Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Sam Harris . . . Again

I just watched a few segments from the recent "The Great Debate" discussion panel on "Can Science Tell Us Right From Wrong?" At the moment, I just have a little to say about Sam Harris' bit. I'm impressed by the lack of an informed and substantive argument in Harris' presentation. He is a very good speaker. He is natural and compelling. And I'm sure he's selling a lot of books. He just doesn't make a good argument.

He begins by presenting his view that values reduce to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures; that statements of value are just one variety of factual proposition. He believes that, when I say I like something, or prefer a certain course of action, or believe that such-and-such is good, I am expressing a belief about the well-being of conscious creatures, and that the veracity of such beliefs can be tested against reality using the tools of scientific discovery. He ends by challenging us to act; it is our moral responsibility to develop a science of morality, because we are in a position to do so.

Let's momentarily leave aside the fact that Harris makes no mention of what grounds our sense of moral responsibility. Even if a science of morality is possible, all he can say about moral responsibility is that the well-being of conscious creatures is in our hands. Whether or not we should be concerned about the well-being of all conscious beings is an issue Harris seems ill-equipped to address.

Harris makes some compelling points, but they do not add up to a coherent argument. I agree, for example, that when we make explicit value judgments, we often do have some thought for the well-being of conscious creatures, even if we cannot give an uncontentious definition for "well-being" (or "conscious," for that matter). It may even be that all value judgments entail beliefs about the well-being of conscious creatures. That is possible, but it does not make Harris' case. It does not mean that such values are facts in disguise. While value judgments may entail beliefs and while beliefs may be either true or false, it does not follow that the values in question just are those facts which determine the truth or falsity of the relevant beliefs. Harris has not posed a coherent challenge to the fact/value distinction.

Harris goes on to develop his position with the claim that all of our moral judgments--all of our decisions about how to act--are on a continuum between the Absolute Bad and the Absolute Good. Absolute Bad is that state of the universe when every conscious creature is suffering as much as possible. Any action which moves the universe closer to the Absolute Bad is bad, categorically bad, says Harris. Any action which moves the universe away from that state--and, perhaps even better, towards a state of maximum bliss--is categorically good.

There are a number of immediately obvious problems here. The most general one is this: It is hard to conceive of the sort of continuum Harris envisions. Perhaps we can imagine what he calls "the worst possible misery for everyone"--that's the Absolute Bad. At least, we may think we can imagine this situation, in which all conscious creatures suffer as much as they can and for as long as they can, though I see no reason to believe that there is one particular quantity we could call "maximal suffering", or another we could call "maximal happiness." I don't think we are imagining a real, distinct scenario when we play along with Harris. This is grounds for being suspicious of, if not outright rejecting, his thesis

Let's suppose that there is such a state as Absolute Bad. It would seem that this state could be realized in more than one possible universe. In some cases, we may be moving away from one Absolute Bad only to find ourselves moving that much closer towards another Absolute Bad. The fact that we can imagine, or indicate, a categorical bad does not imply that this is a singular state which we are always either moving towards or away from. It does not indicate a continuum.

Harris might say that there need not be only one Absolute Bad and one Absolute Good for his argument to work. So long as we are moving away from all the Absolute Bads, we are on the right track.

One problem with this view is purely practical. If evaluating the rightness or wrongness of an action relied on plotting the course of all conscious beings in the entire universe, then any science of morality would seem hopelessly befuddled by complexity and overdetermination. The sort of computational and observational power required is so unfathomable, it is plausibly impossible.

I don't think Harris is banking on the success of such a venture. His point isn't that we can imagine a science that accounts for the well-being of all conscious beings in all possible universes. Rather, he paints this large and implausible picture only to urge us to accept the thesis that our values really are facts related to the suffering of conscious creatures. The question Harris suggests is, how could the scenario of extreme suffering be so obviously and categorically bad, if values are not reducible to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures--that is, creatures who can suffer?

Harris' rhetorical question is not an argument. It doesn't even suggest an argument. The answer, or part of the answer, to his question is this: Since we do have values which entail beliefs about the well-being of some conscious beings, we desire the cessation of suffering for some conscious beings. So a state in which all conscious beings maximally suffer is obviously going to repel us, just as a state in which all beings maximally prosper is obviously going to attract us. This, I think, is obvious. What is not obvious is why Harris thinks that values are a variety of fact.

Imagine we had the science to gauge the well-being of all conscious creatures. Let's say we even had some way of determining maximal and minimal well-being. How do we go from that to the view that some particular course of action is really right? What if there are competing options which are equally beneficial in the overall scheme of things? Since the continuum picture is implausible, so is Harris' belief that one and only one action can be optimal. People can value different things, and there may be no fact which makes one better than the other. Even if we accepted Harris' criteria for moral rightness, we must suppose that the set of scientifically undecidable moral questions is potentially quite large, and possibly even all-encompassing.

But why should we accept Harris' criteria? It is rather obvious that people do not ultimately and only hope for a maximized state of happiness for all conscious beings, and Harris is in no position to say that we all should make this our highest priority. Furthermore, we must suppose that, until we account for the well-being of all conscious creatures in all possible worlds, we cannot be sure that what seems so obviously bad to us is not really moving us in the overall "right" direction (or one of the "right" overall directions). Sometimes you have to step backwards before you can move forward. Maybe slavery and child abuse are temporary causes of suffering which will ultimately lead us to better and heretofore unknown sources of well-being. For example, could we as a civilization have developed the sense of morality we have if we had not learned lessons from such past evils?

To this, I think all Harris can say is that we've got to do our best with the knowledge and values we have. In practice, this means nothing at all. Not only has Harris offered a questionable notion of moral correctness; his notion has no practical applications. Harris is arguing for a view which, if taken to its logical conclusion, has no consequences for our everyday moralizing and which has nothing new to offer our philosophical and scientific pursuits. (Unfortunately, Harris seems much more inclined to dismiss the majority of work in moral philosophy than he is inclined to engage with it. That strikes me as terribly lazy, arrogant, and insulting to people who take this stuff seriously.)

Even if Harris has pointed out one possible fact about values--that they entail beliefs about the well-being of conscious beings--he is certainly not the first to do so. As Simon Blackburn notes in his own presentation, this view has been around for a very long time and appears in several world religions and popular secular philosophies. Also, even if Harris has correctly identified a scenario worse than any other imaginable--his Absolute Bad universe of maximum suffering, which may or may not be a real possibility--it does not follow that all values and value judgments can be judged by their relation to this state. It may be that only some of our values entail beliefs about the well-being of conscious creatures, and that other values function independently of that set. (As it happens, I don't think he has correctly identified the most undesirable universe imaginable. See my follow-up post here.)

I find it dismaying that a person who has no reason to be heralded at all, except for the fact that he has written some bestsellers and has come to prominence in public debates over science and religion, is virtually leading the discussion in a panel with such established figures as Peter Singer, Patricia Churchland, Steven Pinker, and Simon Blackburn. The fact that he's parading such an impoverished argument and unduly dismissing the vast literature in moral philosophy makes it that much more of an insult. It gives the impression that our intellectual culture values personality over rigor.