Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

A couple of weeks ago there was a dust-up in the science blogosphere touching issues central to this blog and its community. Sam Harris, one of the so-called New Atheists presented a TED talk entitled, "Science Can Answer Moral Questions."

Harris' conclusion was, in a word, yes: In principle, science can provide the foundations for a universal set of moral truths. The well-known cosmologist and excellent science blogger Sean Carroll responded and his conclusion was, in a word, no. In principle, there is nothing in the practice of science allowing moral judgments to fall under its purview.

Harris responded with a strangely sharp edged tweet and a long blog post (also strangely angry). The exchange raised critical issues in a debate likely to intensify so I wanted to comment on its key points.

Readers know I am not a big fan of the New Atheist position. Though a non-believer myself, I can find their positions so shrill and polarizing sometimes, it's hard to see either broad scholarship or compassion for the human condition in them. Harris is, however, different. While he rightfully attacks the dangerous bigotry that often appears in institutional religion, one senses in his work an understanding of the deeper roots that drive the reality of spiritual longing. There is nuance in his positions and this is apparent in his argument that science can answer moral questions. What Harris is and is not saying about science and moral questions gets summarized early in his blog post.

I was not suggesting that science could give us an evolutionary or neurobiological account of what people do in the name of "morality." Nor was I merely saying that science can help us get what we want out of life. Both of these would have been quite banal claims to make (unless one happens to doubt the truth of evolution or the mind's dependency on the brain). Rather I was suggesting that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want — and, perforce, what other people should do and want in order to live the best lives possible. 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.

Mindful of the balance of the individual and society Harris pushes on,

The fact that it might be difficult to decide exactly how to balance individual rights against collective good, or that there might be a thousand equivalent ways of doing this, does not mean that we must hesitate to condemn the morality of the Taliban, or the Nazis, or the Ku Klux Klan — not just personally, but from the point of view of science.

Defending this position Harris begins by sweeping aside the famous Humes' Is/Ought distinction.

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.

This is Harris: the philosopher reminding us scientists that Hume's argument can be seen as a "lazy analysis of facts and values." A single voice from the 18th century does exhaust the debate. This is a point well taken especially as it affects the core of Harris' argument, which has three main points.

1. Science can, in principle, answer moral questions even if it cannot do so in practice now.

2. The science that will answer these questions will be the rapidly advancing fields of brain, cognitive and, ultimately, consciousness studies.

3. The criterion on which these questions will be answered is "human wellbeing."

On the third point, Harris is sure that human wellbeing or human flourishing represents categories that must be amenable to empirical investigation.

The most basic facts about human flourishing must transcend culture, just as most other facts do. And if there are facts which are truly a matter of cultural construction ... well, then these facts also arise from (neurophysiologic) processes that transcend culture.

And it is exactly at that point that I think Harris gets it right — in principle. From choices about energy systems and climate to decisions about the universal rights of women, there is link between human wellbeing and the organizational choices of societies. The more we learn about the dynamics of human consciousness and cognition the more we will be able to say with a certainty "this should not be done".

I leave you to read Harris' defense of wellbeing as an appropriate category (including the usual objections about what makes Serial Killers happy). There are hints of Utilitarianism in his position that Harris does not go into but I sense that is not what he means.

I want to end this post with one thought. Trouble can come from this position if we take neurophysiology to be the sole basis for studying wellbeing. It conjures up thought-police hooking the populace up to implants that will monitor their moral health neurophysiologically. We discuss consciousness a lot in this blog but we don't often talk about studying the experience of being a subject. There are the relatively unexplored domains of neurophenomenology that scientists like Francisco Varela, Antonio Damasio and others have tried to open up. Finding a way to include the first person experience of "flourishing" in scientific study will be critical to making it the foundation for answering moral questions.



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