books book reviews

books on science and ethics

reviewed by T. Nelson


Science and the Good:
The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality

by JD Hunter and P Nedelisky
Yale 2018, 289 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

Can science be the foundation of morality? That's the question these two authors ask. Their answer, of course, is no. But there is a more fundamental question here: can morality ever have a solid foundation, or is it a mere cultural construct?

For morality to have a solid foundation, there would have to be some value that is universally held—something that is accepted by everyone to be morally right or wrong. In medicine, that value is survival. This is not culturally contingent, but it lacks universality: many moral conundrums cannot be reduced to questions of life and death. Conversely, peace, happiness, and justice are clearly culturally contingent and therefore also cannot be a basis for morality. And, the authors say, neither science nor religion have an answer. But this is something we already know.

In the first few chapters they spin a hearty revisionist tale trying to show that “science” has tried to define a morality to replace religion and has failed. They claim that people like Jonathan Haidt, Patricia Churchland, and E. O. Wilson proposed a scientific morality. They did not. Like Darwin, they never tried to invent a theory of morality, but only described it and its possible evolution. If some scientists did propose a scientific morality, they weren't speaking as scientists, but as educated thinkers (which they have a right to do), and their ideas never caught on.

Most of the other “scientists”—Locke, Hobbs, Bentham, etc., as well as moderns Joshua Greene and Alex Rosenberg, are either philosophers or fringe figures, and their writings, interesting as they may be, have never been a part of science. Yet the authors repeatedly call them “moral scientists” and their philosophical speculations “science.”

The examples pulled from the scientific literature confirm what I'm saying: they are all descriptions of how moral judgments are made in the brain or how they might have evolved. Nowhere is the basic claim in this book that science is trying to define morality even remotely established, and so the argument that it has failed is unsound. Just as Thomas Nagel missed the mark by blaming Darwinism for not solving a problem for which it was not designed, these authors miss the mark by blaming science for failing to succeed at something it's not designed for and is not trying to do. Calling a philosopher a scientist six hundred times does not make him or her one.

The only credible argument one could make is that some scientists believe there is no such thing as absolute morality at all. This is, of course, a widespread view in modern society, but it also doesn't support the case that science has failed or that it would fail if it found some way of addressing the question.

apr 20, 2019