Measuring Morality – Metrology Part IV

I’ve had various discussions about science where people have made statements like, “That can’t be measured” and “Science can’t tell us anything about that.” Since I have yet to be presented with a well-defined concept that science is not capable of analyzing (vs. necessarily already having analyzed) I feel such statements need to be addressed. This is the fourth in a series about metrology – the science of measurement. In parts I-III I introduce metrology, the role of units, and discuss the differences between the “hard” and “soft” sciences. For a longer recap see the end of this post.

In this installment I overview some ways morality is measured. In previous posts I’ve presented measurements of such things as consciousness and beauty, but I think the idea of measuring morality strongly illustrates science’s ability to measure something that most people would argue can’t be measured.

Defining Morality – Bottom-Up vs. Top-Down

In the introduction of each of my metrology posts, I state that “I have yet to be presented with a well-defined concept that science is not capable of analyzing.” So if I’m going to measure morality the implication is that morality needs to be “well-defined.” And I think the difficulty of doing so leads to a great many discussions that also includes the question of where morality comes from. For the purposes of this post, I’m not going to provide a general definition of morality and I will only briefly discuss where morality comes from later in this post. My presentation will be based on the engineering concept of bottom-up design. The standard way of illustrating this approach is to contrast it with top-down design.

So consider designing a messaging app. The basics of such an app are a method of inputting the message, a list of recipients, and the process of sending it. The input method can be broken down to typing, voice, etc.. The recipient list can come from a contacts list or a simple reply. And there could be multiple ways of sending it. (See Figure) The process I just went through is top-down design. Start with a general concept break it into pieces, break the pieces into pieces, and repeat. Bottom-up design is where you develop the smallest pieces first and put them together to make larger pieces. For example, typing and voice recognition can be developed without knowing what the top level application is. Modern design is mostly a combination of both techniques. There are enough pieces of software or cars or computers, etc. that you don’t have to custom make all the parts, but you start top down with the main concept and integrate lower level existing pieces. Only creating enough specific pieces needed to develop a unique product.

If we think of morality as a set of moral actions then we can start looking at individual actions (bottom up) without having to fully define what morality is (top down).

This basic approach is applicable – and is applied – to a great many concepts. Gravity can be measured locally without a perfect model of it or an understanding of the relativistic effects on gravity. Individual ideas of beauty can be analyzed without a general definition of beauty. Etc.  These are always within certain levels of precision and accuracy as discussed in Metrology Part I.

Examples of Moral Metrics

Here are a few explicit examples of morality measurements. Of course, it is always possible to debate whether these particular metrics represent morality, but these seem like generally accepted moral concepts. People generally want (pharmaceutical) companies to be trustworthy; countries should strive to provide a good and healthy environment; and we should strive to prevent childhood deaths. My guess is that most people, even if they are aware of these metrics, don’t usually associate them with morality. In particular, good behavior of corporations is usually discussed in terms of ethics. But I argue that these are examples where people have applied concepts of morality to specific areas of the real world and asked how we can tell if we’re doing a good job.

More general examples of moral metrics are formal punishments for breaking the law. That is, laws are an attempt by society to codify moral actions. Of course, just because something is a law doesn’t mean it is just or moral. There are certainly good laws like “don’t murder” but there are also bad laws such as most victimless crimes (in particular drug laws) – but laws are at least an attempt to implement and enforce concepts of moral behavior. And, in terms of measurements, we can look at different sentences that are given for different criminal acts. There are even levels of morality defined: manslaughter vs. homicide or petty theft vs. grand theft.

Once you start thinking about these types of metrics as measuring morality, it is easy to find many examples. And, again, these are a bottom up approach to measuring morality. There doesn’t have to be a highest level definition of morality to understand that murder is bad.

Where does morality come from?

I’m not going to spend a lot of time discussing the (top-down) origin of morality in this blog. But I’ll give some quick notes.

First, the idea that morality comes from god (or religion) fails any serious analysis. If you want a detailed discussion of this see “What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life” by Phil Zuckerman. The extremely quick summary is that there is no agreement on which god is the true god. (I’ve read estimates of more than 100,000 religions in human history.) Further, even within a single religion there is no agreement of what is moral. (For example, a recent schism in the Methodist Church has been over gay marriage.) In other words, religious based morality is pure opinion and thus any action can be argued to be moral by the person engaging in that action. (Also, as an atheist, I’ll point out that claiming morality comes from god is to claim that all atheists are inherently immoral – which is no less discriminatory than saying all Jews or Blacks are immoral.)

In contrast, there is a growing body of work on how morality derives from evolution. A first aspect of this is to recognize that morality is a human (or sentient being) concept – amoebae, rocks, and the universe play no role in this discussion. Second, the progressive growth of societal structures plays a large part in the evolution of morality. This is a major theme of Michael Shermer in “The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule.”  In particular, Shermer provides a nice diagram showing the progression of larger societal structures: individual, family, extended family, community, society, species, and biosphere. Very simply stated, morality is largely a consequence of being social beings. A way of thinking about this is that moral action is in relation to how we treat others.

(A quick note is that I disagree with both Zuckerman and Shermer in terms of The Golden Rule being a moral precept. But that’s another discussion.)

The Progression of Morality and the State-of-the-Art Fallacy

Looking through history, it is very clear that the human idea of morality has progressed or evolved. For example, The Code of Hammurabi (c. 1750 BCE) is a little cringe worthy when compared to the modern Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (When I went to The Louvre in Paris, seeing the Hammurabi stele was one of the top three things I wanted to see because of its historical significance.) For another example, slavery has been legal through much of history and in much of the world but it is currently technically illegal around the globe – although slavery unfortunately still exists. If you look at the Wikipedia article on Timeline of abolition of slavery and serfdom, you can see the progression of slavery’s illegality. It is also somewhat shocking that the article lists changes to laws regarding slavery up to 2020.  And, unfortunately, the Thirteenth Amendment (Amendment XIII) to the United States Constitution has never been formally amended to abolish slavery as a punishment for crime.

The science of morality is very young (at best going back to the 1800s and more realistically the late 1900s). Morality is also, arguably, the hardest science there is in the sense that the so called “soft” sciences or harder than the so called “hard” sciences. (See Metrology Part III.) So, just as science in general progresses – including sometimes rejecting long standing results when new evidence is collected – so, too, the science of morality is progressing and is likely to have some major changes along the way. Even further, just like the fact that science in general will never answer all questions, neither will the science of morality. But as I have pointed out other places, there is a difference between saying science has not currently answered a question and that science cannot answer a question. And many people play what I call a form of Whac-a-Mole – coming up with some specific issue and claiming science can’t say anything about it because it hasn’t yet. This is what I call the State-of-the-art fallacy (which is a form of argument from ignorance.)

But as with other sciences, there are some moral truths that are as evidentially proven as seems possible; that slavery and murder are bad is, arguably, just as true as that gravity exists.

Brief Summary

My main point in this post is that there is no well-defined concept for which science cannot be applied. I’ve chosen morality as a main example because I think most people consider morality to be an extremely slippery concept. But science can approach even slippery concepts via a bottom-up approach to “well-defined.” And, realistically, this is the approach that has been taken for just about any area of science – not just morality. There are ample examples of moral metrics of which I’ve provided a few. And again, as with any science, claiming that science hasn’t already addressed some specific issue doesn’t mean it cannot address that issue.

Further Reading

Here are just a few additional writings I’ve come across that discuss morality from a scientific point of view.

  1. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris. (book).
  2. Are We Cut Out for Universal Morality? By William J. FitzPatrick. (article)
  3. The Science of Morality by John Shook. (article)

Recap of Parts I – III

In Metrology is not about the weather. Part I – How to weigh a potato, I introduced the most important thing to know about a measurement: there is always an error in both accuracy and precision. I then outlined the traceability of measurement standards from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to a produce scale used to weight a potato. The final section discussed how the formalization of measurement error is also a formalization of my three philosophical foundations discussed in Am I a figment of your imagination?  

In Metrology Part II – How do I measure thee? Let me count the ways, I introduced the International System of Units (SI) including how an infinite number of units can be derived from the seven base units. I then introduced the formal generalized definition of a measure, which allows expansion beyond SI based units such as those of the International System of Quantities. Of relevance here, is the distinction between physical units and conceptual units (my terminology). I also briefly mentioned statistics as a methodology that analyzes sets of measurements.

In Metrology Part III – The “soft” sciences are harder than the “hard” sciences, I argue that the so called “soft” sciences are still physical sciences. This includes discussing the difference between the types of measurements the different sciences use. This leads to a further generalization of units, culminating in a discussion of fictional units. And, because the “soft” sciences are usually about humans, it is much more difficult to study than, for example, particle theory.

(The cover image of Lady Justice is from Pinterest.)

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