“She whined” »« Not persons after all?

On the relationship between philosophy, science and morality

Massimo goes a few rounds with the ol’ science can whup philosophy story.

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.

Comments

  1. laconicsax says

    Uh oh…when do you think Shermer will accuse him of being like Hitler on a McCarthy-esque witch-hunt.

  2. Brian E says

    No, it’s only women who can be like Hitler and engage in witch hunts. After all, Hitler was a woman and witch hunts were women, enforcing the privileges of matriarchy by burning uppity men, wasn’t it?

  3. says

    To be fair to Harris, he says in the book and has said in many presentations before and after publication that the book was supposed to *start* the conversation on science determining human values, not end it. Bogging it down with a lot of sophisticated philosophy would have pleased the philosophically-inclined–but would have rendered the work completely opaque to the the intended audience…which is, after all, the people who claim “science can’t say anything about ethics!”

    I didn’t read Harris’s book as a dead-stop dogma of accepting our current Western values, so I did not expect him to produce many reasons why we should. We can continue the conversation of what values we should have, and what actions and states we should value within that system of values, without having all of the answers front-loaded.

    Shermer’s still a dipwad, though. Fuck him.

  4. says

    ” 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)?”

    I feel like this criticism falls flat here. I may be completely misunderstanding Shermer here but I don’t think he was necessarily saying we should not work to change things to how we would like them to be, that is, after all, the whole point of morality.

    I think he was more saying that any moral system needs to start with how things work. A simple example would be to say that part of why we know it’s wrong to push people off a cliff is because we understand that gravity will cause them to fall and injure themselves. We would never grasp idea if we believed people could fly, so if we don’t have a firm grounding in how realty works we won’t be able to propose sensible ways of improving things.

    I think this is what Shermer probably meant, but it may have been poorly worded, or I could be reading my own thoughts into his and this isn’t what he meant at all.

  5. says

    I agree that Shermer makes little sense here. My moral ontological stance is distinct from most peoples but, pretty much whatever you mark moral statements as actually entailing, Shermers position seems contradictory.

    Not least in this respect is that he holds to an evolutionary perspective one minute then lurches suddenly to ‘human flourishing’, seemingly achieved by an equivocation between the flourishing of the individual (which i would hold to be the origin of our desire to make moral statements, agree thus far) and the flourishing of humankind. In doing so it seems that he not only changes the focus, that much is pretty obvious, but actually changes the specifics of what morality fundamentally is.

    Secondly, i don’t really know why he is so bothered in the first place. Meta-ethics is an interesting subject for discussion, but these kind of ‘land grab’ claims as to who has the right to make normative moral pronouncements, scientists or philosophers, ignores the elephant in the room: it is the public sphere, shaped by the media, that really decide societal standards and all that either group can do is appeal to that broader sphere with their best arguments.

  6. Bjarte Foshaug says

    Taking into account the way things are (fact) may be a necessary precondition for answering ethical problems, but it can never be sufficient. I don’t think anybody is claiming that that facts are irrelevant for deciding the right action in any given circumstance. If your criterion for saying that something is morally justified (value judgement) is “God said so”, it certainly matters whether or not God even exists (fact) and whether or not he actually “said so” (fact). If the question is whether or not to send someone to jail for a certain crime (value judgement), it clearly matters whether or not (s)he actually committed it (fact). But this doesn’t answer why one should value Gods will or the freedom of innocent people in the first place. Or as Massimo puts it…

    …the goal of increasing human flourishing is itself the result of a value choice that cannot possibly be grounded in empirical evidence.

    Unless you can demonstrate how you get to that initial goal – or even the idea that “something is worth something” – from nothing but descriptive, factual accounts of the way things are, you haven’t even addressed Hume’s Is/Ought distinction, let alone refuted it.

  7. Ant (@antallan) says

    Poorly worded? Shermer? Surely not?

    /@

    PS. Massimo’s article has whetted my appetite for his Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life.

  8. Bjarte Foshaug says

    Ironically, I think The Moral Landscape would have been a better book if Harris didn’t try to argue that you can get an ought from an is. Being philosophically unsophisticated, I found the book flawed but not bad as an opinion piece written for a lay audience (If we could convince everyone to get their morality from The Moral Landscape rather than the Bible or the Quran, it would definitely be an improvement). But, yeah, when the main thesis of your book is based on begging the question – more specifically the question “should we value the well-being of conscious creatures?” – that’s a pretty major flaw. Even his supposed “proof” involving “the worst possible misery for everybody” presupposes that the answer is yes. He never actually shows how you get to that “yes” in the first place.

  9. Bill Openthalt says

    I agree we cannot base our morality on how we would like humans to be, but have to work with what we are. No matter how sound the reasoning, if one starts from the wrong premisse the whole construction has no value.

    If people cannot fly, we should not base our evaluation of their behaviour on the premisse they can fly. The morality of pushing someone off a cliff is determined not by the outcome of our action, but by the fact that we decided our wish to push the person off the cliff was more important than their wish not to be pushed.

    The problem is to find a basis for the derivation of moral rules that is simple and uncontroversial without being trite. In the absence of “gods/higher beings” whose purposes we are to fulfill, maximising the wellbeing of all sentient beings appears to be the least controversial starting point. Of course, a concept like “wellbeing” is vague, and “sentient being” is also open to interpretation, but what is the alternative?

  10. Bill Openthalt says

    Bjarte, where does Harris argue you can get an ought from an is in the Humean sense? His point is that the mind, including its moral processes, can be understood (using science). As a result, we can aim to determine which form of society would lead to the optimal functioning of these moral processes (that is, the fewest “bad feelings” generated at the conscious level for the largest number of people). It’s not fundamentally different from trying to understand how bodies work to determine which diet results in optimal health.

  11. Brian E says

    maximising the wellbeing of all sentient beings appears to be the least controversial starting point

    Actually, it’s quite controversial. If endlessly torturing a few, or even one who is/are innocent, leads to greater overall wellbeing for all sentient beings, they why does it seem immoral? I’m thinking along the lines of the story ‘the ones who walk away from Omelas’.

  12. Brian E says

    As a result, we can aim to determine which form of society would lead to the optimal functioning of these moral processes (that is, the fewest “bad feelings” generated at the conscious level for the largest number of people).

    But that is the question at hand. Why would we value a form of society which would lead to optimal? Science can tell us, roughly, which system might be optimal, but it cannot tell us that ‘the fewest ‘bad feelins’ generated’ is what we should value. Harris is importing an ought, without justifying it, which is why he’s accused of falling foul of Hume’s dictum. Not because you can’t argue from an is to ought, but because you can’t unjustifiably use an ought as a premise. Harris is using an ought, that we ought to aim for the best possible society (however construed), and use science to achieve it. I don’t think anybody argues that science cannot tell us what is the best way to achieve the goal of our ought, but it has bugger all to say about what we ought do. If solving the judenfragen (Godwin alert) is our ought, then science can help us, or if ameliorating poverty is our ought….

  13. stevebowen says

    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).

    Stephen Pinker points out in “Better Angels…” that the peace dividend comes from “gentle commerce” which requires benevolent government and rule of law.to underpin it, not the Libertarian free for all that Shermer favours.

  14. Bill Openthalt says

    Brian
    Should we kill one to save five? Probably. Is this an easy decision? Never. The reason we feel uncomfortable with torture is that in most cases, there is very little the people who are tortured can tell. By itself, the act of torturing can never increase the wellbeing of large number of people, unless it is done to avert a disaster, in which case it wouldn’t be problematical. We know that sacrificing people for the good of society has been practiced by a number of societies, and the real problem is that their beliefs were wrong — no sacrifices were necessary to placate the gods.

    The only reason why we would have a morality that leads to suffering is if the suffering is necessary. Why should we not aim for a society that results in maximum wellbeing for the largest number?

    If you analyse a USB stick, and discover it needs 5V to function, then you “ought” to apply 5V to it to get it to function optimally. It might more or less work with 3.3V, but given the “nature” of the USB stick, why would you not want it to function optimally if you know how to do so?

    We know humans aren’t on this planet with a purpose. We can (but it won’t be easy) discover how to make as many humans as possible function as well as possible. Advocating we should aim for suboptimal functioning shows that getting religious thinking out of morality (and philosophy) is far from easy.

  15. Bjarte Foshaug says

    @Bill Openthalt, #10

    Bjarte, where does Harris argue you can get an ought from an is in the Humean sense?

    All over the place. For example, in the first chapter of The moral Landskape (page 28 in my copy), he writes:

    First I want to be very clear about my general thesis: I am not suggesting that science can give us an evolutionary or neurobiological account of what people do in the name of “morality.” Nor am I merely saying that science can help us get what we want out of life. These would be quite banal claims to make – unless one happes to doubt the truth of evolution, the mind’s dependency on the brain, or the general utility of science. Rather I am arguing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want - and therefore what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible.

    (Emphasis added)

    I can only take maximizing well-being to be an example of getting “what we want out of life”, i.e. what we value (which, according to himself, is precisely what he is not talking about), while helping us “understand what we should do and should want” means helping us arrive at that value judgement in the first place.

    And at the very beginning of his TED talk he says:

    It is thought that science can help us get what we value, but it can never tell us what we ougth to value. [...] So, I’m going to argue that this is an illusion. [...]
    It is often thougth that there is no description of the way the world is that can tell us how the world ought to be. I think this is quite clearly untrue.

    If that’s not deriving an ought from an is, I don’t know what is.

  16. sailor1031 says

    “Second, “the way things are” has, of course, changed dramatically across centuries and cultures (science tells us this!)……”

    as opposed to philosophy which……….?

    And what on earth does morality have to do with market economies or any other economies? Seems a total disconnect to me. The whole thing doesn’t seem worthy of the attention of an eminent philosopher!

  17. says

    @ Riptide. As you say:

    To be fair to Harris, he says in the book and has said in many presentations before and after publication that the book was supposed to *start* the conversation on science determining human values, not end it.

    That may be the case, but that doesn’t excuse the atrocious philosophy he gets up to (or doesn’t get up to) in the book, which means it isn’t even a starting point for the conversation. Before he can offer a starting point, he must at least provide some evidence of having understood moral philosophy, which he doesn’t do (surprisingly, since he began with philosophy and cognitive science). Apparently Shermer doesn’t either. I have more and more respect for Massimo as time progresses. Shermer, less and less. For Harris, much less than I had at the outset of his literary career. The End of Faith was a needed blast, even though sometimes carelessly worded and needlessly involved in controversial issues that he simply couldn’t win (eg torture), but since then he has sailed along on his reputation (or his newly found wealth), and has not lived up to the promise of his beginning. Since Shermer ended up on the wrong side of the fence with respect to the women and intellect issue, he’s simply gone rapidly downhill. Are these people just self-destructing because their reputations were undeserved? Or are they just going through a bad patch?

  18. says

    I think it’s the former. I’ve had limited enthusiasm for both of them all along, so at least their current doings aren’t disillusioning me. (Dawkins on the other hand is very much the opposite. I still think he’s a terrific writer and educator of the public and atheist gadfly [not even mentioning his scientific work], and I’m still hugely grateful for all of that.)

  19. says

    What a fail!

    The is/ought problem, as Hume describes it sets up exactly what Shermer does. Hume’s point is that the problem of moral induction – getting from how the world is to what it ought to be – presents this chasm philosophers fall into. Because they can’t explain why we should go from how the world is, to how it ought to be, they resort to hand-waving. Hume’s way of explaining this is delightfully puckish and much more worth reading than my description of it. If a philosopher said that we should do certain things in order to facilitate “human flourishing” they are begging the question because “human flourishing” is a consequence of “doing the right thing” since, after all, it wouldn’t be bloody “flourishing” if it weren’t, now, would it?

    Make helicopter noises and wave your hands around as you fall into the is/ought chasm. It’s fun!

  20. says

    Should we kill one to save five? Probably

    It’s not that easy. First, you must establish that we all agree that life in this case is that important. Perhaps we may find ourselves in a situation in which there are so many people that the common good might appear to be that it’d be better to kill four to save one. I know that seems silly, but Hume’s right about the is/ought problem – eventually someone sneaks an assumption in there, like “life is good” and you find everything rests on that assumption.

    The problem with arguments from wellbeing is that we may have different ideas of “wellbeing” Or, perhaps 99% of the people may agree on “wellbeing” but then what do you do with the remaining 1%? Thus you have the christians and MRAs who claim they are being oppressed when their ability to oppress others is taken away from them. Well, in their weird little corner of the universe, that’s kind of true. For them.

  21. says

    As much as I enjoy philosophy, modern sophisticated philosophy smells too much like theology for my taste.

    Ever since Philosophy speciated into Science (via Natural Philosophy), it’s Science that has been the most prolific branch by orders of magnitude. No doubt, philosophers can provide useful criticism and the occasional insight, but the comfy chair is no longer the seat of wisdom. Understanding how our values emerge is becoming the domain of science, with Harris, Hawking, et al. the pioneers.

    And Shermer ignores the fundamental problems with “Libertarian” market economies. They are as brutal and directionless as evolution, and rely naively on infinite growth.

    As a combination of abstract people and human animals, we struggle with the conflict between ideals and natural reality.

  22. Bjarte Foshaug says

    Another point re. Sam Harris (for some reason I don’t seem to feel like reading anything by Shermer nowdays…) is that he seems to be setting up kind of a false dichotomy between moral realism and moral relativism. Or, perhaps more accurately, because he doesn’t distinguish sharply between facts and values, he kind of seems to assume that neither does nobody else, so when somebody tell him that no value judgement is more or less factually “true” than another (since the concept of “truth” simply doesn’t apply) they have to be saying that no value judgement is morally better than any other, and that it’s all based on arbitrary cultural conventions. I may be philosophically unsophisticated, but I don’t consider myself a moral relativist any more than I consider myself a moral realist, and I kind of suspect that the same thing goes for many moral philosophers. Or am I off the rails? :-P

  23. says

    Bjarte @25
    Not off the rails but i think your comment on moral relativism highlights the way in which it is often misportrayed as necessarily involving some kind of boundlessness. What is curious is we don’t have similar concerns elsewhere. We can accept both subjectivism and relativism in culinary preferences (individually and societally) whilst still understanding that fundamentally there are innate forces at play that set some (albeit ill defined) bounds as to how far things could drift.
    I think the fear of relativism is still, to some extent at least, a hangover from religious appeals that only objective moral absolutes are what will save us from venerating baby mutilators somewhere down the line. Of course those religious perspectives also involve humans created as-is, so any appeal to our evolutionary heritage ultimately bounding the extent to which our moral sensibilities could drift is likely to fall on deaf ears. That sophisticated theists who fully accept both our evolutionary origin and the ways in which we would expect that to shape us STILL hammer at these same points probably explains the carry over to discussions devoid of the religious context.

  24. jose says

    People keep claiming values must be deduced from empirical research, but I haven’t seen a value discovered that way. You’d think if values were out there waiting to be discovered, we would have found some by now.

  25. jose says

    noelplum,
    we don’t really accept relativism in culinary preferences. Relativism accepts moral claims can have a truth value; that’s not the case for food.

    Relativism says: it’s true that gay marriage is immoral in Iran; and it’s true that they it’s moral here. You wouldn’t say ham tastes good in Iran and it tastes bad here. Ham tastes as it tastes; our judgments about it concern ourselves, not the ham. The ham’s taste doesn’t have an empirical “taste value” because it exists out there, independent from our judgments.

    The answer then, I think, is to reject the idea that moral claims can have truth value at all: non-cognitivism. This makes morality a matter of finding common ground and compromising, rather than an empirical investigation. The mechanic aspects of it would have a lot more to do with politics than with science.

  26. Dave Ricks says

    JFK stated a moral position: Let every nation know, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, to ensure the survival of liberty. That was not a *calculus* of paying one life to buy five, which would be apples-to-apples.  That was a *principle* of paying any price, including lives, to buy liberty, which was apples-to-oranges.

    I’m not promoting JFK’s position in particular, I’m saying the realm of morality is often apples-to-oranges, and if Harris wants to quantify that to be scientific, the first thing he needs is the Buckingham π theorem.

    In other words, in this thread, some people rightly point out The Moral Landscape fails on basics from the philosophical side, and I’m saying it doesn’t even begin on basics from the scientific side.

  27. says

    Jose
    Damn, just types out a reply to find I wasn’t logged in and the whole reply has disappeared.

    Briefly:
    Ham tastes as it tastes; our judgments about it concern ourselves, not the ham. The ham’s taste doesn’t have an empirical “taste value” because it exists out there, independent from our judgments.
    Agreed, taste is a quale expressing the way we experience different chemicals on our tongue and via our olfactory sensors. But this is not incompatible with what i was saying. take your ham example, reverse it to remove the slight cultural insensitivity of having the muslims eating ham and not us and it actually highlights what i AM saying: there are some dishes (ham is a poor choice) that are perhaps greatly enjoyed by one culture only because of their culinary background. perhaps a preoponderance of spicy dishes, bitter drinks, or meat and fish matured well beyond what is normal, prepares and opens up the palette for tastes that would be off the scale of what is acceptable for many of us in other cultures.

    Secondly, you mention that relativism in incompatible with non-cognitivism, or imply that. i disagree. i am not sure why you are saying that relativism necessitates moral statements holding truth value (or that they constitute beliefs). As far as i am concerned, relativism and non-cognitivism are far from incompatible.
    Lastly, when you say:

    This makes morality a matter of finding common ground and compromising, rather than an empirical investigation. The mechanic aspects of it would have a lot more to do with politics than with science.

    i couldn’t agree with you more!!!

    Ok, better get to work, retyping has made me v v late!

  28. Lyanna says

    We can accept both subjectivism and relativism in culinary preferences (individually and societally) whilst still understanding that fundamentally there are innate forces at play that set some (albeit ill defined) bounds as to how far things could drift.

    Not really. The “innate forces” don’t actually matter. it doesn’t matter if anyone transgresses those bounds. It doesn’t really matter if a handful of people decide they love the taste of earwax and they’re going to move to an island and eat an earwax-based cuisine.

    But boundlessness does matter in morality. It matters if people decide they’re going to have cultures that oppress women. The “innate forces” do nothing to stop this, either, so yes, we need moral arguments. Moral arguments require some amount of absolutism or universalism. I’ve heard people argue that you can make moral arguments without absolutism or universalism, but I disagree: without those, the most you can do is argue hypocrisy. Which doesn’t get you very far. Everyone’s a hypocrite to some degree, and I wouldn’t have a more favorable opinion of the Taliban if they were less hypocritical. Hypocrisy is not my true objection to them.

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