Friday, November 12, 2010

Casting Call

I couldn't bring myself to use the image of Tom and Spike
included in this unsettling gallery.
If Sam Harris is moral realism's bulldog, then Jonathan Haidt is Tom the cat in the episode featured on page 87 of The Moral Landscape:
Haidt asks us to ponder mysteries of the following sort:
[I]f morality is about how we treat each other, then why did so many ancient texts devote so much space to rules about menstruation, who can eat what, and who can have sex with whom? [link]
Interesting question. Are these the same ancient texts that view slavery as morally unproblematic? ... Or, following Haidt's logic, why not ask, "if physics is just a system of laws that explains the structure of the universe in terms of mass and energy, why do so many ancient texts devote so much space to immaterial influences and miraculous acts of God?" Why indeed.

... A majority of Americans believe that the Bible provides an accurate account of the ancient world. Many millions of Americans also believe that a principal cause of cancer is "repressed anger." Happily, we do not allow these opinions to anchor us when it comes time to have serious discussions about history and oncology. It seems abundantly clear that many people are simply wrong about morality -- just as many people are wrong about physics, biology, history, and everything else worth understanding.
It's a nice bite out of Haidt's claim, such as it is, but it's not quite a kill. Moral questions may be in principle amenable to scientific investigation (in the broadest, most cross-disciplinary sense), but this only implies that somewhere, in some corner of structured inquiry, there lurks an answer.

Many of Peter Singer's conclusions about animal welfare, which begin by placing a high moral priority on consciousness and suffering, can be seen as examples of practical successes in science-grounded morals. If Singer and Harris are right, it follows that people are simply wrong to blithely accept the eating of animals, as wrong as they would be if they denied plate tectonics or evolution. At the same time, this is a free society, and this extends rather fundamentally to questions of food intake.

If all questions of value reduce to science, and if science is not a democracy, then what follows for politics and personal autonomy seems obvious. If they are considerably more restricted than we presently take them to be, then that's the sober fact of the matter, but it's not a happy-sounding conclusion.


Paul Sunstone said...

What a well written and informative post! You are quite obviously a bitter disappointment to the Right Wing's low expectations for liberal intellectuals, Dale. Just sayin'.

Does Harris think that promoting human well-being is objectively our duty?

Dale said...

Paul, thanks! Yes, Harris classifies the well-being of conscious beings as an objective good. He discusses what this means and doesn't mean at some length -- e.g., a fact can be objective even if you can still find people who will dispute it. I think that's what he was getting at in his mention of oncology and history in the passage I quoted in this post -- people have wacky ideas about the causes of cancer and the state of the Middle East in Biblical times, but there are still demonstrably right and wrong answers on those questions, and the wacky ideas about them, however popular, aren't on equal footing with the findings of the most rigorous inquiry.

Basically, for Harris, the denial that the well-being of conscious beings is the highest moral concern is akin to the denial that Abe Lincoln was assassinated or the denial that men walked on the moon in 1969.

I am not convinced these are all of a piece. I agree with his starting premise, but it's not clear to me that it's a fact of the world in the way that "grass exists" is a fact of the world.

I say it's good enough to call it what it sounds like: a starting moral postulate -- a straight up assertion of value -- and a defensible one, and one that sounds far more plausible and promising than anything else put forward.

Paul Sunstone said...

I think we are in agreement here, Dale. The starting premise -- the well being of conscious beings -- is defensible, but not a fact like the grass is green.

But it seems that once one grants the starting premise much else might follow by necessity.

That is, given just one, or a tiny group, of premises, you could derive a lot of principles of action or morals.

I'm just saying Harris picked a very good first premise here. It not only seems highly defensible, but it looks like you would not run out of roadway with it anytime soon.

Laura said...

Nice post and responses. I started to respond here, but it got too long, so I blogged it. I do think I agree with Harris, though. Ultimately, if the well being of conscious beings is our objective, we are moving in the direction of survival; if not, annihilation.

But I'll blather on at length elsewhere.

Sean G said...

I think using science to investigate morality can be a tricky concept, as we have to rely on only the most current scientific advances to make our guidelines. For instance, in 1500 would science have even considered the feelings of an animal? I doubt it was even a possibility. If so, I'm sure there's a year that could be inserted to make that statement accurate. Who knows whether in 2500 AD what we will understand about the planet, and how it will affect our moral compass?

I'm not disputing the idea that care for animals should be paramount. I think that is appropriate (although I do eat meat) but I just wonder how the view would change with science. Of course, science does provide a better guideline for morality than a centuries old book, especially one that has been edited and modified over the years (yet still contains numerous contradictions).

Dale said...

Sean, I think Harris would say that just as our current scientific understandings are subject to change over time, so too will our scientific ideas about morality change over time.

Consider science-based medicine. Ideas, hypotheses, methods, etc., come and go as the research evolves.

Even the details of the goals shift over time -- in the 1930s, most doctors would have shrugged at cigarette smoking -- but the larger goal, human health, remains a clear enough target at which to aim the larger research program.

It's not 'everything goes' just because some of the details are subject to modification and evolution.