The Science of Morality, Part 1 | Ideas with Paul Kennedy


How do we know right from wrong? For centuries, religion and philosophy tried to provide answers. Now psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology are weighing in. What can science tell us about our moral beliefs? And where, exactly, do morals come from? Science journalist Dan Falk investigates.

Guests on the program:

Paul Bloom, Yale University

Sean Carroll, California Institute of Technology

Patricia Churchland, University of California, San Diego

Frans de Waal, Emory University/Yerkes National Primate Research Center

Joshua Greene, Harvard

Jonathan Haidt, NYU

Sam Harris

Liane Young, Boston College


Listen to the program at the link below.

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  1. When it comes to morality, people in the following three fields are automatically to be the experts, religion, philosophy, and psychology.  None of them is science.

  2. Religion is proven to be corrosive to morality and moral values,moral philosophy is just speculative,not to be taken too seriously,modern psychology however is a science because of it’s allegiance to the scientific method.

  3. We have the considerably advanced ability to consider ourselves in the other persons shoes.
    From the old adage that was seized by the writers of the bible: “Do unto others as you would have done to yourself”. 
    I really don’t see why the debate causes so much confusion or why it has to be associated with some sort of supernaturality.

  4. I think anyone can express his/her opinion about morality.  Any human.
    This program is about Science of Morality.  Thus, for the sake of the title, it makes sense to call in scientists.

    I am not saying you are wrong.   It is always good to also listen to contrasting ideas.

  5. Yes.  To see moral acts in animals, we need observation and data collection.  Therefore, science is very relevant.

  6. Yes.  Whatever we perceive as good behaviour is also put into practice and examined through experience.  Experience will tell us whether the right is really right and beneficial to us as community or not.  At times this may take a long time due to delusional beliefs.  The society will gradually rise against the specific harmful behaviour over time.  We all can think of many examples, which are common to all societies.

    In summary, it is experimenting and creating rules and experimenting again etc.  All laws are based on experiences, and some were taught to us.  The ones given to us may or may not be beneficial to the society.  Here is when secular morality, for instance, rises against bronze age rules and demolishes them.

  7. I am very interested to see what comes out of this. I think that although we can’t absolutely determine with scientific methods what we ought to do, we can use these methods to look into what it is that we want to do (and don’t want to do), and how that comes about. All that adds to better overcoming things that may have selected for genes in our ancestors, but reduce the quality of life we live today.

  8. That’s one of the things I like most about science, it doesn’t even attempt to determine anything ABSOLUTELY.

  9. In behaviourals studies, the analysis is done two ways: 1. Quantitative analysis and 2. Qualitative analysis.

    As long as scientists can observe and collect data and use one or both of these methods, they can give us meaningful results.  The results become more and more meaningful when the observations and related results are replicated and consistency is proven based on high scientific probability.

    As you said, absolutism cannot be achieved in anything.  For instance, the electronics we use have been invented using scientific methods, which rely on probability and observations/detection.  The electronic switches have been achieved as a result of knowledge obtained in Quantum Mechanics, which does not determine anything in absolute manner, but uses scientific/statistical probability.  The high probability allows us  have confidence and go further and use our inventions.  Or, the high probability gives us confidence to use medicinal drugs to cure diseases or reduce their symptoms.

    Absolutism, as you know, belongs to delusional way of thinking and is arrogant. 

  10. They talked about infant morality where a baby preferred to get less candy for itself to avoid another getting more than it did.  The scientists found this amusing.

    Yet most adults indulge in an even more extreme form of this morality.  Adults will pay a large sacrifice to punish someone they believe is wicked even if not harmful.

    The city of Victoria did a study and discovered they could save tens of millions of dollars every year if they simply housed the homeless. Jeff Bray of the provincial government acknowledged this years ago. Why the resistance to act on it? People are are willing to sacrifice dollars out of their pocket to punish the homeless. They don’t care that a large chunk of them were kicked out of their homes by their parents for being gay. They don’t care that many of them were simply laid off and could not get another job. They know, without looking, that the problem is laziness, the homeless refusing jobs offered to them. Of course, for many, the problem is substance abuse. They imagine they are living a luxurious life of idleness. It is not all that fun if you consider what is like to do without clothes, shoes, socks, food, dentistry, medical care, TV, Internet, a warm place to sleep… The police confiscate any possessions the homeless manage to accumulate. Landing a job is hard at the best of times. How does a homeless person get a job without a phone, a haircut or clean clothes for the interview? This is a right-wing nastiness, enjoying kicking someone when they are down. It is the adult form of bullying.

  11. This trolley problem is highly artificial.  The possible choices are laid out.  In reality you look for other options you have not considered yet.  The  outcomes are precisely predicted.  That is not the way the real world works.  There are the legal repercussions to consider. You are far more likely to do nothing in reality than act decisively because of the high uncertainty, so people are really answering how they think they should act, not how they actually would.

    My complaint is  all kinds of psych experiments make the presumption the subjects who were lied to believed whatever they were told, and never saw through any charades acted out for them. I think this unlikely given that psych student subjects surely know that psychology experimenters nearly always lie.

  12. What can science do for morality?

    I started programming computers when I was 15 in the days of punch cards and plug-boards. Back then I wore a white lab coat to announce my priest status that permitted me to be in the presence of the computer. Anything on computer printout was believed without question. I predicted that computers would get better and better at predicting the consequences of our decisions. The computer would be a reliable salesman for rational behaviour. People, on knowing exact consequences, would necessarily choose sensibly. This is not as true as I hoped. For example, people still deny the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions for religious or short term economic reasons.

  13. The term morality refers to three different things:
    1. Imposing ancient rules of conduct derived from iron-age religions on others.
    2. Deciding what to do when short and long term interests call for different actions.
    3. Arranging group behaviour that benefits all, but which would be detrimental if most in the community did not co-operate.

  14. I listened to both parts, and I do recommend them to all here. We had a long and heated thread about this at the old Richard Dawkins site after Sam’s TED talk came out. I will go find that and put up the link when I do.

    Sean Carroll calls Sam out for not having a true answer to is/ought, and Sean is correct. However, what I think Sam is getting at is the idea that he does not need a provably correct solution in order to come up with something that is useful in our actual lives. Sam does not escape Hume because Sam does start off with fuzzy assumptions that he can’t prove based on scientific facts. Sam is also jumping in at the middle of the film where the story of human civilization has been going on these thousands of years and we have all these different systems of moral codes forming his landscape. He is asking the question if we can use our reason to look at two different points in the landscape and use objective reasoning to pick which we would rather have, based on common negotiated goals of having better lives. Yes, the assumptions and the active move to “flourishing” are neither well defined nor provable.

    It is a very big subject, and I will have to take it piece by piece for a while. I think Sam would be better off if he recognized exactly what Sean says about Hume, and then went on to explain why that problem can be made into a difference that does not make a difference in practice. That is what I expected to read when I picked up “The Moral Landscape” but was disappointed that Sam swept it under the rug as if no one would care (or should care). You don’t have to prove the axioms of Euclidean geometry in order to cut the wood to build a house. In fact, you rarely have to use more than a few of the infinite possible angles. We don’t have to solve is/ought to make useful moral systems. We just can’t prove them to be “ideal” which they are never going to be, anyway (that part I can prove). It would be foolish to let the unattainability of the ideal, stop us from making things “better.”

  15. We don’t expect any other aspect of reality to be ideal, someone has yet to show me a proper euclidean plane, so I don’t see why we should expect morality to be.

  16. I’m with Harris on this. If you can’t get an ought from an is, then where do you get an ought from? I think the problem is that when it comes to the is/ought distinction, some people are defining “ought” in a way that renders it practically meaningless.

  17. You can’t logically deduce an ought from an is, that was Hume’s point. But science doesn’t just work by simple logical deduction, it also uses our ability to reason inductively and thereby to make rational predictions.

  18. “To start the car you SHOULD turn on the ignition.” Now which part of that is not logical? 

  19. The assumption that I want to start the car. It’s a rational assumption to make, just not entirely logical. Pure logic isn’t really much use practically.

  20. Most of the rest of the statement is also not purely logical. Turning the ignition will not always result in the car starting, perhaps the battery is dead or there is some other electrical fault. Also, there is nothing in pure logic which tells us that electricity or chemical reactions or any of the other laws of physics will continue to function as they do now. All of science is based on observation and the assumption that things will continue to work in roughly the same way.

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