How the science of morality can answer our questions about morality

Elsewhere on this site, I’ve described some necessary background:
The science of morality seeks answers to the question “Why do cultural moral norms and our moral sense exist and how do they work?”. (Cultural moral norms are norms whose violations are commonly thought to deserve punishment, though the person may not actually be punished.)

Studies in the science of morality to date support the hypothesis that past and present cultural moral norms exist because they solve cooperation problems. Formally, “cultural moral norms are parts of strategies that solve cooperation problems”.

As we might expect, behaviors that create cooperation problems (the opposite of cultural moral norms function) are consistent with moral norms that define what is immoral. For example, “do not steal, lie, or kill” forbid behaviors that create cooperation problems that prevent or inhibit future cooperation.

Knowing what cultural moral norms are and how they work can directly answer many questions about morality.

For example, the science of morality can explain and help resolve many moral disputes about:

  1. Why the Golden Rule summarizes morality.
  2. Why the Golden Rule is a heuristic (a usually reliable, but fallible, rule of thumb) rather than a moral absolute.
  3. When it is immoral to follow the Golden Rule.
  4. What moral guidance can science provide when it is immoral to follow the Golden Rule.
  5. The arbitrary origins of food and sex taboos such as “eating pigs is an abomination” and “masturbation is a sin”.
  6. The shameful origins of moral norms such as “homosexuality is evil” and “women must be submissive to men”.
  7. How the goalposts of good and evil were fixed at the beginning of time.

Versions of the Golden Rule are said to summarize morality because they advocate initiating indirect reciprocity, perhaps the most powerful known cooperation strategy.

But these versions are not moral absolutes but only heuristics (usually reliable but fallible rules of thumb) because moral behavior is about solving cooperation problems, not just initiating a perhaps failing attempt to solve them.

For example, slavishly following the Golden Rule in wartime, when dealing with criminals, and when “tastes differ” can create cooperation problems rather than solve them. Creating cooperation problems is the opposite of solving them - human morality’s function. Getting an agreement to abandon the Golden Rule in wartime, when dealing with criminals, when “tastes differ”, or anytime when cooperation problems will be created rather than solved should be easy.

But what moral norms can we agree to follow when we abandon the Golden Rule? Science provides an objective standard – follow the moral norms that solve cooperation problems in those or any circumstances. For example, a simple “tit for tat” reciprocity strategy (reciprocating both harm and help) inspired by game theory is now standard doctrine for reducing warfare’s worst consequences. “Tit for tat” can solve the problem of pointless harm due to the failure of the Golden Rule in hostile environments.

Similar arguments can be made for abandoning “Do not steal, lie, or kill” in circumstances when following them would create cooperation problems (such as telling the truth to the murderer about where their next victim is).

Science can also readily explain the arbitrary and even shameful origins of norms such as “eating pigs is an abomination”, “masturbation is wrong”, “homosexuality is evil”, and “women must be submissive to men”.

Food and sex taboos such as the first three norms are examples of marker strategies. Abstaining from these behaviors (even when you really want to do them) is a marker of membership and commitment to a more reliably cooperative ingroup. Particularly in hostile environments, cooperating preferentially with people in your ingroups such as your tribe or social group can be more successful than risking cooperation with everyone. Arbitrariness of the marker helps distinguish your cooperative ingroup from others. This arbitrariness also explains the wide diversity and strangeness (to outsiders) of marker strategy moral norms.
“Women must be submissive to men” is part of a strategy for an ingroup (men) to cooperatively exploit an outgroup (women). And, in addition to being a marker strategy as mentioned above, “homosexuality is evil” exploits homosexuals as imaginary threats to society. Due to our evolutionary history, threats to society, even imaginary ones, can powerfully motivate increased cooperation.

Science can explain the arbitrariness of food and sex taboos.

Science can shame people who support exploitative moral norms but incoherently hold moral values such as all people are worthy of equal moral regard. “Explaining and shaming” with simple arguments as described above can overcome even strongly felt moral intuitions.

Understanding why food and sex taboos and exploitative ‘moral’ norms exist and how they work provides a strong framework for resolving many troublesome moral disputes.

The goalposts for good and evil were fixed at the beginning of time when simple mathematics came to be innate to our universe that game theory uses to define and solve cooperation problems. Those biology and mind-independent goalposts were: “Behaviors that solve cooperation problems will be moral and behaviors that create cooperation problems will be immoral”.

How can the reader know this is true about human morality – our cultural moral norms and moral sense?

You might start by considering if the cultural moral norms you are aware of, no matter how diverse, contradictory, or strange, can all be explained as parts of cooperation strategies including marker strategies, exploitation of outgroups, and different definitions of who is in favored ingroups or disfavored outgroups. To learn to recognize the parts of cooperation strategies, you might begin with Martin Nowak’s book SuperCooperators, Oliver Curry’s perspective on Morality as Cooperation, and the book that made the lightbulb that illuminated morality come on for me, The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod.

You might also examine your own moral sense. Morality as cooperation strategies is what selected for our moral sense. This morality must then fit our moral sense like a key in a well-oiled lock, because this key, morality as cooperation strategies, is what shaped this lock, our moral sense. Confirm for yourself the harmony between morality as cooperation strategies and the judgments and motivations of your own moral sense.


science can’t explain how everyone feels. Some percentage of how accurate something is, leaves out some people feel, by the definition of percentage

You have deal with outliers, and we quickly get to accusing people of thought crimes

We live in culturally mixed societies.

We could observe that an individual classifies a cultural norm as a moral norm if they feel that violations deserve punishment.

We could observe that a subculture of bank robbers classifies a norm against squealing to the police about an upcoming bank robbery as a moral norm.

We could make a generalization that a culture classifies a norm as a moral norm if most people believe violators deserve punishment.

Whether someone believes or does not believe violation of a norm deserves punishment is a statement of fact – there is no inherent condemnation.

To accuse people of thought crimes you have to go to religion or moral philosophy. Science is incapable of supporting such a claim.

I thought you said that we could use science to determine what we should do to increase cooperation

You said,

“Science can explain the arbitrariness of food and sex taboos.”


“Science provides an objective standard – follow the moral norms that solve cooperation problems in those or any circumstances.”

Just so we’re all on the same page

This does not account for more extreme situations, like a player that will never cooperate again if you are uncooperative just once.

I like your analysis.

But IMO, not all moral behaviors are based on mutual cooperation.
I believe that taboos to eating pork very early in human social life were a result of the occasional case of trichinosis that would have infected all who had ingested the meat from that wild boar.

Trichinosis is a food-borne disease caused by a microscopic parasite called Trichinella . People can get this disease by eating raw or undercooked meat from animals infected with the parasite. Often these infected meats come from wild game, such as bear, or pork products.
Trichinosis Fact Sheet

Which at that time may have been viewed as a form of “possession”.
Even today pork is seen as unclean meat in Abrahamic religions.

Pork is a food taboo among Jews, Muslims, and some Christian denominations. Swine were prohibited in ancient Syria[1] and Phoenicia,[2] and the pig and its flesh represented a taboo observed, Strabo noted, at Comana in Pontus.[3] A lost poem of Hermesianax, reported centuries later by the traveller Pausanias, reported an etiological myth of Attis destroyed by a supernatural boar to account for the fact that “in consequence of these events the Galatians who inhabit Pessinous do not touch pork”.[4]

In Abrahamic religions, eating pig flesh is clearly forbidden by Jewish (kashrut), Islamic (halal) and Adventist (kosher animals) dietary laws.

Although Christianity is also an Abrahamic religion, most of its adherents do not follow these aspects of Mosaic law and are permitted to consume pork. However, Seventh-day Adventists consider pork taboo, along with other foods forbidden by Jewish law. The Eritrean Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church[5] do not permit pork consumption. Hebrew Roots Movement adherents also do not consume pork. Religious restrictions on the consumption of pork - Wikipedia

I think that describes what actually happens Write4. From our modern pov, we can see the value of a norm, it kept people from eating dangerous food. But at the time, they didn’t know that.

A few people with power made a connection, but they didn’t test it, they didn’t theorize or experiment, they just made a rule, and used story telling to pass it on. The story then was taken as some sort of truth, instead of the facts of whatever the danger actually was.

Hi Laustin,

No. I am careful not to make ‘should’ claims based on the science of morality. The usefulness of the science of morality is a bit more subtle than that.

Its usefulness is in telling us what morality ‘is’, rather than telling us what we morally should do.

I emphasize that the science of morality, like all science, is silent on what we imperatively ought or morally ought to do or value.

Further, I take a conservative position on the difficulty of deriving ought from is – I don’t know how to do it. I’ll let others argue, if they wish, for using rational thought to derive moral oughts.

My focus is on showing how, even with no oughts derived from what ‘is’, that the science of morality is still useful for providing moral guidance both to individuals and to resolve disputes.

The science of morality is useful because it explains the facts of the matter about cultural moral norms.

“Explaining” why the Golden Rule exists and how it works as part of a strategy for solving cooperation problems provides reasons for abandoning it in warfare, when dealing with criminals, and when “tastes differ” when slavishly following it would create cooperation problems.

“Explaining and Shaming” why food and sex taboos and exploitative norms such as “women must be submissive to men” and “homosexuality is evil” exist provides reasons for a group to decide to abandon them. What had been moral norms with mysterious and mystical origins can be revealed by science to have arbitrary and shameful origins.

It is true that “Science can explain the arbitrariness of food and sex taboos.”

And explaining that arbitrariness is all that is needed for people to be able to use that knowledge to help resolve moral disputes. No derivation of ought from ‘is’ required.

And it is true that “Science provides an objective standard – follow the moral norms that solve cooperation problems in those or any circumstances.”

All science does is provide an objective standard. Whether to use it or not as a moral reference is up to people in the same way that the decision to use anything from science is up to people.

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That post helped. I see you’re not claiming science can prescribe morals. But, there are a lot of problems with people being willing to read science and apply knowledge to challenge norms they grew up with. Worse, powerful people know how to manipulate those traditional feelings.


It is good to hear the clarification was useful.

Explaining how the science of morality can help resolve moral disputes is devilishly difficult.

I agree that most people will have no interest in reading about the science of morality and using that knowledge to question their own morality. Suggestions for how to overcome that are welcome.

To clarify my presentations, I am trying out a new phrase “explaining and shaming” to describe the process for resolving moral disputes about food and sex taboos plus ingroups exploiting outgroups. Is it helpful?

It’s descriptive. It’s that social control that people do. Not sure if can be a strategy.

History doesn’t support this. We constantly ignore wisdom and act on impulse. Group decisions based on logic are viewed to be tyranny. Books get burned.

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About “Explaining and Shaming” as the name of a strategy for resolving moral disputes:

It’s descriptive. It’s that social control that people do. Not sure if can be a strategy.

Social control to punish exploitation is motivated by our moral sense (when triggered) as a necessary part of the cooperation strategies encoded in our cultural moral norms. Without this punishment, or the threat of it, cultural moral norms and the social cooperation they support collapse bringing down our societies at the same time.

Social control is a necessary part of the strategies we use for maintaining our societies.

Explaining and shaming can present information that could convince a rational person to change the circumstances when their moral sense’s previous acceptance of a behavior instead triggers shame and guilt and later righteous indignation at other people who violate it.

About “And explaining that arbitrariness is all that is needed for people to be able to use that knowledge to resolve moral disputes.”

History doesn’t support this. We constantly ignore wisdom and act on impulse. Group decisions based on logic are viewed to be tyranny. Books get burned.

I should have said “to help resolve moral disputes”. I’ll change it in the OP.

This science should be useful to people already arguing against food and sex taboos and ingroups exploiting outgroups. They can say things in summary like, “Since objective science reveals the arbitrary and shameful origins of this harmful moral norm we should not advocate or enforce it in our society”. Sure, as you point out, the religious fundamentalist who strongly supports the norms may not agree. But a religious person who already has doubts and concerns about such norms might grasp the science based “explain and shame” as a lifeline for saving their morality from incoherence. Thereby, this science can help resolve common moral disputes.

How would you relate this to the abortion argument?


Relevant to abortion as a moral issue, science can tell us that

  1. “Do not kill” exists as a heuristic (a usually reliable rule of thumb) for a socially enforced strategy to increase cooperation.
  2. People have a special concern for infants due to our evolutionary history.
  3. Combining 1) and 2), extremist “All abortions are murder!” positions persist as a moral norm in some subgroups regardless of the harm such prohibitions produce. They persist because it is attractive as an emotion-triggering (Think of the babies!) marker of membership in a more ‘moral’ subgroup. Abortion prohibitions can be a particularly convenient marker norm because it allows people (such as the Senate candidate Herschel Walker) to self-identify as a ’good’ person by focusing on one extremist marker strategy aspect of moral behavior. It is a particularly attractive marker strategy when (for men for example) it does not affect them personally and its extremism generates enough ‘noise’ to distract others and even themselves from their other grossly immoral behaviors.
  4. The related value question “How much should we value a potential human life?” is an ought question for moral philosophers that is beyond the domain of science.

Using this information, how could science help resolve disputes about abortion?

Science can break down the abortion moral norm question into two components:
The philosophical question “How much should we value a potential human life?” about which much philosophical wisdom has been written and science is essentially silent.
The science of morality question: “Why do extremist, destructive versions of abortion moral norms exist and why are their origins shameful?”

By removing the veil of mystery and mysticism from abortion norms, science can do some explaining and shaming that could be useful for resolving disputes about the more extreme versions of these norms.

Resolution of disputes about less extreme versions (prohibitions after 24 weeks, with other exceptions?) might rely on what wisdom moral philosophy can add regarding “How much should we value a potential human life?”

Maybe worth a separate post?

By knowing the consequences of the “exponential function”

Watch this underappreciated lecture by Prof. Albert Bartlett

The complexeties of #3 tells me there is a lot there that is beyond science.

Except the unborn are not infants. They are blastocysts, zygotes, and towards the end of nine months fetuses.

No, it allows men like him to control women.

Jews say life doesn’t begin until first breath. IMHO, they may be right, because a fetus can’t live without being completely parasitic.

It all depends on what is life.

Right. It isn’t moral to force a 10 or 12 year old incest victim to carry her father’s baby to term, especially when it could kill her. The child already in the world is more important than the one that isn’t.

IMHO, your ideas are BS.

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That’s a little harsh, but “life begins at conception” is purely a religious statement, and it’s not even well supported by scripture. This shows the power of unreasonable arguments. No shaming can beat this, they believe the shame is on science.