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Mainstream science of morality contradicts Sam Harris’ central claim
AUTHOR
Mark Sloan
Mark Sloan
is a retired aerospace engineer who authors the blog moralitysrandomwalk.com.

TVOL Morality Associate Editor Mark Sloan’s entry in The Moral Landscape Challenge contest argues mainstream science of morality contradicts Sam Harris’ central claim. This science identifies the universal function of morality as increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups and challenges Harris’ argument because it also shows that there is no single goal for moral behavior as a natural phenomenon. This contradicts Harris’ belief that morality’s universal, ultimate goal is, as a matter of science, well-being. Since science shows morality as a natural phenomenon has no single universal ultimate goal, it is impossible that all “questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science.”

(Other entries by TVOL Editors in Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape Challenge are “Necessary, But Not Sufficient”, by Jiro Tanaka, “How Science Can Help Us Be More Reasonable About Morality” by Michael Price, and “Why I think Sam Harris is wrong about morality” by Jonathan Haidt.)

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Mainstream Science of Morality Contradicts Sam Harris’ Central Claim By Mark Sloan

In Evolution, Games, and God: The Principle of Cooperation, Martin Nowak and Sarah Coakley have assembled a representative collection of papers by mainstream science of morality investigators. Consistent with other work in the field, it shows that the largest component of what people consider morality is a natural phenomenon with the universal function of increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups; however, morality lacks any fixed, ultimate goal. Indeed, morality as a natural phenomenon has been used by groups to obtain a range of goals such as reproductive fitness and increased material goods – as well as increased well-being.

This contradicts Sam Harris’ claim that, as a matter of science, the goal of moral behavior is fixed as well-being.

There is plentiful evidence in science for the claim that morality, as a natural phenomenon, has no fixed ultimate goal. No equivalent evidence exists in science for Harris’ claim: Harris cannot coherently claim that the goal of a natural phenomenon “ought” to be something different than it “is” without agreeing that the hybrid product is no longer a purely natural phenomenon. This moves his contention beyond the domain of science.

With the goal of morality as a natural phenomenon undefined and variable in the domain of science, Harris’ claim that all “questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science” is false.

The above is my rational argument for the contest. In this essay’s remainder, I urge Sam to consider slightly switching his direction and advocating for the following surprisingly potent, ready-to-go science of morality, which is consistent with mainstream science. My goal here is to convince Sam that tweaking his perspective would assist in achieving the grand goal of a culturally useful science of morality.

To understand the potential power of that science, consider the reason morality exists and the problem that the largest component of morality evolved to solve: The universal dilemma of how to obtain the benefits of cooperation – without being exploited.

In our universe, cooperation can produce many more benefits than individual effort. But cooperation exposes one to exploitation. Unfortunately, exploitation is almost always a winning short-term strategy, and sometimes is in the long term. This is bad news because exploitation discourages future cooperation, destroys those potential benefits, and eventually, everybody loses.

All life forms in the universe, from the beginning to the end of time, face this universal dilemma. This includes people and our ancestors.

In Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed (2011), Martin Nowak argues our success as a species is due to people being astonishingly good at cooperation. How did our ancestors manage cleverly preventing exploiters and free riders from destroying the benefits of cooperation?

In the last few decades, the answer has come from game theory. Herbert Gintis calls the strategies that solve this universal dilemma of cooperation/exploitation “altruistic cooperation” strategies. All such strategies have two necessary components: A part that motivates risking cooperation even when it may be exploited (the altruistic part), and a part that motivates punishment of exploiters. (Note the strategies are, strictly speaking, not purely altruistic.)

So morality, as a natural phenomenon, is embodied in our biology and cultural moral codes that evolution selected because it implements a useful set of strategies. Over vast stretches of time, this selection force shaped human social psychology and arguably, even shaped much of our experience of durable (not fleeting) well-being – thereby enabling us to become the incredibly successful species we are. Our moral norms, modeled after altruistic cooperation strategies, should fit people like a key in a well-oiled lock because this key is what largely shaped this lock (our social psychology).

Except for some religious groups, a version of increased well-being is probably the most common human goal for enforcing moral codes.

But how do we actually achieve durable well-being? Is not the cooperative company of family and friends one of the most common sources of durable well-being? Why is this? Much of our experience of durable well-being may be a biological reward and motivation to stay in cooperative groups. Moral norms based on altruistic cooperation strategies that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups could be one of the most directly effective means available for increasing the emotional experience of well-being.

What can the science of morality tell us about right and wrong moral norms? Using morality as a natural phenomenon as its criterion, science can tell us if the moral norm actually is an altruistic cooperation strategy and therefore moral in this sense.

Consider the norms: “Homosexuality is evil,” and “women must be subservient to men.” These both have the necessary “violators deserve punishment” part and altruistic parts of all altruistic cooperation strategies as described above. However, are they really altruistic cooperation strategies? They appear to be if you look no further than the in-groups that may altruistically cooperate to impose them and benefit. But how do they measure up regarding altruistic cooperation between the in-group and the out-group? They reduce altruistic cooperation because the out-group generally cannot equally punish the in-group; consequently, the out-group is exploited. So these two norms (like all norms allowing exploitation) are immoral by this universal moral standard.

Could acknowledgement of the two norms’ shameful origins in exploitation and that they are immoral by this universal moral standard change the mind of a religious person? I expect a religious person would be more likely to reinterpret Holy Scriptures – motivated by these science of morality insights, rather than being motivated by simply being told “Science shows the ultimate goal of morality is well-being.” Let’s do all we can to make the science of morality useful to religious people; some need a lot of help.

I am sure there is more good science to be discovered. But the existing science of morality appears ready to start making large contributions to the increased well-being of people.

Of course, it would be useful to have a great communicator like Sam Harris to champion it.

7 Comments

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7 Comments

  1. @EdGibney says:

    “There is plentiful evidence in science for the claim that morality, as a natural phenomenon, has no fixed ultimate goal.”

    Can you cite some of that evidence so we know what you are talking about?

    Here’s another question for you to consider since you say morality’s universal function is increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups. If you are in a group that is cooperating towards a goal that you don’t agree with, what causes the moral feelings of deciding to withhold your cooperation? Is it because you have suddenly defined a different group you would rather consider to be in your in-group? What caused that shift in allegiance? Is it because you are persuaded that the other group’s goal is better? If so, what makes one goal better than another? Do you have an answer to that or are you a moral relativist when all is said and done?

  2. Mark Sloan says:

    Ed,
      It is a descriptive fact that “…morality as a natural phenomenon has been used by groups to obtain a range of goals such as reproductive fitness and increased material goods – as well as increased well-being.”

      I can expand on that that it is descriptive fact that the goal of moral behavior can be to better cooperate in exterminating other groups.

      Science deals in descriptive facts. There is lots of contradictory examples of moral behavior having a goal other than well-being and no evidence in science that well-being is morality’s only goal.

      Right, that group moral norm and its goal are, let’s say, contrary to your moral intuitions. It is contrary to your morality. All that means is that you are unlikely to feel guilt when you violate it, but you still may expect at least social disapproval, and perhaps worse, from your group.

      In philosophical terms,  I am a moral realist regarding the universal function of morality, but a moral anti-realist regarding any obligatory ultimate goal. But I am not a moral relativist at all.

    As I described above, one group exploiting another is universally immoral. Exploitation of one group by another is the most common source of evil done in the name of morality.

  3. @EdGibney says:

      While those goals are disparate, that doesn’t imply they couldn’t be intermediate goals on the way to a larger ultimate goal. It’s a logical mistake to state that this is evidence against that possibility. Conduct a root-cause analysis using something as simple as the 5 Whys method (link to en.wikipedia.org) and you may get to an ultimate goal. Taking your three group goals for example:
      1. Why does your group value reproductive fitness? Because it helps us survive.
      2. Why does your group value increased material goods? Because it makes us feel good? Why does it make you feel good? Because then we feel secure? Why do you feel secure? Because our survival is ensured.
      3. Why does your group value increased well-being? Because then we all feel better. Why do you feel better? Because we are all doing the best that we can. Why does doing the best that you can matter? Because then we’ll make progress. Why do you need to make progress? Because then we’ll be prepared for the worst. Why do you need to be prepared for the worst? Because then we will survive.
      A creationist could probably answer these whys all the way back to something different like “because it is the will of god”, but that is an unproven falsehood to rely on. Survival is an objective, descriptive fact that is observable by scientific methods. At its largest level of inclusion, survival implies survival of life over long-term evolutionary time periods. That’s an ultimate goal.
      (Paragraph break)
      So are you more of a moral subjectivist who believes that moral truth is an entirely mind-dependent affair? How do you define exploitation? Are there objective observable descriptions that spell out exactly when exploitation is taking place?

  4. @EdGibney says:

      While those goals are disparate, that doesn’t imply they couldn’t be intermediate goals on the way to a larger ultimate goal. It’s a logical mistake to state that this is evidence against that possibility. Conduct a root-cause analysis using something as simple as the 5 Whys method and you may get to an ultimate goal. Taking your three group goals for example:
      1. Why does your group value reproductive fitness? Because it helps us survive.
      2. Why does your group value increased material goods? Because it makes us feel good? Why does it make you feel good? Because then we feel secure? Why do you feel secure? Because our survival is ensured.
      3. Why does your group value increased well-being? Because then we all feel better. Why do you feel better? Because we are all doing the best that we can. Why does doing the best that you can matter? Because then we’ll make progress. Why do you need to make progress? Because then we’ll be prepared for the worst. Why do you need to be prepared for the worst? Because then we will survive.
      A creationist could probably answer these whys all the way back to something different like “because it is the will of god”, but that is an unproven falsehood to rely on. Survival is an objective, descriptive fact that is observable by scientific methods. At its largest level of inclusion, survival implies survival of life over long-term evolutionary time periods. That’s an ultimate goal.
      (Paragraph break)
      So are you more of a moral subjectivist who believes that moral truth is an entirely mind-dependent affair? How do you define exploitation? Are there objective observable descriptions that spell out exactly when exploitation is taking place?

  5. Jim Balter says:

    Harris’s central argument is fallacious, a gross case of question begging. It only follows from humans being natural creatures that questions of morality and value have right and wrong answers if those are questions about *matters of fact*, but that’s precisely what Harris would need to demonstrate. If his argument were valid, then science could tell us Harry Potter’s blood type, but of course it can’t. Just because humans are natural does not in any way imply that all of the questions they ask have determinable answers.

  6. Erick says:

    “This contradicts Sam Harris’ claim that, as a matter of science, the goal of moral behavior is fixed as well-being.”

    I think this is mistaken. Harris, as I understand him, establishes well-being as an axiom, not as a fact uncovered by science. It is in much the same way that reason and evidence are not epistemologies arrived at by science, but simply assumed in order to do science—an example Harris uses in his book. If Sloan wanted to undermine Harris I think he should have done a critique of axioms and provided a heuristic for arriving at good or necessary ones.

  7. John V. Patrick says:

    We can resolve the morality and religious issuers and their inherent conflicts by realizing one simple fact. That is, that morality like religion is a matter between an individual’s ethos and, in the case of religion, the relation between an INDIVIDUAL and his god. WE CAN NOT INFLUENCE OR REGULATE CONFLICTS BETWEEN INDIVIDUALS NOR WITHIN THE CONSCIENCE OF THESE RELATIONSHIPS BECAUSE OF INDIVIDUAL INTERACTIONS INVOLVED IN THE DERIVATION OF THE INDIVIDUAL ETHOS AND RELATED DOGMA OF THEIR BELIEFS. Thus, morality is an individual phenomenon. True, some groups with common dogmatic beliefs may band together to form their own moralistic groups and define their own moralistic values.
    John V. Patrick, author of DOGMA and soon to be released DOGMA ll