Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Facts, Values, and the Moral Landscape

 Say I told you a story. A story chock full of facts, evidence, and detailed descriptions of human beings – everything you’d want to know about this species of ours. I could even throw in a brain scan or two. But despite my bundle of empirical, scientific data, I still could not tell you how we should be. There is a fundamental gap between facts and values, and it's here to stay. Period.

Or maybe not. The ought/is distinction - namely, the idea that I cannot make any claim about what ought to be based simply on what is - may not be as chasm-like as previously thought in philosophical circles. At least, Sam Harris would like to think so. Best known for his book "The End of Faith" and his vocal criticisms of religion, Harris has now moved into the domain of morality and neuroscience. In his TED talk and subsequent article, Harris argues that it is possible to make objective, scientific statements about what is morally good. In other words, is possible to be right about right and wrong. So how exactly does Harris manage to resolve centuries of ethical inquiry and debate? By brushing past the fact/value distinction altogether and basing morality entirely in the notion of human well-being - which he claims is ultimately rooted in human consciousness.

“science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want – and, perforce, what other people should do and want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of the mind… there are facts about human and animal well-being that we can, in principle, know – simply because well-being (and states of consciousness altogether) must lawfully relate to states of the brain and to states of the world.”

Harris is fully aware of the controversial claim he is making, but he chastises philosophers and scientists for elevating the ought/is distinction (what he calls Hume’s “lazy analysis of facts and values”) to the status of mathematical truth and thereby hindering all critical thought on the matter. Most of all he worries that the philosophical skepticism that divides facts and values leads to a moral relativism with dire consequences: 

“Many of my critics piously cite Hume's is/ought distinction as though it were well known to be the last word on the subject of morality until the end of time… There are very practical, moral concerns that follow from the glib idea that anyone is free to value anything – the most consequential being that it is precisely what allows highly educated, secular, and otherwise well-intentioned people to pause thoughtfully, and often interminably, before condemning practices like compulsory veiling, genital excision, bride-burning, forced marriage, and the other cheerful products of alternative “morality” found elsewhere in the world. Fanciers of Hume’s is/ought distinction never seem to realize what the stakes are, and they do not see what an abject failure of compassion their intellectual “tolerance” of moral difference amounts to.”

Harris admits that science is not guaranteed to map the entire realm of morality, or that it will produce answers to every conceivable moral question. He also acknowledges that there may not be a single "good" for everyone or every society. He draws the analogy to food. There is no one single best food to achieve optimal health good nutrition can be achieved in a whole multitude of ways. Nevertheless, there is still an objective difference between food and poison.

“there may be many different ways for individuals and communities to thrive – many peaks on the moral landscape – so if there is real diversity in how people can be deeply fulfilled in life, this diversity can be accounted for and honored in the context of science…the concept of "well-being," like the concept of "health," is truly open for revision and discovery.”

Much depends on this concept of “well-being." At times Harris uses the word “happiness,” or invokes the Aristotelian notion of “flourishing,” but in general he leaves the term extremely vague on purpose. By doing so, he tries to avoid the objection that there are some moral values (say, equality), that are not encapsulated in “well-being” and therefore cannot be established with his scientific approach. But Harris declares that every bit of morality (and all notions of value) are related to the experiences of conscious beings, and furthermore “those philosophical efforts that seek to put morality in terms of duty, fairness, justice, or some other principle that is not explicitly tied to the well-being of conscious creatures – are, nevertheless, parasitic on some notion of well-being in the end.”

I am still rather skeptical about the details, but no doubt Harris will elaborate on these arguments in his forthcoming book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Given the heated discussion he has provoked in the past few weeks, it’s sure to get quite a response.  

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