Blackford reviews The Moral Landscape

Brother Russell Blackford has written a longish review of Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape for The Journal of Evolution and Technology.  (He also discusses it more briefly at his Metamagician website.)  As you know, Harris’s thesis is that science gives us a way to determine if actions are moral: they’re moral if they increase the well-being of society as a whole.  In other words, contrary to conventional wisdom, you can derive “ought” from is—if you can measure well-being.

Blackford’s piece is a bit long, and suffers from a lack of concrete examples, but it’s very good.   While giving Harris’s book an enthusiastic thumbs-up, he points out several problems. Below I’ve put a combined list of both Blackford’s and my own problems with Harris’s thesis (yes, I have read the book):

  • How do we actually measure well being?; for that is what we must do to make moral judgments.  The metric for well being of a person, or an animal, must differ from that of groups or societies, yet they’re to be put on a single scale. In some cases, of course, it’s easy; in others, seemingly impossible.
  • Given that, how do we trade off different types of well-being? How do you determine, for example, whether torture is moral? In some case, as Harris pointed out in The End of Faith, torture may save innumerable lives, but there’s a societal effect in sanctioning it.  How do you weigh these?  How do you determine whether the well-being of animals outweighs the well-being we experience when eating meat?
  • There are behaviors that we see as moral, or at least not immoral, that Harris’s metric nevertheless deems immoral.  We favor our children and family, for example, over other people.  According to Harris, we shouldn’t do this unless it increases universal well-being.  Don’t give money to your kids—give nearly all of it to poor Africans who need clean water and medicine.  Yet people do not condemn others for giving their kids a marginal benefit in lieu of tremendous benefits to strangers.
  • Humans draw strong moral distinctions between different situations that have seemingly identical consequences (e.g., the trolley problem and the organ-donation problem).  But perhaps Harris would respond that our morality is simply misguided here.
  • According to Blackford, Harris fails to give a convincing reason why people should be moral.  Blackford notes:

If we are going to provide [a person] with reasons to act in a particular way, or to support a particular policy, or condemn a traditional custom – or whatever it might be – sooner or later we will need to appeal to the values, desires, and so on, that she actually has. There are no values that are, mysteriously, objectively binding on us all in the sense I have been discussing. Thus it is futile to argue from a presupposition that we are all rationally bound to act so as to maximize global well-being. It is simply not the case.

I generally agree with Russell’s take: Sam’s book is very good, and you should definitely read it, but it doesn’t solve all our moral problems.  In fairness, I think Harris realizes this, and even alludes to it several times in his text.  The virtue of The Moral Landscape is that it draws an implicit link between why we have a moral sense (it has evolved both genetically and culturally) and how that understanding should lead us to behave.  The book will make you think, and think hard.  And the writing is, as usual with Harris, terrific.  But Blackford succinctly summarizes the book’s weakness:

Harris is highly critical of the claim, associated with Hume, that we cannot derive an “ought” solely from an “is” – without starting with people’s actual values and desires. He is, however,  no more successful in deriving “ought” from “is” than anyone else has ever been. The whole intellectual system of The Moral Landscape depends on an “ought” being built into its foundations.

__________

Curiously, I found Steve Pinker anticipating Harris’s main point nine years before The Moral Landscape.  On pp. 274-275 of The Blank Slate (2002), Pinker criticizes Leon Kass’s contention that the cloning of human beings is morally wrong simply because it induces immediate and visceral repugnance:

The difference between a defensible moral position and an atavistic gut feeling is that with the former we can give reasons why our conviction is valid.  We can explain why torture and murder and rape are wrong, or why we should oppose discrimination and injustice.  On the other hand, no good reasons can be produced to show why homosexuality should be suppressed or why the races should be segregated.  And the good reasons for a moral position are not pulled out of thin air: they always have to do with what makes people better off or worse off, and are grounded in the logic that we have to treat other people in the way that we demand they treat us.

111 Comments

  1. NewEnglandBob
    Posted January 17, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    This is so difficult to address, so I will put only a couple of thoughts here.

    Blackford seems to miss, or at least not address, the ‘landscape’ part of the book. Harris says that there can be many possible solutions for a higher ‘well being’; that there is not necessarily just one peak.

    Harris also seems to know that there is a problem with defining and measuring ‘well being’ and that is why he calls for a ‘science of morality’ to address the issue. Harris does not claim to know all the answers, and want scientists to investigate.

    …Thus it is futile to argue from a presupposition that we are all rationally bound to act so as to maximize global well-being.

    I don’t think this is what Harris intended. The ‘science of morality’ would try to figure some of this out, but there are cases that we know need correction now.

    I may have too much of a cheerleader reading interpretation to the book, but I would like to see his suggestions given a chance.

    • Frank
      Posted January 17, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      I agree, and really enjoyed The Moral Landscape. It is easy to be harsh with respect to Harris’s main thesis, but we should remember it is written against a backdrop in which MANY bright intellectuals claim that science can say NOTHING about morality and desirable human behavior. Just how precise does a solution to a moral dilemma have to be for us to call it ‘scientific?’ An imprecise answer doesn’t mean that it is simply pulled out of thin air. Some answers to scientific questions are imprecise or at least probabilistic, instead of definitive (how OFTEN is plant speciation sympatric?). I do think that Harris is a bit overcritical of Hume, but his book is a good push back against the idea that scientific reasoning has no place in moral issues.

  2. Mirik
    Posted January 17, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    In physical lectures Harris has spoken about the family and scale issue, and says that it may well turn out to be the case that people are doing more good focusing on smaller groups of people (family, friends) then on the whole of humanity as a whole.

    Again it reverts down to the whole premise of the book which seems unaddressed, that there is probably many ways to do something right and that even thouhg hit’s complicated, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist or can’t be done.

    Same with the trolley problem, morality is what is obviously deciding what is the best outcome in both cases, not in letting the worst happen because it makes you feel bad. So I don’t see how that is a point of criticism, he also talks about this in lectures.

    About how one ‘should’ be moral, because it’s the best for you and everyone. I don’t understand how that’s not motivation enough though? The BEST world (on a landscape of moral highpoints) is possible when people work to achieve that, that’s not motivation enough?

    That’s the same issue as medical health. Why should be we ‘healthy’? And why do we measure healthy as good and unhealthy or dead as a bad situation? Well…what’s the alternative in the wellbeing of conscious creatures?

    Some of these criticisms seem really shallow and pedantic to me. I understand that in a technical sense one axiom will have to exist that can not be derived, but the same goes for concept of health, science, etc.

    The axiom is ‘well-being is preferable to non well-being’. Since we take that as true as opposed to saying that ‘god’s will’ is the axiom for well-being…

    Pff anyways, I might be over my head, but that’s what I got from his excellent new work.

    His next work will be about motivation and an ‘atheist spirituality’.

    • Tulse
      Posted January 17, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      About how one ‘should’ be moral, because it’s the best for you and everyone.

      The problem, of course, is that the two italicized terms are often in conflict. Psychopaths acts quite well according to what is “best” for them. Harris doesn’t really explain why we shouldn’t all act in our own “best” interests (however defined), in other words, why we shouldn’t all just be psychopaths.

      • Posted January 17, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        Psychopaths who aren’t capable of rational intercourse with people who have different moral interests can’t have any theory that extends to them explaining how they can rationally interact with people who have different moral interests.

        The rest of us, it may well be that human flourishing involves a certain self-cultivation of interests and leaving their realization open to negotiation, so as to get along well with our friends and neighbors.

        • Tulse
          Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:08 am | Permalink

          it may well be that human flourishing involves a certain self-cultivation of interests and leaving their realization open to negotiation

          But why should I care about human flourishing, rather than Tulse flourishing? Sure, it may be that for pure, hard-nosed self-interested reasons I should get along with people, that such would maximize my personal utility. But surely that isn’t always the case, nor is it the case that if everyone worked solely to maximize their own utility, the world would turn out as Harris desires.

  3. Posted January 17, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I concur. Any rubric for establishing the phenomenology of “well-being” is a bit self-contradictory and often situationally dependent. The book convinced me, however, of the significance that science should retain in regards to informing moral decisions. My desire is to see politics and other forms of social discourse subjected to the principles of scientocracy more often.

    • Posted January 17, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      Any rubric for establishing the phenomenology of “well-being” is a bit self-contradictory and often situationally dependent.

      That’s funny- if something really is situationally dependent, then the issue of which situations admit of which moral prescriptions.

      And when you determine those, it’s because there were things particular to situation X, if the situation were different the prescription might be different. And so there is a lawful relationship between the moral prescription and the situation at hand.

      And you are back to objectivity.

      • Posted January 17, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

        That’s only if we conflate moral prescriptions with a universally agreed upon concept of well-being in lieu of fluctuating circumstances and perceptions that are prone to change over time. However, I do agree with Harris that we can start by establishing what isn’t considered well-being. Agreeing on a steadfast “deontology” of well-being would certainly give us a way of establishing objective moral prescriptions … at least until someone changes their mind.

        • Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

          That’s only if you conflate consensus with morally objective and erroneously assert that things with variation can’t be explained by underlying similarities.

          People may be socialized into perspectives on what does and doesn’t count as value which have nothing to do with value just as they can be socialized into interpretations of history that have nothing to do with history. Yet this isn’t proof that there is no fact of the matter with regard to historical events.

          Because perspectives change doesn’t mean morality itself changes unless you’ve already defined morality as perspective-based in the first place, and if you have done that you are just begging the question.

          So it works both ways. You can say Harris has conflated X with morality, but it may be that what you are calling morality has nothing to do with morality. Ultimately the words don’t matter and what matters is whether we can give a definition that meaningfully captures actual behavior in the real world.

          Does aversion to famine vary with culture? No? What about a lust for some minimal level of environmental stimulus to keep mental health? You can point to exceptions but they will likely be exceptions that miss the point of the rule and can likely be accounted for by underlying differences in the objective condition of a person. And if people are different, the fact that their differences lead to different desires is itself a fact that can be captured in an underlying framework that gives lawful rules for the formation and change of human desires.

  4. Insightful Ape
    Posted January 17, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Harris does admit that answers to many of these questions. His argument is more of an abstract kind: that these questions “in principle” have answers. The fact that we don’t have all the answers doesn’t mean the questions are not answerable.

  5. Matt
    Posted January 17, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    “According to Blackford, Harris fails to give a convincing reason why people should be moral.”

    Yes, he absolutely does, and this is exactly what the “is/ought gap” is. Science can tell us why we want to help people, and it can tell us what the best way to help people is, but it cannot tell us that we ought to help people. Science deals with “is” not with “ought”. There is no experiment that could be performed to determine what we ought to do. It may seem obvious that we ought to aim for the greatest happiness, but there are many other plausible philosophical theories. The idea that we should aim for the greatest happiness is part of Utilitarianism, and, just as with any philosophical theory, there are many problems with it. Harris seems to accept utilitarianism, but without mentioning any of the problems with it (or even explaining why he does accept it). He skims right over the is/ought gap.

    • Tulse
      Posted January 17, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      There is no experiment that could be performed to determine what we ought to do. It may seem obvious that we ought to aim for the greatest happiness, but there are many other plausible philosophical theories.

      Exactly. And this is where I think Harris undermines himself with over-reaching. I completely agree with him that science can tell us an enormous amount about human well-being, and that this information can inform whatever ethical framework you’ve chosen. But the data can’t tell you what ethical framework to choose. If I determine that the “best” ethical position is “never treat someone as a means, but only as an end in themselves” (the standard Kantian challenge to utilitarianism), there is no scientific study in the world that will tell me that position is objectively “wrong”.

      • Posted January 17, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

        Harris’ response is that this is a psuedo problem, which I think is right. And objectivity understood in different contexts (with respect to physics, chemistry), we never think that such challenges threaten the character of objectivity that belongs to them. “yes, an infinite amount of points equidistant from a given center point. But is that a circle?”

        Yes, it is senseless to think you can build a bridge into morality from outside of it.

        Harris’ point (or part of it at least) is that we happen to already be standing inside morality because we are always already born into an objective human condition that comes with moral implications.

        • Matt
          Posted January 17, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

          what harris is asking here is for us to just accept Utilitarianism the same way we accept the axioms of geometry.

          Or maybe he claims that we do, in fact, accept utilitarianism, and we therefore needn’t worry about the is/ought gap. We don’t really accept Utilitarianism, however. Most people don’t think that it is ok to push an old man in front of a train to save a young man, but utilitarianism almost requires it of us.

          • Posted January 17, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

            Harris is not exactly a utilitarian.

            He is asking us to accept that we behave morally. He is, I think, asking us to accept that we behave morally as a Moorean fact (I would link to the wiki article for “here is a hand” but then I will get caught in the spam filter).

            That is, we are better acquainted with the fact of human value than the premises of skeptical arguments that would ask we doubt our value.

            • Matt
              Posted January 17, 2011 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

              I don’t really understand what the kind of morality you’re implying is. Is it that we should just accept our innate ideas of morality without questioning them?

              Regardless, my point is that if Harris asks us to accept a morality simply because it seems obvious (and not because he has arrived at it from “is” premises), he has not really found a way to bridge the is/ought gap.

            • Tulse
              Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:11 am | Permalink

              Of course we behave morally. Every moral philosopher has believed that. But that doesn’t tell you whether utilitarianism or deontology or some other ethical system is the right one.

              • strangebeasty
                Posted January 18, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

                Who is “we”? I have serious reservations about whether I behave morally.

            • Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

              @ Tusle:

              If we are willing to accept this much, it tells us that any moral philosophy asking us to believe we don’t behave morally is wrong (and there are such philosophies!).

              That in itself gives us a direction to go in. And again, posing the question of “should” from outside of any particular moral framework is an unanswerable question. But that’s because the question is senseless, it’s not a shortcoming in this or that theory.

              • Tulse
                Posted January 18, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

                posing the question of “should” from outside of any particular moral framework is an unanswerable question. But that’s because the question is senseless

                So much the worse for Harris’ project, then, which (at least as I understood it) was to use science precisely as the outside arbiter, as the objective determiner of what moral framework to use.

              • Posted January 18, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

                @Tulse:

                No, so much the worse for morality as traditionally understood.

                We are in principle to use science as the arbiter. We just can’t use the open question argument as if it were a valid test for moral theories, because it’s not.

  6. Tulse
    Posted January 17, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    His argument is more of an abstract kind: that these questions “in principle” have answers.

    The problem isn’t that there aren’t answers — moral philosophy has given us lots of answers to these questions. The problem is that there are no objective foundations upon which to rest evidence as to which answer is “right”.

  7. jose
    Posted January 17, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I’m sure in no time some guy will write a book telling us what pictures, paintings and people look good according to science.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted January 17, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      That has been done, long ago. Symmetry.

      • jose
        Posted January 17, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

        Ugh. Thank you for showing me that the world is a lot worse than I had imagined.

        • Tulse
          Posted January 17, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

          But those studies are only descriptive, in that they simply examine what people report they find aesthetically pleasing. To take Harris’ route, one would then have to make the research conclusions a prescriptive, make the leap that symmetry is what art should be about, and that no good art could be asymmetrical.

          When one applies Harris’ approach to art, I think it makes it clear just how problematic (if not silly) it is.

          • Posted January 17, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

            Or how lacking our imaginations are when it comes to the kinds of things science can investigate.

            To take Harris’ route, one would then have to make the research conclusions a prescriptive, make the leap that symmetry is what art should be about, and that no good art could be asymmetrical.

            A better way of putting it would be we can use research to make predictions about the kinds of things people would respond to with a sense of enjoyment or validation.

            And surely there can be facts of the matter as to what things can be done to better bring about the effect.

            • Tim Harris
              Posted January 18, 2011 at 3:57 am | Permalink

              But are artists principally concerned with bringing about effects?

            • Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

              @ Tim Harris

              Where did principally concerned come from?

              If you are admitting that they are concerned with this, you are already conceding that such a theory would have relevant explanatory power.

              And what in your opinion, are artists concerned with other than the effect on those experiencing their art?

              • Tim Harris
                Posted January 21, 2011 at 1:22 am | Permalink

                All I can suggest is that you acquaint yourself with some good art, music and literature and perhaps read some good critics: William Empson, say.

    • sasqwatch
      Posted January 17, 2011 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      It has been done by Komar and Melamid recently for music and paintings, although the level of science involved is merely polling. Here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Komar_and_Melamid

      and People’s choice of paintings
      awp.diaart.org/km/

      People’s most and least desired music: awp.diaart.org/km/musiccd.html

  8. Thanny
    Posted January 17, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    I find it amazing how many people think the notion of an is/ought gap is coherent.

    The very concept of “ought” is one that exists solely in brains, and brains are physical objects. A brain “is”, and produces “ought”.

    You might argue that the path from one to the other is too complex to ever figure out, but you’d be arguing against centuries of scientific progress, and in any case would not be offering any support to the idea that you can’t get from “is” to “ought” in principle.

    Harris is really advocating nothing more than that we should talk about morality rationally, garnering facts whenever and wherever possible, without letting any yahoo with a funny hat from laying claim to some special vantage point that he or she manifestly does not possess.

    • Matt
      Posted January 17, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      again, the problem is not that science cannot explain why we believe in certain “oughts” (it certainly can explain that, or at least will be able to in the future), but that science cannot tells us what “oughts” we ought to believe in. Science cannot tell us that we ought to save a person’s life or that we ought to give money to the homeless. Science tells us why we feel that those are good things to do, but not if they are really what we should do.

      • Thanny
        Posted January 17, 2011 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

        Nothing does, in the purely abstract (and completely divorced from reality) sense you mean.

        In the concrete world that we all inhabit, morality is a physical phenomenon that can be studied.

        And just as you can apply physics to design a better bridge, or show that an existing design is definitely poor, a study of morality can certainly lead to better standards of behavior, either by prescription or proscription.

        In other words, there’s no place “ought” can possibly come from other than “is”. To say otherwise is to completely misunderstand the fundamental nature of our existence.

        • Joey Frantz
          Posted January 18, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

          Science can help us do what we want to do once we’ve already decided what to do. But Harris has already taken it for granted–without anything approaching a rational argument–that what we want to do is maximize the utility of conscious creatures en masse.

          It’s true that, if “ought” does not come from “is,” it sure as hell isn’t going to come from anything else. But a more rational position than the one taken by Harris, or other moral realists, is this: there are no oughts to derive at all, whether from is or elsewhere.

  9. Tulse
    Posted January 17, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    The very concept of “ought” is one that exists solely in brains, and brains are physical objects. A brain “is”, and produces “ought”.

    The concept of unicorns also exists solely in brains, but that doesn’t mean unicorns are real. You (and Harris) are simply equivocating.

    • Posted January 17, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      It means the concept of unicorn is meaningful. And its a concept ready and waiting to be instantiated but happens never to be instantiated.

      As for ought, well, ought is different from unicorns in that it is instantiated in people and particle experiences, etc.

  10. DamnYankees
    Posted January 17, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    “Harris fails to give a convincing reason why people should be moral.”

    This doesn’t make sense to me. It’s a tautology. We should be moral because being moral is what “should” means. What else could it mean?

    If you want to drive your broken car, you should fix it.
    If you are hungry, you should eat.
    If you want to live in society, you should be moral.

    There’s nothing deeper than that. “Should” in the broad context of human interaction simply means “be moral”.

    I seriously don’t understand what other possible definition makes sense. It seems that Jerry and Russell are simply getting caught up in a linguistic trap.

    • Matt
      Posted January 17, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      The problem here is the terms “should” and “moral”. They are too closely related to be used in the way Jerry and Russell use them here.

      Instead we should use the words “right” and “good”. Harris fails to give a reason for his assumption that right = good, with good meaning beneficial and right meaning what we ought to do (see comment 5 and reply above). Science can tells us what is beneficial, but not whether or not we ought to do what is beneficial.

      • Posted January 17, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

        I don’t really understand any of this.

        What are Russel and Jerry trying to do according to you and why is it that should/moral don’t capture it but right/good do?

        For that matter I don’t know which parts of Harris’ arguments you think you are referring to when you say “Harris fails to give a reason for his assumption that right = good”? Nor do I see that beneficial is an obvious definition for “good” or that ought is an obvious definition for “right” or that there really is a difference between any of these terms or that, if there is a difference, that it sufficiently interacts with DamnYankees point in a way that shows he’s wrong about anything.

        I grant that your last sentence summarizes your point but I don’t see how you got there.

        • Matt
          Posted January 17, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

          I apologize if I was unclear. I was simply trying to point out that using the words “should” and “moral” creates confusion. It seems obvious to us that we should be moral because we typically define a moral action as an action that we should take.

          I thought that using the words “right” and “good” instead would clarify things if we defined an action that is right as one that we should take, and an action that is good as one that is beneficial. I think that putting it like that helps us separate right actions from beneficial actions and see that, while science can tell us what is beneficial, it cannot tell us what is right.

  11. Karmakin
    Posted January 17, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, but the way I look at such ideas is that at the very least it gives us a framework in order to start to analyze moral situations in order to find out what the best action would be.

    In short, it starts a real moral conversation..something that our societies reliance on authoritarian type morality makes very difficult.

  12. Posted January 17, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    I did a (v short) review for the next issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine. I forget what I said now…

    • Posted January 17, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      IIRC you had an objection relating to Harris giving a stipulative definition. At least you did on your blog.

      And you said “caring is not automatic” by which you meant, I think, that people only start behaving morally once they are brought up in a culture that socializes them into their moral values.

      My position still is that this is an invalid test and has nothing to do with whether morality really exists. But I may be mischaracterizing you.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted January 17, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

        Note: comment #13 was labelled as coming from “Jean Kazez,” but I am informed by her that it was not her post. Because the comment was made under a false name, I’ve removed it at her request.

        • Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

          Did you mean to post this as a reply to my comment?

      • Posted January 18, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

        I hadn’t read the book when I posted that at B&W – then I was commenting on articles Sam did based on the book.

        I thought it would probably be a good idea to read the book before reviewing it!

        Moral, in fact.

        I’ve re-read the review now, so I remember what I said. :- )

  13. Sam
    Posted January 17, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Sam Harris has addressed some of these issues, usually by pointing out the double-standard implied. To ‘why should we care about well-being?’ Harris points out that science hasn’t also hasn’t answered why we should care about reason and evidence, medicine hasn’t answered why we should care about physical health, etc. etc. We’re quite happy to assume that we do care about these things, and then science, medicine and so forth can be carried out.

    And in answer to the claim that we always fail to overcome Hume’s is/ought fallacy, Harris points out that we’re happy to ignore Hume’s inductive fallacy when doing science. I.e., Just because we’ve never found exceptions to the current laws of nature, doesn’t mean we never will, yet the assumption that we never will is what is required for a phenomenon to be a ‘law’ in the first place. We have to ignore the inductive fallacy in order for science to be possible. Similarly, we happily get ought from is all the time in everyday life, i.e. ‘I have a toothache, I ought to see a dentist… I’m vomiting blood, I ought to see a doctor… My partner is upset, I ought to comfort her/him’. Where would the ‘ought’ come from if not from an ‘is’? If ‘oughts’ came from anywhere else then they would not come from any state of the way reality is, and therefore they would be entirely arbitrary and meaningless. As a matter of practical necessity we should ignore the is/ought fallacy like we do the inductive fallacy.

    Surely Blackford has heard/read Harris say these sorts of things. I think people are just so blinkered by their double-standards that they can’t get past them.

    • Posted January 17, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

      I think this is mostly good, but I would change one part. You say:

      To ‘why should we care about well-being?’ Harris points out that science hasn’t also hasn’t answered why we should care about reason and evidence,

      Not quite. It’s that there is no way from within reason to evaluate the reasonableness of reason. There is no way to stand outside logic and evaluate how logical it is. Our standards of proof are built into the concept. Yet no one has any problem with any of this.

      Similarly it makes no sense to ask why you “ought” to be moral. Ought only makes sense from within a moral context. The flaw isn’t in the theory, but the mistaken expectation that anyone could ever answer why we “ought” to be moral, as if that were a valid test.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted January 18, 2011 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

        josef johann:

        Doesn’ this constitute a restatement (or perhaps extension) of Gödel’s incompletness theorem(s)?

    • Matt
      Posted January 17, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

      “Harris points out that science hasn’t also hasn’t answered why we should care about reason and evidence, medicine hasn’t answered why we should care about physical health, etc. etc. We’re quite happy to assume that we do care about these things, and then science, medicine and so forth can be carried out.”

      Yes! Exactly! Science doesn’t answer “ought” questions. We go around caring about health because it is evolutionarily built into us to care about our health. We don’t avoid hurting ourselves b/c we think that that is something we ought to to; we avoid it b/c it is something that we don’t want.

      “Similarly, we happily get ought from is all the time in everyday life, i.e. ‘I have a toothache, I ought to see a dentist… I’m vomiting blood, I ought to see a doctor… My partner is upset, I ought to comfort her/him’. Where would the ‘ought’ come from if not from an ‘is’?”

      In all of these, there is an implied premise that contains an “ought”. Take “My partner is upset, I ought to comfort her/him”. The implied premise here is “we ought to comfort people we love when they are upset”. Without accepting that ought premise, we cannot get to the conclusion that I ought to comfort my partner.

      We accept these implied oughts every day without examining them, and that is what makes it so easy for Harris to say that there is no is/ought gap. Our ought conclusions always come from ought premises, but we don’t always think about it.

      • Nick B.
        Posted January 17, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

        Science doesn’t answer “ought” questions? What is medicine?

        • Matt
          Posted January 17, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

          What are you trying to say?

          Medicine tells us how to make people healthy, but it does not tell us that we ought to make people healthy.

          • Tim Harris
            Posted January 17, 2011 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

            What about ‘my partner is upset, I WANT to comfort her’; you may extrapolate from there that whenever possible we should comfort those who are upset, if you want to (and I should be happy to do so), but I don’t see what part ‘ought’ plays in a situation when my partner is upset, or a child is hurt… There aren’t moral rules in such a situation.

            • Sam
              Posted January 18, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

              Ought does come in. It’s ‘provided I care about a loved one’s well-being, I ought to comfort them when they are upset’. Provided we care about health we ought to go to the doctor when vomiting blood, and provided we care about well-being we ought to do that which increases well-being. It’s all ‘provided we care’, but if ‘ought’ is to come from anywhere, then it must come from the way reality ‘is’.

              • Posted January 18, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

                That’s not an ought. It’s a “how to” manual, not an ought. “If you want to be healthy, the thing to do is go to the doctor.” That’s not an ought. It’s not moral, it’s cause and effect.

  14. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted January 17, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    ,blockquote>As you know, Harris’s thesis is that science gives us a way to determine if actions are moral: they’re moral if they increase the well-being of society as a whole.

    I’m not sure that ‘the well-being of society’ actually means anything other than a handy abstract conversational label. In the end I think you have to bring the debate (down) to a level where you can reasonably investigate the mechanism of how this works (like genes and evolution). However I suspect you will then end up with moral behaviour arising from people’s emotional value judgements.

  15. Hitch
    Posted January 17, 2011 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    I think the book is valuable, perhaps more than valuable. But personally I was disappointed. There was much more substance to be had – I was anticipating more in the direction of neuro-ethics and I was hoping for more solid discussion of consequentialism. And yes I was hoping for ideas that would surprise me.

    Ultimately this is a popular book that is accessible and does not actually touch on some of the harder points and by doing that it ends up taking some shakey positions, in fact failing to really do the proper job it needs to do.

    Harris ultimately turns out to be a standard negative utilitarian with a metaphysical argument for being a kind of (metaethically speaking) what is called moral realist.

    This may make his ideas more accessible and avoid some of the more tricky arguments of actually dealing with subjectivity, but it ultimately makes too much of the book not novel or surprising.

  16. hexag1
    Posted January 17, 2011 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    Jerry,

    [quote] “There are behaviors that we see as moral, or at least not immoral, that Harris’s metric nevertheless deems immoral. We favor our children and family, for example, over other people. According to Harris, we shouldn’t do this unless it increases universal well-being. Don’t give money to your kids—give nearly all of it to poor Africans who need clean water and medicine. Yet people do not condemn others for giving their kids a marginal benefit in lieu of tremendous benefits to strangers.” [/quote]

    Where does Harris say this? He talks about the difficulty of the problem, but never states what he thinks is best. And I don’t think that his conception of ethics requires that when it comes to donating to Africa “we shouldn’t do this unless it increases universal well-being.” All Harris is saying is that we might arrive at that position if we 1. admit that there are right and wrong answers to this question in principle and 2. do the hard thinking to find the best policy. Perhaps Harris has told you this in person, but I don’t think that is Harris’ position as stated in the book. Sounds like you are confusing Harris for Peter Singer.

    • jay
      Posted January 20, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      In ‘not giving money to our kids’ additionally we are essentially going against evolution (the crucible from which we arose). Support of our own kin (even if we choose not to do egregious things like killing other people’s kin) is part of what made us what we are. So I question whether ‘global’ benefit is indeed the right metric.

      Nor is it clear that there is a metric for ‘global benefit’ or for that matter even ‘greater good’. Is long life and health your metric? Then that might justify extreme benign authoritarianism where dangerous activities and poor food choices are eliminated, where everyone is forced to see the doctor … and freedom is near zero.

      There are multiple different value scales. Some might prefer the regime above, others would chafe. Then we’d have to take a survey about how much harm to happiness was done by loss of freedom (differing drastically from person to person) and weighing that (who decides the weights) against the loss of gain of lifespan.

  17. mrlokinight
    Posted January 17, 2011 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Can anyone recommend book (or web) sources that discuss how to define/measure individual & collective well being ?

    Thank you

    Michael

  18. Posted January 17, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    As has been said before, Harris tries to escape the “is/ought” dilemma by stating that science can determine somehow what “is” the most expeditious manner to achieve well-being. The problem is that everyone has a different opinion about well-being, and Harris stating that we already know what “should” be considered “well-being” is plain wrong. While most of us may view women’s right, GDP, literacy rates and infant mortality as reasonable metrics, this is not universal, and thus we enter Hume’s conundrum of “is/ought”. Most of the world views these arbitrary metrics as far secondary to “pleasing god.”

    I couldn’t finish the book. Some two-thirds of the human population believes in an after-life, therefore their view of “well-being” is contingent on the eternity that awaits them after their brief time on earth. Chaining their daughter to the heating pipe is considered moral because it increases her chances of attaining paradise in a few short years. I find it hard to believe that a scientific moral system will find purchase in such an environment.

    • Bryan
      Posted January 17, 2011 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

      I agree. When I think about “measuring well-being”, I always picture contrasting scenarios:

      1) A liberal father pays his daughter’s university tuition. The daughter appreciates it and feels loved.
      2) An extremely religious and conservative father forbids his daughter to leave the house. The daughter appreciates it and feels loved.

      How do we measure well being? If you carried out a brain scan or psychological evaluation, wouldn’t both daughters feel equally happy, loved, and “well”? Which father is acting morally? Both of them?

      • Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink

        No! Not necessarily. Subjective first person reports are not sacrosanct. This is exactly the kind of thing where more information could tease-out non-obvious differences. Often we take the assertions of people about their own well-being as true because there are great social pressures against doing otherwise.

        Our growth as moral creatures will likely entail better sensitivity to these differences.

        • Posted January 19, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink

          That may be so, but Harris specifically says that that is not the focus of this book. The foundational argument is that Harris has pre-determined what “well-being” is, or as he says, what it ‘should’ be. This is an ‘ought’ statement of sorts. Harris is only invoking science to fulfill his predetermined set of metrics for his pre-determined definition of ‘well-being.’

          • Posted January 19, 2011 at 11:42 am | Permalink

            That may be so, but Harris specifically says that that is not the focus of this book

            That would be irrelevant even if it were true, which it isn’t. I read the book, too. He doesn’t specifically say that science can’t tell us more about our moral lives. And his point would still be correct regardless of whether it were the “foundational argument” or just a branch of that argument.

            His “foundational argument” isn’t that Hume is wrong, it’s that science can answer moral questions. One consequence of this is that Hume’s is/ought distinction is wrong (and Hume never said is and ought were different, only that when he read works by moral philosophers they often moved from is to ought without explaining how they had done so.)

            Speaking of things not found in the book, suggesting Harris is only invoking science because it happens to be a way around Hume’s is/ought and that he wouldn’t otherwise be talking about science isn’t really substantiated by anything and seems to me to get it backwards.

    • Posted January 18, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

      “The problem is that everyone has a different opinion about well-being, and Harris stating that we already know what “should” be considered “well-being” is plain wrong.”

      The next time you’re standing in the sandbox and your three-year-old is pounding on another three-year-old, I want to be there to see you make that argument with a straight face to the other parent. I’ll give you a band-aid, too, for after she socks you in the face and stomps away, carrying her weeping child back to the car–and comfort you with the idea that in *her* morality, it’s O.K. to sock other people in the face. ;-))

      Ugly facts slay beautiful theories…

      • JS1685
        Posted January 18, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

        This made me chuckle.

  19. hexag1
    Posted January 17, 2011 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    I think that Sam has a decent response to Blackford in the book. Blackford writes : ” The whole intellectual system of The Moral Landscape depends on an “ought” being built into its foundations.”

    But that criticism could be made of any rational discourse. Where does the requirement logical consistency get established in mathematics. How do you prove that its necessary to do math? You can’t. You have to just assume it. It is a non-problem.

    • Shatterface
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 8:58 am | Permalink

      Its not a non-problem if your book claims to answer the question, in specific terms it claims the question is answerable.

      We don’t require mathematical proof of mathematical axioms – unless a writer claims they can prove those axioms.

      1 1 is 2. Mathematicians don’t claim 1 1 *ought* to be 2. ‘Ought’ is mathamatically meaningless.

      Its also scientifically meaningless so even if 100% of people agreed that murder is wrong and there was actual evidence that our brains are hardwired to believe murder is wrong this would not mean murder *ought* to be wrong.

      If Harris is claiming he has scientific proof of moral axioms then he can’t wave his hands and say that proof doesn’t really matter.

      • Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:37 am | Permalink

        Its not a non-problem if your book claims to answer the question, in specific terms it claims the question is answerable.

        In fact he explicitly says the opposite:

        Let me simply concede that if you don’t see a distinction between these two lives that is worth valuing (premise 1 above), there may be nothing I can say that will attract you to my view of the moral landscape

  20. JS1685
    Posted January 17, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    Whether or not scientific investigation will ever elucidate how we derive an “ought” from an “is” (and you must admit, there must be at least a few “oughts” – don’t we spend an awful lot of time bemoaning the regular violation of certain “oughts” by the religious right?), don’t we have to concede that inasmuch as “oughts” exist, they must have derived from an “is”. All there is is “is”. As Sean Carroll writes (defining physicalism): “All that really exists are physical things.”

    • JS1685
      Posted January 17, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

      Didn’t see Sam’s comment above until after posting.

    • Dominic
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 2:29 am | Permalink

      What is the source of the Sean Carroll quote please JS1685?

    • Tulse
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      As Sean Carroll writes (defining physicalism): “All that really exists are physical things.”

      Do Carroll’s words have meaning? If so, is that meaning a physical thing?

      I for one am not ready to throw out abstractions such as mathematics and semantics.

      • Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

        You don’t have to throw them out. You just have to accept that they don’t exist in the same sense that physical things exist.

        • Tulse
          Posted January 18, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

          You don’t have to throw them out. You just have to accept that they don’t exist in the same sense that physical things exist.

          Of course they don’t exist in the same sense as physical things. But that’s not the claim made by Carroll — a plain reading of the quote is that only physical things exist, period.

          • Posted January 18, 2011 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

            That’s not a plain reading at all. That’s interpreting it so as to extract as extreme a claim as possible from Carroll. Given that he doesn’t explicitly say it anywhere and that he actually invokes conceptual non-physical stuff:

            The world consists of things, which obey rules

            At a basic level, all any object ever does is obey rules — the laws of physics. These rules take a definite form: given the state of the object and its environment now, we can predict its state in the future. (Quantum mechanics introduces a stochastic component to the prediction, but the underlying idea remains the same.) The “reason” something happens is because it was the inevitable outcome of the state of the universe at an earlier time.

            it’s highly unlikely that he things the existence of physical objects entails the non-existence of meaning or rules or mathematical units in any consequential way especially given that he seems to believe in such things as “physical laws.”

            If he thinks things like “rules” don’t exist I would expect him to actually say so. But he didn’t.

            • Tulse
              Posted January 19, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink

              That’s not a plain reading at all. That’s interpreting it so as to extract as extreme a claim as possible from Carroll.

              “All that really exists are physical things.” I don’t see how you can argue that a plain reading of that quote isn’t a claim that, well, all that really exists are physical things.

              Of course Carroll may temper that and offer further explication elsewhere, but the quote is crystal clear in its claim, unless some deep unpacking is done on the “really” qualifier.

              • Posted January 19, 2011 at 11:44 am | Permalink

                How could he believe in physical laws, which have to be described mathematically, but not believe in math?

              • Tulse
                Posted January 19, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

                How can he believe in math, but not believe that abstract entities are real in some important sense?

              • Posted January 19, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

                @Tulse: Perhaps you should ask him instead of erroneously claiming he doesn’t think math is real.

                You said I for one am not ready to throw out abstractions such as mathematics and semantics.

                But Carrol explicitly invokes physical laws, which is evidence enough that he is not “throwing them out.”

                Maybe you don’t think abstract concepts can be reconciled with physicalist ontology.

                You can have that discussion if you want, but you can’t claim that it’s Carrol’s position and shouldn’t use “what Carrol really meant” as a proxy for venting your own personal objections to physicalism.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted January 18, 2011 at 11:02 am | Permalink

        Exactly, and that is what Carroll says up front: “Physicalism holds that all that really exists are physical things.” What those physical things do then they interact and perhaps create codings like “meaning” and “semantics” is emergent on that substrate, but irrelevant to it. It is like asking if “ice” or “hardness” is a physical thing.

        As for mathematics, Carroll has that covered as well:

        “Not that there’s anything wrong with tautologies; they include, for example, all of mathematics. But they describe necessary truths; given the axioms, the conclusions follow, and we can’t imagine it being any other way. The more interesting truths, it seems to me, are the contingent ones, the features of our world that didn’t have to be that way.” I.e. mathematics results are logical facts on some number axioms (say).

        • Tulse
          Posted January 18, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

          What those physical things do then they interact and perhaps create codings like “meaning” and “semantics” is emergent on that substrate, but irrelevant to it.

          Emergent codings don’t exist? Because a plain reading of the statement “all that really exists are physical things” sure seems to make that claim — unless there is something hidden in the “really” qualification.

          • JS1685
            Posted January 18, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

            I don’t mean to speak for Mr. Larsson, but I think the point we’re both trying to make is that everything, including abstractions like semantics or mathematics, can be reduced to physical things and the interactions between those things.

            • Tulse
              Posted January 19, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

              everything, including abstractions like semantics or mathematics, can be reduced to physical things and the interactions between those things

              How are abstractions reducible to physical things? If I have two leptons, or two galaxies, or two copies of the US Declaration of Independence, or two prime numbers, or two varieties of sorrow, the only quality uniting these things is the abstract notion of “two”. There is no physical commonality that all those things can be reduced to — the only thing they have in common is the abstraction.

              • JS1685
                Posted January 19, 2011 at 10:58 am | Permalink

                But (and I admit, I’m operating at the edge of my comprehension here, so I welcome and even expect correction), would “2” be a meaningful concept without physical referents? Even theoretical physical referents? Isn’t mathematics a description of physical phenomena?

              • Tulse
                Posted January 19, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

                Isn’t mathematics a description of physical phenomena?

                Not all math, certainly — for example, there is no physical representation of infinity.

  21. Posted January 18, 2011 at 5:05 am | Permalink

    Harris is highly critical of the claim, associated with Hume, that we cannot derive an “ought” solely from an “is” – without starting with people’s actual values and desires.

    But people’s actual values and desires are an “is”. It’s a fact of the universe that a given person has a given set of values and desires. We may even find out how these desires and values are produced by the brain. We also may want to find out which values are most common, or most important to people. All of these are questions that science can deal with.

    • Shatterface
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      The values of those who derive from religion are no less an ‘is’.

      • Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:18 am | Permalink

        Indeed they are (even though they may have false beliefs about where these values came from). What’s your point?

        • Shatterface
          Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink

          My point is that science might be useful in determining *what* we think is right or wrong, or even go some way to explain *why* we think that way but it takes us no further along determining what we *ought* to see as right or wrong any more than blind faith does.

          Even a unanimous declaration of *’is* supported with scientific proof that it could not we could not think otherwise does not bridge the gap to *ought*.

          • Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:58 am | Permalink

            I think it’s mostly meaningless to talk about “oughts” as if they can exist in isolation. The problem with “ought” is that any prescription usually contains an unstated desire: You ought to do Y, if you desire X (if you want to please God/be accepted in society/help your fellow humans etc).

            And science can help us make statements of this form: given that you want X, doing Y will likely give you the greatest chance of getting X.

            Morality then becomes a study of values and desires – what are they, where do they come from, how they change, how they interact, what effect they have on individuals and societies, etc. How else to study this if not with science?

        • Shatterface
          Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

          And is this even true?

          ”But people’s actual values and desires are an “is”. It’s a fact of the universe that a given person has a given set of values and desires.”

          I don’t have any *consistant* values or desires and unless I’m abnormal other people don’t either.

          My values and desires fluctuate wildly over time – and I’m talking minutes here, not years – and according to circumstances.

          • Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:33 am | Permalink

            The weather is different all the time but that doesn’t mean there are no underlying lawful rules that describe the atmosphere and the water cycle.

          • Posted January 18, 2011 at 11:06 am | Permalink

            I don’t have any *consistant* values or desires

            That your values and desires are inconsistent doesn’t mean you don’t have any, or that we couldn’t find out about them – inconsistencies and all.

            My values and desires fluctuate wildly over time – and I’m talking minutes here, not years – and according to circumstances.

            Then we’d better study how your values and desires change over time, and how they are affected by circumstances. Who know, science may even find that there is a random component to them (which shouldn’t be a problem, science survived the discovery of quantum mechanics just fine).

  22. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    I don’t think there is any reasonable mapping between moral behavior and ethical (or if you insist, moral) principles. As Zimmer says on the latest Edge question, life is a side effect (of imperfect reproduction), and morality is a side effect of life.

    torture may save innumerable lives, but there’s a societal effect in sanctioning it. How do you weigh these?

    FWIW I don’t see that as a problem either, apparently torture is generally ineffective (unreliable, generally the torturer provides the information that is to be “confessed”). And if that breaks down in certain cases, well, statistical measures allow for deviating outcomes as long as they don’t have statistical “mass”.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      Oops. “morality is a side effect of life” – moral behavior is a side effect of life.

  23. JustAGuy
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    One of the greatest things about science is that it is merely descriptive. This allows us to research and study things whatever the outcome (within reason) and not create any new moral principles. If we open the door for science to become prescriptive, then we open the door for all kinds of things. One of the arguments I hear against atheism is that it requires belief in evolution which requires belief that natural selection is what ought to be. But atheists can say that evolution just describes how things actually are and not how they should be. If we open this door though, this argument MAY hold more water.

  24. dephlogisticated
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    We are a group species, a herding species. Other animals of similar kind, include bacteria, cnidaria, insects, fish, birds, and mammals. Basic morality exists to keep the group, the herd, together and healthy. If the vitality of the group is strong, then the health (and survivability) of each individual of that group would increase.

    We’ve seen this from all sorts studies and observations on how these types of animals teach their offspring to get “inline” with the rest of the group. And the result of an offspring not conforming to their demands is, well, excommunication. Being kicked out of the group. And what would normally happen to the offspring if this occurs? A more likely, and earlier death.

    If we strip out all of the dogma mumbo-jumbo from the ten commandments, we see a basic morality that is good for the preservation of the group. Killing, stealing, lying, coveting are all traits that would disrupt the group, and could result in anarchy and the destruction of the group (tribe).

    As can be seen in the history and evolution of human society, there have been all sorts of differences in social morality, but the main triggers that bind a group together still remain. As that evolution has evolved, that morality becomes more diverse.

    We can see this morality mature within society itself. Take different groups of people with the same profession. Doctors, lawyers, and so on. Then, of course, there’s that religion stuff.

    But as we can see today, as societal morality expanses to encompass more individuals of that society, moral codes of different sub-groups within that society can come into conflict.

  25. The Picard
    Posted January 19, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    You may be right regarding the Hume quote about not deriving “ought” from “is”. But still, it doesn’t give us good reasons for not studying moral questions scientifically which is what the quote has come to mean in Harris’ estimation. That’s why he talks about it. Do you think Hume’s quote should get in our way of a robust and scientific inquiry into moral questions? From a practical point of view, it looks like you’re nitpicking.

    • Tulse
      Posted January 19, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      The contentious aspect of Harris’ claim isn’t that there are aspects of morality that can be scientifically studied, but that science can actually ground morality, that it can provide us with objective reasons to behave in a certain way.

  26. Posted January 19, 2011 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    From the original post: According to Blackford, Harris fails to give a convincing reason why people should be moral.

    I took Russell’s point to be a bit different. Russell does not suggest that we need a reason to be moral; rather, he suggests that we need a reason to accept Harris’ notion that the maximization of the well-being of all conscious creatures should be our primary objective in our moral thinking. If “x ought to y” simply means “if (x,y) then well-being will be maximized,” then Harris cannot say we ought to maximize well-being, for that would simply be to say that maximizing well-being leads to the maximization of well-being. So “ought” cannot simply mean that. But then what does it mean? Harris gives no answer. He supposes that it only has meaning if it leads us to maximize the well-being of conscious creatures, but he doesn’t give us a reason to believe him. If my moral instincts tell me that doing z is better than y, and Harris says y is better because it maximizes well-being, I can say, “maybe y maximizes well-being, but why should that be my highest priority?” I’m not thereby asking why should I be moral? I’m asking, why should that</i? be my yardstick for moral judgments?

    Harris doesn't seem to have a good answer. I haven't read the book, but from his public speaking, it seems he thinks it follows from the idea that the most terribly scenario we can imagine is one in which every conscious being suffers as much and for as long as possible. I don't think that's really the worst imaginable scenario; but even if it were, it wouldn't substantiate Harris' claim that what is moral is just whatever maximizes the well-being of conscious creatures.

  27. Posted January 19, 2011 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Sorry for the improper italics tags in my last post.

    Also, I’m concerned about how some people defend Harris. Some people defend Harris by saying he is right to challenge the commonly held assumption that science cannot inform our moral decision-making processes. But I don’t think that really is such a common position at all. Most people already knew that decisions about how to act should be based on some awareness of the way things are, and that includes a scientific understanding of the consequences of our actions; otherwise, our actions would not generally lead to the results we intended. If Harris’ only point were that we should be more open to recognizing the way our understanding of reality can shape our choices, then he would not be saying anything that was in any way controversial. Even most theists would agree with it.

    What Harris is saying is more controversial. He is saying that the entire is/ought distinction is a mistake, and that it has been upheld by dogmatic philosophers who haven’t bothered to look at it critically. That is wrong and in a very insulting way. It doesn’t help Harris’ case any that he has not taken one cogent step towards dismantling the is/ought distinction. So, when people criticize Harris’ attempt to overcome the is/ought distinction, please, don’t defend Harris by saying he just wants to show us that science can be a part of our moral decision-making processes. That’s not what he’s trying to do, and that’s really not something that needs to be done, anyway. What needs to be done, to improve the public discourse over science and morality, is to explain to theistic moralists that religion is in no position to ground moral judgments, that religious morality is not philosophically sound, and that atheism does not challenge the moral fabric of civilization. Those are arguments that the public needs to see, and they don’t require a scientific foundation for our oughts, as if such a foundation were even conceivable.

  28. jay
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    I think that part of the problem with trying to find a coherent objective structure for our moral sense is simply that there is none to be had. Core moral sense (not the details imposed by culture) is something that most people (except certain psychopaths) have at least some understanding of. These might well be instincts, behaviors that have paid off sufficiently in our history to be preserved, or enhanced.

    As such there is no evolutionary requirement that they be logically consistent. It’s just a set of behavioral patterns that workd. We have a sense not to mindlessly kill others, espcially our kin, but we don’t have to really logically know why. We protect our children even at great risk to ourselves (not really a logical action). We just understand that it feels like the ‘right thing to do’, and it’s sufficiently universal so we consider it normal.

    I believe that explains why attempts at rigidly logically tying morality together are doomed to failure. We have a basic sense that certain things are wrong, and that other things around them are grey, but it’s all just a stew of evolutionary rules created under conditions that existed in the past (there is the analogy of people who randomly create filter rules for their email boxes as different kinds of spam are encountered.

    In this way it’s a lot like our sex drive. There are ‘rules’ that our subconscious is ‘following’, there are general patterns that are examinable scientifically, but ultimately the experience is not quantifiable, and unique to every individual.

    • Posted January 20, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      Excellent points, well put. And these are things that unconsciously nagged at me as I read Harris’ book.

      Having recently read Sir Richards’ God Delusion, he said something that stuck with me: ‘Perhaps humans have a god-shaped part of the brain that needs to be filled…’ (not an exact quote, and correct me if I’ve bollixed the context).

      This seems like one of those illogical traits that has survived somehow, and with it comes the idea of an afterlife. If we value our eternal afterlife more than our mundane 8 decades, then we can rationalize performing all kinds of questionably moral acts in god’s name.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted January 21, 2011 at 1:51 am | Permalink

        I also liked Jay’s remarks. Regarding those ‘illogical traits’ Tony mentions, though, I have just finished reading what strikes me as an excellent book by Michael Trimble, professor of Behavioral Neurology at the University of London’s Institute of Neurology, in which it is shown that these are very much more than ‘traits’ and consititute a hugely important part of us, and one that isn’t going to go away; the book is called The Soul in the Brain: The Cerebral Basis of Language, Art, and Belief. (And let me assure you, Trimble is a proper scientist and no apologist for anything.)

  29. Posted March 1, 2012 at 4:36 am | Permalink

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