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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).

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Harris replies to critics

Just a placeholder at this stage, but I do promise to have a bit to say about this.


josef johann said...

I think a tremendous cultural problem is the widespread belief that venturing into practical ethics/practical morality is a slippery slope toward Hitler, genocide, etc. etc.

And this is the lower grade of criticism that has erupted in response to Harris' book. But it is very widespread and needs rebuttal.

I think one positive effect of your review and those of Jollimore, etc. is that they further marginalize these insane (yet popular) viewpoints in favor of a more credible discussion of morality.

josef johann said...

I thought this part was quite interesting:

Thus, if you want to move society toward peak 19746X, while I fancy 74397J, we may have disagreements that simply can't be worked out. This is akin to trying to get me to follow you to the summit of Everest while I want to drag you up the slopes of K2. Such disagreements do not land us back in moral relativism, however: because there will be right and wrong ways to move toward one peak or the other; there will be many more low spots on the moral landscape than peaks (i.e. truly wrong answers to moral questions);

Even though you are going in different directions there will be truths pertaining to both of your journeys.

I guess this is what you mean about much of Harris' system being practically useful despite his major premise being wrong.

March Hare said...

I am right at the start of Sam's book so I don't want to criticise it just yet, but a couple of things he has written have given me pause and I was wondering if anyone can tell me if he adequately covers them later one:

He makes the analogy of (one kind of [deontology?]) morality with not losing your queen at chess. However, not losing your queen is a rule of thumb, not a rule. Not moving your queen like a knight is a rule. Because of this I find this analogy particularly flawed.

He later talks about giving people a firmware update so that they can live amicably on one of the moral peaks. I find this talk to be exactly the thing the scaremongers had in mind when they initially criticised Sam for trying to bring science into morality. If we are all satisfied (thanks to drugs/re-education/brainwashing) on the current peak then where is the person leading us towards a higher peak? Where is the so-called human flourishing that Sam seeks? It has almost always been the case in human history that progress has come at some kind of cost and it is our differences that keep us strong.

Like I said, I am just at the start and am using this as a kind of sounding board so if anyone who has read the whole thing could let me know if these are adequately dealt with later I'd appreciate it.

Felix said...

In his defense in HuffPo Sam says:

"Again, the same can be said about medicine, or science as a whole. As I point out in my book, science in based on values that must be presupposed -- like the desire to understand the universe, a respect for evidence and logical coherence, etc. One who doesn't share these values cannot do science. But nor can he attack the presuppositions of science in a way that anyone should find compelling."

I think this is glaring inept.
If where he refers to science we can refer to "a well-being based morality", or as short-hand "utilitarianism".

"Utilitarianism is based on values that must be presupposed -- like the desire to maximise well-being, a respect for humanity and a non-theistic worldview, etc. One who doesn't share these values cannot be a utilitarian. But nor can he attack the presuppositions of utilitarianism in a way that a utilitarian should find compelling."

Richard Wein said...

Harris continues with the same sort of muddled, equivocal writing. Worst is his equivocal use of "values", conflating facts about what people value with facts about what is actually of value.

GTChristie said...

Harris assigns a starring role to the concept of "well-being" as a moral goal or value and leans heavily upon it. That concept and "human flourishing" are popular buzzwords among the scientific crowd on the internet these days. But besides the question whether these two attractive concepts are derived by strictly scientific means (probably not), and whether they are quantifiable by the scientific method (doubtful), it's worth asking what conditions might appear in the resulting "scientifically moral" world and how it might feel to live there.

Several people have noticed Harris' references to changing people (as in "altering human nature") to accommodate a scientific vision of morality.

The biggest problem with science "determining human values" is not in defining well-being (nor in the ability to quantify it). It's the dehumanizing uniformity necessary to make a "morality of well-being" (or of any other value) scientific.

Ritchie the Bear said...

Richard Wein--

We discussed Moral Realism vs. Skepticism at Massimo's blog before, and you made many incisive comments. You are right here once again to point out that Harris confuses the psychology of value-believing with the ontology of value-having.

I'm curious, have you written at length about this issue (moral realism vs. relativism)? I'd like to see how my ideas compare with yours, to see whether we are skeptics for the same reasons.

Richard Wein said...


No, I'm afraid my writing on the subject is limited to blog comments.

BTW To most philosophers the complement of moral realism is referred to as "moral anti-realism" (aka "moral scepticism" or "moral nihilism"), not "moral relativism". Unfortunately, in common parlance "moral relativism" is often used to refer to anything other than moral realism.

I don't accept the name "relativist". As an error theorist I say that there are no moral truths, not that moral truths are relative.

Ritchie the Bear said...


Thanks for correcting me. I actually have no background in philosophy, I just read the blogs and such and try to pick up on what is going on. I've read Harris's views on morality for some time and find them to be piles of equivocation; indeed he will use equivocation to disguise equivocation. He's covering seven holes with five pegs, and if you point one of the holes out, he just changes a definition! Then if you point out the one that's now empty, he changes again! etc.

Just wanted to let you know I appreciated your comments. If you make more posts on this issue at Rationally Speaking I'll be paying attention.

Richard Wein said...

Thanks for the kind comment, Ritchie. I don't have any background in philosophy either. I've picked up most of my knowledge over the last few years from online reading, particularly the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. That, and thinking things through carefully for myself. My education in mathematics and a long-standing interest in linguistics probably help.