emphatic apes

What do primates teach us about ourselves? Given the common misperception that we stand miles higher on the evolutionary scale, this means that in my book apes move up a few steps whereas humans move down a few. If an extraterrestrial were to visit earth, he would have a hard time seeing most of the […]

What do primates teach us about ourselves?

Given the common misperception that we stand miles higher on the evolutionary scale, this means that in my book apes move up a few steps whereas humans move down a few. If an extraterrestrial were to visit earth, he would have a hard time seeing most of the differences we treasure between ourselves and the apes. The number of similarities is far greater – from our ears and hands to our sexual behavior and power politics. Within this mass of shared traits a few important differences can be discerned, such as the use of language, but we tend to blow these differences out of proportion. People have a profound need to set themselves apart and feel superior. But in fact, we are not just close to the apes: we ARE apes (To be precise: we belong to the primate order, within which the main distinction is between New World and Old World primates, and between monkeys and the Hominoids. The latter family includes only humans, apes, and gibbons).

Sources for Imanishi Kinji’s views of sociality and evolutionary outcomes.

Abstract

Prior to the contribution of genetics or the modern evolutionary synthesis (MES)to natural selection theory, social ecologists searched for factors in addition to natural selection that could influence species change. The idea that sociality, not just biology, was important in determining evolutionary outcomes was prevalent in research in social ecology in the 1920s and 1930s. The influence of ‘tradition’ (or the transmission of learned behaviours between generations) and the view that animals are active in selecting their own environments,rather than passive organisms acted upon by chance, were given as much attention as natural selection theory in European ecology,while animal aggregation and cooperation studies were pursued in America. Imanishi Kinji’s personal library and his scientific notes and papers reveal that he was well aware of this literature and had been profoundly influenced by these earlier viewpoints prior to writing his view of nature in his first book, Seibutsu no Sekai (The World of Living Things,1941). Evidence is presented to show that he developed his theories based partly on early western debates in social ecology while finding inspiration and a way to express his views in the writings of philosopher Nishida Kitaro and, perhaps, General J C Smuts. One of Imanishi’s lasting contributions is in the demonstrated results of over 40 years of subsequent ecological and ethological research by Imanishi and those trained by him that maintained the broader viewpoints on evolution that had been dropped from the western corpus of research by the 1950s. The current attempt to again get beyond natural selection theory is reflected in debates surrounding genetic and cultural evolution of cooperation,the biology of ‘traditions’ and the idea of ‘culture’ in animal societies.

PMID:
17762136
[PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

Free full text

Published on Aug 25, 2012

Empathy, cooperation, fairness and reciprocity — caring about the well-being of others seems a very human trait. But Frans de Waal shows several surprising videos of behavioral tests with primates and other mammals, that show how many of these moral traits all of us share.

Empathie, samenwerking, eerlijkheid en wederkerigheid — geven om het welzijn van anderen lijkt een heel menselijke eigenschap. Maar Frans de Waal toont enkele verrassende video’s van gedragstesten met primaten en andere zoogdieren, die aantonen hoeveel van deze morele eigenschappen we allemaal delen.

Oorspronkelijke/original video: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/fran…
Gefilmd in november 2011 bij TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design).

Published on Sep 22, 2012
Science journalist Lone Frank speaks with professor Frans de Waal, who is doing research into non-human animals and non-human animal behaviour at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, among other places.

emphatic apes

What do primates teach us about ourselves? Given the common misperception that we stand miles higher on the evolutionary scale, this means that in my book apes move up a few steps whereas humans move down a few. If an extraterrestrial were to visit earth, he would have a hard time seeing most of the […]

What do primates teach us about ourselves?

Given the common misperception that we stand miles higher on the evolutionary scale, this means that in my book apes move up a few steps whereas humans move down a few. If an extraterrestrial were to visit earth, he would have a hard time seeing most of the differences we treasure between ourselves and the apes. The number of similarities is far greater – from our ears and hands to our sexual behavior and power politics. Within this mass of shared traits a few important differences can be discerned, such as the use of language, but we tend to blow these differences out of proportion. People have a profound need to set themselves apart and feel superior. But in fact, we are not just close to the apes: we ARE apes (To be precise: we belong to the primate order, within which the main distinction is between New World and Old World primates, and between monkeys and the Hominoids. The latter family includes only humans, apes, and gibbons).

Sources for Imanishi Kinji’s views of sociality and evolutionary outcomes.

Abstract

Prior to the contribution of genetics or the modern evolutionary synthesis (MES)to natural selection theory, social ecologists searched for factors in addition to natural selection that could influence species change. The idea that sociality, not just biology, was important in determining evolutionary outcomes was prevalent in research in social ecology in the 1920s and 1930s. The influence of ‘tradition’ (or the transmission of learned behaviours between generations) and the view that animals are active in selecting their own environments,rather than passive organisms acted upon by chance, were given as much attention as natural selection theory in European ecology,while animal aggregation and cooperation studies were pursued in America. Imanishi Kinji’s personal library and his scientific notes and papers reveal that he was well aware of this literature and had been profoundly influenced by these earlier viewpoints prior to writing his view of nature in his first book, Seibutsu no Sekai (The World of Living Things,1941). Evidence is presented to show that he developed his theories based partly on early western debates in social ecology while finding inspiration and a way to express his views in the writings of philosopher Nishida Kitaro and, perhaps, General J C Smuts. One of Imanishi’s lasting contributions is in the demonstrated results of over 40 years of subsequent ecological and ethological research by Imanishi and those trained by him that maintained the broader viewpoints on evolution that had been dropped from the western corpus of research by the 1950s. The current attempt to again get beyond natural selection theory is reflected in debates surrounding genetic and cultural evolution of cooperation,the biology of ‘traditions’ and the idea of ‘culture’ in animal societies.

PMID:
17762136
[PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

Free full text

Published on Aug 25, 2012

Empathy, cooperation, fairness and reciprocity — caring about the well-being of others seems a very human trait. But Frans de Waal shows several surprising videos of behavioral tests with primates and other mammals, that show how many of these moral traits all of us share.

Empathie, samenwerking, eerlijkheid en wederkerigheid — geven om het welzijn van anderen lijkt een heel menselijke eigenschap. Maar Frans de Waal toont enkele verrassende video’s van gedragstesten met primaten en andere zoogdieren, die aantonen hoeveel van deze morele eigenschappen we allemaal delen.

Oorspronkelijke/original video: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/fran…
Gefilmd in november 2011 bij TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design).

Published on Sep 22, 2012
Science journalist Lone Frank speaks with professor Frans de Waal, who is doing research into non-human animals and non-human animal behaviour at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, among other places.

Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development

Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development by Saul McLeod published 2015 Piaget (1932) was principally interested not in what children do (i.e. in whether they break rules or not) but in what they think. In other words he was interested in children’s moral reasoning. Piaget was interested in three main aspects of children’s understanding of moral […]

Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development

by twitter icon published 2015

Piaget (1932) was principally interested not in what children do (i.e. in whether they break rules or not) but in what they think. In other words he was interested in children’s moral reasoning.

Piaget was interested in three main aspects of children’s understanding of moral issues.

objective morality

Is there an absolute objective moral value? This is one of the first unsolvable questions of Philosophy. There are claims made by some that without God there would be no absolute morality. I do not follow the argument. The gist … Continue reading

Is there an absolute objective moral value? This is one of the first unsolvable questions of Philosophy. There are claims made by some that without God there would be no absolute morality. I do not follow the argument. The gist seems to be that since there is no objective basis for an absolute morality, and since an absolute morality seems to be a good thing, and since the existence of God would be an absolute reference, then God exists. There are two problems with this approach.

For one, there is a conceptual difficulty referred as the Euthyphro dilemma, found in Plato‘s dialogue Euthyphro, in which Socrates asks Euthyphro, “Is the pious (?? ?????) loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”  The dilemma has had a major effect on the philosophical theism of the monotheistic religions, but in a modified form: ” Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?”

One the other, once moral good and evil is defined, there is necesarly Evil. The “Epicurean paradox,” or the problem of evil,   is a trilemma argument (God is omnipotent, God is good, but Evil exists), commonly seen as this quote:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

This argument was a type favored by the ancient Greek skeptics, and may have been wrongly attributed to Epicurus by Lactantius, who, from his Christian perspective, regarded Epicurus as an atheist.  It has been suggested that it may actually be the work of an early skeptic writer, possibly Carneades. The earliest extant version of this trilemma appears in the writings of the skeptic Sextus Empiricus 160 – 210 AD.

In the Tetrapharmakos (Greek: ?????????????), or, “The four-part cure,”  the Greek philosopher Epicurus‘ (341 BC,Samos – 270 BC, Athens) offerd four remedies for healing the soul:

?????? ? ????,
????????? ? ???????
??? ??????? ??? ????????,
?? ?? ?????? ??????????????
(PhilodemusHerculaneum Papyrus, 1005, 4.9–14)

“The fundamental obstacle to happiness, says Epicurus, is anxiety,” writes D. S. Hutchinson

Don’t fear god,
Don’t worry about death;
What is good is easy to get, and
What is terrible is easy to endure
(PhilodemusHerculaneum Papyrus, 1005, 4.9–14)

Kahlil Gibran expressed this ideas like this:

“Don’t call the physician, for he might extend my sentence in this prison by his medicine. The days of slavery are gone, and my soul seeks the freedom of the skies. And do not call the priest to my bedside, because his incantations would not save me if I were a sinner, nor would it rush me to Heaven if I were innocent. The will of humanity cannot change the will of God, as an astrologer cannot change the course of the stars. But after my death let the doctors and priest do what they please, for my ship will continue sailing until it reaches its destination.”

The moral imperative You shall not murder, included as one of the Ten Commandments in the Torah, it is qualified by context and claims of self defense. The imperative is against unlawful killing resulting in bloodguilt. The Hebrew Bible contains numerous prohibitions against unlawful killing, but also allows for justified killing in the context of warfarecapital punishment, and self-defense. In fact, religious texts sometimes define piety by the willingness to kill at God´s command. The Book of Mormon starts with this concept. In Chapter 4 of the Book of Nephi, it says:

10 And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him.

11 And the Spirit said unto me again: Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. Yea, and I also knew that he had sought to take away mine own life; yea, and he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord; and he also had taken away our property.

12 And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands;

13 Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.

14 And now, when I, Nephi, had heard these words, I remembered the words of the Lord which he spake unto me in the wilderness, saying that: Inasmuch as thy seed shall keep my commandments, they shall prosper in the land of promise.

15 Yea, and I also thought that they could not keep the commandments of the Lord according to the law of Moses, save they should have the law.

16 And I also knew that the law was engraven upon the plates of brass.

17 And again, I knew that the Lord had delivered Laban into my hands for this cause—that I might obtain the records according to his commandments.

18 Therefore I did obey the voice of the Spirit, and took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword.

The Old Testament establishes the holiness of Abraham by his willingness to kill his own son. The Binding of Isaac (in Hebrew the ???????? ???????, Akedát Yitz?ák, also known as “The Binding” ??)????????), the Akedah or Aqedah,[1][2]or in Arabic as the Binding of IshmaelDhabih (????) or “Slaughter”), is a story from the Hebrew Bible in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah. The account states that Abraham “bound Isaac, his son”[3] before placing him on the altar.

According to the Hebrew Bible, God commands Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. (Genesis 22:5 and 22:8). After Isaac is bound to an altar, the angel of God stops Abraham at the last minute, saying “now I know you fear God.” At this point Abraham sees a ram caught in some nearby bushes and sacrifices the ram instead of Isaac.

An angel prevents the sacrifice of Isaac.Abraham and IsaacRembrandt, 1634

The Book of Genesis does not tell the age of Isaac at the time. The Talmudic sages teach that Isaac was thirty-seven, likely based on the next biblical story, which is of Sarah’s death at 127, being 90 when Isaac was born.

Genesis 22:14 states that the event occurred at “the mount of the LORD”. 2 Chronicles 3:1Psalm 24:3Isaiah 2:3 & 30:29; and Zechariah 8:3, identify the location of this event as the hill on which Solomon was said to later build the Temple, now believed to be the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

The majority of Jewish religious commentators argue that God was testing Abraham to see if he would actually kill his own son, as a test of his loyalty. However, a number of Jewish Biblical commentators from the medieval era, and many in the modern era, read the text in another way.

The early rabbinic midrash Genesis Rabbah imagines God as saying “I never considered telling Abraham to slaughter Isaac (using theHebrew root letters for “slaughter”, not “sacrifice”)”. Rabbi Yona Ibn Janach (Spain, 11th century) wrote that God demanded only a symbolic sacrifice. Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi (Spain, early 14th century) wrote that Abraham’s “imagination” led him astray, making him believe that he had been commanded to sacrifice his son. Ibn Caspi writes “How could God command such a revolting thing?” But according to Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz (Chief Rabbi of the British Empire), child sacrifice was actually “rife among the Semitic peoples,” and suggests that “in that age, it was astounding that Abraham’s God should have interposed to prevent the sacrifice, not that He should have asked for it.” Hertz interprets the Akedah as demonstrating to the Jews that human sacrifice is abhorrent. “Unlike the cruel heathen deities, it was the spiritual surrender alone that God required.” In Jeremiah 32:35, God states that the later Israelite practice of child sacrifice to the deity Molech “had [never] entered My mind that they should do this abomination.”

The Sacrifice of Isaac, a painting on the floor ofBeit Alfa Synagogue

Other rabbinic scholars also note that Abraham was willing to do everything to spare his son, even if it meant going against the divine command: while it was God who ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son, it was an angel, a lesser being in the celestial hierarchy, that commanded him to stop. However, the actions and words of angels (from the Greek for “messenger”) are generally understood to derive directly from God’s will.

In some later Jewish writings, the theology of a “divine test” is rejected, and the sacrifice of Isaac is interpreted as a “punishment” for Abraham’s earlier “mistreatment” of Ishmael, his elder son, whom he expelled from his household at the request of his wife, Sarah. According to this view, Abraham failed to show compassion for his son, so God punished him by ostensibly failing to show compassion for Abraham’s son. This is a somewhat flawed theory, since the Bible says that God agreed with Sarah, and it was only at His insistence that Abraham actually had Ishmael leave. In The Last Trial, Shalom Spiegel argues that these commentators were interpreting the Biblical narration as an implicit rebuke against Christianity’s claim that God would sacrifice His own son.

The Tzemach Tzedek[4] cites a question asked by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk: At first glance, this appears to have been mainly a test of Isaac, for he was the one to be giving up his life al kiddush Hashem (in order to sanctify God’s Name). However the Torah states (Gen. 22:1) that God meant to test Abraham, not Isaac? Rabbi Menachem Mendel answers that although it is a very great Mitzvah to give up one’s life, it is unremarkable in the annals of Jewish history. Even the most unlettered and “ordinary” Jews would surrender their lives in martyrdom. Thus, as great a Mitzvah as it is, this test is considered trivial for someone of the spiritual stature of Isaac, who, as one of our forefathers, was likened to God’s “chariot” (Gen. Rabba 47:6) for he served as a vehicle for the divine traits of kindness, strictness, and compassion.

Rather, at the binding the main one tested was Abraham. It was a test of faith to see whether he would doubt God’s words. Abraham had been assured by God that “Your seed will be called through Isaac” (Gen. 21:12), i.e., Isaac (and not Ishmael) would father a great nation—the Jewish people. However, Abraham could apparently have asked a very glaring question: at the time that God commanded him to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice, Isaac was still single, and if Isaac would die now, how could he possibly father the nation which was to be born from Abraham? Moreover, isn’t God eternal and unchanging, as God declares: “I have not changed” (Malachi 3:6), implying that He does not change His mind?

Abraham believed with faith that if this is what God was telling him to do now, this was surely the right thing to do. It was passing this test that was remarkable even for someone of Abraham’s stature.

In The Binding of Isaac, Religious Murders & Kabbalah, Lippman Bodoff argues that Abraham never intended to actually sacrifice his son, and that he had faith that God had no intention that he do so. Others suggest[who?] that Abraham’s apparent complicity with the sacrifice was actually his way of testing God. Abraham had previously argued with God to save lives in Sodom and Gomorrah. By silently complying with God’s instructions to kill Isaac, Abraham was putting pressure on God to act in a moral way to preserve life. More evidence that Abraham thought that he won’t actually sacrifice Isaac comes from Genesis 22:5, where Abraham said to his servants, “You stay here with the ass. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you.” By saying that we (as opposed to I), he meant that both he and Isaac will return. Thus, he didn’t believe that Isaac would be sacrificed in the end.[5]

In The Guide for the PerplexedMaimonides argues that the story of the Binding of Isaac contains two “great notions.” First, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac demonstrates the limit of humanity’s capability to both love and fear God. Second, because Abraham acted on a prophetic vision of what God had asked him to do, the story exemplifies how prophetic revelation has the same truth value as philosophical argument and thus carries equal certainty, notwithstanding the fact that it comes in a dream or vision

In Glory and Agony: Isaac’s Sacrifice and National NarrativeYael S. Feldman argues that the story of Isaac’s Binding, in both its biblical and post-biblical versions (the New Testament included) has had a great impact on the ethos of altruist heroism and self-sacrifice in modern Hebrew national culture. As her study demonstrates, over the last century the “Binding of Isaac” has morphed into the “Sacrifice of Isaac,” connoting both the glory and agony of heroic death on the battlefield.

Jihad (English pronunciation: /d???h??d/Arabic: ????? ?ih?d [d?i?hæ?d]), an Islamic term, is a religious duty of Muslims. In Arabic, the word jih?d translates as a noun meaning “struggle” or “resisting”. The word jihad appears in 23 Quranic verses.[1] Within the context of the classical Islam, particularly the Shiahs beliefs, it refers to struggle against those who do not believe in the Abrahamic God (Allah).[2] However, the word has even wider implications and interpretations.

Jihad means “to struggle in the way of Allah”. Jihad appears 41 times in the Quran and frequently in the idiomatic expression “striving in the way of God (al-jihad fi sabil Allah)“.[3][4][5] A person engaged in jihad is called a mujahid; the plural is mujahideen. Jihad is an important religious duty for Muslims. A minority among the Sunni scholars sometimes refer to this duty as the sixth pillar of Islam, though it occupies no such official status.[6] In Twelver Shi’a Islam, however, Jihad is one of the 10 Practices of the Religion.

There are two commonly accepted meanings of jihad: an inner spiritual struggle and an outer physical struggle.[3] The “greater jihad” is the inner struggle by a believer to fulfill his religious duties.[3][7] This non-violent meaning is stressed by both Muslim[8] and non-Muslim[9] authors. However, there is consensus amongst Islamic scholars that the concept of jihad will always include armed struggle against persecution and oppression.[10]

The “lesser jihad” is the physical struggle against the enemies of Islam.[3] This physical struggle can take a violent form or a non-violent form. The proponents of the violent form translate jihad as “holy war”,[11][12] although some Islamic studies scholars disagree.[13] The Dictionary of Islam[3] and British-American orientalist Bernard Lewis both argue jihad has a military meaning in the large majority of cases.[14] Some scholars maintain non-violent ways to struggle against the enemies of Islam. An example of this is written debate, often characterized as “jihad of the pen”.[15]

According to the BBC, a third meaning of jihad is the struggle to build a good society.[7] In a commentary of the hadith Sahih Muslim, entitled al-Minhaj, the medieval Islamic scholar Yahya ibn Sharaf al-Nawawi stated that “one of the collective duties of the community as a whole (fard kifaya) is to lodge a valid protest, to solve problems of religion, to have knowledge of Divine Law, to command what is right and forbid wrong conduct”.

The Quran contains at least 109 verses that call Muslims to war with nonbelievers for the sake of Islamic rule.  Some are quite graphic, with commands to chop off heads and fingers and kill infidels wherever they may be hiding.  Muslims who do not join the fight are called ‘hypocrites’ and warned that Allah will send them to Hell if they do not join the slaughter.

In the US most pro-lifers are at the same time pro-gunners. In fact, pro-life, pro-gun, and anti-homosexuality is the tripod base of the moral issues that define the conservative right in the US. The same voices that claim that God is the source is the source of morality proclaim that Science is the source of Evil:

As a watchman on the tower, I feel to warn you that one of the chief means of misleading our youth and destroying the family unit is our educational institutions. There is more than one reason why the Church is advising our youth to attend colleges close to their homes where institutes of religion are available. It gives the parents the opportunity to stay close to their children, and if they become alerted and informed, these parents can help expose some of the deceptions of men like … Charles Darwin.

Ezra Taft Benson

In the United States at the turn of the 20th century, Darwinism was greeted with glee because it seemed so compatible with the prevailing ideology of theday,  where robber-baron capitalists like the Carnegies, Mellons, Sumners, Stanfords and yes, even Jack London, could not stop rattling on about how the “survival of the fittest” justified crushing unions, exploiting immigrant labor or being left unregulated to amass huge fortunes while administering monopolies. A ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality is deeply entrenched in our culture. Despite the fact that this Wild West mentality  is a historical byproduct, it is now attributed to Darwin’s Origin of the Species.

Religious fundamentalists are sincere on their view of the World as a battleground between Good and Evil. For them anything that undermines faith in God, especially with regards to children, is utterly evil. The teaching of Science to children, in particular Evolution, is seen as a threat to children indoctrination. Nonetheless,  the attack on Evolution is an attack on Science as a whole. Science is not about what to believe but rather a method to perceive Reality. It is the critical objective look at reality aspect of Science that is perceived as a treat by the religious establishment. However,  teaching religious ideas as an alternative to factual descriptions of reality undermines science education by misinforming students about the scientific method — the basis for science literacy. It must be said that there is a propagandistic perversion of language, and there are religious groups that use the language of science to mislead and actually undermine a scientific conceptualization of Reality.

Because Science wins over Religion on factual description of Reality, the attack on Science is made nowadays on moral grounds.  From the point of view of religious fundamentalists, Science is a competing religion, although a silly one at that. Then the scientific community is under attack with this straw-man argument against evolution:

But if design, conversely, is rational, why do so many scientists reject it? Because this is not an issue of science, but of religion. Their religion is that of materialism and naturalism, and they are under no illusions as to the implications of design.

James M Tour, in the blog entry Layman’s Reflections on Evolution and Creation. An Insider’s View of the Academy, claims insufficient understanding of what he calls Macroevolution.  At the end of his article, Tour makes a reference to the movie, “Expelled. No Intelligence Allowed.” He asserts that a subset of the scientific establishment is retarding the careers of Darwinian skeptics. He closes citing  Viktor Frankl , The Doctor and the Soul with the comment If Frankl is correct, God help us:

“If we present a man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present man as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instinct, heredity and environment, we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone.

“I became acquainted with the last stage of that corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment; or as the Nazi liked to say, ‘of Blood and Soil.’ I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers [emphasis added].”

 

The movie Expelled main theme is that what it calls Darwinism inherently contain the seeds of Nazism, and even more Darwinism equals Nazism. This frighteningly immoral narrative is capped off a la Moore, with shots of the Berlin Wall, old stock footage of East German police kicking around those trying to escape through the wall to the West and some solemn blather by Ben, who calls upon each one of us to rise up in defense of freedom and knock down a few walls in order to get creationism back into the curriculum at American Schools.

The morality of Science is best exemplified by the words of Bertrand Russell:

“I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should want to say is this: When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.

The moral thing I should wish to say… I should say love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more closely and closely interconnected we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”

— BBC’s Face to Face interview of Bertrand Russell, British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, Nobel Prize

However, one must accept that there is a danger on overplaying the objectivity of Science. A lot of modern development of technology has been payed by the arms industry. The Wind Rises (???? Kaze Tachinu?) is a 2013 Japanese animated historical drama film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, that deals with this ambiguity.  The Wind Rises is a fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi (1903–1982), designer of the Mitsubishi A5M and its successor, theMitsubishi A6M Zero; both aircraft were used by the Empire of Japan during World War II. Jiro Horikoshi’s first work was the flawed Mitsubishi 1MF10, an experimental aircraft that never passed the prototype stage after some flight tests. However, lessons learned from this design led to the development of the far more successful Mitsubishi A5M (Allied codename “Claude”) which entered mass production in 1936. Some time later Horikoshi and his team at Mitsubishi were asked, in 1937, to design Prototype 12 (corresponding to the 12th year of the Showa era). Prototype 12 was completed in July 1940, and it was accepted by the Imperial Japanese Navy. Since 1940 was theJapanese year 2600, the new fighter was named as “Model 00″ or “Zero” or A6M Zero, in Japan also known as the “Rei-sen” (literally meaning “zero fight”, shortened for Model zero fighter airplane). Subsequently, he was involved in many other fighters manufactured by Mitsubishi, including the Mitsubishi J2M Raiden (Thunderbolt) and the Mitsubishi A7M Reppu (Strong Gale). Despite Mitsubishi’s close ties to the Japanese military establishment and his direct participation in the nation’s buildup towards the Second World War, Horikoshi was strongly opposed to what he regarded as a futile war. Excerpts from his personal diary during the final year of the war were published in 1956 and made his position clear:

When we awoke on the morning of December 8, 1941, we found ourselves — without any foreknowledge — to be embroiled in war…Since then, the majority of us who had truly understood the awesome industrial strength of the United States never really believed that Japan would win this war. We were convinced that surely our government had in mind some diplomatic measures which would bring the conflict to a halt before the situation became catastrophic for Japan. But now, bereft of any strong government move to seek a diplomatic way out, we are being driven to doom. Japan is being destroyed. I cannot do [anything] other but to blame the military hierarchy and the blind politicians in power for dragging Japan into this hellish cauldron of defeat.[2]

I believe that moral values are a social construct and that they are the distillation of the knowledge of millennia of what behavior supports an stable society. Every time we engage in activities that hurt others, we will at the end hurt ourselves. This is the ultimate meaning of morality: what is good for ourselves. Epicurus emphasized minimizing harm and maximizing happiness of oneself and others as the basis for morality:

It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly (agreeing “neither to harm nor be harmed”), and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.

Towards a Science of Morality: A Reply to Massimo Pigliucci

In response to Massimo Pigliucci’s criticism of Michael Shermer’s Edge.org piece called “The Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality,” Shermer clarifies his argument for a scientific foundation of moral principles with new definitions and examples where we can employ science to derive findings that show how various social, political, and economic conditions lead to an increase or decrease of the survival and flourishing of individuals.

In this year’s annual Edge.org question “What should we be worried about?” I answered that we should be worried about “ The Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality.” I wrote: “We should be worried that scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong and which values lead to human flourishing”. Evolutionary biologist and philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci penned a thoughtful response, which I appreciate given his dual training in science and philosophy, including and especially evolutionary theory, a perspective that I share. But he felt that my scientific approach added nothing new to the philosophy of morality, so let me see if I can restate my argument for a scientific foundation of moral principles with new definitions and examples.

First, morality is derived from the Latin moralitas, or “manner, character, and proper behavior.” Morality has to do with how you act toward others. So I begin with a Principle of Moral Good:

Always act with someone else’s moral good in mind, and never act in a way that it leads to someone else’s moral loss (through force or fraud).

You can, of course, act in a way that has no effect on anyone else, and in this case morality isn’t involved. But given the choice between acting in a way that increases someone else’s moral good or not, it is more moral to do so than not. I added the parenthetical note “through force or fraud” to clarify intent instead of, say, neglect or acting out of ignorance. Morality involves conscious choice, and the choice to act in a manner that increases someone else’s moral good, then, is a moral act, and its opposite is an immoral act.

Given this moral principle, the central question is this: On what foundation should we ground our moral decisions? We have to ground the foundations of morality on something, and we secularists (skeptics, humanists, atheists, et al.) are in agreement that “divine command theory” is untenable not only because there probably is no God, but even if there is a God divine command theory was refuted 2500 years ago by Plato through his “Euthyphro’s dilemma,” in which he asked “whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods?”, showing how it must be the former—moral principles must stand on their own with or without God. Rape, for example, is wrong whether or not God says it is wrong (in the Bible, in fact, God offers no prohibition against rape, and in fact seems to encourage it in many instances as a perquisite of war for victors). Adultery, which is prohibited in the Bible, would still be wrong even if it were not listed in the Decalogue.

How do we know that rape and adultery are wrong? We don’t need to ask God. We need to ask the affected moral agent—the rape victim in question, or our spouse or romantic partner who is being cuckolded. They will let you know instantly and forcefully precisely how they feel morally about that behavior.

Here we see that the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) has a severe limitation to it: What if the moral receiver thinks differently from the moral doer? What if you would not mind having action X done unto you, but someone else would mind it? Most men, for example, are much more receptive toward unsolicited offers of sex than are women. Most men, then, in considering whether to approach a woman with an offer of unsolicited sex, should not ask themselves how they would feel as a test. This is why in my book The Science of Good and Evil I introduced the Ask-First Principle:

To find out whether an action is right or wrong, ask first.

The moral doer should ask the moral receiver whether the behavior in question is moral or immoral. If you aren’t sure that the potential recipient of your action will react in the same manner you would react to the moral behavior in question, then ask…before you act. (This principle applies to rational sane adults and not to children or mentally ill adults. Asking a 12-year old girl raised in a polygamous family belonging to the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints if she feels it is moral to marry a man in his 60s who is already married to many other women is not a rational test because she does not have the capacity for moral reasoning.)

But what is the foundation for why we should care about the feelings of potentially affected moral agents? To answer this question I turn to science and evolutionary theory.

Given that moral principles must be founded on something natural instead of supernatural, and that science is the best tool we have devised for understanding the natural world, applying evolutionary theory to not only the origins of morality but to its ultimate foundation as well, it seems to me that the individual is a reasonable starting point because, (1) the individual is the primary target of natural selection in evolution, and (2) it is the individual who is most affected by moral and immoral acts. Thus:

The survival and flourishing of the individual is the foundation for establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality.

Here we find a smooth transition from the way nature is (the individual struggling to survive and flourish in an evolutionary context) to the way it ought to be (given a choice, it is more moral to act in a way that enhances the survival and flourishing of other individuals). Here are three examples:

In his annual letter Bill Gates outlined how and why the progress of the human condition can best be implemented when tracked through scientific data: “I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve amazing progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal.”

Halving Extreme Poverty (graph from Bill Gates' Annual Letter

One notable sign of progress is seen in this graph from Gates’ Annual Letter (right).

If the survival and flourishing of the individual is the foundation of values and morals, then this graph tracks moral progress because we can say objectively and absolutely that reducing extreme poverty by half since 1990 is real moral progress. On what basis can we make such a claim? Ask the people who are no longer living on less than $1.25 a day. They will tell you that living on more than $1.25 a day is absolutely better than living on less than $1.25 a day. Why is it better? Because individuals are more likely to survive and flourish when they have the basics of life.

This is why Bill Gates is backing with his considerable wealth and talent the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals program that is supported by 189 nations, in which the year 2015 was set as a deadline for making specific percentage improvements across a range of areas including health, education, and basic income. Gates reports, for example, that the number of polio cases has decreased from 350,000 in 1988 to 222 in 2012. Is that a moral good? Ask the 350,000 polio victims. They’ll tell you. Or ask the 5.1 million children under the age of 5 who didn’t die in 2011, who in 1990 would have died (Unicef reports that the number of children under 5 years old who died worldwide was 12 million in 1990 and 6.9 million in 2011).

Bill Gates delivering report

Caption from Gates’ Annual Letter: Getting a closer look at charts documenting rural health progress at the Germana Gale Health Post in Ethiopia. Over the past year I’ve been impressed with progress in using data and measurement to improve the human condition (Dalocha, Ethiopia, 2012).

A second example may be found on the opposite end of the economic sale in a study conducted for the National Bureau of Economic Research entitled “Subjective Well-Being, Income, Economic Development and Growth” by the University of Pennsylvania economists Daniel Sacks, Betsey Stevenson, and Justin Wolfers, in which they compared survey data on subjective well-being (“happiness”) with income and economic growth rates in 140 countries. The economists found a positive correlation between income and happiness within individual countries, in which richer people are happier than poorer people; and they also found a between-country difference in which people in richer countries are happier than people in poorer countries. As well, they found that an increase in economic growth was associated with an increase in subjective well being: “These results together suggest that measured subjective well-being grows hand in hand with material living standards.” How much difference? “A 20 percent increase in income has the same impact on well-being, regardless of the initial level of income: going from $500 to $600 of income per year yields the same impact on well-being as going from $50,000 to $60,000 per year.” Contrary to previous studies, the economists found no upper limit in which more money does not correlate with more happiness. As well, on a 0–10 scale measuring “life satisfaction,” people in poor countries averaged a 3, people in middle-income countries averaged a 5–6, and people in rich countries averaged a 7–8 (Americans rate their life satisfaction as a 7.4). The economists’ conclusion confirms my moral science theory that the survival and flourishing of individuals is what counts:

The fact that life satisfaction and other measures of subjective well-being rise with income has significant implications for development economists. First, and most importantly, these findings cast doubt on the Easterlin Paradox and various theories suggesting that there is no long-term relationship between well-being and income growth. Absolute income appears to play a central role in determining subjective well-being. This conclusion suggests that economists’ traditional interest in economic growth has not been misplaced. Second, our results suggest that differences in subjective well-being over time or across places likely reflect meaningful differences in actual well-being.

Here is the figure for the relationship between happiness and GDP from this study:

Happiness and GDP chart from World Values Survey

World Values Survey, 1999–2004, and author’s regressions. Sources for GDP per capita are described in the text. The happiness question asks, “Taking all things together, would you say you are: ‘very happy,’ ‘quite happy,’ ‘not very happy,’ [or] ‘not at all happy’?” Data are aggregated into country averages by first standardizing individual level data to have mean zero and standard deviation one, and then taking the within-country average of individual happiness. The dashed line plots fitted values from the reported OLS regression (including TZA and NGA); the dotted line gives fitted values from a lowess regressions. The regression coefficients are on the standardized scale. Both regressions are based on nationally representative samples. Observations represented by hollow squares are drawn from countries in which the World Values Survey sample is not nationally representative; see Stevenson and Wolfers (2008), appendix B, for further details. Sample includes sixty-nine developed and developing countries.

Why does money matter morally? Because it leads to a higher standard of living. Why does a higher standard of living matter morally? Because it increases the probability that an individual will survive and flourish. Why does survival and flourishing matter morally? Because it is the basis of the evolution of all life on earth through natural selection.

There are many more examples like these in which we can employ science to derive all sorts of findings that show how various social, political, and economic conditions lead to an increase or decrease of the survival and flourishing of individuals. This is why in my Edge.org essay I discussed data from political scientists and economists showing that democracies are better than dictatorships and that countries with more open economic borders and free trade are better off than countries with more closed economic borders and restricted trade (think North Korea, whose citizens are on average several inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts because of their crappy diets). These are measurable differences that allow us to draw scientific conclusions about moral progress or regress, based on the increase or decrease of the survival and flourishing of the individuals living in those countries. The fact that there may be many types of democracies (direct v. representative) and economies (with various trade agreements or membership in trading blocks) only reveals that human survival and flourishing is multi-faceted and multi-causal, and not that because there is more than one way to survive and flourish it means that all political, economic, and social systems are equal. They are not equal, and we have the scientific data and historical examples to demonstrate which ones increase or decrease the survival and flourishing of individuals.

woman burned alive in papua new guinea

In this Feb. 6, 2013 photo, bystanders watch as a woman accused of witchcraft is burned alive in the Western Highlands provincial capital of Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea.
(Credit: AP)

One final example on the regress side of the moral ledger: On Wednesday, February 6, 2013, a 20-year old woman and mother of one named Kepari Leniata was burned alive in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea because she was accused of sorcery by the relatives of a six-year-old boy who died on February 5. As in witch hunts of old, the conflagration on a pile of rubbish was preceded by torture with a hot iron rod, after which she was bound and doused in gasoline and ignited while surrounded by gawking crowds that prevented police and authorities from rescuing her. Tragically, a 2010 Oxfam study reported that beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft are not uncommon in the highlands of New Guinea, as well as in many parts of Melanesia in which many people still “do not accept natural causes as an explanation for misfortune, illness, accidents or death,” and instead place the blame for their problems on supernatural sorcery and black magic.

By now it seems risibly superfluous to explain why this is immoral and what the solution is, but in case there is any doubt: We know that belief in supernatural sorcery and witchcraft and their concomitant consequences of torturing and murdering whose so accused is wrong because it decreases the survival and flourishing of individuals—just ask first the woman about to be torched. The immediate solution is the enforcement of laws prohibiting such acts. The ultimate solution is science and education in understanding the natural causes of things and the debunking of supernatural beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft. And it is science that tells us why witchcraft and sorcery is immoral.

Note to my readers: What I am outlining here is the basis for my next book, The Moral Arc of Science, which I am researching and writing now, so I ask you to post your critiques here or email me your constructive criticisms. My role model is Charles Darwin, who solicited criticisms of his theory of evolution and included them in a chapter entitled “Difficulties on Theory” in On the Origin of Species. Of course, if you agree with me, and/or think of additional examples in support of my theory, then I would appreciate hearing those as well!

What Should We Be Worried About?

Michael Shermer responds to this years Edge.org Edge.org Annual Question: “What Should We Be Worried About?”

The following article was first published on Edge.org on January 13, 2012 in response to this year’s Annual Question: “What Should We Be Worried About?” Read Michael Shermer’s response below, and read all responses at edge.org.

The Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality

Ever since the philosophers David Hume and G. E. Moore identified the “Is-Ought problem” between descriptive statements (the way something “is”) and prescriptive statements (the way something “ought to be”), most scientists have conceded the high ground of determining human values, morals, and ethics to philosophers, agreeing that science can only describe the way things are but never tell us how they ought to be. This is a mistake.

We should be worried that scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong and which values lead to human flourishing just as the research tools for doing so are coming online through such fields as evolutionary ethics, experimental ethics, neuroethics, and related fields. The Is-Ought problem (sometimes rendered as the “naturalistic fallacy”) is itself a fallacy. Morals and values must be based on the way things are in order to establish the best conditions for human flourishing. Before we abandon the ship just as it leaves port, let’s give science a chance to steer a course toward a destination where scientists at least have a voice in the conversation on how best we should live.

We begin with the individual organism as the primary unit of biology and society because the organism is the principal target of natural selection and social evolution. Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual organism—people in this context—is the basis of establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality. The constitutions of human societies ought to be built on the constitution of human nature, and science is the best tool we have for understanding our nature. For example:

  • We know from behavior genetics that 40 to 50 percent of the variance among people in temperament, personality, and many political, economic, and social preferences are inherited.
  • We know from evolutionary theory that the principle of reciprocal altruism—I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine—is universal; people do not by nature give generously unless they receive something in return.
  • We know from evolutionary psychology that the principle of moralistic punishment—I’ll punish you if you do not scratch my back after I have scratched yours—is universal; people do not long tolerate free riders who continually take but never give.
  • We know from behavioral game theory about within-group amity and between-group enmity, wherein the rule-of-thumb heuristic is to trust in-group members until they prove otherwise to be distrustful, and to distrust out-group members until they prove otherwise to be trustful.
  • We know from behavioral economics about the almost universal desire of people to trade with one another, and that trade establishes trust between strangers and lowers between-group enmity, as well as produces greater prosperity for both trading partners.

These are just a few lines of evidence from many different fields of science that help us establish the best way for humans to flourish. We can ground human values and morals not just in philosophical principles such as Aristotle’s virtue ethics, Kant’s categorical imperative, Mill’s utilitarianism, or Rawls’ fairness ethics, but in science as well. Consider the following example of how science can determine human values.

Question: What is the best form of governance for large modern human societies? Answer: a liberal democracy with a market economy. Evidence: liberal democracies with market economies are more prosperous, more peaceful, and fairer than any other form of governance tried. Data: In their book Triangulating Peace, the political scientists Bruce Russett and John Oneal employed a multiple logistic regression model on data from the Correlates of War Project that recorded 2,300 militarized interstate disputes between 1816 and 2001. Assigning each country a democracy score between 1 and 10 (based on the Polity Project that measures how competitive its political process is, how openly leaders are chosen, how many constraints on a leader’s power are in place, etc.), Russett and Oneal found that when two countries are fully democratic disputes between them decrease by 50 percent, but when the less democratic member of a county pair was a full autocracy, it doubled the chance of a quarrel between them.

When you add a market economy into the equation it decreases violence and increases peace significantly. Russett and Oneal found that for every pair of at-risk nations they entered the amount of trade (as a proportion of GDP) and found that countries that depended more on trade in a given year were less likely to have a militarized dispute in the subsequent year, controlling for democracy, power ratio, great power status, and economic growth. So they found that democratic peace happens only when both members of a pair are democratic, but that trade works when either member of the pair has a market economy.

Finally, the 3rd vertex of Russett and Oneal’s triangle of peace is membership in the international community, a proxy for transparency. The social scientists counted the number of IGOs that every pair of nations jointly belonged to and ran a regression analysis with democracy and trade scores, discovering that democracy favors peace, trade favors peace, and membership in IGOs favors peace, and that a pair of countries that are in the top tenth of the scale on all three variables are 83% less likely than an average pair of countries to have a militarized dispute in a given year.

The point of this exercise is that in addition to philosophical arguments, we can make a scientific case for liberal democracy and market economies as a means of increasing human survival and flourishing. We can measure the effects quantitatively, and from that derive science-based values that demonstrate conclusively that this form of governance is really better than, say, autocracies or theocracies. Scholars may dispute the data or debate the evidence, but my point is that in addition to philosophers, scientists should have a voice in determining human values and morals.

Morality – Religion, Philosophy and Science

What is the proper basis for morality? This question comes up frequently in skeptical circles for various reasons – it tests the limits of science, the role of philosophy, and is often used as a justification for religion. There has been a vibrant discussion of the issue, in fact, on my recent posts from last […]

What is the proper basis for morality? This question comes up frequently in skeptical circles for various reasons – it tests the limits of science, the role of philosophy, and is often used as a justification for religion. There has been a vibrant discussion of the issue, in fact, on my recent posts from last week. The comments seemed to contain more questions than anything else, however.

Religion and Morality

Often defenders of religion in general or of a particular set of religious beliefs will argue that religion is a source of morality. They may even argue that it is the only true source of morality, which then becomes defined as behavioral rules set down by God.

There are fatal problems with this position, however. The first is that there is no general agreement on whether or not there is a god or gods, and if there is what is the proper tradition of said god. There are scores of religions in the world, each with their own traditions. Of course, if god does not exist, any moral system based upon the commandments of god do not have a legitimate basis (at least not as absolute morality derived from an omniscient god).

Related to this is the issue of religious freedom. It is impossible to base laws on religious beliefs without oppressing the religious freedom of those who do not share those religious beliefs.

Another fatal problem is that, even if we lived in a universe where there is a god who has moral commandments, nobody knows what those are. There is no one who objectively and verifiably knows the will of God, and God has not seen fit to unambiguously make their will known to all of humanity. We are therefore left with the interpretation of God’s will by people, and therefore at best all we know are the interpretations by very fallible and culturally biased people. If the multitude of religious traditions is any indication, this is an extremely variable and flawed filter through which to see the will of God.

Finally there is a philosophical dilemma inherent in basing absolute morality on religious faith. If God’s morality is perfect and absolute, is it so because it comes from God, or is it inherently perfect and God, who is omniscient, is simply able to discern it as so? The latter seems like an untenable position – morality is whatever God says it is, without any appeal to logic or any objective criteria of what a good moral rule would be.

This position, however, seems to fit the evidence from ancient religious texts. As many have pointed out, the morality of the god of the old testament was brutal and even evil by today’s standards – God apparently thought it was OK to murder children for poking fun at his prophets, to rape women, to engage in slavery, and to commit genocide.

If, on the other hand, morality is itself absolute and God simply knows what absolute morality is, then shouldn’t we strive to understand morality and derive proper moral decision-making on our own? If a moral position is objectively correct, then we can demonstrate that objective without appeal to religious faith, avoiding any problems with freedom of religion.

Science, Philosophy, and Morality

To what extent is our moral decision-making, including laws that derive from it, based upon science vs philosophy? I agree with the position, articulated by Massimo Pigliucci, that both science and philosophy are needed for moral reasoning. The other position, defended by Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape, is that we can develop an objective morality based entirely on science.

The problem with the science-only position is that it is dependent upon taking a particular philosophical position – that of consequentialism (also called utilitarianism). This is the philosophical position that the best moral decision is the one that maximizes human happiness. For distinction there is also deontological theory of morality, which states that an ethical system derives from rules. These rules are based upon the most fundamental assumptions possible. An example would be – it is unethical to deliberately deceive another human.

A third system is that of value ethics, which considers the effect of specific moral decision on the values of the person who makes them. This system essentially asks – what kind of people do we want to be, and what kind of society do we want to have?

Personally, I do not think there is any one ethical system that always works. It is legitimate to consider consequences, but also to have a system of rules, and to consider the bigger question of individual and societal values. These get mixed together in a complex way in order to make individual moral decisions. But there is no algorithm or method to always derive the right answer.

Science plays a role in all this – science can tell us about why we have the moral senses that we do. This is based mostly on evolutionary theory and on neuroscience. For example, most humans seem to have an inherent sense of reciprocity and justice. We feel that if we do something good for someone else, they should give back to a similar degree. Further, if someone does something bad against another person or (worse) the group, they should be punished in some way. These are evolved senses, based in the hardwiring of our brains.

None of this, however, can tell us if we should punish those who commit crimes.

Another contribution of science, however, is to tell us about outcomes. If we create certain laws or rules of behavior, what is the outcome? This type of evidence informs ethical decision making, but cannot makes the decisions for us. We still have to decide what outcomes we want, and how to value different outcomes when they conflict. How do we balance freedom and safety, for example? And how do we account for the fact that different individuals would draw the line in different places? How do we balance the rights of different individuals when they conflict?

Science cannot answer these question for us – it can only inform our choices by telling us what the likely outcomes will be.

Those defending science as the final arbiter of ethics either knowingly or unknowingly are taking a consequentialist view. Even if this view can be defended as the best system of ethics (and I do not believe it can), that is still a philosophical choice that needs to be defended philosophically.

Here is an example of why consequentialism breaks down. Would you consider it ethical to take someone against their will, kill them, and harvest their organs in order to save the lives of 5 people (or 6, or some other arbitrary number)? Most people would say no. However, you are saving 5 lives at the expense of 1, and it can be demonstrated that this will maximize happiness all around.

Ethicists would argue that the right not to be killed (a negative right) outweighs the right to be saved with a medical intervention – but this is now invoking ethical rules, not just considering outcomes. Further, we might argue that we would not want to live in a society in which one can be forcibly taken and murdered to have their organs harvested (a value ethics position).

Pure consequentialism, in my opinion, is not a tenable position. In any case, there is simply no way to avoid doing philosophy when thinking ethically.

By the same token it is difficult, and in some cases impossible, to apply moral thinking without having information provided by science. The two disciplines are complementary.

Conclusion

The best approach to morality and ethics, in my opinion, is a thoughtful blend of philosophy and science. I do not see a legitimate role for religion itself, however, cultural traditions (many of which may be codified in religious belief) are a useful source of information about the human condition and the effect of specific moral behaviors. There may be wisdom in such traditions – but that is the beginning of moral thinking, not the conclusion. Religious traditions also come with a great deal of baggage derived from the beliefs and views of fairly primitive and unenlightened societies.