Ethics without others.

This is a blog as a response to a TedTalk of Sam Harris 'Science can answer Moral Questions'.

“I am going to speak today about the relationship between science and human values. Now it is generally understood that questions of morality, questions of good and evil and right and wrong, are questions about which science officially has no opinion. It is stated(?) that science can help us to get what we value, but never tell us what we ought to value. And consequently most people, I think most people probably hear, think that science will never answer the most important questions in human life. Questions like 'what is worth living for?', 'what is worth dying for?', 'what consitutes a good life?' So I am going to argue that this is an illusion, the separation between science and human values is an illusion and actually quite a dangerous one at this point in human history.”, ends at 1:03.

That is a set of bold assumptions of Sam Harris. The first being that science is able to make valid statements about human values. The second that the assumption that it is dangerous that science can not make valid statements about human values and last but not least that it is in this particular point in human history that we need science to decide which are right human values and which are not. At the end of his Ted talk he states 'This is what the world really needs right now: it needs people like ourselves to admit that there are right and wrong answers to questions of humans flourishing and morality relates to that domain of facts.', ends at 17:15, so he really means to say right human value.

Now, I do agree with him that there are human values that I consider alternatives from mine or that are simply utterly unacceptable. For instance, female circumcision is in my opinion a cruel tradition. Any value that supports female circumcision is in my opinion supporting cruelty.
I agree that there are human values that can differ accross different cultures and that hence there are more 'correct' answers to the same question. However, with respect to certain human values I think that some cultures support values that simply should not exist. Every culture that prescribes female circumcision supports human values that are not even wrong, because the question in the first place 'is female circumcision a good solution to the problem at hand?' is in my opinion already the wrong question to formulate.
Everyone in the audience will know some human values that are in his or her opinion in any way unjustifiable where there are other human values that are not their own, but totally acceptable. That is why his statement about right and wrong answers has such a high face validity. If you would, however, ask to every member in the audience which human values are totally unjustifiable and which are acceptable yet different, one might find out that in that audience belonging to that one culture the differences in what is totally unjustifiable are already huge. Although everyone might agree on his statement, there might be a great variety of arguments, that even might contradict each other, on which this agreement is based. Is there therefore a real agreement in the audience, when it is safe to assume that this general agreement is based upon personal and unbridgeable disagreements?

Values are facts

Back to the first of his three bold assumptions, namely that science is able to make valid statements about human values. To make that possible Sam Harris postulates 'Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures.', ends at 1:35. Next to 'There are truths to be known about how human communities florish whether or not we understand these truths and morality relates to these truths. So, in talking about values, we are talking about facts.', ends at 4:00. Although later on in his Ted talk he states that 'Science will not give answers to every conceivable moral question.', ends at 5:52. The latter makes it difficult what he is truly trying to say. What it is worth to say that values are a certain kind of facts, science is about facts, yet science can not give answers to every conceivable moral question? That should only be possible if he thinks that not every conceivable moral question is about values/facts. Examples of factual moral questions he gives are 'should we take a second child?' or 'should we bomb Irans nuclear facilities?' Besides that both questions are not purely moral questions as both questions have more aspects to it, and some of those aspects are very factual (like how many innocent Iranians will be killed directly or suffer terminal illnesses for many years after the bombing?), what is it that he gives these questions in his talk as examples of questions where science can help us to find one answer to it? He started with the questions 'what is worth living for?', 'what is worth dying for?' and now he gives these two questions as examples that we might need the help of science to get valuable answers. How are these two questions related to the first ones? You can only give these questions as examples if you perceive them as having currently multiple answers, yet with the help of science only one will remain.

The first question science can shed light upon, indeed. But imho there will be a vast terrain where the parents still must find very personal answers themselves. But to put these two questions together? As if they both have the same validity to be asked? The ide that there are more answers possible on the second question 'should we bomb Irans nuclear facilities?' I certainly don't need a supercomputer to give me an answer to that latter question: not even think about it. Giving this question as an example that a supercomputer can not answer, implies that according to Sam Harris it is a possibility to answer 'yes' or 'it depends.' Does he really think that what Iranians think about this question is not important at all? One might argue that science will say that this question has the answer "don't even think about it", but the point is, that Sam Harris in his current state of mind can give this question as a valid example. Millions of Iranians will suffer or die. Yet, he can put forward the question. To me, this kind of question is comparable with questions about the best way to deal with female circumcision. There is no best way as there is only no way.

According to Sam Harris are values facts about the wellbeing of conscious beings and therefore within reach of science. He states that we have no moral obligations towards rocks and more towards primates than to insects. His model is very human centric. He is surprisingly wrong about stones. Although he is correct that people generally speaking have more emotions towards primates with respect to insects, the environmental concerns of the last forty years talk about the earth as a whole and the native Americans are famous for their respect towards nature. They could not posses it like Europeans could do. Some ground was holy ground and should be treated with utmost respect. And although stones are not respected by a lot of people, for some people the possession of certain stones was enough reason to take it not so high with the morality towards fellow human beings. It is not as straightforward as he pictures it. Most important however in feeling moral obligations towards stones is that planet B is not available. We don't have an alternative and albeit this argument is still very human centric, we live on a planet and are therefore in our existence dependent on the circumstances on that planet. Furthermore, he could have asked the moral question 'what makes a human life more valuable within the great scheme of things than any other life or non-life?' In my opinion should the answer be 'I value life of humans more then life of other species as I am a human. That is the only reason, hence has all other form of life the same right on the same reason and is the most objective answer that we have the same moral obligation to every life on earth, even if we can not bring it into practice.'

But what does it mean practically that science would be able to talk about human values? Evolution is one of the best supported theories in science, supported by many different fields of science, yet a lot of people do not believe in it. It mingles with there beliefs, which are more important to them then all scientifical evidence. Why would that be different for humanity on the central field of beliefs: human ethics? If science would say something of it, who would believe it? Who would change their believes because some scientist tells them to do it?
A research in science ends very often with a sentence like 'more research has to be done in the future.' One of the reasons that that sentence turns up again and again is that with every answer new questions arise, that the majority of the search results are very prone to debate and that it prepares new researches (and articles) to be created by the scientist. Scientists are not focused on ending their own career and research by putting forward their definitive answers on certain questions. Moreover are their research questions not of the type 'what should one do in situation A or B?' It is highly unscientific to ask a question like 'is it good to punish a child publicly? Yes or no?'

There are truly human values

Sam Harris talks about punishing children in this way: 'Is it a good idea, generally speaking, to subject children to pain and violence and public humiliation as a way of encouraging healthy emotional development and good behavior? Is there any doubt that this question is relevant and that it's answer matters?', ends at 7:38. A lot of people in the audience laughed with him. Is this question formulated objectively? Is this a question science can investigate? Can the words violence and public humiliation result in an encouraging emotion? Using words is framing the answer. Shouldn't Sam Harris be more neutral when he formulates this question? But would he using a more neutral formulation cover the same range of behaviors he is now covering? Is his current formulation a valid hypothesis, that describes behaviors used to correct children precisely?
Is it anyhow possible to formulate questions that are without any preconceived belief, in other words begging the question? A question like 'what is the meaning of life?' for instance presupposes the validity of a relationship between meaning and life. A meaning is not a purpose. If a meaning lacks, one might become a nihilist. If a purpose lacks on the other hand, then life might still be very joyful and meaningful. Living without a purpose is generally speaking very relaxed. Is it therefor possible to get a set of questions that everybody agrees upon? In which language?

Are my subjections relevant or are they veils to obscure the fact that there are truly human values that every human should apply to? Sam Harris describes the necessity of finding the true answers in 'If questions effect human well being, then they do have answers whether or we can find them and just admitting this, just admitting that there are right and wrong answers to the question how humans florish will change the way we talk about morality and will change our expectations of human cooperation in the future.', ends at 6:27. Again, this has high face validity. But I think it will be very difficult to agree upon a set of questions that everybody agrees upon. When I heard Sam Harris use the questions 'what is it worth living for?' or 'what is it worth dying for?', then I did not recognize it as relevant questions. Using the term 'worth' in this context? I don't make up a calculation or balance in life. 'What is it worth dying for' is more familiar to me, but 'what is it worth living for?' absolutely irrelevant in my opinion. Questions I think that are worth investigating are for instance 'how do we get all humans to become more compassionate?' and 'There will always be inequality between people. How can we arrange society so that inequality is supported, but that that does not affect chances on food, well being and a happy life for each of us?'

To give an example of the problems one might have to overcome in formulating questions that everybody agrees upon is that there are at least two universal declarations of humanity. One based on the islam and one, according to islamists, based on christianity. They can not be brought inline with each other. Which declaration will be proven right by science? Does Sam Harris really believe that if science mingles with this question that whatever answer it will return, that all people will stand united behind it? But which question one asks is always within the framework of one universal declaration or the other. In every hypothesis where the word Shari'ah is missing, is the islamic declaration of humanity not used. The last two articles of the Cairo declaration are (in English):

ARTICLE 24:
All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari'ah.

ARTICLE 25:
The Islamic Shari'ah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles of this Declaration.


With respect to the question 'what constitutes a good life?' will the Islamic answer be “look it up in the Shari'ah”, whereas in the declaration of Helsinki the answer is manyfold and can be researched by science according to Sam Harris, who has not used the word Shari'ah to explain his line of argumentation. He is clearly not a devout Muslim.

Authority in moral

His idea to use science to find answers to millenia old problems of humanity asks for the acceptance of authority in morality: 'Whenever we are talking about facts, certain opinions must be excluded. That is what it is to have a certain domain of expertise. That is what it is for knowledge to count. How have we convinced ourselves that in the moral sphere there is no moral expertise or moral talent or moral genius even? How have we convinced ourselves that every opinion has to count? How we convinced ourselves that every culture has a point of view on these subjects worth considering?', ends at 16:36. Again, he uses the word worth in a way I would never want to use it. It is very difficult to understand the otherness of the Other, to accept it and to embrace it as if it was our own. And sometimes is this just impossible. Two examples I have problems with are female circumcision and not accepting evolution. The first, because mutilation can never be the answer to a question and the second because it shows to me that the own belief system is more important then a host of factual evidence. In my opinion it denies reality.
Yet, it is my firm belief that someone cannot give away the own responsibility of moral judgement to any 'expert in the field'. We should never do that to prevent the new rise of another Holocaust. In my opinion it is a plight to the protection of humanity to never surrender one's own responsibility in morality to another person or so called expert or genius or strong leader.

Who said that we convinced ourselves that every opinion has to count? The problem is that if we do not accept the conviction of the other, we do not accept our own conviction as well. It is impossible to say “he is not entitled to have that opinion” without getting that backfired to yourself. It will happen directly or indirectly, yet it will happen. The freedom of mind a person gives to himself, should he give to any other. Where is it possible to draw a line between the validity of the own opinion and the validity of the opinion of the other? Of course, one might notice where someone differs from one's own opinion, but does that imply that from that moment onwards the meaning of the other has less value? Personally yes obviously, or the person would have had the same opinion as the other. But from a broader perspective, where can a person say that his own opinion has a higher authority with respect to reality than the opinion of the other? Did that person ever think from the opposite side? That the opinion of the other has a higher authority with respect to reality? That is the challenge when talking with someone else having a totally different opinion. To say bluntly 'Whenever we are talking about facts, certain opinions must be excluded...How have we convinced ourselves that every opinion has to count? How we convinced ourselves that every culture has a point of view on these subjects worth considering?' is throwing away the challenge, throwing away the meeting of the other, throwing away the mirror of the other and with that throwing away everything which makes life a beautiful encounter.

As I see it, his idea comes from a good heart trying to maximize wellness for all humanity. Yet his idea that only one solution is possible and requires that everyone should adhere to the same set of moral beliefs is a very unpractical way of thinking. It shows to me in what kind of bubble Sam Harris is living. While reading the Cairo declaration of human rights, I could see history coming alive. European nations conquered the world and had colonies allover. For us, European citizens, this history has hardly happened in our lives. The majority of us was not there. The majority did not live outside Europe. We never felt what it was to be surpressed by people of another nation and looked down upon because of our values. The Helsinki declaration of human rights is not Islamic, because it does not refer to the Shari'ah nor is it Hinduistic as it does not refer to any Hindu deity. In the Western World there is a separation between state and church, which is reflected in the declaration of Helsinki. That separation is not present in a lot of Islamic countries, why they have made the Shari'ah the base of their declaration. One of the reasons that the Cairo declaration is made was out of frustration that they were not invited to sit at the table when the Helsinki declaration was made. Their old colonizers were writing a declaration about human rights, while they still had a lot of colonies in which the human rights of the original people were oppressed. How will people coming from old colonies listen to words of the colonizers when they experienced totally different behaviors? As utterly empty words I presume.

And now, Sam Harris, philosopher from the current super power in the world, is telling that not all cultures are worth listening to? That we should be rational, use science to find out what are the true answers on moral questions concerning wellbeing of all conscious beings and that certain opinions must be excluded? Science is a beautiful endeavour, yet not apt to end discussions. If science would have that voice, then would evolution theory be accepted globally. It is far from that, even in the United States.

How can you exclude certain opinions? It is a frightnening idea to think that, but he really means it. In his own words: “This is what the world really needs right now: it needs people like ourselves to admit that there are right and wrong answers to questions of humans flourishing and morality relates to that domain of facts.”, ends at 17:15. He continues “It is possible for individuals and even whole cultures to care about the wrong things. Which is to say it is possible for them to have believes and desires that reliably lead to needless human suffering. Just admitting this, will change our discourse about morality.”, ends at 17:35. Just admitting this. Wow. He really means to be authoritive “It will always be easier to break things than the fix them. It seems to me therefor patently obvious that we can no more respect and tolerate vast differences in notions of human well being then we can respect and tolerate vast differences in the notions how disease spreads or in the safety standards of building and airplanes. We simply must converge on the answers we give on the most important questions we give on human life and to do that we have to admit that these questions have answers. Thank you very much.”, ends at 18:29.

Simply converge on the answers on the most important questions. How difficult can that be? This is the kind of tyranny Plato was thinking of (and got dissapointed in) and where Nietzsche was hammering about in Untimely Meditations. It is this shortsightedness that has led to so many tears. This shortsightedness has come too often from a good, yet dissapointed heart, from brilliant people that could not understand why humanity kept harming itself all those years without any need to do it and that adhering to one system in which human wellbeing is put central and executed and controlled by the same or other brilliant non-selfish minds would help humanity out of the current state of desperation. Why keep on listening to ideologies and norms which are clearly not rational, bringing forth sadness and desperation? Why not step out of the vicious circle of suffering, get together in love and joy as one humanity instead of staying divided and not listening to each other? Life could be so simple if all people would follow the same path of morality.

There is only one word required to understand why it is a hopeless queeste: history. Yet there is another word by which the hopelessness of this endeavour can be brought into daylight: otherness. Only one who forgets history and forgets the otherness of all people for each other can come forth with such an idea.