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Morality and Science: Reason in Search of Ethics

Umair Khan

The Moral landscape is the latest treatise of Sam Harris who is well
known in scholarly circles for his earlier works: The End of Faith and
Letter to a Christian Nation. This book is a commendable effort to
convince general populace that moral issues can be debated within the
rational domain through the facilitation of scientific findings and need
not to be confined to the theological realm.

Harris defines morality in terms of the “well-being of conscious


creatures” and claims that science, especially neuroscience,
psychology, sociology, and anthropology, can help us determine how
to maximize the well being of humans. His view of human well-being is
not restricted to mere happiness as described by Benthamite
utilitarianism. He comes closer to the “Capabilities Approach”
developed by economist Amartya Sen and political philosopher Martha
Nussbaum which takes into account several factors in order to
determine human well-being.

Traditionally, there have been two viewpoints on how to distinguish


good from bad, and right from wrong. According to the approach
championed by the religious scholars, something is good or bad
because divine commandments proclaim so. Socrates highlighted the
dilemma with this approach. If something becomes good or bad by
divine declaration then it seems to be an arbitrary phenomenon, and if
something is intrinsically good or bad then humans can identify its true
nature independently.

The second approach is that of ‘Moral Relativism’ based on the


premise that reason cannot find definite answers to moral questions. It
entails that all moral systems are equally valid. It is an exaggerated
form of multiculturalism thriving on political correctness which
advocates tolerance even of intolerance. Harris challenges this
approach vehemently by presenting lucid arguments and remarkable
examples to substantiate his thesis. He argues that it is the
consequence of an act that determines whether that act adds towards
human well-being or suffering. So, Harris takes a consequentialist
approach on ethics.

What Harris has brought new to this debate is the excitement


generated by the cutting edge research in neuroscience and cognitive
psychology. He further explains how neuroscience can be used to
determine human well-being as a state of mind. How we will be able to
tell whether people are lying by examining their brain activity? How
the better understanding of the functioning of human brain will help us
devise enhanced or improved teaching and learning methods? The
shift from behavioral psychology to the cognitive psychology a couple
of decades ago is the hallmark of this approach. Behavioral psychology
only focused on the stimuli and responses, i.e. the apparent behavior.
They considered mind as a black box about which nothing needs to be
known. Cognitive psychology commences a radically different
approach. The mind becomes the centre of inquiry to understand
psychological, social, economic, and even moral issues.

The book has generated ripples across the philosophical and scientific
pools. Multiple critiques have been produced in a very short period of
time. Philosophers of ethics are mostly appalled by the lack of
philosophical rigor in the content of the book. They object to the idea
of finding answers to the moral questions without exhausting all the
theories propounded by philosophers throughout centuries.
Furthermore, they question the way Harris has defined moral values in
terms of human well-being. Some criticize that why even bother
maximizing human well-being. However, on a parallel level, they fail to
provide why their mundane definition of moral value should be
preferred over that of Harris.

Philosophers of science defy the way Harris has abandoned an old


established tradition of separating the world of facts from values.
David Hume, G E Moore and Karl Popper opine that morals can not be
determined from the natural world. Eminent psychologists like Jerry
Fodder have also followed this line. In their opinion, by examining how
the world is, one can not determine how the world ought to be. This
is/ought dichotomy has plagued the discourse on ethics and kept it
outside the rational scrutiny. Harris does not say that there has to be
only one correct answer to all moral questions. But it does not mean
that we cannot segregate wrong answers from the right ones in the
light of their impact upon human well-being.

In the end, we must keep in mind that the book is not the final word on
the subject matter. Rather, it merely shows us the way forward to
building a science of morality with the ongoing advancements in other
areas of science.