All this talk of morality is getting exciting! Just figured I would share this.
I watched a TED talk recently of Sam Harris making an argument that reminded very much of Plato’s depiction of Socrates in the apology. The basic premise of his argument is that through the fields of science we can find right of wrong answers to moral questions. Granted, Socrates would say we would find these answers through philosophy, their arguments are rather similar. While Socrates says that only through philosophical examination can we find true virtue, and true answers to these moral questions, Sam Harris focuses on the field of studying the brain for human well being. He even uses the same argument that Socrates does. He gives the example of him showing up to a string theory conference and saying, “I don’t really like this. It doesn’t really resonate with me, I just don’t like that outlook on the smaller scale of life.” It would mean absolutely nothing because he is not an expert on string theory. He even refers to himself as “the Ted Bundy of string theory.”
His argument stems from the idea of why we don’t have compassion for rocks or insects, but do for apes. We believe that apes can suffer greater, and are therefore more concerned with their well being. One would try to counter argue by pointing out that moral answers are subjective, and that science can only tell us what things are, not how to ought to be. He makes the strong claim that we can scientifically observe the effects on the brain, and decide what affects the well being positively or negatively. This gives hard, physical evidence for the case that one thing truly affects a being in a more positive way than another. Socrates spends so much time speculating on what is intrinsically right, and while this does not necessarily answer Socrates’ question, it does give us truthful facts to base our moral decisions off of.
He also addresses the possible counter argument asking “what would the right society be?” He uses the idea of a moral landscape with peaks and valleys, some peaks being higher than others and some valleys lower than others. There are several ways to achieve the well being of other humans without saying a specific example, and it is our job to find the peaks. Just as there are several ways to eat during the day, and no diet is truly the best diet, there is “a clear distinction between food and poison”. I think this is an argument that is extremely practical in comparison to that of Socrates, who is more concerned with finding the perfect diet, even if it means recreating all of food.
In the end, he poses a very convincing argument that science can indeed give us the moral answers that we need. If Sam Harris were to answer the question of what is just, I believe his answer would be in the realm of, that which can be proven to improve human well being. His answer cannot provide truly justice intrinsically, but it can give us a very clear idea of what goes where in the moral realm without the need for religious demagogues that get their answers through some sort of faith related practices. This video is extremely entertaining and definitely worth a watch.