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Toward a Science of Morality

Thanks to Lucas for the  link

Original link

Over the past couple of months, I seem to have conducted a public experiment in the manufacture of philosophical and scientific ideas. In February, I spoke at the 2010 TED conference, where I briefly argued that morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science. Normally, when one speaks at a conference the resulting feedback amounts to a few conversations in the lobby during a coffee break. I had these conversations at TED, of course, and they were useful. As luck would have it, however, my talk was broadcast on the internet just as I was finishing a book on the relationship between science and human values, and this produced a blizzard of criticism at a moment when criticism could actually do me some good. I made a few efforts to direct and focus this feedback, and the result has been that for the last few weeks I have had literally thousands of people commenting upon my work, more or less in real time. I can't say that the experience has been entirely pleasant, but there is no question that it has been useful.

If nothing else, the response to my TED talk proves that many smart people believe that something in the last few centuries of intellectual progress prevents us from making cross-cultural moral judgments -- or moral judgments at all. Thousands of highly educated men and women have now written to inform me that morality is a myth, that statements about human values are without truth conditions and, therefore, nonsensical, and that concepts like "well-being" and "misery" are so poorly defined, or so susceptible to personal whim and cultural influence, that it is impossible to know anything about them. Many people also claim that a scientific foundation for morality would serve no purpose, because we can combat human evil while knowing that our notions of "good" and "evil" are unwarranted. It is always amusing when these same people then hesitate to condemn specific instances of patently abominable behavior. I don't think one has fully enjoyed the life of the mind until one has seen a celebrated scholar defend the "contextual" legitimacy of the burqa, or a practice like female genital excision, a mere thirty seconds after announcing that his moral relativism does nothing to diminish his commitment to making the world a better place. Given my experience as a critic of religion, I must say that it has been disconcerting to see the caricature of the over-educated, atheistic moral nihilist regularly appearing in my inbox and on the blogs. I sincerely hope that people like Rick Warren have not been paying attention.

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TAGGED: MORALITY, SCIENCE


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