Moral Brakes

Moral Brakes

Our incomplete education could end the world. Can the humanities save us from ourselves?

The Humanities. Or, if you’re a science major, the Humanities, followed by an eye roll. We’ve all seen it.

Do  people really care about the humanities? Even a cursory glance at  education systems around the world reveals: not really. People are more  interested in technology, in engineering, in facts and results. The  focus is on finding new ways to use the world; we don’t care why or what  makes us use it.

But we should. Our future depends on it.

According to biologist, naturalist, and award-winning nonfiction author Edward O. Wilson, the humanities might be the only thing  that can save us from ourselves in this period of history where we  possess the power to annihilate everything in existence.

“The humanities, of which the study of religion is an integral part, differ fundamentally from science in mode of thought,” Wilson writes. “The  humanities alone create social value. Their languages, buoyed by the  creative arts, evoke feelings and actions instinctively felt to be  correct and true. When knowledge is deep enough and all set in place,  the humanities become the preeminent source of moral judgment.”

Wilson goes on to point out that although some things seem inherently  good or evil, we must not forget that every thought and action must be  placed in a context, both scientific and humanistic, before it can be  judged morally good.

The  nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki could be deemed morally  justified because, even though they killed millions of people, they  prevented the deaths of millions more American and Japanese lives which  would otherwise have been lost from ongoing fighting. On the other hand,  this attack led to the Cold War which produced ongoing moral dilemmas  of its own.

So where, Wilson asks, does the solution to our moral conundrum lie? How can we find it?

“Science owns the warrant to explore everything deemed factual and possible,” he says, “but the humanities, borne aloft by both fact and fantasy, have the power of everything not only possible but also conceivable.”

This may sound like a fluffy fringe idea. It’s not.


Thomas  Jefferson believed education should provide the means of achieving a  citizen’s own livelihood as well as improving his morals and faculties.

It was crucial, Jefferson said, for a person

“to  understand his duties to his neighbours and country, and to discharge  with competence the functions confided to him by either; to know his  rights . . . And, in general, to observe with intelligence and  faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed.”

In  other, less archaic-sounding words, Thomas Jefferson supported an  education system that produced well-rounded, informed individuals who  could make course corrections when an idiot gained power and steered  society toward rocky shoals.

So why don’t humanities get the attention they deserve?


Every thought and action must be placed in a context, both scientific and humanistic, before it can be judged morally good. — Edward O. Wilson.

A  study by the National Endowment for the Humanities found that the  period of 1982–2008 saw only 20–25% of Americans visiting an art gallery  or art museum at least once a year. Honestly, this much higher than I  expected and while I’m pleasantly surprised, these are still low  numbers.

The problem? Poverty, Wilson says, and a lack of respect.

Artists  are poised with paintbrushes ready, but the modern humanities rarely  receive enough funds to finish the projects their artists and scholars  aspire to create.

During  the Renaissance period, artists enjoyed long-term sponsors, such as  Michelangelo’s patron Pope Julius II, but now, monasteries and other  religious organizations no longer serve as creative sanctuaries. And in  academia, STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — and  college prep for STEM majors, is valued above all else, even the  physical fitness of students, which become a neglected afterthought  leading to an obesity epidemic in first-world countries like the United  States.

So  what’s the big deal? Research and development in STEM benefits the  nation, right? We might be putting all our eggs in one basket, but if  it’s the basket that’ll lead us into the future, who cares if we neglect  the arts and humanities?

We do. Even if we don’t realise it.


STEM  is critical to the progress of a nation. There’s no arguing that. In a  world where measles has roared back to a top contender for deadly  diseases, we can’t ignore science education. But humanities are equally  important. Philosophy, jurisprudence, literature, history, sociology —  they preserve our values.

They  turn us into patriots for moral values, not parrots for demagogues  promising empty platitudes. How much better might we make political  decisions if we knew how to spot logical fallacies and manipulation in  candidates’ speeches?

Philosophy  teaches us how to reason, and history warns us the ghosts of our past  are not as dead as we’d like to believe — Nazism didn’t die with Hitler,  it’s as alive today as anyone who espouses it.


The  boon of the humanities goes beyond this. Let’s not forget the wealth of  knowledge we mine from psychology. How much better would we make  decisions in everyday life and for the good of our society if everyone  was aware of the cognitive biases influencing their decisions?

“Science  (with technology) tells us whatever is needed in order to go wherever  we choose,” Wilson writes, “and the humanities tell us where to do with  whatever is produced by science.”

It’s  hard to derive a moral code of living or a higher meaning from what  STEM alone describes. It’s one thing to say, “All human beings are  composed of atoms,” and another to say, “These atoms arranged into the  form of people and animals have inherent value and should be treated  with respect and dignity.”

A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand bleed that uses it.
—Rabindranath Tagore

STEM isn’t qualified to make moral codes or higher meanings. But the humanities can, and do.


Wilson  writes that “the human enterprise has been to dominate Earth and  everything on it, while remaining constrained by a swarm of competing  nations, organized religions, and other selfish collectivities, most of  whom are blind to the common good of the species and planet.”

He  continues to say that because the humanities focus on aesthetics and  values, they have the power to swerve the moral trajectory into a new  mode of reasoning, one that embraces scientific and technological  knowledge.

To do this, they’ll have to blend with science, not replace it.


You can’t understand how human societies work, or what’s good for them, without objective scientific research.

For  example, you won’t understand why people behave the way they do in  groups without understanding that we haven’t evolved much from our  hunter-gatherer ancestors. We’re still working with the same neural  hardware. That STEM fact influences the humanities.

“Like  the sunlight and firelight that guided our birth,” Wilson says, “we  need a unified humanities and science to construct a full and honest  picture of what we truly are and what we can become.”

These  humanities include paleontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary  biology, and neurobiology. Of these, evolution is paramount.


Let’s not forget, Wilson says, nothing in the science or the humanities makes sense except in the light of evolution.

If  you take a look at those five humanities, you’ll notice a common  thread. They all directly teach us about ourselves, as opposed to more  abstract quantum mechanical theory, which is fascinating and relevant in  its own right but can’t be applied to improve our daily lives.

Learning  about ourselves is nothing to scoff at. Cultures throughout history and  from all around the world teach us that the most powerful tool in our  arsenal is the ability to know and understand ourselves. Why do we think  the way we do? Why do certain words, ideas, and concepts have more sway  over our behaviour than other words, ideas, and concepts?


Knowledge  is power, especially knowing yourself, and self-mastery is the first  step to mastering anything outside yourself. This is where the  humanities come in. This is what we lack today.

We  have the ability to obliterate all life on earth, but the people  elected to office to control this power are unpredictable at best. At  worst, they’re predictably selfish and destructive. And yet, to a large  extent, we chose them. Or allowed them to be chosen. Why? Don’t we know what’s good for us?

No.  Not without investing in the humanities. We only know what is — what is  available in the world for us to take, manipulate, and use up — but not  whether we should partake, or if it will make life better.

Again,  I’m not saying STEM isn’t important, but where STEM alone can teach us  faster ways to extract oil and cut down trees, the humanities can tell  us that it’s a terrible idea and we should focus on cleaner methods.


When  Thomas Jefferson helped create Western democracy, he foresaw the power  and influence it would wield, and he recognized the importance of  buttressing our progress with moral guidance and competence, ideals  which have fallen by the wayside in modern society.

Edward  O. Wilson’s insistence on expanding the humanities may seem like a  fringe idea on the surface. But if we want to raise a generation of  well-rounded, powerful and moral people, our best  bet is to integrate the humanities into education as early as possible,  rather than relegate it to “someday, maybe tomorrow” and complain when  the train of progress runs off the rails with no moral brakes.