Re: Ch. 3: Belief (The Moral Landscape)
Robert Tulip wrote:
The relation between neuroscience and morality is problematic.
There is no doubt that neuroscience enable us to describe the brain, and that this is a powerful tool for medical work and to help understand the nature of the mind. But how much does neuroscience really tell us about what we should value?
Harris argues that neuroscience is decisive for understanding well-being, that facts about the brain, roughly clustered around pleasure broadly defined, correspond to what we value, while brain facts clustered around misery correspond to what we do not value. Pleasure is good while misery is bad.
My concern is that when we analyse it, this model of morality can only provide the most preliminary and general of answers. For example, it is often argued that good morality places high value on justice. Extensive philosophical discussion since at least the time of ancient Greece has examined the meaning of justice, including its relation to equality, fairness, revenge, rights, deserving, opportunities, outcomes, rehabilitation, loyalty, forgiveness, mercy, obligation and other similarly complex concepts.
We do not have a simple consensus on the meaning of justice. Nonetheless it is a core value, but one that neuroscience alone does not really tell us much about.
I agree about his model of morality being only preliminary and general. I suspect what he means to achieve in proposing it is to clear the ground of the prohibition-based morality of religion. I don't know if you meant to illustrate the deficiency of his model with the example of justice, but justice does qualify as a value based on facts about how we react to conditions of the world. Our concepts started from that base in our experience. I don't get the sense that Harris thinks that neuroscience will elucidate our ideas of justice; these aren't likely to be found in our neurons. He does seem to think that if we conceive of morality as maximizing the well-being of everyone, we'll automatically go in the direction of social justice. I find it difficult to believe that we won't continue to care about, mainly, the well-being of ourselves and those closest to us. What is our incentive to do otherwise? Since, as Harris says, we don't even know what the upper limits on well-being are, why won't our concern be to see how high we can push it? If well-being is provided partly by education, that could mean putting our kids into the best private schools and colleges, for example, regardless of many kids having no educational opportunity. If it's provided also by better physical functioning as we age, why won't the affluent want to spend all they can to live to be 120? Well-being doesn't remove competition as the primary driver in a society such as the U.S.
In Harris' defense, he doesn't claim to give us the how
of implementing his moral vision, and we shouldn't expect an idea to contain the means of its implementation. He also makes a good point in objecting to the attitude that if something is difficult to do, that must be a fault in our idea of how to do it. Morality will always be a difficult project to put into place across a culture.
But really, there isn't anything else we need to know about what constitutes humane treatment of our fellow people. What neuroscience has done, and will increasingly do, is to confirm the common sense of the ages about our ethics. Neuroscience will also inevitably affect our lives as it enables us to make the content of minds more available for viewing. This has, of course, sinister overtones, but is there any doubt that, with all our security concerns, we're headed for this? Harris mentions several of the ethical challenges our growing capability in neuroscience will create for us. This isn't the same as that science showing us what is moral or ethical, though.
Harris' contention, again to be fair, is that science, not specifically neuroscience, can point the way to our values. Science can be nothing more than reasoning from available facts, or it can be greatly specialized. For his purpose, all he needs is to be able to establish that some values are wrong because they don't rest on the only things that ultimately values can
rest on--the overall well-being of people. I accept that argument.
He means well-being to be a concept similar to a familiar one it actually contains, health. I don't think he's calling it a discrete state of the brain. There would be many configurations of the brain that could be considered compatible with either the individual sensing well-being or an intent by others to promote his well-being. Those would not be exclusively pleasurable feelings. Think of what we do in working toward the well-being of the children we raise. In many instances we know that they won't be feeling simple pleasure when they do the things needed for good development. Harris would equate well-being with pleasure only if he were thinking of the pleasure centers of the brain, especially the limbic system. But he's thinking of the whole brain, knowing that the higher functions in the cortex aren't about hedonic, animal pleasure. Harris may be in the utilitarian tradition, but he's not measuring utility by the ability of an action to maintain someone in a pleasure zone, a la the lotus eaters.
Do difficulties like this, arising from the structure of our brains apparently, mean that we can't say that any action is, based on facts, right or wrong? Harris is pretty frank about these difficulties of applying moral calculus, but insistent that we still can say with certainty that values can be either right or wrong. That is the only objective answer I see him caring about.