The New Science of Morality

Psychology is intruding on philosophy’s turf.

Part I

Exploring the distinctively human capacity for morality has long been the purview of philosophers. The history of philosophy is the history of great thinkers arguing about what counts as right and wrong, and what makes for true happiness. Being philosophers, their answers generally say that careful reflection tells us what’s right and that true happiness is to be found in the “examined life.” But recent psychological science and evolutionary theory suggests that acting morally is a lot more intuitive than reflective, and that, additionally, there’s happiness outside of rigid adherence to pure rationality. Does the new science of morality mean the end of ethics or rational argument?

Imagine that you love Jazz. You think it has great value as an art form. Then, as the philosopher Jesse Prinz writes, someone tells you that you only think so because you were brainwashed to think that Jazz was great. Doesn’t this fact about you mean that Jazz is not great as far as you know? Hold that thought.

What would follow from learning that a moral judgment we thought reasonable had an origin in merely adaptive emotions? Is that moral judgment now debunked?

The recent evolutionary psychology about moral judgments poses thought-provoking questions about the role of reason and emotion in morality, but thinking that ethics is over is premature to say the least. If someone can explain why we act morally, will we stop acting morally?

Part II

Consider the thirty-year old thought experiment from “armchair” moral philosophy, known as the “trolley problem,” which has recently found new life. Empirically informed philosophers and philosophically informed psychologists have recently presented the thought experiment to the general public. The researchers scanned the brains of people thinking through the thought experiment. Answers differ but there is statistically normal response.

Let’s see what you think. Imagine there’s a runaway trolley that is definitely going to kill five people who are working on the tracks. You have the power to pull a switch that would divert the trolley to another track, where it would definitely kill only one person who is working there. What would you do? Philosophers have overwhelmingly thought that pulling the switch is ethically permissible. Surveys indicate that 80% of the general public agrees. Don’t avoid giving an answer by objecting to the setup. Give an answer. This case alone doesn’t matter. What matters is this case compared to another one.

So now imagine the same runaway trolley that would definitely kill five people, but in this scenario, you are standing next to an obscenely obese man on a footbridge overlooking the tracks. The only way to save the five people would be to push him off the footbridge onto the tracks. His heavy body would stop the trolley and save the five, but he would certainly die as a result. In this case most people, including philosophers, think that pushing the fat man is not ethically permissible. The “trolley problem” is the problem of explaining why there’s a difference in judgment between these two cases. If in both cases five persons are saved at the cost of one life, what makes the action in one case permissible and the action in the other impermissible?

Many philosophers have suggested rational principles to justify this asymmetry. Some have appealed, for example, to the difference between killing and letting die, or between chosen means and foreseen side-effects. We are killing the man we push off the bridge as a means to saving the five, but in the switch case we are only letting one person die as a side-effect of saving five. The latter is permissible in the same way that it’s permissible for a doctor to use the only five remaining units of life-saving medication on five terminal patients, while denying the five units to one patient whose extreme condition would require all the medication. And the former (pushing the obese man) is impermissible in the same way that it’s impermissible for a doctor to take five organs out of a healthy person to transplant into five needy patients.

That’s pretty persuasive. But if you are not convinced you’re not alone. Many other philosophers find this particular justification unsatisfactory. In any case, most try to justify our intuitions about pulling the switch but not pushing the man; philosophers rarely suggest that one of the judgments may be wrong.

Part III

Harvard Psychologist and Princeton philosophy Ph.D. Joshua Greene bucks the philosophical trend by offering an emotion-centric explanation that suggests we revise our judgment not to push the man. Greene suggests that our ancestors survived while other creatures like them did not because our ancestors felt an emotional repugnance in the face of up-close and personal suffering and violence. This is an adaptive emotion in that it would prevent one from pursuing one’s immediate self-interest when such actions would be a cost to others, and thereby to the stability of the community. Indeed, we can be glad to have an emotional aversion to hurting others. But we cannot always rely on the moral rectitude of such evolved reactions. Greene’s innovation is to suggest that this emotion fails to be triggered in the switch case and yet is precisely what prevents us from pushing the man in the other case. So in the first case our action is justified by our cool utilitarian calculation, which in the second case is drowned out, so to speak, by our emotional reaction. All of a sudden, the calculus no longer succeeds in justifying the one-for-five sacrifice.

But the only difference between these cases, according to Greene, is our reaction to the thought of having a hand in violence, however necessary such violence may be. But is squeamishness really a good reason to refrain from saving the five lives? If it was right to save five by pulling a switch, then it’s still right, and only our squeamishness is preventing us from doing the right thing. But notice that reasoning has come back into the picture in order to help us figure out the moral thing to do. And we’ve even appealed to a moral principle, namely that squeamishness does not excuse you from doing the right thing.

So apparently debunking empirical explanations of morality do not replace reason and reflection; they may make them even more urgent. Empirical science is not going to replace philosophy and reasoning.

Part IV

Now consider an inverse case where we lack a motivating moral emotion about something our reason tells us is the right thing to do. As the philosopher, anti-poverty and animal rights activist Peter Singer argues, we would help a drowning child who’s within reach, even if it would mean the loss of a $200 outfit. The new science of morality suggests that an adaptive emotion moves us to save the child, while we also would reason that it’s the right thing to do when given the time to think. But because we lack the moral emotion to help a just-as-certain-to-die starving child on the other side of the world, many of us won’t even spend $50 at the end of a solid chain of reasoning that suggests we’re obligated. You might think you feel sorry for the plight of those in the third world. And you might actually feel badly. But you don’t feel the same as when you see a drowning child and are moved into action. This time, it’s the lack of the evolved emotion that prevents us, by a kind of omission of emotive motivation, from doing the moral action, which we can see now is the action reason justifies and even obligates us to do.

Part V

We don’t need to deny the role of emotion in the origins of our moral judgments to affirm the central role of reason in justifying what we do. Think back to the Jazz example. You love Jazz; you think it has great value as an art form. Then someone tells you that you only think so because you were brainwashed to think that Jazz was great. Does this fact about you mean that Jazz in fact is not great? An explanation of why we judge the way we do making reference to the causal history of the judgment is compatible with and does not undermine the truth of that judgment… although it may suggest that the brainwashed person is unjustified herself in believing in the truth of the judgment.

The recent science on morality doesn’t put an end to philosophy and it doesn’t end the role of reasoning in doing the right thing.

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