Thursday, 19 April 2012

Objective conclusions, subjective premises

Continuing the discussion of Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape, I have a problem with the notion of claiming to derive an entirely objective system of morality from an arbitrary premise, no matter how reasonable that premise may appear to be.

While I find Harris's arguments to be compelling and interesting, I feel in some ways he overstates his point, opening him to criticism and distracting from the central message.

The subtitle of The Moral Landscape is How Science Can Determine Human Values, and I think this is a problem because I'm not convinced it can. The problem is that the axiom Harris has chosen as the basis of his morality is itself a value which is not determined by science. Harris states that this axiom is uncontroversial - anyone who sought to decrease well-being for all conscious creatures would surely be considered evil by any reasonable person, whereas anyone who sought to increase universal well-being would be considered good. I agree with this point, however, the reasonableness of Harris's grounding value is not the issue, the issue is that the very title of the book claims that science can determine values, whereas his basic foundational value is not derived from anything but what reasonable people will usually agree.

In one way, I don't think this is a big problem. I agree with a lot of Harris says, and I agree with his goal to base morality in science and reason rather than appeals to a higher power. As such, the claim that moral values can be truly objective is a red herring which distracts the reader from what I feel should be the central message of the book. It may well be true that given some foundational axioms we may be able to derive a number of higher-level values as conclusions with an objectively valid chain of logical reasoning. However I feel that Harris is wrong to claim that the resulting values are then objectively true.

Perhaps How Science Can Determine Human Values Given the Assumption That We Seek To Improve the Well-Being of Conscious Creatures just wasn't as catchy? Even How Science Can Help to Determine Human Values would be more accurate.

After the jump, Harris defends his reasoning using an analogy to health and medicine.

Derived values, basic values

Harris argues persuasively that the value of universal well-being in morality is analogous to the value of health in medicine. We cannot prove using science that one should value health, yet we see no problem in developing the science of medicine as a tool to achieve health. As such, we should see no problem in developing a scientific view of morality for the pursuit of universal well-being. I agree with this in principle.

However nobody claims that medicine can determine that we should value health. Nobody claims that valuing health is objectively correct. Medicine might teach us to value a healthy diet, exercise, screening for diseases, etc., but only because we implicitly assume that it is desirable to be healthy. "Health" is a basic value, "exercise" is a derived value.

A science of morality might help to justify derived values analogous to these. Some we already hold, such as altruism, love, generosity and kindness. It might explain why we should avoid murder, theft and rape just as medicine teaches us to avoid fatty foods, cigarettes and excessive consumption of alcohol. It might also help us to decide the morality of issues on which there is currently much disagreement, such as euthanasia, abortion and issues relating to human sexuality.

But just as medicine can justify its values only in the context of the basic value of health, so Sam Harris's science of morality can only justify any of its conclusions given the assumption that we wish to increase the universal well-being of conscious creatures.

It is not objectively true to say "one should not smoke cigarettes," even though it may be objectively true to say "one shouldn't smoke cigarettes if one values health."

It is not objectively true to say "one should not commit murder," even though it may be objectively true to say "one should not commit murder if one values the well-being of conscious beings".

Neither the incorrectness (for want of a better word) of smoking nor murder smack of absolute objective truth, and I feel Sam Harris should not claim that they do, especially because I see no reason to demand absolute objective truth for these values. A science of morality would be useful to all who agree on the goal of increasing universal well-being just as medicine is useful for those who want to be healthy. For the minority who disagree with Harris's axiom, social pressure and a legal system will have to suffice where our logic will not.

Adjectival semantics

There is another objection I can see to my argument, however.

Cigarettes lead to health problems and conditions such as heart disease. If you happen to work for the tobacco industry, I hope you can nevertheless allow for the sake of argument that this is objectively true.

Now, if it seems to be objectively true to say "smoking cigarettes is unhealthy", is this not directly analogous to the statement that "murder is immoral"?

I think the issue here is one of semantics. Sam Harris defines as immoral that which tends to decrease the overall well-being of conscious beings. However, others may have a different definition. The statement is objectively true if and only if we assume a very specific definition of morality such as the one suggested by Harris.

With no general agreement on an objective definition for morality, I think the statement cannot be generally considered to be objectively true without highlighting the specific definition of morality we are using.

And yet, as Sam Harris points out, there is no commonly held definition for health. Different people might have different ideas of what it means to be healthy. Some people might consider the ultimate goal of health to be longevity. Others might value physical vigour. We can even imagine that some people may have a view of health which is the mainstream would consider pathological.

Even for those with mainstream views of health, some questions seem difficult to answer. Mary is a spry, active, alert octogenarian. Chris has cystic fibrosis. Chris also happens to be an infant. A statistical analysis may suggest that Mary is almost certain to die within the next two decades, while the same might suggest that with good healthcare Chris is likely to live into his forties. Who is healthier?

It certainly seems like a statement such as "smoking cigarettes are unhealthy" can be objectively true, and yet as I consider the analogy with morality, I find that rather than confirming the possible objectivity of morality, it only serves to cast doubt on the objectivity of statements about health.

I think the explanation is that everybody intuitively understands what is meant by "unhealthy" in this context, namely that smoking cigarettes will negatively affect physical ability and longevity while increasing the risk of serious disease. As such, perhaps there really is a justification for claiming that this statement is objectively true. Just as with the claim that "one plus one equals two", objective truth is possible because the meaning of the terms is unambiguous in context.

While there may be general consensus about whether certain actions are good or evil, I don't think there is such a clear, unambiguous, generally agreed upon meaning for the words "good" and "evil" themselves. Should Sam Harris succeed in getting the world to adopt his definition of morality, then he may have a basis for what he claims.

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