Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sam Harris, Confused

The more I read Sam Harris on morality, the more annoyed I get. There has been a lot of good discussion in the blogosphere (1, 2, and 3, for example), and I've written about this twice already, but there is more to say. I want to make two basic points here. First, Harris fails to offer a cogent response to the main criticisms leveled against him. In one case, he ends up embracing a view which contradicts his own: While Harris claims that moral facts are scientific facts, he accepts that justification ultimately lies outside the boundaries of science (see point 7 below). This completely undermines his proposed view of morality. Second, while Harris sets moral relativism up as the bogeyman in the debate over science and religion, his vision of a scientific morality is nothing other than a variety of moral relativism (see point 4 below). In sum, Harris' position is a self-contradictory mess. If this wasn't clear from his TED talk, it is blatantly apparent in his latest attempt to defend his views.

1. First, Harris sets up moral relativism as the bad guy and fails to correctly identify the options on the table. He supposes the choice is between moral relativism, moral realism, or no morality at all. He writes:

the response to my TED talk proves that many smart people believe that something in the last few centuries of intellectual progress prevents us from making cross-cultural moral judgments -- or moral judgments at all. Thousands of highly educated men and women have now written to inform me that morality is a myth, that statements about human values are without truth conditions and, therefore, nonsensical, and that concepts like "well-being" and "misery" are so poorly defined, or so susceptible to personal whim and cultural influence, that it is impossible to know anything about them.

This is a jumble of ideas and does not clearly identify Harris' opposition. First, he suggests that some of his opponents believe that moral statements lack truth conditions--a position known as moral noncognitivism. Harris wrongly claims that this means that statements of human value are nonsensical. Noncognitivists do not suppose that moral claims are nonsensical. Moral judgments and expressions are meaningful and important; they just aren't factual assertions.

Harris believes that the only way to empower our moral faculties--the only way to justify our moral judgment of other people and other cultures--is to establish a scientific foundation for moral realism. I have already explained how Harris is presenting a false dichotomy between realism and relativism. There's no need to repeat myself here. What I will point out, however, is this: Of all the professional philosophers I have found who have responded to Harris, none have taken the moral relativism route. None have claimed that science cannot inform our moral judgments, or that moral judgments themselves are meaningless or inapplicable to people of other cultures or communities. (Sean Carroll, unfortunately, seems unclear on the distinction between moral relativism and moral noncognitivism. I think he really wants to argue for the latter--he claims that moral claims are neither true nor false, and he is quite explicit about his belief in the virtue of moral judgment--but he has not distanced himself from relativism. I recently pointed out this problem to him, but I don't know if he'll notice.)

2. Some of Harris' critics argue that moral disagreement is not based on questions of fact, and so cannot be resolved by appeal to facts alone. Moral disagreements are disagreements of goals. So, while we might be able to define morality in terms of "well-being, " this will not help us resolve moral disagreements, because "well-being" will be understood in fundamentally different ways. This doesn't mean that we cannot use science to understand well-being. It just means that the relevance of any particular scientific analysis of well-being is not a matter which could be determined scientificcally.

Harris responds:

Of course, goals and conceptual definitions matter. But this holds for all phenomena and for every method we use to study them. My father, for instance, has been dead for 25 years. What do I mean by "dead"? Do I mean "dead" with reference to specific goals? Well, if you must, yes -- goals like respiration, energy metabolism, responsiveness to stimuli, etc. The definition of "life" remains, to this day, difficult to pin down. Does this mean we can't study life scientifically? No. The science of biology thrives despite such ambiguities. The concept of "health" is looser still: it, too, must be defined with reference to specific goals -- not suffering chronic pain, not always vomiting, etc. -- and these goals are continually changing. Our notion of "health" may one day be defined by goals that we cannot currently entertain with a straight face (like the goal of spontaneously regenerating a lost limb). Does this mean we can't study health scientifically?


Harris' response is a non sequitur. He has not addressed the argument laid before him. Of course, as Harris says, we can study health scientifically, even though health is defined as a goal. But morality is not a goal. Rather, it is a process. The goal of morality is to establish agreement on what is and what is not justifiable behavior. Sure, morality, as a phenomenon, is just as open to scientific scrutiny as anything else. But there is a difference between making judgments about health and making judgments about morality. Science cannot tell us what we should do. It can only tell us what are the likely consequences of our actions.

3. Sean Carroll indicates that, if we are going to scientifically ground morality in terms of well-being, we must first agree on some methodological principles. We must have some way of identifying well-being in objective terms. Yet, not everybody agrees on what constitutes well-being. It is not a scientifically defined entity. Any attempt to define it scientifically will therefore likely exclude many plausibly legitimate views of what well-being is all about.

Harris responds with more confusion. He correctly points out that Carroll can make "a reasonably principled decision about whom to put on a panel at the next conference on Dark Matter without finding a neuroscientist from the year 2075 to scan every candidate's brain and assess it for neurophysiological competence in the relevant physics." This response is absurd, and shows a failure to grasp Carroll's point. There is relatively little disagreement about what counts as expertise in the subject of Dark Matter. Similarly, there is relatively little disagreement about what counts as expertise in the subject of morality. While intelligent people will surely disagree about who is the most important or relevant moral thinker, we can expect certain sorts of people to be invited to a conference on morality or metaethics. But this fact in no way undermines Carroll's point, which is that experts on morality and metaethics do not require a consensus on what constitutes well-being. And, if they do try to find a consensus, they very rarely treat it as a question of natural fact. The scientific study of morality does not require that people agree on what constitutes well-being. On the contrary, I think all evidence points to the opposite conclusion: morality is such a dynamic and often tumultuous process because people often do not approach well-being in the same way. While Harris has every right to say that people should approach well-being in some particular way (though he hasn't defined what that way is yet), his will be one voice out of many. Which is not to say that his voice doesn't count. It only means that, if he wants his views of well-being to be taken seriously, it doesn't help for him to pretend like alternative views are simply irrelevant.

4. Harris writes: "I would say that more or less everyone, myself included, is insufficiently interested in [universal well-being]. But we are seeking well-being in some form nonetheless, whatever we choose to call it and however narrowly we draw the circle of our moral concern." According to Harris, people all define well-being differently--they pursue it differently, according to their unique goals and circumstances. However, if facts about well-being make our moral judgments either true or false, and our own moral judgments are defined by the concerns of our own private moral spheres, then our moral judgments are really only true within that circle of concern. That, ironically, is the essence of moral relativism.

Harris has contradicted his claim that morality is an attempt to maximize the well-being of all conscious creatures. It turns out nobody is really interested in that. He has also contradicted his claim that a science of morality would overcome moral relativism. On the contrary, it looks like Harris' scientific approach has provided nothing more than a foundation for moral relativism.

5. Harris agrees with Carroll that what is important in our moral judgments is not just whether or not our actions produce certain neurological states, but how those states are produced. Yet, Harris offers a problematic response to the virtual reality example in which people every citizen was unknowingly hooked up to virtual reality machines which gave them orgasmic sensations all day, and made it unnecessary for them to eat or procreate. Carroll observes that people might have moral objections to this way of life, even though it would maximize pleasure. Harris' response is that we don't want to be delusional, or removed from real contact with other people. Yet, if those desires conflict with our ability to maximize our well-being, then--by Harris' own argument--those desires are irrelevant. Harris is cherry-picking, choosing exceptions to the rule when they suit his moral sensibility.

6. Harris claims that neuroscience should be able to give us a range of brain states which most qualified people would recognize as "good." However, this does not mean that any particular social norms would tend to maximize those states for all people. It is a well-known fact that people aren't all turned on by the same turns of events, or the same exercises of freedom. So the fact that we might define some brain states as obviously "good" (in the sense of being pleasurable) in no way helps us establish a foundation for morality.

7. There is a common view that scientific conclusions are not prescriptive. If we want to turn a scientific conclusion into a moral precept, we must move outside the boundaries of scientific discourse. It impossible for science alone to ground morality.

Harris' response to this argument is stunning, and shows just how incoherent his position is. He says, "we must smuggle in an 'unscientific prior' to justify any branch of science. If this isn't a problem for physics, why should it be a problem of a science of morality?"

Harris's claim is that science (and, presumably, any behavior) can only be ultimately justified by appealing to some unscientific principle. Thus, you cannot use science to justify science, or anything else.

Consider that for a moment. If you want to justify science, you are no longer working within the realm of science. That is what Harris said. And, of course, he's right! But this is exactly what his many detractors have been trying to tell him. If you are trying to justify something, you are doing morality, and this cannot rely on science alone. Moral judgments are not scientific conclusions, though scientific conclusions can be used in the formation of a moral judgment.

Harris accepts that, if you want to justify your move from scientific conclusions to moral precepts, you must "smuggle in" unscientific judgments. He has embraced the view that morality cannot be given a wholly scientific foundation--that attempts to justify our behavior, such as our scientific discovery itself--require unscientific judgments. That should be the end of the debate. Harris has rejected his position. Game over.

8. There is one more minor point to address (not as stunning as the previous one, unfortunately). Harris writes:

To say that morality is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal), because we must first assume that the well-being of conscious creatures is good, is exactly like saying that science is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal), because we must first assume that a rational understanding of the universe is good. We need not enter either of these philosophical cul-de-sacs.

If it is not clear already, this is a straw man. Harris' detractors (of whom I am aware) do not claim that morality is arbitrary or "merely personal." However, I do imagine that many probably do recognize the role of culture in the formation of our moral judgments. I would be surprised if Harris was going to deny that culture played a significant role there.

In sum . . .

Harris wants to open the public debate to a discussion of the role of science in morality. I don't think many, if any, of his detractors are against that proposal. Some, including Sean Carroll, have explicitly embraced it. Unfortunately, Harris' arguments are probably hurting more than helping such a discussion.