Sam Harris has issued an essay challenge, calling for 1000-word pieces that try to refute the main thesis of his book The Moral Landscape, essentially the idea that morals are objective facts about human well-being. Here is my entry (with some bits similar to my previous posts on the topic).
“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, wrote Dobzhansky, and we can’t understand morality except as part of our biology, programmed into us by evolution to do a job. That job is to facilitate cooperation. Morality is a social glue that enables us to collaborate with our fellow humans and so benefit from a highly cooperative way of life.
Evolution had long programmed feelings and emotions into us (hunger, fear, disgust, love, satisfaction, pain, etc) so it adapted that mechanism to police our interactions. Thus we have notions of loyalty and comradeship, and treachery and ostracisation, of fairness and exploitation, of pride and shame, punishment and forgiveness.
Morals are opinions about how people should should treat each other; morality is our feelings and emotions about inter-human behaviour.
These feelings do not reflect any deeper and more objective reality about how we “should” behave or treat each other. Why would they? Evolution has no such concern; all that matters for evolution is whether someones moral feelings assist cooperation and enable them to leave more descendants. Even if there were such a thing as “objective” morals evolution would not care one hoot about them and thus they would bear no relation to how we feel, to our evolutionarily-programmed sense of morality.
The idea of an objective morality, what we “should” actually do, is a red-herring, an illusion programmed into us to make our moral sentiments seem more powerful and thus more effective. We know that religious believers tend to extrapolate “I want …” into “God wants …” and the illusion that your visceral disgust at a betrayal is not just your dislike but reflects a deeper violation of how things should be, is a similar extrapolation to enhance the effect.
What can science tell us about this? It can tell us what moral values we have, and why we have those moral values, and it can (in principle) tell us how to maximise our moral satisfaction and our well-being.
But science cannot tell us what our morals and values “should be” since that question makes no sense. A “should” phrase only has meaning referred to a stated goal: “in order to achieve X you should do Y” or “in order to please A you should do B”. The goal can be omitted if it is clearly implicit, but a “should” or “ought” statements without any attached goal are literally meaningless.
Thus science cannot tell you what you “should do” morally, but science can (in principle) tell you what you should do in order to maximise your well-being and happiness, or what you should do in order to achieve any other specified goal.
Sam Harris states his core thesis as:
Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds [...] Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena [...].
Agreed so far. He continues:
Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science … some people and cultures will be right … and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important …
This is a non sequitur. Yes there are true or false statements of the form “Greg considers X to be moral” or “most people consider Y to be immoral”, and yes there are true or false statements of the form “Society A’s moral values lead to more human well-being than Society B’s moral values”, but it doesn’t mean that there are true statements of the form “doing Z is morally right” in an abstract way independent of a person doing that opining.
Of course one can, as Sam Harris does, simply declare by fiat that maximising human well-being is what morals are “about”. Since one can make objectively true statements about what leads to well-being it would then follow that one can make objectively true statements about what is morally right.
Why is this a false move? First, and sufficient in itself, it is simply not justified. Yes, humans desire well-being and thus what leads to well-being will usually, in their opinion, be the moral course. But that attempt at justification would require that human feelings and desires (and not well-being) be the actual ground of morality.
Second, since our moral sentiments are evolutionary products, there is no reason to suppose that they are “about” human well-being since evolution “cares” about leaving descendants, not about human well-being.
Third, if “well-being” were the ground of morals then an action one did for ones own benefit would be as moral as one for someone else’s benefit, which conflicts with our intuitions.
Fourth, an evolutionary origin of morals explains that they are about interactions within the gene-pool of our species. Grounding morals in “well-being” gives no rationale for selecting particular sentient beings. Dogs?, dolphins?, chickens? Do they all count equally?
Fifth, an evolutionary origin of morals explains why we care more for our close family then for distant strangers. An “absolute” morality based on human well-being contains no such preference, and is alien to humanity.
Sixth, to base “objective” moral truths on well-being requires an ability to objectively quantify well-being, which is problematic. Subjectively quantifying it is insufficient and again results in a grounding in human feeling and opinion.
Seventh, you also need to aggregate that well-being across people (and other species?). Is it moral to advance someones well-being by eight units if it harms five people by one unit each? There is no objective way of doing that aggregation.
Hankering after objective morality is a red herring that gains you nothing but problems. Accepting that morals are subjective, and about human feelings and desires, works much better. You lose little: you still have science able to tell you what will maximise human well-being, and you’re still able to advocate that we aim for that goal; you lose only the claim to the backing of a god or other “absolute” authority.
For Part 2 of my response to Sam Harris click here