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Saturday, October 02, 2010

Science as a basis for morality

Sam Harris is, according to a review of his latest book in The New York Times, an important New Atheist. I had never heard of him until reading the review. (I have the NYT's book reviews e-mailed to me every week. I ignore most of the books reviewed, of course. The book is The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.)

According to the reviewer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Harris's book makes the claim of his subtitle, that is, that science, and, apparently, only science, preferably neuroscience, can give us coherent values. I have not read the book, but suppose, judging from the subtitle, that Appiah has characterized Harris fairly. Appiah also has an important criticism:
But wait: how do we know that the morally right act is, as Harris posits, the one that does the most to increase well-being, defined in terms of our conscious states of mind? Has science really revealed that? If it hasn’t, then the premise of Harris’s all-we-need-is-science argument must have nonscientific origins.

Appiah goes on to say that, in fact, Harris is proposing a sort of utilitarianism, which is a venerable sort of ethics, but, as the history of ethical philosophy has shown, is not without some serious problems.

I think it's fair to say that science hasn't yet offered a scientific basis for a system of values -- what is right and wrong, and what should be be striving for (and against). It is also fair to say that other non-scientific attempts have not met with universal acclaim. I'll take the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, from Matthew 7:12) as my standard. It doesn't come from neuroscience.

Thanks for reading.

6 comments:

Pete DeSanto said...

You can get a flavor for Harris's approach from his TED talk... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hj9oB4zpHww

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Pete. I'll try to watch it, or at least listen. I'm not a big fan of listening to anyone give a talk on our computer, whatever their beliefs.

Pete DeSanto said...

TED talks are pretty awesome though Martin. I have my computer set up as a media server so I can stream things like YouTube to my TV. Very nice for home videos as well.

Martin LaBar said...

I played Harris's talk. I'd still generally rather read what someone says than listen to it/watch it, whether on TV or computer. That's probably an idiosyncrasy I should get over.

Based on what Harris said, I think that the New York Times book reviewer was fair in his summation and criticism of Harris's book. Here's my reaction:
1) The central criticism I quoted in the post remains valid, as I see it.
2) We are a ways away from any objective measure of happiness, probably further away than Harris thinks.
3) However, assuming we could measure happiness, and that the 1st criticism isn't important, either, the classical criticisms of utilitarianism/consequentialist ethics would remain, and Harris doesn't seem to deal with these.
4) OK, suppose that we could show, objectively, that rigid Muslim societies are repressive and unjust, especially toward women. Does that then give us, whoever us is, the right, or the duty, or both, to supplant such societies, even if it means going to war to do it? Wars are notoriously hard on people's happiness. (I don't think we need a scientific objective measure to show that such societies are deeply unjust, and I'm not sure Harris thinks we need such measurements, either.)
5) I'll stick with the Golden Rule as an ideal standard for individual action. I'm not sure that it was meant to apply to governments.

Thanks for the link.

Pete DeSanto said...

I agree with all you've said here. To me the Golden Rule is the way to go as well (although it predates the Gospel of Matthew by quite a bit!). The problem of government is a difficult one that I think, so far, has best been addressed by our representative republic or a parliamentary system.

I think there is a bit of scripture that is somewhat overlooked, but should be an important guide to christian morality though...that is Matt. 25:40.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Pete.

Christians (and others) do overlook, or just plain violate, Matthew 25:40. It should be a guide to morality, and it goes along with the Golden Rule.

Yes, I'm happy (sometimes, at least) with our governmental system, although it seems to me that it has gone way overboard into partisanship, at least on the national level, lately.

Thanks again.