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Toward a Science of Morality – Sam Harris

May 9

I did my best to abridge the essay.  I highly suggest reading the whole article, it is a worth while read.  But the selected quotes sum up what I believe are Sam’s main points.

Full Article: Toward a Science of Morality

Over the past couple of months, I seem to have conducted a public experiment in the manufacture of philosophical and scientific ideas. In February, I spoke at the 2010 TED conference, where I briefly argued that morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science.

If nothing else, the response to my TED talk proves that many smart people believe that something in the last few centuries of intellectual progress prevents us from making cross-cultural moral judgments — or moral judgments at all. Thousands of highly educated men and women have now written to inform me that morality is a myth, that statements about human values are without truth conditions and, therefore, nonsensical, and that concepts like “well-being” and “misery” are so poorly defined, or so susceptible to personal whim and cultural influence, that it is impossible to know anything about them.

Many people believe that the problem with talking about moral truth, or with asserting that there is a necessary connection between morality and well-being, is that concepts like “morality” and “well-being” must be defined with reference to specific goals and other criteria — and nothing prevents people from disagreeing about these definitions. I might claim that morality is really about maximizing well-being and that well-being entails a wide range of cognitive/emotional virtues and wholesome pleasures, but someone else will be free to say that morality depends upon worshipping the gods of the Aztecs and that well-being entails always having a terrified person locked in one’s basement, waiting to be sacrificed.

Of course, goals and conceptual definitions matter. But this holds for all phenomena and for every method we use to study them. My father, for instance, has been dead for 25 years. What do I mean by “dead”? Do I mean “dead” with reference to specific goals? Well, if you must, yes — goals like respiration, energy metabolism, responsiveness to stimuli, etc. The definition of “life” remains, to this day, difficult to pin down. Does this mean we can’t study life scientifically? No.  The science of biology thrives despite such ambiguities. The concept of “health” is looser still: it, too, must be defined with reference to specific goals — not suffering chronic pain, not always vomiting, etc. — and these goals are continually changing. Our notion of “health” may one day be defined by goals that we cannot currently entertain with a straight face (like the goal of spontaneously regenerating a lost limb). Does this mean we can’t study health scientifically?

Imagine that we had a machine that could produce any possible brain state (this would be the ultimate virtual reality device, more or less like the Matrix). This machine would allow every human being to sample all available mental states (some would not be available without changing a person’s brain, however). I think we can ignore most of the philosophical and scientific wrinkles here and simply stipulate that it is possible, or even likely, that given an infinite amount of time and perfect recall, we would agree about a range of brain states that qualify as good (as in, “Wow, that was so great, I can’t imagine anything better”) and bad (as in, “I’d rather die than experience that again.”) There might be controversy over specific states — after all, some people do like Marmite — but being members of the same species with very similar brains, we are likely to converge to remarkable degree. I might find that brain state X242358B is my absolute favorite, and Carroll [Sam Harris’s debater] might prefer X979793L, but the fear that we will radically diverge in our judgments about what constitutes well-being seems pretty far-fetched. The possibility that my hell will be someone else’s heaven, and vice versa, seems hardly worth considering. And yet, whatever divergence did occur must also depend on facts about the brains in question.

Even if there were ten thousand different ways for groups of human beings to maximally thrive (all trade-offs and personal idiosyncrasies considered), there will be many ways for them not to thrive — and the difference between luxuriating on a peak of the moral landscape and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood.

[…] the consequences of moral relativism have been disastrous. And science’s failure to address the most important questions in human life has made it seem like little more than an incubator for technology. It has also given faith-based religion — that great engine of ignorance and bigotry — a nearly uncontested claim to being the only source of moral wisdom. This has been bad for everyone. What is more, it has been unnecessary — because we can speak about the well-being of conscious creatures rationally, and in the context of science. I think it is time we tried.

Full Article: Toward a Science of Morality

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