To Science, Morality isn’t Special

Nothing Either Good Or Bad?

You’re a 10-year-old girl in Africa, lying nervously on your back with your lower body fully exposed. You don’t know why, but the grown-ups nearby keep assuring you that the tradition they’re about to carry out is to prevent you from becoming one of those immoral outcasts. They are concerned with one thing only: keeping you pure – your virginity must be preserved.  Being a female and all, you mustn’t pleasure yourself. With your consent, what is about to happen to you is called aclitoridectomy – partial or total removal of the clitoris. Without your consent – and almost surely, you have not granted it – it is called female genital mutilation (FGM).

Is FGM good or bad? There are two predominant philosophies to answering that question. Some people would say it’s bad because, out of all the ways to optimize human flourishing and well-being, FGM can’t possibly be one of them. These people are moral realists: what is right or wrong for others is right or wrong for me, because morals transcend culture, race, sex, and popular vote. It follows, then, that people with good intentions can still be wrong about moral questions. Neuroscientist Sam Harris champions this view, summarized here.

The other approach comes from the moral relativists. Their line of reasoning can be summarized as follows: as morals are the product of culture, they are relative. Who are we, the chauvinists of the West, to argue that FGM is absolutely wrong? Our version of “right” cannot be said to be better than someone else’s “right.” Moreover, science has nothing to say about moral claims, because science is about how the world is, not how it ought to be. Harvard psychologist Joshua Greene gives a brief overview championing a version of moral relativism.

The Is-Ought “Problem”

The short of it is this: moral values rely on facts about how the mind works because moral values arise from minds at work. Minds at work are very real and very measurable parts of the natural world, which renders them susceptible to full-blown scientific investigation.

Human well-being is a concept that can be described in terms of brain states. The more we understand about neuroscience and psychology, the more we will be able to determine which actions lead to, and which ones inhibit, human well-being or suffering. Again, every possible state of suffering or well-being is realized at the level of the brain.

At the outset, note what I am not saying: I am not saying that we should only use science to navigate moral grounds. Fields like behavioral economics surely contribute immensely to the dialogue too. I’m simply saying two things: moral questions can have right and wrong answers, and science can and should inform decisions that require us to invoke the concept of morality. Additionally, if we are to speak of what is morally right and wrong, we must hold this discussion with a 21st century mentality.

Putting this mentality aside momentarily, in the 1700s the Scottish philosopher David Hume famously claimed that it is a mistake to derive what is good (whatought to be the case) from facts about the world (what is the case). In other words, you can’t get an ought from an is. Whenever someone attempts to define what the “good” is in terms of natural properties, such as measurements of human well-being, then that person is committing a naturalistic fallacy.

Today, this philosophical musing oversaturates nearly every conversation about morality. Note, however, that it is usually invoked on the basis of authority (“As Hume once said…”) rather than facts (“As the data show…”). This is a fundamental difference between science and philosophy — science removes what philosophy does not: our natural urge to fool ourselves. It seems rather strange that science, a process that exercises our intellectual capabilities to the fullest, from creativity to rational and evidence-driven discourse, should be left out of the conversation on the most important moral questions in life.

A Science of Human Values

At this point, it becomes important to note that many moral questions will have answers in principle, but answers in practice might be extremely difficult or at times impossible. However, this is true of every sphere of human knowledge. In the next 10 seconds, how many times will the hearts of every human alive beat? This question has a definitive answer, but collecting the data is an expensive waste of time. This does not make cardiology a futile scientific enterprise. Similarly, while some questions in morality seem nearly impossible to reconcile (“Should we kill everyone who isn’t happy just to increase the average well-being in the world?”), this does not render morality outside the province of science.

Neuroscientist Sam Harris has tackled this problem recently in The Moral Landscape. Can there be universally right and wrong ways to move about in the world? (Here his provocative Ted Talk). To answer this, he asks us to imagine a universe whereby all conscious creatures suffer to the maximum extent that is possible. Everyone is in a perpetual state of misery – throwing up, bursting in flames, losing family members repeatedly, and so on. This scenario is what he calls “the worst possible misery for everyone.”  

Can such a scenario be called universally bad?

He goes on,

if you think we cannot say this would be ‘bad,’ then I don’t know what you could mean by the word ‘bad’… I am saying that a universe in which all conscious beings suffer the worst possible misery is worse than a universe in which they experience well-being. This is all we need to speak about ‘moral truth’ in the context of science.  Once we admit that the extremes of absolute misery and absolute flourishing – whatever these states amount to for each particular being in the end – are different and dependent on facts about the universe, then we have admitted that there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality.

So, if we ought to do anything, it’s to avoid the Worst Possible Misery. What other priorities would there be under which ought would apply? Like anything else, facts about the world, including how our brains operate, are constrained by natural laws. It follows, then, that there are ways to physically move away from or get closer to the Worst Possible Misery. These movements are contingent on the activities of our brains; neural activity, after all, is anchored solely to the realm of reality — of natural, measurable, explainable events. With this in mind, a science of morality becomes possible.

Harris draws the analogy between health and morality to clear up some philosophical fog. The concept of health has no clean-cut definition, but this does not make medicine any less scientific. A precise definition of life is just as hard to find for that matter, but this does not make biology unscientific either. Imagine if we applied the moral relativist’s line of reasoning to medicine. If a man comes in to the hospital throwing up all the time and bleeding profusely from his ears, yet claims that he is perfectly healthy, but the doctor disagrees, would the correct response be, “Who are you, doctor, to say he isn’t healthy?”

The fact that analogous questions are no-brainers for medicine but hazy issues for morality means we’re unnecessarily granting morality the kind of immunity to scientific investigation that no other field of study has. Morality has not achieved escape velocity from the gravity of science.

Belief is Secondary to Explanation

In science, truth is not predicated on a popular vote but on data points. We are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.  One can think of an infinite set of questions that would serve as litmus tests for what is morally acceptable or reprehensible. Does it make a net contribution to human well-being to throw acid in the faces of women who try to get an education in Afghanistan? How would Afghanistan’s economic system be affected if women and men are treated equally?

If we zoom in the microscope from cultures to an individual brain, then we can begin to see where and how moral decisions are processed. To that end, neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe argues that the right temporal-parietal junction (RTPJ), an area of the brain behind your right ear and to the top, is necessarily involved in making moral judgements. Reader-friendly summary here. Temporarily disrupting this brain region through transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS; basically, a very strong magnet) lead subjects to change the magnitude of their moral judgements.

“Moral judgments of attempted harm (negative belief, neutral outcome) are significantly different by TMS site (RTPJ vs. contro, *P < 0.05).”

Interestingly, some of the RTPJ’s functions are impaired in children with autism, but it should be noted that the RTPJ is not solely responsible for processing moral decisions. That claim would be neuroscientifically naïve. Complex functions like morality recruit many corners of the brain, anterior and posterior, ancient and modern, molecular and behavioral. Saxe’s work elegantly takes the scalpel of science and puts what was once the province of philosophy on the dissection table.

There is also a growing body of science in support of the view that humans have an internal moral compass, independent of our cultural backgrounds. Despite his unfortunate academic snafu, psychologist Marc Hauser offers a quick summary on some current evidence for an “innate moral grammar”. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne summarizes the point as succinctly as possible: Our concept of morality, of right and wrong, comes from two things, namely, evolution and secular reasoning. Here’s a one more data point for evolution.

Does Well-Being Actually Matter? 

By now, the moral relativist will recede to asking a breathtakingly useless question. “Why in the scheme of the universe should we care about well-being to begin with?” The man who valued throwing up and claimed he was healthy simply doesn’t get invited back to the conference on health and well-being; similarly, someone who doesn’t value well-being from the get-go has little to contribute to the conversation about morality besides a Hume-inspired red-herring. Here, our argument has hit philosophical bedrock with a stupid shovel of a question, Harris remarks.

It’s like asking why should science actually value empirical reasoning? Why should a circle not actually be a square? These arguments are splendid ways to run on intellectual treadmills and not get anywhere. That said, the value of avoiding the Worst Possible Misery is the only assumption that needs to be granted.

Finally, there are very relevant situations in which science can inform us on what ought to be the case in order to avoid taking a step closer to the Worst Possible Misery. About 13% of Afghani women are literate. Life expectancy is 44 years. That is a fact. That is the is. So, have we maximized well-being? Science says No.

One recent measure reports that child mortality rates plummet worldwide when women are better educated.

Baby's Life, Mother's Schooling

The ought, then, becomes that we ought to educate women, because the alternative (oppressing women) has demonstrably failed to optimize overall well-being across cultures. The same logic can be applied to cultures that promote the bludgeoning of homosexuals or the attempted killing of two people of different cultural backgrounds just for falling in love.

Importantly, scientists surely won’t call all the shots: we can say smoking increases the likelihood of getting lung cancer but men in white coats aren’t descending on every smoker to stop them. They simply provide the facts for people to make well-informed decisions. Science can derive ought from is because it informs our decisions to a degree that is based only on reality and not on shared subjective values.

Neuroscience can act as a bridge between facts and values, even though the moral compass of each culture is not equally calibrated. Some would argue that FGM must be a straw man, or at best an easy caricature of a morally repulsive situation. In Africa and many Arab cultures alone, an estimated 3 million girls (of all ages) a year undergo this form of legalized torture. We need science to provide these measurements in the form of graphs to inform moral decisions — graphs contain unbiased data points that are not influenced by the coffee we didn’t have this morning, the political agenda at hand, or the culture in which we were raised. This is relevant to morality because a single scientific data point manages to transcend everything that divides us.

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