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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Science and Morality

In February, popular writer and atheist Sam Harris gave a talk about science and morality, which you can watch here:

He recently defended his views at The Huffington Post, where he spends a good deal of time responding to physicist and pop science writer, Sean Carroll. I'm not going to address the Carroll-Harris debate. I just want to look at some strengths and weaknesses of Harris' original argument.

The first point to mention is that Harris makes a serious error in his original presentation, and which he does not correct in his Huff Post entry: According to Harris, the only people (other than himself) who believe there are objective moral facts are religious demagogues. Yet, according to the preliminary results of a recent PhilPapers survey, slightly more than half of the professionals and PhD's surveyed accept or lean towards moral realism--they believe there are objective moral facts--while only sixteen percent accept or lean towards theism. Moral realism remains a heavily discussed and supported position, and clearly this is not out of any connection to theism. There is thus no reason for Harris to claim he is alone in his argument for a non-theistic objective morality. Either he is ignorant of much of the literature on the matter, or he just wants his arguments to appear more original and groundbreaking than they are. That said, I am not wholly persuaded by moral realism. As I will make clear, I think morality is objective, but not necessarily factual. I will explain, first by briefly presenting my view of morality, and then critiquing Harris'.

I take morality to be a process of establishing and revising the most justifiable prescriptions for human action. Moral precepts are judgments about what people should do based on the prevailing rational arguments, given various contextual constraints. The process of establishing these conclusions is a rational and objective one: It requires argument based on reason and evidence. However, that does not mean that such conclusions are scientific conclusions. It does not mean that we can, for example, define moral questions in testable terms which could then be answered with controlled experiments. However, it does mean that we can use scientific facts in the formation and refutation of moral arguments. Scientific evidence can be used to guide moral reasoning, but this does not mean moral reasoning is scientific reasoning.

The difference between science and morality is most easily (and most commonly) described by observing the different sorts of conclusions they produce. Scientific conclusions are essentially methodological: They describe methods for producing specific results, and (in the more formal sciences) they define the relationships between the methods and the results in mathematical terms. Scientists then use these relationships to predict how the world will behave. Moral conclusions are quite different. They are decisions about how we want people to behave, and not about what will probably happen in any particular circumstances.

This does not mean that moral precepts cannot be understood by science. Science can tell us why people make one moral judgment and not another. So the existence of moral precepts is not outside the purview of scientific methodology. Science can explain morality.

So, if Harris' point is only that science can help us understand morality, and can help us solve moral dilemmas, then I agree with him. However, if his point is that scientific experiments can provide evidence of the truth of moral precepts, then I think he is confused about what morality and science are.

His basic claim is that moral judgments are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures, and that these facts can be measured in much the same way that facts about health are measured. His view is that "morally right" is just another way of saying "healthy for the prosperity of conscious beings." While we can disagree about what consciousness, health, and prosperity are, this does not detract from the essentially scientific nature of the way we should approach the issue.

True, moral judgments strongly focus on conscious beings. But how do we establish a scientific concept of prosperity? Prosperity for whom? For the individual, the family, the community, the entire species? For all conscious life?

We might suppose that the object of moral concern is not important here. Some moral judgments are relevant to individuals, some to families, some to communities . . . Yet, what happens when the values of one community conflict with the values of another? Or when the values of the community conflict with the values of the individual, the species, or some set of non-human species?

The complexities involved in even the most common of moral disputes suggests that there may not be clear answers to them. We strive for the clearest arguments and judgments--at least, we should. But this does not exclude the possibility of better arguments which could undermine our judgments. We make moral judgments, not by observing a moral fact, but by making a decision about how we want to live. Mutually exclusive judgments may be equally supported by the facts. Thus, I believe that moral questions are not always, if ever, answerable questions of fact. (I should note that I have in the past tried to argue for at least some moral facts - I think there may be some moral facts about morality itself, for example - though I won't get into that here.)

In contrast, Harris argues that science can teach us moral facts. Unfortunately, he does not make a good argument. On the one hand, he has not shown how this could happen. It remains to be seen what a scientific demonstration of a moral fact would look like. But, even with that problem laid aside for the moment, Harris' argument seems problematic.

Harris claims that we should not hesitate to judge, for example, the way some Muslim women are forced to cover their entire bodies, or the way religious parents and teachers promote corporal punishment in public schools. The problem with his argument is that, even if we agreed that science could tell us whether or not women and children should be treated this way, he has not made the case that science has provided any clear conclusions on these or any other cultural matters.

Perhaps Harris' point is that we should be more willing to act on the (limited and tentative) conclusions of scientists when making moral judgments. Yet, it doesn't seem that people are ignoring any particular scientific conclusions here. It's not like we needed Sam Harris to tell us that we should respect the scientific evidence of harmful effects of various cultural practices. So, if Harris just wants to argue that we should be more aggressively against practices which are known to be harmful . . . well, then he doesn't need to make any deep philosophical arguments about science and morality. He just needs to make sound arguments about the dangers of those various practices. So why is he getting all philosophical?

I suppose it is because some religious people criticize atheists on the grounds that atheists have no moral foundations. To overcome this tired argument, atheists don't need to claim that moral judgments are scientific facts. They just need to explain why theism is incapable of providing a foundation for morality, and why no such foundation is needed. (See, for example, Atheism and Morality.) Harris' response to these misguided religious moralists is not helpful.

Consider what sort of intellectual commitment Harris is making for himself. If he wants to remain as scientific as possible, he should be open to the possibility that people who do many things he finds morally reprehensible might, in some ways, be more prosperous than people who do not. Maybe evolution favors burkas over bikinis. Maybe corporal punishment in public education is evolutionarily advantageous. Certainly no tests have suggested otherwise, so Harris is asking us to make moral judgments in the absence of strong scientific data.

Perhaps we could use computers to run simulations of civilizations which, for example, were more oppressive of women, and more violent towards children. What if we found that such civilizations had a small but significant survival advantage over those which were more egalitarian? Should we then say that the Muslims were right, and that all women should wear burkas? Should we make corporal punishment a mandatory part of public education?

No, I don't think anybody would draw those conclusions. While we might admit that burkas did confer some benefits to the societies which obligatorily enforced them, or that corporal punishment did have its benefits, we would find reasons to reject the conclusion that they were morally right. We might do this by claiming that the benefits given to society were outweighed by the harm done to individuals, families, or communities. Of course, such harm would have to be demonstrated scientifically. But how would we scientifically measure the relative harms here? What scientific test could tell us how much personal harm is required to reject a behavior which was clearly evolutionarily advantageous? There is no calculus for that, and there is no reason to think that there could ever be one, because it is not obviously a question of fact.

Of course, if respectable studies showed that burkas and corporal punishment did have significant advantages for the well-being of civilization, our moral discourse would change accordingly. The science would be relevant, no doubt about it. But the outcome of the scientific investigation is only a tool to be used in the argument for a moral judgment; it is not the moral judgment itself. That is the point which Harris seems to be missing.

I applaud Sam Harris for arguing for a rational approach to morality, and for rejecting the view that you need religion to justify your moral judgments. However, his desire to find scientific answers to moral questions is unfortunate. It is likely to give religious moralists more, not less, cause to criticize atheists.