Can morality be explained by science? Do human rights = echr1(hra − 1) + echr2(hra − 2)

14 September 2012 by

As scientists gather more and more information about the very large and the very small, where will they stop? Put another way, if ethics and religion can’t deliver, do we look to science for an answer?

The novelist Ian McEwan has no hesitation in incorporating the latest discoveries in physics and neuroscience in the messy psychological drama that constitutes a novel; in his latest bestseller  he investigates the possibility of embedding a mathematical problem within an ethical one which drives along the story within the story. And last week the Guardian hosted a debate between physicist Lawrence Krauss and Julian Baggini on whether science can provide better answers to the big questions of morality than any of the canons of philosophy; now we have a report from the USA in which a Georgia Tech professor has hypothesized lethal weapons systems that are ethically superior to human soldiers on the battlefield (by substituting for the unreliable human hairbreadth trigger robots that are programmed to comply with international rules of war).

 Military technology aside, the essential question asks for a bit of out of the box thinking. If we can identify specific biological answers to why we make certain decisions and judgments, then we can look to science as a basis for moral decisions, which are after all only sensible  if they are based on reason, which is itself based on empirical evidence. In Lawrence Krauss’ view, ultimately
 our understanding of neurobiology and evolutionary biology and psychology will reduce our understanding of morality to some well-defined biological constructs.
What has all of this do with human rights? Well, human rights law – by which I mean of course not just the Human Rights Act and the European Convention but all the international, regional and national instruments that compile certain principles of kindness and constraints on societies’ power. But are the tendencies and issues that these instruments try to address scientifically tractable?
Well, yes, some of them are, and the rest of them will probably become so in the future. Take for example the ban on discrimination against homosexuals, a combination of the right to respect to private life (Article 8) and the prohibition on discrimination on certain protected grounds, including sexual orientation (Article 14).  As Krauss explains,
Iron age scriptures might argue that homosexuality is “wrong”, but scientific discoveries about the frequency of homosexual behaviour in a variety of species tell us that it is completely natural in a rather fixed fraction of populations and that it has no apparent negative evolutionary impacts. This surely tells us that it is biologically based, not harmful and not innately “wrong”.

Recent research into cognition in animals has altered our view of the ethics of how we treat them – a change of attitude not yet incorporated in rights instruments but certainly beginning to make itself present in other codes and laws (the EU Cosmetics Directive phasing out animal testing by 2013, the ongoing debate about the outright ban on using non-human primates for medical research and the Protocol on protection and welfare of animals  to the Treaty of Amsterdam ). See also my earlier post on the number of cases that have come before the Strasbourg Court on animal welfare issues, and Professor Conor Gearty’s investigation into the widening of the moral circle .

So much for examples of moral decisions that are based on empirical facts. Other moral imperatives are hard wired into our brains and therefore can be discovered and explained by neurology. Evolutionary psychologist Stephen Pinker gives a brilliant account of “moral dumbfounding” in his book about the decline of violence in society, The Better Angels Of Our Nature (Allen Lane 2011). Referring to experiments carried out by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, Pinker shows that people have intuitions that certain actions are immoral, but struggle to come up with reasons why they are immoral.

When Haidt asked participants, for example, whether it would be all right for a brother and a sister to have voluntary protected sex, for a person to clean a toilet with a discarded American flag, for a family to eat a pet dog that had been killed by a car, for a man to buy a dead chicken and have sex with it, they said no in each case. But when asked for justifications, they floundered ineffectively before giving up and saying, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong”

These moral norms, Pinker posits, though ineffable, can sometimes be effective brakes on violent behaviour and are therefore selective (meaning they have survived evolution because they ensure the reproductive fitness of the bearer).  That there are also many moral convictions vary from society to society means that they are learned. Why we have these intuitive moral convictions, and how the learned ones promote the survivability of members of a group, are both questions that can be answered by science (be it neurobiology, psychology or anthropology). And the reason why altruistic behaviour has to be institutionalised and enforced by third parties (ie the courts) is that we tend to reserve costly sacrifices only for people close to us (see my post Why Be Nice? Human Rights under Pressure). The explanation for this, too, is to be found in the proliferating literature on the evolutionary benefits of cooperation. As Krauss says, succinctly,

It is not a large leap of the imagination to expect that we will one day be able to break down those social actions, [such as kindness and love] studied on a macro scale, to biological reactions at a micro scale.

Pinker grants a central role – rather too central, in my view – to what he calls “the rights revolutions” in the decline of homicide and other forms of violence over the centuries. By forcing individuals to take another person’s perspective the judicial enforcement of rights attenuates the tendency we all have to dehumanise others that do not belong in our group. Racial minorities, women, children, homosexuals, and anyone who has fallen through the gaps in the floor of society  have all benefited. Pinker perhaps slightly overestimates the success of these initiatives in imposing restraint on our natural drivers of exploitation and violence. Nevertheless the powerful currents in human nature that include the “demonisation of out-groups; men’s sexual rapacity and their proprietary sentiments toward women; manifestations of parent-offspring conflict such as infanticide and corporal punishment; the moralisation of sexual disgust in homophobia…and boundaries of empathy based on kinship, reciprocity and charisma” have all been suppressed in the service of civil society, somehow.

Why? Pinker identifies the single main exogenous cause of the “Rights Revolutions” as the availability of information, on which our innate faculties of reason were able to feed,

Insofar as violence is immoral, the Rights Revolutions show that a moral way of life often requires a decisive rejection of instinct, culture, religion, and standard practice. In their place is an ethics that is inspired by empathy and reason and stated in the language of rights. We force ourselves into the shoes (or paws) of other sentient beings and consider their interest, starting with their interest in not being hurt or killed, and we ignore superficialities that may catch our eye such as race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, and to some extent, species.

“Individuals who are situated in a vast informational catchment area can compile a moral know-how that is more sustainable and expandable than even the most righteous prophet could devise in isolation” he continues. So we have nothing to fear from the “mission creep” of the scientific knowledge into the hallowed precincts of ethics and philosophy. Knowledge is improved, not diminished, by more knowledge, even if we have to replace long cherished delusions such as the supremacy of the human conscience with evidence-based facts.

More reading:


  1. RCAP says:

    Well, obviously all moral decisions are “based on empirical facts” in the sense that an awareness of those facts is both a prerequisite for the exercise of judgment, and for the awareness of consequences likely to stem from the decision. Beyond this trite truth, I’m not sure that science has much to offer, but on this I would simply agree with Baggini’s arguments in the article linked to above.

    With regard to human rights, however, I would be careful what you wish for. Much of the art in this theory is in the selection of examples. While gay rights might plausibly be supported by the presence of homosexual minorities in a number of species (and this fact is obviously relevant to the moral debate – for example, against the line that homosexuality is “unnatural”), there is a potentially darker side to this. If morality is to be judged by evolutionary efficacy, then are homosexuals of value?They do not reproduce, they add nothing to the long-term gene pool. How do we judge human value on this theory? And this insight is general – such a morality might see little good in giving succour to sick infants, or the disabled, or the elderly, and much to value in the “science” of eugenics. If infidelity is “inevitable”, and so not absolute, so also is murder.

    What has driven human rights, since their emergence in mediaeval theology, is the insight that human beings are of equal, ineffable worth. One of the underlying difficulties in modern human rights theory is justifying this assumption in an age which is largely blind to the basis of that worth, that human beings are made in God’s image. People strongly feel that human beings are of immense value, but cannot justify it. Theism is admittedly not the only coherent answer to that conundrum, but a scientistic morality, besides the (in my view insurmountable) philosophical difficulties put forward by Baggini, simply cannot support it.

  2. robert landbeck says:

    “a moral way of life often requires a decisive rejection of instinct.” How ever one may reject instinct, there is no way to escape the corruption of humanities moral perception that instinct, innate to human nature as a imposed upon us. And so long as our evolutionary inheritance of biological instinct can so adversley effect moral judgement, our species has little claim to being moral except in a very relative, cultural, ‘respectable, measure.

  3. John D says:

    As always, Rosalind, you post highly intriguing content on this blog.
    I find the interchangeable way in which morals and ethics are used is confusing. My understanding is that morals are bottom-up values in any society, e.g. see the use of the term mores, particularly in American literature. Ethics, on the other hand, I view as top-down values in any society.
    Morals are essential for the survival and growth of individuals and society, which is why they are hardwired into humans and other species. Just look at children and their conception of fairness; it is there right from the beginning.
    Ethical values, on the other hand, are an acquired set of values, devised and implemented by societal leaders. Our system of law is such a system.
    Sometimes, morals and ethics can conflict. An example is the public attitude towards capital punishment and the elite perspective on the same topic.
    I welcome the victory of ethics over morals in this instance, though this could be fatally undermined in the event of a populist regime gaining power.

  4. Although one might agree that many moral principles are “fact-sensitive”, and that science, qua fact-gatherer and fact-establisher, has a role to play in undergirding moral convictions, there’s a reputable argument that, at bottom, some “fact-insensitive” moral principles have to come in to play. See Jerry Cohen’s (2003) “Facts and Principles”, Philosophy and Public Affairs 31(3), or the Crooked Timber discussion at

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