Thursday, September 9, 2010

Sam Harris on Morality

I find Sam Harris to be a very appealing thinker. He is straightforward and intellectually honest and captures the values that I hold dear. Here is an excellent example in a 20 minute talk arguing that the field of morality should be treated as a area for scientific exploration. I fully agree. The following is from

I find this bit the most impressive. He is responding to those who claim that morality is not yet ready for a scientific approach:
By analogy, consider economics: Is economics a science yet? Apparently not, judging from the last few years. Maybe economics will never get better than it is now. Perhaps we'll be surprised every decade or so by something terrible, and we'll be forced to concede that we're blinded by the complexity of our situation. But to say that it is difficult or impossible to answer certain problems in practice does not even slightly suggest that there are no right and wrong answers to these problems in principle.

The complexity of economics would never tempt us to say that there are no right and wrong ways to design economic systems, or to respond to financial crises. Nobody will ever say that it's a form of bigotry to criticize another country's response to a banking failure. Just imagine how terrifying it would be if the smartest people around all more or less agreed that we had to be nonjudgmental about everyone's view of economics and about every possible response to a global economic crisis.

And yet that is exactly where we stand as an intellectual community on the most important questions in human life. I don't think you have enjoyed the life of the mind until you have witnessed a philosopher or scientist talking about the "contextual legitimacy" of the burka, or of female genetic excision, or any of these other barbaric practices that we know cause needless human misery. We have convinced ourselves that somehow science is by definition a value-free space, and that we can't make value judgments about beliefs and practices that needlessly derail our attempts to build happy and sane societies.

The truth is, science is not value-free. Good science is the product of our valuing evidence, logical consistency, parsimony, and other intellectual virtues. And if you don't value those things, you can't participate in the scientific conversation.
Here is what he calls for as a "science of morality":
  • The first project is to understand what people do in the name of "morality." We can look at the world, witnessing all of the diverse behaviors, rules, cultural artifacts, and morally salient emotions like empathy and disgust, and we can study how these things play out in human communities, both in our time and throughout history.

  • We can examine all these phenomena in as nonjudgmental a way as possible and seek to understand them.

  • We can understand them in evolutionary terms, and we can understand them in psychological and neurobiological terms, as they arise in the present.
And we can call the resulting data and the entire effort a "science of morality".

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