Can Science Determine Morality? Part 2

Thank you to Vicki Lorrimar for this post. Part 1 of the essay was posted yesterday.
The full version of this essay with references and notes can be found at Vicki’s page.

SamHarris_Moral LandscapeHerein lies one of the major problems with Harris’ reasoning. While science has the potential to provide us with substantial information concerning human well-being, it does very little when it comes to providing the necessary impetus to implement these insights in our lives. Even experts in neuroscience, psychology and behavioural sciences, with their superior understanding of cognitive biases, irrational behaviours and impulse control, make choices that are selfish, or prioritise fleeting pleasures over long term well-being. To argue that further advances in these fields will translate into greater well-being seems overly optimistic.

How would Harris have us obtain the motivation necessary to do what is right? He envisions a society in which hidden lie detectors keep us honest. Advances in neuroimaging technology will allow the monitoring of truthfulness in particular contexts e.g. the courtroom or job interview. Even Harris concedes, therefore, that while science might increase our understanding of human behaviour, and provide the technology to monitor it, external enforcement is required to actually motivate people to do the right thing. Robinson raises an interesting issue when she questions the identity of the invisible accuser. Whose assumptions will be programmed into these imagined devices?

Throughout The Moral Landscape, Harris often seems more concerned with providing a critique of religion than in establishing the sufficiency of science for determining human values. It is as if he believes that the latter conclusion will proceed directly from the former i.e. religion does not always produce ideal societies, therefore we must abandon it in favour of science as the true source of moral knowledge.

Harris’ analysis of religion in this volume is characteristically belligerent, not just atheistic but aggressively anti-theistic. He caricatures religion as the antithesis of intelligent thought, and selectively cites only the worst examples of faith in support of his argument. His understanding of religion aside, however, Harris is operating on the basis of flawed logic. He takes two disconnected arguments: (1) scientific research can provide information about what makes us happy and healthy, and (2) religion is often (in his view) responsible for impeding scientific progress and producing vast suffering, and combines them to arrive at his final conclusion that science alone can provide us with a sufficient and objective morality.

Harris argues that “religion and science are in a zero-sum conflict with respect to facts.” It is unclear how he has arrived at this conclusion without attributing it to his obvious distaste for religion. Several times in his account of the usefulness of neurophysiological research Harris argues that science helps – indeed, science can assist immensely in determining which measures might increase overall well-being. This does not eliminate religion from the moral sphere, however.

Harris also overlooks the fact that a lot of contemporary research into neural impulses and human behaviour is taken up by, or even funded by, marketing bodies interested in harnessing this knowledge to bring about increased sales of their products. This fosters a consumerism that concentrates wealth into the hands of fewer people and is likely to have a detrimental impact on natural resources – clearly not the road to greater human flourishing.

On the contrary, David Bentley Hart points out that certain advancements in science required the scientific mind to set aside religious “superstitions” regarding the soul and the image of God within – the development of nuclear weaponry, the eugenics movement, and medical experimentation on prison populations are just a few of the examples he gives us. Scientific progress does not have the morally pure track record Harris would have us believe.

Harris’ thought betrays a dependence on modern assumptions about truth and absolutes. Though he claims to be well-versed in philosophy; though in fact he completed an undergraduate degree in the field, Harris writes as if unaware of the postmodern shift. The Enlightenment quest for a universal epistemological foundation has been criticised by the likes of MacIntyre, and replaced with the view that rationality is tradition-dependent. The stridence of the New Atheist approach is rather embarrassing in the current postmodern climate of philosophical modesty and tolerance. With philosophers and theologians alike moving into a new paradigm in which appeals to universal reason and truth are replaced by contextual and narrative approaches to meaning and morality, Harris’ approach cannot help but come across as stale.

Though he diverges from the tired atheist argument that morality is simply the outworking of our evolutionary impulses, Harris’ approach fails to provide an alternative source for our concern over morality. It is true that scientific insights can assist in increasing moral knowledge; however they are not exhaustive. Not only is science unable to justify well-being as the concern of morality, it cannot provide the motivation to consistently overcome baser human instincts in making decisions that impact well-being. Our ethical choices must derive their meaning and conviction from another source.

The aim here is not to provide an argument in favour of any specific religion, but rather to evaluate Harris’ assertion that science alone can determine human values. Harris is most convincing when writing on his subject of expertise – neuroscience. It is true that brain studies are producing interesting insights into how we might improve our sense of wellbeing. Behavioural economics and the science of happiness are burgeoning fields. The existence of scientific facts about human nature that have important moral implications is not a new idea, but rather one that sociobiologists have been arguing for decades.

This does not pose any problem for religion, however, or for the existence of God. Harris’ zero-sum conflict is apparent only to him. There need be no antagonism between the capacity of science to discover more about what leads to well-being, and the role of religion in providing both the motivation and ability to integrate this knowledge into our lives. It seems that Harris’ antipathy toward religion causes him to overstate the potential of scientific research in determining morality, and to overlook its many shortcomings. The ’moral landscape’ envisioned by Harris is little more than wishful thinking on his part; when it comes to moral discourse, religion is likely to persevere.

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