Can science help us act morally?

Ard: What does science tell us about questions like euthanasia or abortion or war, for example?

AR: So science can answer a lot of empirical, factual questions about these matters, okay? But what science can also do is explain why the debates about these issues between two people who fundamentally disagree are intractable, and it’s a mistake to look for resolution of these disputes, and those who hold one side or the other aren’t either morally right or morally wrong: that the search for this more fundamental basis on which we could absolutely adjudicate these questions is a mistake.

Ard: So what should we do then? Given that, say, David and I really disagree about something…

AR: I think it’s an important factor for moral toleration of these disputes. And, at least in some cases, we can come to understand why people have held them over time, why cultures have held to very radically incompatible mores and norms, and even identify how the environmental circumstances in which these mores emerged have changed in a way to make them no longer ones we ought to support.

Foot-binding is a nice example. And a lot of the disputes that we have, cross-culturally, about differences in moral norms are to be unravelled and understood in the way that we now understand foot-binding as a practice which, at its start, was adaptive for individuals and by the end was mal-adaptive for everybody.

Ard: And so your argument is to say we shouldn’t do foot-binding anymore because it’s not adaptive, or should we…?

AR: No. I don’t think that it is in a position to tell you what we ought and ought not do: it is in a position to tell you why we’ve done it and what the consequences of continuing or failing to do it are, okay? But it can’t adjudicate ultimate questions of value, because those are expressions of people’s emotions and, dare I say, tastes. And we understand now what the basis of those differences are from what we understand from neuroscience, or at least we’re beginning. I mean, when I say what neuroscience or cognitive neuroscience can teach us, I’m talking about what my projections and hopes are for the future of a science which has only just begun.

Ard: I think what we both agree on is that science does not answer questions like, ‘What is the value of a human being?’ I think what Alex says is, thus, that question, ‘What is the value of a human being?’ is in fact not a very well-posed question. Whereas I would say…

AR: To some extent these questions are ill-posed. To some extent they are pseudo questions, and to some extent they can be answered by science. That’s what I hold, and there’s no residue left after those three categories are exhausted.