The Moral Equivalent of the Parallel Postulate

(Update: further discussion here and here.)

Sam Harris gave a TED talk, in which he claims that science can tell us what to value, or how to be moral. Unfortunately I completely disagree with his major point. (Via Jerry Coyne and 3 Quarks Daily.)

He starts by admitting that most people are skeptical that science can lead us to certain values; science can tell us what is, but not what ought to be. There is a old saying, going back to David Hume, that you can’t derive ought from is. And Hume was right! You can’t derive ought from is. Yet people insist on trying.

Harris uses an ancient strategy to slip morality into what starts out as description. He says:

Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures… If we’re more concerned about our fellow primates than we are about insects, as indeed we are, it’s because we think they are exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering. The crucial thing to notice here is that this is a factual claim.

Let’s grant the factual nature of the claim that primates are exposed to a greater range of happiness and suffering than insects or rocks. So what? That doesn’t mean we should care about their suffering or happiness; it doesn’t imply anything at all about morality, how we ought to feel, or how to draw the line between right and wrong.

Morality and science operate in very different ways. In science, our judgments are ultimately grounded in data; when it comes to values we have no such recourse. If I believe in the Big Bang model and you believe in the Steady State cosmology, I can point to the successful predictions of the cosmic background radiation, light element nucleosynthesis, evolution of large-scale structure, and so on. Eventually you would either agree or be relegated to crackpot status. But what if I believe that the highest moral good is to be found in the autonomy of the individual, while you believe that the highest good is to maximize the utility of some societal group? What are the data we can point to in order to adjudicate this disagreement? We might use empirical means to measure whether one preference or the other leads to systems that give people more successful lives on some particular scale — but that’s presuming the answer, not deriving it. Who decides what is a successful life? It’s ultimately a personal choice, not an objective truth to be found simply by looking closely at the world. How are we to balance individual rights against the collective good? You can do all the experiments you like and never find an answer to that question.

Harris is doing exactly what Hume warned against, in a move that is at least as old as Plato: he’s noticing that most people are, as a matter of empirical fact, more concerned about the fate of primates than the fate of insects, and taking that as evidence that we ought to be more concerned about them; that it is morally correct to have those feelings. But that’s a non sequitur. After all, not everyone is all that concerned about the happiness and suffering of primates, or even of other human beings; some people take pleasure in torturing them. And even if they didn’t, again, so what? We are simply stating facts about how human beings feel, from which we have no warrant whatsoever to conclude things about how they should feel.

Attempts to derive ought from is are like attempts to reach an odd number by adding together even numbers. If someone claims that they’ve done it, you don’t have to check their math; you know that they’ve made a mistake. Or, to choose a different mathematical analogy, any particular judgment about right and wrong is like Euclid’s parallel postulate in geometry; there is not a unique choice that is compatible with the other axioms, and different choices could in principle give different interesting moral philosophies.

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.

The unfortunate part of this is that Harris says a lot of true and interesting things, and threatens to undermine the power of his argument by insisting on the objectivity of moral judgments. There are not objective moral truths (where “objective” means “existing independently of human invention”), but there are real human beings with complex sets of preferences. What we call “morality” is an outgrowth of the interplay of those preferences with the world around us, and in particular with other human beings. The project of moral philosophy is to make sense of our preferences, to try to make them logically consistent, to reconcile them with the preferences of others and the realities of our environments, and to discover how to fulfill them most efficiently. Science can be extremely helpful, even crucial, in that task. We live in a universe governed by natural laws, and it makes all the sense in the world to think that a clear understanding of those laws will be useful in helping us live our lives — for example, when it comes to abortion or gay marriage. When Harris talks about how people can reach different states of happiness, or how societies can become more successful, the relevance of science to these goals is absolutely real and worth stressing.

Which is why it’s a shame to get the whole thing off on the wrong foot by insisting that values are simply a particular version of empirical facts. When people share values, facts can be very helpful to them in advancing their goals. But when they don’t share values, there’s no way to show that one of the parties is “objectively wrong.” And when you start thinking that there is, a whole set of dangerous mistakes begins to threaten. It’s okay to admit that values can’t be derived from facts — science is great, but it’s not the only thing in the world.

  1. This isn’t a surprise to me. Sam Harris has been trying to skirt moral relativism for a while now. Come on over Harris! The water’s just fine over here on the deep end of intellectual discussion.

  2. You can’t convince a crackpot that relativity is right, and you can’t convince a neo-nazi that Hitler was a scumbag. But the vast majority agree relativity is right, and the vast majority agree Hitler was a scumbag. We make up phrases like “relativity is right” and “Hitler was a scumbag”; since most agree, we call these phrases “facts”.

    Where in your epistomology can you possibly distinguish between an “experiment”–which you say can produce objective facts–and everything else that might influence a person’s opinion, which you say can’t produce objective facts?

  3. Sean,

    if you really believe in the many worlds interpretation, then you believe that the deterministic, unitary evolution of the wavefunction (of the universe) is all there is.
    There is nothing you can ‘decide’ or ‘change’ about anything.
    The placement of your personal experience in one of the possible worlds is nothing you can ‘control’ in any way.
    There is no debate between ought and is because is is all there is.

  4. You write:
    There are not objective moral truths (where “objective” means “existing independently of human invention)…

    I read this as suggesting that you are a moral relativist, i.e. you don’t believe in universal values, only in subjective opinions of morality. Is that correct? If so, how do you reconcile this position with the concept of international human rights? Consider, for example, campaigns against slavery and female genital mutilation, where these practices occur in traditional cultures which fully approve of them. More generally, this has been an issue impacting the advocacy of women’s rights in countries where traditional values oppose such rights. Are these values somehow “Western” and thus basically arbitrary? Or are they universal human rights, and not just a matter of opinion?

    James

  5. I frankly don’t understand why we even have to spend time discussing what Sam Harris says. I mean, who is Sam Harris except an ignorant popularizer that got famous writing an angry book against issues that he himself barely understands? On what possile authority does TED invite him to talk about morality? Is he a scientist? Is he a philosopher? No, neither. (yes, fine he JUST got his PhD. So what? Has he had any significant impact on the scientific community yet? No).

    He’s achieved his popularity cunningly jumping on the new atheists bandwagon, and by being the most populist, ‘folksey’ and offensive of the lot. As a matter of fact, I find amazing that intelligent people like Dan Dennett (or Sean Carroll for that matters) agree to have their name associated with him.

    [mind you, I am not a creationist in disguise, I am as atheist as Harris is. I just find absurd that we give authority to an absolute no-one like Harris]

  6. Hi Sean, interesting comments here, but I mostly disagree with you. By the way, Sam is soliciting criticism of his talk over at http://www.samharris.org/ted_talk, so I’d suggest you link him to this post.

    Now, to the disagreement. It’s true that one will never be able to derive moral principles without making some assumptions, like axioms, at the base of everything. You are aware of this, stating “But what if I believe that the highest moral good is to be found in the autonomy of the individual, while you believe that the highest good is to maximize the utility of some societal group?” Clearly if you begin with different goals you will reach different conclusions about what are the most moral actions. And of course those conclusions should be informed by the facts of the matter – for example, there may be ways to enhance “the autonomy of the individual”, and if you’re wrong about what those ways are, then you will fail in your goal.

    But science is no different! Of course the Big Bang is based on facts, but it’s also an inductive generalization, and nothing in the facts tells us that any particular prediction of Big Bang theory is guaranteed to be right. At the base of science there are assumptions, for example, assumptions about how much confidence we should place in inductive generalisations. It’s mostly just an intuition, but that’s enough to get started, and we can make great progress once we stop worrying about the fact that our foundations are not absolutely set in stone. The foundations are solid enough to make progress, and we should not obsess too much over them. Your reaction to Sam’s talk seems to me to be equivalent to a radical sceptic thinking you’re wrong about the Big Bang because it’s impossible to have perfect knowledge.

    In ethics, I think the situation is much the same. Once you decide on a goal (for example, wanting conscious beings to be in more pleasant brain-states), the methods you should use for deciding what actions are moral are basically the methods of science. I see this as Sam Harris’s main important point, but there is another. Now, of course you could choose a different goal and then you would get different conclusions about what constitutes acting ethically. Here, I think Sam makes a second major point (that I also agree with): that wanting conscious beings to be in more pleasant brain-states is implicitly the goal of the vast majority of moral systems. Even religious ones: for example, a fundamentalist Christian who believes in a literal hell may be justified in quite radical acts here on Earth – and this would be right if it was expected to prevent future eternal suffering of conscious beings. The error here is scientific: the evidence for a literal hell is so weak that there almost certainly isn’t one. Also, people who advocate individual freedom, or strong communities, do so because they think it produces the best lives for people – not because it’s an end in itself.

    The foundations of ethics, and science, are not absolutely rock solid – but that’s okay. They’re solid enough to make progress. There is a place for intellectual hand-wringing about foundations, but that doesn’t mean that anything goes and that we may as well give up.

  7. @James Wilson

    Ah, but there’s the rub! The short answer is, you can’t. It doesn’t mean it’s untrue. As a practical matter, you have to pretend that isn’t true in your day to day life, but moral relativism is inescapable. It’s kind of not a big deal, after all in our day to day lives we pretend that what we do in life matters- it doesn’t, but that doesn’t bother me.

  8. A clearly stated point. Facts are facts, observables are observables. How one feels about them, or what kind of behavior you think is desirable, what kind of outcomes you think are desirable, are entirely relative and up to the individual actor.

    Far more discussions would be easier to have if one were to clarify that your argument was over the best WAY to get somewhere, or over the best PLACE to get to (the second being entirely subjective).

  9. Brendon– I don’t think that’s a good analogy. As you say, we have to distinguish between choosing a goal and choosing the best way to get there. But when we do science we all basically agree on what the goals are — we want to find a concise, powerful explanation of the empirical facts we observe. Sure, someone can choose to disagree with those goals — but then they’re not doing science, they’re doing philosophy of science. Which is interesting in its own right, but not the same thing.

    When it comes to morality, there is nowhere near the unanimity of goals that there is in science. That’s not a minor quibble, that’s the crucial difference! If we all agreed on the goals, we would indeed expend our intellectual effort on the well-grounded program of figuring out how best to achieve those goals. That would be great, but it’s not the world in which we live.

  10. Sean – I think there is more agreement on goals than you might think. All we need to recognise is that some states of existence are better than others, and that’s enough.

    We may disagree about how we order the states, particularly when it comes to details, but sometimes it’s just obvious. For example, it’s better to live with a loving family than to be held captive by a psychopathic torturer.

    There will also be a lot of states that are equally as good as each other, as far as we can tell. That also doesn’t detract from my point.

  11. Technically, what Harris is doing is pointing out that science can determine what IS the common element of all human OUGHT assessments. In that, he is correct.

    He then makes at least three errors thereafter: first, presuming that we OUGHT to use that as the primary bridge across the IS-OUGHT divide; second, neglecting to consider whether this common element is an exact expression, or merely a close approximation; and third, neglecting to consider whether this is a particular case of a more general problem.

    Attempts to derive ought from is are like attempts to reach an odd number by adding together even numbers.

    A closer comparison would be the production of an infinite ordinal by the addition of finite ordinals, because in a sense you CAN do that– the catch being, it requires being able to take an infinite ordinal number of steps in the first place. So, you can get an infinite ordinal… if you have an infinite ordinal. And when someone claims to have produced an infinite ordinal, you simply need to look for where the prior infinite ordinal was.

    However, the typical college graduate will find that a little obscure mathematically.

    It’s okay to admit that values can’t be derived from facts — science is great, but it’s not the only thing in the world.

    Exactly. Once you are playing around with what choices OUGHT to be made, it’s no longer science; it’s engineering.

  12. it’s because we think they are exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering.

    I don’t think Harris is committing the is-ought fallacy here. He starts by assuming that we should alleviate suffering, and given that assumption he says science can then inform us of how to deal with that.

    I happen to agree with his assumption, but beyond that there is of course nothing but moral relativism.

  13. I’d also like to mention that I would be against trying to call this philosophy “objective morality”. It’s subjective – just like science – but subjective doesn’t mean capricious and unconstrained. :)

  14. Harris’ ideas are based upon empirical evidence – that most people need to feel that their moral decisions are based upon some external authority (thus outsourcing their accountability), and as such we can attempt to assert a scientific authority if our goal is to squeeze some more people out of the Dark Ages. Does it further the ideals of the scientific method to have parishoners of science, though? I doubt it. One could say that Harris is so caught up in his little war against the nutters that he’s become one of them.

  15. You can’t derive ought from is, but most definitely what is affects what ought to be. What is not and can not be, can never be ought. Is informs ought.

  16. Experiential states of conscious beings are data. Those experiences are part of concrete reality, and they can be assesed as to their inherent goodness or badness. Experiential states of suffering are inherently bad. How else could we define bad?
    If we make those assumptions, that suffering is concretely real, and that it should be minimized, then I don’t see why such an endeavor could not take the form of a scientifc enterprise.

  17. Harris has a tendency towards black and white thinking which is on full display here.

  18. Regardless of the logical and linguistic terms of the debate, Harris makes some very important points. First, he argues, impressively, that one person’s opinion may very well not be as informed, and therefore not as viable. Why does everyone have an equal voice in the call for ethical understanding? They shouldn’t.

    And secondly, while we do not have the full understanding of the consciousness and its functions, someday we will. That, as eukaryote notes, puts the realm of ethical behavior solidly in scientific territory.

    Unless we reframe the debate, we are lost in he said-she said, with an iron age book as our primary authority. Harris might not be absolutely correct, but the mere fact that he has started the discussion is valuable, and perhaps morally necessary.

  19. Hey Sean,

    Surprisingly to me, I disagree with you on this one.

    You said: In science, our judgments are ultimately grounded in data; when it comes to values we have no such recourse.

    I don’t agree here. We have lots of data which exemplifies assorted moral stances and I think we can most certainly make reasoned judgements based on them. Look at the blatantly obvious events like the Holocaust, Pol Pot, etc.

    You said: The unfortunate part of this is that Harris says a lot of true and interesting things, and threatens to undermine the power of his argument by insisting on the objectivity of moral judgments. There are not objective moral truths (where “objective” means “existing independently of human invention”), but there are real human beings with complex sets of preferences. What we call “morality” is an outgrowth of the interplay of those preferences with the world around us, and in particular with other human beings.

    I think it’s your qualification (where objective means existing independently of human invention) that seems to be the crux of the disagreement. If I thought that was correct, I’d agree 100% with you. It is patently absurd to presume an objective morality exists outside of human construct.

    But I don’t believe (at least I certainly didn’t hear it that way) that that is what Harris said at all, or even implied. Rather, I thought that his point was quite the opposite – that we can make objective moral analysis and decisions based on historical observation of situations and the obvious effects of those actions.

    I ‘heard’ his talk more as a reaction to the worn politically correct position that we have no right to judge anyone. Yes, it’s definitely a slippery slope when we engage in judging, but for humanity to progress, at some point we must pull up our pants and get to it.

    I believe there is considerable common ground throughout the world to do this. I don’t think it’s up to any individual, self-appointed group or self-nominated country to take on DOING anything about these questions, but a group representing all parts of the world (such as the concept of the UN) should indeed take this next step towards helping humanity. Yes, it’s a ‘goal’, but it is possible to conclude, via scientific methodology -(i.e. data analysis, for example) what has been considered by the majority to be ‘beneficial’ vs ‘harmful’ throughout human history, and subsequently, work to access the disclosed objective ‘beneficial’ for all. It’s scientific if one doesn’t preclude findings based on personal beliefs, but rather permits the data to speak for itself. Some obvious, objective goals that would likely emerge – elimination of pestilences and diseases, elimination of starvation, etc. We could also discover that what we believed would be a ‘benefit’ is not. Then we’d have a VERY subjective moral quandary!

    I didn’t understand Harris to be suggesting that the majority decide on who can marry, or dress codes, (though he was awfully miffed about the veils), but about the larger questions which, really ARE answerable using the scientific method. (In my non-scientist opinion. {grin})

    Or am I misunderstanding your objections?

  20. Hi Sean. I agree with Harris, and would put it this way. Morality and values are facts about first-person experiences of conscious creatures. So, right, they’re not completely “objective” on one reading of that term (i.e. objective=third-person facts). But I would contend that they are objective in relevant sense in that they are facts about nature, not opinions relative to a point of view. We can and should be able to investigate these experiences in the spirit of how science is conducted in other domains.

    The alternative is to cede first person experience as outside the domain of nature – that’s not what you mean to advocate, is it? I think there is a more general point here that restrictive views of naturalism (materialism) enable the persistance of old-fashioned dualisms and supernaturalisms.

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  22. To Maximus @ #5

    Maximus, I notice that you haven’t cited any actual facts or evidence in your denigration of Sam Harris. Why, exactly, should anyone believe your statements, or concur with your judgements, that Harris is “ignorant,” that “he himself barely understands” the issues he writes about, or that he’s a “an absolute no-one”? Not that I have any particular brief for Harris, myself; I’m just pointing out that you’ve added no value in condemning him without showing any evidence beyond your own (anonymous) authority.

    Without either waving credentials or citing authorities, can you take a moment to explain, in plain, non-circular, and passably non-technical language, what is the case against Harris’ writings?

  23. Wow, lots of good comments, and a very interesting and thought-provoking analysis Sean, thanks!

    I thought I agreed with Harris when I watched this the other day, but I didn’t pay close enough attention to know for sure. I agree with most of what you have written too Sean, as well as much of the comments here. Until I get home, and can re-watch Sam’s talk, I won’t really know if this is related to what he said or not.

    Anyway, here’s my two cents:
    As a moral relativist I figure the differences we have in morals are largely influenced by our environments, but from an evolutionary point of view there ought to be causal reasons why we tend to have the moral values that we have, and with that understanding we can make scientific statements about what morals people have (and why).

    I’ve been very interested (for quite some time now) in modeling the amount of cheating humans are willing to participate in by looking at a game theoretic model describing the cost and benefits of cooperation or defection. I imagine that a reasonably simple model could probably start to reproduce a society in which most people play by the rules, most of the time. This would be akin to describing the origin and dynamics of our morals nearly ab initio.

    I think the absolutist position I have developed with respect to my own moral relativism has provided me with a reflexive objection to any claim that science can provide us with morals, but when I consider how much science can tell us about our morals, where they came from, why we have them, and which ones we have and with what prevalence, etc., I begin to think maybe science does have a lot more to say about this… or at least more than I would have first suspected.

  24. Paul, my tones were perhaps too harsh, but I was simply pointing out the fact that I find quite amazing that someone like Harris must be taken as an authority on matters of ‘religion and secularism’ and on morality simply because he happens to vociferously ride the ‘new-atheist’ movement. He has no academic nor intellectual credentials whatsoever. This is a very general observation, regardless of the content of his claims. As for his ideas, I personally believe that he repetedly made claims regarding ‘religions’ (whatever that means for him) which border the irresponsible, and are at least ‘scientifically’ ungrounded. The best possible debunking of the intellactual credibily of Harris came some years ago from anthropologist Scott Atran (ok I am perhaps citing an authority here, but in this context, and for sake of brevity since i happen to agree completely with Atran, I think it is reasonable to do it) see here: [http://www.edge.org/discourse/bb.html].
    Sean is right in saying that ‘morality’ is no science, but does that mean that we can give our time and attention (and hence implicitely invest with some sort of authority) to everyone that happens to have opinions about it?

  25. Hmm, I can’t agree on the video, but I can’t agree with you eighter.
    1) I think there is no absolute moral, or lets better say if there is an absolute moral, we can’t decide if we found it.
    2) In physics we have the mathematical tools which, in contrast to moral discussions, can really tell us if something works or something doesn’t. But experimental data, don’t lead to “absolute facts”. If we have a totally different “better” theory in 100 years, with total different variables and expressions, lets say a theory with no time and no fields, then we might interpret the same data radically different and then our theory will indicate to something totally different.
    In the end general relativity is “just” a theory. You are right if you say that someone denying the mathematical steps from data to predictions _within_ general relativiy lead to the big bang is a crackpot or at least stubborn.
    But even if I think GR is an absolutely lovely theory I don’t “believe” in the big bang. I don’t take it as a “fact” what so ever, meaning if someone comes up with a better idea with no contradictions, then I will not have a problem throwing that elephant “big bang” out of the window, since it’s only accesible within the theory which made it up.
    To cut a long story short: Since data is always just interpretet or searched for with reference to theories or ideas, there is no meaning of “scienticic fact” beyond a physical theory.

  26. So… you’re saying that it’s wrong to claim that some moral judgment is itself right or wrong in an objective sense. I assume, of course, that you recognize that your own argument against the moral objectivity of others is itself necessarily objective. (You’re not trying to claim that a judgment about a moral system is itself not a moral judgment, are you?)

    It’s impossible to argue for moral relativism on objective grounds. Any time you do so, you find yourself, as you have just now found yourself, trapped in a bottomless Gödelian pit of self-referentiality. You’re trying to claim that moral relativism is the only way to go, but really it turns out that meta-morals and meta-meta-morals and so on are all just as relative, and so the original claim (about moral relativism) can’t be made. So you’re left with only your intuition and feelings about the matter.

    This is to say that you may be right after all, but, on the other hand, you may be wrong. Consider the possibility that there _is_, in fact, an objective basis of measurement for moral systems: survival. That is, there might be a definite answer to the question: does one moral system promote a better chance for survival than another?–and the answer to this question may be a sufficient (though disagreeably objective) judgment about moral systems. Will some societal behaviors win out, given enough time, over other behaviors? If so then is this sufficient grounds for saying that the winning–surviving–moral system is, objectively, superior? I’ll leave you with the following two questions with the hope that they promote some more thinking about the matter:

    1. What’s the value of a moral system (as in a moral practice) that no longer exists?

    2. Are humans using moral systems for survival or are moral systems using humans for survival?

  27. Here, I think Sam makes a second major point (that I also agree with): that wanting conscious beings to be in more pleasant brain-states is implicitly the goal of the vast majority of moral systems

    Kill most of them painlessly and inject the rest with pleasure-inducing narcotics. This produces more pleasant brain-states than any other system that I know of. But this is not the goal of any moral system that I know of.

  28. Moral relativism is a empirical observable fact – if not different people, then different cultures have observably different morals.

    The moral absolutist seems to be saying that empirical reality is immoral.

  29. Maximus: I find it disingenuous when you say you are as atheist as Harris. I suspect you are a stealth believer. Harris’ books are not very dissimilar to Hitchens’ or Dawkins’. Also, why must someone have a string of academic credentials to talk about superstition like religion or about morality? This is simple elitism and snobbery. Hitchens isn’t an academic either. What do you think of his books?

  30. I agree with Sean: Science has nothing to do with “ought”.

    Hitler was a scumbag (to say the least).

    But none of his actions were in violation of the laws of physics.

  31. Consider a cookbook? The recipes tell you how to prepare some item of a cuisine. But is there anything normative – are there any “OUGHT assessments” in it? If you put in some extra spice or throw in a different vegetable in the pot than the recipe calls for, have you violated any “OUGHT”? However, if you deviate from the guidelines too much you will likely end up with something undesirable. So there are cookbook non-normative ethics.

    Now imagine a culture whose “religious books” resemble the cookbook more than they do anything with “OUGHT assessments” – they have recipes for living. In fact, because their books that religionists identify as “religious” contain no “OUGHTs” Christian missionaries think that they are an utterly immoral culture.

    There is a line of thinking out there that such non-normative ethics is what ancient India had.

    Take a flight of imagination and even if this is not what ancient India had, imagine an extra-terrestrial culture with such a way of life.

    And then realize that the morality talked about in the essay above is just one part of experience. There are other ways of conceiving of the world, and dealing with it.

  32. Can’t science at least determine whether a particular moral stance is compatible with the physical world? For example, a moral stance that demands that everyone live in a mansion on a tropical island is incompatible with Earth’s geography, or a moral stance that precludes the eating of all living life-forms is incompatible with human dietary requirements.

    So science may not be able to say whether a particular morality is right, but it can show that some are dumb.

  33. Yeah, Sean, I agree with you. Maybe you go too far in the degree to which you think it undermined the whole talk, but it certainly got the talk off to a bad start. He opened a can of worms that could have been kept shut. If this idea of values as facts of a kind is going to be central to argument of the new book, that will be unfortunate.

    I blogged on this yesterday, over here: http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2010/03/sam-harris-on-science-and-morality.html

  34. I’ve wondered for a long time if our apparently innate tendency to develop a sense of moral outrage was somehow shaped by selective pressures over the ages. From this one might conclude that morally outrageous things are likely to either be or resemble practices that are objectively dangerous or otherwise maladaptive. So, while it will always be impossible to elevate moral outrage to the level of some cosmic recognition of “right” and “wrong”, it might be possible to demonstrate its utility in many circumstances, at least in terms of adaptivity. It’s also valid, I think, to acknowledge the impact of emotions and to give some deference to our compulsion to minimize pain and grief. That’s about the strongest argument for morality I can come up with…which, I’m frustrated to say, makes me feel immoral.

  35. Sean, I think you miss the point here. Let me quote this part:

    “That doesn’t mean we should care about their suffering or happiness; it doesn’t imply anything at all about morality, how we ought to feel, or how to draw the line between right and wrong.”

    Here I think you simply miss what Harris is saying. He’s not saying we *should* care about insects or happiness – he is simply saying that we *do*. It’s a fact of nature. It’s how we work as biological, sapient creatures. Harris makes the point that there simply *is* a connection between what we call morality and human consciousness: moral choices are geared towards avoiding the awareness of suffering, whether it be in this world or the next. This isn’t a philosophy he is espousing, but rather an observation of how the world works.

    I find the analogy to eating to be a useful one.

    I think the best way to understand this is to analogize it, like Harris does in the video, to eating.

    When we are hungry, we have a certain feeling. And we don’t always have a hunger for the exact same thing; sometimes we prefer soup, sometimes bread, sometimes Little Debbie’s. And so, how do we decide what the right thing to eat is? Well, at the margins it might be a little difficult, but we can certainly set up some general rules based on our brains and biological makeup: grains are probably a good idea, molten tar notsomuch. Hunger is just a feeling we have, but it is explainable by biology, and it maps to brain states, and we can set up some pretty solid rules governing how it works.

    Same thing with morality. It’s a feeling we have, a desire to do one thing in favor of another. And it’s a function of our biology and our brains. And just like we learn more about what a good nutritional choice is by studying the matter scientifically (tobacco isn’t really that good, for example), we can do the same with moral choices. Just because some people disagree doesn’t really mean anything; you can be an abberation who loves to eat dirt. We just recognize it as objectively irregular and damaging. Same with morality.

  36. This might be a bit random, but it occurs to me that “you can’t get OUGHT from IS” would also seem to apply to religionists who insist that a moral sense can ONLY come from a belief in God (therefore atheists are without morals, I suppose).

    By the reasoning of Hume, at least as narrowly described for the purposes of this article, belief that God IS real cannot be sufficient to tell us what OUGHT to be. I guess this is why there is a need for holy texts, which can be claimed as the divinely-inspired final word on morality.

  37. “Kill most of them painlessly and inject the rest with pleasure-inducing narcotics. This produces more pleasant brain-states than any other system that I know of. But this is not the goal of any moral system that I know of.”

    Nice reductio ad absurdum. Obviously any practical implementation of this would be a disaster, but I find it hard to see why, if one could magically flip a switch and make it all happen, that would in fact be immoral.

  38. Ahhh! Sean! Don’t put your epistemology ahead of your metaphysics. It makes me so sad.

    My objections (well, some of them) are along the lines of Brendon’s above, and I don’t think your response to him quite did them justice. You essentially dismissed the analogy between science and morality (physics and metaphysics, say) by saying that we agree a lot more on the basic foundations of science than we do on those of morality. Sure, that’s true, but clearly that’s not a fundamental difference between the two. The fact remains that there are plenty of assumptions – the validity of reason, inductive logic, trust in our senses, not being a solipsist, and the like – which go into getting out truth claims from science. The first principles are there in science just as in morality.

    I see a contradiction in the way you treat the two. With the principles behind getting truth in science, you sweep the epistemological objections under the rug, essentially because a) they seem pretty obvious and b) everybody but crazy people agrees on them. But when it comes to the principles behind moral truth, you take the complete opposite tack and make the epistemology sacrosanct over the metaphysics; since we can’t measure moral truths with data, moral truth cannot exist. That’s a ridiculously strong claim and one that I haven’t seen a proper defense of, especially considering you implicitly take the opposite approach to the analogous problem in physics.

    A concrete example may help. It might be a terrible example but it’s the first that comes to mind. Most everyone agrees, despite all other moral squabbling, in something like the sanctity of life, that murder is bad. Most everyone also agrees that observation is a valid way of deducing physical truths. Both of these are principles which technically can’t be proven, only shown to be very useful and to be widely believed. But it seems you’d treat the former as something subjective and the latter as objective. What’s the difference between them?

  39. Take that comment, by the way, as an argument for the possibility of moral truth (as well as other metaphysical truths), not an argument for its existence. By accepting the principles behind science, you accept the existence of a physical realm (the alternative being solipsism). I think we’re both fine with that. By accepting certain moral principles, you accept the existence of a non-physical moral “realm” (the alternative being relativism). It’s possible that this doesn’t exist, it’s possible that it does. I’m still trying to work through that myself, though I’m having trouble bringing myself to categorically reject a non-physical reality like the moral one (as you do) if I accept (as I do) the objective reality of mathematics. That seems to open doors which I have difficulty closing.

  40. Sam is not trying to say that science can tell us what values to have. He is saying that once we agree on what we value (healthy emotional development in our children, thriving social communities, or what kinds of animal suffering are intolerable), we can use science to inform the decisions we make in attempting to service those values. If we both agree that we value living creatures be spared from suffering, and science shows that primates are capable of greater suffering than insects, we therefore should both agree that primates are more deserving of our concern than are insects.

  41. I think we might be using the concept of morals in two different ways; first, to mean right and wrong, how we should behave, etc. (which we moral relativists would all agree means have no objective reality to them, in spite of the historical consensus).

    And second, the specific properties of behavior that belong to a species, shaped over millions of years of evolution both physically and socially, combined with an environment for which the rules can be interpreted. Couldn’t we say that ants have a moral code? And couldn’t we understand ant morals in terms of modeling ant behavior and looking for solutions that lead to optimal evolutionary success?

  42. Well, while there are large areas of disagreement in moral values, there are also broad areas of strong agreement. And it seems that the broad areas of agreement often tend to be more general, fundamental rules, which means that we can plant a stake in these rules that we agree upon and use science to determine whether or not other rules are consistent with them.

    For instance, one rule that most people agree upon is that we should, by default, be nice. We should only be unkind to others when they have done something immoral, or in order to prevent greater harm to them.

    Now, various groups have managed to usurp these rules by adding other ones. For instance, a rule that can easily usurp, “Be kind by default,” is, “The only moral person is a member of .” If a person really and truly believes that members outside of their narrow group are immoral, which can often be empirically tested within the person’s other beliefs, then they no longer feel a need to by default act kind to people outside their narrow group.

    This sort of assault on facts is often what happens in moral disagreements: a minority community is, for instance, accused of all sorts of moral evils (such as drinking blood in the case of Jews). This is, I claim, because if we all agreed upon the facts of most any moral dispute, we would, by large, agree upon the proper course of action. Not always, mind you: our own built-in morality doesn’t necessarily cover every possible aspect of modern interactions. But usually there is no difficulty in coming to moral agreement once factual agreement has been reached.

  43. “Dan Says:

    Sam is not trying to say that science can tell us what values to have. He is saying that once we agree on what we value (healthy emotional development in our children, thriving social communities, or what kinds of animal suffering are intolerable), we can use science to inform the decisions we make in attempting to service those values. ”

    This can’t be all that Sam is saying. You surely don’t think Sam’s great news was simply that science might be useful in helping us to decide how to achieve agreed goals.?

    Hardly an innovationary idea.

  44. Along similar lines, one could ask: Does the scientist engage in science entirely for personal gain, self-gratification, and furtherance of “career”, or, Does the scientist engage in his her craft for the betterment of society at large?
    Or,
    Is there a common thread of seeking “Knowledge for the sake of Knowledge” or “Creativity for the sake of Creativity” that seems to underlie science, metaphysics, theology and virtually any individual or social endeavor?
    In the latter case, one could easily argue that all human activity, when done under the belief that human effort has any sort of meaning or “purpose”, is simply just another form of religion with “Knowledge” as its god.
    All humans become Cartesian dualists the day they learn to speak their first words. And they spend the rest of their lives talking past each other. It is the unavoidable “human condition”.

  45. I know people that crave to be tortured. Others that crave torturing. Plenty of Hitler and murder fans. A minority to be sure, but they exist, you can’t deny them. Trying to find moral axioms in H. sapiens is a fool’s errand. I’m with Team Sean on this one.

  46. “I know people that crave to be tortured. Others that crave torturing. Plenty of Hitler and murder fans. A minority to be sure, but they exist, you can’t deny them. Trying to find moral axioms in H. sapiens is a fool’s errand. I’m with Team Sean on this one.”

    I know people who like chocolate. Others hate it. Plenty of vanilla and strawberry fans. A minority, to be sure, but they exist, you can’t deny them. Trying to find nutritional axioms in H sapiens is a fool’s errand.

    Do you see how silly that sounds?

  47. DamnYankees: “I know people who like chocolate. Others hate it. Plenty of vanilla and strawberry fans. A minority, to be sure, but they exist, you can’t deny them. Trying to find nutritional axioms in H sapiens is a fool’s errand.”

    Your analogy doesn’t work because liking chocolate or vanilla has nothing to do with their nutritional values. You CAN make objective statements about their nutritional value. The fact that we can’t make objective statements about which is nicer means that your analogy supports rather than refutes blueshifter’s post.

  48. “Your analogy doesn’t work because liking chocolate or vanilla has nothing to do with their nutritional values. You CAN make objective statements about their nutritional value. The fact that we can’t make objective statements about which is nicer means that your analogy supports rather than refutes blueshifter’s post.”

    My post was sarcasm. Of course we can make objective claims about their nutritional value. The same with morality.

    I was trying to express the point that just because people have subjective disagreements over preferences, that doesn’t mean the field we are talking about has no objective, factual claims to be made.

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