Can we have a science of morality? This question has been thrown around quite a bit of late, especially fuelled by the spirited ejaculations of one Sam Harris. Harris firmly believes there are no barriers to a science of human values, but I fear things aren’t that simple, and I’m not alone in this concern.
While a ‘science of morality’ is a laudable notion in a loose sense, such a science would, by necessity, look nothing like what Harris has in mind. Harris is seeking not only a science of morality, but a science of human values. He wants a “universal conception of human values” that can be checked, verified and proven using the tools of empirical science.
But that’s just not going to work. Science doesn’t do that kind of thing. At least not without assistance from other disciplines, like philosophy. And if we try to force science alone into providing us with values, there is no shortage of traps that will inevitably spring up.
It’s worth remembering that Harris isn’t the first one to call for a science of morality. Herbert Spencer and a number of other naturalistic ethicists around the end of the 19th century thought they could finally use scientific tools to discover human values.
Spencer happened to believe that evolution, in particular, was the tool of choice. He held that evolution was intrinsically progressive, and he equated ‘more evolved’ with ‘more valued’. And we homo sapiens were the most evolved organisms around so, thankfully, we found ourselves at the top of the value tree.
There are a few clangin’ great problems with this view – such as that there’s no evidence from within science that evolution is intrinsically progressive in Spencer’s sense, nor that such progress (if it existed) could be equated with value. But the chief clanger was flagged by G.E. Moore in his book Principia Ethica.
You’ve probably heard of this issue under the oft used, and oft abused, moniker of the ‘naturalistic fallacy’. Despite its common usage, the naturalistic fallacy doesn’t simply state that you can’t derive an ought from an is. Instead, it suggests that ‘the good’ – which Moore sees as the object of moral enquiry – is a simple (rather than complex) and undefinable idea.
Like the colour ‘yellow’ can’t be broken down or explained in any other way – particularly not by simply pointing to a yellow thing and identifying the colour yellow directly with the yellow object. Yellow is a property of the object, and as such, defies any simple identification with any other natural properties. As such, identifying ‘the good’ with evolutionary progress, or another natural property like happiness, as Harris does, is spurious.
Then there’s the other naturalistic fallacy, which is more often referred to as Hume’s Law, or the is-ought fallacy. This says that no amount of is facts alone will tell you how something ought to be. Thus I can describe, in minute detail, the factual circumstances surrounding some killing, but without adding a value in there somewhere – such as ‘killing an innocent person is wrong’ – can we derive a moral judgement from the situation.
The question is: where do these foundational values come from? If science only trades in facts, then that can’t be the source of values. They must come from somewhere else, but where? And there you have one of the great driving problems of the last century or so of moral philosophy.
Likewise, it’s a problem for Harris, whether he chooses to acknowledge it or not.
Of metaethics and men
Harris has stated that the is-ought problem isn’t such a big barrier, and we can undertake empirical investigation into how much suffering or happiness an organism experiences – and that will lead us to derive new values that can shape our behaviour. But all he’s doing is smuggling in his prior values – i.e. that morality is about the well-being of conscious beings, as measured by happiness or suffering. But he doesn’t justify that foundational value. And that’s why he’s been the target of so much criticism by incredulous philosophers.
Yet Harris is outwardly dismissive of philosophy and metaethics:
Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. There are two reasons why I haven’t done this: First, while I have read a fair amount of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of mind. Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like “metaethics,” “deontology,” “noncognitivism,” “anti-realism,” “emotivism,” and the like, directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.
Hey, I’m sympathetic to the idea that doing metaethics is a dreadful way to spend your time. But even if you think that most metaethics is garbage (as I happen to), you can’t just ignore it and move on. You at the very least need to state why you think it’s garbage, and why it doesn’t impact your argument.
Sidestepping your opponents has never been a well respected argumentative technique, at least, not in respectable circles.
And, sadly, Harris’s half-arsed engagement with philosophy has only done his cause a disservice. Because there is an important role for science in moral philosophy – but science alone doesn’t a moral philosophy make.
Rebel without a clue
Ultimately, I think Harris is rebelling against two long-standing traditions that have deeply (and often detrimentally) influenced moral discourse. The first is moral rationalism and non-naturalism. This is the kind of moral philosophy that stems from the likes of Plato and Kant, and maintained by G.E. Moore. All of these thinkers held that morality was a subject seeking truth, but that truth couldn’t be discovered by looking around the world. Thus they held a disdain for empirical research. Kant even dismissed doing moral psychology – or ‘moral anthropology’ as he called it – as a dreadfully mistaken way of understanding how we ought to behave.
The other is moral relativism – but not relativism of the philosophical brand, as advocated by the likes of Westermarck, Wong or Harman. Harris is rebelling against post-modernist moral relativism. This is the brand of relativism that is based on a worldview that suggests there is no objective reality that is knowable, so everything is ultimately subjective.
It says that we subjectively project our values on to the world, and our subjectivity is in turn shaped by our enculturation – which is largely influenced by existing power structures in the world and what others want us to believe. As such, oppression of the weak by the strong involves the strong (i.e. government, corporations, mainstream media, etc) shaping the worldview of others to have them behave in ways that maintain the power of the strong. Nefarious stuff.
According to this pomo perspective, our values are intricately linked to our particular worldview, as shaped by our history. But there’s no privilaged worldview, no objective worldview. As such, it’s impossible to justify criticism against another culture’s values because we don’t have any objective bar against which to measure it. And any criticism of the ‘weak’ by us (i.e. the Western mainstream oppressive imperialists) risks further perpetuating the oppression of the weak by the strong.
That view is, sadly, deeply flawed. And Harris isn’t the only one who thinks so. But it’s sad that in rebelling against both non-naturalism and mad-dog pomo relativism he neither understands what he’s rebelling against, nor wishes to engage with literature that might help him rebel effectively.
Towards a science of morality
But rebel one can, and science is a crucial tool in that rebellion – but it’s only one tool, not the entire toolbox.
In sidestepping philosophy, Harris is actually missing out on a route that might not only aid his programme of naturalising ethics (in the sense of grounding it in the natural world – the world described by science), but might improve his position. That route is a new kind of anti-realist error theory developed by Joshua Greene.
Greene, in his 2002 dissertation, argues that morality isn’t about truth – not of the mystically binding kind sought by many philosophers – but that this doesn’t doom ethics to rampant relativism or bleak nihilism. Instead he admits that there are no fundamental, binding, metaphysical oughts – so the thing the realists of the naturalist or non-naturalist kind are looking for just don’t exist. But that there are facts about being nice to other people.
The key is to realise that seeking metaphysically necessary oughts is folly, so we need to construct morality on other grounds, and use this as the source of our foundational values. I’ve argued before that morality is best understood as a mechanism that facilitates prosocial and cooperative behaviour, because such behaviour can help us advance our interests. I believe this is where morality came from, and our moral sense evolved over millennia in order to help solve the problems of fostering prosocial and cooperative behaviour. This is an empirical fact, not a metaphysically necessary fact.
But, I think that enough people will agree that they want to advance their own interests, and that being social and cooperative is the best way to do it (‘I won’t interfere with your interests if you won’t interfere with mine’ – classic social contract theory, a la David Gauthier). As such, we can build a moral framework that allows us to promote our own interests by protecting the interests of others.
That’s where you get your foundational values. They’re contingent, empirical and debatable – and forever will they be that way. This stands in stark contrast to Harris, who wants to use science to discover values by looking in the world, and hold them to be true with the same conviction that we know the charge of an electron.
The truth is that there is no truth of the matter to be discovered concerning fundamental moral values, only agreement to be made between individuals.
However, once you have this anti-realist, contractarian framework, you use facts to fill in the gaps. Once you agree that killing an innocent person is wrong, you need a lot of facts to determine whether, in a particular situation, an innocent person has been killed. This is where science is crucial.
Science can also play a role in exploring the problems that morality is trying to solve, i.e. how to enable a large unrelated group of individuals to live and work cooperatively together without chaos ensuing. It can help us understand that there is more than one strategy to promote our values. Science can also help us understand our moral psychology and how we actually make moral judgements – in the hope that we can become better at making such judgements.
But science can’t tell us the fundamental values by itself. That’s Harris’s error.
Science and morality are closely linked, but science is but one discipline that will help us better understand morality, it is not the only discipline we need to understand morality.
Even in light of Harris’s errors, I applaud his efforts to escape from non-naturalism and pomo relativism. Like him, I’m optimistic about the future of morality, and a closer integration of science with philosophy. But while philosophers have taken centuries to wake up to the need for empirical investigation, it seems scientists are likewise slow to realise the benefits of good old fashioned philosophy. The closer these two streams get, the better we’ll all be.