How can ‘moral science’ exist?

First published for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

The term ‘moral science’ is increasingly used in the work of rationalist thinkers. Traditionally in the realm of religion, our ever-increasing secularism has allowed for science advocates to attempt to theorise morality into science – or at least to theorise it into the world of the rational.

This idea is prominent in the work of many secular thinkers, from philosophers such as Patricia Churchland to the ever-popular Sam Harris. The latter produced what is probably the most widely read resource on the subject, entitled The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.

Harris’ work has not been without criticism, some of which is justified. It is not easy to see, for example, why the content of human values is able to be judged and determined scientifically at all. Science requires evidence and rational justification, whereas human values are entirely without justification unless we make additional ‘assumptions’ above and beyond rationality. For instance, one can rationally justify physical laws with reference only to evidence, but to rationally justify moral laws one has to make an extra assumption, over and above science, as to what principle should be adhered to (in other words, moral principles are not logically deducible from raw evidence).

If one can see this logical problem with ‘assumption making’ then this alone is enough to show why moral science is difficult to justify. However it isn’t immediately obvious to everyone why it is bad science to be making assumptions for the cause of morality; thankfully this point is also reasonably easy to explain. If I were to kill and eat my next door neighbour, and justify it to his wife on the grounds that I made the assumption that it is morally acceptable, we can see the problem with assumption making: it is subjective and entirely arbitrary (in the same way that one might have a favourite colour, one might have a preference for a certain action). Similarly, if I were to write this assumption down and call it the foundations of ‘moral science’, it doesn’t make the assumption any stronger.

Thus the idea of moral science creates a problem that is difficult to solve. Philosophers have grappled with it for centuries, and our most modern thinkers still have not adequately tamed it and have instead embraced different levels of assumption making. By making these assumptions and yet still calling it ‘science’, the scientific method – something which requires no arbitrary assumption making – is done an injustice. But there is an answer.

The theory of Rational Morality was my attempt to solve this problem of moral science in its more famous philosophical guise: the ‘is-ought’ conundrum. This is an age-old philosophical problem which argues that science can’t determine human values, as you can’t derive an ‘ought’ (what we should do) from an ‘is’ (the way something is).

The solution is not in some remarkable discovery, or genius breakthrough of logical formula – much to the pity of my book sales, and the desires of my publisher – but is rather in thinking around the problem. One need not show morality to be a system of naturally occurring and deducible facts like in physical or social sciences, in order for moral science to be advocated. If one needed to do this, morality could not be shown to be rational at all. Instead one simply needs to show that a rational theory of morality is possible, justifiable and more rationally able than the other moral theories on the table. So not just better than theological accounts, but also less-assumptive than many rights-theorists or utilitarian thinkers have come up with. The theory would then also have to be assumptive only to the degree that science is (i.e., assumptive only about the self-proving worth of rationality).

It would have to use the scientific method to develop a transparent set of social agreements about basic moral principles – whatever we agree those most basic of moral principles to be – instead of on the assumptions of natural moral facts (as there are no such things). To the non-philosopher, this translates as reducing the moral principles we wish our societies to be guided by to the most basic sets they can possibly be – however we wish this to look – and then using reason and science to build consistent moral rules, and make consistent moral decisions based on these most basic of principles. For example, we might look at our current principles about murder/violent crime and then reduce them to a basic principle that suffering and death should be avoided wherever possible. From there we would judge whether our laws were rationally consistent with what we socially agreed.

All be it a very different type of science, moral science can exist in a socially created space like this without contravening the rules of rationality, all the while allowing the most important of humanities problems to be exposed to the fruits of scientific method. Indeed, most areas of politics and morality need not be thought of as subjective at all once moral science is on the table, unless the problem is wholly without reason or evidence on either side. This doesn’t mean opponents of rationality will suddenly drop their beliefs and join us, but it does provide a consistent framework to stop people having to turn to religion or other methods in order to form moral beliefs. We shouldn’t underestimate the secular advantage this would have in future generations.

Moral science is important: it’s more rational than what we currently have, ie, a system where we just slightly amend historically decided ideas when we really have to. But more than this, it’s important because it gives us a chance to rationally judge moral issues – no longer having to allow for dangerous and often irrational subjective differences. What’s more, it allows for the whole method to be scientific in attitude; not allowing for certainty where there is none and helping to do away with as much potential for uncompromising aggression as possible.