Saturday, May 28, 2011

Science and Morality: Two Different Worlds?

Can science give us a foundation for morality and human values? Or is ethics definitely beyond its reach? Sam Harris argues that the separation between science and human values is an illusion, and a rather dangerous one. He sees values as a certain kind of facts, namely, “facts about the well-being of conscious creatures”, both personal and collective. And notions of human morality are, according to him, “at some point reducible to a concern about conscious experience and its possible changes.” That is why we have no ethical obligations towards inanimate objects or inferior animals such as insects, for instance. He doesn't claim that science could give us the answers to every conceivable moral question, neither that we are able to access all the states of conscious creatures' well-being. He says that, even if we are not capable of finding all the answers, the simple fact of admitting that there are right and wrong answers to such questions could change the way we talk about morality. In his excellent TED talk (see the video below) he provides very good (and well-humored) arguments in favor of these allegations. Very enlightening in post-modern times!

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Can Animals be Gay?

One must be very careful when making parallels between the behavior of human beings and that of other animals, since it is very easy to engage in the fallacy of anthropomorphism. Attributing to animals the capacity of perceiving the world in the same ways we do, or of having feelings or emotions similar to ours, is a big mistake. Nevertheless, many people fall into the anthropomorphism trap. It is not rare, for example, to hear animal rights activists comparing the “suffering” experienced by cattle in the imminence of slaughter to the anguish that a death- penalty convict faces shortly before execution. Now, a cow is most likely not aware of its own existence, neither is it tormented by metaphysical questions, to mention just a few obvious fundamental differences that undoubtedly make the human suffering under such circumstances incomparably more intense.

Various forms of same-sex sexual activities have been observed in more than 450 animal species. Although this does not necessarily mean that there is such a thing as gay animals (beware the anthropomorphism!), it raises many interesting questions. This link gives access to an excellent New York Times Magazine article named “Can Animals be Gay?” In addition to the interesting scientific information, the article shows how unwise it can be to make moral judgements about nature as well as the dangers of anthropomorphism.

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