Before I start let me say a few words of caution. Firstly, I’m not in any way qualified to critic anyone on philosophical arguments. This means that if you’re undecided about this matter I would not recommend you seek enlightenment in this post – for the same reason as to why I wouldn’t recommend you read a lay person’s essay on galaxy evolution in order to decide between hierarchical and monolithic collapse theories . I’m also not here to defend Sam Harris‘ views in light of other people’s criticisms – you should read those posts for that, plus Sam Harris’ reply. I’m writing this because I saw myself profoundly changing my mind about something that is important to me, and publicly exposing an argument is still the best way to find flaws in it. A test, if you will. To put it in other words, I’m writing this for my own benefit, not anyone else’s.
Let me start simply, by stating what I used to think is right and what I think is right now. I used to think that the moral views of different people were equally valid, or at least always worth of equal consideration. Now I think that it can be asserted that some moral views are right, and some moral views are wrong. Note that I’m not saying that I can assert it – only that it can be asserted. We’ll get to the ‘by whom?’ question later.
Sam Harris further argues that science can help with that assertion, but my fundamental problem with this was that I didn’t think this should – could – be done, in principle. Science wasn’t even in the equation. Turns out that it has to be, but we’ll get there later.
So why did I use to think that we all have an equal say when it comes to morality? Funnily enough, I’m finding myself having more trouble justifying my previous stance than my current one. Some people seem to be focusing on the sheer size of the moral landscape to justify this, but I don’t think that was it. I very much agree with Sam Harris here in that consensus or range of opinions/theories has very little to say about how likely any one given person is of being right or wrong (a pet hate of mine is how, in Astronomy, people often insist on estimating systematic errors – often brought in by models which essentially parametrise our ignorance – by comparing results obtained with different models with no regard to the rather obvious fact that models are likely to be wrong in the same, and unknown, way). No, that’s not it.
Perhaps then, it was because I was brought up as a catholic and even though I am no longer a catholic (or a religious person), I still felt the need to accommodate these views out of respect towards my family and friends (a large fraction of whom are devote catholics). But whereas respecting religious beliefs is one thing, accepting real policies that arise from those beliefs as being morally right is quite another. Perhaps then I was somewhat confused here. Turns out I discarded accommodationism too, but that’s somewhat beyond the point for now.
However, I think the honest and fundamental reason is that I could not identify an expertise that I thought could rule on the morally right or wrong. “Who am I to say that it is not OK to stone women to death for adultery?” Really? Really? OK, there are two questions here.
First. Is there an expertise that can give me absolute answers about what is right or wrong? Second. If such an expertise exist, how does one become an expert?
First. Turned around by Sam Harris, I’m now very much inclined to say that there is. If we agree that there are ‘peaks’ in the moral landscape (these peaks will change with time – and that is OK!), then to each of these peaks there must correspond a set of moral answers that will lead us to it. The more fundamental question then, is whether such an absolute (albeit time-dependent) landscape exists, and how it can be calculated. Sam Harris’ answer is quite simple: maximise well-being, and you will find your peaks. These peaks exist – how can anyone argue that they don’t? You may argue that different people have a different ideas of what these peaks are, but I will argue that a lot of people will be wrong. It’s not about starting from different premises (individuality vs common good, for example); Fred Hoyle wasn’t just starting from a different set of assumptions – Fred Hoyle was wrong. I can’t say exactly when individual freedom trumps the common good, but I am willing to accept that the question can be answered in any given context, and that there is a right answer (that leads us to a peak) and a wrong answer (that doesn’t).
This leads me to the second point – how does one become an expert in such landscape mapping? I think this will very much depend on which policy one is trying to act, but I’m taking Sam Harris’ point as simply stating that when it comes to making policies, opinions or wars then science can help you make that decision – even if at the crux of the question there is a moral disagreement. And we already do this, all the time. Here’s an example which has somewhat backfired on me, and that is abortion. I’m pro-life as a lot of you know. I’m not religious, but I’m passionately pro-life. However, even though there is a clear moral question here, a lot of countries have taken a more scientific approach to this matter and have legalised abortion. This was a decision that presumably maximises well-being, and has ruled on the moral arena. Now I happen to vehemently disagree with that decision, but I don’t have to be right! I’m also not saying that abortion is right in a moral landscape scenario, but I’m willing to accept that there is a right and a wrong answer, and that that answer is attainable. Moreover, I think the route to that answer is via science, with a view to maximising human well being right here, right now (and not in an afterlife, or whatever else).
So there – in a nutshell this is why I’ve changed my mind, and I haven’t changed it back whilst writing this. As Sam Harris puts it, “the moment we admit that there is anything to know about human wellbeing, we must admit that certain individuals or cultures might not know it.” I genuinely cannot argue with that.