The first question asked of him was “What are your thoughts on Sam Harris’ idea that we can eventually use neuroscience to quantify human well-being and use that information to empirically evaluate ethics?”
Dawkins addresses the issue by laying a necessary foundation and stating that the ultimate good is pleasure. “You do have to make the assumption that the goal of morality is something like to reduce the total amount of suffering…in humans or sentient beings… Once you’ve accepted that that’s your goal in your morality, science, especially neuroscience, really can tell you when people suffer, when creatures suffer,” said Dawkins.
The question is drawn from Sam Harris’ new book The Moral Landscape, which I must admit I have not read. I doubt it is worth the time. Why? Because the premise of Harris’ argument that neuroscience might help us quantify ethics does, as Dawkins stated, require us to define the ultimate good as being pleasure, which neuroscience, he claims, can quantify.
There are a few reasons why this premise destroys the entire argument and infects it unalterably.
First, what is pleasure? Some people enjoy the feeling of being uncontrolled by the reaction an illicit drug in their body, while others might not. The neurological reaction from the drug is similar, but the subjective feeling about the reaction might differ. How would Harris define and measure the “pleasure” of these contradictory experiences? Isn’t pleasure more about the “feeling” the experience gives you and not the objective, measured response of your neurology?
This mistake is made by defining pleasure objectively. Pleasure is a subjective thing. You cannot merely define it by neurological reactions, which are objective. I might have the same neurological response to shooting a deer as someone else might have in shooting a person. Does that mean our equally pleasurable experiences are equally ethical?
This leads to the second problem: pleasure isn’t always ethical. Harris and Dawkins simplify pleasure to a merely objective, physical thing, in part, because they are atheist materialists. But isn’t the feeling of sitting in your favorite chair after a hard day at work a different “thing” than the physiological reaction happening within your body? Isn’t a good feeling different than firing synapses and chemical reactions in the brain?
If I were to bring up the point about someone feeling pleasure in killing another human being, Harris would likely say that because it causes an equal or greater pain to the person or their family, it would be counterbalanced and therefore unethical.
But what if I could assure him that the person being murdered would feel no pain and had no family to care one way or the other? Would it then be ethical? This is where coldly defining ethics starts to break down to an even greater extent.
This is also the justification euthanasia proponents use in killing living, breathing human beings in a vegetative state or in a state of mental incapacity. Social Darwinists who wish to speed up the natural selection process and eugenicists, like Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, justify killing people like Terry Schiavo and people with severe Down Syndrome because they claim that we don’t know for sure that the person is not in persistent pain or suffering. Without the universal principle of all life being sacred, they find killing that person perfectly ethical under their cold ethical equation.
The next reason this concept of objectively measuring pleasure to define ethical norms is that it is completely unlivable. Because people have differing reactions to external stimuli, which would impact their internal neurological state, we would have to recreate and measure each action people take against one another to determine what its ethical consequence was. Doesn’t that sound a bit too inhibitive to be a realistic, livable system of ethics?
People also don’t naturally think this way. People instinctively think along the lines of principle. When someone gets murdered, we don’t question how much pleasure the murderer felt compared to how much pleasure the victim felt. We think, “murder is wrong.” Obviously these issues get more complex, but we instinctively think about these things with reflection upon the moral principle behind it—not the neurological reaction underneath it.
Some might say, well then we just need to assume that causing any negative neurological reactions in another person is wrong too. Well then we have deviated from the fundamental principle of pleasure being the ultimate good. We have now introduced a seemingly arbitrary—from the atheist materialist perspective—notion of justice and rights. If we place anything above pleasure and pain in our ethical system, then we no long adhere to Harris’ and Dawkins’ proposition and would need to start over and make justice and rights the foundation for ethics.
Likewise, Harris has re-proposed, and Dawkins re-supported, a philosophy that failed before they were ever born. They are regurgitating the Principle of Utility put forward by the late philosopher Jeremy Bentham. This principle made four key assertions: 1) It recognizes the essential role of pain and pleasure in human life, 2) It places the ethical weight of an action on how much pain or pleasure it brings about, 3) It states that pleasure is good and pain is evil, and 4) It stresses that pleasure and pain can be quantified and measured.
Sound familiar? Harris hasn’t done anything new, and he probably even gives credit to Bentham in his book for introducing the idea. What Harris has done is make a particular claim on the fourth point of the Principle of Utility by saying that the quantifiable nature of pleasure and pain should be done through neuroscience.
This philosophy has been largely rejected because it is impossible to predict how much our actions on others might affect their pleasure and pain “meter.” Likewise, we might be responsible for unethical actions because the person feeling pain mistook us as the cause. Being the object of someone’s pain experience could be falsely asserted, but we would still be responsible for it.
The root problem with Harris and Dawkins’ belief, despite all of the inherent problems, is that this is just bad philosophy.
They start with the arbitrary assumption that God doesn’t exist and that ethics does. From that point they go about conjuring up ideas that make the two compatible. Dawkins, who considers himself a scientist and yet hasn’t contributed anything of meaning to the scientific community since he became a pundit, rarely uses the scientific method in his beliefs.
As we can see, the underlying proposition Harris and Dawkins propose is inherently corrupted because you can’t equate pleasurable experiences, deny our ethically principled nature, or live by constantly measuring neurological reactions in people who will vary in their response and still expect this ethical system to be adhered to—or taken remotely seriously.
In fairness, I should read Harris’ book before I go attempting to refute it. But regardless, Dawkins made the same point without writing a book about it, so I take that as fair game. If you happen to agree with Dawkins or Harris, write a comment and we’ll debate it.