Can Scientific Belief Make People More Moral?

science moralsIs science ethically neutral, or can it supplant religion in providing a moral compass? PLOS ONE on a series of studies finding that exposure to science (either in one’s personal background or merely by being asked to think about science momentarily) made college students more likely to divide up money fairly, more likely to express interest in positive behaviors such as volunteering and donating blood, and more likely to strongly condemn a date rapist in a hypothetical story:

No studies to date [had] directly investigated the links between exposure to science and moral or prosocial behaviors.

Across four studies, both naturalistic measures of science exposure and experimental primes of science led to increased adherence to moral norms and more morally normative behaviors across domains.

Thinking about science leads individuals to endorse more stringent moral norms and exhibit more morally normative behavior. These studies are the first of their kind to systematically and empirically test the relationship between science and morality.

We contend that there is a lay image or notion of “science” that is associated with concepts of rationality, impartiality, fairness, technological progress, and ultimately, the idea that we are to use these rational tools for the mutual benefit of all people in society.

15 Comments on "Can Scientific Belief Make People More Moral?"

  1. Thad McKraken | Apr 19, 2013 at 11:29 am |

    You know this doesn’t surprise me at all if it proves to be true. As much of a critic of atheism as I am, I’m critical of atheism because it’s completely irrational and just intentionally deleting all exotic states of consciousness from the conversation and saying: there’s no meaning or value in that stuff, so we don’t have to study it. Case closed. We know more about those things than you do by not knowing anything about them.

    That being said, if you study say biological systems, sociology, etc. You see that things are alarmingly interconnected, which is the same sort of thing transpersonal experiences tell mystics.Mystics were just, you know, thousands of years ahead of the curve.

    • Rus Archer | Apr 19, 2013 at 12:23 pm |

      atheism doesn’t delete exotic states or make them meaningless
      neither does it deny the existence of deities, ghosts, gods, goddesses, spirits, etc
      it merely doesn’t acknowledge the existence of a personal god
      the fact that lots of people calling themselves atheists don’t know that only proves that people like self identifying without understanding

      • bobbiethejean | Apr 19, 2013 at 12:40 pm |

        neither does it deny the existence of deities, ghosts, gods, goddesses, spirits, etc

        You are correct except on the part about gods and goddesses. Atheism specifically means either disbelieving in gods or believing there are no gods. Someone who does not believe in a personal god is a deist. For example, Thomas Jefferson was probably a deist as he frequently opined that there was no reason to believe in a personal god.

      • He’s conflating classical atheism with nu-atheism… which is probably the biggest problem of nu-atheism, is that people love to conflate them, and is one of my main problems with it.

  2. Geoff Henry | Apr 19, 2013 at 11:43 am |

    I’m something of an atheist and I’m grateful that someone raises this point. I think someday the scientific meathod will discover the mechanisms of phenomena like feeling the weight of someone’s stare or other instincts and dream sharing etc. realities that constitute fringe scientific studies today. But I resolutely hold the opinion that science is the most logical moral guide as it shows how we need to behave to exist as a world civilization. No irrational fear of hell or the equivalent drives behavior in this understanding. Science doesn’t allow for an us and them mentality. We all need air food and water – and we all bleed.

    Considering religion is the basis for most of the wars throughout history, it seems the least moral thought process out there.

  3. Matt Staggs | Apr 19, 2013 at 11:53 am |

    Regardless of the argument here, I think we can all agree that this is one epic piece of illustration.

  4. Rus Archer | Apr 19, 2013 at 12:16 pm |

    of course, this all depends on who defines the morality

  5. bobbiethejean | Apr 19, 2013 at 12:37 pm |

    And this is why I get so annoyed that many assume I’m some sort of amoral robot when I say I am a scientifically minded, skeptical atheist. If anything, understanding how precious and unique our lives probably are in this infinitesimal pixel of the universe has helped me become a more conscientious person. I don’t think we’re going to live forever. I think this is the only chance we get and the only life we have. So I try to do the best I can to help those around me in whatever ways I can. I live and think this way because maybe, if we can achieve a certain level of progress, we can build heaven for ourselves. Maybe we can have that eternity we’ve always dreamed of. Maybe we can make it to the stars. But we’re not going to do it by acting like a bunch of self-serving assholes.

    I’m not going to say learning of science led to my current moral stances. I don’t know if that is or is not the case. But they certainly do go hand in hand. I also don’t think it is a coincidence that a majority of scientists identify as liberal and non-religious. 😉

  6. emperorreagan | Apr 19, 2013 at 2:54 pm |

    So the conclusion of this paper is that you can use beliefs about science to enforce moral norms.

    That’s fairly intuitive, as you can basically use any belief to enforce moral norms – it could be sports, it could be science, it could be nationalism, it could be religion. Doesn’t really matter. The notion that religion is the only way moral norms are enforced is a load of crap that various religious groups promote for their own ends.

    As another example: look at how upset people get about steroids in sports. It’s completely irrational. And the reaction is because of the beliefs about sport & fairness.

  7. But for every 1000 people that become more “moral” there may be 1 or 2 who believe there will be no permanent consequences and so will follow any impulse they feel. Quality not quantity

  8. Hadrian999 | Apr 19, 2013 at 8:53 pm |

    science is not moral or immoral, it is a tool. some scientists could be very moral and some coulde be Mengele

  9. The Well Dressed Man | Apr 21, 2013 at 8:09 pm |

    “Scientific Belief” is an unfortunate choice of words. if the title were “Can The Application of the Scientific Method To Real-World Phenomena Encourage Reasonable and Moral Actions?” I’d be impressed, and concur. The fact that this might be a difficult concept for some is fascinating.

  10. Rus Archer | Apr 22, 2013 at 2:56 pm |

    wouldn’t true scientifically based morality end constantly placing human “needs,” desires and rights and the top of the values list?
    hey, we’re humans ruin the planet for EVERYone/thing else, but it’s cool cuz they MATTER the most

  11. Ameer Gittens | Apr 22, 2013 at 8:06 pm |

    “Science” is making a concerted effort to make people forget God–as if science were the opposite of religion. It is not. I’m amazed that they put forth the rationale for endless war (evolution) and then try to claim the moral high ground. Sci-atheists really sicken me but it’s all the rage so we’re going to have to follow this error to it’s natural conclusion. Spoiler alert! It ends badly.

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