Some people are not worth listening to January 10, 2011Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Philosophy, Science.
Tags: Sam Harris
In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris makes the case that questions of morality are actually questions about the well-being of conscious creatures; therefore, there are right and wrong answers to moral questions — and they can be determined (in principle) by science. A common objection to this thesis is that the notion of “well-being” is only loosely defined and continually open to modification — and in any case, there will always be people who insist that their moral values and goals have nothing to do with well-being:
I might claim that morality is really about maximizing well-being and that well-being entails a wide range of psychological virtues and wholesome pleasures, but someone else will be free to say that morality depends upon worshiping the gods of the Aztecs and that well-being, if it matters at all, entails always having a terrified person locked in one’s basement, waiting to be sacrificed.
But there is a double standard at work here, treating morality differently than we treat any other realm of knowledge. Harris suggests we consider an analogy with physical health. Like well-being,
[health] must be defined with reference to specific goals — not suffering chronic pain, not always vomiting, etc. — and these goals are continually changing. Our notion of “health” may one day be defined by goals that we cannot currently entertain with a straight face (like the goal of spontaneously regenerating a lost limb). Does this mean we can’t study health scientifically?
I wonder if there is anyone on earth who would be tempted to attack the philosophical underpinnings of medicine with questions like: “What about all the people who don’t share your goal of avoiding disease and early death? Who is to say that living a long life free of pain and debilitating illness is ‘healthy’? What makes you think that you could convince a person suffering from fatal gangrene that he is not as healthy as you are?” And yet these are precisely the kinds of objections I face when I speak about morality in terms of human and animal well-being. Is it possible to voice such doubts in human speech? Yes. But that doesn’t mean we should take them seriously. . . .
Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value health. But once we admit that health is the proper concern of medicine, we can then study and promote it through science.
And what happens if someone doesn’t accept our definition of science, or its goals and methods? Well, nothing happens.
It is essential to see that the demand for radical justification leveled by the moral skeptic could not be met by any branch of science. Science is defined with reference to the goal of understanding the processes at work in the universe. Can we justify this goal scientifically? Of course not. . . .
It would be impossible to prove that our definition of science is correct, because our standards of proof will be built into any proof we would offer. What evidence could prove that we should value evidence? What logic could demonstrate the importance of logic?
The same is true regarding morality. Ever since David Hume, it has been widely accepted that there is an unbridgeable gap between facts and values: that no description of how the world is could tell us how it ought to be. According to Harris, this is an illusion.
Asking why we “ought” to value well-being makes even less sense than asking why we “ought” to be rational or scientific. And while it is possible to say that one can’t move from “is” to “ought,” we should be honest about how we get to “is” in the first place. Scientific “is” statements rest on implicit “oughts” all the way down. When I say, “Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen,” I have uttered a quintessential statement of scientific fact. But what if someone doubts this statement? I can appeal to data from chemistry, describing the outcome of simple experiments. But in doing so, I implicitly appeal to the values of empiricism and logic. What if my interlocutor doesn’t share these values? What can I say then? As it turns out, this is the wrong question. The right question is, why should we care what such a person thinks about chemistry?
So it is with the linkage between morality and well-being: To say that morality is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal) because we must first assume that the well-being of conscious creatures is good, is like saying that science is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal) because we must first assume that a rational understanding of the universe is good. . . . No framework of knowledge can withstand utter skepticism, for none is perfectly self-justifying.
This type of skepticism is no more a problem for an objective morality than it is for any other branch of science. Consensus is not a prerequisite for truth; in any domain of knowledge, some opinions must be excluded from the discussion.
I don’t think we can intelligibly ask questions like, “What if the worst possible misery for everyone is actually good?” … We can also pose questions like “What if the most perfect circle is really a square?” or “What if all true statements are actually false?” But if someone persists in speaking this way, I see no obligation to take his views seriously. . . .
On the subject of morality, as on every other subject, some people are not worth listening to.