10 November 2013

Toward a science of morality?

I listened with great interest during the recent exchange between Lawrence Krauss, Dan Dennett, and Massimo Pigliucci, particularly the section in which they discussed the increasingly popular thesis (at least among popular gnu atheists) that morality can be a science – that it has objectively right and wrong answers that can at least in principle be answered by empirical data.

I capped this off with a read of Richard Carrier's take on it*, as well as Pigliucci's responses to Carrier over at Rationally Thinking. It's likely that none of these conversations would be occurring without Sam Harris' controversial book The Moral Landscape. I've always been intrigued by Harris' ideas, but being a bit of a novice myself on the whole meta-ethics thing, I can only really take what seems the most sensible to me. For the most part, I've agreed with folks like Harris, Carrier, and Michael Shermer, and I confess that I've been a bit dismissive toward people like Piglucci; I often felt they didn't quite grasp the argument. But I've picked up on some nuances in the discussion that I think pose challenging questions. I don't pretend to have the answers, but I can at least illustrate why I'm leaning in the direction that I am.

The big question up for debate is whether moral questions are scientific questions. If they are, then questions like this...
  • In a crisis that causes a hospital to overflow with patients, how should patients be prioritized, and how many resources ought to be devoted to each person?
  • Is it right for me to pursue my career to ensure greater financial stability for my family, but in doing so sacrifice the amount of time I will be able to spend with them?
  • Is collateral damage justified in war, and to what extent?
 .... all have objectively correct answers that can be answered empirically.

I'm inclined to part ways with Carrier, Harris and Shermer and side with Pigliucci in that while I think moral dilemmas must by informed by science, it's misguided to think that moral reasoning is itself a science. That's because of a simple problem which Pigliucci highlights in his response to Carrier:
The reason all of this is relevant is because I agree with Carrier when he says — as part of his argument about why science answers moral questions — that “all imperatives (all ‘ought’ statements) are hypothetical imperatives.” But there are still differences between hypotheticals, so just because one can make a parallel between a moral imperative (if you want to maximize human flourishing then these actions are “right”) and an empirical imperative (if you want to grow your crops then you need this kind of soil) it doesn’t follow that ethics is a branch of science.
The main reason, as I see it, why ethics cannot be a science is that while I acknowledge that moral values exist (as abstractions, at least), objective moral truths do not exist independently of the concern of conscious creatures. So while one can draw a perfectly sensible analogy like the old "surgeon" one (which I am paraphrasing) repeated by both Harris and Carrier – which simply states that a surgeon concerned with maximizing the well-being of their patients ought to sterilize their equipment – it doesn't follow that we should assume that the surgeon ought to be concerned with the well-being of their patients. And I'm not raising that objection because of the possibility that the surgeon in question is a Nazi doctor or some such thought experiment – I think Harris pretty well tackled those type of objections in his book. Rather, I'm raising that objection because there is no empirically discoverable ought in nature. It's not a part of our external reality. Moral proscriptions, or 'how we ought to behave', only arise from the interrelated concerns of conscious creatures living in cooperative social hierarchies in which the moral behavior is seen as an end to some other goal.

Harris himself famously describes this goal as the "well-being of conscious creatures". He views that as intrinsic to the very definition of morality. I think he's right. Carrier by contrast describes the goal as maximal self-satisfaction. Both maintain that these (well-being and self-satisfaction) are empirically knowable facts about human beings. And I think that while in practice quantifying self-satisfaction or well-being is probably a pipe, in principle it's true that they are empirical facts. Carrier goes on to argue that desire for self-satisfaction is also an empirical fact of conscious minds. So by the moral realist account of these gentleman, we can come up with this sort of empirical chain of events:
  • Humans desire satisfaction and well-being, which can at least in principle be quantified
  • Humans live in cooperative social hierarchies in which their own needs and interests intersect with those of others [that's my own]
  • There are objectively correct ways to best maximize satisfaction and well-being to the benefit of all
Now, to the degree that these gentleman would say that moral reasoning must be informed by science, I'm totally on board. But I still don't think these kinds of ideas succeed in establishing morality itself as a science, it is simply not a fact of science that we ought to value satisfaction, well-being, or even our mere survival. There are no oughts in nature – we're just meatbags on a rock in space whose existence is but an imperceptible blip on the cosmic scale. And while our common humanity ensures a degree of commonality on how we define those concepts, there will still be variance and outright statistical outliers. So being able to quantify well-being or self-satisfaction does not ensure any sort of universal acceptance of the terms; we could just as well find that humans vary great in terms of what satisfies them or what they envision as well-being.

So I don't think that the moral realists have achieved their goal of establishing morality as a science. But so the hell what? Frankly, I don't really understand why there seems to be such a desire to do so; I think moral reason functions just fine without being scientific in nature, and even if it were truly a science, do we really think such data would help us resolve questions like the three above in any real-life circumstance? Part of the dilemma is that even if we could define satisfaction and well-being quantitatively, we have to know the possible consequences of our actions to make moral decisions. That's what moral reasoning is: weighing the consequences of various scenarios and choosing the one we feel best suits our goals. But we mortals can't actually know which of the possible consequences will be the case, so we cannot predict which moral actions actually would maximize satisfaction or well-being.

Fortunately, I don't think there's any need for morality to be a science. That's because moral values aren't rigid ideals of unimpeachable behavior, but guidelines we use to facilitate our lives as self-interested, empathetic creatures living in a cooperative social hierarchy. We recognize that if we want others to respect our own needs and interests, we must in turn respect their needs and interests. These guidelines can and do change as our cultures evolve, precisely because they are not objective, absolute truths but shared values that facilitate our cooperative, interdependent existence.


*I just have to say, after reading Carrier's essay and his replies to critics and skeptics, that not since the incorrigible David Marshall have I encountered someone so incessantly patronizing and antagonistic towards their interlocutors while displaying such an appalling degree of egomaniacal grandstanding. It's disappointing that someone who actually does have some interesting things to say on the subject is such a petulant dickwad. This is not the first time I've seen such behavior from Carrier, and indeed perusing his blog reveals his childish behavior to be the norm. Shame that someone right on many counts and otherwise perfectly intelligent is so utterly insufferable. Right or wrong, he has a lot to learn about charitable debate. 

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