Jan 07 2013

Morality – Religion, Philosophy and Science

What is the proper basis for morality? This question comes up frequently in skeptical circles for various reasons – it tests the limits of science, the role of philosophy, and is often used as a justification for religion. There has been a vibrant discussion of the issue, in fact, on my recent posts from last week. The comments seemed to contain more questions than anything else, however.

Religion and Morality

Often defenders of religion in general or of a particular set of religious beliefs will argue that religion is a source of morality. They may even argue that it is the only true source of morality, which then becomes defined as behavioral rules set down by God.

There are fatal problems with this position, however. The first is that there is no general agreement on whether or not there is a god or gods, and if there is what is the proper tradition of said god. There are scores of religions in the world, each with their own traditions. Of course, if god does not exist, any moral system based upon the commandments of god do not have a legitimate basis (at least not as absolute morality derived from an omniscient god).

Related to this is the issue of religious freedom. It is impossible to base laws on religious beliefs without oppressing the religious freedom of those who do not share those religious beliefs.

Another fatal problem is that, even if we lived in a universe where there is a god who has moral commandments, nobody knows what those are. There is no one who objectively and verifiably knows the will of God, and God has not seen fit to unambiguously make their will known to all of humanity. We are therefore left with the interpretation of God’s will by people, and therefore at best all we know are the interpretations by very fallible and culturally biased people. If the multitude of religious traditions is any indication, this is an extremely variable and flawed filter through which to see the will of God.

Finally there is a philosophical dilemma inherent in basing absolute morality on religious faith. If God’s morality is perfect and absolute, is it so because it comes from God, or is it inherently perfect and God, who is omniscient, is simply able to discern it as so? The latter seems like an untenable position – morality is whatever God says it is, without any appeal to logic or any objective criteria of what a good moral rule would be.

This position, however, seems to fit the evidence from ancient religious texts. As many have pointed out, the morality of the god of the old testament was brutal and even evil by today’s standards – God apparently thought it was OK to murder children for poking fun at his prophets, to rape women, to engage in slavery, and to commit genocide.

If, on the other hand, morality is itself absolute and God simply knows what absolute morality is, then shouldn’t we strive to understand morality and derive proper moral decision-making on our own? If a moral position is objectively correct, then we can demonstrate that objective without appeal to religious faith, avoiding any problems with freedom of religion.

Science, Philosophy, and Morality

To what extent is our moral decision-making, including laws that derive from it, based upon science vs philosophy? I agree with the position, articulated by Massimo Pigliucci, that both science and philosophy are needed for moral reasoning. The other position, defended by Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape, is that we can develop an objective morality based entirely on science.

The problem with the science-only position is that it is dependent upon taking a particular philosophical position – that of consequentialism (also called utilitarianism). This is the philosophical position that the best moral decision is the one that maximizes human happiness. For distinction there is also deontological theory of morality, which states that an ethical system derives from rules. These rules are based upon the most fundamental assumptions possible. An example would be – it is unethical to deliberately deceive another human.

A third system is that of value ethics, which considers the effect of specific moral decision on the values of the person who makes them. This system essentially asks – what kind of people do we want to be, and what kind of society do we want to have?

Personally, I do not think there is any one ethical system that always works. It is legitimate to consider consequences, but also to have a system of rules, and to consider the bigger question of individual and societal values. These get mixed together in a complex way in order to make individual moral decisions. But there is no algorithm or method to always derive the right answer.

Science plays a role in all this – science can tell us about why we have the moral senses that we do. This is based mostly on evolutionary theory and on neuroscience. For example, most humans seem to have an inherent sense of reciprocity and justice. We feel that if we do something good for someone else, they should give back to a similar degree. Further, if someone does something bad against another person or (worse) the group, they should be punished in some way. These are evolved senses, based in the hardwiring of our brains.

None of this, however, can tell us if we should punish those who commit crimes.

Another contribution of science, however, is to tell us about outcomes. If we create certain laws or rules of behavior, what is the outcome? This type of evidence informs ethical decision making, but cannot makes the decisions for us. We still have to decide what outcomes we want, and how to value different outcomes when they conflict. How do we balance freedom and safety, for example? And how do we account for the fact that different individuals would draw the line in different places? How do we balance the rights of different individuals when they conflict?

Science cannot answer these question for us – it can only inform our choices by telling us what the likely outcomes will be.

Those defending science as the final arbiter of ethics either knowingly or unknowingly are taking a consequentialist view. Even if this view can be defended as the best system of ethics (and I do not believe it can), that is still a philosophical choice that needs to be defended philosophically.

Here is an example of why consequentialism breaks down. Would you consider it ethical to take someone against their will, kill them, and harvest their organs in order to save the lives of 5 people (or 6, or some other arbitrary number)? Most people would say no. However, you are saving 5 lives at the expense of 1, and it can be demonstrated that this will maximize happiness all around.

Ethicists would argue that the right not to be killed (a negative right) outweighs the right to be saved with a medical intervention – but this is now invoking ethical rules, not just considering outcomes. Further, we might argue that we would not want to live in a society in which one can be forcibly taken and murdered to have their organs harvested (a value ethics position).

Pure consequentialism, in my opinion, is not a tenable position. In any case, there is simply no way to avoid doing philosophy when thinking ethically.

By the same token it is difficult, and in some cases impossible, to apply moral thinking without having information provided by science. The two disciplines are complementary.


The best approach to morality and ethics, in my opinion, is a thoughtful blend of philosophy and science. I do not see a legitimate role for religion itself, however, cultural traditions (many of which may be codified in religious belief) are a useful source of information about the human condition and the effect of specific moral behaviors. There may be wisdom in such traditions – but that is the beginning of moral thinking, not the conclusion. Religious traditions also come with a great deal of baggage derived from the beliefs and views of fairly primitive and unenlightened societies.


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