In our discussion of the science of morality commenters often assert that science may be able to describe why and how we are moral but it cannot make moral decisions for us. Or tell us what is right and wrong. Sometimes these commenters have their own motive – a covert or overt interest in promoting a religiously determined moral code and they don’t want another discipline intruding into “their” arena. At other times they may be reacting to a simplistic interpretation of the role of science. This is common in criticisms of The Moral Landscape (and Harris did not help by using the subtitle “How Science Can Determine Human Values”). In partial mitigation of Harris’s position he does make clear, often, that he is using “science” in a very general sense – including philosophy and history.
Emotions in human decisions
Our moral decisions are different to the apparently straightforward decisions a physical scientist might make relying on evidence. Logic and reasoning, and validation against reality. Being social animals things are never that simple for us. And we have evolved not to be a rational animal, more a rationalising one. Our decisions will usually involve our emotions and intuitions as well as evidence and reasoning. In fact research suggests that an emotional component is essential in decision-making. Where emotions are impaired people find decision-making impossible. We are also influenced by the moral attitudes of others, and in some situations a moral decision may involve a democratic process. Moral ideas get validated against society and not objective reality.
But the fact is human morality is now a very live area of scientific research and discussion. This is generally about how our morality works and its origins, and not using “science” as such to prove a moral position. But there is no doubt that an awareness of the science of morality may actually influence moral decision-making, particularly during public discussion and deliberation. Science indicates our morals are not simply “relative” (anything goes depending on our own feelings) or “divinely” commanded (our god tells us what is right and wrong – just accept it), or based on tradition. If that is publicly accepted then the proponents of “divine” commands, tradition, or relativism will have less influence on our moral deliberations.
Sure, our prejudices and emotions will still be involved. Our religious beliefs and cultural influence will also play a role. But there will be far more acceptance of discussion about facts and accepted ideas of what is good for society and individuals. In the past religion and tradition have been far too influential in such discussions. Hell, this example from a potential US presidential candidate shows they are still too influential (see Bachmann: God Told Me To Introduce Constitutional Amendment Prohibiting Same-Sex Marriage In MN). I think our moral progress has only been possible to the extent we have been able to override those influences.
Role of public deliberation
One argument that came through strongly for me in the Edge New Science of Morality Seminar was the role of social or public deliberation of moral questions. (See The new science of morality, Is and ought and A scientific consensus on human morality) ) Particpation of a range of individuals helps make sure that prejudice and individual emotion don’t play a determining role. A group can be more rational than an individual. This indicates that groups and social decision-making may produce better moral, and hence legal, decisions than those made by individuals.
Of course, in the end our actions are made mostly by individuals. And very often these decisions and action are the result of unconscious moral decisions. But, as I pointed out in Foundations of human morality, our subconscious moral position is always changing. We are always learning and what we learn consciously becomes integrated into our subconscious. Similarly we are learning without deliberate intellectual consideration just by being a member of society, exposed to the changing moral zeitgeist through our entertainments and social contact. Just consider what influence the portrayal of women and gays has had on influence individual moral attitudes over the years.
Yes, there is an important role
So, I think the current interest in the science of morality is important. It’s important from the point of view of knowledge, of finding out and understanding more about our species and its behaviour. But I also think its important because it will help us be more rational about our moral deliberations and decisions.
That must be a good thing.