Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

 Who Says Science has Nothing to Say about Morality?

Sam Harris has spent several years publicly criticising religion through his books 'The End of Faith' and 'Letter to a Christian Nation'.

Defenders of religion have generally just three counter arguments:-

  1. A specific religion is true
  2. Religion is a useful framework for morality
  3. Atheism is corrosive of morality

You shouldn't belief something merely based on its utility. You can't adopt beliefs like clothes based on comfort or utility.

Religionists claim that a universal sense of good and evil / right and wrong ie a universal moral framework is required for humanity not to loose its way. Sam shares that fear.

Morality must relate to issues of human and animal well-being. Some moral codes are worse than others eg misogyny and sadism of taliban morals in insisting that women dress in bags.

There are two quantities in this world, facts and values. These cannot, it is claimed, be explained in monistic terms - they are discrete entities. Nor can science, in principle, tell us about values eg how to raise children, what constitutes a good life. Once we agree what we value, science can help us get it but science can't tell us what we ought to value. Science sees a concatenation of causes, one event after another and there is 'no corner of the universe that announces certain events as good or bad, right or wrong' (8m 20s). We broadcast our preferences about right or wrong onto a reality that is intrinsically value free. These preferences have evolved from apish impulses modulated by culture eg sexual jealousy modulated by culture such as marriage. Religionists say its wrong to cheat on your spouse because Yahweh says so.

Split between facts and values is an illusion, argues Sam. He claims values are a certain type of fact, facts about the well-being of conscious creatures. Consciousness and well-being terms are introduced.

A universe without consciousness eg just rocks, would not have concept of good or evil.

Imagine a universe where everyone suffers maximally - the worst possible misery for everyone (WPME) is bad. Every other experience is better than WPME. There is continuum from WPME at one end. Experience of conscious creatures depends on the laws of nature. There will be right and wrong ways to move across this continuum. Sams' argument is that moral truth can be located in the context of science. Questions of right and wrong, good and evil, depend upon minds, depend on the possibility of experience. Minds are natural phenomena. Morality can be understood through science. The facts about well-being are genetics, neurobiology/biology, psychology, sociology and economics. The space of all possible experience is a moral landscape. The peaks are the most well-being of conscious creatures, the troughs are the most suffering - the moral landscape analogy. There are multiple peaks - many ways for humans to best thrive, to be sublimely happy.

The Taliban is an example of a society that is not one of the peaks of the moral landscape ie lifespan for women is 44yrs, literacy rate 12%. It is scientific to say that the Taliban are wrong about morality.

Critics say 'You can't get an ought from an is.' (David Hume) but surely you ought to avoid WPME!

According to Hume, one persons values can ONLY trump another persons values by seeking concensus. All opinions have equal value. Science is merely descriptive. Sam argues that things can be right or wrong independent of a persons values. You can't get an 'is' without embracing 'oughts'.

Well-being is compared to physical health. (18m) Health is not merely the product of culture or personal whim. A science of morality based on a concern for well-being would be on the same footing as the science of medicine based on a concern for health (23m).

Religions can't be best source of morality as written over 600 years ago who knew next to nothing. Didn't know anything about DNA, electricity, did not know why people die, no notion of slavery being problematic. Someday there will no such thing as Christian or Muslim morality. If Faith is ever right, it is only right by accident.

Questions with Richard Dawkins

Is your argument a kind of scientific utilitarianism? Sam says (35m) his argument is not simply consequentialism (cf Trolley problem) or utilitarianism.

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