A Place for Scientific Explanation in Moral Reasoning

Some people argue with their parents about God, some about politics.  In my family, because I am the daughter of a psychologist, and because I have several years of graduate education in moral philosophy, the argument tends to be about method.  Specifically, my mother and I go round and round about whether moral questions can be sufficiently answered by appeal to scientific research.   While it is probably unfair to hold up a person who takes B.F. Skinner along for vacation reading as the representative view of all social scientists, it is not inaccurate to say that many people in her field believe that scientific research does a better job at answering questions about the human condition than the theoretical musings of philosophers.  Our perennial debate is on whether the “why” questions that philosophers ask about morality can (or should) be reformulated (perhaps “reduced” is a better term) so that they can be answered in the “how” terms of evolutionary psychology.  As might be inferred from my previous posts, my contention is that they cannot.

At some point, I would like to do an extensive post about the problems we run into when we attempt to reduce moral ‘ought’s to descriptive ‘is’s, but that is beyond the scope of my argument today.  Actually, I mean to defend the use of scientific data (and even method!) in moral philosophy, but not before I set up a few parameters and give reasons for why I think they are appropriate.  Moral questions usually arise out of our recognition that there are conflicts among our own observed values.  For example, most human beings have a strong moral intuition that malicious acts should be punished AND a strong moral intuition that there is virtue in mercy and forgiveness.  The question of how we should treat those who commit malicious acts, therefore, cannot be answered by appeal to moral intuition alone.  At the very least, we require some external method for ranking competing moral intuitions, and the data alone cannot give us that.  And, the problem of ranking values becomes even more complicated when we turn from an individual’s competing moral values to debates about moral value among groups.  Science can explain how different cultural mores evolve, but how could a scientist possibly rank the value of one set of mores, which were adaptive or at least not unadaptive for that group in that environment, against mores which were equally adaptive (or not unadaptive) for a different group in a different environment?  Is’s or did’s do not translate well into should’s or should’ves, but I digress.

Here are three ways in which I think science can and should inform moral philosophy:

First, scientific research gives us the best way to predict the consequences of our actions.  Whether we are trying to prevent the pandemic spread of the Swine Flu, or just giving cough medicine to a sick child, we are morally culpable for the consequences of our actions.  Science gives us the best explanations for natural phenomena and the most accurate predictions of future events, which means that we should ask scientific questions -questions about evidence- before taking action.  I won’t dwell on this point because Jim has already addressed it another post, but this is the most obvious and common way in which science matters for morality.

Second, psychology and neuroscience give us explanatory insight into differences in individual perception and motivation.   This is significant because moral justifications and charges of moral blame generally appeal to a claim about an individual’s intent.  Information about a person’s beliefs and values is relevant to the charges that we make against that person.  For example, we would not assign the same level of blame to an unmedicated schizophrenic who calls 911 to report a murder as we would to a high school student who reports the same information as a prank, even if both accounts are equally false.

Third, research in many fields of science informs our understanding of learned behavior, which is an integral part of how we develop character dispositions.  While neuroscience can offer explanations for why some people lack certain cognitive functions, feelings of empathy, or other morally relevant characteristics, it can also show us areas of malleability where environmental influences (teaching and other forms of stimulation) make a difference in who we become.  Science may not be able to tell us what virtue is, but it can certainly facilitate the development of virtuous qualities, which many believe to be a moral responsibility in its own right.

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