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).
our understanding of neurobiology and evolutionary biology and psychology will reduce our understanding of morality to some well-defined biological constructs.
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.