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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 15, 2011

Review of The Moral Landscape

I have reviewed The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris over here. Many of my criticisms of Sam's metaethics will be familiar to readers of this blog, though I've taken the trouble to lay out more of my positive views on metaethics than I'd do here, where I inevitably have far less room on any one occasion.

All the same, I feel that the review only scratches the surface of some issues. There are many arguments in the book that could have been dealt with separately, but even allowing myself the indulgence of 6,500 words I couldn't get to them.

I seriously plan to write a book on this subject, because too many people assume that the only alternatives are a very crude moral relativism or a naive moral realism, such as Harris espouses. It would be good to develop a book that's accessible to a general educated audience and which explains why that is not the case. Harris could have argued from much weaker premises that would have been acceptable to error theorists and sophisticated relativists (and, no doubt, to sophisticated non-cognitivists). His attempt to defend a naive realist position in metaethics ends up causing a lot of distraction. That said, it's good that a popular author has at least opened up this discussion. It will now be easier for others to write books for a non-specialist audience (too much of what's available on metaethics is almost impenetrable even for philosophers who are not specialists).

Don't kind of hold your breath waiting for me to write the book I keep threatening to write, though. It'll have to be in a queue behind some other projects.

As I say in the review, the most interesting things I can say about The Moral Landscape all relate to points where Harris and I disagree. That doesn't mean that I think it's a comprehensively bad book, or that it's a bad book at all. I do think it shows that Harris has blind spots, just as theists often do when they seem unable to imagine how someone else lacks their strong theistic intuitions. Harris is inclined to dismiss the arguments of people who lack his strong moral realist intuitions, and there seems to be a similar inability to "let go" to that which we see from religious people. But it's still a very worthwhile book with a take-home message that's worth repeating. Thus, from early in the review I say:
I enjoyed this book, and I recommend it highly. Though it contains much technical material, from neuroscience as well as philosophy, Harris makes it all accessible. He has an enviable gift for vivid phrasing and clear exposition of difficult concepts, and he undoubtedly has much to teach us. Almost anyone could benefit from reading The Moral Landscape. In that sense, I need go no further. Is this book worth obtaining and reading? Emphatically yes.
I conclude the review as follows:
In the end, Harris provides a compelling argument for selective intolerance toward harsh moral traditions. He argues via a kind of moral realism, linked to a form of utilitarian ethic, but I submit that these are not doing the real work. To reach a similar conclusion, we can rely on much weaker premises. It’s enough that we have a non-arbitrary conception of what morality is for, and what sorts of things we can rationally and realistically want moral traditions to do. Where they divert from that conception, moral traditions merit our critique and opposition. These should be every bit as severe, absolutely as passionate, as Harris evidently wants, but that does not commit us to his total picture of morality's landscape.

Like it or not, morality is a much trickier phenomenon.


Felix said...

Thanks for an interesting review - I have been looking forward to reading it.

I haven't read Harris yet, I hope this will help me avoid be too accepting when I do.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

It would be good to develop a book that's accessible to a general educated audience and which explains why that is not the case.

Isn't that that basically what Richard Garner's book Beyond Morality was?

Granted, I don't think his book was widely read or publicized (or as good as Richard Joyce or Joshua Greene on the same topic).

I'm always interested in reading an error theorist I haven't read yet - recommendations outside of Garner, Joyce, Greene or Mackie would be most appreciated!

Russell Blackford said...

There's the horribly expensive, but very good, book that Joyce co-edited a couple of years ago. It contains papers by error theorists (including Garner) and others who have an interest. It's for specialists, though. Other than that, the only book-length defences of error theory that I know of that have been published this century so far are those by Joyce.

Hopefully Greene's book will come out soon. People have been talking about it for years, since his thesis appeared, but we're still waiting for it.

Garner's book is very accessible, as you say, and I recommend it highly. But I don't think it's enough; I think we need something new that engages with events in both philosophy and the wider world since it was published. A revised edition would be useful.

Of course Mackie's book is still very good, but it's not as accessible as a book like The Moral Landscape, and again it needs a certain amount of updating if only to have a more 21st-century vibe about it - and to deal with philosophical objections since 1977.

Felix said...

Coincidentally, the current edition of Philosophy Now (http://www.philosophynow.org/) is about Morality, and includes a piece by Richard Garner.

Tom Clark said...

Great review, you nail one of Harris' central misconceptions:

“Why, for example, should I not prefer my own well-being, or the well-being of the people I love, to overall, or global, well-being? If it comes to that, why should I not prefer some other value altogether, such as the emergence of the Ubermensch, to the maximization of global well-being?...

“Harris never provides a satisfactory response to this line of thought, and I doubt that one is possible. After all, as he acknowledges, the claim that “We should maximize the global well-being of conscious creatures” is not an empirical finding. So what is it? What in the world makes it true? How does it become binding on me if I don’t accept it?”

There isn't, as Harris seems to think, a "master value" described by science that necessitates that we *should* all want precisely the same thing on pain of irrationality. This is true even though most of us share naturally derived moral dispositions concerning harm and justice. And you properly point out that where people end up in their basic valuations is often a function of their worldview, something explored at http://www.naturalism.org/enlightenment1.htm#anti

As to Harris' notion of an objective moral metric, he occasionally implies that we might simply tell, via brain scans, whether someone is in state of maximized well-being. Of course that's to equate well-being with one's subjective experience, which as Nozick's thought experiment about the "experience machine" showed, doesn't capture what most of us think of as human flourishing. We want to have certain real states of affairs be the case, not just have certain sorts of experiences.

Lots more you bring up that invites comment but I'll just say thanks for a very cogent critique of Harris' oversimplification of the moral landscape.

Felix said...

Having read the articles in Philosophy Now I now realise that I am an amoralist or at least a moral fictionalist.

Discussing moral relativism Jesse Prinz concludes:
"once we see that there is no single true morality, we lose one incentive for trying to impose our values on others."

I disagree! Despite that my morals are unique to me and based upon my values learnt in chilhood, they are still the framework from within which I judge the world. As such I cannot simply allow you to microwave kittens and pass it of as being societally acceptable because within your moral framework it is permissible.

On the contrary, to be true to my morals I have to say "That is not acceptable. You are wrong to do it, and society should punnish you for it."

To do otherwise would be to reduce (for myself) the principle of "Do no harm" from a moral precept to a mere preference.

The waning of the Christian religion in the UK and the import of alternatives such as Islam, clearly increases the breadth of moral worldviews extant.

I wish we had something like like a national creed that we could say was the basis of our societal ethics, but we do not. Something like: "We hold these truths to be self evident ...."

Lyndon Page said...

Wow! Perfect.

I started wondering in the beginning about how your "practical" outcomes of an error theory of morality would align with the "pragmatic" outcomes of Richard Rorty? (who I have taken a likening to recently, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and Philosophy of Hope, so far) His pragmatic outlooks are within error theory (relativists perhaps) but driven by modern scientific understandings of the world, including Darwin and a materialist conception of brain/mind, and rely on intersubjective agreement as to the morally appropriate thing to do.

I am disconcerted by some of his pragmatic beliefs, and I also struggle with how he arrives at a pragmatic outcome, just as for the moment I do not have a better understanding of how and why your moral beliefs in the end are to be arrived at, which is a problematic of any error theorists.

But, anyways, I am fully on board with your thoughts about Harris. I, too, have read Greene's thesis and find that the best understanding out there and am eager for the book that he promises.

(shoot, I am getting a faint remembrance that Greene talked about Rorty, but I do not remember what he said . . . )

Anonymous said...

With friends like these, who needs enemies? http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/a-new-years-resolution-fo_b_802480.html
Harris showed such promise.

Jamie said...

Thanks for the great review! It is good to read a critique of Sam that is not scornful or dismissive.

Russell Blackford said...

Thanks for the great feedback, folks. I'll try to check out some of those links.

Felix, I'm basically with you rather than Prinz on the point you raise, though I could imagine that it might get a bit more complicated. You might be interested in the (very accessible) little book on moral relativism by Neil Levy, who sometimes comments here - similar issues arise with relativism. In one chapter, Neil has an excellent discussion of the claim that moral relativism requires tolerance of other moral systems, etc. There are some very bad popular arguments that it does, but they fail for reasons similar to what you say about Prinz. The general view among philosophers is that the connection between relativism and tolerance is nonsense. But Neil shows the total story is a little bit more complicated than either of those views, once you factor in some more elaborate or sophisticated kinds of relativism.

I don't know whether Neil's metaethical views have changed in recent years, but at the time he was arguing for a limited kind of sophisticated relativism. His discussion of the practicalities of moral argument from that point of view is very illuminating, whether or not he still holds that metaethical position himself.

Ritchie the Bear said...


Forgive me if this question is not phrased so well, I know much less about philosophy than do most of your readers (English major here!).

I am curious whether or not you share my sneaking suspicion that terms like "should" and "ought" are more conceptually atomic than someone like Harris would believe. By this I mean that a statement like "murder is wrong" does not, in the human mind, stand for some more elaborate phrase like "murder reduces well-being" or "murder violates a code of conduct accepted by our group" but that the idea of shouldness is fundamental to the human mind, and so the murder->wrongness (or rape->wrongness, etc, etc) connection is actually misrepresented if expanded into some sort of philosophically or scientifically straightforward proposition.

Anonymous said...

On Prinz's view specifically, it would be worth reading "The Emotional Construction of Morals". He gets into pretty much all -- and I do mean ALL -- of the issues around morality in there, and he expresses his view on tolerance a bit clearer. If I recall correctly, he would reply to Felix that he may want to impose his morality on someone else by taking that as a moral principle, but that that principle follows easier from an objectivist view than a relativist one. He also, however, wants to argue that relativists would be more likely to defend other belief systems against the imposition of moralities on them, which creates a tension, to say the least.

I'd actually recommend Prinz's book as well because in my opinion it's a better book on the issues of morality -- including the influence of science -- than Harris' is, not the least of which is because Prinz is OBSESSIVE about addressing opposing positions fairly and in detail, while Harris generally is not. Prinz's book might be a little less accessible, though, and his position certainly has its own problems.

Russell Blackford said...

Ritchie, I certainly don't think that "should" or "ought to" can be translated in the way you describe, and which Harris proposes at one point ... or that "morally right" and "morally wrong" can be. Nailing down just what they do mean is more difficult. Perhaps there is just a raw feeling of "intrinsic shouldness" or of action-controlling "oomph", but if so that creates its own problems.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I enjoyed the review. I think you did a very good job in your criticism of Harris' arguments. I'm a little concerned, however, that there's too much effort to praise Harris and minimize the significance of his errors. I haven't read the book, and I don't plan to. I'm familiar with his arguments, though, and I find them naive, illogical, and often insulting. His attitude towards moral philosophers is wholly disrespectful and ignorant. Your review only supports my opinion. You say Harris does not make a compelling argument, he misunderstands a significant number of key points, misrepresents his opponents, has little patience for complexity and thus grossly oversimplifies key issues, and presents a scornful attitude towards people who actually take the time to work through these difficult concepts. It's hard for me to know what makes this book so wonderful, or why I should read it, yet you say almost anyone would benefit from doing so. (You mention his section on free will as being exemplary in this regard, but I have little reason to expect that Harris has given that topic novel treatment.)

Jason Streitfeld said...

A lot of people praise Harris for being on "the right side," even if he is defending that side in a very problematic way. (I guess the "right side" is whatever side is against religious moralists.) I can't play that way. I don't think anybody should celebrate bad arguments. I've been criticized on my own blog for taking apart Harris' arguments, on the grounds that I should know what Harris is trying to do and stop with all the philosophical "word play." That is the intellectual climate which Harris is exploiting: don't bother with complexity and philosophy, just make broad brush strokes and let's get on with it! I don't know about the book, but in his public discussions Harris is openly hostile towards moral philosophy i ngeneral. What makes this so dangerous is that the public's view of the relationship between science and morality has a political dimension--that is precisely why Harris wrote his book, and why all his books sell so well. Harris represents the New Atheism, which is a critique of religious moral authority if it is anything at all. Harris is adamantly (and apparently ignorantly) supported by Dawkins. I think it is not just important, but vital, that we develop clear and compelling arguments to sway the public away from modes of religious authority. That requires taking moral philosophy seriously. Harris' arguments won't sway anyone who doesn't already agree with his conclusions, and won't strengthen any critique of religious morality. His arguments rather make a mockery of moral philosophy.

Many of Harris' defenders say, "at least Harris is starting the discussion." You say the same thing: It will now be easier for people to publish books about science and morality. What's the evidence backing that assertion? The relationship between science and morality is and has been a hot topic. I don't see Harris starting a discussion here. I rather see him exploiting the impoverished intellectual market and giving atheism a bad name.

That Guy Montag said...


You shouldn't feel embarrassed about your point, it's a good one. There is a very real and important question about the meaning of the moral terms and this is largely because the meaning of words seem to commit us to the world being a certain way. When I say "I believe that the moon is made of cheese" it's right to say I'm committed to certain things being true about the world. Well what about moral claims? The idea that there can be a certain fact of the matter about these things, that there is a thing out in the world I can point to and say "look, there's a moral fact" seems patently false to many, maybe even most, people. The problem is that our talk seems to commit us to thinking along those lines.

One way of resolving it is to say that we're not making claims when we're using moral terms, that all we're doing is going "yay rights for women" or "boo nasty fundementalists inflicting their beliefs on others." The idea is that neither of these statements actually report facts about the world.

Another option is the Error Theory that Russell takes where you agree that moral terms commit you to the world being a certain way, and that whenever we do that we are always wrong. I'm not going to pretend to be able to do a better job than Russell has already in explaining that particular view.

My own view, if anyone thinks it's interesting, has I suspect a lot of parallels with Harris. I'm inclined towards a kind of Moral Infinitivism cum Eliminativism about ethics but there are some problems I've not resolved basically about its relationship to existing views in ethics. The idea is that moral terms do in fact commit us to real facts about the world, but that our current terminology often isn't good enough to do the job. Instead we need to appeal to a process of reasoning to find the terms that do manage to do the work. Thing is, if we do manage to find terms that work given our best methods of reasoning, then what's the difference between those and our most established scientific theories? Also, because it's Infinitivist there's no reason for us to believe that any particular moral facts are the ones we need, all we have is the general process of science to guide us to whatever happens to be the case.

Russell Blackford said...

Whether it will really be easier for people to get books published remains to be seen.

To be honest, I have a vested interest in hoping so, and of course I see how that could create a bias. I'd like to be writing books that explore some of the issues that Harris does - e.g. the objectivity of morality, but also such things as free will and what it might mean - and with some rigour, but to write them in a way that's accessible and attractive to a general educated audience.

I guess we'll see whether the controversy over The Moral Landscape, and its commercial success or otherwise, has any effect on the market.

That Guy Montag said...


I completely agree that well-being is Harris' weakest argument. Thing is he's not the first. Mill in Utilitarianism seems to fall into exactly the same trap and for almost exactly the same reasons. In fact Mill's argument is considered one of his worst and, I've heard completely, out of character for someone known for his close reasoning. I wonder if that would justify just a little bit of revisionism?

How do you feel about the idea that what they're both suggesting about well being isn't a metaphysical claim, but a methodological one? It's not about what ultimately grounds morals, it's just that how else can we perceive moral actions except through their effects on us?

tildeb said...

I do wish the subtitle would have added the word 'help' in determining human values but I understand why it was unnecessary. I'm not so sure Harris' critics appreciate the same.

I think the various criticisms are somewhat misplaced when one considers the issue as it relates to the equivalency of elevation in this landscape of morality. Too many reviews seem dismissive or even oblivious to this analogy and merrily sail on in minute critiques that although have merit in and of themselves tend to miss Harris' main thesis entirely.

In the same way that there is inherently a need for relativism for there to be any rubric whatsoever for elevation against which some common measurement in principle can be used for a legitimate comparison that is highly useful in practice, the arguments offered by so many critics of Harris about his rubric of morality based on human flourishing misses the mark to insist that the rubric must have well defined and objectively determined end points of what exactly defines right and defines wrong in and of themselves in order for any fair comparison to be made. Our numbering system is similarly open ended and has no such end points to define what is higher and what is lower in and of themselves but that lack fails to justify the argument that differences in comparative quantity is somehow rendered too subjective to be of widespread use in practice in order to empower a single objective rubric equally fuzzy called elevation.

In the same way that human flourishing as a fuzzy rubric (that must surely include notions of effect about individual harm as well as the wider effect of consequences that may result) does not have any such hard and fast book-ends for it to be equally and objectively useful in practice, we can use an assortment of scientific approaches and measurements related to the effects of harm and consequences to inform this rubric based on what we inform our human flourishing to mean for our comparative morality to be just as highly useful even if not exact in particulars. This is where commonly held rights and freedoms and dignities for all individuals play such an important role in these debates. It's the comparison of effect that matters when it comes to applying the moral rubric and it is here where the role of using science is central to help us inform it.

The comparison need only show that certain behaviours effect human flourishing or are more or less than other alternative behaviours on this rubric, in the same way that the numbering system used for the rubric of elevation need only show relative lower or higher values on an objectively held common scale to still be more highly useful than agreeing to have no common rubric whatsoever.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I think the market for such books has already been around for a while, and Harris is just taking advantage of it. If Harris' book does have the market effect you are suggesting, however, it may not be such a good thing. Public attention may end up getting saturated by tons of books which don't deserve to be read, and the discourse will scarcely have evolved. I suspect that the book you want to write is well worth writing, and I hope you get it done and published. Perhaps the best that might come of Harris' book is that it inspires other, more circumspect and well-reasoned philosophers to provide a better framework for the public debate. But I'm afraid books like Harris', which sacrifice rigor for the sake of controversy and posture, are going to get most of the attention.

Ritchie the Bear said...

I do myself think there's too much of people saying "Harris's book has X, Y, Z gaping flaws, BUT it's still a fairly good book that makes some decent points." I think this stems from a distinction between Harris as standard-bearing atheist and Harris as wannabe first philosopher (in a footnote of The End of Faith he literally says he wants to be first philosopher). I for one think that his being a shoddy philosopher makes his skill as an atheist standard bearer a moot point. His philosophical views are crap. His condescension toward meta-ethicists and moral relativists is particularly irritating. We should point this out whenever he comes up.

One reason I favor should-as-behavioral-oomph theories of moral terminology is that words like "should" and "ought" and "good" are always used in the construction and elaboration of moral theories, indicating that such terms have meaning prior to the constructed theories. Harris will go around asking questions like "what should our moral terms mean?" Or he'll say things like "we ought to reject moral relativism because XYZ." This all indicates that "should," "good," etc all have cognitive meaning prior to the supposedly constructed moral theories.

So I'm curious, Russell, what you think the difficulties are in should-as-behavioral-oomph approaches.

That Guy Montag said...


I'm not sure if crap is a fair description of Harris' philosophy. A rejection of the current terms of the debate is a perfectly respectable philosophical tactic. It's certainly almost mandated if we want to do serious Philosophy of mind because it's rather obvious that our mental terms require dualism which has to be false given all the evidence.

Where this applies in ethics is I'll pretty much generally reject metaphysical arguments such asfor instance parts of Mackie, who Russell has mentioned several times. One of his stronger arguments is there there's something metaphysically odd about the idea of moral facts. Well science has led us to believe all sorts of strange and wonderful things about the world like the existence of electrons and quarks and quantum theory; I don't see why we should prejudge the results of when we examine ethics in the same way. There's more to be said here, in particular about where the focus of the fit of our reasoning should be, whether towards general theories or specific answers to specific problems with my sense being towards the latter, but I've no simple argument or suggestion around this one.

As for your own position, it sounds like what you're arguing for is Non-Cognitivism. It's unfortunately a very broad church but the general thrust will be rejecting that moral terms describe the world. Generally they'll say something like moral pronoucements are really just hooray words or orders. I don't think you're going to find any one argument against them all, but a more general problem is that it's often hard to escape the literal meaning of people's terms. That said it's often done so it can't be that hard. Hopefully someone else can do a better job of explaining this than I though.

That Guy Montag said...


I think there's a lot of scope for you and I to agree on. Maybe Harris is making a metaphysical point about what moral good actually is, but it seems plausible at least to me that he's at least trying to suggest that well being is more about how we work out morally good actions than defining it and from there well, anything technically goes.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful review, Russell. I haven't read The Moral Landscape, but from what I've read and seen of his elsewhere, your review is spot on.

It's unfortunate that a popular, positive book about moving moral discourse forward is marred by such sloppy - and apparently flagrantly so - metaethics. Harris's contempt for the field does the rest of his work an injustice.

I heartily encourage you to contribute your own book to the debate. We need more empirically-literate philosophers to help spur this conversation onwards. I may not buy The Moral Landscape, but I would buy your book.

Richard Wein said...

Excellent article, Russell. I think that's the clearest refutation of moral naturalism that I've seen (though you don't use that term). I've bookmarked the article for reference next time the subject comes up in discussion.

I have some qualms about your discussion of the "point" and non-arbitrariness of morality, as I feel there's some ambiguity in your use of those terms. But perhaps it's too much to expect a more thorough treatment of those matters in an article of this length.

strangebeasty said...

Your review is outstanding. I couldn't find anything in it that I didn't like.

As for the "intrinsic shouldness" or "oomph" that seems to ground our moral judgments, I think this is one area in which philosophy should not be afraid to get its hands dirty with a little psychology. Specifically, philosophy needs to take the concept of commitment on board along with traditional moral emotions and the logic of moral language. In my own (rightly unpublished) writing, I define commitment as sustained motivation to invest existential resources toward a particular outcome for an evolving state of affairs. This definition can be a little forced with respect to some usages of "commitment", but I think it captures a morally relevant sense pretty well. Morality is made up largely of commitments, which are not true or false or even necessarily propositional, but are rather psychological processes grounded in personal identity and everything that goes to build it up (temperament, personal history, culture, institutional context, etc.).

Marshall said...

from Russell's review:
"... it would, of course, be incoherent for Alice to ask whether she should do the morally right thing. This would translate to the nonsensical, “Why should I do what I should do, all things considered?”"

What were you saying about the overuse of "of course"? ... ;-)

Far from nonsensical, I think this is the crux of the question. I know I should obey the speed limit or whatever, but I don't. I know I should not... I don't even want to... eat another doughnut, but I do. Even if Harris did succeed in creating an objective ethic, it would be empty unless it could be yoked to behavior. Not just my behavior, but the behavior of others in my community, which I have a legitimate interest in... I don't want them driving recklessly on my street.

Therefore it is necessary for the community to objectify their moral standard. There are any number of useable ways to do that, but appealing to the common good isn't one of them. There's this little thing called the altruism problem for group selection: those who diminish their fitness for any reason will soon become extinct. (I've noticed that evolutionary concerns seem to fly away when we get over to this side of the forest.)

Strangebeasty did well to raise the issue of commitment. What is necessary for human moral evolution is to generate a general consensus about and commitment to increasingly sophisticated ethical positions (....There is no "divine right" of kings; sexual identity is fluid, not binary; other people's take on spirituality is not bothersome as long as they behave themselves; etc.)

Commitment is a matter for Psychology, not so much Philosophy (except for Philosophers holding office hours). Human psychology is somewhat objective (in the same sense as human genetics would be), and so constrains morality and moral evolution, but does not prescribe. So we could ask, what sorts of things generate moral commitment in individual humans? How does that happen?

Marshall said...

Did I send that comment multiple times? Sorry, I'm getting a strange error message that the "UR! is too large to process".....? Maybe it's about the return flight.

Russell Blackford said...

I usually (doubtless not always, of course , since no one's perfect) use "of course" when I'm making a concession of some kind, not when I'm pressing my own controversial intuitions about key points. In the example, I'm admitting that there is a situation in which Alice can't coherently ask something; it's a concession.

On the issue of studying the human phenomenon of commitment - I think this is open to objective study, even scientific study, especially if we take a broad view of what is involved in science. The same applies to the phenomenon of morality more generally.

And yeah, the comment came up a few times, but that's evidently (perhaps even clearly??) a bug in the system, not something you did wrong.

Marshall said...

"commitment ... is open to objective study, even scientific study"

Surely it is, either as a cognitive process (server side) or as a cultural linchpin (client side), and indeed here we are. But I wouldn't expect an individual's actual commitment to arise (or be chosen) primarily as a result of a justifiable scientific or even a rational process.

Hav gud tenez!

Axxyaan said...

I wonder if part of the problem lies in the way people express themselves. People have a tendency to use objective language even when describing subjective experiences. e.g. they say that the cake is wonderful instead of that they find it wonderful. So they express a judgement as a fact. Now because we are humans and share a lot of subjective experiences, this rarely poses problems but not distinghuising fact from judgements can cause misunderstandings.

Scientists can investigate what people like for food and what they don't. But that is an investigation into the judgement of people not into some objective characteristic of food.

Science can also after it has found out what food people like, investigate in what circumstance are advantageous for people to like the food.

Here it seems that Sam Harris is either confused or very unclear in what he is up to. Every time he tries to tell what he means, he seems to tell that there is this morality with objective characteristics that science can study. But every time he gives examples I see him starting from the fact that people like to be well and talks about how science can be used to investigate the circumstances that help in people feeling well.

Does that make sense?

Russell Blackford said...

Just quickly. Marshall, I think you and I are in agreement.

Aaxyaan, I may not have absorbed all of your thought here, but again I think we're pretty much agreed. If I say "The cake is wonderful!" that may be a way of saying, "I really enjoy the cake!" But it might also be judging the cake by standards that I expect my friends to share, so it may be more like, "I really enjoy the cake and I'm sure you do/will, too!" Or it might even be saying something about the properties of the cake - that they are such as to be experienced as enjoyable by people like us in the conversation (perhaps a mixture of sweetness, lightness, and certain tastes that "we" hope for from a cake of this kind).

Perhaps "The cake is wonderful!" actually expresses some mix (as it were) of these things. But what it doesn't usually express is a claim that the cake possesses some inherent property of "wonderfulness" whose presence must be recognised as a fact by all rational creatures.

Usually with value judgments we're sophisticated enough to realise that something like this is going on. If I say, "Angelina Jolie is beautiful!" or "The sunset over Cable Beach is beautiful!", I'm sufficiently sophisticated to realise that these are not judgments that are inescapably binding on, say, an intelligent Martian (or even on my fellow human beings, some of whom may be left cold by both Ms Jolie and the sunset).

When it comes to what are commonly regarded as moral judgments, however, there seems to be a widespread reluctance to treat them with the same kind of sophistication. There's a tendency to think that such and such an act is, as it were, really, really morally good or morally bad.

Why that might be is something that can be studied scientifically (or at least rationally) and in a way that attempts to be unbiased and so on. But of course that's not what Harris is arguing.

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, people don't like famines, etc., even if others suffer them. And we do take some joy in the joy of other people (or in watching kittens playing, or whatever). But there's no evidence at all that people generally consider themselves under an obligation, when they make decisions, to act in such a way as to maximise the well-being (whatever that is) of conscious creatures generally. They always put weight on the interests of themselves and their loved ones. More importantly, moral systems allow them to do so.

There is no evidence at all that actual moral systems are somehow designed, or have somehow evolved, whether biologically or culturally, to maximise universal "well-being". Quite the opposite. The evidence, if anything, is that they have evolved to facilitate such things as the survival of the in-group - and the overall well-being of conscious creatures be damned!

Again, I don't doubt that most of us, to some extent or other, are averse to causing suffering and have some wish to ameliorate it when we can. But if other conscious beings are not actually suffering, we tend to place very little if any priority on making them (even) happier. Even if we do care about this slightly, we are still likely to place a much higher priority on achieving our own goals, looking after our loved ones, and perhaps looking after the future of whatever we think of as our tribe.

That Guy Montag said...

I don't think necessarily that Harris would disagree with you on that point Russell. As I've said before that seems in some way to be the reasoning behind his many peaks talk.

I keep returning to the fact that "well being of conscious creatures" for Harris seems less about what constitutes a moral fact and more about the background in which we can think about and discuss moral issues. That certainly seems to be the sense of his reply to you over at Jerry Coyne's. He also mentioned something similar at his TED talk when he says, and I paraphrase, that if we could conceive of something that didn't have any effect on the consciousness of creatures, we'd have by definition the most boring object in existence.

I accept that this seems to be granting a lot of ground to his critics. It's precisely the kind of Internalism that presumably leads to people saying morals are too subjective to be amenable to science. This is certainly the line I read Marshall for instance as taking a couple of comments back.

Harris' next argument is I think where he makes his strongest point. He argues that this problem of subjectivity is a problem for every scientific discipline but we rightly ignore it as not being a serious objection; why can't we do the same for morals?

Bao Pu said...

I know this discussion is old, but I've just discovered it and read it. I just wanted to say that Richard Garner has revised his book Beyond Morality and is available on his website.

Russell, regarding: "There is no evidence at all that actual moral systems are somehow designed, or have somehow evolved, whether biologically or culturally, to maximise universal "well-being". Quite the opposite. The evidence, if anything, is that they have evolved to facilitate such things as the survival of the in-group - and the overall well-being of conscious creatures be damned!"

An exception may be Buddhism, no?