Science and the moral sense

Earlier in the week I wrote about the doctrine, promoted by the Positivists, that advocated the application of the scientific method to resolve moral and political problems once and for all.  This idea often gets foisted on the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, but in fact became widely held only in the nineteenth century, and largely among French intellectuals.

It is, in any case, utterly wrong.  It misunderstands the proper domain of science, which is to describe and structure reality.  Science may teach us how to keep a human body alive after the brain has died, but it will never be able to say whether it is right to do so.

Reality is a set of facts.  Morality is the desire to behave a certain way, and to become a certain kind of person.  Confronted with the tremendous successes of science in the domain of facts, the Positivists became dazed and confused by their own desire to improve the behavior and character of the species.

Yet behavior and moral rules are facts.  They can be studied by science, not to teach us to become better persons, but the better to understand how such judgments of value originate.  This Boston Review piece by Rebecca Saxe, though it leaves out much  interesting work in the field, offers a primer on the cognitive research currently attempting to decipher how moral judgments are arrived at.  Some of the experiments are controversial:  testing the moral acumen of infants, for example.  None, Saxe makes clear, will lead humanity to the Positivist paradise.

One thing these cutting-edge studies certainly cannot tell us is the right answer to a moral dilemma. Cognitive science can offer a descriptive theory of moral reasoning, but not a normative one. That is, by studying infants or brains or people around the world, we may be able to offer an account of how people actually make moral decisions – which concepts are necessary, how different principles are weighed, what contextual factors influence the final decision – but we will not be able to say how people should make moral decisions.

So, how are moral decisions arrived at?  For 2,500 years, philosophers maintained that reason guided moral judgment – a view that, among philosophers, still retains a few hardy advocates.  But reason, like science, can only generate choices; selection of the right choice must fall to another faculty.

Today, the debate rages between those who believe morality is a social construct, and those who argue it is a biological endowment:  that we depend on a moral “sense.”  The implications would appear to be profound.  If each culture constructs its own notions of good and evil, then nothing is too arbitrary for morality, and judgments across cultures becomes impossible.  If, however, a moral sense can be demonstrated, then at some level certain moral concepts must be universally shared.

In truth, I have never found the debate particularly useful.  We are who we are.  In fundamental matters, moral or otherwise, we are never arbitrary.  Consequently, we remain mutually intelligible across cultures.  When Cortez first gazed on Montezuma, the two men were separated by at least 10,000 years of cultural divergence.  Yet the Spaniard and the Aztec assumed, correctly, that certain universals held true:  that kings were treated differently than peasants, that men and women married and raised children, that possessions were treasured, gods feared and worshipped, art and music made.  And the two men judged each other, as we do today, across cultures, without hesitation or embarrassment.

Although it isn’t clear from Saxe’s piece, the evidence increasingly favors the theory of the moral sense.  If one consents to the proposition that natural selection has shaped animal behavior, the moral sense becomes almost inevitable.  But what, then, of the distinction, often alluded to by Saxe, between purely “conventional” judgments concerning (say) right and wrong attire or food or facial expression, and truly universal morality?

I think that too is a distinction without a difference.  What is the relation between deep grammar and the English language?  Between the human reproductive drive and American marriage laws?  Every universal must be expressed in a particular:  and, so expressed, must to some degree become particularized.  Yet this in no way diminishes the validity of the universal concept, or of the tradition within which it is realized.

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