We look to science for help now more than ever. If there’s a problem to solve, or a disagreement to settle, or a mystery to unravel, we’ve grown accustomed to consulting scientists first and trusting their expertise. Hardly anything is taken to be settled or even knowable until it receives the scientist’s imprimatur.
But in addition to the traditional areas of scientific inquiry and expertise, such as chemistry, physics, and medicine, many now even look to science for guidance on moral questions—and many scientists and science boosters are eager to claim they can provide it. Can science answer those questions too? we might wonder. Can it tell us right from wrong? Can it tell us what has value, and how we ought to live?
In the wake of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, many thought evolutionary science did indeed answer moral questions—by showing there were no objective moral facts. Moral nihilism followed Darwin’s theory like night follows day. Embracing Darwinism, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously proclaimed “God is dead” and urged humanity to move “beyond good and evil” into a new era—the era of the Overman in which traditional moral values are replaced by the unalloyed will to power. This toxic teaching motivated eugenics, aspects of Nazism, and the brooding forlornness of existentialism. In effect, for several decades, Darwinism led to answering moral questions by denying that moral questions have answers.
Morality was reduced to empty sentiment.
New Perspective on Morality
Recent attempts to ground morality in science try to draw connections between our moral convictions and our purported evolutionary past—in a different way. This is not the dark nihilism of a century ago. Now we’re told that evolution’s real legacy is kindness, cooperation, and altruism. This new and ubiquitous view can be found in the likes of Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, PBS Nova specials, NPR’s Science Friday, and popular magazines like National Geographic, Time, and Newsweek, just to name a few. Such sources try to ground moral facts in evolutionary facts, concluding that evolution has replaced God as the author of the moral law.
This novel view is tailor-made to fit a kinder, gentler set of values. It’s now common to hear that evolution didn’t select aggressive, violent, self-seeking behaviors after all; it preferred cooperation, altruism, and compassion instead. It was through tenderness, not harshness, that we got to where we are today. In a fantastic coincidence, what is natural according to this new view turns out to fit perfectly with the progressive, communitarian values of our age.
In a fantastic coincidence, what is natural according to this new view turns out to fit perfectly with the progressive, communitarian values of our age.
Armed with these arguments, many claim science can indeed answer moral questions by informing us of the conditions and causes of human well-being. The tactic is to reframe moral questions as questions about what promotes human flourishing, and then to say that science is uniquely qualified to answer those questions.
The more science progresses, the more information it will collect about what causes us to be happy, healthy, and fulfilled, and therefore the better it will continue to be at providing moral guidance. Moral questions are understood as inquiries into the most successful ways to promote our thriving. For any given moral conundrum, then, the question should be answered by discerning the path that maximizes human health and well-being, as determined by science.
Altruism is our true evolutionary heritage, and science tells us how to achieve our benevolent aims.
Information, Not Wisdom
This approach raises a number of concerns, but first look at what it gets right. To some extent it’s true that science can provide helpful insights on a number of factors relevant to moral decision-making. It can help us to understand how people tend to behave and think, and what sorts of personal and environmental factors are best suited to emotional and mental health. There are new insights from psychologists and cognitive scientists about how moral convictions develop and change. They’ve learned a lot about the role of parents, educators, peers, and other factors in shaping one’s ethical beliefs. Economic models have become more sophisticated and include findings from psychology and the social sciences in their calculations. In addition, we’ve learned a lot about the human body and how to keep people healthy, free them from disease and discomfort, and extend their lifespans.
There’s no doubt advances in science have contributed in these ways. But in each of these cases, nothing is offered but conditional imperatives: if you want to prevent heart disease, then lower your cholesterol; or if you want to avoid cancer, then limit your exposure to toxins. But those are mere hypothetical statements. What they do not do is tell everyone how they ought to live regardless of what they want. Nor do they tell us what we ought to value or how we should prioritize competing obligations.
In other words, science can provide us with information, but not wisdom. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, we keep hearing: “Listen to the scientists! Let science tell us what to do!” But that can only work if we all agree first about those meta-questions regarding what to value most and how to rank and balance all of the concerns vying for priority. Once the objectives are agreed on, science can sometimes provide information on how to achieve them—but it can never tell us what the objectives should be in the first place.
Science can provide us with information, but not wisdom.
To provide what’s required for morality, we need guiding principles that are independent of our desires and circumstances. We need something that tells us what we ought to do regardless of how we feel. After all, the person who always does whatever they feel like doing is not a moral paragon but a menace to society. The argument is that evolution has inclined us to altruism because it is more helpful to survival; therefore, we ought to live unselfishly and love our neighbors as ourselves. The new view is that science provides us with everything we need to ground the claim that love and kindness are good, and selfishness and violence are bad. Those traits promoted the success of our species, so they’re good.
But that’s a gap of stunning magnitude. Those upholding this argument want to say we should choose altruism because it has better promoted our flourishing as a species, yet that doesn’t answer the truly central question: Why I should care about anyone else’s flourishing, much less the flourishing of some abstraction like “the species”? Why should anyone else’s well-being concern me unless it has a direct bearing on my own?
Along with our kinder and gentler inclinations, do we not all discover greedy, self-centered, and reprehensible desires as well? If it turned out I could promote my well-being through selfish and wicked behavior, why shouldn’t I? It’s easy to imagine a group of moral monsters out-competing their rivals for limited resources and winning the evolutionary game—a game where the winner is simply the one who passes on their genetic material. Wouldn’t their selfish, violent disregard for the weak be good and right since it promoted their success in the only way evolution cares about? So, again, why choose altruism over selfishness when either can achieve evolution’s one and only goal: genetic replication?
Why choose altruism over selfishness when either can achieve evolution’s one and only goal: genetic replication?
Note well what the answer can’t be: because those selfish behaviors are just plain wrong. When the only possible justification for our moral imperatives is that they promote the survival of the group, we’re right back into the existentialists’ nightmare—in a world without God, all things become permissible. There is nothing left to ground the universal obligation to look after the well-being of others.
Moral Command vs. Feeble Suggestion
This is a powerful and apologetically useful conclusion, for it shows the gospel can provide something science never can. If evolutionary naturalism is right, then despite our moral feelings there is no moral law and there are no moral truths. But since most people, Christian and unbeliever alike, think there really are moral truths—that kindness and altruism are morally superior to selfishness and violence, and not merely because they help us survive—then it follows that evolutionary naturalism is inadequate, since it has no way to supply the moral law we all embrace.
Apart from God, “love thy neighbor” can never be a binding moral command—only be a feeble suggestion. The objective grounds of morality must lie outside the evolutionary processes and beyond its reach. As useful as it is in many ways, science cannot answer moral questions, now or ever. It wasn’t designed to.