New Scientist last week (16th October 2010 volume 208 No 2782) ran a special report on the origins of morality. Its reports seek to open up our understanding of morality as being not just the domain of philosopher or theologian but also within the sights of scientists.
The special report covers the work of Fiery Cushmans, Peter singer, Paul Bloom, Samantha Murphy, Sam Harris and Joshua Knobe.
The researches material indicates that moral rules are born in human minds and that behaviours such as kindness are built in. Paul Bloom indicates that babies are sensitive to third part interactions of a positive and negative nature and that this influences how they behave. He suggests that human kindness is a result of our evolved nature but its extension to strangers is the product of ‘our culture, our intelligence and our imagination.’
I have no problems with this line of research, the greater our understanding of how we make judgements greater our ability to influence future decisions. The more ‘scientific’ approach to the subject of moral decision making may also help us to open up decisions of our morality which would be of benefit to a range of people.
I was not surprised that a recent article published in the Journal of Medical ethics online (The role of doctors’ religious faith and ethnicity in taking ethically controversial decisions during end of life care Online First J Med Ethics 2010; doi 10.1136/jme.2010.036194) reported that Atheist or agnostic doctors are almost twice as willing to take decisions that they think will hasten the end of a very sick patient’s life as doctors who are deeply religious. And doctors with a strong faith are less likely to discuss this type of treatment with the patient concerned, the research shows.
Irrespective of specialty, doctors who described themselves as “extremely” or “very non-religious” were almost twice as likely to report having taken these kinds of decisions as those with a religious belief. The most religious doctors were significantly less likely to have discussed end of life care decisions with their patients than other doctors. The author concludes that the relationship between doctors’ values and their clinical decision making needs to be acknowledged much more than it is at present.
Maybe if the discussion of our values and judgements move from the domain of theology or philosophy to ‘science’ professionals such as Doctors will be more likely to open up the discussion of moral decision making which can only be good for us, the patient.
I have to admit that I am still undecided about the comment of Sam Harris in the New Scientist page 47 that
‘The scientific study of morality is the lever that, when pulled , will completely dislodge religion…..when we realise that morality relates to questions of human and animal wellbeing we can see that the Catholic Church is as confused about morality as it is about cosmology. It is not offering an alternative moral framework; it is offering a false one.’
It is unfortunate that Sam Harris is unable to see that that scientific advance only increases the information with which Church can engage and it would be very short sighted if the Church could not see the same