The people of Albania have a venerable tradition of vendetta called “Kanun”: If a man commits a murder, his victim’s family can kill any one of his male relatives in reprisal. If a boy has the misfortune of being the son or brother of a murderer, he must spend his days and nights in hiding, forgoing a proper education, adequate health care, and the pleasures of a normal life. Untold numbers of Albanian men and boys live as prisoners of their homes even now. Can we say that the Albanians are morally wrong to have structured their society in this way? Is their tradition of blood feud a form of evil? Are their values inferior to our own?
Most people imagine that science cannot pose, much less answer, questions of this sort. How could we ever say, as a matter of scientific fact, that one way of life is better, or more moral, than another? Whose definition of “better” or “moral” would we use? Scientists generally believe that answers to questions of human value will fall perpetually beyond our reach—not because human subjectivity is too difficult to study, or the brain too complex, but because there is no intellectual justification for speaking about right and wrong, or good and evil, in universal terms. While many scientists now study the evolution of morality, as well as its underlying neurobiology, the purpose of their research is merely to describe how human beings think and behave. No one expects science to tell us how we should think and behave. Controversies about human values are controversies about which science officially has no opinion.
This has made science appear divorced, in principle, from the most important questions of human life. While most educated people will concede that the scientific method has delivered centuries of fresh embarrassment to religion on matters of fact, it is now an article of almost unquestioned certainty, both inside and outside scientific circles, that science has nothing to say about what constitutes a good life. Religious thinkers in all faiths, and on both ends of the political spectrum, are united on precisely this point: The defense one most often hears for belief in God is not that there is compelling evidence for His existence, but that faith in Him is the only reliable source of meaning and moral guidance. Mutually incompatible religious traditions now take refuge behind the same non sequitur.
As I argue in my new book, The Moral Landscape, questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Throughout the book I make reference to a hypothetical space that I call “the moral landscape”—a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering. Different ways of thinking and behaving—different cultural practices, ethical codes, modes of government, etc.—will translate into movements across this landscape and, therefore, into different degrees of human flourishing. I’m not suggesting that we will necessarily discover one right answer to every moral question, or a single best way for human beings to live. Some questions may admit of many answers, each more or less equivalent. However, the existence of multiple peaks on the moral landscape does not make them any less real or worthy of discovery. Nor would it make the difference between being on a peak and being stuck deep in a valley any less clear or consequential.
Many people seem to think that equating goodness with “well-being” is philosophically problematic—akin to merely advocating hedonism. But while it is reasonable to wonder whether maximizing pleasure in any given instance is “good,” it makes no sense at all to ask whether maximizing well-being is “good.” It seems clear that what we are really asking when we wonder whether a certain state of pleasure is “good,” is whether it is conducive to, or obstructive of, some deeper form of well-being. This question is perfectly coherent; it surely has an answer (whether or not we are in a position to answer it); and yet, it keeps notions of goodness anchored to the experience of sentient beings.
The framework of a moral landscape guarantees that many people will have flawed conceptions of morality, just as many people have flawed conceptions of physics. Consider the Catholic Church: an organization that advertises itself as greatest force for good and as the only true bulwark against evil in the universe. Even among non-Catholics, its doctrines are widely associated with the concepts of “morality” and “human values.” However, the church is an organization that excommunicates women for attempting to become priests but does not excommunicate male priests for raping children. It excommunicates doctors who perform abortions to save a mother’s life—even if the mother is a 9-year-old girl raped by her stepfather and pregnant with twins—but it did not excommunicate a single member of the Third Reich for committing genocide. (It excommunicated Joseph Goebbels, but this was for the high crime of marrying a Protestant.) This is an organization that is more concerned about stopping contraception than stopping genocide. It is more worried about gay marriage than about nuclear proliferation. Are we really obliged to consider such a diabolical inversion of priorities to be evidence of an alternative “moral” framework? No. I think it is clear that the church is as misguided in speaking about the “moral” peril of contraception, for instance, as it would be in speaking about the “physics” of Transubstantiation. In both domains, it true to say that the church is grotesquely confused about which things in this world are worth paying attention to. The church is not offering an alternative moral framework; it is offering a false one.
Many people worry that there is something unscientific about making such value judgments. But this split between facts and values is an illusion. Science has always been in the values business. Good science is not the result of scientists abstaining from making value judgments; good science is the result of scientists making their best effort to value principles of reasoning that link their beliefs to reality, through reliable chains of evidence and argument. The very idea of “objective” knowledge (that is, knowledge acquired through careful observation and honest reasoning) has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon principles that we must first value (e.g. logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony, etc). This is how norms of rational thought are made effective. As far as our understanding of the world is concerned—there are no facts without values.
Just as there is nothing irrational about valuing human health and seeking to understand it (this is the science of medicine), there is nothing irrational about valuing human well-being more generally and seeking to understand it. But whether morality becomes a proper branch of science is not really the point. Is economics a true science yet? Judging from the last few years, it wouldn’t seem so. And perhaps a deep understanding of economics will always elude us. But does anyone doubt that there are better and worse ways to structure an economy? Would any educated person consider it a form of bigotry to criticize another society’s response to a banking crisis? Imagine how terrifying it would be if great numbers of smart people became convinced that all efforts to prevent a global financial catastrophe, being mere products of culture, must be either equally valid or equally nonsensical in principle. And yet this is precisely where most intellectuals stand on the most important questions in human life.
If our well-being depends upon the interaction between events in our brains and events in the world, as it surely does, then there will be better and worse ways to secure it. Some cultures will tend to produce lives that are more worth living than others; some political persuasions will be more enlightened than others; and some worldviews will be mistaken in ways that cause needless human misery. Whether or not we ever understand meaning, morality, and values in practice, I am arguing that there must be something to know about them in principle. And I am convinced that merely admitting this will change the way we think about the frontiers of science and about the role of science in society. It will also transform the way we think about human happiness and the public good.
October 2, 2010