Does Science Contribute to Sound Moral Judgement and Behaviour?


On this blog I am frequently confronted by people who post comments that seem to indicate that science has no contributing effect on good moral judgement and behaviour. Indeed science is portrayed as an enemy of religion by most fundamentalists, while religion is claimed as the sole harbinger of morality.

In the religious world it is generally taken for granted that morality would be totally absent were it not for the foundations laid by theology. Subsequently science and religion has been pitted against each other in nearly all social debate as competing forces, which they are not.

Science was never meant to replace religion and I think just about all scientists will agree. It’s unfortunate that religious folk continue to foster the belief that science is “out to get religion.”

I was therefore intrigued when I came across this scientific study published by Christine Ma-Kellams and Jim Blascovich in Plos One, which demonstrates a correlation between the exposure to science and sound morality. Here is an introduction, but the methods, procedure and conclusions are available through the link above:

Science has stood as a powerful force in shaping human civilization and behavior. As both an ideological system and a method for acquiring information about the world, it offers explanations for the origins of the physical universe and answers to a variety of other fundamental questions and concerns. Past research has noted that personal values influence both the questions that are asked and the methods used in arriving at the answers; as such, scientists have often been concerned with the moral and social ramifications of their scientific endeavors. Not surprisingly, the general consensus is that science is value-laden. However, no studies to date have directly investigated the link between exposure to science and moral or prosocial behaviors. Here, we empirically examined the effects of thinking about science on moral judgments and behavior.

It is important to note that “science” is multi-faceted construct that takes on distinct forms. On the one hand, the scientific style of thinking employed by scientists is unusual, difficult, and uncommon. Although science can serve as a belief system, it is distinct from other belief systems (e.g., religion) insofar as its counterintuitive nature and the degree to which it does not rely on universal, automatic, unconscious cognitive systems; as a consequence, relative to other belief systems like religion, science has few explicit “followers”. On the other hand, apart from the model of the scientific method of acquiring information about the world, we contend that there is a lay image or notion of “science” that is associated with concepts of rationality, impartiality, fairness, technological progress, and ultimately, the idea that we are to use these rational tools for the mutual benefit of all people in society. Philosophers and historians have noted that scientific inquiry began to flourish when Western society moved from one centered on religious notions of God’s will to one in which the rational mind served as the primary means to understand and improve our existence. As such, the notion of science contains in it the broader moral vision of a society in which rationality is used for the mutual benefit of all.

We predict that this notion of science as part of a broader moral vision of society facilitates moral and prosocial judgments and behaviors. Consistent with the notion that science plays a key role in the moral vision of a society of mutual benefit, scholars have long argued that science’s systematic approach to studying causes and consequences allows for more informed opinions about questions of good and evil, and many have argued that the classic scientific ethos stands as an ethically neutral, but morally normative, set of principles that guides scientific inquiry. We contend that the same scientific ethos that serves to guide empirical inquiries also facilitates the enforcement of moral norms more broadly.

Notwithstanding the adage that correlation does not prove causation, this work is invaluable as it was the first time that an empirical attempt was made to find a link between science and morality.

It would be interesting to see if further studies are done and if the results remain consistent with the initial findings.


5 thoughts on “Does Science Contribute to Sound Moral Judgement and Behaviour?

  1. Pingback: “Science Doesn’t Benefit Us” | Black Atheists

  2. In modern society, I really can not think of anything that has not been influenced in one way or another by “modern” religious ethics or values. (By the term modern–I am referring to post-Christianity, Islam, Judaism or Buddhism. )

    All seem to have started around- or after the 0 B.C.E. —is it possible that the ethical values practiced therein was more of an “evolutionary” branch that humanity is taking?
    Just a thought, question, comment, and “fundamentalists definitely frighten me.”

    • It’s quite probable that ethics and morality are evolutionary. There are living examples of people who don’t need a religion or threat of god’s wrath to function morally. Off course I’m off the view that morality is not absolute.

  3. Dear Lenny, I don’t think religion can teach us anything about morality. Just a brief study shows that the major religions have a disgraceful record in this regard! It’s about time we dismissed the intrusion of religion into human values. But there is a powerful case for a morality based on science which Sam Harris, and others. articulate far better than I ever could.

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