The Scientific Basis of Morality

  • January 27, 2013 · 10:30 AM
  • Capriccio's

Is there a science behind morality?  Can right and wrong be determined by science?  If so how might right and wrong be authoritatively determined?  Sam Harris (‘The Moral Landscape’) writes that there is ample basis to justify (even promote) the place of science to pronounce on the normative issue/question in all this.  This discussion, based on moral psychology and Sam Harris’s book, will explore whether or not science can or should be an authority on moral issues? Should any entity have the final word?  Are there universal morals?

Here are a few things to read up on that relate to the topic. From here:
http://www.edge.org/conversatio...

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  • Nick

    That was thoughtful and fun!

    Here are some academic websites. I have to split this between two messages.

    Yale U. 40 full courses with downloadable audio and video
    http://oyc.yale.edu/courses

    Oxford U.
    http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/units

    Courses at U C San Diego – ongoing and past
    http://podcast.ucsd.edu/

    University of California Video
    http://uctvdev.ucsd.edu/

    Gifford Lectures – Edinburgh U
    http://www.ed.ac.uk/about/video/lecture-series/gifford-lectures

    Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton) – Lots of math and physics and some social science
    Upcoming events - http://www.ias.edu/news/public-events
    Video of past events - http://video.ias.edu/

    History of Philosophy
    http://www.historyofphilosophy.net/

    Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
    http://plato.stanford.edu/

    BBC Radio 4 / In Our Time (Hundreds of scholarly discussions)
    Current- http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qykl
    Podcast archive - http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qykl/features/downloads

    January 27, 2013

    • Amy

      These are great -- thanks for all the links, Nick.

      January 27, 2013

    • CJ F.

      Last September I gave a talk about Open Educational Resources in Asheville, NC: http://www.cjfearnley...­

      Several of the examples I cited have been or will become meetup topics.

      February 14, 2013

  • Amy

    Here's a link to the E. O. Wilson lecture at Princeton on Monday, April 8th. I'd like to go. Can we arrange a group to carpool?
    http://lectures.princeton.edu/

    February 12, 2013

    • Mici

      I'm interested in carpooling . . .

      February 13, 2013

  • Lee D.

    stimulating and friendly

    January 27, 2013

  • Darren W.

    Great discussion today people. Here is a link to the Amazon listing of the book Blind Spots that I mentioned at the meetup. The only caveat is that I think the book is great conceptually but fails miserably in some of the examples of the application of the authors ideas. http://www.amazon.com/dp/0691156220

    January 27, 2013

    • Amy

      Thanks for posting this link, Darren!

      1 · January 27, 2013

  • Amy

    Lively and thoughtful discussion today! Thank you Mici and Katie for leading the discussion.

    1 · January 27, 2013

  • George

    What Sam Harris is describing is nothing new - it's basically positive utilitarianism. (For some reason he claims it's not utilitarianism.)

    Philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham wrote on this 2 centuries ago.

    January 27, 2013

  • Nick

    For those who aren't totally sated with input, here's a tasty evening snack. Even though it's five years old it has a lot of good stuff and stars several of the usual suspects (Harris, Haidt, Churchland, etc.).

    http://thesciencenetwork.org/programs/beyond-belief-candles-in-the-dark

    January 26, 2013

  • Jean S.

    The reality is - you are here for one purpose - to reproduce. It doesn't mater how or who you mate with. The goal is to keep your genes in the pool. In this vein, morality is a farce. Sperm and eggs have no morals....

    January 25, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      Then Rawls performs a thought experiment in which these self-interested actors get the opportunity to choose between this regime and an alternative constitutional arrangement in which property rights are distributed equally. They are forced, in this contrived experiement, to make this choice without any knowledge of any personal attributes -- including intellectual skills, physical talents, tolerance for risk, gender, race, etc. This is Rawls's so-called veil of ignorance.

      Rawls shows that rational actors under the veil of ignorance will choose an egalitarian property rights regime. For Rawls, this becomes the moral choice because rational actors are being forced to make their constitutional choice under conditions of fariness in which they are in no position to allow real personal circumstances to influence their decisions.

      January 26, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      You don't have to be happy with this argument (libertarians invariably are not) in order to appreciate the point of logic being made here. A moral standard is being defined: A moral social order is one in which rational actors make decisions under conditions of fairness. Choice figures prominantly: Humans are rational pursuers of individual self-interest. Material circumstances matter: Rational actors pursue self interest under a given social structure of property rights. To argue against Rawls's egalitarian conclusions, you are forced to do one of two things: (1) Deny that people make intentional choices. In this case, we can throw out the discussion of morality altogether. (2) Replace Rawls's conception of justice as fairness in place of some other moral standard -- such justice as individual liberty. The latter is what Nozick does in order to provide a moral grounding for unequally distributed property rights regimes.

      January 26, 2013

  • Lee D.

    Jean, sperm and eggs don't have moral issues but choices are made before they meet and after they become a sentient being that are deeply wedded to moral issues. If you are going to reduce evolution to a single point it isn't reproduction but ongoing survival of the species, or rather the genome that is at issue. I'll even go a step further and express my belief that the evolution of consciousness is what's really at stake. Ruthlessness and selfishness often seem to win short term conflicts but groups characterized by a degree of altruism and cooperation end up prevailing in most long term computer models.
    Morality is the backbone of a cohesive group and the lifeblood of an evolving consciousness. It happens also to be more rewarding hedonically. ( I exclude here the quasi morality of fundamentalist religions, also much of what passes as morality in most organized religions)

    January 25, 2013

  • Martin C.

    Morality covers a lot of ground, but much of it does have a basis in evolution. Natural selection occurs at the group as well as the individual level. You may succeed in one group by being self-centered, but that will not do you much good if your group loses out to another group whose superiority lies in the willingness of its members to work for the common good. This holds among animals as well as humans. Why, for example, should an animal act as a sentry, looking out for predators, if that activity puts it at risk? Note also that among humans social evolution also plays a major role.

    January 25, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      Martin raises two interesting issues here. (1) At least some social outcomes are a function of natural selection. (2) Natural selection can produce a predisposition to moral behavior under certain circumstances. With respect to point 1, this is going to lead to the foundational debate in the social sciences between non-choice versus choice-driven explanations of human behavior. Evolutionary explanations are of the non-choice type. Without trying to resolve that controversy here, let us simply stipulate that there is supporting evidence for both views.

      January 25, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      As to the second point, I will simply state that I think evolution cannot be used to explain moral behavior. Morality has no semantic meaning if human behavior is governed by evolutionary dynamics. This is because morality requires the capacity for intentional choice, and intentional choice is not compatible with the model of human conduct implied by the theory of evolution. This does not necessarily mean the theory of evolution is wrong. But it does mean that morality has no relevance as an extant reality if this theory is correct.

      January 25, 2013

  • George

    Here's a Ted talk with a psychological take on morality and worldview: Jonathan Haidt: The moral roots of liberals and conservatives - http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html

    January 25, 2013

  • Amy

    I'm not able to go on Saturdays. I
    hope this group does not move from Sunday morning. I love the time, and will help find a venue to keep it on Sunday.

    January 25, 2013

    • Katie

      I am not sure where this rumor came from but there is no plan to stop the sunday meetings at all, only to possibly have saturday meetings in addition to those on sunday.

      January 25, 2013

  • Jean S.

    Quality or quantity? .... Changing the location of the meetings is one thing. Changing to another day completely changes the parameters that has made the group successful. There are currently 1522 members of this group. Without any of us being able to vote, this is unconstitutional to make changes like these without any input from the rest of us.......... My suggestion would be to start a separate group that meets on Saturday. Everyone is up and ready to go to our meetings because it is winter and there is not much going on. Dealing with success is a challenge. How many organizations expanded and went belly-up? Are we going sacrifice quality for quantity?

    January 25, 2013

    • Katie

      I'm not entirely sure I follow what you are saying but there is no plan to change or eliminate the Sunday meetups. There is just discussion to have Saturday meetups as well, essentially providing more opportunities for all members to attend meetings.

      January 25, 2013

  • Mici

    If anyone wants to take the initiative to look for another suitable meeting site - that would accommodate more folks - please feel free to do so! I say this b.c. I see the number of people on the waiting list - and I'd like to have the conversation with everyone included who is interested. I got motivated last year to look into alternate sites and found that the Free Library has meeting rooms open for the public to use - but they need some lead time to make arrangements and I had called like 2 days beforehand. . . I would do this hunting myself but I'm up to my eyeballs in schoolwork right now. .. .
    just thinking of how to solve a problem --- and hoping someone else can help

    January 14, 2013

    • Katie

      We are looking into this location as a potential permanent change but before we make that move we want to make sure no other groups are meeting there at our regular time (the one time we have used this location was a day or two before Christmas and we want to make sure it was not a fluke that it was available first before relocating, unfortunately the space is first come first serve, you cannot reserve it). In addition this close tot eh meeting I would rather not change locations as some members may not get the notification in time.

      January 25, 2013

    • Katie

      I have upped the attendance for this meeting due to interest to 20 people, which if all show is too big to house in either location and difficult to have a meaningful discussion with. If need be we can break into smaller groups.

      January 25, 2013

  • Stan P.

    Hi, one day I might have the energy to be out on a Sunday. But, I told Mici that you'd be welcome to hold meetings at NTR (computer thrift store and factory at 15th & Brandywine Streets) if you could move the meetings to Saturday when I generally host a few volunteers.

    1 · January 24, 2013

    • Mici

      THANK YOU! We shall certainly try it out at NTR - but looks like we found you too late to switch to saturday for this meeting -- I hear from Katie that future meetings ARE being considered for saturdays . . .

      January 25, 2013

  • Stan P.

    And while I'm on this page, I might comment that I've just begun reading The Selfish Gene. I'd think that morality and the goals of species as represented by their genes might just have a common thread. Can some act or thought be "wrong" or immoral in the long term if it enhances the goal of survival of the species?

    January 24, 2013

    • Mici

      Good point, we should discuss this consideration at the meeting for sure. I'm thinking of my issues with it . . . will post more after sunday's discussion.

      January 25, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    I would agree that the capacity for reason is a prerequisite foundation for morality. But it is not a sufficient condition. The capacity for making choices is another one of those necessary conditions, I think. This is not a trivial point because a number of sociologically-oriented social scientific theories, and the ontologies that sustain them, deny that humans have a meaningful choice-making capacity. To the degree those theories have empirical support is the degree to which we can forget about a meaningful notion of morality. In contrast, some of the social justice arguments I referenced in an earlier post (Rawls vs. Nozick) are based on the rational choice paradigm rooted in Hobbes, Smith, and modern microeconomics. So, in some measure, the issue in question cannot be settled without first settling the highly contentious question of which non-normative social theory is correct empirically.

    January 24, 2013

  • Darren W.

    When people say things like "...whether or not science can or should be an authority on moral issues?" one can't help but wonder if that really means scientists rather than science. If that's the case then no.

    If one means science in the sense of it's Latin root knowledge then it certainly is the basis of morality. There can be no morality without Knowledge & reason.

    "Reason integrates man’s perceptions by means of forming abstractions or conceptions, thus raising man’s knowledge from the perceptual level, which he shares with animals, to the conceptual level, which he alone can reach. The method which reason employs in this process is logic—and logic is the art of non-contradictory identification." --Ayn Rand

    January 24, 2013

  • Amy

    Looking forward to Sunday's discussion!

    January 23, 2013

  • Katie

    If you are on the attending or wait list and realize that you cannot make it on Sunday, please change your RSVP on the site so that someone on the waiting list has the opportunity to attend. Thanks for your cooperation with this!

    January 23, 2013

  • Nick

    Since sharing links is a good thing. a couple of others came to mind. E O Wilson (will be speaking at Princeton in April 2013) stimulates thought and controversy proposing group selection as part of the path to socialization (proto-morals?) in animals, including us. Here's an interview:
    http://www.digital.nypl.org/node/163311/audio

    Michael Gazzaniga has interesting comments from brain research in his Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh: You have to hunt for him in the lecture web site but he's worth it.
    http://www.ed.ac.uk/about/video/lecture-series/gifford-lectures

    1 · January 8, 2013

    • Mici

      oh thanks for the links!

      January 14, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    There is considerable social scientifc literature on morality -- espeically as it applies to questions of social justice. In this regard, I find the debate between Nozick (a just society is based on private property) and Rawls (a just society is egalitarian) rather interesting. Like many, well-argued, moral theories, each of these hinges on the definition of justice. Justice as liberty leads to Nozick's libertarianism. Justice as fariness leads to Rawlsian egalitarianism. Since, definitions are neither true nor false (they simply are stipulations), one comes away from this debate with the perhaps unsatisfying conclusion that the choice of definition will depend on one's politics.

    January 7, 2013

  • Nick

    I'm new to the group and looking forward to 1/20. I hope I'm not jumping in with too much too soon, but these web sites might be relevant and interesting:

    http://thesciencenetwork.org/programgroup/neuroethics

    http://thesciencenetwork.org/programs/the-great-debate

    1 · January 7, 2013

    • Mici

      Be assured that you're not jumping in too soon; it is encouraged. The links you shared are awesome. I already watched Steven Pinker's talk at that conference and I would summarize it and present it at the meeting - it states very well the position I take. I like that he distinguished all of science as it's usually thought of from people who just reason carefully on the questions involved. I really LOVED his point that there is

      January 7, 2013

    • Mici

      a continuum between sciences as people usually conceive of them (biology, chemistry and physics) and the social sciences and moral philosophy in particular. He gives his essential distinction of science; relying on logic and evidence rather than relying on dogma or authority or subjective feeling - therefore anyone who engages in secular reasoning is an honorary scientist.

      January 7, 2013

  • Katie

    I apologize to everyone on the list but we had to move this discussion to the 27th due to a personal conflict I had. I hope all can still attend. Again I apologize for doing this.

    January 7, 2013

  • Mici

    theres a lot of good discussion about the Handbook here:
    http://www.amazon.com/Moral-Psychology-Evolution-Adaptations-Innateness/dp/0262693542 and here's a moral psychology lab at Brown:
    http://brown.edu/Research/Cushman-Lab/
    But the key point to explore in this discussion (my own hope), outside of all the interesting findings from a scientific study of morality, drawing on research from the biological, social. and behavioral sciences - is Harris' provocative position; there IS he believes, ample basis to justify (even promote) the place of science to pronounce on the normative issue/question in all this; how can right and wrong be authoritatively determined? What do you think - can (and should) science be an authority on moral issues? Or is this a question that is best left up to religion, which has been deemed the authority up to this point in time.

    January 7, 2013

  • Mici

    Here are a few things to read up on that relate to the topic. From here:
    http://www.edge.org/conversation/a-new-science-of-morality-part-3
    you can link to Harris' contribution : he thinks there are 3 distinct and independently worthy endeavors. The first project is to understand what people do in the name of "morality.", 2nd: to actually get clearer about what we mean, and should mean, by the term, and 3rd: is a project of persuasion: How can we persuade all of the people who are committed to silly and harmful things in the name of "morality" to change their commitments, to have different goals in life, and to lead better lives? I'm not as interested in the 3rd - for our discussion.
    Harris also gave a TED talk:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right.html
    Now there are great other minds working on this: http://www.moralpsychology.net/group/ and this group produced A Moral Psychology Handbook. Take a look at what the members of this group are doing.

    1 · January 7, 2013

  • Tessa

    Hello- I am new to this group and had 2 questions if somebody could direct me. 1) Is this discussion based on the book by George Gore? And 2) Is the start time at 10:30 or 7:30am? Thanks for any help!

    January 6, 2013

    • Mici

      I proposed this discussion because I had become aware of the new field of moral psychology plus I had read The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. So no, it is not based on the Gore book you reference. The start time is 10:30.

      January 7, 2013

  • Jean S.

    What a great topic! In my research of parapsychology, morality and the the payment of debt is a big deal... This is going to be an exciting gathering of a variety of intellectual thinkers. I wonder if we will be able to agree on anything?

    January 1, 2013

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