The Limits of Using Science to Explain Morality

— The New Republic

Grand theories of social evolution have, in the past, proved to be useless as guides to events, but that has in no way dented the popularity of such theories. These theories show the continuing appeal of scientism—the modern belief that scientific inquiry can enable us to resolve conflicts and dilemmas in contexts where traditional sources of wisdom and practical knowledge seem to have failed. The literature of scientism has three defining features: large and highly speculative hypotheses are advanced to explain developments that are extremely complex and highly contingent in nature; fact and value are systematically confused; and the attractively simple theories that result are invested with the power of overcoming moral and political difficulties that have so far proved intractable.

Jonathan Haidt's new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion is an example of this genre, one of the most sophisticated to date. The core of the book is an attempt at a Darwinian explanation of morality, contending that moral behavior emerges from a natural process of competition among human groups.

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