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).

12 thoughts on “Science and Morality: Sam Harris at TED 2010”

  1. Ah, glad to see that you’ve taken up the quill. Nevertheless this point needs to be made. You cannot derive an ‘is’ from an ‘ought’. Say that ten times before you go to sleep. Your insouciant and specious remarks about how some things are definitely moral stem from a subjective understanding of the world. To add more to the cognitive dissonance we seem to be sharing and spreading, you need a proper definition of what classifies as a sentient being before even talking about a well being function to minimize. Value judgements are not necessarily values themselves and logical solutions are not necessarily moral solutions. And democratic answers are not scientific. In short, your blog minus some of your opinions – I dare say – is brilliant.

  2. @Nair, insouciant and specious remarks? Child-rape is not definitely immoral?

    Consciousness is a hard thing to precisely define, but we’re getting there. Neuroscience (and Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, I should add here) already has a basic understanding of consciousness. I should refer you to VS Ramachandran’s arguments in The Phantoms in the Brain, but I know you’ve already read that book; you’re just nitpicking, then? More to the point, whether or not one can properly define sentience, can we not agree that six year-olds are definitely sentient? See what I meant about you going off the reservation?

  3. Reading through some of the threads on the topic, one wonders where the relativists think morality (or our notion of it) comes from? I guess it would have to be a divine source, or a mystical spirit, if it can not be observed and measured, and if there are no ground rules that drive those processes in our individual brains. So is “what ought” somehow streamed magically into our neo-cortex from somewhere where physical law does not govern?!

    As the great Galileo said “Measure what can be measured, and make measurable what cannot be measured.” Everything can be, and should be, boiled down to its physical laws, with the limitations of the uncertainty principle of course, and I don’t see why the uncertainty principle of sub-atomic particles would play a role in morality.

  4. So is it OK to kill children less than 6 years old? The potential for abuse in such systems need no mention. Though I empathise in general with the remarks on child abuse and the like (heck I even wrote on that), giving a scientific justification to moral actions undermines the whole concept of science, its objectivity and its rationality.

  5. I have to ridicule you for taking my ‘six year-olds’ to mean human beings of 365*6 days of age, and not to mean just ‘children’, but that can be done elsewhere.

    Your point is that it is not possible to draw a sharp line where a foetus becomes sentient. (I shall assume that you aren’t even suggesting that newborns are insentient). I’ve already said this; large areas of moral judgement are gray. Why is it so hard to understand or accept that there are also areas that aren’t at all ambiguous?

  6. Amos, Good point. I think Sam Harris says something like this as well, when he argues that morality may not be precisely definable in practice, but it isn’t as if a definition in principle would be incomprehensible.

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