Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Science of Right and Wrong

How do we find answers to important questions? In the beginning, humans looked to wise elders, sages, and shamans. Over time, authority to speak on matters of consequence became vested in secular rulers, religious leaders -- or, frequently, a hybrid of the two.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that an objective approach to finding true answers was outlined by Bacon and Descartes (and later refined by Charles Sanders Peirce). We call it the scientific method. Through this means, we learned that our planet orbits the sun, that disease is transmitted by microbes, and that old women do not fly on broomsticks.

Can we now use the same method for discovering answers to significant ethical questions? Could right and wrong be determined through study and reason?

Those who wrote the books that some call scripture were, perforce, not well-informed about the way the world works. They did their best to make sense of what they saw, but their understanding was severely limited both by a lack of information and by a means of acquiring reliable data. This may help explain why adultery, homosexuality, and even cursing were considered punishable by death.

If we wouldn't want to rely on ancient sages to give us good directions for crossing the ocean, for preventing infections, or for treating mental illness, then why do we assume that their definitions of right and wrong (and appropriate consequences for violating societal norms) cannot be improved upon?

This is more than just an interesting epistemological issue. Many of us still seem oddly reluctant to surrender our reliance on mystical (some might say ignorant) authorities for instruction on moral issues. But emerging technologies -- especially molecular manufacturing -- could enable fanatical believers in ancient superstitions to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction. Do we want someone who relies upon the “truth” of books written by “prophets” to execute their visions of justice upon millions of our fellow humans?

Before we reach a point of total democratization of violence -- a day that is rapidly approaching -- we should take a serious look at how we determine right and wrong. It may be time to seek global consensus on the necessity of relying upon reason instead of faith to answer life’s most critical questions. Our survival may depend upon it.

Originally posted at Science Blog, May 21, 2006


Dale Carrico said...

Well, I think there is a deep difference between candidates for scientific belief (which provide us better powers of prediction and control) and candidates for moral belief (which tell us to what ends we should turn such powers of prediction and control), and while it is certainly true that things we have and things we know will have a key impact on the things we want and value I don't think the demarcation of is from ought will be "overcome" any time soon. And I personally think it would be an undesirable impoverishment of diverse human experience were we to manage such an overcoming in the first place, so I for one do not crave it.

You point to the catastrophe of faith-based responses to contemporary technodevelopmental dislocations (traditional cultures confronted with cultural difference via mass communication, traditional authorities confronted with challenges to their privileges via p2p and ARTs and so on), but it is crucial to realize that what is decried as a rise of militant fundamentalisms often amounts in fact to predictable blowback from anti-democratic corporate-militarist foreign policy in the twentieth century, or is a populist formation resisting anti-democratic wealth concentration or needless insensitivity and nonconsensual disruption of personal lifeways, and so on.

This has the consequence that what might appear to be a problem of faith may be more a problem of anti-democratic politics in the context of which practices of faith are twisted to political ends that are catastrophic not only to the hopes for democracy but for the very faiths themselves as paths for any kind of consensual personal self-creation. (I say this, by the way, as a cheerful atheist myself.)

Your last paragraph is especially interesting to me, by the way, since you put your intuitions in a language that is slightly different from my own. You say that it is time to rely on deliberative global processes to solve human problems and certainly I agree with this. But it seems to me that this is what a "democratization of violence" would actually consist of -- a constraint of the violence at the heart of law within the bounds of global democracy turned to the solution of shared problems and the reconcilation of diverse aspirations. I suspect that the phrase "democratization of violence" might mean something different to you here, though. Would you elaborate?

Tom FitzGerald said...


I suspect that what Mike's phrase "democratization of violence" means is the growing ability of nonstate actors to commit catastrophic atrocities, which would presumably peak when just about anybody anywhere can unleash gray goo, or an engineered virus, or some other WMD.


I find a couple of things problematic in your formulation as well.

Science is the study of nature, and attempts-- however ironically and provisionally--to derive its truths therefrom. While science is socially constructed and for all sorts of epistemological reasons incapable of "holding a mirror to nature," it's still ABOUT nature as scientists understand it.

Ethics are often taken nowadays to be neither derived from nor about nature, but rather about freely chosen values. (I should caveat that by saying that I mean "derived" normatively, not to deny the influence of our genes on our gut responses, and that I mean "freely" within the bounds of the possible and conceivable.) The quote that encapsulates this kind of attitiude best for me, IIRC its words, is that of Camus: "A man (sic) can be good on a whim."

Given the post-naturalist character of the thought of most technoprogressive types, I'm not sure how a (pseudo-)scientific quest to supplant (post-)humanistic ethical discourse with One Right Answer would square with the interminable discursiveness of democratic politics.

What the quest for such answers reminds me of is the human rights tradition--which is what I had been meaning to blog on when I logged in, coincedentally enough. I'll address that in greater length in an entry.

Suffice it to say in this comment however, that while I know too much about your liberal and research commitments to suspect you of making any moves toward totalitarianism or pseudoscience, I'm not sure how a concerted societal quest for scientific answers to question, not of fact, but of value, could avoid these.

Mike Treder said...


Your assertion that certain apparent problems of faith are better viewed as problems of politics smacks of knee-jerk liberalism: if something bad happens somewhere, then we must be at fault. I seriously doubt that's what you believe, but simplistic formulations do not become you.

Have you read The End of Faith, by Sam Harris? I think it's an important book for our time, and reveals the genuine threat that faiths of all kinds pose to society.

My basic point is simply this: definitions of right and wrong are too important to be consigned by default to sources of ancient "wisdom." We have a demonstrably better way to find answers and solve problems, and that way is applied reason. Let's clean the slate and build a wholly new technoprogressive system of macroethics.

BTW, Tom's interpretation of the phrase "democratization of violence" is spot on. It's a trickle down effect of the worst kind.

Tom FitzGerald said...


Glad my interpretation of "democratization of violence" was helpful. Your reminder of the concept has me thinking of another blog entry. Everyone else can blame you for their having to wade through my prose!!

In your post, you wrote, "Could right and wrong be determined through study and reason?"

My answer: No, right and wrong are undeterminable. We can talk about values, but we mostly talk from values. Ethical truths do not seem to be discoverable in the nature of scientific ones. How would one design a double-blind experiment to test a falsifiable hypothesis in ethics? For that matter, how does one falsify "Murder is bad" or "Murder is good"?

Applied reason may well be the last best hope of humanity. It may invent ameliorative technologies, help us plan for risks and benefits, and help us craft an institutional architecture that more fairly distributes the world's goods and so reduces the rage that could spawn attacks in an era of ubiquitous WMD possession.

But however much applied reason can help us achieve the goals that spring from our values, I think that reason can do little to create our values.
Philosophers have spent centuries trying to ground ethics in reason, and have achieved nothing like the consenus that characterizes the hard sciences. One of the reasons the old sages are still read is that in many ways, society has advanced little beyond them.

But society has advanced somewhat. Activists and thinkers have moved society's understanding of what we should value--not with reason, but with appeals to the heart. From the birth of the first great modern activist movement--Abolitionism--a few reasonable folk have fought alongside a tide of people who were just plain fired up.

I saw Harris once on a talking heads show, and admired his forthrightness. That said, outside of a few fundamentalist sects, most people of faith aren't living most of the letter of the laws in their scriptures--and even the fundamentalists make exceptions.

Faiths evolve, too.

In his translation of the Tao Te Ching, Arthur Waley talks about the difference between a translation that attempts to get at the meaning that attached to the Chinese ideograms when they were first painted, and what he calls "a scriptural translation" that attempts to render what the text means to modern folk religionists after centuries of accreted medieval commentary. These meanings are very different.

Even when people are following ancient texts, they're often following very modern reinterpretations of them. Most fundamentalists are rooted not in the ancient meanings of their scriptures, but in those attached to them during one of the two very print-dependent, very modern Reformations--the Protestant of the 16th century and the one convulsing Islam in the 21st. Modern fundamentalists are reading their own modern preoccupations into their texts. So are liberal religionists. The "death of God" might be a less important prism through which to view modern spirituality than the "death of the author."

If the world is to be saved from WMD's in the hands of madmen (and it would probably be men!), efforts spent dispelling superstition (with all their potential to alienate) are probably less crucial than efforts to eradicate injustice. If the values people get from their irrational faiths can help bind them together into global efforts for such goods as clean drinking water for the world's children, then the truth of their beliefs will concern me but little.

Absent massive neural modification, people are not swayed by appeals to reason alone. In the domain of values, I say with Pascal that "The heart has its reasons which Reason does not know."

Dale Carrico said...

Howdy, Mike!

I have pointed out myself in the past that "a-theist" just means "without god" and that I use it to describe my own attitudes because I do very nicely thank you very much without god myself :) However, it is surely wrong to pretend that god is not a part of our lives even if we are "nonbelievers" when the overwhelming majority of people on the planet (including my parents and family, most of my fellow citizens, many of my students and colleagues, some of my friends, and so on) are believers whose belief shapes their conduct in the public world I share with them.

I agree with you that questions of right and wrong are very important, and I definitely hear where you are coming from, but I do think beliefs about right and wrong are important in deeply different ways than beliefs in warranted candidates for scientific belief are important. I think they have a different form, that they are governed by different criteria. I might not allow faith to enter into my ethical deliberation (probably at least some faithful folks would disagree with me about that) but I do allow my sense of beauty to enter into that delibertation, and many would find esthetic criteria as misplaced in ethics as religious criteria. Do you see what I mean?

Given all these complexities I actually think it is awfully quixotic to say "[l]et's clean the slate and build a wholly new technoprogressive system of macroethics." I don't think slates ever get cleaned in this way, I think the past resonates irreconcilably into the present come what may. This is part of the reason why politics is utterly irreducible to engineering. Scientific consensus is provisionally possible, but human plurality is ineradicable and only compromises arising in conversation from moment to moment are possible.

Now, don't get me wrong -- I don't think definitions of right and wrong should be "consigned by default to sources of ancient 'wisdom'" at all -- especially since so many of those sources seem to want faggots like me dead! I just don't think it makes sense to waste much time wishing majorities will jettison these sources altogether.

I think the best we can hope for is to struggle to maintain and even strengthen the secular demarcation of state and religion (as much to protect believers from one another in their differences as nonbelievers like me from believers who wish me ill) and hope that under those conditions the reason we both champion will prevail more often than not.

I don't understand why it is "knee-jerk liberalism" to admit that fundamentalist social formations gather strength as compensations to social disruptions of a kind we should expect to see more of rather than less given ongoing technodevelopmental churn, as blowback from stupid shortsighted military adventurism largely in the service of petrochemical corporate agendas, and in response to widespread social discontent. It seems to me that these connections are all pretty widely documented, and if there is truth to them it is better to take them seriously than not.

You say that I assert "certain apparent problems of faith are better viewed as problems of politics" and I agree with your reading of what I say here. Then you say this is tantamount to the claim: "if something bad happens somewhere, then we must be at fault." That isn't something I said or believe at all, in fact it's hard to see how you could read that in what I wrote. Then you say, "simplistic formulations do not become you" by which I think you mean to refer to the thing I didn't say rather than the thing I did. No fair! :)

Now, I like many things Sam Harris says, but actually not all of them.

I think sometimes his view of faith is rather simplistic. He protests, for example, that we should not have to define the term "atheist" any more than we should "anti-alchemist" since the non-belief in a non-existing thing isn't really a viewpoint particularly, but the lack of one. But the fact is that "atheist" simply *is* a term with a rich history and probably a rich future. It has meant many things and will continue to do according to all sorts of historical variables. There have been incredibly longstanding vibrant communities of faith in the multimillenia history of monotheism for example that have practiced as a kind of faith what we would now identify as nonbelief. Atheist philosophers of the twentieth century devoted to ontology, the contemplation of being, have a rich archive of mostly religious thought to draw on, just as the practices of psychotherapy are not so different from practices that arise periodically historically in esoteric mystical traditions.

I know exactly what you mean by the threat of fundamentalisms. But I think it is a mistake to locate the source of that threat in a faithfulness that isn't always threatening in all its forms in the specified sense (in fact, to the contrary, often contributes some of the strongest allies in the fights against such threats), especially since we can often identify co-factors in the rise of fundamentalism that are social and political in character. To be honest, I would even characterize fundamentalism more as more essentially an authoritarian social formation than as a form of personal belief in the first place.

Again, I speak as an atheist and also as someone who is often earmarked for destruction by fundamentalists for being gay, freethinking, anti-militarist, feminist, heck, even for being vegetarian -- so believe me when I say I totally get where you're coming from in all this!

Mike Treder said...

Dale wrote: ...what is decried as a rise of militant fundamentalisms often amounts in fact to predictable blowback from anti-democratic corporate-militarist foreign policy in the twentieth century... [etc.]

This was the statement that I intended to characterize as "knee-jerk liberalism." It sounded to me like you were saying that if we in the developed West and North were less offensive in our practices, then militant fundamentalists would no longer be a problem.

I completely agree with you that imperialist and corporate hegemony greatly exacerbate existing frictions. However, those frictions will not disappear if we just behave better. At some point, they will have to be confronted as value differences.

Dale wrote: ...politics is utterly irreducible to engineering. Scientific consensus is provisionally possible, but human plurality is ineradicable and only compromises arising in conversation from moment to moment are possible.

I love you, man, but here I couldn't disagree more. If it were not for consensus that transcends the moment, we would have no society at all. Both anthropology and history show that humans seek out and apply lasting compromises, and of a steadily widening scope. I am optimistic that this trend can continue.

Mike Treder said...


On followers of faith, I agree with Sam Harris that the most problematic element is not the radical fundamentalist minority, but the moderate majority, because the legitimacy that the majority provides for religion is what gives the radicals power. The issue is not about the excess of true believers, it is about staking belief in the unseen to begin with.

When the big shift finally occurs (and it will) in the mass of population away from faith and toward reason, then radicals of all religions will be seen for what they are: ridiculously primitive and small-minded. If not for the danger they present, we could dismiss and marginalize them altogether. But due to the growing democratization of violence, that won't be enough.

I think it's safe to say that 99% -- no, make it 99.9% -- of all human beings wish not to harm others. Up until now, that ratio has been enough to keep the crazies from destroying the world. But because emerging technologies could allow small groups or single individuals to acquire and deploy the means for massive destruction, the ratio is no longer golden.

Faith and technology may seem to be unrelated subjects. Sadly, I think they are not.

Dale Carrico said...

I wrote: "what is decried as a rise of militant fundamentalisms often amounts in fact to predictable blowback from anti-democratic corporate-militarist foreign policy."

Mike replied: "This... sounded to me like you were saying that if... the developed West and North were less offensive in our practices, then militant fundamentalists would no longer be a problem. I completely agree with you that imperialist and corporate hegemony greatly exacerbate existing frictions."

Yes, what you describe well here as imperialism and corporate hegemony does indeed catastrophically exacerbate tensions. In a fairer, more sustainable global order I do think these problems would be incomparably more manageable.

"However, those frictions will not disappear if we just behave better. At some point, they will have to be confronted as value differences."

Again, I think that militant fundamentalism is better conceived as an authoritarian political formation than a problem of religious belief (there have been Islamic societies that were more secular and scientific than most European societies of the time in certain epochs, for example) -- and one that is all too familiar in the West and everywhere else historically.

And so, I tend to see less a clash of civilizations (Huntington's formulation mobilizes some truly damaging overgeneralizations in my view) in the current distress than an ongoing struggle of secular democratic formations against militant authoritarian formations.

It doesn't help any of us of course that the awful current US President -- who provides his own militancy and fundamentalism for us to contend with -- claims that his debauching of democracy at home and abroad is all in the name of "democracy" itself. Oy!

Mike write: "If it were not for consensus that transcends the moment, we would have no society at all."

Oh, I agree. I'm not claiming reconciliation isn't possible -- I'm saying that we are not going to arrive at a final reconciliation of our differences. People are different from one another. That has consequences.

I simply see no evidence at all to remotely suggest that deep down all of our interests, our "true," essential, or rational interests, say, are all the same or are even likely to seamlessly cohere. I do believe that secular democracies can reconcile more differences without recourse to violence than other forms of governance on offer -- I do believe that democracy can create stable ways for people to co-exist while agreeing to disagree -- and I do believe democracy creates a context of critical respectful deliberateness that makes it more likely that even deep differences whose reconciliation imposes non-negligible costs are more likely to succeed.

But I don't think there will ever be an end to human conflict arising out of human diversity, and I don't think what we are doing when we are being rational politically is quite the same thing as what we are doing when we are being rational scientifically, and it is good to understand these differences to better ensure we are indeed being as sensible as may be in both contexts.

I'm actually not sure we really differ as much -- perhaps a few different emphases here and there -- as our different language does to express our intuitions.

Tom FitzGerald said...


I don't think moderate religious folks legitimize fundamentalism any more than I think that social democrats legitimize Stalinism.

Harris' argument is a standard slippery slope one, by which I am unimpressed. The only thing about Harris that impresses me is his courage in standing up for atheism in the U.S. media.

As for the legitmacy of staking faith in the unseen (by which I take it you mean the unprovable, rather than, say, the literally unseen but scientifically sound, like atoms and infrared light), I think it depends on the context, i.e. on the kind of social practice being engaged in. In policy discourse, it's pigheaded to resist consensus science. In science, it's inappropriate to believe in the unfalsifiable.

However, there are other cases. While watching a play, the full psychological experience depends upon the suspension of disbelief. I think that religious suspension of disbelief (provided it is kept within its proper bounds, like that of playgoers) can be a psychologically legitimate form of self-experimentation. As soon as it steps outside its bounds, however, and tries to comment on policy or science, I'll be the first to criticize it, I assure you.

While belief needs bounds, some unbelief may as well. For instance, a constant Humean skepticism that the sun will rise in the morning or that the floor under one's feet is really there, or that solipsism is false, makes it tough to get through the day.
However, in an epistemological essay, such skepticism might be quite illuminating.

It's all about context.