Science of Morality Roundup
Ever since Sam Harris’s TED talk went up there has been a healthy debate on the topic. Here are the major links for those interested. I included some worthwhile excerpts from the various links.
The TED talk.
The longer Google version.
The Moral Landscape.
My first reaction.
[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.
Harris is doing exactly what Hume warned against, in a move that is at least as old as Plato: he’s noticing that most people are, as a matter of empirical fact, more concerned about the fate of primates than the fate of insects, and taking that as evidence that we ought to be more concerned about them; that it is morally correct to have those feelings. But that’s a non sequitur. After all, not everyone is all that concerned about the happiness and suffering of primates, or even of other human beings; some people take pleasure in torturing them. And even if they didn’t, again, so what? We are simply stating facts about how human beings feel, from which we have no warrant whatsoever to conclude things about how they should feel.
It is also worth noticing that Carroll has set the epistemological bar higher for morality than he has for any other branch of science. He asks, “Who decides what is a successful life?” Well, who decides what is coherent argument? Who decides what constitutes empirical evidence? Who decides when our memories can be trusted? The answer is, “we do.” And if you are not satisfied with this answer, you have just wiped out all of science, mathematics, history, journalism, and every other human effort to make sense of reality.
And the philosophical skepticism that brought us the division between facts and values can be used in many other ways that smart people like Carroll would never countenance. In fact, I could use another of Hume’s arguments, the case against induction, to torpedo Carroll’s entire field, or science generally.
To illustrate Singer’s conception of moral action, if I wish to act in accordance with the so-called ethical point of view, and if I see that Φ-ing (say, selling my house and donating the proceeds to Community Aid Abroad) is the unique way for me to do so in my current circumstances, then it can be said that Φ-ing is what I ought to do.
Notice, however, that I expressed this as a hypothetical imperative. It is what I have reason to do if I already wish to act from the ethical point of view. At this stage, no good reason (some kind of non-moral, or pre-moral, “ought”) has been given as to why I should, or might, wish to act in accordance with the ethical point of view. It’s no good saying that my interests are not objectively more important than anyone else’s. So what? They are still my interests, and I may desire to further them. How have I made any error if I set out to do so? My desire to further my own interests is not the sort of thing that can entail any truth-claims that might be in error. I simply have desires … and they motivate me.
The second point I wanted to mention was the justification we might have for passing moral judgments over others. Not to be uncharitable, but it seems that the biggest motivation most people have for insisting that morals can be grounded in facts is that they want it to be true — because if it’s not true, how can we say the Taliban are bad people?
That’s easy: the same way I can say radical epistemological skepticism is wrong. Even if there is no metaphysically certain grounding from which I can rationally argue with a hard-core skeptic or a Taliban supporter, nothing stops me from using the fundamental assumptions that I do accept, and acting accordingly. There is a weird sort of backwards-logic that gets deployed at this juncture: “if you don’t believe that morals are objectively true, you can’t condemn the morality of the Taliban.” Why not? Watch me: “the morality of the Taliban is loathsome and should be resisted.” See? I did it!
FACT #8: One cannot reasonably ask, “But why is the worst possible misery for everyone bad?”—for if the worst possible misery for everyone isn’t bad, the word “bad” has no meaning. (This would be like asking, “But why is a perfect circle round?” The question can be posed, but it expresses only confusion, not an intelligible basis for skeptical doubt.) Likewise, one cannot ask, “But why ought we avoid the worst possible misery for everyone?”—for if the term “ought” has any application at all, it is in urging us away from the worst possible misery for everyone.
The crux of the disagreement, then, is embodied in the title of Harris’ talk: in what sense can science answer (as opposed to inform) ethical questions? Let me take one of Harris’ examples, the (highly questionable) legality of corporal punishment of children in several US States. Harris rhetorically asks whether we really think that hitting children will improve their school performance or good behavior. But that isn’t the point at all. What if it did? What if a scientific study showed that indeed, hitting children does have a measurable effect on improving those desirable traits? Harris would then have to concede that corporal punishment is moral, but somehow I doubt he would. AndI certainly wouldn’t, because my moral intuition (yes, that’s what I’m going to call it, deal with it) tells me that purposefully inflicting pain on children is wrong, regardless of whatever the empirical evidence says.
That is not exactly what I asked. I asked whether subjecting children to “pain, violence, and public humiliation” leads to “healthy emotional development and good behavior” (i.e. does it conduce to their general wellbeing and to the wellbeing of society). If it did, well then yes, I would admit that it was moral. In fact, it would appear moral to more or less everyone—just as slitting open a child’s belly to perform an emergency appendectomy seems obviously moral to anyone who understands the purpose of this procedure. The patent immorality of corporal punishment relates to the sense that it is clearly bad for children, both in the moment and in the long run (along with the fact that it is generally the product of anger, rather than benevolence, on the part of the brute holding the paddle).
So how are we to decide how to balance one person’s well-being against another’s? To do this scientifically, we need to be able to make sense of statements like “this person’s well-being is precisely 0.762 times the well-being of that person.” What is that supposed to mean? Do we measure well-being on a linear scale, or is it logarithmic? Do we simply add up the well-beings of every individual person, or do we take the average? And would that be the arithmetic mean, or the geometric mean? Do more individuals with equal well-being each mean greater well-being overall? Who counts as an individual? Do embryos? What about dolphins? Artificially intelligent robots?
I think he’s right in some of the examples he gives: science can trivially tell you that psychopaths and violent criminals and the pathologies produced by failed states in political and economic collapse are not good models on which to base a successful human society (although I also think that the desire for a successful society is not a scientific premise…it’s a kind of Darwinian criterion, because unsuccessful societies don’t survive). However, I don’t think Harris’s criterion — that we can use science to justify maximizing the well-being of individuals — is valid. We can’t. We can certainly use science to say we can maximize well-being, once we define well-being…although even that might be a bit more slippery than he portrays it. Harris is smuggling in an unscientific prior in his category of well-being.
I wonder if there is anyone on earth who would be tempted to attack the philosophical underpinnings of medicine with questions like: “What about all the people who don’t share your goal of avoiding disease and early death? Who is to say that living a long life free of pain and debilitating illness is ‘healthy’? What makes you think that you could convince a person suffering from fatal gangrene that he is not as healthy you are?” And yet, these are precisely the kinds of objections I face when I speak about morality in terms of human and animal well-being. Is it possible to voice such doubts in human speech? Yes. But that doesn’t mean we should take them seriously.