Sam Harris laid out his arguments in support of a scientific morality in depth and detail in his TED talk The Moral Landscape, and his follow-up essay.
Today, there’s also an article over at Cosmic Variance by Sean Carroll disputing Harris’ central premise from a traditionalist viewpoint. I won’t quote from it here, since you can read Carroll’s argument yourself. Following is an expansion on my comment which is a general refutation of his points:
This is a recitation of a traditionalist view, which cannot manage to see human beings for what they are, complex systems of biomachinery. Because of all the complexity and the opaqueness of human motivation, it seems we cannot even arrive at a consistent set of principles for deriving morality.
But this is false. We simply haven’t gotten there yet. Once the human brain is reverse engineered and understood, once commonalities are established between people with seemingly different moral viewpoints, we will begin to unravel this mystery.
And let me qualify here that morality is not about imposing some regime of maximization of individual happiness, but about maximization of a set of environmental and social conditions to create a system conducive to individuals maximizing their own happiness. This involves trying to enable the widest possible range of choices people can make–without negatively impacting the opportunities for the pursuit of happiness for others.
So we can exclude the idea that people would, for example, be scientifically required to make others happy by staying in an unfulfilling relationship, selling goods below cost, or otherwise “helping others” in ultimately unhelpful ways. A scientific understanding of morality would have to recognize the legitimacy of differences, competition, and personal boundaries. The holding of firm but flexible boundaries between the various orbits of sentience and interdependence in the social landscape would be of prime concern to any scientific statement of moral ought-ness.
Our highest and best moral instincts would follow what experts in the social sciences have analyzed, with the collection of data, to be the best methods for human flourishing. We can rightly exclude brain pathology from this discussion. Just as we would exclude any piece of broken machinery from the analysis of functioning models. Moreover, we should understand that some of our primitive internal moral instincts such as short-term self-interest are hopelessly subjective and harmful to the community. Which should motivate us to strive toward an advanced, and inclusive universal morality that balances individual and community interests. But in order to do so, we have to be willing to put our precious subjectivity on the chopping block.
As Sam Harris correctly pointed out, morality is concerned with the well-being of conscious creatures. It is a departure from one set of goals of our biological machinery–that of amoral reproduction and domination of genetic competitors–to another more finely tuned set of goals. Civilization and abundance has finally given our altruistic and cooperative natures a means of expression. Empathy provides some measure of understanding of those who are suffering. Mirror neurons tell us we should care about them.
We are fortunate enough to have available to us a wealth of information about conscious systems, and we are soon to get a lot more. To imply that that no consistent pattern or theory exists in this data is short-sighted.
I’m willing to concede this is a human-centric viewpoint. But since human flourishing is tied in with the flourishing of ecosystems which include other species, science-based morality would inform a broader view of ecosystem and social sustainability. This is the new science of morality, and it is in its infancy. I fully expect the naysayers to continue until such time as the discipline becomes better established. It will be a cooperative effort between neurologists, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, zoologists and environmental scientists, to name a few. This is the human equivalent of a “theory of everything.”
The fact that a “theory of everything” is elusive hasn’t stopped physicists from looking for it, nor should it slow, even in the smallest degree, our progress toward a scientific understanding of morality. Like many other objections to science, this seems to be largely about other disciplines not wanting to cede power to a new objective regime they cannot control. That is where the study of morality is headed–toward the realm of evidence which may challenge all of us to abandon cherished but outworn beliefs.