October 24, 2010

Reshaping our moral sense with science

New Scientist recently published a special series called Morality Put to the Test. Among the more interesting and provocative articles is the one by Fiery Cushman, a moral psychologist at Harvard University. In his article, titled Morality: Don't be afraid – science can make us better, Cushman argues that we should embrace rather than fear the knowledge science brings as it unravels morality's muddles:
We have long thought of moral laws as fixed points of reality, self-evident truths rooted in divine command or in some Platonic realm of absolute rights and wrongs. But new research is offering an alternative, explaining moral attitudes in the context of evolution, culture and the neural architecture of our brains. This apparent reduction of morality to a scientific specimen can seem threatening, but it needn't. Rather, by unmasking our minds as the authors of morality, we may be better able to bend its narrative arc towards a happy end.
He continues,
...moral rules are born in human minds. For many, this is deeply threatening. Moral rules must be immutable and eternal, they say, like the speed of light or the mass of a proton. Otherwise, why should we obey them?

As we come to a scientific understanding of morality, society is not going to descend into anarchy. Instead, we may be able to shape our moral thinking towards nobler ends. Which norms of fairness foster economic prosperity? What are the appropriate limits on assisting a patient's end-of-life decisions? By recognising morality as a property of the mind, we gain a magical power of control over its future.
Entire article.

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