Science of morality

Science of morality
"The Good Samaritan" by François-Léon Sicard. The sculpture is based on a story, and one that would be promoted by science of morality. Nature, habits, culture and norms are all pivotal in this empirical pursuit of harmony among living beings.

Science of morality can refer to a number of ethically naturalistic views. Historically, the term was introduced by Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832)[note 1]. In meta-ethics, ethical naturalism bases morality on rational and empirical consideration of the natural world. This position has become increasingly popular among philosophers in the last three decades.[2]

The idea of a science of morality was more recently explored by author and neuroscientist Sam Harris in the 2010 book The Moral Landscape, and in even more depth by economist and public policy analyst, Joseph Daleiden. Harris' science of morality suggests that scientists using empirical knowledge, especially neurology and metaphysical naturalism, in combination with axiomatic values as “first principles”, would be able to outline a universal basis for morality. Harris and Daleiden chiefly argue that society should consider normative ethics to be a domain of science whose purpose amounts to the pursuit of flourishing (well-being)[note 2]. They add that "science" should not be so narrowly defined as to exclude important roles for philosophy and other academia[note 3], nor to exclude critically thinking about real life events in general[note 4]. These ideas have not seen widespread acceptance by the scientific community, have been disputed by philosophers, and continues to generate public controversy - although they have also gained some support (e.g. Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins and others support the ideas).

Patricia Churchland sometimes refers to a neuroscience of morality in relation to her book Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality. The term "science of morality" is also sometimes used for the description of moral systems in different cultures or species. For a collection of the hypotheses of how moral intuitions are thought by some to have evolved and emerged, see Moral psychology and the Evolution of morality.

The idea of a normative science of morality has met with many criticisms. These critics include Sean M. Carroll, who argues that morality cannot be part of science.[6] He and other critics cite the widely held "fact-value distinction", that the scientific method cannot answer "moral" questions, although it can describe the norms of different cultures. In contrast, moral scientists defend the position that such a division between values and scientific facts is arbitrary and illusory.[citation needed]

Among other methodological issues that a science of morality would need to address are the Is-ought problem and whether it commits the Naturalistic fallacy.



In its weakest form, science of morality is the idea that we do not need divine authority to be critical of any so-called 'moral system' that causes unreasonable suffering. Daleiden, Harris and others discuss or support a stronger case, however. It is the idea that, once we accept the premises that are necessary for any empirical, secular, and philosophical discussion, we can define "morality" in a relevant way. Presumably, societies can then use the methods of science to provide some of the best answers to moral questions. This means identifying which values and norms (e.g. free speech versus government censorship) are more likely to maximize the well-being of all conscious creatures.[7] Harris says that it is the flourishing of every conscious creature that is then "morally good".[8][note 5]

In sum, from the perspective of neuroscience and brain evolution, the routine rejection of scientific approaches to moral behavior based on Hume’s warning against deriving ought from is seems unfortunate, especially as the warning is limited to deductive inferences. The dictum can be set aside for a deeper, albeit programmatic, neurobiological perspective on what reasoning and problem-solving are, how social navigation works, how evaluation is accomplished by nervous systems, and how mammalian brains make decisions.

-Patricia Churchland in her book Braintrust (emphasis added)

The scientific search for empirical facts always requires operationalization. In other words, investigators need to agree to define terms to some extent before reasonable discussion can even begin.[10][11][12] Here, moral scientists purport to possess a more than adequate working definition: something is morally good if it promotes the flourishing of conscious creatures.[9] Although moral norms have often been defined as requiring supernatural origins, science of morality thus understands morality to describe facts about nature (i.e. how creatures can live in harmony). Daleiden adds that society can no longer afford to wait and see which values cause cultures to fall apart, and which ones allow them to succeed: scientific methods (bolstered by philosophical reflections) are what is needed.[13]

There are other linguistic and nomenclature issues. Words, even in science, can be fuzzy and subject to revison and elimination as knowledge progresses. In neuroscience, what might have been designated as a single brain area may soon be more meaningfully described as three areas. Already this foreshadows why the moral norms offered by a science of morality would not be moral absolutes. This is a byproduct of the philosophy of science in general; science does not make claims to certain truths. The norms advocated by moral scientists (e.g. rights to abortion, euthanasia, and drug liberalization under certain circumstances) would thus be founded upon the shifting and growing limits of human understanding.[13]

As human understanding improves, so does understanding of human nature itself. This is critical to science of morality, which cannot effectively base norms on a flawed understanding of those creatures being organized. Even with the help of philosophical insights from over the years, science still has much to learn about human individuals and communities. Keeping itself consilient with the science of the day will make science of morality unintuitive at times. A case in point: proponents say that the science rejects the idea of libertarian free will in favour of compatibilistic free will.[13]

Threatening violence against those who do not wish to wear burkas, or alternatively, empowering the freedom to choose, are unlikely to be equally effective ways of fostering well-being

Even though flourishing remains a rather fuzzy term, it is far from meaningless. It is a decidedly grey area whether stealing someone's pencil or stealing their pen would be the more immoral action. Yet is likely that, in the majority of cases, forcing one class of people to cover themselves at all times in burkas under threats of violence is less moral than empowering the freedom to choose. Moral scientists maintain that to argue otherwise is to ignore empiricism and history (which have taught humanity a great deal about wellbeing), as well as all the moral strides that various societies have made against sexism, racism, and other causes of suffering.[9] Even with science's admitted degree of ignorance, and the various semantic issues, moral scientists can meaningfully discuss things as being almost certainly "better" or "worse" for promoting flourishing.[3] Harris hopes that seeing the role that science can play in normative ethics will empower critical thinkers to pass important "moral" judgement on the quality of fellow citizens' and societies' behaviors.[14]

Science of morality acknowledges another crucial fact. Even once the terms of scientific moral discourse are accepted, this will not automatically cause moral behaviour (i.e. not even among those who explicitly agree to the terms). Another main goal of the science of morality is therefore to discover the best ways to motivate and shape individuals. The aim is to make each citizen capable of balancing the desires of the present and the future, but also of themselves and others. Creating what Daleiden calls "conditioned egoists" requires a program that applies everything psychology has discovered about humans, especially the most effective ways of promoting prosocial behaviours. Note that this does not at all suggest that the government, or any elite individual or group, should or would be solely charged with this task. Nor should the most private values, which have almost no bearing on society, be of much concern to society at all.[13]

Although it does at times, science of morality does not necessarily conflict with all religions. Daleiden says that the science does not even conflict with many other moral systems -which can often be understood as simply emphasizing certain aspects of the science.[13]


The idea that science could help make moral prescriptions may be relatively new. Determining what constitutes "science" versus "non-science" at all is the challenge known as the demarcation problem.

Philosophy has not always been understood as being very separate from science, and empiricism has long since started playing a major role in modern philosophy. The scientific method provides details, some of which challenge traditions or intuitions, about human nature. These details become vital to forming any conception of morality.


In philosophy

Language lags behind science, and too frequently refuses its aid to knowledge. The innovations of philosophy upon long-received expressions are slow and difficult. Philology is apt to refuse the contributions of the other sciences. It prides itself on its poverty. And this is the more to be regretted, inasmuch as all languages had their birth in a period when moral and intellectual cultivation could only be in their infancy.

Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, in his book "Deontology, or The Science of Morality" (published in 1834, after his death) discussed some of the ways moral investigations are a science. He criticizes deontological ethics for failing to recognize that it needed to make the same presumptions as his science of morality to really work - whilst pursuing rules that were to be obeyed in every situation (something that worried Bentham).[16]

Positivism and pragmatism are also philosophies related to the science. John Dewey, a pragmatist, maintains that overly theoretical moral systems are not useful in real life. He believes that moral considerations, while they should not be oversimplified, must certainly make use of facts about everything from what the individual desires, what others desire, the nature of people (e.g. humans) in general, and even data about likely outcomes of behaviours.[17]

Some positions on morality may hold that all facts are, in general, discovered by the sciences, but that there are no things worth calling "Moral" facts. These include certain forms of moral anti-realism, such as error theory as famously advocated by J.L. Mackie, and non-cognitivism as advocated by Simon Blackburn. Science of morality operates under a philosophy of moral naturalism. This form of moral realism is the view that moral facts are facts about nature.[note 6] W.V.O. Quine similarly advocated "naturalizing" epistemology by looking to natural sciences like psychology for a full explanation of knowledge. This motivated naturalism in philosophy generally, helping give rise to a resurgence of moral naturalism in the last half of the 20th century.

Philosophical movements like eliminative and Revisionary materialism warn that philosophy is like science in that it may need to redefine or eliminate concepts as human understanding progresses. For instance, science of morality may never provide an immutable definition of relevant terms like the "flourishing" that it pursues, because it must adapt to new scientific knowledge. Harris believes that our knowledge about humanity's history gives us an idea of what flourishing entails, and that modern scientific understanding offers even more insight (see positive psychology).[18]

In the social sciences

Maria Ossowska used the methods of science to understand the origins of moral norms.

Maria Ossowska, polish sociologist and philosopher, thought that sociology was inextricably related to philosophical reflections on morality, including normative ethics. She proposed that science analyze: (a) existing social norms and their history, (b) the psychology of morality, and the way that individuals interact with moral matters and prescriptions, and (c) the sociology of morality.[19]

Science of morality opposes the ideas of paleontologist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould who argued that science and religion occupy "non-overlapping magisteria". To Gould, science is concerned with questions of fact and theory, but not with meaning and morality - the magisteria of religion. In the same vein, Edward Teller proposed that politics decides what is right, whereas science decides what is true.[20]

Popular literature

The theory and methods of a normative science of morality are explicitly discussed in Joseph Daleiden's The Science of Morality: The Individual, Community, and Future Generations (1998). Daleiden's book, in contrast to Harris, extensively discusses the relevant philosophical literature.

Sam Harris

Main article The Moral Landscape, Reception

Sam Harris' first two books, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and Letter to a Christian Nation, attacked religious faith, and his latest attacks moral skepticism. InThe Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Harris’ goal is to show how moral truth can be backed by “science”, or more specifically, empirical knowledge, critical thinking, philosophy, but most controversially, the scientific method. As described by philosopher Thomas Nagel: “Harris’s concrete moral conclusions depend almost entirely on one venerable moral premise and a number of commonsense observations about human life, though they are accompanied by ritual reminders that everything about human experience and behavior depends on our brains. Harris’s book also presents some experimental data about the brain. Those data are largely irrelevant to determining the answer to substantive questions of right and wrong, but they do provide the setting for Harris’s important additional claim that the fact that moral judgments are produced by the brain…”[21]

Harris, himself, described the “backlash” he had anticipated from this book: “cloudbursts of vitriol and confusion… Watching the tide of opinion turn against me, it has been difficult to know what, if anything, to do about it.” He deplores the case of Colin McGinn criticizing his book based solely on the review of Anthony Appiah; Harris explains that:

Why respond to criticism at all? Many writers refuse to even read their reviews, much less answer them. The problem, however, is that if one is committed to the spread of ideas -- as most nonfiction writers are -- it is hard to ignore the fact that negative reviews can be very damaging to one's cause. Not only do they discourage smart people from reading a book, they can lead them to disparage it as though they had discovered its flaws for themselves...No matter that I cannot find a single, substantive point in Appiah's review not already addressed in my book, McGinn appears to know otherwise through the power of clairvoyance. Many other philosophers and scientists have begun to play this game with The Moral Landscape, without ever engaging its arguments.

In the same lengthy Huffington Post "Response to Critics", Harris responded to three reviews, all of which claiming to have found critical flaws, as well as some merits: “As far as I know, the best reviews… have come from the philosophers Thomas Nagel, Troy Jollimore, and Russell Blackford.”[22]

Blackford highly recommend the book, noting Harris' overall criticism moral relativism and offering a lengthy analyses of critical, though easily avoided errors, arising from Harris' unnecessary fact-value treatment and failure to provide a convincing account of obtaining “determinate, objectively correct answers…" Blackford goes on:

Harris seems to think that the course of conduct which maximizes global well-being is the morally right one because ‘morally right’ just means something like ‘such as to maximize global well-being.’ But this won’t do… Harris toys with the rather desperate idea that even the word ‘should,’ or the expression ‘ought to,’ can be translated along the lines that ‘You should doX,’ or ‘You ought to do X’ means ‘X will maximize global well-being.’ Apart from the inherent implausibility of this for any competent speaker of the English language, it misses the point…

Massimo Pigliucci adds that J. L. Mackie, whom Harris' dismissed, makes no such error. In light of Harris' contempt for the body of literature on meta-ethics, Pigliucci remarked: “a major problem with the whole project is precisely the stubborn attempt to overextend the reach of science which is properly labeled as scientism”. He concurred with “Blackford’s own damning (though superficially positive) review”. Pigliucci highlights some closing words from Blackford:

Unfortunately, Harris sees it as necessary to defend a naïve metaethical position… Harris reaches these conclusions only by offering what strikes me as a highly implausible and ultimately unsustainable account of the phenomenon of morality… Harris is impatient with all this, and often resorts to outright scorn in rejecting considerations that don’t fit with his position…Harris overreaches when he claims that science can determine human values. Indeed, it’s not clear how much the book really argues such a thing, despite its provocative subtitle… Harris is not thereby giving an account of how science can determine our most fundamental values or the totality of our values… He is, however, no more successful in deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’ than anyone else has ever been. The whole intellectual system of The Moral Landscape depends on an ‘ought’ being built into its foundations.[23]


What one ought to do to be moral depends on there being definition of what constitutes a 'moral' goal in the first place. A case in point: it seems one ought not to infect themselves with various diseases and eat rotten foods if one has a goal of being healthy. But there is no meaningfully 'healthier choice' (any more than there is a 'moral choice') unless we define these terms. Daleiden remarks that central here is the idea of the "contingent statement". This because ought-statements, he says, are of the form "if you want X, you ought to do Y." Moral oughts would thus be a type of ought statement: "if you want to increase flourishing, you morally ought to do Z"[24]

Patricia Churchland offers that, accepting Hume's is-ought problem, the use of induction from premises and definitions remains a valid way of reasoning in life and science.[25]

Social navigation is an instance of causal navigation generally, and shapes itself to the existing ecological conditions. In the social domain, the ecological conditions will include the social behavior of individual group members as well as their cultural practices, some of which get called "moral" or "legal". By and large, humans, like some other highly social mammals, are strongly motivated to be with group members and to share in their practices. Our moral behavior, while more complex than the social behavior of other animals, is similar in that it represents our attempt to manage well in the existing social ecology.

In sum, from the perspective of neuroscience and brain evolution, the routine rejection of scientific approaches to moral behavior based on Hume's warning against deriving ought from is seems unfortunate, especially as the warning is limited to deductive inferences. The dictum can be set aside for a deeper, albeit programmatic, neurobiological perspective on what reasoning and problem-solving are, how social navigation works, how evaluation is accomplished by nervous systems, and how mammalian brains make decisions.

The truth seems to be that values rooted in the circuitry for caring--for well-being of self, offspring, mates, kin, and others--shape social reasoning about many issues: conflict resolutions, keeping the peace, defense, trade, resource distribution, and many other aspects of social life in all its vast richness. Not only do these values and their material basis constrain social problem-solving, they are at the same time facts that give substance to the processes of figuring out what to do--facts such as that our children matter to us, and that we care about their well-being; that we care about our clan. Relative to these values, some solutions to social problems are better than others, as a matter of fact; relative to these values, practical policy decisions can be negotiated.

The hypothesis on offer is that what we humans call ethics or morality is a four-dimensional scheme for social behavior that is shaped by interlocking brain processes: (1) caring (rooted in attachment to kin and kith and care for their well-being), (2) recognition of others' psychological states (rooted in the benefits of predicting the behavior [of] others), (3) problem-solving in a social context (e.g. how we should distribute scarce goods, settle land disputes; how we should punish the miscreants), and (4) learning social practices (by positive and negative reinforcement, by imitation, by trial and error, by various kinds of conditioning, and by analogy). The simplicity of this framework does not mean its forms, variations, and neutral mechanisms are simple. On the contrary, social life is stunningly complex, as is the brain that supports our social lives.[26]

Patricia Churchland, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality

Scientific methods

Some of the philosophy and findings of science are important to understanding how a science of morality might work.

Harris discusses little philosophy beyond warning that the science must not become entrenched in applying any specific moral system. Daleiden spends a great deal more time explaining how many ideas from philosophy might be applied within science of morality. He believes that the science must use hybrids from various approaches to ethics, law, and human nature. Daleiden finds especially useful the consequentialist metaethics of utilitarianism, as well as John Rawls's ideas of Justice as Fairness. Daleiden admires the veil of ignorance as a way of thinking about ethics objectively.[27]

Daleiden warns that science is probabilistic, and that certainty is not possible. One should therefore expect that moral prescriptions will change as humans gain understanding.[28] The psychologist Leonard Carmichael discussed this idea as well.[note 7] Daleiden continues: tradition should not be the basis of moral norms. While traditions can be appreciated as survivors of some form of natural group selection, this process is extremely slow, and it is a process where societies with poor values must fall apart. Empiricism, to moral scientists, is the more reasonable method of establishing norms.[30] This is especially the case considering traditions too often become "time bound".[31][note 8]

Without free will, we at first seem diminished, merely the playthings of external forces. But really, determinism hardly makes us the playthings of external forces. Rather we are the forces themselves, concentrated and directed in patterns whose regularities we are just beginning to discern.

-Thomas W. Clark[33]

All human actions depend on motivations. Harris and Daleiden both believe that research into the psychology and neuroscience of free will gives us good reason to reject Libertarianism(which is a contra-causal form of free will). Only compatibilistic free will is valid in their view; the form of free will that Daniel Dennett called the only form of free will "worth wanting".[34] Humans, then, sometimes have the freedom to act according to their motives, but the motives themselves are largely affected by other factors.[35] Daleiden worries about the stigma attached to the word Determinism. He recommends thinking in terms of a "Law of Causal Behaviour": every effect has a cause, and so too does every human choice.[36] That is why the causes of good behaviour can be identified and promoted (as discussed later). This also involves treating humans as morally responsible in practice (although, with compatibilistic free will, it would be committing the single cause fallacy to treat them as ever solely, philosophically responsible).[note 9]

Normative values and science have always been deeply intertwined. Harris explains that the scientific method has settled on values in answering the question "what should I believe, and why should I believe it?"[37] It is thus a mistake to think of science as a value free enterprise. Daleiden adds that this mistake is also sometimes made of multiculturalism, which likewise requires some shared normative values.[38]

Defining morality

The idea of morality has a long history, and the term has known many uses. Some do not change - and others are very different - when analyzed from the view of science of morality. This means a great deal of time must be spent on understanding and establishing the definition of terms, compared to other sciences. Traditionally, this has been solely the domain of the philosophy of meta ethics.

Luke Muehlhauser emphasizes that thinkers too often agree about matters of fact, although not about the ways of describing and classifying those facts. Muehlhauser says that his own moral system ("desirism") is an example of one of many unique ways of conceptualizing morality, but one of many that is compatible with a science of morality. There may be different compatible moral systems, but this does not make morals entirely relative. He contends that understanding the difference between factual and semantic (linguistic) disagreement can be more important than understanding any particular moral system - especially considering the consequences of inaction in these general matters.[39]

Disputed terms in science

Empirical investigation into physics requires operationalization, yet it would not be distracted if a pseudoscience adopted and misused their term "center of gravity"

There may be some disagreement over the exact definitions of happiness and suffering in general, concepts of great importance to science of morality, but Harris says that these disagreements should not be taken too seriously. He mentions that even a lack of firm agreement within the scientific community over terms like "life" or "health" has not prevented researchers from making progress. Furthermore, it is even less likely that others' use of the term "healthy" in an unjustified manner would have any effect on the progress of more serious researchers and thinkers.[40][unreliable source?]

In practice, this is thanks to the fact that academics often establish and agree on other clear working definitions (the focus is to avoid debating words beyond necessity).[41] Moreover, the usefulness of these scientific constructs can be subjected to tests of construct validity. This is one sense in which some definitions can be better than others. For instance, just as scientists have generally agreed on practical grounds of sorting "Earth's atmosphere" into 5 categories (i.e. layers), so too might they decide to sort "flourishing" practically into a number of categories (e.g. positive psychology is exploring the possibility that happiness comes in generally 5 varieties).

Harris also emphasizes that the ideas captured by the word "flourishing", like "health", may also change over time.[9] Ancient civilizations, where life expectancies were around 25 years old, may not have expected we could some day consider healthy an individual living comfortably to over 80 years old. Likewise, humans are continuing to make strides in moral development, attaining new heights of cooperation and empathy, and discovering new horizons in the use of the word "flourishing" - the same way we have for the word "healthy".[40][unreliable source?] Jeremy Rifkin describes such key moral revolutions throughout human history inThe Empathic Civilization, and predicts a new revolution in which we overcome our tribe focused empathy and extend it to others we may never meet.[42]

The first step for the so-called science of morality is not, therefore, any sort of revelation. Rather, it is to establish early working definitions (which can and will evolve with time).[14] Defining terms like this, operationalization, is an important part of any science. This is well demonstrated by the attempts of positive psychology to address topics about which many are opinionated. In such areas of science that overlap with philosophy or religion, arguments over the supposed meaning of a word sometimes stand in the way of progress. That is, discussions risk becoming arguments over what the definition of a word should be, rather than simply agreeing on other working definitions in order to facilitate communication.[41] Two hundred year ago, Bentham said this is part of understanding how scientists can begin to debate moral facts; they must first define key terms like 'moral'.[15]

"Morally good"

Michael Shermer explains that this is where science of morality can come in. "The first principle is the well-being of conscious creatures, from which we can build a science-based system of moral values by quantifying whether or not X increases or decreases well-being". Activities like lying or stealing, and even certain cultural values, for example, will be more morally "wrong" because they tend to cause more suffering than alternative social practices.[43] Science of morality, then, is a social morality; it must mediate between the varied needs and desires of many individuals across time. Harris and Daleiden both contend that this is what many religious thinkers are doing, only they are factoring an after life into their pursuit of well-being.[40][unreliable source?][44]

An emotion has both objective and subjective elements

Psychology holds that subjective experiences very often correspond to objective facts (e.g. about the brain). For instance, clinical depression certainly has a subjective component (when feelings of depression are experienced by an individual) but it has also been operationally defined and objectively studied (e.g. described in terms of physical characteristics of the brain, resulting in a biology of depression). These are concepts that are indispensable in science of morality.

This scientific conception of morality is also in a position to give meaning to the difference between oughts "in general" as opposed to "moral oughts"; between "good for me" and "morally good". That is, once researchers have agreed to terms, there is a difference between arguing that "he ought to use more poison on his victim, since he wants to be a good murderer" versus "he morally ought to use no poison at all, since he wants to be a morally good person".[note 10]

Bentham was opinionated regarding the purpose of what he called "morality". He says that "To detect the fallacies which lie hid under the surface, to prevent the aberrations of sympathy and antipathy, to bring to view and to call into activity those springs of action whose operation leads to an undoubted balance of happiness, is the important part of moral science."[45] He was also critical of philosophers who respected only classical texts, rather than scientific methods, to understand and improve their moral systems.[46]

Dewey notes that "We test scientific hypotheses by bringing about their antecedents and seeing if the results are as they predicted. Similarly, we test value judgments by acting on them and seeing if we value the consequences in the way the judgment predicted."[17] Additionally, values, to Dewey, are clearly determined and modified, to some extent, during the pursuit of those values. For all the importance of science and philosophy, morality is ultimately practiced (or neglected) at the scale of life, with the myriad facts of specific situations.[17][note 11]

With acccepted terms for scientific discourse on normative morality, discussions that have no bearing on "the flourishing of conscious creatures" would simply not be moral discussions.[9] Operationalizing terms related to morality or physics still does not prevent use and misuse outside the scientific community.

Limited relativity

In some sense, from a cosmic perspective, everything is irrelevant. The stars have no preferences and, according to Daleiden, the universe does not care about humanity. Indeed, the universe is incapable of the act of valuing. He says that should not matter to us.[47] Science of morality is the empirical discourse of concern for the conscious experiences of creatures. While scientists should approach moral issues as objectively as possible, one should not expect that meaningful discussion can be had about increasing well-being from a perspective of complete indifference about well-being. This was discussed above, and is in much the same vein as the science of medicine. The focus on conscious flourishing is the cosmically arbitrary starting premise of science of morality. Ethical systems that do not grant that premise have always suffered from "cosmic irrelevance".[48]

Moral relativists point out that different cultures, and even individuals, use 'morality' to mean different things. They may argue that scientists' defining "morality" as "maximizing people's flourishing" still amounts to just one culture's view (i.e. a different culture may value preserving nature instead of people's lives). The idea is that simply defining 'morality' grants no additional sort of authority to power - or more strongly, that there is no such authority at all when one group rejects the norms of the other.[note 12][citation needed].

Sam Harris explains: the scientific community could pay little attention to Ted Bundy's criticisms, whether they are about science of morality, or string theory. Not every dissenter need be taken very seriously.

Harris engages various issues he thinks might be raised by relativist.[40][unreliable source?][49] Moral scientists do not seek some divine authority. Nor do they expect that the definitions of morality themselves will cause everyone to feel some metaphysical urge to be moral, or even cause any kind of punishment for delinquency (see the section Causes of flourishing below). Instead, supporters like Harris seek to show how "morality" can be meaningfully understood through the lens of science. Harris says, about morality, science, and rationality in general, in all of these things- "a person can always play the trump card, 'What is that to me?' -- and if we don't find it compelling elsewhere, I don't see why it must have special force on questions of good and evil". A person can always question or reject the terms of discourse (even in science). Harris maintains, however, that we can talk about morality as scientifically as anything else, and as usual, ignore those people who are not interested in discussion.[14]

Ronald Lindsay, President of the Center for Inquiry, made a similar point, and argued that scientists and skeptics should use the word "morality", because of the important connotations it still has with many people when it comes to motivating action.[50]

The ideas of cultural relativity, to Daleiden, serve as an important warning: investigators must be careful not to judge a person's behaviour without understanding the social and environmental context.[51] Cultures can be complex, and failure to understand them results in simple imperialism. Daleiden says that this does not, however, suggest that all ethical norms or systems are equally effective at promoting flourishing.[51]

Moral facts

Harris argues that there may be multiple peaks on the moral landscape of optimized human societies, but even more ways for a society not to be on a peak

It may be important to get clearer on the sorts of moral facts to expect from a science of morality.[note 13]

Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson says that, even though philosophers often highlight and discuss some of the most challenging moral situations, there are still many more "moral no brainers". Compared with morally grey issues, clearer cases of immorality can be more urgent and important to resolve.[53] Michael Shermer opines that "It doesn't take rocket science - or religion" to deem the average acid attack to be wrong.[43][note 14] As philosopher Alonzo Fyfe points out, if one intends to cause a great deal of harm to many people, it is easy enough to guess which actions are likely to do the most damage (i.e. be the most immoral).[55]

There are objective facts about things that are relative (i.e. relational facts). For example, it might be a fact (not subject to anyone's opinion) that Alex would like to play a musical instrument more than would Jamie. Alex would flourish given the opportunity, but Jamie would not (unless Jamie's preferences change). It may therefore be a fact that it is more morally good to give the instrument to Alex than to Jamie precisely because the two people value different things. The existence of such moral facts does not directly rely on the individuals subjective opinions, whether or not they care about such facts, or whether they act morally (Jamie may exploit Alex, and it would remain a fact that this was a less moral option).

As with all sciences, various philosophical, religious and intuitive moral views will be validated (and others rejected)

Science of morality will often discover multiple "moral peaks", or optimal ethical systems. Harris believes these are successes, because identifying moral peaks would necessarily mean identifying the more obviously sub-optimal ethical systems (and maybe some re-occurring obstacles to flourishing in societies). Moreover, some religious and private intuitions about what is right may be vindicated by science; this can happen whether or not the beliefs were held for justified reasons in the first place.[9][40][unreliable source?]

Satisfying every desire, or living in complete bliss, are not realistic goals in the eyes of Daleiden. Even the buddhist ideal of having no desires, and hence no unsatisfied desires, is extremely difficult to achieve and maintain for a whole society - not least of all for younger people (who, Daleiden says, have less self control). Science of morality could never yield a Utopia. Nevertheless, science of morality could greatly increase well-being for very many people.[56]

It is unlikely that humans will create a machine that can answer all moral questions. The complexity of situations where flourishing is at stake does not lend itself to simple, unconditional rules (the field of Law demonstrates how complex these issues can get at the ground level). Balancing the flourishing of multiple conscious creatures is difficult, but it can even be a challenge to balance the flourishing of a single conscious creature - across different times (what psychologist George Ainslie describes as a sort of 'community of selves in competition').[57] Dewey refuses to provide supreme principles or laws of morality because he believes real life is too dynamic.[17] Daleiden says that moral absolutism is a defunct pursuit; science of morality instead tentatively advocate general values (like high degrees of Free speech) or rules of thumb (like the Golden rule).

Philosophy plays a vital role in offering ways of approaching moral issues scientifically (i.e. the veil of ignorance thought experiment).[58] Yet even a rule like "never cut open a child's stomach against their will" may find exception in certain cases of emergency appendectomy. Likewise, it may sometimes be as practically impossible to determine the more moral route as it is to determine the number of birds in flight around the earth.[40][unreliable source?] The moral norms identified by science of morality will always be theories. Certainty is not required for the existence of Truths, however.[9]

Moral traditions which focus on "will" may also be obsolete. Dewey called it "magical thinking" to believe that a desire to control immoral habits is enough to actually control them. He advocates the use of various methods to make it easier for people to do the right thing, and recognizes that some situations make it more challenging than others.[17] Certain habits make moral behaviour easier as well.[note 15] These issues of moral responsibility are especially relevant in light of modern science, including the neuroscience of free will.

To the extent that there are moral facts, individuals or groups can be mistaken about these facts (instances of the illusion of introspection) whereas others may become moral experts (e.g. the Dalai Lama). For instance, over-emphasizing a value like submission might lead to more suffering than other values. Thus some groups or individuals, like the Taliban, may have as little a place in serious discussions about morality as they do in discussions about string theory. Harris argues, "just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality."[14]

Personism argues that we must include non-humans, to some extent, in any conception of a moral society. This is because conscious creatures exist along a large spectrum, at different ranges of "personhood".[59][60][61]

Causes of flourishing

Good behaviour

Science has therefore been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death.

Critics might propose that science of morality fails to answer the question "even having defined good, why do it?", something that is often expected of a moral system. Even those philosophical theories that Daleiden admires most (utilitarianism and Rawlsian justice) are, in his view, incomplete, in that “neither theory seems to offer an adequate motivational basis to insure widespread acceptance."[62] He comments elsewhere that the possession of a coherent moral system, based on reality, does not so simply change a person's behaviour.[63]

That is why Daleiden says that society should aim for its members to aspire to more than egoistic behaviour, nor even rational egoism. He confronts the hypothesis that everyone pursuing their own self-interest will somehow result in everyone cooperating, and calls it bunk. Instead, Daleiden advocates for "conditioned self interest" (aka conditioned rational egoists). These are individuals who pursue their self interest, and for various reasons, their self interest amounts to altruistic behaviour[64] (that is, ensuring that enlightened self-interest is a reality). This is important, because humans have evolved many tendencies that can be maladaptive to civilized society. A case in point: our sometimes-uncontrollable aggression (see also evolutionary psychology).[65]

In terms of Game theory research, the goal is to create as many non-zero sum scenarios as possible. Daleiden expounds: Reaching the goal of conditioned self interest requires knowledge from fields including sociobiology, moral development.[note 16] and behaviourism.[note 17] The result is a comprehensive program that encourages good behaviour. It starts with the knowledge that humans are one of many animals that have evolved altruistic tendencies.[note 18] Besides altruistic instincts, the program comprises the development of a sense of social identity, ensuring that there are consequences for actions, providing economic incentives, and lastly, providing moral training. Daleiden discuss the program's last element, prosocial moral training, the most.[66]

Leveraging natural tendencies, the environment, society, and even training - with the aim of promoting a personal interest in others.

Prosocial training includes everything from instilling explicit virtues, building character strengths, and forming mental associations. It should be noted that prosocial training also requires some level of practice reasoning, and Daleiden discusses moral development research by James Rest suggesting that IQ is involved in making moral judgements.[67][note 19] Rest also emphasized that moral judgements alone do not predict moral behaviour. As Rest puts it “Moral judgement may be closely related to advocacy behaviour, which in turn influences social institutions, which in turn creates a system of norms and sanctions that influences people’s behaviour.”[67] The point is: the entire prosocial training regime is an important part of creating conditioned egoists. Daleiden's last factor in prosocial training, mental associations, is quite familiar: he says it has been traditionally understood as the conscience - where the student learns to feel empathy, and to feel regret for harming others. Unless an individual can, and begins to feel empathy, it may be unlikely that any amount of reasoning, or any coherent moral system will motivate them to behave very altruistically.

When it comes to raising conditioned egoists, Daleiden says “Call it indoctrination if you wish; I find nothing repugnant in training children to be honest, kind, and hardworking.”[69] Also described above are the reasons that it should be the intention of adults to shape children, or presumably "indoctrinate" them, to think critically. He adds that the focus is on especially socially relevant values (e.g. kindness, sharing reasoning) and not the more personal, private values (e.g. a preference like writing novels versus painting on canvas).[69]

Religion, although it is not the best method of determining moral norms, has often been very effective at promoting moral norms. Religions often satisfy many of Daleiden's criteria for raising people to be conditioned egoists, especially by practicing the aforementioned elements of prosocial training. He suggests that this is what they are doing when they instill a sense of honour, yet they also effectively use art and myths to educate people about moral situations.[70] The use of the arts, including stories, is likely important for science communication, education, and flourishing in general.

The role of government

Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984 imagine dystopian future societies that control the populace by advanced scientific techniques. Harris argues that moral scientists approaching truths does not imply an "orwellian future" with "scientists at every door". Instead, Harris imagines data about normative moral issues being shared in the same way as other sciences (e.g. peer-reviewed journals on medicine).[71]

Earthly paradise

Harris claims that if some degree of conditioning, such transhumanism, or genetic modification allowed everyone greater well-being, then they would actually be good things.

[T]he necessity of grounding moral truth in things that people "actually value, or desire, or care about" also misses the point. People often act against their deeper preferences -- or live in ignorance of what their preferences would be if they had more experience and information. What if we could change [someone's] preference… Should we? Obviously we can't answer this question by relying on the very preferences we would change… I'm not simply claiming that morality is "fully determined by an objective reality, independent of people's actual values and desires." I am claiming that people's actual values and desires are fully determined by an objective reality, and that we can conceptually get behind all of this—indeed, we must—in order to talk about what is actually good. This becomes clear the moment we ask whether it would be good to alter people values and desires. [sic]

Consider how we would view a situation in which all of us miraculously began to behave so as to maximize our collective well-being. Imagine that on the basis of remarkable breakthroughs in technology, economics, and politic skill, we create a genuine utopia on earth. Needless to say, this wouldn't be boring, because we will have wisely avoided all the boring utopias. Rather, we will have created a global civilization of astonishing creativity, security, and happiness.

However, some people were not ready for this earthly paradise once it arrived. Some were psychopaths who, despite enjoying the general change in quality of life, were nevertheless eager to break into their neighbors' homes and torture them from time to time. A few had preferences that were incompatible with the flourishing of whole societies: Try as he might, Kim Jong Il just couldn't shake the feeling that his cognac didn't taste as sweet without millions of people starving beyond his palace gates. Given our advances in science, however, we were able to alter preferences of this kind. In fact, we painlessly delivered a firmware update to everyone. Now the entirety of the species is fit to live in a global civilization that is as safe, and as fun, and as interesting, and as filled with love as it can be.

It seems to me that this scenario cuts through the worry that the concept of well-being might leave out something that is worth caring about: for if you care about something that is not compatible with a peak of human flourishing—given the requisite changes in your brain, you would recognize that you were wrong to care about this thing in the first place. Wrong in what sense? Wrong in the sense that you didn't know what you were missing.

This is the core of my argument: I am claiming that there must be frontiers of human well-being that await our discovery—and certain interests and preferences surely blind us to them.[72]

Sam Harris

Daleiden specifies that government, like any organization, should have limited power. He says "centralization of power irrevocably in the hands of one person or an elite has always ultimately led to great evil for the human race. It was the novel experiment of democracy – a clear break with tradition – that ended the long tradition of tyranny.”[73] He is also explicit that government should only use law to enforce the most basic, reasonable, evidenced and widely supported moral norms. In other words, there are a great many moral norms that should never be the task of the government to enforce.[74]

The role of punishment

Studies have shown that inmate participation in education, vocational and job training, prison work skills development, drug abuse, mental health and other treatment programs, all reduce recidivism, significantly

-attributed to Bobby Scott (U.S. politician)

To attain a society where people are motivated by conditioned self-interest, punishment must go hand in hand with reward.[75] For instance, prison remains necessary for many perpetrators of crimes. This is so, even if libertarian free will is false. This is because punishment can still serve its purposes: it deters others from committing their own crimes, educates and reminds everyone about what the society stands for, incapacitates the criminal from doing more harm, goes some way to relieving or repaying the victim, and corrects the criminal (also see recidivism). At least, any prison system should be pursuing those goals. It is an empirical question as to what sorts of punishment realize these goals most effectively, and how well various prison systems actually serve these purposes.[76]


Science of morality should identify basic components required for human flourishing, drawing heavily on findings from positive psychology. In a proto-scientific example, Abraham Maslow suggested a hierarchy of needs: basic physical survival, then social and self esteem needs, and lastly philosophical and self-actualization. In contemporary positive psychology, three years of research resulted in a systematic classification and measurement of universal strengths and virtues, Martin E. P. Seligman and Christopher Peterson's Character Strengths and Virtues.

Research looking for optimal ethical systems can draw on all the methods of science, especially those used by positive psychology. While this might include obvious methods like asking people to self-report what they think they need to flourish in life - psychology has shown that people are often surprisingly incorrect on these matters (particularly when it comes to making predictions and recollections). Some cases in point: having too many varieties of consumer goods actually creates consumer choice anxiety; when it comes to removing bandages, Dan Ariely's research suggests that "getting it over with as quickly as possible" may cause more negative memories than if one went slowly (with breaks) while being careful never to reach a 'peak' in pain; stress is not always harmful (such stress is called Eustress). While very careful use of self-report can still be illuminating (e.g. bogus pipeline techniques), in the end, unconscious methods of inquiry seem to be more promising. Some unconscious methods of data collection include implicit association tests (IAT) and neuroimaging. In these ways, science can further our understanding of what humans need to flourish, and what ways of organizing society provide the greatest hope for flourishing.

Science has already begun connecting concepts like sadness with physical structures in the brain

Nobel prize winner Eric Kandel and researcher Cynthia Fu describe their findings that depression can be diagnosed very accurately just by looking at fMRI brain scans.[77] This is because researchers have made strides identifying neural correlates for, among other things, emotions. A doctor's second opinion would still be used, they explain. But the two researchers suggest that mental illnesses may someday be diagnosable by looking at such brain scans alone.

Extensive study of cooperation has shed some light on the objective (and subjective) advantages of teamwork and empathy.

There is evidence to suggest that a risk factor for becoming victims of bullying is deficient moral development (e.g. tendencies to undervalue intentions, and thus blame others for accidents). The researchers also found that bullies were just as morally developed as victim defenders; the difference is that bullies are more able to disengage. That is, for whatever reason, bullies end up suppressing their feelings of compassion and conscience.[78]

Egalitarians point out the various adverse effects of the trickle up effect (when money flows from the poor to the rich) when it causes Economic inequality.[79] Psychologist Daniel Gilbert also explains, in his book Stumbling on Happiness, why excessive luxury goods(over and above having basic needs met) does not lead as reliably to happiness as a good job and social network. It is in a similar vein that Daleiden suggests that people do not need to be as motivated by money as they are in the west; society could instead leverage other motives.[80]

Other implications

Philosopher Paul Kurtz coined the term "Eupraxophy" to refer to a type of scientific and philosophical approach to normative ethics. Kurtz believes that the careful, secular pursuit of normative rules is vital to society.

Physicist David Deutsch tells the story that, answering a group of school children's question of why so many people feel hate so strongly, former president George Bush told them "There is evil in the world. But we can overcome evil. We're good". Deutsch says that, although secularists may wince at Bush's use of the word "good",

...civilisation will survive the miscellaneous evils that one finds in a mature, Western religion — such as Bush's opposition to abortion, and the like. But it would not, pace Richard Dawkins, survive the typical non-believer's (pre-September-11) take on the nature of morality. We non-believers have failed too. What comes next is that we must correct that failure, by incorporating into the Western tradition of critical rationalism an objective conception of right and wrong.[81]

Deutsch is worried about the implications of moral nihilism being taken too seriously. He advocates defending (always as peacefully as is possible) values including tolerance, openness, reason, and respect for others. He adds that such a moral framework allows an alternative to war only if both sides embrace it.[81]

Sean M. Carroll maintains that, although we would like it to be, morality is not a scientific domain.[82]

Science of morality engages questions of flourishing (using the scientific method) regardless of whether God exists

Some philosophers[specify] worry that morality must be understood in relation to some sort of God in order to justify moral responsibility. That is, they question the validity of any secular ethics that conceive of morality without religion or God.

Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer argued in his book, The Life You Can Save, that it is important for all conscious creatures for nations to have "cultures of giving". He has expressed in books like Animal Liberation that, because of so-called "speciesism", animal rights are too often neglected by humanistic ethical movements. Singer holds more of a personistic stance.

Critics have suggested that a belief that some cultures are "wrong" or somehow less optimal could lead to paternalism. As a result, one nation may force their own culture upon another-particularly because moral realists risk becoming dogmatic in their decisions about what is "bad". On the other hand, if it is agreed that a culture is suffering unduly - it may be agoodthing if the other cultures save them from themselves. This need not ever require any force at all, as persuasion and example can be far more effective.

During a discussion on the role that Naturalism might play in professions like Nursing, Philosopher Trevor Hussey calls the popular view that science is unconcerned with morality "too simplistic". Although his main focus in the paper is naturalism in nursing, he goes on to explain that science can, at very least, be interested in morality at a descriptive level. He even briefly entertains the idea that morality could itself be a scientific subject, writing that one might argue "..that moral judgements are subject to the same kinds of rational, empirical examination as the rest of the world: they are a subject for science – although a difficult one. If this could be shown to be so, morality would be contained within naturalism. However, I will not assume the truth of moral realism here." [note 20]

Daleiden disputes the usefulness of gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of things humans care about most at the economic scale.[84] His criticisms are in line with supporters using a more eclectic measure such as gross domestic happiness (GDH).

At the time of writing his book, Daleiden summarizes empirical evidence, regarding human well being, on various topics: he argues that science supports more decriminalization and regulation of drugs, euthanasia under some circumstances, and non-normal sexual behaviour (he cites homosexuality as a fine example). Daleiden further argues that empirical evidence about what enables people to suffer renders abortion not just permissible to some extent, but at times a moral obligation to the mother and future child. Like all empirical claims in his book, however, Joseph Daleiden is adamant that these decisions remain grounded in empirical data.[13][note 21]


The Abolition of Man

C. S. Lewis predicted in his 1943 philosophy book The Abolition of Man that a future generation of "conditioners" could change human nature through eugenics, pre-natal conditioning, and an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology so that all future generations will share its moral values (or lack thereof) which they would presumably justify through science. This is not seen as a good thing however, as Lewis argues that it would be the effective end of the human race (thus the title, "the Abolition of Man") Lewis regards certain first principles in ethics shared across all major cultures to be the essence of humanity and argues that regarding these principles as subject to modification has a dehumanizing effect; ultimately reducing persons to objects to be manipulated by scientific technique, rather than fellow persons who use scientific techniques on objects. He says, "A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery."

Undesirable pursuits of flourishing

Many criticisms of science of morality revolve around the implications of calling "good" what allows a society to flourish.

In the past, some leaders have appealed to science dogmatically in order to justify certain moral claims. The results, like Social Darwinism, have been much suffering, and lead some to believe we should avoid incorporating science too deeply into normative ethics. A science of morality might likewise produce an ethical system where everyone hedonistically pursues merely their own interests. The promoter of science of morality might respond that such systems are not "good" as defined within the science, since it is not optimal for the flourishing of everyone in society. Moreover, there may be relativity in which pursuits cause flourishing and when (e.g. the same meal that disgusts one person could please another, the same meal that pleases that person could disgust them in another context, etc.) but this relativity obeys natural facts which science can attempt to understand in its consideration of all conscious creatures.

A more contemporary worry is that birth rates go down as education goes up. Detractors of a moral science propose that living humans may some day decide that they would not flourish by raising children, dooming the human race without moral grounds to continue the species. Scientists might appeal to reasons it may be advantageous for the living to have children. Others would grant that this would mean the end of the human race but that, if this unlikely situation obtained, it would clearly not be a "bad" thing.

It is highly possible that ignorance is bliss. Even if the ignorant are, to some extent, blissful, moral scientists would again have grounds to doubt that it is "morally good" since it carries very real risks to the individual, but even more to the flourishing of others.

Other proponents

Prominent contemporary ethical naturalists include Peter Railton, Frank Jackson, and the so-called Cornell Realists: Nicholas Sturgeon, David O. Brink, and Richard Boyd.[dubious ]

A legislature discusses what is best for their society.

Ronald A. Lindsay is a bioethicist, lawyer, and chief executive officer and senior research fellow of the Center for Inquiry (CFI). He likens discussions of morality, like discussions of the theory of evolution, to consist of arguments about details that are too often confused as arguments over basic tenets. In these moral discussions, he says, the public too often fails to go deeper than mere slogans. Lindsay says that morality is the practical enterprise of pursuing peace and happiness. He places great emphasis on the methodology of analyzing morality, and suggests that we: (a) gather the foundations on which we all agree, (b) identify the more culturally relative and relevant norms, and (c) analyze and create our moral system according to facts provided by science.[50]

Vice president of CFI John Shook shows similar support. In his article "The Science of Morality", he writes "Could science determine morality through application of constructive engineering? The answer is yes." As long as we admit the critical role that philosophical reasoning must play, Shook imagines that "A scientific ethics will investigate all social institutions and propose reforms to anything involving human well-being."[85]

Richard Dawkins had openly stated that science has little to say directly about morality. He has since said, about science of morality as friend and colleague Harris presents it in The Moral Landscape, that it "changed all that for me".[86] In an online interview, Dawkins reiterated that he believes that Harris makes relevant points, and that, once one defines the moral goal as maximizing the wellbeing of creatures, science has much to say about what is actually morally good.[87]

Patricia Churchland is a philosopher at University of California - San Diego well known for supporting eliminative materialism. To Churchland, the ideas of philosophers should be grounded in science, making them more like "theoretical" scientists. She cites facts about early visual processing, explaining that valence is assigned to stimulus subconsciously; this process is seen in children and may have a large biological component. Churchland uses this an example of science limiting the scope of relevant philosophical theories.[88] Regarding her book Braintrust, some of what she discussed on evolutionary neurological understanding of facts/values and is/ought, falls within the general structure that Sam Harris has laid out. She describes what he is asking us to envision, that if false beliefs were factored out, the remaining evaluative facts should become apparent, and that should result in a agreement on values. She agrees especially it would be most likely at the extreme ends of the spectrum, in the clear-cut cases of flourishing or not flourishing.

However, Churchland anticipates a lot of cases lie in the middle ground, that can lead to disagreement and it's uncertain whether might be due to a disagreement about facts, or a fundamental disagreement on values. She continues, that there may be cases where there are simply no more facts that can shed any light on the matter. She also mentions pernicious cases, such as questions involving just war and preemptive strikes, were there always most likely be some value disagreement. Although when further facts are available, Harris handles the scenario very well; and as devil's advocate, Churchland offers three worries: arrogance (or silliness) on the part of academics, in providing condescending or unrealistic advice; ideological enthusiasm at the behest of demagogy, as in the cultural revolution in China; and finally, do-goodery that takes on a bad problem and makes it worse, when one ought not to have interfered on a presumption of having the normative high-ground.[89]

Steven Pinker says that science, broadly enough defined to consist of general reason and evidence-based belief, is certainly how we learn what is right and wrong. On the other hand, Pinker says that "science" is often understood as separate from philosophy and other necessary components of good moral thinking, which would make science necessary but insufficient. Asked whether science can tell us what is right and wrong, Pinker says "Yes and No", depending on how broadly or narrowly a science is being discussed.[90]

In debate, Peter Singer expressed the same contingent agreement with the idea of a science of morality (i.e. he agrees that broadly defined, science can tell us what is right and wrong). Sam Harris explained that he is appealing to the broad use of 'science' which he says means more than lab coated researchers in laboratories - it includes secular philosophizing and scientific theory.[25]

See also


  1. ^, from "Deontology: or the science of morality".
  2. ^ Lenman, James (2008). "Moral Naturalism". In Edward N. Zalta. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 
  3. ^ a b Sam Harris (2010), page 183: "Much of the skepticism I encounter when speaking about these issues comes from people who think "happiness" is a superficial state of mind and that there are far more important things in life than "being happy." Some reasers may think that concepts like "well-being" and "flourishing" are similarly effete. However, I don't know of any better terms with which to signify the most positive states of being to which we can aspire. One of the virtues of thinking about a moral landscape, the heights of which remain to be discovered, is that it frees us from these semantic difficulties. Generally speaking, we need only worry about what it will mean to move "up" as opposed to "down".
  4. ^ Daleiden (1998) page 191.
  5. ^ Harris (2010) "The Moral Landscape", p. 195n2.
  6. ^ Sean Carroll (2010-05-04). "Science And Morality: You Can’t Derive 'Ought' From 'Is'". NPR. Retrieved 2010-06-14. "Casting morality as a maximization problem might seem overly restrictive at first glance, but the procedure can potentially account for a wide variety of approaches. A libertarian might want to maximize a feeling of personal freedom, while a traditional utilitarian might want to maximize some version of happiness. The point is simply that the goal of morality should be to create certain conditions that are, in principle, directly measurable by empirical means. ...Nevertheless, I want to argue that this program is simply not possible. ... Morality is not part of science, however much we would like it to be. There are a large number of arguments one could advance for in support of this claim, but I'll stick to three." 
  7. ^ Morality, "When effective benevolence is brought into the realms of Deontology, when the greatest good, the universal happiness, is made thecentral point round which all action revolves the golden era of moral science will commence.."
  8. ^ on from pg. 39 in The Moral Landscape
  9. ^ a b c d e f g, "Sam Harris: Science Can Answer Moral Questions."
  10. ^ NMJ Woodhouse (2003). Special relativity. London: Springer. p. 58. ISBN 1-85233-426-6.,M1. 
  11. ^ page 56 for example
  12. ^ page 395 for example
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h Daleiden, Joseph (1998). Chapter 20: Summary and conclusions. Pages 485-500
  14. ^ a b c d Sam Harris (May 7, 2010). "Toward a Science of Morality". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2010-06-14. "In February, I spoke at the 2010 TED conference, where I briefly argued that morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science." 
  15. ^ a b Deontology or, the Science of Morality, "Language lags behind science, and too frequently refuses its aid to knowledge. The innovations of philosophy upon long-received expressions are slow and difficult. Philology is apt to refuse the contributions of the other sciences. It prides itself on its poverty. And this is the more to be regretted, inasmuch as all languages had their birth in a period when moral and intellectual cultivation could only be in their infancy. / A time will come, it is earnestly to be hoped, when morality, like chemistry, will create its own fit nomenclature."
  16. ^ or, the Science of Morality
  17. ^ a b c d e f g Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Dewey's Moral Philosophy"
  18. ^ "The Moral Landscape", pg. 183
  19. ^ Marcin T. Zdrenka. (2006). "Moral philosopher or sociologist of morals?". Journal of Classical Sociology.
  20. ^ Essays on Science and Society. "Science and Morality".
  21. ^ Nagel (20 October 2011). "Review By Thomas Nagel | The New Republic". "The Facts Fetish" 
  22. ^ Harris, Sam (29 January 2011). "A Response to Critics". 
  23. ^ {{cite web |first=Massimo |last=Pigliucci|date=16 February 2011|url= Speaking: Genuinely puzzled: what exactly is Blackford saying about Harris? |date=17 September 2011 |quote=Now, given all the above, I understand why Blackford agrees with my criticism of Harris. The only thing he seems to complain about concerning my review is that I claim that Harris is affected by the common malady of scientism. But even there, Blackford writes: “In the end, the problems with The Moral Landscape aren't so much about thinking that all problems can be solved by science. Even if Harris may sometimes seem to think that, the real problems are elsewhere.”
  24. ^ p24, Daleiden (1998)
  25. ^ a b
  26. ^ Churchland, Patricia Smith (2011). Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality. Princeton University Press. p. 7-9. ISBN 9780691137032. LCCN 2010043584. 
  27. ^ 247, 275, 284, Daleiden (1998), and the page 120 quote: “…some merely reflect a shift in emphasis…they are not mutually exclusive; rather, they all offer valuable insights as to how the members of society can institute a code of ethical behaviour that will benefit all.”
  28. ^ p502, Daleiden (1998)
  29. ^ Leaonard Carmichael, the chapter "Absolutes, Relativism and the Scientific Psychology of Human Nature", H. Schoeck and J. Wiggins (eds), in the book "Relativism and the Study of Man, Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand, 1961, page 16
  30. ^ p306, Daleiden (1998)
  31. ^ p218 and 509, Daleiden (1998)
  32. ^ p208, Daleiden (1998)
  33. ^, "Free Will and Naturalism: A Reply to Corliss Lamont"
  34. ^ Elbow Room (book)
  35. ^ 62, Daleiden (1998)
  36. ^ 77, Daleiden (1998)
  37. ^ "The Moral Landscape", pg. 144
  38. ^ 314, Daleiden
  39. ^ Truth-driven thinking podcast, meaning and morality appart from God
  40. ^ a b c d e f The Center for Inquiry, Sam Harris talks "the Moral Landscape" in NYC
  41. ^ a b Stanovich, K. E. (2007). How to Think Straight About Psychology. Boston: Pearson Education.
  42. ^
  43. ^ a b
  44. ^ 509, Daleiden
  45. ^ [1]
  46. ^ "Read modern books less and ancient more. Go for the moral sciences to Aristotle, to Plato. For metaphysics, not to Locke, but still to Aristotle. For Botany, not to Linnaeus, but to Theophrastus to Elian... This is precisely the way to talk of everything and know nothing; to be as much farther from knowledge in almost every science as a child who cannot tell his letters is from the most intelligent professor."
  47. ^ 90, Daleiden (1998)
  48. ^ Daleiden (1998)
  49. ^ "The Moral Landscape"
  50. ^ a b
  51. ^ a b 100, Daleiden
  52. ^ The science network, the great debate, Part 2 with Lawrence Kraus
  53. ^ Center Stage podcast, "Why secularism and humanism need evolutionary theory", with David Sloan Wilson
  54. ^ The Moral Landscape (2010), on page 68
  55. ^ Podcast: Morality in the Real World, Alonzo Fyfe, Episode 9, 4 minutes 25 seconds
  56. ^ 15, Daleiden (1998), quote "This is not another social engineering scheme that promises to create a utopia where humankind lives in absolute bliss. But it does offer to improve the human condition substantially." and discussion on 246
  57. ^ The Moral Landscape (2010), on page 211, note 51, referring to George Ainslie's "Breakdown of Will"
  58. ^ 110, Daleiden (1998), quote: “Although specific norms must change to meet changing human needs, and a norm itself is only a guideline that must be judged in light of the specific circumstances, there may be overall principles that are useful in setting norms.”
  59. ^
  60. ^ Bioethics: an anthology By Helga Kuhse, Peter Singer
  61. ^ Applied ethics: a non-consequentialist approach By David S. Oderberg
  62. ^ 150, Daleiden (1998)
  63. ^ 150, Daleiden (1998), quote: : “It is insufficient just to present moral knowledge as information; to effect changes in behaviour, it must strongly affect a person’s sense of empathy or, better still, hold out the promise of rewards or punishment.”
  64. ^ 106, Daleiden (1998), quote “Finally we have what I will call conditioned self-interest. This refers to the psychological fact that people can be conditioned to have pleasurable feelings when performing dutiful or charitable acts or, conversely, feel psychological pain when violating a moral norm. In religious terms this has been called developing a sense of conscience, in psychoanalytic terms it is called the superego, and in behavioural terms it’s called a conditioned response. In any case, the person acts for the benefit of others. In this sense, the person who acts out of conditioned self-interest to benefit others is a de facto altruist.”
  65. ^ 176, Daleiden (1998), quote “…many of our genetically endowed coping mechanisms may be “obsolete” in the context of present society. Earlier I discussed one such obsolete instinctual response-aggression. In a nuclear age, unless we learn to curb this instinct, which may have been essential to our prehistoric ancestors’ survival, it may lead to our eventual demise as a species.”
  66. ^ 306, Daleiden (1998)
  67. ^ a b James R. Rest, Development in Judging Moral Issues. (1979). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  68. ^ 211, Daleiden (1998)
  69. ^ a b 332-334, Daleiden (1998)
  70. ^ 323, 326, Daleiden (1998)
  71. ^ Asked "Let's say scientists do end up discovering moral truths. How are they supposed to enforce their findings? Would they become something like policemen or priests?" Harris writes "They wouldn’t necessarily enforce them any more than they enforce their knowledge about human health. What are scientists doing with the knowledge that smoking causes cancer or obesity is bad for your health, or that the common cold is spread by not washing your hands? We’re not living in some Orwellian world where we have scientists in lab coats at every door. Imagine we discovered that there is a best way to teach your children to be compassionate, or to defer short-term gratification in the service of a long-term goal. What if it turns out to be true that calcium intake in the first two years of life has a significant effect on a child’s emotional life? If we learn that, what parent wouldn’t want that knowledge? The fear of a "Brave New World" component to this argument is unfounded."
  72. ^ Harris, Sam (29 January 2011). "A Response to Critics". The Persuasion Problem. 
  73. ^ 219, Daleiden (1998)
  74. ^ 273-274, Daleiden (1998)
  75. ^ 77, Daleiden (1998), quote “We use rewards and punishments, praise and blame, in training any animal. The human species is only different in degree in this regard, not in kind.”
  76. ^ 289, Daleiden (1998)
  77. ^
  78. ^ "The Moral Psychology of Bullies and Their Victims"
  79. ^ "Inequality: The Mother of All Evils?". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2010-01-16. 
  80. ^ 144, Daleiden (1998), quote: “Although there is less income disparity in countries such as Japan, Korea, Germany, Sweden, and most industrialized nations, there is no evidence to suggest that their labor forces work less diligently, and the savings rate in each of these countries exceeds that of the United States.”
  81. ^ a b Edge.Org, Question Center, "What Now?", David Deutsch's entry
  82. ^
  83. ^ Naturalistic nursing, Trevor Hussey (2011), Nursing Philosophy, Vol 12, Pg.45-52.
  84. ^ 225, Daleiden (1998)
  85. ^ John Shook advocates
  86. ^, I was one of those who had unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals. To my surprise, The Moral Landscape has changed all that for me. It should change it for philosophers too. Philosophers of mind have already discovered that they can't duck the study of neuroscience, and the best of them have raised their game as a result..."
  87. ^
  88. ^
  89. ^
  90. ^

Cited literature

  • Bentham, Jeremy J. (1834). Deontology, or The Science of Morality. Longman, Rees, Orme, Green, and Longman.
    *this book is in the public domain and available online
  • Daleiden, Joseph L. (1998). The Science of Morality: The Individual, Community, and Future Generations. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-225-0.
  • Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free Press. ISBN 978-1-4391-7121-9.
  • James R. Rest. Development in Judging Moral Issues. (1979). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


  1. ^ At one point, Bentham is talking about how dogma is a poor way to shape values, and that the philosophy of a moral science - starting from the premise of pursuing wellbeing and happiness, is what is needed instead. He says: "How mischievously these fallacies hang together!...And into what does such a theory resolve itself? Into the mere assumptions the theories the dogmatisms of the theorist…They dare not encourage thought, or lend a helping hand to philosophy. They know better : those that are penetrating and discreet among them (and the dull follow the rest by instinct)…They know and see with horror and confusion how apt sound science is to make men rebellious to their doctrines…" He adds that dogmatic leaders do anything they can to distract people from reasoning using the philosophy of science: "They know they have every thing to fear from philosophy, and thus it is that there is not a track they would not invite men to in preference to that of moral science ; and of all tracks, that best answers their purpose for men to be engaged in, which, encircling the foot of the mountain, and obscuring the approaches to the summit, offers flowers to fascinate the eye of the wanderer, and to keep him forever lingering round the base.[1]
  2. ^ Harris explains that, to some extent, the term flourishing is intended to be a catch-all term for those states that creatures consider positive, and which must be harmonized with other times and individuals[3]
  3. ^ Daleiden writes that “Moral issues need to be discussed in the less politically pressured form of academia. Some might argue that religions could perform this function…However, virtually all religions base their moral judgements on flawed premises such as divine revelation, natural law, and free will. They usually rely little on the methods of scientific inquiry. Therefore, it is almost serendipitous if they arrive at value judgements designed to promote human happiness. Hence it again falls to the academic community to undertake the empirical studies and analysis necessary to decide moral issues, just as for any other subject of human inquiry."[4]
  4. ^ Harris writes “Granted, one doesn’t generally think of events like assassinations as “scientific” facts, but the murder of President Kennedy is as fully corroborated a fact as can be found anywhere, and it would betray a profoundly unscientific frame of mind to deny that it occurred. I think ‘science,’ therefore, should be considered a specialized branch of a larger effort to form true beliefs about events in our world.”[5]
  5. ^ If an issue does not, in any way, concern conscious creatures, then it is devoid of morality by the definitions of science of morality. A universe full of nothing but rocks and dirt, for example, would be one without anything that can be meaningfully called "moral issues".Advocates of a science of morality believe that science needs to begin pursuing and debating "moral facts" about people's flourishing. Consequently, it is possible to be wrong about how to maximize flourishing as a general rule, and even in a specific situation.[9]
  6. ^ One prominent school of moral naturalist thought is that of the Cornell realists, especially Richard Boyd and Nicholas Sturgeon. They hold that, although moral facts are natural facts, moral facts are not reducible to any other sort of natural facts. The two were therefore non-reductive moral naturalists. Cornell realism, in turn, has been crticized in papers by Terry Horgan and Mark Timmons, who apply the "Moral Twin Earth" thought experiment.[clarification needed] Other moral naturalists include reductionists Peter Railton and Frank Jackson, and neo-Aristotelians such as Rosalind Hursthouse and Judith Jarvis Thomson.
  7. ^ To quote Carmichael: "We do not turn aside from what we know about astronomy at any time because there is still a great deal we do not know, or because so much of what we once thought we knew is no longer recognized as true. May not the same argument be accepted in our thinking about ethical and esthetic judgements?"[29]
  8. ^ Daleiden elaborates: “Like the moral rules of religious institutions, any so-called universal rules or commandments that may benefit society and the individual under one set of circumstances may result in great misery under different conditions.”[32]
  9. ^ Daleiden's entire second chapter (pages 53-86) is dedicated to attempting to dismantle various conceptions of "free will". In his book's summary he writes "The concept of free will is a metaphysical myth stemming from confusion between the idea that humans possess the ability to choose - which all higher-order animals possess to some extent - and the notion that humans are free to choose without the constraints of those determining factors that motivate choice: genetics and environment." He makes other arguments, including that a lacking free will does not mean behaviour will be predictable in practice, and that holding people responsible (again, in practice) is important to shaping behaviour.[13]
  10. ^ This is a common example in law, but is especially based on Daleiden's description of the difference between more private values, as opposed to more socially relevant values[13]
  11. ^ John Dewey described how part of the moral process can sometimes mean shifting one's values according to how well they satisfy some more primitive, and even partially unconscious values or desires. He provides the example of the connoisseur; one may be better able to discern the relevant factors of a meal which make it more or less enjoyable. The connoisseur is thus better able to select such higher order values.[17] Dewey further believes that understanding the means to an end is an important part of understanding the ends themselves. The relative weightings of qualities of a suit, for example, are not fixed for the shopper, but rather established throughout the process of considering possible uses for the suit (e.g. "Ok, so they come in different colours, and now that I think of it, my Boss likes Blue- so I want blue").
  12. ^ The disagreement, then, may be a practical one. That is, why does the definition of morality matter if nothing has changed? Perhaps there are facts about what tends to promote human flourishing (complete with notable exceptions like, again, psychopaths). It will still be the case that many are ignorant or in denial about such facts. At very least, this seems to be a case for abandoning the word "morality", which has metaphysical connotations to many, and adopting new language (e.g. from law, defining what it means to be a "goodcitizen").
  13. ^ Physicist Lawrence M. Krauss defends the position that, even if one disagreed that science can determine what is right and wrong, rejecting science is to reject any hope of moral knowledge. Krauss argues that knowing something is moral entails knowing various facts about reality. Furthermore, he says that science has already shown us that the world is very often not what we expected (e.g. made of atoms). He discusses how knowing certain facts which are most relevant to moral appraisals is impossible without science's systematic empirical investigation. Krauss uses the example of embryonic stem cell research, and suggests that various morally relevant facts have been discovered by science, and would not have otherwise been known.[52]
  14. ^ A long tradition of more nuanced philosophical discussions on the topic of morality can and should be reconciled with science of morality. Some of these issues are especially complex, however. Patricia Churchland offers a particularly intractable example: "no one has the slightest idea how to cmopare the mild headache of five-million against the broken legs of two, or the needs of one's own two children against the needs of a hundred unrelated brain-damaged children in Serbia."[54]
  15. ^ Dewey talked about how certain habits (of thought or action) promote more flourishing than others. He says an example might be that one of the most important habits is that of keeping other habits flexible. This is because context is important to moral considerations, and the rules that work in one situation or society may not work as well in others. He nevertheless mentions independent thought, critical inquiry, experimentation, imagination, and sympathy for others as generally reliable rules of thumb. Dewey is also extremely critical of any supposed moral system which emphasizes uncritical obedience - because this only damages people's ability to learn better values.[17]
  16. ^ relevant researchers includeJean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg and James Rest
  17. ^ This includes differential reinforcement
  18. ^ There are many domains related to the study of human tendencies as they relate to morality. Fields like evolutionary biology look at the evolution of cooperation.Evolutionary ethics has similar interests. There is furthermore the study of reciprocal altruism
  19. ^ Daleiden explains, based on the research of James Rest "it would take a Ph.D. in philosophy to make the more difficult ethical judgements. Even these people would find it much easier to make the correct judgement in the abstract than when personally faced with their own moral dilemmas.”[68]
  20. ^ Hussey writes "The relationship between naturalism and morality and politics is complicated, and is difficult to state in a few sentences because it involves deep philosophical issues. Only the briefest discussion is possible here. The most popular view is that science, and hence naturalism, is concerned with objective facts and not with values: with what is the case rather than what ought to be. But this is too simplistic." He gives a reason immediately: "First, at the very least, science can study morality and politics at a descriptive level and try to understand their workings within societies and in the lives of individuals, and investigate their evolutionary origins, their social propagation, and so on." Hussey then describes how scientists must adhere to certain values, but also how values guide what it is that science may investigate. His real interest in the paper is to justify naturalism as a nursing practice, yet he does eventually write: "Finally, the idea that science and morality are separate realms, one dealing with facts the other with values, is not as certain and clear-cut as it seems. Various versions of moral realism are now widely discussed among philosophers (e.g. Railton, 1986, 1996, 2003; Sayre-McCord, 1988; Dancy, 1993; Casebeer, 2003; Shafer-Landau, 2003; Baghramian, 2004; Smith, 1994, 2004). Despite their differences, moral realists generally agree on two principles. First, that our moral utterances, such as ‘Murder is morally wrong’ or ‘We ought to be honest’ are genuine statements and hence they are capable of being either true or false. Second, what makes them either true or false are aspects of the real world, open to objective examination. It can be argued that it is an implication of this thesis that moral judgements are subject to the same kinds of rational, empirical examination as the rest of the world: they are a subject for science – although a difficult one." He continues "If this could be shown to be so, morality would be contained within naturalism. However, I will not assume the truth of moral realism here. It is sufficient to say that it has at least as much credibility as any theory claiming a supernatural or divine foundation for morality: views which, while popular among the general public, do not have widespread support among moral philosophers – for what that is worth." Hussey thus directs discussion back towards Naturalism in nursing because his main point in all this was, in the end, to prove that naturalistic moralities are not necessarily less credible than supernatural ones, and may even be more credible.[83]
  21. ^ Joseph Daleiden's final word regarding his book, The Science of Morality, is that “[The study of ethics] should be included with the social sciences and be subject to as rigorous a scientific program of research as any other area of human behaviour. Lacking this scientific rigour, the moral conclusions drawn in this volume must be considered as working hypotheses, some with greater degree of evidentiary support than others. It is the process by which to assess and transmit moral norms that was the primary focus of this work, and I hope it will serve as a new way of deciding moral issues.”

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