Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Sam Harris on Morality
You have to simplify in a 20-minute public lecture, but Sam Harris really does oversimplify...and even mislead.
The thesis of the talk is that (S) science can answer moral questions. Does he support it? Not really. He actually blurs that thesis with another-- that (M) moral questions have factual answers. For example he makes an impassioned case that it's in fact wrong for men to respond to a daughter being raped by killing the daughter. I'll buy that, but that's support for (M), not (S). In a brief Q&A period, Harris imagines we could somehow learn the moral fact about the wrongness of honor killings by doing brain scans on fathers and daughters. But what would we be looking for? What scientific fact would prove (or disprove) the moral fact?
I think he's imagining that we might find out that honor-killing men are very miserable after they kill their raped daughters, and that (of course) the daughters suffer horribly, and lots of other people suffer in a society where rape is taken care of by killing rape victims. But surely those facts would not suffice to show that honor killings are wrong.
How can that be? The book about happiness I just read helps make the point. Carol Graham has collected massive amounts of data about what makes people happy and unhappy around the world. Graham found that people living in very bad conditions are surprisingly happy. The poorest of the poor in Africa turned out to be exceptionally optimistic, and optimism correlates with happiness. The people of Afghanistan also turned out to be comparatively happy, despite all the problems that beset them (war, terrorism, poverty, very high infant and child mortality rates, inequality, etc).
When people's standard of living goes up, their expectations go up, and that's when they start getting very grumpy. In times of fast economic growth, people are particularly unhappy. People who have access to good health care are not quite as satisfied with their health care as people with no access. And on and on. There are all sorts of odd findings in Graham's book.
If this is the science that "answers moral questions," then the answers we would get are awfully strange. One lesson learned: we should be very careful before helping the poor. We don't want to raise their expectations, thereby probably making people less happy. But there are other things we could consider important, besides happiness. The very poor have many factually false beliefs. Their optimism is based on erronenous ideas about the future. Does ill-founded happiness count for less? This is something science simply isn't going to tell us. The question might have an answer (if you accept M, you'll think so), but I don't see how it could possibly have a scientific answer.
Another interesting finding from Graham's book: in the US, inequality doesn't bother any sub-group besides wealthy liberals! The people in the lowest income brackets aren't troubled by their comparative poverty. In fact, they are buoyed by the fact that others are so rich. The majority of people in the US think one day they will be in the upper income bracket themselves. They can't all be right, and some of them are downright unrealistic in their optimism. But thinking this way makes them happy. Again: does their happiness count for less because it's ill-founded? This is a moral question, not a scientific question.
Getting back to honor killings. If happiness is all that matters, and they cause unhappiness, then they're wrong. But there are lots of other things that could matter. We're not going to settle that by doing brain scans.
I think it's great for Sam Harris to spread the word that moral questions have factual answers (M), and that science is an input to morality. We are in a much better position to make sound moral decisions if we know the facts about happiness, and many other facts as well. It's just not true, though, that (S) science will answer our moral questions.