Mar 29, 2010
Sam Harris thinks so, arguing that “values” are really objective, knowable “facts” about the well-being of conscious creatures—meaning science can tells us what we should value. As he explains in his TED talk, descriptions of how the world “is” can tell us how the world “ought” to be because “there are right and wrong answers to questions of human flourishing, and morality relates to that domain of facts. It is possible for individuals and even for whole cultures to care about the wrong things, which is to say it’s possible for them to have beliefs and desires that reliably lead to needless human suffering.”
Not so fast, says physicist Sean Carroll, who disagrees with Harris’ thesis because:
Morality and science operate in very different ways. In science, our judgments are ultimately grounded in data; when it comes to values we have no such recourse. If I believe in the big-bang model and you believe in the steady-state cosmology, I can point to the successful predictions of the cosmic background radiation, light element nucleosynthesis, evolution of large-scale structure, and so on. Eventually you would either agree or be relegated to crackpot status. But what if I believe that the highest moral good is to be found in the autonomy of the individual, while you believe that the highest good is to maximize the utility of some societal group? What are the data we can point to in order to adjudicate this disagreement? We might use empirical means to measure whether one preference or the other leads to systems that give people more successful lives on some particular scale—but that’s presuming the answer, not deriving it. Who decides what is a successful life? It’s ultimately a personal choice, not an objective truth to be found simply by looking closely at the world. How are we to balance individual rights against the collective good? You can do all the experiments you like and never find an answer to that question.
Harris has promised to respond, so stay tuned.