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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Sam Harris clarifies position, replies to critics

For the moment, this is just a heads-up. As I said previously, I think that Harris is approximately right, but I don't think he has successfully defended himself against the criticisms that have been made of his fundamental metaethics (e.g. his reply to my point about psychopaths or unsympathetic, but rational, alien monsters misses the point). Still, see for yourself.

There's a note of exasperation in the whole piece. Understandable, I suppose, but most of the people he's replying to are his allies on more general issues, and are attempting to engage in courteous and rational discussion. We simply have our own views about the relationships among metaethics, normative ethics, empirical inquiry, and so on. Some of us may even fondly imagine that it would help him refine and strengthen his position if he accepted the force of some of our points. We're basically on his side.

In my case, it's a well-developed view. I don't have a book coming out about it, but I've sketched aspects of it in refereed journal articles. The book is a project for another year.

I'll return to this in more detail over the next few days.


josef said...

Russell, what other argument, besides yours, do you think he failed to rebut? Sean Carrol's?

For me, I agree essentially, especially with Harris's attack on is/ought. As we learn more about consciousness I feel we are going to incite a Humean inspired fundamentalism, people will hold more strongly to is/ought the more it comes under attack from research showing the biological basis of pains and pleasures.

And something that no one wants to admit, but I think is true, is that "morality is subjective" has won adherents because it is comforting to people to think that their most personal beliefs are exempt from criticism. And that sentiment too will cause recoil against Harris.

Daniel said...


Could you please speak directly to this point?

From Harris's article:

"It is also worth noticing that Carroll has set the epistemological bar higher for morality than he has for any other branch of science. He asks, “Who decides what is a successful life?” Well, who decides what is coherent argument? Who decides what constitutes empirical evidence? Who decides when our memories can be trusted? The answer is, “we do.” And if you are not satisfied with this answer, you have just wiped out all of science, mathematics, history, journalism, and every other human effort to make sense of reality.

And the philosophical skepticism that brought us the division between facts and values can be used in many other ways that smart people like Carroll would never countenance. In fact, I could use another of Hume’s arguments, the case against induction, to torpedo Carroll’s entire field, or science generally. The scientific assumption that the future will lawfully relate to the past is just that—an assumption. Other people are free to assume that it won’t. In fact, I’m free to assume that the apparent laws of nature will expire on the first Tuesday of the year 3459. Is this assumption just as good as any other? If so, we can say goodbye to physics."

This seems to be at the crux of this debate. Is a deep philosophical underpinning of morality an unreasonable expectation in the same way that a deep, assumption-free, justification for rationality/science is?

Russell Blackford said...

Okay, guys, but you might have to wait a day or two. His response raises a lot complex issues, and I could see myself writing multiple 2000-word posts to cover them all properly. Clearly, I won't have time to do that.

One thing I should say. I started off a few days ago by saying that I think he's approximately right, and I made various observations in his support. I'll add that it's even possible that I'd consider him entirely right if I translated his initial speech into my own language, making some charitable assumptions about what he's getting at.

I doubt that he'd accept any such translation, but I'm more interested in finding common ground with him and clearing up points of confusion than I am in a contest of who's more clever or who has more impressive rhetoric (he may win on both counts). I've mainly been thinking about ways in which we might be talking at cross-purposes. E.g. there seem to be different notions in play of what "objective" means, what a "value" is, and so on.

For example, if Sam had said that morality is non-arbitrary I'd agree with him. To me, and in much of the philosophical literature as I understand it, "objective" means something stronger. His use of that word may have a purpose, but clearly it means something quite strong to a lot of people, perhaps stronger than he really had in mind; so, while it may be valuable in communicating to some audiences it may be causing a problem when communicating to others. I'm not sure about this; I'm just speculating at the moment that it could be part of the problem that's arisen.

Hopefully Sam has the same constructive attitude as I'm trying to express, but he does seem pissed off at the moment, especially with Sean Carroll. In a tweet yesterday, he referred to Sean's views as "stupidity". I hope he'll soon feel a bit differently about that. He, Sean, and I are all on the same side in our overall objectives and views of the world. At least, I hope we are.

Daniel said...

Thanks, Russell. I'll be eagerly awaiting your next response.

Russell Blackford said...

Meanwhile, my long comment to George Felis on the previous thread might be of some use.

Richard Wein said...

Hi Russell. For what it's worth, I think you're being extremely generous to Sam Harris, far more so than you usually are to people who make equally poor arguments but don't share so many of your views. Perhaps the different treatment is justified on the grounds that you have some hope of getting through to Harris if you treat him nicely, whereas many of the other people you criticise seem beyond reason, so you might as well have the satisfaction of tearing them to shreds. (Well, that's the way _I_ sometimes think!)

At the core of Harris's attempt to get an "ought" from an "is" lies a fallacy of equivocation. He insists on the central importance of consciousness to morality, but expresses this so vaguely that it leads him to conflate two very different claims:
A. Things can only have moral value to a conscious entity.
B. Only the wellbeing of conscious entities can be of moral value.
Moral anti-realists would probably agree with A but deny B (I would). Harris argues for A, and then helps himself to B.

Russell Blackford said...

That equivocation may well be part of the trouble. It's true that values always have something to do with the experience (and possibly even the well-being if this is defined broadly enough) of conscious entities. But I agree that that is very vague and allows for various kinds of equivocation.

Anyway, I need to think about it.

I do think it's worth trying to discuss courteously with people who are essentially allies, share a lot of values and goals, etc. The same courtesy that would be displayed in a philosophy seminar seems appropriate in a case like this.

Which is why I am a bit dismayed at the boots-and-all attitude Sam Harris himself seems to be taking towards Sean Carroll. Sean is definitely not stupid or even displaying out-of-character stupidity.

Anonymous said...

Harris has now apologized to Carroll:


Jean Kazez said...

Maybe a little cryptic, as the business about morality making us find life meaningful seems to be covered in just one sentence in your "conclusion." That does seem to be his answer to the question "why be moral?" as much as he admits it won't answer the question for everyone.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...


How is what Sam's saying much different from the sort of thing Jesse Prinz says in his emotional affective theory of moral judgments?

(I mean, I can see the obvious differences, but why does Sam have to pretend he's taking on "moral philosophers" in order to cast himself in some righteous struggle against the Ivory Tower? This is just stupid and annoying, for a public intellectual to feel so little need to answer the requirements to which practicing academics are, for good reasons, subject.)

Anonymous said...

You have to already know Jesse, but for everyone else's benefit:


Richard Wein said...

Hi Daniel. I'll attempt to answer your question, though I know it's a poor substitute for getting a reply from Russell.

"This seems to be at the crux of this debate. Is a deep philosophical underpinning of morality an unreasonable expectation in the same way that a deep, assumption-free, justification for rationality/science is?"

I wouldn't say that a "deep philosophical underpinning" is required. I would just say that we should rationally scrutinise our beliefs as far as we reasonably can, and that includes our beliefs about the nature of morality. Perhaps there are certain beliefs which we are powerless to scrutinise. But that does not give us grounds for exempting other beliefs from rational scrutiny. All we can do is our best!

I would argue that we are rationally justified in rejecting the existence of objective moral facts. We have no idea how to explain the concept of objective moral facts in terms of better-understood concepts (like physical facts). That leaves them deeply mysterious (or "queer" as J.L.Mackie famously described them). And I would argue that parsimony dictates we should reject a deeply mysterious claim that isn't needed. We can explain our moral experiences and behaviour more parsimoniously without invoking objective moral facts.

Can the same argument be applied to objective physical facts? If we accept the argument against moral reality, does consistency require us to reject the existence of physical reality, or our ability to know anything about physical reality? I don't think so. It's not clear that our sensory experiences (or apparent memories of them) can be more parsimoniously explained without invoking objective physical facts than with them. But if they can, our choice seems to be to reject physical reality or reject the principle of parsimony, both of which seem to leave us in trouble.

Dino Rosati said...

I posted this on Sam's site:

I find the positions of Sean Carroll and Russell Blackford, both of whom I admire greatly, to be surfing from a kind of Godelian vertigo when we come to this is/ought nonsense.

Godel showed that even in the pristine world of mathematics, non-trivial systems can never be both complete and logically consistent. This did not render the enterprise of mathematics pointless. Enormous amounts of mathematical knowledge pours daily from those industrious minds.

As Sam has repeatedly pointed out, splitting philosophical hairs may be an entertaining occupation in the Ivory Towers but if we are to survive contact with reality, humanity must converge on rules for living together that attempt to maximize useful metrics for the health of societies. This must become a high priority SCIENTIFIC enterprise if any headway is to be made.

When I read quotes like "I’ve never yet seen an argument that shows that psychopaths are necessarily mistaken about some fact about the world" (Blackford) or "Why should we value human well-being?" (Carroll) from very smart and admirable minds I begin to despair for the world.

Kudos to Sam for shining some light on these matters.

Ophelia Benson said...

Hmm. He seems to think all the objections are simply 'moral relativism'...but that's not it.

Thomas Dent said...

... humanity must converge on rules for living together that attempt to maximize useful metrics for the health of societies. This must become a high priority SCIENTIFIC enterprise if any headway is to be made.

- In other words, we should have a scientific technocracy rather than a constitutional democracy.

Scientists will decide what is best for Society and for you based on their intense study of your brains, and if you disagree, they will point to Objective Evidence that you are wrong. Politics and juries will become unnecessary once we have converged on Rules for Living Together and found the means to implement them by precise scientific methods.

Tell me that's not what lies behind all of this...

March Hare said...

Why does Sam insist on saying the well-being of conscious creatures is the ultimate metric for morality?

He makes the (dubious) claim that consciousness exists, that it exists in other creatures and that its well-being is of greater importance than any other idea we can imagine. Without one shred of evidence or logic that this is the case.

Russell rightly points out that freedom (or liberty or autonomy) could be equally good, or complimentary, metrics that might actually decrease the well-being of conscious creatures but are nevertheless worthwhile goals.

Sam does not suggest how it would be possible to measure whether harm to one person could be offset by happiness to others let alone whether this would be virtuous or if we should try to attain some Pareto optimal solution.

The assumption that conscious well-being is the highest goal fails miserably when applied to religion. A truly religious community may well be better off with their women folk in cloth bags if they really believe that it is the will of Allah and they will be rewarded for eternity. They are wrong on so many levels but, ironically, Sam's logic actually may lead to the same outcomes as the worst positions of moral relativism that he rails against.

Russell Blackford said...

I suppose autonomy has something to do with our well-being. I mean, at least one reason why I want autonomy is that I want to make my own judgments about what will be for my well-being. I don't trust others or the state to make those judgments for me or to tell me what to do on some other basis. But "something" is a very broad word.

March Hare said...

Autonomy also includes the opportunity to completely mess up our well-being.

I am of a libertarian bent and I accept that it will likely lead to injustice, inequality and suffering much more than any existing western society currently does. This is an intellectual choice that no matter how much empathy I may have with my fellow humans I simply cannot escape the intellectual arguments that led me to the view I have. Even with proof that it leads to a lower well-being of conscious creatures I would still have to choose it.

I am surprised no-one picks Sam up when he moves from what is an obvious utilitarian view that we should maximise the well-being of conscious creatures then, later, describes a flourishing society as the highest good. Which one is it, Sam? A flourishing society or conscious well-being? You can't have your cake and eat it on this one. A flourishing society tends to come at the price of massive suffering for some people compared to a more stable and equal society.

Dino Rosati said...

"In other words, we should have a scientific technocracy rather than a constitutional democracy"

Hmm, looks like it's about time for your paranoia medication.

Why not let the scientists investigate metrics for a healthy society, like gender equality, literacy, longevity, etc, and the moral, political, economic rules that might maximize said metrics? Then we can have our constitutional democracies decide whether they would like to enact such rules.

"Hmm. He seems to think all the objections are simply 'moral relativism'...but that's not it."

I guess my point about Godelian vertigo was a bit obscure. As Sam notes the heart of the matter is: "'Who decides what is a successful life?' Well, who decides what is coherent argument? Who decides what constitutes empirical evidence? Who decides when our memories can be trusted?"

When justifying a position on values one eventually slams into a cognitive wall as impenetrable as Godel's incompleteness theorem. There is no way to step outside the system and see absolute truths. All logical systems require some axioms that cannot be justified within the system. But that's OK. We don't need absolute truths. We need explanations that work well enough to improve our collective lot in life. Stuffing women into cloth bags to prevent their bodies form driving us poor men into sinful rages of lust is obviously not one of them.

Science is the art of not fooling yourself, to paraphrase Richard Feynman. Its an enterprise devoted to separating explanations that work form those that don't.
There are no reason-free-zones and this is especially true moral reasoning.

That Guy Montag said...

March Hare:

I find it's very easy to escape the horrors of Libertarianism: have a decent conception of liberty that understands that being born black/a woman/in poverty/otherwise lacking in power is not a choice and therefore it is right to distribute to correct for this; Freedom properly understood is equality. The what and how of equality is however a whole different kettle of fish.

Thomas Dent:

Can I suggest you rethink your assertion that someone who believes science has something to tell us about morality believes that we are arguing for some kind of scientist based technocracy? Maybe someone like myself would assert that Science is not scientists but rather it is engaging in the best process of reasoning we have available to us, regardless of the question. A way to get that point across is to realise that while Astronomers and Biologists use completely different tools, both literal tools and cognitive tools, to draw conclusions we still think both are doing science; Russell has argued before, and I certainly agree, that Philosophy at the very least overlaps with science and most probably can be considered a science; there is nothing saying that Ethics can't be a science in exactly the same way as philosophy, biology and astronomy are all science in this sense.

Ophelia Benson said...

Can I suggest you rethink your assertion that someone who believes science has something to tell us about morality believes that we are arguing for some kind of scientist based technocracy?

But Harris isn't just saying "science has something to tell us about morality," he's saying something much stronger than that, and it's that much stronger (mostly) that people are disputing.