In Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality (Yale University Press, 2018), co-authors James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky narrate the origins and development of the centuries-long attempt to discover a scientific foundation for right and wrong. The latest attempt to do so, what Hunter and Nedelisky call the new moral science, is a discourse comprising scholars from neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, and other fields. While they, much like their predecessors, have ultimately failed convincingly to demonstrate such a foundation, the reason for their failure is one that breaks with previous attempts altogether: For the new moral science, right and wrong simply do not exist. It is this hidden nihilism that Hunter and Nedelisky helpfully reveal, showing that this influential movement can be nothing other than a pursuit of arbitrarily determined societal objectives.
The following is an interview with the book’s co-author, Paul Nedelisky, who is Assistant Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. In addition to his work with co-author James Davison Hunter in Science and the Good, he researches in the areas of metaphysics and ethics. His work has been published in a variety of media in a number of disciplines, including The Hedgehog Review, The Journal of Value Inquiry, and Psychology Today.
The interview was conducted by John Nolan, a second-year student at Regent College’s Master of Arts in Theological Studies. John also works as an assistant to Professor Jens Zimmermann at the Houston Centre for Humanity and the Common Good.
John Nolan: What is the new moral science?
Paul Nedelisky: The people we call the new moral scientists are mostly academics who work at the intersection of philosophy and the cognitive sciences. So, in a way, they’re more like early modern philosophers and thinkers than a lot of people are today; they’re drawing from many different threads to try to address questions about morality. It’s clear that human beings are moral. In some sense, we care a lot about how we appear—do we appear righteous or unrighteous? We care a lot about fairness. We care a lot about duties, especially when they’re duties that are owed to us. How do we understand that? Especially how do we understand that if you assume that we evolved in a naturalistic way, if there’s no deity, if human beings just came about like every other organism on earth. How is it that one of these organisms was sensitive to right and wrong and good and bad? It’s a puzzling question, especially for people who come at it from a naturalistic philosophical perspective.
So, the new moral scientists are the people who are coming at it from that perspective, the naturalistic perspective, and they’re trying to understand everything that there is to understand about morality by scientific means. For instance, doing brain scans on people while they’re asking them moral questions is a common practice in the discourse. There are stories about how we could have developed these cognitive faculties, looking back at our early human evolution.
As for names: Joshua Green; Jonathan Haidt; Paul and Patricia Churchland; and Fiery Cushman. Those are some of the prominent folks that I would put on the list.
As you said, the new moral science wants to understand everything there is to understand about morality by scientific means. Surely that’s an admirable project, because there are things that we can know by way of science that help us articulate and deepen our sense of morality. What does the new moral science mean when they say they want to “understand everything” in this manner?
An analogy we use in the book is that of a beachcomber, someone who was trying to find precious metals and artifacts on the beach using a classic metal detector. And that’s great—you’re going to be able to find things using the metal detector that you wouldn’t be able to find any other way. But you’re only going to be able to find metal things. If there’s driftwood down there, or other artifacts that are not made of metal, the metal detector will not help you find those.
That’s how we see the situation with science and morality. Science is a good tool, but it can only help you find and learn about certain kinds of things. And those are the empirical—the things you could observe or measure. Put differently, something with an observable basis and a material reality. But maybe not everything in reality is like that. My co-author James Davison Hunter and I don’t think that it is.
Morality, the realm of ethics: these don’t seem to be that sort of phenomenon. Morality and ethics have to do with the value of things. There’s no Value-O-Meter; it has to do with, in the realm of morality in particular, intention. The reason you do something is crucial to whether you’re doing a good thing or a bad thing. You can’t assess that empirically. It has to do with obligations and duties. Again, there’s no instrument that will pick up those phenomena. So we think that while science is good, this simply is not a task that it can do. It’s a beachcomber trying to find driftwood with a metal detector. Huge surprise: he’s going to come back and say there’s no driftwood out there.
Most of the new moral scientists don’t want to talk about this issue. They don’t want to even raise the question of whether morality is something we can study with science. This is speculative, but at least at the rhetorical level, it does seem better for their position not to bring it up and just say, “Humans are moral. We all care about it. Science is the best way to know about things. Let’s figure out morality with science.” I think most people are going to go along with them, so bringing up the issue is just going to cause some people to say, “Wait…what if morality isn’t the kind of thing that you study with science?”
Even if they don’t label themselves this way, almost all the new moral scientists are philosophical naturalists. They think that everything that exists—including morality—ultimately is the kind of thing you can measure or observe or detect empirically. And especially in a pluralistic society where people disagree about so much, what can we agree on? Science is one of the few places that can provide commonality, because you can say, “Look at this experiment! This settles it!” So there’s a lot of hope that science could do that for morality.
What, for the new moral science, is the actual content of morality? And why, as you and James say, does the new moral science “never fail to recommend objectives sanctioned by safe, liberal, humanitarian values”?
I think almost all the new moral scientists don’t really believe that ethics or morality is real in the way that the person on the street does, because even though they don’t want to bring up the subject in their writings, they know where they stand philosophically and therefore think that there couldn’t be anything like morality. But a couple of them, when pressed, will talk about this issue; Joshua Green is willing to talk about it, for instance. And those who do address it more explicitly usually put it something like this: There is no right and wrong, because if there really were good and bad, right and wrong, that would have to be spooky, non-material, non-physical stuff. But there isn’t anything like that. So, morality is made up. But we still have to decide to do one thing rather than another. We still need to use moral language—“this is the best way to go,” or “this is the right thing to do.”
But why is that the conclusion? Why do we still have to use moral language? Is it simply pragmatic?
Yes. Since we’re all faced with choice all the time, we need some way of deciding. For the new moral scientists, there are two levels. One is practical or instrumental. There are “oughts,” but they’re relative. By way of analogy, if you want to build a house, then you want to clear the land and pour a foundation. Before you do that, make sure you have the architectural plans—all that’s involved in building a house. But on this analogy, that doesn’t mean that anybody should do that. It’s simply that given your goal, there are some things that you ought to do ahead of time. They are okay with that level of engagement.
Then you should ask the question, “well, what about the goals themselves? What governs them?” There, they just have to say that, fundamentally, it’s desire. It’s preference. That’s the second level. It’s not that some desires are better or worse. It’s just that we, as a society, want certain things. We have certain goals, so we can use instrumental rationality to figure out what “best” gets us there. And so, some of the language they use looks like moral language, but it’s really not. To give a stark example: Hitler wanted to exterminate the Jews, so what’s the “best” way to do that? He figured out some ways—and they were “best” relative to his goal, but definitely not any sort of moral best.
Back to your original question of why they wind up recommending such safe and broadly acceptable ethical positions. Think about Nietzsche, who had a very similar metaphysical view to a lot of the new moral scientists—but went a very different way with it. Unlike Nietzsche, though, the new moral science is used to the idea of there not being values. In Nietzsche’s time, it was this radical revelation that really disturbed him and a lot of other people. But now we’ve had 130 years to think on it. A lot of folks have grown up assuming that morality isn’t real.
Finally, because the new moral scientists just think that morality is ultimately in terms of preferences, and because these people are shaped by the elite institutions and urban centers where these ideas come from, they have the same preferences. So most of them don’t see themselves as having a radical agenda. They’re not trying to change what people think is right and wrong—there are a few exceptions to that—but most of them would say, “let’s explore how we think about what’s right and wrong. This is the mechanics that underlies it and explains it.” But it isn’t a huge moral revisionist project.
A counterexample of that would be Joshua Greene, though, who has a bigger agenda. And that is, in a nutshell, world peace. Based on the specifics of his theory, he thinks the best path to world peace is to do away with all morality that’s based on human rights. Instead, do it all in terms of what people value and then do a utilitarian calculus on whatever that is. Clearly if you got rid of rights, that would be very revisionary.
For that to work, you’d have to be standing from somewhere to say that pursuit of a given value is the best for the most people. But it sounds like, given the framework, they refuse themselves that opportunity altogether, right?
Yes. When Joshua Greene, for instance, says “the best for the most people,” he essentially means what most people most deeply want. His argument is something like, “everybody at some level wants, and gets the idea of wanting, a pleasant life. There’s agreement on that, even though there is disagreement on rights or duties. They always use examples that people in the West tend to disagree with to illustrate this—say, life under Sharia Law. But you never see them point out the implication: if you’re getting rid of rights, what about basic human rights? What if what’s best for the most people really mistreated a minority group? You couldn’t justify not doing that if it’s just utilitarianism. Weirdly, that doesn’t seem to come up very often in these discussions. But for those who have the more revisionary project—and again, there aren’t many of them—they run into that sort of objection.
I think of C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man, in which he illustrates a dystopian, pessimistic vision of what might happen when a vision like this comes home to roost. It sounds like, at least in this elite circle, it has come home to roost!
I actually read that after James and I wrote our book, and Lewis was, like you said, eerily prescient about where a lot of these paths would go. Even more so, he understood the social motivation or rationale behind these movements long before the seeds had sprouted into trees and borne fruit. Now we’re picking the fruit.
Let’s go back to “people on the street.” Generally, people believe—know!—that any number of acts are really and truly wrong, however that gets articulated. Nevertheless, you and James insist that the ethos of the new moral science matters outside the academy. So how is it that the new moral science impinges on people who still hold to a moral realist position?
I think what the man or the woman on the street thinks varies a bit based on where you are. Where I grew up in central Florida, people would still tend to be moral realists. What do they think in New York? What do they think in Boston? I don’t know. Especially as you get closer to urban centers or the academy, the odds are better that a lot of people, if you press them, would say that at the end of the day, there isn’t really right or wrong. It’s just how we talk.
As regards the new moral scientists, I don’t think they will ultimately be influential. They’re more like a whale’s spout—an indicator of what’s “down there,” so to speak. I don’t think they are the source of the information that trickles down to influence common people, people outside of the academy. I think it’s more like this: People outside the academy are influenced by major social shifts and movements, like, for example, the industrial revolution. It sucked a lot of people away from the countryside, from traditional ways of life and long-term, stable, communal relationships, from religion, and threw them into the disconnected, atomized melting pots of urban centers. Simultaneously, that took them away from the world that God made into a world that was mostly human-made. This is a huge factor that makes it hard to believe that there’s a genuine transcendent realm beyond human artifice.
There are a lot of other threads, but in short: I think these kinds of bigger social movements are a big part of how and why a phenomenon like the new moral science emerges—and also why there’s a gradual shift of public opinion.
One last thing on my little tirade here. The internet takes this narrative of urbanization into another phase. Now it’s easier for people to be pulled apart from traditional ways of life into a realm where there’s radical increase of choice. And that’s sad. Severing ties with religion, which remains one of the best ways to have knowledge of morality, means you are cut off from the formation needed to recognize phenomena as morally good or bad.
In all of that, I hear something of a contrast between the interdisciplinary, participatory holistic way of life, on one hand, and one that drives relentlessly towards homogenization by way of choice, or at least the illusion of choice, on the other.
Right. You can pick your coffee, red or blue. But at the end of the day, it’s capitalism!
All that said, the project of putting science and morality into interdisciplinary conversation sounds admirable, no?
I’m not sure it’s really interdisciplinary. The movement largely consists of people taking traditional questions from philosophy, religion, and theology and saying, “Ah! These are really scientific questions.” So maybe it’s less interdisciplinary than it is parasitic or subjugating.
Some of them have degrees in philosophy and know the state of play within the discipline. But there are pretty standard philosophical objections to a lot of what the new moral scientists do that the new moral scientists can sidestep, because they have new audiences totally convinced by the scientific approach. I don’t think it’s an accident that a lot of their work has been pitched more to educated lay readership than to academic readership.
In short, interdisciplinary work is good when it’s genuine and you’re really drawing from both sides—but this feels more like an attempt at a coup.
Right. And one of the greatest misconceptions of science is that it operates on a purely objective basis grounded in empirical facts alone. People like Michael Polanyi have convincingly shown that this isn’t the case.
That’s right. Another place you see that is in positive psychology, where an attempt is made to give a science of happiness or human flourishing. And if you can do that, then you can control it; people who aren’t happy can be made happy through instrumental means. That’s a trillion-dollar enterprise right there! If that works, that’s world domination.
Of course, something like positive psychology has the best of intentions—at least decent intentions. We want to make people happy. But even if they or the new moral scientists found the hidden gears and dials that could be tweaked to cause subjective flourishing, consider this: Let’s say my wife and my kids are tragically killed, and I lose my job, and I lose my home, and I lose my family, and my life in every possible way is going badly. But, as a result of the advances of positive psychology, they now can give me some pills and I feel great. Am I happy? And even if I am “happy,” is that what everybody should want?
What these kinds of thought experiments point to is that a good life isn’t purely a matter of your subjective state. You can’t bring someone’s family back by giving them a pill.
We’ve been quite critical of the new moral science thus far in the conversation. What can science tell us about moral life?
In terms of how that question is usually asked, nothing.
The very best work in the new moral science, though, is Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. What he calls “moral foundations theory” is really interesting. He’s trying to figure out the basic “units of perception,” if you like, of morality. In other words, he’s asking, “what are the shades of morality that give you the basic palette out of which the rest of moral reality can be understood?” He says there are five or six basic toggles out of which most human moral understanding is built: fairness, authority, transcendence, and a few others. These are the basic “taste receptors.” He does interesting work with that framework—like pointing out that conservatives at the political level use more of those “taste receptors” than do progressives. What does that tell us about who’s right and wrong? Well, nothing. And Haidt himself isn’t committed to the framework being genuine or “real”—but it’s still illuminating in some respects. It gives more detail on human moral and political thought.
In sum: the best work produced by the new moral scientists tells us more about what’s under the hood—the engine, so to speak—but it doesn’t tell us where we should drive the car, to use a different metaphor.
Continue to the second part of this interview.