As the fields of neurobiology, evolutionary biology, and social science have yielded better understandings of moral reasoning and its origins, some have claimed that their findings can be used to establish moral truths. James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky, reviewing three recent books on the subject, argue that the authors engage in a bait-and-switch: advertising a new science-based morality that can sweep away the confusion generated by philosophers and religious thinkers, while offering nothing of the sort:
[This new] scholarship presents itself as addressing questions of prescriptive morality, but through a sleight of hand it puts descriptive and instrumental definitions of morality into play in ways that conflate the meanings of the terms. This is confusing, to say the least.
Yet there is another fundamental problem. . . . Invariably, the science of morality is directed toward unearthing and understanding universally shared moral principles. These are ethical generalities that take shape as moral-philosophical abstractions. The evidence used to address this stratum of moral reality is presumed to be species-wide, whether it is drawn from data from neurochemistry, the evolutionary record, or public-opinion surveys.
This presumption is fine as far as it goes, but it barely scratches the surface of morality as it exists empirically in the lives of individuals, groups, communities, and nations. . . . In this empirical complexity, the new moral science shows little interest or curiosity. It is as if the best way to address empirical difference is to ignore it altogether. But any intellectual inquiry that disregards empirical specificity, especially in its messiness, fails to meet the most rudimentary requirements of a science. . . .
[Furthermore, for] a theory of morality to be scientific, it must tie its claims about the nature of morality to observable reality strongly enough to demonstrate that it is getting the nature of morality right. Put more sharply: a science of morality must be able to demonstrate empirically that its claims about morality are true.