Monday, April 12, 2010

Sam Harris: Science and Morality

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.


Anonymous said...

What a cliffhanger! :-)

Ben said...

What might have more value to a human than human flourishing?

Marc said...

What is human flourishing?

Kevin said...

Sam Harris said he left the definition open ended, something that will be established whenever the conversation gets started. In a general sense, something that promotes well being would be preferred to something that detracts from it.

"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."

Have any examples? I would think that well being would be pretty inclusive of values needed for a healthy society. For example, such examples of justice, freedom of speech, etc. that are necessary for a healthy society would therefore be included under well being.

Anonymous said...

If by "well-being" and "flourishing" Sam Harris means "that which we value most", then we agree. But, that's a weird (i.e. uncommon) definition of "well-being". He's the one using the terms -- it's up to him to define them so we can know what he's talking about.

Ben said...


You honestly have no idea what human flourishing is? Or do you need a crystal clear definition so you can find some ridiculous way to disagree with it? Do you see how your question is an irresponsible conversation stopper?

Alonzo presumably already had some idea since it has to be presupposed in order to say, "a person can want something more than that." More than what, Alonzo? If you don't know, the statement is incoherent.

So the denial of the basic heuristical concept of "human well being" basically means you are free to deny absolutely everything subsequent in the conversation. And that's not a worthwhile pursuit as far as I'm concerned even if science will in fact need a robust definition.

If you'd like to make it a worthwhile pursuit, remind me that you aren't a space alien who has never encountered the human species before and that you have at least some experience with what "human" and "flourishing" might mean. And then ask a follow up question that seeks to clarify some difficult issue on top of that (like how to reconcile specific differences of opinion on human flourishing between cultures). Otherwise, I'll pass.


dbonfitto said...

Human flourishing?

This is D.U. country. Round these parts, we call it "a state of affairs in which good desires may be fulfilled." And smile when you say it, pardner.

Seriously, I'd also consider that 'flourishing' is an open ended state that includes fulfillment of good desires and progress which allows the creation of new good desires. There isn't an endpoint to this sort of journey as a species.

Viewing morality as a science assumes that there is no endpoint to morality, just as there is no endpoint to any scientific body of knowledge. We just keep learning more about the universe around us and about our relationship to it.

Ben, speaking of aliens, hopefully, they'll be moral scientists who want to sit down and talk about two intelligent species relate to each other and not moral absolutists with asterisks and caps lock.

Cyril said...

"There is som[e]thing out there in the real world to be known - in this case, relationships between malleable desires and other desires..."

You might've answered this already, but this statement strikes me as somewhat ambiguous:

Do you mean to talk about the difference between malleable desires taken as a group, and then all other desires (i.e. the non-malleable desires)? Or do you mean to pick out an individual malleable desire and then compare that to all other desires except that one (both malleable and un-malleable), and then to repeat such a process for all other desires individually?

From what I've read on your blog, you seem to be taking the second track, but that leaves unanswered the question as to "what if two malleable desires conflict? Which should be discouraged?"

Given that you come off as having given desirism a lot of thought, you probably have an answer, but I have yet to find one. Any answers?


Oh, and davmab11, stop spamming.

josef said...

Off topic warning...

Alonzo, you recently claimed that theists give more blood than atheists. To me this is plausible, but you didn't cite or link to any study. In any case for the purposes of your point, the idea that atheists gave less blood made your argument harder rather than easier to make.

Anyway, there was recently an analysis finding no significant difference between the blood giving of religious and non-religious.

Russell Blackford said...

I can see what it might be to flourish in some contexts, but I can't for the life of me imagine how flourishing can be anything other than a very fuzzy and contested concept. Even more so if it's interpreted as a summation of all values rather than a single objectively definable and measurable thing.

This doesn't strike me as the worst problem with the Harris approach. Perhaps we could get some kind of rough consensus on what flourishing is. We can then say, with the ancients, that ethics is all about having the dispositions of character (moral virtues) that enable us to flourish (achieve eudaimonia) by the standards of some list of features applying to a human life.

But the fuzziness and contested nature of flourishing still constitute one of the problems. We have no natural definition of flourishing. It's not as if you can read it off some purpose we have, since we have no purpose, only the pseudo-purpose of reproducing our genes ... and I don't think anyone is going to equate flourishing with reproductive success.

I doubt that all societies converge on the same conception of flourishing, even if some monocultural societies do achieve a kind of internal convergence. Nor do I see why they'd necessarily do so even if we were congnitively enhanced.

All of which suggests that human beings will not converge on exactly the same conception of flourishing, which means that we will not converge on full agreement as to what the virtues are, and we will be left with no objective fact of the matter as to exactly what conduct is consistent with the virtuous character.

I don't have a great problem with that. I don't mind finding out that morality is underdetermined by objective reality, fuzzy, perspectival, and so on. But Sam Harris might have a problem with it. If so, getting agreement on "flourishing" is only the start of his problems.

Even if we could solve that one, there's then a question about what weight to give to our flourishing as individuals, to that of our loved ones, to that of people we identify with more distantly, and so on. The Greeks talked in terms of the individual's own flourishing, but that sounds implausible. We seem to think we are under an obligation to assist the flourishing of others, at least to some unspecified extent.

Again, I can't see that there is any way we are compelled to a particular answer. It may turn out that, on a plausible conception of flourishing, we need to place weight on the flourishing of others to some extent even to achieve our own flourishing! Cf the paradox of hedonism. But exactly what extent?

Again, I think it's pretty clear that we can rule out some possibilities. Beings like us will not flourish by any plausible standard unless almost all of us have dispositions to act in a way that's not totally ruthless or even totally inconsiderate. But there may be no determinate answer to how we each weight the flourishing of different categories of people (ourselves, lovers, families, compatriots, etc.) between the limits of total ruthlessness and total selflessness.

All in all, an approach based on human flourishing is likely to end up giving only very fuzzy action-guidance. Once again, I don't mind that. I think that it's obvious, on reflection, that morality just is fuzzy. But that's not what most people think of it as - or I'd be surprised if they do.

EH said...

I would say though that biggest issue is that, while "morality" exists in the real world, it is just a concept. A concept that, yes, originates in the brains of a species. The problem here is that we have variation in species--Everybody has a different set of ideals, and if you merely state "being mean is wrong", it lacks a lot of substance. Morality only applies to values and if you can't get somebody to value human well-being, then you're stuck in neutral.

Since most of us do value human well-being, then it's safe to say that science can answer questions as to how to go about that. It's a sociobiological process/invention, and it doesn't need any further explaining. My idea of morality is that it's some kind of binding imperative that says, "one ought to take action X". For whatever reason, apparently. I think statements like these are out of context which is why I subscribe to global falsity.

If you say, "one ought to do action X in order to most efficiently achieve goal Y", then we're on to something. That can be tested. Merely stating something is right or wrong is of no relevance--There must be a goal. We all have goals, or we are all goal-oriented beings. If we impose our will on other humans (that includes imposing "goodness" on people like Charles Manson or Adolf Hitler), then that's just the nature of society. I don't think there's any getting around that. I describe it as a "battle of wills", or in some ways, "might makes right."

As a society though, I do think we are becoming more respective of the individual. But there will always be human-to-human interaction and made-up constructs to allow them to get along. That's just the nature of existence, and even if there is no objective code, it is rational to behave as if there is one.

I would be curious as to find out how to derive "moral facts." I just can't buy into that. There's no way to get everybody on the same page since they all have competing interests. I'm kind of a psychological egoist in that sense as I believe even acts of altruism originate with the self in mind. Most of us interact well with other humans, but that's because we either chose to or were programmed that way by our environment. I don't see what the big deal here is.

Anonymous said...

Brain scans are not indicative of successful. Deep social anthropological studies are the only thing that would come close to achieving what Sam Harris wants to do in a scientific manner. I suspect, he, like most liberals, is unwilling to wait for experiments that last 5 generations of humans in order to gauge the “rightness” of a moral “fact”.
If science actual does prove out moral facts, it will likely have a difficult time outdoing religions that were honed by evolution and war to be very efficient moral codes that pushed aside less efficient moral codes.

Well intentioned but premature invocation of new moral “facts” could prove quite negative when actually measured across several generations.

Evolution theory also instructs us that genetic and social diversity is a tested method of survival of a great number of diverse environmental challenges. Putting all of humanities eggs in one moral basket is likely to make humanity dangerously susceptible to an unexpected environmental hazard.