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).

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A bit more on Harris

I really, really don't want this blog seeming to become a sort of anti-Sam-Harris blog. I actually have a lot of admiration for Sam, and indeed a certain amount of gratitude to him for his absolutely crucial contribution to opening up public debate on religion. He was as instrumental as anyone in creating an environment where it is now much easier for critics of religion to have their say and obtain an audience. Indeed, his efforts, along with those of Richard Dawkins and a few others, did much to make books like 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists possible.

I do think that Gnu Atheism should not be hitched to the dubious (as I see them) philosophical positions of moral realism and utilitarianism (or anything that too closely resembles it). Also, as I mentioned again recently, this blog was always meant to defend certain philosophical positions, including a form of moral scepticism, in the sense in which J.L. Mackie considered himself a moral sceptic.

Because Harris is currently defending philosophical positions in metaethics and normative theory that I don't agree with, and which run counter to my own views on these things, I guess I'll go on addressing some of his arguments. For better or worse, most of my readers are more likely to encounter these arguments in a book like The Moral Landscape than in philosophical journals or books from academic presses, so I'm more likely to criticise the formulations we see from Harris. But I don't want this to seem like some kind of vendetta or a feud between us or something (I certainly hope it doesn't look that way to him). As far I'm concerned, we're allies. When you step back, we're trying to achieve similar goals. Our agendas overlap to a very great extent.

I'm tending to think that I'll still come back to some of the arguments in the book, several of which get repeated in the recent post at Why Evolution is True, but without kind of continuing line by line through that post. The post doesn't have a lot that's new, and the book has more detailed and definitive versions of the arguments. I do want to address the idea that we are no less able to make objectively binding first-order thin moral judgments than we are able to get objectively true theoretical claims via scientific inquiry. Harris has been making this claim, or something like it, for some time now, and I didn't mention it in the JET review of the book. To be honest, I don't think it's a good argument, or even superficially plausible, and I couldn't deal with everything even in 6000+ words. Nonetheless, I think it's worth saying something about it, partly because the argument does raise interesting questions about the nature of science, and partly because Harris seems to put a lot of weight on it.

With a period of intermittent blogging coming up, I probably won't be able to get to this issue for a couple of weeks, but it seemed worthwhile signalling that I still intend to ... and to say something more general about all this.


Marshall said...

"We observe societies with various norms of behaviour that are enforced by attitudes of praise, blame, ostracism, etc., and we recognise this phenomenon as "morality"..."

Good working definition. Note emphasis on behavior, or behaviour if you insist. Also, not all behavior is so enforced in a given society or culture; behaviors that are enforced we could say are central to the society.

"... claims to the effect that one course of action or whatever is objectively the correct one... We don't think like that about other value judgments - not usually - so it's something of a psychological puzzle why so many people want to think like that about morality."

I think Mackie makes the point that morals are obligatory - I'm looking for the quote, can't find it - which I think would be indeed the essential feature of "morality"; as opposed to what Analytic Philosophers do, call that "ethics": a theory-driven math-like discipline. Concepts like "the greatest good for the greatest number" can be useful tools for synthesizing rational thought but are completely ineffective in motivating the behavior of a collective. Alternately, viewing whatever as immoral is effective, and it can be done reliably by people of very little rational thought.

Morality has to do with restraining choices: "thou shalt do thus, thou shalt not do so". Thou shalt not steal; thou shalt risk thy life to save others. Thou shalt not cheat. Clearly this works against maximizing an individual's fitness in the technical Darwinian sense. Since morality is opposed by a very strong selective force, it must be supported by an equally strong force; of which it seems to me the pointy end would be that feeling of compulsion or obsession.

I suppose that some plausible psychology could generate obsession by reference to a long chain of reasoning, but apparently in Humans obsession is generated by giving learned moral principles the same epistemological status as acquired physical-world principles like "what goes up must come down." That is, I feel that my morality which I acquired from my culture is as "obviously true" as gravity. We in my community reinforce each other, and when we encounter other others who feel very different values are "obviously true", we all become confused. Such confusion on a large scale has been very destructive.

We can notice that, like language, morality is generally soaked up in childhood and after that is fixed, or at least much more difficult to learn. That makes perfect sense if you are thinking about generational cultural transmission: children are raised "indoors" and mostly in contact with participants in the local culture; adults go out into the world and must act out the morality in the face of temptations and conflicts. It makes perfect sense for children to be wide open learners and for adults to have a cultural immune system. Or the culture will just homoginate with its local competitors.

Apparently it is important to human psychology to have some set of guidelines for social interaction that are felt to be "obviously true on their face". Wouldn't it be swell if everybody agreed on some set of (justified true) guidelines? No it would not: we are Star Fleet, we are not The Borg - we can fly in formation, but each ship with its captian. We are evolved, not designed. And so, rounding back to the topic at last, that's my take on Sam's problem: he's playing for the wrong team.

Ray said...

I don't get the impression that Sam's claiming moral statements are objectively binding (on rational agents.) He's claiming moral statements are objectively true (at least as much so as statements about health e.g. "having a BMI above 45 is unhealthy".)

It seems to me that a moral realism analogous to physical realism would only entail the latter, not the former. No?

Now I'm mostly with you on your criticism of utilitarianism. I agree that utility is an ambiguous quantity, since there are many measurable quantities that it could plausibly refer to, none of which can be selected over the rest based on simplicity or elegance. I also agree that there are many moral intuitions which at least seem not to be utilitarian in nature. That said, I think it's pretty clear that utilitarianism is at least a crude approximation of what is usually meant by moral terms.

Darrick Lim said...

Russell, in case you haven't already heard, I don't think Sam's mad at you. :) In fact, he's just given your JET review a shout-out on his Facebook profile. I quote: "Gearing up to respond to critics of The Moral Landscape. Russell Blackford is by far the best." And then the link to your review.

Nice one.

Richard Wein said...


I think it helps to distinguish between moral "is" claims (e.g. "X is morally wrong") and moral "ought" claims (e.g. "you ought not to do X") claims.

It seems hard to deny that moral "ought" claims are objectively binding. If I say that you morally ought to do X, aren't I saying that you are morally bound to do X? In this context, "bound" is roughly equivalent to "obliged", which is roughly equivalent to "ought".

I think most people would accept that moral "is" claims are closely connected to moral "ought" claims. If I say that X is morally wrong, this seems to entail that you morally ought not to do X. It seems like self-contradiction to say, "X is morally wrong, but that's no reason why you ought not to do it". So, it seems that moral "is" claims are considered to be binding too.

I'm not clear what Harris's position is on moral "ought" claims. (I haven't read his book.) His response to Coyne is highly ambiguous on this subject. He says, "We simply don’t have to think about morality in these terms." But surely these terms are central to moral discourse. He goes on to say:

"What if my apologizing in this instance would create an immensity of suffering for everyone on earth? Well, then, I “shouldn’t” do it."

What is the significance of the quotes around "shouldn't"? Is Harris saying that we shouldn't (oughtn't to) apologize in this instance, or isn't he? Why make this point at all if we don't have to think about morality in these terms?

Harris seems to define "morally right" actions to mean those that tend to maximise total well-being. If that definition were correct, it would follow that there's nothing binding about moral "is" claims. But I would say that that is a good reason to reject Harris's definition as not representing the meaning that moral claims have in practice. With Harris's definition there's no inherent contradiction in saying, "X is morally wrong, but that's no reason why you ought not to do it". (Unless, that is, he also defines moral "ought" in a similar way. And Russell has already pointed out in his review how that would make no sense.)

In short, if Harris denies that moral claims are binding he is fundamentally misunderstanding them. And I would say that his apparent failure or refusal to properly consider moral "ought" claims contributes to this misunderstanding. If he thought more deeply about moral "ought" claims, the fundamental flaw in his position might become clearer to him.

Russell Blackford said...

That's nice of him, Darrick.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I wouldn't say I'm anti-Sam Harris, either. But I have long been frustrated by the direction the public discussion of atheism has been going. I'm also concerned about public views on philosophy.

I was once very happy to see people like Harris and Dawkins lead the atheist movement, even though I would have done things a bit differently than them. But I'm afraid they have failed to give popular atheism the philosophical integrity it needs and deserves. They've turned off many would-be allies, and they've made it pretty easy for many people to use "New Atheism" as a pejorative. Maybe the current situation is the best we could hope for at this historical and cultural juncture, so maybe I shouldn't be too hard on them. But I do wish atheism had a better public voice.

I think the hullabaloo over Harris' new book is a product of the intellectual poverty of our times. When Harris dismisses the majority of moral philosophy, he is preaching to a choir of ignorance. The public has no patience or appreciation for philosophical sophistication. Perhaps they shouldn't, but neither should they act as if they knew better. It's the arrogance coupled with ignorance that is so damaging. The poor public opinion about philosophy may even be affecting our institutions of higher learning. Philosophy departments (even some of the best) are being gutted. I'm deeply concerned about atheism and philosophy, and as much as I respect what Harris has done in the past, I'm worried about how he might be affecting the future of both.

Ray said...

@Richard Wein

I see three plausible meanings for "It is binding that you ought to do X":

1) If you fail to do X you will have violated the norms of rationality
2) If you fail to do X you will have violated the norms of morality
3) If you fail to do X you will have violated physical law. (i.e. you will not fail to do X.)

1 and 3 are silly to expect and create all sorts of paradoxes. 2 is true by definition, assuming "X is moral". It is only made problematic by the fact that it is ambiguous with respect to what moral norms you are talking about (different cultures and individuals have different moral norms.) That said, it seems likely that if you are claiming 2 you have a specific set of moral norms in mind. So I would say 2 is ambiguous, but each of its plausible meanings is objectively true or false. In this regard it is no different from other statements including an ambiguous natural language term.

If you think morality requires a different meaning of bindingness: one that would entail moral error theory. I suppose you can claim that. It seems kind of crazy to claim that someone hasn't properly understood a concept until he has accepted some aspect of the concept which makes the concept untenable. But, whatever.