Science and morality: a Science Friday discussion

November 7, 2010 • 3:57 am

Yesterday’s NPR Science Friday, moderated by Ira Flatow, has a really interesting 48-minute discussion, “Can science shape human values? And should it?”  The lineup has the heavy hitters Sam Harris, author of The Moral Landscape, physicist Lawrence Krauss, philosopher Simon Blackburn, and psychology macher Steven Pinker.  They’re all eloquent:  and if you’re not one who already knows a lot about the debate, this is radio programming of the highest order. There are also call-in questions.

A lot of issues with Harris’s book come up: how do we measure human “well being”?  Is that really the best criterion for morality? And what about those many, many cases for which we’re simply unable to determine which action promotes the greatest well being?

At 35:30, the discussants take up the question, “How can science and religion inform each other?”

27 thoughts on “Science and morality: a Science Friday discussion

  1. Utilitarianism, huh?

    Is that really the best criterion for morality?

    So I would probably listen to the show to understand why they conflate precept of ethics (of, say, utilitarianism) with moral actions. One doesn’t follow from the other, nor should it any more than we choose pets after local fitness instead of global cuteness (or whatever).

    “Well being” is a social goal, but as a criterion for morality it can’t possibly map one-to-one to moral actions. No ethics can of course, but it should at least try to be as good as possible.

    As ethics is usually a foundation for legal systems, and thus connected to justice systems, it would probably be better to use something like “equal rights” as ethics foundation – adaptable framing rules, not less flexible directing rules.

    But yes, moderated by “well being” sounds good, as pursuing “rights” will at times go against such social goals.

    Someone with more time on their hands may have to report on what the discussion was really about.

    1. On second thought, it can be the post that confuses ethics and morality. Would still have to listen though.

      1. I haven’t watched the video yet, but plan to watch it when I get home tonight.

        Also, I’m just stepping through the beginning of Sam’s book now. But there’s already something pertinent in there that might answer your implied question: Why they conflate precepts of ethics with moral actions?

        At the start of the book Sam points out that he uses the terms ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ interchangeably.

        He also provides an example paragraph where he frames his approach to morality/ethics without actually using either word directly. People may disagree with the argument that the paragraph presents, but the paragraph itself flows nicely, doesn’t feel strained, and makes its case clearly and intelligibly.

        Which is to say that Sam doesn’t intend to invest either word with particularly detailed or nuanced meaning. He only ever intends them in their most abstract, general sense, which seems to me to be: How people should act.

        I find that the amorphous nature of the terms ‘ethics’ and ‘morals’ make them really clumsy tools during any kind of argument that requires precision. Good for ethos/pathos, but crap for logos.

  2. I don’t know the answer to the question, “How can science and religion inform each other?” because I’m not one of the elite in either group.

    I only know that I have a message and I am claiming an epiphany and that I have tried for 15 years to communicate my findings within our American population. Please visit my webpage, my facebook page, or search with the new word I use: girasas to help me to tell others (who appear to me to be in need of telling) about my discovery of a new theory of evolution.

      1. Well, I couldn’t have done it without H.P. Blavatsky’s THE SECRET DOCTRINE and The Saint Germain Foundation “I AM” Temple classes added the second independent confirmation of the ideas found in theosophy.

    1. “How can science and religion inform each other?”

      Science has a fairly straightforward approach to epistemology: Do whatever it takes to not fool yourself, and remember that you are the easiest person to fool.

      This is incompatible with the standard religious approach to epistemology: Believe whatever it takes to get you through the day.

      These are incompatible.

      So science can come along and say: Hey, that thing you believe to get through the day? Guess what? That seems to be kind of correct/incorrect – here’s the facts.

      But religion doesn’t have much to offer to science:

      Religion: Hey, that whole size of the universe thing? Kinda makes me feel really small and insecure. Can’t you do something about that?
      Science: Facts are facts, and I’m busy. Get out of the way.
      Religion: Rude prick!
      Science: Quite. Now fuck off so I can get some actual work done.

      And that’s pretty much how it goes.

      1. Well, as a psychology student, people who experience conflicts in their lives would prefer advice on how to resolve the conflict. An explanation involving two kingdoms existing in one body: one ascending, one descending would go a long way towards giving them information on how to be fair to themselves and to that higher kingdom trying to live.

        Scientists who are true seekers attempting to add to what we know, might find it helpful to consult (on an inner basis) with someone more knowledgeable than human beings. While they are not being asked to give up their efforts to manipulate matter for discovery, they might enjoy at least hearing another point of view which they could then consider for their experimentation purposes.

    2. I do not wish to appear rude Brenda, but sadly what you write on your web page, while it may be heart felt, is new age nonsense. Meditation is a key to understanding ones self, not to understanding the material world. Most of the people who follow these pages are materialists in the sense that they – probably – believe that the material world is the only world.

      1. Jesus taught us about another kingdom living with us. I am only expanding on the knowledge that he offered the world and using modern age literature such as that found in theosophy and St. Germain Foundation to expand with.

  3. The comments on the program are depressing:

    “What was up with the guy that hated the Burka? I’d agree that if women are made to wear it, then it’s morally wrong. But there are enough examples of women who choose to wear it.” Grrrrrr…

    “I found this discussion to be terribly unfair. When discussing Theology, one should have a in-depth understanding in field.” GRRRRRR!

  4. “How can science and religion inform eachother?”

    What a damned stupid question. We may as well ask what Sasquatch can teach us about the Lock Ness Monster at dinner tonight.

    1. whoops … spelled ‘loch’ incorrectly. I blame the Scots for having such a strange language. Why can’t they just say “lake” like everybody else?

  5. Harris says we shouldn’t practice retributive justice for people on death row because they are not responsible for what they did. They could not have done otherwise, therefore punishing them is unjust. That is the argument. He then notes that this is actually true for everyone. Will Sam Harris be consistent and say that all forms of praise/blame, punishment/reward are wrong? After all, “it’s all basically a matter of brain tumors”.

    If that reasoning is to be applied only to “people on death row”, on what basis do we limit the application of such reasoning to them?

    And maybe I’m missing something but how does one invoke the concept of justice while simultaneously destroying the context in which it makes sense?

    Also, notice that Harris is saying retributive justice is wrong independent of any assessment of it’s impact on well-being. He is making an intuitive moral judgment. Retributive justice simply violates his notion of justice and it is therefore wrong. But then he seems to imply that it could be moral to practice it, if it promoted well-being. Of course, it could be enormously good for well-being, in which case what was wrong (injustice by Harris’ lights) would become right. This is interesting.

    Lastly, this kind of talk is especially repellent coming from the Ivory Tower. One suspects hypocrites could quickly be made of them. Have they lost a love one to an atrocious crime? Did they survive a concentration camp? Does Harris have the courage to be consistent and speak this way about what many people consider to be the greatest evil in modern history: Nazi Germany?

    My moral outrage neural module is moderately lit up.

    1. I don’t think SH is claiming to know what is the “best” action or moral resolution for every situation. He does give his opinions – with plausibility arguments – for some situations.

      His point is simply that “moral/value” questions have to be removed from the domain of religion/faith; they have to be discussed in the empirical domain of reason and science. Basically he is saying that “because a deity or religious text/authority told you” is not a reason to uphold a value system. That’s all.

      1. I agree with what you say here but I don’t see how it is relevant to what I said. I understand Harris’ general thesis. There are only a few things which he has said on this general topic that I have a problem with, and what he said at the end of that program was one of them.

    2. We already excuse people who have some obvious mental defects, at least if the judge or jury are convinced they won’t make a habit of killing other people. In general however, many convicted killers are jailed for some time ranging from a few months to the rest of their life. Some are even released only to go out into the community and kill again. What Sam Harris says is only of practical relevance to a minority of cases around the world. However, he seems to miss the point – executing such criminals is good for the community. Exempting all violent criminals is just crazy talk. Release Tim McVeigh? I don’t think so – that’s one time I was 100% behind authorities for killing a creep.

    3. Haven’t seen the arguments presented by Harris yet, so hard to comment specifically.

      That said, I do generally find Sam persuasive on this topic – so I feel like wading in a little bit.

      I’ll digress into a different topic for a bit – I’ll tie it back again to your post, I promise.

      In the question of the rights of the individual vs. the rights of the community, I’ve always – from a very young age – come down in favor of the rights of the individual.

      Because (the 13-year-old-me reasoned) if it is okay to take away the rights of an individual in favor of the community, then every individual is at significant risk of becoming a slave to the greater community. That’s bad for everyone in the community. Everyone in the community is the community. so something that’s bad for everyone can’t ever be good for the community!

      Therefore, the best thing for the community is to uphold the rights of the individual. That way everyone in the community has their rights upheld, and everyone is better off.

      With hindsight this may seem a bit simplistic and black-and-white. From my more seasoned perspective at the venerable age of 25 (ha!) I’m more willing to acknowledge the existence of genuinely snarly grey areas, and I’d now add a whole bunch of disclaimers about the appropriate use of force in the hands of law enforcement, etc, etc, etc.

      But I still think the general sentiment of 13-year-old me holds up pretty well, all things considered.

      So – if we take that lens and apply it to the case of a muderer on death row, we can add a new variable into the mix.

      It may be true that in the specific case of a specific murderer, the increase of well being to the group may justify the significant loss of well being to the murderer that would result from his execution.

      I don’t concede that this is true. But for the point of argument, lets assume it is.

      Even if it is true, we still have to consider the general cost to everyone in a society that a) practices capital punishment with b) a legal system that is not immune to error.

      This isn’t to say I come down hard against capital punishment. In general I’m opposed to it, but I remain open to persuasion on a case by case basis.

      The only point I’m trying to make is that the social fallout caused by the presence of a given policy needs to be considered – not just the specific applications of that policy.

      Other questions to consider are: How much more disincentive does capital punishment apply to its associated crimes when compared against lifetime imprisonment? Does the associated reduction in the crime-rate (if any) justify the costs of capital punishment?

      1. OK, so you’re talking about cost-benefit analyses of criminal justice system arrangements. That is, of course, perfectly fine to do and is interesting stuff but my concern is more philosophical, I guess. I have a problem with Harris’ reasoning. Maybe he can resolve the apparent inconsistencies but he doesn’t in The Moral Landscape. And I haven’t had a single person even acknowledge the logical issues that I have identified. I realize that these issues aren’t central to his thesis, but they distress me quite a bit.

        1. Hmm…

          Again – hard for me to say without having read the book myself. But at the same time, this calls to mind something a lot like when people say that Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene logically implies social Darwinism and denies the existence of altruism. They express similar shock and amazement that none of the people who enjoy and recommend the book seemed to have noticed it for the problem it is.

          I’ve read The Selfish Gene, so I can confidently state that in that particular case, the reason that those who enjoy and recommend the book know better. The Selfish Gene does not deny the existence of altruism. It actually contains several paragraphs explaining how organism-level altruism can arise from the selfish competition amongst genes.

          Unfortunately I haven’t completed The Moral Landscape yet – so I can’t be nearly so confident.

          That said, I’ve noticed that when it comes to questions of morality and ethics, people do tend to bring along a LOT of baggage and assumptions to the table. It causes them to read interpretations onto the text that the author never intended to put there.

          A common one is from people who assume that the only morality that can exist must be absolute. Therefore, any indication that we should adjust our moral code to fit a context, even a little bit, can be interpreted as the most extreme moral relativism or even nihilism.

          I’m not saying you’ve definitely done this. But at the same time, if you see what you think is a glaring omission of logic and no-one else seems to see it, could it actually be that your assumptions about morality and ethics could be skewing your interpretation in a different way?

          I’m not trying to be insulting here – ambiguity in language, particularly morality, is a genuinely thorny problem when it comes to these discussions. Intuitive morality and ethics have largely emotional backing behind them. It shouldn’t be surprising that the language we’ve developed for the purpose of moral discourse press our emotional buttons so easily and so hard.

          The reason I suspect this might be the case here is that you keep running back to the term ‘utilitarianism’. I remember Sam mentioning in the book that he is bound to ‘some form of utilitarianism’ or something similar – but something about the way you’re using the term seems to be a bit too fast and loose.

          I’m not saying you’re wrong – I haven’t finished the book. As I work my way through it, I’ll keep an eye out for the very stuff you’re describing, and if I find it too I’ll probably make similar comments of my own somewhere else.

          It’s just that something about your post above (#6) feels a bit off. The focus of the term ‘utilitarianism’ over the terms that Sam himself frequently uses sends up a red flag to me.

          Is it possible you’re reading into Sam’s position a moral view that you have already determined is repugnant?

          1. I haven’t used the term ‘utilitarianism’ once. You must be reading the post of someone else. Which makes me wonder whether your post is even intended for me. But supposing it is…

            But at the same time, if you see what you think is a glaring omission of logic and no-one else seems to see it, could it actually be that your assumptions about morality and ethics could be skewing your interpretation in a different way?

            Absolutely. It is the first thing I consider. And I should say, to only a handful of people have I related these particular thoughts to, and I consider among the people who don’t seem to see what I’m talking about, the three people who responded to my comment #6.

            But do you see what I’m talking about or don’t you? I think made it pretty clear in the first two paragraphs of my post. And you have listened to the Science Friday show right?

  6. I haven’t used the term ‘utilitarianism’ once. You must be reading the post of someone else. Which makes me wonder whether your post is even intended for me. But supposing it is…

    But at the same time, if you see what you think is a glaring omission of logic and no-one else seems to see it, could it actually be that your assumptions about morality and ethics could be skewing your interpretation in a different way?

    Absolutely. It is the first thing I consider. And I should say, to only a handful of people have I related these particular thoughts to, and I consider among the people who don’t seem to see what I’m talking about, the three people who responded to my comment #6.

    But do you see what I’m talking about or don’t you? I think made it pretty clear in the first two paragraphs of my post. And you have listened to the Science Friday show right?

    1. Fuck – you’re right, you didn’t.

      Damn. Got the comment thread all screwed up in my head. My apologies.

      Disregard my previous post. I was melding your posts and someone else’s posts together in my head and jumped to the entirely wrong conclusion.

      Very sorry – mea culpa.

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