Could science prove that vanilla is better than chocolate? February 1, 2011Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Science.
Tags: Sam Harris
Science can undoubtedly help us get what we want, but could science ever tell us what we ought to want, or what we ought to value? Sam Harris thinks so: he argues that the only reasonable source of value in this universe is the well-being of conscious creatures, which is constrained by the laws of nature — placing morality under the purview of science. But if that were true — so goes one of the criticisms Harris engages — couldn’t we say the same for any aspect of human subjectivity or culture?
after all, a preference for chocolate over vanilla ice cream is a natural phenomenon, as is a preference for the comic Sarah Silverman over Bob Hope. Are we to imagine that there are universal truths about ice cream and comedy that admit of scientific analysis?
Clearly, science might tell us a lot about why certain people prefer chocolate over vanilla or find some jokes funnier than others. But could science ever conclude that chocolate is objectively better than vanilla or that Sarah Silverman is objectively funnier than Bob Hope? Could we ever say that someone’s preference on such matters was wrong?
[…] I don’t think the distinction between morality and something like taste is as clear or as categorical as we might suppose. If, for instance, a preference for chocolate ice cream allowed for the most rewarding experience a human being could have, while a preference for vanilla did not, we would deem it morally important to help people overcome any defect in their sense of taste that caused them to prefer vanilla — in the same way that we currently treat people for curable forms of blindness. It seems to me that the boundary between mere aesthetics and moral imperative — the difference between not liking Matisse and not liking the Golden Rule — is more a matter of there being higher stakes, and consequences that reach into the lives of others, than of there being distinct classes of facts regarding the nature of human experience.
It’s surely possible for a person to have values or desires that lead to unnecessary suffering (for himself as well as for others) — and that would seem to be an objectively bad situation. An interesting way to think about this is to imagine a world where we could change people’s values and desires.
Consider how we would view a situation in which all of us miraculously began to behave so as to maximize our collective well-being. Imagine that on the basis of remarkable breakthroughs in technology, economics, and politic skill, we create a genuine utopia on earth. Needless to say, this wouldn’t be boring, because we will have wisely avoided all the boring utopias. Rather, we will have created a global civilization of astonishing creativity, security, and happiness.
However, some people were not ready for this earthly paradise once it arrived. Some were psychopaths who, despite enjoying the general change in quality of life, were nevertheless eager to break into their neighbors’ homes and torture them from time to time. A few had preferences that were incompatible with the flourishing of whole societies: Try as he might, Kim Jong Il just couldn’t shake the feeling that his cognac didn’t taste as sweet without millions of people starving beyond his palace gates. Given our advances in science, however, we were able to alter preferences of this kind. In fact, we painlessly delivered a firmware update to everyone. Now the entirety of the species is fit to live in a global civilization that is as safe, and as fun, and as interesting, and as filled with love as it can be.
It seems to me that this scenario cuts through the worry that the concept of well-being might leave out something that is worth caring about: for if you care about something that is not compatible with a peak of human flourishing — given the requisite changes in your brain, you would recognize that you were wrong to care about this thing in the first place. Wrong in what sense? Wrong in the sense that you didn’t know what you were missing. This is the core of my argument: I am claiming that there must be frontiers of human well-being that await our discovery — and certain interests and preferences surely blind us to them.
Well, I guess it would be nice to be rid of murder, rape, theft, etc… But I, for one, would rather die a vanilla lover than live in some utopia where everyone prefers chocolate!