Tuesday, October 05, 2010

If a moral code is not "utilitarian" according to some performance measure, what the hell good is it????

As a systems engineer (communication systems, that is), I likely have a few things that I do not agree with in Sam Harris's new book “The Moral Landscape,”  if the critical review in the NY Times Book Review is to be believed.

In particular, I'm not quite sure a  "purely" scientific explanation can be found for "the moral code."  As I think I've written on this blog before, in systems engineering, particularly in the areas of control systems engineering, there are critical concepts of observability and controllability.  A system is observable if all its states can be observed; that is, if the states can be determined from measurements.   States are those values or conditions of a system that given its history (perhaps only a very limited history) and given an input, the state of the system in the future can be predicted.  Likewise a system is controllable if for any desired state condition there exists an input to bring the state to that point.  In short, it is not clear to me, even if human beings can be reduced precisely to meat machines, that humanity and moral choices are completely observable or controllable, in which case the moral landscape or code will not only always be complete, but complete in a defective, non-trivial way as opposed to those aspects of natural numbers of which Gödel wrote.  In short, there will be unanswerable and debatable questions.

Having said that however,  (and having seen Harris on The Daily Show last night)  I would take issue with the position of the NY Times reviewer, Kwame Anthony Appiah.  Appiah writes:

Harris means to deny a thought often ascribed to David Hume, according to which there is a clear conceptual distinction between facts and values. Facts are susceptible of rational investigation; values, supposedly, not. But according to Harris, values, too, can be uncovered by science — the right values being ones that promote well-being. “Just as it is possible for individuals and groups to be wrong about how best to maintain their physical health,” he writes, “it is possible for them to be wrong about how to maximize their personal and social well-being.”

But wait: how do we know that the morally right act is, as Harris posits, the one that does the most to increase well-being, defined in terms of our conscious states of mind? Has science really revealed that? If it hasn’t, then the premise of Harris’s all-we-need-is-science argument must have nonscientific origins.

In fact, what he ends up endorsing is something very like utilitarianism, a philosophical position that is now more than two centuries old, and that faces a battery of familiar problems. Even if you accept the basic premise, how do you compare the well-being of different people? Should we aim to increase average well-being (which would mean that a world consisting of one bliss case is better than one with a billion just slightly less blissful people)? Or should we go for a cumulative total of well-being (which might favor a world with zillions of people whose lives are just barely worth living)? If the mental states of conscious beings are what matter, what’s wrong with killing someone in his sleep? How should we weigh present well-being against future well-being?

It’s not that Harris is unaware of these questions, exactly. He refers to the work of Derek Parfit, who has done more than any philosopher alive to explore such difficulties. But having acknowledged some of these complications, he is inclined to push them aside and continue down his path.

Now at first glance it appears Appiah is making an objection similar to mine, but I don't think so.  "Science" hasn't "revealed" a moral code (I cringe when someone like,  say, Deepak Chopra uses phrases like "science reveals." It smacks of those miracle organ enlargement/reduction pill ads). True, but can we know another's well being?

Uh, that's what we Buddhists call compassion.  We can't knowthe "well" being of another in its entirety, but we can get that the beings we see and of which we have experience, either directly or indirectly, had existences and senses and experiences as total to them as ours are to us.

In the sense of the transcendence of the suffering of all beings, the moral code of the Buddhist religion is indeed a utilitarian outlook.  And regardless of the toy problems raised by philosophers, the existence of the Buddhist moral code,  by its mere existence, without bombast, shouts an indictment of all alternative moral philosophies, as I see it:  If a moral code is not "utilitarian" according to some measure of "goodness" what the hell good is it????  If it is not utilitarian according to some measure of goodness, then it must follow as night follows day that such non-utilitarian moral codes are themselves morally inferior in a utilitarian sense to any such code that does have a performance measure. 

And on that point, I can agree with Harris, even if I think Harris is overly optimistic about the prospects of science. 

No matter, we humans have evolved a certain degree of compassion and empathy.

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