Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Sam Harris goes for objective morality

Sam Harris recently had a talk on TED Talks called "Science can Answer Moral Questions".  So what's that old horseman of the apocalypse doing these days, anyway?  He's writing a book called "The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values".  He's devoting a whole book to ending "religion’s monopoly on morality and human values."

If I had just read the title, I might have agreed with Sam Harris.  It's not that hard.  First we start with some basic principle, like "fed people are better than unfed people", and then we can use science to figure out which actions will ultimately feed more people.  Easier said than done, but then no one said ethics was easy.

But Sam Harris got a lot of criticism for his talk, because he argued something much stronger.  He thinks that you can use science to decide the basic principle itself.  Sam Harris argues for the basic principle that "we should value the wellbeing of humanity".  If I ask why, Sam Harris responds that this is a "profound and profoundly stupid question."  I think he means that there's no real justification for it, but it's obvious.

As far as I'm concerned, that's basically conceding that it's not science.  Science is not in the business of justifying unjustifiable statements, whether they're obvious or not.  In any case, wellbeing is only an obvious value as long as you consider extreme cases and are unclear about the details.

But rather than continuing my apocryphal rant on metaethics, let me discuss Sam Harris' motivations.

Popular wisdom says that if God exists, then there is objective morality, and if God doesn't exist, then there isn't.  Sam Harris wants to argue that objective morality is possible even without God.

But I would go in the completely opposite direction.  You cannot derive "ought" from "is", even if the "is" includes God.  If you believe in a benevolent deity, you might claim that values come from God.  But why should we just accept these values?  Because it's "obvious" (particularly if there is a heaven and hell, since one is obviously more desirable).  But not because it's justifiable.  Same problem Sam Harris ran into.

Sam Harris' other motivation is that he would like to have objective grounds from which he can condemn burqas and nazis.  But does having an objective morality really help?

Imagine that I got in a hypothetical argument with Hitler.  There are two possibilities.  The first possibility is that Hitler and I agree on enough moral precepts that I could in principle persuade him to stop the Holocaust.  The fact that the moral precepts are not objective truths does not matter, because we already agree on them.  The second possibility is that we do not agree on enough moral precepts.  I daresay that claiming that the moral precepts are objectively true because they're "obvious" would not move Hitler.

In conclusion, Sam Harris is wrong, and for the wrong reasons.  You know, I'm not sure when I last agreed with Sam Harris on any major point.


Larry Hamelin said...

"But rather than continuing my apocryphal rant on metaethics..."

I do not think "apocryphal" means what you think it means. ;)

"I'm not sure when I last agreed with Sam Harris on any major point."

I think Harris is an atheist, so he's got that going for him. Other than that, I think he's kind of a doofus.

miller said...

Weird, this whole time I've been using "apocryphal" to mean "of questionable authority", when it really means "of questionable authenticity". Embarrassing!

Larry Hamelin said...

If you're not making two mistakes a day, you're not learning fast enough.

Keith Patton said...

In the end of your post you are confusing beliefs and interpretation with objectivity. The two are completely separate. Let me illustrate:

1)The Earth is roughly spherical and travels around the sun.
2)All people in the 5th century interpreted nature as a flat earth and the sun revolving around the Earth.
3)Therefore, the interpretation of 5th century people is irrelevant; the Earth is still roughly spherical and travels around the sun. Even if no one alive knows that the Earth revolves around the sun, the Earth still revolves around the Sun.

A person or group of people do not have to accept the truth of an objective reality in order for the reality to be objectively true. In fact-- that's the whole point of objective truth. People won't accept is, but it's still true. So your point about Hitler not accepting the Holocaust as evil only proves objective moral values exist.

Larry Hamelin said...

Keith, if you're going to sound like a tight-assed pedant, you might want to avoid making an obvious fallacy of affirmation of the consequent.

miller said...

Part of the idea behind science is that anyone can look at the evidence and come to the same conclusion. I mean, theoretically, in some hopelessly idealized world. I do not believe this is the case with morality.

I'm not sure I understand the point about Hitler proving objective morality? What exactly is the inference being made?

adutis said...

if objective means mind-independent then god's morality is just as subjective as man's morality (unless god does not have a mind)

there's also a problem of how would we know that 'objective' god's morality independently of human mind - because all god's morals comes from men (or through men).

miller said...

There is a third possible cause of disagreement in arguing with Hitler. Hitler may have based the Holocaust on ideas that were factually incorrect. Suppose there was an inferior race of people whose genes were so destructive as to undermine the rest of society. An argument could be made for their extermination. The actuality is that there was and is no such race. Hitler's error was as much unscientific as it was immoral.

miller said...

That would be the first case I referred to, where Hitler and I agreed on enough moral precepts that I could in principle persuade him by arguing purely on facts.

(I'm not sure I agree with you on the moral consequences of a hypothetically inferior race, but that's not relevant here.)