Saturday, April 16, 2011

Facts, science, and ethics

[UPDATE: there is a discussion of Patricia Churchland on this kind of thing here. One of the best bits:
First, in response to a Sam Harris-esque type of “science can give us answers to moral questions because values are a kind of fact,” Churchland explicitly states that neuroscience cannot answer questions such as “When can organs be donated?” or “When is an inheritance tax fair?” or “When is a war a just war?” On questions of this sort, neuroscience has nothing to say directly. To get some answers, we have to talk to each other, consider other points of view, see what kinds of consequences follow what sorts of actions, etc. Morality is a practical problem-solving endeavor, and to solve problems we must balance various considerations against each other to produce suitable — albeit not perfect — solutions.
Second, in response to a tendency to attribute universal moral intuitions to an innate moral sense or biological foundation (à la Marc Hauser or Jonathan Haidt), Churchland warns us to proceed with caution. Just because something is very common it doesn’t mean it’s innate. Making boats out of wood is common in all sorts of cultures across the world — does its universality make it fundamental to our biology? Of course not, people make boats out of wood because it floats, is available in many places, and is pretty easy to work with; it’s a good solution to a common problem. Moral problems may be solved in a similar fashion, without the necessity for an innate grammar or specific moral foundation]
There's an interesting interview with Sam Harris in The Independent.

Harris begins with the kind of claim that not only utilitarians but also many virtue ethicists might accept:
What I'm arguing is that morality, questions of good and evil, right and wrong, because they relate to questions of human and animal well-being, also entail truth claims about our world, human nature or the prospects of human happiness that fall within the purview of science.
The part about science might give some people pause, but he specifies that he's
using the term "science" very broadly, in terms of our best efforts to make valid truth claims based on evidence and clear reasoning. So history, for my purposes, is a science in the sense that we can make true or false claims about historical fact.
In fact I'm not sure who would disagree with the idea that morality relates to "truth claims based on evidence and clear reasoning." Some people, no doubt, but not, for instance, Kant, Aristotle, Bentham, or Mill, I would have thought. But then things get a lot narrower very quickly:
whether we should be privileging obedience to parental authority over free expression and if so, exactly how much and when and what are the consequences of getting the balance wrong. All of these are neurological questions in the end.
Perhaps the key claim that Harris makes is this:
If we understand the dynamics of mental life in real detail – to speak particularly of our case, if we understand the human brain in real detail – then we will know how various experiences and ways of living with one another – thoughts, intentions and behaviours – affect human life.
He seems simply to identify the mental with the neurological. Although, actually, it's not really clear what is going on here. Understanding the brain supposedly will allow us to know how experiences and ways of living affect human life. Does our knowledge of the brain tell us about experiences, thought of as neurological events? Or does knowing about the brain tell us about the effects of these experiences, so that affecting human life means affecting the brain? How do "ways of living with one another" come to be equated with "thoughts, intentions and behaviours"? I would suspect a mistake by the journalist, except for the fact that the reporter here is Julian Baggini, who is philosophically sophisticated and so likely to be careful about things like this.

One last quote from Harris:
When I talk about morality I'm really talking about psychological health, and the health of societies. Can science tell us about psychological health? If the sciences of mind are, in fact, sciences, and they are, in fact, of mind, then one would hope so, at some point.
I might accept the idea that morality is (an aspect of) psychological health, but I bet many others would not. At least, it doesn't seem like an uncontroversial claim. Whether there can be real sciences of mind is also debatable, I would have thought. And there are questions about what it means to be a science (is Harris still using the term 'science' in the broad sense that includes history here?) and what it means to be "of mind". It's all reminiscent of Anscombe's claim in the 1950s that we should work on the philosophy of psychology before we try to do moral philosophy, and Wittgenstein's skepticism about whether psychology could be a science. Harris is apparently ignoring all this, and the subsequent literature.

He also seems to ignore (although perhaps he addresses it in his book) the question of who gets to define psychological health. It seems to have a moral aspect, so that serial killers, for instance, don't count as psychologically healthy even if there is nothing but their immoral behavior to count against them. And surely this is not the kind of thing that science determines. You don't need a lab (or a historical archive) to define a word.

In short, the interview doesn't make me think he has much of value to say. But I could be wrong, of course, and I wonder whether working through a book like his might be a valuable exercise in critical thinking. I'm thinking of a sort of 'lite' version of what Wittgenstein used to do with William James' writing on psychology. Or would that be a travesty?


  1. Yes. (A colleague said that she was reading his new book with interest. I sighed. I've read enough by him and about him, or things above, to know I should just read something else.)

    As you suggest above, the damning question is: what should we measure?

  2. You're probably right. I knew someone who based a course on a critical reading of a book by Steven Pinker once, which sounded like an interesting idea. I've no idea how it worked out though. And if Harris's whole argument is undermined by one fatal flaw, then there wouldn't be much to say about it.

  3. The interesting class would be to look at the various things that could be measured--subjective well-being, life-satisfaction, capabilities measurements, etc. A neat class might look at both the philosophical arguments in favor of seeing those measurements as pointing toward the end, and then looking at the empirical stuff. (Without the empirical stuff, it would be ethics minus any non-quantifiable conceptions of good, and anti-theoretical views which doubt the existence of a distinctive moral end...)

  4. Something like ethics and positive psychology then? That does sound good. I wonder how much the brain would come into a class like that. Not very much, I suspect. As far as I know, psychologists tend to measure happiness in terms of things like subjective well-being rather than anything directly neurological. Which might be another strike against Harris.

  5. Yeah. I taught a class at Truman called "Happiness & the Good Life" and it was sort of like this. The brain is relevant insofar as one thinks that certain kinds of neurological measurements might be more reliable indicators of the quality of experience than self-reporting...which you might find odd, until you start thinking about all the ways in which self-reports can be inaccurate (depending on the question) due to selective attention, adaptation, false memory, etc. But on the other hand, neurological instruments can't even get OFF THE GROUND without "calibrating" them by relying on self-reports. And the issue may just be about asking people the right sorts of questions.

  6. That sounds like it would have been a very good course.

    Yes, I can see how self-reporting might not be reliable. Some sort of neurological measure might be good to have as confirmation if nothing else.