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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).

Monday, January 10, 2011

Back soon :)

Am currently writing what is likely to be a very, very long review of The Moral Landscape (yes, it'll eventually be available online). I feel that I'm only scratching the surface, no matter how much detail I go into. Really, my practical viewpoint isn't very far from that of Sam Harris. Where we do disagree, unfortunately, is on matters that are quite fundamental, yet rather subtle. I'm finding myself having to explain quite a lot of this stuff, but there will still be many arguments in the book that I don't have the time or space to deal with.

Anyway, that's where my brain has gone, just at the moment. It'll be back.


GTChristie said...

It's actually a quite complex little book. I've been looking up reviews and waiting for yours, just to see where people are taking it. In trying to review it myself, I've begun to wonder whether the detailed or granular approach is better, engaging the work point by point as academics are inclined to do, or whether The Moral Landscape is better seen from a distance, examined as an example of some broader pattern (bracket here what that might be). It sounds like you are inclined to take the more granular approach, and if so (or in any case) good luck. The book does not "fit the mold" for an academic piece, but is a bit beyond the general reader's ken, demanding a bit of (historical) knowledge or perspective that non-specialists in moral theory (for instance) might not bring to the book. (But nobody should think a work like this must fit any mold.) In short, I am finding it enigmatic and difficult to put a finger on. Good luck with that!

Tom Clark said...

I look forward to your review. As you suggest, there's a lot in play in Harris's claims about science and morality, but I hope you can draw some fairly concrete conclusions that illuminate the practical relevance of the debate. What's at stake for the culture, ultimately, should we discover that norms can't simply be read off a scientific description of nature?

De Caro and Macarthur's new book Naturalism and Normativity gets into the philosophical subtleties, and I offer a brief modest proposal at http://www.naturalism.org/normativity.htm

Good luck!

Spencer Troxell said...

Will your review be longer than the book you're reviewing?

Russell Blackford said...

The review won't be longer than the book itself, but maybe it needs to be. :)

I've written 6,500 words, and I fear that I've only scratched the surface and will satisfy no one. I'm unlikely to persuade Harris himself, or many of his admirers.

I do think, though, that it's worth protesting that we don't need sophisticated defenses of naive moral realism to be able to make rational judgments about whether moral traditions are "good" and "bad" by ordinary and perfectly rational standards of "good" and "bad". We do this with all sorts of other things without relying on any naive realism about value.

In the end, though, I need to write my own book - my own updated and personalised version of Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong or Beyond Morality.

josef johann said...

how did I lose yet another comment? I'm sure I commented on this post, and it didn't even have a link!

maybe I failed to send it and just don't remember

Russell Blackford said...

Are you sure it was in this thread? I didn't see anything from you in the "comments awaiting moderation" folder or the spam folder.

Russell Blackford said...

Of course, it's always possible for me to delete a comment accidentally, but I don't think there are any cases of that yet.

josef johann said...

Ok, well what I said was something like this...

I think Sam might maybe have referenced you, Russell, because I know you've made an argument like the one in this passage of his book:

As proof of this assertion, he observed that I would be unable to convince the Taliban that they value the wrong things. By this standard, however, the truths of science are also "relative to the time and place in which they appear," and there is no way to convince someone who does not value empirical evidence that he should value it. Despite 150 years of working at it, we still can't convince a majority of Americans that evolution is a fact. Does this mean biology isn't a proper science?

He really, really thinks this is important:

It is essential to see that the demand for radical justification leveled by the moral skeptic could not be met by any branch of science. Science is defined with reference to the goal of understanding the processes at work in the universe. Can we justify this goal scientifically? Of course not. Does this make science itself unscientific? If so, we appear to have pulled ourselves down by our bootstraps.

And one last part, which fleshes it out:

It would be impossible to prove that our definition of science is correct, because our standards of proof will be built into any proof we would offer. What evidence could prove that we should value evidence? What logic could demonstrate the importance of logic? We might observe that standard science is better at predicting the behavior of matter than Creationist "science" is. But what could we say to a "scientist" whose only goal is to authenticate the Word of God? Here, we seem to reach an impasse. And yet, no one thinks that the failure of standard science to silence all possible dissent has any significance whatsoever; why should we demand more of a science of morality?

If this really is the kind of "objectivity" people are after, an objectivity unthreatened by diversity of opinion, then Harris has it right. And if you think he is wrong, it is necessary to explain what is different about moral objectivity. And (most importantly of all!) why we don't apply this standard of objectivity to biology and physics. Or alternatively, that we do apply the same standard to across the board and it somehow destroys objective morality without also destroying objective biology and physics.

You are probably going to argue that moral objectivity is different than what Harris thinks it is and in particular that if moral objectivity existed it would be something everyone assented to (even the Taliban!) once they were made aware of it. This, you will argue, is what layfolk are really after and Harris' notion of objectivity is ersatz.

In your last post on the folk and objectivity you said this was a difficult point to make. But I think it is necessary to make it as best you can if you are going to succeed in showing that Harris is wrong about something.

I think the passages above (in chapter 1) are the most important thing a review of his book should do. The critical reviews I've seen thus far fail to take Harris' points on this matter as seriously as they ought.

josef johann said...

oops, last paragraph should say:

I think the passages above (in chapter 1) are the most important thing a review of his book should address.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, I'll disappoint you because I don't address every argument. To do so I'd need to write a book longer than his own book (there are plenty of paragraphs in The Moral Landscape that move very fast and would need pages of dissection and rebuttal). I don't even directly address the endnote where he specifically disputes a point I made on this blog - though I think he misses the point, and I do deal with it indirectly.

This may not be pertinent to your comment, but Harris is of course correct that we can't justify our ultimate standards of justification themselves. If we could, they wouldn't be ultimate. So, as he says, there's a point where it's no use talking to sceptics who demand radical justification.

But Harris is wrong if he thinks that is relevant to the argument about moral realism. The concerns about moral realism are not based on its being justified against ultimate standards that cannot, themselves, be meaningfully justified. No one, including Harris, has ever been able to justify it even at that level.

You can grant Harris as many of these ultimate standards as you like, as long as they are genuine ones - that our senses are reliable to some extent, that memory is reliable to some extent, the laws of first order deductive logic, the usefulness of ordinary kinds of inductive and hypothetico-deductive arguments, or whatever - and it still won't enable you to derive the truth of, say, utilitarianism, understood in a realist sense, in the way that it can enable you to derive the truth of, say, evolutionary theory.

Harris keeps losing sight of this. He seems to think that something like "You must maximize the well-being of conscious creatures" is also some sort of ultimate standard, but why? He can't just assume something so controversial. It's not an ultimate standard that all sane people accept, such that a person who doesn't accept it is beyond the pale. It's a highly contentious claim that he needs to justify, but of course he can't. His tactic of pouring scorn on those who disagree isn't very impressive.

I doubt that many people at all really believe something like it. Even those who profess to seldom act as if they do.

But, anyway, I do manage to say a fair bit more about my positive position in the review.

josef johann said...

I have only just now learned that you are not leveling radical skepticism argument against Harris. Perhaps it's because of my inattentive reading that I am only just learning this. But I think your notion of strong objectivity, which you have referenced in the past is exactly what a radical skeptic would demand from Harris and it seemed to me that you were demanding it too.

Anyway, you say:

Harris keeps losing sight of this. He seems to think that something like "You must maximize the well-being of conscious creatures" is also some sort of ultimate standard, but why? He can't just assume something so controversial. It's not an ultimate standard that all sane people accept, such that a person who doesn't accept it is beyond the pale. It's a highly contentious claim that he needs to justify, but of course he can't. His tactic of pouring scorn on those who disagree isn't very impressive.

This is the issue, as far as I'm concerned. When you say Harris gets something fundamental wrong, I think you are talking about this precisely. And frankly I think there is little else worth paying attention to (I can get those free will arguments elsewhere, whereas this is the fundamental premise of his book).

I should also note that in the above, I know you say you aren't, but it sure looks like you are treading into radical skepticism with your desire for "ultimate" explanation.

As for the "heaping scorn on doubters" argument. I think rather than merely being a tactic, Harris is performing a Moorean shift (I would link to the wiki article for "Here is a hand" but I have bad luck whenever I link to something).

He's referencing an intuitive self-evidence to the fact that people already really do value human life, and will level skeptical arguments against Harris only to return to a normal life that reflects a belief in human value of the kind Harris is gesturing toward. We hold our value of life closer than our skeptical arguments.

You don't see any unreflective behavior that leaves open questions about whether people value having fully closed wounds, or a non-burst appendix. Any cases which might count as exceptions- a person fasting- seems insufficient to blur the contours that already start appearing. And since I'm not answering radical skepticism, weak contours are enough, right?

We just aren't as helpless in the face of these facts as we'd like to believe.

And even just having contours is enough to give evidence of the larger principle which we can continue to hold onto even when the facts are difficult to sort out.

Russell Blackford said...

I don't think there's any evidence at all that human beings value maximization of the well-being of sentient/conscious creatures. Quite the opposite; all the evidence is that they don't. There's lots of evidence that normal people have some aversion to causing suffering, especially if none of our other values are advanced by it in a particular situation, but that's a very different thing.

And no, I've never suggested that my scepticism about the "objectivity" of morality is based on radical epistemological scepticism. Why would it be? The leading moral sceptics - J.L. Mackie, Richard Garner, Richard Joyce - don't employ radical epistemological scepticism in their arguments. There are no references to the possibility of evil demons, the unreliability of the senses, the problem of induction, the impossibility of giving deductive logic a deeper grounding than itself, etc. There's no more reason to think I'd rely on radical epistemological scepticism in arguing against the objective (in the sense we're talking about) truth of moral claims than to think that I'd rely on radical epistemological scepticism to argue for atheism.

Harris may think his opponents - the moral sceptics, etc., not the religionists - are doing something analogous to that. But they're not. And he needs to be careful here. That sort of argument cuts both ways: a religionist could make much the same charge against Harris, saying that of course he should start with the widely-believed premise that God exists ... then charge him with an unreasonable kind of radical scepticism, or something analogous to it, when he refuses to do so.