A few years ago, Sam Harris published a book, ‘The Moral Landscape‘, which argued that science could determine moral values. To say that it received substantial criticism, from scientists, philosophers, and others, would be an understatement.
Late last year, Harris issued a challenge for people to submit 1000 word essays challenging the thesis of his book. He promised the author of the best essay $1000, and $10,000 should the essay actually change his mind.
(I did not submit an entry for this, although a few friends urged me to. I felt that in order to do it right, I would have to go back and reread Harris’s book, and I didn’t have the time, energy, or inclination to do that. (I was lazy.) I also strongly suspected that the chances of anyone winning who was not a professional philosopher, psychologist, or neuroscientist were fairly low.)
Recently, an essay by Ryan Born, a teacher of philosophy, was announced as the winner. I found Born’s essay to pretty good, pointing out the main problems with Harris’s thesis, that he hadn’t sufficiently addressed the fact / value distinction. Harris has now responded with his own essay that ranged over a number of topics but largely re-asserted the key idea of his book, that values are a type of fact and that the only reason we regard them as separate is confusion.
Harris starts out with a discussion on the definition of science. I actually agree with much of what he says in this section. Science is more than what scientists in lab coats do, it’s also what plumbers do when they’re diagnosing a problem. You could argue that what professional scientists do is much more epistemologically skillful and careful than what most people do when learning from observation and experience, but it’s a matter of degree, not a sharp distinction.
Attempts to imply a sharp break have always seemed like elitist posturing to me. Posturing that can be dangerous. Creating an unwarranted and unjustified mystique around science might give it a short term allure of credibility, but that can backfire when scientist inevitably make mistakes or show their human limitations in other ways. When people understand that science is basically what they do themselves, just with a higher degree of skill, it heightens their understanding of its capabilities and limitations.
Anyway, Harris implies that moral determinations fall into this broad scope of science. He justifies this by asserting that moral truths are real. If so, he argues, then discovering and learning about them would be a type of science. Again, I have to agree with Harris here that if you are a moral realist, which many moral philosophers actually are, then you should believe that scientific investigation, broadly construed, could unearth these truths.*
The problem is that there’s nothing in the actual science of moral psychology to really support an assertion of moral realism. Incidentally, there also isn’t anything to prove an assertion of straight moral relativism either. It only supports the idea that specific moral precepts are objective in a descriptive sense, and then only within the scope of a culture. The precepts arise from the mix of foundational instinctive dispositions that exist at the biological scope of our species, although in varying degrees among individuals. More broadly, there is nothing in the laws of nature that imply any moral truths.
Undaunted, Harris asserts that all moral reasoning boils down to the well-being of conscious creatures, that although we have moral intuitions, they are aimed at and driven by our concern for well-being. Ignoring the fact that getting people to agree on the definition of “well-being” is itself an issue, he’s also ignoring the actual science here, which reveals that we have several moral intuitions. In addition to well-being or care, we are driven by senses of fairness, loyalty, duty, purity, freedom, and probably others.
We can argue about the evolutionary causes of these intuitions, but saying we ourselves personally feel them for any one reason, such as the nebulous term “well-being”, is wrong. We feel them because evolution has programmed it into us. We just feel them. And the original evolutionary reasons may or may not be goals we would now agree with. For example, what does the morality of euthanasia have to do with evolutionary survivability?
Harris seems to have some understanding of this, shown by this snippet in his closing remarks.
We have certain logical and moral intuitions that we cannot help but rely upon to understand and judge the desirability of various states of the world. The limitations of some of these intuitions can be transcended by recourse to others that seem more fundamental. In the end, however, we must work with intuitions that strike us as non-negotiable.
Perhaps the part that Harris is missing, is that we don’t all have the exact same mix of moral intuitions. Most of us have the same types (psychopaths being obvious exceptions), but we feel them in different combinations of intensities, and so certain positions that feel self evidently right to me might feel self evidently wrong to you.
Society works because, as social animals, there is a large enough overlap between most of us for us to live together. But despite that, we will often have strongly felt differences on values. For instance, some of us will always value freedom more than safety, while others will be the opposite. Two people can agree on the relevant facts, but due to different innate natures, hold different positions within these types of tensions.
Harris’s must first convince everyone of his consequentialist-like philosophical argument, and only then would his empirical science have any traction. Harris insists that accepting this consequentialist argument is no different than the axioms that other sciences must accept. He and Born argue over whether a commitment to health in medical science is the same as the necessary commitment to well-being he is asking for.
Certainly, values drive science. They drive what is studied and how the results are interpreted and used. Arguments over those values can be fierce. An example in the medical field was the US Center for Disease Control’s desire to study the results of gun violence. Evoking a very different set of values, Congress forbid them from conducting such studies. So values definitely are in the mix.
Harris is advocating for a science to determine those values. But if someone conducts a study to determine values, based on starting values we don’t agree with, what moral authority will the results of that study have for us? Without the philosophical agreement, the empirical results will be morally meaningless to us. It will be little more than a sociological or psychological study. Of course, these have scientific value, and that’s why we already do them.
So, the main point of contention here is whether fundamental values can be derived from facts, the famous is-ought distinction. There are two possibilities. The first is that Harris simply doesn’t understand this distinction. The second is that he has an insight that most of the rest of the intellectual world has missed since the time of David Hume. We should take the second possibility seriously, but not so seriously that we don’t put the burden of proof on Harris.
Still, despite Harris’s penchant for aggressive language, there is a little room to reconcile his view of a multi-peaked moral landscape with the results of social psychology. Some of the peaks, Harris states, would be stranger than we imagine, or could imagine. In other words, he makes some room that values are not universal. If he had adopted the far less aggressive stance that, although science cannot determine values, it can provide crucial information in meeting those values, he would have had a much stronger case.
Harris isn’t alone in advocating for a science of morality. There are others. It’s worth noting that the social sciences of sociology, psychology, anthropology, and others weren’t started by people writing books saying that there should be a science of such and such. They were started by people going out and proving it with empirical work. If a science of morality is feasible, the best way to make the case is by demonstrating it. So far, that hasn’t happened.
* UPDATE: ausomeawestin pointed out to me in the comments that non-naturalistic moral realists wouldn’t be compelled to believe that science could uncover moral truths. I’m grateful for the correction.
- MORAL PHILOSOPHY: “Science Can Answer Moral Questions” / Sam Harris (alwaysquestionauthority.com)
- A Response to Sam Harris’ health-morality analogy (rationaloutlook.wordpress.com)
- The limits of science (barefootbum.blogspot.com)
- “Can Science Determine Moral Values? A Reply to Sam Harris” (kolber.typepad.com)