Can We Separate Ethics from Emotion?

I used to worship Sam Harris. I still listen to him from time to time and find that he sometimes has interesting perspectives, but the days in which I immediately adopt his line of thinking on any given topic are long gone. One such topic is the role of emotion in morality.

In The Moral Landscape, one of Harris’ books, he argues that science can determine human values (that’s literally the subtitle). To be honest, I don’t really remember the substance of the book, but he has discussed the basic idea more recently in his podcast and elsewhere. He says that while there is not a consensus (yet) on what the ideal life would look like, we can all agree that certain states of being are worse than others: running around naked outside in subzero temperatures is more miserable than being comfortable on your couch, for example. Harris argues that scientific progress can further along this differentiation between “good” and “bad” states of being, such that we can eventually make scientifically-informed decisions about how the world should be, selecting whatever option maximizes human well-being.

Like a lot of what Harris says, it fluctuates between trivial and profound. Of course some states of being are worse than others. But can we really deduce from that that our values will eventually derive from science? I am skeptical.

I don’t even know if this relates to the main purpose of this post, partly because Harris’ claims can often be difficult to pin down. But the core question is one that I suspect Harris is attempting to answer: Can we have ethics or morality without emotion?

If this is indeed the question Harris tries to answer, I wanted so badly to agree with him. I would love for it to be some objective “fact” that whatever maximizes human happiness is the “correct” thing to do, regardless of other factors. I still think that maximizing human happiness is the morally right thing to do in any given situation, I just don’t know if we can make the bold claim that there is some objective, science-based reason for doing so.

This might seem like a small distinction, but let’s think about it. If any one moral code has a basis in science, as opposed to being informed solely by emotion, it is superior to all others. “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” right? If our moral code is founded on science, we can confidently tell the others they are wrong and need to catch up. It’s an extremely seductive idea, which is precisely why we need to be careful.

Let me be clear: I am not saying there is no space for science in morality. For example, science can inform us which animals (if any) do not have the ability to suffer — this may be the case with bivalves like oysters, hence bivalveganism. Clearly, there is space for science in morality.

But I am skeptical that we can use science as a foundation for morality. I am doubtful that there is anyone who will suddenly care about livestock suffering after reading a research paper in which brain scans suggest that animals can and do suffer on farms. People already know this. If you don’t already care, science isn’t going to make you.

Maybe I haven’t thought this all the way through — it does feel like I am missing something. I don’t think there is a code of ethics that can be said to be objectively “true” or “correct” without some appeal to emotion. Perhaps instead it is emotion that motivates us to create a code of ethics. We can use science to guide that emotion in informing our ethics, and we should.

On the upside, pretty much everyone cares about suffering and fairness. If our morality derives from these, it shouldn’t be too difficult to get people on board. We can use science to direct our energy towards reducing suffering and increasing fairness, we just can’t claim that science is behind it all.

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