Can science have moral authority?
Sam Harris argues in this TED talk that science can be an authority on moral issues. It's a superb performance, and I think he's got it approximately right.
It seems clear to me that any source of information about the world is also potentially a source of information - taken together with our values - about how we should act, what moral systems we should want to have in place, what dispositions of character we'd like to develop in ourselves and our children, and what laws and government policies we should vote for. I'd think it's obvious that science can give us information that's relevant to all these things. If these are the sorts of things that are covered by "moral issues" - and it seems clear enough, at least to me, that they are - then science can give us some guidance on moral issues. To at least some extent, then, it can have moral authority.
The reason is simply that, to some extent, science can give us information about what individual conduct, moral systems, laws, and so on are likely to lead to such plausible goals for all these things as individual and collective human flourishing, social survival, and reduction of suffering. Any source of information about what will lead to goals such as these has some moral authority.
Religion, science, and morality
Religion could have moral authority if it were actually a reliable source of information about the world. If religion could give us accurate information that acting in such and such way will lead to such and such consequences, then it could, at least to some extent, have moral authority. If the prophets and other authors of holy books were genuinely receiving information from a god or other supernaturally knowledgeable being, a being with an epistemic advantage over us, then we would be very wise to pay attention.
The difficulty is this: in the real world the holy books seem no more reliable about moral issues than they are about such matters such as the age of the Earth. Sophisticated religious adherents tend to interpret the holy books more in keeping with what they know from elsewhere about what conduces to human flourishing (or social survival, reduction of suffering, and so on). Far from being authoritative, the holy books end up needing to be interpreted in the light of secular wisdom about what actually conduces to, say, widespread human flourishing.
By contrast, various fields of science can now study many aspects of the world, including human nature, and the outcomes may have many implications for how we should act, what laws we should support, etc. As we learn more from science, this can feed back into popular moral understandings. Hume believed in moral progress, as understanding increased and civilization developed; and, in principle, I see no reason to think that he was wrong about this. As we know more, we can make better decisions in respect of moral issues.
To date, however, science is limited in what it can actually deliver. Given the current state of sciences such as psychology, the quality of any advice coming from science still leaves much to be desired. We do not have an exact science of what best contributes to, say, widespread human flourishing. In principle, we can develop this science, but for the moment we must rely to a large degree on such things as literature, historical experience, folk understandings of what makes people happy, and our own experiences as individuals. Moral philosophers need to reflect on all of these things; but at least in principle, science can deliver much useful information. We can expect it to get better and better.
Ultimate values and rational reflection
What science can't do, even in principle, is tell us what our ultimate values or the totality of our values should be. Religion can't do that either.
We can, of course, reflect on our own values, trying to get them into some sort of order. Perhaps I place too much value on eating chocolate, given that I also value not developing obsesity. Okay, I can make a decision to try to lower the value I place on eating chocolate. At the least, I can try to think about the value of not developing obesity on the many occasions when I'd like to buy and/or eat chocolate. Maybe I can keep my chocolate consumption down that way, even though eating chocolate is still, all other things being equal, something that I value (and will indulge in from time to time). I don't have to be a slave to each particular value or desire that I find I have.
However, when I engage in this sort of rational reflection I try to sort out which values are really most important to me, what values I have about what values I want to retain, and so on. In doing that, I never step out of the entirety of my values at once. I always need more than just facts about the world, the "more" being my total system of values. Science cannot enable me to step out of all my values at once, though it can certainly give me some relevant information. Neither can religion. There's no substitute for my own rational reflection on what I value most.
Values and facts
I agree, more or less, with Harris' story about how we should actually act, trying to create a world of widespread flourishing for human beings and other sentient creatures (by standards of flourishing that he and I would largely share). I disagree, however, with his claim that "values are facts". Nothing he said on that was convincing.
Sure, it can be a fact that "Person X values some particular thing." And Person X's valuing that thing, or having that value, may well consist (why not?) in Person X having a particular neurophysiology. Moreover, if I value Person Y being happy, it can be a fact that the thing I value exists - i.e. that Person Y is (by some appopriate standard) happy. Moreover, Person Y's happiness may consist in some neurophysiological state.
So it can be a fact (even with a physical instantiation) that someone values something, and it can be a fact (even with a physical instantiation) that something I value actually exists. But the following are propositions which can be true or false: "Person X values such and such a thing" and "The thing that Person X values exists." Valuing, desiring, fearing, and so on are not the assertion of propositions.
The fact that the possession of a value or the act of valuing has a physical (neurophysiological) substrate does not mean that the valuing itself, or the having of the value, is the kind of thing that can be mistaken. When, for example, I value eating chocolate or desire to eat a chocolate, I am not making a claim that can be true or false. I want the world to be such that chocolate will continue to be available to me, or such that I can get chocolate now. I'm not claiming anything about how the world actually is - the kind of thing that I could be wrong about.
What was more convincing in the Harris talk, though hardly surprising, was that there was widespread agreement on values in the audience. Apart from psychopaths, most people actually do agree a lot on values. Psychopaths basically lack sympathy for others, which is to say that they don't value others' non-suffering in the way that most of us do. (It's actually a bit more complicated than this, as they also tend to lack the normal capacity for prudence, and so they tend to get caught, but we can easily imagine somebody with the psychology of a cunning and prudent psychopath. If necessary, imagine it's an intelligent alien with no feelings of sympathy for human beings.)
I've never yet seen an argument that shows that psychopaths are necessarily mistaken about some fact about the world. Moreover, I don't see how the argument could run, since it's easy to imagine pointing out to the psychopath, as he tortures me, that I'm suffering extreme pain, terror, and so on. The psychopath can know all this, but simply not care. When the psychopath values being able to torture me, he (it will probably be a "he") is not making any factual claim. The fact that he has this value may consist in his neurological state. The fact that what he values exists may consist in mine. But he does not assert any mistaken proposition about the world such as, "Russell is not in pain." He knows all the facts, but he acts differently from a normal human being because he values different things. He's not mistaken about something ... but he's certainly dangerous to the rest of us, giving us a reason to lock him up.
There are also various differences in values among people who are not psychopaths, and again none of those people are necessarily making any mistake about facts about the world. They simply disagree in their settled wishes about how they want the world to be.
If one person, after full reflection, wants the world to be peaceful and gentle, and another wants it to be full of glorious battles and victories, that's a difference in their values, but it need not mean either is making a mistake about any matter of fact. Both may have very good knowledge of how things are, but they have different preferences as to how they want things to be. They will fail to convince each other because they don't disagree on the facts. Each will need to appeal to considerations that the other does not accept and cannot be compelled by reason to accept.
I don't think that Harris is going to overturn the standard Humean approach to the fact/value or reason/desire distinction any time soon. No one else has ever succeeded, and his argument here wasn't all that original. As I understood his point - though maybe I got this wrong - it was mainly that valued psychological states, such as a particular person's happiness, can actually exist and have physical instantiations. That is true, but it's not surprising, and it does not bridge the divide between fact and value.
Still, he doesn't need to do anything so dramatic. No fundamental advance in metaethics or moral psychology is required to demonstrate that we can obtain action-guidance from science (and could gain action-guidance from holy books if they were reliable sources of information about the world). What Harris said was, for all my quibbles, nonetheless a pretty good practical approximation to the truth about morality.
We can assume a great deal of consensus on what counts as flourishing and on the value in contributing to the widespread flourishing of others (not just ruthlessly seeking it for ourselves as individuals); on the self-defeating and socially-destructive outcome of a ruthless approach to seeking our own pleasure; and other such matters which, taken one by one, are not all that contentious. This is enough to get to a rough consensus or convergence on a rational moral system, and doubtless to overturn a lot of traditional religious morality in the process.
Incidentally, Harris is also correct in principle that more than one moral system might do the job. Moral systems are not arbitrary - there is a largely-uncontroversial point to them - but nor is there necessarily a "One Best System" that is fully determined by facts about the world. There may be many high peaks on a landscape of possible moral systems.
Simplicity and approximation
I don't doubt that it would be rhetorically helpful if we could claim that values are objective in some stronger sense than I can accept.
As I watched the Harris video, I tried to imagine myself giving a similar talk, and it was obvious to me that if I even raised the issues where I'm disagreeing I'd get bogged down making subtle distinctions that might confuse the audience. You can be more forthright and straightforward and rhetorically effective if you have a simple story to tell. But alas, none of that entails that any simple story is more than an approximation.
I agree on many parts of your post, but I'm somewhat confused by the way you run together value and morality. You say..
"The fact that the possession of a value or the act of valuing has a physical (neurophysiological) substrate does not mean that the valuing itself, or the having of the value, is the kind of thing that can be mistaken. When, for example, I value eating chocolate or desire to eat a chocolate, I am not making a claim that can be true or false."
Right. Valuing a chocolate cake is not, like believing that there is a chocolate cake in front of me, something which is truth-apt. But as you admit, there is a fact which describes this valuing. So the existence of values entail facts, and can be said to supervene on those facts. So why do you disagree that values are facts? Earlier on you tell us..
"What science can't do, even in principle, is tell us what our ultimate values or the totality of our values should be."
But this is different - here you're talking about moral facts. So I take it that your view is not that values are not factual, but that moral values are not factual. Then again, I'm not sure that's what you meant, because you also say..
"I always need more than just facts about the world, the "more" being my total system of values."
But if values are the more you need, and values entail facts, then all you really do need is a bunch of facts about the world to make your decision. Your second-order values will depend on your first-order values. Won't they?
Sorry, TaiChi but I find your comment very confusing. I don't see how values entail facts in any useful sense.
I agree that the fact that I value something entails something about my neurophysiology. But the fact that I have a value does not entail anything interesting, such as that the thing I value actually exists, or that someone who does not value the same thing is being irrational or making an error, or that someone who does not want me to have whatever it is that I value is being irrational. None of those sorts of things seem to be true, though philosophers have argued for somne of them.
I think it's misleading to say that our values entail facts. What's true is that the fact that I have values entails certain facts (such as the fact that I'm alive).
When I am valuing or desiring or fearing something I am not making a factual claim, although the fact that I am valuing or desiring or fearing something entails certain facts (e.g. I'm alive, I am not in a persistent vegetative state, my neurophysiology is in a certain state, etc).
Of course, I may value something that actually exists. If I value a particular piece of chocolate cake, nobody need deny that the chocolate cake exists. If the "value" is defined as "the thing valued" then the value exists, because the chocolate exists. But no one has ever denied this sort of claim. It's not the sort of thing that's at stake in the discussions.
Sam seems to be denying some conventional wisdom, but surely it can't be that what he is opposing is a claim that no valued things exist. No one has ever made such a claim.
If a moral fact is something like "X is happy", then of course moral facts exist, because it may well be true that X is happy. But again, no one has ever denied that. If this is all that Sam is saying, I'm not sure what position he is opposing or why he had to detour into talking about facts and values.
The interesting position that he seems to be opposing is Hume's position that desires (and hence valuings, hopes, fears, etc.) are not truth-apt like propositions or beliefs ... and that these things are needed to motivate us, along with beliefs about the world. But surely Hume is correct about this.
Maybe he'll turn up here and tell us what position he was trying to oppose.
Btw, moral values are just like any other values in these respects. To value, say, widespread human flourishing is not to make anything like a statement that can be true or false. But the fact that I value widespread human flourishing does entail such things as that I am alive. Moreover, widespread human flourishing can actually exist. Values that we call moral, such as widespread human flourishing, are, in these respects, just like values that we don't call moral, such as abundant chocolate.
wow i hope to read regular reviews by you. It's been a while since i did philosophy but i knew something was amiss in his presentation. The standing ovation from the audience was also a bit suss, reducing my level of respect for TED. You should have been giving this presentation. Wil
Thanks, wil ... but to be honest I don't think I would have given as good a presentation as Sam, even if all the technology, etc., worked perfectly for me. ;)
His presentation skills are excellent and getting better all the time. I just think that he's opened a can of worms with the fact/value stuff, perhaps unnecessarily for his main point.
Brilliant as always but I'm going to have to admit I disagree. This isn't a hard and fast disagreement of course, I think the fact/value, Is/ought distinction is a very robust distinction, but I've always had quibbles with it.
The first thing to say is that I don't want this to go down the route of identifying values with facts about mental states or such things. I suspect that ultimately I might need to but that doesn't seem like the kind of account we want to give about facts about moral values.
That said, I get the feeling there is quite a lot of overlap between this debate and mind/brain dualism. Famously most dualists seem to reach a point where they simply say "I can't conceive of the mind being the brain" and make all sorts of elaborate justifications that never amount to much more than that. Am I wrong in suggesting that the fact value distinction is something similar? If I'm right there, then the main barrier to being able to create a scientific account of values isn't some fundamental difference between is and ought, but a kind of failure of imagination, an inability to conceive of or create a proper story of values that grounds them in world, which is itself a prerequisite to any kind of scientific examination. I'm at work so I haven't had a chance to listen to Harris' talk yet, but I've had the sense before that he might have this same worry.
"imagine it's an intelligent alien with no feelings of sympathy for human beings . . ." Or your average modern-day human carnivore.
But I concur with Wil: good analysis. I saw the Sam Harris talk too, and wasn't convinced about some of it. Jean Kazez has blogged about it too: http://kazez.blogspot.com/2010/03/sam-harris-on-morality.html
Thanks Russell. I loved Harris' talk and I think it can help move things towards the direction he described. I appreciate your 'quibbles' and I neither agree nor disagree with them yet. I want to think about it some more. I thank you for opening this up for thought and discussion.
Just finished listening to Sam Harris talk and again he's saying a lot of things that resonate with my own suspicions here. I'm with Russell that there's no slam dunk refutation of is/ought and I'm still trying to tease out some of his thinking because it is nuanced, as we should expect from someone as well trained philosophically as Harris.
There are two points that I think should be raised. The first is that he seems to actually adopt a very Humean response in that our intuitions do a very good job of getting us off the ground in terms of morals, but that doesn't undermine the idea of moral expertise.
The second point that I think has a lot to tell us here is his answer to the last question where he talks about morals needing to relate to something bigger than the man who kills his gay son out of love. That seems to point to what a lot of Philosophers have realised, that a lot of very interesting things happen when we attempt to properly universalise not just our moral claims. This strikes me as the fundamental and very interesting insight in Nagel's View from Nowhere, which I would argue is a very good description of science, but it's equally obvious in Kant's Categorical Imperative and both Mill and Bentham's Utilitarianism.
The most obvious objection I can think of is that this isn't what a lot of people would consider Science but I'm firmly of the belief that people too often think science is about graphs and lab coats and not rather about making our beliefs fit reality. It seems that a proper acceptance of our intuitions and the awareness that not only is it possible for us to have expertise in moral reasoning, but that we have very robust methods already available to us, seems like it does the job we need.
Your ultimate conclusion of establishing 'consensus' towards a maximum of 'flourishingness' (whatever that might mean) is rather vague; illiberal (what do we do if a significant minority strongly disagrees?); and vaguely utilitarian in that it implies equating or comparing values between different people.
The standard objection to utilitarianism is that different people's values are incommensurable and I don't think science has helped us overcome that. Nor would I want to live in a world where my values could be scientifically evaluated and weighed against someone else's.
I don't see what's illiberal about it. This discussion of moral psychology, etc., is at a high level of abstraction, and nothing I've said entails that I'm against the harm principle, for example. (If anything, I think it tends to support classical liberal ideas such as the harm principle, but that's another story.)
It appeared to be the case that Sam reasonably presupposed the possibility of coming to universal agreement (within reason) over certain basic values. This is the most contentious aspect of his argument, and the least addressed. There are such universals: the care for the health and wellbeing of one’s offspring, for example. Given that such universals exist, these values could then serve as "facts" from which theorems could be developed and hypotheses tested.
It's important to note that this isn't quite as radical as it may seem; it is quite natural to make predications as to the outcome of certain actions relative to one's goals and values, perform said actions, and then compare the outcome to the prediction, making adjustments to the prediction as necessary. This precursor to the scientific process occurs at all levels of the human brain, to a greater or lesser extent.
With this in mind, what Sam is calling for is not just the application of a proven technique to morality, but also the institution that enforces the proper application of that technique.
Note the distinction here relative to religion. The institution in this case upholds certain standards of process, not product; thereby (ideally) avoiding the pitfalls of dogma.
It seems probable that our moral intuitions could use the kind of help that Science can offer. For that reason, I’m with Sam in experimenting with Science. What is right should correlate with what is true, right?
I agree with you completely Michael. In fact you managed to make most of the points I was leaning towards. What I would say is that I suspect Harris will say that the relationship between science and moral universals is a little deeper than only coming into play once we've got them off the ground. Nagel's View from Nowhere is I guess the best way to get this sort of claim off the ground. Essentially the argument goes that the defining virtue of science is objectivity. Objectivity if we understand it properly is an issue of perspective and in science the method is to try to develop claims that have the right perspective, essentially claims that aren't biassed by our standing in particular relation to what we're examining. The next step is just to say that removing bias is exactly what we do when we try to universalise our moral claims. As I mentioned this is exactly what Kant tries with his Catagorical Imperative, but both Mill and Bentham include claims that try to universalise Utilitarianism by saying things like the source of the utility shouldn't matter.
My current Metaphysics lecturer is very interesting in the way he asserts that Metaphysics is a science, the science of being and I'm inclined to say he isn't wrong. By the same token, I think we can say that philosophical Ethics is the science of morality and it's only a mistaken conception of science that makes this a difficult concept.
The problem is however that this still hasn't answered the is/ought. I don't have an answer here about how we can bridge that gap, but I don't see how I'm wrong in thinking it's possible. There was a time before Darwin when people found it impossible to conceive of the world around them not being designed; equally there are lots of philosophers out there who find it impossible to conceive how the experience of the mind can be caused by the brain. Just as both of these problems have been largely surmounted by better and better evidence and more and more conceptual work, I see no reason why the the is/ought gap isn't just as surmountable.
Well, bridging the is/ought gap is actually easy.
If action X is the way for me to satisfy my desire Y, then, all other things being equal, I ought to carry out action X. I.e., I have a reason for that action. If I have a higher order desire not to have desire Y, then it gets more complicated, but as long as all the desires and methods of satisfying them are eventually accounted for, it is possible in principle to work out what I ought to do.
The Humean point isn't so much that "is" and "ought" cannot be bridged as that you can only bridge the gap by bringing in something like a desire. And of course, different rational beings can have different, even opposed, desires. Moreover, there is the spectre of different/opposed desires remaining even after full rational discussion has taken place. It may be a brute fact that we just do differ in how we want the world to be.
Michael Smith used to argue that if we were fully informed on all of the is's then our desires would also converge, entailing that we'd be able to agree on how each person should act in each case, and thus we'd have a universally agreed morality. Maybe he still thinks this, but last time I heard him speak on this he seemed to have backed away from it somewhat.
But once you back away from it at all, you have a problem if you want to say that morality is objectively binding. It may not be just arbitrary (I don't think it is), but nor is it the sort of thing where universal and full agreement on facts about the world will entail universal and full agreement on how people ought to act, and where anyone who disagrees is making some sort of mistake.
Thus, it might be possible to account for all my desires and my means of satisfying them, and work out what, from my viewpoint, I should do. But someone else may, from her point of view, have reasons to prescribe that I act differently. Both may be equally rational in the sense that neither makes any mistakes about any question of fact.
By the way, I don't see the above as a huge problem. It seems to freak some people out, but I thinks it's something that grown-ups should just accept and work with. As children, we are taught moral rules as if there's no alternative to them - this is "good", that is "bad" - and we grow up with the childish assumption that there's a set of rules, if only we could discover it, that is completely determinate and categorically binding. But as adults we should accept that it's just not that simple.
And yet I still see the prospect of a huge amount of convergence if we work at it honestly together. For me, that's enough to sustain the enterprise.
Oh, and Thomas. While I don't think my views lead to any sort of political illiberalism ... I do fear that Sam's might. Perhaps that was what you meant?
He seems to me to overstate the idea that modern societies cannot sustain large differences in moral beliefs. He may be right if the differences are large enough, but I suspect that we can actually sustain a helluva lot of differences before we collapse. Maybe there are some positions that lie beyond the pale, but I'm not about to give up on liberal pluralism.
I my above comment I meant theories, not theorems.
This is feeling fiddly.
On the one hand, I can't deny the logic behind you're saying about the ought/is divide...
But at the same time, I keep going back to Sam's example of contrasting a failed state against an otherwise 'normal' state. It was clearly a pathetic (in the rhetorical sense) argument... But it's a hard one for me to refute.
So yeah - your argument that we can't get a totality of moral values from a description of reality makes sound logical sense... and yet something seems missing, and I can't put my finger on what it is.
I may be betraying my the commitment to critical reasoning here, which is concerning. But I can't get past that niggling little and yet feeling.
Anyway, I'm sure I had some kind of point I wanted to make when I started writing this, but I can't for the life of me articulate it - so I'll give up for now...
But I can't shake the feeling that there's something up with this argument. I need to think some more.
"If the prophets and other authors of holy books were genuinely receiving information from a god or other supernaturally knowledgeable being, a being with an epistemic advantage over us, then we would be very wise to pay attention."
Wise, yes, but such beings are like the psychopath you later imagine writ large. What the prophets and other authors of holy books tell us is that these beings are going to torture most of us for ever. The only moral response to such a being, if we believed it existed, would be Charles Péguy's- a willing aceptance of our own damnation rather than obedience to its commands.
I think Sam's biggest philosophical blunder here is going straight for "human flourishing" without really justifying it in any way. That our values are neurobiological facts does not imply that our values amount to seeking human flourishing. It's a colossal error, even though in practice human flourishing ends up being a good approximation indeed.
There are other problems, and shadows of problems. I'm not too impressed, philosophically (I am rhetorically).
"The fact that the possession of a value or the act of valuing has a physical (neurophysiological) substrate does not mean that the valuing itself, or the having of the value, is the kind of thing that can be mistaken."
Harris' view seems to equivocate having values that undermine human flourishing with having "mistaken" values. While I think that's false, we can perhaps come back to your "rough consensus" point. This gap can be bridged with the "Common Human Nature" assumption, which is why I think such "a rough consensus or convergence on a rational moral system" deserves to be called "Humanism". Under Humanism, people are mistaken when they value X and X is opposed to human suffering, because increasing human flourishing is their highest desire. This is an unrealistic type of Humanism, but that just makes Harris' point that morality is a science even clearer - clearly, establishing human nature and its varieties is a task for science. I'd note that it's also a task for meditative techniques (guided and warned by science), and that this fits well with things Harris said elsewhere.
The important point here is that science isn't confined to just "information about the world" that explicitly excludes our values - science can also help us uncover, rationally analyze, and change our values. Philosophy explains what morality is (rationally pursuing our desires, setting up moral and intellectual virtues to stave off future spikes of desires that will underlie our current ones, and so on), but leaves all the work of figuring out how to actually do this stuff to science.Ethics is a science; only metaethics is philosophy.
In short, I agree with your assessment that in practice he provides a good approximation, and moving oratory, but can't be as forgiving about his philosophical mistakes.
Hi! I wish I had seen TaiChi's comment before I wrote this, but anyway, here it is... http://hankie.wordpress.com/2010/03/29/right-wrong/ It's basically what I thought after seeing his talk, reading your comment (metamagician) and then seeing his talk again. Thanks!
I noticed that Sam Harris responded to this post (and others) here:
Thanks for your comments Russell. Perhaps you were tentative enough with your conclusions that I overinterpreted them.
I think in practice what must be focused on is not philosophy or ethics or 'metaethics' but politics and law. That's the real manifestation of society's views on ethics - given that 99% of society doesn't ever use the word ethics...
The reality of laws and politics is that no-one expects them to be perfect, let alone to prescribe morality. (Except in some mythical countries like the Switzerland where 'everything that is not forbidden is compulsory'!)
However there is a clear mechanism to make them reflect the popular will to some extent while allowing for considerable divergences in individual judgement and protection of minority views. And it seems to work fairly well in some societies.
If this mechanism does not exist, large societies will clearly be unstable and/or ungovernable except by a despotic force.
The consequences of scientifically derivable ethics for constitutions and laws are worth thinking hard about. Would scientists become literally a new priesthood - a set of people to be referred to for binding decisions whenever difficult questions of morality arise?
I think the intention in Harris statement that 'values are facts' lies in his attempt to effectively 'anchor' the concept of values into something less amorphous then it currently taken to be by most people. Which in turn means the description that you have given, that the value of chocolate is a neurophysiological state, IS exactly the point that Harris is making, taking value and anchoring it into something concrete that science can potentially have a lot to comment on.
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