Tag Archives: philosophy

Your morality lacks a scientific basis

Mother Theresa bad. Bill Gates good. Norman Borlaug best of all.

That’s the intriguing start to a recent feature in the New York Times that looks at human morality:

Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution” that used agricultural science to reduce world hunger, has been credited with saving a billion lives, more than anyone else in history. Gates, in deciding what to do with his fortune, crunched the numbers and determined that he could alleviate the most misery by fighting everyday scourges in the developing world like malaria, diarrhea and parasites. Mother Teresa, for her part, extolled the virtue of suffering and ran her well-financed missions accordingly: their sick patrons were offered plenty of prayer but harsh conditions, few analgesics and dangerously primitive medical care.

Interesting … but that’s just the start. If we, as humans are saddled with a morality, says the piece, then maybe we should do some thinking about why we feel the way we do — about good, about evil — and try to figure out what makes something moral or immoral.

And maybe then we’ll find that some of our “morality” has no reasonable basis. In fact, it could just be a trick of the brain, something that causes us to “shudder” when faced with something immoral:

There are, of course, good reasons to regulate human cloning, but the shudder test is not one of them. People have shuddered at all kinds of morally irrelevant violations of purity in their culture: touching an untouchable, drinking from the same water fountain as a Negro, allowing Jewish blood to mix with Aryan blood, tolerating sodomy between consenting men. And if our ancestors’ repugnance had carried the day, we never would have had autopsies, vaccinations, blood transfusions, artificial insemination, organ transplants and in vitro fertilization, all of which were denounced as immoral when they were new.

Think “trick of the brain” is too shallow? Perhaps we should credit God for human morality?

Plato made short work of it 2,400 years ago. Does God have a good reason for designating certain acts as moral and others as immoral? If not — if his dictates are divine whims — why should we take them seriously? Suppose that God commanded us to torture a child. Would that make it all right, or would some other standard give us reasons to resist? And if, on the other hand, God was forced by moral reasons to issue some dictates and not others — if a command to torture a child was never an option — then why not appeal to those reasons directly?

This article is plum full of moral dilemmas — and I, for one, enjoyed thinking them through. It was instructive to see what aspects of my own morality were strongest (fairness) or weakest (harm).

Best of all, though, was the thought that the scientific method could be applied to something as slippery as morality. It’s a quantum leap from what I’d considered — and I like to think that I’m pretty generous with what I think the scientific method can accomplish.

Well worth the (lengthy) read.