Can Morality Be Grounded in Science?

Each of us knows that certain things are wrong—not because we believe they are wrong, but because they really are wrong. And that applies to the moral relativist as well.

If you want to see a relativist sink into a sophistic seizure, ask him about the “virtues” of cruelty, rape, bigotry, exploitation, or the Holocaust. Even the most liberally minded secularist believes such things are wrong, but without a transcendent peg on which to hang his ethical system, he will be incapable of articulating a coherent moral argument against them. But that could change, if Sam Harris has anything to say about it.

Harris is a rationalist and trenchant atheist who is highly critical of religion and religious folk. But he is also a moral realist who believes in objective moral truths—truths, he is confident, can be grounded in science to form a system of shared moral values.

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His argument goes something like this: the natural world operates according to natural laws discoverable through science; morality is a part of the natural world; therefore, morality follows natural laws discoverable through science.

Logically, his argument is flawless. Practically, it suffers from several serious weaknesses.

Yes, But…
Christians would agree that morality has the features of law, in that it predicts certain outcomes from certain actions. However, while the moral law is predictive, it is not deterministic like the laws of gravity or electromagnetism. If it were, mankind would be reduced to automata slavishly following its moral program.

C.S. Lewis once pointed out that the moral law does not describe what humans do; it describes what we ought to do. As such, the moral law is not discernable, scientifically or otherwise, from actual human behavior.

Harris would be quick to say that morality defines behaviors that enhance human and animal flourishing; we know, scientifically, what many of those are: proper medical care, education, sanitation, and clean water.

Indeed, applied science is responsible for doubling human life expectancy over the last 150 years and for cleaner air and water than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. Then again, the early twentieth-century programs for eugenics, forced sterilization, and selective breeding were morally justified on scientific grounds, as are the arguments today for human cloning and embryo-destructive research.

This brings up another weakness in Harris’s argument: while science can help us toward a desired outcome, it cannot tell us which outcome we ought to desire.

For example, medical technology enables us to harvest stem cells from an embryo, but it doesn’t tell us whether killing a human being at the earliest stage of life is right or wrong. Science has no moral voice; it is only a tool for moral agents who assign values to things.

A friend of mine who is a physician and theologically liberal once told me that if he had to choose between saving the life of a newborn child or an ape, he would lean toward the latter. Taken aback, I asked why.

“Because the ape has intrinsic worth.”

I shot back, “And the child doesn’t? Oh, and by the way, where does the ape’s worth come from?”

He had no answer.

To such questions, science can only shrug. With no transcendent criteria, the calculus of every moral dilemma is left to the privileged class of beings deemed “persons” whose only touchstone is the whim of their collective preferences. And that leads to a third problem with Harris’s schema.

Who Is My Neighbor?
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would deny the moral probity of The Golden Rule. Treating our neighbor as we would want to be treated has been recognized as a universal good in nearly every world religion and civilization since the beginning of recorded history.

What has not been universally recognized, however, is who constitutes our “neighbor.” Is it those who live on our street, in our community, or in our country? Is it those who share our faith, skin color, or politics?  Is it the people in our social group, therapy group, or identity group?

Or are our “neighbors” simply the members of our species? No, according to my physician friend and the folks at PETA. Humans have no privileged standing; to think otherwise is speciesism—a benighted outlook as abominable as racism or sexism.

A while back a slate of high profile animal activists launched the Great Ape Project to raise the status of nonhuman primates to “persons.” If internationally accepted, this would confer the rights of life, liberty, and freedom from torture to our simian “neighbors”—rights that are currently denied humans in utero.

However, we cannot assume that The Golden Rule applies only to the animal kingdom. In 2008, Swiss authorities passed a law protecting the dignity—yes, dignity!—of plants. The law makes it illegal to despoil the dignity of a daisy by decapitation, and requires researchers applying for government grants to explain how they will respect that daisy in the field and the lab. We could all enjoy a hearty laugh if this were science fiction, but it is dead serious.

Taking the logic of the Swiss government a step further, a mother treating her child’s impetigo with Bactroban could be charged with mass murder for killing billions of bacterial microbes for the frivolous purpose of sparing her youngster some discomfort.

A Product of Intelligence
Harris is confident that science-based morality will send religion to the boneyard of discredited ideas. I wouldn’t bet on it. Morality when grounded in science or in some other aspect of the natural world is grounded on quicksand.

Morality comes from purpose, and purpose comes not from the laws of physics or selfish genes, but from intelligent agents. For created things, purpose comes from their creator; for everything else, purpose is whatever its user wants it to be.

Consider a river rock and a digital camera.

A river rock has no intended functional purpose. Its shape, size, color, and texture are the random effects of geological, hydrological, and frictional forces. The lack of intentional design means that it could serve as a skipping stone, paper weight, or conversation piece, according to user tastes and desires.

A digital camera, on the other hand, is a precision instrument that has been designed, engineered, and constructed for a very specific purpose: capturing and recording images on electronic media. And, as with every high-tech gizmo on the market, it comes with operating instructions to help owners with proper use and care.

An owner is free to use his camera as a skipping stone, paper weight, or conversation piece, but he will miss the benefits of its engineered functionality. In fact, any use contrary to its operating instructions risks product failure and customer dissatisfaction.

The Evidence
If we are nothing more than “river rocks,” then there is no ultimate purpose to life, nor right way to live it. Each individual can go about as he sees fit; no one has moral authority over anyone else; and any shared values are left to the vagaries of the 51-percent vote. In short, this kind of morality reduces to power, whether of the democratic majority, the autocratic tyrant, or scientific consensus.

But if we are “digital cameras,” our purpose and “operating instructions” derive from our Maker. Of course, we are free to pursue a different purpose, in a manner grounded elsewhere—be it personal preference, popular opinion, or scientific discovery—but we will eventually find ourselves in the place where we began: unsatisfied and restless.

The universality of The Golden Rule strongly suggests the latter. Despite disagreement over the thousands of world religions and dozens of political systems and ideologies, there is unanimous agreement on a code of conduct that requires restraint of our natural impulses—impulses, we are told, that helped us win nature’s evolutionary struggle. And, as mentioned, the code is not revealed by observing our actual conduct.

It is evidence that the moral code is not a human invention, nor a cipher hidden in the material matrix of the cosmos waiting to be discovered by a white-coated investigator; rather, it is the essence of him in whom “we live and move and have our being,” as revealed in his Word.

(Photo credit: Sam Harris in 2014 / Youtube screenshot)


  • Regis Nicoll

    Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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