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How Science Can Inform Human Values & Morality

One of the most enduring themes in western thought is the separation of science and human values. It is often said that science is amoral, that it has nothing to say about what we ought to do, only what is. It’s understandable why people believe this; it is easy to think that human values cannot be measured in the same way that, say, gravity is measured. I think this is false. We now know from science that there are right and wrong answers about what we ought to value, what increases human well-being and flourishing, and what is or isn’t moral.

To begin, it’s important to understand human morality not as having single objective answers. It is best to conceive of it as having peaks and valleys – a moral landscape, as Sam Harris frames it – where there are multiple ways for human beings to thrive. Consider Harris’ analogy:

I would never be tempted to argue that there must be one right food to eat. There is clearly a wide range of materials that constitute what to eat. But there is nevertheless a clear distinction between food and poison. The fact that there are many right answers to the question of what food to eat does not tempt us to say that there are no truths to be know about human nutrition.

That is to say, understanding morality as having multiple truths, and as having multiple avenues to these truths, does not undermine the idea that there are no moral principles to be known. This is why it misses the point to ask questions like, “Is lying wrong?” or “Is stealing wrong?” Implicit in these queries is the false assumption that exceptions destroy the idea of moral truth. Lying and stealing can be right and wrong depending on the situation. Consider Harris’ other analogy:

If you’re going to play good chess, a principle like don’t lose your queen is good to follow. But clearly there are exceptions. There are moments where losing your queen is a brilliant thing to do. There are moments where it is the only good thing you can do. Yet, chess is a game of perfect objectivity. The fact that there are exceptions does not change that at all.

So how can science lead us to the peaks of this moral landscape? As these analogies illustrate, it can in many ways. For example, if you grew up before the 1960s, or if you’re a Mad Men fan, you’ll know that people didn’t know how unhealthy cigarettes were. What’s worse is that smoking was actually advertised as something that was healthy. Then scientists stepped in, looked at the data, and realized the truth – smoking kills. Not soon after, the government took action and began issuing warnings in various places to inform people of the ills of smoking. Fast forward a few decades and smoking is a taboo. Even in Europe, where smoking rates are higher than those here in the United States, more and more countries are banning smoking from bars and issuing mandatory warning labels on cigarette packs. Cigarette smoking is a case where science told us what to value (not smoking) and what we ought to do (not smoke), and this improved our moral landscape.

The problem is religion sometimes gets in the way. Consider the case of Robyn Twitchell, a two-and-a-half-year-old boy who in April of 1986, started vomiting and crying. Over the next few days, his inability to consume and hold down food became dangerously apparent. So, his parents took him to their local prayer group where they prayed for him and sang hymns to him. He cried and winced in pain for days, but his parents refused proper medical assistance because they were Christian Scientists. He died a few days later. An autopsy showed that Robyn died of an obstructed bowel – an easy surgical fix. The parents were convicted of involuntary manslaughter, but the conviction was overturned.

Are there categorical differences between cigarette smoking and Robyn’s story? All admit that both cases are unhealthy. Yet, many believe that it is difficult to say that what Robyn’s parents did was wrong – at least more difficult than telling someone that smoking is wrong –  because it is impossible to determine if religious values are wrong, even if they have horrible outcomes. But who are we to pretend that what Robyn’s parent did wasn’t wrong? Science clearly shows that human beings are better off and human communities flourish more with better health care.

Unfortunately, religious values are untouchable. For example, in 2004, as Richard Dawkins explains, after appealing on the grounds of freedom of religion,”a twelve year-old boy in Ohio won the right in court to wear a T-shirt to school bearing the words: Homosexuality is a sin, Islam is a lie, abortion is murder. Some issues are just black and white!” Likewise, consider that in February of 2006 the United States Supreme court exempted a New Mexico Church from using hallucinogenic drugs because members of the church said that they could only understand God by drinking hoasca tea, which contains hallucinogenics. Clearly, religion is the, “trump card,” as Richard Dawkins says.

When I claim that science can determine values and generate moral truths I am suggesting that it is possible to know what is best for a human being and a community. It is true that smoking is harmful, it is true that not seeking proper medical attention for an ailing child is harmful, it is true that wearing a T-shirt with hateful comments is harmful, and it is true that taking hallucinogenic drugs is harmful. We know, through science, that all of these things make us worse off. This is not to say that science has the answers, but it is to say that it has the best tools to maximize our lives and our society. There are truths to be known about values, and using science to find these truths will make us all better off.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dan #

    “Are there categorical differences between cigarette smoking and Robyn’s story?” Yes but they’re not religious vs non-religious. They’re between being a morally-capable individual (the smoker) and a non-morally-capable individual (the child), who relies on the moral capabilities of his/her parents, who in this case failed. If the parents had neglected their child’s care because they couldn’t be bothered to go to the hospital or were too stoned or believed in some crazy alternative medicine, they would be just as guilty and if the state distinguishes between these cases (i.e between religious and non-religious reasons for child neglect), then it’s certainly true that the state’s in error but I don’t think that’s any reason to suppose that science has anything useful to say in this case. And the same probably applies to the cases Dawkins cites. These may be errors in the legal arrangements the state makes (though I’m not sure that they are) but why think they shed light on the power of science to produce moral truths?

    “who are we to pretend that what Robyn’s parent did wasn’t wrong? Science clearly shows that human beings are better off and human communities flourish more with better health care.” If a deaf couple have children who are deaf and raise them within the deaf community and reject, for example, cochlear implants, is that acceptable? And if it’s wrong, does that have anything to do with religion? The question revolves around childcare, parental duties, the degree to which communities within a state can be self-determining, and the degree of state paternalism we will tolerate. Bringing religion into it just obscures the issues. In the case of the deaf child, it’s not clear whether s/he will flourish more with or without the cochlear implant but I can’t see how any scientific project is going to provide a determinate answer to the question.

    “Cigarette smoking is a case where science told us what to value (not smoking) and what we ought to do (not smoke), and this improved our moral landscape.” Yes but that’s only a part of the truth. The point which is always trotted out is that science can’t tell us why we should value our future health over our current pleasure.If that’s in question, no matter how many beagles are forced to chain-smoke Marlboro, you’re not going to find an answer in a laboratory. Ask a group of ex-smokers why they stopped. It’s extremely unlikely to be because of a change in their knowledge; it’s because – at least in part – of a change in their relative valuation of the current and future (at least in my case, that’s true). Or how about this: In five years time, research reveals that excessive Facebook increases the risk of turning you into a sociopath. In response, the government restricts use to 1 hour a day. What’s changed there? We thought being a sociopath was bad before and we still think it’s bad so there’s no change in our values; what’s changed is the description of Facebook. And that seems to be closer to the role of science – providing better descriptions of things in the world and helping us to apply our moral categories better, not in producing new or improved moral categories.

    “When I claim that science can determine values and generate moral truths I am suggesting that it is possible to know what is best for a human being and a community.” I presume you’re saying that science can tell us “what is best for a human being and a community”. Really? That’s quite a claim. How can science tell us, to repeat a point I made above, how to balance the claims of the present and the future? Take the case of climate change and assume that we know everything there is to know about the mechanisms involved (ignoring its chaotic aspects). Solving this problem means adjudicating between competing claims in at least 2 directions: present and future people and people in the developed and developing worlds. What scientific fact would one have to know to balance these claims? Is there a calculus that we can discover that will churn out an answer if we just had the ‘right’ numbers? No, I don’t think so. Science will obviously inform any answer we settle on, but that’s just to say that knowledge about the world helps us make decisions about what to do and better knowledge will tend to make better decisions but that’s hardly contentious.

    (Sorry – that’s all a bit repetitive but at least you won’t be in any doubt about the point I’m making!)

    October 21, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Thanks for your comment Dan, sorry it has taken me a few days to respond.

      1) I don’t know of any studies to research how well-off a child is if he or she foregoes hearing aides versus is he or she gets hearing aides. But, if a study is done that clearly shows that hearing aides make people and the communities they live in better-off than I think hearing aides should be something those people and those communities should value. I think it isn’t acceptable for a parent or child to forego hearing aides if there is clearly scientific proofs that hearing aides will make them better off.

      2) You said, “science [provides] better descriptions of things in the world and [helps] us to apply our moral categories better, [it does not produce] new or improved moral categories.” I think that these two ideas are the same, and should be thought of as the same – science tells us who are the most well-off people and what are the most well-off communities, and those facts should inform our moral categories.

      These are my thoughts for now. Sry, been a bit busy, and wish I would put some more time into these questions.

      October 24, 2011
  2. Max Stirner #

    I think at some points in this article you’re conflating “things that benefit our bodies” with what is “objectively wrong” and I think this is a mistake. What is optimal for our bodies doesn’t judge morality. Sure, you can look at science and say, “If I care about living until I’m 80, smoking is probably the wrong choice for me.” But, that doesn’t mean that smoking itself is objectively wrong in some moral sense, just that it doesn’t fit in with whatever your life plan is.

    To the example of the kid wearing the shirt: it’s not WRONG that he wears that shirt in any real way. Again, you can say, “If we’d prefer the atmosphere of our school to be one of tolerance, then we shouldn’t allow somebody to wear a shirt with such writing on it.” But, again, that doesn’t say the shirt itself is somehow objectively wrong in some measurable sense.

    I guess the point I’m getting at is that there is no tablet on top of some rock or some rules mandated from some god about what is right and wrong. So, we need to come up with what our plans are, and decide what works for us to meet those ends–not try over and over again to act like our actions need the outside justification of being objectively right and wrong.

    October 22, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      The point of the moral landscape is to forget thinking that there are “objective truths,” and enforce the idea that science can inform our decisions as to improve well-being and human flourishing. There are “no tablets on top of rocks,” – agreed – but there are truths to be known about what will make us better off.

      October 24, 2011
  3. I’d like to explore how science can help us distinguish between what would otherwise be arbitrary choices of values. I believe that, in principle at least, it can. But I have difficulty seeing how science tells us that wearing a t-shirt is harmful?

    October 23, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      If you want to really dig into the literature, I would read Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape and Martin Seligman’s Flourish. Harris’ book is what this blog post is about, Seligman’s actually contains the science – the data that shows what increases or decreases human flourishing.

      October 24, 2011
  4. Interesting that your post title relates to how science can “inform” values and morality when, to read Harris, he posits that science can act as the basis for morality. Two very different things, as I’m sure you may imagine.

    Anyway, here’s a debate between Craig, PhD and Harris, PhD on the foundational basis for morality:
    I’d be interested in knowing what you think, Sam.

    October 27, 2011
  5. Jake May #

    I just want to point out that while knowing smoking can kill me, i still enjoy the buzz. I know that sugar is probably not good for me, but damn if i don’t love those fruit loops. We know that hurting others is bad but that does not change the fact that sometimes we all want to hurt someone. Science can inform morals only as far as people are willing to accept them. Society has always had it’s rebels and science can’t change that.

    December 27, 2018

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