Sunday, October 03, 2010

Science Cannot Determine Human Values (Contra Sam Harris)

Staits of Bosphorus, Istanbul
Sam Harris, in his new book, claims that the fact-value distinction does not hold. Science, contra Hume and Kant and a bunch of other philosophers and scientsts, can tell us about values. (The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

"Harris means to deny a thought often ascribed to David Hume, according to which there is a clear conceptual distinction between facts and values. Facts are susceptible of rational investigation; values, supposedly, not. But according to Harris, values, too, can be uncovered by science — the right values being ones that promote well-being. “Just as it is possible for individuals and groups to be wrong about how best to maintain their physical health,” he writes, “it is possible for them to be wrong about how to maximize their personal and social well-being.”" (quoted here)

Science can help us answer these questions, Harris says. "That’s because truths about morality and meaning must “relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures,” and science alone — especially neuroscience, his field — can uncover those facts." (Ib.)

Harris is question-begging here. Kwame Anthony Appiah asks: "But wait: how do we know that the morally right act is, as Harris posits, the one that does the most to increase well-being, defined in terms of our conscious states of mind? Has science really revealed that? If it hasn’t, then the premise of Harris’s all-we-need-is-science argument must have nonscientific origins.

In fact, what he ends up endorsing is something very like utilitarianism, a philosophical position that is now more than two centuries old, and that faces a battery of familiar problems. Even if you accept the basic premise, how do you compare the well-being of different people? Should we aim to increase average well-being (which would mean that a world consisting of one bliss case is better than one with a billion just slightly less blissful people)? Or should we go for a cumulative total of well-being (which might favor a world with zillions of people whose lives are just barely worth living)? If the mental states of conscious beings are what matter, what’s wrong with killing someone in his sleep? How should we weigh present well-being against future well-being?"

Science gives us the answers to none of these questions. Science cannot, as Appiah notes, even tell us what "well-being" is. Please note this. Science can measure your blood pressure. But science cannot measure "well-being." If we agree on a definition of "well-being" science can then tell us, perhaps, if well-being obtains. But the very definition of well-being is the issue of value, and science does not find well-being under the microscope. Appiah is on target when he writes that if Harris "thinks that well-being has an objective component, one wants to know how science revealed this fact."

I think it is just false that science can determine human values