Image by Christian / Flickr

Lately I’ve been reading a book called Science and the Good which is about the failure to discover a scientific basis for morality. To cut a long story short, dispense with religion and the idea of God, then it is very hard, if not impossible, to declare that anything at all is right or wrong in itself, regardless of social convention or personal opinion.

It was once hoped that science might find a basis for believing that some things are right and wrong in themselves and we could all agree about the basis and then end moral disagreements. Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality, by James Davison and Paul Nedelisky goes through the attempt and explains why it has ended in failure.

Atheist and writer, Sam Harris, is quoted in the book. He himself is a moral realist, meaning he thinks statements such as, ‘it is wrong to torture cats’ say something meaningful and real about the nature of things, just like it is real and meaningful to say the Earth revolves around the Sun. But he admits that among secular thinkers he is in a minority.

As he says: “Most educated secular people … believe that there is no such thing as moral truth – only moral preference, moral opinion, and emotional reactions we mistake for genuine knowledge of right and wrong”.

Philosopher Joshua Greene is also quoted. His doctoral thesis is called ‘The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Truth about Morality and What to Do about It”.

In his thesis, Greene says categorically that no matter how horrified we feel about people torturing cats, it is not wrong in itself because nothing is wrong in itself. Science might be able to establish facts about the physical universe, but it can establish nothing in that sense about morality and what is objectively right and wrong, morally speaking.

As Greene puts it: “Contrary to common sense, moral realism is false.”

What is left when we dispense with the idea of objective right and wrong? The answer is, what works, in other words, utilitarianism, and usually this is interpreted to mean what increases happiness.

A society organised on utilitarian lines will seek to increase the happiness of the greatest number of people possible.

But then a horrible thought springs to mind. Suppose it turns out that a one-party State like China with its growing, technology-driven ability to control the lives of its citizens turns out to be better at making people happier than the Western democracies?

It is no good to say the end doesn’t justify the means. If the end is the greatest happiness of the great number, then how can utilitarianism object to the means of getting there, unless some things really are wrong in themselves, but secularism and atheism deny us that move. (Naïve atheists still think you can reject belief in God AND continue to believe that some things are right or wrong in themselves).

In the end a utilitarian can have no moral objection to the Chinese one-party State if it is more successful than Western democracies at making people happy.

Republished from the Iona Institute blog.

David Quinn is the Director of the Iona Institute iin Dublin. He is a well known journalist who specialises in religious and social affairs. Currently he has columns in both The Irish Independent and The...