Oh my, I thought I was done for a while chastising skeptics like Sam Harris on the relationship between philosophy, science and morality, and I just found out that my friend Michael Shermer has incurred a similar (though not quite as egregious as Harris’) bit of questionable thinking. As I explained in my review of Harris’ book for Skeptic, one learns
precisely nothing about morality by reading The Moral Landscape. Indeed, one’s time on that topic is much better spent by leafing through Michael Sandel’s On Justice, for example.
I too reviewed Harris’s book, and I too thought it was way too dismissive of philosophy and way too short on argument as a result. I thought that as a non-philosopher, of course, while Massimo thinks it as a philosopher (and a biologist too!), but I’ve read a little moral philosophy here and there, and I found it a lot more enlightening than I found The Moral Landscape.
Shermer proceeds immediately by blaming the is/ought problem as the main culprit for scientists’ misguided concession to philosophers (even though I bet dollars to donuts that the overwhelming majority of scientists has never heard of the is/ought problem). Indeed, Michael claims that the problem is a fallacy (I take it he is using the term colloquially, since I don’t see that entry listed in the vast catalogue of fallacies that professional philosophers and logicians have accumulated.)
Why is the is/ought problem a fallacy, according to Shermer? Because “morals and values must be based on the way things are in order to establish the best conditions for human flourishing.” Let’s unpack (as philosophers are fond of saying) that loaded phrase. First off, there is a prescriptive claim (“must”) that is not actually argued for. Sounds like Michael is engaging in some a priori philosophizing of his own. Why exactly must we base morals and values on the way things are (as opposed to, say, they way we would like them to be)?
Second, “the way things are” has, of course, changed dramatically across centuries and cultures (science tells us this!). Which point in the space-time continuum are we going to pick as our reference to ground our scientific study of morality? We better not just assume that the our own current time and place represent the best of all possible worlds.
Third, “human flourishing” is a surprisingly slippery (and philosophically loaded!) concept, not at all easy to handle by straightforward quantitative analyses. (If you want an idea of the sort of complications I have in mind, take a look here and here.) And of course it should go without mention that the goal of increasing human flourishing is itself the result of a value choice that cannot possibly be grounded in empirical evidence. Nothing wrong with that, unless you insist on a scientistic take on the study of morality.
I think that’s a good sample for seeing why philosophy is useful for thinking about morality, and why just talking about the way things are isn’t adequate.
One more sample:
Shermer then goes on to add a market economy to the mix of his favorite ideologies, claiming that “it decreases violence and increases peace significantly” (hardly surprising, coming from a well known libertarian). Once more, without even going to question the empirical assertion, shouldn’t we at least admit that “market economy” is a highly heterogeneous category (think US vs China), and that some market economies decrease fairness, do not provide universal access to health care and education, lower workers’ wages, and overall negatively affect human flourishing? How should we rank our values in order to make sense of the data? How do the data by themselves establish a guide to which values we should hold? And why should we follow whatever the current science says, as opposed to having discussions about where we would like science and technology (and economics) themselves to go?
How should we rank our values - that’s a question that Harris gave astonishingly short shrift in his book.
Read the whole thing; it’s long and rewarding.