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The Science of Right and Wrong

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It’s also important to see what Harris is not up to in The Moral Landscape. He is not attempting to provide an evolutionary account of the origins of human morality. Our moral sense may or may not reflect much about our evolutionary history as a species. The logic of natural selection might or might not, for example, account for the tendency of human beings to act altruistically to close genetic relatives, as many proponents of evolutionary psychology suggest. But a science of morality in Harris’s sense is possible in either case. Nor does Harris’s natural science of morality absurdly suggest that whatever is natural is good. Lots of things are both perfectly natural and perfectly awful (say, malaria). Finally, Harris is not merely claiming that science “can help us get what we want out of life.” Rather, he is claiming that science can help us to see “what we should do and should want.”

Harris acknowledges that, for many, the idea of scientists in the morality business is unsettling, if not downright creepy. Who can possibly find appealing the image of a sect of experts, attired in white lab coats, instructing us in what we “should do and should want”? Harris’s response is, in effect, to buck up. It’s true, he says, that the science of morality will likely yield a class of moral experts. Just as some people know more about quantum mechanics than others, why shouldn’t we expect some people to know more about morality than others? This, apparently, is another of those objective facts about the world that we must face up to. In any case, Harris seems untroubled by it.

3.

Although The Moral Landscape is provocative and parts of it, particularly the neurobiology, are intriguing, Harris’s three main claims seem to me dubious.

First, his reasons for finding the fact/value distinction illusory leave a bit to be desired. Harris’s use of neuroimaging studies here is far from compelling. While the data themselves are certainly interesting—indeed, Harris’s original scientific publications are fascinating—his interpretation of them in The Moral Landscape is extravagant. It seems odd to try to assess the relationship between two ideas or judgments by analyzing whether the same brain regions are active when each is represented in the human mind. Surely such an assessment requires one to analyze the ideas or judgments themselves. If the same brain regions are active when people mentally perform addition and multiplication, would Harris conclude that the addition/multiplication distinction is illusory?

And putting aside this worry, there’s a more prosaic one. Whole-brain neuroimaging studies have only limited sensitivity, as Harris acknowledges. So it seems a tad incautious to conclude that, because the same approximate regions of the brain light up when judging factual and ethical propositions, the purported divide between them is suspicious.2

Indeed Harris softens his language as he turns to the details of his empirical results:

If, from the point of view of the brain, believing “the sun is a star” is importantly similar to believing “cruelty is wrong,” how can we say that scientific and ethical judgments have nothing in common?

But of course no one ever said that factual and ethical judgments aren’t “similar” or have “nothing in common.” They’re obviously similar and have much in common. Both are judgments, both are believed by human minds and not by rocks, and so on. The relevant claim is that facts and values are not the same and that statements about facts cannot justify statements about values. It’s hard to see how Harris’s data address this issue.

Similarly, Harris’s attempt to blur the fact/value distinction by insisting that science results from valuing certain things (like evidence) seems confused. Science results from many things but that doesn’t diminish the difference between scientific facts and those things. Science, for example, results from the ability to manipulate the world. But are we to conclude that scientific facts are the same as the ability to manipulate the world? Something has gone wrong here. In any case, it’s odd to see Harris invest so much in the (apparently) postmodernist claim that science rests on values and therefore the fact/value distinction is illusory. If this were really true, it would lead in a number of eminently silly directions that Harris would be the first to denounce.

Harris’s second main claim—that the only intelligible morality involves the maximization of well-being—can certainly be challenged. His view of morality is a species of utilitarianism and plenty of people have raised plenty of questions about utilitarianism—for example, the late Bernard Williams in some of his most telling writings. And Harris doesn’t seem to take seriously the fact that different peoples at different times have had different visions of morality. When Trotsky said, “We Bolsheviks do not accept the bourgeois theory of ‘the sanctity of human life,’” was he endorsing Harris’s “beneficence, trust, creativity,” and “wholesome pleasures,” all enjoyed in a “prosperous civil society”?

But there’s a more important point. Harris’s view that morality concerns the maximization of well-being of conscious creatures doesn’t follow from science. What experiment or body of scientific theory yielded such a conclusion? Clearly, none. Harris’s view of the good is undeniably appealing but it has nothing whatever to do with science. It is, as he later concedes, a philosophical position. (Near the close of The Moral Landscape, Harris argues that we can’t always draw a sharp line between science and philosophy. But it’s unclear how this is supposed to help his case. If there’s no clear line between science and philosophy, why are we supposed to get so excited about a science of morality? After all, no one ever said there couldn’t be a philosophy of morality.)

Where, then, does actual science enter into Harris’s science of morality? This takes us to his third main claim and, unfortunately, the answer is somewhat unclear. Harris spends considerable time talking about neurobiology, particularly the functional neurobiology of belief. But throughout The Moral Landscape, he mostly enlists science in the cause of revealing how to enhance human well-being. He emphasizes, for example, that certain economic arrangements are objectively more conducive to human flourishing than are others, so presumably economics can help. He also provides an example of how the science of morality could deal with a particular problem, homelessness:

There are an estimated 90,000 people living on the streets of Los Angeles. Why are they homeless? How many of these people are mentally ill? How many are addicted to drugs or alcohol? How many have simply fallen through the cracks in our economy? Such questions have answers…. Are there policies we could adopt that would make it easy for every person in the United States to help alleviate the problem of homelessness in their own communities? Is there some brilliant idea that no one has thought of that would make people want to alleviate the problem of homelessness more than they want to watch television or play video games?…Such questions open onto a world of facts….

Indeed they do. But this vision of the role of science is wholly uncontroversial. Of course science can help us reach some end once we’ve decided what that end is. That’s why we have medicine, engineering, economics, and all the other applied sciences in the first place. But this has nothing to do with blurring the is/ought distinction or overcoming traditional qualms about a science of morality. If you’ve decided that the ultimate value is living a long life (“one ought to live as long as possible”), medical science can help (“you ought to exercise”). But medical science can’t show that the ultimate value is living a long life. Much of The Moral Landscape is an extended exercise in confusing these two senses of ought.3

Despite Harris’s bravado about “how science can determine human values,” The Moral Landscape delivers nothing of the kind.

4.

I suspect that part of the problem with The Moral Landscape is that Harris may mistake his target. It seems clear that what really angers and animates him is moral relativism, not those who question the possibility of a scientific morality. The Moral Landscape is filled with impassioned, and generally persuasive, denunciations of politically correct academics who espouse the relativity of morals. My favorite example:

I don’t think one has fully enjoyed the life of the mind until one has seen a celebrated scholar defend the “contextual” legitimacy of the burqa, or of female genital mutilation, a mere thirty seconds after announcing that moral relativism does nothing to diminish a person’s commitment to making the world a better place.

Unfortunately Harris tends, in his more polemical moments, to confuse matters and it’s easy to leave his book with the impression that those who reject a scientific morality flirt dangerously with moral relativism. But this needn’t be. One can be skeptical of a science of morality and abstain from relativism. Here’s the proof: religious people have no interest in scientific morality but no one’s ever accused them of moral relativism. Or, looking in a secular direction, some have suggested that moral truths have an a priori status, rather like mathematical truths. If so, morality would have no need of empirical justification; indeed morals would have a stronger claim to truth than would empirical facts. This is about as far from mushy moral relativism as one can get.

It’s also important to see that one can have doubts about Harris’s particular attempted scientific morality without closing the door entirely on some sort of naturalized ethics, one, that is, that’s tied to the world of physical and biological nature. I, for one, have no particular problem with the notion that our evolutionary history played some part in shaping our moral sense, though reason and culture play conspicuous parts too. We are animals, not angels, and it would be bizarre if natural selection had nothing whatever to do with the emergence of our moral intuitions. But we are also rational and culture-creating animals and it would be equally bizarre if these forces played no part in shaping our moral norms.4 The point is that it’s one thing to say that Harris fails to plausibly solve the is/ought problem, another to say that it can’t be solved.

In the end, it’s odd that one can share so many of Harris’s views and yet find his project largely unsuccessful. I certainly share his vision of the well-being of conscious creatures as a sensible end for ethics. And I agree that science can and should help us to attain this end. And I certainly agree that religion has no monopoly on morals. The problem—and it’s one that Harris never faces up to—is that one can agree with all these things and yet not think that morality should be “considered an undeveloped branch of science.”

  1. 2

    For a clear, though necessarily technical, presentation of Harris’s findings, see S. Harris, S.A. Sheth, and M.S. Cohen, “Functional Neuroimaging of Belief, Disbelief, and Uncertainty,” Annals of Neurology, Vol. 63 (2008), pp. 141–147. 

  2. 3

    The point was made with characteristic clarity by the late amateur mathematician and scientist Martin Gardner: “Descriptive ethics tells us only what is, not what ought to be. Ought here means the justification of an ultimate goal, not what should be done to reach an agreed-upon goal.” See The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999), p. 90. 

  3. 4

    For one attempt to navigate these difficult waters, see Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology (Oxford University Press, 1983). 

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