Massimo Pigliucci:

Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer has gotten onto the same “science can determine moral values” bandwagon as other scientistically-minded writers such as Sam Harris. But this commentary isn’t directly about Shermer’s latest book [1], and even less about Harris (about whose ideas I’ve written more than enough [2]). Rather, it concerns a more specific claim about science-driven moral progress made by Michael in a recent article that appeared in the libertarian Reason magazine, entitled “Are We Becoming Morally Smarter? The connection between increasing IQs, decreasing violence, and economic liberalism” [3]. The piece is an interesting mix of good points, good reasoning, bad points, and bad reasoning. I am going to try to sort things out in the interest of stimulating further discussion.

Yeah, I saw recently that Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature and Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape had apparently produced this bouncing baby boy (I didn’t even know they were dating!). Judging by this review (which was pretty fun to read), I doubt Shermer’s going to bring any more to the discussion than Harris did, which wasn’t terribly impressive itself.

In fact, speaking of Harris, Kenan Malik offered what I thought to be a definitively damning summary of the problems facing these attempts to ground moral values in science:

Science cannot determine values because one cannot scientifically assess what is right and wrong without having already constructed a moral framework within which to evaluate the empirical data. Or, as Huxley put it, science ‘may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about, but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before’.

For Harris, as for many of the New Atheists, the desire to root morality in science derives from an aspiration to demonstrate the redundancy of religion to ethical thinking. The irony is that the classic argument against looking to God as the source of moral values — the Euthyphro dilemma — is equally applicable to the claim that science is, or should be, the arbiter of good and evil. In Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates asks the question: do the gods love the good because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the gods? If the good is good simply because gods choose it, then the notion of the good becomes arbitrary. If, on the other hand, the gods choose the good because it is good, then the good is independent of the gods.

The same dilemma faces contemporary defenders of the claim that science defines moral values. Harris argues that wellbeing can be defined through data gained through fMRI scans, physiological observation, pharmacological measures, and other such techniques. Such studies may be able to tell us which brain states, neurotransmitters or hormones calibrate with particular real-world conditions. But whether those states, neurotransmitters or hormones are seen as indicators of wellbeing depends on whether we consider those real-life conditions as expressions of wellbeing. If wellbeing is defined simply by the existence of certain neural states, or by the presence of particular hormones or neurotransmitters, or because of certain evolutionary dispositions, then the notion of wellbeing is arbitrary. If such a definition is not to be arbitrary, then it can only be because the neural state, or the hormonal or neurotransmitter level, or the evolutionary disposition, correlates with a notion of wellbeing or of the good, which has been arrived at independently. The Euthyphro dilemma can no more be evaded by scientists claiming to have objective answers to questions of right and wrong than it can by theologians.