The discussion is interesting. Sam Harris recently and infamously proposed that, contra Hume, you can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, and that science can therefore provide reasonable guidance towards a moral life. Sean Carroll disagrees at length.
I’m afraid that so far I’m in the Carroll camp. I think Harris is following a provocative and potentially useful track, but I’m not convinced. I think he’s right in some of the examples he gives: science can trivially tell you that psychopaths and violent criminals and the pathologies produced by failed states in political and economic collapse are not good models on which to base a successful human society (although I also think that the desire for a successful society is not a scientific premise…it’s a kind of Darwinian criterion, because unsuccessful societies don’t survive). However, I don’t think Harris’s criterion — that we can use science to justify maximizing the well-being of individuals — is valid. We can’t. We can certainly use science to say how we can maximize well-being, once we define well-being…although even that might be a bit more slippery than he portrays it. Harris is smuggling in an unscientific prior in his category of well-being.
One good example Harris uses is the oppression of women and raging misogyny of the Taliban. Can we use science to determine whether that is a good strategy for human success? I think we can, but not in the way Harris is trying to do so: we could ask empirically, after the fact, whether the Taliban was successful in expanding, maintaining its population, and responding to its environment in a productive way. We cannot, though, say a priori that it is wrong because abusing and denigrating half the population is unconscionable and vile, because that is not a scientific foundation for the conclusion. It’s an emotional one; it’s also a rational one, given the premise that we should treat all people equitably…but that premise can’t claim scientific justification. That’s what Harris has to show!
That is different from saying is is an unjustified premise, though — I agree with Harris entirely that the oppression of women is an evil, a wrong, a violation of a social contract that all members of a society should share. I just don’t see a scientific reason for that — I see reasons of biological predisposition (we are empathic, social animals), of culture (this is a conclusion of Enlightenment history), and personal values, but not science. Science is an amoral judge: science could find that a slave culture of ant-like servility was a species optimum, or that a strong behavioral sexual dimorphism, where men and women had radically different statuses in society, was an excellent working solution. We bring in emotional and personal beliefs when we say that we’d rather not live in those kinds of cultures, and want to work towards building a just society.
And that’s OK. I think that deciding that my sisters and female friends and women all around the world ought to have just as good a chance to thrive as I do is justified given a desire to improve the well-being and happiness of all people. I am not endorsing moral relativism at all — we should work towards liberating everyone, and the Taliban are contemptible scum — I’m just not going to pretend that that goal is built on an entirely objective, scientific framework.
Carroll brings up another set of problems. Harris is building his arguments around a notion that we ought to maximize well-being; Caroll points out that “well-being” is an awfully fuzzy concept that means different things to different people, and that it isn’t clear that “well-being” isn’t necessarily a goal of morality. Harris does have an answer to those arguments, sort of.
Those who assumed that any emphasis on human “wellbeing” would lead us to enslave half of humanity, or harvest the organs of the bottom ten percent, or nuke the developing world, or nurture our children a continuous drip of heroin are, it seems to me, not really thinking about these issues seriously. It seems rather obvious that fairness, justice, compassion, and a general awareness of terrestrial reality have rather a lot to do with our creating a thriving global civilization–and, therefore, with the greater wellbeing of humanity. And, as I emphasized in my talk, there may be many different ways for individuals and communities to thrive–many peaks on the moral landscape–so if there is real diversity in how people can be deeply fulfilled in life, this diversity can be accounted for and honored in the context of science. As I said in my talk, the concept of “wellbeing,” like the concept of “health,” is truly open for revision and discovery. Just how happy is it possible for us to be, personally and collectively? What are the conditions–ranging from changes in the genome to changes in economic systems–that will produce such happiness? We simply do not know.
The phrase beginning “It seems rather obvious…” is an unfortunate give-away. Don’t tell me it’s obvious, tell me how you can derive your conclusion from the simple facts of the world. He also slips in a new goal: “creating a thriving global civilization.” I like that goal; I think that is an entirely reasonable objective for a member of a species to strive for, to see that their species achieves a stable, long-term strategy for survival. However, the idea that it should be achieved by promoting fairness, justice, compassion, etc., is not a scientific requirement. As Harris notes, there could be many different peaks in the moral landscape — what are the objective reasons for picking those properties as the best elements of a strategy? He doesn’t say.
I’m fine with setting up a set of desirable social goals — fairness, justice, compassion, and equality are just a start — and declaring that these will be the hallmark of our ideal society, and then using reason and science to work towards those objectives. I just don’t see a scientific reason for the premises, wonderful as they are and as strongly as they speak to me. I also don’t feel a need to label a desire as “scientific”.