Indeed, some believe that we are at the start of a new age, when the power of science will dispel myths surrounding morality and moral difference and establish a truly rational foundation for ethical truth.1 If so, this age will be based on a new moral synthesis that derives from the conceptual architecture of three main schools of Enlightenment thinking on this matter. The first is the psychologized sentimentalism of David Hume: the idea that the basis of moral judgment lies in human psychology, which can be studied empirically, like any other aspect of the physical universe. The second strand is the evolutionary account of the mind derived from the work of Charles Darwin. After all, something must explain why human moral psychology is the way it is—why we have the moral impulses and dispositions we do—and the answer is provided by research into the pressures and environments that shaped our evolutionary ancestors. The third school of thought is a utilitarian conception of the nature of morality, pioneered by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. According to this conception, what is right and wrong is understood primarily in terms of beneficial or pleasant consequences: the greatest good for the greatest number.
From what one can see from these pages alone, science can tell us how cannibalism, suicide, and female genital mutilation serve an evolutionary purpose which, in the absence of God or cosmic law, must stand in for a moral recommendation:
Cannibalism love: We do get some odd-seeming messages from science these days… Nuwer recounts her experience of eating chef-prepared human placenta.
The evolutionary purpose of suicidal behaviour
“Evolutionary” explanation for female genital mutilation
But evolutionary psychology has yet more riches in store:
For example, why we are sexually jealous (not fear of abandonment, but “sperm competition”); why we don’t stick to our goals (evolution gave us a kludge brain); why music exists (to “spot the savannah with little Pavarottis”); why art exists (to recapture that lost savannah); why many women don’t know when they are ovulating (if they knew, they’d never have kids); why some people rape, kill, and sleep around (our Stone Age ancestors passed on their genes via these traits), and why big banks sometimes get away with fraud (we haven’t evolved so as to understand what is happening).
Evo psych also accounts for anger over trivial matters (it was once key to our survival), dreams (they increase reproductive fitness), false memories, (there might be a tiger in that tall grass…), menopause (men pursuing younger women), monogamy (control of females or else infanticide prevention — of one’s own children only), music (to ward off danger), premenstrual syndrome (breaks up infertile relationships), romantic love (not an emotion, rather a hardwired drive to reproduce), rumination on hurt feelings (our brains evolved to learn quickly from bad experiences but slowly from the good ones), smiling (earlier, a cringe reaction), and wonder at the universe (explained by how early man lived).
It feels like emptying Darwin’s wastebasket. More.
Go ahead, ground a morality in all that and in every other shape shift that comes out of the academic media. One thing’s for sure. Next year, it’ll be a different batch.
See also: Barry Arrington: Can science ground morality?
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