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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Another critique of The Moral Landscape

This one is by Brian Earp. The substantive criticisms aren't all that different from those you will have seen before, but they are made rather well and quite concisely.

The tone is a bit more hostile than necessary - Earp obviously found Harris and/or his book very irritating - but it's relatively mild for the internet (and compared with some of what we've seen in recent years, in some the debates I've been involved in, it's very mild indeed!).

Earp includes a link to a video where he questions Harris on what is original in his thesis. Contrary to the (again unnecessarily hostile) title of the video, Harris doesn't "evade" the question, which suggests some kind of dishonesty, but nor does he give an answer that I find especially satisfying.

18 comments:

Peter Beattie said...

To be honest, I fail to see what it is that Earp put “rather well”. What he does well, I would argue, is to rehash some tired and slightly hyterical assertions about Harris that have little, if any, basis in fact.

To start with, Earp appears to quote Harris as saying that his claim (that “science can determine human values”) is a “bold new” one. That is false. It is not a quote from the book under consideration, and to my knowledge Harris has never said this.

Next up, Earp boldly asserts that Harris pretends to be “revolutionizing moral philosophy”. That is false. The book makes no such claim, and to my knowledge Harris has never made it anywhere. (Incidentally, Earp gives no specific references to TML whatsoever, which is a little odd for any kind of review.)

We’re only into the third paragraph, and here’s the next whopper:

That Harris could be naive enough to think he’s really bridged the famous “is/ought” chasm seems incredible, and so I submit that he’s exaggerating* to sell books. Shame on him.

*A previous version of this post had the word “lying” here, but I was told that my rhetorical flourish might be interpreted as libel. I hope “exaggerating” is sufficiently safe.


To say that the parenthetical remark was stupid might be interpreted as libel, so I’m just going to say that it was not very clever. Neither would accusing Harris of lying have been a “rhetorical flourish”.

But more importantly, it is utterly disingenuous to bluntly assert that Harris thinks he “bridged the famous ‘is/ought’ chasm”, when (on p. 38 if you’d care to look it up yourself) he says the purely abstract is–ought distinction simply doesn’t enter into questions about the “experience of conscious beings”. You may very well think this is in need of further explanation, but to pretend that Harris accepts Hume’s terms and pretends to have found a solution within that frame of reference is, at the very least, grossly negligent.

Consequently, in his rather cartoonish treatment of the is–ought problem, Earp attributes to Hume the idea “that there is no way to reason from facts about the way the world is, to statements about the way the world should be”. Hume in fact said almost the exact opposite: to get from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’, “’tis necessary … that a reason should be given” for how the two are related. Earp, however, makes no attempt to show how Harris’s reasons for relating the two concepts fail. Instead, he goes with the Catchy Fallacy Name Fallacy.

What follows next is a string of brilliant arguments, the most convincing of which are: “Science cannot tell us how to live. It cannot tell us right and wrong.” Actually, it is as with ‘truth’: Science cannot show us what truth is, but it can show us what is true. Which also deals handily with Earp carping about how Harris evaded his question during the debate.

And finally, the childish, “Oh! I see! So by ‘science’ you meant, ‘philosophy’ … ! Now I get it.” I don’t think he does, actually. Neither did he honestly try to, I don’t think. To argue—and I am overstating quite a bit there—that seeing no firm partition between science and philosophy (cp. TML, p. 195n2) means equating them is hardly worthy of a graduate student anywhere, let alone Oxford. It also seems to betray an astonishing lack of historical perspective.

In a word: what did he put rather well?

Russell Blackford said...

Well, to answer properly I'd have to repeat the entirety of my long pieces on Harris. But I don't think any of these criticisms by Earp and others are "slightly hysterical" - that in itself seems like an over-the-top (hysterical?) way of putting it.

They may be "tired" in the sense that people like me have already made them (at greater length), but that doesn't mean they are wrong or should no longer be said.

Harris does, indeed, claim that science can determine values, and he is quite dismissive of Hume's point - perhaps moreso in his speeches and blog posts than in the book itself, but I've read the book several times now, and I can report that every time I do so in a mood to interpret Harris charitably I find passages in which he disclaims making modest points and claims that he really is saying something dramatic and new. The dramatic sub-title of the book might not be something Harris chose, so too much notice should not be taken of it in isolation, but the text does support the idea that Harris is claiming to use science to determine values.

But anything he says along those lines turns out to be unconvincing. He also shows every sign of not understanding Hume. In any event, his attempt to bridge the is/ought gap is rather contrived and unimpressive. Arguably Hume himself thought the gap could be bridged, but only via appeals to our desires and an instrumental conception of reason. Harris doesn't seem to understand that at all, and instead attempts to defend highly implausible definitions of such words as "should". (I cover this at length in my JET piece.)

The fact is that Harris never shows how science can determine our values. If we begin by valuing something that he calls the well-being of conscious creatures, then we have some hope of nailing down what we think this is (but not especially scientifically), and empirical inquiry generally then has some hope of telling us what actions will maximise this value. But Earp is correct that Harris never tells us how science can require us to value the well-being of conscious creatures. Indeed, Harris has pretty much admitted since the book that this value is not determined by science but is something more like his own bedrock intuition: "My spade is turned," he says following Wittgenstein.

Harris never even shows us how science can give us any unexpected recommendations as to how we might live our lives in pursuit of maximising the well-being of conscious creatures. Earp is correct that the examples Harris tends to offer are merely those which fit our commonsense intuitions, at least among educated people in the West - e.g., don't throw acid in people's faces, don't support burqa wearing, and so on.

Earp is also correct that the book is rather disappointing in the way it connects neuroscience to its moral recommendations. (This is not a "tired" point - I don't think it's a point that other critics have tended to focus on.) When you read the book carefully, neuroscience is actually invoked in a rather vague way to support the proposition that there are facts about happiness, pain, etc. But that's not something I, for one, ever doubted, and you don't need to be a neuroscientist to reach such a broad conclusion. The general tendency of neuroscience, over many decades now, may well undermine mind/body dualism and may suggest that pains, pleasures, etc., are (or are caused by) brain states, but that claim is hardly new. It wasn't even new forty or fifty years ago. The book would have needed to say something far more detailed and surprising in relation to this for it to be especially impressive.

Russell Blackford said...

None of which is to say that it's a bad book - certainly it's not as bad as Earp makes out - and I find plenty to praise it for in my long discussion in JET. Some people even criticise me for being too kind about the book in my writings on it. But in any event, it does have these problems and others, and Earp seems to me to be onto some of this stuff and to say it lucidly.

Peter Beattie said...

But Earp is correct that Harris never tells us how science can require us to value the well-being of conscious creatures.

Well, let’s start with this. Why is this even relevant? Science also cannot show us why we should value health. Nonetheless, it seems rather uncontroversial that science can determine what is healthy and what isn’t.

Consequently, Harris nowhere says that his book is about “how science can require us to value the well-being of conscious creatures”. On the contrary, he explicitly says that this is something we might as well just take for granted (just as we take for granted that medicine is about health), and for good measure he argues that most conceptions of morality that on the face of it seem to be about something else in the end reduce to well-being.

Russell Blackford said...

Peter, I'm not the one who claims that science can determine our values. That's a claim that Harris makes. You should be criticising him for saying that science can determine our values if you don't think that science can require us to value health.

The point is that Harris does claim that science can determine our values. But the value he operates with throughout is one that is not determined by science at all: the well-being of conscious creatures. It turns out that even if we can nail down what that is, science does not require us to value it. Nor is it clear that science can require us to value anything else (glory, health, honour, truth, rightness with God, our own survival ... or whatever people have seen as valuable over the centuries). All it might be able to do is play some role in telling us what actions will achieve our values, whatever they are. But that is hardly even controversial.

Peter Beattie said...

Let me try again. The analogy is this: Science cannot show us what truth is, but it can determine what is true. Similarly, science cannot require us to value health, but it can (and does) determine what is healthy and what is not. So, whether or not science can determine (which only means ‘to decide firmly’) what is moral and what isn’t, the more radical complaint that science cannot show us what morality is seems to me completely irrelevant. If you think that science can determine what is true and what is healthy, then there should be no obstacle in principle to its determining what is moral.

Have there been any convincing attempts at refuting this argument? (My understanding, btw, is that Mill first used this argument, but maybe you can think of earlier examples, for which I’d be very grateful.)

Verbose Stoic said...

Peter,

Science can indeed tell us what is healthy and what isn't, as long as we roughly agree on what it means to be healthy. Harris tries to do that with well-being, but while he claims that it underpins most moral codes it turns out that when we try to ask what is meant by "well-being" most of them disagree on that, so that the objections that he thinks he's avoiding he really isn't.

Beyond it just being a personal interest, I really like mustering the Stoics against Harris. Looking at Harris' broad comments on well-being, it's quite certain that he and the Stoics have completely different ideas of well-being. But they cannot be simply dismissed; they claim to be basing their morality on strict rational analysis. How can Harris accommodate them as having at least potentially a viable moral code and not also include psychopaths or people who just enjoy the suffering of others?

And note that looking at the brain will not settle this, because the Stoics and others will concede that there are differences in the brain but note that Harris needs an argument to show that the brain patterns HE wants to use are the ones that ought to be used, reintroducing the is/ought problem.

Anonymous said...

Forgive my unphilosophical mind venturing into this. But the health/truth/moral parallel strikes me as very unconvincing.

Sure, science can say what's healthy or true without necessarily (I suppose) defining abstract concepts of health or truth. But that's because what's healthy or true *is* empirically judgeable - ie, if you're sufficiently not healthy you'll die, say; or it's true that if you jump out of a flying plane you will plummet to your death.

There isn't a parallel statement about what's moral, because - which is the point of the whole argument, isn't it? - what's moral is precisely what's in dispute in the first place.

Russell Blackford said...

I don't think it's naive, Anonymous (would you like to establish some sort of identity beyond that?).

It's true that science is one source of our knowledge of facts about the world, and I think it is continuous with the other sources of this knowledge (so I don't think science is "limited" in that regard in any interesting way .. but that's another story).

If we already tend think that we should act like utilitarians, then, sure, science is a source of knowledge as to how we can go about doing so.

But that's not new, and it doesn't amount to science determining our values, or telling us what we should value or anything of the sort.

I actually think that there are good arguments as to why moral standards should aim at, in a very broad sense, certain values roughly evoked by "the well-being of conscious creatures" - but those arguments are not such as to be rationally compelling to all comers. They are not arguments toward a kind of scientific fact. And even if we accept them, the concept they use ("the well-being of conscious creatures") is sufficiently vague that it won't give us the kinds of precise and determinate answers that Harris seems to think are in-principle possible, in the more theoretical passages in the book.

So, Harris has written a lucid book that ought to convince a lot of people of a lot of stuff if they start out with similar basic moral assumptions. That's a useful thing to do. I don't sneer at it the way does. But it is a lot less than the book claims to be.

Richard Wein said...

Peter,

"If you think that science can determine what is true and what is healthy, then there should be no obstacle in principle to its determining what is moral."

Even assuming we accept that what's true for health is also true for well-being, the conclusion doesn't follow unless we also adopt the premise that moral facts are just facts about well-being. But that's a controversial premise which most of Harris's critics do not accept.

Different critics of Harris focus on different issues, some of which seem to me misguided or relatively unimportant. For me the crucial error lies in Harris's metaethical claim that moral facts are facts about what maximises well-being. Many philosophers ("moral naturalists") have made similar claims in the past, but their arguments have never stood up to careful scrutiny. The same is true of Harris's.

b.logg.earp said...

Dear Dr. Blackford,

This is Brian from Oxford - I want to thank you for continuing the discussion about Harris' book on your blog; I also want to let you know that I've re-titled the video, replacing "evades" with "responds to" ... Initially I had wanted to impute (at least mild) dishonesty to Harris, because, to his credit, I think he's smart enough to see the problems with his argument, yet in his response he painstakingly fails to address the critique. Nevertheless, I think you're right that it's unnecessary to bias the viewer's response to the video by coloring the title with "evades" - so, as I say, I've made the update. Best wishes,

Brian Earp

Peter Beattie said...

» Russell:
But the value he operates with throughout is one that is not determined by science at all: the well-being of conscious creatures. It turns out that even if we can nail down what that is, science does not require us to value it.

Neither is ‘health’ determined by science to be a value. Nevertheless, we do agree that science can (at least in principle) determine what is healthy and what is not, don’t we?

Furthermore, I think you’re equivocating on ‘values’. What Harris takes for granted is the primary value (if we insist on using the word) of well-being; science, in his view, can then determine secondary values, such as non-violence, caring for the sick and the poor, and so on. And it can do so by adjucating their being conducive to well-being.

What your complaint boils down to, as far as I can see, is exactly equivalent to saying that science cannot oblige us to accept health as a criterion for a science of medicine, hence the assertion that ‘science can determine what is healthy’ is preposterous. Is this not in effect what you are saying?

Peter Beattie said...

And as for my use of the word ‘hysterical’, there’s a fresh example just out, in Julian Baggini’s CiF piece:

What's worse, however, is when atheists talk of science as though it is the source of all the knowledge and wisdom we need to live. The most egregious recent example of this is Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape…

I am sorry, that is just false. And it is incredibly lazily so. Not only would that imply that Harris dismisses all of philosophy—in a book of philosophy, no less—but Harris is hugely into Buddhism and meditation, i.e. of course he doesn’t think that science can give us “all the wisdom we need to live”. And what is that even supposed to mean, “need to live”? Does that refer to anything Harris actually says?

And then there is the similarly hyperbolic (and that’s a conservative way of putting it) talk about the “rapturous reception Harris's book received from many atheists”—unnamed and unquoted, of course. When Ophelia said much the same thing about TML, she eventually conceded that she was mainly thinking of anonymous commenters on the web. I don’t see that Baggini’s fanciful description has any more merit. Which is why I chose a word to denote a delusional overreaction. Because the people so overreacting should know better—as Ophelia, at least with regard to the reception of TML, had the grace to acknowledge.

Richard Wein said...

Peter Beattie wrote:

> Furthermore, I think you’re equivocating on ‘values’. What Harris takes for granted is the primary value (if we insist on using the word) of well-being;

It's Harris who equivocates on "values", conflating moral value with value in a broad sense. Let's avoid the ambiguous word "value". Harris claims that science can answer moral questions. So let's focus on moral questions. The moral questions people are interested in are questions like "Is X morally bad?" and "Ought we to do Y?" Harris claims to be addressing questions of this sort.

It's Harris's claims about these moral questions which are the most controversial. If you don't want to defend him on morality, and just want to talk about well-being instead, that's up to you. But then you are not defending his central and most controversial claims.

You say that "Harris takes for granted...the primary value...of well-being". What does this mean in terms of morality? Do you think he's taking for granted that well-being has the primary moral value? But then he's taking for granted that which is most controversial. In fact he often appears to be attempting to justify this claim, not just taking it for granted. If he actually is taking it for granted, he needs to say so clearly.

Peter Beattie said...

I think you should try and make up your mind about what is actually “most controversial”—Harris saying that morality is all about well-being or his saying that science can (in principle) determine whether something is conducive to well-being. It cannot be both.

In any case, about the second option, Russell said it was “hardly even controversial”. And for the first one, Harris gives reasons and arguments, in a lengthy passage from p. 32 to p. 41. It doesn’t really speak well for the discussion that I have yet to see somebody address Harris’s arguments on this point, instead of waving their hands in the general direction of ‘Harris is begging the question’.

Peter Beattie said...

» Russell:
Harris has written a lucid book that ought to convince a lot of people of a lot of stuff if they start out with similar basic moral assumptions.

This is exactly what I think you misunderstand. It is not a moral assumption. Harris does not say we should strive for well-being, he says there is nothing else we can strive for (with regard to morality). And he gives evidence and arguments for this point of view, all of which you are certainly more than welcome to criticise. But to assume something that Harris explicitly disavows is not to do his book justice.

Richard Wein said...

Peter,

> I think you should try and make up your mind about what is actually “most controversial”—Harris saying that morality is all about well-being or his saying that science can (in principle) determine whether something is conducive to well-being. It cannot be both.

I take it this is a reply to me. If you read my comment again, you'll see I consistently focused on moral questions, and never said anything to suggest that the latter issue is the most controversial.

I was, however, a little inconsistent in another respect, which may have confused you. I first discussed moral questions in terms of the words "morally bad" and "ought", suggesting that we avoid the ambiguous word "value", which can be taken in both moral and broader senses. But in my final paragraph I myself used the word "value", because I wanted to clarify the meaning of a claim you made. However, I made it quite clear that I was talking about "morality" and "moral value". Unfortunately, you didn't respond to this request for clarification of your meaning.

I should add that I didn't mention the words "morality is all about well-being", because this is a vague and ambiguous statement. We need to be very careful in our choice of words, so as to eliminate ambiguity as much as possible.

The problem is that Harris himself is highly ambiguous, and we'll get nowhere unless we can disambiguate his claims. Or we may have to conclude, as I do, that he is conflating meanings, and that his writing on this subject is irremediably ambiguous and equivocal.

> In any case, about the second option, Russell said it was “hardly even controversial”. And for the first one, Harris gives reasons and arguments, in a lengthy passage from p. 32 to p. 41. It doesn’t really speak well for the discussion that I have yet to see somebody address Harris’s arguments on this point, instead of waving their hands in the general direction of ‘Harris is begging the question’.

It's hardly fair to criticise people for not addressing (here) Harris's arguments in support of his claims, when the dispute has been over just what it is that he's claiming.

Anyway, I'm going to drop the subject now, as I've spent too much time on it already.

William Skyvington said...

In the most noble domain of all, mathematics, there used to be a distinction (at least in my native Australia) between pure mathematics and applied mathematics. In the case of moral philosophy, we might imagine a similar distinction between pure ethics and applied morality. The former might encompass all the British mumbo-jumbo so dear to my archaic mentor, Alan Ker Stout [1900-1983], bless his primeval soul. The latter would admit, of course, the brilliant cogitations of Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape.

Insofar as "science can determine human values", we should imagine that human genes transmit moral values from a parent to his/her offspring. Today, we happen to be faced with an exceptionally dramatic case study in this domain. A young French guy was recently "neutralized" by police after seven horrible and senseless assassinations in the vicinity of Toulouse. Today, his Algerian father has decided to attack France in the lawcourts for having killed his son. To my mind, it would be interesting to perform some kind of comparative study of the respective moral landscapes of the son and of the father, to cast light upon the frightening similitude of their apparent ethical beliefs.