We Must Converge

Sam Harris delivers an impressive talk in which he argues that science does have answers to questions about morality.

Most people have skepticism about science’s role in leading us to moral values. That science can tell us what is, but not what ought to be – is a widely held belief. But Harris claims that values are a certain kind of empirical facts. They are facts about the well-beings of conscious creatures. And science can help us to discover these factual values.

Thought-provoking and audacious as they might be, I don’t completely agree with Harris’ arguments about the objectivity of morality. The sufferings and well-beings of conscious creatures might very well be empirical facts, and science can be a very useful, even vital, tool to understand these facts, but that still doesn’t tell us how we should act or feel after acquiring this knowledge.

However, I do agree that we must converge regarding the answers we give to the most important questions about human life. And in order to converge, we must agree first that there are answers. But as a moral relativist, I don’t believe there are ultimate objective moral values waiting to be discovered (like scientific facts). I can comprehend the universality of morality but not its absoluteness.

***

While talking about Sam Harris, here’s an earlier post of mine: Religious Moderates.

Also, read his debate with Rick Warren (the pastor who gave invocation to Obama’s presidential inauguration): The God Debate. A couple of excerpts below:

Sam, is there a God in the sense that most Americans think of him?

SAM HARRIS: There’s no evidence for such a God, and it’s instructive to notice that we’re all atheists with respect to Zeus and the thousands of other dead gods whom now nobody worships.

And,

The core problem for me is divisive dogmatism. There are many kinds of dogmatism. There’s nationalism, there’s tribalism, there’s racism, there’s chauvinism. And there’s religion. Religion is the only sphere of discourse where dogma is actually a good word, where it is considered ennobling to believe something strongly based on faith.

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3 responses to “We Must Converge

  1. Kamlesh

    Morality as a whole has historically come to be defined based on the context and the ‘majority’ view of the populace on the effects of one’s action(s)&/or thought(s) /failure to act &/or think. So in a way, if we were to classify the moral domain (how do I think about religion X / how do I use up my time in office and the list is endless) and list the action(s)/thought(s) into agreeable/distasteful categories, we do have a template on our hands. So Sam is partly right.

    But like you pointed out, the objectivity of the theorem would always be debatable, for there would be exception(s), there would be external parameters that would test the veracity to the hilt and make the theory unusable (I acted like this because I had such a unique situation and all that).

    Your thought that we have to agree to have disagreements is a novel one – for if we learn to accept deviance(s) on a case to case basis, we would have a voluntary corrective action that would create a ripple effect and lead to a strong ‘moral’ framework and a more testable moral equation.

    • Vishal

      Thanks for your comments.

      I consider myself to be a moral relativist (or moral conventionalist) but I am not very certain about this position though. I believe that moral values can and does evolve over time. What was moral thousands of years ago can be immoral today. BUT I am not one of those people who look at unscientific/inhuman traditional practices of other cultures and say “It’s okay for them to do this, because that’s their culture. It’s moral under their ethical purview.” There’s no reason why these type of actions shouldn’t be subjected to ethical scrutiny. And science can be a very useful tool (as Harris argues) in establishing a universal (not absolute/objective!) morality to enable that ethical scrutiny. Science can do this because ultimately morality deals with avoiding suffering (or inducing happiness), and what else but science can help us identify how actions impact the well-being of conscious creatures? What I disagree about (with Harris) is that science can show you what happens when you do X but it can’t tell you (as he claims) that X is moral or immoral.

  2. Pingback: The Moral Landscape | A Blank Slate

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