Can science determine human values?

Moral Compass

Image by psd via Flickr

 

Can science determine human values? By EDWIN CARTLIDGE Tuesday, October 5, 2010

http://www.bigquestionsonline.com/features/morality-without-transcendence

Edwin Cartlidge, formerly the news editor for Physics World, is a freelance science journalist based in Rome. In his article published on bigquestionsonline and review of Sam Harris‘ new book “The Moral Landscape” he says: The Moral Landscape is a thought-provoking book and certainly worth a read, but it is ultimately unconvincing. Harris’s failing is his over-fondness for theoretical neatness.

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I’ve included some excerpts from the article:

In his new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, author  Sam Harris, who is also a philosopher and neuroscientist sets out why he believes values are not, as is widely held, subjective and culture-dependent. Instead, he says, values are a certain kind of fact —facts about the well-being of conscious creatures —and that they can therefore, at least in principle, be objectively evaluated.

While Darwinian evolution was invoked in support of causes now widely regarded as morally just, such as the abolition of the slave trade, it was also used to justify those now considered abhorrent, such as eugenics.

Few people would disagree that the short, widowed life of a girl who has known nothing but hunger, fear and loneliness amid a brutal civil war is a better existence than that of a woman who lives a long, happily married, intellectually satisfying, financially comfortable and emotionally satisfying life. It’s far more ambiguous to compare two women who have similar levels of material comfort but who live in differently organized societies, such as free-market America and more welfare-oriented Sweden.

While many would agree that lying is the right thing to do in certain extreme instances, such as the case of the hidden Jews, it is likely to be widely regarded as the wrong thing to do in other cases where it would nevertheless maximize human well-being. Giving evidence that imprisons a murderer may, in some cases, reduce the sum total of human well-being —perhaps the victim was a wife-beater, and the killer’s children will be left orphans if she’s jailed —but it may still be justifiably regarded as the morally correct action.

As you can see, how individual societies determine rules of whats considered Morally correct is and always will be a multi faceted and culturally modifiable question. This question won’t soon be answered and distributed in a pretty little box with a bow on top. However, I did enjoy reading Mr. Cartlidge’s review.

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