Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sam Harris' Attempt to Go From 'Is' to 'Ought'

Conversational Atheist has posted Sam Harris' proposal for grounding moral dictums in the process of scientific discovery. Harris proposes nine "facts" which are supposed to demonstrate the scientific foundations of moral righteousness. I won't comment on all of them, but I have some things to say about a few of them. As I'll explain, I cannot accept at least four of the nine.

To start with, for the purposes of this post (and only this post), I'll tentatively accept Fact 1:

FACT #1: There are behaviors, intentions, cultural practices, etc. which potentially lead to the worst possible misery for everyone. There are also behaviors, intentions, cultural practices, etc. which do not, and which, in fact, lead to states of wellbeing for many sentient creatures, to the degree that wellbeing is possible in this universe.

While I'm not sure there is such a thing as "the worst possible misery for everyone," I don't think this notion is the most problematic feature of Harris' argument, so I won't object to it here. Thus, with the same qualifications, I'll tentatively accept Fact 2:

FACT #2: While it may often be difficult in practice, distinguishing between these two sets is possible in principle.

As I suggest in an earlier post, however, even if we play along with Harris here, we should not assume that most, or even many, actions fall into either set. There may not be any fact of the matter which puts any given action squarely in one set or the other.

Moving on, I do not accept Fact 3:

FACT #3: Our “values” are ways of thinking about this domain of possibilities. If we value liberty, privacy, benevolence, dignity, freedom of expression, honesty, good manners, the right to own property, etc.—we value these things only in so far as we judge them to be part of the second set of factors conducive to (someone’s) wellbeing.

I do not think values are best thought of as ways of thinking about the well-being of conscious creatures. Harris' focus on the well-being of conscious creatures is without foundation. It appears to rest solely on his belief that the most dire situation possible is the one in which every sentient creature in the universe suffers as much and for as long as possible. My previous post suggests that we can imagine a worse case. Harris is just wrong. A universe in which suffering is maximized is not the worst possible universe. Suffering is not the primary factor in our moral thinking.

I think the functionality of morality is more about fostering dignity; our concern with suffering is secondary. This may be obvious, when we realize that suffering is commonly justified if it fosters and does not pose a threat to dignity. (For more about dignity and morality, see my posts from this past June from the 22nd to the 24th.)

We might say that values are ways of thinking about dignity, but that is too broad. We can think about the evolutionary function of dignity, for example, and this way of thinking about dignity is not what we mean when we talk about values. Values are not just ways of thinking, though they may well entail ways of thinking about both dignity and the well-being of conscious creatures.

So what are values? Perhaps they are the ways in which our desires and needs are prioritized. This affects our ways of thinking about all sorts of things, and not just suffering.

Moving on, I cannot accept Harris' Fact 4:

FACT #4: Values, therefore, are (explicit or implicit) judgments about how the universe works and are themselves facts about our universe (i.e. states of the human brain). (Religious values, focusing on God’s will or the law of karma, are no exception: the reason to respect God’s will or the law of karma is to avoid the worst possible misery for many, most, or even all sentient beings).

I don't think values are judgments. We do make value judgments, of course. When we apply our values in particular cases, we are making value judgments, and these are about the universe. But values and value judgments are not simply brain states. Judgments are not brain states, and nor are dispositions. I'm not suggesting that values and value judgments have a non-physical or non-biological existence. I'm just saying that we might not want to think about them in terms of states, even if they do depend in some way on neurological states.

But, yes, values and value judgments are in some sense about the universe. And we may say they entail beliefs about the universe--at least, value judgments do, if not values themselves. This does not make our values (or our value judgments) factual--they are not necessarily propositions which could be true.

Harris' concern with this point--that values must be a sort of fact--seems silly and confused. What Harris wants to say is that there are facts about what people should and should not value. He says that people might disagree with him about morality (as I do). Some people might reject his thesis that values are about the well-being of conscious creatures (as I do), but he thinks we are justified in ignoring these people. His basis for ignoring the opposition is not principled, however. So (skipping ahead) I cannot accept his Fact 8, which states that, "if the term “ought” has any application at all, it is in urging us away from the worst possible misery for everyone."

As for Fact 5, it does not fit with my understanding of values:

FACT #5: It is possible to be confused or mistaken about how the universe works. It is, therefore, possible to have the wrong values (i.e. values which lead toward, rather than away from, the worst possible misery for everyone).

Values cannot be confused or mistaken. They might not be beneficial to us or any number of individuals or organizations, but there is no sense in which they could be wrong. That is, unless you were to stipulate a correct manner of organizing your needs and desires, but Harris has no basis for any such stipulation. He just says that we must place the well-being of conscious creatures at the top of the list--it must be our highest priority--and that anyone who disagrees with him is not worth taking seriously. That's not an argument. It's just a statement of non-tolerance.

I'm sure I could find more things to say about Harris' "facts," but I think I've made my case well enough.