Scientific Morality?

Can Science provide a better basis for morality than other forms of human knowledge such as religion, psychology or philosophy? A look at the history of moral philosophy shows that by and large every significant contribution to ethics has come primarily from philosophers or theologians. It is not until the late twentieth/early twenty first century that some scientists have proposed that science can be a better basis for ethics, in other words that the answer to the question “how can we know whether something is right or wrong?” is best arrived at using the scientific method. In his 2010 book “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values”, author Sam Harris claims, effectively, that when it comes to knowing right and wrong, science knows best. To what extent has Harris been successful? Not very or not at all if most serious reviews are to be believed.

Of course the idea that science or empiricism should be the basis of moral principles is not entirely new although it certainly gained impetus after the publication of the “On the Origins of Species” in 1859. Darwin’s seminal work quickly led many to posit the idea that evolution should be the guiding force in all aspects of human life including morals. This focused primarily on the concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ and the role of genes as the basis for behaviour this in turn gave rise to the ‘science’ of eugenics (i.e. improving the human gene pool through manipulation and selection). Eugenics is now regarded with horror by many although its supporters might point out that it only tries to achieve in human societies what occurs naturally in plants and animals. The next champion of a biological basis for morality was E.A. Wilson who in the 1970s advocated that ethics should be removed from the hands of philosophers and ‘biologized.’ He argued that a biological explanation of our moral ideas demonstrates that they are and should be rooted in the concept of natural selection. In the end, it is not surprising that efforts to base morality on a mechanism which describes the necessary death and destruction of anything which does not favour survival did not prove appealing or persuasive. Those previous efforts having failed to displace the humanities as the areas of knowledge where ethics are best understood, Harris, undaunted, has added his efforts to this noble goal.

On the origin of species by means of natural selection Wellcome L0051514

On the Origin of Species – See page for author [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Harris’ main arguments are prefaced with a rejection of moral relativism (there is no fixed morality) and religious fundamentalism (morality is found in God’s commands). After this he goes on to argue that well-being, since it is intelligible and (thanks to neuroscience) measurable, should be the sole goal of all human actions. He then puts forward the idea that maximising that which benefits conscious creatures and minimising what is detrimental to them should be all the determines what is right or wrong.  For students of philosophy this should sound clearly familiar as Harris has simply repackaged (and then not very much) Utilitarianism where, in Jeremy Bentham’s version, one should act in order to produce more pleasure than pain within the total of calculable consequences of one’s actions.  Harris’ contention that well being should be the goal of moral actions is worthy but fuzzy and highly subjective. Also, just because something may appear to be beneficial how does it follow it should be maximised? Harris provides no compelling logical, moral or scientific reason why it should be.

Despite what he asserts Harris has not provided anything genuinely new to the discussion of how we should act and why, his claim that science provides the best possible basis for morality is shallow, uninformed and muddled and as such easily dismissed by any serious moral philosopher. Sure, let science inform moral debates, but let moral decisions come as a result of a genuine dialogue which involves concerns other than which colours happen to be produced by an MRI scan.


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