A Scientific Definition of Morality

We live in an age of moral confusion. Is homosexuality immoral? Can female genital mutilation be justified? Is forced child marriage ever acceptable? Our present confusion is partly a result of the globalised age in which we live. Never before have we been so exposed to the enormous diversity of cultural norms and moral values that exist in different parts of the world as we are today. And never before has it been so obvious that people in different cultures see morality in very different ways.   

One response to this moral diversity has been to view morality as culturally determined. People who subscribe to such cultural relativism believe that there is no way of objectively deciding what is right and what is wrong. Banning women from driving is fine in Saudi Arabia, and forcing children to marry is acceptable in India, the argument goes, but both practices would be morally wrong in Scandinavia. Taken to its extreme, cultural relativism would hold that hanging gay men would be wrong in San Francisco but is justifiable in Tehran.

In their efforts to gloss over real differences in values and avoid embarrassing confrontations, cultural relativists argue that all religions, cultures and beliefs deserve equal respect, even if they differ from your own. I strongly disagree. Cultures, religions and beliefs do not deserve respect – people do! If a culture, religion or belief causes needless suffering for people, then it is not to be respected. Moral relativism is wrong because it allows any practice, no matter how barbaric, to be justified in the name of custom and belief. It sets us morally adrift, unable to recognise right from wrong. The most powerful arguments against moral relativism, I believe, are the voices of those who find themselves the victims of oppressive cultural and religious practices, and who ask that their humanity too be respected.

A Scientific Definition of Morality

Sam Harris, in his book The Moral Landscape, argues that the definition of morality must include a concern for the well-being of other conscious creatures. Morality, Harris argues, really relates to the intentions and behaviours that affect the well-being of others. I find Harris’s definition of morality deeply convincing.

But this definition immediately raises the question as to why the well-being of others should matter to us. The answer is that concern for the well-being of others is deeply engrained in our biological and psychological make-up. Indeed, the ability to feel concern for the well-being of others is a fundamental part of the definition of what a human being is.

Concern for the well-being of others constitutes a bottom line in our definition of humanity. Acting without concern for others – by inflicting needless suffering, by considering others in purely instrumental terms as things to be exploited and destroyed – violates our humanity. Being able to recognise this distinction between concern and total disregard is what morality is. And as Harris argues, being able to make this distinction is hard-wired into our physical and psychological make-up. Morality is a scientific fact.

The Importance of Culture

In his book Amador, Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater offers his fifteen year old son advice on how to live a good life. Savater reminds Amador that a human being is not born a man or a woman in the way that a peach grows as a peach, or a leopard arrives in the world as a leopard. Human beings, he says, unlike leopards or peaches, undergo a long cultural apprenticeship in which we come to learn who we are and to act with humanity towards others. ‘Humanity is not a given,’ Savater writes. ‘We possess the possibility of becoming human, but we will never be so if not for others. No one becomes human alone.’

The crucial truth that Savater is pointing to is that although morality – our biological ability to recognise concern for others as right and to recognise total disregard for others as wrong – is innate within us, the values of the culture in which we grow up can either nourish this biological heritage or negate it.

How a Dangerous Minority Corrupts Morality

At this point it is crucial to recognise a second scientific fact. Modern psychology has discovered that a minority of humanity – perhaps five percent of the human population – does not have the biological and psychological hard-wiring that allows them to experience concern for others. Psychopaths in particular, but also those with narcissistic personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder, suffer from a deficit in their psychological make-up that translates into a total absence of morality.  People with these disorders are incapable of viewing others with concern, and instead see others as things to be used and discarded as they see fit. The immoral actions of this minority account for the majority of suffering in our world.

When we recognise the fact that this amoral minority has held power throughout history, and continues to hold positions of power and authority around the world today, we can begin to understand how ‘culture’ can distort the moral development of the normal majority of humanity.

There are many cultural tools which this minority has used to distort morality – religions which preach hate; economic doctrines that insist that greed is good; communist ideologies that promise an end to oppression and inequality while delivering an excess of both; and paranoid fantasies of racism, sexism and homophobia which justify gross injustices on the basis of traditional values. What all of these cultural tools of moral destruction have in common is that they increase human suffering and destroy precious human lives.

Ending Our Moral Confusion

When we take as our starting point the fact that morality is grounded in a concern for the well-being of others, moral relativism becomes untenable. It is clear that religious teachings, cultural values and traditional practices differ in that they can either promote human flourishing or increase human suffering. While psychopaths and those with other dangerous personality disorders will insist that this does not matter, the rest of us should be absolutely clear – based on a scientific understanding of what makes us human – that it really does.


1 thought on “A Scientific Definition of Morality

  1. I agree with the need to anchor morality on non-relative terms, but I think Sam Harris’ definition of morality is essentially just another relative term. “Well-being” includes the adjective “well” and it is not definitively defined. He’s basically restating the utilitarian argument with a bit more understanding of science and a lot less understanding of philosophy (see Massimo Pigliucci for his many takedowns of Harris – here’s the first http://is.gd/ooOBgP). In my own thoughts, I argue that the real anchor for morality is that they are rules for the long term survival of life. (All life, and over millennia of time.) If these rules were anything other than that, they would lead us astray and go extinct. Our scientific inquiry of morality is therefore leading us to discover what cooperative actions lead to the best long-term outcomes for our species as one that is nested within a much larger ecosystem and environment of interdependent living things over evolutionary timescales. Here’s a small blog post about that idea: Are Morals Just Rules for Survival? http://is.gd/h0Fry8 and its follow up: The Real Role of Science in Morality http://is.gd/tXmokj. I’ll be rehashing these for sure in Sam Harris’ contest in February to change his mind: http://is.gd/ZJ8PVC. Help me revise my thoughts and I’ll share the $10,000 prize money… 🙂

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