the official site of Michael Shermer

top navigation:
Scientific American

The Science of Right and Wrong

published January 2011 | comments (21)
Can Data Determine Moral Values?
magazine cover

Ever since the rise of modern science, an almost impregnable wall separating it from religion, morality and human values has been raised to the heights. The “naturalistic fallacy,” sometimes rendered as the “is-ought problem”—the way something “is” does not mean that is the way it “ought” to be—has for centuries been piously parroted from its leading proponents, philosophers David Hume and G. E. Moore, as if pronouncing it closes the door to further scientific inquiry.

We should be skeptical of this divide. If morals and values should not be based on the way things are—reality—then on what should they be based? All moral values must ultimately be grounded in human nature, and in my book The Science of Good and Evil (Times Books, 2004), I build a scientific case for the evolutionary origins of the moral sentiments and for the ways in which science can inform moral decisions. As a species of social primates, we have evolved a deep sense of right and wrong to accentuate and reward reciprocity and cooperation and to attenuate and punish excessive selfishness and free riding. On the constitution of human nature are built the constitutions of human societies.

Grafted onto this evolutionary ethics is a new field called neuroethics, whose latest champion is the steely-eyed skeptic and cogent writer Sam Harris, a neuroscientist who in his book The Moral Landscape (Free Press, 2010) wields a sledgehammer to the is-ought wall. Harris’s is a first-principle argument, backed by copious empirical evidence woven through a tightly reasoned narrative. 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. For instance, Harris asks, Is it right or wrong to force women to dress in cloth bags and to douse their faces in acid for committing adultery? It doesn’t take rocket science— or religion, Harris astringently opines—to conclude that such “cultural values” decrease the well-being of the women so affected and thus are morally wrong.

These examples are the low-hanging fruit on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, so it is easy for both science and religion to pluck the ripe ones and declare with confidence that such acts as, say, lying, adultery and stealing are wrong because they destroy trust in human relationships that depend on truth telling, fidelity and respect for property. It is when moral issues become weighted with political, economic and ideological baggage that the moral landscape begins to undulate.

Harris’s program of a science-based morality is a courageous one that I wholeheartedly endorse, but how do we resolve conflicts over such hotly contested issues as taxes? Harris’s moral landscape allows the possibility of many peaks and valleys— more than one right or wrong answer to moral dilemmas—so perhaps liberals, conservatives, libertarians, Tea partiers, Green partiers and others can coexist on different peaks. Live and let live I say, but what happens when the majority of residents on multiple moral peaks pass laws that force those in the minority on other peaks to help pay for their programs of social wellbeing for everyone? More scientific data are unlikely to eliminate the conflict.

I asked Harris about this potential problem. “‘Live and let live’ is often a wise strategy for minimizing human conflict,” he agreed. “But it only applies when the stakes are not very high or when the likely consequences of our behavior are unclear. To say that ‘more scientific data are unlikely to eliminate the conflict’ is simply to say that nothing will: because the only alternative is to argue without recourse to facts. I agree that we find ourselves in this situation from time to time, often on economic questions, but this says nothing about whether right answers to such questions exist.”

Agreed. Just because we cannot yet think of how science might resolve this or that moral conflict does not mean that the problem is an insoluble one. Science is the art of the soluble, and we should apply it where we can.

topics in this column: , , , , , ,

21 Comments to “The Science of Right and Wrong”

  1. Richard Baldwin Says:

    I am so pleased that one of the last bastions of the theists is being attacked and razed so effectively by Shermer and Harris.

  2. Gina Says:

    You might want to optimize your articles for the new “toys” — I tried reading this on my iPad and the screen went all black, all I could see was the titles and the links.

    The rest of the newsletter was okay.


  3. Nelson Prado Rocchi Says:

    But, why is adultery more frequent than fidelity?

  4. Don Carpenter Says:

    Science as a major foundation for ethics will take place slowly over historical time. Decision making processes (e.g. legislation) leading to establishment and maintenance of ethical principles will continue to be based largely on BELIEFS, not EVIDENCE. Beliefs based on proclamations in sacred texts and other authoritative documents and traditions tend to be static and unmovable even in the face of relevant contrary information. Evidence, on the other hand, is by nature, fluid and subject to change when confronted with new information. The needed mindset eventually allowing evidence to trump belief is characterized by “everything is fair game to question and change” — an aspect of human psychology obviously not currently predominate in either major decision makers or the general population. To accelerate the process of evolving from beliefs to evidence for forming our ethical base, “drastic” occurrences are unfortunately usually needed i.e. something that shocks our sensibilities moving rational thought to the forefront of the human drama.

  5. frank Says:

    i don’t see that ‘well being’ is an applicable first principle when trying to derive a system of morality since it depends on the subjective assessment of one who measures ‘well being’ according to their own worldview. an atheists worldview will lead to different criteria to a theists. (and please don’t tell me that “science” has settled the question as to which of those two is correct)

  6. Robert B Palmer Says:

    Science can only address “what is”. But ethical beliefs “are”, and can thus be addressed by science. I, as a scientist, assume that ethical beliefs arrise by a process of ‘natural selection’. When faced with the belief that woman should “dress in cloth bags… ,” we should ask what evolutionary advantage is served by such a belief. That is not hard to find: Women forced to dress in cloth bags cannot live active lives outside of their families, and perforce restrict their interest to those families, and have lots of children. Women in our society can have many outside interests and make far fewer children. This is a scienticic understanding of an ethical belief in cloth bags for women. To say that this ethical belief is “wrong” because it does not “increase wellbeing” is not scientific. Who said increasing wellbeing was “right”? God, perhaps, but whose God?

    Bob Palmer, PhD, Senior scientist at Brookhaven National Lab, member NAS

  7. Dr. Strangelove Says:

    The article is mixing up ethics and politics. I’m not an expert in philosophy but in my simple mind, ethics is how an individual acts and relates to others while politics is how the group acts collectively to everybody. The difference may be subtle. Ethics is personal. Politics is public.

    What is good for an individual is not necessarily good for the group. Two systems of right and wrong. Paying high taxes may not be best for me but it may be good for the group. Ethics is what is good for me. Politics is what is good for the group.

    Another point of clarification is whether ethics is descriptive or prescriptive. We can use science to explain why we act in certain ways from an evolutionary, psychological, physiological points of view. This is the descriptive approach to morality. It only seeks understanding of the causes of actions without judgment if they are right or wrong.

    But we can also use the descriptive approach to go to prescriptive approach to morality – determining right and wrong actions. Using science for prescriptive morality is a bit tricky. We have to first establish the end goal and define the context of certain actions. This part is subjective and perhaps unscientific.

    The application of science is in the analysis of cause and effect relationship between actions and goals. Determining whether certain action truly lead to certain goal given certain context. If there is a true causal link, the action is right. If not, it is wrong. But the goals themselves are subjective.

  8. Edward P. Wilson Says:

    I think an ethical decision can be determined by whether (or not)it benefits humanity in the long run. As an example, abortion on demand is beneficial as long as it is determined by the pregnant woman herself, thus not bringing an unwanted child into society.

  9. Morgan MacLaren Says:

    Excellent blog.I am going to read both books.

    I have changed my mind since hearing Sam Harris talk about this a TED. I used to think morals were only a matter of what each person deemed good or bad in their own opinion relative to each other but he made such good points that I’ve had a rethink. I think science can teach us a lot about morals. Hopefully the more we understand about ourselves scientifically the more we can make more informed moral decisions.

  10. Allan Crowe Says:

    Not sure if this is the correct context to view science vs non-science however….

    When we speak of right or wrong the measuring stick is what exactlly? I would argue that it is ultimately the absense of extinction.

    We must be resigned to the “fact” that the presence of different morals, ethics and religion as well as a scienctific approach to right or wrong are all the workings of natural selection. That science is either a divergent variant path to evolve or… the path to extinction.

    Which of these paths is right or wrong cannot be determined through comparative analysis of the relative virtues.

    Only by looking backwards from our eventual evolutionary fate can we determine whether our “path(s)” were correct or not.

    We cannot predict the future … or can we? Since 99.??% of species are now extinct it is relatively safe to conclude that we will eventually become extinct.

    So regardless whether science or “god” is the approach to ethics … we know our fate. It would seem then that that leaves us where we started with this lets do the comparative analysis.

  11. Kent McManigal Says:

    Anytime I address the issue of right and wrong, some “pro-lifers” get all hung up on abortion to the exclusion of anything else. I don’t personally “like” abortion, but also think that government regulation of it, especially in the early stages of pregnancy, does much more harm than good. However, the bullheaded “pro-lifers” risk making me change my opinion.

  12. Charlie Says:

    Some questions:
    What about free will vs. determinism? If our actions are predetermined entirely by natural forces, then any discussion of moral choice is beside the point. Existentialist arguments aside, is there any scientific evidence of choice (or is that even possible?)?
    Also, shouldn’t a distinction be made between ethics and morality? Morality, as has been suggested by other comments, seems to have evolved in many social environments due to forces very similar to natural selection. Ethics is the application of reason to determine how individuals or societies should conduct themselves in order to best conform to the aforementioned morality. Now, I see no problem in the application of scientific methodology and knowledge to the latter, but the former seems muddier. Also, what about the different approaches to morality: aretaic, teleological, deontic, merismic, or situational? In my personal view, aretaic (character-based) morality has the strongest grounding in science. The implication that morality springs foremost from the character of the individual (as determined by both hereditary and environmental factors) seems to me supportable by biologic and neurological evidence. That being said, this discussion eventually centers on the nature of values. As mentioned previously though, whose values? Society’s? The individual’s? What about conflicting values? Uh oh, we’re getting into politics now. I think science definitely has a lot to say about morality, but I believe it will find that morality lives in the characters of individuals and that situation is the other primary determining factor. We already know that pleasure (well-being) is intrinsically good, but come on. There’s much more to morality than this.

  13. Wil Says:

    Harris has been accused of this already on his book tour for The Moral Landscape, but his answer that I heard was unsatisfactory. His assertion is that morality equates to the well-being of creatures which are able to suffer, so that insofar that X has a positive impact on a creature’s well-being, X is good, and insofar that it has a negative impact, then it is bad. This is an ethical assertion which seems to be begging the question. Of course science has something to say about what kind of impact the action X has on said creature(s), but how can science tell us that all moral values equate to this?

  14. Maurice Says:

    I find it interesting that by equation or method anyone would be able to translate ethical or moral values. I will find it very interesting reading further into this, but I do want to pose a question that maybe someone can answer. Science can tell me what I’m made of or how environment, such as pollution, can affect me physically, but how, from science, can you tell me who I am or what I should believe is ethical or moral? Wouldn’t then science become a different type of “religion” that we would need to follow, because science would ultimately find new absolutes to live by? I find it a little hypocritical that we would exchange one view for another and that through this process we would consider it a live and let live way of life. Please explain.

  15. skeptic griggsy Says:

    Google the presumption of humanism for my similar take,please!

  16. Don Says:

    Maurice, ethical science would not be a religion any more than gravitational science is a religion. In any future ethical science, absolutes will not exist. Instead, ideas will be informed by observational facts and subject to review and modification with the accumulation of finer detail. In this, an ethics based on science would be the near opposite of religion.

  17. diggly Says:

    it does seem to imply a scientific priesthood, carrying their mind reading devices to check on a persons happiness, truthfulness etc…

    although it would be better to have it permanently attached with the appropriate drugs ready to change a persons HQ to the contemporary scientifically derived figure.
    but even this would need an appropriate tech priesthood to maintain the machines of state.

    i wonder if then, approved moral states would become a feature of political promises.
    “if i get elected, you will be able to lie to your spouse !! and you will be happy at work to a gradient of 127 !!”

  18. Dr. Jack L. Edwards Says:

    Fascinating topic with good contributions.

    For me personally, this issue was settled in the 1970′s (and even earlier) by Skinner, who brought values and morals within the purview of a behavioral science. Several quotes illustrate:

    “Things themselves are studied by physics and biology, usually without reference to their value, but the reinforcing effects of things are the province of behavioral science, which, to the extent that it is concerned with [how the consequences of behavior streghten a behavior and make it more probable], is a science of values.

    “Things are good (positively reinforcing) or bad (negatively reinforcing) presumably because of the contingencies of survival under which the species evolved.…

    “As a result it is part of the genetic endowment called “human nature” to be reinforced in particular ways by particular things….

    “To make a value judgment by calling something good or bad is to classify it in terms of its reinforcing effects…….things were reinforcing long before they were called good or bad-and they are still reinforcing to animals who do not call them good or bad and to babies and other people who are not able to do so.”

    Finally, in defending behaviorism against the claim that it is reducctionistic, Skinner says,

    “[Behaviorism] does not reduce morality to certain features of the social environment; it simply insists that those features have always been responsible for moral behavior.”

    Skinner discusses why physiology and neurology will always be incomplete in their ability to explain, predict and control behavior, but I won’t take up any more space here with the relevant quotes.

    Finally, to stimulate a little controversy, Edward Green in a 2002 article that deals with quantum physics, behaviorism, Skinner, Jung, among other things, has a quote at the end of his article with which I believe Skinner would agree:

    “It may be fairly said that, in the past, those psychologists who elected to concentrate on the “mental” side of the equation have done their work with both feet planted squarely in midair.”

    [all bracketed text is mine-jle]

  19. Emmanuel Says:

    Greetings from Puerto Rico. I have a friend who is impress by the way I think and behave regarding moral values, especially since he believes in God and I don’t. A person can have strong moral values and have a scientific way of thinking at the same time. Science is an open and flexible landscape that can allow moral values to develop and change if necessary. The advantage of using science as a guide for moral values is that it must rely on evidence and experimentation rather than tradition and prejudice.

  20. J Says:

    “The first principle is the well-being of conscious creatures”

    And where did that value come from? Who defines what “well-being” is and how? How well is well? What is “good” and what is “bad”? If someone managed to, hypothetically, prove that immediately killing all people with mental or incurable (e.g. HIV) diseases would improve the “well-being” of the survivors (which is almost everyone), then would that make it right, since it ultimately maximised well-being? I suspect that everyone would say “no, it does not make it right”.

    While science can help inform moral reasoning by helping us understand how our brains work, it does not define the goal posts by which the results will be judged, ultimately. Our historical/social heritage does.

    And before any ad hominem starts, I’m an atheist and a scientist. But I know enough basic philosophy to have heard about epistemic limits of different disciplines.

  21. Nick Kaplan Says:

    “It doesn’t take rocket science— or religion, Harris astringently opines—to conclude that such “cultural values” decrease the well-being of the women so affected and thus are morally wrong.”

    To which I must add ‘and it doesn’t take nueroscience either,’ a point which, once properly grasped is devastating to this whole ridiculous enterprise. One cannot bridge the is-ought gap by looking at what causes pleasure and pain for this assumes that morality is simply about the maximisation of pleasure over pain. Hume’s point that ‘ought’ statements are of a different logical form to ‘is’ statements, is not one that can be combatted by doing science. Neither does it imply that there is no such thing as moral truth. It just means that moral truth is not going to be found solely by empirical (as opposed to other forms) of reasoning.