The Science of Right and Wrong

Ever since the rise of modern science, an almost impregnable wall separating it from religion, morality and human values has been raised to the heights. The “naturalistic fallacy,” sometimes rendered as the “is-ought problem”—the way something “is” does not mean that is the way it “ought” to be—has for centuries been piously parroted from its leading proponents, philosophers David Hume and G. E. Moore, as if pronouncing it closes the door to further scientific inquiry.

We should be skeptical of this divide. If morals and values should not be based on the way things are—reality—then on what should they be based? All moral values must ultimately be grounded in human nature, and in my book The Science of Good and Evil (Times Books, 2004), I build a scientific case for the evolutionary origins of the moral sentiments and for the ways in which science can inform moral decisions. As a species of social primates, we have evolved a deep sense of right and wrong to accentuate and reward reciprocity and cooperation and to attenuate and punish excessive selfishness and free riding. On the constitution of human nature are built the constitutions of human societies.

Grafted onto this evolutionary ethics is a new field called neuroethics, whose latest champion is the steely-eyed skeptic and cogent writer Sam Harris, a neuroscientist who in his book The Moral Landscape (Free Press, 2010) wields a sledgehammer to the is-ought wall. Harris’s is a first-principle argument, backed by copious empirical evidence woven through a tightly reasoned narrative. The first principle is the well-being of conscious creatures, from which we can build a science-based system of moral values by quantifying whether or not X increases or decreases well-being. For instance, Harris asks, Is it right or wrong to force women to dress in cloth bags and to douse their faces in acid for committing adultery? It doesn’t take rocket science—or religion, Harris astringently opines—to conclude that such “cultural values” decrease the well-being of the women so affected and thus are morally wrong.

via The Science of Right and Wrong: Scientific American.


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