I have been asked by a member of the studio audience for my opinion of a talk that Sam Harris gave at TED (Technology, Education, and Design) on the relationship between science and morality.
Harris' thesis was to confront the idea that science cannot tell us anything about morality - that there is no such thing as moral facts discernable the same way we acquire scientific facts. He protests against the idea that, in matters of morality - unlike matters of science, we cannot know as a matter of fact that life in a failed state with rampant murder and starvation is objectively worse than life in a state where people live relatively securely and with plenty to eat.
In making this claim, Harris also states that morality is, in a sense, the science of human flourishing or well-being. He has said that he has never met a moral system that is not concerned exclusively with states of moral consciousness. In fact, he asserts, even rligious systems that profess the existence of a heaven and a hell is concrned exclusively with the conscious experience of beings in heaven or hell.
On these two subjects, I agree with Harris on the first item - that there are objective and knowable moral facts. On the other hand, I deny his second claim - that moral facts are facts about human flourishing. I argue against Harris that humans can and do have a wide variety of concerns, of which flourishing (assuming we can even come up with a precise idea of what this is) is one concern among many. While I do not deny that humans are concerned with flourishing. However, I hold that flourishing, as one value among many, is a value that people can give up in exchange for something that has even more value.
In what follows, I want to separate these two subjects and discuss the value of flourishing later. First, I want to discuss the possibility of a science of morality - the item where I think Harris is right.
While Harris believes in the science of morality, he really does not offer any argument for it other than to hold two situations up side by side and command us to see that, obviously, one of them is better than another. He describes cultures in which women spend their lives effectively living in a bag where they cannot expose any part of their body to any person other than their immediate family to a society where women are free to pursue their own interests. To this he says, "Is it not absurd to hold that these are both of equal value and nothing can be said about one being better than the other?"
However, this is not an argument. The reason that those women spend their lives in those bags is because there are a great many anti-Harris individuals out there telling their audiences, "Is it not obvious that it is better that women remain concealed in these burkas and that they live their lives in the care and protection of their immediate families?"
For every person who believes that abortion is obviously wrong there is another who believes it is obviously permissible. For each person who believes that morality requires the execution of certain criminals or the corporal punishment of children there is one who believes that morality prohibits these things.
It does no good to stand before an audience and say, "Is it not obvious that these values are better than those?" One is only going to command assent from people who value these things over those.
I agree with Harris on the possibility of a science of morality. However, I use a different set of arguments to defend it.
One of those arguments:
There is no mutually exclusive is/ought distinction. There is only a mutually exclusive is/is not distinction. Either 'ought' will find its home in the realm of 'is', or it will find its home in the realm of 'is not'.
The point here is that the claim that there is an 'ought' distinct from 'is' that has a relevance in the real world is as problematic as any type of dualist theory. It is as problematic as claiming that there is a 'mind' that is separate and distinct from 'body' that, even though the body is made up of atoms that obey the standard laws of chemistry and physics, can somehow alter the behavior of those entities.
We are invited to ask any number of additional qustions.
What is this entity? How does it interact with physical matter in any way that has any relevance in the real world?
Whatever these 'ought' properties are, they are supposd to be having an effect on the motion of real matter - carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen items and the like - in the real world. They are supposed to have an effect on our actions. When we use the word 'ought' we claim to be using it to refer to something, the preception or recognition of which will, at least in some cases, cause us to act as we ought.
"Why did you do that?"
"Because I realize it was the right thing to do?"
The other option is that this 'ought' that we talk about has absolutely no relevance to the motion of atoms through space. If this is the case, why talk about them? If this is the case, then how can it even make sense to say that there is any such thing as 'ought' - let alone claim that we must concern ourselves with where these 'oughts' are to be found so that we can use this information in deciding what to do (that is, with how the matter that makes up our body is going to move through space).
If it has an effect on the motion of bodies through space - in the motion of our physical bodies through physical space - then it has to be something that exists somewhere in the realm of 'is'. If it has no such power - if it is an impotent realm that happens to occupy the same space-time but cannot interact with it - then at best it is as insubstantial and irrelevant as a ghost that never makes its presence known to anybody.
If you are not talking about facts, then you are talking about fiction. If, in making a moral claim, you are not talking about something real, then you are grounding your life on myth and superstition.
Those are the only two options.
This argument does not settle the issue of whether there are moral facts. To give an argument for A or B does not automatically imply A. I leave open the possibility that morality is a fiction - an invention - an element of make-believe like gods and ghosts that people invented and applied to the world around them. I admit to the possibility that morality is a mistake.
And I also assert that it does not matter.
It does not matter because the real-world entities that I identify with morality (the real-world relationships that exist between malleable desires and other desires) are a part of the 'is' universe whether you call them 'morality' or not. They remain real objects of study in the same way that Pluto remains a real object of study regardless of whether or not you call it a planet. There is somthing out there in the real world to be known - in this case, relationships between malleable desires and other desires - regardless of whether or not we call it 'morality'.
I do not need to brow-beat individuals into holding that one particular state of affairs is obviously better than another to argue for moral facts. I simply need to assert, "When you claim that abortion is immoral, either you are stating a fact, or you are stating a fiction. There is no third option." We do not need to know which it is to know that those are the two options available to us.