Can science provide a foundation for morality?Can science provide a foundation for morality?

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jovip18 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

By definition, science is concerned with consistency and provability.  Foundations are provided in the form of early stages of research or basic theories.  Later scientists or cultures then move outward to build upon these existing ideas through the use of testable, repeatable procedures or mathematical proofs.   


The problem is that morality is generally inherent to internalized systems, which are extremely difficult to articulate or measure.  Morality comes from a place of personal belief and individual experience. 


What science can do however is help measure the impact of certain moral systems on cultural development and social growth.  Science should be able to determine which belief systems lead to the greatest level of happiness and satisfaction amongst its practitioners.  I would view this less as science providing a foundation for morality as science helping determine which existing foundation is most solid. 


Unfortunately, regardless of what research or data indicates, people will generally adhere to their existing belief systems, regardless of how socially or personally damaging the system may be.     


Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Actually, new research underway at Yale that is examining the moral codes of toddlers and children up to age 10 (or perhaps older) is attempting to do just this: they attempt to discover the foundation of morality from which can be constructed a social foundation for morality. They study toddlers reactions to mean and nice behavior, which includes punishment and reward preferences. They study school-age children for sharing and giving (soon they'll add the element of "social pressure" to this study to identify the influence of the adult present on giving and sharing). Some individuals do see that science can indeed provide the foundation for morality. Are they right? Very many people say, "Yes."

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

We can read this question in at least two ways, with potentially different answers.

First, we can imagine that this question means to ask whether science can tell us which actions are and are not moral.  If this is what the question means, the answer must surely be "no."  Science cannot determine for us which actions are moral and are not.

Second, we can imagine that the question is asking whether science can explain why we tend to want to act in ways that we think are moral.  That seems to be what, for example, Post #3 is talking about.  If that is the question, then science may some day be able to provide a foundation for morality.

In general, though, I would argue that scientific knowledge and knowledge of what is moral are two different things.

tinicraw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think when it comes down to natural or scientific laws that are discovered that a moral application can be made. For example, inertia is when an object at rest stays at rest until acted upon; or, an object in motion stays in motion until acted upon. Couldn't we take that law and apply it to ourselves? A person sitting on a couch will remain on the couch and reap the consequences of that choice until s/he chooses to get up and exercise. If the person stays on the couch all day eating horrible foods, then the consequence is obviously obesity. Only until that person decides to exercise and eat better will his/her course change. I'm sure there are other scientific laws that could be applied in other ways than just for the sake of science.

rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As has been established above, science can produce conclusions that can be used to inform one's view of what is moral behavior. Off the top of my head, I can think of a number of examples of this. A person who views racial tolerance as a moral imperative or ethical value could base this on scientific studies that have downplayed the genetic differences between people of different races and ethnicities. A person convinced by the findings of climate scientists might hold that concern for the environment is a moral concern. Environmentalists who hold that concern for the environment is a moral issue could be deeply informed by science.

readerofbooks eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is an amazing question. Science can provide many answers, but when it comes to morality it cannot provide a foundation.  The reason for this is twofold. 

First, science, at root, is an intellectual pursuit that seeks to study systematically the structure of the world. Therefore, it is descriptive or predictive, but it cannot give a moral imperative. 

Second, for there to be morality, the foundation has to have the power to give imperative. Traditionally, religion has done this, because religion usually had a belief in the divine. Or societies have done this, by way of agreeing to certain rules. 

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I do not think science can provide a foundation for morality in most cases.  It should be the other way around.  However, in some instances the more we know about something the more morally we can behave.  For example, let's say that through science we discover that animals can think at much higher levels than we thought.  Would it still be ok to kill them and eat them?

e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Though morality may be difficult to posit as a scientific concept, we might be able to use science to study "group health" along quantifiable lines. Maybe other social factors that relate to morality can be studied using hard science also and these might lead us to a new, scientifically founded view of morality.

Jessica Pope eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I believe that science, generally understood as knowledge of the physical laws of the universe, can provide a foundation for morality. The more that we understand about the nature of the universe and ourselves, the more informed our sense of right and wrong can be. 

user1450001 | Student

I think - Yes Science can give Morality if science is realy understood by human beings (us) in a divine way, in its real form. 

user1023128 | Student

I really like the idea championed by neuroscientist Sam Harris that a moral life in absolute terms can be determined scientifically is one that “increases the well-being of conscious creatures.” Well-being is still a squishy term; no widely-accepted, quantifiable definition exists. However, Harris starts his case with the claims that "(1) some people have better lives than others, and (2) these differences are related, in some lawful and not entirely arbitrary way, to states of the human brain and to states of the world (Harris, S. The moral landscape, how science can determine human values. Free Press, 2012.)." That I think is a great foundation to a science of morality. It's important to remember that even if "well being" can't be determined today, it doesn't mean it's outside the realm of scientific discovery and the material world.

Also, as kplhardison mentioned, research coming out of Paul Bloom's lab at Yale is producing some strong evidence that we are all wired for a sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice. 60 minutes did a great piece recently (

Finally, Paul Zak gave a great TED talk about oxytocin, which he says is the moral hormone found in humans.