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Can science tell you what is good?

Can science tell you what is good?

Nick Spencer reviews ‘Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality’ by James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelsky. 12/08/2019

“Faced with the things of religion”, Sigmund Freud once wrote, the scientific method “pauses, hesitates, and finally here too steps over the threshold. The process is unstoppable.”

Well, up to a point, Lord Sigmund. One ‘religious’ threshold over which science has repeatedly stumbled in its attempts to cross has been that of morality. This is not, please understand, to claim that morality is somehow inconceivable without religion, or that only the religious are good, or anything silly like that. Rather, it is to recognise that the ethical culture in which the scientific method emerged was saturated with – indeed was unthinkable without – Christianity. And so the scientific attempt to put ethics on an objective rational and/or empirical footing was, even if unintentionally, one of its Freud’s “unstoppable” steps. As soon as science can prove definitively what is good and bad, what is moral and immoral, and how we should live, the need to invoke any theistic perspective disappears. There will no longer be any dispute about ethics. We will know the good with as much certainty as we know gravity. We will see through a glass clearly.

It’s a noble endeavour but one that has singularly, and sometimes painfully failed, as James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelsky show in their short but informative book Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality. Once upon a time, the story begins, moral laws were written into the nature of things. The Aristotelian universe in which our medieval ancestors lived was populated with things that had ends. Teleology was woven into everything, and the good was realised through the proper respect for and use of these things.

This world gave way to one of inert, inanimate objects in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as Aristotle was prised from his intellectual throne. The moral compass was demagnetised, although it was arguably already unreadable for being so stained in the blood of denominational warfare.

An ethical gap opened into which various approaches flooded. Some claimed that the inductive method, in which tentative conclusions are developed via hypotheses, experimentation and observation was the way forward (despite the fact that the method had yet to achieve anything much in the material world, let alone the moral one). Others rejected this approach altogether and favoured what came to be known as sentimentalism, rejecting the idea that there was any objective basis for morality, seeing it instead simply as the expression of feelings and attitudes.

As the project gained momentum and intellectual respectability in the nineteenth century, two major ideas led the way. Utilitarianism, most commonly associated with Jeremy Bentham, reduced moral discourse to a balance of utility or pleasure, and sought to calculate the goodness of an action simply on the basis of how far it contributed to utility, happiness, pleasure, pain, etc. Later in the century, evolutionary ethics grounded morality in the evolutionary process, from which it must take its lead. Morality was a function of survival value. The consequences were bloody.

Neither approach lasted. The holes in utilitarianism became too big to ignore, and the consequences of evolutionary ethics too horrific. Further attacked by the philosophical school of logical positivism, which declared all talk of morality as simply meaningless, and by behaviourism, which dismissed all talk of any inner states as unscientific, the attempt to develop a science of ethics ground to a halt.

It was only in the final decades of the twentieth century, when E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis sparked a renewed interest in evolution as impetus and framework for ethics, and neuroscience began to map the brain as it went about its business, that a new generation recommenced the task.

The resulting project synthesised a number of elements of the earlier quest. The whole thing was firmly grounded in a Darwinian understanding of the evolution of the human mind and body, but it incorporated elements of sentimentalism, which understood moral reasoning as a servant of moral emotions (rather than the other way around), and elements of utilitarianism, in which the extent to which actions added or detracted from measurable human happiness was essential.

The preparation for a new scientific assault on the ethical threshold were impressive, but the results, as Hunter and Nedelsky show in the third and best part of the book, were less so.

Helpfully, the authors draw out three possible levels of explanation that a renewed science of morality could aim for. Level 1 claims that it can demonstrate empirically and confidently what is good and bad, right and wrong. More modestly, Level 2 claims to be able to give evidence for or against some moral claim or theory, for example proving that utilitarianism is true, or virtue ethics false. More modestly still, Level 3 provides scientific descriptions of origins of morality, such as the ways in which our capacity for moral judgement are embodied in our “neural architecture”.

There has been some success at the last level, although it still lends itself to some dreadfully shallow thinking such as the nonsense around oxytocin, the so–called “moral molecule”, which apparently “generates the empathy that drives moral behaviour, which inspires trust”. This, the authors rightly remark, is the equivalent of telling us that what explains drink driving accidents is the presence of alcohol in drivers’ blood. It’s an unconvincing confusion of chemical and ethical analysis, treating oxytocin and trust as if they were causally linked on the same level, as opposed to different and parallel descriptions of the same phenomenon.

Understanding the neural pathways that are activated when people do good, or postulating the scenarios in which early humans might have developed the inclination towards altruistic behaviour, is interesting and useful but it doesn’t offer you much on what is objectively good and bad, in spite of claims to the contrary. “What [Sam] Harris is proposing”, the authors point out, identifying one of the more egregious questors, “is not the scientific determination of values but that science can show us how to promote something we’ve already assumed is valuable, independent from science.”

Their conclusion, which they put forward in the final part of the book, is not only that the renewed endeavour of developing a science of morality has failed but that in its claims of success, it inadvertently undermines the very nature of morality itself. The determinedly “disenchanted naturalism” that underpins all these attempts is unable to put ethics on any secure footing. Indeed, the very attempt to put moral reality on an objective, measurable, material basis ends up turning it into “an arbitrary construct of social, psychological and biological life”, explaining away the very thing it sets out to explain.

The more morality is defined in an empirically measurable way, the less it resembles morality. Morality becomes little more than an exercise in “practical reasoning”. There are no more ‘oughts’. Rather than “a condition of being”, morality is “a state of mind”; rather than “constitutive of an objective human flourishing”, it is “useful for fluid conceptions of human well–being.” As they say in their conclusion:

“The science of morality is no longer about discovering how we ought to live – though it is still often presented as such. Rather, it is now concerned with exploiting scientific and technological know–how in order to achieve practical goals grounded in whatever social consensus we can justify.”

Hunter and Nedelsky are not in the business of proposing what might rescue moral realism from the clutches of ‘moral science’, and they are light years away from the naïve “…therefore God” that sometimes accompanies analyses of this nature. However, they do point out that if disenchanted naturalism so singularly fails to put morality on an objective basis, the appropriate response might be not to junk moral realism but to junk disenchanted naturalism instead.

This needn’t mean invoking God straight out. Enchantment, as they point out, doesn’t necessarily require supernaturalism. “It is unexceptional within mainstream metaphysics and philosophy of mind that one can posit naturalistically unacceptable entities – souls, abstract universals, libertarian free will, and so on” – to which they add intentionality, free will, the self, consciousness, purposiveness – “without accepting anything supernatural”.

There is, therefore, no “…and therefore” moment in this book. But that does nothing to weaken or undermine its sharp and fair explanation of why Freud was wrong, and why science has and will repeatedly stumble at this quintessentially human threshold. There is nothing wrong with setting out on a quest for moral foundations. But doing so with inadequate equipment, having torn up all existing maps, and stubbornly refusing to read any previous travelogues is unlikely to get you very far.

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Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Posted 9 August 2019

Morality, Philosophy, Physchology, Reason, Review, Science


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