Sam Harris And Science As Human Right

Summary

To match the ideals outlined in the U.S. Constitution, we must define and measure our values.

We have already defined our values. We do not yet measure outcomes.

Science is the only tool capable of abstracting human experience over populations, allowing us to know whether we are achieving our goals.

By choosing not to measure, we violate basic human rights and empower the strong over the weak, the majority over the minority. This threatens to make meaningless our chosen values.

Therefore, Science should be a human right.


Sam Harris’ Missing Chapter: Government and The Moral Landscape

Sam Harris recently published a controversial book titled The Moral Landscape, wherein he argues that science can answer moral questions:

Questions about value—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood.

Stephen Gould provides a common dissent:

Morality is a subject for philosophers, theologians, students of the humanities, indeed for all thinking people…The factual state of the world does not teach us how we, with our powers for good and evil, should alter or preserve it in the most ethical manner.

I side with Harris.

Most criticism of his position rests in a critique of Utilitarianism; an ethical position that holds the right course of action is the one that creates “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

Harris, by presenting his theory abstractly (“some science somewhere could do this”) and by responding to the abstract criticisms of his opponents, actually misses the strength of his argument when applied to practical use.

What else are we doing than safeguarding the well being of individuals when we form governments?

Harris’ theory can be grounded in Governance. U.S. Democracy, for example, is functionally utilitarian.

What else are we doing than safeguarding the well being of individuals when we form governments? In this light, arguments about whether we can define and measure moral positions are nonsense; we’ve been attempting to do so since the beginning of recorded history. We’ve just been doing it poorly.

If, as Harris’ opponents argue, this endeavor is impossible, then we should immediately dispense attempts to define communal values and form governments.

We The People, in order to do what, exactly?

As outlined in my article Foundational Values, we’ve already defined our shared values:

  1. To form a more perfect union.
  2. To establish justice.
  3. To ensure domestic tranquility.
  4. To provide for the common defense.
  5. To promote general welfare.
  6. To secure the blessings of liberty.

These values comprise the mission statement of our community.

Our fifth value is to promote general welfare. This should resonate with Harris, who defines morality as a concern for the well-being of conscious creatures.

Harris can cut short arguments about whether we should value well-being; in the U.S. we already do.

Moral systems are chosen, not proven

First, let’s agree on something. Reread that sentence.

When two or more people interact, they’re governed by social and legal rules. If the relationship is systematized, for example by a marriage, business or legal contract, there must be a logical foundation for the agreements.

In a thoughtful criticism of Harris’ book, Russell Blackford dings Harris for not recognizing the faithful position of choosing well-being as his definition of morality. Regarding this position, Blackford asks:

“How does it become binding on me if I don’t accept it?”

Values only become shared to the degree that we willingly agree to them. For Harris, a U.S. citizen, he can point to the Constitution, which explicitly states our values.

For Blackford, an Australian, this question is more difficult; the Australian Constitution doesn’t explicitly define its purpose. The closest it comes is when it defines the role of Parliament thus:

 to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth.

Blackford rightly recognizes that there’s no shared value of well-being in Australia. But, rather than this being a valid criticism of Harris, it’s a failing of Australia’s communal foundation.

Harris understands that we start by choosing our core values. For example, he states:

 Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value health. But once we admit that health is the proper concern of medicine, we can then study and promote it through science.

Science As Human Right

What should government do? Implement shared values.

How should government do that? There’s only one viable answer:

Science.

To reliably abstract our understanding of individuals over populations, we must rely on science; there’s no alternative.

To reliably abstract our understanding of individuals over populations, we must rely on science; there’s no alternative.

For the entirety of human history, we’ve relied on common sense to determine what’s best for communities. For example, our criminal justice system is woefully lacking in scientific research on what works; we simply ask legislators to guess, and that’s not good enough.

The 8th Amendment of the Bill of Rights states:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

What is excessive bail? Cruel punishment? These terms can be defined and scientifically measured. Anything short of this should be considered a violation of rights.

Again, Harris:

Only a rational understanding of human well-being will allow billions of us to coexist peacefully, converging on the same social, political, economic and environmental goals.

We must define our values in measurable ways. Otherwise we’ll reliably enact individual bias in place of rational policies.

When we claim that Democracy is the best form of government, we are implying that it is best at something in particular. If that thing is not measurable, then the lofty idealization of democracy is meaningless.

George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist and political theorist, provides this simple attempt to begin to define well-being:

Other things being equal, you are better off if you are healthy rather than sick, rich rather than poor, strong rather than weak, free rather than imprisoned, cared for rather than uncared for, happy rather than sad, [etc.]

Absent a measurable definition, government is simply authoritarian, providing the means by which the powerful assert their bias over the weak.

When we claim that Democracy is the best form of government, we are implying that it is best at something in particular. If that thing is not measurable, then the lofty idealization of democracy is meaningless.

What is the goal of capitalism? Of Education? Of our healthcare system? Define and measure.

Individual Rights As Safeguard

One of the primary criticisms of Utilitarianism is that it can infringe on individual rights; for example, there may be scenarios where killing one person would benefit ten;  therefore, the moral action would be to kill the one.

I’m sympathetic to this concern. So were the founding Fathers, who beyond defining our core values, explicitly outlined human rights: barriers from government intrusion on individual sovereignty.

Egalitarian government is instituted to serve individuals. By accepting the utilitarian nature of our system, we do not surrender individual rights. Ours is a blended system that balances those rights with our systemic utilitarian goals.

Anything less is immoral.

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  • http://lincoln.metacannon.net Lincoln Cannon

    Amen

  • http://www.russellblackford.com Russell Blackford

    As per our email conversation, a quick reaction which doesn’t take everything you’ve said into account…

    I doubt that the US constitution is committed to anything as radical as utilitarianism – e.g. it doesn’t say that we should maximise the utility of non-human animals. It does, of course, give support to certain worldly goals such as those you mention.

    I think the same applies to moral systems – they don’t require anything as radical as a commitment to maximise global utility. But we need them for more limited reasons such as social survival. Exactly what those reasons are may be a bit vague; after all no one consciously designed a moral system with an explicit goal in mind. Still, moral systems actually function to deter certain kinds of anti-social behaviour, solve coordination problems, etc. This may, in turn, contribute to global utility, but not always, and certainly not directly. After all, almost no one feels morally obliged to maximise the happiness of all sentient things in the universe. Even if we don’t want factory farms, with the suffering they produce, that shows human beings being responsive to the suffering of other sentient creatures, not human beings wanting all other sentient creatures to be as happy as possible.

  • http://bradcarmack.blogspot.com Brad Carmack

    Bingo! Great points.

  • http://www.facebook.com/timothyk Timothy

    Russell, first, thanks for participating in this conversation.

    The U.S. Constitution is committed to exactly what it states it’s committed to. That, of course, is open to interpretation. But, what seems clearly nonsensical is to suggest that the words in the Constitution essentially mean nothing.

    So, then the question is, what do the words mean? I’m suggesting here that if you feel that the Constitution does not mean that we are working for the greatest good for the greatest number, what’s the alternative? It has to mean something, and not defining that something is not a rational option.

    Regarding non-human animals…of course. But the U.S. Constitution specifically references “We the people.” Again, we will need to agree on the meaning of that term, but once we do, can measure the results of our stated shared values.

    Part of my point here is to ground moral theory into practical aims. Moral theorists spend a lot of time in discussion of pure theory, looking for the weaknesses and shortcomings; e.g., criticisms of utilitarianism in some pure sense.

    I like pure theory, and believe it has its place, but it doesn’t seem to have much immediate practical application. Governments, on the other hand, are designed with specific goals in mind. The U.S. Constitution specifically states those goals. It defines a relative population and attempts to create a tangible framework of policies and practices. It is not concerned with universals and absolutes. It is a finite initiative whose goals can be quantified.

    This grounds theory into something practical and useful. That we haven’t recognized it as such in the past doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do so in the future. And I’m suggesting that all the framework is in place in the U.S. Constitution to do so.

    What’s more? It gives theorists good opportunities to further refine universal theories. Governments as practical case studies.

  • http://www.facebook.com/timothyk Timothy

    Here’s a bookmark for further discussion:

    Read the opening example in this story; in a later article, I’m going to apply my ideas above and talk about this example.

    Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/magazine/do-you-suffer-from-decision-fatigue.html?_r=1&src=me&ref=general

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