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:
- The goal of ethics is to make conscious people have more enjoyable lives
- Neuroscience can tell us factually what sorts of things make people happy or unhappy, whole or broken, etc.
- 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.