Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Questions About The Moral Landscape

I’m currently reading The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. I am greatly impressed by his reasoning and I am glad that someone is finally tackling the question of ethics and morality from a scientific perspective. Ethics, says Harris, should be seen as an "underdeveloped branch of science."

I’ve long felt that something was wrong with the typical liberal moral relativistic stance that says we can’t judge any other culture’s way of thinking as right or wrong. Although I couldn’t join them in their supposed neutrality, I often called myself I a moral relativist simply because I thought the only other option was to be a fundamentalist. I believe that nobody has the right to decide what’s right for you, but of course nobody has the right to inflict harm on others unjustly. However, I don’t need to fall into moral relativism in order to see that there are many paths that are morally acceptable.

In his new book, Harris defines the right moral path as one that increases human well-being and the wrong one as one that decreases it. So, a society that performs female circumcision or brainwashes children to become killers is obviously not on the right moral path. Well-being can be scientifically tested and discussed using logical means

This Moral Realism is such an elegant way of thinking because it doesn’t over simplify any act to its singular consequence (i.e. killing is wrong) and it doesn’t absolve anyone of thinking hard about his choices. Answers must be sought using all available knowledge about oneself and one’s surroundings. Like moral relativity, there is a lot of room for different ways of living – different peaks on the moral landscape, as Harris would call them, but there is also room for pointing out how some ways could be changed to make them better.
I continue to enjoy this book and hopefully I’ll write more when I’m done. For now, I see a few difficulties, which I will explain.

A lot of people will be hesitant to give science the authority to rule their morals because they would lose control of their decisions and values that they feel are instinctual and arrived at by carefully looking into their hearts. Pure science is cold, calculated and has no room for feeling. People will be afraid that science could tell them to live in such a way that does not conform or goes directly against their current firmly held values and ask them to do things that they just cannot, morrally, perform. How would you respond to this?
Another difficulty arises because science is, in this political and economic world, a commodity. It is often used and abused by special interests, ideologists, business and even religion to further their goals. To discover scientific answers takes a lot of money, and individuals do not have the money to do their own research or the expertise to distinguish good science from propaganda, judge the validity of conclusions or interpret findings for themselves. A real fear that must be acknowledged is the possibility that science could be used for manipulating people or a weapon for twisting reality and perception even more than it is today. It is doubtful that a majority of any population can become sophisticated enough to avoid manipulation. Even more dangerous, I think that highly educated people are actually more susceptible to grand ideas that sound good in theory but can have disastrous affects if applied in practice.

Lastly, I also pose a test to the theory. Suppose that moral realism attains its deserved stature and succeeds in producing a thriving, society but the society thrives to the point of exhausting resources. What if that society then decides that in order to continue to thrive and maximize well-being for most people, it must abandon peace and do horrible harm to a portion of the people? Are we then thrust back to the in-group, out-group battle? How would you approach such a situation?