In this article, I will discuss an issue at the heart of many, new to the idea of secularism. Religion, in a secular country, cannot dictate law. Law is a result, at least partly, of the society’s view of fairness. So, a man of faith could ask - can science or irreligion impart morality? Science deals with theories, numbers and patterns; morals are personal values. So, it looks as if science has no part in the play. But, some advocate science, as an answer for a universal morality. Sam Harris, Joseph Daleiden and Patricia Churchland are a few popular scholars who have worked to offer a solution. Here, I will try to explain how science can be a platform for ethics.
What is morality?
In simple terms, morality is our sense of right and wrong. Morality seems relative. What is considered right by a tribesman in Papua New Guniea could be deliberated wrong by a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka. In philosophy, trolley problems too express subjective responses:
A trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you - your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?
The answer to these questions depends on the personality and mood of the respondent, as much as culture.
Is moral judgment universal?
Some values transcend different communities and cultures. For instance, we do not feel ethically obliged towards rocks, and we are more concerned over our fellow primates than over insects. It's because we know rocks are lifeless and apes are mindful than ants. Another perfect example is determining the legal fetal age for abortion in certain countries. So, understanding changes our rationale of right and wrong. Science offers facts, and human intuition offers decree.
Is it natural to be just?
Another argument for morality without religion is our innate propensity to stand caring and co-operative. Not so contrary to the claim, ‘survival of the fittest’, most animals co-operate for their own survival. We, as humans, are no different. In situations where other animals are limited to kinship and reciprocity, we go into heights of helping strangers in the street or crying over the ending of Toy Story 3. Infants, 15 months old, without reading religious scripture, show a sense of fairness and altruism, such as spontaneously helping others. All these could point out the fact that our brains are wired for empathy.
I have said beliefs, personality and mood embodies a person’s moral code, and that we are, by nature, concerned about others. This doesn’t mean science can offer outright answers for questions related to ethics. But, science can be used as a tool, instead of religion, in making better ethical judgments.
Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions (video) TedTalks
University of Washington (2011, October 7). Babies show sense of fairness, altruism as early as 15 months. ScienceDaily
Okasha, Samir, "Biological Altruism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition)