Monday, July 9, 2012
A Scientific Basis for Morality?
The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
Free Press, 2010
307 pp; pb.
The Moral Landscape, by the outspoken New Atheist Sam Harris, is an attempt to find a scientific basis for an objective system of morality. The attempt is a bold one, for conventional wisdom says that it cannot be done. Science cannot deduce an "ought" from an "is."
Dr. Harris is well aware of the difficulty. He is a neuroscientist with a degree in philosophy. Those on the secular left say that no such objective morality exists, while those on the religious right say that no such morality is possible without reference to a Supreme Being. Dr. Harris, however, thinks that he has found a way out of the difficulty.
We should note that when Dr. Harris speaks of "morality" he is not talking about a set of unvarying moral precepts or an abstract principle that exists outside of the human mind. He even goes so far as to say that, strictly speaking, morality is not even about an "ought" at all, but rather about how we as humans would like to structure society.
He argues that most human beings would prefer to live in a well-ordered society that has achieved a high level of peace and prosperity. By the same token almost no sane person would want to live in a poverty stricken country terrorized by corrupt warlords. The answer, then, is to learn how to cooperate with each other in a spirit of reciprocal altruism. And science, he says, can show us how to achieve that. In a word what Dr. Harris offers us is an updated version of Utilitarianism, the idea of the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
Dr. Harris' grand vision sounds very appealing, but the devil, as they say, is in the details. Dr. Harris' book has received a great deal of attention, much of it critical, and in an afterword to the 2011 paperback edition Dr. Harris responds to some of his more thoughtful critics. In particular he addresses three major criticisms; 1) the Value Problem; 2) the Persuasion Problem; and 3) the Measurement Problem. Due to limitations of space we will confine our attention to the first two.
Dr. Harris contends that the goal of morality should be the general well-being of conscious beings. But how do we define "well-being"? Good health? Satisfying relationships? Material success? The good feeling that comes from acts of kindness? Religion? Wine, women and song? Dr. Harris offers us plenty of opinions of his own, on everything from burqas to embryonic stem-cell research. But significantly, he rarely provides us with a specifically scientific basis for his opinions, which raises the intriguing question, what is the real source of his values? Since he does not tell us, we can only guess. But the answer, apparently, is either from his own intuitive sense of right and wrong, or else he has borrowed them from his Western (i.e. Judaeo-Christian) culture. We seem to recall Someone else a long time ago telling us about the Golden Rule! That being the case, Dr. Harris has left himself wide open to the criticism from the left: his supposed universal standard of morality rests on nothing more than his own cultural or emotional biases.
The other problem that Dr. Harris has is what he calls "the Persuasion Problem." The problem here is that Dr. Harris is trying to find a basis for altruism in self-interest. Here is how he himself states the problem: " . . . there is often a tension between the autonomy of the individual and the common good, and many moral problems turn on just how to prioritize competing values" (p. 42). "Prioritize" indeed. Why should anyone think about the common good at all? Dr. Harris says that it is in our own self-interest to do so, and so it is. But in real life self-interest and the common good often collide with each other, and when one's own individual self-interest lies close at hand, the "common good" can seem like a hopelessly vague abstraction. Adam Smith had a surer insight into human nature: capitalism works precisely because it appeals to our selfishness and greed.
In the final analysis we think that Dr. Harris failed because the tried to combine two opposites: human autonomy and the common good. In so doing he eliminated the element of duty or obligation from morality. In the end his "moral landscape" is neither universal, nor truly moral, nor even scientific. Dr. Harris, it seems, is a law unto himself.