Can science shape human values?

There’s been a bit of discussion lately about the relationship between science and human values. Partly because of the recent Edge Seminar (see The new science of morality, Is and ought and A scientific consensus on human morality). But also because of recent talks by Sam Harris arguing that science can determine human values. He expresses his ideas more clearly in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

It’s an excellent book – I have just finished reading it and will express my thoughts on the ideas in a separate post shortly.

But for others interested in this subject NPR has produced a podcast with an interesting set of interviews (see Can Science Shape Human Values? And Should It?).

In this Ira Flatow talks with scientists and philosophers about the origins of human values, and the influence of modern scientific thought on human values. Even if science can shape human morals, should it? Or does science bring its own set of preconceptions and prejudices to moral questions?

Those appearing on the podcast include:

Lawrence Krauss: foundation professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration and Physics Department, director, Origins Project
Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona

Simon Blackburn: research professor, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Bertrand Russell professor of philosophy, University of Cambridge
Cambridge, England

Sam Harris: Author, “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values“; Author, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason; co-founder and CEO, Project Reason

Steven Pinker: Johnstone Family professor, department of psychology
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

There’s even a discussion of “How can science and religion inform each other?” And they take some call-in questions.

Thanks to Jerry Coyne (See Science and morality: a Science Friday discussion).

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72 responses to “Can science shape human values?

  1. Listening to the podcast, Ken.
    You’ll remember from previous conversations that I think our moralising needs to be informed by science, but I have yet to see how science can determine or prescribe moral goals or values.

    Sam’s position is built upon the ‘common sense’ that less suffering is ‘good’, which is not a notion that is harmonious with science (if interpreted accordingly), but nonetheless not produced by it. It’s based on an interpretation of science, not the ‘data’ itself. Sam talks about things (like acid-izing faces of girls who learn to read) being simply not worthy of consideration of being OK. I agree with no small degree of passion. But it’s not because science has told us this, but because we have near-universal metaphysical values which are violated by this action.

    There are basic assumptions on which both science and morality themselves rest.


  2. Dale, you should try to get hold of and read Sam’s book. I think it is excellent and careful readers will be less concerned with the “science” angle after reading it. Really he is pointing out that values are very much related to facts. “Science” is far more speculative, long term and possibly not practical from the way he tells it. I think he specifically mentions this in the podcast.

    However, the book is very timely (he does not aim it at the religious at all – but at atheists and scientists who are sometimes guilty of moral relativism).

    This is becoming a quite “fashionable” field in science. This podcast was recorded before a public debate and a workshop at ASU on the origins of morality. I am quite gratified that science is at last breaking through this taboo.

    As for your claim of people opposing throwing acid at girls who desired education for “metaphysical” reasons. Can’t see it myself – quite the reverse. The acid throwers will justify the atrocity on metaphysical grounds – surely. They are carrying out “divine” commands. But humanitarians recognize the factual reasons for such behavior being morally wrong.

    I certainly don’t appeal to anything metaphysical to come to my conclusion.


  3. What ‘facts’ are there for acid-throwing being morally wrong? I’m all ears. My guess is that you’re not accounting for some metaphysical assumptions in your conclusion. Assumptions are sneaky like that – that’s why they’re called assumptions.


  4. I don’t see how anyone could not see that the facts of throwing acid in the faces of young girls because they desire an education is morally wrong.

    On the other hand the Taliban terrorists need to resort to “metaphysics” and “divine” commands to justify such atrocities.


  5. Richard Christie

    But it’s not because science has told us this, but because we have near-universal metaphysical values which are violated by this action.

    Why bother with using the word metaphysical here anyway? it doesn’t add anything useful to the concept of “values”.


  6. “Metaphysical”?
    Let the meaningless word-salady nonsense bafflegab begin.
    It’s all magic.


  7. Ken,
    I didn’t follow your sentence grammar – what ‘fact’ makes that act morally wrong?

    There is physical value (like volume, density, mass etc) and metaphysical value (like worth, dignity, goodness, etc.). My use of the word was quite intentional.


  8. Dale, why do you try to separate dignity, value from facts? These are judgements which are meaningless if divorced from facts. Sam puts it quite well by saying that if you are arguing about a value divorced from facts, from reality you are talking about the most uninteresting thing in the universe.

    Surely you make judgements about the act of throwing acid in a girl’s face, of denying her an education, forcibly marrying her off to an old man and forcing her to live in a sack. These are all facts and it is human to have values, to make judgements about those facts.

    The men throwing the acid have inhuman values and may be acting on “divine” commands or “metaphysical” arguments. But even they are really relating their behavior to what they see as facts. The “divine” writings of their god, the promise of reward in heaven, the approval or punishment of their god, etc.


  9. Ken,
    We have no ‘factual’ evidence that human behaviour ‘a’ (feeding the poor, eating ‘healthy’, saving lives, etc.) is more ‘humane’ than behaviour ‘b’ (rape, murder, indifference/apathy, etc.). The observed (and descriptive) ‘fact’ that we all make judgements is different from a ‘fact’ being able to prescribe the quality of degree of ‘humane-ness’ of those judgements.

    But again – I don’t want the request to be forgotten – please give one ‘fact’ that shows that this act (or any other for that matter) is morally wrong.


  10. Richard Christie

    Richard, There is physical value (like volume, density, mass etc) and metaphysical value (like worth, dignity, goodness, etc.). My use of the word was quite intentional.

    Are you saying you added the adjective to ensure we don’t get the metaphysical aspect of or values confused with the physical aspect of our values (the ones we keep in a jar on top of the fridge)?


  11. Richard Christie

    Oh, I see now, values not to be confused with values.
    But read in context the word seems a little redundant to me.


  12. Richard Christie

    But again – I don’t want the request to be forgotten – please give one ‘fact’ that shows that this act (or any other for that matter) is morally wrong.

    To answer that you must first agree on criteria for rightness or wrongness.
    Then weigh the act against the criteria.


  13. My view is the ethics (‘rightness’/’wrongness’) is best understood in relation to goals/purposes for things/persons. An act is only ‘right’ (consistent) or ‘wrong’ (contrary) in relation to a goal. Of course, the question is how we we know a ‘good’ goal from a ‘bad’ one (or ‘humane’ from ‘inhumane’ goal). Sam – apparently without realising it – appeals to the common sense ‘goal’ of ‘less suffering’. A noble goal – but not based on ‘facts’.


  14. p.s. – in an attempt to be impressive via use of greek terms, a while back I did a post called ‘is-for-ought-law’, which argues for a kind of ‘ladder’ where law is reached only after climbing past ethics, after climbing past goals, after starting on the ‘rung’ of ontology…

    …what something ‘is’ (including its value/worth) determines what it is ‘for’ (its purpose/goal/telos), which determines how it ‘ought’ to function (ethics/morals), which is codified into ‘law’.


  15. Richard Christie

    Sam – apparently without realising it – appeals to the common sense ‘goal’ of ‘less suffering’. A noble goal – but not based on ‘facts’.

    I regard “facts” as word that sits clumsily in this context.
    First one examines the consequences of acting according to, or contrary to, the moral in question. Does the outcome reflect the desired goal. Science does that easily, Harris offered “less suffering” as such a goal. It’s easy to objectively measure outcomes against such a desired outcome.
    Survival of the collective versus supremacy of the individual might be another criteria – but probably more contentious – the point is that such lines in the sand shift, and understandings brought about by science of our place in the universe can contribute to the changes.


  16. Again – see first comment – I’ve never denied that science can ‘contribute’ to our ethics/morals/laws/etc. Sam (and Ken?) are claiming more – that science can ‘determine’ moral values. A Sam Harris fan, though critical of the book, said it nicely:

    …Harris has ducked the issue altogether. The issue is not whether morality can be studied scientifically, once we accept the premise that morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures. Rather, the issue is whether science can determine what morality consists of *in the first place*. In other words, the question is not, “Can science tell us how to achieve X, assuming that X is moral/desirable/valuable?” Instead, the question is, “Can science determine *whether* X is moral/desirable/valuable?” While the subtitle of Harris’ book suggests that he is addressing the latter question, his book is in fact concerned with the former.


  17. I have been aware lately that there is a strong tendency for people to debate books without reading them. Relying instead on reviews or comments from people who also may not have read them. This is happening with Sam’s book and The Grand Design. Really people are debating their own prejudices in such cases.

    So I implore people to read The Moral Landscape before making assumptions or judging. And not just relying on others comments (or even Sam’s talks which are nowhere as clearly argued as the book).

    Now it’s clear from my reading of Sam that he is not claiming science can determine moral values as you claim, Dale. He is clear that science can determine facts – and I think most rational people would agree with him. But he also argues that values are not independent of facts. So obviously science can help us determine if something is right or wrong. He uses science in the broadest possible sense and certainly doesn’t imply a mechanical approach, and of course the word is really trivial when dealing with the obvious (as we so often are).

    There is no need to use fMRI to determine that flying planes into buildings, genital manipulation or throwing acid into young girl’s faces is morally wrong. We know that these acts harm humans.

    Sam has a big task on his hands persuading others (and as I said he is by no means aiming this at the religious. They really are not in this debate – he is targeting intellectuals, humanists, atheists, etc). The ASU workshop should reveal who is in the debate – and hopefully help overcome some misconceptions. With any luck videos from this workshop (which has only just taken place) will soon be available. These should be fascinating, and revealing.

    One point of contention Sam faces is his argument that values are determined by human flourishing. I myself have some problems with the term which seems vague (I prefer something more directly related to physical or psychological harm than happiness) but may also have advantages in being more inclusive. However, Sam does relate it to actual situations where I don’t think there should be any doubt.

    Another objection people seem to have is that it is a human definition. Both theologically and non-theologically inclined people seem to argue this. For some strange reason these people seem to think that while we get by happily using almost all our words in the way we choose to define them we are for some reason not allowed to define right and wrong logically.

    This in the end enables moral relativism via denial of any objective basis for morality or “supernatural” or “metaphysical” “justification” for the prejudices of ones self and mates.

    I suspect the problems people are having is that humans (and probably many other mammals) have a strong intuitive sense of right and wrong. There are good reasons for this. But we also know that sometimes our intuitions, especially in this day and age) are unreliable. More and more we have to double check our intuitions by logical consideration of the facts.

    Obviously many people have problems with this process. They prefer the simpler and more dogmatic solutions offered by their intuitions. And we are all prone to rationalise or “explain” our prejudices rather than objectively consider the facts if situations.

    Finally, please don’t get sidetracked into just debating Sam’s ideas. This workshop includes some really smart people who should also be considered. Krauss for one. But also people like Pinker and Churchland who disagree with some of Sam’s arguments. These are people worth listening to as well.

    It promises to be a very significant workshop for public dissemination of some of the current scientific arguments about morality.


  18. Ken,
    Yes, the discussion (and even Sam’s book) are valuable to listen to (or read). But as for certain claims, such as the one within the book’s title (and implied in your response to my first comment), I’ve yet to see any support given.. Yes, “science can help us determine if something is right or wrong”, but the judging agent is humanity, not ‘facts’ or science. The ‘facts’ don’t interpret themselves or ‘lean’ any which way.

    The following phraseology shows how much it’s really ‘common sense’ or ‘intuition’ – and not science/facts – that are the factor.
    “…the word [science] is really trivial when dealing with the obvious…
    …no need to use fMRI… We [just?] know that these acts harm humans.
    …we have to double check our intuitions by logical consideration of the facts.”


  19. Dale – you should surely be aware by now that one doesn’t argue on the basis of a title or subtitle of a book. (Although I regret I was distracted for 30 years by malicious misrepresentation of the title of Dawkin’s Book “The Selfish Gene.” Certainly a lesson to me that I should read the book and not be taken in by malicious reviews or opportunists claims.) I have already tried to give you a flavour or Sam’s arguments but you can easily check for yourself. Just look beyond titles and others interpretations. I certainly think I have made clear the meaning that should be given to that subtitle. It is silly to debate that further.

    And check out what others are saying at that workshop.

    You are just getting into theological silliness with your “the judging agent is humanity, not ‘facts’ or science. The ‘facts’ don’t interpret themselves or ‘lean’ any which way.” Come off it, I am old enough and ugly enough not to be taken in by such silliness.

    And again – the real give-away is that you put this effort into attacking my arguments for an objective basis for morality – and for finding the treatment of women with acid wrong. Meanwhile, while you debate the number of angels on the head of your pin more women get mutilated, scarred and killed.

    And isn’t it a bit pointless? We both agreed that was wrong. I am clear about why I have come to that intuitional and logical conclusions You pedantically criticise and offer absolutely no alternative.

    So, I am forced either to accept you are not able to explain why you come to the same conclusions as me, or to find that your reasons are basically the same but you are afraid to admit that.

    In the end it is a matter of respect for ones discussion partner.


  20. You pedantically criticise and offer absolutely no alternative.

    Magic is always an alternative.

    Robin Ince on Creationism


  21. “I am clear about why I have come to that intuitional and logical conclusions.”
    …but not clear about how ‘science’ or ‘facts’ fit in – which is the whole friggin point sir..
    “I am forced either to accept you are not able to explain why you come to the same conclusions as me, or to find that your reasons are basically the same but you are afraid to admit that.”
    This is the whole point – I’m not claiming that our moral judgements or values are ‘fact-based’ or ‘objective’ or ‘scientifically determined’. I think we both are making value judgements based on other-than-scientific, other-than-‘factual’ factors (describe them however you like).

    I agree that our reasons are basically the same, but I would describe this as both being rooted in tradition, philosophy, basic assumptions about human value and worth, etc. – in other words, rooted in (in the most inclusive sense of the term) ‘religion’. But you are, I’m quite aware, keen to be seen as not being ‘religious’ – hence the insistence that your morals are ‘scientifically’/’factually’ based.


  22. missed a tag… oops


  23. The point is Dale, the acid throwers, genital mutilators, stoners, those who blow up markets and mosques, kill doctors, etc, etc., are rooting their morality in religion. As have supporters of apartheid, racism, homophobia, suppression of women, etc. As do child molesters and those who cover up these crimes.

    As an intelligent species we are capable of breaking free of traditions, philosophies, and “basic assumptions about human worth” which underly these immoral attitudes.

    We are capable of determining the objective facts of our nature and existence and provide an objective basis for our morality.

    That is why as a species we have made moral progress. Religion hasn’t helped this.


  24. assertions without justification – the most ironic of which is that “basic assumptions about human worth” underlie ‘immoral’ attitudes… but not moral ones!?


  25. Hi all,
    I couldn’t help by throw a couple of thoughts into the mix. I read your comments with interest Ken, and will state at the outset that I haven’t read the book, so I apologise if this is answered in it. But it seems to me that the definition of what may be moral, or a value, can be interpreted in a number of ways, and is very much dependent on the person making the value judgement. In addition, do we assume moral acts to be those which help perpetuate the species, or do we focus more on the proliferation of our countrymen? Is immediate family perhaps more important, or ultimately is the overriding matter the survival of the individual? This is a concept which I am unashamedly borrowing from Dawkins and The Selfish Gene, and from memory his idea was that behaviours have been crafted in order to maximise the reproductive potential of our individual genome. So a moral act then becomes one which does just that, and altruistic behaviour may or may not fall into this category.
    The problem arises (and will always do so) when different individuals have different definitions of what is a moral act/thought/whatever. So it is quite possible that those who organised the flying of airliners into buildings in 2001 felt it was an entirely moral act by their standards, as killing innocent americans, brits, etc could be interpreted as being advantageous for the future of the perpetrators and their offspring. I don’t for a second believe that this was their motivation for doing this, and agree it was much more likely to have been a religious/political act, but one of the things we see in science (and in every other theatre) is that there are always differing ways of interpreting the same set of data. I agree that genital mutilation, stoning, throwing acid, child molestation, etc. are unacceptable behaviours, but clearly some people don’t, otherwise they wouldn’t happen.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is that even with the best tools available to science it may be impossible to define concretely what is and isn’t moral, because it is such a human and woolly concept.


  26. Lats, I didn’t get the same thing from The Selfish Gene. My interpretation was that it was the survival and reproduction of the gene, rather than the genome, which is important.

    And I don’t think that says anything at all about morality. (Although Dawkins’ main point was to show how a so-called “selfish” gene could produce altruism and moral behavior in a species. )

    I see morality as being a feature of mammals which are intelligent, social, sentient, conscious and empathetic. This is true for humans and a number of other mammals. Inevitably evolution has produced within us natural instincts which produce intuitions controlling our interactions, our relationships and our social behavior. It is basic to our intuitions that we have strong feeling sof “right” and “wrong.” These are so strong that some people seem to assume they are “objective” or “god-given”. Imposed from outside.

    Being intuitive our moral system usually works subconsciously. Our moral reasoning is usually not accessible. In the same way that once we have learned to ride a bike we no longer have to consciously think about it. But, on the whole, because we are similar animals we tend to have similar definitions of right and wrong (or would if we could discuss the issues rationally and objectively).

    Of course kin and group effects come into this – particularly the in-group/out-group effects. As society developed into larger and larger groups we developed forms of government and forms of moral discipline. Religion played a role in both (providing “divine” authority to leaders and “divine” moral commands). This enabled extension of moral codes beyond the “natural” group size (about 150) to larger cities and nations.

    Religion, nationalism, clan patriotism, etc., enabled us to extend altruism to larger groups but these also promote hostility to the new out-group.

    I think today we have other mechanisms for codifying morality and creating an even larger in-group – even an international or world group of humanity. In fact many of us go further and extend our morality to other mammals – and there seem to be good scientific reasons to do so.

    The other thing that has happened is that our intuitions change. This may be partly automatic as our groups become larger and our social interactions more extensive. But it is also assisted by the fact that as an intelligent species we can think about our situations – and learn from investigating these. In my lifetime I have seen real intuitional changes in attitudes on gender, homosexuality, racism, etc. And I have experienced some of these myself.

    Of course there is always resistance to evolution of moral codes. I think this is why some people oppose the idea that there could be a rational input into our morality. Reliance on “traditions”, “scripture”, etc., is inevitably conservative. And as it avoids intelligent consideration of problems it can also produce inhumane solutions. It can utilise intuitions which support racism, homophobia, discrimination against women, etc. it can promote genocide, terrorism, etc.

    When you say that the terrorists flying planes into buildings were acting religiously and politically this also included their morality. But an inhibited, traditional, morality. Not a modern one.

    I think that considering we are all part of the same species that it is possible to reach a large degree of agreement on moral questions. After all we have produce the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I think there is an objective basis for this sort of agreement – but of course that doesn’t mean it will happen. Tradition, superstition and in-group/out-group hostility still dominate the thinking of much of the world.


  27. Obviously I’m not going to try to respond to a comment that long.

    It’s very hard to keep focused on the specific issue at hand, which is reflected in the title of this post (‘can science shape human values’) and the subtitle of Sam’s book (‘how science can determine human values’).

    As I’ve said before, the key distinction here is that morality is prescriptive, the domain of considering what behaviour is ‘right’/’wrong’ (or consistent/inconsistent with agreed goals/values). Science is descriptive, the domain of understanding/explanation of phenomena.

    Because of this, the answer to the issue at hand (post title /book subtitle) is squarely in the negative.


  28. That is mechanical, Dale. Values and facts are connected. As Sam says a value divorced from any fact must be the most uninteresting thing in the universe. I suggest it is not even possible.

    Hence a prescriptive approach cannot be separated from a descriptive account. So I would say the answer to the question in the title of my post must be positive.

    In fact you have argued for tradition, religion and philosophy shaping morality. I suggest that science actually plays more of a role than philosophy – especially considering that a lot of philosophy is dead. Such philosophy, unconnected with reality, could only play a conservative, reactionary role. However, modern scientific philosophy would be very helpful on moral questions.

    This is especially obvious with the new moral questions humanity faces. Often scientific understanding is absolutely vital. As for example stem cell research. We could never reach a sensible moral decision on this if we ignored modern science. Tradition, religion and old style philosophy is incapable of providing the required facts.

    Similarly economic planning for the future and moral questions about life styles and resource use on a crowded planet must be based on the best facts on the environment and our climate which requires science more than ever before.


  29. Ken, no one in this thread is suggesting science be ignored – or that human morality isn’t well-served by ‘knowing the facts’ – or that prescriptive analysis should be ‘separated’ from our descriptive knowledge. I don’t know who your comments are directed at…

    The topic of morality, most of all, is best served by concrete, down-to-earth examples. I’m more than happy to stick with one example of your choice and explore the issue at hand: if the ‘facts’ or ‘science’ can ‘determine’ or ‘shape’ human values related to the example.

    For instance, take the field of medicine – highly relevant, immediate, and related to both science and technology. I don’t know a single person who would say that the vast advances in sci-tech have been anything but beneficial for the field of medicine. Better facts/evidence/knowledge and better technology helps physicians care for and save life. But the field of medicine is itself based on assumed values (i.e. human life is worth saving/protecting) and goals (saving/protecting life – presumably both quality and quantity).

    There simply are not any scientific ‘facts’ that confirm (or contradict) our near-universal basic assumption that life is worth saving/protecting. Do fMRI scans of the brain activity of a terrorist and peace activist. The ‘data’ will reveal brain activity corresponding to their mental states, etc. but this ‘data’ will be – and can only be – cold, hard and indifferent to whether or not terror is ‘better’ than peace.

    Everything I’ve ever heard or read from both Sam and yourself seems to be assuming an value or goal (i.e. less suffering, etc.). And you don’t seem to be aware that facts are indifferent.

    We make/have our assumptions, and our thinking and intuition is shaped accordingly – and we use whatever ‘facts’ we have at hand. The more facts, the better, I say. I want my dentist to be resources by the best/latest knowledge. But the goal of keeping my teeth, eating more, living longer, being ‘healthy’, etc., etc – whilst being ‘common sense’ and near-universal – are not derived from ‘facts’.


  30. (Forgive the multiple typos – off to bed now)


  31. (just saw a rather unhelpful typo in my opening comment)

    …the ‘common sense’ that less suffering is ‘good’, which is not a notion that is [perfectly] harmonious with science (if interpreted accordingly), but nonetheless not produced by it.


  32. Dale – it would appear you are suffering from a delusion here. Your claim “And you don’t seem to be aware that facts are indifferent. “ is just completely wrong. And actually I have made this point before.

    It is pointless trying to debate something as obvious as this.

    Nowhere do I suggest impersonal “facts” make value judgements. These are made by intelligent, conscious, sentient, empathetic social beings. Its the nature of such beings. But of course such value judgments can only be made about objectively existing facts. That’s why I say there is an objective basis for our morality.

    Perhaps you should read through my reply to Lat above as I summarise their my concept of morality. I have discussed how we get our “assumed values” – and science surely has helped us understand this. We have learned how this also happens with some other mammals.

    I am glad that you accept their is a relationship between facts and values.

    Be careful, you might start questioning the “is – ought” dogma! There is certainly a valuable discussion there.


  33. These [judgments] are made by intelligent, conscious, sentient, empathetic social beings. Its the nature of such beings.

    Indeed – Humans make judgments. We agree there. We disagree concerning a) human nature, and b) how humans use ‘facts’ in their judging. Regarding a) human nature, you say (as you’ve repeated many times before) that humans are “intelligent, conscious, sentient, empathetic social beings”. I say (as I’ve said before) that this is only one side of the human coin. We are also “ignorant, [at times] unconscious and less-than-fully-sentient, [all to often] apathetic and antisocial.” Descriptively speaking, we are healer AND wounders, builders AND destroyers, lovers AND haters, honest AND cheaters, etc., etc. We’ve no ‘scientific’ reason or supporting ‘facts’ that either side of the coin is better or worse. Human are what they are – descriptively speaking – wretched AND radiant.

    But of course such value judgments can only be made about objectively existing facts. That’s why I say there is an objective basis for our morality.

    Yes, ‘facts’ will always be in the picture, because we are talking about (at least) human behaviour, and knowing all kinds of ‘facts’ about humans will aid (not ‘shape’ or ‘determine’ I maintain) our moral judgments. But ‘facts’ being ‘in the picture’ or ‘aiding’ us is a wholly different thing from saying as you do that there is “an objective basis for our morality.

    The objective facts of foetal development are an immensely helpful aid to moral questioning/judging about things like abortion. But these objective (and thus indifferent) facts cannot ‘shape’ or ‘determine’ (for example) if abortion at any stage is or is not wrong.

    ((again, concrete examples are well in order for this topic))


  34. Dale – I think you are interpreting the terms I use in a specific quantitative way – not in the general descriptive way they are clearly meant. For example, intelligence covers “ignorant” – you can only apply that description to an intelligent being, surely. Just because individuals may be (at times) apathetic, asleep, antisocial, is irrelevant to my description of our species. (Antisocial behavior can only arise within the context of the social nature of the species being considered).

    On moral questions like abortion we act, respond, intuitively. That is in our nature – most things we do occur from processes occurring in our subconscious. We could not survive if all our decisions and actions had to be made consciously. And our non-conscious intuitions of “right” and “wrong” are very strong – probably for very good evolutionary reasons.

    If asked we can all attempt to explain or justify our moral “decisions.’ Very few people are completely honest in this process – its more a matter of rationalising, or explaining away.

    Now some, probably not a terrific lot these days, will use religious ideas in their explanation and ideas like “divine” commands. I think most will use an explanation which refers to the facts of situations. Over the long term I think it is the objective facts which slowly causes changes in moral outlook. This is conscious for some people, not so much for others. But there is an inevitable trend of change throughout society. Almost osmotic in some cases as the new moral ideas become part of our culture.
    For example changes in attitudes towards women and homosexuals has probably only been conscious for a part of the population. But as a result more acceptable role models for women and homosexuals have entered our culture – this wins most people over.

    Of course some people resist, or refuse to accept rational arguments. Some will insist on scriptural or “divine” sources for their moral decisions, or their justification. However, I suspect in many of these cases this is still a rationalisation and that they are taking their moral evolution from society and/or rational consideration of objective facts (which are inter-related anyway).

    Your contradict yourself with the statement:
    “The objective facts of foetal development are an immensely helpful aid to moral questioning/judging about things like abortion. But these objective (and thus indifferent) facts cannot ‘shape’ or ‘determine’ (for example) if abortion at any stage is or is not wrong.”

    Surely if objective facts of contraception, impregnation and embryo development are “immensely helpful” to moral judging of abortion they are going to shape our moral decisions of these cases. I am sure this is true for a large number, possibly the majority, of women who find themselves pregnant and considering abortion for social or health reasons. It influences legal as well as personal decisions on allowable terms, and, for example, the need to balance the health or life of the women vs the fetus.

    How else can one rationally makes such moral decisions?

    And that raises the question of the best way of approaching moral questions. Here we are not in the auto mode – we are in the manual mode and we can consciously consider new situations. My contention is that basing our moral decisions on objective facts enables us to come to a common meaningful and humane morality. To ignore objective facts and use “scriptural” or “divine” command arguments can only – at best reinforce intuitive reactions which can in some cases be very bad (eg racism, homophobia), or at worst lead to complete moral relativism where anything can be “justified” by one’s tame god, religious leader or ideological/political leader. And we have plenty of experience of where that leads us.

    I must make clear that I see the problem of “divine” commands and moral relativism as a problem for the non-religious as well as the religious.


  35. Ken,
    I’ll try to focus on the abortion example you cited and criticised – saying I contradicted myself. It’s only contradiction if you conflate a) facts being ‘helpful’ (passively – and only if interpreted accordingly) for judgments, and b) facts themselves ‘pushing’ (‘determining’/’shaping’) the judgment in any direction (actively). Facts are a passive part of the process, not active.


  36. Facts may be passive but they certainly push. After all, we absorb these facts and they influence our rational consideration. If we discovered that the pre-implant embryo had a nervous system was conscious and felt pain that would change our whole moral attitude towards things like abortion IVF, etc.

    Our knowledge of the close genetic relationship between us and some mammals certainly effects how we treat them.

    And evils like homophobia, racism, apartheid, etc. have relied on hiding or distorting facts.


  37. influence – yes; affect – yes; determine/shape – no.

    If we discovered that the pre-implant embryo had a nervous system was conscious and felt pain that would change our whole moral attitude towards things like abortion IVF, etc.

    …only if we (as most do) have pre-determined moral values/goals which made causing pain to conscious beings bad…


  38. 1: influence = shape in this context. Clear to me and silly to debate any further. There is something obscene about the distraction of such trivial ego-based debates when human pain and suffering are occurring.

    2: you agree with me that we have predetermined values/goals. I think this is obvious. My explanation is that these arise naturally out of our nature – our sentient, conscious, intelligent, empathetic and social nature. This is not restricted to our species – although it is clearly manifested to a higher degree with us.


  39. i was using influence in the most passive way possible – shape/determine implies that they [facts] are biased toward this or that moral conclusion – they are not. whilst they are obviously a contributing/helpful part of the shaping/determining process, it is humans and not facts that do the shaping/determining.

    yes we have predetermined goals/values (of all kinds). And our intelligent/unintelligent, social/anti-social, empathetic/apathetic nature relates to all kinds of wide-ranging, overlapping, contradicting values/goals (success – my sexual freedom – compassion – infrastructure development – economic prosperity – peace – my comfort/convenience – my privacy – etc., etc.)
    …but what does this have to do with a ‘fact-based’ or ‘objective’ morality?


  40. I think we are now going round in circles and covering old ground. I am clear that facts are facts. The are objective not biased. It is the apprehending agent who inevitably introduces bias. An advantage of science is the procedures used to minimize or even overcome this human problem.

    Science is far more capable and trustworthy in providing us with information on the state of the ore-implant embryo. No one in their right mind would trust theological claims in this area.

    Our human nature is an objective fact or collection of facts in itself. But it enables us to make judgements and moral decision that are based on the objective facts we perceive.


  41. the false distinction I’m weary of Ken, is the one between ‘safe’ science-based, ‘fact’/’objective’ morality one one hand, and ‘dangerous’, religion-based ‘opinion’/’subjective’ morality on the other. The point I’m making is that ALL morality is subjective. More facts helps us in the same way as more technology and power does. All can be abused. It is the judge-er that ‘determines’ and ‘shapes’ morality/values.

    It’s not that our moral decisions are “based on” objective facts. Rather, our (subjective) moral judgments are based on our (subjective) values/goals – and this process is made more rich and varied with more facts (as with more technology.


  42. Richard Christie

    Yeah yeah, all morality is subjective, after all, morality is a human creation.

    Dale, it appears you do acknowledge there is a distinction between subjective, fact-informed/science-based morality and (again, if you insist, – subjective-) morality based upon received knowledge found in magic books from prehistory.

    Time to move on folks, nothing to see here.


  43. Dale your weariness is self imposed. Just because one bases one’s morality on objective facts does not remove the need for moral judgement and subjective, emotional factors are always important.

    But life is like that. We always take risks even when we start with good information. Moral mistakes are inevitable and we should always try to acknowledge mistakes and learn from them.

    But using an object factual basis for our morality is surely going to mean that the results are likely to be right more of the time and more appropriate for humanity as a whole than the alternative.

    Revelationary and “divine” command morality without an objective basis is relativist. It is very often divisive and non-inclusive. So the subjective factors play far more of a role and mistakes are more likely. Covering up the moral relativism with claims of “objective morality” may be a common theological trick but it doesn’t change the relativism.


  44. there is no ‘object factual basis’ for morality. Only the consideration of the objective facts as we think and act based on our assumed and considered values & goals.

    We don’t know a ‘moral mistake’ is without a moral goal or value that is being transgressed against. Atheists, buddhists, christians, agnostic, and all of us have basic values/goals that we all assume.

    There is disagreement about what a ‘right’ moral result is, or what is ‘more appropriate for humanity’. The ‘facts’ can be squeezed into what are called ‘evil’ or ‘good’ moral scenarios.

    More facts = more data to use in our moral deliberations (or squeeze into whatever our moral conclusion may be). Increased facts will not make us more humane (whatever that is). I happen to think that aborting a foetus for merely contraceptive/convenience reasons is inhumane. ((and no I don’t think making abortion illegal will ‘fix’ anything at all))

    Some value ‘sexual freedom’ above ‘human freedom to be born’, and justify abortion accordingly. And there are atheists, agnostics, jews, buddhists and others who are against this kind of abortion. And their reasons are not ‘factual’. They just plain disagree that ‘sexual freedom’ is more valuable than human life.

    By all means, let’s know the facts, whatever they are. (And frankly, the ‘facts’ of sentience/consciousness is only one category of fact to consider in this.) You can’t measure the value of human life with an fMRI scan or a microscope. Broadly speaking, these issues of human value are just simply in the category of philosophy, ‘religion’ (even f0r ‘non-religious’ people), tradition, metaphysics, whatever word doesn’t offend the desire to be ‘clean and scientific’ as opposed to ‘dirty and religious’.


  45. Bit of a ramble there, Dale. Not sure what you expect me to respond to.

    All I can say is whenever I confront new moral questions I do try to discover and consider the objective facts. I am very conscious of the unreliability of tradition, religion “metaphysics”. “philosophy” etc. I am also conscious of the possible limitations of relying simply on subconscious intuitive reactions.

    I would not give philosophers the time of day for my moral guidance. The word “philosopher” covers a multitude of sins and those who are most dogmatic about morality seem to me to be the most immoral. Bugger me, just imagine relying on self professed “philosophers” like Matt and Glenn for moral advice!

    And no – I have never considered using microscope or magnetic resonance to determine values. However there will be cases, such as IVF abortion etc when I rely on objective information obtained using modern technology. I can imagine magnetic resonance, pet scans etc being used in the future to assist in moral questions. A bit of a way off yet, though. (Sam speculates on this on his book – he is not suggesting it for today)

    I know that such rational consideration has assisted me in the past with development, even change, of my personal values. This is clear on the basic human rights for women and homosexuals. I am sure people I know have similarly adjusted their values on racism.


  46. “rational consideration” is quite another thing from this talk of “fact-based” or “objective” morality. And criticise tradition, philosophy, ‘religion’, & metaphysics all you want – but when you are doing ‘rational consideration’, you’re using/doing just those things. You probably have such strong emotional reactions to those words, I can understand you resisting having any relationship to them.


  47. Sounding a bit dogmatic there, Dale. That doesn’t convince me at all.


  48. you don’t have to engage if you don’t want to


  49. Dale, there is really nothing to engage with. I think it has run it’s course. I appreciated the opportunity of laying out my ideas in more detail. Hopefully I have been able to answer the points where you misunderstood me. But I really don’t see any rational debate or criticism in simply stating an alternative dogma without any reasoning.

    Nothing to respond to.


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  51. i’d have thought it was self-evident that “rational consideration” is not the same as scientific observation


  52. I don’t know where that came from, but I agree. Never said otherwise.

    However these two are dialectically inter-related in any scientific endeavor these days. Certainly in any thoughtful moral consideration both processes are at work.


  53. the point, Ken, is that when anyone does any kind of “moral consideration” (paying either close or no attention at all to scientific facts), they are engaging in an other-than-scientific endeavor (which can be called by various names – most/all of which you emotionally react to?).

    And our methods of consideration/engagement are not determined by ‘the facts’ (even if their methods may indeed use them). Facts do not (actively) ‘shape’ or ‘determine’ what is right/wrong (referring to title of your recent post). More facts simply make our subjective moral judging a more rich/varied/complex endeavor.


  54. Look, Dale, you are repeating yourself again. I think you are creating differences where there are none.

    Of course much of the time during rational consideration we may not be utilising scientific knowledge – consciously – and in the narrow sense. Much of the time we are influenced by intuitions and emotions. (I have outlined, though, how I see improved knowledge influencing our culture and intuitions).

    The again, especially in newer areas, scientific knowledge is extremely important. Its here where we find our intuitions and perhaps our emotions unreliable. Rational consideration and objective facts becomes extremely important. And that is how we make moral progress.

    And, of course, most of the time, probably all the time for most people, we don’t get involved in rational moral consideration. We act intuitively. And “rational consideration” is actually very often rationalisation rather than scientific. We attempts to explain away our intuitive reactions.


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  56. Ken, this thread is about science ‘determining’ or ‘shaping’ human values/morality. We agree that using facts is better and more rational than emotive, un-considered responses. The question is not about using or not-using facts in the process. The question is about how to use facts/science? How do we know when our use of them has produced a humane result?

    And it’s been a bit since goals have been mentioned. right/wrong are meaningless apart from goals. Can you agree on this: whilst facts/science are immensely helpful/essential for moral consideration if and only for a given/presumed moral goal, it remains that facts/science cannot themselves shape human values/goals.

    Example: where there is a given goal/value of, say, less suffering (which is negatively valued), facts/science can be used to confirm/express/describe/explain all kinds of moral judgments (like prescribe suffering-causing actions as ‘immoral’). But without any goals/values (i.e. the cold, objective world of ‘facts’), suffering is meaningless (neither good nor bad), and suffering-causing actions are a-moral.


  57. Still going around in circles, over covered ground.

    Our desire to avoid suffering, to consider acts leading to suffering as wrong, and our desire to support human flourishing, to support acts which lead to human flourishing is of course a judgement. Humans, not objective, cold, dead, facts make judgements – how could it be otherwise? Our judgements arise from our very nature. As conscious, sentient, social, empathetic, intelligent beings how could we come to any other conclusion?

    Your goals/values are integrated into our very nature.


  58. Our nature is two-sided (i note you continue to use only positive descriptors), and our judgments are often contradictory. It’s not that simple.


  59. Still can’t see where this comes from.

    It’s not simple. I never said it was, but maybe my summary comes across as too abstract for you so you see it as simple.

    As I have said before when I talk about empathy, intelligence, etc., it is descriptive not quantitative. Just because some of our intuitions lead to what we judge as positive outcomes does not deny the fact that sometimes they lead to negative outcomes. After all, the them vs us instinct has a positive (developing unity amongst us) as well as a negative (developing unity against them).

    I agree our nature, and our institutions, are two sided. I have always said religion and communism have had some positives, but lets not ignore the negatives.


  60. this last comment of yours sounds (to my ears) miles away from your previous comment –> “As conscious, sentient, social, empathetic, intelligent beings how could we come to any other conclusion?”

    It sounded like you were saying that a) our nature and b) our awareness of scientific facts were all needed to determine/shape human values/morality. Hence my emphasis on a) our ‘both/and’ (two-sided) nature, and b) the indifference of ‘facts’.

    You did say point blank, however, that “goals/values are integrated into our very nature.” Even if this were true, the question is: how do we know a humane goal/value from an inhumane goal/value? It’s not self-evident. ((at least scientifically. The American constitution, for example, talks of certain truth’s being ‘self-evident’ [in the philosophical sense] such as all being created equal.))


  61. I really can’t understand your comment, Dale. You seem mainly concerned with confusing my comments. Might be better if you advanced some concepts of your own.

    You claim it is “not self-evident” about how to tell inhumane actions from humane. Can’t see this. It’s not complicated, surely, to make such judgements. Are you looking for a mathematical proof, or something? Because that would be very inappropriate.

    I have absolutely no problem in differentiating between a human state like that of women in Afghanistan who are being stoned, have acid thrown in their face, denied education, married off to old men, etc and the state of a young women in NZ with a modern supportive family, able to choose her own relationships, able to be honest about her beliefs without reprisal, able to have a fulfilling job and access to education.

    Surely such differences are extremely clear. We have the facts. We have our intuitive and rationally derived values. How can one find such moral decisions so difficult?

    I guess if you are a traditional Muslim you have a problem. But you have to ignore the facts to be so confused.


  62. indeed those differences are clear. My point here isn’t to pretend that these moral judgments are difficult – they aren’t. My point is that it’s not ‘facts’ or ‘science’ that gives us the values or goals which cause us both to abhor such treatment of women.

    It’s not that we were ignorant of fact x, y or z and then, having learned them we suddenly abhorred that. It’s rather that we soak in a cultural egalitarian context which has values very different from the places/times where that behaviour is ‘OK’. There are no ‘facts’ that tell us that even the most obvious of crimes are ‘crime’. That’s not off topic – that’s precisely related to this post title and Sam’s book title (and everything I’ve heard/read from both of you).


  63. Might I suggest that our society has “egalitarian” or whatever outlooks which enable them us consider the facts of women’s treatment. This is secular – independent of individuals religious/ ideological beliefs.

    In Afghanistan perhaps some are aware of the facts but they don’t use this for their moral decisions. Instead they rely on tradition – really divine commands. Because their tradition is divine they give over-riding credence to divine scripture and demand. This overrides any judgements or values based on facts.

    A proportion of our society thinks in a similar way. They put scriptural divine commands or morality over human decisions or morality. So they support discrimination against homosexuals and women. They deny equality to women, often deny education. They deny the freedom of belief and expression.

    These people (the Afghani traditionalist and the NZ fundamentalist) will abhor talk of objectively-based morality. They support a god-based morality where facts can be ignored or denied. Where morality is not allowed to stand on it’s own feet.

    After all, what is the point of a god if she doesn’t support your own prejudices?

    But it certainly doesn’t lead to human flourishing, does it?


  64. Richard Christie

    It’s rather that we soak in a cultural egalitarian context
    i.e the human organism responds to the facts, or reality, of it’s environment and forms value judgments and value systems based upon them.

    I’m with Ken. I have absolutely no idea where you are coming from.


  65. Ken,
    So now it’s ‘secular’ v. ‘fundamentalist’? This only serves to underline my point. It’s one’s value-set or life-stance that is the key factor in moral consideration (or ‘philosophy’, ‘worldview’, or heck even ‘religion’ to use a few words that will provoke emotional reactions?). Secular humanism is a philosophy – a worldview.

    If you or Sam were saying that secular philosophical humanism can shape/determine values/morals, then that’s an entirely different conversation. But, alas, you/Sam have been claiming that science can…


  66. A secular outlook (and this can also include religious people, possibly the majority of religious people in a society like NZ) can base moral decisions on objective reality. Just as we base our health decisions for example.

    Fundamentalists reject objectively-based morality arguing instead for a “divine” morality. Being “divine” it needs no justification – just a “divine” command. The individual has no autonomy and has handed over her intellect and empathy to her Imam, priest or political leader.

    “Divine” morality, because it has no objective basis, can be quite arbitrary. It really amounts to a relativist quagmire.

    Of course philosophy or world view is involved. One world view hands over knowledge, personal autonomy and freedom to the “divine”. The other scientific philosophy recognizes the importance of reality and objective information in determining ethical positions as well as other knowledge.


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  68. I’m picking up just a tad that you’re not fond of a divine command understanding of morality.

    Your last comment is again miles away (and closer to being – IMHO – balanced) from some earlier ones. We may not need to go much further here/now. My main point is that ‘facts’ only become useful after the worldview/value-set is in place. Facts are used to arrive at humane moral ideas, only after one version of humanism or another is in place.


  69. Isn’t perspective funny? I see that we have been going around in circles, you repeating misunderstandings that I have cleared up way back and mealso having to patiently reassert my understanding of an objective basis for mortality.

    You see this as me changing my position to accommodate your objections!

    I don’t think my position has changed at all in this short time period.

    Or perhaps I am presenting my views more clearly?

    Perhaps I should just repeat that my understanding of the relationship between facts/ideas/values is dialectical. Our values and world view/philosophy changes as facts accumulate and change. And our values, etc., also influence the facts. For example, over recent years we have seen a vast improvement in the acts of the way homosexuals are treated and respected. This has arisen partly becuase of the moving zeitgeist – our change in perceptions which have influenced the culture (just consider portrayal of homosexuals on TV). And that of course changes society.

    As for “divine” command ethics (which occurs in non-religious as well as religious ethics) – no I have no time for it. Actually see it as dangerous (am currently working on a review of a book which makes this point).

    I think discussion of “divine” command ethics alongside objectively based ethics could actually clarify a lot of misunderstanding people may have of of the latter. It certainly helps to identify some of the current ethical problems we face in the world today.


  70. Yes, it’s a very shifting and subjective moral zeitgeist. The question is how we ‘know’ (objectively – factually – scientifically) that we’re not imposing our egalitarian cultural bias onto people from other cultures. For example, none of the “vast improvements” you cite are self-evidently (objectively – factually – scientifically) improvements. This is the whole point.


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