Science and the Good: Can Science Help Us Learn How to Live?

Is Morality Objective or Subjective?

By Richard Weikart Published on October 29, 2018

How often have we heard the refrain: Morality is not objective? I had an e-conversation with a colleague about this. He is bright and has an Ivy League Ph.D. However, he is opinionated about moral issues. From what source does he get his morality? He argued that “the only measure of the ‘good’” is what “the bulk of humanity” says.

I asked him if racism is objectively wrong. No, he said. He believes it to be wrong. However, not all agree. Thus it is not objectively wrong.

James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky tackle this vexing issue of moral nihilism in Science and the Good. They only examine one particular approach to moral reasoning. They explore the attempt to find a scientific morality. However, this quest for a scientific morality has been and still is influential. It is promoted by many leading intellectuals, including psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists. The authors call these scholars “moral scientists.”

Redefined Morality

This “tragic quest” began in early modern times as a scientific search for a basis of morality. These thinkers hoped science could overcome moral disagreements. However, the project failed to produce moral laws persuasive to all. This quest has re-emerged in the past few decades. Now, though, it has abandoned the goal of finding empirical support for moral laws. Rather, it sees morality as purely the product of human instincts or feelings.

It no longer aspires to be prescriptive. Rather, it claims to be purely descriptive. The “moral scientists” try to find the biological basis for moral judgments. They spin out plausible tales about the evolutionary origins of morality. Some even argue that certain chemicals make us behave morally.

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There are many scientific problems with this project. Hunter and Nedelisky, however, only rarely point out the empirical difficulties. (They do point out the problems with Paul Zak’s claims about a “moral molecule.”) This is likely for the sake of argument. However, their critique would have been stronger if they had asked more questions about the scientific evidence. Instead, for the most part they accept the descriptive claims.

However, they still point out a glaring problem. Many of these “moral scientists” overreach by making prescriptive claims. They express moral approval or disapproval for certain behaviors. This misleads many people into thinking they are making real moral claims. However, they have redefined morality by rejecting moral realism.

Conflicted Consciences

Why all this confusion? Part of the reason, I think, is that the “moral scientists” are themselves conflicted. Their naturalistic approach tells them one thing: Morality has no objective reality. However, their conscience and experiences tell them something else: Some moral positions really are superior to others.

In my book, The Death of Humanity, I provide many examples of intellectuals who dismiss morality as non-objective. However, in their real life they are fanatically committed to moral positions. They may continue to insist that their moral positions have no objective validity. They may even admit that opposing moral positions are every bit as valid as their own. But do they really believe that? If so, why such vehemence in their moral condemnations of those who dare to disagree?

In the final analysis, Hunter and Nedelisky admit that the science of morality may give us some insights into how we behave morally. But it does not solve the bigger issue. It never tells us how we should behave. And that’s precisely what we want to know.


Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, and author of The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life and From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany.

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