Is is not Ought

The killing of Osama bin Laden and the ensuing controversy over the widespread jubilation in the U.S. have prompted some scientists to explain the psychological and evolutionary basis for those celebrations. Unfortunately, some of them used science to argue that since joy in this situation is natural, it is also morally good. Regardless of one’s view on the appropriateness of celebrating a killing, the fact that it is natural to do so has no relation to whether it is moral or right. Science bases human behavior on the functions of neural networks and evolutionary adaptations, but does not excuse us from taking responsibility for those behaviors. Just as promiscuity may be a natural but not morally inacceptable temptation for males in a monogamous society, natural joy over the killing of an evil man is not necessarily good either. Our values come from philosophy, not empirical evidence. Or, as Hume wrote, what is is not necessarily what ought to be.

That does not mean that science and morality have nothing to do with each other. While it is illogical to justify a value using scientific facts, as some did with celebrations of Osama bin Laden’s killing, it is quite alright to use science to optimize the practice of an established value. If we deem it unacceptable to celebrate killing, we may use neuroscience to adjust educational techniques to instill that value in our children.

Most importantly, science writers have a responsibility to separate facts from values; what behavior is natural and what behavior is acceptable. They must be careful to note that a materialistic basis for mental events does not relieve us from responsibility for our actions. At the same time, readers must be wary of those who try to use scientific evidence to justify a moral agenda. Science alone will never be a basis for our values, but if used properly, it can help us realize the values we choose.


Jonah Lehrer on revenge

Benedict Carey on Celebrating Death

"Why we celebrate a killing," by Jonathan Haidt and my response.