Sam Harris Responds

Update and reboot: Sam Harris has responded to my blog post reacting to his TED talk. In the initial version of this response-to-the-response-to-the-response-to-the-talk, I let myself get carried away with irritation at this tweet, and thereby contributed to the distraction from substantive conversation. Bad blogger.

In any event, Sam elaborates his position in some detail, so I encourage you to have a look if you are interested, although it didn’t change my mind on any issue of consequence. There are a number of posts out there by people who know what they are talking about and surely articulate it better than I do, including Russell Blackford and Julian Sanchez (who, one must admit, has a flair for titles), and I should add Chris Schoen.

But I wanted to try to clarify my own view on two particular points, so I put them below the fold. I went on longer than I intended to (funny how that happens). The whole thing was written in a matter of minutes — have to get back to real work — so grains of salt are prescribed.

First, the role of consensus. In formal reasoning, we all recognize the difference between axioms and deductions. We start by assuming some axioms, and the laws of logic allow us to draw certain conclusions from them. It’s not helpful to argue that the axioms are “wrong” — all we are saying is that if these assumptions hold, then we can safely draw certain conclusions.

A similar (although not precisely analogous) situation holds in other areas of human reason, including both science and morality. Within a certain community of like-minded reasoners, a set of assumptions is taken for granted, from which we can draw conclusions. When we do natural science, we assume that our sense data is more or less reliable, that we are not being misled by an evil demon, that simpler theories are preferable to complicated theories when all else is equal, and so forth. Given those assumptions, we can go ahead and do science, and when we disagree — which scientists certainly do — we can usually assume that the disagreements will ultimately be overcome by appeal to phenomena in the natural world, since as like-minded reasoners we share common criteria for adjudicating disputes. Of course there might be some people who refuse to accept those assumptions, and become believers in astrology or creationism or radical epistemological skepticism or what have you. We can’t persuade those people that they’re wrong by using the standards of conventional science, because they don’t accept those standards (even when they say they do). Nevertheless, we science-lovers can get on with our lives, pleased that we have a system that works by our lights, and in particular one that is pragmatically successful at helping us deal with the world we live in.

When it comes to morality, we indeed have a very similar situation. If we all agree on a set of starting moral assumptions, then we constitute a functioning community that can set about figuring out how to pass moral judgments. And, as I emphasized in the original post, the methods and results of science can be extremely helpful in that project, which is the important and interesting thing that we all agree on, which is why it’s a shame to muddy the waters by denying the fact/value distinction or stooping to insults. But I digress.

The problem, obviously, is that we don’t all agree on the assumptions, as far as morality is concerned. Saying that everyone, or at least all right-thinking people, really want to increase human well-being seems pretty reasonable, but when you take the real world seriously it falls to pieces. And to see that, we don’t have to contrast the values of fine upstanding bourgeois Americans with those of Hitler or Jeffrey Dahmer. There are plenty of fine upstanding people — you can easily find them on the internet! — who think that human well-being is maximized by an absolute respect for individual autonomy, where people have equal access to primary goods but are given the chance to succeed or fail in life on their own. Other people think that a more collective approach is called for, and it is appropriate for some people to cede part of their personal autonomy — for example, by paying higher taxes — in the name of the greater good.

Now, we might choose to marshall arguments in favor of one or another of these viewpoints. But those arguments would not reduce to simple facts about the world that we could in principle point to; they would be appeals to the underlying moral sentiments of the individuals, which may very well end up being radically incompatible. Let’s say that killing a seventy-year-old person (against their will) and transplanting their heart into the body of a twenty-year old patient might add more years to the young person’s life than the older person might be expected to have left. Despite the fact that a naive utility-counting would argue in favor of the operation, most people (not all) would judge that not to be moral. But what if a deadly virus threatened to wipe out all of humanity, and (somehow) the cure required killing an unwilling victim? Most people (not all) would argue that we should reluctantly take that step. (Think of how many people are in favor of involuntary conscription.) Does anyone think that empirical research, in neuroscience or anywhere else, is going to produce a quantitative answer to the question of exactly how much harm would need to be averted to justify sacrificing someone’s life? “I have scientifically proven that if we can save the life of 1,634 people, it’s morally right to sacrifice this one victim; but if it’s only 1,633, we shouldn’t do it.”

At bottom, the issue is this: there exist real moral questions that no amount of empirical research alone will help us solve. If you think that it’s immoral to eat meat, and I think it’s perfectly okay, neither one of us is making a mistake, in the sense that Fred Hoyle was making a mistake when he believed that conditions in the universe have been essentially unchanging over time. We’re just starting from different premises.

The crucial point is that the difference between sets of incompatible moral assumptions is not analogous to the difference between believing in the Big Bang vs. believing in the Steady State model; but it is analogous to believing in science vs. being a radical epistemological skeptic who claims not to trust their sense data. In the cosmological-models case, we trust that we agree on the underlying norms of science and together we form a functioning community; in the epistemological case, we don’t agree on the underlying assumptions, and we have to hope to agree to disagree and work out social structures that let us live together in peace. None of which means that those of us who do share common moral assumptions shouldn’t set about the hard work of articulating those assumptions and figuring out how to maximize their realization, a project of which science is undoubtedly going to be an important part. Which is what we should be talking about all along.

The second point I wanted to mention was the justification we might have for passing moral judgments over others. Not to be uncharitable, but it seems that the biggest motivation most people have for insisting that morals can be grounded in facts is that they want it to be true — because if it’s not true, how can we say the Taliban are bad people?

That’s easy: the same way I can say radical epistemological skepticism is wrong. Even if there is no metaphysically certain grounding from which I can rationally argue with a hard-core skeptic or a Taliban supporter, nothing stops me from using the fundamental assumptions that I do accept, and acting accordingly. There is a weird sort of backwards-logic that gets deployed at this juncture: “if you don’t believe that morals are objectively true, you can’t condemn the morality of the Taliban.” Why not? Watch me: “the morality of the Taliban is loathsome and should be resisted.” See? I did it!

The only difference is that I can only present logical reasons to support that conclusion to other members of my morality community who proceed from similar assumptions. For people who don’t, I can’t prove that the Taliban is immoral. But so what? What exactly is the advantage of being in possession of a rigorous empirical argument that the Taliban is immoral? Does anyone think they will be persuaded? How we actually act in the world in the face of things we perceive to be immoral seems to depend in absolutely no way on whether I pretend that morality is grounded in facts about Nature. (Of course there exist people who will argue that the Taliban should be left alone because we shouldn’t pass our parochial Western judgment on their way of life — and I disagree with those people, because we clearly do not share underlying moral assumptions.)

Needless to say, it doesn’t matter what the advantage of a hypothetical objective morality would be — even if the world would be a better place if morals were objective, that doesn’t make it true. That’s the most disappointing part of the whole discussion, to see people purportedly devoted to reason try to concoct arguments in favor of a state of affairs because they want it to be true, rather than because it is.

  1. Apparently the morality of Sam Harris falls short of the everyday decency expected in communications of reason. The irony is a little thick in the air right now.

  2. While Harris was rather rude in calling you an idiot, I feel he is substantively right in his analysis.

    Sean, you’re entire post the first time around was essentially just a restatement of Hume’s is-ought stance. You didn’t justify it; you merely repeated it and said it in a few more words. You put this out as a critique of Harris. If I was him I’d probably be annoyed also. Seeing as his entire talk was about rebutting that Humean stance, to have people merely repeat it as though that were an argument is about as compelling as having a Creationist say “there are no transitional fossils!” over and over and over again.

  3. Sean, get over yourself already. Martyr complexes don’t become scientists. Sam Harris wasn’t accusing *you* of being stupid, merely the controversy over his comments as stupid (which indeed, much of it is).

    Again, your confusion over Hume and “is/ought” suggests to me that your strength isn’t in philosophy. A lot has happened in that realm since the 18th century. It’s OK that you aren’t aware of those advances, but don’t blame those who are.

  4. “The problem, obviously, is that we don’t all agree on the assumptions, as far as morality is concerned.”

    But we don’t all agree on the assumptions of science, either. There are lots of people in this world who literally think logic is stupid and unnecessary. Does the existence of these people invalidate the legitimacy of your profession?

  5. One more thing –

    Sean, after reading this post again, I realize that I literally have no idea what you think morality is. Harris’ gives his definition of what it is. Religious people have their definition of what it is. But I have no idea what your definition would be.

    You seem to be unwilling to accept Harris’ definition of morality, but you have provided no replacement for it. You keep speaking about how morality works, but you haven’t actually said what it is! When you use a word in such an undefined way, it’s hard to really take your argument here seriously. You say that people can’t agree on the assumptions about morality. But presumably they all need to agree on thee *definition* of morality on some level, otherwise you aren’t even talking about the same thing.

    So Sean, what definition of morality can you provide which would be useful in explaining how everyone uses the word in a way to communicate with each other?

  6. Asking whether something is right or wrong is only relevant in the context of making a decision of whether to do it or not. When the decision is easy, like “Should I eat today?”, we don’t worry about the philosophical implications. We’re simply built in such a way that we will try to eat food today. But for more difficult questions, where there is some conflict between goals (both internally and externally), we’ve set up this framework of “morality”. “Should I steal a loaf of bread to feed my starving family?” There are costs and benefits to this, and to help us make the decision we have set up a system of rules that work well in most cases. There’s nothing transcendent about this. Ultimately, morality is just a word to describe the relationship between goal-seeking machines (us) and our goals.

  7. Well said. Maybe it’s a sign of the strange world we live in that Sean’s articulated position on this isn’t just the default and that people require extensive (though false) justifications to act empathetically.

  8. Sam Harris has always trended a bit dangerously towards characterizing the world as totalistic black-and-white. Forcing every conceivable moral issue into a false dilemma is a fool’s bargain.

  9. Just to expand on my previous post, my point is that in trying to understand morality, we’re basically trying to understand why it is we make the decisions we do. And I think that’s a perfectly good scientific question. If science can help us better understand what our goals are, and how best to achieve them, that seems like a good area of study. If we don’t get our morality from religion, we must get it from rational discussion, and science is just a more structured and rigorous version of this.

  10. I agreed with you on the previous post, and it was unnecessarily hostile of Harris to call you stupid. However, now that he has explained and justified his views more fully, I think he’s right.

  11. My goodness, this is awful to watch. The intersubjective account of morality which you’ve described is perfectly sufficient, but Sam Harris, in his hurried ignorance, has convinced himself and his admirers otherwise, and with the drawn-out spitefulness of his response I’m afraid he’s committed himself so heavily to his mistaken position that backing down would be too much of an embarrassment. A good number of his followers will waste precious time campaigning for a dead-end moral philosophy.

  12. Monotropa wrote “Sam Harris has always trended a bit dangerously towards characterizing the world as totalistic black-and-white. Forcing every conceivable moral issue into a false dilemma is a fool’s bargain.”

    Except, of course, that Harris has never done any such thing. I defy you to point out one instance of him veering into absolutism in his TED presentation, or elsewhere. Indeed, he always goes out of his way to qualify his assertions as tentative, and to encourage skepticism amongst his readers. Nor has he ever advocated for “forcing every conceivable moral issue into” *anything*.

    Have you actually _read_ Harris?

    Here’s a handy shortcut for you: Hume postulated an unbridgeable gap between “is” and “ought”. One could characterize Harris as having postulated that “is” and “ought NOT” are relatable. Feel free to try to argue that he’s wrong, but I hope you can bring something more substantive to the argument than “he’s an absolutist (and probably dangerous)”.

  13. I read half of Sam’s response. The only thing on which he is wrong is when he uses the word “science” to describe his field (morality). Just like an anthropologist uses the word “science” to describe his’.
    You can use the same sort of reasoning in morality as you can use in psychololgy or in physics. It doesn’t mean it’s a science. Also, it doesn’t mean it can’t make any progress in it’s own field.
    I’d say Sam is trying to establish wellbeing as a paradigm in morality (with the definition of paradigm of Thomas Kuhn).

  14. The comments above are unreal.

    First of all, Robert H, Sean is not going to ‘become’ a scientist: he already is. Second, if a theoretical physicist, who has the imagination and clarity of mind to write at both the graduate level and the popular level on some of the deepest issues in the natural world, from both technical and philosophical viewpoints – if that kind of mentality does not constitute the necessary vista from which some materialistic moral landscape can be visible, then maybe that particular landscape is little more than an illusion. The problem is not with the mentality, but the reasoning you want to impose on it.

    My comments so far are in general. Specific to this case, Sean is right and you are wrong. The mistakes Harris has made are blatant, and typical. Several people have commented on them, and others (like Julian Sanchez mentioned above) were so taken back with the false reasoning they preferred to respond to the responses rather than the silly mistakes themselves. Finally, there is nothing that has happened since Hume, no particularly enlightening explosion of materialist utilitarian thought, that would render any of Harris’s fallacies true, or Sean’s simple assertions about them false.

    As for post #2, there is no substance there. Yes, he mentioned an argument by Hume because it applies to the case at hand. Why should he justify Hume? There is no need to justify Hume at all here. It would be the incoming ‘writer’ who would have to justify why and how things ‘ought to be’ in a universe agnostic to all things, even its own natural laws.

    It is painful reading your writings above Sean. Painful because, though you say you scrammed it out in a few minutes, you are working at an incredible level of meticulous detail in comparison to what you are responding to, that it hurts. Oh well. At least you are not alone.

  15. Just posted on the other thread. Damn do people like to hate Harris. I agree with Robert H. Above. That you are against moral relativism (which I naively thought was incontroversial for most scientific people) doesn’t mean you are an absolutist either.

  16. It seems you have had to resort to derisive badinage in the face of a superior argument (and a prevailing intellect). Mr. Harris trounced you! I suggest you stick with your real work.

  17. I’m a big fan of Sean’s analysis, even though it isn’t entirely rigorous etc.

    We are talking about how people make decisions. Decisions are ultimately rooted in instinctual or nurtured desires – like a person’s desire to follow a set of rules that she deems to be ‘moral’ (because it makes her feel ‘good’ to follow these rules) or a person’s desire to be in another certain future situation over some other situation (like one in which food is abundant over one in which she can only eat bread and water each day, all other things being equal, because that’s just a desire that she has).

    For those prospective future situations which have no precedent in the person’s life, she has to resort to estimated comparisons with other prospective future conditions based on analogies with previous experiences, reasoning based on others’ experiences (literature is very useful) and reasoning based on her evolutionary history (which is the source of some desires) amongst other types of reasoning.

    science is, in principle, able to discuss the origins of these desires (evolutionary and fostered through nurture) and how best to arrive at a preferred future situation. but once the desires are in place, there’s no reason why a certain set of ‘moral’ laws necessarily will become the basis for decisions. despite the fact that sam harris would like that to be the case.

  18. Interesting post. What do you say, however, to some of the obvious real-world counter examples to your argument? You say that collectivism versus individualism (a common theme in lots of historical areas) is an irreconcilable difference in axiomatic terms. What of the United States’ graded income tax? Isn’t that a compromise system? What about the shades of socialism that make up that system as well as the entitlement programs of the EU’s countries?

    There are no simple data points to support US tax code or the EU’s social welfare systems. Does science have to be reducible to ‘simple’ data to be consensus based? Do either of these systems even have to be empirically derived to be the agreed-upon method of conducting our national business? Clearly not. Does each system have moral implications? Of course.

    Although epistemology is an interesting facet of this debate, it strikes me that it is only the first hurdle in a longer course of discussion. This goes to your second point. I would imagine that Sam Harris uses extreme examples because it is much easier to describe simple phenomena than complex ones. It’s much easier to say, for example, that, if no human should take another human being’s life, murder should be punished or prevented as often as possible. It is much more difficult to argue over issues such as the nature of that punishment or prevention, abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, assisted suicide, etc. Yet agreeing that murder is bad covers a lot of ground and we can make a lot of decisions based on our agreement while discussing our differences. If science can add to that discussion, why would we fear it?

    Much of your latter point seems a discussion of degree rather than kind.

  19. 14.   Ahmed Says:

    March 29th, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    First of all, Robert H, Sean is not going to ‘become’ a scientist: he already is.

  20. See the transitive verb definition here.

    Second, if a theoretical physicist, who has the imagination and clarity of mind to write at both the graduate level and the popular level on some of the deepest issues in the natural world, from both technical and philosophical viewpoints – if that kind of mentality does not constitute the necessary vista from which some materialistic moral landscape can be visible, then maybe that particular landscape is little more than an illusion.

    Argument from authority?

    My comments so far are in general. Specific to this case, Sean is right and you are wrong.

    Is what follows really an explanation for why he’s wrong?:

    The mistakes Harris has made are blatant, and typical. Several people have commented on them, and others (like Julian Sanchez mentioned above) were so taken back with the false reasoning they preferred to respond to the responses rather than the silly mistakes themselves.

    I don’t see it.

    Finally, there is nothing that has happened since Hume, no particularly enlightening explosion of materialist utilitarian thought, that would render any of Harris’s fallacies true, or Sean’s simple assertions about them false.

    I’m still unclear how Harris’ are so clearly fallacies, as you seem to presume. He addressed the Hume citations in his response. I never thought they were relevant in the first place, regarding what I saw on the video of his talk.

    Yes, he mentioned an argument by Hume because it applies to the case at hand. Why should he justify Hume? There is no need to justify Hume at all here.

    Because otherwise it would be an argument from authority.

    It would be the incoming ‘writer’ who would have to justify why and how things ‘ought to be’ in a universe agnostic to all things, even its own natural laws.

    which is exactly what Harris does or at least attempts to do according to some.

    It is painful reading your writings above Sean. Painful because, though you say you scrammed it out in a few minutes, you are working at an incredible level of meticulous detail in comparison to what you are responding to, that it hurts. Oh well. At least you are not alone.

    Cause everyone who disagrees with you is so obviously stupid?

  21. Ahmed:

    Robert H didn’t say, “Sean is not going to ‘become’ a scientist”: he said, “Martyr complexes don’t become scientists.” He’s using don’t become in the sense of is unflattering or inappropriate. It’s not really an obsolete usage, but you don’t hear it much nowadays. I took the sentence as meaning that Robert feels that Sean has taken Harris’ tweet way too personally, and that such a reaction is unbecoming for a scientist.

  22. ChicagoMolly and andyo: precisely.

    Perhaps what I should’ve said is “Martyr complexes are unbecoming to scientists.”

    Ahmed wrote “Second, if a theoretical physicist, who has the imagination and clarity of mind to write at both the graduate level and the popular level on some of the deepest issues in the natural world, from both technical and philosophical viewpoints – if that kind of mentality does not constitute the necessary vista from which some materialistic moral landscape can be visible, then maybe that particular landscape is little more than an illusion.”

    That illusory nature may be debatable, but it’s very easy to turn your comment around, thus:

    “Second, if a *neuroscientist* who has the imagination and clarity of mind to write at both the graduate level and the popular level on some of the deepest issues in the natural world, from both technical and philosophical viewpoints – if that kind of mentality does not constitute the necessary vista from which some materialistic moral landscape can be visible…”

    Since I presume you don’t want to turn this into a battle of the bona fides, I assume you will extend the same latitude to Sam Harris, as you described him above.

    I do not mean to denigrate Sean, I mean to criticize his approach to Sam Harris’ expressed views on a path of inquiry that I do not believe that Sean really grasps. That his argument is predicated upon Hume’s “is/should” is just one tip-off to me. It seems to me that Harris’ argument doesn’t rest upon Hume or neuroscience or any other individual field; he is arguing for a new path of inquiry. Trying to use 18th century notions to invalidate Harris’ views is rather like quoting Newton to argue against string theory.

  23. There is no such thing as carbon. What we choose to call carbon is just a personal preference.

    No scientist can give any type of objective argument showing that six proton atoms have to be called ‘carbon’ and cannot have any other name. The decision to call six proton atoms ‘carbon’ is arbitrary and subjective.

    Not only is it the case that the scientist cannot objectively prove that six proton atoms must be called ‘carbon’ – that this choice is not arbitrary – but can give no objective answer to the question of why he has decided to give a presentation at Ted about 6-proton atoms.

    There are over a hundred different atoms that the chemist could be talking about – hydrogen, oxygen, iron, uranium. The decision to talk about carbon atoms, as opposed to one of these other types of atoms – is entirely arbitrary. It is up to the whim of the chemist what atoms he is going to give a presentation about That is to say, the choice is totally subjective. Therefore, chemistry is totally subjective.

    (end sarcasm)

    Sean, 95% of your objection simply fails to interact with anything Harris puts forward in his talk. You don’t dispute a syllable put forward by Harris about the reality of pleasure or pain and you don’t even seem to doubt that all cultures seem to talk about changes in consciousness when they talk about morality. And even if you didn’t want to call it “morality” you would probably still agree that there is a difference in well being between Michael Phelps and the Besotho child who will starve to death by the time I’m finished writing this sentence. Once you concede that much, that’s the ball game. Because that means that we really can adjudicate over cultural differences when they claim that are doing harm or good, and we can do so with investigation into the relevant factual issues.

  24. I lean toward being convinced more by Sam’s reasoning than by Sean’s. That being said, I don’t think Sam would have sacrificed a scintilla of impact by substituting something for “stupidity”. I mean, Sean may be very very very wrong, but stupid he is not. And his argument can be very very very wrong, but stupid it is not. Perhaps “misguided and counterproductive”, “perniciously irrelevant”, or “surprisingly oblivious” would all have communicated Sam’s disapproval with as much punch as “stupidity”, but the blow would have landed above the belt?

  25. Here’s one crucial point from Sean’s original post which neither Harris nor any of his supporters here have had an answer to. Please read it again:

    “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.”

    In Harris’s attempt at an answer he ends up here:

    “It is also worth noticing that Carroll has set the epistemological bar higher for morality than he has for any other branch of science. He asks, “Who decides what is a successful life?” Well, who decides what is coherent argument? Who decides what constitutes empirical evidence? Who decides when our memories can be trusted? The answer is, “we do.””

    There you have it: “We do.”; he contradicts himself and concedes the entire argument to Carroll, but keeps on talking down to him like nothing had happened.

  26. I should add the explicit relevance of my previous post:
    deciding to follow a certain ‘moral code’ or set of moral ‘laws’ is a decision nonetheless and is therefore subjected to the regular analysis of any decision: ‘why was this decision made – what future situation is the decision maker trying to create?’ this will always boil down to the desires of the decision maker: ‘what future situations does the decision maker desire’?

    so the decision to follow a certain ‘moral code’ or ‘moral rules’ is entirely dependent on the desires of the decision maker. one such desire of the decision maker might be to feel good in knowing that she has followed her ‘morality’. reasons like these are ultimately the only reasons for following a ‘moral code’.