Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Congratulations, Ryan Born

I've been discussing things to do with Sam Harris' Moral Landscape Challenge lately, but I forgot to congratulate the winner, Ryan Born.  Though it was Harris' challenge, it was Russell Blackford who chose the winning essay.  I've only read a handful of the entries, but I don't recall reading any that were better than Ryan's.  It's a well-written and interesting essay, and I trust Russell to have found the best of the lot.

That said, I'm not thrilled with Ryan's essay.  I like the general strategy of taking up the Value Problem.  However, Ryan's primary tactic is problematic.  He takes up the idea of self-justification in a confused, or at least confusing, way.  Sam Harris has said that he would change his mind if he could be convinced that "other branches of science are self-justifying in a way that a science of morality could never be."  Ryan mistakenly takes Harris to be saying that science is self-justifying.  This allows Harris to reply:  "Contrary to what Ryan suggests, I don’t believe that the epistemic values of science are “self-justifying”—we just can’t get completely free of them."

That isn't the end of Ryan's argument, or Harris' reply, of course.  Ryan does at least hint at difficulties with Harris' approach, and Harris' lengthy reply opens the door to even more objections (some of which I'll get to momentarily).  Unfortunately, Harris has not indicated that he will engage Ryan any further, and we can no longer expect any sort of evaluation from Russell.  (Originally, Russell was going to evaluate Harris' response to the winning essay.  I guess he still might, but probably not on Harris' blog.)  So I'm a little disappointed.  I would have liked to see a winning essay that cut right to the heart of the matter without any confusion.  Not that it necessarily would have mattered.

I think the best strategy against Harris is to point out the absurdity of his interpretation of "should" and "ought." In his response to Ryan, he says, "Some intuitions are truly basic to our thinking. I claim that the conviction that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and should be avoided is among them."  So we have the following, conceptually basic intuition:

(1) The worst possible misery for everyone is bad and should be avoided.

In another part of his response to Ryan, Harris says strange things about the word "should":

Ethics is prescriptive only because we tend to talk about it that way—and I believe this emphasis comes, in large part, from the stultifying influence of Abrahamic religion. We could just as well think about ethics descriptively. Certain experiences, relationships, social institutions, and technological developments are possible—and there are more or less direct ways to arrive at them. Again, we have a navigation problem. To say we “should” follow some of these paths and avoid others is just a way of saying that some lead to happiness and others to misery. “You shouldn’t lie” (prescriptive) is synonymous with “Lying needlessly complicates people’s lives, destroys reputations, and undermines trust” (descriptive). “We should defend democracy from totalitarianism” (prescriptive) is another way of saying “Democracy is far more conducive to human flourishing than the alternatives are” (descriptive). In my view, moralizing notions like “should” and “ought” are just ways of indicating that certain experiences and states of being are better than others.

If that is correct, and prescriptive "should" statements are synonymous with descriptive statements, then we can restate (1) as follows:

(1*) The worst possible misery for everyone is less conducive to human flourishing and avoiding it is more conducive to human flourishing.

We must remember that Harris is very flexible about what comprises misery and flourishing.  In fact, he defines "flourishing" and "misery" in opposing terms.  Once you realize that, it is clear that his "intuition" is a tautology.  If we accept Harris' view of morality, all (1) means is:  that which is least conducive to human flourishing is less conducive to human flourishing, and avoiding that which is least conducive to human flourishing is more conducive to human flourishing.  According to Harris, that is an intuition that is basic to our thinking.  And somehow it is supposed to sustain moral realism.

The absurdity of Harris' language games is evident.  It would have been nice if Ryan Born had pointed that out, but perhaps Harris will still see fit to respond to the challenge.