angela palmer self portrait

I took part in a discussion at the Cambridge Science Festival last week on ‘The science of morality’. Others taking part were Ray Tallis, Pater Cave and Alasdair Coles. I have here mashed up my introductory and concluding comments.

Every year, I give a lecture to theology students on why I am an atheist. It is essentially a primer on why we don’t need God to explain the universe or to ground morality. And in talking of morality, I take up the argument, well-formulated by theologists like William Lane Craig, that ‘If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist’.

One of the points I make to my students is that even though they see the insistence on the need for ‘objective moral values and duties’ as an argument for the necessity for God, many of those most hostile to religion also insist on the need for ‘objective moral values and duties’. Except that they see science, rather than God, as the guarantor of objective values.So, the philosopher Patricia Churchland argues in her book Braintrust that it is a ‘false dilemma’ to claim that ‘either God secures the moral law or morality is an illusion’ because ‘Morality is grounded in our biology’. And Sam Harris, perhaps the most strident of contemporary critics of faith, attacks both religion and moral relativism, arguing that moral values are in reality moral facts and as facts they can be scientifically understood by studying brain and behaviour.

What I suggest to my theology students, and what I’m suggesting to you, is that it is the very search for ethical concrete is the problem. Not because I think that values are arbitrary or relative but because what makes values non-arbitrary is not that they are fixed in some transcendental sphere or that they are defined objectively by science but that they emerge through humanity’s collective judgment.

There is a wide spectrum of views about how science can illuminate our moral lives. At the ‘soft end’ of this spectrum is the idea that science can, at some level, illuminate our moral lives. Few would deny that. Unless we wish to imagine that values simply fall out of the sky, there must be some relationship between the kinds of creatures that we are, the kind of world in which we live, and the kinds of values under which we best flourish. And science helps us understand facts about the world and about ourselves.

That, however, is very different from the claims at the ‘hard end’ of spectrum; from claims that science can define morality, or that moral values are empirical facts explicable by science; that questions of morality devolve to questions of wellbeing, that wellbeing can be measured scientifically, primarily in utilitarian terms, and that there are in principle no moral questions for which science cannot provide an answer. That morality, in Sam Harris’s words, is ‘an undeveloped branch of science’.

It is not difficult, however, to imagine circumstances in which moral reasoning may require us to reject answers that scientific data or cost-benefit analyses suggest. Suppose that scientists were to discover that racial differences are a biological reality and that one race is cognitively inferior to another, and suppose that cost-benefit analysis showed indisputably that the best outcome for humanity was for that race to be enslaved by another. How should we morally respond? By insisting, I hope, that whatever facts science may discover about racial differences, and whatever may be the outcome of a cost-benefit analysis, there is a rational moral argument for treating all humans equally.

Why? Because all humans possess a certain integrity by virtue of being autonomous moral agents. The presumption of equal treatment derives from a profound insight about what it is to be human and no amount of empirical data about racial or other similar differences can alter that.

We can make similar arguments about torture, and a host of other issues. A moral answer may well be contrary to that suggested by scientific data, and there is nothing irrational about ignoring such data in making moral evaluations.  It is simply that the logic of moral evaluations is different to that which undergirds the assessment of empirical data or utilitarian arithmetic. Or to put it another way, science cannot settle moral questions because we already have to possess certain normative assumptions (about what it is to be human, for instance) before we can interpret the empirical data; such assumptions certainly have to relate to facts (about the kind of creatures that we are, about the kind of world in which we live), but they cannot be reduced to facts.

aman badhwar connections

Questions of morality do not have objective answers in the way that scientific questions do, but neither are they merely expressions of subjective desire or taste. To say that torture is wrong or that charity is good is qualitatively different to saying that light travels at 299,792,458 metres per second or that DNA is a double helix. It is also qualitatively different from making saying that ice cream is good or Justin Bieber awful. If everyone thinks that ice cream is bad or Justin Bieber good, I might privately despair. But if everyone were to believe that charity is bad and torture good, then there would be a tear in the fabric of society.

What makes values non-arbitrary, I suggested earlier, is that they emerge through humanity’s collective judgment. What do I mean by that? I mean that they are the products of the constant conversations we have with each other, within societies, across societies, metaphorically with the past and with the future. Moral questions may not have objective answers, whether revealed by God or by science, but they do have rational ones, answers rooted in a rationality that emerges out of social need. That rationality can only be discovered through exercising the human potential for rational dialogue, the potential for thinking about the world, and for discussing, debating and persuading others. Values can never be entirely wrenched apart from facts; but neither can they be collapsed into facts. It is the existence of human as moral agents that allows us to act as the bridge between facts and values.

This might seem a highly precarious foundation upon which to ground our moral world. But precariousness is the condition of being human. The desire to look to science to define moral values, just like the desire to look to God, emerges from a desperation to set values in what we may call ethical concrete. It is a yearning for moral certainty, a fear that without external authority, humans will fall into the morass of moral relativism. But just as we do not need the false certainty of a divinely-sanctified moral code, neither do we need the false certainty of a morality rooted in science.

Creating a distinction between facts and values is neither to denigrate science nor to downgrade the importance of empirical evidence. It is, rather, to take both science and evidence seriously. It is precisely out of the facts of the world, and those of human existence, that the distinction between is and ought arises, as does the necessity for humans to take responsibility for moral judgment.

Humans are moral beings living within a web of reciprocal rights and obligations created by our capacity for rational dialogue. We can distinguish between right and wrong, accept responsibility and apportion blame. The responsibility that falls upon humans is not simply for our individual acts. Humans are responsible, too, in the sense that it is up to us, and only up to us, to make moral judgments. We cannot alienate that responsibility to another being or another sphere or another process. Humans are, as Sartre put it, ‘condemned to be free’. To insist that science, or God, objectively defines moral values is to abandon our responsibility as human beings to make such judgments.

The human condition is that of possessing no moral safety net. No God, no scientific law, nor yet any amount of ethical concrete, can protect us from the dangers of falling off that moral tightrope that is to be human. That may seem a disconcerting prospect. Or it may seem an exhilarating one. In reality it is both. For that is what it is to be human.


The images are Angela Palmer’s Self Portrait and Connections by AmandPreet Badhwar, one of the winners of the 2014 Brain Art competition.


  1. When you make the various arguments that make up the general point of a malleable, science-soaked morality, I’m always drawn back to Rorty’s Pragmatism, especially as expressed in his “Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity”. Rorty’s efforts, more generalized in an important sense, sing of possibilities; your points are often channeling Camus, the master at showing the folly of accepting inauthentic expressions of being human, who illustrated the courage and nonlinearity, if you will, required to be human. I’ve gotten used to morality’s contingent, supportive role in Rorty as he sketched a societal approach to individual fulfillment. He would’ve particularly appreciated your reverence for Dostoevsky and Camus. I take a great deal of comfort from his emphasis on fiction, and delight in how it forms an unintuitive center from which he looked out at the world.

  2. I don’t think you could state it more succinctly – nicely done. Likes Scott, I hear Camus throughout this piece, especially when you say that “precariousness is the condition of being human” and suggest that in our desperation, we seek out absolutes. But we look for more than just “ethical concrete,” don’t we? For example, the study of consciousness and psychology could be viewed as a history of our (failed) attempts to concretize our entire selves into scientific objects.

    It seems like a big part of it is a failure to understand the concept of a person – an individual who has a sustained capacity for self-awareness and agency, and who operates in the collective, with other subjective agents, to create, debate, or defend meanings, values, and so on. None of this is is completely reducible to a scientific world of third-person objects – though we keep on trying, huh? Thanks again, for another excellent read.

  3. Individuals differ from each other in many ways. One of the failures of cognitive psychology is that it tends to concentrate on individuals extracted from the milieu in which they live their lives. The majority of people, who don’t spend much time reflecting on the issues Kenan deals with here, try, to a greater or lesser degree, to ‘fit in’ with the moral framework which emerges from the milieu and wider culture in which they live.

    The conundrum for moral philosophers is that they, as individuals, are quite different to the majority of people. They are separated from the collective by their consideration of its behaviour, and its relationship with abstract ideas about morals. They seek reconnection via community approval of their output as thinkers and writers. By swinging the moral compass with their thought experiments, they hope to contribute to the sum of understanding humans have about the human condition, and the validity of dependent structures, such as parliaments and correction centres.

    The risk in a plural society is that competing compass swingers can end up de-gaussing the collective moral compass to such a degree that it swings wildly when placed near cross-cultural issues. At that point, we have to fall back on simple, dogmatic prescriptions such as “The law must be equally applied to all”, and, “thou shalt not kill”.

  4. Judy Brown

    In ancient times, religion was science, wasn’t it? Or proto-science. Or science as poetry, perhaps. Religion was a search for truth, as science is. The geologist (and MacArthur Genius award recipient) David Montgomery has explored this idea at length in his book The Rocks Don’t Lie, an exploration of flood mythology, the history of geology as a scientific discipline, and how the history of religion and science are inextricably intertwined. I highly recommend it, it is written by a scholar but for the general reader. The scientific method is a beautiful thing, but as practiced by humans, it can be bogged down for long periods of time by incorrect interpretation of data, by the spread of false ideas, by scientific orthodoxies which become entrenched and reject new evidence as heretical. It can become absolutist in it’s own way, as expressed in the essay above. Science, a human construct, cannot have the answer to everything, but some practicioners believe that it can.

    Absolutist, fundamentalist, inflexible, authoritarian religion is more easy to call out as false, unhealthy, inadequate as a toolbox to deal with reality. Religion can be framed in a different way, though, as a series of questions rather than as a source of absolute answers. For example: Buddhism’s fundamental starting point is “The world is full of suffering and pain; how do we respond to that?” Progressive versions of Christianity emphasize “Humans are imperfect. Knowing that, how do we live our lives?” There are examples in other religions as well. Such approaches, to me, are versions of religion that still have a place, still have relevance, even in our modern, scientific age.

    I saw the other day the assertion that “God” may someday come to be defined as “that which is true and real”. I liked that and think it would bring religion back, full circle to it’s original meaning and intent in the ancient world. It would fit with the notion, too, that we can never fully know or understand God. There are frequent glimpses, but it is a constant striving to see, only.

    On the term “moral relativism”: I agree with the author entirely: that there are no easy answers to moral decisions and that is our burden, the human condition. My concern is that there seems to be an epidemic lately of people, in America anyway, who seem to be using the idea of moral relativism as absolute license to behave badly, including the lack of concern for, and exploitation of other humans. Witness the response to the movie “American Hustle” or “The Wolf of Wall Street” or the book “The Goldfinch”, all wildly popular last year. There is the worship of Ayn Rand, the magical faith in self-interested action, it seems to be the new “religion” in fact. It is a bad faith, twisted response to the problem of moral relativism. It’s freedom devoid of responsibility, which is not freedom at all. How do we get people to see the problem of moral relativism as not an excuse to give up on ethics entirely, but as a call to try harder, (didn’t Lincoln call it “our better angels”: a call to our better angels)….because ultimately, we are more fully human in that effort and thereby spreads a little more joy and good for all in this our very imperfect world.

  5. There are commonplace ethical safety nets which most of us use instinctively. We feel and are therefore reluctant to cause pain , and we have a profound inhibition against killing our own. When we do cause pain or desire to kill we act against our own instincts and the causes must be interrogated. An endlessly difficult debate could perhaps be simplified by embracing James Hillman’s suggestion that we should behave as if we were guests on the planet.No god-bothering.No bowing before science. Just commonsense.

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