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Science & morality


Life is better than death
Health is better than sickness
Abundance is better than want
Freedom is better than coercion
Happiness is better than suffering
Knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance
Life is better than death

Steven Pinker ‘Enlightenment Now’ p. 248

‘Values reduce to facts about human well-being’

Sam Harris ‘The Moral Landscape’

What role can science play in actually guiding the future of humanity: is science completely separate from the world of policy and value?


Can science tell us right from wrong? Does ethics really have no units of measurement and no way of testing good or bad?

There is a long-held western philosophical belief that our world can be divided into two broad domains of experience and discourse – the scientific and the moral . . . the world of facts and the world of values. Science deals with the empirical universe, the way the world is – and it is descriptive. Then there is the domain that includes religion and morality, which are about moral meaning and value – they are normative.

This distinction between the way the world is and the way it ought to be has long served as an uneasy territorial boundary in academia and elsewhere.

Evolutionary biologist and popular author Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) in his book Rocks of Ages (1999) described these two domains in grandiose terms as ‘non-overlapping magisteria‘. Scientists appreciated the distinction because it supported the idea of science as plain truth untainted by human subjectivity, thereby insulating it from criticism. With science confined, religion and ethics could then manage its own intellectual territory. This view of two distinct worlds – one of fact, and one of value – has, in recent times, come under increasing strain.

Ethics & science

‘Science doesn’t tell us what we ought to do, reason does”’
Edward Wilson

Enlightenment philosopher David Hume cleverly and succinctly summarized the philosophical implications of the fact-value distinction in the neat expression ‘we cannot derive an ought from an is’ thereby establishing the fundamental and uncrossable boundary between ethics and science. There was, Hume claimed, no valid deductive argument that can draw an ethical conclusion from non-ethical premises. Such skeptical arguments are important for philosophers because, try as we might, they cannot be logically demolished and therefore give us grounds for doubt.

The fact-value distinction can be expressed in many nuanced ways like: science deals in facts which are of no ethical significance; science describes the world, ethics tells us the way it should be; science is descriptive, ethics is prescriptive; science is positive, ethics is normative. Facts have no moral significance, it is what we do with those facts that is right or wrong, ethical or unethical.

Subjective & objective

The essence of the distinction can be expressed in another way. On the one hand we have mental states called beliefs relating to the external world and these, when thoroughly tested, count as scientific knowledge or objective facts. And on the other hand we have mental states like desires, intentions and concerns that are directed towards changing the world to our liking: these are the values that orientate us to the external world and provide motivation for action.

Expressed like this we might say that science is about the external world and what lies outside our minds while values are about our inner world, that is, what is in our minds. Or again, values are human constructs, the world itself does not have values, only humans do . . . facts reflect the world: values are about changing it. This line of thinking quickly becomes an ‘inside/outside’ discussion reminiscent of the nature vs nurture debate.

Is and ought; fact and value

As a matter of fact humans do not and cannot exist passively in the world like rocks. As part of our human nature we value some things more than others and behave in purposive goal-directed ways. As circumstances change, so do our values and goals, so we are constantly re-prioritising our behaviour. Since our individual values and goals are often different from those of other people then if we are to avoid conflict we must negotiate some commonly agreed behaviours. This provides one way of defining morality – ‘an agreed set of rules governing human behaviour’. Deciding on these common rules can be a difficult process that can quickly devolve into nit-picking and divergences of opinion – so difficult that it seems we cannot reasonably compare one point of view with another and suggesting that, in principle, morality is subjective – just a matter of opinion. In spite of this we can generally agree on major points, say, that harming other people is of greater moral significance than table manners and so on.

Whether we achieve our individual and collective goals (like obtaining food and water, communicating with friends, and doing our daily work within the community) depends on circumstances in the objective world, on the way the world is. To achieve our goals we must change the world from the way it is to the way we would like it to be or, to use more moral language, the way it ought to be. The point about us deriving ought statements from is statements is less about logic and more about necessity: we have no choice – we do it because we are human and we do it constantly … ”I want a Beer so I (ought) go to the fridge‘, ‘I love my wife so I (ought) to remember her birthday‘. Indeed, rather than being regarded as subjective and non-factual, our wishes and desires may be regarded as factual mental states – the way the world is.

Deriving ‘ought’ from life goals

The scientific field of medicine is founded on the general principle and goal of health. ‘Health’ may be difficult to define in precise terms and, sadly, there will always be a few people who would rather be dead than alive. But in spite of this the overwhelming majority of us take our health for granted and uncontroversial. Our health is a ‘given’ in life, it is not something that we feel should be doubted, questioned and subjected to philosophical debate. In maintaining our health we place great reliance on modern scientific medicine because it informs us about what to eat, how to exercise, how to manage disease and the full range of mental and physical ailments. When we do get ill then medicinal science does its best to make us better. The power of modern medical science is now accepted across the world, it is not regarded as a strange cultural belief that may be accepted by one culture and rejected by others. Our health is not a matter of science alone, but the science has gone a long way to improving all our lives. When I have a severe toothache I do not ask if it is deductively justified to see a dentist, in fact I fell no doubt or uncertainty at all, I simply make an appointment to see the dentist as soon as possible. Medicine does not waste its time trying to persuade us that being healthy needs to be logically justified, it is self-evident.[9]

, not deductive reasoning. What does this mean? It means that though philosopher David Hume gives us reason for some doubt, his doubt is of an extreme kind that may be of interest to philosophers but it has little bearing on our lives. If I have a severe toothache then I am perfectly entitled to conclude, non-deductively, that it would be sensible to see a dentist. We cannot proceed through life on the assumption that everyone must be absolutely convinced about such things. Author Sam Harris in his The Moral Landscape argues that science should, in principle, be able to tell us how we ought to live our lives based on general common-sense universally accepted principles like that of ‘health’.

Human flourishing & well-being

Elsewhere it has been argued that it is reasonable to regard the purpose of life as survival, reproduction and flourishing. If we take flourishing (well-being, or human happiness) as the overall goal of life, just as health is for medicine, then why cannot science inform the way we live in the same way that it does for medicine? In this way science can indeed tell us how to be better people. The sentences ‘I have a severe toothache, therefore I should see a dentist’, ‘There is someone drowning, therefore I should help if I can’, ‘It is possible to increase human well-being, therefore I should assist this process’ are all of a kind. As humans we have no choice in life but to act and with commonly accepted goals like happiness, utility, the common good, well-being and human flourishing as goals for that action we have a universal and objective moral code.

Having goals entails not only having values and making ethical judgments but also the rational consideration of the best way to achieve these goals in the objective world. However, our moral task is the difficult one of moral prioritisation and that is most definitely not straightforward – but we can surely agree on a general goal for humanity of human flourishing (well-being). This at least allows us to make broad decisions within the discussion of science and progress.

For many people the idea of human flourishing, though well-meaning, is just too general in its moral scope. This matter is addressed in the article on happiness and we can hope that subjects like the sciences of moral psychology, behavioural genetics, evolutionary psychology, and practical ethics can be more than simply descriptive disciplines but can provide real assistance in guiding our behaviour towards these universal moral goals. There is also the problem that as soon as we get beyond values that are so general as to be, some might claim, almost meaningless – then we quickly enter the murky world of a decision procedure for deciding between lower-order values.

Deriving ethics from science

How can a scientific state of affairs – the way the world is – possibly tell us the way it ought to be? Even supposing Hume is correct – that we cannot derive morality from scientific facts – that does not mean that scientific facts are irrelevant when deciding on morality – the ‘ought’ issues. ‘Ought’ is a matter of value or ethics, not science. We cannot pass logically from ‘Murder causes suffering’ to ‘Murder is wrong’ without the insertion of the moral statement ‘Suffering is wrong’. Empirical evidence cannot decide such a question.

Normative biology

Regardless of the philosophical strength of this view we can see clearly that life differs from inanimate matter in its mode of being. There is something special about both the capacity and will to live. Mindless and mechanical natural selection has ensured that survival and reproduction[12] are key characteristics of all organisms whether sentient or not: it is what living organisms do and it is what makes them different from rocks. It is therefore legitimate to speak of purposes even when there are no intentions. If a human being places no value on their life then we believe that something is seriously wrong. It is clear that a living organism is different from a rock, a major difference being its ‘directiveness’, its non-intentional purpose. The difference between this kind of purpose and that of intentional purpose is a matter of degree (where does intentional behaviour cease along the continuum between sentience and non-sentience?) and I agree with Aristotle‘s idea of purpose … if a line is to be drawn somewhere then it should be between life and non-life not between the intentional and non-intentional. Accepting this does not mean that the distinction between intentional and non-intentional is irrelevant or that metaphorical attribution of conscious intention to non-conscious organisms is scientifically OK. What it does mean is that purpose-talk is OK even if intention-talk is not.

Looking at purpose has made us realize that there is indeed an ultimate aim, an ultimate value for all living things, the teleonomic purpose of survival and reproduction. To do that well, organisms must flourish. evolution does not take account of the happiness and suffering that might be entailed in survival and reproduction – it simply ‘counts the numbers of organisms that are still standing at the end”’. Survival and reproduction are purposes while human intention tends not to look so far – our more direct conscious rational intention sees flourishing and happiness as ultimate goals as what it means to flourish. This takes us into the world of ethics.

For Aristotelian evolutionary biologist Leroi the ultimate question for biology – ‘why do organisms want to survive and reproduce?’ has the answer ‘because natural selection made them so.’ He maintains that ‘Aristotle’s organismal teleology is imposed on recalcitrant matter’ what we have called a form of intrinsic teleology while Darwin shows that ‘it emerges from it’. ‘Darwin is an ontological reductionist; Aristotle is not’.[10] Leroi appears to be claiming that Darwin perceived biology as complex chemistry and physics, that he was a ‘reductionist’. By contrast Aristotle saw life as a special kind of ordering of matter that was in some sense purposive (telos): he was a ‘holist’. Aristotle made a further claim that organisms strive to survive and reproduce and ‘participate in the eternal and the divine’. Perhaps here he was expressing the sentiment of wonder combined with an appreciation of the continuity of life akin to the ‘immortality’ of genes so central to Dawkins view. He was not a transcendentalist so this was unlikely to have been a statement of religious belief.

The articleEthics and sustainability discusses how the biological purpose of survival, reproduction and flourishing as interpreted by ethicists through the notion of happiness must engage with the material world in such a way that people can make a practical contribution to the project of human flourishing through the kinds of ideas promoted by sustainability.

In the article on purpose it is argued that it is legitimate to see purpose in nature – to claim that the genetic code and the directive behaviour of communal insects are for something, they have a function, even though the function is not a conscious intention but something that has resulted from the mechanical and mindless process of natural selection. Once we accept this contention then we can also say whether functions are good or bad, whether health is good or bad and whether a heart beating strongly or feebly is good or bad, desireable or not. If the function of life is to survive and reproduce then a healthy pumping heart is all to the good: it is not a matter of indifference. Survival and reproduction (evolutionary fitness) can thus be argued as the ultimate justification for moral behaviour.[4] However, morality always wishes to take an (objective) overview: how do we square the following statements ‘Always pursue happiness’, ‘Always persue self-interest’, ‘Always pursue evolutionary fitness’, ‘Always pursue the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, ‘Always pursue your moral intuitions’. But if something is part of our nature, biology or evolutionary make-up does that mean that we ‘ought’ to do it?

It may also be claimed that evolution, our biology and moral intuitions have nothing at all to do with morality – morality is about objective and detached decision-making inimpeded by such factors: our natural inclinations are precisely what morality tries to overcome.

Sentience, moral & scientific reasoning

Our reason is a mental process making us aware of the grounds of our beliefs and actions, of the way in which perception and emotion can influence our actions, and the capacity to assess justifications for action. We can therefore exert some control over our beliefs and actions in a way that other sentient animals cannot. We can consciously construct systems of belief that use standards of evidence and argumentation, and we can self-consciously devise standards of moral behaviour based on rational principles.

We do not conclude that because science is subject to errors, biases, and psychological influence that the scientific enterprise is flawed and that evidence and argument hopelessly subjective. Similarly errors, biases and psychological factors do not negate the moral enterprise of rational argument and evidence. There is no doubt we can take control of morality with theoretical reason in the same way that we take control of science using practical reason, assuming there is a difference between the two. On both counts we can of course fall short, and on both counts we simply try to lift our game.


If we live in a space of possible experience, possible actions, and possible consequences – and if we regard science as secular empiricism, defined as ‘the best use of reason, logic and evidence‘ – then here we have a world of objective scientific facts (no matter how complex) around which to organise our behaviour to maximise human flourishing through a convergence of value as a contribution to a stable global civilization. The landscape of value within this world is one that is strongly influences by science and objective ethics.[3] Is this in any way realistic? Is it an acceptable fusion of fact and value? Is this, to all intents and purposes, utilitarianism?

If the argument presented here is accepted then it may be asked why the division between fact and value arose in the first place and, indeed, why it should remain? Though we cannot be sure, there are several possibilities. Firstly, the two domains arose in part as a resolution of a demarcation dispute between science and ethics that arose in the nineteenth century. Religion was prepared to give up some ground to science, especially the evolutionists, but a line had to be drawn in the sand and this seemed like an appropriate place. In any case scientists of the day probably had no desire to suggest how we should behave. Perhaps a similar demarcation exists between science and the humanities as science is perceived as expanding from its rightful domain into someone elses’ territory. We can all feel threatened – whether we are theologians, arts professors or even scientists.[1][2]

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