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Science not even in ball park on ethics

October 4th, 2010 · 2 Comments

Science Knows Best
By KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH

We have discussed Harris’ views here critically, several times, now his book is out. Appiah exposes the problem right away, and one is left puzzled by Harris’ choice of utilitarianism for a science here.

I always recommend Kant here, despite the fact that his ethical discourses have often been criticized. The garbage spouted by religionists, i.e. Christians, confuses the whole discussion.
If you can’t critique and then repair Kant (trying to fly is also hard) you are not going to succeed a la Harris.
But Kant doesn’t cheat, and try to assume that neuroscience describes the mind. It might, one day, but at this point it never discusses the ‘will’,the first fundamental requirement of any ethics, the one thing scientists can’t manage.
So science isn’t even in the ball park on this issue. Small wonder Harris tries to fake it with some cheap imported ‘utilitarianism’.

Religion deals with questions about what Harris calls “meaning, morality and life’s larger purpose,” questions that have no scientific answers.

Harris, who has a doctorate in neuroscience, holds the opposite view. Only science can help us answer these questions, he says. That’s because truths about morality and meaning must “relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures,” and science alone — especially neuroscience, his field — can uncover those facts. So rather than consulting Aristotle or Kant (let alone the Bible or the Koran) about what is necessary for humans to flourish, why not go to the sciences that study conscious mental life?

Harris means to deny a thought often ascribed to David Hume, according to which there is a clear conceptual distinction between facts and values. Facts are susceptible of rational investigation; values, supposedly, not. But according to Harris, values, too, can be uncovered by science — the right values being ones that promote well-being. “Just as it is possible for individuals and groups to be wrong about how best to maintain their physical health,” he writes, “it is possible for them to be wrong about how to maximize their personal and social well-being.”

But wait: how do we know that the morally right act is, as Harris posits, the one that does the most to increase well-being, defined in terms of our conscious states of mind? Has science really revealed that? If it hasn’t, then the premise of Harris’s all-we-need-is-science argument must have nonscientific origins.

In fact, what he ends up endorsing is something very like utilitarianism, a philosophical position that is now more than two centuries old, and that faces a battery of familiar problems. Even if you accept the basic premise, how do you compare the well-being of different people? Should we aim to increase average well-being (which would mean that a world consisting of one bliss case is better than one with a billion just slightly less blissful people)? Or should we go for a cumulative total of well-being (which might favor a world with zillions of people whose lives are just barely worth living)? If the mental states of conscious beings are what matter, what’s wrong with killing someone in his sleep? How should we weigh present well-being against future well-being?

Tags: ethics · General · Kant

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