The moral landscape – Bentham through the back door


It seemed appropriate to follow up a post introducing moral philosophy with my thoughts on Sam Harris, science, and morality. Harris’ new book, The Moral Landscape, has been getting a lot of attention from various camps, with some of the most cogent reviews, in my view, here and here. In lieu of having the actual book on hand to critique, this interview with Julian Baggini provides a handy overview of Harris’ position that I hope is generally representative. Briefly put, it looks like Harris is trying to ride roughshod over debates in moral philosophy by saying utilitarianism won but calling it science.

A lot of the research I’ve done over the last few years involved competing definitions of what it means to be “science-based” in the domain of farm animal welfare, so Harris’ work immediately caught my attention when I saw the above TED video last year (which I’ve played bits of for my Intro to Political Thought students). An engaging Facebook back-and-forth with an aspiring cognitivist I met in Canada also got me to thinking.

With some caveats, I’m on board with Harris’ critique of religious normativity, although he and his New Atheist brethren could use a primer or three in diplomacy. (The caveats are from reading people like Huston Smith and Karen Armstrong.) Not surprisingly, I have a problem with his other attack, on Hume’s ought/is distinction in particular and, apparently, on moral philosophy in general. The irony here is that what he is espousing is essentially an empowered utilitarianism in which moral values have been upgraded to moral facts–incommensurability and indeterminacy notwithstanding.

Kennan Malik writes in The New Humanist that “the issue is not so much that wellbeing is a fuzzy category as that it can, in specific cases, be well-defined but in a number of different ways that are often conflicting in a manner that science cannot resolve.” I think this is right, and we needn’t look beyond moral philosophy to see it. Plato, Nozick, Rawls, and Tronto will give you fundamentally different but internally coherent visions of moral reality. I need to read more of Harris’ work to get a clearer view of how he supposes we can overcome these differences–but I fear he just dismisses them out of hand as being irrelevant.

My core problem here returns to Berlin’s idea (filtered through Sandel) that we live in a “tragically configured moral universe”. If this is the case, and I think one can make an argument based primarily on the second law of thermodynamics that it is, science itself isn’t going to tell us which preferences and which values deserve prioritization over which others. Especially once we acknowledge that “well-being” extends beyond the species line to all conscious entities (which Harris does), how do we go about making the inter-species valuation of preferences that will distinguish between right and wrong courses of action? I’m not saying that this isn’t desirable as an endpoint–indeed, It’s one of my core goals–I just don’t see how merely revealing preferences will let us figure out policies that balance them equitably.

I was especially struck by the hubris of this closing assertion from Harris’ interview with Baggini: “I view philosophy as essentially the womb of the sciences. Whenever a question is not experimentally tractable, not quantifiable, then it’s squarely in the domain of philosophy. The frontier between philosophy and science is never clear. But the moment you start actually talking about data and neurophysiology it would seem you’re playing more the language game of neuroscience than philosophy.”

As someone who’s spent a lot of time at the disciplinary intersection between the social sciences and the humanities, a few things leap out here: the ‘womb’ analogy–and Harris’ central assertion–presume that quantification is both possible and desirable in all cases. While it is theoretically possible to quantify all the possible mental states of all the possibly conscious inhabitants of a given ecosystem, the difficulties of performing this kind of moral calculus dwarf even the more common criticisms of utilitarian aggregation. More problematic still is the power and influence this would grant to “experts” at the expense of everyone else, including other experts.

Again, I haven’t read Harris’ book yet, but I suspect he may underplay the extent to which science is enormously political in practice–from the fight for grant money to the funding of research by pharma giants to the positioning of Monsanto and co. in the fight over IPR–and to just categorically preference quantitative over qualitative knowledge runs the very serious risk of turning a democracy into a technocracy.

Then again, the impression I get is that Harris using a relatively fast-and-loose definition of “science” that accords more closely with the Enlightenment project in general, so maybe Harris’ work has more in common with the likes of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History than it does with Dennett’s take-down of consciousness or Dawkins’ FSMism.

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