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Science, what it can’t tell us about morality


Meditations of a 21st century incarnation of Socrates as composed by Brent Silby


How do I behave morally? This has been a central question in my search for wisdom. In recent discussions I have found that some people think that science can answer all questions relevant to human lives. This belief has been called “scientism” and is held in particularly high regard by people such as Sam Harris. But I am not sure it is true. Are all questions answerable by science? Can a scientist tell me how to behave morally?┬áLet us look at how Sam Harris might answer this question.

Based on his writings, Harris is likely to answer the question in the affirmative — yes, a scientist can tell me how to behave morally. If this is true, I may finally have found the wisdom I have been seeking since my time in Athens. Let us examine the argument he puts forward in his wonderful book “The Moral Landscape”:

Premise #1: Morality is all about improving the well-being of conscious creatures

Premise #2: Scientific investigation reveals facts about the well-being of conscious creatures

Conclusion: Therefore scientific investigation reveals facts about what is objectively moral

This is deductively valid. Can Harris use science to answer my ancient question? Let us reword the argument with a specific example.

Premise #1: Morality is all about improving the well-being of conscious creatures

Premise #2: Scientific investigation reveals that altruism improves the well-being of conscious creatures

Conclusion: Therefore scientific investigation reveals that altruism is objectively moral

By Zeus, it appears that Sam Harris has used science to tell me what is moral. But appearances do not always reflect that which is true. To be sure, we must check the premises.

Premise 2 can be easily established through observation. Premise 1, on the other hand, defines what morality is about. Oh dear. I am now afraid that my question has remained unanswered. Harris suggests that science can tell me what is moral, but his argument only works if he starts with a definition of what is moral. That definition is assumed and was not established through science. Harris, therefore, has not explained how science can tell me how to behave morally. It is as if he is saying “Allow me to use science to tell you how to behave morally. But before we begin, we need to state up front that behaving morally is improving the well-being of conscious creatures”.

Harris was promising, but he has not convinced me that science can answer my question. I shall continue my search for wisdom elsewhere.

— Socrates

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