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The Secret of Morality

By Michael Cook

Does thinking about science improve morality?

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 students’ minds with scientific words made them think more ethically.

This is an issue of great interest to bioethicists. How can we be sure that doctors will not defraud health departments, abuse patients, traffic in babies or euthanase the elderly without their consent? If it is as easy as buying doctors copies of the Feynman Lectures on Physics or some other classic of the scientific method, we’ve got this bioethics business done and dusted.

But before rushing off to place an order with Amazon, why don’t we apply a bit of common sense?

First of all, what did Ma-Kellams and Blascovich actually find? They divided their students into two groups and told them to compose sentences using sets of words. The first group was given the words “logical, hypothesis, laboratory, scientists and theory”; the second was given random words like “more paper it once do”.

Then both groups were given quizzes on their moral outlook. One was a scenario about date rape; another reported their relative interest in altruistic activities, like giving blood, or in selfish fun like going to a party; and another was an economics game to see if they would give money away.

Who “endorse[d] more stringent moral norms and exhibit[ed] more morally normative behavior”?

The students whose minds had been salted with scientific term were more chaste, more altruistic and more generous. Ergo, the researchers write, “the study of science itself –independent of the specific conclusions reached by scientific inquiries – holds normative implications and leads to moral outcomes”.

If only it was that easy!

I have my quibbles with the way the experiment was designed, but the core problem with this study is what the authors mean by morality. All they have tested, really, is their subjects’ moral aspirations, not their moral deeds.

Switching back to metadiscourse for a moment, the story of civilisation is not getting people to talk the talk, but to walk the walk. Morality is about deeds, not words.

Thinking about science may enable educated people to engage in sophisticated moral discourse, but it doesn’t necessarily make them more moral.

The authors of the PLOS ONE article have a very short memory. It was only 2 years ago that one of the world’s experts in social priming, Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel, was exposed as a massive fraud who had simply made up a substantial portion of his research results. His behaviour was so scandalous that it has put the whole discipline of social priming under a very dark cloud.

Exposure to the scientific method didn’t make Stapel more ethical – not by a long shot. Curiously, Stapel is not referenced in the PLOS ONE article.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge, an online bioethics newsletter.