Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Secret of Morality

By Michael Cook

Does thinking about science improve morality?

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

This column has always been about specific ethical issues. This month we switch to metadiscourse – grand theories of life, the universe and everything.

Let’s begin with a sweeping generalisation: the great challenge of civilisation is to turn selfish, passionate, greedy, lustful savages into law-abiding citizens. The best minds have pondered how to achieve this, beginning with Aristotle and Plato.

That we haven’t advanced much further than the barbarity of the Peloponnesian Wars is obvious. Just watch the evening news about the latest rampage killing in the United States or the slaughter of thousands in Iraq.

However, after 2500 years of philosophical stumbling, US psychologists are confident that they have more or less wrapped the problem up.

Their solution? Just have more confidence in science.

It’s an astonishingly daring claim, but Christine Ma-Kellams of Harvard University and Jim Blascovich of the University of California, Santa Barbara, write confidently in a recent issue of the journal PLOS ONE that their experiments are “the first of their kind to systematically and empirically test the relationship between science and morality”.

Ma-Kellams and Blascovich tested their hypothesis using the technique of social priming, which studies how sensory cues unconsciously affect attitudes and behaviour. They found that priming...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.