In Defense of Moral Investigation

by MTGandP 5 min read4th Nov 201278 comments


Cross-posted from my blog.

Some argue that certain claims about the nature of reality could cause people to become more immoral. Examples of such suppositions include:

1. People should follow Christianity because we will be more moral if we have to avoid eternal damnation.
2. The theory of evolution says that since people evolved from bacteria and have no immortal souls, human lives are worthless. Therefore, we can rape and kill each other and there’s nothing wrong with that.
3. The theory of evolution says that people should act selfishly all the time.
4. If free will doesn’t exist, people will be free to hurt and kill each other and won’t be held responsible.

Such arguments are bogus. Any new information about reality, if properly understood (that part is important), can only cause people to become more ethical. Morality is contingent upon the nature of the universe; the better we understand the universe, the better we understand morality.

Some people fear that if we investigate reality, we will discover truths that cause us to behave unethically. In some cases, people even wish to discount discoveries that already have been made—such as natural selection or the nonexistence of free will [1]—on the basis that these discoveries may lead to immoral behavior.

Someone may take the theory of evolution and use that as evidence that it is morally justified to behave selfishly at the expense of others. However, such a person would be misinterpreting evolution. Nowhere does the theory of evolution say that we should attempt to propagate our genes at the expense of every other living being; it merely explains that beings that do do that tend to survive and reproduce. Evolution tells us nothing about what we ought to value.

On the other hand, evolution (and, in fact, all branches of science) does tell us something about how to achieve what we do value. Once we understand how the world works, we can take it into account and more effectively work towards our goals. (This is Sam Harris’ thesis in The Moral Landscape.) For example, positive psychology provides insights into how best to make ourselves happy; and biology tells us which animals can feel pain and therefore deserve moral consideration.

It is possible to make a discovery that changes our conceptions about what is or is not moral. If such a discovery is made, what was previously thought to be immoral may be found to be moral, or vice versa. Some Europeans justified slavery by claiming that Africans were stupid or unable to take care of themselves, and that having a master was good for them; when science proved such claims to be false, it was impossible to scientifically support slavery.

Race and Intelligence

When anthropologist Samuel Morton found that Africans had smaller craniums than Europeans, he stirred up considerable controversy. Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould argued that Morton’s findings were the result of bias, but later studies affirmed Morton’s results and concluded that Gould had in fact been biased by his desire to affirm racial equality.

As modern neuroscience has shown, there is no correlation between cranial size and intelligence (at least between individuals of the same species). But imagine that it were discovered that Africans and those of African descent are indeed less intelligent on average than Europeans. What would that say about how we should treat them?

It certainly would not justify slavery: a person’s moral worth has nothing to do with her intelligence. If people took an enlightened perspective about this new discovery, it could only serve to improve the world. There would be no question that people of African descent could still be happy and contribute to society. If brains truly functioned differently for different races, a strong understanding of those differences could empower us to improve the education system by teaching in different and more appropriate learning styles. An outcome where a particular race becomes less happy could only arise because the science was not properly understood.

As I write this, I feel some stigma attached to discussing the possibility that people of African descent are less intelligent. I see three main reasons for this. The first is that, not so long ago, African-Americans were considered unintelligent by the large portion of Western society and currently it is taboo even to raise a hypothetical scenario in which they are less intelligent. The second reason is that they are probably not. Races tend to score differently on IQ tests (with Asians scoring the highest), but (a) this could be the result of environmental influences and biases (including stereotype threat) and (b) IQ is a very limited measure of intelligence (I find myself continually surprised when news articles use the terms “IQ” and “intelligence” interchangeably). No robust evidence has ever demonstrated that one race is more or less intelligent than another. If we treated black people as though they were less intelligent than other races, that would clearly be a problem. The third reason is that even if some races are more or less intelligent on average, there would still be a large amount of overlap. Africans tend to be taller than Asians, for example, but there are plenty of tall Asians and plenty of short Africans. Therefore, it would be unfair to treat all Asians as though they are short and all Africans as though they are tall. (Obviously this example is a bit silly since one can immediately assess how tall a person is, but it is meant only as an illustrative analogy.)

But when people are truly different, treating them differently is not a bad thing. Consider dyslexia. People with dyslexia generally perform more poorly on certain tasks than people without dyslexia. However, they are not stigmatized or oppressed (for the most part, at least); instead, they are given specialized education programs designed to help them learn more effectively. Such programs help dyslexics more easily perform certain tasks that they would otherwise have difficulty performing. And although dyslexics are treated differently, it would not make sense to create separate bathrooms for them or require them to sit at the back of the bus. People with dyslexia are normal in every way, and where they are not, society does not stigmatize but helps them (for the most part, anyway). And where society does fail to help them, it is not because we know too much about them; indeed, it is often because we know too little.


Sometimes knowing the truth makes things worse, but only if one holds irrational beliefs. For example, one may believe that the theory of evolution dictates that people should act selfishly all the time. If one held such a belief, it may be better to ignore the evidence in favor of evolution. Of course, such a belief has no rational basis.

Unfortunately, even mostly-rational people may have difficulty avoiding irrational emotional reactions to facts [2]. A rational person can sometimes override an emotional response, but even the best of us cannot behave completely rationally. Given what we know about human irrationality, how should we adjust our behavior?

Even if we acknowledge that humans behave in predictably irrational ways, we should still err on the side of investigating truth too much rather than too little. Knowing the truth rarely hurts; when it does, it is because we are behaving irrationally; when we are, we can often overcome our irrationality. Indeed, uncovering the truth may actually help us overcome our irrationality.

A particular truth can only hurt someone if he holds a false belief. For example, if he believes that if African-Americans are less intelligent then slavery is justified, it is better for him to believe that black people are not less intelligent. However, the best solution is to rectify the false premise: even if African-Americans are less intelligent, slavery is not justified.

As Eliezer Yudkowsky put it, “Doing worse with more knowledge means you are doing something very wrong.”

To close, here is a quote by Richard Feynman:

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars—mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is ‘mere’. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination—stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern—of which I am a part… What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?


[1] Free will is a persistent illusion, and many readers may doubt me when I claim that it does not exist. Sam Harris offers an eloquent and accessible explanation of free will, found here and continued here. I have also written on the subject.

[2] This is not to say that emotions are always irrational, or that rationality is opposed to emotion. Rather, some particular emotional responses can arise for irrational reasons. See Eliezer Yudkowsky, “Feeling Rational”.