The latest conversation with my friend and colleague Dan Kaufman (he of The Electric Agora) was on what, exactly, science can tell us about morality, meaning not the trivially misguided notion that somehow ethics can be reduced to neuroscience, or evolutionary biology, or whatever, but rather the more nuanced question of whether and how science can inform philosophizing about ethics.
After a brief bout of self-advertising about my forthcoming book (How to Be a Stoic, available for pre-order at Amazon), we began by identifying the different types of science that may have claims at telling us something interesting about ethics: evolutionary biology, cognitive and developmental psychology, and neuroscience.
From which we proceed to ask the questions of whether morality is “baked” into our biology, and whether comparative primatological studies can tell us where it comes from. Dan expresses skepticism, based on the fact that people don’t even agree on what exactly morality is; my position is a bit more open, but with a number of caveats, simply due to the fact that there aren’t a hell of a lot of closely related species to compare our behavior to.
Next we suggest what I think is an interesting way in which Kant and moral psychology, while at first sight at odds with each other, actually nicely complement. We also talk about Nietzsche, whose moral philosophy Dan suggests may be a problem for any scientific account of the phenomenon, but there too I suggest there are ways to overcome or at least diffuse the apparent tension.
Toward the end of the video we discuss why looking at primates closely related to us, such as chimpanzees and bonobos, actually tells us very little about the biological roots of our moral instincts, and we explain just how difficult it is to carry out sound experiments investigating innate moral responses in human infants.