Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sam Harris and the Moral Realism/Moral Relativism Myth

There is a popular misconception that, if you are not a moral realist, you are a moral relativist. Yet, most non-theistic professional philosophers may be neither. As I'll explain, I prefer a variety of anti-realism called moral noncognitivism. First, I want to discuss the moral realism/moral relativism myth.

Moral realists believe in objective truths about right and wrong, whereas moral relativists believe that moral truths are subjective, or limited by the beliefs and values of particular communities and cultures. Moral relativists are people who say, for example, that genital mutilation isn't absolutely or universally wrong--it's just wrong for some people. Moral realists respond, "No, genital mutilation really is [or, perhaps, really isn't] wrong, for all people and all times--all things being equal."

This is usually how the issue is framed in popular culture, particularly in debates over atheism and the role of religion in society. It is not uncommon to hear religious moralists claim that atheists have no foundation for morality, and that they must be moral relativists. Without religion, the religious moralist claims, science would produce as many holocausts as cures, as many massacres as breakthroughs. A wholly atheist society could not have any moral sense at all. In the debate over religion, moral relativism is the bogeyman.

Sam Harris recently put it thus:

But the consequences of moral relativism have been disastrous. And science's failure to address the most important questions in human life has made it seem like little more than an incubator for technology. It has also given faith-based religion -- that great engine of ignorance and bigotry -- a nearly uncontested claim to being the only source of moral wisdom.


Harris believes that, to overcome moral relativism without empowering theism, we must establish a scientific foundation for moral realism.

Some atheists accept the charge of moral relativism, but not the allegedly "disastrous" consequences. They say that the fact that there are only local moral truths is good enough--nay, it has to be good enough, because that's all there is. We're all just trying to get by, doing the best we can with what we've got. Nobody has an absolute foundation for condemning anything as immoral in any absolute sense. We only judge people according to how we want people to live. We don't have a choice, because this is just the way we're made.

Other atheists, like Sam Harris, embrace moral realism. Slightly more than half of the philosophy professors and PhDs who partook in a recent survey either accept or lean towards moral realism, while only 16 percent accept or lean towards theism. This means that, like Harris, a large number of serious philosophers are non-theistic moral realists. That said, I do not think a large percentage of those philosophers would agree with Harris' attempt to regard moral facts as scientific facts. For example, Jean Kazez, a philosophy professor and blogger, defends Sam Harris' moral realism: "In terms of addressing the religious moralist, what would [Harris's co-non-religionists] have him say? That there really aren't any facts about morality? That torturing babies for fun isn't really wrong? What a public relations disaster!" However, while Kazez thinks that the moral realist line is "strategically right," she disagrees with Harris' view that moral facts are scientific facts. According to one commenter on Kazez's blog, Harris does a disservice to atheism for even suggesting that moral truths require some kind of foundation. While atheism may not offer a foundation for moral facts, neither does theism. The problem of understanding moral facts is there for both the atheist and the theist. (The only difference, I suppose, is that the theist gives herself license to ignore the problem. That is the point of faith, isn't it?)

Interestingly, then, we have moral realists who are atheists, and who reject Harris' idea of grounding morality in science. Yet, for Harris to remain true to his naturalism, he has to think of moral facts as natural facts. So how could they not be scientifically discoverable? This is one problem with moral realism: if moral facts are not reducible to scientific facts, then what sort of fact are they? What place can normative facts have in nature?

As problematic as moral realism is (see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on moral realism for an overview of the main problems), Harris is going out on a peculiar limb by claiming that moral facts are a particular variety of scientific fact. This wouldn't be so bad, were it not for the fact that his arguments are very weak. His upcoming book will not likely impress any religious moralists, or any non-religious philosophers who have spent any time on moral philosophy. Sean Carroll has eloquently pointed out some of the main problems with Harris' arguments. (See this post for my own analysis of where Harris goes wrong: science and morality). Harris' arguments aren't just weak; they're self-defeating. Harris' main point is that we shouldn't hesitate to condemn, for example, the obligatory use of burkas in some Muslim states. Yet, according to his view of moral claims as scientific claims, we should wait for strong scientific data before we can be sure we have discovered any moral facts. He suggests that, among other things, neuroscientific measurements of "well-being" must be involved. So, in effect, we cannot confidently make any moral judgments until we have generated data and published our results in peer-reviewed scientific journals. This cripples, rather than empowers, our moral faculties.

More important, and more dangerous, than the poverty of Harris' position is the fact that he is playing into the false dichotomy between moral realism and moral relativism. He suggests that moral realism is the only plausible alternative to moral relativism. This hurts the debate. Moral realism and moral relativism are not the only options on the table. In fact, it seems that moral realism and moral relativism are rejected by the majority of non-theistic philosophy professors and PhDs.

According to the PhilPapers survey, about 30 percent of philosophy professors and PhD's accept moral realism, while about 25 percent lean towards it. A 44 percent minority rejects moral realism. Before we interpret these results, we should correct for theism. About 16 percent of the same group either accept or lean towards theism, and this same 16 percent probably accepts or leans towards moral realism. Therefore, perhaps only 40 percent of professors and PhDs are both non-theists and moral realists, while 44 percent are non-theists and not moral realists. If we are to trust the results of this survey, then, the majority of non-theistic philosophers reject moral realism. According to the survey, of those who reject moral realism, about two thirds either accept or lean towards moral anti-realism. Moral anti-realists are usually either noncognitivists or error theorists. Though the survey is not helpful on these details, I think it is a fair bet that, of the remainder, very few accept or lean towards moral relativism. (Again, the Stanford Encyclopedia is helpful in explaining why moral relativism isn't so popular.)

As I said, I like moral noncognitivism. This is the view, widely respected and often supported, that there are no moral facts at all. Contrary to what Kazez says, this does not mean that torturing babies isn't really wrong. We can unhesitatingly say that it really is wrong; however, when we say that, we are not making a factual claim. It's not that our statement is not true. Rather, it is that our statement has no truth conditions. We are not saying something which could ever be either true or false. It's just not that kind of speech act. What we are doing when we make moral claims is subject to debate. The view I prefer is that we are directing human action, not by reporting a fact about the world, but by stigmatizing certain behaviors.

Sam Harris is right to draw our attention to the ways science informs our moral deliberations. A moral noncognitivist can appreciate the role of science in morality. After all, our desires and how we express them are both shaped by what we know and think about the world. Yet, there is a world of difference between forming a belief about the world and deciding how we want the world to be. The former is a matter of fact, the latter a matter of morals.

So, yes, I can say unflinchingly that torturing babies is "really wrong." That does not make me a moral realist. It just makes me a person who wants to live in a world where babies aren't tortured. Like the moral relativist, I can acknowledge the role of culture and circumstance in the formation of my moral judgments. But, unlike the moral relativist, I do not claim that those judgments are facts which are only "true for me." They're not facts at all. They're judgments of a different sort.

Harris says he thinks the world is worse off for philosophical discussions that involve words like "noncognitivism." On the contrary, a better appreciation for the philosophical issues is exactly what the world needs. Harris' refusal to even acknowledge the legitimacy of well-known and widely respected philosophical views is curious. It will make it difficult for serious philosophers to take his work seriously. More than that, it should make us all afraid of the effect his upcoming book will have on the public debate. I cannot see it helping the case for atheism.