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.


Faust said...

Ohhh boy. Sam Sam Sam.

Anyway your thesis is:

(M) is true


There are too many variables for us to determine how to obtain definitive formulations of (M) at this time?

What would a conclusive FACTUAL proof of "Honor killings are wrong" look like?

Something like:

"Honor killings produce less happy societies as measured by surveys that ask for self-reports on personal satisfaction?" (or by brains scans as the case may be).

I find it completely plausible that we could discover that some behaviors make (most) human beings happier on average, but it's not clear to me that the notion that "morality consists in hapiness promotion" is itself a FACT. I do think you could get a very large number of people to buy into it as a suggestion, however.

Jean Kazez said...

I think you need fancy metaethical arguments to show that M is true--that there are moral facts. You need more fancy arguments to show what has value, what rightness consists of, etc. etc. All that's philosophy, not science.

Once you are all done, you might (or might not) conclude that moral facts rest upon scientific facts. For example you might decide that rightness is nothing but happiness maximizing. If so, then you'll find science very useful for ascertaining which things are right (happiness maximizing) and which aren't. But science alone isn't going to reveal that rightness is the same thing as happiness maximizing.

I think Harris is trying to get relativists to make confident moral judgments about the goings on in other cultures by making it seem as if the judgments are entirely scientific. "Scientific" being an honorific, where "philosophical" is not. But I'm afraid it just ain't so.

s. wallerstein said...

Hume: you can't jump from "is" to

Tony Lloyd said...

@ Faust

I think your outline of the possible scientific evidence for "honour killings are bad" supports your contention that "morality consists in happiness promotion" is not a fact.

Flip the evidence, would "Honor killings produce happier societies" make killing a raped daughter moral?

I agree that a large number of people will buy into Sam's contention. I think it's rather important that all of us let people know just what they are buying into!

Ophelia Benson said...

"and that science is an input to morality."

Just what I thought when I saw the talk blurbed somewhere, or several places. (I haven't watched it yet.) Input yes, answer no.

Dang, I'm going to have to read that happiness book - it's obviously guaranteed to drive me nuts.

I hate that thing about inequality. People at the bottom should hate inequality, dammit! It's their duty!

So I want them to be miserable, do I. Er.........

Faust said...

@ Tony (et al)

Funny thing is he gets asked that very question at the end by the moderator? Host?, who pretty much point blank asks him "if it was shown that the people in these cultures were overall happier would you accept those findings if they were scientifcally validated?" To which Sam responds roughly: yes, "but with the caveat that some of that hapiness may be based on false beliefs e.g. it will be better off if I kill my son/daughter because they are gay/have been raped and if I don't do that they will go to hell etc." Then he goes on to say that we have to look at all this "in context" and that "we are all in this together." None of which goes to the central problem:

If there was a world A in which there were happy people but that had many false beliefs, and a world B in which everyone had mostly true beliefs but in which their was only minimal hapiness or even simply less hapiness than in A would we not be obligated on a "welfarist" view to choose world A?

Once you decide that morality consists in promoting human hapiness (and that is certainly the sense one gets from Harris's talk) then it really does seem quite irrelevant whether or not there are any true beliefs in the vicinity.

Of course hidden in the background of such discussions is the assumption that there is a deep connection between truth and hapiness, an assumption shared by theologians, philosophers, and moral realists, i.e. that in some important sense, the truth will set you free (or at least make you happy).

Ophelia Benson said...

Of course hidden in the background of such discussions is the assumption that there is a deep connection between truth and hapiness, an assumption shared by theologians, philosophers, and moral realists...

Ah now that's interesting. Denying that is the very first thing I did in Why Truth Matters (a book I co-wrote). It seemed obviously the first thing to say - No, the truth is not always what we want to hear; decidedly not. It's no good blinking that.

Faust said...

And IF it's not, in those cases where the truth is not conducive to hapiness the truth becomes dangerous moral business on a utilitarian analysis...unless one can show that the truth produced a net gain in total hapiness.

And of course there are plenty of philosphers who warn the truth is indeed a dangerous business. I think its a big tension in truth seeking--it can lead to wonderous things, but also potentially dangerous and terrible realizations. And sometimes, when you say...discover enough about the physical world that you can make nukes, it gets dangerous in other ways, like giving knives to children.

Anyway, your book is on my list, but for some reason it never shows up in the used book stores...it must be a keeper!

I even tried at B&N once. I'm gonna have to Amazon it.

Craig Ewert said...

Ms. Kazez, you and many of your commenters keep referring to "happiness", but Mr. Harris is careful in his talk to use "wellbeing". Presumably, thats because he knows about the problems with naked happiness as a metric. Of course, he doesnt begin to define or describe what wellbeing consists of; I found that a key weakness in his presentation.

You claim "I think you need fancy metaethical arguments to show that M is true--that there are moral facts." I am interested to see such an argument. I keep looking, but never find anything even moderately persuasive.

Unknown said...

An interesting critique and an interesting blog. Personally, I think that moral absolutism actually leads to less happiness, even when wielded by the left....and I agree that he appears to beg the question as to why happiness is all that matters.

Unknown said...

This is an interesting discussion. I am inclined to accept the ideas in the TED talk because the morass of multicultural morality is producing important problems.

It may be that he begs the question of the root of our motivations, but these comments for the most part confuse the issue by claiming that happiness is the standard by which he would choose. I seem to remember something about democratic principles in the talk itself.

this is the hinge of the whole thing. The definition of wellbeing is very flexible. Even a commitment to Democracy cannot be safely assumed as a centerpoint in the judgment of many, myself among them. the UDHR might be better, being established, but i've never read it.

I would contend that fostering truth, capability, and contract in good faith should be the root goal and let altruism rise like the cream it is. This puts me somewhere near the Ayn Rand camp as I understand it.

This freedom to shift standards is the thing which has kept a more unified ethics from emerging. The moment we settle on a cause for ethics, all the rest follows in a rush. This is why the issue is girded with such dogma on all sides; we all see the importance of how the question is settled.

I would further offer that the supremacy of men over machines needs to be affirmed in ethics very soon.