Science and Ethics

Some bits from Sam Harris's super-long response to his critics, with my comments--
My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind.
Maybe one day everyone will agree on some naturalistic story about right and wrong, like "right actions maximize happiness."  If that day ever comes, we'll be able to turn to scientists to find out what's right and wrong. However, to get to that point, you have to struggle with which account of right and wrong is correct.   The folks who do the struggling are not doing science; they're ethicists, philosophers, judges, writers, you and me.
Some of my critics got off the train before it even left the station, by defining “science” in exceedingly narrow terms. Many think that science is synonymous with mathematical modeling, or with immediate access to experimental data. However, this is to mistake science for a few of its tools. Science simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in this universe, and the boundary between it and the rest of rational thought cannot always be drawn.
Uh oh. If science "simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in this universe," then it's going to cover practically anything.  Ethics is easily going to turn out be part of science, but then so is theology, at least as far as theologians are concerned.
Many people seem to think that because moral facts relate entirely to our experience (and are, therefore, ontologically “subjective”), all talk of morality must be “subjective” in the epistemological sense (i.e. biased, merely personal, etc.). This is simply untrue.
Good point.
When I speak of there being right and wrong answers to questions of morality, I am saying that there are facts about human and animal wellbeing that we can, in principle, know—simply because wellbeing (and states of consciousness altogether) must lawfully relate to states of the brain and to states of the world.
The tricky part is the equation.  How would we know which facts about wellbeing are relevant to questions of morality?  Not by doing science. 
Many of my critics piously cite Hume’s is/ought distinction as though it were well known to be the last word on the subject of morality until the end of time.  
I sympathize with Harris's impatience.  It's a perfectly respectable position in metaethics to say there are facts about morality, Hume notwithstanding.  "Cognitivism" (the view that there are such facts) is probably the majority view. (Note:  "facts" doesn't have to mean "scientific facts.")
In fact, I believe that we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What’s the alternative? Imagine some genius comes forward and says, “I have found a source of value/morality that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings.”
The thing is, there are lots of different states of mind that could be relevant to a theory about rightness, and lots of ways to use them to build different theories.  It ignores all the complexity to say "consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value."
And those philosophical efforts that seek to put morality in terms of duty, fairness, justice, or some other principle that is not explicitly tied to the wellbeing of conscious creatures—are, nevertheless, parasitic on some notion of wellbeing in the end (I argue this point at greater length in my book. And yes, I’ve read Rawls, Nozick, and Parfit).
OK, so in some way, shape, or form rightness has something to do with consciousness.  It doesn't follow that the science of consciousness is going to tell us what rightness has to do with consciousness. We need ethicists for that!

I worry that a public intellectual like Sam Harris is waging battles that don't put him in the best possible position to do good metaethics.  The public respects religion and respects science. If you're going to pull morality out of the religion column, an effective way to make that palatable is to put it in the science column.  But does it really belong in the science column?  By all means, not yet.  And it's at least possible not ever.

There are metaethical options that dissociate ethics from science.   It could just be that "torturing babies for fun is wrong" is true like "2+2=4" is true.  Though pain is a natural phenomenon studied by science, wrongness might just be a property beyond the scope of empirical science, like mathematical equality is. For purposes of wooing the public away from religion, certain kinds of metaethics just won't do.  But they might be worthy of consideration anyway, if the goal is just figuring out the truth.


Faust said...

I just don't see how he does anything other than simply assume "wellbeing" is the target of morality.

Look: this is a very reasonable thing to say. People want to feel good. They want to be happy. In other words...they want what they want. Sometimes they get confused and some wise philosopher or saint comes along and says: "You THOUGHT you wanted X, but REALLY you wanted Y" at which point they say "Oh yes quite right, I was confused, I thought X was The Good, but it was merely ephemera."

So the argument is that there are states of consciousness that everyone who experiences will regard as good, and that since these states will be rooted in the physical, and the physical is rooted in laws that are scientifically verifiable, then once establish all the relevant facts in the vicinity, we will have objective grounds for morality (the promotion of goodness), in much the same way we have objective grounds for establishing tinitus.

I think this gets you pretty far down the road. I think you get get huge consensus. I think you can get a lot of people FEELING very good. ASSENTING to the fact that they feel good. COOPERATING in the efforts to generate this and that type of well being. TEACHING their children that we are good people doing good things. And yes it will all be "scientifically verifiable" that you are producing these "good states" of "wellbeing."

If we define "morality" as "the actions required of us to promote human(and animal?) machine outputs of hapiness when properly oiled on a regular tune up schedule," then I think Harris is quite right. Indeed this is how we get to things like knockout meat: Is the animal machine outputing misery? Well then...change the machine so that no misery is outputted. Yeeeeehaw! Morality!

Of course none of the preceeding will help us AT ALL when deciding between deontological and utilitarian systems. Even if you agree to a "morality machine" model, you still have to figure out if you want to maximize the total output of hapiness from all exsiting beings, or if those questions take a back seat to local deontological concerns. How pray tell, is "science" supposed to help with THAT. I'm still waiting.

Jean Kazez said...

When he mentions Rawls, Nozick, and Parfit, that makes me think he's making a very non-specific claim--in SOME way, shape, or form, it's going to turn out that morality has something to do with consciousness. It may be that ...

1. right acts maximize happiness

2. right acts maximize satisfaction of informed desires

3. right acts conform to principles that would be chosen by people under certain conditions, who are aiming for a good life (as they understand what that means)

4. rights acts...

So...lots of possibilities. But in every case, rightness has a connection to states of mind.

I'm not sure if he's leaving it quite as open as that what rightness is, but perhaps. My point is that the tie he's making between morality and consciousness does not come anywhere close to showing that ethics = science.

Wayne said...

Yeah, I think you're right Jean. If Harris' definition of science is "our best efforts to understand" then his argument works. If his definition of science were anything like mine (a procedure of inquiry utilizing the testing of a hypothesis through experimentation and replication) then I'm not sure where he can go to ground ethics in science. Maybe some of that experimental philosophy/ethics that has been modestly popular lately?

I'm not an ethical realist and I think cognitivism gives ample room for ethical relativism without devolving into some kind of silly individualistic, "I think it's right so its right" position. But this might be because I'm rather hard nosed as to what "true" and "facts" are. But I'm no epistemologist either.

But lets just say for the moment that rightness is tied to consciousness. Could we simply alter our consciousness to make something right? Could we have scenarios such as, "Ethicist! Ethicist! I have this moral dilemma! Take two of these pills and call me in the morning"?

Faust said...

Well I definitely agree he's not making the connection. I'm not surprised he's going this route, he pretty much advertises where he's going in The End of Faith. Still, he manages to surprise me with how confident he that he's on to something.

Unknown said...

I think we can scientifically study what people think about morality (I admit motivated reasoning to put parts of morality in to the science column here)...but we can't scientifically study which group is correct. Meaning that the scientific study of morality should be descriptive rather than prescriptive.