What Should We Be Worried About?

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The following article was first published on Edge.org on January 13, 2012 in response to this year’s Annual Question: “What Should We Be Worried About?” Read Michael Shermer’s response below, and read all responses at edge.org.


The Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality

Ever since the philosophers David Hume and G. E. Moore identified the “Is-Ought problem” between descriptive statements (the way something “is”) and prescriptive statements (the way something “ought to be”), most scientists have conceded the high ground of determining human values, morals, and ethics to philosophers, agreeing that science can only describe the way things are but never tell us how they ought to be. This is a mistake.

We should be worried that scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong and which values lead to human flourishing just as the research tools for doing so are coming online through such fields as evolutionary ethics, experimental ethics, neuroethics, and related fields. The Is-Ought problem (sometimes rendered as the “naturalistic fallacy”) is itself a fallacy. Morals and values must be based on the way things are in order to establish the best conditions for human flourishing. Before we abandon the ship just as it leaves port, let’s give science a chance to steer a course toward a destination where scientists at least have a voice in the conversation on how best we should live.

We begin with the individual organism as the primary unit of biology and society because the organism is the principal target of natural selection and social evolution. Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual organism—people in this context—is the basis of establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality. The constitutions of human societies ought to be built on the constitution of human nature, and science is the best tool we have for understanding our nature. For example:

  • We know from behavior genetics that 40 to 50 percent of the variance among people in temperament, personality, and many political, economic, and social preferences are inherited.
  • We know from evolutionary theory that the principle of reciprocal altruism—I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine—is universal; people do not by nature give generously unless they receive something in return.
  • We know from evolutionary psychology that the principle of moralistic punishment—I’ll punish you if you do not scratch my back after I have scratched yours—is universal; people do not long tolerate free riders who continually take but never give.

Written By: Michael Shermer
continue to source article at skepticblog.org

19 COMMENTS

  1. While we’re at it, can we discontinue the old fallacy that humans are all that matter, which probably dates back to when people really did think that humans were separate from animals.

    “determining the conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality”

    So rather ‘determining the conditions by which all animals and life best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality’

  2. Perhaps there is no such thing as morals, just as there are no such things as America’s sexiest man and woman. Morals like sex appeal are trends. To ask—”What is morally right”—is akin to asking—”which purse is in or how should I wear my hair”. The desire to be good and the desire to look good are constant, how we go about it and what constitutes good are always changing. One generation may have thought that to be good you would have to grow up a fair, helpful and kind person; whereas, another generation might think good is to be wealthy, privileged and popular. Just a guess.

  3. Well, First off, I haven’t read the book containing the research referenced but could certainly argue that stating simply that market economies = good, is a rather sweeping statement.

    What kind of market economy are we talking about? The market economies of Friedman and Hayek where incredible inequalities exist alongside incarceration of large proportions of the population?

    Human flourishing?

    Also, the absence of war? Most liberal democracies have been fighting a war for the last ten years, and many fought proxy wars before that – how has this benefited human flourishing?

    We know from behavior genetics that 40 to 50 percent of the variance among people in temperament, personality, and many political, economic, and social preferences are inherited.

    This last sentence really fucking worries me? Why do I feel he is getting confused with the inheritance of characteristics – and the inheritance of wealth.

    We know from evolutionary theory that the principle of reciprocal altruism—I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine—is universal; people do not by nature give generously unless they receive something in return.

    Again, sorry but more nonsense. People, by nature, do give generously – and often do not expect anything in return – evolution, through the mechanism of Natural Selection, already provides you with something – virtue. I think he is mistaking Reciprocal Altruism with Trade.

    We know from evolutionary psychology that the principle of moralistic punishment—I’ll punish you if you do not scratch my back after I have scratched yours—is universal; people do not long tolerate free riders who continually take but never give.

    Again. Yes we do. We look after the old, the infirm, the incapable, the young, the mad, the daft, pets, poets, and even Everton supporters. What we see here in evolutionary psychology is the removal of virtue – it is the feeling of shame.

    We cannot (and do not) subject people to moralistic punishment for free riding if they are people who feel no shame. That is why we try and develop a system of laws that provide an element of justice in large post-tribal society were shame (the removal of virtue) as a punishment cannot be applied.

    It is the analysis of what justice actually is – is what we should be worried about.

    For example:

    We jail poor people who steal food.

    We don’t jail CEO’s of Tobacco companies who knowingly sell an addictive drug which causes cancer, disease, misery and death.

    I’m glad of Shermer’s voice, and he’s correct when he says science is without doubt the best tool we have for understanding human nature, but is doesn’t necessarily follow that all scientists have the ability to interpret the data.

    Liberal democracies, whilst defective in many ways, are the best we’ve got precisely because people fought for the application of a system of social justice where our evolutionary traits of altruism, virtue , and shame, could not be directly applied in the setting of modern post-tribal society.

    Anvil.

  4. In reply to #2 by conmeo:

    While we’re at it, can we discontinue the old fallacy that humans are all that matter, which probably dates back to when people really did think that humans were separate from animals.

    “determining the conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality”

    So rather ‘determining the conditions by which all animals and life best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality’

    That’s a good example of the is-ought dichotomy that Hume was talking about. The question of whether animal suffering should count when we do our moral calculations is a classic OUGHT question. You can make all sorts of factual statements about the nervous systems of various animals, the extent to which it makes sense from the standpoint of science to call them conscious or whether it makes more sense to reserve that term only to humans, etc. Those questions are all IS questions. We don’t have all the answers yet but we are confident that science can provide the answers eventually.

    However, the fundamental question: does animal suffering matter? That’s an OUGHT question, its not about the state of the world nor how the world works its about human values, what we consider morally significant. Your question really highlights a flaw in Sam Harris’s theory of morality. Harris would say morality is maximizing human well being and that as we understand human neurology better we will understand better what maximizing well being means. But why just humans? Why not animals as well? To say that animal suffering should or shouldn’t be considered in moral decisions can’t be answered by any appeal to neurology or other IS questions.

    That gets to what I think is the right answer, any moral system has to be based on a foundation of axioms (just like a mathematical or logical system) and those axioms are just your givens. You say “this is what I value and I value it because I value it” So for me animals definitely matter but I wouldn’t claim that someone who thinks otherwise is being irrational, they just have a different set of starting axioms then I do and at least so far I see no objective way I can convince them they are wrong or vice versa.

  5. In reply to #6 by Red Dog:

    In reply to #2 by conmeo:

    While we’re at it, can we discontinue the old fallacy that humans are all that matter, which probably dates back to when people really did think that humans were separate from animals.

    “determining the conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality”

    So rather ‘determining the conditions by which all animals and life best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality’

    That’s a good example of the is-ought dichotomy that Hume was talking about. The question of whether animal suffering should count when we do our moral calculations is a classic OUGHT question. You can make all sorts of factual statements about the nervous systems of various animals, the extent to which it makes sense from the standpoint of science to call them conscious or whether it makes more sense to reserve that term only to humans, etc. Those questions are all IS questions. We don’t have all the answers yet but we are confident that science can provide the answers eventually.

    However, the fundamental question: does animal suffering matter? That’s an OUGHT question, its not about the state of the world nor how the world works its about human values, what we consider morally significant. Your question really highlights a flaw in Sam Harris’s theory of morality. Harris would say morality is maximizing human well being and that as we understand human neurology better we will understand better what maximizing well being means. But why just humans? Why not animals as well? To say that animal suffering should or shouldn’t be considered in moral decisions can’t be answered by any appeal to neurology or other IS questions.

    That gets to what I think is the right answer, any moral system has to be based on a foundation of axioms (just like a mathematical or logical system) and those axioms are just your givens. You say “this is what I value and I value it because I value it” So for me animals definitely matter but I wouldn’t claim that someone who thinks otherwise is being irrational, they just have a different set of starting axioms then I do and at least so far I see no objective way I can convince them they are wrong or vice versa.

    This is not true, Harris states that morality is about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures, not humans. Why draw the line at consciousness? Presumably, without consciousness there can be no well-being or lack of it, or at least no suffering or pleasure.

    Harris statement about morality is inevitably an axiom, but I don’t see that as a major flaw in itself, most things are at some level based on axioms. The question is, is it a reasonable axiom? I think it is, and I have not yet met anyone who would not, when pressed, agree(except religious people of course).

  6. In reply to #7 by MahouShoujoMaruin:

    In reply to #6 by Red Dog:

    This is not true, Harris states that morality is about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures, not humans. Why draw the line at consciousness? Presumably, without consciousness there can be no well-being or lack of it, or at least no suffering or pleasure.

    I was remembering his position incorrectly, thanks for the correction. But regardless of his position my objection is valid either way. I’m not making an argument for or against including animals. I’m saying that in Harris’s system there are a lot of moral questions that he can’t answer and one such example is “should we consider the well being of all conscious animals or just humans”? His theory starts with the assumption that morality is about maximizing well being. But he never provides an explanation for why its well being, he just takes it as something all rational people agree on. But all rational people don’t agree, some people think animals should have the same rights as humans, I know one such person, she lives with me in fact. Others think that animals have no rights and only humans matter, I’ve debated with some of them on this site. So the normal Harris answer of “just look at our intuition and all reasonable people agree” is clearly wrong, there are reasonable people who disagree on this.

    Another example is abortion. Should we include the well being of a fetus? Some people think we should others think we shouldn’t. Again, I’m not making an argument either way but saying that a complete moral theory should provide an answer and Harris doesn’t.

  7. Harris statement about morality is inevitably an axiom, but I don’t see that as a major flaw in itself, most things are at some level based on axioms. The question is, is it a reasonable axiom? I think it is, and I have not yet met anyone who would not, when pressed, agree(except religious people of course).

    Harris doesn’t think its an axiom, he things its just something that all reasonable people can agree on. I’ve shown in my last comment that there are people who are rational but disagree. Even if you want to exclude all religious people from your consideration as I’ve said I’ve debated with people who call themselves atheists and believers in reason on this very site who don’t think any animals have rights.

    It may sound like just semantics between saying “its an axiom” and “its something all reasonable people agree on” but its not. For Harris there is just one answer and if you disagree with him then your just irrational. My position is that each individual has some set of core beliefs that aren’t arrived at by reason, they are just the core values that the person has. In my theory its possible for rational people to disagree on moral issues. Of course its also possible to be irrational in the way you apply your moral axioms. For example, someone who says that life is sacred but believes in the death penalty, but there are still some contradictions that can’t be resolved even if we are perfectly rational because our underlying axioms are different.

    Finally, regarding religion, IMO you can’t just exclude the majority of the current world population (all religious people) from your calculations and expect to be taken seriously as having a scientific moral theory. If for example you were to talk to an anthropologist about morality and say “I have a theory that perfectly explains morality in humans but of course its only for atheists since only atheists are rational” any credible anthropologist, even an atheist anthropologist, would dismiss you as a zealot not a serious scientist.

  8. In reply to #9 by Red Dog:

    Harris statement about morality is inevitably an axiom, but I don’t see that as a major flaw in itself, most things are at some level based on axioms. The question is, is it a reasonable axiom? I think it is, and I have not yet met anyone who would not, when pressed, agree(except religious people of course).

    Harris doesn’t think its an axiom, he things its just something that all reasonable people can agree on. I’ve shown in my last comment that there are people who are rational but disagree. Even if you want to exclude all religious people from your consideration as I’ve said I’ve debated with people who call themselves atheists and believers in reason on this very site who don’t think any animals have rights.

    It may sound like just semantics between saying “its an axiom” and “its something all reasonable people agree on” but its not. For Harris there is just one answer and if you disagree with him then your just irrational. My position is that each individual has some set of core beliefs that aren’t arrived at by reason, they are just the core values that the person has. In my theory its possible for rational people to disagree on moral issues. Of course its also possible to be irrational in the way you apply your moral axioms. For example, someone who says that life is sacred but believes in the death penalty, but there are still some contradictions that can’t be resolved even if we are perfectly rational because our underlying axioms are different.

    Finally, regarding religion, IMO you can’t just exclude the majority of the current world population (all religious people) from your calculations and expect to be taken seriously as having a scientific moral theory. If for example you were to talk to an anthropologist about morality and say “I have a theory that perfectly explains morality in humans but of course its only for atheists since only atheists are rational” any credible anthropologist, even an atheist anthropologist, would dismiss you as a zealot not a serious scientist.

    This is not how I understood Harris. It could be you are right and I have misunderstood, but Harris does occasionally….fumble… a bit, making himself easy to misunderstand, and he has made some, in my opinion, less than impressive arguments lately, as in the gun control essay. Regardless of his opinions, I can not think of any intellectual endeavor that does not fundamentally rest on some axiom; any search for a morality that does not, will, in my opinion, fail. I did not mean to claim that every reasonable person would agree to the axiom of conscious well-being, I merely meant what I said, that I have not yet encountered any argument why this is not a good one to roll with.

    I do not see a problem with excluding the majority of the world population that believe that a deity decides what is morally right or wrong when trying to develop a theory of morality, just as I do not see a problem with excluding their views in a quest for truth in general. Science is not done by popular vote, and nor should morality be. Not that Harris “science of morality” does not try to explain morality, it propose a framework for determining what is morally good. An explanation of (moral) behavior is something else.

    Also, I could not resist: “credible anthropologist” ? :P

  9. In reply to #10 by MahouShoujoMaruin:

    I do not see a problem with excluding the majority of the world population that believe that a deity decides what is morally right or wrong when trying to develop a theory of morality,

    Then you can’t claim to be taking a scientific approach to morality. One of the first requirements of science is to be objective and not be driven by preconceptions. If you start out with a preconception that religion is simply evil and that religious people can’t be moral you can’t claim to be doing science. You can call yourself a political activist, say you are trying to make the world a better place by getting rid of religion, etc. But you can’t claim to be doing science. If you do science you need to be willing to go wherever your theory takes you.

    And although there is nothing close to a scientific consensus yet, there is a lot of preliminary research that suggests religion may have played a pivotal role in the development of morality and altruism in humans. For example, Dan Dennet discusses this as a likely hypothesis in his book Breaking the Spell: Understanding Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Scott Atran (someone I consider a credible anthropologist) has also discussed this idea.

  10. In reply to #11 by Red Dog:

    In reply to #10 by MahouShoujoMaruin:

    I do not see a problem with excluding the majority of the world population that believe that a deity decides what is morally right or wrong when trying to develop a theory of morality,

    Then you can’t claim to be taking a scientific approach to morality. One of the first requirements of science is to be objective and not be driven by preconceptions. If you start out with a preconception that religion is simply evil and that religious people can’t be moral you can’t claim to be doing science. You can call yourself a political activist, say you are trying to make the world a better place by getting rid of religion, etc. But you can’t claim to be doing science. If you do science you need to be willing to go wherever your theory takes you.

    And although there is nothing close to a scientific consensus yet, there is a lot of preliminary research that suggests religion may have played a pivotal role in the development of morality and altruism in humans. For example, Dan Dennet discusses this as a likely hypothesis in his book Breaking the Spell: Understanding Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Scott Atran (someone I consider a credible anthropologist) has also discussed this idea.

    You are putting a lot of words in my mouth here. I did not say “religion is simply evil”, that “religious people can’t be moral” or that I’m trying to “get rid of religion”. Nor did I claim to be doing science, although I did speak of Harris proposal for the development of a science of morality. Discussing a science of morality is merely philosophy, only once such a thing has been established and we are actively using it to determine what is moral could we be said to be doing science, and even then, there would be those rejecting it as science.

    What I did was to reject the idea that what is morally right and wrong is determined by a supernatural being, or ancient writings attributed to this deity. Considering where we are discussing this and what I remember from your posts other places on this site, you are not actually defending this notion, are you? If you are, we can of course argue about it, but if not, I would think you could accept my offhand rejection of this idea. This is not because I do not have good reasons for rejecting the supernatural as a source of morality, but because I thought it unnecessary to defend this rejection on this site. Am I wrong in thinking this?

    Finally, I will repeat that what percentage of people think is moral or not is not important, just as it is not important what people think is true about evolution or the big bang. Science is not done by popular vote.

    Religion may have played a role in the development of morality, I would not know, but that does not mean that it is a good tool for determining what is right and wrong, not then and especially not now.

  11. In reply to #13 by quarecuss:

    @Anvil

    “We look after the old, the infirm, the incapable, the young, the mad, the daft, pets, poets, and even Everton supporters.”

    Fellaini headbutt coming up for you, Anvil.

    Heh, that’s one Kirkby Kiss I’ll pass on!

    Anvil.

  12. In reply to #12 by MahouShoujoMaruin:

    You are putting a lot of words in my mouth here. I did not say “religion is simply evil”, that “religious people can’t be moral” or that I’m trying to “get rid of religion”. Nor did I claim to be doing science,

    We have been talking past each other, I don’t think we disagree much if at all. Where we may disagree is on the question is it possible to study morality scientifically? This is one question where I agree with Harris. He says absolutely yes and I agree. Now the question of what is philosophy and what is science is complicated (actually Harris said some things on that topic I agree with as well, that essentially philosophy is what we do when we don’t have a theory mature enough to be considered science) but I think we can agree that once you start doing controlled experiments you are veering in to science. And there are people doing controlled experiments on morality. An excellent overview of some of this work is in the book Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong by Marc Hauser. Also, the book Why We Cooperate by Michael Tomasello.

    I apologize for assuming that you were talking about a scientific approach to ethics. But given that that is the topic of the article I think its not such an outrageous assumption. And I certainly agree with you that its not necessary to believe in a supernatural being to be moral. That wasn’t what you seemed to say in your earlier comment though. You said:

    “I do not see a problem with excluding the majority of the world population that believe that a deity decides what is morally right or wrong when trying to develop a theory of morality”

    If by that you mean that you don’t need to believe in God to be moral as an atheist I of course completely agree. My only point was when doing what people like Hauser, Harris, and Tomasello do (and I thinki a very apt way to describe what they are doing is “develop a theory of morality”) you can’t let your personal beliefs about religion bias you. You have to be open to any hypothesis about religion both that it may have positive and negative aspects.

    Finally, I will repeat that what percentage of people think is moral or not is not important, just as it is not important what people think is true about evolution or the big bang. Science is not done by popular vote.

    Religion may have played a role in the development of morality, I would not know, but that does not mean that it is a good tool for determining what is right and wrong, not then and especially not now.

    I agree with all that.

  13. In reply to #15 by Red Dog:

    Where we may disagree is on the question is it possible to study morality scientifically?

    If you by “study morality scientifically” mean using something like Harris science of morality to do experiments or other kinds of study and then publishing something that says doing A is morally right or wrong under circumstances X, then I agree that in principle this might be possible, but I think we are not quite there yet in practice. I think a large number of people would not accept a prescriptive conclusion as proper science, and while I have of course said that science is not done by polling, you nevertheless need some acceptance for what you are doing to be able to call it science. You need a proper process of peer-review etc, and for that to happen, you need a number of peers who all agree on the method and that this prescriptive conclusion is proper science. It might need a paradigm shift from where we are now, with many scientists blindly accepting the is-ought distinction and being very passive when confronted with religion and politics. While I think Harris’ axiom is a sensible, and that many will accept it, it is still sound philosophy to reject it, and while religion still has such a grip on the world it will be controversial.

    Of course, scientists are already doing studies that for example show smoking during pregnancy can be harmful to the fetus, and the bridge between the descriptive science and public policy is often smoothly crossed. It is only sometimes we encounter problems, such as circumcision, which can be harmful(and has no benefits) and yet there is, as far as I know, no government campaign or law to stop it(male circumcision), such as those to stop smoking during pregnancy. I suspect the decline of religion will lead to a lot of progress in matters like these.

    I apologize for assuming that you were talking about a scientific approach to ethics.

    I thought that was what we were doing. We are discussing a scientific approach to ethics. But that is different from doing a science of ethics. I’m not sure what point you are trying to make here.

    That wasn’t what you seemed to say in your earlier comment though. You said:
    “I do not see a problem with excluding the majority of the world population that believe that a deity decides what is morally right or wrong when trying to develop a theory of morality”
    If by that you mean that you don’t need to believe in God to be moral as an atheist I of course completely agree. My only point was when doing what people like Hauser, Harris, and Tomasello do (and I thinki a very apt way to describe what they are doing is “develop a theory of morality”) you can’t let your personal beliefs about religion bias you. You have to be open to any hypothesis about religion both that it may have positive and negative aspects.

    I think the problematic word here is “excluding”. I’m not sure which one of us used it first, but let me rephrase that. I meant that I do not think we need to seek out the views of the religious in developing or doing a science of morality. By that I did not just mean that you don’t need a religion to be moral, I meant that I don’t think religion has anything to contribute to a science of morality. I hope you are not confusing this with the issue of whether there are positive aspects of religion and whether they might lead to morally right actions, that is irrelevant to this. Since religions are based on faulty premises and reasoning, they only lead to morally right actions by accident, and thus has nothing to contribute to a scientific theory of morality. This is distinct from religions making people take morally right or wrong actions, a interesting question, but not the one under discussion here.

    A discussion about a science of morality is different from a discussion of positive and negative aspects of morality within religions.

  14. I find Shermer a very narrow and selective thinker. I suspect him of libertarian dogmatic bias in his selection of materials. No. I don’t disagree with the observation that liberal democracies with market economies are the best configuration of societies we know. I count myself a capitalist for what its worth but to say-

    We know from evolutionary theory that the principle of reciprocal altruism—I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine—is universal;

    and describe it as-

    These are just a few lines of evidence from many different fields of science that help us establish the best way for humans to flourish.

    is a poor show when he ignores the latest data from psychological and anthropological research that shows humans tend not to do such immediate and quid pro quo trading, but rather share surpluses with the group when they can, with no immediate expectation of return, somewhat in the manner of making insurance premium payments. Others’ surpluses, when available, are expected to be likewise shared. And so too deficiencies as the universal fairness principle adjusts the perception of a surplus. (And to be clear this radically different mode of quid pro quo is still fully compatible with evolutionary theory, just more complex and nuanced.)

    Libertarians love their theories and their dogma, which is always posited on the perfectly rational and competent if simple minded human. This was the first big mistake of much economic theory. Theirs is an aspie-friendly philosophy quite reasonably trying to neaten up a very messy world. When presented with such a messy world however, it is pragma and real evidence and not dogma that will win the day.

  15. Just to be clear, this apparent predisposition of “paying into society” as a stabilising and more secure form of banking your wealth (surplus) and being repaid when needed/possible leads to some rather different potential models of a liberal democratic free market than perhaps Shermer has in mind.

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