Scientific hypotheses must be tested against data.
What data set is appropriate for testing scientific hypotheses about what morality ‘is’?
Specifically, what data set describes what people believe about morality?
(Note the subject here is what morality ‘is’, a subject which is accessible to science. The subject is not what morality ought to be, on which science appears silent. The utility of investigating what morality ‘is’ is, first, it could be culturally useful to understand how morality has shaped what our moral psychology, moral values, and goals are. Second, understanding what morality ‘is’ could even increase consensus about what morality ‘ought’ to be.)
The following are candidate biological, emotional, behavioral, cultural, and cognitive data about our moral lives. (edited 2-1-2014 based on suggestions from posters)
1) People have emotions such as empathy, loyalty, guilt, shame, and indignation that motivate behaviors commonly called moral: they motivate cooperation or punish behavior that reduces cooperation
2) People almost always act more altruistically toward family than strangers
3) People have an ability make near instant moral judgments of what they think of as right and wrong without conscious thought
4) The neuroscience of emotions such as empathy, loyalty, guilt, shame, and indignation
5) Past and present enforced moral codes (diverse, contradictory, and bizarre as they are)
6) Empirical data about what basis people universally use for making moral judgments: harm, fairness, freedom, loyalty, respect for authority, and purity (as found from interviewing people around the world)
7) Empirical data about moral dilemmas (prisoner’s dilemma, dictator games, trolley problems, and so forth)
8) Moral philosophers advocate different moralities such as Utilitarianism, Kantianism, virtue ethics, and egoism
Such a data set of descriptive facts about morality can then be used to test the scientific truth of hypotheses about what morality ‘is’. (Here, “scientific truth” refers to the normal provisional kind in science.) Criteria for scientific truth would include explanatory power for the data set, non-contradiction with the data set, simplicity, integration with the rest of science, and so forth.
First, I am interested if I have missed important moral features of the world or if the above descriptions could be improved.
But second, I want to talk about how we can check if the scope of the data set is in fact ‘correct’. Do we have the most useful data set that describes what morality ‘is’?
In science, the “What to include in the data set?” problem comes down to “Does the data set encompass just one phenomenon or multiple phenomena?” If multiple phenomena are present, we could be faced with the problem that the underlying principle for part of the data set is inconsistent with the phenomena and underlying principle for the rest of the data set. Since consistency with known facts is required for scientific truth, it could be impossible to extract underlying principles of the phenomena until we separated the different phenomena’s data sets.
Consider 4) The neuroscience of moral emotions. The neuroscience of morality describes the chemistry and biology of how moral behaviors are motivated by our emotions. These are details of how moral behavior (perhaps one phenomenon) is implemented in humans by different biological phenomena. Fortunately, it is fairly obvious how to separate out the data sets for testing hypotheses in neuroscience. But note that neuroscience is part of science, so any hypothesis about what morality ‘Is’ cannot contradict neuroscience’s facts.
Now consider 8) moral philosophy’s standard moral theories. Science is about what ‘is’. Moral philosophy is about what ‘ought’ to be. There is no a priori reason to think the two are the same. Second, because moral philosophy’s theories contradict each other, there appears to be no fact of the matter about what morality ought to be. In science, data about which there is no fact of the matter is useless. Of course, the science of morality will still be consistent with the logic of ethics and the mere fact that some people advocate such moral theories, but the contradictions between the theories show they are not part of what people believe about morality that is necessarily accessible to science.