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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).

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Ah iz thinking about Sam Harris and his reply to his critics

This reply by Sam Harris is interesting, and I do thank him for his care and civility. I'm afraid that I find crucial aspects of it unconvincing, but I'm grateful that we can have a reasonable, good-humored dialogue on some of these issues. As I often do, I'll respond in more than one part, as there are many threads to try to untangle.

At this stage, let me just say that there is some agreement between us. I don't think that the process of formulating public policy, or the process of considering how we ought to regard another culture's customs and laws (or those of our own culture(s)), or the process of thinking about how we should, as individuals, live our respective lives, is just hopeless, or that the results of deliberation on these things are inevitably going to be merely arbitrary or idiosyncratic. On the contrary, there's a good chance that the results of serious deliberation will have taken account of all [edit: or at least many] of the relevant facts and then combined them with desires, values, etc., that are widely shared and can be understood and accepted by most people. These processes can be rational and reasonable ones.

Harris compares them to the practice of medicine, which can, I agree, also be a rational and reasonable one. If I were denying that the practices/processes mentioned in the previous paragraph were (or were capable of being) rational and reasonable, Harris would be able to use the practice of medicine as a compelling counter-example, suggesting that my standards are too demanding. But I don't deny any of that. My point at this stage of the argument is somewhat narrower. I doubt that there is a metric for well-being (and I believe that Harris has still not thought through the implications of this, even though he appears to agree). I also argue that the practice of using such a metric, even if it existed, would not be binding on us in such a way that we'd be required (perhaps as matter of rationality) to maximise the sum of well-being.

Sure, medicine or healthcare may be able to get by without a single, objective metric. I happily concede that. I also concede that the processes of critiqueing laws, customs, and so on, can do likewise. They are not thereby condemned to be irrational or unreasonable, or to be useless, or hopeless, or arbitrary. But, whatever anyone else is saying, that is not my position. My position is, rather, that we can make rational, reasonable, non-arbitrary, etc., judgments about the "goodness" of systems of law and custom, and so on, without needing those judgments to be objectively "correct". If anything, the analogy with medicine supports my position on this, rather than being a counter-example. It shows how a practice can operate rationally, reasonably, and so on, even without in all cases giving us objectively binding guidance on how we should act.

However, if someone thought that there really is an objectively binding prescription for action in all cases in the medical and healthcare area  ... she would be mistaken. Further, it would be worthwhile pointing this out: it would be of philosophical interest and practical importance. If it were the commonsense view, philosophical scepticism about common sense in this domain would be defensible ... and perhaps even useful. Harris seems to get this, but doesn't draw the obvious conclusion, by analogy, that moral objectivism is neither necessary (for practical purposes) nor correct (at a theoretical level).

I'm only clearing my throat here - letting y'all know that I really am thinking about this. I'll get into some more detail tomorrow. I think the analogy with medicine/healthcare may be a useful place to start, so I'll begin tomorrow by elaborating on some of the above.


Russell Blackford said...

And even this post turned out much longer than I'd intended.

March Hare said...

I think Sam Harris is going to regret using health as an analogy as it will show the inherent flaws in his thinking.

While we can objectively work out the various impacts on health of various activities (more or less) we cannot say what one should do or should avoid without first having some goal in mind. For the lean long distance runner there is no need to put on more bulk, for the sprinter there is no need to reduce BMI.

The goals individuals set themselves in terms of health are based on their values and we can only say that someone should do something if it helps towards achieving their goal.

The distinction that has to be drawn between health and morality is that health is an individual thing whereas morality impacts others. This means that there can be no consensus on what people should do in terms of their own health (it's their body) only consensus on how various things impact health (that'd be the science) whereas since morality impacts others there has to be a consensus of values for it to make any sense.

Tom Clark said...

Moral realist intuitions may well be part of our genetically transmitted moral sense: it strongly seems to us that some things are *just wrong*. And in fact there's widespread agreement about the intrinsic wrongness of certain acts, such as torturing innocents and killing babies for one's own amusement. We wouldn't be here as a successful species without such aversions, and that they are nearly universal (sociopaths are the exception) is as much objectivity as we're going to get about morality.

Our shared, biologically transmitted moral instincts about harm, fairness, and reciprocity set the ground rules for arguments about differences in cultural practices, since most individuals, even in the most regressive societies, operate according to such norms with respect to their peers. It's arguing that those norms be extended to *all* individuals in their wonderful variety that the success of the liberal democratic project depends on.

Since the opposition can't deny they share those norms with respect to their peers, they have to have to say why out-groups shouldn't be granted the same consideration. This usually involves some religious, political or economic ideology about human ends and social hierarchy as decreed by God, Hitler, Pol Pot, or other non-scientific authority. So part of the liberal democratic project has to include challenges to the flawed epistemology that supports such ideologies, and of course direct appeals to the moral intuitions about harm and fairness that we know exist in our opponents.

So as you say, arguments about morality and values aren’t irrational, unreasonable, useless, hopeless or arbitrary, even though we can’t, as Harris supposes, look directly to science to validate our side of the argument.

J. Abraham said...

Russell, it boils down to the question of whether medicine should be known as an objective enterprise.

Obviously in some sense the motivations of medicine aren't objective, but then, as Sam Harris has shown, the same is true of physics.

If medicine and morality are on the same footing with respect to lack of rudimentary objectivity, why are they seen -- by almost everyone -- as being in different epistemic ballparks? If that's not what you believe, then you have much more in common with Harris than with most of his critics, and you should make this clear.

Also you don't seem to have considered the implications of your admission that ethics has to be "non-arbitrary". In order for anything to be non-arbitrary, there has to be some objective law at work, governing what is arbitrary and what is non-arbitrary. Without appealing to some deeper law (such as the law of maximizing wellbeing), how do you know, for instance, that we shouldn't carry out genocide?

josef johann said...

I don't see that this is either true or compelling: I doubt that there is a metric for well-being

You could imagine someone from a very primitive society saying "I doubt there is a universal metric for all this hotness and coldness stuff" because the concept of temperature had not yet been worked out.

josef johann said...

Also, I'm glad to see you are no longer apologizing for constantly "returning" to this subject. As I've said, it's not something that's going away. I kind of forsee it becoming one of those big cultural issues like abortion. So I've never thought it could be treated with a one-and-done blog post.

If this is just throat clearing, and you will have several more posts, its possible that Harris will have several more responses, and other people too...

Maybe you should move that book on morality up to the top of your docket.

Thalamus said...

My position is, rather, that we can make rational, reasonable, non-arbitrary, etc., judgments about the"goodness" of systems of law and custom, and so on, without needing those judgments to be objectively "correct".

Reasonable and rational without being objective? Are you really implying that reason is relative? So far, Mr. Blackford, you have not offered an alternative to Harris objectivism. By the way, are you bearing in mind that Harris refers to science as construed in the broadest sense? Pretty much as a synonym to rationality and logical coherence.. so if you want to effectively debunk Harris' stance, you'll have to argue that we cannot 'oughts' through reason, which would hence betray your acceptance for " other ways of knowing".

It's a dead end.

steve oberski said...

@March Hare The distinction that has to be drawn between health and morality is that health is an individual thing whereas morality impacts others.

Type 2 diabetes is on the rise, it is estimated that the levels will rise from the current levels of 1 in 10 adults (US) to 1 in 5 to 1 in 3 by mid century.

An estimated 22.5 million people were living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa at the end of 2009, including 2.3 million children. By 2020, the total population of South Africa is expected to be 23% smaller than it would be without AIDS. Life expectancy at birth is expected to hit a low of 45.6 years in the time period 2005-2010, which is 22 years less than it would have been in the absence of AIDS.

Health issues most definitely have impact beyond the individual level.

Individual decisions in health, just like morality, do impact others.

As such I think Sam Harris' health/morality analogy is quite valid.

Michael Fugate said...

Many diseases are communicable (STDs, flu, polio, whooping cough, TB) and behaviors such as vaccination and self-quarantine, condoms, etc. affect their spread. Other unhealthy lifestyle choices especially obesity can affect others directly and indirectly.

Alasdair Cameron said...

Good points, March Hare. He's used it before of course, but I was still astonished that he chose to put forward the health analogy as his supposed coup de grâce. As if a concept as complicated, disputed and consisting of so many varieties as well-being can ever be equated with the substantially less complicated concept of health, which itself is not uncomplicated. Percipient comments by Daniel Dennett (who I hope to God isn't one of the hitherto unrevealed philosophers Harris claims supports his position) on 'greedy reductionism' leap to mind.

strangebeasty said...

Sam Harris is right that health and well-being are similar in their difficulty and contentiousness of definition, but he draws the wrong conclusion. Health and well-being are both very thick, normative concepts (I think it is easy to see that well-being has these qualities to a greater degree than health), and where they are arguable, it is because there is always something subjective about them that is added by commitment, preference, or emotion. I think that Sam Harris would be getting by better if he had written a book that was only a little different: rather than saying that moral realism is true, morality is about well-being, and science can tell us what that is, he might have argued that we can develop a scientifically workable notion of well-being in the same way that we can do with help, and that might help us make the world a better place, despite the fact that morality is necessarily a subject of never-ending contention because it has to involve subjective bearers of normativity like preferences, emotions, and commitments, in addition to facts about how the world is.

Russell Blackford said...

Except, Josef, that Sam seems to agree with me that there is no metric for well-being. Perhaps there's a metric for pleasure, but even that is doubtful. Not every concept we have relates to something that has a metric and that can be maximised.

Russell Blackford said...

@ J. Abraham - not really. When we compare the merits of cars, for example, there will not (or not usually) be an objective answer. People with different desires can quite rationally have different preferences between my Honda and my friend's Mazda. It's not that one is objectively right and the other is objectively wrong.

But that doesn't mean we are being arbitrary. Not just anything counts as a "good" motorcar as that is understood in actual social contexts. We have a rough level of agreement on what motorcars are for, and what we want from them beyond their basic purpose, and therefore how they are to be judged. A "good" motorcar is, roughly speaking, one that provides the wants that are assumed, or in question, in our conversations.

Someone who dissents radically from that rough agreement may not be making a mistake about the world, but her advice will be so disconnected from what the rest of us are interested in that the rest of us can ignore it. She can't really be part of the conversation.

Something similar applies to psychopaths, intelligent man-eating Martians, Terminator cyborgs, certain kinds of fanatics, and so on. They are not necessarily making mistakes about the world (though real psychopaths perhaps do make certain mistakes, and fanatics typically have a lot of false ideas). Even if they make no mistakes about objective reality, Sam is right that the rest of us don't need to listen to them.

strangebeasty said...

Ugh. Bad typo in my previous comment. "in the same way that we can do with help" was supposed to be "in the same way that we can do with health".

March Hare said...

I feel I should clarify on my health comment...

Rational people can have radically different opinions on what constitutes good health (e.g. the long distance runner vs. weight lifter vs. the slightly overweight person who doesn't want a sporting injury) but as long as they are rational their views on health will not impact others. i.e. they won't eschew vaccines or pass on STDs because those would be irrational moves given rational values.

However, rational people can have radically different opinions on what constitutes a moral decision because their internal value systems are differently weighted (or just different). This can lead to massive external effects on other people who may or may not share that particular morality.

Brian said...

"I also argue that the practice of using such a metric, even if it existed, would not be binding on us in such a way that we'd be required (perhaps as matter of rationality) to maximise the sum of well-being."

Harris asserted that successfully conveying (all?) true facts about what is required for maximizing well-being forces the listener to act to maximize total well-being, regardless of the listener's values, on pain of irrationality?

Why is Harris arguing that this magic power exists? Has he flipped out because of his dabbling in Buddhism or consumption of LSD, or did he never actually argue for that?

March Hare said...

Brian, I think Russell may be misreading Sam Harris (or I am...) but I think what Sam says is not that it is binding on the individual on pain of irrationality, merely that it is the moral thing to do. And we all know that we are free to choose whether we do the most moral thing or the most selfish.

Sam's argument is not that when we find the most moral thing to do we must do it (as individuals at least) but simply that it is possible to find which option is more moral.

Mid you, I've only finished chapter 1 so I may be talking nonsense...