Home > David Hume, Google, Immanuel Kant, Moral Philosophy, Morality, Reason, Robert Nozick, Sam Harris, Science, TED, The Moral Landscape > Science-Based Morality and The Problem of Liberty

Science-Based Morality and The Problem of Liberty

I promised my thoughts on Sam Harris’s TED talk – I also watched a longer version of the talk which he gave at Google containing a worthwhile Q&A session.


My thoughts below the fold.
Sam Harris always impresses me and I’m incredibly excited about this book. Although I don’t think he completely breaks through Hume’s “is/ought” barrier [update: see below], Harris adequately demonstrates that a science of morality is possible and objective facts can be known about moral systems. His major insight is to recognize that morality is really about answering questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Once that move is made it becomes clear that objective values exist – actions either correspond to promoting greater well-being or they don’t. No matter how you parse it, murdering innocent babies doesn’t lead to greater flourishing of human well-being.


Harris, wisely, doesn’t claim that he or science currently knows all the answers to our moral dilemmas, only that it is possible that discoverable truths exist and that we should admit that we know more then nothing. Furthermore, Harris paints us a picture of our potential moral universe where different answers to moral questions can exist. That does not imply that all responses are equally valid. If you imagine his “moral landscape” it has many peaks and valleys. His analogy to health helps the most: a practically unlimited amount of different types of food can all lead to greater health (itself a fussy concept) but that doesn’t mean that poison is food or that science can’t identify objective truths about health-related questions.


I assume most of my concerns will be addressed in his 300+ page book; I eagerly await. For example, I’m curious if he thinks science can help us adjudicate between different peaks – not just map them. It wasn’t obvious to me how that would be possible. If two peaks are equally tall is the choice just personal or societal preference? Also, he argues that science can inform us about the objective moral worth of different political systems, which seems true if you accept his premises. Of course, if one expands morality to more then just well-being the moral landscape’s bedrock might become more fragile. As soon as I started thinking about various political systems, I began wondering about how the concept of liberty would be viewed through Harris’s moral microscope.


Maybe the argument is invalid but it seems a strong case can be made that liberty is a moral value that doesn’t rely on well-being as its foundation. Sure, supports can be garnered to strengthen the moral case for liberty but humans, for example, could theoretically be worse off because of liberty and a strong case can still be made for its moral value. Kant, of course, made a strong moral case that humans are ends not means. Therefore, conscious beings as autonomous agents might make suboptimal decisions, but restricting their free choice through a benevolent paternalism might be less moral even if it leads to greater well-being. Robert Nozick like Harris argues that values exist (he argues they are independent of us) and makes a moral case for rights and liberty without a necessary appeal to well-being. I know Harris is familiar with Nozick and other philosophers who value rights and liberty, so I’m very excited to see how he deals with these issues. Does he believe that rights are just useful tools to achieving greater well-being or does he believe that they are valuable for their own sake? I hope to expand on this topic further – if anyone finds out Harris’s opinion on these issues or if you want to take your own crack at it feel free to comment.


[Update: Sam writes a lengthy response to a lot of the critiques of his lecture (including some issues I brought up]:



All other notions of value will bear some relationship to the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. So my claim that consciousness is the basis of values does not appear to me to be an arbitrary starting point.

Now that we have consciousness on the table, my further claim is that wellbeing is what we can intelligibly value—and “morality” (whatever people’s associations with this term happen to be) reallyrelates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the wellbeing of conscious creatures. And, as I pointed out at TED, all the people who claim to have alternative sources of morality (like the Word of God) are, in every case that I am aware of, only concerned about wellbeing anyway: They just happen to believe that the universe functions in such a way as to place the really important changes in conscious experience after death (i.e. in heaven or hell). And those philosophical efforts that seek to put morality in terms of duty, fairness, justice, or some other principle that is not explicitly tied to the wellbeing of conscious creatures—are, nevertheless, parasitic on some notion of wellbeing in the end (I argue this point at greater length in my book. And yes, I’ve read Rawls, Nozick, and Parfit). The doubts that immediately erupt on this point seem to invariably depend on extremely unimaginative ideas about what the term “wellbeing” could mean, altogether, or on mistaken beliefs about what science is.

(my emphasis) 

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  1. October 19, 2010 at 5:13 pm

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