Book Club: The Edge of Reason 8, scientific morality

Here we come to the eighth installment of my running discussion about Julian Baggini’s excellent book on the nature of rationality, The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. In this chapter Julian takes on those people — like Sam Harris — who want to reduce moral philosophy to neuroscience or some similarly misguided enterprise. I must admit, there is such a convergence of thinking between Julian and myself on this that reading the chapter was like indulging in philosophical porn…

Right off the bat, Baggini summarizes what is wrong with the scientistic approach (did I mention I have a book on this topic coming out soon?): “Champions of the rational are often their own worst enemies, especially when they happen also to be scientists. … [they push] an excessively narrow understanding of what reason involves, which is essentially evidence-based empiricism, no more and no less. … [this is an] iniquitous intellectual land grab, in which all meaningful discourse is claimed for science and anything else is razed to the ground as useless.” I could stop here, really. But let’s continue. As I said, it was an Epicurean dip for me.

Julian quickly moves on to his favorite example of such malfeasance: Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape (which I have reviewed, very unfavorably, for Skeptic magazine, even though Michael Shermer censored the final bit of my review, in which I suggested that if someone wanted to learn something about moral philosophy better read Michael Sandel than Sam Harris).

Baggini explains that he is picking on Harris because “the chief value of The Moral Landscape is that it is one of the clearest articulations of the scientistic approach to ethics, which is often less brazenly expressed.” (For another brazen expression, see this discussion I had with the above mentioned Shermer.) Baggini actually interviewed Harris at his home in California, and based his commentary on such interview.

Harris told Julian that “We know that morality has something to do with human well-being and we know that human well-being must be arising from the physiology of the brain and therefore is constrained by whatever psychophysical laws are in in fact true of the brain, and therefore we know it falls potentially within the framework of science.”

As Julian immediately points out, a lot hinges on exactly what one means by “something to do,” and “constrained.” Yes, of course morality has to do with human well-being (actually, more broadly, with the well-being of sentient creatures), and it is constrained by human biology and culture — no philosopher would argue otherwise. But that’s far short of what’s needed to establish a science of morality. Sure enough, Baggini immediately acknowledges that empirical evidence, and therefore science, is informative on a number of ethical issues. For instance, the question “how should I raise my children?” does require input from child developmental psychology, among others. But there are a number of ways to raise one children given the same understanding of developmental psychology. That is, the science — as always — underdetermines the philosophical options. That’s why values are not straightforwardly reducible to empirical facts, which in turn means that one cannot collapse moral philosophy into science.

Julian again: “It simply does not follow from the fact that some things are objectively bad [for human beings] from a scientific point of view that science can determine all that is right or wrong. Take, for example, the old dispute between Mill and Bentham as to whether the pleasure of playing a simple game like pushpin has as much value as the pleasure derived from playing Chopin. Science cannot resolve this dispute.” And before you suggest it, no, it would be ridiculous to try to settle the matter by measuring the intensity of the activity of the pleasure centers of the brain: if you go that way (which actually Harris does, in his book!) you will have to conclude that the most moral thing to do is to hook everyone up to a drug delivering machine for their entire lives. I hope I don’t have to explain to you why this isn’t the moral thing to do.

Baggini notes that Harris concedes that nobody has yet proposed a way to read morality straight off, say, neuroscans. But Harris then engages in a significant amount of hand waiving to argue that not having an answer yet doesn’t mean there is no answer in principle (while at the same time not even giving a hint of what this “in principle” route would look like). Julian’s retort is that “well-being” is not a biologically meaningful category (as a biologist, I wholeheartedly agree), and that there are plenty of instances in which people choose pain and suffering because they think it is the moral thing to do: “The idea that brain scans could reveal to us what form of life is morally better is absurd because brain scans are value-neutral.”

Harris, in the course of the interview, says: “What does it mean to say it’s really true that something is wrong? If you push there, you either have to come down to some truth that falls within the purview of science — that there’s something about our world, human nature or the prospects of human happiness that admits of truth claims — or you’re just left with preferences: wrong just because we don’t like it or a majority of people don’t like it.”

But Julian immediately objects that this is a false dichotomy, that moreover misunderstands the nature of both reason and ethics: “Outlooks, values and beliefs can be more or less reasonable, more or less objective.” (See this old post of mine suggesting as much.)

Moreover, Harris did not invent anything knew. Just consider this bit from John Stuart Mill, back in 1872: “The backward state of the Moral Sciences can only be remedied by applying to them the methods of Physical Science, duly extended and generalized.” Mill’s project, however, immediately failed because of his introduction of the distinction between “high” and “low” pleasures, a qualitative dichotomy that simply cannot be backed up by any “physical science,” and yet is the only thing that saves post-Bentham utilitarianism from descending into a search for the minimum common denominator that makes everyone “happy” (which would be the above mentioned drug hook-up).

After taking care of Harris, Julian then moves on to the opposite mistake, in a sense, made this time by scientistic philosophers like Alex Rosenberg, author of the Atheist Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. (I reviewed that one too, again, not positively.)

The connection between Harris and Rosenberg is explained very clearly by Baggini: “Harris is not necessarily representative of mainstream scientific thinking about morality. It is telling, however, that the more common alternative view is equally simplistic and extreme. This is the view that science debunks ethics. Science does not determine human values, it reveals them to be a kind of fiction.”

Here is an example of Rosenberg’s approach: “(i) What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them. (ii) Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral. (iii) Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.”

Julian finds it hard to believe that people like Rosenberg are serious about this, rather than just playing a (sick, I might add) intellectual game. Here is why: “it is interesting that [Rosenberg] does not add to his list child sexual abuse, rape, torture of the innocents and so on. To say ‘anything goes’ after a list like that would be extremely hard to take seriously.” Indeed.

The problem, concludes Baggini in this section of the chapter, is this: “The mistake is to believe that the methods of science have a monopoly on the practice of reason. From this it follows that morality must either be taken under the wing of science or cast out as irrational.” This mistake, of course, runs contrary to Baggini’s own careful analysis of what reason is, which we have explored in detail in the past several posts.

None of the above, however, means that science is irrelevant to moral questions. One of the most obvious examples is that of abortion — interestingly, one of those I also bring forth in the context of these discussions, and pretty much along the lines sketched by Julian in this chapter.

Let’s say we arrive at a position that says that abortion is permissible up until the moment in which the fetus begins to feel pain, and after that only if the life of the mother is in danger. (This is for the sake of discussion, not necessarily my or Baggini’s position, so don’t get worked up about it.) Well, then it is up to science — and in particular neuroscience and developmental biology — to give us the best estimate of when that is actually the case. But arriving at that specific criterion, rather than other possible ones, is a matter of philosophical dialogue, not (just) empirical evidence.

Julian also says, again, very similarly to what I’ve been writing for a while now, that another scientific input into the question of morality comes in the area of understanding the origin of the human moral sense. Here it is comparative anthropology, evolutionary biology, and primatology that play the crucial role.

Then there is the contribution of neuroscience to our understanding of how the brain arrives at moral decisions. Interesting, scientifically, but again not at all the same thing as a science of morality. Why? Because “people all over the world have the same basic brain circuitry and yet moral norms differ enormously.”

As an example, Julian compares how the Inuits and the Polynesians treat deception on the part of a group member: it is a capital offense in the first case, but only gets you a slap on the wrist in the second case. Why? Because the living conditions of Inuits are such that deception can cost the lives of several group members, or even the survival of the entire group. Not so under the more benign environmental conditions enjoyed by the Polynesians. The brains are the same, and so is their deep evolutionary history. But the cultural conditions are dramatically divergent, because of their very different environments.

Evolutionary psychology too doesn’t really help settle moral questions. For one because the fact that something is natural (rape, for instance, according to evopsychs Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer) obviously doesn’t make it right (that would be an appeal to nature, an informal fallacy); and second because “to conclude that evolutionary psychology debunks ethics by showing that it is ‘nothing more than’ reciprocal altruism or enlightened self-interest” is an example of “the genetic fallacy: confusing an account of something’s origins with its justification.”

By the end of the chapter Julian arrives at the very same conclusion I have been defending for years, as astonishing as it is that it actually needs defense: “A scientifically informed ethics is to be welcomed, but a purely scientific ethics is an impossibility.”

159 thoughts on “Book Club: The Edge of Reason 8, scientific morality

  1. SocraticGadfly

    Acting and/or thinking one’s way into better feelings is also a (generally good, AND generally empirically sound) tenet of both most modern theories of psychology and of the self-help movement.

    Depressed? A counselor will say “Let’s talk about it,” and prescribe medications as necessary, but often give you, not a “homework assignment,” but a “work assignment.” As in, go out and do something.


  2. Massimo Post author


    “What interests me is not so much the ought, but the is.”

    What I find most interesting, and useful, is the reciprocal feedback between is and ought.


    Thank you for the exchange. However, as you surmised, I’m not convinced. Take this, for instance:

    “The science of morality is about solving the cooperation/exploitation dilemma. From that perspective, vegetarianism could be a marker of membership in an in-group who can be expected to be more reliable cooperators. So vegetarianism is a marker strategy that solves the cooperation/exploitation dilemma and exploits no one, and, as such, does not contradict what is universally moral.”

    This strikes me as missing the point. Vegetarianism poses genuine ethical questions about the treatment of non-human sentient beings. It isn’t just a “marker of membership,” though it can certainly also be that. There are genuine moral questions about the balance to strike among human needs, labor issues, environmental impact, and the suffering of animals, and attempting to reduce them to an allegedly universal cooperation/exploitation dilemma isn’t going to do anything.

    Tellingly, you have not, in fact, given me an answer to the question of vegetarian ethics.


  3. Thomas Jones

    Massimo (commenting to Synred): “And nationalism, our original topic, even more so.”

    I see what you’ve done here. 🙂

    Was nationalism our original topic? I thought it was about Saph’s (and apparently your) blanket condemnation of all forms of patriotism. It was Saph, IIRC, that introduced the term “pride” into the discussion that led to some rather pointless commentary about what one might be justifiably proud of. It was also Saph who observed rather insipidly IMO that one doesn’t control the native place of one’s birth, or of one’s parents for that matter, as if the readers here needed to be informed of the obvious.

    I’m an admirer of George Orwell, and although the following quote from his “Notes on Nationalism” (1945) may now be a bit long in the tooth, it still merits consideration:

    “By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

    Now I don’t see much in this quote that either Saph or Massimo would find particularly objectionable, but unlike Orwell’s attempt to clarify his usage in this passage, Saph simply became defensive when I challenged his usage of “patriotism” as unfortunate, misleading, and misguided. He obviously took offense, but I don’t apologize for his failure, again IMO, to make the sort of distinction that Orwell makes.


  4. saphsin

    Thomas Jones

    Idk if my comment could be characterized as “defensive” but I presented a case for why I found patriotism to be incoherent while also showing how your particular examples brought up had strains of jingoism, repeatedly, but you refused to give a positive defense of the need for patriotism, even till now. You certainly have made the claim that it was “unfortunate, misleading, and misguided” and did not properly explain why and give an alternative form of patriotism that was not characterized by the criticism.

    And unfortunately, none of that changes with your presentation of Orwell’s distinction this late in the game. Let’s take a look at Orwell’s definition, I honestly don’t see the difference between his definition of patriotism and nationalism, except his characterization of the latter to be more explicit than the other.

    “By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.”

    Really? The devotion to the idea that the place you live is the best in the world? I’m sorry, devotion to the idea that your country is the best in the world is pretty ideologically fanatic. I think America is a better in some ways significantly than other countries, and it’s far worse than other countries in many other ways. I think anyone living in America is literally blind to reality for being patriotic in Orwell’s definition. Or if you live in most other countries really. And this message serves as really good propaganda for those in power too.

    And frankly I think the statement is just naive. We inevitably do want to force our values and way of life on other people in our interconnected world, and to a certain extent we should. I find the treatment of women in 3rd world countries unacceptable, and I do advocate expanding cultural influence to those living in those countries on this issue.

    “Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally.”

    So devotion to protecting one’s own culture and supporting the military. That sounds nationalistic to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. synred

    >Massimo (commenting to Synred)

    Ah! That’s Massimo commenting to me. That’s pretty typical; has I said I do tend to wander and even like wandering, but it’s Massimo’s blog, so I stop when asked — at least mostly.

    Least ways a bit less dingy… I don’t know what you mean by “I see what you[Massimo]’ve done”


  6. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo, here, too, on is and ought. Hume’s “is ≠ ought” is really a vague shorthand; what Hume was getting at, of course, was that is does not necessarily equal ought. But, as I’ve said before, it often can, and at least sometimes should, “inform” the ought.


  7. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo, Saphsin

    To be clear, I agree with you both that pride can and does cause tremendous harm. I’m not arguing that pride is often or even usually a good thing. I’m just trying to get you to reconsider your view that pride in one’s nationality is actually illogical, as opposed to harmful or dangerous or unattractive or whatever. The only argument Massimo has offered in support of the position that national pride is illogical is that it goes counter to a definition, when in fact it doesn’t.

    And my dictionary, as I said, does not mention anything other than what one has actually done, under the first / most common definition.

    No, read it again. Your dictionary makes no mention at all of what any person has done. Your dictionary definition was ““feeling pleasure or satisfaction over something regarded as highly honorable or creditable to oneself.” There is no mention of deeds there at all, much less who has performed them. Arthur’s feeling pride in his grandchild’s accomplishments is covered in this definition, as is pride in one’s nationality.

    You reject the definition Arthur gave which more explicitly supports my view by saying that this kind of pride leads to consequences we both find undesirable (Mussolini, Hitler, Trump). But this point is not in dispute. What is in dispute is whether this justifies the claim that such pride is not just undesirable but illogical. Anger also leads to bad consequences, but I wouldn’t say anger is illogical. Anger is an emotional reaction, and like pride it’s outside the scope of what needs logical justification. It just is.

    We are talking about whether the emotion is justified, logically, or not.

    That seems like a category error to me. Would you say an arachnophobe’s fear of spiders is unjustified? I personally wouldn’t. I might say it is undesirable or pathological, to the extent that this person wishes to be rid of this fear. On the other hand if the arachnophobe has false explicit beliefs, such as that the spider is likely to bite and injure when it is not, then these beliefs are unjustified. But plenty of people can have phobias while being aware that from a rational point of view they are in no danger. Such people are in my mind not at fault for being illogical.

    “simply being Italian can be deemed honorable.”

    Uhm, it can, but it shouldn’t.

    Same problem then. Why not? You might regard it as undesirable or harmful, but I can’t see how you could argue for it to be illogical.

    Then you are wrong, logically speaking. Since you have nothing to do with Earth’s natural beauty.

    But where is the flaw in my logic? So I am proud of something I had nothing to do with. There is no contradiction there, no deductive error. It’s just an emotional reaction. You need to introduce some additional premise to show a logical error, and I don’t think any such premise is justified.

    Saphsin: One problem is that it forces you to take the position that there is no connection between pride & moral uprightness, which I think it does.

    I don’t think I have to take that position. I can say that it is morally questionable to be proud while maintaining that there is nothing illogical about being proud. My position is that even serial killers can be logical and rational. Their goals and desires are morally abhorrent, but the test of their logic/rationality not in what their goals and desires are but how they go about achieving those goals and satisfying those desires.


  8. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)


    That seems like a category error to me. Would you say an arachnophobe’s fear of spiders is unjustified? I personally wouldn’t.

    I’m probably not being honest with myself here. I probably would indeed say this if I wasn’t trying to make a point!

    But to say so I’m implicitly leaning on the premise that fear is only appropriate if it is directed at sources of danger. Many people would agree with that. We recognise fear as an emotion that serves to guide us clear of danger, and so normatively it seems to make sense to say that this is what fear is for, and so that fear directed at benign objects is in some sense inappropriate. I think I would now stop short of calling it logically unjustified, in light of my recent thinking on this subject sparked by this conversation.

    But what is pride for? What is the normative justification for pride only in one’s own achievements? Pride in the achievements of one’s kin and associates is not an aberration or a pathology, it’s the norm. So much so that I would hazard it serves an evolutionary purpose just as fear does, whether by helping to bind a family/community together or whatever.


  9. Massimo Post author


    As Sapshin says, and with all due respect to Orwell, whom I also admire, I see no difference between nationalism and patriotism. I appreciate what Orwell is trying to do, but it seems to me that nationalism is just patriotism with an army, so to speak, and the logical consequence of it.

    And I disagree that Saphsin got defensive, he simply presented a pretty good case, in my mind, for why nationalism is problematic.


    I’m really not sure what exactly you are objecting to, or what are you looking for from me and Saphsin. All we are saying is that taking pride (i.e., self-satisfaction) in something one hasn’t contribute to seems bizarre, and sometimes leads to negative consequences (nationalism).

    There are perfectly good words to indicate the range of feelings you keep brining up, like joy, feeling happy, feeling lucky, that better describe those situations, and to insist in calling them pride confuses rather than clarifies language. That’s all.


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