Wilhelm Hofmann of the Center for Decision Research at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business sent us a note about a new study he and his colleagues are conducting on everyday morality. If you live in the United States or Canada, and you have a smartphone with Internet access and the ability to receive texts, you can sign up to participate here.
As a participant, you’ll be asked to respond to short surveys on your phone over the period of a few days. The researchers, Hofmann explains, will focus on how things like “religious affiliation and political opinions influence how people experience and react to moral behaviors in everyday life.” On a personal level, it’s a chance for you to gain some insight into how you think about moral issues.
Americans are three times more likely to say moral values in the United States are “poor” than to say they’re “excellent” or “good,” according to new poll by Gallup researchers. The researchers also found that 76 percent of Americans think moral values in the country are getting worse, while only 14 percent believe they’re getting better.
How, specifically, do Americans see values deteriorating? Here’s what the respondents said:
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Sam Harris has responded to cosmologist Sean Carroll’s latest response to his TED talk, maintaining that science can help us create a universal foundation for morality:
Imagine that we had a machine that could produce any possible brain state (this would be the ultimate virtual reality device, more or less like the Matrix). This machine would allow every human being to sample all available mental states (some would not be available without changing a person’s brain, however). I think we can ignore most of the philosophical and scientific wrinkles here and simply stipulate that it is possible, or even likely, that given an infinite amount of time and perfect recall, we would agree about a range of brain states that qualify as good (as in, “Wow, that was so great, I can’t imagine anything better”) and bad (as in, “I’d rather die than experience that again.”) There might be controversy over specific states—after all, some people do like Marmite—but being members of the same species with very similar brains, we are likely to converge to remarkable degree. I might find that brain state X242358B is my absolute favorite, and Carroll might prefer X979793L, but the fear that we will radically diverge in our judgments about what constitutes well-being seems pretty far-fetched. The possibility that my hell will be someone else’s heaven, and vice versa, seems hardly worth considering. And yet, whatever divergence did occur must also depend on facts about the brains in question.
Even if there were 10,000 different ways for groups of human beings to maximally thrive (all trade-offs and personal idiosyncrasies considered), there will be many ways for them not to thrive—and the difference between luxuriating on a peak of the moral landscape and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood.
No, maintains cosmologist Sean Carroll, who first responded to Sam Harris’ TED talk on the subject a couple of months back. (Harris’ main point is that science can help us get at what we ought to do to live the best life possible). Now, Carroll explains his objections in more detail.
In essence, he argues that in the real world, people don’t agree on what constitutes “well-being,” and it’s not clear that maximizing well-being is the proper goal of morality. And there are no experiments we can do to determine what well-being really is or how we should balance an individual’s well-being against the community’s. In other words, there is no scientific way to answer moral questions. We can use science to help us understand morality, he says, but we can’t use it to justify our moral values.
As he explains:
The whole debate is somewhat distressing, as we could be engaged in an interesting and fruitful discussion about how scientific methods could help us with our moral judgments, if we hadn’t been distracted by the misguided attempt to found moral judgments on science. It’s a subtle distinction, but this is a subtle game.