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).

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Even more discussions of Harris

Massimo Pigliucci has a rather damning review of The Moral Landscape here. Peter Beattie responds with defence of Harris over here at Butterflies and Wheels. In each case, there is already a pretty good thread in response.

Just some quick observations - with more to come tomorrow.

I have some quibbles of my own about the Pigliucci review. The para about how creepy it would be if the state had effective lie detectors and started to use them on us routinely gets some sympathy from me, but it seems out of place. I'm not sure what it contributes at that point in the review, and the review would have been fine without it. Also, I do get sick of the use of this word "scientism" to beat Harris with. In the end, the problems with The Moral Landscape aren't so much about thinking that all problems can be solved by science. Even if Harris may sometimes seems to think that, the real problems are elsewhere. In fact, the endnote in which Harris says that he is not distinguishing sharply between the sciences and other empirically-based areas of study, such as history, seem fair enough to me.

However, I do agree with Pigliucci that Harris has conspicuously failed to derive "ought" from "is" in the way that he sometimes seems to think he can do.

Recall that there really are various ways to derive "ought" validly from "is". The much criticised David Hume was well aware of the most important of these. For example, you can derive an "ought" conclusion from an "is" premise if you also use an "ought" premise. The problem relates to deriving "oughts" without using any "oughts" in your premises. Thus, Hume would have had no problem with an argument such as:

P1. If the sky is white then we ought to slay the purple frog.
P2. The sky is white.
C. We ought to slay the purple frog.

That's perfectly valid reasoning, though the premises are, I take it, not true. P2. might be, I suppose, but P1. sounds implausible.

More importantly, Hume was well aware that you can derive an "ought" of practical rationality if you include premises that relate to someone's goals, values, desires, or something of the kind. Thus, I consider the following to be valid:

P1. Amara's goal is to turn the sky green.
P2. If Amara slays the purple frog, the sky will turn green.
C. (Other things being equal) Amara ought to slay the purple frog.


P1. Bertie desires Amara's love.
P2. Bertie will obtain Amara's love if he gives Amara some chocolate.
C. (Other things being equal) Bertie ought to give Amara some chocolate.


P1. Bertie places a value on obtaining chocolate.
P2. Bertie can obtain chocolate by looking in the cupboard.
C. (Other things being equal) Bertie ought to look in the cupboard.

There are also some logical tricks that I mentioned in an earlier post.

P1. Bertie is amorous.
P2. Bertie is not amorous.
C. Bertie ought to slay the purple frog.

Notoriously, you can derive any proposition validly from contradictory premises. Getting from "is" to "ought" this way isn't a very useful trick, however, since it depends on logically impossible (because internally contradictory) situations obtaining.


P1. Everything Amara says is true.
P2. Amara says, "Bertie ought to slay the purple frog."
P3. Bertie ought to slay the purple frog.

I suppose this might be useful in practice if we actually knew that Amara is always right, but there's still something fishy (if not amphibian) about it. It gives us a method of knowing that some "ought" claims are true. But the conditions in the premises are not what make it true that Bertie ought to slay the purple frog. What might make it true is that slaying the purple frog will achieve some goal of Bertie's, such as causing rain to fall from the white sky. There's also the small issue that we at least had to mention an "ought" claim in our premises, which seems like cheating.

For various reasons, these sorts of arguments do not get us from "is" to "ought" in ways that would amount to solutions of the "is/ought" problem. That's mainly because the problem is how to get from "is" to "ought" in a way that does not presuppose any "oughts" in the premises and does not depend on such things as people's actual values, goals, desiderative sets, affective attitudes, and so on. Also, in this area of philosophy we really want to know what set of "is"-type facts can actually make it true that we ought to do certain things. It's not enough that we can be confident of someone's advice - that's not what we were asking about.

Since Harris presupposes that we ought to maximise the well-being of conscious creatures, he has, indeed, conspicuously failed to get from "is" to "ought" in the way that philosophers mean. He is using an "ought" as a premise. Even if he is right that we ought to maximise the well-being of conscious creatures, he has not provided a solution to the "is/ought" problem. That's pretty fundamental.

This doesn't make the book worthless. It merely doesn't do one of the things that it seemingly claims to do. All of which is unsurprising. At this point in history, we've reached a situation where a claim to have solved the "is/ought" problem should be looked at with much the same scepticism as a claim to have invented a perpetual motion machine. Or a claim to have produced a logically compelling ontological argument for the existence of God. If someone claims to have done any of these things, it's just as well that there are people around to check it out. But you can be pretty sure in advance that the person cannot produce what is advertised.


pboyfloyd said...

Why must you hate purple frogs??

Thanny said...

The concept of "ought" exists only in the context of a brain capable of defining that concept. A brain is a physical object, something that "is".

If you can't derive "ought" from "is", then "ought" doesn't exist.

In other words, the faulty premise is that any conceivable argument involving "ought" doesn't include an "ought" somewhere in the premises. No such argument exists outside of oversimplified abstractions, which use the term "ought" with no consideration of what it actually means.

Put yet another way, no being capable of understanding a concept such as "ought" is free of pre-existing "oughts", which are in fact physical consequences of their structure (their "is"). Such an "ought", which is in fact an "is", can be used to derive higher-order "oughts".

We humans do, in fact, have a set of "oughts" in common. This is clear from all empirical work on human values and morals. To suggest that abnormal variations create insurmountable obstacles to a scientific morality is to suggest that the existence of hand amputees prevents the manufacture of gloves.

Can any science of morality ever say what Suzie should do in situation X? Probably not. I don't recall reading anything by Harris suggesting that that's a reasonable goal. But can any science of morality say that societal rule X is wrong? Unquestionably. The overall question is not whether we can ever come up with a formula to make all of our moral choices for us, but whether we can get traction on large-scale moral choices, concerning the type of society in which we *should* live. From my perspective, the burden of proof seems to be on those who say we can't.

NewEnglandBob said...

Dwelling on the is/ought problem is not the main focus of the book. Its purpose is to get civic dialog moving along and using science to help alleviate suffering.

Russell Blackford said...

And I've welcomed the effort by Sam to create a conversation about this. However, he's done so by putting certain arguments. This is inviting scrutiny of the arguments.

Russell Blackford said...

Sorry, Thanny, but I can't follow that at all.

Tom Clark said...

Thanny: "But can any science of morality say that societal rule X is wrong? Unquestionably."

Many liberals favor gay marriage, many conservatives don't. I'm not sure how science can show either side right about the moral question of extending equal rights to gays, but I'm open to suggestions.

Harris hasn’t managed to bridge the is-ought gap with science (he wants science to play the role God plays for the religious), since science offers us descriptions, explanations, and predictions, not *prescriptions* for what’s morally right. The way I see it, we can only move from Thanny's *pre-existing* oughts, as driven by biologically and culturally determined human needs, fears and desires, to *other* oughts as determined by political and moral discourse: having arguments about how we should treat one another in light of our worldviews, see “Naturalism and normativity” at http://www.naturalism.org/normativity.htm. There is no value-free platform from which to decide between moral intuitions; moral discourse is *motivated* all the way down, and up. See also the morality page at Naturalism.Org: http://www.naturalism.org/morality.htm

GTChristie said...

P1. If the sky is white then we ought to slay the purple frog.
P2. The sky is white.
C. We ought to slay the purple frog.

The reason P1 doesn't sound plausible is that Hume's objection applies to it.

To correct that, P1 would need to be stated: "It is true that if the sky is white, then we should slay the purple frog." (This creates a moral fact.)

Then the entire logic can be evaluated correctly. And P1 becomes falsifiable. Getting to P1 in the first place becomes the problem, while still avoiding Hume's objection. Personally I believe that can't be done. Certainly can't be sloppy about it, if done, either.

Rieux said...

P1. Bertie desires Amara's love.
P2. Bertie will obtain Amara's love if he gives Amara some chocolate.
C. (Other things being equal) Bertie ought to give Amara some chocolate.

Surely at this point in time, and on an Australian blog, "Amara" above should be replaced with "Lionel."

(I'm omitting my "ought" premise, but... exercise for the reader, etc.)

Alasdair Cameron said...

If Harris was that interested in promoting civic dialogue and using science to alleviate suffering, he would not have antagonized large swathes of what would have been enthusiastic supporters by claiming to have solved an ancient philosophical problem that's not even integral to his thesis. He is to blame for this legitimate brouhaha, not those who are patiently and painstakingly (bar a few) trying to demonstrate that the extremely complex subject of metaethics is neither boring nor irrelevant. This debate is not irrelevant because if one man's (or one group's) conception of what 'well-being' should mean is imposed on the rest of us, with the authority of 'science' providing the mandate (and this is the crucial objection), it could lead to real and terrible consequences.

Blake Stacey said...

"Amara believes she ought to slay the purple frog" is an is statement. Call it P. Statement P supervenes, one would suppose, on a complicated description of the neurochemical configuration of Amara's brain, which we could call P'. "David Hume believes that Amara ought to slay the purple frog" is, likewise, an is statement; call it Q. Q supervenes on some elaborate and detailed accounting of David Hume's neurons, Q', which is presumably related to P' by virtue of the common features of David Hume and Amara's neurophysiologies. But, neither P nor Q is equivalent to "The purple frog must be destroyed".

TCO348 said...

Yes, you can't get from an is to an ought but you can do something similar. You can get from 'is painful' avoid that which causes pain results in less pain. Maybe we can't all agree that pain is undesirable but I'm willing to stipulate and I'm sure most other people would be too.

strangebeasty said...

Thanny, a "science of morality" may well tell us why rule X is inconsistent with certain social goals we're strongly committed to, and this might be a very useful thing to have it do, especially if the inconsistency is very non-obvious. Still, "wrong" has to be defined relative to those values. If those values are universal- that is, if all human societies hold them- then that does not constitute any ultimate justification. We remain responsible for our commitments, no matter how many people hold them along with us.

You seem to think that we can derive prescriptive propositions from actual brain states, which is a fallacy; physical causation is not logical derivation.

strangebeasty said...

Russel, thank you for another wonderfully clear exposition of these important moral issues. Not enough people are speaking up intelligently about the importance and the basic content of moral philosophy.

Ben said...

I'm really wishing I could afford a copy of the book and read it right now. I've only got what Harris has written and spoken on the web and reviews/exchanges such as the ones here to go on.

Even still, I get the impression that the focus on the whole is/ought thing is ... misplaced. Probably the wrong word for it.

With multiple peaks in the moral landscape, I was get the impression that Harris is not asking us to go from is to ought, but from is to numerous possible oughts. Further, I am left with the idea that what Harris has been asking us to to is investigate how to go from is to ought(s). i.e. investigate the moral landscape.

If the point of the book is to get us to investigate what morality is, or even if it's possible to investigate it, then I don't see the problem when he says the is/ought problem is not his, his book not being investigation of morality but about the investigation of morality.

Sure the is/ought thing will be a problem if we ever sit down and start looking critically at morality in all it's varied forms. I just don't see it being a problem when one is suggesting that we should.

Reading all the various reviews and response, the picture I get is two groups, essentially on the same side talking past each other.

Maybe I'll understand better when I find a copy of the book.

Marshall said...

P1. Everything Amara says is true.
P2. Amara says, "Bertie ought to slay the purple frog."
P3. Bertie ought to slay the purple frog.

This would be the Argument from Authority, which you want to reject on the grounds that it P1 is an oxymoron? More or Less? People like Garner and modern folk in general do seem to be very resistant to being told what to do/not do. Anti-dogmatic.

P1. Queen Amara, True Princess Chatelaine of the Castle of Shazoom, has a household guard sworn to her person, which protects her from Evil Sorcerers.
P2. One night Amara cries out to Bertie, "Guardsman! Slay that apparitional Puerile Frog!"
P3. Bertie has a binding obligation to fight the frog to the death, although most likely it will be his.

Reasons why P3 might be valid (that is, how there really could be a relationship of authority available to be invoked):

* Amara is the Queen, so what she says goes. (divine right)
* Bertie is sworn to Amara, so he has promised to obey commands. (duty)
* When Amara uses the Voice of Command, Bertie has been trained to respond by reflex. (behavioralism? error theory?)
* Bertie loves Amara (as do all members of her guard) so he is aroused by Amara's anger/disgust/fear. (compassion)
* P2 occurs only when a Puerile Frog appears, which is an infallible sign of an evil sorcerous attack, which calls for a lethal-force anti-accomdationist response from Bertie because evil is bad per P1. (rationalism)
* If Bertie fails to adequately protect Amara he will be tortured horribly; better to die quickly. (enlightened self-interest)

As an author, I don't suppose one would need to explicitly distinguish these cases. In practical life we do have (following John Searle) the Institution of Authority. We disagree mightily on which institutions have force where, but I think you have to say that the concept of 'Authority' is available to all humans. All 'persons', anyway. And we all do defer to various Authorities at various times.

Russell Blackford said...

@ GT, and one or two others, Hume might have problems with how you could ever establish some of the premises used in my toy arguments. How do establish an ought premise in the first place? How do you establish that someone is an infallible moral authority? But I think the toy arguments are at least valid, as opposed to sound, and I think Hume would agree.

But Hume could point out, rightly, that all the valid ways of inferring "oughts" fall short of making morality what it is supposed to be. His real point seems to be that oughts always have something to do with our sympathies or desires (which he means broadly to include attitudes, goals, and so on). Thus, Hume grounds morality in human nature, not anything external to it such as an "objective value".

Peter Beattie said...

Thanks for the conceptual clarifications, Russell. Let me try and make a point that I suppose Harris would support.

What if Harris’s premise is precisely not that we ought to maximise the well-being of conscious creatures, but that ‘well-being’ is, as a matter of actual fact, the only goal our values can aim at? Of course, he would have to show that, and he tries to, starting at p. 32 of TML and at The Great Debate; but that would be an unequivocal ‘is’ premise, wouldn’t it?

ernie keller said...

"Oughts" are derived from other "oughts" previously agreed to. To get the ball rolling a group agrees on commonly held moral intuitions. I've never considered the fact/value distinction to be a big deal. Values are not facts, but the reason is not that they are "less factual" or "less than facts", but because they are intentional. They might be seen as "facts plus".

ernie keller said...

Maybe morality isn't infallible, and though the history of moral codes suggests that it's sometimes "supposed to be" not everyone thinks infallibility is required to provide benefits. All a code has to do is promote what we want and discourage what we don't want. Since it isn't infallible we're allowed to tinker with it, too, which is harder to do with infallibility hanging over you.

This view works in favor of Harris to some extent. If morality is natural intuition subject to a social process then we are free to promote the benefits of a science-guided morality if that's what we decide is best. Like most real moral questions, it bypasses the value/fact question because no answer to that determines our choice.

Jon Jermey said...

So step one in the implementation of Harris's World Domination Plan is to extract clear statements from politicians and world opinion leaders as to what they think ought to happen. Armed with these, we can go to work quite happily.

Actually my views on 'scientism' are rather like Bernard Shaw's views on Christianity: it sounds like a great idea and somebody ought to try it some time. Once we get it working -- in a thousand years or so -- then we can iron out the bugs.

jay said...

It sounds so easily to simply go to 'less pain. While certain extreme cases are obvious (genocide, for example, murder) there are lots of areas where measuring the pain is not really precise. Or cases where pain may move from one group to another, or pain may be evaluated very differently.

The word 'moral' carries a special significance, beyond 'simply a good idea'. It carries within itself the concept of imperative, not just advice, hence it must be used in a very rarified set of contexts. That worries me a lot because the 'lesser pain' argument can be weighted differently by different groups in power. Is it moral for the state to ban activities and foods that are harmful? Is it moral for the state to regulate certain consensual sexual activities between adults? How do you weigh voluntary risk against loss of personal freedom? If you ignore the intangible value of freedom, you can make a case for a highly restrictive and regulated society, defended as a moral imperative.

ernie keller said...

Science doesn't tell us values are facts, does it? If you study values you'll find they're rules for social behavior and subject to whatever evolutionary process cultures and individuals are driven by. You input facts (one hopes), you output values. I want my values to be fact-based (a good example of a fact-based value).

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