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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Harris gets it right!

For those who might think I am carping too much about Sam Harris's TED talk, do remember that my original post about his talk was very positive. My posts since have been to explain points, answer objections, and explore metaethical issues for their own sake (as I always said I'd do).

And here's something else. I'm re-re-reading The End of Faith, and enjoying it. If you've never read it, do yourself a favour and spend a day doing so. It contains much wisdom and much powerful writing ... and I can report that on page 179 Harris puts exactly the right argument against vulgar moral relativism! Go and look it up.

I can also report that on pages 170-71 he claims that "questions of right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures." Now, I could quibble about this. E.g., it is difficult to find a value-free definition of "happiness" and a good metric for happiness (whatever it is) and suffering. Moreover, there may be other values that are relevant to morality.

But all that said, it's a plausible normative claim. There's no attempt here to bridge the "is/ought" gap and establish objectivity. Rather, it just says something that any sane person will agree with as at least a reasonable first approximation to a ruling normative principle. Happiness of some kind and amelioration of suffering are at least extremely important things to consider in making our first-order moral judgments, and Harris is surely correct that much religious morality has gone off the rails in not paying prime attention to these things.

But notice the difference between this formula, in The End of Faith, and a formula like, "Values are facts about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures." No, that's not right. The values in question just are "the happiness of sentient creatures" and "amelioration of the suffering of sentient creatures". Those are the things that we value and hope to see instantiated. The morally-relevant facts (e.g. "If I do X then B will suffer") are facts that are about happiness or (non)-suffering. So the formula is back to front.

If anything, it should be something like: "Morally-relevant facts are facts about values to do with the mental states of sentient creatures (namely the values of happiness and non-suffering)." (We could add that whether the value of happiness, say, is instantiated in a particular situation involving a particular sentient creature depends upon a state of affairs in its neurological system. Another way to put this is to say that a state of affairs in Spot's brain is the truth-maker for the proposition: "Spot is happy.")

Undoubtedly, the values in question - i.e. happiness and non-suffering (or amelioration of suffering) - are very important ones that largely or wholly underpin any plausible system of morality. On that much, and much else, Harris and I are agreed.

With any luck, the new book from Harris, which I'm looking forward to reading, will use the same formula as in The End of Faith, which I think we should be quite comfortable about as at least a good approximation. I hope it does not get too bogged down in esoteric metaethical claims about bridging "is" and "ought", etc. If you start out with some plausible, non-arbitrary oughts, there's no need to build any such bridge in some non-standard way. If the book does something a bit like the job (at more length, and with more depth depth and sophistication) that is done in Chapter 6 of The End of Faith, the result will be very useful.

17 comments:

NewEnglandBob said...

"I'm re-re-reading The End of Faith, and ejoying it."

If you are 'ejoying' it, you must be reading the Kindle version.

More seriously, I do like this tack you are taking, Russell. This feels like progress to me.

Russell Blackford said...

Typo corrected. And some edits for more technical explication - hope you still like the tack.

Russell Blackford said...

I have to add, though, that there are some things later in the relevant chapter that I find iffy. But here's another that I agree with. The starting point is to admit that the happiness and suffering of sentient beings "concerns [sic] us".

Exactly so! But that is grounding ethics in our actual affective attitudes rather than in the fabric of the external universe (a "concern" is like a desire, etc.). In other words, ethics is ultimately based on the affective attitudes of human subjects, not on the fabric of a reality external to these! This is exactly what I've been arguing all along. :)

Ophelia Benson said...

"In other words, ethics is ultimately based on the affective attitudes of human subjects, not on the fabric of a reality external to these!"

In other words it all turns on the fact that we care, and it's a contingent fact that we care. We might not care, and if we didn't, morality wouldn't even exist.

There's a horrible passage in one of Jane Goodall's early (and for a general readership) books on the Gombe chimps, about one elderly male chimp who was left with a paralyzed arm after a polio outbreak. One day a group of chimps were in a tree grooming each other and the damaged chimp slowly and with huge effort climbed the tree and with an exhausted sigh settled down to be groomed - whereupon all the other chimps left.

We could be like that - and we are a little like that, but not entirely. Or chimps could be less like that - and in other contexts they are less like that. The contingent fact is that chimps have some empathy and we have more, and over our history we have learned to refine and develop and expand it. That's where morality is. It requires caring, and empathy, and those aren't automatic.

ben nelson said...

Your point is made most strongly when you write: "it is difficult to find a value-free definition of "happiness" and a good metric for happiness (whatever it is) and suffering. Moreover, there may be other values that are relevant to morality." Without that passage, you would seemingly be begging the question, i.e., arguing from stipulation alone. I would only add that, as far as the present case is concerned, happiness is irrelevant. Suffering is the issue at hand.

If it were to turn out that misery were a discrete phenomenon, then we wouldn't have much basis for defending the is-ought gap (at least as Harris's sense of objectivity is evidently concerned). The is-ought gap is typically defended by the idea that there's no reasonable monolithic standard that could resolve ethical debates. But with foundational hedonism (of this kind), you do have a monolithic standard, a fact of the matter that all values spring from and are beholden to.

It is often said that utilitarianism (in Harris's case, a form of satisficing utilitarianism) is an objective theory of the right, with a subjective theory of value. But that's not entirely correct, because not all values are created equal. What we have here an objective theory of intrinsic value, paired with a subjective theory of value.

So. In my view, if you want to attack Harris on the "objectivity" front, you need to press the idea that suffering is an artificial kind, not a natural one.

Chris said...

"In other words it all turns on the fact that we care, and it's a contingent fact that we care. We might not care, and if we didn't, morality wouldn't even exist."

Exactly. I would add, though, that without some "conflict" with others there would also be no morality. To use your reference to the chimps, it is not so much the empathy we feel for the injured chimp that drives morality (although that empathy certainly motivates us to intervene) it is our disgust over how the others treated that one ape.

If a person trips and falls on the ground it is our concern that motivates us to help that person. We would not even contemplate this as a moral issue unless we had just seen one person push that person to the ground and two others walk around him or her without stopping.

Ophelia Benson said...

(The disgust toward how the others treated the poor other chimp is tempered when one remembers 1) that they didn't know why his arm wasn't working, and they were probably somewhat afraid of the whole business and 2) that they have only a rudimentary theory of mind, if that. It's agonizingly sad but not really their fault.)

Chris said...

Yes, I was not blaming the animals. What you say though is true when we deal with people. Much of our moral disgust with people can be tempered--to an extent--by mitigating circumstances.

I think it helps to remember that we have to focus on people's internal subjective state when we want change.

Of course people will often take advantage of this fact to slow progress. Sometimes coercion is necessary (laws pertaining to basic human rights.)

Ophelia Benson said...

Yes. And to balance the obtuse chimps I like to think of the silverback gorilla at our zoo - one day when the resident toddler had some sort of 24 hour bug and was feeling ungood, she settled down next to him and put her head on his upturned hand and fell asleep. He didn't budge that hand until she woke up on her own, at least an hour later. He reached around with the other hand as far as he could, looking for stray food, but he held the pillow hand completely still.

tildeb said...

Ophelia writes In other words it all turns on the fact that we care, and it's a contingent fact that we care. We might not care, and if we didn't, morality wouldn't even exist.

I know it sounds rather picky, but I don't think the contingent fact statement here is correct: once mirror neurons are activated, the limbic system is activated, and I do not know if that emotional cause and effect response condition is open to contingency. I don't think it is; I think our neurological connection with another (we call this surge of feeling empathy) varies in intensity but is a biological rather than a reasoned response.

Once the limbic system is activated, however, we do have some choice of response behaviour, which makes the behaviour the contingent fact and not the fact that we care. We can't help but care if our mirror neurons are stimulated.

Morality, once properly understood to be a biologically based natural process, can finally begin to be separated from theology one neurological informed step at a time if we keep the details of our inquiry accurate.

Jacob said...

Out of interest, Russell, what do you think about the meditation and no-self stuff in Harris?

Him, Blackmore and a host of others are really pushing for this point of view among secular humanists, I'd be interested to know what you make of it.

OB said...

tildeb, I mean it's a contingent fact that we care in general; that we are entities that care; not that we can help caring at any particular moment.

tildeb said...

OB, thanks for the clarification.

I think Harris would do well aiming his point about 'happiness' and 'suffering' to the benchmark of empathy rather than the more iffy notion of 'concern', which then can be shown to produce positive and negative biological reactions.

Also, he can present his idea of placing actions with a moral component on the empathetic spectrum much more effectively using a similar approach to set theory.

Just my 2 cents.

Russell Blackford said...

Jacob, I'm not into meditation but I can see how it might be mentally beneficial (as opposed to its alleged usefulness in burning up residues of bad karma).

I certainly agree with the Buddhist doctrine of anatta in its original context: i.e., the Buddhists claimed that the unchanging, immortal spiritual self postulated by the Brahminical thinkers does not exist. That was big news at the time, but I'd have thought it was so obvious these days as not to be worth making a fuss about. Still, a lot of people in the West do believe in something a bit similar, i.e. the "soul". A lot of them also believe in what I call spooky free will. I's worthwhile pointing out that neither of these things is likely to exist, but you don't need to immerse yourself in Eastern philosophy to do so.

Ophelia Benson said...

Reading Owen Flanagan would be one shortcut.

Shatterface said...

Tildeb said: 'I think our neurological connection with another (we call this surge of feeling empathy) varies in intensity but is a biological rather than a reasoned response.'

To be honest, that sounds more like the autistic guy who develops a vomeronasal (Jacobsons) organ in 'ReGenesis' than current human beings.

tildeb said...

It may sound that way to you Shatterface but mirror neurons and their activated role during learning and feelings of empathy I think is very promising avenue for a biological explanation to these remarkable (at-a-distance) abilities. Mirror neurons are also present in other critters, too.