3/31/10

"Science Can Determine Moral Values"

More about Sam Harris, who argues (here and in a forthcoming book) that "science can determine moral values"--

Harris's real goal is to face down critics of his anti-religious stance in The End of FaithIf you don't have God, the argument goes, you can't have morality.  That concerns Harris a lot, because he very much wants to have morality.  What drives his first book is a horror at appalling things done in the name of religion--the 9/11 mass-murder, honor killings, the slaughter of innocents prescribed by God in the bible, etc.  "But if God does not exist, everything is permitted!"  Harris wants to answer that sort of critic.

So:  morality is objective, he thinks. In other words, honor killings are really wrong, and not just wrong to us, while permissible for others, elsewhere.  There are robust, non-negotiable truths about morality.  And they're not based on anything up there in the sky. Those are his intuitions, and they're mine too.  But now how does science enter into morality?

Let's have a vivid example, and not one of the overworn ones. In the February issue of National Geographic I read an amazing story that mentioned (among many other things) a practice called "mingi killing."  The Kara people of Ethiopia have a belief that babies have to be killed under certain conditions, including when their top teeth erupt before their bottom teeth.  Otherwise the mingi might spread, causing bad luck.  The author tells of a woman who bore and killed 12 children. How?  "Sometimes the child is abandoned in the bush, its mouth filled with earth; sometimes it is hurled into the river."  You'll be glad to know the Kara king recently decided to ban this practice, at the urging of the Ethiopian government and NGOs.

OK--so mingi killing is morally wrong, and was wrong even before it was abolished by the king.  That's what Harris would probably say, and I agree.  The religious moralist wonders how we can be entitled to that view, if we don't countenance a supreme being who objects to mingi killing. I'm just guessing what will be in Harris's book, but I'll bet he's going to say it's pretty weird to look skyward for a reason why mingi killing is wrong.  The wrongness doesn't proceed from some supernatural realm.  It's right here in our world--in the Kara tribe, to be exact. You can see the wrongness by looking closely at the facts themselves--babies, killing, parents, what it's like to have dirt in your mouth, etc.

So how is science supposed to help?  More guessing.  What would the NGOs have said to discourage mingi killing?  They might have gone into the science of tooth development, making clear that it's equally normal when top teeth erupt first.  They might have collected some data to show that tooth eruption patterns make no difference at all to future events.  If the Kara thought babies don't suffer when abandoned or drowned, they could have given them evidence that they do.  Surely they knew that parents didn't like exposing their kids (they don't) but I suppose they could have gathered data that showed the trauma lasted for years, or that relatives were affected as well. It's possible that the impact on the tribe wasn't fully understood.

So--for the Kara to see the wrongness, they don't need religion, they need science.  So, perhaps, the argument goes.  But here's what bothers me.  All that science could be persuasive, but it will have leverage only if the Kara already believe something like this basic principle--

(P) It's morally wrong to kill a baby if you have no good reason to do so.

The science relates to whether they have a good reason to kill these babies, and whether they have good reasons not to.  But the science doesn't tell them whether or not to accept this principle.  To decide, you need to delve into some difficult issues.    Do babies really count, just like adults?  There are reasons to say they do, reasons to say they don't.  If they do count, just what is it that makes killing wrong?  There are reasons to say this, reasons to say that.   I think reasonable people, after a long careful discussion, will converge on agreeing to P.  It's the most reasonable thing to think. But science isn't going to prove it.

So--yes to the idea of objective wrongness.  Yes to the idea that it doesn't rain down from the heavens. Yes to the idea that science can be enormously helpful in revealing what's right and wrong.  But no, science does not, all on its own, determines moral values.  There's also such a thing as rational reflection on right and wrong, which can be fruitful, progressive, and gradually generate consensus. That's what secularists have to proffer as the alternative to religion-based ethics.  Sadly, "rational reflection" doesn't have quite the stellar image of "science," but the truth is, we can't discover what's right and wrong without it.

5 comments:

Taylor said...

My own tentative view is a mixture of Darwin and Aristotle. We are moral by nature because, as Darwin argued, sympathy and mutual aid are naturally selected for in social species. (God doesn't come into it unless you believe that God made Nature.) Aristotle was right to link ethics to the flourishing of individuals according to their natures. Martha Nussbaum emphasizes that this connection between flourishing and the good applies to animals both non-human and human.

All this makes me sceptical of the traditional strict is/ought distinction. On the matter of causality, Hume said, "I can't find any necessary connections out there between 'causes' and 'effects'," to which Kant responded, "You're looking in the wrong place; the connections are in your mind." Similarly, Hume said, "I can't find any necessary connections between 'facts' and 'values'." It seems to me that the correct response may again be, "The connections are in your mind." That's not to say it's a fantasy, but that we humans (and other creatures who exhibit as least proto-morality) are hard-wired to find some things good and some things bad. Whether right and wrong exist on their own, apart from hard-wired social beings, is a pointless question, best left to theologians.

amos said...

It is pretentious and arrogant to imagine, as Harris does (but then pretentiousness and arrogance are his trademark), that science has finally discovered true morality (as others insist that it has discovered all nutrients) and that true morality conveniently coincides with the values of Harris's circle of liberal Northamerican academics.
Would that ethical reasoning were so simple and so satisfactory to one's ego! Ethics is open, open to what we humans reason about what is a good life for us: it depends neither on God nor on science, Harris's Deity. It is up to us, us being all people, not just progessives in developed countries; it depends on us, and it is a never finished project.

Faust said...

Being "hard-wired" to think these ways is indeed, I think, how moral realists tend to think about these things. Somehow our "intuitions" in both the generic, and as Taylor brings in, the Kantian sense, put us in contact with moral "truths."

I see moral realists frequently talking about human normativity as though human beings were like engines, in the kind of way suggested by G.E.M. Anscome in her famous essay "On Moral Obligation."

We SHOULD oil the engine, so that it can output power

We SHOULD not do X actions because they will prevent humans from "flourishing" or "being happy."

On this view we output hapiness or health the way an engine outputs power. on this view we can indeed imagine a certain ammount of objectivity to "morality" which essentially then ammounts to little more than optimizing the "intended" function the human organism.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, I think Sam Harris sometimes comes across as inordinately hostile toward religion, but I have no reason to see him as "arrogant" or "pretentious." I think his first book was great.

I don't think it's true that equating science and ethics means we now know all the answers. Science is incomplete. Also, there's no telling that a science-based ethics will tell us we're doing things right. We'd need to see what this science-based ethics looks like before we could say.

Taylor, I am also attracted to Aristotle, Darwin, and Nussbaum (I like her animal writing). The problem is, I also have attractions to Kant and to Mill, not to mention Ross. I find that it's best not to declare yourself an X-ian or a Y-ian, but rather to plod along and figure things out, drawing on all possible resources.

amos said...

I withdraw the adjectives in the name of civility. I also agree that Aristotle and Nussbaum give us key pointers about what path the conversation on ethics should take. I know little about science, but evolutionary psychology is very new, very trendy and is questioned by many.
If psychologists cannot agree on whether depression has a genetic base or not, it is a bit risky to base ethics, a far more complex phenomenon than clinical depression, on our genes. I'm not saying that evolutionary psychology is mistaken. I would note, however, that many cast a favorable eye on evolutionary psychology because they see it as an ally in the battle against creationism: that is, the evolutionary psychologists are the good guys, and one doesn't ask the good guys hard questions. I myself would wait until the scientific jury comes in about evolutionary psychology. The pendulum has swung so far in the direction of nature in the nature vs. nuture debate in the last 20 years that the smart money is betting that it will swing at least a little way back toward nuture soon.