What do moral philosophy and the science of morality study?

As I understand them,

Moral philosophy seeks answers to what our goals and values ought to be as suggested by three big questions: “What is good?”, “How should I live?”, and “What are my obligations?”

The science of morality seeks answers to the question “Why do cultural moral norms and our moral sense exist and how do they work?” and is silent on what our goals and values ought to be.

I have not been able to find such definitions in the literature. Corrections or alternatives are welcome.

And is it more useful to think of them as overlapping domains OR as distinct domains with moral philosophy studying what morality ‘ought’ to be and the science of morality studying what morality ‘is’? I prefer thinking of them as having non-overlapping domains.

Welcome Markus. My internet was down last night, but I’ll be getting caught on this conversation soon.

I’m not that good at making these types of distinctions. I kind of wing it, overlapping or separating as it seems fit.

Like when thinking about history. You could make a blanket statement that slavery is immoral, any time, anywhere. And, I think it’s fair to understand and have compassion for people who were indoctrinated into a slave culture. There was nothing wrong with them mentally, they just grew up being told slavery was right and justified by God, and they did not see slaves as the same as they saw themselves.

The problems in separating these are when we judge the people in that time based on our moral standards now. Or maybe I should say moral knowledge. The philosophy of non-slavery is widely taught, so you can’t claim to not know about it, and the new science of DNA supports the logic. Judging people from 500 years ago as if they knew all that and heard all that, would be like judging a small child because they are fighting over toys.

Hi lausten

I argue for the sharp distinction because mistakenly thinking that the science of morality and moral philosophy study the same thing may be the major factor in our lack of progress in understanding morality. Philosophers commonly interpret scientific claims about the origins of morality as unsupported claims about what we ‘ought’ to do, leading to condescending scoffing at the naïve scientists. Unfortunately, some scientists (Sam Harris and Oliver Curry) feed into this misunderstanding by ill-supported claims that their science does in fact tell us what we morally ought to do. Both problems will lessen, and communications improve if we understand the science of morality and moral philosophy as non-overlapping domains.

To your point, is it useful to judge the morality of Socrates and Plato’s support of slavery based on what they knew at the time (a moral relativistic view?) or based on what is objectively moral independent of culture?

Traditional moral philosophy can’t answer this question because it has yet to tell us what is objectively moral (what people ought to do) independent of culture.

In contrast, I expect science can tell us what is objectively moral independent of culture (but only in the sense of what ‘is’ moral, not the more difficult case of what morality ‘ought’ to be).

I judge Socrates and Plato’s support of slavery as immoral. That said, they were acting morally to the best of their knowledge and remain, on the whole, morally admirable people based on the standards of their time.

Regarding babies, we can judge their behavior as immoral in an objective sense without judging that they should be punished.

Yes, exactly, and I’m using that standard, that is, recognizing where the person is at, to determine how we should judge them. I’ll build on this as time permits.

We might have some definition problems to deal with. I don’t call it morally relativistic if you have a moral standard, then add on a “but” for the circumstances of the person. If ancient history is the circumstance, then their behavior is based on their lack of knowledge and development of ideas that they lived with, not a character flaw. If the circumstance is that the person was indoctrinated with bad ideas and has no ability to seek information outside of that, then we have reasons for their flaws and possible ways to fix them. Neither of those says that it’s okay for them to enslave people.

On the is/ought problem, I think it’s right, you can’t get what ought to be moral from what’s just plain true. But, we can set a goal, like human flourishing, and say “IF” you want that, then you ought to do X. Philosophers could argue about whether or not humans should flourish, and more practical people can talk about what ‘flourishing’ means, but as long as that’s your goal, you have a basis for your morality.

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Hi Lausten,

To say something like “I hold slavery to be immoral, but it is morally Ok (or morally blameless?) for someone to hold slavery as moral if their culture holds it to be moral” sounds like moral relativism to me. But definitions can be tricky.

Flourishing or some form of increased well-being is a goal for moral behavior that I expect virtually everyone could agree on. However…

Talking about the goals of moral behavior leads to what I see as a powerful insight from seeing the science of morality and moral philosophy as non-overlapping domains. The science of morality can tell us what morality is and how it works as cooperation strategies. But this science is essentially silent on what the goals of moral behavior ‘ought’ to be (because that is in moral philosophy’s domain).

Groups could rationally decide to advocate and enforce moral norms consistent with the science of morality (moral norms being parts of cooperation strategies). This leaves the goals of that behavior up to the discretion of whoever is cooperating in a group.

A group could, for example, understand from the science 1) why we would want to follow the Golden Rule, 2) when it would be immoral to follow the Golden Rule, and 3) what to use for moral guidance when the Golden Rule fails us.

Groups could rationally decide to implement a morality based entirely in science so long as they could avoid making unsupportable claims about what the group’s goals and values ought to be.

Imagine these groups cannot agree about what moral philosophy is telling them their moral goals ought to be – the common situation.

No problem! The group would just find shared goals and cooperatively pursue those. I expect those goals would include some kind of flourishing or well-being.

The above is close to defining an attractive moral system based only on science and whatever a group’s shared goals are.

I still haven’t had the time to sit down with this thread and really digest it (heck or even read all of it), so mum’s the word.

Though it got me to recognizing that something about the word “Morality” rubs me wrong and creates a tension when I see it written about, that makes me realize I feel more comfort “Ethics”. When I try to explain why, I can’t find the words.

I’m wondering, can you discuss the difference between the two?

In my own writing, I use morality to refer to what people ought and ought not do based on cultural moral norms and our moral sense’s judgments. There are often strong feelings of right and wrong about morality. Violators of morality are commonly thought (in a culture) to deserve punishment.

Ethics includes morality as described but also includes philosophical claims such as utilitarianism, Kantianism, and virtue ethics that have little emotional content or relationship with cultural moral norms and our moral sense’s judgements. Ethics also includes topics such as journalistic ethics or business ethics that may also seem to have little to do with cultural moral norms and our moral sense. Ethical violators (outside of morality) may not be thought to deserve punishment. For example, if you lie to the murderer where his next victim is (as required by Kantianism) or if you do not sacrifice your life for a small benefit for billions of people (as utilitarianism might require) will you commonly be thought to deserve punishment? No.

It seems useful to me to think of them as separate concepts.

However, I see ethics and morality commonly used interchangeably. So not everyone agrees they are different.

Nice clarification, thank you.

But, is there morality independent of culture?
To me it seems there’s nothing about our thinking that’s “independent” of the culture we’re embedded within? (It’s like wondering if this or that particular storm is influenced by global warming - when the entire freak’n system has warmed with impacts and drivers cascading throughout the entire system - and nothing happens within that climate engine that’s independent of AGW’s cascading influences, it’s simple physics - even if few dare to say it that bluntly).

Can you break that down, babies is a big range,
we have the <100 days old crowd, then those transitions that come with crawling, walking, talking and such.
It feels to me like ego starts asserting itself at that 100 day period,
as they grow I guess perhaps immorality might slowly enter the picture.

I guess there’s no denying some kids are simply evil, environment and genetic. But aren’t most are mischievous, which is part of learning bounds and more - with morality being in the eyes of the beholder.

Mind you I never actually thought about it from this perspective, but I have had a chance to experience a number of growing babies and children during various and extended periods of their lives, so have plenty of hands-on observation/experience “feelings” - no study and you seem a scholar, so there’s that . . .
Which is why I’m curious to hear more from you.

This is off track, but reading your thoughts reminded me about pragmatic dealing with situations and an important lesson I’ve learned, namely to keep in mind there’s a difference between reasons and justification - and understanding reasons for actions is important, and that trying to understand the reasons has nothing to with “justification” - which is an entire different matter.

Interesting. It seems to me the “founding fathers” of our country did something very close to that.
Or as close as humans might be capable of, given the proper circumstances, and I look at that country and wonder what happened, immorality has become accepted behavior, breaking contracts, cheating on taxes, lying as a public strategy has been normalized, heck perhaps institutionalized at this point.

What happened. What can a science of morality accomplish?

Greetings Sires

Ultimately this is all that matters. The goalposts of Good and Evil are fixed since the beginning of time and we can only do better as we learn better. For example I recently learned a new way to pray and I immediately started expanding on it but while excitedly sharing it with a sentient friend from a different #CHNQ as mine, he pointed out that what I was getting into was Witchcraft, which wasn’t my intention and I immediately retraced my steps to a safe zone. I was like a child who learns to move around and the next thing he’s playing at the edge of a swimming pool. There is a reason the first text in my human nature book Decoded: Esaus and Jacobs is

Ignorance is the greatest Sin, If you knew better you would do better.

In my opinion, Whether they all agree or none of them agrees, the fact is what is good is good and what is evil is evil. Ignorance is the only excuse, hence the greatest sin/flaw

Yes there is and I believe this should be the standard. The individual makes the community so the individuals quest for ultimate morality (as his current information agrees) is what I’ll preach.

And where does most of that information, to work with, come from?
You think it can be self-generated?
But you were born from your mother, and probably raised by parents, culture gets poured into you before you can even think clearly. Heck, while your brain is still all sponge, soaking in everything around it.

So God did?
That gets us nowhere.
Who is God, but a creation of your, our, own imaginations?
What are these “universal” truths?
Where (how) are these truths to be found?

From nurture and nature right ? So the body is the tangible of a person and the mind/soul/spirit i the intangible.
If you eat carcinogens your body gets sick. If you mentally mop up intangible carcinogens your min suffers. It could even die and then you have to kill the body a la suicide.

You can simply eat good food and the body is nourished and grows. But when you take that body to the gym and lift weights you get a few extra points, better stature, even become/appear taller.
Same as the mind. You eat clean daily and it grows but if you mental gym it becomes a wonderful computer. Limitless really.

Btw if the body dies before the mind I believe that’s what is called Legacy, because the intangible essence continues to nourish earth people, while the tangible essence nourishes earth plants :potted_plant:.

Most likely this conversation has veered off from the original posters intentions and I apologise for that.

Since this is a largely skeptic gathering I like to blame Nature and the Universe (God??) and while I’ve not had to answer this before I like the laws of nature and perhaps these laws are wired into our nature through seeing what Natural selection does to those who don’t help keep the Laws of nature. What do you reckon ?

It certainly has, my apologies to Markus. Perhaps you should start a new thread, although after reading

I’m probably not the person you’d want to talk to anyways, I come at all this from an evolutionary perspective and I don’t see any of that reflected in what I read there.

I’m personally happy to leave creation discussions. Decoded is a data-based science book and not a religious book, don’t let the title fool you. I hope you’ll read it patiently as I’ll love to know what your (I suspect) academic evolutionary mind thinks of what I think is the next evolution for humans interaction.

Hi pablozen,

We agree that:

“The goalposts of Good and Evil are fixed since the beginning of time and we can only do better as we learn better.”

And I expect we agree that:

The Golden Rule summarizes morality (Mathew 7:12)

However, I am not religious and do not believe in gods or witchcraft.

I am interested in presenting the science of morality in ways everyone, including religious people, will find useful for resolving moral disputes.

What percentage of religious people do you think might be interested in knowing as purely a matter of science, not religion:

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

Could this be interesting at all? Or will this only sound like offensive nonsense?

How could this be presented (assuming all is true in the normal provisional sense in science) as new knowledge about morality that would be useful to religious people?

Oh you’d be mistaken not to, witchcraft is real sir and it’s not religious but Science

Thank you . I believe and live by this below picture hence being spiritualist.


In my opinion (the wise book also says something about it but I’m rusty), the narrations in the Bible are not to be taken at face value “lean not on your own understanding”. As a spirituality practitioner I am awed by and try to revere the Universe because she provides everything I need.

We are still flawed creations especially considering the fact we can mostly only learn from our mistakes which invariably hurt one creation or the other. Nobody expects anyone to be immaculate and I think we should live our lives as persons who try their best to live a life of Net Good while working towards Total Good. That being said let’s go to the next point I’ll quote.

I don’t believe this should be taken literally. Maybe pigs is a representation of the crap chemical-filled carcinogenic foods, lifestyles and indulgences we indulge in ? Obviously if you let your soul wallow in self pity and regret and resentment, you poison the soul.

Energy can neither be lost nor created … maybe masturbation isn’t the best activity for your body and soul/mind longterm health ? Perhaps that’s what these mean

many judge others to forget their own issues so I say judge yourself in my music

I believe Ignorance is evil. We should want to do better, otherwise that feels like being a cancer. Chase knowledge with as little bias as possible and pray to whatever you pray to to open your mind to see (wisdom), unless you believe you’re satisfied with your current vision.

Again on ‘lean not on your own understanding’, “Praying” doesn’t have to mean kneeling down and talking to the unseen. Instead if you become more quiet in this Brownian field where we exist, you’ll probably hear more than the other excited, agitated particles.

I don’t see anything here that will help me better explain to religious people how the science of morality can be useful for solving moral disputes. Oh well.