Culture Ethics Philosophy Science

Can You Derive Ethics from Science?

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For those of you who don’t know, TED is a convention of (usually) world-class thinkers who each give a 15-minute talk about a subject. Many of the people in TED are thought leaders. Some of them, however, get in merely because they have written a popular or controversial book. In one of this year’s TED talks, Sam Harris demonstrated that he has no grasp on the basic concepts of either philosophy or ethics.

Harris’ goal was to demonstrate that there is an objective right and wrong, and that it can, at least potentially, be determined scientifically.

Harris’ basic argument went like this:

  1. The goal of ethics is to make conscious people have more enjoyable lives
  2. Neuroscience can tell us factually what sorts of things make people happy or unhappy, whole or broken, etc.
  3. Therefore, ethics is a scientific discipline, with objective rights on wrongs determined by science

To begin with, Harris somehow thinks that he is unique in saying that ethical reasoning can include scientific reasoning. In fact, all ethical reasoning uses scientific data in one way or another. It is rather amusing that Harris points out quite emphatically that if he were to go to a physics convention on string theory, he would be rightfully thrown out, yet he misses the fact that the same thing would happen if he went to a philosophy or ethics convention.

There are many types of ethical systems – covenantal ethical systems (systems that focuses on the rules and obligations between entities joined by covenants), teleological ethical systems (systems that focus on a “greatest good”), contextual ethical systems (systems which emphasize the local impacts of each choice), and others. Harris’ ethical system is a teleological ethical system – he is finding a greatest good and then focusing ethical decisions on that. The greatest good that Harris chooses is the same as Aristotle – happiness (though Harris extends that to all conscious beings and not just humans). Now, there isn’t anything particularly wrong with Harris’ choice of ethical system (well, there is, but it is by far the least of his problems). The problem which lies at the root of Harris’ line of thought, is that he doesn’t even realize (a) that there is a choice to be made, and (b) that he has made a choice. In fact, his whole presentation relies on the idea that his personal choice of ethical system is a given. Harris does this without even seriously comparing his ethical system to others.

Now, of course, if everyone shares Harris’ ethical system, then science can, in large part, decide specific details of the ethical system which are currently vague. Harris, somehow, thinks that this is a new idea. What Harris misses is that the choice of ethical system itself is not a part of science. Science cannot tell you that a teleological system is better than a covenantal system. It can’t even tell you, within the context of a teleological system, which good is the greatest good. Therefore, there is no scientific way of deciding right and wrong.

Another related mistake by Harris is that he says that many people think that ethics are simply arbitrary choices – like food preferences. This is not true at all. What everyone else understands, but apparently Harris forgot, is that there are other types of reasoning than scientific reasoning. Therefore, when people decide their ethical systems, they are basing those decisions on non-scientific reasons. Now, if science was the only legitimate type of reasoning available, then the choice would be arbitrary. As mentioned, science cannot tell us which type of ethical system to use, nor what is the greatest good. Therefore, if scientific reasoning was all we could use, then choosing an ultimate good would be arbitrary.

So what does this have to do with Intelligent Design? As I’ve pointed out before, ID is not primarily about origins (though it does have things to say about origins), but rather it is about the nature of reality. If nature is only physics, and legitimate reasoning can only include scientific reasoning, then there is no objective basis for ethics, there is only those with power and those without power. If, instead, there is an additional, non-physical component to nature (what us ID’ers call agents), then scientific reasoning is not the only legitimate form of reasoning available to us. Therefore, we can have legitimate discussions about ethics which go beyond preferences, and talk reasonably about how we should formulate ethical systems.

Sadly, Harris’ talk demeans other types of knowledge so that we cannot legitimately decide the best way to formulate an ethical system, and because he is completely ignorant of this weakness, he simply demands of everyone else that we follow his arbitrary preferences.

Now, to be honest, Harris’ ethical system isn’t arbitrary. It is, rather, quite socially conditioned from a long history of enlightenment philosophy. One of the aims of academic discussion is to be able to take a step back from your own culture and evaluate it. Then, you can see it for its good and its bad, and choose what to keep and what to criticize. Unfortunately, Harris simply takes his cultural upbringing as being the only one possible, and seeks to impose it on everyone else without discussion.

5 Replies to “Can You Derive Ethics from Science?

  1. 1
    stjones says:

    No surprises here. Harris has blindly chosen a world view without even being aware that he has done so. It’s hard to reason with people who believe that their foundational “fact” is merely one belief among many.

  2. 2
    F2XL says:

    “1. The goal of ethics is to make conscious people have more enjoyable lives”

    I highly doubt that. If that were the case, a typical ethicist would insist that everyone megadose on antidepressants or psycho stimulants until we’re all as happy as can be. Without passing out of course…

    “2. Neuroscience can tell us factually what sorts of things make people happy or unhappy, whole or broken, etc.”

    In my view, this premise isn’t false altogether but definitely incomplete. You may be able to do a brain scan on someone and see what there reaction is to some things, but if several billion people are going to have slight variations amongst each other then the situation becomes far more complicated. And what kind of happiness are we going for anyway? Euphoria? Adrenaline rush? Once again standards become more aesthetic and not accessible to anything you could pull off in a lab or clinic.

    “3. Therefore, ethics is a scientific discipline, with objective rights on wrongs determined by science.”

    Nah, Harris is definitely too entrenched in scientism on this one. Those who have read up on the works of Nozick and the problems posed by utility monsters already know why you can’t rely on utilitarian justifications for anything. That would definitely include ethics. And since when did neuroscience have the power to measure “happiness” (whatever that means) for billions of people anyway?

  3. 3
    Barb says:

    “Sam Harris demonstrated that he has no grasp on the basic concepts of either philosophy or ethics.”

    Anyone who has attempted to read “Letter to a Christian Nation” should know that Harris also has no grasp on theology, either.

    “Harris’ basic argument went like this:
    1. The goal of ethics is to make conscious people have more enjoyable lives “

    The stupid, it burns! Ethics is moral philosophy; standards of conduct and the like. It has nothing to do with leading an enjoyable life; it has to do with determining what is the best course to follow if a difficult decision must be made. Ethics doesn’t always have to be life-and-death, either.

    “2. Neuroscience can tell us factually what sorts of things make people happy or unhappy, whole or broken, etc.”

    Mr. Harris, exactly where are the MRI scans, fMRI scans, or scientific proof that you supposedly have wherein neuroscience explains what makes us happy? Worshipping God makes me happy. What neuroscience do you have available to corroborate that?

    Neuroscience can tell us that serotonin (a chemical) can make us feel full or happy and that eating chocolate allows the flow of serotonin to increase.

    2. “Therefore, ethics is a scientific discipline, with objective rights on wrongs determined by science.”

    No. The first two premises do not necessarily lead to the third. Any conclusion is therefore illogical.
    Science does not make claims on what is ethical or not ethical; that is left to philosophers.

    Harris and the other new atheists amuse me to no end when they attempt to dismiss God blithely and to suggest that any religious morals cannot possibly be valid but science can tell us what’s right and wrong.

    How much does hate weigh?

    What does a molecule of love look like?

    Can you put an abstract concept like ethics in a test tube?

    If science as they narrowly define it is limited to what can be empirically verified and tested, then ethics isn’t a scientific discipline. Harris’ argument fails on multiple levels.

  4. 4
    scordova says:

    Harris has no grasp of ethics in his professional life either.

    He wanted Francis Collins removed as head of NIH because of Harris’s prejudices.

    David Heddle called Harris on it:
    Sad Case of Sam Harris

  5. 5
    GeorgiMarinov says:

    So we’re not going to even allow differing views to be posted here?

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