I know many religious people hate Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, and perhaps some of their opinions are over the top. Nevertheless, this talk on morality and science covers some difficult and fascinating problems that are relevant for any secular theory of ethics.
There is no doubt we have certain innate moral feelings, ideas and propensities: these are the result of evolution by natural selection. But trying to justify an ethical system by simply appealing to this nature is unsound. It commits the appeal to nature fallacy. One needs a rational justification for ethical ends and how to behave to achieve these ends.
I like the comments of Harris on how standard consequentialism needs to be revised and how notions of justice and fairness are not incompatible with a consequentialist theory of ethics.
Monday, April 1, 2013
Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins on Morality and Science
Posted by Lord Keynes at 3:24 AM
Labels: morality, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, science
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I like the comments of Harris on how standard consequentialism needs to be revised and how notions of justice and fairness are not incompatible with a consequentialist theory of ethics.ReplyDelete
For those of us who do not have time to watch an hour of video, could you possibly summarize Harris's argument?
First, by "standard consequentialism" I mean Harris is thinking of how Benthamite classical utilitarianism is adequate.Delete
And secondly, that notions of justice and fairness also in the end cannot ignore consequences. A reformed consequentialism can incorporate of ideas of justice and fairness. For example, with this revision, the "trolley problem" does not have the moral solution that classical utilitarianism usually gives to it.
Of course, Harris makes bold claims: Hume's is-ought distinction is misleading; it can be overcome.
The idea that natural sciences have nothing to say about value is also misleading.
E.g., do you value your health? The argument follows:
- smoking tends to increase risk of diseases such as cancer
- if you wish to avoid these negative health consequences, then you ought to avoid smoking.
But trying to justify an ethical system by simply appealing to this nature is unsound.ReplyDelete
This is where philosophy gets tricky. What does it mean to "justify an ethical system"? An ethical system is, in a sense, a system that creates justifications. To justify an ethical system, it would seem that we run into either circularity or infinite regress. What does it mean for an ethical system to justify itself? How do we justify the meta-ethical system that justifies the ethical system?
An evolutionary approach doesn't justify anything; evolution is a science, and sciences describe. Evolution instead gives us causal reasons why we have the ethical intuitions we actually have.
Indeed: an ethical system is one that seeks to provide justifications for ideas, actions, attitudes, or ends.Delete
I think Hume can taken to mean that moral "ought" statements cannot be deductively derived with apodictic certainty (that is, absolute and necessary truth) from "is" statements.
But what if you just use inductive arguments and argue that your moral "ought" statements have probable truth, not necessary truth?
Imagine the moral problem of children and smoking. As a parent I stop my child from smoking (I value my child's health). I argue it is moral for me to prevent smoking in this way.
I might reason:
- Smoking in very many instances we see (unless you have very good genes) causes serious health problems
- in the case of my child (unless he/she has very good genes), it is likely to cause serious health problems.
I have provided an argument for my moral decision. There is no necessary truth, but rational justification through inductive argument.
Of course, I know that does not justify why I ought to value my child's health. But even here you could provide all sorts of inductive arguments too about why health is related to wellbeing and happiness.
I really think that these guys are charlatans, LK. I strongly recommend you check out Mary Midgley on this:ReplyDelete
And some supplementary (i.e. free) material:
Oh, and I should add that Midgley is very close to the truth regarding the shift in thinking during the 1970s. Its the same time as Rational Expectations -- the economic equivalent to the selfish gene -- was on the rise. There was an entire move toward a crude and poorly conceived atomism in both economics and biology at this time.Delete
John King's new book "The Microfoundations Delusion" -- a sarcastic reference to Dawkins' "The God Delusion" -- goes through this in-depth. He shows the overlap in the approaches and how the move toward atomism effectively killed Keynesianism -- even today, the form of Keynesianism that lives is New Keynesianism which is also dependent on atomism (i.e. microfoundations).
I wrote a review of the book which appears in the next copy of ROKE. I also glossed on the dominant themes in a slightly idiosyncratic piece here if you're interested. I would say that you should try to get hold of the book itself though. My glosses and reviews don't do it justice.
Thanks for the links.Delete
I would be in strong agreement with Mary Midgley's view that caricatures of Darwinism have been used unjustly to support social Darwinism and even Thatcherite economics.
But, as far as I see, Dawkins explicitly rejects the appeal to nature fallacy. He is not an advocate of, or apologist for, social Darwinism or neoliberal economics. The "self gene" is just a metaphor, after all, and Dawkins never denies that humans have strong social and cooperative natures.
To the extent that culture plays a massive part in human society and development, I agree too that there are limits to evolution's explanatory power. There are some silly things that can be seen in, for example, evolutionary psychology.
I will add King's The Microfoundations Delusion to my reading list. It sounds very interesting indeed.Delete
Just read the Nakedcapitalism.com post and will check out your review in Review of Keynesian Economics (congrats on that! by the way).
Wait until you get to the section of the book that deals with the Austrians and their approach to microfoundations. It's short but very embarrassing.
"Wait until you get to the section of the book that deals with the Austrians and their approach to microfoundations. It's short but very embarrassing."Delete
lol... Can't wait!
Have now read a few chapters of King's "The Microfoundations Delusion" and it is undoubtedly an important book:Delete
Thought you might find this interesting:ReplyDelete
Moral intuitions as evolutionary modules