Can Science Justify Universal Human Rights?

An essay response to Sam Harris's Moral Landscape Challenge, in which he invited readers to prove his thesis about science-based moral realism wrong. Philosopher Ryan Born won the contest with an excellent essay to which Harris has responded, unconvincingly in my view. More about that later. For the time being, here's my critique.

In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris argues that the rewarding conscious states which he says constitute human flourishing should be available to all, not just a privileged few. It’s an objective moral truth, certified by science, that we should seek “the heights of happiness for the greatest number of people” (p. 28). Some conceptions of morality prevent many from flourishing, so there’s a disparity between what some believe about morality and moral reality, according to Harris.

It’s uncontroversial that no one wants the worst possible misery for everyone (WPME): no one wants everyone to be miserable since that would include them. But this doesn’t establish a deep moral principle; it only points to the shared desire for flourishing. The question is whether the fact that everyone desires to flourish (an is) somehow entails Harris’s normative claim that everyone should have a more or less equal opportunity to flourish (an ought). He argues that by using science we can bridge the Humean is-ought gap between factual descriptions and normative prescriptions, a gap he suggests is merely a “trick of language” (Harris’s 2011 Oxford talk, at 16:00).**

Harris points out that science can tell us how to achieve the goals set by morality. In particular, science might show what conditions are necessary to generate rewarding (positive) conscious states, so can motivate desires to reach goals instrumental to achieving well-being as he defines it. But what’s at issue is whether science can establish a purportedly objective moral truth, namely that everyone is owed a more or less equal opportunity to flourish. That it can enable flourishing doesn’t bear on this question.

Scientists have adduced evidence that moral concern for others’ well-being evolved as a function of our being members of a group or tribe. Sociopaths aside, most of us desire the welfare of those in our group, e.g., family, church, school, or community. We are moral animals, but more or less parochial in our concern for others.

What isn’t clear is how the scientific study of morality rationally compels us to extend our concern universally, that is, how such a science becomes morally prescriptive. One might argue that the well-being of a dominant group (straight white Christian males), ultimately depends on granting equal rights to other groups (women, gays, non-whites, atheists). Not to do so might generate resentment and social instability, eventually compromising the well-being of the dominant group, e.g., by insurrection; so it’s in their interest to be egalitarians. But unequal allocation of rights isn’t necessarily destabilizing, given historical examples of very long-lived slave cultures in which persons occupying each rung of the social hierarchy were taught to accept their status as part of the natural order. Furthermore, even assuming that equalizing rights results in a dominant group’s long-term flourishing, such an instrumental rationale for granting equal rights isn’t to endorse a specifically moral principle – the equal worth of each person’s flourishing –  but simply to adopt a pragmatic strategy for securing one’s own well-being.

Harris says that the Taliban’s notion of flourishing is objectively wrong: if they understood what their real well-being consisted in, they would grant equal rights to everyone. But Harris’s conception of real well-being – the maximization of positive conscious states – can only rationally compel the norm of universal access to such states if, to secure them for themselves, the Taliban would have to make them universally available. But as we’ve seen, that’s not necessarily the case: societies with deep inequalities can survive indefinitely given the right worldview installed in the minds of their members. Moreover, were the Taliban convinced by behavioral science (let’s suppose) that granting equal opportunity for all is in their (the Taliban’s) long-term best interests, that wouldn’t constitute a principled commitment to equality. They would just be reading the writing on the wall. 

If science can’t compel the Taliban to endorse equal rights as an intrinsic good, independent of its instrumental benefits for their flourishing, then Harris’s hope for a prescriptive science of morality isn’t in the cards. The problem isn’t just, as he suggests, that we might not be able to persuade the Taliban they’re wrong about equal rights, and that therefore we can ignore their morality as misguided. It’s that his central moral claim – that human flourishing should be universal – isn’t entailed by science. Science doesn’t establish for anyone that it’s morally incumbent on them, as opposed to instrumentally useful, to endorse the flourishing of all.

That the science of morality fails in this regard isn’t a matter of setting the bar too high by demanding it be ultimately self-justifying – an impossibility, as Harris notes. It fails because science is a descriptive enterprise driven by desires for objective understanding and practical control. It can help specify means to achieve ends, given basic, non-instrumental values, but it can’t prescribe such values. To assert a basic moral imperative is to be gripped by a conception of the good, not to discover one’s values in the fabric of the cosmos as we do elementary particles and natural laws.

Given a commitment to equality and maximizing happiness, we can certainly identify peaks and valleys in a moral landscape. Peaks are where as many individuals as possible have more or less equal opportunity to attain positive states (no privileged classes of individuals); the deepest valley is WPME. In navigating the landscape, science is indispensable for climbing peaks and avoiding valleys, but it can’t justify non-instrumental moral goods such as universal flourishing.

That said, science can incline us toward the progressive ideal of universal flourishing by telling the story of our common humanity, helping to expand moral concern to others not of our tribe or status. By promoting a science-based, naturalistic worldview, we can marginalize empirically unfounded justifications for unequal rights that block moral progress as liberals see it. It’s therefore of the first importance to champion science as an unrivaled epistemology that everyone should rationally embrace, given its proven ability to ground reliable beliefs about the world.

 -  Tom Clark, February 2014

** For a sketch of how to get from is to ought without denying the distinction, see Naturalism and normativity.

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