Monday, January 03, 2011

The Objective Moral Truths of Darwinian Science: Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris

Sam Harris has become famous in recent years as one of the "new atheists." Like Richard Dawkins, he argues that if we look to science as a source of truth about the world, then we must reject religion as a source of falsehood.

Now Harris has provoked an intense controversy among his fellow scientific atheists, because he rejects the common assumption that science cannot teach moral truth and argues, on the contrary, that biological science can help us to understand objective moral truth. The controversy began last year when he appeared at a TED Conference and gave a talk entitled "Science Can Answer Moral Questions." This talk briefly summarized the reasoning that he has elaborated in a recent book--The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Free Press, 2010).

Remarkably, Harris's book has forced Richard Dawkins to change his mind. Having argued throughout his life that science--and particularly Darwinian science--cannot tell us about moral truth, Dawkins now says that Harris is right about the scientific grounds of morality. Oddly enough, this means that Dawkins, who is famous as an "ultra-Darwinist," has now finally given up his disagreement with Charles Darwin's claim that human morality is rooted in evolved human nature!

At the beginning of The Moral Landscape (1-2), Harris says that he will argue

that questions of value--about meaning, morality, and life's larger purpose--are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc. The most important of these facts are bound to transcend culture--just as facts about physical and mental health do. Cancer in the highlands of New Guinea is still cancer; cholera is still cholera; schizophrenia is still schizophrenia; and so, too, I will argue, compassion is still compassion, and well-being is still well-being. And if there are important cultural differences in how people flourish--if, for instance, there are incompatible but equivalent ways to raise happy, intelligent, and creative children--these differences are also facts that must depend upon the organization of the human brain. In principle, therefore, we can account for the ways in which culture defines us within the context of neuroscience and psychology. The more we understand ourselves at the level of the brain, the more we will see that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human values.

Brief statements of his reasoning can be found not only in his online talk but also in a question-and-answer statement at Harris's website.

In a previous post, I have shown how Dawkins and most of the proponents of evolutionary psychology have rejected E. O. Wilson's sociobiological ethics, and in doing that, they have rejected Darwin's evolutionary account of ethics in his Descent of Man. Most of the leaders of evolutionary psychology have agreed with Dawkins' Kantian dualism, as expressed in the last paragraph of Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins proclaimed that human beings were unique in their capacity for "deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism--something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world." "We alone on earth," Dawkins concluded, "can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."

In a 1997 interview, Dawkins explained: "What I am now saying, along with many other people, among them T. H. Huxley, is that in our political and social life we are entitled to throw out Darwinism, to say we don't want to live in a Darwinian world. We may want to live in, say, a socialist world that is very un-Darwinian."

Although most of the proponents of evolutionary psychology have agreed with Dawkins in this claim that there is no basis in Darwinian science for morality, many of them have changed their minds in recent years, because the Darwinian explanation for morality has become a vibrant area of research for evolutionary psychologists. Some of my previous posts on this can be found here and here.

Now, apparently, Dawkins has experienced a similar change of mind. The back of Harris's book has the following blurb from Dawkins: "I was one of those who had unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals. The Moral Landscape has changed all that for me. Moral philosophers, too, will find their world exhilaratingly turned upside down, as they discover a need to learn some neuroscience. As for religion, and the preposterous idea that we need God to be good, nobody wields a sharper bayonet than Sam Harris."

The abruptness of this change of mind is evident if one looks at Dawkins' most recent book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (published in 2009). In this book (pp. 390-96, 400-402), Dawkins agrees with Stephen Jay Gould's essay on "Nonmoral Nature," in which Gould argues that there is no ground in evolutionary nature for morality. Gould concludes: "If nature is nonmoral, then evolution cannot teach any ethical theory." Gould asserts that this was Darwin's position. But in doing that, Gould has to completely ignore Darwin's ethical theory in the Descent of Man, in which Darwin explains the "moral sense" as a product of human evolution. If evolved human nature is moral, Darwin suggests, then evolution can teach an ethical theory rooted in human nature.

But notice the critical point here that is commonly overlooked by modern scientists and philosophers: Darwin's evolutionary theory of ethics is grounded not in cosmic nature but in human nature. In this way, Darwin's theory of ethics is in the empirical tradition of Aristotle and Hume rather than the metaphysical tradition of Plato and Kant.

Darwin's Kantian critics--like Frances Cobbe--saw this, and they were appalled that Darwin was grounding ethics in the evolved order of human nature rather than the eternal order of cosmic imperatives. Since most modern moral philosophers are still implicitly in the grip of Kantian or Platonic conceptions of moral cosmology, they believe that if morality is not written into the fabric of the cosmos, then morality is purely "fictional."

By contrast, as I have argued, a Darwinian science of morality would be based not on a Cosmic God, Cosmic Nature, or Cosmic Reason, but on human nature, human tradition, and human judgment. Some of my posts on this can be found here here, and here.

Moral truth is not a cosmic truth but a human truth, a truth about what is required for the happiness or flourishing of human beings as products of natural evolution. This insight runs through the moral biology of Aristotle, Hume, and Darwin.

Regrettably, Harris does not have a clear grasp of this point. Occasionally, he recognizes that his argument is in the tradition of Aristotle and the Aristotelian understanding of ethics as directed to human happiness or flourishing (195-96). And, occasionally, he sees that his Darwinian empiricism is opposed to Platonic cosmology. He writes:
"I am certainly not claiming that moral truths exist independent of the experience of conscious beings--like the Platonic Form of the Good--or that certain actions are intrinsically wrong. I am simply saying that, given that there are facts--real facts--to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worst possible misery and the greatest possible well-being, it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, whether or not we can always answer these questions in practice." (30)
"We do not require a metaphysical repository of right and wrong, or actions that are mysteriously right or wrong in themselves, for there to be right and wrong answers to moral questions: we simply need a landscape of possible experiences that can be traversed in some orderly way in light of how the universe actually is. The main criterion, therefore, is that misery and well-being not be completely random. It seems to me that we already know that they are not--and, therefore, that it is possible for a person to be right or wrong about how to move from one state to another." (198)

But, then, elsewhere in his book, Harris invokes a Kantian rationalism of moral imperatives as if ethics were impossible without a "moral ought" that belongs to some a priori realm of moral truths that exist independently of natural human experience (81-83, 101, 199, 204-205, 210).

It would be better for Harris's argument if he were to clearly defend the empiricist tradition of Darwinian ethics against the transcendentalist tradition of Kantian ethics.  If he were to do that, he could argue that, contrary to Kant, moral judgments are based not on categorical imperatives but on hypothetical imperatives.  I have elaborated this point in some other posts..


Jake and Cathy said...

Larry, I enjoyed your essay, thanks. Do you have anything to say about the apparent relationship between Darwinian ethics and the ethics of the moral philosopher Philippa Foot? As a layperson I'm intensely interested in the biological sources of morality and intend to read her book "Natural Morality" as soon as Amazon can get hold of it. She died in 2010 and apparently was one of the leading philosophers who elucidated this line of thinking. I'm embarrassed to say I don't know your background so I'm not trying to put you on the spot - just interested in hearing more about all this.

Maryann Spikes said...

The is-ought fallacy (Hume) is a real fallacy, and is why knowledge is justified, true belief (Plato). In order to be knowledge, a belief must both be justified by the evidence, and true by correspondence. If we consider justified a belief that only corresponds, we commit the is-ought fallacy. If we consider a belief true merely due to evidence in favor of it, we commit the ought-is fallacy.

Related to moral truth--if a justified (answering the question of Ethics--"How and why should we be or behave with the Other and self?") moral standard doesn't describe anything in reality, to consider it "true" commits the ought-is fallacy. If we take something from reality and call it moral truth, neglecting to consider whether it is justified (answering the question of Ethics), we commit the is-ought fallacy. In order for there to be moral truth, it must both correspond to (a) real being, and it must be justified (answering the question of Ethics). Its correspondence is not its justification (is=/=ought), and its justification is not its correspondence (ought=/=is).

Larry Arnhart said...

Jake and Cathy,

I have written a post on Philippa Foot.

Larry Arnhart said...

Maryann Spikes,

Are you saying that moral judgment is a purely rational exercise in logic? If so, then I disagree.

Since moral judgment is practical reasoning that moves us to action, there must be some practical motivation coming from emotion or desire. Reason by itself moves no one to action. Our movement from "is" to "ought" is not logical but psychological.

Psychopaths illustrate this point. Their moral defect is not a failure of logic. It's their failure to be moved by moral emotions. A course in logic would have provided Ted Bundy no cure for his emotional poverty.

A couple of my many posts on the is/ought issue can be found here and here.

Mark Frank said...

When people write that morality is “based on” or “has a ground in” in evolution (or indeed Kantian logic or anything else) they confuse two different things:

1) What causes us to make the moral assertions we do

2) What is our ultimate justification for making a moral assertion

Harris is quite right to emphasise the scientific answers that are emerging to (1). Science can, in theory at least, explain why people are compassionate, like resources to be distributed fairly etc. However science cannot provide an ultimate justification for making a moral assertion and thus demonstrate that assertion is in some objective sense correct. Hume was right. The reason for this is simply that there is no common ultimate justification. Some people find that justification in Kantian logic, others in utilitarianism, still others in religious edicts. Most in an intuitive mix of justifications. Science can explain what causes different people to adopt these views but the unfortunate truth (to use Harris’ example) is that if their religion causes the Taliban think it is wrong for women to be educated then we cannot in the end “prove” them wrong. We can only disapprove and seek to prevent them or change their minds.

I think this is essentially what you are saying Larry - but I am not totally sure.

Troy Camplin said...

We can ask what one's ultimate goals are and then determine, using praxeological logic, if how one can actually achieve that goal, and then compare it to what one is in fact doing, and make a judgment of effectiveness.

All our practiced ethical systems are but variations on the same moral instincts. An understanding of the latter can help us to understand how to recommend improvements on the moral social order in which the moral instincts are in fact expressed.

Anonymous said...

Defining morality is a key issue here. But from my Darwinian perspective, morality is anything that increases the fitness of the individual and his group (tribe).

Religion is something that helps to solidify the tribe, and obeying tenets (even if they are crazy) is a simple exercise that works to keep the solidarity strong. Solidarity brings about altruism and both are especially important when confronted with intergroup conflict. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups and thus individualism remains the exception in society.

Until the reality of dynamics change, culture (including religion) must ultimately not decrease group fitness or else it will disappear. Such may be the decline of the West.