Magazine | May 20, 2019, Issue

Can Science Explain Morality?

The constellation Virgo (Hubble Space Telescope via NASA)
Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality, by James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky (Yale University Press/Templeton Press, 312 pp., $26)

‘Against the pervasive self-interest of our market culture, the inescapable cynicism of our political culture, and the extensive vacuity of our entertainment culture,” sociologist James Davison Hunter and philosopher Paul Nedelisky write, “we want to believe that there is some foundation upon which we as a nation or world can make strong moral claims; claims that will inspire us, guide us, and unify us.” But on what basis can we do so?

Is there a moral structure to reality itself, rendering some motivations and actions good and others evil, or is life just one damn thing after another and morality simply our attempt (as individuals or as societies) to come up with a set of workable rules to live by? Is it possible, with Aristotle and with Christian and other religious traditions, to discern fundamentally unchangeable requirements for human flourishing, or is each individual free — indeed, obligated, in order to be “authentic” — to invent these for him- or herself, untrammeled by family, tradition, or (lately) even gender at birth?

In the latter case, as Robert Bellah and his co-authors argued in Habits of the Heart (1985), the actions and attitudes chosen are arbitrary, and “each self constitutes its own moral universe, and there is finally no way to reconcile conflicting claims about what is good in itself.” Hunter and Nedelisky recount the earlier philosophical and more-recent scientific efforts to define or discover a basis for morality, for life direction, and for social norms that is rooted neither in individual willfulness nor in unverifiable religious claims.

For this reader, untutored in the formal study of ethics, this brief and very readable book has been a useful introduction both to the theoretical discussion of these issues since the Renaissance and to the widely publicized current efforts to find the basis for morality in neuroscience, primatology, and social psychology, among other academic disciplines.

The historical discussion, 50-odd pages, provides an accessible overview of four centuries of efforts to define a basis for ethics and for the requirements of a flourishing human life without invoking divine authority. These are presented briefly in a manner that historians of philosophy might wish to complicate but that I found helpful. Descartes, we are told, “argued that the material world was inert, inanimate, lacking mental or experiential qualities, and devoid of inherent purpose,” while in 1913, psychologist John Watson “argued that if psychology would be a legitimate science in the tradition of Newton’s physics, it must jettison all talk and concern for the alleged constituents of inner mental life — thoughts, feelings, will, consciousness — and focus strictly on external behavior.” Through the four intervening centuries a variety of thinkers such as Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Darwin, and James, whose names are familiar but whose discussion of ethics may be less so, wrestled with whether a basis for morality could be found within the limitations of the natural world. Was ethical language simply “a way of expressing sentiment about various states of affairs, not an assertion of propositions” with authoritative content for human life?

This discussion came close to home for me when it turned to the question of human rights, the focus of my work for 50 years:

Do people believe in human rights because such rights actually exist, or do they feel revulsion and sympathy when they read accounts of torture and then invent a story about universal human rights to justify their feelings? The Humean view is the latter: that what moral philosophers are really doing is “consulting the emotive centers” of their brains and then fabricating justifications for their feelings. 

I remember arguing with ethicist Max Stackhouse, after he gave a talk about internationally recognized human rights. My state-government job then was to enforce civil rights, those defined by law, but I questioned how other rights could be said to exist when they lacked the authority of law. How could they be considered universal, since there was no universal legal authority? Wasn’t that just so much hot air and wishful thinking?

I was wrong, trapped in a vulgarized form of the fallacy of logical positivism, the idea that “the truth or falsity of [moral] claims could never be empirically established and so must be ignored.” But then I remembered that the determination of so many of us to seek racial justice, or to commit to other noble causes, was based not on legal compulsion but on deep and unshakeable convictions that required no naturalistic proof. Nor had such proof been required for the most foundational principle of our nation, that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These rights were prior to their expression in laws and institutions, since it was “to secure these rights [that] Governments are instituted among Men.”

Nor did Abraham Lincoln believe it necessary to defend the “proposition that all men are created equal.” “Created” implies that reality itself is not simply mute matter and energy but is infused with purpose, though our understanding of that purpose is necessarily imperfect.

Hunter and Nedelisky then devote more than a hundred pages to discussing with equal clarity the recent efforts to provide a scientific basis for morality. Experiments in social psychology and studies in neuroscience and of primate behavior have sought, in their varied ways, to explain the mechanisms or the motivations of certain behaviors. “Moral foundations theory [as elaborated by Jonathan Haidt] describes basic and important moral emotions; research in evolutionary biology has uncovered promising mechanisms that illumine how other-regarding behavior could have evolved. It’s hard to deny these findings’ value for answering descriptive questions about the nature and origin of the building blocks of morality.”

Useful as these studies can be, however, they leave us with a diminished sense of the moral weight of human personhood. Right and wrong, good and evil, and so forth are human constructs that derive from human evolutionary history, the cognitive architecture of human language, neurochemistry and neuroanatomy, and contingent human interests. Thus the fundamental source of morality is not outside human experience and biology. There are no real rights, duties, or valuable things out in the world. The nature and quality of moral attitudes — thinking, feeling, or believing that something is either moral or immoral — can be explained psychologically and culturally.

That is, good and evil have no anchor in the basic structure and significance of our existence (indeed, existence itself has no significance) but are entirely contingent. This leaves us in a vacuum of purpose, one that we can easily see reflected in the hedonistic confusion of contemporary culture. “Are there really things we should and shouldn’t do beyond what would best serve our interests and preferences?” we might well ask. “Are some things valuable in an objective sense, beyond what we happen to want or care about?”

This outlook also leaves us without a basis for negotiating a common ground among strongly held convictions, the purpose of so much philosophical deliberation in centuries past. Unfortunately, “the new moral science” gives us no concepts that would equip us for this task. It reduces “the social world in all its complexity” to “simply the sum of individuals motivated by their particular interests in order to sustain or increase their personal well-being.” Institutions are seen as “vague entities whose legitimacy is measured by the degree to which they increase or decrease personal satisfaction.”

Thus, “for all that science has taught us and for all the good that it has brought about, it has clearly not provided anything like a solution to the problem of morality — no way of resolving moral disagreement with empirical methods.”

“So what is the alternative?” Hunter and Nedelisky ask at the bottom of page 212 in a book that concludes at the middle of page 215. Their answer is one that I find persuasive but that I wish they had allowed themselves more scope to develop. They urge that we accept that,

historically, there has never been a generic morality capable of distilling all of the varieties of moral understanding and experience. Historically speaking, moralities only exist in their particularity and in the particular communities that sustain them. If this is the case, then the only way we are to sustain the goods that we have achieved in the modern age, and to expand their reach, is to find a common moral understanding through our particularities — through our differences — and not in spite of them. 

What would that entail? Hunter and Nedelisky don’t tell us, beyond suggesting that “simply making our differences intelligible to one another would be a start.”

What they seem to be calling for is acceptance of societal pluralism, of providing sheltered space for differences that “go all the way down,” including those based on religious convictions, provided that we have a shared understanding of how to live together. Such pluralism is not the same thing as mere diversity; it rests upon structural arrangements that allow communities of shared meaning to live out their deepest convictions and nurture them in their children, while contributing wholeheartedly to the promotion of the common good. This public-policy agenda would reduce our present bitter conflicts and refresh the “seedbeds of virtue” by which character and citizenship are sustained.

This article appears as “What Morals Are Made Of” in the May 20, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Charles Glenn is a professor emeritus of educational leadership and policy at Boston University.

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