About Me

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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).

Friday, May 14, 2010

A science of morality?

I've finally read the piece by Sam Harris that appeared nearly a week ago in The Huffington Post. It's complex, difficult, and impossible to discuss properly in a short post. When I get a chance, I'm planning to give as full a response as I can, but I'm thinking of doing so over at Sentient Developments, where I may get a larger audience; the issues are important enough to look for the biggest audience possible. (The only worry is that Sentient Developments seems to be having an hiatus at the moment; so maybe, but maybe not.)

Don't worry, if I post there I'll also link from this blog. Either way, you won't miss it.

I still have a lot of quibbles with Harris, although I think this new piece is an improvement on his earlier presentations of the argument. I should also say that I agree with the main conclusions if they're formulated something like this:

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

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

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

Put another way, the main conclusion is that we should (this can be a "should" of practical rationality if you're worried about moral "shoulds") resist the temptation of various kinds of vulgar moral relativism that have become popular and seem to encourage an undesirable quietism.

Again, I agree with this conclusion if it's put that way. Indeed, I'm tempted to say that disagreement would be irrational. :)

However, all this can be supported with cogent arguments without making grand claims about deriving values solely from facts, oughts solely from is's (with no reference to such things as social institutions or affective attitudes), and so on. Indeed, Harris does exactly that in The End of Faith. He made some wild-sounding claims in his TED talk, but he now seems to have dropped these.

Nonetheless, some of the arguments and formulations in the Huffington Post essay still seem to me to be going down the wrong track. I care - partly because I have a professional interest in this: my PhD thesis, as submitted and approved, does not go into metaethical points, because I ripped all that stuff out as opening too many additional cans of worms; but a lot of my actual research, which found its way into chapters of the initial draft of the thesis involved precisely these sorts of metaethical issues. I've spoken about them at philosophical conferences and seminars in the past, and will do so again at this year's AAP conference. I've also touched on them in published articles.

Apart from my professional interest, I think it's important to get these points right. Even if we all agree with Harris's conclusions - at least the way I've formulated them above - we need to have our arguments in the most precise and cogent form we can find, and to have a clear sense of what the counter-arguments would be. I also think that the approach Harris takes leads him to miss an important conclusion: moralities are made for us, not us for them, and they can be changed to suit our purposes. He probably agrees with this, but if so he never spells it out clearly.

So, I'm going to put in some effort to nail this down further. Soon. Not now, but soon.


Richard Wein said...

It seems to me that Harris's moral realism (belief in objective moral truths discoverable by science) is not just a minor part of his position, but the central issue. So I don't think you can disagree with him on that and still agree with his "main" conclusions.

But perhaps, when his book comes out, his position will turn out to be more subtle than his online articles suggest.

Russell Blackford said...

I think we can reach those three points that I mention without going by any implausible moral realism, let alone full-blooded moral objectivism. But that's not to say Harris would accept this. Then again, some of his argument is very vague.

Russell Blackford said...

But more later.

NewEnglandBob said...

"I also think that the approach Harris takes leads him to miss an important conclusion: moralities are made for us, not us for them, and they can be changed to suit our purposes."

This seems to me to be moral relativism. I will await your further words.

I briefly looked at the Sentient Developments web site and there are very few comments on the posts there. It seems the audience here is larger.

Russell Blackford said...

George (at Sentient Developments) is taking a break, not sure why.

If you think that we are made for moralities, not moralities for us, I look forward to watching you conform to them all, NEB. ;)

Anyway, more later. I'm mainly here to clean up troll spore.

NewEnglandBob said...

No, I do not think we are made for morality at all, but I think the "..and they can be changed to suit our purposes" phrase is dangerous and hints at arbitrary moral relativism and could be used by some as "anything goes".

Russell Blackford said...

Well, morality is "relative" in a sense. I don't see what else it could be. It's also "subjective" in a sense. Indeed, all our evaluations are relative and subjective in a sense. But it's not the sense that's thrown around in vulgar moral relativism of the type that Harris seems most worried about, or in the sorts of vulgar subjectivism that one sometimes hears about (I don't know whether anyone really subscribes to such a theory). None of this entails that morality is just arbitrary, though there may certainly be arbitrary elements in particular moralities (plural).

I think we can only avoid the dangers (presumably the ones that Harris has in mind) by explaining the subtlties as best we can, including the somewhat limited and innocuous senses in which morality can be described correctly as "relative" and "subjective" or as having those elements. They are senses that shouldn't really bother Harris (he more or less acknowledges them!) or upset anyone who thinks them through carefully.

There are a couple of implications that may be startling, but I think we can live with them.

Anyway, I'll have to explicate all the above cryptic remarks in the longer post that I promised.

Friend of Icelos said...

I've recently felt that the argument from naive moral relativism ("Who are you to criticize their culture!") fails most obviously in that the argument can be turned against itself ("Who are you to say I can't criticize!"), and meaningful discussion breaks down. Even if the origin of morality is ultimately subjective, there is no good reason why we can't discuss morals anyway.

Russell Blackford said...

My "hammer" post explains what I mean by "relative" and "subjective" and why there a perfectly innocuous senses of these words. I still need a post that brings all this together and relates it specifically to Sam Harris.

Unknown said...

When we consider Sam Harris' work I think it is instructive to consider what really powered the momentum and urgency of his moral argument: a broken heart in the contmeplation of mass suffering during 9-11 and the forced and confrontational realisation of the destructiveness of religous faith.
So, all his arguments follow a path toward the end of faith - and the start of a rational science-based understanding of the world. We New Seculars understand the logic of this approach and the basis for an attempt to make it work: the dismantling of alternative subjective concepts of morality, especially those of the various theisms.

If we are to dismantle faith as I believe we should then let us not be surprised at the end that we have no books to tell us what is now to be our collective moral stance. Many now see the signal smoke rising form some future Empathic Civilization, to reference Jeremy Rifkin. And Sam Harris himself refers to a global government. One presumes such governments will have a legislative body subject to the moral will of an electorate.

I think in this case is ought to be ought. That is, I think we need a science of morality because the day will come when we will need one. And if that day doesn't come, then heaven help us all.

Russell Blackford said...

I've now written so many long comments that I'm starting to wonder about the utility of the promised post directly on Harris. But I'll still say something to tie some it together.