Why Do We Look to Science As a Guide for Living?

The quest to base morality on science is like the old alchemist’s quest to turn lead into gold. The project appears eminently doable. The necessary steps seem so small (in alchemy’s case, lead and gold are practically neighbors on the Table of Elements), and the goal so beneficial, that it is frustrating when the quest fails. But fail it does, as explained by two University of Virginia faculty, James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky, in their excellent new book. What is perverse is that the quest never ends—at least in the case of science and morality. Alchemists retired their beakers and brick furnaces in the 18th century.

Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality describes in detail the history of this failure. Hunter and Nedelisky are thorough and scholarly, and nice—nicer than I would have been—in representing the various positions in the debate. That is probably why the book is so effective. Rather than plunge into the debate as partisans, they operate more as its witnesses, describing and cataloguing what happened and meticulously exposing the fallacies. The historical record they craft might persuade those who still believe in the quest to think twice about continuing.

Science and the Good also provokes much thought. At each stage, I had questions, which should not be construed as criticisms so much as thoughts stimulated upon finding oneself in the orbit of two interesting personalities. Indeed, I wish the coauthors had been on hand so I could address them, for the sheer pleasure of conversation.

Hunter and Nedelisky begin by outlining the nature of the quest, which is to find out, not if science can tell us anything about morality, but if science can show us what morality is and how to live. They admit early on that “science may not be able to tell us how to live.” One wonders if this was an inadvertent slip—a show of bias on their part—or a well-placed omen of what is to come. Were they saying before their story of the quest even begins that the effort to build a morality on science was futile? For all morality is based on an answer to the question of how we should live our lives. That answer once came from religion. Indeed, morality is almost included in religion by implication. Every religion is an answer to the question of the meaning of life, out of which flows how people should act.

True, not every religion must be a revealed religion. Libertarianism, for example, is a kind of religion that tells people to live for themselves. Same with communism, which tells people to live for the revolution. But because these ideologies tell people how to live, they, too, come with a corresponding morality. If science cannot tell people how to live, then one wonders how it can generate any kind of morality.

Origins of the Quasi-Scientific Outlook

The authors start their timeline of events at the end of the Middle Ages. This makes sense. Aristotelian scholasticism, the science of the Middle Ages, was science in its way, although not very good science. It tried to understand natural events by grasping their teleological purpose, or end. But the philosophy came up short when trying to estimate the planetary orbits, the ocean tides, and pretty much every other complex physical phenomenon. In addition, the Catholic Church was losing its grip on Western culture by the end of the Middle Ages. The scientific revolution and the concomitant quest for a science-based morality emerge from the wreckage of bad ideas and changing politics.

But one wonders if the authors should have started their timeline earlier—say, in ancient days. Western philosophy from the time of Aristotle and Plato had closer contact with the natural sciences than philosophies in other cultures did—for example, the ancient Indian and Chinese systems. Aristotle had his zoology and botany. Plato had his geometry. More specifically, Western philosophy incorporated science’s secular, if not anti-religious, outlook early on. Indeed, except for the Catholic Middle Ages, a quasi-scientific outlook has formed the basis for Western modes of investigation since ancient Greece, including logic and rational argumentation unclouded by theological or mythical conceptions. It is why some intellectuals as late as the 20th century called philosophy a uniquely Western phenomenon.

If the story of Western philosophy is to a large extent the ever-increasing separation of thought from religion, and if Western philosophy became the guardian angel of unprejudiced, critical thinking because of its unwavering loyalty to science, then perhaps the quest for a science-based morality was cooked into the Western experience. Rather than a starting point, the Middle Ages are better seen as an aberration along a much longer timeline.

Hume, Bentham, Darwin, Spencer

After a useful discussion of the scientific method and its revolutionary significance, the authors break down the early approaches to a scientific-based morality into three groups: sentimentalism (the thought of David Hume), utilitarianism (that of Jeremy Bentham), and evolutionary ethics (that of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer). It is a useful categorization. Sentimentalism argues that moral systems develop naturally over time through extended social intercourse, which reinforces both natural and social sentiments. Utilitarianism says moral principles are grounded in the experience of pleasure and pain, which can also be studied scientifically. Evolutionary ethics speaks of inherited (that is, natural) dispositions, including the “instinctive sympathy” to get along with others, which causes people to conform to social practices. With these three approaches, science earned a seat at the table in the debate over morality.

But one wonders at this stage whether evolutionary ethics was, in fact, the dominant system toward which the others converged. For in all three what undergirds morality is people’s tendency to adapt to social pressure, whether through sentiment or through recognizing the value of getting along with others. Both sound a lot like instinctive sympathy. In other words, what enables morality in all three systems is the fact that people like to live in groups and these groups self-police, and this fact is an evolutionary one. Evolutionary ethics is simply more direct in stating this.

From this point emerges a glaring contradiction: If the human tendency to be social and the group tendency to police human behavior are what make morality possible, then how can morality evolve? Morality does evolve. It has evolved. But according to the naturalist approach to morality, whether it be Hume’s, Bentham’s, or Darwin and Spencer’s, the most moral person is the person who does whatever the policeman says and never breaks the law. This is what it means to live scientifically, whether described through natural sentiments, the principle of utility, or instinctive sympathy. Science-based morality, then and now, makes moral “progress” impossible, if not immoral. This seems to be a serious weakness in all science-based moralities.

All three schools of thought, observe Hunter and Nedelisky, fail in their own way. What emerges next is a science more independent of philosophy. In the long timeline of Western thought, science, once philosophy’s junior partner, becomes the senior partner. Exemplifying this, the authors note, is the psychological field known as behaviorism, in which human instincts are dismissed as irrelevant and human behavior is viewed as something that can be molded in any number of ways and toward any number of ends.

But one wonders if behaviorism really represents a change in science’s relationship with philosophy. Philosophy still seems to be in command, for behaviorism’s argument is really the Enlightenment argument, which can be traced back to Niccolo Machiavelli’s philosophy. The ancient philosophers believed people had certain natural tendencies that could not be overcome. There was a limit to how much you could shape human material, they argued. Machiavelli and the modern project, on the other hand, argue that people are completely malleable. All you need to do is put people through educational institutions with teeth in them, and you’ll get your desired product.

This is why there is a lot of going to school in the modern project. With enough education, you can train a person to become a Nazi, a commissar, or a suicide bomber; you can train a woman to think it right to stay at home and raise children, or to have a career and leave the children in day care; you can train a man to think it right to have a career, or to stay at home and raise children.

The question then becomes what do we want to train people to do? In other words, how should people live their lives? Down the centuries, we have looked to science for an answer, and we still haven’t found it.

Bentham Gets the Final Say

The last two chapters of Science and the Good look at more recent efforts to find the answer, while admitting more forthrightly that failure risks moral relativism, assuming people don’t decide to turn back toward traditional monotheistic religious belief. The authors describe a new synthesis that includes Hume’s mind-focused sentimentalism, Darwinian evolution, utilitarianism, and naturalism committed to a study of the world. The last player includes the new branches of experimental science devoted to understanding the mechanics of human behavior. Yet this new synthesis seems more like a device to enable those on the side of science to live together in order and peace, analogous to the way American military strategy sometimes emerges from the need to give the army, navy, air force, and marines each a piece of the action. The new synthesis is simply a compromise, the sum of its parts, and just as the parts fail, so does the synthesis fail.

It fails in the way an aspiring writer who performs duties sent down to him through channels fails to be a writer and instead becomes a clerk. What has emerged from all the conferences and books on science-based morality is not a science-based morality—there is no creation of spiritual values—but simply a more detailed description of how people make moral decisions. Neuroscience, primatology, and evolutionary psychology study brains and genetics to explain our morality-making machinery. The authors recognize this to be an important shift in the nature of the quest, and an unspoken one. No longer does the quest involve science discovering morality (discovering “how we ought to live”); rather, it involves finding ways to exploit scientific and technological discoveries to help us live according to whatever social consensus we can come up with.

Two components of the new synthesis come out ahead in all this: experimental science and utilitarianism. Experimental science gets more grant money. Utilitarianism gets the final say.

Utilitarianism has a scientific component, but it also has a convenient relativistic component that fits our times well. It can be used to justify any morality simply on the basis of whatever the social consensus is. The greatest number of people simply has to pronounce one form of life better (more happiness-producing) than another.

In After Virtue (1981), the philosopher Alasdair MacInytre observed this tendency as it relates to rights. We believe in natural rights, and we pretend natural rights are real, but, in fact, MacIntyre explains, what underlies all this is the principle of utility: We have natural rights until the moment when the social consensus decides the idea of natural rights is no longer convenient, at which point the consensus decides what rights we do have and to what degree. For example, we supposedly have a right to our property, but the taxman decides how much of a right. We supposedly have a right to free speech, but diversity experts decide how much of a right. All of these final decisions are defended by the principle of utility.

Hunter and Nedelisky describe a variation on this when they criticize the work of neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland who, in the end, uses neuroscience not to understand morality but to understand social norms. Social norms are nothing more than whatever people agree on at the moment, justified by the principle of utility.

The authors are too kind in their description of the quest, calling it “The Promethean Temptation,” as if it were idealistic but understandable, even a little heroic. I would use a different metaphor. We have become like the man who tries to conduct an orchestra, all the while being ignorant of music. The man waves his hands in front of well-rehearsed musicians, and the musicians still play well by virtue of their own momentum and because of what previous conductors taught them. The music is morality; the new conductor is science; and the previous conductors are religion. But while the music continues for a while, the gesticulations made by the man who knows nothing about music eventually confuse the musicians and throw them off course. The result is cacophony.

This captures today’s situation, made no better by science’s attempt to instruct people on morality when science itself has no idea how we should conduct our lives.