Sam Harris at TED

Sam Harris’ Moral Assumptions

A few weeks ago I made some posts discussing the role science can play in describing our moral values and their origins. I took pains at every point of the way though to point out that I was not prescribing any moral behavior, or defending our evolved morality as “right”. This is not to say that science does not have a role in prescriptive moral behavior, but what exactly is the nature of this role? Sam Harris is one of most vocal writers around today promoting the strong relationship between scientific knowledge and morality. Not only does Harris believe that scientific knowledge can inform moral decisions, but he asserts that science can determine moral values. He’s not the only figure making these claims, but he’s definitely the most prolific. And with an undergraduate degree in philosophy and a PhD in neuroscience, he’s certainly well situated to make and defend these sorts of claims.

This is a pretty controversial claim to make though, and Harris is often attacked both by religious figures AND scientists. Ever since David Hume put words to the notion that you can’t derive values from facts, that you can’t derive what “ought” to be from what “is”, philosophers and scientists have behaved with this idea as a presupposition in all their dealings. Science describes facts about the world, science cannot tell you what is important or how to live your life. Some of the biggest names in moral research have concluded that all science can do is describe and explain the moral behavior of human beings, but is overstepping its bounds when it attempts to prescribe what to do, or to determine values.

Harris argues that this is-ought distinction is fundamentally mistaken, and I actually agree strongly with him in that. And while I agree with a vast majority of Sam Harris’s arguments, they are not problem free, and they are themselves based on some assumptions that need to be made explicit if we’re to make an informed decision about the quality of his overall argument.

Harris’s basic premise is this: If ethics is about anything, it is about the conscious states of organisms able to experience consciousness. Any other definition is meaningless. Any action that has no actual or potential affect on the conscious state of an organism is by definition valueless. I think we can accept this claim as long as we are responsible about thinking about the broader affects that stem from our actions. If my action isn’t immoral to me, or you, or anyone else in the world, or anyone that may ever come along, if it causes no pain or suffering to any creature able to experience those states of consciousness, if there is no one around to care one way or the other, then what could possibly be immoral about anything?

Harris’s next point is a simple small jump. If ethics is about the conscious states of organisms, then this must by definition translate into facts about brains and their interaction with the world. This also seems uncontroversial. Assuming conscious states have a neurophysiological correlate (an extremely grounded assumption), then it’s obvious that science can give us a complete account of the ever evolving dynamic states of consciousness, the very thing that ethics is about. It’s worth pointing out that when Harris uses the word “science”, he is not talking about double blind research carried out in labs by people wearing white lab coats. Harris is defining science in the broadest way imaginable, as a process with respect for the scientific method, incorporating reason and logic and proper justification for beliefs (I sometimes think his definition of science is just “philosophy”, a label and pursuit he tries to keep himself separate from). Agree or disagree with his definition, just keep it in mind when evaluating his assertions, since many who disagree with him tend to ignore his encompassing view of science.

But this can’t be it right? Ethics isn’t simply about conscious states; it’s about a certain type of conscious state. And here is where we start running into some conceptual problems, which to some degree I hate myself for having. Sam Harris’s next point is that ethics must specifically be about maximizing the well being of conscious organisms. On the one hand, this also seems uncontroversial. Moral concerns about the well being of other people very obviously translate into facts about how our thoughts and behaviors affect these people. Science can thus describe the result of this endeavor, and based on our goal of maximizing well being, determine what it is we ought to do.

Did you see the problem? Science can determine moral values if we accept three assumptions.

1) Ethics is about the conscious states of organisms. (okay)
2) Conscious states of organisms are within the realm of science. (okay)
3) Ethics is about maximizing the well being of conscious organisms. (hmmmm)

I think you’ll see why I dislike even having to question this last assumption, since generally I agree with it. But is this statement itself something that can be determined by science or not? And if it is, can science determine the specific nuances that go into it? Sam Harris, true to form, again defines “well being” in the broadest way possible. He does not mean simply physical health. And also doesn’t simply mean “happiness”. Sam Harris is using a definition of well being that itself is, or would have to be, the result of a very nuanced philosophical argument through this process of scientific exploration. This would involve taking into account the motivation for being kind and caring towards others, understanding the effect it would have on their mental states, on your mental states, and on the mental states of others. This is not a simple one to one relationship. This is a convoluted story that needs to incorporate the affect behavior may have on broader social, political, and economic systems, and how those systems themselves affect other people, and the resulting mental states of those people due to those changes.

How to balance various issues like civil liberties, individual privacy, free speech, and the importance of keeping citizens safe to maximize well being, surely has an answer, even if the complexities of it lay forever out of our reach. Harris is quick to point this out often. Harris isn’t arguing that science has all the answers, but that science can conceivably determine all the answers with enough information and enough time. But even accepting this we find ourselves in a dilemma, because this pursuit depends on a definition of well being that is itself part of the pursuit, and how those factors discussed weigh in a well being scale. How we define well being, how our conscious states change for the better is not solely dependent on biology, on genetics, it is also dependent in a very strong way on our values and beliefs (some of which are there for evolutionary reasons, yes). And as human beings who are prone to error, we know we can wrong about values and beliefs. If your neighbor believes they are the reincarnation of Jesus, we’re likely to assume they’re wrong. Someone might value money above all else, someone else might value respect for authority above all else, and someone else might value open mindedness above all else. Whether we can objectively determine which of these values should be preferred over others and by how much isn’t necessarily the point. The point is that as it stands, people currently value those things in different ways, and their conscious states will change differently based on the presence or absence of those things.

If somehow science determines that free speech should be weighed above the safety of the citizenry as a means to maximize well being, but the majority of the population values safety over freedom, their conscious states will not be maximized, because of the nature of their neurophysiology and psychology. Is the right thing to then disregard the scientific data? Or implement it regardless? What if science determines that the wearing of Hijabs by women in the Islamic faith is in fact a practice not conducive to maximizing well being, what do we do? A woman who has grown up in this culture and with this belief and value system believes this is the right way to live. Do you force her to take it off? Wouldn’t that objectively lower her well being since her entire psychology is geared towards reacting negatively to that? This process of moral persuasion and system implementation is itself a moral endeavor. Sure, it’s not the focus of Harris’s book, but it’s absolutely essential to a deeper conversation about morality.

How can we go about answering these questions through the process of science and empiricism? One problem is inherent in Harris’s espousement of utilitarianism (morality lies in the consequences of an action). Where is the point of evaluation of a utilitarian argument? Is it how the action will affect the recipient immediately? Is it how the action will affect everyone alive on the planet through the vast web of interconnectedness that the nature of cause and affect necessitates? What time frame do we judge by? Immediately? One year? 100 years? A million? Imagine I criticize you in some way that has the immediate affect of lowering your state of well being. But then after two weeks and some reflection you realize it was actually a good thing and it has helped you out and it raises your level of well being. But then a year from now it turns out this criticism and the changes it has made in you have actually drastically lowered your well being. How do we evaluate something like this? And how do we evaluate all the people you affected during that time with the mental states that I helped create? Further, how do we compare various forms of well being and suffering against each other? How do ten headaches compare against one broken bone? Ten jailed innocents vs. the hunger of 1000 children?

Life and morality do not consist in snapshots in time. Life is a temporal process, and ever flowing process, and yet an evaluation of “maximizing well being” necessitates a point of evaluation. I’m skeptical whether these are questions a utilitarianist approach is capable of addressing due it’s sole focus on outcomes. No matter how much consideration for outcomes a person takes into account, a decision can only be made in the now, with insufficient information.

Even had Sam Harris chose a different moral theory, we can argue that whichever theory is chosen relates to his other points about science in the same way. My argument is that whichever theory we choose will have the same problems for his argument. Science has to determine the rightness of the theory itself. A theory is only as good as the facts it’s based on, and so this topic strays into what philosophers call epistemology, or theory of knowledge. How do we know anything about the world, and what warrant and justification do we have for believing things. Part of this process involves determining what is right and good to value, and providing justification for the very goal of morality. I don’t think this is impossible. In fact, using Harris’s broad conception of science (what I would define as philosophy) I’ll even grant we can provide good reasons for being able to do this, since this endeavor of defining what is worth valuing will itself undergo a process that must respect the scientific method, rationality, logic, and justification for beliefs. What we value, how we act, and towards what ethical goal we are progressing is all intertwined, and arguably should not be separated in pursuit of morality. The problem is that Sam Harris doesn’t focus on this, and it leaves what I find to be otherwise impressively strong arguments with a hole waiting to be filled.

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