Socrates and “The Moral Landscape”
Posted: 13 November 2010 11:20 AM   [ Ignore ]  
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I just finished The Moral Landscape and began to think as I came near the end that—although welcome to comment on human morality and offering an additional argument for arriving at it without reference to religion—science is not needed to arrive at a proper understanding of our moral landscape.

Socrates, via Plato, already provided us with an adequate argument for the basis of morality, namely the concept of justice—with which all but the sociopath has an innate biological relationship.

Aristotle once said that those not in need of social relationships would prove themselves either gods or beasts. Since there are none of the former we are only left with the latter, those whom the law are forced to deal with.

I agree that science can contribute much to our moral understanding but do not Greek drama and the works of Shakespeare also provide us with an analysis of the “moral peaks” of which Dr. Harris speaks?

The Moral Landscape, for me anyway, is simply icing on a moral cake that has been cooling since the Renaissance, an addendum to that sentiment of long ago that “the proper study of any mankind is man.”

We should make sure the general reader does not come away from Dr. Harris’ latest book thinking science is the only way in which we can arrive at moral truths, a sentiment I am sure he would agree with.

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Dr. Jeffery L. Irvin, Jr., Ph.D.

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The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really,
if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself.

                                      ~Bertrand Russell
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[ Edited: 13 November 2010 11:22 AM by Jeff Irvin]
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Posted: 14 November 2010 02:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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I suspect you of making a distinction without a difference.  “The Proper study of Mankind is Man” implies an empirical approach to moral philosophy.  Through the observation of human nature, you derive definitions of human good and bad.  This is the application of science to moral philosophy.

Socrates and Aristotle both, more or less followed this principle.  Aristotles Ethics and Politics were based on study of 158 different states their laws and history.  Very close to an empirical scientific approach to these issues.

Instead of saying that Socrates and Aristotle represent a different approach to answering fundamental questions about human ethics, I would tend to say that they were early champions of the scientific approach to these questions.

I just saw Sam Harris on CSpan which I why I am here.  His definition of well being as being synonymous with good is very close to Aristotles definition of happiness as the ultimate good.  His idea that the narrow utilitarianism which justifies injustice to the few for the good of the many is very close to Aristotles concept that men are born to be Citizens, and properly concerned with the welfare of others and the state.

I didn’t really see anything new in Mr. Harris presentation.  You could make the point that Aristotle, Confucius, Buddha, et al, said basically the same things 2500 to 2300 years ago, and that his ideas only sound ‘new’ because advocates of one or another of these men have advanced narrow definitions of their teachings which distorted their fundamental message.

It is true that modern neuroscience tells us more about the mechanisms involved, and how those mechanisms arose through evolution, but when it comes to fundamental observations about the human condition, it was possible to observe then as now what produces happiness, satisfaction, joy, sorrow, and make sound observations which remain as valid today as more than two millennia ago.

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Posted: 14 November 2010 08:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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It sounds like we agree for the most part. Although, it’s possible you did not get the main point of my post.

My point was that in the struggle for hearts and minds via reason we must use all the tools at our disposal. Those tools are literature—the humanistic tradition, if you will—and science.

Since not everyone has an affinity for scientific thought we must help lead them to the right conclusions using methods easier to grasp.

Literature, in the form of Greek drama, Shakespeare, the modern novel, etc., allows many more people to participate in the dialogue regarding the moral landscape. Literature is simply more accessible. The moral investigations of a Dickens, Flaubert, Thackeray, or Tolstoy are much easier to digest than modern science, especially in a society where math and science are so poorly taught and understood.

Literature can help to achieve what Dr. Harris seeks: a more complex dialogue about the moral landscape divorced from simple religious doctrines—doctrines that ultimately lead to human suffering.

I called science’s contribution to the discussion of morality “icing on a moral cake” because it is important to understand not only that morality is a complex issue but that this complexity is rooted in our biology, not some ethereal experience. We too frequently attribute the ineffable to god or spiritual experiences. Science is now starting to reveal that the ineffable is a state of consciousness rooted in our biology.

The great thing about the work of Harris, Dennett, Ridley, and others is that they allow us to refute the argument for the “god of the gaps.” They give us the assurance that in time science will help us to understood, for the most part, human consciousness. That is why Harris’s latest work is important, but I’m not sure it is a good starting point for the average person.

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Posted: 25 November 2013 10:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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If I interpret Mr. Irvin’s original post correctly, he seemed to be saying that science is not the basis of morality, but in his most recent reply he stated that his point was actually that science need not be the main approach to convincing the general public that a naturalistic approach to morality is the best one.

To me, The Moral Landscape was a watershed intellectual event (even more so that The End of Faith), because it rekindled the age old debate on metaethics.  By attempting to demonstrate that science is the foundation of morality, I believe Harris is in essence attempting to show that reductionist naturalism is the only valid metaethical stance.  This stance has been out of vogue with philosophers ever since the G.E. Moore bashed it in Principia Ethica, which along with Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions formed the foundation of ethical relativism, the prevailing modern metaethical view.

However, a surprisingly simple thought experiment shows that ethics must at least in part be based on human well-being (see http://philosophyandideas.wordpress.com/ethics/naturalism-in-ethics/#IsolatedIndividual).  If ethical naturalism is correct, then science is required for morality, because human well-being is an empirically observable phenomenon: the only way we can learn about it and measure it is through science.

The Moral Landscape did not solve Hume’s is-ought problem, but the acceptance of ethical naturalism is a big first step.  Harris seems to have the right instincts in terms of a final theory of ethics, one shared as I understand it by Aristotle, Mill, and others, which essentially amounts to some form of consequentialism (implied by naturalism) with a deontological constraint against harm.

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Posted: 25 November 2013 12:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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You raise some good points; however, my comments were meant to draw attention to other methods by which we can get people to arrive at a more scientifically-minded ethics without training everyone to the same level of scientific competence.


Without getting too far into the weeds, I think we have one major problem: the human condition is naturally geared toward the narratives of human corruption (death), sin, and redemption. Let us put aside for the moment that all these things are either something we cannot cope with psychologically or that they might represent illusions stemming from our social milieu. The question is, how does one convince a fellow human being that death is just natural—not a curse, and that sin and redemption probably stem from our fears of ostracism and not alienation from God?


I think this is a very complicated question. We cannot expect to just lay our case out logically and have people fold under the pressure of a superior argument. From their perspective, what is superior about an argument that makes life existentially meaningless and infinitely absurd? How does science address the gnawing and nauseating experience of alienation and isolation?


Yes, science will eventually determine the parameters within which the “normal” brain functions when it comes to input, processing, and output. However, even a properly functioning brain cannot ignore that humans exhibit highly irrational and contradictory desires. For example, how do we explain morality as a function of human well-being when some choose to brave life and limb to satisfy ego and obtain social “wealth”? Is it moral to restrain those who take chances that undermine their own physical well-being? How much should individuals be restrained if their activity threatens the well-being of others? How do we measure that well-being, only materially or also psychically?


The complexity of these questions have been addressed by many. Plato and Aristotle are good places to start the discussion but we must move on to more modern sources of inspiration. I have found the work of Michael Sandel very helpful in this regard. What Sandel does best is expose the simplistic weakness of ethical systems like utilitarianism and libertarianism, arguing Harrison’s point in a different way. Sandel says that all ethical systems have to have a “telos,” but that telos is not always easy to find. Sandel suggests, and I am inclined to agree, that any telos has to be blind to outcomes ahead of time. In other words, a morality that naturally advantages one group over another is not a truly just moral system. Rules are rules, to use a cliche.


Again, we are are getting too far into the weeds, and away from your point, which is that science can serve as an epistemological basis for navigating the moral landscape, or what is good and bad for people. However, I think we are mistaken if we think morality can be reduced to a formula, because the well-being of one too often comes at the expense of another, especially in a world run by politicians, businessmen, and accountants. In this respect science gives us one of the fundamental principles that we need to understand in order to create a better ethical system: the law of conservation. Understanding that nothing comes free helps us to understand that any ethical system will be limited by the same law. There is always, at any one time, only so much to go around, so until we have fusion generators, replicators, and a cure for every disease, including aging, our ethics have to address scarcity in all its guises.


There is still much to say here about science as methodology and as a body of knowledge itself. Both present challenges because getting people to think like a scientist is unnatural and because science as a body of knowledge has only one “evangelical” outreach, and that is technology. Unfortunately, most people can use and enjoy technology without any appreciation for the science behind it, and in some cases they can use that technology with outright animus toward the science on which it was built.


My point is that science has an integral role to play in the science-based liberal capitalist system that seems to be taking over the planet, but that role must be supplemented by other efforts at communicating that worldview. I notice this is happening in the skeptical community, which is encouraging people to collaborate with film-makers, storytellers, and actors to get “the message” of science out there. I think literature, history, and other humanistic endeavors can also abet this evangelical effort.


In short, we should leave no stone unturned in our effort to bring people to a more scientific, more just, and more moral world.

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