Article

In Support of a Scientific Morality

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I wanted to chime in with my two cents about the question of scientific morality. Sam Harris has laid out his arguments in much more depth and detail in both his TED talk The Moral Landscape and followup essay.

Today, there’s 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 quantification or maximization of individual happiness, but about maximization of a set of environmental and social conditions conducive to individuals maximizing their *own* happiness through the widest possible range of choices which they can make without dramatically impacting the *opportunities* for the happiness of 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 ultimately personal boundaries. In fact, 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*.

Bottom line, our moral instincts are shorthand about what our minds have analyzed 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 can (or should) understand that our primitive internal moral instincts are hopelessly subjective and self-serving. Which should motivate us to strive toward a true, advanced, and inclusive universal morality. 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 finely tuned set of goals. Civilization and prosperity 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 laughably 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-based 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 redefine and abandon long-cherished but outworn beliefs.

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Comments (20 comments)

dmab / May 4th, 2010, 6:04 pm / #1

how about I believe in WHATEVER I want - even in the FLYING SPAGHETTI
MONSTER! - and you have nothing to say!

let me show you the end results of this particular *ONE-DIMENSIONAL
SCIENTIFIC MODE*

of thinking that is called *CRITICAL THINKING*, which is completely
divorced from

any human objectives…

this style has been per…fected by dawkins, pz, randi and the other *NEW
ATHEISTS*

**

THE BOOBQUAKE - 911!

***

hey, atheists don't even BELIEVE IN BOOBIES!!!

they thought BOOBIES had no effect… WRONG!

see, I just want to make it clear to the rest of you:

jen is unable to see that there is a CONFLICT BETWEEN EROS &
SCIENCE….
http://www.blaghag.com/2010/04/in-name-of-science...

see how we take a term and convert it into its AUTHENTIC POLITICAL
DIMENSION - THAT

OF LIBERATION - not just merely harmless expression…

Visit for the BOOBQUAKE:

dissidentphilosophy.lifediscussion.net/philosophy-f1/the-boobquake-911-t1310.htm

dma / May 4th, 2010, 6:04 pm / #2

how about I believe in WHATEVER I want - even in the FLYING SPAGHETTI
MONSTER! - and you have nothing to say!

let me show you the end results of this particular *ONE-DIMENSIONAL
SCIENTIFIC MODE*

of thinking that is called *CRITICAL THINKING*, which is completely
divorced from

any human objectives…

this style has been per…fected by dawkins, pz, randi and the other *NEW
ATHEISTS*

**

THE BOOBQUAKE - 911!

***

hey, atheists don't even BELIEVE IN BOOBIES!!!

they thought BOOBIES had no effect… WRONG!

see, I just want to make it clear to the rest of you:

jen is unable to see that there is a CONFLICT BETWEEN EROS &
SCIENCE….
http://www.blaghag.com/2010/04/in-name-of-science...

see how we take a term and convert it into its AUTHENTIC POLITICAL
DIMENSION - THAT

OF LIBERATION - not just merely harmless expression…

Visit for the BOOBQUAKE:
http://dissidentphilosophy.lifediscussion.net/phi...

burk / May 4th, 2010, 6:35 pm / #3

Hi, Sean-

That is very nice and I am sympathetic. But even with all possible knowledge of human nature, there seem to be some loose variables in the form of ideologies and zeitgeists, which can change what we value over time. There is also the process of communality- that morals are a communal negotiation, across populations of people who are very different and may also change with time. So, knowledge of human nature can supply some basics in terms of suffering and harm principles. But they can not supply guidance on hazier values.

Freedom is one example. One person's freedom is another's slavery, such as membership in a wonderful cult that gives them self-assurance, love, and power. Some enjoy self-flagellation. Human flourishing has happened in a kaleidoscopic array of different nationalistic, religious, and other ideologies, so we can't just shut the door by saying that all humans like X.

BlackSun / May 4th, 2010, 6:51 pm / #4

Hi burk, please go read Sam Harris' article. I'm not saying we should all have the same values. Morality is concerned only about actions that affect and/or limit the opportunities of others.

We only need define one basic premise which cannot be established empirically: That human flourishing is a primary goal of morality. There are a few others which are helpful (but not essential) such as the primacy of consensuality and recognition of personal boundaries. All else can be derived from empirical observation and modeling of behavior and socioeconomic interaction. Even things like optimal tax rates for balancing individual freedom with social service delivery can be analyzed.

Cult membership or voluntary participation in other groups which limit personal freedom are all part of the human experience. Most people like to eat, but others (anorexics or hunger strikers) not so much. As long as personal choice and bodily sovereignty are respected, neither of these examples would violate a scientific standard of objective morality. Forcing women to wear burqas or have clitoridectomies against their will would.

Notice that I already qualified this, but you chose to use poor examples to attack a straw-man version of my position. This is often the response to laying out controversial viewpoints. Never did I say that this would be easy, or simple, or that I had all the answers. Never did I say that "all humans should like X" Only that progress toward a scientific understanding of morality is *possible.*

BlackSun / May 4th, 2010, 6:51 pm / #5

Hi burk, please go read Sam Harris' article. I'm not saying we should all have the same values. Morality is concerned only about actions that affect and/or limit the opportunities of others.

We only need define one basic premise which cannot be established empirically: That human flourishing is a primary goal of morality. There are a few others which are helpful (but not essential) such as the primacy of consensuality and recognition of personal boundaries. All else can be derived from empirical observation and modeling of behavior and socioeconomic interaction. Even things like optimal tax rates for balancing individual freedom with social service delivery can be analyzed.

Cult membership or voluntary participation in other groups which limit personal freedom are all part of the human experience. Most people like to eat, but others (anorexics or hunger strikers) not so much. As long as personal choice and bodily sovereignty are respected, neither of these examples would violate a scientific standard of objective morality. Forcing women to wear burqas or have clitoridectomies against their will would.

Notice that I already qualified this, but you chose to use poor examples to attack a straw-man version of my position. This is often the response to laying out controversial viewpoints. Never did I say that this would be easy, or simple, or that I had all the answers. Never did I say that "all humans should like X" Only that progress toward a scientific understanding of morality is *possible.*

Gord / May 4th, 2010, 7:34 pm / #6

Your arguments are in the domain of humans, but there is evidence of it in other species as well. It sucks that this book hasn't gotten more of a following since it's come out but Frances De Waal writes about the expression of empathy in his book "The Age of Empathy". I strongly encourage you to read it if you're concerned with this topic of science's statements on morality. Also too is anything written by Bruce Perry. I hope that "The Moral Landscape" expands on this topic and ties the entities together. Very excited for that book.

Gord / May 4th, 2010, 7:34 pm / #7

Your arguments are in the domain of humans, but there is evidence of it in other species as well. It sucks that this book hasn't gotten more of a following since it's come out but Frances De Waal writes about the expression of empathy in his book "The Age of Empathy". I strongly encourage you to read it if you're concerned with this topic of science's statements on morality. Also too is anything written by Bruce Perry. I hope that "The Moral Landscape" expands on this topic and ties the entities together. Very excited for that book.

Gord / May 4th, 2010, 7:34 pm / #8

Your arguments are in the domain of humans, but there is evidence of it in other species as well. It sucks that this book hasn't gotten more of a following since it's come out but Frances De Waal writes about the expression of empathy in his book "The Age of Empathy". I strongly encourage you to read it if you're concerned with this topic of science's statements on morality. Also too is anything written by Bruce Perry. I hope that "The Moral Landscape" expands on this topic and ties the entities together. Very excited for that book.

BlackSun / May 4th, 2010, 7:43 pm / #9

Me too. Absolutely agree that other species should be included in the moral landscape to the extent of their sentience. I'll check out your book recommendation.

BlackSun / May 4th, 2010, 7:43 pm / #10

Me too. Absolutely agree that other species should be included in the moral landscape to the extent of their sentience. I'll check out your book recommendation.

Amaterasu / May 7th, 2010, 9:36 pm / #11

I agree with your statement "our moral instincts are shorthand about what our minds have analyzed to be the best methods for human flourishing".
In this, I see a need to restore and keep the minds of humanity to a state of physical and emotional health. When you have sick minds, including malnourished, fearful, drug/alcohol abused, religion-indoctrinated minds, the assumptions about what is best for human flourishing is skewed.
But in saying that, it's also in the state of fear that we've evolved our brains responses in survival, and hence flourishing. If we can help the world survive easier, the best methods for human flourishing can emerge easier.
Thanks for your article and references.

BlackSun / May 7th, 2010, 9:45 pm / #12

You are quite right. Which is why the real work of morality is involved in not just abstract definitions and discussions, but in actually helping people through philanthropy. I think as more and more of our drudge labor is taken over by machinery the work that remains will be people helping people. And people helping to restore nature to its former glory. These are the noble professions of the future. And that's what a scientific sense of morality would support: looking at the world through multiple levels of analysis, from individual to the broadest ecosystem perspective.

TehHawt / May 27th, 2010, 7:07 pm / #13

Very well stated, and thank you for lead on the books! I do a lot of reading in the realms of evolutionary psychology and these seem that they will fit right in.

TehHawt / May 27th, 2010, 7:08 pm / #14

Thank you for articulating these thoughts so brilliantly. I agree with you 100%.

mike / June 15th, 2010, 5:56 am / #15

This is a recitation of a traditionalist view, which cannot manage to see human beings for what they are, complex systems of biomachinery. The above statement is seen to be contradictory. The situation is very critical and need an experience complainer to resolve it
Support for Technology.
mike,hast………..

aartisharma / June 15th, 2010, 6:04 am / #16

aartisharma http://supportfortechnology.com
today science fully entered in our life. everywhere we need scientific things.A scientific understanding of morality would have to recognize the legitimacy of differences, competition, and ultimately personal boundaries.i fully agree with you.

Randy Minnick / June 19th, 2010, 6:52 am / #17

Morality is none of the above mentioned by this …..whatever he is. It's been a long long time since I've heard someone speak for so long and say absolutely nothing meaningful. Morality is simply disallowing oneself to take advantage of another precious soul. What's so hard about that? It isn't complicated…..it isn't complex…….it isn't ethereal…it's just simple. Don't take advantage of someone else to further your lusts and ambitions. There isn't even anything particularly "religious" about the matter. Nevertheless, for thousands of years there have been people who have tried to express this dynamic to all. Few seem to grasp the simplicity of the matter. Don't take advantage of others. Don't be selfish to the point of stealing from others. What a concept. I bet if we were to refer to the Bible we find those exact concepts. Amazing.

BlackSun / June 19th, 2010, 7:03 pm / #18

Randy, in a word, bollocks!

We are hard wired by evolution to take advantage of others. We are also hard wired to cooperate. It is the project of civilization to balance these tendencies and reinforce incentives to hew to our better nature. But we will never get rid of our rapaciousness. I would argue that pretending we can has created some of the greatest follies in human history: communism, religious "morality" (always laced with hypocrisy).

It's time for us to admit the obvious, and I'll let Maynard say it for me here

"Vicarious"

Eye on the TV
'cause tragedy thrills me
Whatever flavor it happens to be

Like:
"Killed by the husband" …
"Drowned by the ocean" …
"Shot by his own son" …
"She used a poison in his tea,
Then (she) kissed him goodbye"
That's my kind of story
It's no fun til someone dies.

Don't look at me like I am a monster
Frown out your one face, but with the other (you)
Stare like a junkie into the TV
Stare like a zombie while the mother holds her child,
Watches him die,
Hands to the sky cryin "why, oh why?"

Cause I need to watch things die from a distance
Vicariously, I live while the whole world dies
You all need it too - don't lie.

Why can't we just admit it?
Why can't we just admit it?
We won't give pause until the blood is flowin'
Neither the brave nor bold
Nor brightest of stories told
We won't give pause until the blood is flowin'

I need to watch things die from a good safe distance
Vicariously, I live while the whole world dies
You all feel the same so why can't we just admit it?

Blood like rain fallin' down
Drum on grave and ground

Part vampire, part warrior,
Carnivore and voyeur
Stare at the transmittal.
Sing to the death rattle.

La, la, la, la, la, la, la-lie (x4)

Credulous at best
Your desire to believe in
Angels in the hearts of men.
But pull your head on out (of) your hippie haze
And give a listen
Shouldn't have to say it all again

The universe is hostile
So impersonal
Devour to survive
So it is, so it's always been …

We all feed on tragedy.
It's like blood to a vampire.

Vicariously, I live while the whole world dies
Much better you than I.

jonthn / July 6th, 2010, 10:55 pm / #19

"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 ultimately personal boundaries. In fact, 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*."

Replace morality with labor and this sounds a lot like Frederick Taylor in the 19th century. So now we've identified the problem (there is a weak scientific understanding of morality) but how do we "hold firm but flexible boundaries between various orbits of sentience and interdependence"?

black light? / July 21st, 2010, 3:52 pm / #20

I wonder how many nations in our world have official/written/ adopted moral codes?
How many underdeveloped nations have one? In those which do have codes what are the quantifying tools available to estimate adherence to moral codes, what is the awareness of civic societies on their adopted moral codes, are there any separate implementing agencies in these countries?

Oh yah people did invent cars that can fly. But we dont see any ,do we? Dont think we can afford traffic jams in air?

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