Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Moral Landscape

In a world without God, where does morality come from?  Is morality a matter of opinion or a matter of fact? The rallying cry of atheists has long been “no absolutes”, which has left some people wonder:  Where does their strength of conviction to make a stand on matters of right and wrong in the world come from?  A reticency to convict others for trespassing moral law is a strength, but also a major weakness. This book is answers these questions.  According to Harris, true moral knowledge is possible, and science can illuminate an entire moral landscape. 

Reading his book was a delight, and I felt he was following in the same tradition of La Mettrie, a vanguard stating aloud what others had hitherto only mentioned in passing.  Harris' thesis that meaning, morality, and values can be reduced to facts, and thereby be objectively determined, denies moral error theory, and does not specifically endorse hedonism or utilitarianism (subjects I had recently read that primed me for his book).  Harris believes that “well-being” is a deeper notion than pleasure.  He forms his argument from many sources in science and philosophy, asserting that science is natural philosophy, or “philosophy in practice” (180).

Harris disagrees with E.O. Wilson that “morality is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends.”  While morality was very likely adaptive in some sense at one point, and perhaps sexually selected for, that does not imply that it continues to fulfill this narrow function.  I was disappointed to see that while Harris mentioned Geoffrey Miller, he did not give due credit to Amotz Zahavi.  All the more a shame since Zahavi and Harris share the same concern for altruism.  (Zahavi saw altruism as a reliable fitness indicator that confers status upon and improves the reproductive chances of the individual.  Harris seems to see morality as a kind of codified version of objective altruism.)  It was interesting to learn that out group hostility and in group altruism are two sides of the same coin (101).  After reading the first few pages of Harris' latest book I felt it was a reaction to Europe's growing unease with its immigrant Muslim population.  I was reminded of French president's recent decision to make wearing burqas in public illegal.

There was considerable references made to other researchers.  I would like to read about Robert Edgerton's book Sick Societies.  And I found Adam Smith's quote about our reaction to distant tragedies very telling (58).  The description of the Dobu Islanders was of such a horribly organized society that I instantly suspected it was a “Poe”, but there is no reason to doubt that it could very well be a real society.  I instantly identified with the reasoning of a four year old about the difficulty of acting on moral decisions (71).  In the second half of the book Harris seemed to stray from his subject (only to bring the overall scope of the topic into clearer resolution no doubt).  I learned that parenting strategies that increase empathy in children are very important (99), but having children generally decreases happiness (188)!  I also learned that Harris' dislike of Francis Collins runs very deep!  I particularly liked the following quote, in which he rails against Collins while identifying the human-like qualities of animals (170):
And just how widespread must "glimmerings" of morality be among other animals before Collins - who, after all, knows a thing or two about genes - begins to wonder whether our moral sense has evolutionary precursors?  What if mice show greater distress at the suffering of familiar mice than unfamiliar ones? (They do.)  What if monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their cage mates from receiving painful shocks? (They will.)  What if chimps have a demonstrable sense of fairness when receiving food rewards?  (They have.)  What if dogs do too?  (Ditto.)  Wouldn't these be precisely the sorts of findings one would expect if our morality were the product of evolution?  
I wondered at one point, that if morality is a system of thinking about and maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures (who stand in relation to specific environmental states) then does it not also follow that science can determine aesthetic values as well?  One of the criticisms of a science of morality is Hume's assertion that it is impossible to deduce “oughts” from what “is”, but I wonder what the distiction between these two really consists of, or for that matter the difference between truth and goodness.  Have we answered the question of why a science of morality is important?  Our intuitions of right and wrong are fallible (87).  Population ethics govern some of the most important decisions societies ever make (68).  What of the ethics of nuclear power?  Or of particulate air pollution?  Some of these questions bear on matters closer to home than others.  Harris identifies a few more advantages (188):
We would all be better off in a world where we devoted fewer of our resources to preparing to kill one another.  Finding clean sources of energy, cures for desease, improvements in agriculture, and new ways to facilitate human coop0eration are general goals that are obviously worth striving for.  
Now I am ready to enjoy reading Anthony Grayling's book, which is also about ethics and morality, though I gather without as much speculation on science's role in determining it.

Update: The best review I have read of this book is here and his response to critics. 

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