Is Living a Moral Life an Art or a Science?

is morality an art or a science

It’s an interesting question to consider as we typically encounter morality through the linguistic disciplines of law, philosophy and literature, all of which are so-called “arts” subjects. Intuitively, one might feel that it is somewhat odd to associate science with morality, which more readily conjures up images of men atop pulpits than science’s white lab coats and microscopes.

Can morality be examined and dissected like the specimen on a Petri dish? Can its primary elements be systematised and labeled?

Once again, intuitively, one thinks not. The study of the physical processes of the natural world seems to have little to do with human morality.

But this is perhaps too narrow a definition of what science is and what its scope is limited to, which is not only the “hard sciences” of chemistry and physics. Even though, stereotypically, it is usually associated with these subjects.

What makes science “scientific” is not the objects/subjects it chooses to study, or the technical instruments it uses to examine and measure them. What gives science its unique identity is the methodology it employs.

That is, the rigorous use of reason, evidence and logic in assessing and making factual claims.

Which has its metaphysical origins in philosophy; from which modern science first emerged as “natural philosophy”. It is interesting to note in this regard that the 18th century philosopher Rene Descartes thought of himself as a physicist.

It is a misconception that art and science are mutually exclusive, or, that the difference between the two is one of kind rather than degree.

Science is, in fact, a subset of philosophy. The scientific method shares a common ancestry with art; it is a type of art-science that is as germane to living a moral life as it is to the study of atomic matter.

The interplay between art and science in a moral context is crucial to forming a morality that is both fair and considered (more on this later). This is particularly evident when one uses the scientific method to engage critically with morality, as it is presented to us in art and literature.

The scientific method’s value in this engagement is that it eschews the wisdom of any one supposed moral authority or source. It seeks to validate all moral claims by subjecting them to thorough analysis. Purportedly “authoritative” moral narratives are questioned and closely scrutinized.

Its ability to do this can be traced back to its origins, when it emerged from the secular philosophy of the Enlightenment period.

This produced a particular type of philosophical deliberation, with an emphasis on objective reason. This is an important distinction to make, as it would be incorrect to say that religious philosophy is completely devoid of reason. It usually contains a type of internal logic that is consistent with its moral claims and it may employ material evidence to substantiate these claims, as well as displaying clear philosophical reasoning for doing so. “Reason” is not a term that can only be employed in a scientific, secular sense; but, what distinguishes scientific reasoning is its objectivity, it does not operate in service to any spiritual (or other) authority, which religious philosophy clearly does.

That is not to completely denigrate the value of religious and other types of “mystical” morality. It is important at this point to acknowledge that theology is often able to incisively grasp certain existential truths and to communicate them skilfully, utilizing the very human activity of storytelling.

The Bible is a collection of sermonising tales and didactic fables, which speak to man’s moral life and the righteous exercise of his conscience. Storytelling in this manner is a powerful way of communicating a particular kind of morality. Locating a worldview within a quotidian context enlivens moral concepts in a way that pure abstraction cannot.

As an art form, it presents us with a narrative. In a moral context it uses this narrative to persuade us of its particular morality.

It does this by appealing to the compassionate aspect of human nature.

Steven Pinker the Harvard biologist describes literature as “empathy technology”. He argues that some of Western society’s more significant moral moments were induced by a work of literature, serving as its conscience. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, for instance, is often credited with helping to form critical mass against slavery in the United States; the moral impetus behind the American Civil War.

Another notable example is Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, which provided deeply personal insight into the inner life of a young Jewish girl living in hiding in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. By entering her thoughts and feelings in this way the reader is able to experience her as fully human, as someone like them – not as an opaque “other” whose life is worthless.

Conversely, using the same methods, the reader is invited to empathise with less honourable types. The bootlegger and conman Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby is a good example of this. F. Scott. Fitzgerald’s portrayal of him produces a highly sympathetic character, kind and well intentioned. We wish him success in his endeavours, even though we know them to be criminal.

In theatre, Shakespeare famously did this with Richard III. For the most part, throughout the play, we perceive events from the amoral and ruthless Richard’s perspective.

We are privy to his explanations and the justifications for his scheming behaviour. Despite our better natures, we begin to root for him.

This is how powerful literature as an empathy technology can be; and even the power of empathy itself, which, when exploited for nefarious ends, can warp our sense of right and wrong. Empathy is not immune to corrupting forces seeking to confuse it.

Which brings us back to the problem of “authority” in morality. We should always employ our critical faculties when considering an “authoritative” narrative, weighting its claims against other available evidence, questioning its biases and assertions, and examining our own.

In this way, using the scientific method, we are able to avoid the cunning manipulation of our emotions.

It is from this ongoing dialectic between art and science that a more exacting morality emanates; a moral life that combines art’s empathetic perception and science’s analytical precision.

Featured Image Credit: Angel by Abbot Anderson Thayer (1903) Source: Wiki Art

Candice Holdsworth

Candice Holdsworth is the founder and editor of Imagine Athena. It is mythologised that she sprang fully formed from its pages. Candice has an MSc in Political Philosophy from the London School of Economics, and thus can be most commonly found discussing ideas and culture. Her writing can also be found on Thought Leader and On Netflix Now. Follow her on Twitter @CandiceCarrie and Instagram @candicecholdsworth