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Jan 24 2011
Can science answer ethical questions?

Sam Harris, someone who has written some things in the recent past that I really liked, is currently going around promoting his thesis that "science can answer ethical questions". See, for example, this video.

Perhaps I'm just not understanding him, but I cannot say I agree.

Being a humanist, I do not base my ethics on what I think some "rulebook" says, but rather on the consequences of the actions. I am sure Harris does as well and so we would agree up to there. We probably also agree that science and reason and observation can provide important information needed to make informed ethical decisions. If you are misinformed about the true consequences of your actions or the true situation in the world as you act, you may well do something unethical even when you think you are doing the right thing.

But, even if you've got all the information about what IS and what the outcome WILL BE if you choose to act in a certain way, there is still the question of which thing is then the RIGHT thing to do, and as far as I can see, that question is not answerable by "science".

In other words, I might agree with him that there are situations in which science/reason/logic is necessary to make an ethical choice, I do not think that alone is sufficient.

What do you think?


Jan 25 2011
Re: Can science answer ethical questions?

He didn't convience me, but he does present an issue that is worth thinking about.


Jul 23 2012
Re: Can science answer ethical questions?

I'm new to atheism and am trying to work out my own religion-free ethical principles. I'm interested in this discussion if I'm not too late!

Alex, if you base your ethics on consequences, then what more would you need to make ethical decisions than all of the information regarding the consequences of your action? It seems that you draw from something else to determine what is RIGHT, but what is that?

My understanding of Harris' moral landscape is that there are objective, measurable ways to identify peaks of well-being and avoid valleys of suffering. If we take for granted that striving for these peaks is ethical, it follows that we need only look at the data that describe peaks of well-being in order to determine what we ought to do.

Thanks for your thoughts!

Jul 23 2012
Re: Can science answer ethical questions?

Yes, I think the part that is missing from Harris' idea is how one determines what the GOAL is.

Certainly, he and I are in agreement that increasing happiness and freedom and decreasing suffering (for all people everywhere) are among our goals.

The difference is, I take it another step and ask: well WHY are these my goals? As far as I can tell, Harris merely takes it for granted. In essence, he considers it to be part of his DEFINITION of ethics.

But, I can clearly see examples of people who consider themselves to be ethical and yet apparently have different goals. Often, the differences have to do with WHO we are interested in making happy and keeping free. Harris and I agree that it would be unethical for us to harm some stranger on the other side of the world, to fail to avoid killing or maiming them if it was easily in our power not to do so. However, some people seem to only be concerned about the well-being of people who are like them (same skin color or same religion or same family or whatever...) Similarly, some people are concerned with the wellbeing of ANIMALS and others aren't. Each believes they are making an ethical decision, but I do not see how reason can determine whether one or the other viewpoint is correct.

In the end, those who claim ethics are objective remind me very much of those who think the same is true of quality in art and/or music. Some people seem convinced that there is some objective standard for determining artistic quality, but when I inquire further I always find the following remarkable phenomenon: the people who believe that taste in art and music is objective believe that they happen to like all good art and music and dislike all bad art and music, while they acknowledge that some other people for mysterious reasons may like something bad or dislike something good. To them, it almost seems like a coincidence that their taste coincides with objectivity. It is clear to me, however, that such people are just taking their own tastes and insisting that they are objectively correct. More than anything else, this proves to me that taste is subjective...and the same unfortunately appears to be true for ethics, at least at at the very basic level of determining what the underlying goals are.

I agree that this is not a cheerful fact. I wish that ethics were objective because it would make things easier. However, wanting something to be true does not make it true and I do not see a way around this one. Even if I believed in the existence of gods, I do not see why that would make ethics objective, frankly, because I could also disagree with them about it. (There are quite a few instances in the Bible in which I disagree with the Judeo-Christian God's ethical decisions, for example. I would not consider the killing of women and children by the armies of ancient Israel, Lot surrendering his daughters to the mob to protect his guests, rewarding a murderer with eternal bliss for accepting Jesus, or punishing an otherwise honorable person with eternal damnation for not accepting him to be ethical regardless of what God may think.)

So, where does that leave me? I think my desire to help people everywhere be happy and free (and that I'd like to extend this to animals as much as possible) comes from a combination of (a) the way I was raised (b) something that is inherent in the normal human brain, put there through natural selection because an entirely selfish creature does not survive as well as one who helps others in its community and (c) a recognition that it will be easier to achieve freedom and happiness for myself and those I love if I create a world in which such things are the norm for all people.

But what about when I encounter someone else who disagrees? For example, what about this horrible guy who killed people in Colorado? He may not feel that what he did was unethical, I don't know. In any case, I have no problem with using the law to put him behind bars for the rest of his life (and only have the slightest problem with the idea that he might face the death penalty). The fact that I do not think ethics are objective does not prevent me from trying to make the world a better place according to MY ethics, and I think that locking this guy up is an important step for that goal. But, it does change how I feel about it a bit, because I cannot self-righteously say to myself "I know I'm ethical and he isn't."

Hmmm....I've babbled about this quite a bit and am not sure if I've actually answered your question. What do you think?


Jul 23 2012
Re: Can science answer ethical questions?

I'm worried that my reply above was too "academic".

If you're trying to determine how to live your own life, I agree that you can and should take for granted that "peaks" are a goal and use reason and data to determine how to achieve those. There will still be tricky questions you have to address (e.g. what if a big peak of well-being is achieved for people in America at the cost of a small valley of suffering forced on innocent children in another country?) but the question of whether it is objective or subjective may not really matter in any practical way.


Jul 27 2012
Re: Can science answer ethical questions?

Hey Alex,

Thanks for the thoughtful response - a lot to digest! I agree with you that science wouldn't have much to say about subjective morality - how could there be objective facts about subjective principles? So I think what we disagree on is whether there are objective ethical principles - I think there are objective ethical principles that could potentially be largely if not entirely informed by objective facts, and you say there are only subjective ethics.

Toward the end, you write that your ethical sense comes from:

"(a) the way I was raised (b) something that is inherent in the normal human brain, put there through natural selection because an entirely selfish creature does not survive as well as one who helps others in its community and (c) a recognition that it will be easier to achieve freedom and happiness for myself and those I love if I create a world in which such things are the norm for all people."

(a) notwithstanding, aren't b and c good grounds for an objective morality? I don't mean objective in the sense that ethics lie somewhere outside of moral agents...that doesn't make much sense to me. There aren't morals without moral agents. What I mean though is that if ethics and morals do stem from "something inherent in the normal human brain," then all humans everywhere would share the same inherent ethical sensibility. Despite all the variation in the world between individual laws that some cultures find appalling and others totally acceptable, I think this shared sensibility is a desire to be happy or to have/pursue well-being. I like Sam Harris' analogy to health in this case, though I admit I'm not sure how rigorous this analogy is. He reminds us that we don't really have an "absolute" definition or standard of physical health, but we don't doubt that it is good to be without disease and to be mobile, capable, etc etc. We need not respect the views of someone that says it is better to have liver cancer than to not have liver cancer. We take it for granted that it is good to be more physically healthy than not, and I think this comes from a long, long history of natural selection working on the entire human population. So too for ethical principles, I think. They're harder to nail down to be sure, but I think there can be objective statements made. For example, destroying the lives of other people is objectively harmful - even if the destroyer doesn't care or thinks he's serving a higher purpose, we can appeal to the objective facts of human experience, like the pain and anguish of being destroyed or having a loved one taken away to demonstrate that it is bad.

I know what you mean about the trickiness of distinguishing between two different peaks. I'm currently trying to reduce the amount of meat I consume while I figure out ways to get enough protein. This is a luxury that I can afford, but I wouldn't tell a parent who is struggling to feed his or her kids that she's not allowed to buy animal meat to feed her children. Sam Harris addresses this too, and I think it's a good starting point - we are increasingly able to figure out various degrees of conscious experience. Humans of course run the risk of being anthropocentric when identifying consciousness, but I do think that it is conceivable that we could say something like, "chickens feel less misery than pigs, but both feel less misery than a starving child, so it is preferable to kill a chicken than a pig but better to feed a child than to spare either animal." I think group exclusivity might be able to work the same way - we can objectively look at the functions that exclusivity served in our evolution and determine whether our evolutionary intuitions are better at relieving human suffering and pursuing human well-being than rational alternatives. There would be no reason to hold one group on a higher pedestal than another group. I think you could in some sense determine whether the sublime happiness provided by Apple products is worth the drudgery and suicidal tendencies provided by their manufacturing. You could also measure the misery caused to all of the conscious creatures in a forest and determine whether the sheer joy that humans will experience having the opportunity to park in a parking lot on that same plot of land would outweigh the consequences.

This is utilitarianism at it's core, but I do think that it can be far more objective than we might initially think. I acknowledge that our current capacities for measuring these sorts of facts are prohibitively limited, but I think that as we look to the future, we might find it a plausible basis for objective ethical principles.

To wrap up, I'm curious what you meant when you said that your desire to help people everywhere be happy and free came from a combination of how you grew up and your evolutionary upbringing. If I missed what you were trying to say, let me know!

Jul 29 2012
Re: Can science answer ethical questions?

I think we largely understand each other and will just end up repeating ourselves if we go on much further, but let me just try raising a few points, answering a few questions and clarifying to make sure.

Your statements "aren't b and c good grounds for an objective morality?" and "For example, destroying the lives of other people is objectively harmful" seem to be ignoring exactly the sort of points of disagreement that I'm thinking of. Even with b and c and the idea that "destroying lives is harmful" there is lots of room for disagreement. Let me give you three examples.

* What about the question of capital punishment. There are those who would insist that capital punishment is unethical, and others who would argue exactly the opposite. I do not think it is merely a question of us not having enough information. Even in a case where the person's guilt is not in question (such as the recent atrocity in Colorado) and even given convincing data to show that capital punishment does not really deter future murderers, there are those who insist that killing the murderer is the only ETHICAL thing to do.

* Another example concerns animal welfare, which you expressed in your recent post. There are those people who honestly believe that there is absolutely no ethical requirement that people must worry about the happiness or well-being of animals (only humans, who they seem to think are not animals). It is not a question of whether animals suffer, as far as I can tell, but rather the question of whether their suffering is of ethical concern to humans.

* Finally, my third example brings into question the whole idea that "happiness" is the only thing that one needs to consider. Other issues include "freedom", and these often are in conflict. An obvious example is the question of whether it is ethical to tax the wealthy for the benefit of the poor. From the point of view of happiness, this certainly seems ethical since money can be taken from the wealthy without seriously jeopardizing their well-being which would have a great impact on the lives of the poor.. To many libertarians, however, the right of an individual to use his own possessions as he chooses TRUMPS the happiness argument, and I think they really do believe it is UNethical (essentially THEFT) for the government to take their money by force for this purpose.

In my view, these are instances of honest differences of opinion about something that is subjective. It seems to be your claim (and Harris' of course) that in such differences of opinion one of the views is right and the other is objectively wrong, but I fail to see the evidence to support that claim. You could certainly insist that those who disagree with your are objectively wrong, but they can argue the same about your view.

I'm not sure what you mean by "evolutionary upbringing". Perhaps you have misunderstood me. I'm talking about natural selection, evolution in the Darwinian sense. What I mean is that our brains have built into them a desire to help others perceived as being "like us". This exists, presumably, because there is a survival advantage to it. Speaking qualitatively and hypothetically, suppose there were two closely related species of bird living on an island. The only difference between the two is that one of them is a completely selfish species, in which each individual acts only in its own personal interest, and the other does things that are altruistic (benefit others of the same species, such as attacking a predator to protect one of their own, sharing food when it is scarce, etc.) If there is an evolutionary advantage to one of these two modes of being then in the long run that species will survive better and we will see more of that sort of behavior. Then, the fact that we DO see altruistic behavior suggests that there is an evolutionary advantage to doing so. (I often see birds acting altruistically by attacking the hawk that lives behind my house so that others can escape, for example.) Also, being a mathematician, I would like to point out that there is also strong QUANTITATIVE evidence for this hypothesis. J.B.S. Haldane investigated the question of how much effort a creature would put into helping another creature as a function of how much of their genome was the same. For example, you share a higher percentage of your genes with a relative than with a stranger on the other side of the planet, and even less with an ant. As it turns out, if you assume the "selfish gene" hypothesis, that the reason you risk your well-being to benefit another is merely a reflection of the genetic goal of reproducing itself as many times as possible, you end up with an "altruism curve" that is actually very close to what we see in the real world. In other words, this would explain why people are more likely to help others of the same "race" and why they express only a tiny amount of concern for ants.

As for "upbringing", I guess I just mean that my parents taught me to have concern for others. Oh, here's another example for the subjectivity of ethics! I just remembered that there was a boy who used to threaten to beat me up on the school bus in 3rd grade. My parents called his dad. I guess they expected his dad to tell him to stop. Instead, his dad (who was a police officer, by the way), told me to "man up" and either beat up his son or get beat up myself...that was HIS ethical perspective on it. But, the point is, I learned from my parents that I should not beat up some other kid, even if I could, and he learned from HIS dad that he should beat up any wimp he could. See what I mean?

If we're going to continue this conversation further, I might like to do so in person (or at least on the phone). Any chance we could meet at an upcoming SHL event to talk about it?



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