Towards an empirical morality

ResearchBlogging.orgAndrew Sullivan links to a thought-provoking 1998 essay by E.O. Wilson, in which the champion of sociobiology delves into the question of whether morality arises from divine revelation or natural selection. Wilson takes an interesting position, attempting to turn the question around by ninety degrees:

But the split is not, as popularly supposed, between religious believers and secularists. It is between transcendentalists, who think that moral guidelines exist outside the human mind, and empiricists, who think them contrivances of the mind. In simplest terms, the options are as follows: I believe in the independence of moral values, whether from God or not, and I believe that moral values come from human beings alone, whether or not God exists. [Italics sic.]

Photo by lumierefl.

Although this perspective pulls back from the God-vs.-Science dilemma, it doesn’t quite eliminate it. Science tends to lean towards the “moral values come from human beings alone” position, and not just because any “transcendent” source of morality is probably beyond the scope of scientific inquiry. Exhibit A is the “trolley dilemma” dissected eloquently in a 2006 episode of Radio Lab: To prevent a runaway trolley from hitting a group of bystanders, most people judge it moral to pull a lever to divert the trolley onto a side track, even if doing so kills one person standing on the side track. But ask them to push that single person into the path of the trolley to stop it hitting the crowd, and most people balk.

In the experiment at the focus of that Radio Lab episode, Joshua Greene and his coauthors used functional magnetic resonance imaging to look at brain activity in people considering the two variants of the trolley dilemma, and found evidence that the dilemma creates a conflict between rational and emotional responses [PDF]. “Rational” parts of the brain were active in the decision to pull the lever, but “emotional” ones were involved in unwillingness to push a person into the trolley’s path. As Greene et al. write:

The thought of pushing someone to his death is, we propose, more emotionally salient than the thought of hitting a switch that will cause a trolley to produced similar consequences, and it is this emotional response that accounts for people’s tendency to treat these cases differently.

This result suggests that there isn’t some universal, transcendent standard of morality by which people are making decisions – in either pushing or lever-pulling, the choice is whether or not to sacrifice one life for the sake of many. But something in the fundamental architecture of the human brain determines that sometimes morality is judged in purely utilitarian terms and sometimes it isn’t. This is the kind of data that bears on the transcendence versus empiricism debate that Wilson outlines.

But empirical morality seems to run directly into the “naturalistic fallacy,” conflating that which is with that which ought to be. Wilson argues that empirical morality does not assume that the innate moral judgments of the human brain are also the judgments we ought to make – instead, it requires constant introspection and re-examination of the consequences produced by society’s moral code:

The empiricist view recognizes that the strength of commitment can wane as a result of new knowledge and experience, with the result that certain rules may be desacralized, old laws rescinded, and formerly prohibited behavior set free. It also recognizes that for the same reason new moral codes may need to be devised, with the potential of being made sacred in time.

That seems an inherently progressive point of view, one not far removed from the way Jesus described a morality that built on and universalized the old Jewish law, as with revenge: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matt. 5:38-9, italics mine) And Jesus also tells his disciples to judge prophets not by their appeal to some special (transcendent?) revelation, but “by their fruit,” the consequences of their teachings (Matt. 7:15-22).

Yet – how do we judge what is a good outcome and what is a bad one? Science is good for predicting the consequences of actions and moral positions, but it is unable to determine which ones are good. Ultimately, empirical morality must proceed from some basic ethical framework, some agreed-upon prior definitions of “good” and “bad.” But that’s not really a victory for the transcendentalists. Even a perfectly articulated Platonic morality needs data from which to proceed – how many people are in the trolley’s way, and how much mass it would take to stop the trolley. Morality without reference to the empirical world is worse than meaningless. And the only access we have to the empirical world and its mechanisms is the scientific method.


J.D. Greene, R.B. Sommerville, L.E. Nystrom, J.M. Darley, J.D. Cohen (2001). An fMRI Investigation of Emotional Engagement in Moral Judgment Science, 293 (5537), 2105-8 DOI: 10.1126/science.1062872


3 thoughts on “Towards an empirical morality

  1. I like the point of Jesus doing the same, but there are older Jewish texts that build upon newer discoveries. The Jewish history of doing so is more closely linked to Law in the Christian world and was mostly handled in something called the Talmud. The growth of moral codes is something that has been relatively frozen over the last 2000 years and from what I see is only n now beginning to advance beyond where the people of Jesus Christs era were. Even then there is a layer of complexity in cultural differences that it is still beyond most peoples reach to build a model to analyze moral conduct on a global scale, instead I see a lot of attempts forming much more localized conclusions which is where the conclusions should stay until a better model evolves.

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