How can we realistically move towards a more scientific approach to morality?
Posted: 12 July 2011 12:10 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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I watched Sam’s TED speech from Feb 2010 and I was absolutely intrigued. The notion of having a unified opinion on morality (which, if unified the way Sam says, will be scientific fact) is very exciting and certainly it’s appealing to think about. And while Sam made some great arguments, some of the questions he was asked at the end of his talk got me thinking.

I am from India but have had the good luck to travel and live all over the world due to my father’s job and now I live in NY. This have given me a unique opportunity to see various cultural differences and standards on morality and I have observed that while there are usually some pretty clear guidelines (killing is generally frowned upon, as are stealing, adultery, etc.) there are also a lot of differences (beheading your raped daughter for example, to reference the source of my inspiration). I’m sure this is pretty obvious to everyone.

The part about Sam’s talk that disappointed me was that I didn’t really hear any real plan of action. How are we to take ALL of these divergent opinions and streamline them in a way that is universally agreeable? The problem, as he rightly stated, was that we see all matters of opinion as being relative and the believer can be comfortable thinking they are right. Perhaps there is another post relating to this that I couldn’t find or this is covered in one of the books (which I confess I have not had time to browse through/order) but what I want to know is the game-plan, and if there isn’t one let’s get cracking right here right now because I think we can all agree that Mr. Harris is at least right about one thing - as borders mean less and less and we become closer, we will not see unity until our moral compasses are collectively adjusted to the same direction.

There is no debate about science because the results are all observable and consistent, and can be tested time and time again to prove their verity. How can we consistently start to measure moral outcomes such that the results are universally irrefutable?

Granted there are some very…....‘special’ individuals out there who debate real proven science such as, oh I dunno, evolution! Similarly there will be a subset of people who say that a hypothetical moral consensus is invalid or is “just a theory, not fact” (lol) but, like evolution, how can we go about proving our new-found Universal Moral Code to the majority of the masses?

[ Edited: 16 December 2011 03:20 AM by Nhoj Morley]
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Posted: 30 July 2011 01:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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artripathi - 12 July 2011 04:10 PM

There is no debate about science because the results are all observable and consistent, and can be tested time and time again to prove their verity. How can we consistently start to measure moral outcomes such that the results are universally irrefutable?

Artripathi, I question your assertion.  It seems to me the scientific process is more of a trial-and-error system, or a feedback loop where a hypothesis is exposed to experimentation or new data, tested, and then reformulated if needed, over and over.  Even something that’s widely accepted as being valid, like gravity or evolution, is not static: our understanding of the nuances of how the processes they describe work changes constantly as we make new discoveries or refine our understanding of the world.  They’re also subject to that overused phrase, paradigm shifts, if enough evidence accumulates.  There’s a lot of debate, in fact.


I’m unconvinced that moral choices are subject to falsification in the same way that, say, astrophysics or biology are.  You can reject gravity if you want, but I think we can agree that you’re still actually glued to the planet.  (Well, most of us agree, anyway… wink ...)  If there’s a similar test for finding an objective response to the correctness of rejecting or accepting a given concept of what’s moral, it’s going to have to come from someone smarter than I am. (Which might not be a high bar, to be fair.)

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Posted: 03 August 2011 03:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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Mr. Harris is, as usual, onto something.  It’s common sense, I would’ve thought, but that never stopped anyone from ignoring it.  So, on the off chance it’ll help, the obvious bears repeating.  Sam does it so well.  Can’t wait to read The Moral Landscape!

I try not to be so pessimistic, but as great as it sounds to scientifically codify morality, getting people to live by even the simplest code, a la ‘golden rule’, is still herding cats.  Most people are stupid and quite a few are just plain sick.

By the way, anyone else read The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson?

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Posted: 01 September 2011 02:38 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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Greetings everyone, I’m new to this forum but have been posting to the Dawkins site quite a bit of late. It is a great pleasure to see so many intelligent and well versed people gathering to exchange ideas about things I have a great interest in.

I watched the video on TED where Sam produced his idea on the scientific approach, and enjoyed it quite a bit. Here’s my perception and what i perceive ultimately to be the biggest struggle:


My perception of society at its beginning always boils down to small group (in many cases families) had to at some point gather together and find a way to coexist. In the course of doing so, they had to identify what had to be allowed in order for the groups to work together, what they could or could not do to each other to maintain the peace. From this you have laws governing how they live, establishing what is acceptable and not acceptable as far as what one may do with another’s person property, etc. This is where the essentials of morality and ethics come into play.


As civilizations get larger and more complex, the laws governing people will change and adapt, and as civilizations move farther apart and develop in different parts of the world the laws and code of ethics will change in some cases quite dramatically. Many core issues will be constant (killing, stealing, etc) but many will radically alter depending on both the cultural and religious views that develop in all parts of the world.


As a result, it is still permissible in parts of the world to stone women, to marry children, to mutilate genitals,  to have indentured servants, and outright slavery while illegal most everywhere is still a reality for many. So a system for unilateral morality seems like a solid way to moderate much of the injustice born into certain cultural and religious ideas. To even the playing field for everyone and give all cultures and faiths a universal sense of what is logically beneficial and destructive for societies in general.


Obviously as indicated a big issues is getting everyone to come to the table and agree. After all if so and so’s way of living has held him in and his family in good stead for however many generations who are we to step and tell him it’s been at the cost of human life and dignity?


I think that an issue just as big is how do we get the ‘civilized’ world to agree on this? The internal issues many of our most advanced nations still hinge on issues of cultural, racial, and religious divide. Trying to come up with a unilateral ethical and moral system even in Europe and the US will be met by staunch resistance in those countries. Even if we base it on the premise of taking the most basic moral issues it will no doubt be refuted by those who benefit from a given moral idea, however reprehensible still existing.

I apologize if I’m not making myself clear, and I do realize i’m likely repeating concerns that may have already been posed elsewhere. I’m just curious as to what thoughts people may have.

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Posted: 02 September 2011 06:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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I think I had the same general feeling after reading “The Moral Landscape”. Initially, I felt like it was a flaw in the book, and it left me rather disappointed. But then I started to think about it.

The scientific evaluation of morality that Dr. Harris advocates is a process, just like the scientific method itself. We must evaluate every claim of morality independently in order to start to build our basis. I envision it almost as the formation of a field of science….we evaluate simple, foundational ethical dilemmas first, and then try to apply those findings to more complicated situations. These basic moral imperatives can become our basic “laws” if they continuously pass the inspection and criticism of our colleagues, forming our “Principia Matematica” with which we can evaluate further claims. Similarly, as science found with Newton, even our most trusted moral laws can be subjected to revision upon later empirical findings. Overall, our morality will be reasoned, sometimes dynamic and perhaps sometimes even un-intuitive, but generally ascending Dr. Harris’ “Landscape”.

So when you ask “What do we do now with morality?”, I think the question is similar to asking a physicist “What do we do now with physics?”. The answer is that we observe, hypothesize, test and evaluate its realm, with a goal of understanding it using the scientific method while retaining our awareness of our perspective bias and the human condition. The advent of modern science has come over 300 years since Newton laid much of the foundation, and despite the dire need for an understanding of modern morality I fear that our scientific inquiry of it might take some time.

What I would like to see from Dr. Harris and similarly-minded colleagues is the construction of a organization (Perhaps in the vein of Project Reason) that seeks to establish a base code of morality using our inquiry method. Perhaps the creation of a scientific journal (“Modern Morality”?) is warranted to allow peer-review of proposed moral laws in order to better centralize and collect our explorations, hypotheses, evidences, debates and even armchair forays into the moral wilderness.

I’m sure Dr. Harris has addressed this idea previously, so if anyone can provide any related links we might achieve some clarification from the author himself.

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Posted: 27 December 2011 10:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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I believe the concept of a universal morality is basically flawed. Universal morality is what the the Crusades and Jihads were/are all about. It’s what Communism was supposed to bring about.  Human beings have some interesting quirks. Baggage that we’ve always had, and that will always be with us. Three that come to mind are, the necessity of greed, the enjoyment of cruelty, and the rigidity of opinion. These aren’t so much moral issues as they are part of the human condition. How we deal with them are the moral issues.


Personally, I believe moral issues are best dealt with starting with ourselves. Once you establish your personal, individual morality, (and no matter how hard you try, you really can’t do it for others), you can then work on surrounding yourself and populating your personal world with like minded folks. This approach has worked out very well for saints and sinners alike. For example, my personal morals wouldn’t allow me to work in a factory that made things designed to kill people, or in the criminal justice system, but I don’t have a problem with others who have chosen those careers. At the same time, there is no way I could live among the Amish, but I have the highest respect for their chosen morality.


For me, my personal morality is simple. I am not religious. I simply would like to think I lived a worthwhile life, overall. At the end of my life,  I either get a plus, or a minus on my headstone. Is the world a little better, or a little worse because I walked upon it? Was I responsible for more joy, or misery, laughter, or tears, problems, or solutions? I’m not even sure those questions can even be answered, but I at least see the path I try to follow.

[ Edited: 27 December 2011 10:04 AM by Phea]
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Posted: 29 December 2011 05:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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I agree that we should take a look at the scientific approach to figuring out a universal morality standard.  I think we’d all agree that in any scientific approach, one must use trial and error, to apply test after test - analyzing and comparing the results to make as educated a hypothesis as possible.  What if instead of starting from scratch with just the people in our current societies and our current generation, we actually took advantage of the numerous historical texts and literary works documenting the numerous generations of trial and error, (evolution) throughout our known history of humankind?
Perhaps, if one were to take an unbiased look and scientific approach to processing all the thousands of years of human interaction and morality code attempts, we could use this data as our “lab”. 
Which set of rules or which set of psychological influences produced the best possible results for the individual, the family and a society as a whole? 
These are the areas of study we should be focused on in scientifically understanding our universal morality.

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