• Science Has Nothing To Say About Morality


    In a short excerpt from an interview, published yesterday, Michael Shermer claims that science can somehow weigh in on issues of morality. I disagree – science has nothing at all to say about morality.

    I’ll begin by providing a scenario that invokes a relatively easy moral question:

    You are late for a very important interview for a very well-paid job. If you miss it, you’ll certainly not get the job. You are driving to the interview and come to a fork in the road. As you are about to take the right turning, you witness a pedestrian being hit by a car in the other direction. The car flees the scene, and there are no other people or cars around. The hit pedestrian looks to have life-threatening injuries.

    The problem is this: if you help the injured person you won’t get the job. If you leave them then they are more likely to die. Should you sacrifice your job prospects to save the injured pedestrian?

    I take it that practically everyone will say that the moral thing to do is to sacrifice the job. To ignore the injured person would be immoral. Of course, we may not all actually help them, but I’m fairly sure that even those who don’t would concede that they aren’t performing the most moral action.


    Now I’ll take two key quotes from the interview that I think best illustrate Shermer’s position. The first:

    Religion and philosophy have had their say for thousands of years what’s moral and not moral. I’m just saying let’s add to our quiver the arrow of science to bring to it studies and data and experiments and research to see what works and what doesn’t.


    I’m puzzled by “see what works and what doesn’t”.  In the case of the injured pedestrian, what is it that “works”? Ignoring the pedestrian “works” best to get me the job. Helping the pedestrian “works” to give them the best chance of survival. What we mean by “works” adds nothing at all to the moral question – it may only be of importance once we’ve already decided what the answer to the moral question is.

    What can science say about what the most moral choice is, in our example? Nothing at all, as scientific questions concern how the natural world is, or was, or even will be, and not how the world ought to be or how we ought to act. This is the famous is/ought distinction.

    So how do we decide what is the most moral action to take? Religion? Well that actually is one possibility. If a tenet of a particular religion is that we should help people in need, over our own selfish interests, then that might be a good moral reason for adherents to help the injured pedestrian. Of course, there are well-documented difficulties with this, but then again there are with lots of theories in moral philosophy. Is the reason that adherents of this religion act morally that they are trying to appease their god? If so, are they really acting morally, or are they doing what “works” with regards to their own standing with that deity, heavenly rewards, etc.?

    What about secular philosophy? Well let’s just take one view, utilitarianism. On this view we look at the consequences of our actions – notably the happiness or suffering they will cause. The injured pedestrian is suffering, and so the suffering prevented by helping them will outweigh the happiness we are denied by losing out on the lucrative job (yes there are difficulties with this analysis, but I’m just trying to give the basic idea). Shermer at this point might say that the scientific method can be employed to test exactly how much happiness is gained by well-paid jobs, or how much suffering is prevented by assisting victims of a hit and run incident. But the moral work is done by defending a particular view of ethics, such as a certain flavour of utilitarianism, and the only way to do so is with philosophical arguments. The scientist who argues for utilitarianism (say) is doing philosophy, not science.


    Here is the other quote from Shermer:

    …religious morality has no means of testing whether its claims are true or not. Take something like female genital mutilation. Can we do better than to say it’s wrong in America but it’s OK in African countries? I think yes, we can base our moral values in scientific reasons, starting with the individual. [Female genital mutilation] is wrong because it robs the individual of dignity, autonomy and the core of her nature.


    Shermer talks of dignity, autonomy and the ‘core’ of a woman’s nature. But those aren’t “scientific reasons” at all. What’s the scientific test for ‘dignity’? What does science say is the ‘core of a woman’s nature’? The best attempt of the latter question might be some biological description. But what does that offer us? Appealing to nature to decide moral questions (sometimes mistakenly called the ‘naturalistic fallacy’) is well-known to be a rather indefensible position.

    Like our adopting utilitarianism to answer the moral question in the injured pedestrian example, Shermer’s claims, first that FGM undermines dignity, autonomy, etc. and second that whatever does that is immoral, are philosophical claims. Try to defend a definition of ‘dignity’ without providing any philosophical arguments at all. Try to devise a scientific test that shows that whatever robs an individual of their dignity is immoral. I submit that it is a priori impossible to do so.


    Also see this post by Brian Earp, talking about Sam Harris’ position (which is very similar to Shermer’s).


    Category: Ethics

    Article by: Notung

    I started as a music student, studying at university and music college, and playing trombone for various orchestras. While at music college, I became interested in philosophy, and eventually went on to complete an MA in Philosophy in 2012. An atheist for as long as I could think for myself, a skeptic, and a political lefty, my main philosophical interests include epistemology, ethics, logic and the philosophy of religion. The purpose of Notung (named after the name of the sword in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen) is to concentrate on these issues, examining them as critically as possible.