Does modern science undermine morality?


It is widely believed that modern society, in spite of all its technological and scientific progress, is morally deficient, compared with past generations. Many observers, especially the religious right, blame modern science. They see scientists and scholars as advocating the view that personal self-control and inhibitions are not only unnecessary but further are downright harmful, the cause of many social ills and psychological hangups — views that many religious-oriented believers and writers consider to be hostile to traditional moral codes. As a single example, evangelical author J. Lee Grady claims that scholars and others “are plotting the virtual overthrow of conventional morals. They want a hedonistic world with no rules and no guilt.” [Grady2011]. For additional background, see Decline.

Historical background

There is some truth behind these claims. During much of the 20th century, many social scientists and scholars adhered to the doctrine known informally as the “blank slate” (from the Latin tabula rasa), namely that all human personality and behavior is a product of rearing and environment — biology plays no role, and there is no such thing as innate human nature. The concept has very deep roots in western culture, with traces seen in the writings of Aristotle, repeated in the writings of 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas, and carried into the 18th century by Jean-Jacques Rosseau. In the late 19th century, Sigmund Freud presumed the blank slate when he depicted personality traits as rooted in one’s family environment. Twentieth century psychologist John B. Watson, the founder of behaviorism, succinctly stated this doctrine when he wrote [Watson1930, pg. 82]:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select — doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.

Similarly, anthropologist Ashley Montagu declared, “Man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings.” [Pinker2002, pg. 24].

Closely related to the blank slate doctrine is the “noble savage” doctrine, namely the notion that humans in their natural primitive state are unselfish, peaceful and free from the many blights of modern society such as greed, violence, jealousy and psychological hangups, all of which are unfortunate byproducts of modern civilization. Like the blank slate, the noble savage was reflected in the writings of Rosseau, who in 1755 wrote that “nothing can be more gentle than him in his primitive state” [Pinker2002, pg. 6].

In the 20th century, these doctrines were given considerable momentum through the writings of anthropologist Margaret Mead. After her study of South Seas islanders, she wrote “We are forced to conclude that human nature is almost unbelievably malleable, responding accurately and contrastingly to contrasting cultural conditions.” She described these native peoples as peaceful, egalitarian, satisfied with their material lot and sexually uninhibited [Pinker2002, pg. 25-26]. Numerous other prominent social scientists and scholars, including such giants as Bertrand Russell and H. L. Mencken, adopted the prevailing views of Montagu, Mead and others without serious question.

This general philosophy was interpreted by some as giving license to what most people today would term a largely amoral or even hedonistic lifestyle: If there is no fundamental reality to a human sense of material possession, then greed and competition are obsolete, and furthermore a totally communal society without private property is indeed achievable (as promoted by Karl Marx, for instance). If there is no fundamental reality to sexual jealousy, then there is no need for marriage or for sex to be restricted to marriage. If there is no fundamental human proclivity to violence, then the total elimination of violent crime is possible merely by suitably re-educating the populace. More to the point, if even moderate levels of self-control are unnecessary and even harmful to our social and psychological well-being, then everyone should seek to throw off such controls, and to oppose institutions (such as religious movements) that have advocated them.

Fall of the “blank slate” and “noble savage”

But a funny thing happened on the way to the party. In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, a younger, more sober generation of sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists, employing much more careful experimental and analytical methods, took a hard look at the “blank slate” and the “noble savage” doctrines, and found them to be severely wanting. First of all, through studies such as comparisons between identical twins raised apart, psychologists found that many personality traits have a significant genetic component. Identical twins raised apart were found to have remarkably similar verbal and mathematical intelligence, as well as similarity in traits such as introversion, neuroticism and conscientiousness. In fact, all five of the major dimensions of human personality were shown to have significant genetic links via such studies, with heritability typically ranging from 40 to 50 percent. It is important to note that these findings are not tantamount to biological determinism, because environmental effects are still important, but the “blank slate” paradigm that prevailed for so many years has been decisively refuted.

Along this line, in the 1980s anthropologist Donald Brown, after surveying hundreds of anthropological studies from around the world, collected a set of characteristics that had been found common to all human societies, even those that have had little or no contact with the western world. He identified approximately 150 such features, including abstract speech and thought, religion of various forms, common facial expressions for different emotions, marriage, taboos against incest, greater levels of aggression among males, sexual attractiveness (with remarkable commonality in features considered to be attractive), sexual jealousy, sexual modesty, and fear of death. He concludes that there is a universal human nature, and that these features point to that universal human nature [Pinker2002, pg. 435-439].

Modern sociologists and anthropologists dealt a similarly devastating blow to the “noble savage” doctrine. Researchers returning to the South Seas islands found that Margaret Mead’s earlier findings were almost perversely mistaken. For example, far from being paragons of nonchalant innocence, some Samoans beat or even killed brides that were found not to be virgins on their wedding night, and numerous suspected adulterers received the same fate. Similarly, researchers in Africa found that the “harmless” !Kung San, in some cases, avenged murder by mass murder in return. One archaeologist summarized the rates of male deaths in warfare for a number of indigenous civilizations in South America and New Guinea. He found rates 10 to 60 times higher than U.S. and Europe during in the 20th century (encompassing both WWI and WWII) [Pinker2002, pg. 435-439]. Additional statistics and details on crime and violence through the ages and in our own time are presented in Decline and Violence. See also The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature [Pinker2002], authored by prominent Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker.

Self-control and success

More recently, social scientists have revisited the ancient issue of whether self-control and society-instilled inhibitions are helpful or harmful to personal and social well-being. Pinker, in a 2011 book, summarizes the latest findings on this topic in these striking and unequivocal terms [Pinker2011b, pg. 598-599]:

Most people, of course, are not so lacking in self-control that they ever lash out in violence. But among the nonviolent majority some people have more self-control than others. Aside from intelligence, no other trait augurs as well for a healthy and successful life. Walter Mischel began his studies of delay of gratification (in which he gave children the choice between one marshmallow now and two marshmallows later) in the late 1960s, and he followed the children as they grew up. When they were tested a decade later, the ones who had shown greater willpower in the marshmallow test had now turned into adolescents who were better adjusted, attained higher SAT scores, and stayed in school longer. When they were tested one and two decades after that, the patient children had grow into adults who were less likely to use cocaine, had higher self-esteem, had better relationships, were better at handling stress, had fewer symptoms of borderline personality disorder, obtained higher degrees, and earned more money.

Other studies with large samples of adolescents and adults have documented similar payoffs. Adults can wait indefinitely for two marshmallows, but as we have seen, they can be given equivalent choices such as “Would you rather have five dollars now or forty dollars in two weeks?” Studies by Laibson, Christopher Chabris, Kris Kirby, Angela Duckworth, Martin Seligman, and others have found that people who opt for the later and larger sums get higher grades, weigh less, smoke less, exercise more, and are more likely to pay off their credit card balance every month. …

After adjusting for any tendency just to tick off socially desirable traits, the researchers combined the responses into a single measure of habitual self-control. They found that the students with higher scores got better grades, had fewer eating disorders, drank less, had fewer psychosomatic aches and pains, were less depressed, anxious, phobic, and paranoid, had higher self-esteem, were more conscientious, had better relationships with their families, had more stable friendships, were less likely to have sex they regretted, were less likely to imagine themselves cheating in a monogamous relationship, felt less of a need to “vent” or “let off steam,” and felt more guilt but less shame. Self-controllers are better at perspective-taking and are less distressed when responding to others’ troubles, though they are neither more nor less sympathetic in their concern for them. And contrary to the conventional wisdom that says people with too much self-control are uptight, repressed, neurotic, bottled up, wound up, obsessive-compulsive, or fixated at the anal stage of psychosexual development, the team found that the more self-control people have, the better their lives are. The people at the top of the scale were the mentally healthiest.


In summary, while it is true that early- and mid-20th century social scientists and scholars embraced doctrines that lent support to those pursuing relatively hedonistic, uninhibited lifestyles (and communistic economic utopias as well), much more careful recent research has destroyed or drastically revised these doctrines. This same research largely supports precepts long held and taught by traditional religions, including:

  • The need to be altruistic (because one’s fate lies much more in the hands of one’s larger community than in the remote past).
  • The need to restrain impulses of violence (because our modern society is much more interdependent, and has developed much more devastating means of killing and destruction).
  • The need for parents to care for and support children more years than ever before (because of the much greater requirement for education and moral training in today’s world), and for children to reasonably obey their parents’ enlightened instruction.
  • The need for adults to more carefully select a companion, and to restrain their impulses for infidelity (because of the need for a multi-decade stable family unit in which to raise children and care for one’s mate).
  • The urgent need to provide assistance to disadvantaged populations worldwide (because of the recent recognition of the astonishing capabilities of the human mind, and the universality of intelligence).
  • The need to treat our planet and our civilization with the greatest care and reverence (because of the recent recognition of how singular our world is in the cosmos).

In this regard, the findings of modern science and the teachings of enlightened modern religion have largely converged. There is no need for warfare between the two disciplines.

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