Sam Harris on the science of good and evil, Intelligence Squared, London, 11 April 2011
American philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris, author of The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, is on a mission to break down the longstanding philosophical distinction between facts and values. As a leading so-called New Atheist, Harris is partly motivated by a desire to challenge religious claims to authority on the basis of unquestionable values (1). But it became clear as he discussed his ideas with the Reverend Giles Fraser at an Intelligence Squared event in London that there is more to Harris’ argument than bashing religion. As the title of his book suggests, he believes science can answer questions previously thought beyond its purview. That’s not only a challenge to religion, but to moral philosophy and ultimately politics.
Indeed, Harris sees the debate, when not between scientists and religious fundamentalists, as one between scientists (or more precisely scientists who share Harris’ views) and moral relativists. This is because he believes scientific facts are the only kind of truth there is. For Harris, to say the Taliban’s treatment of women is wrong is to state such a fact, because it can be shown that such treatment causes unnecessary suffering. He seems to have little interest in moral or political arguments that rest on transcendent ideals or assertions of interest, say, rather than demonstrable facts. So when he raised the example of a colleague who had refused to agree with him that the Taliban’s treatment of women is objectively wrong, one wondered whether she had indeed been a shocking relativist, or just a good philosopher objecting to Harris’ lack of subtlety. If it could be shown somehow that restricting women’s freedom actually made them happier, would that make it morally right? We’ll come back to that.
At one point in a wide-ranging discussion with Fraser, Harris suggested in passing that some good might come out of the recent disaster in Japan, if it meant people were more careful in future in regulating nuclear power stations. But this reveals one of the many problems with thinking of the world in terms of facts. Facts have little to say about perspective. For one thing, to think of ‘the disaster in Japan’ in terms of the damage to the nuclear reactor and the possible but still uncertain future consequences – rather than the loss of tens of thousands of lives and massive damage to property and infrastructure instantly caused by the earthquake and tsunami – reflects the biases of the Western media rather than a humane consideration of what happened.
More substantially, the assumption that the disaster exposed some kind of failure of regulation or planning is also questionable. Japan is probably the most earthquake-proof country in the world; otherwise the loss of life would have been far greater. It simply failed to cope with such an extreme and unforeseen catastrophe. And if the Japanese had planned around such a possibility, say by doing without nuclear power, this would have meant sacrificing material development and quality of life, needlessly as far as anyone knew. Harris recognised a similar problem himself with respect to traffic accidents in the US. Thousands of people are killed every year on America’s roads: would this fact justify an extreme speed limit that would devastate the country’s social and economic life? Most people would say no: it’s a question of perspective.
But Harris struggles with this kind of thing. He eats meat, but thinks he probably shouldn’t, because it means animals suffer, and he doesn’t think that’s justified by the pleasure he gets from it. Nonetheless, he leaves open the possibility that such a calculation could be made. Giles Fraser pushed him on a very odd point he makes in his book: Harris suggests that if a race of super intelligent aliens would get supreme pleasure from eating us, we should let them. The fact of alien pleasure might outweigh the fact of our suffering. Once again, human perspective is called for here. But Harris’ commitment to objective facts means he is unable to adopt an explicitly human perspective, and is left grasping for some kind of objective basis on which to rank species for ethical purposes, settling on intensity of suffering and pleasure. If we were to discover that cockroaches suffer more than we thought, we’d have to treat them better. But in reality how we treat cockroaches is based on our own interests, not some cosmic judgement. And that’s as it should be: our morality is human-centred.
It might be objected that such particularism or ‘speciesism’ repeats the mistake of racial discrimination within humankind. But to the extent that racism is or was a mere ‘mistake’ it is a relatively modern one, and one that owed more to science than religion. Indeed, Christian anti-slavery campaigners were insisting on the equality of human beings under God at a time when scientists were categorising people in a racial hierarchy. The equality of the races was not finally discovered in a lab, but demonstrated and fought over in long, hard political struggles. And the resulting concept of a universal humanity is precisely that: the product of human history rather than academic study. If we do encounter aliens, we’ll be wise to rediscover some of the suspicion with which humans always viewed other groups historically, rather than appealing to imagined cosmic rules of engagement. (All going well, our civilisations will eventually unite, but I’m not getting eaten because Sam Harris loses a debate with Zog the Mighty.)
Importantly, Harris’ approach leaves little room for moral progress. He did concede that in-group altruism may have evolved in tandem with hostility to outsiders, but that’s an anthropological idea rather than an historical one. Science types like Harris are much more comfortable with prehistoric just-so stories than actual human history. So Harris protests that Jesus Christ and the authors of the New Testament never figured out that slavery is wrong. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that this would have been a meaningless idea in first century Palestine. Slavery was not a moral dilemma, but an essential fact of social organisation. And various institutions very like slavery remained so for much of the following two millennia. You might as well condemn Jesus for failing to come up with the welfare state as for failing to argue for abolition. (Though his expansion of the Levitical “Love thy neighbour” to the insane “Love your enemies” was already reaching out of history with reckless disregard for facts.)
By the time the anti-slavery movement took off in modern Europe and America, however, the world had changed: slavery was a moral issue because it had been widely established that individual freedom was a real, achievable and desirable goal. And again, the language in which that aspiration was articulated owed far more to religious faith than scientific facts. But what brought the issue to life was the historical fact of human progress. And another part of human progress, most people agree, has been the development and expansion of democracy.
In response to questions, Harris asked, seemingly bewildered, why anyone should be afraid of the idea that scientific experts might determine human values. One answer is that we value democracy; and science, for all its other merits, is not democratic. For the very same reason we object to theocratic rule, we are right to be suspicious of ‘scientistic’ pronouncements. There is an important difference, of course. In theory, scientific knowledge is open to anyone who cares to work at understanding it. Scientists don’t claim unique insights from God, but instead advance propositions that can be verified by their colleagues – and again, in principle, anyone else. Nonetheless, the memory of racial science alone ought to make us wary of affording too much authority to science as an institution and its specific ideas at any given time.
Moreover, even when we accept scientific facts, values don’t necessarily follow. We know smoking causes cancer, but does that make it wrong? We know nuclear power carries risks – does that mean we should abandon it? Judgements like these can be informed by science, but never decided. The gap between facts and values gives us breathing space for human judgements based on our own perspectives, essential in a democracy. Crucially, it is also essential to the idea of secularism: modern religious leaders talk about values, but they don’t dictate. Civilised people can agree to disagree, and also recognise that some things really are relative. It would be ironic indeed if secularism were finally to be destroyed by science claiming absolute authority for itself.
Unsurprisingly, Harris seems a bit clueless about politics. Discussing the gay marriage debate in the US, he laments the fact that President Obama rests his opposition on nothing more than Christian belief, portraying the president as a religious automaton. But the real reason Obama doesn’t make a moral case against gay marriage (assuming he could think of one) is that it would be incredibly offensive to do so, and alienate millions of voters. Citing religion is not simply a way of avoiding the argument, but a way of softening his stance against gay marriage – it’s nothing personal, just tradition really. Harris may be right that a genuine debate would be preferable, but that would mean engaging openly in the simmering American culture wars, not arguing about science. (Significantly, opponents of gay marriage are at their nuttiest not when they invoke God, but when they resort to dubious psychological ‘facts’.)
Unfortunately, genuine political debate is rare today, and the main reason is not a stalemate over values, but the withdrawal of the public from meaningful political engagement, and the tendency among politicians to see their role as one of quasi-colonialist stewardship over the ignorant masses. Lifestyle-focused ‘public health’ is the most developed example of this, with smoking bans, anti-drinking campaigns and the policing of school dinners, all resting on the authority of science. But it is the new ‘politics of happiness’, championed by Prime Minister David Cameron, that shows most clearly what we have to fear from experts determining values. Because when our happiness or well-being, as defined by science, is seen as more important than our autonomy, we lose our freedom to determine for ourselves what we believe in and what is best for us.
Of course, there is a place for experts in a democracy, and solid evidence can sway public opinion, but there are other kinds of arguments that are equally if not more persuasive: appeals to interests, whether particular or universal, and to people’s own sense of what is right. ‘Right’ does not have to mean demonstrably correct by scientific means, but the alternative does not have to be relativistic, plural ‘values’. One of Harris’ objections to the idea of values is that they often seem to be culturally relative – Christian values, Muslim values etc – whereas science is universal. In fact, differences in values tend to be quite superficial and contingent, and there is often near unanimity on what is virtuous across human cultures.
Leaving aside such obvious virtues as kindness and altruism, take something like grieving for the dead. The various religions have their particular rituals, but the basic process is universal. A psychologist might explain how the process helps the bereaved to heal, while an anthropologist might point to its importance for social bonding, and so on. But these facts are secondary. Whatever the origins of the process, and whatever functions it serves, we want to grieve when we lose somebody because we believe it’s what’s morally appropriate for us to do as human beings, even if it served no purpose. Put another way, most of us want the next generation to grow into our moral culture, to go to the theatre to see Macbeth and to understand why Macduff grieves his own children, rather than shrugging and saying, ‘That guy needs to take a chill pill’. From a cosmic perspective perhaps this is irrational as poking our children’s eyes out in the name of tradition (one of Harris’ crazy thought experiments), but the point is we don’t have a cosmic perspective, and nor should we want one.
What Harris fails to recognise is that we are not merely suffering beings who want to minimise our suffering, but members of a human culture – God doesn’t have to come into it – that imbues us with certain commitments and obligations. These have evolved over time from primitive group loyalties and honour codes to increasingly universal ideas expressed both in religious traditions and secular thought, not because we have improved our knowledge of ‘morality’ in the way we’ve improved our knowledge of nature, but because we have changed the world and created new possibilities. It is precisely the gap between the way things are and they way we believe they ought to be that has made morality – and argument about it – a force for change as much as conservation in human history. Religion must never be allowed to have the final word on what’s right and wrong, and neither must science.
First published on Culture Wars.