Chapter 27- Can Science Solve Moral Questions?

In Chapter 27, Chidi has his brain scanned to see if there is a reason why he cannot make decisions.  His brain scan is normal.  Chidi remarks, “there are actual answers” from the MRI scan.  Simone agrees that science is all about getting answers.  She then says that philosophers can spend their entire lives mulling over a single question and that is why “everyone hates moral philosophy professors.”  The scene ends, but the insinuation is that science can get to real answers and philosophers are stuck on questions.  If this were true, then if science could answer moral questions, then they could get answers.  While the writers confined themselves to the question of if people’s ethical decisions changed because of a near death experience, there are some scientists that have argued that science can provide answers to moral questions.  However, those scientists are wrong.

Science is incapable of answering value questions.  One of the key reasons why is from an argument by David Hume.  Hume criticizes the idea that we can derive morality from the nature of reality.  This is known as the is/ought problem or sometimes as the naturalistic fallacy.  Hume’s point is that facts are one thing and values are something else.  There is no way to get from an is to an ought without the assumption of an ought.

We know that hitting someone on the hand with a hammer causes pain.  In fact, it may break bones.  That is a fact or an is.  Now, someone may claim from the fact that it causes pain that it is therefore wrong to hit someone with a hammer.  How do we get to this conclusion?  The only way to get to that conclusion is to add the premise that it is wrong to cause someone pain.  The argument would look like this:

  1. Hitting someone on the hand with a hammer causes pain.
  2. It is wrong to cause someone pain.
  3. Therefore, it is wrong to hit someone on the hand with a hammer.

Notice that there is no way to get to the conclusion without the assumption that causing pain is wrong.  There are no facts about the world that make the second premise true.  Morality is a product of a person’s ability to value.  It is not something that is discoverable about the world.  If it is not something that can be discovered in the world, then there is no way that science can answer moral questions.

This is not to say that science may not provide us with data that could be useful.  For example, science may say that X increases pleasure or Y increases pain.  Insofar as we need to take into account pleasure or pain into a moral theory, then this provides us with reasons to think we should do X and avoid Y.  However, such conclusions require that we assume that morality involves the idea of increase pleasure and avoiding pain.

Science is further limited in its usefulness because of its inability to resolve competing values.  What if increasing the welfare of one person requires lowering the welfare for another?  Science cannot tell us if this ought to be done or not.  Science cannot tell us if one should keep promises.  Science can tell us that an object dropped in a vacuum on Earth falls at a rate of 9.8m/s2 or that certain regions of the brain show increased blood flow.  However, it cannot answer important moral questions.  That is why moral philosophers spend their entire lives thinking about one question.  Those questions are much harder to answer because those answers cannot be discovered by an experiment.