Friday, November 12, 2010

I see Sam Harris

I saw Sam Harris speak on his new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values.  I've already disagreed with Sam Harris on this topic, but how does he fare on second glance?

At these talks, I always try to come up with a good brief question to ask the speaker.  I never actually ask the question, because I lack the confidence.  I don't know why I'm afraid, when so many of the other questions tend to be terrible and long-winded can-you-get-to-the-question questions.  But there you go, confidence is irrational.

Question to Sam Harris:  "The subtitle of your book suggests that your main claim is about meta-ethics.  Your talk suggests that you don't really care about meta-ethics.  Which is it?"

Meta-ethics, by the way, is the philosophy concerning the nature of ethics (rather than the nitty gritty).  Meta-ethics is to ethics as philosophy of science is to science.  Knowing philosophy of science is neither necessary nor sufficient to being good at science, though it might be interesting and might suggest certain scientific practices.

The reason I'd ask this question of Sam Harris is because it seems to me like Sam Harris only cares about meta-ethics to the extent that he can use it (abuse it?) to reach his goals.

At least his goals are fairly respectable.  He spent most of the talk highlighting egregious evils caused by religion, and the way that people tend to give it a free pass through some sort of moral relativism.  He's also advancing the idea that some cultures are morally better or worse than others (and in particular, some religions create better cultures than others).  That I can agree with.  Pretty much all of social activism is premised on the idea that we can improve culture.

At first I was bothered that he'd only talk about the most extreme examples of moral relativism.  It's making straw men.  But, you know what?  Attacking the egregiously wrong is a respectable thing to do.  It may not be the most intellectually deep exercise, but if people actually believe these things, then the stupidest beliefs are also the most harmful.  This is also why the atheist movement is right to focus on the egregiously wrong beliefs of the people rather than the merely wrong beliefs of theologians.

So I largely agree with Sam Harris' major points and goals.  But in his arguments, he's using meta-ethics, and Sam Harris sucks at meta-ethics.  I'm not saying this from an ivory tower perspective; I'm not saying that you have to be a professional philosopher to say anything about ethics or meta-ethics.  All I'm saying is that if Sam Harris is good at meta-ethics, then so is Ayn Rand. (Burn!)

Sam Harris thinks that there is objective moral truth, it's just that it's really hard to determine.  Just like how economics is really hard, but must have some underlying truth.  He argues this by coming up with extreme hypotheticals, saying that they are certainly morally undesirable.  I think the conclusion he wants to draw is that the set of all possible outcomes can in principle be uniquely ordered by moral desirability.  How he gets from here to there is kind of sketchy to me.

But, to use a recent example on my blog, I think moral truth is like the question of nature vs nurture.  If you ask, "How much of a given human trait caused by genetics?" that is an ill-defined question.  Science produces an answer to this bad question by subtly replacing it with a good question.  Similarly, if you ask, "What is good and bad?" as far as science is concerned, that's a bad question.  Science can only answer this bad question by subtly replacing with another one.  Sam Harris replaced it with, "What produces the most well-being?"

And that's a fine replacement.  It's good enough to condemn Islam, anyways.  However, I'm skeptical that this perspective is of much use to, say, a working ethicist.


Mark Erickson said...

On questioning speakers, I have the confidence to ask them, I did at Michael Shermer's talk at the U of MN last month. And my question was brief, but I lacked the confidence to pose my follow-up when Shermer didn't take the question where I wanted it to go. (Not his fault, the question was perhaps too brief).

On objectivism, that was a burn! But not entirely fair, though. Going on what I've heard and read (always fun), I would say Harris is going for more of an empirical moral truth than an objective one (Plato-like truth existing apart from experience).

His meta-goal seems to be to replace philosophy with science in the discussion of morality. Big goal, but I think he's taken a step towards it with his latest effort.

miller said...

I'm not sure that science should replace philosophy in discussions of morality. I think instead good philosophy should be replacing bad philosophy (such as religious philosophy).

Massimo Pigliucci talks about this sort of thing more often than I do, so I recommend what he wrote.

drransom said...

etI don't think "what produces the most well-being?" is a question science can answer. You have to consider what counts as "well-being," decide how to combine the well-being of different people, decide whether adding more people counts as adding more well-being, decide whether and how to discount the well-being of future people, and so on. Those are philosophical questions, not scientific ones.

I'm also not sure it counts as changing the question from "what is good or bad?" It's just as much like an answer to the question.

I'm a bit surprised that you buy his claim that some religions create better cultures than others. It seems at least as true that some cultures produce better religions than others.

miller said...

Yeah, that too. There is no unique way to add the well-being of multiple people. Thanks for reminding me. Come to think of it, isn't that also a huge issue in economics? At one point, Sam Harris made an analogy between morality and economics, but perhaps the analogy was apt in a way that hurt his point.

I think it's fairly trivial to claim that culture informs religion and religion informs culture. I make no claims about which direction is more important.

Larry Hamelin said...

isn't that also a huge issue in economics?

It's not a *huge* issue. Economists typically assume that people really do know what they want; we infer what they want from how they behave. If a person buys an alarm clock for $10, we assume they want the alarm clock more than they want anything else they can get for $10.

drransom said...

It is a huge issue, which is why economists like the Pareto criterion so much. But since the Pareto criterio is too hard to satisfy, they work with the Kaldor-Hicks wealth-maximization standard instead. In theory, you can move stuff around to reach a Pareto-efficient outcome from a K-H one, but (a) nobody has any interest in doing this and (b) announcing the transfers in advance keeps you from reaching the K-H oucome in the first place.

There's a huge amount of theory that goes beyond the Pareto criterion, which I don't really understand, but you're basically right about the additive problem.

I think it's also a mistake utility (which is nonunique construct from the preference relation) with well-being. I know my revealed preferences don't correspond with my well-being!

drransom said...

A mistake to equate utility with well-being, I mean.