- Russell Blackford
- 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) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).
Tuesday, February 08, 2011
Sam Harris on science and human values
If you haven't seen it, the ABC's religion and ethics portal has recently published a piece by Sam Harris on how science can determine human values. This acts as an answer to my piece on the same site - which was essentially a condensed version of my long review of The Moral Landscape over at The Journal of Evolution and Technology. The Harris piece is a slightly shorter version of what he previously published at The Huffington Post, so don't bother with it if you've had a sufficiently close look at the earlier piece. But I'm providing the link for interest.
Posted by Russell Blackford at 9:36 pm
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Sam Harris wrote:
1. There is no scientific basis to say that we should value well-being, our own or anyone else's. (The Value Problem)
1. There is no scientific basis to say that we should value health, our own or anyone else's. (The Value Problem)
While the analogy may not be perfect, I maintain that it is good enough to obviate these three criticisms. Is there a Value Problem, with respect to health? Is it unscientific to value health and seek to maximize it within the context of medicine?
Well from his analogy with health, I would conclude Sam Harris wouldn't be a very good doctor. There is a value problem with health and a lot of strained relations between docters and their patients is that doctors don't (want to) see it.
For a number of patients indulging in something that happens to be bad for their health is one of the few things that gives them pleasure in life and is what life make bearable for them but doctors often enough don't (want to) see that and take every opportunity to pester the patient to quit the habit.
And of course it is not unscientific to value health and look to science for means to maximize it. But in the same way it is not unscientific to value unhealth and look to science for way to increase that (e.g. in the context of pest control or biological warfare).
Sam Harris doesn't seem to understand the difference between having certain values and let science inform us on how best to bring then into practice and sciece being the basis of those values.
The existence of health as a science does not necessitate the maximisation of it.
The existence of economics as a science does not necessitate the maximisation of long-term profit.
Similarly, the existence of a science of morality does not necessitate the maximisation of well-being either.
I'm glad Sam Harris is linking to Jollimore's review, because it is, as he says, one of the better ones. What I don't get, though, is why he thinks he has addressed any of Jollimore's criticisms. I wonder if he is just not paying attention, or if perhaps he's hoping to confuse people into thinking that he has actually responded to Jollimore when in fact he hasn't. Either way, again, I'm glad he linked to Jollimore, because I hadn't read that review yet, and I'm glad I finally did. It's solid.
As for his responses to you, I'm not holding out for any concessions. It looks like he's a moral relativist in denial, and I don't know if that can be cured by rational argument alone. (By the way, is it just me, or has Harris made a noticable but unannounced shift away from viewing the well-being of all conscious creatures to the well-being of humans as the foundational value of our moralizing?)
I think Harris has too much confidence in his intuition, so doesn't feel the need to think the subject through carefully, take seriously the pre-existing literature, or pay close attention to criticism. Human nature, of course, but a shame nevertheless.
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