Sam Harris vs. Sean Carroll on Science and Morality

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 29, 2010 in Ethics,Science,Video

Several readers have asked me to comment on a recent talk given by Sam Harris entitled “Science can answer moral questions.”

Physicist Sean Carroll rebuffed Harris, saying:

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 replied here, though his full argument will arrive later this year in The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.

What can we make of this debate? Let me offer a few brief thoughts.

First, Hume never said you can’t derive an ought statement from an is statement.1 What he did say is that nobody up to his day had explained how to derive an ought from an is. And it does seem like a difficult problem. It isn’t obvious that “Rape is a cause of suffering” necessarily implies “Therefore, we ought not rape.” These appear to be two fundamentally different kinds of claims. But the mere appearance of a gap between ought and is does not prove anything.

John Searle gave a famous counter-example to the apparent is-ought gap:2

  1. Jones said, “I promise to give you, Smith, five dollars.”
  2. Jones promised to give Smith five dollars.
  3. Jones undertook an obligation to give Smith five dollars.
  4. Jones is under an obligation to give Smith five dollars.
  5. Jones ought to pay Smith five dollars.

Now it looks like we have logically and uncontroversially derived an ought from an is.

My point is only that Hume did not end the discussion on ought and is. This is a hotly debated topic. In fact, if I had to guess, I would guess that most philosophers today think you can derive an ought from an is.3

But Carroll does not believe in objective morality:

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.

If I had read that last sentence in isolation, I might have thought Carroll was endorsing the theory of objective moral realism I defend: desirism. And anyway, the facts about which sets of preferences are logically consistent, and the facts about which sets of preferences reconcile most efficiently with the preferences of others and the realities of our environments – aren’t these “moral” truths that exist “independently of human invention”? It would seem so.

But the central question here is how we define moral terms, as Harris recognizes:

[Many] people strongly objected to my claim that values (and hence morality) relate to facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures. My critics seem to think that [while] maximizing the wellbeing of conscious creatures may be what I value, other people are perfectly free to define their values differently, and there will be no rational or scientific basis to argue with them. Thus, by starting my talk with the assertion that values depend upon actual or potential changes in consciousness, and that some changes are better than others, I merely assumed what I set out to prove. This is what philosophers call “begging the question.”

After a few misguided swipes at Hume4 and Carroll,5 Harris gets back on topic:

I believe that we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What’s the alternative? Imagine some genius comes forward and says, “I have found a source of value/morality that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings.” Take a moment to think about what this claim actually means. Here’s the problem: whatever this person has found cannot, by definition, be of interest to anyone (in this life or in any other). Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is – again, by definition – the least interesting thing in the universe.

Harris is expressing a popular philosophical view that value supervenes on brain states. To say that something has value and yet is not valued by any being is just a confusion, Harris thinks.

So Harris’ central claim is that terms about moral value refer to brain states. And since science can tell us a great deal about brain states, and about how actions and desires and policies affect brain states, therefore science can tell us which actions and desires and policies are morally right and wrong.

Carroll’s reply is that science cannot show us that terms about moral value refer to brain states. Science cannot tell us that ought is derived from facts about brains states. Why not say that moral value is grounded in intrinsic value, or rights and duties, or God’s commands?

What are the data we can point to in order to adjudicate this disagreement? …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… When [people] don’t share values, there’s no way to show that one of the parties is “objectively wrong.”

Unfortunately, Harris clouds the issue with some emotional bludgeoning, as if he were William Lane Craig giving the moral argument for God’s existence:

There are women and girls getting their faces burned off with acid at this moment for daring to learn to read, or for not consenting to marry men they have never met, or even for the crime of getting raped. Look into their eyes, and tell me that what has been done to them is the product of an alternative moral code every bit as authentic and philosophically justifiable as your own.

But of course Carroll hates these cruelties. And of course it’s not that he thinks all moral codes are equal, he just doesn’t think any of them are objectively true.

I will not try to argue who is right or wrong in this debate. Rather, I will try to clarify the debate by drawing attention to the questions that matter.

First, how do we define moral terms? Is Harris justified in saying that moral terms are most reasonably defined in reference to brain states, or is it just as justified to define moral terms in other common ways, for example in reference to universal maxims or hypothetical social contracts? How can we go about answering such a question? Will a dictionary settle the matter, or is it more complicated than that?

Second, if Harris can reasonably define moral terms in reference to brain states, is his more specific definition of moral terms in reference to the wellbeing of conscious beings justified? Why “wellbeing”? Why only conscious beings?

In exploring these two questions about the meaning of moral terms, my interviews with Don Loeb, Stephen Finlay, Ruth Chang and Alonzo Fyfe may be of use.

If these two sets of questions are granted in Harris’ favor, then Harris and Carroll will agree that science has much to say about which actions, desires, and policies promote the wellbeing of conscious beings. That is not disputed.

Of course, Carroll is right that science cannot tell us what the “correct” definition of morality is. Even Harris seems to concede this is the domain of “reason alone.”6

But this might be a trivial concession for Harris to make. After all, science cannot say anything about protons until we have settled on the definition of “proton.” It does not diminish the scientific nature of proton-study to point out that science itself cannot determine the correct definition of the word “proton.” Likewise, perhaps the scientific nature of morality is not diminished by the fact that science itself cannot determine the correct definition for “morally good.”

  1. Read Hume’s famous paragraph at the top of this Wikipedia article. []
  2. Searle, “How to Derive ‘Ought’ from ‘Is’” in The Philosophical Review (1964). []
  3. Why do I guess this? because most philosophers are moral realists, and moral realism depends on the claim that there are facts of the is type with ground ought claims, for example “Murder is wrong” grounds the claim “One ought not murder.” Or, more substantively, a moral realist might say that “Murder does not promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number” grounds the claim “One ought not murder.” []
  4. Harris writes of “Hume’s lazy analysis of facts and values.” Certainly, he may disagree with Hume’s analysis, but lazy? Hume’s work is widely regarded as the clearest thinking on morality up to his day, and sets the framework for thousands of pages of dense ethical philosophy published in peer-reviewed journals each year. Hume may be wrong, but he was not lazy in thinking about morality. []
  5. Harris writes as if Carroll has said that moral disagreement proves the subjectivity of morality, or as if Carroll equates scientific consensus with scientific truth; but Carrol does neither. []
  6. I refer to Harris’ statement: “I believe that we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value.” []

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

lukeprog March 29, 2010 at 11:32 pm
Rob March 30, 2010 at 1:45 am

You and your readers might also enjoy Leiter’s post at On the Human, and the correspondingly high-quality comments that continue to appear.

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Sabio Lantz March 30, 2010 at 2:36 am

Excellent. As always, your methodology offers value often more promising than the content of the debate.

But tell us, Luke, which way are you leaning presently. It will cause many of us philosophical-distress waiting for your sequel to this post !

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David Iach March 30, 2010 at 2:42 am

I wonder if a guy like John Searle thinks that if someone would promise him to rape and murder his wife, that that someone ought to rape and murder John Searle’s wife.

Luke, it seems to me that you cannot deduce 5 from 4. It only follows if you are already committed to the belief that one ought to fulfill all he’s obligations. But this belief can be easily rejected. It seems to me that we tend to belief we ought not to fulfill obligations that we think are immoral, or stupid, or outdated and so on.

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Duke York March 30, 2010 at 3:58 am

You can’t derive an ought from an is?

What else could you possibly derive an ought from?

Is there something that exists but isn’t an “is”?

The question is which “is” we use, and how we make the transformation.

Divine command theory is deriving an ought from an is: in this case, the “is” is whatever the man in charge says is right (under the cloak of some ridiculous book and an invisible friend).

Moral realism (if I understand correctly)hypothesizes that there are non-material things — values — that we can use to derive our oughts. Even if they don’t exist, they still exist, in the minds of the people who created them and those who read of them.

Moral irrealism (IIUC) uses another set of “is”, the general feeling of the people who live under the moral code.

Desirism uses the malleable desires of people as its “is”.

Is it even logically possible to base a moral theory — base anything — on something that “isn’t”?

Just my two cents.

Duke

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matt March 30, 2010 at 5:36 am

Duke York I think confuses a number of issues in his last post. The alternative to being able to derive an “ought” from an “is” is NOT deriving an “ought” from an “isn’t”. (The negation isn’t somehow distributive across the operation of deducing one from the other!)It seems to me (and this picks up David Iach’s critique of Searle) that whatever you do to go from a state of affairs that “is” to a state of affairs that ought to be, you have to flip on a morality switch of some kind, the same way you have to flip on a beauty switch when you go from saying “this music contains acoustical parameters x y and z” to “wow, what beautiful music.” even if you were to find a method–maybe it`s “desirism”–for reliably predicting what most people will agree about morally, that doesn’t perform the alchemy of turning factual statements into moral ones. Somewhere there is going to have to be a basic moral statement underlying all the others, and I just can´t see where a statement about things that are or things that aren´t will get you there. (Positing nonmaterial “values” just seems to be a grammatical subterfuge here, but doesn’t change the basic incompatibility of these kinds of language games/categories.)

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matt March 30, 2010 at 5:53 am

Just an afterthought: Sam Harris is the BF Skinner of modern reductive materialist imperialism (to coin an epithet); he´s the philosophe of Blairist “internationalism”. It’s one thing to argue for some kind of a univeral morality, it`s another to argue for the biological certitude of superior Western values.

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lukeprog March 30, 2010 at 6:26 am

Sabio,

Which way am I leaning on what?

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Robert Oerter March 30, 2010 at 7:41 am

Luke wrote:
“…for example “Murder is wrong” grounds the claim “One ought not murder.”"

Me:
You jumped the rails here, Luke. “Murder is wrong” is not an “is” statement in the sense meant by Hume et. al., because “wrong” is already a value term. “Murder is wrong” cannot mean anything other than “One ought not murder.”

Luke:
“Or, more substantively, a moral realist might say that “Murder does not promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number” grounds the claim “One ought not murder.”"

Me:
This one is OK, and shows the problem clearly. “One ought not murder” does not follow from “Murder does not promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number” unless one accepts as a premise that one ought to do that which promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

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Tony Hoffman March 30, 2010 at 8:03 am

Robert Oerter: ‘“One ought not murder” does not follow from “Murder does not promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number” unless one accepts as a premise that one ought to do that which promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number.’

I think one has to accept the premise that desires are good as axiomatic in something like Desirism, but this is no different than any other form of moral grounding. Why, after all, does theistic morality get a free ride with the question of why we ought to consider God’s will good? The theist accepts the premise that God’s will is good (even though he cannot “know” this), and the Desirist accepts that desires come with a normative “ought.” It seems to me that both systems need their own axioms regarding that question.

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matt March 30, 2010 at 8:12 am

I agree with Tony Hoffman and would add, there´s no grounding of any values in non-valuative facts going on here either (just axiomatic “oughts” grounding other “oughts”). The fact/value boundary just doesn´’t seem permeable to me.

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Chris Hallquist March 30, 2010 at 8:28 am

Re: footnote 4: The fact that Hume set the framework for lots of subsequent ethical philosophy isn’t reason to think some of his work wasn’t lazy. It’s possible to lazily toss off a really interesting thought, for one thing. Hume’s comment about the is-ought problem arguably falls into this category.

As for what most philosophers nowadays think on this issue, I suspect they would say the problem is not so much deriving an ought from an is, but of deriving statements about morality from non-moral facts. They’d reject Searle’s view for the reason David Iach gave.

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lukeprog March 30, 2010 at 8:35 am

Guys,

Remember, I’m not defending a particular option, here. I’m just trying to give a lay of the landscape and clarify the questions that need to be asked.

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Tony Hoffman March 30, 2010 at 9:15 am

Luke: “So Harris’ central claim is that terms about moral value refer to brain states. And since science can tell us a great deal about brain states, and about how actions and desires and policies affect brain states, therefore science can tell us which actions and desires and policies are morally right and wrong.”

Seems like a leap into circularity above. I’d change the last four words in Harris’s claim in the quote above to “related to associated brain states,” otherwise it does seem as if Harris is still begging the question. But the thinking can’t be that obviously circular — how am I misunderstanding Harris’ position?

Btw, what’s the “prog” in Lukeprog? (Is that just you logged in as the site admin? I used to run a site – I hate sorting out the logged in ID thing.)

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matt March 30, 2010 at 9:21 am

But the thinking can’t be that obviously circular — how am I misunderstanding Harris’ position?

oh yes it can. isn’t this exactly what g.e. moore called the naturalistic fallacy? i can imagine a serious position that tries to get around moore’s critique of trying to define the good as some natural state of affairs, but harris’ sure ain’t it.

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matt March 30, 2010 at 10:08 am

The underlying dogmatism of Harris` whole argument is I think made clear from this especially snotty and wrong-headed comment about Sean Carroll’s use of Hume:

“I wonder how Carroll would react if I breezily dismissed his physics with a reference to something Robert Oppenheimer once wrote, on the assumption that it was now an unmovable object around which all future human thought must flow.”

Harris is so scientistically committed that he seems to think that citations of authority in philosophy are like citations of authority in science. Referring to Hume’s argument about is and ought is to cite a whole tradition of philosophical thought–and anybody who takes philosophical thought seriously should know that. It might just as well have been Plato or Aristotle as Hume–the idea still has currency, without therefore being an “unmovable object” as Harris polemically claims. As far as I can tell, it´s Harris` committment to the “unmovable” truths of what he calls scientific reasoning that`s the problem here, not the other way around.

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Charles March 30, 2010 at 10:17 am

Luke,

I think there might be something funny going on between steps 4 and 5 in the example from Searle.

3. Jones undertook an obligation to give Smith five dollars.”

This is clearly the result of Jones’s own desire to keep promises, and while

4. Jones is under an obligation to give Smith five dollars

is certainly true, when read in isolation, one tends to think it means something other than what it does. The only reason he is “under an obligation” is because he decided to be. When premise 4 is understood in this sense, we may as well rewrite it like premise 3 because that represents more accurately what is going on. But once you do that, I have a really hard time seeing how you can go straight from 3 to 5 because when we say something like,

5. Jones ought to pay Smith five dollars.

we usually mean something a bit different, like

‘Jones ought to pay Smith five dollars because if he doesn’t, he will go to jail because we dislike oath-breakers and have laws against such things.’

or

‘Jones ought to pay Smith five dollars because keeping promises is morally good.’

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matt March 30, 2010 at 10:24 am

Searle’s 5 steps are interesting, but they sure don’t do a damn thing to bridge the is-ought gap. Surely the speech act of “promising” only nas a meaning at all in a culture where “ought” in connection with promises is taken for granted. To say that going from “x promised y” to “x ought to do y” is to derive a value statement from a statement of fact strikes me as rather bizarre. Will have to read the whole article though, just to confirm my prejudice :)

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matt March 30, 2010 at 11:25 am

Aha. Just read through Searle´s paper. HIs whole argument seems to me to be just advertising for the sexy new jargon (in 1965) of speech-act theory–which is what a lot of anglo-american metaphysics-debunking amounts to anyway. To give him credit, he himself acknowledges what i said above about presuming a culture of obligations and promises in his formula:

“It is often a matter of fact that one has certain obligations, commitments, rights, and responsibilities, but it is a matter of institutional, not brute, fact. It is one such institutionalized form of obligation, promising, which I invoked above to derive an “ought” from an “is.” I started with a brute fact, that a man uttered certain words, and then invoked the institution in such a way as to generate institutional facts by which we arrived at the institutional fact that the man ought to pay another man five dollars. The whole proof rests on an appeal to the constitutive rule that to make a promise is to undertake an obligation.”

Seems like an awful waste of ink to make a rather banal observation; and i don´t think he does anything more than recaste Hume´s insight using some of John Austin´s terminology. Maybe that´s worth something, but it doesn´t really effect the basic problem, in my opinion.

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David March 30, 2010 at 11:36 am

Once we understand that morality in the scientific sense amounts to nothing more than the solution of a complicated differential equation in which ‘morality’ is the solution, there will no longer be a discussion. Sam Harris will be shown to be right and others will know they are wrong.

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Tony Hoffman March 30, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Never mind on my earlier question about circularity. I read the Harris link you cited at the top of the article, and he’s clear about wellbeing being axiomatic. I think this was fairly straightforward of him:

Harris: “One of my critics put the concern this way: “Why should human wellbeing matter to us?” Well, why should logical coherence matter to us? Why should historical veracity matter to us? Why should experimental evidence matter to us? These are profound and profoundly stupid questions. No framework of knowledge can withstand such skepticism, for none is perfectly self-justifying. Without being able to stand entirely outside of a framework, one is always open to the charge that the framework rests on nothing, that its axioms are wrong, or that there are foundational questions it cannot answer. So what?”

It’s an interesting topic; thanks for posting on it.

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piero March 30, 2010 at 7:55 pm

It’s one thing to argue for some kind of a univeral morality, it`s another to argue for the biological certitude of superior Western values.  

That’s a pretty unfair description of Harris’s position. Did you watch his TED conference?

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ThePowerofMeow March 30, 2010 at 8:02 pm

Great summation, Luke. Thanks.

I agree that Searle’s “is to ought” example doesn’t seem to work. Why should a person honor his obligations?

Other people have made this point already – it just seems pretty question-begging.

I think all morality boils down to self-interest. Even if a solid moral theory is put forth, why would a person follow it? Of course, this is a big point in Buddhist ethics -yadda yadda.

thanks again.

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lukeprog March 30, 2010 at 10:22 pm

piero,

I agree. Harris was not arguing for the superiority of Western values.

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matt March 31, 2010 at 4:54 am

Harris:

“The same failure of liberalism is evident in Western Europe, where the dogma of multiculturalism has left a secular Europe very slow to address the looming problem of religious extremism among its immigrants. The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.”
http://www.rationalresponders.com/head_in_the_sand_liberals_by_sam_harris

Harris, like Christopher Hitchens only worse (vis. his defense of Israeli child-killing as “unintentional” hence not the same as terrorism), is just the latest incarnation of the liberal imperialist who identifies the West with the Good (or with “wellbeing”) and the Rest as barbarians. This deosn’t invalidate his criticisms of, say, the suppression of women in some islamic societies, but it provides a necessary context for his philosophically inept attempt to define away moral categories via scientistic categories of brain states or some “axiomatic” concept he calls “wellbeing”. What is “wellbeing” exactly? Harris writes, with breathtaking philosophical crudeness,

“When I speak of there being right and wrong answers to questions of morality, I am saying that there are facts about human and animal wellbeing that we can, in principle, know—simply because wellbeing (and states of consciousness altogether) must lawfully relate to states of the brain and to states of the world.”

“must lawfully relate”? “states of the brain”? is this some high-school student who´s just discovered the “laws” of historical materialism? has he even begun to offer a DEFINITION of “wellbeing”? does he (or anybody here) think that`s even possible? is it quantifiable? if not, what sort of “laws” relate it to anything at all?

Harris is not just your run of the mill war-mongering post-liberal atheist like Hitchens; he actually thinks he`s saying something new and “scientific” where he`s really just riding over very will tilled earth with a bulldozer. compared with him, i`m afraid to say, william craig looks like wittgenstein.

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matt March 31, 2010 at 5:03 am

just to underline a previous comment: to my understanding of the argument, john searle is not ACTUALLY arguing that his five steps undo the fact-value distinction. he`s arguing for a widened definition of “fact” that includes what he calls “intitutional facts” like the ones that obtain when you promise something, request something, pray for something etc. he sees the fact-value distinction as resting on an old-fashioned dualism that doesn´t take account of the modalities of what john austin called speech acts (or wittgenstein language games, forms of life, etc). i think this is interesting, but it has absolutely nothing at all to do with harris´ argument about reducing morality to “brain-states” and “states of the world”, which if anything is firmly in the empiricist tradition that searle explicitly criticises.

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Josh March 31, 2010 at 3:04 pm

I read through some of Harris’ response and I have to say he brings up an interesting point here:

One of my critics put the concern this way: “Why should human wellbeing matter to us?” Well, why should logical coherence matter to us? Why should historical veracity matter to us? Why should experimental evidence matter to us?

To some extent, I think the questions of “Why should x matter” are moral questions in and of themselves. What is the sentence “We ought to accept the theory with the most evidence” besides a moral statement? However, we can care about different thing and address these questions in a way that, I think, is more coherent. For example, the statement “The theory with the most evidence is most likely to be true” is certainly not a moral question, but just a statement about the world. Of course justifying that statement is a different matter entirely, but let’s ignore that for now….

Moral statements can also be addressed in different ways. For example, a subjective realist says that when someone says “Killing is wrong” what they are actually saying is “I disapprove of killing people.” This statement clearly has a truth value. In fact, I would say that Harris is asserting that what they mean is “Killing causes some net reduction in well-being”. This statement is perfectly coherent and definitely has a truth value (though it may be hard to discern what it is).

To that end, I think Harris has a reasonable argument. However, I think he’s dead wrong if he thinks “maximization of well-being” (or some other criterion) is an absolute standard of morality—the notion is simply incoherent.

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mattr April 1, 2010 at 12:36 am

One of my critics put the concern this way: “Why should human wellbeing matter to us?” Well, why should logical coherence matter to us? Why should historical veracity matter to us? Why should experimental evidence matter to us?

I think this is another good example of Harris riding the scientistic bulldozer again. In one sense, he´s using the phrase “x matters to us” as a marker of what you might call decency (in fact, almost everything he argues for politically can be seen this way; and when a liberal imperialist starts sputtering about decency, i reach for my thorniest bouquet of roses). on the other hand, he´s making an argument that more or less mirrors the christian argument about the ontological unity of all values: God is the source of the “laws” of the universe, the “laws” of logic, and the “laws” of morality (God here just = science there). And like the Christian apologist, Harris is failing to respect all kinds of critical distinctions, like the force of the word “to matter” when it is applied to such entirely different spheres as logic, historical or scientfic inquiry and morality. I agree with Josh about this: I don´t think that the “mattering” here is basically moral. It matters to me that science be based on evidence, among other things, so that it will cure me of diseases and so that my building won´t collapse when the wind blows. It matters to me that logic be coherent because it can´t NOT be coherent and still be logic etc.

(Btw when I name-call Harris by terming him a liberal, it´s not because I´m a conservative!)

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Jason Vacare April 7, 2010 at 8:33 am

That there is a physical basis for morality is certainly of widespread, modern scientific concern. A possibly relevant example:

http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2010/moral-control-0330.html

But as you mention, even if moral terms are defined with concrete biochemistry and discrete brain states, it doesn’t imply an objectly superior brain state. In fact I have a biologist friend that would probably laugh at that notion. It would be like trying to assert the objective value of any biological trait. In order to assess the value of a biological trait, one must frame it in a larger (and often changing) context. Perhaps this is an example of why choosing the “correct” morality would still be a matter of reason.

Still, on a possibly dangerously intuitive level, I find the notion of moral expertise Harris proposes quite appealing. Even if it can’t be derived solely from the biological traits, perhaps the biological facts combined with the kinds of well-formed discussions you present on morality here, might offer a better definition of moral expertise than we have today (thinking of things such as Kohlberg’s moral development theory). It’s a pleasing, if fanciful, notion, at least.

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Chris April 16, 2010 at 3:17 pm

I tend to agree with Richard Carrier’s argument for moral realism.

Carrier outlines his argument in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dce8mE0q4zA

He states: “My hypothesis is this… all moral truth breaks down to this one single statement: ‘you ought to do, what you would most want to do, if you were reasoning correctly and aware of all the facts.’ … Now I’m saying there is nothing you ought to do but this; there’s no greater moral commandment than this, and I’m also saying you only ever fail to do this for either of two reasons: either you are reasoning fallaciously or incoherently, or you were ignorant of some of the relevant facts. If you knew what the full and true consequences of your actions would be, upon you as well as others, you would only ever do what’s right, so when people act immorally it’s always the result of ignorance; it could also be the result of error since if we know everything there is so know we could still invalid conclusions by reasoning incorrectly, but this is just a special case of ignorance, since if you know you were using an invalid or fallacious way of thinking you would correct yourself, unless you’re completely bonkers.”

I would argue the following:

1. Behaviour X is not conductive to Desire Y.
2. You desire Desire Y, more than anything else.
3. Therefore, you ought not to do Behaviour X.

Even moral anti-realists would agree with this, only they would regard #2 to be a subjective and/or relative matter. This means the conclusion cannot be objective.

But the conclusion can be objective if the following is true:

If it is objectively true that Behaviour X is not conductive to Desire Y, AND if it is objectively true that we desire Desire Y.

It may be true that everyone does not share the same desires, but this is not where the story ends, because underlining those desires is something much more fundamental, something universal, which all human beings share (based on the human condition). THAT is Desire Y.

I claim that Desire Y is happiness/wellbeing. Whether this is true or not is something that we can empirically determine, although I think we have enough evidence to say so now, and also simply on rational grounds: it seems absurd to intentionally act in a way that you knew would decrease your happiness and wellbeing.

I also claim that we can objectively determine the overall effects that certain behaviours and lifestyles will have in relation to Desire Y, both individually and collectively.

From this we can say the following:

1. Murder is not conductive to happiness/wellbeing.
2. Humans universally desire Desire Y.
3. Desire Y is happiness/wellbeing.
4. If you commit murder you would decrease your happiness and wellbeing.
5. Therefore, you ought not to murder.
6. No fully informed person would ever intentionally act in a way that would decrease their happiness/wellbeing.
7. Therefore, no fully informed person would commit murder.

(I’ll note here that acts of killing, such as in war, self defence, or accidental, do not constitute murder, and so to not undermine that argument.)

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