Can Science Find the Truths of Morality?

Sam Harris thinks it can. In [this TED talk](http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/801), he argues that (1) science is tasked with tracking down truth, (2) there are such things as moral truths, so therefore (3) science can find moral truths. Given the way he frames “truth” (watch the video to see, as it’s both interesting and more complex than I want to summarize here), I accept (2) but tentatively reject (1), meaning I have to abandon (3).

Two problems. First, he takes a strictly utilitarian approach to morality. Morality is, for Harris, a question of human (and animal) suffering. Science can thus “answer” moral questions by scanning the brains of those involved, checking whether they are experiencing pleasure or pain, and guiding us to proceed accordingly. But this leaves a science of morals open to the same critiques that dog consequentialist ethics. This doesn’t mean Harris is outright wrong, or that science cannot address morality, but it does mean he can’t say “Science tells us to do X” without first showing why utilitarianism/consequentialism is more true than other forms of moral philosophy.

Second, he assumes that moral truths are the same sort of truth as science seeks. I’m not convinced they are. Science is a powerful tool, one that has immeasurably improved the lives of each and every one of us, accomplishing far more than religion has–or can ever hope to. But just as it would strike us as fishy to claim that science can tell us which art is beautiful (or even what art is), there may be something wrong with thinking that, because moral facts exist, and because science tracks down facts, science can track down moral facts. I am not rejecting Harris’s thesis–it may turn out in the end that he is right–but I don’t think science is as obvious an answer to moral conundrums as Harris asserts.

Does this mean we have no choice but to embrace religion as our authoritative guide to morality? No, not at all. There’s simply no reason why we need to operate exclusively within the science/religion binary. The faithful–and, it seems, Sam Harris–present us with a false dilemma: either science is the answer or religion is. But there are other ways of arriving at truth. Philosophy is one option. Intuition is another (though a problematic one).

Science is a method. A powerful one, yes, but not the only one. I fear Harris–who I respect greatly and who’s book, *The End of Faith*, is responsible for making me feel okay to come out as an atheist–is overextending science’s reach. He’s bought into the false dilemma of the faithful.

Science gives us many of life’s answers–but not all.

3 thoughts on “Can Science Find the Truths of Morality?

  1. A. Quibble: I don’t think you mean to reject “science is tasked with tracking down truth.” Likely, instead, that “science is tasked with tracking down ALL truth.”

    B. It strikes me science can only “tell” us what moral claims are true if moral claims express run-of-the-mill empirical propositions. There’s a group of metaethicists think moral claims do reduce to naturalistic ones.

    Example: Michael Smith (one of the “Canberra Rationalists”*) analyzes “A morally ought to do x” as “A’s fully rational self would advise A to do x,” and, in turn, analyzes “A’s fully rational self” as “A when he has all and only (practically relevant) true beliefs and no incoherencies in his desires.” For Smith, then, “A morally ought to do x” expresses that (M) if A had all and only (practically relevant) true beliefs and no incoherencies in his desires then A would advise himself to do x. (M) at least approximates a naturalistic, susceptible of scientific solution, proposition.

    I know Richard Boyd, Peter Railton and David O. Brink – the “Cornell realists”** – are also ethical naturalists, but I am less familiar with the details of their metaethics. Their approach MIGHT be to look at how we use ethical terms, and then pick out the (potentially quite complex, possibly disjunctive) naturalistic property that those things we label “good” have in common.

    Finally, though I’m even less familiar with this, some experimental philosophers argue that science, by indicating the different modules we use to make moral judgments, can adjudicate their reliability. For example: it seems that deontological judgments about the Trolley Problem are post-hoc rationalizations of emotional episodes, whereas consequentialist judgments are more “calculated.” Assuming the “calculating part of our brain” is a more reliable guide to truth than the part that rationalizes emotional responses (an assumption, once cashed out intelligibly, that is, presumably, testable), science confirms utilitarianism. (Maybe it’s the experimental philosophers’ work Harris has in mind when he accepts utilitarianism without argument.)

    In short, if ethical naturalism is true then Harris is right. But, as you point out, it is not at all clear that ethical naturalism is true. Other options include intuitionism and expressivism, both of which, imo, do a better job than Cornell realism accounting for the phenomenology of moral deliberation, as well as why we care about what is moral, and a better job than Canberra Rationalism accounting for the categoricity of moral judgments (that they purport to give EVERYONE the same, desire-independent, reasons for action).

    C. That said, even if, contra ethical naturalism, science can’t tell us which moral claims are true, it still has a role in moral reasoning. Most obviously, categorical moral propositions (which is the best we can arrive at using pure reflective equilibrium) only tell us that we should refrain from certain classes of activity. They don’t tell us whether this particular activity is a member of a suspect class. That is: the judgment “do not kill other persons” doesn’t indicate whether the thing in front of me is a person. Science (and metaphysics) have a roll to play in that determination. (It may also be that the experimental philosophers’ project I mentioned above does not adjudicate between all conflicting sets of intuitions; in that case, science reduces the stock of intuitions we have to wrestle with, but still leaves room for reflective equilibrium.)

    So called because (a) many who more or less agree with Smith’s approach (Graham Oppy and there’s another) are from Australia, (b) Smith’s approach is “rationalistic” in two senses: (i) he’s a reasons-internalist and (ii) he engages in conceptual analysis, and (c) Canberra is one of the first “rationally planned” cities.

    ** So called because a lot of them are at Cornell.

  2. A. Quibble: I don’t think you mean to reject “science is tasked with tracking down truth.” Likely, instead, that “science is tasked with tracking down ALL truth.”

    B. It strikes me science can only “tell” us what moral claims are true if moral claims express run-of-the-mill empirical propositions. There’s a group of metaethicists think moral claims do reduce to naturalistic ones.

    Example: Michael Smith (one of the “Canberra Rationalists”*) analyzes “A morally ought to do x” as “A’s fully rational self would advise A to do x,” and, in turn, analyzes “A’s fully rational self” as “A when he has all and only (practically relevant) true beliefs and no incoherencies in his desires.” For Smith, then, “A morally ought to do x” expresses that (M) if A had all and only (practically relevant) true beliefs and no incoherencies in his desires then A would advise himself to do x. (M) at least approximates a naturalistic, susceptible of scientific solution, proposition.

    I know Richard Boyd, Peter Railton and David O. Brink – the “Cornell realists”** – are also ethical naturalists, but I am less familiar with the details of their metaethics. Their approach MIGHT be to look at how we use ethical terms, and then pick out the (potentially quite complex, possibly disjunctive) naturalistic property that those things we label “good” have in common.

    Finally, though I’m even less familiar with this, some experimental philosophers argue that science, by indicating the different modules we use to make moral judgments, can adjudicate their reliability. For example: it seems that deontological judgments about the Trolley Problem are post-hoc rationalizations of emotional episodes, whereas consequentialist judgments are more “calculated.” Assuming the “calculating part of our brain” is a more reliable guide to truth than the part that rationalizes emotional responses (an assumption, once cashed out intelligibly, that is, presumably, testable), science confirms utilitarianism. (Maybe it’s the experimental philosophers’ work Harris has in mind when he accepts utilitarianism without argument.)

    In short, if ethical naturalism is true then Harris is right. But, as you point out, it is not at all clear that ethical naturalism is true. Other options include intuitionism and expressivism, both of which, imo, do a better job than Cornell realism accounting for the phenomenology of moral deliberation, as well as why we care about what is moral, and a better job than Canberra Rationalism accounting for the categoricity of moral judgments (that they purport to give EVERYONE the same, desire-independent, reasons for action).

    C. That said, even if, contra ethical naturalism, science can’t tell us which moral claims are true, it still has a role in moral reasoning. Most obviously, categorical moral propositions (which is the best we can arrive at using pure reflective equilibrium) only tell us that we should refrain from certain classes of activity. They don’t tell us whether this particular activity is a member of a suspect class. That is: the judgment “do not kill other persons” doesn’t indicate whether the thing in front of me is a person. Science (and metaphysics) have a roll to play in that determination. (It may also be that the experimental philosophers’ project I mentioned above does not adjudicate between all conflicting sets of intuitions; in that case, science reduces the stock of intuitions we have to wrestle with, but still leaves room for reflective equilibrium.)

    So called because (a) many who more or less agree with Smith’s approach (Graham Oppy and there’s another) are from Australia, (b) Smith’s approach is “rationalistic” in two senses: (i) he’s a reasons-internalist and (ii) he engages in conceptual analysis, and (c) Canberra is one of the first “rationally planned” cities.

    ** So called because a lot of them are at Cornell.

  3. A. Quibble: I don’t think you mean to reject “science is tasked with tracking down truth.” Likely, instead, that “science is tasked with tracking down ALL truth.”

    B. It strikes me science can only “tell” us what moral claims are true if moral claims express run-of-the-mill empirical propositions. There’s a group of metaethicists think moral claims do reduce to naturalistic ones.

    Example: Michael Smith (one of the “Canberra Rationalists”*) analyzes “A morally ought to do x” as “A’s fully rational self would advise A to do x,” and, in turn, analyzes “A’s fully rational self” as “A when he has all and only (practically relevant) true beliefs and no incoherencies in his desires.” For Smith, then, “A morally ought to do x” expresses that (M) if A had all and only (practically relevant) true beliefs and no incoherencies in his desires then A would advise himself to do x. (M) at least approximates a naturalistic, susceptible of scientific solution, proposition.

    I know Richard Boyd, Peter Railton and David O. Brink – the “Cornell realists”** – are also ethical naturalists, but I am less familiar with the details of their metaethics. Their approach MIGHT be to look at how we use ethical terms, and then pick out the (potentially quite complex, possibly disjunctive) naturalistic property that those things we label “good” have in common.

    Finally, though I’m even less familiar with this, some experimental philosophers argue that science, by indicating the different modules we use to make moral judgments, can adjudicate their reliability. For example: it seems that deontological judgments about the Trolley Problem are post-hoc rationalizations of emotional episodes, whereas consequentialist judgments are more “calculated.” Assuming the “calculating part of our brain” is a more reliable guide to truth than the part that rationalizes emotional responses (an assumption, once cashed out intelligibly, that is, presumably, testable), science confirms utilitarianism. (Maybe it’s the experimental philosophers’ work Harris has in mind when he accepts utilitarianism without argument.)

    In short, if ethical naturalism is true then Harris is right. But, as you point out, it is not at all clear that ethical naturalism is true. Other options include intuitionism and expressivism, both of which, imo, do a better job than Cornell realism accounting for the phenomenology of moral deliberation, as well as why we care about what is moral, and a better job than Canberra Rationalism accounting for the categoricity of moral judgments (that they purport to give EVERYONE the same, desire-independent, reasons for action).

    C. That said, even if, contra ethical naturalism, science can’t tell us which moral claims are true, it still has a role in moral reasoning. Most obviously, categorical moral propositions (which is the best we can arrive at using pure reflective equilibrium) only tell us that we should refrain from certain classes of activity. They don’t tell us whether this particular activity is a member of a suspect class. That is: the judgment “do not kill other persons” doesn’t indicate whether the thing in front of me is a person. Science (and metaphysics) have a roll to play in that determination. (It may also be that the experimental philosophers’ project I mentioned above does not adjudicate between all conflicting sets of intuitions; in that case, science reduces the stock of intuitions we have to wrestle with, but still leaves room for reflective equilibrium.)

    • So called because (a) many who more or less agree with Smith’s approach (Graham Oppy and there’s another) are from Australia, (b) Smith’s approach is “rationalistic” in two senses: (i) he’s a reasons-internalist and (ii) he engages in conceptual analysis, and (c) Canberra is one of the first “rationally planned” cities.

    ** So called because a lot of them are at Cornell.

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