A defense of science in morality

If you google “science of morality”, one of the first search results you get is this article here by Brian Earp from a while back criticising Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape as well as the idea of science in morality.

I’m not Sam Harris, so i’m not even gonna try to defend him, and in fact I’ll even criticize him (I know, I’m an atheist apostate like that). I know I cited the Moral Landscape as a good basis for morality in an article a while back, but now I find it to be an inadequate model and you’ll see why. However, in this article I will mainly be heavily critiquing Earp’s points, because I absolutely hate it when people say you cannot base your morality on science.

In his new book (the one about lying) Harris says, in effect, you should never, ever, do it — yet his pretense in The Moral Landscape to be revolutionizing moral philosophy seems to me the very height of dishonesty. What he actually does in his book is plain old secular moral reasoning — as non-religious philosophers have been doing for a very long time — but he claims that he’s using science to decide right from wrong.

One of the first thing Brian Earp does is summarize Sam Harris’ “bold new” viewpoints as secular moral reasoning. Aspects of secular morality are according to wikipedia: humanism, freethinking, and forms of consequentialism. While I do like certain aspects of humanism – which the moral landscape seems to boil down to “all sentient beings”, I can see why it is not a good justification for morality – because why should you give a shit about all sentient beings? Humanism emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, supporting altruistic morality and is human centric, but even though it all sounds peachy, it still does not provide a justification for why we are supposed to value the lives of human beings.

That Harris could be naive enough to think he’s really bridged the famous “is/ought” chasm seems unlikely (Harris is a very smart writer and researcher, and I tend to like a lot of what he publishes), and so I submit that he’s exaggerating* to sell books. Shame on him (or his publisher).

*A previous version of this post had the word “lying” here, but I was told that my rhetorical flourish might be interpreted as libel. I hope “exaggerating” is sufficiently safe. Now onward to my argument:

I’ll start by saying what the “is/ought” divide is, in case you haven’t heard of this before. It’s an old idea, tracing at least to David Hume, and its gist is that there is no way to reason from facts about the way the world is, to statements about the way the world should be. You can’t derive values from data. I’ll use one example to illustrate and then move on.

Example. It’s a fact that rape occurs in nature — among chimpanzees, for instance; and there are some evolutionary arguments to explain its existence in humans and non-humans alike. But this fact tells us exactly nothing about whether it’s OK to rape people. This is because “natural” doesn’t entail “right” (just as “unnatural” doesn’t necessarily mean wrong) — indeed, the correct answer is that it’s not OK, and this is a judgement we make at the interface of moral philosophy and common sense: it’s not an output of science.

Then, Earp goes on to appeal to the Is-ought problem, attacking it with an argument against the appeal to nature fallacy. And I agree – just because something is “natural” doesn’t make it right. But then again as a determinist I’m not one to make the philosophical distinction between nature and artificiality, I believe that all phenomena is natural and follows causation, and so far nothing has proven me wrong. Also, I also recognize that synthesizing “artificial” substitutes out of naturally occurring resources is natural human behavior for when the natural substance is insufficient for our purposes, a chemical plant is about as artificial as a bird’s nest – they’re both natural, just different in complexity and scale and purpose.

But then Earp makes a mistake:

this is a judgement we make at the interface of moral philosophy and common sense: it’s not an output of science.

Oh really. So we just decide, for no reason at all, that rape is wrong. Or more precisely, so rape triggers the emotion of disgust or guilt or compassion for no reason? That it’s all arbitrary? Because Earp seems to be suggesting that rape is bad just because we feel it is wrong for no reason. Unfortunately for him, common sense is not a logically valid argument. Conventional wisdom is at best an indicator, but without further explanation, it only stays an indicator and does not prove anything.

Where am I going with this? you’ll see.

You get the idea. The domain of science is to describe nature, and then to explain its descriptions in terms of deeper patterns or laws. Science cannot tell us how to live. It cannot tell us right and wrong. If a system of thought claims to be doing those things, it cannot be science. If a scientist tells you she has some statements about how you ought to behave, they cannot be scientific statements, and the lab-coat is no longer speaking as a scientist. Questions about “How should we live?” — for better or worse — fall outside the purview of “objective” science. We have to sort them out, messily, by ourselves.

But how?

Tick tock, tick tock.

Now: if there were a way to get from “is” to “ought” it would take a work of philosophical genius to lay it out, and Harris’ book is not a work of philosophical genius. I can summarize his argument in a few lines:

1. Morality is “all about” improving the well-being of conscious creatures.

2. Facts about the well-being of conscious creatures are accessible to science.

3. Therefore science can tell us what’s objectively “moral” — that is, it can tell us whether something increases, or decreases, the well-being of conscious creatures.

Here’s the problem. Premise (1) is a philosophical premise. It’s not a fact of science, it’s not a fact of nature (and it’s not derivable from science or nature either): it’s a value judgment.

Are value judgments really underivable from nature though?

You might think this is a good premise; you might not – and even if you think it’s basically on track, there’s a lot of philosophical work to be done to spell it out. (Exhibit A – how do you define well-being in the first place, “scientifically” or otherwise?)

What this boils down to, then, is that given a certain philosophical value, premise, or starting-point, science can feed us relevant facts in our sorting-out of how to live. Ok, but so what? That’s just what science has always been able to do. This is just secular moral philosophy, minding the facts.

So you’re saying that as long as we have an objective, science can tell us how to best achieve it?

Earp goes on to give Sam Harris the luxury of his first premise, so let’s skip that paragraph.

Harris says that according to science, the Taliban’s treatment of woman (enforced burqa-wearing, etc.) is objectively morally wrong. Why? Because enforced burqa-wearing (etc.) is not conducive to the well-being of conscious creatures, namely the conscious creatures forced to wear burqas.

I hope you’ll agree that we didn’t need science to tell us that treating women in this way is bad (or at least seriously problematic in a number of different ways): common sense, or, better, secular moral philosophy, will do just fine.

“Sir, the torpedoes are armed and ready to deploy.”


Really? So you’re saying that people are perfectly capable of regulating their actions based on shaky philosophical ground? Because I don’t know what world you live in but where I come from… aka Earth (you racist), people only base their actions on facts that they know. The reason we avoid getting close to the edge of the cliff is because we know for a fact that falling hurts, that is science. The reason we are careful around glassware is because we know for a fact that it is fragile, that is science. The reason people throughout history have stolen, robbed, raped and murdered countless victims is precisely because they did not know for a fact why it was bad – more specifically, why it was bad for themselves.

Without a good reason to stop them from doing so (and no dumbass, threats of violence or unevidenced eternal hellfire or “common sense” doesn’t count), crime rates soared.

Religion was kind of a meh deterrent for crime in the first place, but especially up to the part where people figured out it was bullshit. “Because GOD” is not a reason, it’s a threat. “Because an unproven never seen god” isn’t just a threat, but a very unsubstantiated and thus weak threat. “Because it just is” isn’t even a weak threat, its just no reason. Plus, the thing with threats is that people will go for the obvious solution: remove the threat.

For millennia, we focused the issue of crime on law enforcement, and what did it get us? Corrupt, inept, and dead cops. Obscene incarceration rates. Rampant crime in the streets. These criminals, they don’t know why crime is wrong. Even the good guys, they can feel the positive effects of morality, but they have no idea why that is, so they perpetuate the bullshit that morality somehow just is, relying on the “free will” of people to choose good over evil, because WE didn’t know what morality was for and why it works.

And Brian, get ready because here’s the real kicker that is gonna blow your mind: Science knows.

The morality debate is a game of red herrings, because morality is actually just a term for human behavior demonstrated to be desirable towards YOUR self interest, and in fact that is all that matters. How do we derive an ought? From our self interest. More specifically our desires both psychological and biological that our brain converts into an intellectual ought. Our society combines the millions of different and semi-conflicting oughts to make it work, to make sure that WE survive, because on Earth, WE surviving is the only way YOU can survive, and you want to survive because of factors outside of your control that determine it. The morality of a society or even a combination of societies is just a collective ought, a combination of everybody’s self interest.

Do note that it does not mean a rapist’s self interest of rape is correct – it certainly isn’t moral in terms of our collective morality, because rape harms the victim, and also a society that has rape as a regular occurrence is an unstable society, and also because of the instinct of empathy, a social instinct we developed that makes us empathize with victims, compelling us to act against harm, and thus the rapist’s self interest is overwritten by our collective self interest. This however does not mean the rapist’s self interest is necessarily void, rape might for example be caused by sexual frustration and violent tendency which can be resolved through harmless methods that do not consist of rape.

Crime is wrong, because a society with such levels of danger, opposition and animosity is inherently unstable, read: BAD. If you spend 1 kg of your capacity carrying around a rifle for self defense, that’s 1kg less of work you could do for society, a society that benefits you every-time it improves no matter how subtle. Why do we value humans? Because humans are valuable. Because the value of valuing humans is valuable to YOU. It’s a social contract we sign in order to partake in the mutually beneficial construct that is society.

And sure, if you had the means you could try to violently coerce people into obedience, but will it work? Has it ever truly worked? Are you certain that there won’t be a bigger bully that overturns your bullying? More importantly, is it really the best path you could take that leads to the maximizing of your wellbeing? This is scientifically provable, you can analyze the risks and rewards as well as how they affect your emotions and sensibilities, how much increase or decrease and pleasure and suffering, even if you cannot measure the exact level of subjective experience, there is a very real way to achieve a usable quantification of wellbeing.

The risk of this self-interest based model of morality which I will now name the Self-Interest Model of Morality, is that some numbnut would always say “but what if, say, crime X was truly, utterly, undeniably the best course of action?” To that I say first off what if blue was red and the sky were communist? Such a hypothetical is meaningless when describing a very unlikely situation. But more importantly, if it became clear to you that a crime was truly beneficial to you and the best of all other alternatives, you would do it. It’s not even a question of idiocy or virtue, YOU WOULD DO IT, because that’s how human beings work – we base our conscious decisions on known facts with the aim of maximizing our well being, because once you develop the “ought” in examining your self interest scientifically, the rest falls into place and simply (in terms of philosophy, the practical science is much more complicated) becomes the process of figuring out why, how and what is most conducive towards your self interest, and thus which action is most moral.

Of course, a selfish interest is not what people refer to when they talk about morality. When people talk about selflessness and altrusim, they are referring to specifically social morality, which is the common subset of all morality. I am not defending moral relativism even though the terminology sounds alike, but relative to the goal of societal flourishing, potential policies can be rated for their effectiveness but no two things will be truly equal even if they are equal in practicality, because objectively there MUST be a best choice, no matter how slim the margins from which it wins out, and it seems to me at least, adhering to morality as discussed above is generally going to be the best choice for most if not all people, and only science will be able to prove me wrong or right on that.

Of course, this morality science may not be done in a lab (nevermind all science is geared towards morality because better tech = more effectiveness = moral), but it is nevertheless the practice of building knowledge, explaining why it is good and applying it. The science of morality identifies supposedly moral behavior, assesses if it is moral, and why it is moral in order to provide insight into making increasingly beneficial decisions in the future.

Anyway, one last somewhat related gripe I have with Earp:

So by “science” Harris evidently means, “philosophy” … or at least something that’s not different from philosophy in a principled way. Let me check my brochure for a second and confirm what the title of his talk was — the radical-sounding title that sold so many tickets — yes, here it is, it’s, “Who says science has nothing to say about morality?” If we do a quick update based on Harris’ personal definition of science, we get … “Who says philosophy has nothing to say about morality?”

The answer is: no one ever said that. Moral philosophy plus facts is not “science” telling us objective moral truths.

As a self-proclaimed philosopher I consider this obsession with philosophy a field of science, if albeit a more abstract science that falls somewhere between mathematics and conventional science, but the claims I make from my conclusions are nevertheless testable, falsifiable, and have important practical applications. I detest those who consider philosophy to be a field of making shit up where anything goes, practical philosophy is serious and has very real implications, and it should be just as structured and ordered as science is.

Oh and P.S. “objective moral truths” are you William Lane Craig?

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