Tag Archives: science of morality

Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life – Sin

Sex, Death and The Meaning of Life is a new series of TV documentaries fronted by Richard Dawkins. I welcome this – partly because Dawkins is an excellent communicator. But also because it’s about time some of the current ideas in the science of morality and ethics were more widely known.

The first programme in the series, SIN,  was screened last Monday, on Channel 4 in the UK. I have embedded it below. It’s very informative.

There’s even a bit of humour – look out for the David Attenborough moment where Dawkins gives a description of evolution social customs around animal mating while watching humans performing on a dance floor

Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life Episode 1.

There are at least two other programmes in the series. LIFE AFTER DEATH and MEANING OF LIFE.

See Death – part 2 of a series for the second episode.

See also:
Clear Story – Sex, death and the Meaning of Life
Channel 4 – SIN
British Atheist Richard Dawkins Explores Sin and Morality in New TV Series

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Moral behavior in animals

Observing moral behaviour in other animals helps elucidate the evolutionary underpinnings of human morality. In this lecture Dr. Frans B. M. de Waal shares some surprising videos of behavioral tests, on primates and other mammals, that show how many of these moral traits all of us share.

Frans de Waal: Moral behavior in animals | Video on TED.com.

de Waal’s first book, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes
(1982), compared the schmoozing and scheming of chimpanzees involved in power struggles with that of human politicians. Ever since, de Waal has drawn parallels between primate and human behavior, from peacemaking and morality to culture. His scientific work has been published in hundreds of technical articles in journals such as Science, Nature, Scientific American, and outlets specialized in animal behavior.His latest books are Our Inner Ape
(2005) and
The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society

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Theological pretzel twisting

I guess we should not be surprised that theological arguments often fall back on authority –  after all they have invented the biggest authority ever. The answer to everything (and you don’t have to be able to count to 42 – 3 will do).

Their god!

But it does provide them a useful cop-out whenever they run into problems during discussion with others – especially non-theists. Appeal to authority!

Usually they are savvy enough to use a more worldly authority – often themselves but usually other theologians, or philosophers of religion, who have “destroyed” the argument presented many times over. And because it is an appeal to authority you must take their word for it. Your argument has been destroyed, and so thoroughly they are not going to bother with the details.

So it was nice to see another philosopher dealing them some of their own medicine (see God fails triple morality test). And on a specific argument I referred to previously in my post The argument from authority (or lack thereof). In that I mentioned how a local blogger advocating a religious divine command morality had “destroyed” the Euthyphro Dilemma:

“Applied to this situation the dilemma for “divine command” ethicists is – are “moral truths” ” good and just because God wills it.” Or does “God wills it because it is good and just.” Inevitably in any real situation such an ethicist is making her moral decision for her god by appealing to some other outside source of morality. Or they talk themselves into the silly position the apologist W. L. Craig did recently when he ended up justifying biblical infanticide, genocide and ethnic cleansing – because it was commanded by his god (see Concern over William Lane Craig’s justification of biblical genocide).

The blogger resorted to an argument from authority by declaring “Euthyphro Dilemma has been well and truly dealt with by divine command meta-ethics. This has been done so many times I find it incredible that anyone still brings it up!” As far as he was concerned that was the end of it. No details were going to be discussed under his watch.”

Well, here is what Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York, thinks of such “destruction.” Referring to the “popular idea that morality comes from God” he says:

That was soundly refuted by Plato in the Euthyphro, and despite thousands of years of desperate theological pretzel twisting the refutation stands.

Nicely put!

I must remember that term – “pretzel twisting.”

via Rationally Speaking: God fails triple morality test.

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Approaching morality scientifically

Yeah, right! So why leave morality to theologians?

In his recent criticism of Jerry Coyne’s* USA Today article As atheists know, you can be good without God, local theologian Matt Flannagan repeats his rather tiresome warning that scientists should not try to understand morality – “leave that to us theologians.” He says:

“Of course, like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and a host of other popular writers, Coyne has not bothered to actually read the literature on contemporary theological ethics before wading in. Instead he hopes that his stature as a biologist and his confident tone will convince many unfamiliar with the field that he has offered a devastating criticism.”

Yeah, right!

Well, my response is:

If scientists are not the people to investigate and develop an understanding of human morality, who are?

Certainly not theologians!

History show they have not been up to that task. Matt’s theological article demonstrates this – it is simply an attack on Coyne. His own explanation for human morality is “divine commands!” And he doesn’t supply any evidence either for “commands” or “divine agency.” Only faulty argument.

Two points in Matt’s article are worth expanding on.

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Ethicists have problems with ethics!

I picked up this article recently – The Self-Reported Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors. So I couldn’t help laughing when I came across this other one – When Scientists Make Bad Ethicists.

A title like “When Scientists Make Bad Scientists” would be more newsworthy (as the first article is implying the ethicists are not actually very good at personal ethics).

I will get back to Matt Flannaghan’s little rant against a scientific approach to understanding morality in a later post. It’s an important issue and I can appreciate why theologians like him worry about the scientific work in this area. (Their response is rather like the Roman Inquisition telling Galileo he had no right to believe that contrary to the Church’s teaching the earth goes around the sun – or King Canute’s command to the tide not to come in).

But – here I just wish to bring attention to the research in the first article suggesting that professional ethicists perhaps don’t behave too ethically as individuals. These researchers compared the:

 “self-reported moral attitudes and moral behavior of 198 ethics professors, 208 non-ethicist philosophers, and 167 professors in departments other than philosophy on eight moral issues.”

“Ethicists expressed somewhat more stringent normative attitudes on some issues, such as vegetarianism and charitable donation. However, on no issue did ethicists show significantly better behavior than the two comparison groups. Our findings on attitude-behavior consistency were mixed: Ethicists showed the strongest relationship between behavior and expressed moral attitude regarding voting but the weakest regarding charitable donation.” (Quotes from abstract)

Senior author Eric Schwitzgebel expressed concern about these findings on his blog :

“I do think that our research raises questions about the extent to which studying ethics improves moral behavior. To the extent that practical effect is among one’s aims in studying (or as an administrator, in requiring) philosophy, I think there is reason for concern. I’m inclined to think that either philosophy should be justified differently, or we should work harder to try to figure out whether there is a *way* of studying philosophy that is more effective in changing moral behavior than the ordinary (21st century, Anglophone) way of studying philosophy is.”

I can’t say I am too surprised. I have often noted how specialists in some subjects appear very bad at handling their own particular problems in the specialist area. How often do we find psychologists or counsellors who don’t seem to follow the advice they dish out to their clients? (How often do we find priests . . .  No, let’s not go there).

But, perhaps more importantly, ethics at the individual level is usually not a conscious activity. It is based on ingrained intuitions and emotional responses.

So it’s easy to imagine how professionals may teach and intellectually justify ethical positions in the day job. But in their personal ethical and moral behaviour they will instead be exhibiting their emotional and intuitional behaviour.

See also: Ethicists, Courtesy & Morals.

Is there a role for science in morality?

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.

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Answering questions on morality

I want to spend a few posts answering some of the questions commenters have raised on my science of morality articles here and at the SciBlogs syndicated version (Open Parachute@ SciBlogs). See, for example, Foundations of human morality.

Those articles represent my thinking as a result of the New Science of Morality  Seminar (see The new science of morality, Is and ought and A scientific consensus on human morality) and the Great debate “Can Science tell us Right from Wrong?” (See Telling right from wrong? for more details of this debate and workshop). Effectively I have tried to integrate the psychological approach of the Edge seminar with the more philosophical and neurobiological approach of the Debate. The reflection was also stimulated by reading books by Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape), Patricia Churchland (Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality), Jonathan Haidt, Marc Hauser, Matt Ridley, Stephen Pinker and others.

I have been very thankful for the discussion the articles generated. It’s a great way of developing one’s ideas. Finding flaws, looking for alternatives. Even when the disagreement is a result of misunderstanding, realising where one’s arguments need clarifying or better explanation is very useful.

I do not doubt the discussion has significantly contributed to evolution of my ideas in this area.

Questions from a religious apologist Continue reading

More on the science of morality

I think we may be seeing the beginning of a new wave of popular science books on morality. Sam Harris‘s The Moral Landscape got wide coverage and sparked several high-profile debates on the subject (see The new science of morality, Is and ought, A scientific consensus on human morality, Waking up to morality, Can science shape human values?, Telling right from wrong?, Telling right from wrong?, and Craig brings some clarity to morality?).

Now we have Patricia Churchland‘s new book Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. This came out at the end of March and I got my copy the other day. I have just read Chapter 1 and feel this will be an important book. In many ways it will probably complement The Moral Landscape because it deals clearly with some of the critiques made of Sam’s approach. Particularly those made by scientists and non-religious philosophers.

I hope it sells well. Churchland doesn’t have the high public profile that Harris has. But she is eminently qualified to cover the subject as a philosopher with a special interest in neuroscience. And the time is ripe for this sort of coverage.

I just hope some fire and brimstone Christian apologists attack the book (as with Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design). That would help get it noticed!

It’s also very readable – always important in a popular science book.

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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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Sam Harris on The Daily Show

Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values is now out. I have been offered a review copy but have yet to see it.

Here is a clip of Jon Stewart and Sam Harris talking about the book on the Daily Show last night.

Sam says some interesting things.

I am sure many will find faults with his book but he has certainly started a much needed discussion on the possibility of an objective basis for morality.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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