Science and Morality: Sam Harris at TED 2010
… and all hell breaks loose on the internet
Sam Harris, in his recent TED talk boldly (and I attach no specific connotation to the word here) took the step even a publicist of science as formidable as Richard Dawkins has carefully avoided taking. Harris has said that science can help decide moral questions (cue wails and cries and chest-beating and…)
In what followed, Harris was roundly criticized (by Sean Carroll) for making as elementary a blunder as to try to derive ‘OUGHT’ from ‘IS’; Harris bitterly defended himself and his position. Dawkins weighed in, saying that he thought Harris’ present book will be, unlike his previous books which could’ve been written by any of the New Atheists, something original and unique to Harris. PZ Myers of Pharyngula says, in unrelated circumstances,
Science cannot provide a morality to change the world. Science merely describes what is, not what should be, and it also takes a rather universal view: science as science takes no sides on matters relevant to a particular species, and would not say that an ape is more important than a mouse is more important than a rock. Don’t ask science to tell you what to do when making some fine-grained moral decision, because that is not what science is good at.
In the course of many rambling, incoherent, rhetoric-heavy, somewhat-ad-hominem, not to mention loud discussions with Nair – Sam-Harris-basher-extraordinaire, I think I’ve managed to pick up both sides of the argument. I agree with a fair few points that Harris makes, although I don’t particularly care for the verbal gymnastics that he (perhaps because he has to) employs.
I think Sam Harris’ contribution here is to have collected and collated, as it were, many arguments which by themselves have been accepted, and made a case for the use of science in deciding moral questions. For example, the argument that morality is the minimization of suffering or maximization of wellbeing is common, even if precise definitions for suffering or wellbeing are hard to come by. In turn, he argues that suffering or wellbeing has to be the suffering or wellbeing of conscious beings, for how else could they be ‘felt’ or ‘experienced’? And if it isn’t experienced, what’s suffering?
Having come up with a definition for suffering, and argued that morality is the minimization of suffering, Harris concludes that, in effect, all one needs now is a convenient calculus to do the math of minimization, and one has effectively derived morality from an axiom that assumes nothing more than that one wants to alleviate suffering. [I have glossed over large tracts of verbal gymnastics here, but I do believe I have the gist right.]
And… Evisceration! Worshippers of Hume and his Is-Ought guillotine, people who think absolute morality cannot exist – for how would one respect the bounds of cultural relativism, otherwise? – went for Harris’ head, and his scalp, and his liver and kidneys. (Check out, in particular, the above-mentioned article on his blog at Discover-Blogs by Sean Carroll, and Harris’ reply to the article, and Carroll’s reply to the reply…)
I think Harris may have painted too rosy a picture of how simple deriving morality from science is. I think one can come up with quite a few situations where a position one way or another is hard, perhaps impossible, to get to using logic alone – would you or would you not kill one man to save the rest of the dozen you happen to be trekking with? If you would/not, why/not? – Science (I include logic and reason under the umbrella-term ‘science’, prudent or not) cannot decide this question for you. A Utilitarian approach might actually suggest that one has no option but to kill the one to save the dozen, although most people who are asked this question, or variants of it – I believe a fat man and a speeding train are involved in one popular version – would not kill the one to save the others. Having stipulated that Harris is, from where I stand, taking too simplistic a view of morality, I will proceed to say the following.
This is at this point in the argument that some people – I’m looking at Nair, here – go off the reservation with their unwillingness to come off the strict-definition-or-bust high horse. It is true that some areas of morality are unquestionably grey (I would even be prepared to state that large areas of morality are grey) in the sense of being arbitrary; I argue that there are also certain questions which have definite answers (and Nair, predictably, stands on one foot looking the other way and hmmph-ing his refusal to accept my argument). If I said for example that child-rape is unambiguously wrong (I’d look at a picture of Ratzinger, if only I could stand to look at his face and his funny hat and his bling and that sceptre – what’s up with the scepter, Ratzi? – but I digress, without becoming nauseated), I would bet all the money in my pockets that I’d get most people to agree with me (those who don’t have gone off the reservation and aren’t in a position to answer, not that we don’t know their answer anyway, at this point).
My contention, and I think Harris’ too, is that in the cases where a moral definite exists, logic can tell you whether or not somebody’s actions are moral. Also, given that morality is the minimization of suffering, this is a rough guide to tell one what actions one might take. For example, then –
- Priest rapes child who was left in his care – (definitely, gravely) immoral
- Pope protecting rapist priest – (definitely, gravely) immoral.
- Liquefaction(HT, amod) Liquidation of the Church’s (huge stockpile of) resources to pay for therapy and compensation for the affected children, and imprisonment/counseling for the perpetrators – reasonably moral [?]
And therefore, which is what should logically have followed the first instance of a report of clerical abuse . (Instead of, just to finish my point, a massive criminal cover-up and threats of excommunication and oaths and signed documents of secrecy).