With the world in shock over the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma last week, rather than questioning the morality of capital punishment, we should reevaluate America’s prison system as a whole. With an ever-growing population of inmates, America’s prisons are operating under the arcane notion that punishment deters crimes, while ignoring a growing body of scientific work that could be used to understand why people commit violent crimes and how to reinstate criminals into society successfully. On the question of what causes people to commit horrible crimes, we know that damage to the frontal lobes of the brain (the areas responsible for impulse-control, reasoning, foresight and other “higher” cognitive functions) can cause severe behavioral problems and violent outbursts.
Science and religion have been archenemies for some time now, with one on a quest for knowledge and truth, and the other seeking to fill a perceived void of meaning in lives. Logical inspection confirms the two systems are incompatible with one another, since science requires evidence for all claims, whereas religion insists on faith when there is no evidence whatsoever. But many do have both science and religion in their lives. How do they deal with the conflict? Stephen Jay Gould wrote in a 1997 essay on the non-overlapping magisteria, NOMA, that there actually is no conflict between science and religion:
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.
Why is it wrong to kill babies? Why is it wrong to take advantage of mentally retarded people? To lie with the intention of cheating someone? To steal, especially from poor people? Is it possible that Medieval European society was wrong to burn women suspected of witchcraft? Or did they save mankind from impending doom by doing so? Is it wrong to kick rocks when you’re in a bad mood? Questions of right and wrong, such as these, have for millenia been answered by religious authorities who refer to the Bible for guidance. While the vast majority of people still turn to Abrahamic religious texts for moral guidance, there are some other options for developing a moral code. Bibles aside, we can use our “natural” sense of what’s right and wrong to guide our actions; a code based on the natural sense would come from empirical studies on what most people consider to be right or wrong. Ignoring the logistics of creating such as code, we should note that the rules in this code would not have any reasoning behind them other than “we should do this because this is what comes naturally.” How does that sound? Pretty stupid.
The other option is to develop a moral code based on some subjective metaphysical ideas, with a heavy backing of empirical facts. “Subjective” means these ideas won’t have an undeniability to them; they are what they are and that’s it. Take as an example the rule such as “we should not kill babies.” There is no objective, scientific reason why we shouldn’t kill babies. Wait!, you say, killing babies is wrong because it harms the proliferation of our species and inflicts pain on the mothers and the babies themselves! But why should we care about the proliferation of our species? About hurting some mother or her baby? While no one will deny that we should care about these, there is nothing scientific that will explain why. Science may give us a neurological reason why we care about species proliferation (it will go something like, “there is a brain region that makes us care about proliferation of our species.”), but why should we be limited to what our brains tend to make us think or do?
Subjective rules like these must therefore be agreed upon with the understanding that they are subject to change. Interestingly, some argue that science can answer moral questions because it can show us what “well-being” is, how we can get it, etc. But the scientific reason why we should care about well-being is nowhere to be found. The result is that we can use science to answer moral questions, but we have to first agree (subjectively) that we want well-being. Science by itself cannot answer moral questions because it shows us what is rather than what ought to be. (Actually, Sam Harris is the only one to argue that science can be an authority on moral issues; his technical faux-pas is an embarrassment to those who advocate “reason” in conduct).
But more on the idea of metaphysically constructed moral codes. What properties should this code have, and how should we go about synthesizing it? Having one fixed/rigid source as an authority for moral guidance is dangerous. Make no mistake: there must be some authority on moral questions, but it must be flexible, and adaptable; it must be able to stand the test of time on the one hand, but to be able to adjust to novel conditions on the other. This sounds a lot like the constitution of the U.S. But even with such a document as The Constitution, which has provided unity and civil progress since the country’s founding, there are some who take its words literally and allow no further interpretation; if it’s not written in the constitution, it can’t be in the law, they argue (see Strict Constructionism versus Judicial Activism). These folks also tend to be rather religious (read: they spend a lot of time listening to stories from the Bible; not to be confused with “spiritual” or of religions other than the Abrahamic ones). So while we must have a moral code, it must be flexible (i.e. change with time) and we must seek a balance between literal and imaginative interpretations, just as we do with the US Constitution.
Why and how is a rigid moral authority dangerous? Our authority must change with time because new developments in our understanding of the world must update how we interact with others. For example, if science finds tomorrow that most animals have a brain part that allows them to feel emotional pain in the same way that humans do, we will have to treat them with more empathy; research on dolphin cognition has recently produced an effort by scientists to have dolphins be considered and treated as nonhuman persons. Furthermore, if we don’t explain why we do certain things, we won’t understand why we do them and therefore won’t know why violating them is bad. This unquestionability aspect of God as moral authority or the Strict Constructionists as law-makers is what makes them particularly dangerous and leads to prejudice and ignorance. Our moral code must therefore be based on empirical research, with every rule being subject to intense scrutiny (think of two-year-olds who keep asking, “but why?”).
But why should we have a moral code in the first place? Perhaps if everyone followed a moral code of some sort, the world would have fewer injustices and atrocities. Getting people to follow a moral code of any kind is a completely different issue.