Grounding Morality In Science

May 4, 2010

Ranger RickA turned me on to this fantastic blogpost over at DiscoverMagazine. I’m a bit bummed that I’m only just learning of it now. Sean Carroll, the author, undertakes to dismantle this turkey, by arguing that “morality is not part of science.” His first few posts are spot on, but since I’m entering this game late, I’m afraid I’ll have to start halfway through.You should really read the whole string. Here’s a snippet from Carroll’s most recent missive (to be read with exasperation):

What would it mean to have a science of morality? I think it would look have to look something like this:

“Human beings seek to maximize something we choose to call “well-being” (although it might be called “utility” or “happiness” or “flourishing” or something else). The amount of well-being in a single person is a function of what is happening in that person’s brain, or at least in their body as a whole. That function can in principle be empirically measured. The total amount of well-being is a function of what happens in all of the human brains in the world, which again can in principle be measured. The job of morality is to specify what that function is, measure it, and derive conditions in the world under which it is maximized.”

All this talk of maximizing functions isn’t meant to lampoon the project of grounding morality on science; it’s simply taking it seriously.

Carroll then goes on to say this:

The point is simply that the goal of morality should be to create certain conditions that are, in principle, directly measurable by empirical means. (If that’s not the point, it’s not science.)

I disagree with a fair bit of how Carroll characterizes morality, but I will agree that most of the project of ethical justification doesn’t admit of scientific analysis, and that Sam Harris — the aforementioned turkey who kicked it all off with his TED talk — is bumbling through the brambles of ethics with what can only be described as a cacophony of blind assertions. (For starters, I’m not at all sure that we don’t have ethical obligations toward rocks. Moreover, I’m not at all sure that even if we don’t have obligations to rocks, then the reason that we don’t have obligations to rocks is because rocks “don’t suffer” — which is only the very beginning of the noise that he clangs on about. As it happens, suffering is exactly what I was doing as I listened to Harris’s meaningless belching; but hey, he was wearing a nice purple shirt, which left me one dolor shy of Pain’s Royal Flush. Harris pulls some other crap shortly thereafter about the relationship between well-being and the brain, and he goes on ad barfium about it, but it’s way too stupid to analyze. Plus, it’d be unfair — like shooting undergrads in a barrel. What is it with these TED talks?)

I have to agree with Carroll’s observation that there are many more ways to slice the salami than to isolate a consequentalist predilection for human or animal welfare, and then, somehow, to draw conclusions based on empirical observations about welfare. Kudos to him for pushing this position. I just want to correct Carroll on one small point.

Here’s where he starts to go a little haywire:

It is true that the tools of science cannot be used to change the mind of a committed solipsist who believes they are a brain in a vat, manipulated by an evil demon; yet, those of us who accept the presuppositions of empirical science are able to make progress. But here we are concerned only with people who have agreed to buy into all the epistemic assumptions of reality-based science — they still disagree about morality. That’s the problem. If the project of deriving ought from is were realistic, disagreements about morality would be precisely analogous to disagreements about the state of the universe fourteen billion years ago.

That’s not, actually, the problem. One can also find numerous people who agree about the morality, but still disagree about the metaphysics and epistemology.

The problem, in part, is that metaphysics and ethics are fundamentally different enterprises, just as he says. One aims at truth, and the other at the right. There’s some substantial overlap, to be sure, so I guess on that count, Harris isn’t entirely off base, but it’s not clear (to me, at least) even that the project of uncovering the right, or isolating the right, is one that can be conceptualized as one that admits of the “true,” in the realist sense of the term. Harris seems to insist upon this, so he’s obviously wrong. Carroll doesn’t challenge this, but instead pushes hard on the is/ought distinction, thereby accepting the view that ethical claims have a truth value in the same way that truth claims have a truth value. Maybe claims about the right are just…right.

The other problem, and I think this is a big one for the scientific community, is that the nature of the truth engaged by the empirical sciences is by no means established.  That’s what this whole journal (among many, otherjournals) is dedicated to unearthing. It’s not like, after all, science has settled the question of truth. People still work on those questions too… and they’re not all scientific realists with a few crazy solipsists thrown in to screw things up. There is substantial disagreement among the parties.

I’m only just getting caught up in this whole sordid affair — and wouldn’t you know it, it happens to strike immediately during exam week; damn you, students! — so I have only very little time to address these concerns now. Still, you should also head over to Massimo Pigliucci’s blog and see what he has to say about Harris.

One comment

  1. […] ethics hacks must know, instinctively, that the end of the semester is upon those of us who are actually serious about ethics — at least, those of us who basically read and study […]

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