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

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A loose end

I said in the previous post that this is not a valid argument: "The case I make in the book is that morality entirely depends on the existence of conscious minds; minds are natural phenomena; and, therefore, moral truths exist (and can be determined by science in principle, if not always in practice)."

I do agree that the phenomenon of morality would not exist if conscious minds did not exist, if that's what's meant by what comes before the first semi-colon. That's because I think that the concept of the phenomenon of morality involves social regulation of the conduct of creatures that are at least conscious (they probably need to be self-conscious as well, and and maybe have other cognitive characteristics).

We observe societies with various norms of behaviour that are enforced by attitudes of praise, blame, ostracism, etc., and we recognise this phenomenon as "morality", and I expect we would not recognise it as morality if it involved regulation of things that are not conscious. Even when we apply moral standards to the behaviour of business corporations, which are not literally conscious, I doubt that we'd think we were applying moral standards if not for the fact that directors, business executives, shareholders, and so on are conscious.

In all, I accept:

P1. If conscious minds did not exist, the phenomenon of morality would not exist.

Harris may want something stronger than this, but I don't see how he's entitled to help himself to it. I also accept:

P2. All conscious minds are natural phenomena.

From P2. we can conclude that if there were no natural phenomena there would be no conscious minds.

The conclusion that then follows from all this is actually:

C. If no natural phenomena existed the phenomenon of morality would not exist.

That is hardly a surprising conclusion. I'm sure it's true. Note, however, that we are talking about morality as a social phenomenon. It does not follow that "moral truths" exist in the sense that moral realists typically mean. To try to demonstrate that will require a different argument, probably one with far more controversial premises.

Doubtless there are truths about the phenomenon of morality. But one of those truths about the phenomenon may be that human beings and human societies often claim falsely that their moral norms are objectively binding (in the sense discussed in the metaethical literature). It may, indeed, be one of the truths about the phenomenon of morality that moral norms are never objectively binding in the relevant sense. That is, roughly: they are never binding, on pain of irrationality, on the people concerned, irrespective of their actual desires. Whatever bindingness they do have does not transcend the relevant desires and institutions.

Arguments to the effect that the phenomenon of morality would not exist without the existence of natural phenomena, or that it is itself a natural phenomenon, or that it can be studied in some sense that we might call "scientific", go nowhere near establishing moral realism. All of the metaethical issues that divide realists of various kinds from anti-realists of various kinds are left open by all this. We're looking at a very bad argument.

19 comments:

Tony Lloyd said...

Harris' argument is a bit like a tweet sent by a homeopath. As best I can remember it:

Brains are 80% water.
Brains have memory.
Therefore water has memory.
Therefore homeopathy works.

יאיר רזק said...

All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put that syllogism together again. But it was written informally in a private letter, and thus should be treated tenderly. I suggest the following reading.

Harris appears to be arguing from a particular meta-ethical position, where moral terms such as "good" have a specific meaning (which is never really clarified, but roughly corresponds to decreasing suffering and increasing happiness). From that perspective, "moral truths" are truths about what induces suffering, alleviates it, or so on. And then his "syllogism" is a rough outline of an argument that in slightly more detail would go roughly like

I) Morality depends on the existence of conscious minds, that can feel pleasures or suffer.

II) These minds are natural phenomena that are accessible to science and, in particular, their suffering and pleasures are.

III) Moral truths, that is truths about what causes such suffering or so on, exist.

IV) It is possible to determine moral truths by science at least in principle, i.e. to investigate empirically what causes suffering or so on.

Now, this does not assume anything about the categorical imperatives you allude to. It could well be a fact in psychology that people do as a whole wrongly consider morality to be objectively binding. But that doesn't change the fact that on his understanding of "morality" his argument seems solid-enough.

The problems with his "syllogism" are not that it is not logically valid (it isn't in a philosophy article or even a book) nor that the "moral truths" he talks about are not objective in some sense. I think the problems lie rather with his assumed metaphysical position and with technical issues such as the existence of a measure, as you noted previously.

Yair

Tom Clark said...

I think Harris came up with this syllogism a bit hastily, since as you point out here and several others did at Coyne's blog, the conclusion obviously doesn't follow from the premises.

More generally, I don't see that Harris has succeeded in putting to rest the long-standing doubts about straightforward moral realism. If he had, it would have been quite the philosophical coup. Since he hasn't, the project remains of finding and then articulating in ordinary language a view of morality that justifies such things as universal human rights against attacks from cultural relativists.

Charles Sullivan said...

It seems that if we substitute "religion" or "superstition" for "morality", the flaw in the argument really stands out.

Brock said...

Why are you caught up on whether morals can be proven "real" or not? The results are real enough.

As I mentioned in my last comment, rats raised in a healthy manner will do better in a maze than rats deprived of nutrition and sleep.

Girls raised under Sharia law (assuming they aren't killed for being rape victims) may be good at cooking or raising kids... but women raised with a healthy education in math, science, language, philosophy, etc. might also be good at those same things plus hold successful and productive careers. Sure, not 100% of the time, but at a higher probability.

A boy raised in a labor-intensive militarized zone may be good with a shovel and rifle... but a boy raised with education and opportunity can be a scientist or composer and a damn good shot. Again, no guarantee, but I think the constraints do affect the outcome probability.

Am I wrong? Does a lack of truly objective and logically binding morality somehow mean there's nothing to be said for opportunity and potential?

Just because we can't precisely quantify every variable doesn't mean we can't measure and model results. If that were the case, most science would be stillborn.

GTChristie said...

... morality entirely depends on the existence of conscious minds; minds are natural phenomena; and, therefore, moral truths exist (and can be determined by science in principle, if not always in practice).

The only way this can be a logically true statement is to supply what's missing in the argument. It can only be true if all (human) minds contain identical moral truths, which then are discoverable by science.

That's not just a hard sell. It's empirically false. Compare Tibetan ethics with Hopi ethics, and there's an effective counter-argument. Even leaving aside the question whether either set of ideas is "true," it is enough to say they are not the same.

Point being: when we speak of morality we are speaking of culture-bound ideas. When Carl Jung did fieldwork in Africa, he asked a local chief "What's the difference between right and wrong?" The chief answered without hesitation: "If I steal your wife, that's good. I you steal mine, that's bad."

The whole idea of "moral universals" is a chimera.

Mirik said...

This confuses me. Is there such a thing as an optimal (landscape) of human wellbeing or isn't there according to what you say?

If there is right and wrong answers on how to increase it, isn't that a measurement? Look in the brain and register a development that is associated with positive human flourishing as opposed to terror or decrease.

Same goes for health, you can in principle measure everything in the body and know how it affects the body. When the balance creates a state of least pain and optimal performance one is optimally healthy, measure values that increase pain and decrease bodily function and one is sickly.

Same for morality. Brain activity in respons to outside stimuli can create good or bad exeriences of human well being in a similar way (it seems to me...). Therefore that is not just a practical metric, but the possibility for he application of science to increase environment for optimal well-being.

Is your disagreement with Harris not simply a misunderstanding over terms? The definition of morality?

Seems to me there is metric as well as a definition of morality supplied in his work.

A metric he mentions also it the plane between the worst possible situation for human well-being and the best (peaks). Moving up and down it according to how conscious creatures experience in their brain, measurable well-being. (the optimal path to human flourishing amd development, probably health and security also).

Ray said...

"It may, indeed, be one of the truths about the phenomenon of morality that moral norms are never objectively binding in the relevant sense. That is, roughly: they are never binding, on pain of irrationality, on the people concerned, irrespective of their actual desires."

AZSkeptic said...

I think what Sam might be going for would look something like this:

P1. Consciousness is a natural phenomenon.

P2. All conscious minds exhibit similar responses to external stimuli.

"If you prick us, do we not bleed?..." This one falters a bit if we're going to apply it beyond human consciousness.

P3. A subset of this stimuli can be measured and identified as "harmful" to the individual. Whether that be physical harm, mental harm, etc. does not matter--you should be able to measure it.

So, the point is that consciousness is a natural phenomenon, and we should be able ("in principal" as Sam couches it) to measure "good" and "bad" to that consciousness scientifically.

P4. Minimizing the amount of "harmful" stimuli one experiences will maximize that individual's well being.

It's a fitness landscape and all the complexity that entails, but still... Finally,

P5. A society can construct a set of rules that minimizes harmful stimuli to the maximum number of individuals in that society.

So, when Sam is stressing the point that we're all conscious beings and consciousness is a natural phenomena, he's implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) stating that the above progression exists.

You are correct that his original statement ("...morality entirely depends on the existence of conscious minds; minds are natural phenomena; and, therefore, moral truths exist...") is not a valid argument. It's out of order ("morality" is an end product, not the starting point of the logical progression) and he's skipped a few steps going from "minds are natural phenomenon" to "moral truths exist".

Henry McQuale said...

Well, that was a blatant non-sequitur. Sure, Harris himself said to Coyne that his response to your review wasn't "polished", but man, that was sloppy.

Glenn Washington said...

Using Harris' framework from The Moral Landscape what would his answer to the question of abortion be? Kill the fetus (and not maximise its wellbeing) or allow the fetus to live (and violate the mother's wellbeing)?

Ray said...

"It may, indeed, be one of the truths about the phenomenon of morality that moral norms are never objectively binding in the relevant sense. That is, roughly: they are never binding, on pain of irrationality, on the people concerned, irrespective of their actual desires."

The demand that morality be objectively binding in this sense seems unreasonable to me. Moral norms are binding on pain of immorality; rational norms are binding on pain of irrationality. To claim that moral norms are rationally binding (or indeed that rational norms are morally binding) is to claim that rationality and morality are the same standard. Why anyone would want to make this claim is beyond me: there's a reason for having two different words.

Blake Stacey said...

A variation:

art entirely depends on the existence of conscious minds; minds are natural phenomena; and, therefore, artistic truths exist (and can be determined by science in principle, if not always in practice).

I'd agree with this, for a certain value of "artistic truth". Through historical, anthropological and neuroscientific investigation, we might be able to codify an empirical rule: "A human being whose life history satisfies conditions X and Y will find Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon a beautiful album." Could such a rule translate into a scientific determination that Pink Floyd is, objectively, on an invariant and absolute scale, gorgeous music? Not likely.

Russell Blackford said...

I can't reply to everyone just now, though I appreciate all the thoughtful comments on this thread and the other one. But I'll quickly reply to Brock because his (?) comment raises an important point. I actually agree with the comment ... to this extent. I don't think we need a strictly objective approach to judgments of character, judgments about "good" and "bad" political regimes, laws, customs, etc. It's possible to have perfectly rational discussions of all these things without our criteria being just arbitrary ... all without relying on a strict objectivism.

That, however, is the point that I'm trying to make to Harris. As far as I can tell, Harris is the one who doesn't agree with this point. (Or, if he does, some of the stuff in the book is mysterious to me.)

I should add, though, that a lot of ordinary moral discourse suggests that the folk think that morality is strictly objective, and that what they are hearing all the time when they engage in ordinary moral discourse is, in fact, the language of a strict objectivism. This has, arguably, permeated the very meaning of at least some moral terms.

That fact, if it is indeed a fact, tends to support moral error theorists in the debates about metaethics.

But again, I do think that it's possible to make rational, non-arbitrary criticisms of, say, the treatment of women under Shariah law without relying on anything like a strict moral objectivism. In fact, that's my take-home message at the moment.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Maybe the syllogism was poorly worded, as some have suggested, and that he only meant to say that his book is an attempt to show that science can give us moral truths qua truths about how morality works, and not truths about what is or is not morally correct. But I don't think so, considering that his book is an attempt to provide a foundation for morality, and not simply a scientific understanding of it. So, rather that suppose that Harris was just sloppy with his wording, I'm more inclined to suppose that he is confusing these two different notions of "truths about morality," and--considering how many people have tried to point out this error in his reasoning--I really have no explanation for how he could continue to make that mistake.

Russell, I also hope Harris will take the time to consider your actual review, instead of just responding to Coyne's summation (which I don't think is wholly accurate, as you might have noticed, if you made it to the bottom of the comments section of his original post about your review.)

Myron said...

From the naturalistic point of view, it is a truism that there would be no moral behaviour, moral attitudes, or moral principles if there were no self-conscious animals; but there is a huge argumentational gap between this fact and the conclusion that moral realism is true.

Tom Clark said...

Russell: "I do think that it's possible to make rational, non-arbitrary criticisms of, say, the treatment of women under Shariah law without relying on anything like a strict moral objectivism."

Driven by his moral realist intuitions, Harris wants to substitute science for God as a moral arbiter, which is simple, neat, but untenable. What the progressive secular community needs is a concise, *positive* statement in ordinary language of tenable moral standards and their basis that makes clear why such things as Shariah are immoral. Could we develop such a statement? Has it been done to anyone's satisfaction? Is there even a consensus on this in the secular community? Pointers welcome.

Brian said...

"It can only be true if all (human) minds contain identical moral truths, which then are discoverable by science."

That's one way it could be true. How do you know it is the only way?

"Moral norms are binding on pain of immorality; rational norms are binding on pain of irrationality. To claim that moral norms are rationally binding (or indeed that rational norms are morally binding) is to claim that rationality and morality are the same standard. Why anyone would want to make this claim is beyond me: there's a reason for having two different words."

If it's true, it's a claim I want to make. Likewise for the two separate claims that constitute it: that morality is rationally binding and that rationality is morally binding.

"Maybe...he only meant to say that his book is an attempt to show that science can give us moral truths qua truths about how morality works, and not truths about what is or is not morally correct."

If that were true, he would have entitled his book How Science Can Determine Moral Values rather than How Science Does Determine Moral Values. Unless...

qbsmd said...

I would have interpreted Harris' statement more like:
p1. Natural phenomena can be investigated by science.
p1a. [detailed discussion on philosophy of science omitted] scientific investigation yields facts or objective truths.
p2. minds are natural phenomena
p3. moral phenomena are mental phenomena

1. by p2 and p3, moral phenomena are natural phenomena
2. p1 and 1, moral phenomena can be investigated by science
3. by 2 and p1a, "moral truths exist (and can be determined by science in principle, if not always in practice)"

Then the project becomes trying to get moral data from individual minds and then generalize that information to a larger group.