Science and Morality (2022)

I am a faithful book buyer and an omnivorous reader, but one with a precocious streak—I like to look up authors and email them with questions about their books. Since penning a book about the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-modification system, readers are now writing to me with all sorts of middle-of-the-night thoughts. Many people think of science as a good thing—STEM has cachet, synonymous with our goodness—but the advance of the life sciences unnerves some people.

A teacher in New Hampshire suggested recombinant DNA research—including CRISPR—was dangerous enough in theory that he has proposed to move it all to the moon (he has not yet secured the funding or political will to do this). A therapist in the Netherlands has started a grassroots campaign to stop the application of CRISPR, a motivation which is linked to her views on the divinity of nature.

(Video) Science can answer moral questions | Sam Harris

Science can discredit our speculations, folk science and illusions about how the world works and what to be afraid of; but the opposite, science as a positive script for what to value or believe has its limitations. Robert Oppenheimer was painfully aware of this when he concluded that “science is not all of the life of reason; it is a part of it.”

CRISPR may indeed be used to create bioweapons through the engineering of microbes, or create pathological strains through unscrupulous genetic manipulation. But the unleashing of dangerous microbes has been a concern at least since the 1970s when recombinant DNA first emerged, not to mention giving rise to films such as the Andromeda Strain and The Stand.

In fact, a temporary moratorium on gene engineering was tried in the 1970s, but many scientists already thought the risks of biohazard were overblown. British microbiologist Ephraim Anderson titled one paper Indiscriminant use of antibiotics has exerted more pressure on the bacterial population than could be wielded by all the research workers in the world put together. We cannot rule-out the prospect that a genetically modified microbe could cause a global threat to humans. But the risks are minute and simply worth enduring, most academics have concluded.

The argument that genes embody a sort of sacrosanct character that should not be interfered with is not too compelling, since artifacts of viruses are burrowed in our genomes, and genes undergo mutations with each passing generation. Even so, the principle that all life has inherent dignity is hardly a bad thought and provides a necessary counterbalance to the impulse to use in vitro techniques and CRISPR to alter any gene variant to reduce risk or enhance features, none of which are more or less perfect but variations in human evolution.

(Video) Richard Dawkins: Letting Science Inform Morality

Indeed, the question of dignity is thornier than we might imagine, since science tends to challenge the belief in abstract or enduring concepts of value. How to uphold beliefs or a sense of dignity seems ever confusing and appears to throw us up against an age of radical nihilism as scientists today are using the gene editing tool CRISPR to do things such astinkerwith the color of butterfly wings, genetically alter pigs, even humans. If science is a method of truth-seeking, technology its mode of power and CRISPR is a means to the commodification of life. It also raises the possibility this power can erode societal trust.

In 2008, the President's Council on Bioethics released a 555-page report, titled Human Dignity and Bioethics, which fielded essays by wide array of thinkers including the progressive philosopher Daniel Dennett and conservatives such as Leon Kass. As Dennett put the problem, “When we start treating living bodies as motherboards on which to assemble cyborgs, or as spare parts collections to be sold to the highest bidder, where will it all end?” The solution of rescuing human dignity from the commercial forces of science, Dennett noted, cannot involve resorting to “traditional myths” since this “will backfire” but instead concepts of human dignity should be based on our sovereign right to “belief in the belief that something matters.”

Dennett argues that faith is important in an everyday sense, such as most people have faith in democracy even as "we are often conflicted, eager to point to flaws that ought to be repaired, while just as eager to reassure people that the flaws are not that bad, that democracy can police itself, so their faith in it is not misplaced.” The point is also true about science, “since the belief in the integrity of scientific procedures is almost as important as the actual integrity.” In fact, we engage in a sort of "belief maintenance” insofar that “this idea that there are myths we live by, myths that must not be disturbed at any cost, is always in conflict with our ideal of truth-seeking” and even as we commit to ideas in public or just in our hearts, "a strange dynamic process is brought into being, in which the original commitment gets buried” in layers of internal dialog and counterargument. "Personal rules are arecursivemechanism; they continually take their own pulse, and if they feel it falter, that very fact will cause further faltering," the psychiatrist George Ainslie wrote in theBreakdown of Will.If science can challenge beliefs, dignity is more primal—it is the right to hold beliefs, make use of science, and exercise belief maintenance.

Dignity is tricky to defend against the explication and engineering of human life by means of chemical processes, and it is complicated by the reality that many people increasingly look to science to shape their view and moral direction, as we are living in a new age of resurgent scientism—an assumption that science encodes values. A century ago, scientism appeared to be all but dead. The modernist break caused rupture between the moral and cultural commitments and sheer existence—hence it led to existentialism and the struggle over defining our commitments.

(Video) Who Says Science has Nothing to Say About Morality?

Whatever it meant to life a good life, it couldn’t be predefined by culture or science. In Anton Chekhov’s 1889 short story, “A Boring Story,” Nikolai Stepanovich, an internationally recognized scientist and professor of medicine, slips into melancholy near the end of his life. Despite his incredible success, his life seems evermore ambiguous, as the modernist movement comes to displace his authority. Katja, a young girl, a representative of the new generation, comes to him asking for advice and guidance, but Nikolai knows he has no way to tell her how to live. The irony is that freedom invoked a melancholy. His physician friend Mikhail Fyodorovich confides in Nikolai, “Science, God knows, has become obsolete. Its song has sung. Yes… Humanity has already begun to feel the need of replacing it with something else.”

In fact, we may be in the midst of a rebound to this break, whereby a resurgent scientism defines the moral directive, and data science is used to shape the arc of our decisions. Scientists can appeal to a mythos of bringing us closer to reality, as if peering into neuroimagery or analyzing the genome gives us information that is more true that life as we experience it. To some extent we learn bits and pieces of what makes us who we are. But ironically, it can weaken our sense of reality due to the obsession with statistical signals, which are often taken out of context, algorithms which speciously shape societal decisions, dating decisions, or pick the next president—much of which fails us. More time and data is going to vastly improve the ability of science to regulate our lives, quite the opposite. This is because the life of the mind often involves the toggling between two opposing ideas, where there are no right decisions. As economist Thomas Sowell put it, “The march of science and technology does not imply growing intellectual complexity in the lives of most people. It often means the opposite.”

In his essay “The Virtue of Scientific Thinking” in the Boston Review, Harvard science historian Steven Shapin, who has also written on how much of our belief in science and the world is based on trust in the written word, has argued that trust in science has a critical role in morality, and that science, say climate science, can indeed be useful to shape values and direct policy decisions. But there are also obvious pitfalls to resurgent scientism. In recent decades, the free inquiry of science has been linked to technology, and thus to modes of institutional power, and monetization.

Therefore, scientific inquiry can be in jeopardy to the extent that it becomes put to the extreme uses of capitalization of the life sciences. Science, once a challenge to institutional authority, has increasingly been defined by status, finance and what look like hierarchical structures, which I think that people subconsciously like to see. But scientists, by close association with biotech, also risk a backlash that people make disengage with them, and begin to see credible facts as merely framing one more business venture. Importantly, we trust that what scientists say is probably true, but there is no guarantee of this trust or belief. In fact, trust is jeopardy as scientists connect their work to modes of technology as a means to personal power, half-million dollar cancer drugs, a billion-dollar CRISPR patent battle, and the like.

(Video) "Hey Bill Nye, How Are Ethics and Morals Related to Science?" #TuesdayswithBIll | Big Think

Science does not provide a positive script—but information to help build that script. For instance, a hypothesis is a proposition or belief that can be tested; but as Karl Popper once suggested, a hypothesis cannot be proven, only disproven (one black swan proves not all swans are white, but more white swans do not)since a given can never be completely proved—there is always the chance of a challenge by new data. Science offers no starting points, and there are questions of whether science is, in fact, leading us to any complete view of nature, which will be unchallenged, or, in some way, enlightened.

Increasingly, some scientists deny a Theory of Everything. Physical systems may be in a state of competition; in other words—there is no logic at the basis of reality. Therefore, while science is a useful tool, we have to at least entertain the prospect that it only leads to an abyss of time—an ongoing building and rebuilding of human histories. I suspect it will fail as a singular means to guide us to any conflict-free reality, and that we are far from done struggling with the consequences of the modernist break.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Science and Morality (1)

(Video) The Science of Morality

    Jim Kozubek is the author of Modern Prometheus: Editing the Human Genome withCrispr-Cas9, published by Cambridge University Press.Credit: Nick Higgins

    Recent Articles by Jim Kozubek

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    Can science answer morality? ›

    Questions of good and evil, right and wrong are commonly thought unanswerable by science. But Sam Harris argues that science can -- and should -- be an authority on moral issues, shaping human values and setting out what constitutes a good life.

    What is the relationship between science and morality? ›

    Across four studies, both naturalistic measures of science exposure and experimental primes of science led to increased adherence to moral norms and more morally normative behaviors across domains.

    What science says about morality? ›

    The science of morality may aim to discover the best ways to motivate and shape individuals. Methods to accomplish this include instilling explicit virtues, building character strengths, and forming mental associations. These generally require some level of practical reason.

    Why is morality important in science? ›

    Ethical Rules in Science

    Ethics is an important consideration in science. Scientific investigations must be guided by what is right and what is wrong. That's where ethical rules come in. They help ensure that science is done safely and that scientific knowledge is reliable.

    Can morality be studied scientifically? ›

    The scientific study of morals has been subject to a tremendous change throughout the past decades, eliciting various theoretical models, paradigms, and methodologies from disciplines as philosophy, social and developmental psychology, cognitive science, or anthropology.

    Can science solve moral disagreements? ›

    The challenge is that moral disagreements are unresolvable by scientific means. Disputes in science can be settled through data confirming or disconfirming hypotheses. Yet, moral disputes cannot be resolved through scientific methods.

    Can science tell us what is right and wrong? ›

    The domain of science is to describe nature, and then to explain its descriptions in terms of deeper patterns or laws. Science cannot tell us how to live. It cannot tell us right and wrong. If a system of thought claims to be doing those things, it cannot be science.

    Who separates science from morality? ›

    People find it very difficult indeed to separate the factual from the emotional. This is why philosopher David Hume, perhaps the most perceptive figure of the 18th century Enlightenment, famously separated “ought”, the dictates of morality, from “is”, the facts of science.

    Can science and human values go together? ›

    Science as a human activity relates to different human values, and therefore it is capable of ethic valuation, both for its consequences, as for its process and its action. For this reason, ethics cannot be separated from the scientific analysis, as the inherited conception pretended.

    Why is it important to know the relationship between science and ethics? ›

    Ethics is an important consideration in science. Scientific investigations must be guided by what is right and what is wrong. That's where ethical rules come in. They help ensure that science is done safely and that scientific knowledge is reliable.

    What does moral science mean? ›

    moral science (countable and uncountable, plural moral sciences) The systematic, scientific study of human nature and relationships.

    Is morality important in our life? ›

    Moral values pave the path for all their decisions in life, as without these values, children do not have any guidance and their life may seem directionless. In order to be accepted and respected by society, parents and caregivers should make sure of imbibing these strong moral values in children as a lifestyle itself.

    Why morality is important in our daily life? ›

    Being treated morally increases happiness, and treated immorally decreases it. Personally engaging in moral acts increased people's sense of meaning and purpose in life. Among other findings, this study revealed that the religious and non-religious were equally likely to commit moral and immoral acts.

    Is morality taught or learned? ›

    Morals and ethics must be taught as they are not ingrained through genetic predisposition. Humans are not born naturally moral. We are taught how to act morally and ethically. They differ from manners and etiquette, however these act as a precursor to the moral being.

    Are all human subject to morality? ›

    Not all human behavior can be classi- fied as moral, however; some of it is nonmoral and some of it is social, having to do with manners, or etiquette, which is essentially a matter of taste rather than of right or wrong.

    How can science inform moral debates? ›

    Scientific evidence often plays that role in moral debates within bioethics today. But it is entirely another thing to suggest that science can answer the moral questions that interest human beings, that by applying the scientific method we can arrive at the objectively "true" moral "fact" about a matter in dispute.

    How do we solve a moral issue? ›

    A 10-Step Process for Resolving Ethical Issues
    1. Identify the problem as you see it.
    2. Get the story straight—gather relevant data. ...
    3. Ask yourself if the problem is a regulatory issue or a process issue related to regulatory requirements.
    4. Compare the issue to a specific rule in ASHA's Code of Ethics.

    What is the best way to solve any moral dilemma? ›

    Have a conversation: With the exception of extreme ethics violations, confronting the individual directly first is often the best way to manage a situation. Provide an opportunity for the person to explain his actions or to correct the behavior first.

    Can science tell us everything? ›

    Science doesn't ask every possible question, it doesn't look for purpose, and it doesn't tell us what's right or wrong. Instead, science tells us what things are and how they came to be.

    Is there an absolute truth in science? ›

    There are no absolute truths in science; there are only approximate truths. Whether a statement, theory, or framework is true or not depends on quantitative factors and how closely you examine or measure the results.

    What is the very foundation of morality? ›

    Moral foundation theory argues that there are five basic moral foundations: (1) harm/care, (2) fairness/reciprocity, (3) ingroup/loyalty, (4) authority/respect, and (5) purity/sanctity. 5 These five foundations comprise the building blocks of morality, regardless of the culture.

    What is moral science with example? ›

    Moral science teaches more values about life, which helps students to respect any person any object, any animal. Moral values are quoted such as HONESTI IS THE BEST POLICY, CHARITY BEGINS AT HOME, LOVE ALL SERVE ALL in many schools on the walls or notice boards to make the child understand these values...

    What is the difference between science and morality? ›

    Science: The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. Morals: A person's standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do.

    How does science relate to human life? ›

    Science generates solutions for everyday life and helps us to answer the great mysteries of the universe. In other words, science is one of the most important channels of knowledge.

    What is the relationship between science and humanity? ›

    Through the same lens, science studies the natural world and how its different species act individually and with others, while humanities studies the inner world of self and the ways which it functions and perceives things.

    How science and life are connected? ›

    Science informs public policy and personal decisions on energy, conservation, agriculture, health, transportation, communication, defense, economics, leisure, and exploration. It's almost impossible to overstate how many aspects of modern life are impacted by scientific knowledge.

    What is moral value in moral science? ›

    Moral values are defined as guidelines that assist a person in deciding between right and wrong. In order to create honest, credible, and fair judgments and relationships in daily life, the awareness of one's morals - along with self-awareness - is crucial.

    Can we live without morality? ›

    Without such rules people would not be able to live amongst other humans. People could not make plans, could not leave their belongings behind them wherever they went. We would not know who to trust and what to expect from others. Civilized, social life would not be possible.

    Does morality have value? ›

    What are Morals? Moral values are relative values that protect life and are respectful of the dual life value of self and others. The great moral values, such as truth, freedom, charity, etc., have one thing in common. When they are functioning correctly, they are life protecting or life enhancing for all.

    How do you apply morality in your daily life? ›

    9 Ethical Behavior & Moral Values in Everyday Life
    1. Make society better. When we help make society better, we are rewarded with also making better own lives and the lives of our families and friends. ...
    2. Treat everyone equally. ...
    3. Secure meaningful employment. ...
    4. Succeed at business. ...
    5. Lessen stress.

    How can we use moral science in our daily life? ›

    Moral science introduces the concepts of self- analysis whereby one puts in mind these purposes versus the society they live in, their feelings and the views of people that play a substantial role in their lives have. In doing so, one can determine what they want in life, and the right way to achieve them.

    Does morality come from the brain? ›

    Specific parts of the human brain are involved in moral reasoning – both the kind that happens very quickly and the kind that is thought out. Damage to certain parts of the brain can dramatically alter moral judgment and behavior.

    Why is morality only for person? ›

    Only Human Beings Can Act Morally. Another reason for giving stronger preference to the interests of human beings is that only human beings can act morally. This is considered to be important because beings that can act morally are required to sacrifice their interests for the sake of others.

    How do we learn morality? ›

    One answer to this is that moral values come from religions, transmitted through sacred texts and religious authorities, and that even the values of non-religious people have been absorbed from the religious history around them.

    What is morality and why is it important? ›

    Morality refers to the set of standards that enable people to live cooperatively in groups. It's what societies determine to be “right” and “acceptable.” Sometimes, acting in a moral manner means individuals must sacrifice their own short-term interests to benefit society.

    Is morality a matter of opinion? ›

    These so called universal moral standards usually incorporate numerous baseless declarations often used by organized social circles as justification for whatever agenda they are endorsing at the time. Outside of a general compassion for fellow peers, moral values are based entirely on opinion.

    Is morality learned or inherited? ›

    Morality is not just something that people learn, argues Yale psychologist Paul Bloom: It is something we are all born with. At birth, babies are endowed with compassion, with empathy, with the beginnings of a sense of fairness.

    What is the relationship between science and philosophy? ›

    Science and philosophy have always learned from each other. Philosophy tirelessly draws from scientific discoveries fresh strength, material for broad generalisations, while to the sciences it imparts the world-view and methodological im pulses of its universal principles.

    What is the difference between science ethics and morality? ›

    Ethics are usually based on logical reasoning and a shared set of values, while morality is often based on gut instinct or religious beliefs.

    What is the relationship between morality and ethics? ›

    Both morality and ethics loosely have to do with distinguishing the difference between “good and bad” or “right and wrong.” Many people think of morality as something that's personal and normative, whereas ethics is the standards of “good and bad” distinguished by a certain community or social setting.

    Is the science of the morality of human acts? ›

    All of the definitions focused on ethics as the study of the human conduct and its special aspects as well as the morality of human act. According to the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, Ethics is the investigation of life.

    Why philosophy is the mother of all sciences? ›

    According to this view, philosophy truly is the mother of all science: it gives birth to new disciplines, takes care of their up- bringing, and, after making sure that they are mature enough, releases them on their own. In this way, every science has philo- sophical origins.

    What is the purpose of philosophy of science? ›

    Philosophy of science is a branch of philosophy concerned with the foundations, methods, and implications of science. The central questions of this study concern what qualifies as science, the reliability of scientific theories, and the ultimate purpose of science.

    Is philosophy and ethics a science? ›

    As a theory about morals, ethics has a double status, both philosophical and scientific, with no possibility to clearly distinguish which side is more important even though, at a given time, the philosophical or scientific interpretation could prevail in relation to a particular issue.

    How does morality relate to values? ›

    People's values define what they want personally, but morals define what the society around those people want for them. Certain behaviors are considered to be desirable by a given society, while others are considered to be undesirable.

    Can a person be moral but not ethical? ›

    Someone doesn't need to be moral to be ethical. Someone without a moral compass may follows ethical codes to be in good standing with society. On the other hand, someone can violate ethics all the time because they believe something is morally right.


    1. Neil deGrasse Tyson: StarTalk Live at Kings Theatre – Science and Morality
    2. Science can answer moral questions - Sam Harris
    3. Sam Harris The New Science of Morality - WITH Q&A
    4. Where Does Morality Come From? | With Sam Harris
    (Ben Shapiro)
    5. Ethics in Science: Should scientists consider how their discoveries might be misused?
    (The University of Chicago)
    6. Sam Harris — The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

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