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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) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Another review of The Moral Landscape

This time from Skatje Myers, whose blog I've just discovered.

I agree with some of the criticisms (I've made some similar ones myself), but wow Myers really hated the book.


Unknown said...

Hello Dr. Blackford,

What do you think about Searle's attempt at overcoming the ought/is distinction, or Putnam's collapse of the fact/value dichotomy, or McDowell's very obtuse philosophy which, as I read it, is in part intended to overcome the distinction?


Unknown said...

Hello Dr. Blackford,

What do you think about Searle's attempt to overcome the is/ought distinction, or Putnam's collapse of the fact/value dichotomy, or McDowell's very obtuse philosophy which, as I read it, is in part intended to overcome the supposedly bad metaphysics of such a distinction.


Ritchie the Bear said...

Skatje's review approaches an unrigorous polemic by pointing out its lack of rigor and its status as a polemic. For this reason, her review is my favorite of all so far. Although Russell's review is the most pressing from a strictly argumentative standpoint, it's like a scientific appraisal of a creationist tract; it creates the impression that Harris has made substantive contributions to an ongoing discourse. It hasn't, and Skatje recognizes this. Her vitriolic tone mirrors the rage that I felt myself confronting Harris' condescending, straw-man-ish, equivocal writing. This equivocal quality and lack of rigor was apparent long before TMR; it traces all the way back to the "Science of Good and Evil" chapter of TEoF, which assumes that utilitarianism is correct in the same blithe manner.

Russell Blackford said...

I don't think I've ever understood Putnam's position on this.

I think Searle's argument clearly fails, and that Mackie pretty much nails it in his critique of Searle in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. There are more recent critiques, but Mackie's is lucid as well as being classic.

Richard Wein said...

While sharing Skatje's low opinion of Harris's writing on this subject, I find it hard to agree with even one of her specific criticisms. Her arguments are just as flawed as Harris's.

Toronto Atheist said...


what are your thoughts on Sam's latest blog post, a response to another ludicrous attack by Chris Hedges?


Sam actually admitted that the Hedges' piece made him angry.

That's understandable of course. Although I think still out-of-character for a man who never seems to get rattled, even when faced with direct hostility from audiences, debate opponents or interviewers.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, apart from anything else this sort of atrocity should not be turned into a point-scoring exercise. I realise that comments need to be made about it, and what it might signify, but scoring points in an old grudge at this stsge of events is pretty poor form. So no wonder Sam was angry.

Richard Wein said...

I'd like to comment on this passage by Sean Carroll, quoted by Skatje:

--Attempts to derive ought from is are like attempts to reach an odd number by adding together even numbers. If someone claims that they’ve done it, you don’t have to check their math; you know that they’ve made a mistake.--

Yes, I think the two claims are analogous, in the sense that in both cases their falsity follows from the meanings of the words. However the meanings of "is" and "ought" are far less clear than the meanings of "odd" and "even". Carroll clearly senses that "is" and "ought" claims are so fundamentally different in meaning that it's impossible to derive one from the other. But it's not easy to demonstrate that to be the case. Philosophers cannot agree on the meaning of "ought".

Skatje's argument on this point is too simple, and flawed. If there are such things as "ought" facts (as Skatje seems to believe) it should be possible to derive them from--inter alia--facts about the _meaning_ of "ought". And such semantic facts need not necessarily be starting premises of the argument. They could be derived by empirical inference from observations of how "ought" statements are used, which is what some philosophers attempt to do.

Skatje seems to think that inferences must be strictly deductive:

--The idea that you cannot have anything in your conclusion that was not mentioned in your premises (aside from logical connectives and quantifiers), is one of the core ideas of logic itself.--

But empirical inferences are not generally like that. For example, scientists make observations of the real world, and from these they infer general theories. The theories are not logically deducible from the observations and pre-existing premises. Some element of inductive (in a broad sense) inference is involved.

Darrick Lim said...

I thought Harris totally owned Hedges in his response to Hedges's gross misrepresentations of his views. I watched their Truthdig debate, and I'm not surprised that Harris mentions in his blog post how Hedges is the only debate opponent he's ever had who he didn't warm to at all.

In the debate Hedges came across as this insufferably haughty snot who was fixated on tarring Harris as a racist, genocidal bigot. And he couldn't hold a candle to Harris's eloquent, unscripted, measured and humourous articulation of his arguments. By the debate's end, it was clear to any reasonable person who the better man was, in argumentation and character. Though it was really annoying how the moderator (and founder of Truthdig) kept taking Hedges's side against Harris! He was supposed to moderate, fer cryin out loud.

Anonymous said...

My issue with the NEW Atheists is that they are assholes.

They think only their opinions should be heard.

Russell Blackford said...

Wow what a constructive comment.

Bao Pu said...

I've wondered, has Harris' TML blackened his reputation a bit? In your eyes? In others?

Kirth Gersen said...

Myers wrote: "All of this is part of answering the question of 'Was this action good or bad?' when you use utilitarianism. The net effect on the well-being of conscious beings includes every single ripple effect off it. We can predict some of the more apparent effects of our actions (no more people dying of malaria!), but there’s a vast web of effects that are completely hidden to us. It’s impossible to try to maximise well-being because it’s impossible to know what the full consequences of any attempts to do so are. There may be 'good' and 'bad' actions, but you’re completely in the dark as to which is which."

Am I the only one who finds the increasingly-common "Argument from the Butterfly Effect" to be a form of intellectual cowardice? It's a blatant attempt to claim that cause and effect can never be determined. On a small scale, I mix two reagents, I get predictable results. Expand the scale and complexity, and when I inject an oxidant into an aquifer, the fact is that I still have a very, very good idea of what will happen. Even on large scales of great complexity, general trends can be predicted with a success rate much, much higher than the 0% that Myers claims.