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Posts tagged ‘The Moral Landscape’

How Science Can Inform Human Values & Morality

One of the most enduring themes in western thought is the separation of science and human values. It is often said that science is amoral, that it has nothing to say about what we ought to do, only what is. It’s understandable why people believe this; it is easy to think that human values cannot be measured in the same way that, say, gravity is measured. I think this is false. We now know from science that there are right and wrong answers about what we ought to value, what increases human well-being and flourishing, and what is or isn’t moral.

To begin, it’s important to understand human morality not as having single objective answers. It is best to conceive of it as having peaks and valleys – a moral landscape, as Sam Harris frames it – where there are multiple ways for human beings to thrive. Consider Harris’ analogy:

I would never be tempted to argue that there must be one right food to eat. There is clearly a wide range of materials that constitute what to eat. But there is nevertheless a clear distinction between food and poison. The fact that there are many right answers to the question of what food to eat does not tempt us to say that there are no truths to be know about human nutrition.

That is to say, understanding morality as having multiple truths, and as having multiple avenues to these truths, does not undermine the idea that there are no moral principles to be known. This is why it misses the point to ask questions like, “Is lying wrong?” or “Is stealing wrong?” Implicit in these queries is the false assumption that exceptions destroy the idea of moral truth. Lying and stealing can be right and wrong depending on the situation. Consider Harris’ other analogy:

If you’re going to play good chess, a principle like don’t lose your queen is good to follow. But clearly there are exceptions. There are moments where losing your queen is a brilliant thing to do. There are moments where it is the only good thing you can do. Yet, chess is a game of perfect objectivity. The fact that there are exceptions does not change that at all.

So how can science lead us to the peaks of this moral landscape? As these analogies illustrate, it can in many ways. For example, if you grew up before the 1960s, or if you’re a Mad Men fan, you’ll know that people didn’t know how unhealthy cigarettes were. What’s worse is that smoking was actually advertised as something that was healthy. Then scientists stepped in, looked at the data, and realized the truth – smoking kills. Not soon after, the government took action and began issuing warnings in various places to inform people of the ills of smoking. Fast forward a few decades and smoking is a taboo. Even in Europe, where smoking rates are higher than those here in the United States, more and more countries are banning smoking from bars and issuing mandatory warning labels on cigarette packs. Cigarette smoking is a case where science told us what to value (not smoking) and what we ought to do (not smoke), and this improved our moral landscape.

The problem is religion sometimes gets in the way. Consider the case of Robyn Twitchell, a two-and-a-half-year-old boy who in April of 1986, started vomiting and crying. Over the next few days, his inability to consume and hold down food became dangerously apparent. So, his parents took him to their local prayer group where they prayed for him and sang hymns to him. He cried and winced in pain for days, but his parents refused proper medical assistance because they were Christian Scientists. He died a few days later. An autopsy showed that Robyn died of an obstructed bowel – an easy surgical fix. The parents were convicted of involuntary manslaughter, but the conviction was overturned.

Are there categorical differences between cigarette smoking and Robyn’s story? All admit that both cases are unhealthy. Yet, many believe that it is difficult to say that what Robyn’s parents did was wrong – at least more difficult than telling someone that smoking is wrong –  because it is impossible to determine if religious values are wrong, even if they have horrible outcomes. But who are we to pretend that what Robyn’s parent did wasn’t wrong? Science clearly shows that human beings are better off and human communities flourish more with better health care.

Unfortunately, religious values are untouchable. For example, in 2004, as Richard Dawkins explains, after appealing on the grounds of freedom of religion,”a twelve year-old boy in Ohio won the right in court to wear a T-shirt to school bearing the words: Homosexuality is a sin, Islam is a lie, abortion is murder. Some issues are just black and white!” Likewise, consider that in February of 2006 the United States Supreme court exempted a New Mexico Church from using hallucinogenic drugs because members of the church said that they could only understand God by drinking hoasca tea, which contains hallucinogenics. Clearly, religion is the, “trump card,” as Richard Dawkins says.

When I claim that science can determine values and generate moral truths I am suggesting that it is possible to know what is best for a human being and a community. It is true that smoking is harmful, it is true that not seeking proper medical attention for an ailing child is harmful, it is true that wearing a T-shirt with hateful comments is harmful, and it is true that taking hallucinogenic drugs is harmful. We know, through science, that all of these things make us worse off. This is not to say that science has the answers, but it is to say that it has the best tools to maximize our lives and our society. There are truths to be known about values, and using science to find these truths will make us all better off.

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