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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Response to reasonshark

Since I'm not allowed to respond to reasonshark on Jerry Coyne's blog, and since reasonshark seems confused about my position and arguments, I'm posting a response here.  (I can't find any contact info for reasonshark, so if you know him/her, please get his/her attention for me).

I attempted to demonstrate what is wrong with the way Sam Harris interprets the word "should."  He says that it is synonymous with maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures.  So, "I should x" means the same thing as "If I x, it will maximize the well-being of conscious creatures."  This is how Sam Harris attempts to overcome the is/ought distinction (aka "the fact/value distinction").  According to him, moral judgments about what we should or ought to do are just statements about what will maximize the well-being of conscious creatures.

In my response to Harris' Moral Landscape Challenge, I presented a formal argument for the falsity of Harris' view.  My argument there is that we can conjoin clauses about maximizing well-being, but not "ought" statements.  For example, we can say, "Doing x will maximize well-being and doing y instead of x will also maximize well-being."  Yet, we cannot say, "We should x and we should also y instead of x."  This suggests that "should" does not mean what Harris thinks it does.

Consider paradigm cases of how we use the word "should":

(1)  We should bring an umbrella because it is going to rian.
(2)  You shouldn't eat too much.  You'll get sick.
(3)  What should we do if it rains?

In all of these cases, the word "should" indicates that a justifying reason is called for.  In cases (1) and (2), the justifying reason is given as a way of answering the question raised by the "should."  Why should we bring an umbrella?  In other words, what reason would justify the bringing of an umbrella?  The justifying reason is that it is going to rain.  In case (3), the question is not asking for a justifying reason, but is asking for a course of action which is presumed to be justified by some reason.

With that in mind, consider the scenarios I presented:

Imagine this conversation:

Carol: We should do x, y and z.
Lucy: Why?
Carol: Well, if we do x, y and z, it will lead to happiness. It will maximize well-being.
Lucy: Oh, you’re right. Okay!

That’s a simple, common-sensical conversation, right? Nothing wrong with it.

Now imagine a world where people spoke the way Sam Harris thinks they do:

Carol: We should do x, y and z.
Lucy: Why?
Carol: Well, if we do x, y and z, it will lead to happiness. It will maximize well-being.
Lucy: I know what “should” means, Carol. Geez. Why are you lecturing me on the definition of “should.” I’m not a child. I’m asking for a REASON!

See, if Sam Harris were right, then you could never appeal to the maximization of well-being as a REASON for doing anything. You could never say you should x BECAUSE IT MAXIMIZED WELL-BEING. You’d have to give some other reason. But what sort of reason could you give?

The point of my question is this:  If Harris is correct about morality, then you could not possibly give a valid reason for why we should maximize the well-being of conscious creatures.  The very idea of trying to justify the maximization of well-being would be incoherent.  Of course people might they they were giving reasons for maximizing well-being, but they would be very confused.


Now on to reasonshark's response.  On the one hand, reasonshark thinks that linguistic analysis is not going to be of any help.  And yet, Sam Harris is making an argument about language.  He is making a claim about what the word "should" means. I think Harris is wrong.  Why shouldn't I think that an argument to that effect would be fruitful?  Is there something about the methodology of linguistic analysis that makes it unreliable?  Not that I am aware of.  

reasonshark said, "You seemed to be saying that, if Harris’ point about “good=maximizing well-being” is correct, it would be obvious to anyone that they were synonyms (hence the “I know…” bit in your second example)."

No, that was not my point.  My claim was that, if Harris is correct, the second sort of conversation between Carol and Lucy would be plausible.  Not inevitable, but plausible.  It would not seem odd.  And yet, it does seem very odd.

What if I said we should not maximize the well-being of all conscious creatures?  Would that mean that maximizing the well-being of all conscious creatures does not maximize the well-being of all conscious creatures?  That is absurd, but it is what Harris would have us believe.  I, in contrast, think it means this:  There are justifying reasons for not maximizing the well-being of all conscious creatures.  And I think that's common sense.

As it happens, I'm a moral noncognitivists, which means I don't think justifications of reasons have truth conditions.  I don't think there's any fact of the matter about whether or not we should maximize the well-being of all conscious creatures.  That doesn't mean there aren't reasons.  There can be reasons for and against the maximization of well-being, but justification of those reasons is not truth-evaluable.

reasonshark also says, "Any particular ethics, principally the normative kind (as I indicated in the post you replied to), presumes a metaethical theory to begin with, otherwise it’s empty." 

That is false.  No ethical system requires choosing between moral realism or anti-realism, for example.

reasonshark continues:  "Your question ["Why should I maximize well-being?"] is not the same regardless of which meaning you pick. If you were asking from normative grounds, then you are committing to a rival metaethical theory, however loosely, but you can’t challenge a metaethical theory by asking for a norm, because the norms are supposed to derive from the metaethics, so you’re supposed to ask in terms of another, rival, metaethical theory, an equal. The challenge otherwise makes no sense."

Norms are supposed to derive from metaethics?  How is that?  I think reasonshark is confused about the relationship between ethics and metaethics.

The point I made is this:  The meaning of "should" is the same regardless of your ethical or metaethical views.  The meaning of the question, "Why should I maximize well-being?", does not depend on your ethical or metaethical views.  It doesn't matter if you are a moral realist or a moral anti-realist, you should still agree that the question is asking for a justifying reason for maximizing well-being.  It doesn't matter if you're a deonotlogist, consequentialist, or virtue ethicist, either.  If anyone disagrees, feel free to explain.  Why should it matter if you're a moral realist or anti-realist?  Why should it matter what approach to ethics you favor?

Here is further evidence that reasonshark is confused about the difference between ethics and metaethics:  "metaethical grounds (challenging Harris’ claim to have solved the issue of what goodness is, principally)"

So, according to reasonshark, a metaethical ground is one which answers the question, "what is goodness?"  And yet, according to the field of philosophy, that question is a question for normative ethics, not metaethics.

It is ironic that I am accused of confusing ethics and metaethics by somebody who cannot tell the difference between them.

Not to go off on a tangent, but . . . Perhaps you can see why it is hard to be patient when trying to defend the practice of philosophy on Jerry Coyne's blog.  

Now, it seems reasonshark is also confused about my argument.  Apparently, reasonshark thinks that I am asking for some reason to maximize well-being.  reasonshark writes:  "it’s not clear what you mean by asking for a reason. Are you looking for a real-world explanation of how goodness and badness arise from otherwise morally neutral physics, or an appeal to your self-interest?"

I was NOT asking for a reason.  I was pointing out that Harris's view does not align with a common sense view of the language.

reasonshark: "You were criticizing Harris’ metaethical theory with a thought experiment that treated it like a normative claim, that isn’t solid as a metaethical critique, and all while presupposing that the way we use language is a valid critique of the “goodness”=”well-being” idea."

No, I was not critiqing the "goodness"="well-being" idea in my conversation with reasonshark.  I was critiquing Harris' claim about the meaning of the word "should."  That should have been obvious.  (I.e., there are justifying reasons to think that it was obvious.  Not that its having been obvious would somehow maximize the well-being of conscious creatures.)

At this point, I have to wonder why I'm bothering to reply at such length to reasonshark.  But there's one more error that needs to be corrected.  reasonshark says: "I don’t agree that Harris is correct when he says Dennett is trying to change the subject."

I did NOT say that Harris was correct in accusing Dennett of changing the subject.  I just pointed out that Harris has, in fact, accused Dennett of changing the subject.

As a final note, reasonshark accused me of making a personal indictment when such was not my intention.  reasonshark criticized the idea that linguistic analysis could be of use.  I (somewhat rudely) claimed that my linguistic point seems appropriate.  The rudeness came from the fact that I do not always have the patience to be nice to people who dismiss legitimate philosophical tools on a Website that is notorious for dismissing the practice of philosophy in general--especially when they don't have a problem with the use of those same tools by people they favor, like Sam Harris.  So, if I offended you, reasonshark, it is because I think you should be more careful in your criticisms of conceptual analysis.