Saturday, October 25, 2008

This is your brain on morality

Interesting speech by Sam Harris:


He says that we should strive towards a society that maximizes the well-being of its people, and we can figure it out in a scientific and objective way that there are societies in the world which do not maximize their people's well-being as much as others. His examples are a society where women are forced to wear burqas, people demonize homosexuals, stone adulterers to death, and solicit the murders of novelists and cartoonists - it's obvious that these are bad ways to run a society.

However, in science, there's a big taboo on making normative claims or touching morality - that describing one society as better than another is a form of cultural imperialism. There's a culture of moral relativism that resists any attempt to address questions of morality, especially in a scientific way, and anyone attempting will undoubtedly get accused of scientism. But there's a moral imperative for a maturing science of the mind to address such questions.


In some ways, his speech covers a lot of new ground - using science to figure out which ways of organizing a society would produce the best results, but in other ways, this is the same basic thing that people have been saying for hundreds of years. An ancestor of Harris's notion of maximizing well-being can be seen in John Stuart Mill's greatest happiness principle, where morally right acts produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.

One potential criticism may be in quantifying and defining societal well-being. But surely, most of us can grasp this on an intuitive level - for instance, comparing a western, liberal democracy (like the UK) to an totalitarian state (like Hitler's Germany) to an Islamic theocracy (like Iran) - most of us would figure out that door #1 is a heckuva lot more conductive to a whole host of factors that we'd want in the ideal society - citizen happiness, freedom, economic prosperity, health, etc. And thankfully, there are plenty of statistics that attempt to track societal health in many countries - everything from poverty and infant mortality rate to quality of life and happiness.

One particularly interesting thing about Harris's lecture is that it's extremely relevant and important political policy makers, and using his well-being approach really could help foster positive changes in how our society is structured.

For example, let's talk drugs. It's always puzzled me that, around the world, different drugs are legal and different drugs are illegal. In the United States, alcohol and tobacco are legal while marijuana and opium are illegal, while in the Netherlands, marijuana is perfectly legal and in Saudi Arabia, alcohol is illegal (and the prescribed punishment is a public lashing. Yikes!). And if you go back and look at the history of drug laws, it doesn't seem like these decisions were made very rationally, and certainly not taking into account what science has to say on the matter. More often than not, we're talking about religious prohibitions or cultural norms. Yet, science has shown than some drugs are worse for societal well-being than others, and it's interesting to note that some of the legal ones are worse than the illegal ones.

And I don't know how Harris's talk is going to go over with the religious. Badly, I think. After all, he was the one who pointed out that religious morality, dependent on the imagined commands of God, is divorced from notions of human suffering. So why would such people possibly agree with him about maximizing human well-being across the globe, especially when Harris accuses certain religious norms (like demonizing homosexuals) of being morally deficient? They probably don't. In that case, they should stop advertising their religion as some sort of panacea for all the world's ills. (How many times have you heard people claim that only if more people believe in their sort of God, things in the world would be better? Bonus points if it was in response to someone in their religious group committing a grave moral misdeed)

But couldn't one make the case that religious organizations do a lot of good in the world, like charity work, and that the mission of increasing human well-being need not be at odds with following God's commands?

Well, there are a couple things wrong with this. Obviously, some religious codes don't maximize well-being, and would in fact cause a great deal of harm in the world if carried out (like stoning adulterers or killing apostates). If the religious mandate is merely helping people, then it can be achieved in a purely secular manner. But if it is obeying God above all else, then it cannot be reconciled with Harris's idea of promoting well-being because the two will inevitably conflict, since ancient holy books unavoidably reflect the moral norms of the time they're written, norms that have been rendered obsolete by more recent norms that more effectively increase human freedom and happiness.

So which direction shall we choose? A better world (assuming we have both the knowledge to figure out how to get there and the courage to see it through) or a faith-based world (where we let our ancient superstitions and prejudices guide our behavior)?

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