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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, April 26, 2011

H. Allen Orr reviews The Moral Landscape

I like Orr's book reviews, and this is one not an exception. It's a civil, thoughtful, clear, and incisive look at the philosophical problems that haunt The Moral Landscape. There are some speculations near the end that I'm not especially in sympathy with (e.g. the comparison of morality to mathematics, which I don't think can be made to work), but Orr is not committed to them - he's just considering possible alternatives.

Once again, the book has attracted a very high class of reviewers.


K said...

"Once again, the book has attracted a very high class of reviewers."
The challenge is whether Harris will acknowledge that ;)

That Guy Montag said...

I agree, the Orr review is very good. I think he gets to grips with the nature of Harris's arguments rather well and I think his criticism in terms of style are pretty spot on. I'm finding it interesting looking at his arguments and figure out where I do disagree with him. I'm basically working on a response to his dismissing Sam's interpretation of his neuroscience work but I think it might be a fruitful line of thought.

Russell Blackford said...

I wonder what part of the brain lights up for statements like, "Mercedes-Benz makes good cars" or "Shakespeare was a great playwright" or "Cleopatra was a beautiful woman".

It would also be interesting to see whether there is a difference between something like the latter and "The sunsets over the Bay of Naples are glorious."

I.e., there could be a lot of interesting work on the fucntioning of the brain when making a range of types of non-moral evaluations. And then we can throw in different kinds of moral judgments - thin judgments like "Murder is morally wrong", emotive ones like, "Hitler acted like a bastard", and thick ones like, "Backing down from a fight is cowardly."

My prediction is that some of these - the non-controversial thin moral judgments and the non-controversial non-moral judgments such as the one about Shakespeare - will cause the same bits of the brain to light up as do ordinary factual propositions such as "The Empire State Building is taller than the Eiffel Tower". In some cases, the language might create a difference: would "The Bay of Naples has fine sunsets" work differently in the brain from "The Bay of Naples has glorioys sunsets"?

But anyway, it would be fascinating to do a proper study.

I'm betting that at least some propositions that are definitely not objectively binding on all rational creatures - they are evaluations against standards or requirements that some creatures might rationally reject - would be treated by the brain of someone who accepts them much like empirical facts. Perhaps the existing study already includes some propositions like this, but maybe not - this could get complicated.

But who knows?

That Guy Montag said...


It's a good point and it's spurred me to try to get a hold of at least a more full description of the methodology of Sam's research because the brief description he gives only describes statements of the same basic form (X is good compared to X is red). It would indeed be very interesting if we could see a study on the whole range of different possible expressions you describe.

Presumably though that sort of an objection shouldn't have too much of an impact on your own acceptance of error theory: error theorists already accept cognitivism which pretty much the best that I can see this kind of evidence supporting. It is however potentially a very good argument for cognitivism given that we already have independent support for it from more traditional analyses of moral language.

I guess the line of reasoning that I'm trying to follow is looking at various ways of describing the dualism that underpins the distinction between is and ought. There are three ways I can see that working: dual functions, conceptual dualism, and metaphysical dualism. Functional dualism would be where different functions of the brain are involved in each kind of process, is and ought. Conceptual dualism would be dualism about meaning, something along the order of the mind being in some way independent of the brain so that what appear to be similar concepts have fundamentally different meanings. This of course could take a more tricky substance dualist form, but as far as I can see it could also fit with some form of linguistic externalism or realism. Metaphysical dualism would then be the option that it's some feature of the world, that the two kinds of statements map onto parts of the world that cannot overlap.

The neuroscience seems to me to make functional dualism unlikely. The metaphysical dualism isn't the sort of dualism that encourages the kind of subjectivist views that get taken up by proponents of is-ought. That of course leaves the second type of dualism and that's where my thinking gets stuck. It does seem to me though that it's a very precarious position to hang an ethical theory from given that whatever the ultimate cause of the content of the thoughts are, we've reason to suspect it's not some feature of the brain (Fodor is out) and externalism (ala Wittgenstein or Putnam) is problematic.

I want to be careful here because this really is the very far limits of my knowledge that I'm testing but I think the argument suggests that a subjectivist who accepts the distinction between is and ought is committed to either some kind of substance dualism or its more scientifically palatable linguistic/conceptual realism.

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, moral error theory suggests that moral judgments, or at least thin ones such as "X is good" or "Xing is morally wrong" would be processed by the brain much like ordinary propositions. Still, it would be interesting to see how a range of other kinds of judgments get processed.

I can't go to far into all those issues now, but isn't there an obvious difference between "is" and "ought" in that one is about getting a model of how the world is while the other is working out how to conduct yourself or how you want others to conduct themselves. I don't see anything very metaphysical about that, or at least not in a sense that bothers me.

I always like to return to the car example. I can look at the newest Mercedes model in a certain class and make all sorts of factual statements about it - "The Mercedes SNARK-300 accelerates from 0 to 100 mph in x seconds." There's then the question of whether I can say "The Mercedes SNARK-300 is a good car." When I'm saying that, I judge it against a standard - my judgment might be quite factual if we accept that it is also using various tacit weightings of different components of the standard, etc. However, the standard is not binding on everyone else. Then again, it won't be just arbitrary either - it's likely to resemble the standards of other people because we all have some rough agreement on what we actually want from a car. So, we can all talk about whether "The Mercedes SNARK-300 is a good car" and we'll at least mean roughly the same thing.

Then there's the statement: "I ought to buy a Mercedes SNARK-300." I take this to be about a kind of match between the properties of the Mercedes SNARK-300 and a collection of desires, needs, etc., that I have ... matched up against alternatives to the Mercedes, my resources, what else I could do with those resources, how I desire to use them, etc. Perhaps "I ought to buy a Mercedes SNARK-300" is even true. What is not then (necessarily) true is that you - with a different desire set, also ought to buy a Mercedes SNARK-300. Part of what makes the statement true when I say it is that I actually have the relevant desires. The same words uttered by you might not be true when uttered by you, because your desire set is different.

Maybe the above is still too simple, but I don't think there is any great problem in principle in working out the difference between: "is" statements, evaluations (saying something is "good" or "bad"), and "ought" statements (which are about having reasons to act in a certain way). There's a linguistic difference here, but I don't know whether it helps to call it a linguistic dualism. I suppose you can if you want, but I think it's really just a matter of looking at what sorts of things these statements are saying and how a kind of subjectivity is involved in "The Mercedes SNARK-300 is a good car" that is not involved in "The Mercedes SNARK can accelerate at such and such a rate."

That Guy Montag said...


Maybe a good analogy we could use here is a black box. Is Ought would be equivalent to us saying that the box puts out different kinds of output. The question is what goes on to describe the difference between the two.

Just to paraphrase the same point I made earlier in a hopefully more clear way the line of my argument is then that I can see three ways of describing the cause of any possible difference in output:
a) There is something in how the box is built that determines the difference.
b) The box is working with a different input from the environment.
c) There is content which the box is working on that exists independently of any particular state of the box.

An important point to note is that the c) relies on us having a convincing answer to a), though not necessarily a definitive one, because if we don't have access to the inner workings of the box we have no way of deciding between the two. (That's a conclusion that only just struck me but it looks to me as if it's significant.)

Another important point is that I don't think it's illegitimate engaging in a degree of externalism or conceptual realism because it doesn't necessarily commit anyone to substance dualism, so c) is not meant to be a reductio.