Posted: Oct 02, 2017 12:34 pm
by archibald
zoon wrote:My view on determinism and ethics comes in 2 parts, and I think both parts are essential to ethics as we know it:

1. All the evidence is that we are fully determinate mechanisms (with the usual caveats, e.g. quantum indeterminacy doesn’t count here).

2. We don’t, so far, know in any useful detail how those mechanisms actually work.

I think our ignorance of our brain mechanisms is essential to morality as it currently operates because if, or when, neuroscience enables people to predict and modify brains routinely with something approaching the accuracy and detail of modifying a car engine, then social life will be very different in ways we cannot easily predict from here, and that would include the way morality works, if morality’s still there at all. In that respect, I’m agreeing with people who say that in the end determinism is incompatible with moral realism: I’m saying that it’s only while we remain functionally indeterminate because of our ignorance of brain mechanisms, that we still use morality in its current form.

It's true, I think, that if we ever became able to fully predict each other, it would change things dramatically. But as when we discussed free will, I'm again not sure if we would need to get that far in order to modify the way we think about either free will or ethics in the meantime. We could (and there are cases which could be/are made for why we should) gradually change our approach to both anyway. Belief in free will could weaken (arguably is already happening) and morality could become more the domain of science (arguably is already happening).

zoon wrote:Meanwhile, I agree with your doubts about people like Sam Harris when they try to claim that science at this stage would be expected to have a major effect on the actual practice (rather than the background) of ethics. So far, science has given us very little new information about how our social lives operate in terms of basic science, that is, in terms of the actual brain mechanisms. Neuroscience is still grappling with the basics of brain function, never mind the massive self-reflexive complexities of human social behaviour. As you say, it’s not a good idea to underestimate the effect of scientific discoveries either, but I don’t think I would want to revolutionise ethics on a scientific basis for the time being. Wise uncle sounds good.

Looking at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on moral realism, it does mention some philosophers who are suggesting moral realism is compatible with scientific causality. I’ve been looking at a paper by one of them, Stephen Finlay, and I think his approach is similar to mine, though of course much more thought through. He suggests that basic moral assumptions, e.g. “Suffering should not be inflicted on innocent people” are in the end demands that the audience should share the same concern as the speaker. This is like my view, though I was emphasising the threat which underlies a “demand”. I don’t think it’s the same as Sam Harris’ view, because I think he sets a single normative value as basic, the “well-being of conscious creatures”, rather than taking the more descriptive line, including the various basic moral assumptions that people tend to have such as “people ought to look after their health” or “people ought to avoid irrationality”. I don’t think Sam Harris even attempts to show why scientific evidence tells us that the “well-being of conscious creatures” is a paramount value (and I would guess rather few people in practice take it as their paramount value), which is worrying if the main claim of the book is that science can give us moral values. It’s a fighting try at tackling the question.

Yes, it is a fighting try (and I've just bought the book) but I suspect, like you that it's a bit premature. I'm hoping Sam Harris realises this and is essentially just arguing for more input from what he calls science and not proposing that we make drastic changes right this instant. So far, in anything I've heard from or read by him, he does seem aware of this limitation, such as when he talks of at least asking the right questions, even if we don't currently know the answers, or looking in what he calls the right places, even if we currently can't find answers in them. He is essentially arguing that there appears to be something akin to an unwarranted NOMA approach to ethics on the part of both scientists and philosophers, and I tend to agree with him that it's unwarranted in principle, for somewhat similar reasons to when I agreed with Dawkins when he questioned the NOMA standpoint when it came to science and religion.

And I think that the aspect he may be weakest on is what I've been calling the popularity contest aspect, what you refer to as the audience's agreement (which does, as you say, often involve a threat of sanctions, of varying degrees of severity). This is an area where science in its current form may be least able to make prescriptions that go beyond advice, not least given that political science (along with psychology and sociology) are still comparatively fledgling and prone to uncertainty and unreliability, riddled as they seem to be with the vagaries of human capriciousness and other complexities.

As to your last point, Sam Harris does attempt to justify taking human wellbeing as paramount, on the basis that it's what everybody strives for and largely what evolution has made us to do. When you say that few people in practice take it as their paramount value, what do you have in mind?