In this post I plan to criticise some views, giving my opinion on where they go wrong, then ask some questions to which I have no answer, and then describe my particular view on the matter, without having the slightest confidence that I’m right. And, for good measure, I’ve every chance of contradicting myself on the way. It’s not going to be short. This sounds about par for the course.
The Harris Problem…
It’s all about what Sam Harris appears to be claiming in his TED Video. I blame Lesley for getting us into this mess, here, here and here. And now Gurder has turned this into a wider debate.
Sam Harris TED Talk…
I want to address the talk itself first,…
“It’s thought that science can help us get what we value, but it can never tell us what we ought to value.”
I think that’s right, but with the caveat that it can give us data that can influence what we think we ought to value. I’m with the general agreement on Lesley’s and Gurder’s blogs and comments that science provides the data and that it’s for us to form opinions about that data. At least I think I am.
There’s a formulaic sense in which science can give us an ‘ought’, but it’s the wrong sense of ‘ought’. If I include in my ethics the ‘least harm’ principle, and then concoct some scenarios where there’s a choice between harms – e.g. the Trolley Problem – then science could say I ‘ought’ to do such and such in a particular scenario to achieve least harm, then this isn’t the moral ‘ought’.
But for me this does then raise the questions, what is a moral ‘ought’? Do morals exist, and if they do what are they?
Back to Harris,
“And, consequently, most people … think that science will never answer the most important questions in human life: questions like, “What is worth living for?” “What is worth dying for?” “What constitutes a good life?” “
I think science can answer these questions, if we give science the goals that we want to achieve in the first place. Further more, I don’t think these particular questions are moral questions. They may be personal judgements – a Royalist might think Prince Charles is worth dying for, a Republican might not. We need to be clear about what constitutes a moral question.
“So, I’m going to argue that this is an illusion — that the separation between science and human values is an illusion…”
Let’s see if he does.
“Now, it’s often said that science can not give us a foundation for morality and human values,”
Now that depends on what is meant by ‘foundation’. (‘That depends’ is a theme of this post) If it’s a foundation of data upon which we can build our morality, our ethics, then yes, as long as we have the other elements of morality to go with this foundation. The stronger the foundation of facts the more informed we can be in building our morality. But the foundation of facts is not the full extent of our ethics – maybe. Don’t we need our moral goals in place to use these facts?
I think this is where Harris goes wrong.
“Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures.”
Yes, they become facts in their own right, once we decide what they are – it is a fact that most humans believe murder is wrong. It may be a fact of biological and cultural evolution that has caused most humans to hold that view, and so on. But what is fact about why we should think that we should hold this view? – What makes this a moral question?
“Why is it that we don’t have ethical obligations toward rocks?…And if we’re more concerned about our fellow primates than we are about insects, as indeed we are, it’s because we think they’re exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering. Now, the crucial thing to notice here is this is a factual claim: This is something that we could be right or wrong about.”
Yes, it is a factual claim, that we do hold this view, and we might be wrong about it (as Gurder points out). Again, evolution can explain why we do – where ‘why’ here means ‘how it came about’. It says nothing about why we should hold this view (or not).
“And we know — we know — that there are right and wrong answers to how to move in this space.”
Do we? Really? Just because we agree with Harris on most of his scenarios doesn’t mean they are moral questions, or questions that are only to do with morals.
“Would adding cholera to the water be a good idea? Probably not.” – Probably not? Why not just ‘no’? Why not ‘yes’? What is that turns this into a moral question?
“There are truths to be known about how human communities flourish, whether or not we understand these truths. And morality relates to these truths.” – First sentence, OK. Second? How and why? It relates in the sense that the more we know the more it can help us to construct morals – given we know what our moral goals are. Again, if least harm is a goal then the ‘Probably not’ answer is probably right – depending on other facts – but we do need to know our moral goals.
So, we must know our morals first, in order to decide what to do with the facts that we uncover. But is it that simple? How do we get to our moral codes in the first place? We observe them in ourselves? We feel them? But sometimes we feel we want to kill, so why do we choose non-murder as a moral code? Our morals often seem to be intended to overcome some of our feelings – our base instincts, or animal instincts. Why is love a moral good and murder a moral bad? Because of the Golden Rule? But what determines the Golden Rule is worth following? Our moral sense? But …. where do we go from here?
More from Harris. He gives some explanations, and then comes to this, “So, what I’m arguing is that value is reducible to facts — to facts about the conscious experience — of conscious beings.”
This sounds sort of right – we can reduce some values to facts. But which values? All of them? The fact that this organism (me) puts a greater value on raspberry to strawberry can be reducible to the details of science – raspberry releases more pleasure signals (simplification) than strawberry does – I like raspberry more than strawberry. But what’s happening in my nervous system when I attribute greater value to love than hate? I mean, it clearly is my nervous system that’s driving that valuation (at least as a materialist I think it is). And that nervous system is as it is because of scientific facts – biological and cultural evolution and personal experience – whether we have all pertinent facts or not. What is the difference between these values that makes one a matter of preference and the other a matter of morals or ethics?
I’ll leave that for now and get back to Harris.
“Now, let me be clear about what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that science is guaranteed to map this space, or that we will have scientific answers to every conceivable moral question. …” – See. Caveats – for those who take this talk too literally, or who didn’t hear this bit clearly enough. This is a common notion to materialists: just because we can’t answer questions yet, or maybe can never answer them (at least in our currently evolved human form), doesn’t mean we have the final answer on the matter.
“…But if questions affect human wellbeing then they do have answers, whether or not we can find them. And just admitting this — just admitting that there are right and wrong answers to the question of how humans flourish — will change the way we talk about morality, and will change our expectations of human cooperation in the future.”
And there it is! There’s his moral goal. He’s already stated this, but it’s easy to let it slip by; and so from there he thinks that science can provide answers. This is the respect in which Harris thinks science can answer moral questions.
The fact that science can’t do that for every ‘human wellbeing achievement’ question, by using current science, is not to say it can’t, ever. But even if it were the case that science can never answer every such question, then so what; maybe it can answer more than by not using science.
The remainder of the talk fills in the details. We can argue about some of the examples, and question some of his reasoning, as Chris Anderson does. But the general idea that if we can establish that human wellbeing is in fact a moral goal we value, and if we can establish what constitutes human wellbeing, then science can accumulate the data needed to make the judgement call – maybe.
But for me Harris isn’t clear (maybe in his own mind, I don’t know) about what we use to judge the value of the science he is talking about, because he doesn’t say how science gets us to evaluating our values. He seems to assume one moral value, human wellbeing, as a given. Where’s his science that gets us to this and other moral values? Maybe he gets to that in the future. Maybe all we can draw from this is that science can help more than we are accustomed to thinking since Hume gave us is/ought. Can we dispose of is/ought as we dispose of non-overlapping magisteria?
I don’t think Harris convinces that it’s all an illusion – unless he can tell us elsewhere how he’s figured out all the problems of metaethics – see later. It’s not illusory that science can’t help us with all aspects of morals – as his own caveats attest.
Sean Carroll On Harris…
Sean Carroll criticises Harris here.
Well, I don’t think this is quite right with regard to Hume’s is/ought. See this post by Alonzo Fyfe. “Prove it.”, challenges Alonzo. Of course Alonzo knows that can’t be done, and isn’t really expecting you to. It’s a rhetorical flourish to explain his claim that Hume’s argument is one from ignorance. The difficulty, the seeming impossibility, of getting and ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ doesn’t mean it’s not possible.
Carroll says, “Morality and science operate in very different ways.” – Well, maybe. Maybe morals and psychology are as different as psychology and physics. Maybe we just don’t understand morals too well – we may know them when we see them, but that doesn’t mean we understand them. Surely Carroll isn’t doing a Stephen Jay Gould on us – do science and morals operate in so different ways?
I’ll come back to Carroll where I think he’s right.
Where Does That Leave Me?…
Is the problem perhaps that morality itself isn’t quite what we think it is – that it is some specific set of facts that determine what we do? This has a similar flavour to questions of what consciousness is, what free-will is – whether they exist at all, or whether they do exist but not as we know it; Jim. Could Harris be right that morals can be reduced to facts?
Maybe morality is, in fact, just another, fact, another data point, an emotional response that we experience. What is it, in fact, to say we have morals? After all, as I conclude that I have no evidence of God (I therefore become an atheist), at all, and so can’t derive morals, whatever they are, from him, then God isn’t a source – as far as I can tell. Further, as I have no evidence that there are moral absolutes in the universe, but also no evidence that I can know I have access to absolutes in order to judge that, then I can’t claim that that’s a source, or not.
So if my morals come out of what’s left, the only evidence available to me, my biological and cultural evolution, then in the great scheme of things they are quite arbitrary facts, aren’t they? They could have been otherwise different facts. If we had inherited a propensity for infanticide of existing children of new mates, say from a common ancestor with some big cats, then any female divorcee might be reluctant to take on a new man – but the infanticide under those circumstances might then not be a moral problem. Maybe we would have come up with a ‘moral’ means of achieving this – like the debate over the method of death on death row in some US states, the death isn’t the moral issue, but the method is. Our morals are only meaningful in our own human contexts.
Maybe, below our feeling that they are not facts, they in fact are – and being this type of fact are open to discovery, and statistical analysis (i.e. democratic voting), the result of which determines what we do. This doesn’t mean we have to, as some fear, scan each other constantly to determine our moral values. The human genome project hasn’t been quite the horror for insurance access that we worried it might be, because we took some more general principle fact (empathy), constructed a moral code out of it (fairness) and prevented the wholesale use of genetics as a means to insurance discrimination and persecution.
So, before we’re too critical of Harris, maybe we need to think what our morals are first – I don’t mean what our moral values happen to be. Earlier I distinguished between two possible meanings of ‘ought’. But do we fully understand what the moral ‘ought’ is?
1) Is it (morally)right/wrong to murder?
2) Is it (morally or otherwise)right/wrong to make murder a moral matter?
What do I mean by ‘otherwise’? I mean as in ‘makes sense’, or as in ‘category error’, or as in ‘appropriate’…
If it’s wrong to make murder a moral matter, then the first question loses its significance.
3) Is it (morally)right/wrong to like oranges?
4) Is it (morally or otherwise)right/wrong to make the liking of oranges a moral matter?
Q4 is easier to answer than Q2, so Q3 is obviously not a moral issue. Why is Q1 a moral issue? Have we clearly answered Q2?
Exactly why is murder a moral question and the liking of oranges not? You might think to answer ‘The Golden Rule’, or ‘Least Harm’ or whatever is your moral code. But why is that a moral code in the first place?
As Gurder says, “Ethics are not easy“. Quite right. The whole subject of metaethics is testament to that. Try wading through this, through all the descriptive/normative stuff, and see if you can find a conclusion – you’ll certainly come out of it with more questions than you took in.
So, where do I stand?
Yes, ethics is real complex. we’re not even sure what it is we’re talking about – yet we all sort of know what we’re talking about, as if by magic (e.g. as if by God), when really it’s just some complex opinion we have that comes about because of our biological and cultural evolution and personal experience and reason – or at least as my biological and cultural evolution and personal experience and reason informs me. All very flaky, tentative, contingent, arbitrary? Too true it is.
Should I be a moral relativist? Well, what an awkward question that is – I’m asking an ‘ought’ question about my ‘oughts’. I can certainly observe a moral relativism – it’s plain to see that everyone has a relative opinion about morality, even if there are more common features than differences. There are probably as many nuanced moral views as there are variations in the human genome – and why shouldn’t that be so.
But we don’t generally implement moral relativism (some post modernists excepted). We do make moral stands – i.e. we do make moral claims – and Harris points out some of these. Even if we can’t justify how we come by them or why we hold them. We can’t give a moral justification for all our moral views.
That means conflict. I think genital mutilation of baby boys and young girls is morally wrong. I can justify why – Golden rule, least Harm, Freedom to Choose, Self-Determination, etc. – but I can’t justify those in turn on moral grounds. I am at odds with people who think those practices are acceptable. I could have, had I lived at the time of the Crusades, gone to war over an issue like this. Now I have to content myself with changing opinions through reason and law – if I, with others, can through reason persuade enough others that these practices should be proscribed through law, then I win that conflict; otherwise I continue to lose. This is what it boils down to.
So, I think Sean Carroll is on firmer ground with this:
“A big part of the temptation to insist that moral judgments are objectively true is that we would like to have justification for arguing against what we see as moral outrages when they occur. But there’s no reason why we can’t be judgmental and firm in our personal convictions, even if we are honest that those convictions don’t have the same status as objective laws of nature. In the real world, when we disagree with someone else’s moral judgments, we try to persuade them to see things our way; if that fails, we may (as a society) resort to more dramatic measures like throwing them in jail. But our ability to persuade others that they are being immoral is completely unaffected — and indeed, may even be hindered — by pretending that our version of morality is objectively true. In the end, we will always be appealing to their own moral senses, which may or may not coincide with ours.”
I’ve emphasised the bit where I’d add something: by pretending that our version of morality is objectively true, whether they turn out to be objectively true or not, whether Harris is right or not. I’m back to my contingency of knowledge again. Epistemology is a bitch, even for a deity. But that’s okay. When it gets very vague – at the limits of ability to figure things out, we just have to make the best of it we can – we do science.
The religious seem to dump this whole problem in God’s lap. That doesn’t seem good enough to me (do I find that an immoral failure of responsibility?). If I can’t figure something out I’d rather admit it, and if I must, I make a choice, based on whatever I’ve got available. And that consists of my senses and reason. And the best we can do with our senses and reason is to use them as rigorously as possible – science.
So, to some extent I’m with Harris in his project. I don’t think he’s got it right yet. But give the guy a break, we’re still trying to figure out lots of stuff, and philosophers and scientists are bound to make lots of mistakes. But how do we know what are the limits of knowledge; how do we know what we can’t know, when it comes to complex issues like this, that are processed in our very peculiar brains, which we don’t yet fully understand.
Let’s give Harris some rope – see if he ties it all up nicely or hangs himself.
7 thoughts on “Moral Facts – Sam Harris”
Hi RonQuite happy to take the blame for this mess, although I think the blame really should be taken by Harris.I don't think I've seen you disagree with a New Atheist before?I am happy to give Harris the rope.. I am interested in the questions he poses. I think you missed how many times I said I agreed with him. What disappointed me was he didn't address the bigger questions (which are the ones I was hoping that he would speak to), but as you say he didn't have much time. Also, he said some silly things, that you have picked up on, and that is disappointing.
I'm blaming you for a damn good blog that draws us in so well. Something else to be said for CoE – good training for sermons that make people think, not so much commands.I disagree with a few issues with the NA's or OA's I'm not atheist-ist.No, I spotted how much you agreed, I was simply commenting on disagreements.
Great blog post, Ron Murphy. But you blame me for making it a wider subject?As it is, I think you've expanded it enough to keep us all occupied for a year on this alone. ;-)Will say much more, later.
In the real world, when we disagree with someone else’s moral judgments, we try to persuade them to see things our way; if that fails, we may (as a society) resort to more dramatic measures like throwing them in jail.Doesn't this say that it is perfectly legitimate and that we should not be the least bit bothered by the idea that a person can be thrown in jail or even executed for reasons that have no basis in fact?I see no difference between this and saying that if you like killing/maiming/harming/enslaving others, then it's perfectly legitimate to do so.
Thanks for your kind words Ron :)Lx
Hi Alonzo,killing/maiming/harming/enslaving others/loving/caring… any act whatsoever makes not a jot to the universe. It's all arbitrary acts performed by one particular species, that differs from other species in some particular ways, such as the inginuity and thoroughness with which these acts are performed.Other species don't care what we do to our species, so cross-species it's all still arbitrary.See this for more detail.It only becomes non-arbitrary for that particular species because of their evolved empathy and other characteristics.