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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).

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Sean Carroll and PZ Myers on metaethics

Just quickly, let me jog your memory of debates we had a few weeks ago after Sam Harris gave a talk at TED, in which he raised issues about the objectivity of morality, the prospect of grounding it in science, and how you might derive "ought" from "is" (though most of the talk really seemed to be on the more plausible theme that science can inform morality).

Sean Carroll has now given a more definitive statement of his view, which criticises the Harris approach, and PZ Myers has responded, pretty much siding with Carroll. Both of these posts are worth your attention, and I agree with just about all of what they say.


Jean Kazez said...

Do you find it odd that these scientists feel qualified to figure this stuff out, despite the fact that metaethics is a very difficult and technical area of philosophy--not physics or biology? Just asking...

Richard Wein said...

Hi Jean. Good question.

I think anyone pronouncing on this issue would be well-advised to at least survey the common views of philosophers on the subject (something which Sam Harris shows little sign of having done). But it seems to me that philosophers as a group have done a pretty poor job on this subject. The fact that so many incompatible views are common among philosophers means that--whoever is right--the majority of philosophers are wrong. Some make what seem to me to be elementary logical errors. (I'm thinking particularly here of "moral naturalism".) David Hume was on the right track over 200 years ago, but most philosophers apparently still don't accept his conclusions.

Given how little progress philosophers have made in metaethics, I don't think that lack of familiarity with existing work is the greatest barrier to reaching a valid conclusion. The greatest barrier, it seems to me, is the power of the illusion of moral realism. Maybe the reason I've been better able than many to see through the illusion is that I'm not a very moral person!

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, Jean, it's a fair question. No worries. (A brief answer coming up ... hang on!)

Russell Blackford said...

I think that Sam was overreaching and used some unfortunately imprecise terminology and reasoning (though of course he has a philosophy background).

Sean and PZ not so much. They were mainly urging caution. And they included how science, as they understand it as scientists, can't answer the ultimate moral questions. That seems like a reasonable contribution for them to make to the debate.

Jean Kazez said...

These people (Harris, Carroll, Myers) are very smart obviously and it's good to have metaethics debated in the public square (because it matters to people in the public square) but metaethics is trickier than they're making out. For example, Sam Harris might be able to get around lots of the problems being thrown at him by talking about supervenience (technical concept!) instead of worrying about "deriving" ought from is. He also might talk about the way the mental relates to the physical, as some moral realists do. There are also types of moral realism beyond what anybody's talking about. Why not a little modesty from all these folks, as in "I'm not a metaethicist, but...."?

I do agree with RichardW that philosophers do a bad job of writing about these things--the main problem being not so much disagreement (that's life!) but the density of a lot of the metaethics literature.

Richard Wein said...

Jean. All I can say is that Sam's errors seem very clear to some of us. I'd be more inclined to doubt my own judgement if he was expressing the consensus of the experts. But there is no consensus. And Sam doesn't even seem to be following any particular school of metaethics. His position seems quite naive. Perhaps he is the one who should be more modest.

Jean Kazez said...

There is no consensus in metaethics, but Sam Harris might be in the "Cornell Realist" camp, which sees ethics as a science in a certain sense. It's not that his position isn't recognizable, it's that the pros and cons (as hashed out by philosophers) are really complex. I don't think Harris's critics are seeing that...as for him, well, he's got a book coming out. I have to suspend judgment.

Christian Munthe said...

Perhaps it is time for a leading metaethicist to do "a Sokal" in a fitting science journal? Sam Harris seems to me mainly to make a controversial assumption, and then assume much to much about what can be deduced on that basis. I side with Russell's analysis here. Most probably he doesn't know about the distinction between meta- and normative ethics (although, I'm sure, he's quite able to understand it).

Russell Blackford said...

Christian, I'd be surprised if he doesn't understand that distinction. Remember, he has a degree in philosophy.

Anonymous said...

slight social issue and it is to do with the effective use of language.

'ought' is a derivative of 'should' and both are unstated rules that lack objectivity. Also, both are anger words - words ofter used when tempers flare.

what needs to be used are words like could or would - this in their very meaning allows consideration and space to move for the hearer.

'You ought to do this' is a command based demand, not a request.

'You could do this' is a choice and non threatening

language is a powerful tool - be careful that all...

Robert N Stephenson

Christian Munthe said...

Russell, yeah now that you say it I seem to remember having read that. So, he knew it but didn't apply it in his writing, then :-)

Russell Blackford said...

Rob, there's a whole library of philosophical analysis of the words "should" and "ought" out there!

GTChristie said...

This is my particular specialty and I agree with the several people above who maintain that philosophers after Hume have not done a good job with meta-ethics. The is/ought distinction (or separation), sometimes called "Hume's guillotine" began as a single sentence pointing out a simple logical fallacy: "deriving" a conclusion containing (moral) elements not present in the (factual) premises. That's it. But it continues to startle and vex many philosophers. Hume's position is a precursor of (and inspiration for) GE Moore's 1903 position that there are no "moral facts." "Good" is not a natural property of objects (as red is a property of apples). In lay terms "good" is not an observable "ingredient" in things ("ises"). (The actual Moore argument is more elaborate.) Hume's original statement in context of the book where it appears has more to do with rejecting anything supernatural from science (taken for granted today but at the time, Hume was the one who cast out all ideas that science should even consider the supernatural: ie, he is THE strict empiricist). Brought forward to today, Hume's guillotine has not been overcome or refuted YET, but his position is fraying a bit. An ought statement might be derivable from a fact statement if a moral fact exists to use as a premise. Now experimental MRI neurology is beginning to show "moral sites" in the brain apparently dedicated (at least implicated) in morality as a high order process. Ie, moral cogitation in the part of the brain that is verbally conscious and executive functional (as in planning strategy), strongly suggesting (if read just so) that humans are evolved to be "ethical" as a means of cooperative survival. And this evolution was part of our becoming cultural (language, complex toolmaking, ritual burials etc). Ie, we're probably evolved for morality (and to really vociferously defend our own tribal versions --LOL) Late 1980s books had begun to claim we are "moral animals" but still seemed to think that was somehow a sub-conscious impulse. Now it appears to be cultural.

My on-topic point here is, yes, metaethics has a complicated history and science has begun to help us understand how much is nature and how much is nurture. Meanwhile today's philosophers are mostly 20th century style "academic historians" working in a tradition which highly values precedent and is so careful about its statements, innovation is slow to come. Even the best -- Rawls is today revered the most, with good reason -- pursue a style of argument which basically can't get there in answering even what metaethics IS -- and tends to ignore the science besides. (This is where Pinker comes in, not quite fully appreciated yet -- he is aware of the PHI and sycretizes the science with it almost perfectly).

I am sure Sam does know the issues but some thinkers retain an analytical approach that (I am working to argue) cannot solve the problem "what is meta-ethics" in the first place -- that's why they all disagree! And of course that looks like "no progress." Which of course is my life's work to correct. LOL

GTChristie said...

Yes I do know how to spell "syncretizes." And I even know what it means. -GC

Peter Beattie said...

Sam has a piece in the Huffington Post, Toward a Science of Morality, where he responds in detail to Sean's and PZ's criticisms. I for one find his critics relatively unconvincing, but by all means read his article first.

Richard Wein said...

Thanks for the link, Peter. I still find Harris's arguments very poor. He just doesn't seem to be thinking things through carefully. To be fair, Carroll makes some mis-steps too.

Peter Beattie said...

» RichardW:
He just doesn't seem to be thinking things through carefully.

You keep making these statements, but which things exactly hasn't Harris thought through carefully, and why do you think so?

Peter Beattie said...

» Jean Kazez:
Do you find it odd that these scientists feel qualified to figure this stuff out, despite the fact that metaethics is a very difficult and technical area of philosophy--not physics or biology?

No, actually. It would be odd if these guys wanted to participate in a discussion in this field and showed clear signs of not understanding the issues in hand and/or made demonstrably ridiculous arguments. That, surely, should be the standard for any discussion, not a sense that somebody with the 'wrong' set of formal qualifications is trying to figure something out on 'your' turf. If they have something to contribute, they're welcome; if not, then that is the reason they're not welcome, not their being outsiders.

Richard Wein said...

Peter, since you ask, the main problem is that Harris conflates related but significantly different ideas. Most importantly he fails to distinguish between the following propositions, and so slides without justification from the first to the last:

1. There are objective facts about well-being.
2. There are objective facts about what maximises the well-being of a given individual.
3. There are objective facts about what maximises well-being across individuals.
4. Objective facts about what maximises well-being across individuals are objective facts about what is moral.

I'll take just a few examples out of many. He writes:

'Our notion of "health" may one day be defined by goals that we cannot currently entertain with a straight face (like the goal of spontaneously regenerating a lost limb). Does this mean we can't study health scientifically?'

The issue was not whether we can study well-being (or health) scientifically. The issue was whether there are facts about what maximises well-being (or health).

For there to be facts about what maximises some variable, it must be possible to measure that variable as a single number, otherwise it's impossible to say whether one state of the variable is greater than another. And there must be just one possible measure, otherwise we have to make a subjective choice about which measure to choose. This is what Carroll is referring to when he talks about maximising "well-being functions". There are many possible well-being functions, i.e. many possible measures of well-being, and there can only be a fact about what maximises well-being once we've chosen one of these possible functions. And the choice of function is a subjective one. It depends on the preferences of the chooser. That means the "facts" about what maximises well-being are dependent on the observer's preference. The same is true of health, though it's perhaps less clear in that case because people's preferences as to what constitutes good health are less varied than their preferences as to what constitutes well-being.


Richard Wein said...

'We care more about creatures that can experience a greater range of suffering and happiness -- and we are right to, because suffering and happiness (defined in the widest possible sense) are all that can be cared about.'

Let's accept that suffering and happiness are all that can be cared about. It doesn't follow that we are right to care about suffering and happiness. How can something be right or wrong if it's the only possibility? And how can the brute fact that we can only care about suffering and happiness (in the widest possible sense) tell us that we are right to care about suffering and happiness in a particular more specific sense? In particular, how can it tell us that we are right to care about the suffering and happiness of any particular individual or group? Harris is jumping from an "is" to an "ought" without any justification.

In any case, the discussion at this point was supposed to be about the aggregation of different individuals' well-being in the well-being function. That was the point Harris was responding to. But he has already stated that moral facts are facts about maximising well-being. Now he is in effect saying that there are moral facts (what's "right") about how to choose the well-being function that morality is in the business of maximising. This is circular. The problem is that Harris just can't see the distinction between choosing the function to be maximised (what mathematicians call the "objective function") and maximising that function.

'Are all animal lives equivalent? No. Are all human lives equivalent? No. I have no problem admitting that certain people's lives are more valuable than mine -- I need only imagine a person whose death would create much greater suffering and foreclose much greater happiness.'

Harris here is talking about the contribution a person makes to the maximisation of happiness (or well-being). But the question at hand was to decide how to aggregate different people's well-being in our well-being function. Again Harris is failing to distinguish between choosing the function to be maximised and maximising that function.

Peter Beattie said...

RichardW, thanks for explaining. I suppose you're on to something, but let me nonetheless suggest that you shouldn't rush to judgment quite so fast.

As to your point about conflating things, I don't think Harris conflates so much as rather for the moment treats as a black box the different steps you enumerate. He says it's obvious that we agree, qualitatively and in broad terms, on these issues. He says in principle they should be amenable to scientific investigation, never mind that we don't have a way of accurately quantifying them yet. He says there is a pattern, it is more than suggestive, and like e.g. a description of the fight-or-flight response, which similarly would be a sort of statistical statement about complex behaviour, it can be treated as a scientific fact.

Of course he (or anybody else, for that matter) would have to flesh out the details considerably for the idea to become more than an intriguing possibility, but I understand that's what his upcoming book is supposed to do. Apart from that, he has at least taken the time to address a couple of criticisms and show the general plausibility of his ideas.

Harris is jumping from an "is" to an "ought" without any justification.

Well, if we're being strict about it, he does give a justification, namely exactly the point that well-being is the only thing that can be cared about. If that is just a given, then assessing the moral value of something actually must be looked at from a well-being-maximising point of view. And what Harris suggests is that there is some kind of algorithmic process that can be used to find at least local peaks in the moral landscape.

Especially since morality as a property emerged from evolution, which is just such an algorithmic process, it seems eminently plausible that it shows as many patterns and factual content as that overarching process from whence it sprang.

Any problems that I can see remaining are that no absolute morality might be had, but then refer to the concept of 'species'; and that what Harris refers to might boil down to a simple description of what is, with no 'real' oughts involved. But maybe that's just as well, as any answers to moral questions can only involve what is and what is rational, anyway. Anything further might just be a not-even-wrong question.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Not sure if anybody is still following the comments here, but I'd like to throw in my two cents.

I agree with RichardW and Russell Blackford. I do think Myers and Carroll are out of their league, and it shows; but they still have important contributions to make, and they have helped expose some of the weaknesses of Harris' arguments.

Scientists should certainly be involved in the debate--especially scientists who can tell us something about how morality has evolved and functions (Myers has an edge over Carroll there, as a biologist); but I am disappointed that professional philosophers are not taking a leading role in the public arena.

I suspect that many who can speak authoritatively about morality and metaethics are more used to communicating in an academic milieu. Carroll, Myers, and Harris are good public communicators, and they're all more or less famous. It's hard to compete with that.

I also wonder if some qualified professionals are reluctant to have their ideas mauled in the sea of ignorance that constitutes popular culture. Maybe they think they're above the whole affair.

Still, I wonder where people like Simon Blackburn are hiding. Surely Blackburn could make some contribution here.

While I'm no professional, I've tried to help the debate along. Here's my latest stab at Harris.