Morality via Science

Sunday, July 18, 2010

New Atheism has lately been abuzz with the idea of a new moral science. I had been mulling this over for a bit when I stumbled upon a speech from Sam Harris at (a great site for inspiration by the way). The advert for the speech boasted that Harris would propose a new way to approach morality through science.

Here I'll obnoxiously insert that I find it amusing that anyone in the 21st century is convinced that this is a novel idea. Philosophy (of which natural philosophy, a.k.a. the scientific method, is a branch) for the past 3000 years has busied itself with this exact problem (see Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Locke, Kant, the list goes on). Nevertheless, I was intrigued to see how Harris might approach the subject differently from contemporaries like Peter Singer.

I was disappointed. Harris is hardly an equal to any moral philosopher. That is not surprising given that he simply dismisses the discipline as "boring" in another Huffington Post article.

The thrust of his argument was something along these lines: Religion has said that morality is sacred and unsearchable. Like everything else in the world, values must have measurable qualities that can be reduced and studied. All religious values can be reduced to a concern with the welfare of conscious creatures. We can therefore use the welfare of conscious creatures as our measurable quality for any moral system [here welfare is very loosely defined as happiness?]. Let's take female clothing as an example. Can anyone really believe that Muslims who force burqas on their women are boosting human welfare? No, these are evil acts. At the other extreme of female attire, pornography is also unhealthy [no explanation is given for why this is true]. There is a middle road by which we should probably at maximal human welfare. This is the case with most ethical choices.

Even allowing for the fact that a 20 minute talk is necessarily short and shallow, there were far too many holes in Harris' speech for me to ignore. To start with, his claim that "Religion" has set morality aside as sacred (and therefore unable to be proven/dis-proven by the scientific method) is so overly simplistic that listeners could be forgiven for thinking him ignorant of most religious traditions.

In Buddhism and Confucianism, for example, moral laws were/are constantly added, revised, adapted and re-reasoned. Read only two sutras and you'll be convinced that Buddhist morality is anything but monolithic. However, we can assume - from the photos of priests and rabbis that graced his projector screen - that Harris' "Religion" was simply a moniker for Judeo-Christian tradition. Here again we find ourselves up against the past few thousand years of moral reasoning that quietly refutes Harris' over-simplification. From "City of God" to "Summa Theologica", the church has steadily grown its own array of moral systems that are often based outside of divine revelation (Natural Moral Law being one such system).

Perhaps Harris has dismissed these attempts due to their non-adherence to a strict formulation of the scientific method that we all learned in a grade-school science fair. If that is the case, I'm curious to see how we might use a stricter method to gain ground in the field of ethics. In science, no question is off-limits. We'd have to ignore conventional ethics when conducting experiments. After all, we wouldn't want to risk taking some moral laws as a priori (that's what religions do). We must start at ground zero with our experimentation and take real "happiness" measurements of the effects of murder, adultery, lying and theft in a controlled environment.

Perhaps I'm being unfair though. I don't honestly believe that Harris would suggest this kind of brutal, literal methodology. He would likely advocate a more qualitative method like those used by sociologists. The problem is that Harris only appealed to our preconceived notions of "good" in order to proclaim burqas and pornography to be evil. He didn't provide us with an actual method for measuring happiness and correlating it to specific actions. Even supposing we could, correlation is not causation. Without vigorous experimentation, Harris' morality would have to be worked out primarily via gedanken experiments. And if I haven't driven this home yet already, thousands of philosophers have been doing this for thousands of years.

Harris' semi-utilitarian system exhibits the same flaws that every utilitarian system faces. What is welfare? Whose (plant, animal or human) happiness is more important? If "consciousness" or the "ability to feel pain" is the measurement by which we determine the relative value of an individual's welfare, then can we assume chimps are worth more than ants? That humans are worth more than chimps? That intelligent adults are worth 1.3 times more than teenagers? Peter Singer makes this exact argument but I suspect that Harris would not be so comfortable equating a toddling human to an adult chimp. It seems that Harris lacks the courage to commit to a real definition of welfare or relative individual value.

Another problem with Harris' moral discourse is his assertion that creaturely welfare should be generally increased. Maybe a better, more natural moral goal would be the propagation of our genetic progeny, which (if you are a materialist) will be our de facto goal no matter which way we choose to achieve it. If we take any moral cues from the past, this will involve the weeding out of our weak and sick.

Here lies the heart of the problem. Without a priori assumptions, no headway will ever be made in so-called scientific morality. Without divine revelation, a priori assumptions must and will be proven false as scientific morality undergoes the same kinds of upheaval that physics has seen from Newton to Schrodinger. The difference is that an incorrect moral calculation could cause the suffering of millions. Is morality an area that needs experimentation or will the advent of moral science be the beginning of a journey toward an ethical Chernobyl?


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