Sam Harris, Science, and Morality – Part 2

Yesterday I said quite a bit about Harris’ recent TED talk.  That video can be seen in the post below this one or on this page, where you’ll also get some extra commentary from Harris.  I’ll say again, so as to avoid misunderstanding, that I like Sam Harris.  In the recent Nightline debate that I wrote about a few days ago, Harris commanded the floor, easily handling Chopra and Houston, and I think he did a much better job than Shermer presenting their shared position.  In short, I have a lot of respect for the guy, and I agree with him on much.  I just think he missed the boat, here.  These posts, then, should be seen as a friendly corrective of the academic sort and not some kind of personal attack.

Harris latches onto something in his talk when he says that the suggestion that wild differences in preferences indicating genuine moral differences seem to intuitively strike us as odd.  His example here is the distinction between the Dali Lama and Ted Bundy.  He thinks it just cannot be right to say that there is no genuine, objective difference in the morality of the actions of these two people.  After all, one works to see the happiness of everyone increased, and one kidnapped, raped, and murdered young women, sometimes even engaging in necrophilia with their corpses.  Surely, says Harris, there must be something that makes one action is right while the other action is wrong, and I think most people feel the intuitive tug of such a claim.

Harris is right that it seems counter-intuitive to think that the distinction between the Dali Lama and Ted Bundy is merely a matter of preference, of taste, in the same way that chocolate and vanilla are matters of taste.  This almost certainly has to do with the fact that these tastes are shared by most everyone.  The near universality of the feeling that Ted Bundy was evil provides intuitive force that he was, in fact, evil.  But the question someone making the kinds of claims that Harris makes is this:  are shared tastes enough to make them objective in the way that Harris claims?  I don’t see how that could be the case, no matter how wrong something seems.  Looking back at the chocolate vs. vanilla distinction, I want to say that, when pressed, it seems odd to me that people really do like chocolate as much as they do. I just don’t get that; chocolate really just isn’t that good.  Why the hell do people like it so much?  It is inexplicable to me.  Yet, I have come to accept that some people, lots of them, in fact, really do just love chocolate.  They genuinely do prefer that flavor a great deal, no matter how weird that seems to me.  And therein lies the point, that the weirdness of something is not enough to give it objective status.  The fact that people’s obsession with chocolate seems to me wholly misplaced, and, indeed, the obsession with sweets in general is kinda strange, does not mean that people should not prefer that stuff. 

Now, of course, there is a difference between these two sets of tastes, but that difference appears to lie in the effects of such. Loving chocolate over vanilla doesn’t lead one to rape and murder people, so we are less inclined to worry about it. But that does not necessarily mean that there is anything beyond tastes, here, either.  Maybe there is, but no one is justified in claiming that this is some brute fact about the world while making no attempt at justifying it beyond the mere claim that it is so.  And that looks like the crux of Harris’ argument:  most people feel this way, science can explain why that is, therefore people should feel that way and should act in accordance with those feelings.  But, again, just because a lot of people prefer something does not give that preference the status of some objective ought. 

Harris’ analogy that he gives in his talk about the physicist just completely fails in a similar respect.  He says there are objective facts about what makes someone a better physicist, and, in the same way, there are objective facts about what makes someone a more moral person.  The idea of what makes the best physicist relies upon values that are already shared, namely those that give rise to science. But the question between valuing helping people or satisfying one’s desires is one that is prior to what is the case after we agree upon some set of values.  Indeed, it is the question of what is valuable itself.  I know that Harris earlier said that all morality is focused on human well-being, but here he is missing that this is simply not accepted by his opponents.  As I pointed out in my last post, lots and lots of people do not share this position, and, in fact, it is explicitly rejected by anyone who claims to get their morality from a divine source or even from pure reason.  Hence, he has framed this question of tastes in such a way that it appears to come after the question of what makes something moral, but this is a radical misrepresentation. When people talk about this issue of tastes, they are talking about the very question that Harris claims is already decided. For that reason, his concern about what kinds of actions really furthers human well-being misses the whole point.  Of course, if one has already decided that what one should do is further happiness, then it follows that we should not harm people.  But that begs the question as it is simply not clear that the values of the majority grant those values objective status.  The same goes for his point about the Taliban. The issue is that the Taliban values something wildly different than Harris, and it clearly isn’t human well-being, or at least not well-being in the sense that Harris means.  As such, his insistence that the member of the Taliban should be working to engender happiness and prevent suffering in the sense that he means is lost on them.  They simply do not share Harris’ values.

Ironically, the issue above undermines the argument I address yesterday that Harris brings up at the beginning of his talk, that all morality is really concerned with human happiness.  This simply is not true.  As I pointed out yesterday, in a deontological system, a system in which what makes an action moral is that it conforms to a moral law, it is often the case that human happiness gets in the way of determining the moral worth of some action.  You can see my earlier post for that discussion.  The point here is that by highlighting the concerns of member of the Taliban in an effort to show that we can objectively say those people are morally wrong, Harris undercuts his earlier assertion that all morality is concerned with furthering human well-being.  As he so clearly points out, it is difficult to square the actions of the Taliban with any such belief.  But, of course, the member of that group would never attempt to do so.  Their morality is not determined by happiness.  Rather, it is determined by doing what Allah says.  That is what they value, and this difference in values along with the inability to objectively justify either set of values is exactly why Harris’ endeavor just cannot get off the ground.

Another issue I want to quickly address is this thing about relativism that Harris says: “Moral relativism is clearly an attempt to pay intellectual reparations for the crimes of western colonialism, ethnocentrism, and racism.”  He says this as a way to pooh-pooh the position of those who disagree with him, but this clearly just is not the case.  Relativism is a recognition that what is seen as morality is dynamic and fluid with no real core onto which one can hold. Anything capable of such radical alteration looks to be dependent upon something else, and, in terms of morality, that something else appears to be the culture in which particular values are upheld. That is, morals are relative to the time and place in which they appear. That’s it. That’s all moral relativism is, and it is empirically true.  It is just the case that what is seen as moral is relative to some spatio-temporal location.  Facts are facts, and that is as much a fact as anything else Harris believes.  I don’t want to actually accuse Harris of intellectual dishonesty here, but it is difficult to believe that he is unaware of this.  At any rate, what is seen as morality is relative, and suggesting that the idea of moral relativism is really some misguided attempt to make up for cultural wrongdoings is just to misunderstand the concept.  Now, does this cause problems for some moral enterprise that wants an objective morality?  Yep, but thems the breaks.  You cannot dismiss the problem with an incorrect statement about the origin of the issue.  You have to face it head on, and Harris has not, at least as of yet, done that.

I get Harris’ frustration.  I really, really do.  It just seems bizarre that some people want to defend as moral actions that appear to help no one and harm many.  But, of course, I happen to share Harris’ values, so that’s not surprising.  What I don’t share is the belief that there mere fact that I like my way better makes my way objectively right.  I just do not see how one can create the chasm that exists between what Harris and I share and what we do not.

Liza should be tackling the idea that science can bridge the is/ought gap, so I’ll leave that to her.

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3 Responses to “Sam Harris, Science, and Morality – Part 2”

  1. James Gray Says:

    “That is, morals are relative to the time and place in which they appear. That’s it. That’s all moral relativism is, and it is empirically true. ”

    I don’t think that is what he meant by “moral relativism.” I think he is talking about the view that morality is nothing but a matter of taste. This view should be rejected by anti-realists and realists alike. There might be more sophisticated forms of moral relativism (e.g. R. M. Hare’s prescriptivism), but I’m not convinced that he knows much about them. I only recently read about Hare’s view and I have a strong interest in metaethics.

    • Jim Says:

      No doubt I simplified the discussion, but there seems to be little reason to go into more detail for the purposes of my point, and that was just that Harris is wrong that relativism is meant to be some kind of reparations for Western superiority. That is not the origin of the idea. The position I described is admittedly descriptive, though it forms the reasoning for the meta-ethical version of relativism. Liza has suggested that he had in mind some normative position that would hold that we should tolerate the “immoral” behavior of other cultures if they deem it moral. But, of course, that presumes that both the descriptive and meta-ethical versions of relativism are true, in which case there seems little reason that we ought to do any such thing, especially given that few of us share such intuitions at all. I ignored such a position as a way of being generous that he wasn’t criticizing a position that almost no one holds beyond a few sociologists who don’t get philosophy.
      Certainly, I did not leave out a discussion of the idea of values as tastes, so I don’t think you can fault me there for ignoring such a thing.

      I’ll admit to only passing familiarity with prescriptivism and Hare, but I don’t see how you could describe that as a form of relativism. It is explicitly a form of moral universalism, which stands opposite relativism. There’s nothing relative about a prescriptive imperative that applies universally.

    • Liza Says:

      How do you figure that the view that morality is nothing but a matter of taste should be rejected by anti-realists? I can imagine an anti-realist position that doesn’t reduce to this (in fact, I have struggled to defend one on this blog), but you have got to admit that this is the general intuition among almost all anti-realists. In fact, I think that it’s this intuition that motivates the majority of anti-realist positions in ethics. So why do you say anti-realists shouldn’t hold that view? That just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.


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