Science and Moral Life   /   Spring 2013   /    Introduction

Science and Moral Life

An Introduction

Joseph E. Davis

© Anil Shukla (detail).

Everywhere we turn we seem to be confronted by scientists and popularizers of science making claims that free will is an illusion, that reason plays little role in moral judgment, that the “neural foundations” of morality have been discovered, and the like. Moral behavior and judgment are “grounded” in the brain, we are informed, and new scientific discoveries in experimental psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology will transform much of what we thought we understood about our moral agency and ourselves.

The successful marketing of the “new science of morality” suggests its considerable allure for the popular imagination. There are many reasons for its appeal, but its alleged value-neutral scientific validity is crucial. The new science enthusiasts promise “hard,” objective truth about human nature and a path beyond ethical relativism, naïve folk psychology, and failed social policies. The claims being made are big and consequential. On what precisely do they rest?

The new science is concerned with several general problems. The most prominent field of research is on “moral judgment” and its causes (see Kihlstrom’s essay). Another aims to discover the biochemistry of the “ethical brain,” the “moral molecules” that account for altruism,trust, cooperation, and care of others (see Moss’s essay). Overlapping with these is research that centers on the roots of the “moral brain” in evolution (see de Zengotita’s essay).

The science turns out to be far less revolutionary than advertised. The conceptions of morality and moral judgment are highly truncated, typically limiting “moral judgment” to how subjects respond to highly contrived laboratory experiments. The findings neither explain morality nor undermine the role of reason and agency, meaning and experience. The conceptual and methodological limitations of these studies are too severe to warrant any conclusions—revolutionary or otherwise—about human moral life.

Warranted or not, challenges are being made and with social consequences. The new science aims to influence the world, framing its message in a language of enlightenment, reform, and progress. This, too, is part of its popular appeal and requires our critical attention (see Slaby’s essay).

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