Scientific Morality and the Streetlight Effect - The Objective Standard

Note: This essay is included in the anthology Rational Egoism: The Morality for Human Flourishing, which makes an excellent gift and is available at

Night has fallen, and a police officer sees a man on his hands and knees under a streetlight looking for something. “Can I help you?” asks the officer. “Yes,” says the man. “I dropped my key, and I’m having trouble finding it.” The officer helps the man search for a few minutes, but to no avail. “Are you sure you dropped it here?” he asks. “Oh, no,” replies the man, “I dropped it over there,” pointing to a dark area across the street. “Then why are you searching for it over here?” asks the officer. “Because,” says the man, “the light is over here.”1

A similar approach can be seen among intellectuals searching for secular, objective morality.

Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and other secularists claim to be searching for a rational, fact-based, scientific morality. But they are looking for it only in the “light” of socially accepted ideas. And that is not where it lies. . . .


1. This is my version of the fable known as the “streetlight effect.” See “Streetlight Effect” at Wikipedia for its origins and other versions,

2. See Alan Germani, “The Mystical Ethics of the New Atheists,” The Objective Standard 3, no. 3 (Fall 2008): 25.

3. Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), 78.

4. Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010), 82.

5. Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 55.

6. Christopher Hitchens, “Going Godless: Atheists Rise,” Good Morning America, November 14, 2007.

7. See Craig Biddle, “Altruism: The Morality of Logical Fallacies,” TOS Blog, May 22, 2006.

8. See Craig Biddle, “The Is-Altruism Dichotomy,” The Objective Standard 8, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 46.

9. See Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1962); Craig Biddle, Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts That Support It (Richmond: Glen Allen Press, 2002); or Craig Biddle, “Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand’s Morality of Egoism,” The Objective Standard7, no. 2 (Summer 2012): 31.

10. For a brief indication of how scientific morality is derived from observation and logic, see Craig Biddle, “Secular, Objective Morality: Look and See,” The Objective Standard 12, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 47. For lengthier discussions, including more detail about the guidance provided by such morality, see Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness; and Biddle, Loving Life.

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