of a student on a bus in India, is grounded in 2000 years of Christian influence in Western culture. The woman had intrinsic value, not in a scientific sense of a few cents’ worth of trace elements, but a value imbued by a creator God. Otherwise she was simply a seal, tossed between orcas in a David Attenborough documentary, no soul, just intelligent mammalian meat.

    It is this Christian teaching which Dr Shermer senses to be morally right, without being able to accredit the source.

    The logical fallacy occurs when one takes the moral teachings of Jesus, yet rejects their basis as a divine revelation- then the internal consistency of the argument is lost. If one does not accept the divinity of Jesus, his moral teachings have no more value than those of Genghis Khan, who would no doubt advocate rape as a pleasant pastime for a leader and his cronies.

  48. Evelyn Haskins says:

    There is one very serious problem with “ought” — and that is, “Ought according to whom?”

    Morality (and ethics) is the realm of societies — and one society’s “ought” can be another society’s “anathema”.
    Then of course, even more so, one species’ “ought” can be very different from another’s.
    “Oughts” are very self-centred — they are to ensure the survival of that individual, that Clan, that Tribe, that Nation, or that species.
    It seems a sorry State of Affairs when a confessed ‘skeptic’ thinks that science should say anything about oughts.
    Once you get ‘science’ meddling with ethics, then the concept of true science disappears.

  49. Katherina says:

    Hi would you mind stating which blog platform you’re working with? I’m going to start my own blog soon
    but I’m having a hard time making a decision between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal. The reason I ask is because your layout seems different then most blogs and I’m looking
    for something completely unique. P.S Apologies for being off-topic but I had
    to ask!

  50. Brigitte says:

    Witchcraft is not the moral evil in your last example; the belief that someone else has performed a supernatural violence and the punishing of that perceived violence without due process is the moral evil. Probably no witchcraft was performed, so you cannot blame witchcraft. Even if it was performed, there is no detectable effect of witchcraft, which means it was not in fact violent, and again is not a moral evil. The only evil comes from lack of education, lack of law and order – not presence of (or perceived presence of) a harmless private behavior.

  51. John Parenteau says:

    Determining the morality of an act must be far more complicated than “To find out whether an action is right or wrong, ask first.”

    For example:

    Mr. R. Hood wants to tax Mr. R. Guy, giving the proceeds to Mr. H. Scarecrow for food. If Mr. Hood were to ask Mr. Guy for permission to proceed he would likely get a different answer than if he were to ask Mr. Scarecrow. Under “ask first,” his act is both moral and immoral, so, there must be something more than “ask those affected” to determining the morality of an action.

    “Always act with someone else’s moral good in mind, and never act in a way that it leads to someone else’s moral loss (through force or fraud)” does not get us there, for acting with one person’s moral good in mind may well impose a moral loss on another. What are you going to do, sum up the moral impacts on all humans from n = 1 to 6.5 x10^9 and if the sum comes up positive declare the act moral? Why limit the summation to humans? In short, in a world of finite resources, is it not impossible to do the math and determine if you are actually performing an act that leads to “moral loss” on the whole?