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

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Sam Harris on a science of morality

Introduction

In his recent contribution to The Huffington Post, Sam Harris offers a detailed defence of his proposal for a science of morality, writing in the aftermath of reactions to his TED talk back in March. A great deal of his defence concentrates on answering the latest criticisms from Sean Carroll.

I'm not going to attempt a point-by-point adjudication of claim and counterclaim from Harris and Carroll. That would require at least a full-scale academic article, and even a few relatively quick observations will end up being quite long enough.

I think that Harris still misses the thrust of some of the points made by Carroll, and it's unfortunate that his initial responses to criticism were so impatient (especially referring to them as "stupidity" on Twitter ... for which, to his credit, he apologised). There's room to see good points on both sides, and the policy conclusions needn't differ.

Science?

At the same time, I don't really mind the concept of a "science" of morality. I'll qualify that later, but I don't see any clear boundary between science and philosophy anyway. Back in the eighteenth century the word "scientist" didn't even exist, but David Hume clearly thought he was engaged in a first comprehensive attempt at what we'd now call a science of morality, examining the subject from an empirical perspective - and you know what, he was right! It's not that he conducted experiments, but he laid a theoretical foundation based on the empirical knowledge available, and his foundation is still invaluable for those who want to build on it. Much modern moral philosophy and moral psychology does exactly that (though of course much of it is a program of resistance to Hume).

So, I'm not hung up about words such as "science". Nor am I bothered by the prospect that various kinds of empirical investigation may inform our decisions, including decisions about whether to criticise particular moral systems. What's more, I think we can make rational judgments about whether existing moral systems are "good" in much the way that we can make judgments about whether particular hammers are "good". A hammer is a good one if it's effective/efficient for its purpose. A moral system is good if it does what we want from moral systems as a class. Like hammers, moral systems can be replaced or improved.

Criticising moral systems

It follows that I agree with Harris that we can criticise various cultures' moral systems and their various prescriptions for human behaviour. In doing so, we don't need to find a way to deduce objectively binding "ought" statements from pure "is" statements that make no reference to affective attitudes (such as values and desires) or social institutions (such as codes of ethics). I don't believe that can be done - here I agree with Carroll, if not for precisely the same reasons - and I think Harris got off on the wrong foot at TED in trying to do so (and claiming that certain dubious metaethical claims were "obvious"). Carroll was correct to pull him up on it, and those of us who dissected the specific arguments were similarly justified.

But Harris doesn't actually need to make an unheralded breakthrough in metaethics to establish his main point about the possibility and desirability of criticising moral systems. If those moral systems are harmful to human wellbeing ... then criticise them for it! I think hammers exist to drive nails and that it's approximately correct to say that moral systems exist to conduce to human wellbeing and, to some extent, the wellbeing of other sentient creatures.

To repeat an earlier post, I agree with Harris that:

1. We can criticise the moral codes, cultural practices, etc., of other cultures (or, if it comes to that, our own).

2. When we do so, our criticisms need not be arbitrary, idiosyncratic, or unreasonable. On the contrary, they may be perfectly reasonable, non-arbitrary, and inter-subjectively justifiable.

3. Many people take a contrary view, often reflected in public policy. That's wrong and dangerous.

Some disagreement

Here's a sketch of where I think Harris is still getting things somewhat wrong. He concedes the main point that critics have been making when he says: "Of course, goals and conceptual definitions matter." That alone is enough to establish that he's not an extreme objectivist about morality, even if he thinks he is (since he doesn't want to use academic philosophical language, and is rather scornful of it, it's difficult to be sure where he stands on some metaethical points).

But he seems to think this is a relatively trivial problem. It isn't. Our goals when we use a hammer are usually uncontroversial - we (usually) want our hammer to drive nails into wood. By contrast, the goals of morality are much more controversial, the controversy goes very deep, and we have no decision procedure that has any prospect of producing universal convergence among philosophers, let alone all the people who reject a reason-based approach to morality.

In both his TED talk and his new article, Harris says that something similar applies to medicine. I.e., there is no total, final, uncontroversial agreement about what we're trying to achieve when we practice medicine, but we still do so in the real world without any great problem.

Good point. But actually, if Harris were deeply immersed in bioethics he'd realise that it's not so simple. In medicine, there are many marginal cases where deeply contested values come into play and it's not clear what we should do (or how we can ever get unanimity about the relevant values). What can be said about medicine is not that its goals are uncontroversial; its purpose is certainly not as clear-cut and uncontroversial as the purpose of an ordinary tool like a hammer. However, the goals of medicine are much less controversial than those of morality. We can define "health" with enough precision and agreement to get by in most circumstances. There are lurking difficulties for doctors, and they sometimes affect public policy, but surely they're not at issue in the majority of doctor-patient interactions.

Likewise with science. Its purpose, I suppose, is to develop well-evidenced and robust theories about the mechanisms or workings of the natural world - or something of the sort (I'm open to better formulations). This purpose could be contested, however, by someone who considers it futile, or impious, or counterproductive to ... yes ... human wellbeing. What we can say is that there's not all that much dispute about the purpose of science, or about the idea that pursuing it is a good thing to do (even if the "good" here represents a moral evalution, it can be an evaluation from one of the less-contested parts of morality relating to the desirabity of finding out about the world). However, there is some dispute, even if not enough to cause much difficulty with the everyday practice of science. Then again, it causes quite a bit of difficulty in some areas, most notably in biomedical research (which is a different practice from medicine).

What is morality for?

Morality is at the other end of the scale from hammers. There's an enormous amount of disagreement about what we're trying to achieve, and whether we're trying to achieve anything at all beyond, say, applying moral truths revealed by a prophet or a god. We can ask, "What is morality actually for?" ... And we'll get many different answers, including from people who say it's not "for" anything: we just do have an obligation to act in certain ways and not act in others.

There's so much disagreement that most of the intellectually rigorous discussion of morality that's available relates to foundational issues: issues of purposes or goals or definitions. There's certainly a field within philosophy that gets on with proposing the details of what we should be doing, how we should be living our lives, etc. I.e. there's the field of applied ethics. However, morality is far more controversial as a practice than medicine or science, because it's far less clear that the values built into its foundations are acceptable or even roughly agreed. Indeed, people who "do" applied ethics often disagree with each other about fundamentals in a way that is not so much the case with people who practice medicine and carry out scientific research.

Unfortunately, we are nowhere near to having the sort of general agreement as to the goals of, well, moralising, if you will, that we do with practising medicine or science. So it's no use arguing:

P1. The ultimate goals of medicine and science are contestable
P2. We can practice medicine and science with no terrible difficulty.
C. We can, with no terrible difficulty, practice anything whose ultimate goals are contestable.
Hence, we can, with no terrible difficulty, practice a "science of morality".

The correct conclusion, at "C.", is that we can, with no terrible difficulty, practice some things whose ultimate goals are contestable. As far as this argument goes, whether morality is one of those things is left as an open question. It really depends on just how much debate there is about a practice's ultimate goals, and how this pans out in practice. Unfortunately, the ultimate goals of morality are so controversial, and so disputed at such a deep level, that it's not surprising when much of what goes on in moral philosophy relates to trying to get agreement on the ultimate goals.

Conclusion

As it happens, I think that the goals of morality - or at least the point of the practice that we can ascribe to it - relate to a complex of human needs, interests, widespread desires and values, etc. This is pretty vague, but that's the nature of it. Morality evolved with us, biologically and culturally: it's not something we literally and consciously invented, with a clear-cut purpose in mind. But we can ascribe such goals as social survival, amelioration of suffering, providing a framework within which lives can go well (by whatever standards!), and probably other things of that kind. I don't terribly mind these being summed up as "wellbeing" as long as it's acknowledged that that's more a placeholder for a lot of rather vague and contested stuff than a label for something with a meaningful metric. Perhaps there's a meaningful metric for pleasure, but no one seriously thinks that morality is just about pleasure or that this is what "wellbeing" means (none of which is to deprecate pleasure, by the way).

On the other hand, the situation is not so hopeless as to make criticism of existing moral systems impossible or undesirable. If morality has something to do with the sorts of things I identified in the previous para, we can criticise particular moralities that have taken on a life of their own and make a poor contribution to those things - or are even counterproductive to them. Nor is information that science obtains about the natural world (which, importantly, includes us) irrelevant. We can, for example, use that information in our attempts to ameliorate suffering. So, I think Harris's actual conclusions are correct: we can have a science of morality, or, rather, a scientifically-informed practice of morality, as medicine is a scientifically-informed practice; and we can (and should) critique existing moralities. Vulgar cultural relativism is untenable and misleading, and we should put it behind us.

But his program won't be as straightforward as he makes it sound. Its aims and criteria will always be more deeply and pervasively controversial than those of science or medicine.

But again, Harris is mainly an activist, not an academic philosopher. I don't mind if he deals in approximations and simplifications. For that reason, among others, I've supported the broad thrust of what he's saying from the start. On the other hand, he shouldn't get tetchy when others want to question some of the details. Activism is important, and it requires the use of approximations. But intellectually rigorous debate is also important and shouldn't be seen as just a nuisance or a distraction.

44 comments:

DM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Russell Blackford said...

Some extensive rejigging now done.

NewEnglandBob said...

I especially like the last part:

"Harris is mainly an activist, not an academic philosopher. I don't mind if he deals in approximations and simplifications."

Where do I sign up? I am ready to help do something, so lets set goals and strategy.

DM said...

newenglandbob


but you're ALREADY DEAD!

Janet said...

I agree with almost all of what you have said here. But I think there is one problem area, which I always have difficulty with when people discuss morality.

That is this: the tendency to state all /goals/ultimate concerns/whatever you want to call them/ in purely human terms, as though morality could only be concerned with human problems. Indeed it largely has been; but it need not be.

That, I think, is why discussions get so mired in the subjectivity/objectivity problem. Any real science of morality will be valid (make valid predictions) for any sentient species. Think in these terms, and you can begin to see that subjectivity is perhaps not so subjective after all.

Tony Lloyd said...

"But again, Harris is mainly an activist, not an academic philosopher. I don't mind if he deals in approximations and simplifications."

But then again, this particular approximation and simplification of Harris is a dangerous one.

Harris does not appear concerned just with establishing that we have a right to criticise the morality of others.

Harris’ argument is for a basis of morality, a way of recognising what is right. But we don’t, necessarily, need to know what is right in order to see that something is wrong.

Imagine you own a car and it’s a death trap. I have good reason to say that it’s a death trap. “It’s a death trap”, I say. Your response is “but the available alternatives are too ugly/costly/whatever”. It would be a stupid response. The car would remain a death trap and “it’s a death trap” remain a valid criticism. Were it to stop being a death trap then that would be a good thing.

Stoning a 13 year old rape victim to death is a bad thing. We treat some of our 13 year olds badly. We don’t have a gold standard, known, moral manual for the treatment of 13 year olds. We cannot say what we should do with 13 year olds (beyond “it’s not stoning them to death”). The imperialist/infidel west’s model of adult-13 year old relations is not perfect but stoning a 13 year old rape victim to death is wrong. Were certain peoples to stop doing it then that would be a good thing.

Harris’ attempt to pretend that we do have a gold standard, known, moral manual or (at least) the basis of writing one does not serve to justify criticism or nullify crude relativism (of the “it’s right for them” school). But, worse, it makes it harder to justify criticism and easier for the crude relativist by accepting the relativists conditions whilst being unable to meet them. Still worse it does just what those fundies do. The movement from “is” to “ought” is no different to the movement from “is in the Bible” to “ought” and both end up "grounding" morality not in morality itsellf but in the prejudices of a self-appointed "authority".

RichardW said...

Russell: What's more, I think we can make rational judgments about whether existing moral systems are "good" in much the way that we can make judgments about whether particular hammers are "good". A hammer is a good one if it's effective/efficient for its purpose. A moral system is good if it does what we want from moral systems as a class.

I think you're getting into trouble here, because you're not distinguishing between "good" and "good for purpose X".

In the previous thread I agreed that a good hammer is one which is effective for the usual purposes of hammers (primarily driving nails). That enables us to call something a good hammmer without adding "for purpose X". But that doesn't help with your project of making criticisms. I might deliberately give a friend a bad hammer (e.g. one which is hopeless at driving nails) as a practical joke. For my purposes it was the right (rational) choice, so it would make no sense to criticise me for having given him a bad hammer.

The problem is much greater when it comes to moral systems as it's not clear there is a usual purpose for moral systems at all, and therefore not clear that it makes any sense to talk about a good moral system without relating it to a purpose. Even if there is a usual purpose for moral systems, it might not be one of which you approve. What if it turned out that the usual purpose of moral systems was to maintain a certain class in power? Would you still want to describe a moral system that was effective for this purpose as a "good" one?

I think you're sliding from a purely factual meaning of good (=effective for a certain purpose) to a value judgement. Consider:
- This hammer is effective for driving nails (or for the usual purposes of hammers).
- This is a good hammer.
I think we need to be more careful about treating these as equivalent. The latter tends to carry connotations of approval that are absent in the former. And I think these connotations are causing you to experience sentences like "this is a good/bad moral system" as value judgements. If you didn't experience them as value judgements, you probably wouldn't call them criticisms. They would just be neutral facts.

Russell: I think hammers exist to drive nails and that it's approximately correct to say that moral systems exist to conduce to human wellbeing and, to some extent, the wellbeing of other sentient creatures.

Surely the issue here is not why moral systems exist but what sort of moral systems there are reasons to promote. Perhaps everyone has reasons to promote a moral system that conduces to someone's well-being (if only his own). But people don't generally have reasons to promote a moral system that conduces to everyone's well-being equally. Your sentence is worded in such a way that it misses the central issues of whose purposes and whose well-being are at stake. A moral system that forces women to wear burkas might well serve the purposes of some men, in which case those men have rational reasons to promote such a moral system despite its being contrary to the well-being of women.

[cont]

RichardW said...

[cont]

Russell: Morality is at the other end of the scale from hammers. There's an enormous amount of disagreement about what we're trying to achieve, and whether we're trying to achieve anything at all beyond, say, applying moral truths revealed by a prophet or a god. We can ask, "What is morality actually for?" ... And we'll get many different answers, including from people who say it's not "for" anything: we just do have an obligation to act in certain ways and not act in others.

The problem is not so much that people disagree about what morality is for, but that people have different goals that are best served by adopting different systems of morality. To call this a "disagreement" suggests that people are differing in their assessment of the facts, and invites Harris's frequent response that the existence of disagreement over the facts doesn't mean there are no true facts of the matter. Goals are not facts (though there are facts about goals), a distinction that Harris has tended to miss.

I think your article would have been clearer if you'd given some examples of the sorts of criticisms you have in mind. I would say there can be an objective basis for statements such as these:
- This moral code is effective (good) for promoting social cohesion.
- That moral code is not in the interests of women.

March Hare said...

I like Tony's point. I need never have lived in a free state to know when my government are reducing my freedoms.

I think Russell hit it on the head when he points out that Sam's overall point is valid but his insistence on an absolute (but variable???) metric for morality is his biggest failing. (Hope I paraphrased you correctly.)

Sam appears to be trying to fight two battles at once: the vulgar moral relativists on the one side that most people agree with him on; and the (professional and armchair) moral philosophers on the other. Perhaps he should consider breaking his point into two separate points, especially since I think we'd mostly agree they are not mutually dependant.

Anonymous said...

But a hammer is a hammer simply because we use it as a hammer. If you use a hammer as a paper weight...its not a hammer.

The object isn't a hammer and has no hammerness.

Sam argues that morality that doesn't deal with well-being isn't morality in the same way that a hammer that doesn't deal with being a hammer isn't a hammer.

Whether well-being is right seems a redundancy.

יאיר רזק said...

I'm actually disappointed in this post, and this is the first time you've disappointed me on this, mr. Blackford. You don't give a reason why morality is about the things you say, and without such a reason you're doing just what Harris is - asserting what morality is dogmatically, without giving any rationale for your assertion.

For myself, I think "morality" is vague term and CAN be usefully used to describe what you describe - but can also be used to refer to other things. The importance point is to emphasize that different aims constitute different sciences of ethics.

Russell Blackford said...

Hmmm, I would have thought I'd covered the vagueness bit towards the end.

DM said...

you are not going to tell me what I believe...


we're going to play a NEW GAME...

FROM NOW ON:

*******************************************

EVERYTHING YOU SAY I WILL DOUBLE ON YOU...

*******************************************
Atheists,

you are going to learn even to TALK about GOD the way you do is going to cost you your lives...


the writing on the wall...



f*ck you very much!



http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/6/6e/Touched_by_His_Noodly_Appendage.jpg

see, you degenerates have last names like first names...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flying_Spaghetti_Monster

how about I believe in WHATEVER I want - even in the FLYING SPAGHETTI MONSTER! - and you have nothing to say!


let me show you the end results of this particular *ONE-DIMENSIONAL SCIENTIFIC MODE*
of thinking that is called *CRITICAL THINKING*, which is completely divorced from
any human objectives...

this style has been perfected by dawkins, pz, randi and the other *NEW ATHEISTS*
**
THE BOOBQUAKE - 911!


see how we take a term and convert it into its AUTHENTIC POLITICAL DIMENSION - THAT
OF LIBERATION - not just merely harmless expression...

visit


http://dissidentphilosophy.lifediscussion.net/philosophy-f1/the-boobquake-911-t1310.htm

Susan said...

I don't think I am smart enough to follow everything you wrote, but something bothers me.
The relief of suffering, or something like that, is mentioned as a goal of having a system of morality. But I see Christian zealots as actually considering suffering to be a good and necessary thing. Maybe they are forced into this position because suffering exists, and since they think an all powerful loving god exists, suffering must be part of his plan and be good for them.
This then leads them to oppose ending life by euthanasia even for those suffering from terminal illness, and to oppose abortion and/or contraception even if the existing family members are desperately poor and starving. They console themselves by thinking a god will make it up to them in the long run.
Anyway, an objective morality would have to be aetheistic then. There could be no meeting of the minds on morality for the believers and the non-believers, because everything about morality would hinge on whether or not a god exists to make it all up to you later.
(The fact that for a god the end justifies the means, to me means the god is immoral. And either an immoral god exists, or no god exists.)

Russell Blackford said...

Re my last comment, I meant stuff like this: This is pretty vague, but that's the nature of it. Morality evolved with us, biologically and culturally: it's not something we literally and consciously invented, with a clear-cut purpose in mind. But we can ascribe such goals as social survival, amelioration of suffering, providing a framework within which lives can go well (by whatever standards!), and probably other things of that kind. I don't terribly mind these being summed up as "wellbeing" as long as it's acknowledged that that's more a placeholder for a lot of rather vague and contested stuff than a label for something with a meaningful metric.

Why isn't that an adequate acknowledgment of the vagueness inherent in the nature of this discussion?

Susan said...

I think the morality of religious extremists is invented, not evolved. They invented the concept that suffering is necessary in order fulfill their god's plans. They had to consiously decide not to aleviate suffering to fit their religious beliefs. Surely the desire to reduce suffering is evolved. The desire to endure suffering is consiously chosen. Nothing vague about these positions. They are opposites.

Janet said...

Susan, I think you have to take into account that there are two evolutionary processes going on, the biological level in the human brain/body, and the memetic level in culture.

Whenever you talk about morality evolving, you must distinguish which level you are talking about. They are not the same.

Marshall said...

Vulgar cultural relativism is untenable and misleading, and we should put it behind us.

The vulgar kind, yes certainly.

If Morality isn't defined by cultural consensus, then it must be an Absolute, not so? The Absolutism would not be of the same kind as physical law discoverable by Science ... the essence of moral practice is making "good" choices among physically possible alternatives. Harris' point is to avoid some Absolute-given religiously-revealed law.

If our biology and culture aren't god-given, then they are just relative to our evolved situation, hence historically contingent. Morality, an integral component of culture, likewise.

(And therefore fit subjects for analysis, comparative study, programs for improvement, and so on.)

tildeb said...

I think Tony's point is key: morality as a term used by Harris means some kind of informed metric of right and wrong based on scientific (universal) principles rather than a set of values assigned to be principles.

Against that metric can be the subject and domain of ethics - behaviours and actions that can also be measured against these stable principles in order to determine where on the spectrum of right and wrong these may fall. Harris' main thrust seems to me to be suggesting that we can use science to inform that metric (no doubt based very much on neuroscience) without being sidetracked into cultural relativity regarding what is locally considered ethical and, therefore, morally acceptable.

Is science capable of informing morality, this metric of right and wrong, of establishing clear and concise principles to define what he calls this moral landscape? I don't know, and I want to hear more of what Harris proposes before I opine that Harris ought not suggest as much because he justifiably cannot suggest as much. That seems a bit presumptuous to me.

GTChristie said...

Susan @12:32 is a lot smarter than she says she is.

One of the issues she's identifying is known classically as "the problem of evil" and the literature on that subject alone can occupy an academic for a lifetime. The problem, classically defined, is/was this: why is there evil? A believer in god, who typically states that 1) God created the universe and 2) that God is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good must now explain how evil can be allowed to exist in a world created by a good supreme being who could (presumably) have created a universe completely free of evil.

What makes Susan's observation so trenchant is, she's asking exactly that question and carrying it to a logical conclusion. And along the way she correctly identifies the view a religious thinker MUST take, to explain the existence of evil: that it is part of "God's plan" to allow it. Now this is a peculiarly Western formulation of the issue itself and its Western religious answers, but the problem of evil is addressed in non-Western traditions as well. In Buddhism, for instance, the existence of evil is acknowledged as a fact straight away, from the outset: "Life is pain." But that tradition does not spend too much time creating a metaphysics to explain the pain; (as I read it), the emphasis is more on how to overcome it. The answers are all about "transcending" it, which amounts to learning not to suffer even when confronted by pain (or evil). Somewhere down in the depths of that, if we look at what religions do have in common, "explaining" the problem of evil is central and the big differences among religions are the differences in prescriptions (or responses) to the unavoidable fact that pain & evil exist. How should we respond to evil?. The religious view in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is (as Susan seems to be pointing out) is to take on faith that God exists, and allowing evil to exist is somehow part of a greater good. And a rather complete metaphysics (aka "explanatory myth") surrounds that set of assumptions.

The religious believer logically MUST explain evil in this way precisely because a knowing, interactive God is the first assumption. The atheist position, because it makes exactly the opposite first assumption, can take the existence of evil & pain directly and simply as an observable fact and immediately ask then (as Buddhism does) "What should we do about it?"

As logic the atheist position is easier to manage. It needs no astonishing or debatable metaphysics of suffering, it needs not consider (or explain or explain away) any "higher purpose" in the universe, nor does it require a realm beyond human comprehension to make the real world comprehensible. The atheist position in this regard is (if nothing else) neat, clean and simple: it's an imperfect world; deal with it AND deal with it sans any debatable metaphysics.

That is why, especially in Western philosophy (set aside the difficulty in actually defining that) which operates today in a scientific culture, there has been since the Renaissance a movement towards a secular philosophy of ethics. Absent any god, now we must discover how humans are (or can be) ethical.

Answering that is just as controversial (read all these posts and comments for instance) without god or religion as it is with god or religion. The biggest difference is that now we must attribute morality to ourselves rather than to a supreme being. Almost comically, in some ways that is more difficult than blaming God for everything: no excuses. When it comes to being good or evil people, we f*** it up ourselves.

NewEnglandBob said...

GTChristie, that is a very good summary of those topics.

GTChristie said...

Now, back to the present discussion which we might call the "Sam Harris debate."

The core issue that kicked this off, it seems to me, is this: How much can science contribute to any discussion of ethics? Or, to put it another way: what is science capable of doing in ethics (if anything), and what is it incapable of doing (if anything)?

Stripped of side issues and niggling details, Harris' position seems to be: science (or perhaps more gracefully, logic) can do it all. Not only can it inform what ethics is, and define or examine moral issues, but it can even derive "oughts" (more modern word: prescriptions) in many cases. Ie, a scientific perspective can produce actual moral judgments (let's not attribute to Sam that he thinks that includes ALL moral judgments, though I think he'd much prefer it).

IF my analysis is correct, and the Harris debate is mostly about how comprehensively science can produce moral judgments or prescriptions and IF his position is that scientific thinking can actually prescribe behavior rather comprehensively, then the issue comes into focus: what can science observe in ethics AND what can science (or logic) derive from such observation?

At this point, roughly, Russell introduces the "hammer metaphor" which is (IF I'm reading it right) we can treat many (if not all) moral/ethical judgments as if they are goal-oriented, ie, good for something (creating morally good outcomes, let's say) just as a hammer is good for the definable use of pounding nails.

As soon as we ask "What makes an outcome morally good?" we seem to require some definition of good (hence reams of commentary) before we can answer the question, and Russell tends to answer that as (very roughly here) "useful towards a moral goal."

As soon as we ask "What makes a goal a moral goal" we seem to need some definition of moral. And off we go on a definition chase, trying to formulate what the "moral sphere" is, in which a word like "good" makes sense and (because this is the "Sam Harris debate after all) it must be asked in this form: how does science describe the moral sphere? Is the moral sphere all about behavior? Or "goodness" as a palpable thing? Or just "desirable outcomes"? Or what? Can science tell us, empirically, what makes an act a moral act? Or not? Can any (secular) definition of morality answer that?

I believe there's an answer to that last question and science can HELP with the answer. But the answer(s) are not to be found by beating the dictionary to death looking up definitions of right, good, moral, wrong and evil.

GTChristie said...

There is one anchor point we might all agree on, to proceed, and it is found within Susan's thinking above: let's all first understand/agree/maintain for the sake of empiricism that ethics is invented. That is a claim some people are not committed to, but I believe it is essential to a secular ethics.

Having studied this question for over 35 years, from the historical and contemporary perspectives, using every science I can understand from anthropology to zoology, (which specifically omits physics since I don't really understand the math), "ethics is invented" leads (I'll spare you the derivation) to a consistent conclusion: ethics is a cultural process and it is invented culturally. That is an empirically sustainable claim, in my opinion.

To understand ethics, understand culture. To understand ethics scientifically, understand culture scientifically.

Does that lead to scientifically deducible actual judgments in Sam Harris' sense of "moral science"?

What can science do in ethics? It can discover facts about what makes humans "behave together." It can also identify the cultural process at work to produce a society's values (where "good" gets defined by the culture).

What can science not do in ethics? It cannot substitute itself for the cultural content (ie, world views/beliefs/values) of all the cultures which have produced moral systems. It cannot BE the value, nor can it create culturally coherent values ex nihilo, without reference to existing cultures.

So I believe the Sam Harris debate one day will end exactly where the logical empiricists did: ethics is analyzable but there are no factual moral principles from which to derive prescriptions.

GTChristie said...

Historically, professional (or academic) philosophers have found it useful to distinguish among "meta-ethics," "moral theory" and "practical ethics" although it's difficult sometimes to define the boundaries between them. I'm lazy. It's easier to distinguish between practical ethics (actual prescriptions) and meta-ethics and let the middle category fend for itself.

The usefulness of the separation is this: meta-ethics is ABOUT ethics as a subject matter while practical ethics deals directly with moral issues by reasoning to prescriptions (solutions).

So my long discussion above comes down to this: I think whatever the scientifically observable facts about ethics may be, they belong to meta-ethics. There are facts about humans, about cultures, about language and meaning, and about ethics itself that inform what ethics IS. If anyone wants to call those "moral facts," well, that's fine as long as it's clear that meta-ethical facts do not constitute premises for moral conclusions. (Or else Hume was wrong -- don't go there! LOL)

Philosophers by the 20th century no longer supposed that knowing what ethics IS entails anything practical about what we OUGHT to do. But it's important to know what ethics is -- as in the hammer discussion -- to define what is the moral domain. What qualifies an issue as a moral issue? What does ethics DO? Is analysis a proper hammer for pounding out a moral prescription? Etc.

And the cultural perspective in ethics is that most of these meta-ethical facts are facts about human beings as cultural beings. That is the baseline.

One reason I favor this cultural perspective is, it explains a lot of effects in the moral domain that are difficult to account for in other ways. For instance, one culture may be patriarchal and disempower women while another is matriarchal and empowers them; the two cultures differ radically and yet each has arrived at a "solution" to the rights of women. We can argue all day whether one culture is superior to the other in moral practice, but the point here is the cultural perspective reveals that morality can differ from place to place and still be called a moral system (bracketing whether it is a "good" system in practice). Culture as a meta-ethical theory predicts, in other words, that there will be several possible constructions of morality possible in a human world and can view them more objectively than, for instance, "religion" as a meta-ethical theory.

Culture as a meta-ethical theory also explains in what sense ethics is relative, and in what sense it's not. One ethics can be compared to another, so they are relative to each other. But relativity is a meta-ethical observation, not a premise: we cannot say "killing is good because ethics is relative" because relativity is not a value (that's what Russell probably objects to, whether he pinpoints it clearly or not: calling relativity a value is not just radical, it's a logical fallacy).

On question after question, ancient and modern, recognizing that ethics is cultural (and HOW it is cultural -- sorry, no space here for that) encompasses more nuances and explains more discrepancies and ancient controversies than any other meta-ethical theory, bar none.

Or so I maintain. LOL.

Having said that: the Harris debate is a bit skewed, if we forget that META-ethics can be informed by facts, but facts do not entail conclusions in practical ethics. This probably is the area where Sam got his shoelaces tied, if it's true he disdains some of the academic distinctions between meta- and practical ethics. Those distinctions are not ad hoc or arbitrary. Philosophers worked them out to create some clarity in discussion.

NewEnglandBob said...

Take a look at the response of rcn2 over at For The Sake of Science blog about Objective Morality.

What do you think, Russell and GTChristie and anyone else.

GTChristie said...

P.S. I really like the points RichardW is making above. Great analysis.

GTChristie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
GTChristie said...

NewEnglandBob: I looked over there. Interesting that the discussion is about theists (and teabaggers) claiming objective moral standards, and the discussion over here is about an atheist claiming objective moral standards, and in both cases professional philosophers have known for 200+ years why that is a fallacy -- but it keeps coming up! In a scientific culture, we all want "derivability" I guess. I keep picturing my Zen Buddhist gardener crossing his eyes and saying "Huh?"

BTW I did not mean to hijack the comment section here. Ungracious of me. I shall now clap my trap for awhile.

tildeb said...

I still think many are missing the boat on understanding Harris. In the same way that establishing a metric about empathy can be better understood when informed by the biological understanding of mirror neurons and how they function, so too may it be possible to establish a neuro-scientifically informed metric about morality. Remember, he is talking about a landscape with many peaks and valleys - many different 'goals' - but based on something all share similar to a factual metric of altitude (which must be something akin to a factual metric of brain biology).

RichardW said...

The multiple peaks of a "landscape" are the maxima of an objective function. But different goals mean different objective functions. There are no maxima until you've chosen an objective function, and different agents with different goals will have different objective functions. So the maxima (the best ways to fulfill goals) are dependent on the agent. Harris is confusing the multiple peaks of one objective function with multiple objective functions. (This is related to his failure to distinguish between facts and goals.)

In any case, the more fundamental problem is that claims about how to fulfill a given set of goals are not moral claims. Claims only take on a moral character when they prescribe actions which do not attempt to fulfill the agent's goals. If I say you ought not to murder because murdering won't serve your own goals, then I'm just giving you practical advice. It only becomes a moral prescription if I say you ought not to murder regardless of whether murdering serves your goals.

tildeb said...

RichardW writes The multiple peaks of a "landscape" are the maxima of an objective function. But different goals mean different objective functions.

In the more common language, this means that the multiple peaks of a landscape are the highest values choosing the best element from some set of available alternatives. Okay. RichardW then writes that different goals (the various peaks on the moral landscape) mean different sets.

I don't think that's true, which is why I wrote that this singular set Harris is talking about must be more like 'altitude' by which all peaks can be measured and compared objectively - in other words, a metric common to all - and most definitely not, as you seem to be arguing - something measured on criteria dependent on each peak, or dependent on the agent's criteria who claims one peak to be of greater moral value than some other. This popular criticism of Harris' latest offering seems to me to continue to miss the avenue of approach Harris is actually suggesting.

So I think the confusion is not Harris' in this case but until we read his book, I think we should hold off on condemning the possibility that such a metric can be scientifically informed because of the way we interpret the subject of morality itself.

GTChristie said...

I forgot to praise Russell's post above, to which we are ostensibly commenting. He's got the balance right in assessing Harris' strengths and weaknesses. And we shouldn't maintain a dogmatic opposition to the idea that moral ideas are deducible in a scientific way, once we have defined the moral landscape. The devil is in the details.

יאיר רזק said...

Russel:

"Why isn't that an adequate acknowledgment of the vagueness inherent in the nature of this discussion? "

It is a good acknowledgment of the vagueness of the domain, but still arbitrarily defines a domain and in that sense isn't vague. On one hand you do say morality can be taken to be directed towards different aims, but on the other you espouse a particular (even if vague) meaning to what morality is, without explaining why this meaning (however vague) is to be preferred over others. Why isn't morality about survival in the afterlife, rather than social survival, say?

I do agree with everything you say, I just think your emphasis was poor here - you should have emphasized that we CAN take morality to mean this, rather than it DOES mean this.

Yair Rezek

יאיר רזק said...

I think the one thing missing in the discussion of the applicability of science to morality is that science can be used to discern (and change) our goals.

Discussions seems focused on how to achieve a certain goal, treating the goals as fixed psychological entities outside the reach of science. But this is not the case. Science can, in principle at least, reveal to each of us his own goals and discern the goals of humans in general. It can also be used to monitor our thinking processes for irrationalities, and through psychological and other techniques to allow us to directly affect our goals (something we'll undertake due to other goals we have, of course - e.g. quitting a cigarette addiction through drugs).

Science can do much more than establish how to achieve our goals.

Becoming Gaia said...

How about the following:

I declare that the (unknown but correct) goal of morality is to satisfy the maximum number of goals for all goal-setting entities (satisfaction as judged by the individual goal-setters themselves).

It is clear, concise, objective, and deriving the consequences of this declaration leads directly to our current intuitive beliefs about morality.

The specific goals have absolutely no relevance except insofar as they affect other goals. Murder or maiming another is obviously bad (i.e. by definition) because it pretty much guarantees that the other entity's goals will go unsatisfied.

I challenge anyone to present a moral issue whose current state of play is not correctly analyzed by extending this goal (note that I am not saying solved -- since the total ramifications of many acts are crucially dependent upon circumstances and unknown -- but that this definition gives us a much more concrete handle on it).

Feel free to reply either here or on my blog (if you feel that it will derail the conversation here).

NewEnglandBob said...

It is concise, but I would argue that it is clear. I would not definitely say it is objective either when it includes "judged by". That is my two cents worth.

Becoming Gaia said...

Could you describe what is unclear to you so I have an opportunity to clear it up?

Also, I understand your initial reaction to the words "judged by" -- but the point is that the person who sets the goal is also the correct one to evaluate its fulfillment. Besides, aren't judges supposed to be impartial?

NewEnglandBob said...

What is not clear to me is the scope. Is it limited in any way? Does it encompass all goals of everyone on the planet? Can it be limited to one country? Do we include the goals of the mentally insane? etc.

Becoming Gaia said...

Upon further thought, I should have used the term "evaluated by" instead of judged by.

Becoming Gaia said...

It is not limited in any way. It includes the goals of every goal-setting entity. You do include the goals of the mentally insane but their own goals are likely to conflict with each other and cancel the majority of themselves out (which is why they are considered insane).

Also, do be sure to consider/remember the fact that many people's long-term goals frequently conflict with their perceived short-term desires (or happiness).

יאיר רזק said...

Becoming Gaia -

Consider the thought experiment wherein, as a matter of fact, all bugs on earth have the goal to eradicate mankind from the planet. Your principle now concludes we humans need to kill ourselves. Frankly - I couldn't care less what all those bugs think, I'm not offing all the people.

I suggest you change focus. Instead of trying to capture our intuitions about "morality", which is a confused concept anyway, try to think about what each of us *wants to do*. Once you make that mental switch, your definition seems rather limited; surely we do not want to consider all goals equally, we value denotological as well as utilitarian values, we value knowledge as well as desire fulfillment, and so on. And a definition of morality that doesn't reflect what we want is simply not of interest to us.

Becoming Gaia said...

יאיר רזק said... Consider the thought experiment wherein, as a matter of fact, all bugs on earth have the goal to eradicate mankind from the planet. Your principle now concludes we humans need to kill ourselves.

Huh? My principle concludes no such thing. You're falling for the involuntary organ donor fallacy (i.e. it's moral to kidnap a single person off the street to serve as an involuntary organ donor for multiple other people). You're missing the depths of my argument. Come on over to my blog (http://becominggaia.wordpress.com/) for a more complete explanation (that you can then be devil's advocate for)

Mingy Jongo said...

Even if an objective morality exists, it is impossible to know what it is to any degree of certainty.

Peter Beattie said...

Unfortunately, the ultimate goals of morality are so controversial, and so disputed at such a deep level, that it's not surprising when much of what goes on in moral philosophy relates to trying to get agreement on the ultimate goals.

I'm curious about this, Russell, since you keep coming back to this. The first point is: do you have any data or other evidence to support your claim and make it reason-able for other people?

Another possible point for Harris to raise as an objection is to say that yes, maybe this question is hotly debated in professional philosophical circles, but perhaps there isn't such disagreement in actual people's minds in the real world, quite possibly as elucidated by neuroscientific techniques.