August 26, 2010

What has science got to do with morality?

My post of yesterday mentioned Sam Harris' book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Traditionally, scientists have refrained from interfering much with morality, leaving moral issues largely to philosophy and religion. But this reluctance seems to get less these days. Recently Edge even organized a conference called THE NEW SCIENCE OF MORALITY with Roy Baumeister, Paul Bloom, Joshua D. Greene, Jonathan Haidt, Sam Harris, Marc D. Hauser, Joshua Knobe, Elizabeth Phelps, and David Pizarro as speakers.

A central theme of many morality scientists is how human moral behavior is shaped into us over the course of both biological and cultural evolution. Matt Ridley is one author who has written about this.

In his book The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation,  Ridley explains the paradox that our minds have been build by selfish genes to be social, trustworthy and co-operative. He says we owe our success as a species to these social instincts. He explains that morality is the stuff society is made of. In short his argument goes like this: 1) Society is important because it allows for division of labor. It allows for people to specialize. And the sums of all our specialized efforts are greater than they would be if we all had been generalists. In other words: society is synergy between specialists. 2) In order to have a harmonious society, we have to be well-connected to each other. This requires us to be co-operative, social and trustworthy. 3) Being social, co-operative and trustworthy is a way to thrive and thereby an evolutionary advantage. These traits are built into our nature by evolution.

In his recent book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, Matt Ridley says that exchange is the root of human virtue and prosperity. He says that we as a species have been able to change extraordinarily, not primarily because we have evolved so dramatically as individuals but because human intelligence became collective and cumulative in a way that distinguishes us from all other species. By starting to exchange things we discovered 'the division of labor', specialization by individuals for mutual gain. Specialization leads to expertise which made innovation possible because it provides the specialist with a reason and an opportunity to invest extra time in improving tools or techniques and developing new ones. In addition to this, friendliness, tolerance and civility will increase due to the fact that the individuals who have echanged goods, will be aware they are interdependent. On a larger scale, in complex networks, the same applies, providing the freeness and fairness of exchange is governed by rules. The greater the interconnected communities become, the more different habits it acquires, the more specializations it can develop and the more its collective intelligence grows. This video summarizes that mechanism.

Back to Sam Harris. I think he has a strong case. He says morality must be defined by thriving of conscious creatures. And if science can inform us about how to promote thriving, morality is, at least to some extent, a scientific topic. Many examples of how science has something to say about human thriving come to my mind right away. I think these support Harris' case. I will mention four of them.
  1. The first is positive psychology, which I think can be defined as the science of human thriving. PP researchers are in the process of discovering more and more determinants of human thriving.
  2. A second example is the work on stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is the tendency to expect, perceive, and be influenced by negative stereotypes about one’s social category, such as one’s age, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, profession, nationality, political affiliation, mental health status, and so on. Stereotype threat can be harmful by creating racial, gender, and social class achievements gaps in schools and in the workplace and tensions across group lines. Research has shown that the harmful effects of stereotype threat can be prevented and undone by relatively simple interventions (read more here). 
  3. A third example is research on the relationship between equality in communities and thriving. Research by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, two English epidemiologists, show how high levels of inequality in societies in harmful for everyone within them. Their research shows how high levels of equality within a society has a strong positive impact on social well being and health (read more).
  4. A fourth example is the work of Robert Frank, author of What price the moral high ground? Based on recent theoretical and empirical insights in economics, psychology and biology, he challenges the cynical view on humanity which was long held in mainstream economics. Economics' assumptions that people are purely driven by self-interest and opportunism are not valid and even harmful. He comes to the conclusion that in the course of social and economic interaction, pure selfishness generally does not work and ethical behavior does. Also he says, that moral behavior can and is likely to emerge spontaneously in competitive environments. But he also cautions that the way we structure those environments strongly affects the amount of moral behavior we actually observe: "The mere possibility of spontaneous, self-sustaining moral behavior is a profoundly optimistic notion. But we must be careful not to become intoxicated by it. In particular, it provides no reason whatever to just sit back and allow events to unfold".


  1. I think one other thing that will help are processes that allow people to resolve interpersonal and intrapersonal conflict. A lot of the immoral behavior comes from compromises people make when they can't find a good resolution for a problem.

    For example, should I take what I think belongs to me when I can even though the person I take from feels it belongs to them? That's a conflict and there are brilliant ways to resolve it.

    One process is described by Eliyahu Goldratt in his book "It's Not Luck."

    Perhaps you might check out this book which teaches in the form of a very engaging story about how to resolve very complicated conflicts using simple thinking processes.

  2. Hi Rodney, thanks! I am curious. Could you please try to explain that process? (or is that difficult to do?)


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