The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Science   /   Fall 2016   /    The Cultural Contradictions Of Modern Science

Where the New Science of Morality Goes Wrong

James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky

Illustration (detail) by Roy Scott/Ikon Images/Getty Images.

A science of morality must be able to demonstrate empirically that its claims about morality are true.

Can science provide the foundation of morality?

The social implications of this question are enormous. We live in a time rife with disagreement, conflict, and violence—a time marked by clashes that are often rooted in competing conceptions of the good. How, then, do we settle disagreements among rival ethical systems? Surely in a day of cosmopolitan sophistication, there must be some rational method that might help arbitrate these disputes, some compelling logic that might provide a common foundation for moral belief and commitment. Does science offer the answer?

Many would reflexively say “no.” But such dismissals overlook what some of the brightest lights in Western philosophy and science have attempted to do during the last four centuries. And while that quest has had its ups and downs, it continues in the efforts of some of the most prominent philosophers and scientists at work today. Those efforts have already greatly influenced public discourse, not least through books and articles whose authors claim to show “how science can determine human values” or to disclose “the universal moral instincts caused by evolution.” Should we be surprised? The methods of science—observation, experimentation, theory building—have delivered a persuasive picture of the material world, producing a broad consensus from a wide range of physical and natural sciences. Perhaps science can do for morality what it has done for physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, and mathematics, and the technologies upon which they are based.

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