What’s Science Got to Do With It?

One of the last things I read online, yesterday evening, was a new column in The New York Times online, under the irresistible title, “Where Does Moral Courage Come From?

(The Times has been an unusually rich source for ethical inquiry and reflection, and not only because of the news reported in its pages.)

The author, David Bornstein, relates a number of moving stories of people standing up in the face of injustice, regardless of consequences to themselves.

In second paragraph, though, is a single sentence that, to me, seemed out of place.

Here’s how the piece opens:

Readers of Fixes know that our primary mission each week is to highlight strategies that work to effect social change and improve lives. In her column last week, Tina Rosenberg zeroed in on some of the strategies that successful efforts have in common. They are crucial, but there is also something fundamental that underlies all these efforts: the human ability to imagine that wrongs can be righted, and the belief that change can happen.
Where does that sort of moral imagination — and the courage to act on it — come from? Researchers have found that people who display moral courage often perceive themselves to be “strongly linked to others through a shared humanity” and feel a sense of responsibility that is not limited to intimates. How this conviction takes shape is largely a mystery: The science of altruism is still young. We know that parenting matters, but it doesn’t explain the phenomenon: siblings from the same family often have very different levels of commitment to moral values.

Let me highlight the sentence in question:

How this conviction takes shape is largely a mystery: The science of altruism is still young.

My immediate response was: So? What do we need the science for?

My next thought was that the lived experience of moral imagination and moral courage – the sense of shared humanity – is quite old, even if its course does not often run true. We can experience moral courage and cultivate it and understand how it flows from the inside, from the side of our own experience; we can call on it and cultivate it in ourselves and others without waiting for the results of psychological studies or for a full neurological explanation.

I’ve written before about understanding ourselves from the inside, by way of lived experience, and from the outside, by way of the empirical natural and social sciences. My current, tentative conclusion is that the approach through the natural sciences may help us to understand where we come from and the various ways in which we may be constrained, but it cannot serve as the basis of genuine moral obligation or, more to the point, a sense of solidarity with our fellow humans or our fellow living beings, more broadly.

That said, I suspect my first response to that one line in Bornstein’s column is too simple or, at least, stronger than it needs to be.

There’s more to be said here than is appropriate for a field note, so I’d just like to flag it as something to keep thinking about and offer a few initial thoughts.

There are at least two reasons to appeal to “the science of altruism” in the context of such a column.

First, since scientific inquiry has come to be regarded by some as authoritative in all domains, it might be seen to follow that we have to wait for the results of “the science of altruism” before the notion of altruism can claim the allegiance of rational beings.

I don’t find that at all convincing, in part because I do not take the empirical sciences to be authoritative in all domains: science is very good for answering some kinds of important questions, but not all of them; there are other legitimate kinds of rigorous, critical inquiry. In any case, I suspect that’s not what Bornstein had in mind.

Second, since the column is part of a series called “Fixes” and aims “to highlight strategies that work to effect social change and improve lives”, it may seem that “the science of altruism” could be useful for discovering how to make people behave more altruistically, or for uncovering neurological, psychological or social barriers to the development of moral imagination and moral courage in order to lower them.

I find that troubling because it suggests a kind of paternalistic manipulation of other humans to bring about more altruistic behavior: we right-minded people need only await the development of more effective means of making other people behave in ways of which we approve.

Again, I suspect that’s not what Bornstein has in mind, either.

So, I’m left once more with the question: Why bring up “the science of altruism” at all? What does it add?

I don’t want to be too quick to dismiss the scientific approach to questions of ethics; as I’ve argued before, in other contexts, it’s difficult to have a full and rich understanding of our moral selves without an understanding of how we are causally entwined with the world.

Also, I’m interested in understanding how people learn to engage in ethical inquiry, how to design learning experiences to foster moral imagination and moral courage. I think moral psychology and cognitive theory can add to that effort.

In the end, though, I think Bornstein hits on a more fruitful approach almost immediately after what seems to be a throw-away line about “the science of altruism.” The third paragraph of the column begins:

Looking at the experiences of those who have demonstrated moral courage can instruct us.

He then proceeds to tell stories.

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