Guest post: why the is/ought problem matters


Guest post by Marcus Ranum, originally a comment on Sam has to presume a great big ought:

To anticipate a possible counter-objection on this topic, which might attempt to dismiss the concerns of philosophers (such as Hume, Kant, Rawls, and Mill) regarding the topic of the is/ought problem as being perhaps obscure philosophical wanking (which I have sometimes seen likened to religion or theology) it is not a matter of counting the numbers of angels on the head of pins. This is the core issue in any discussion of morality: how do you argue that your individual views about right and wrong are not merely your opinion but are fact? Kant tries to do it with an extremely clever formulation of the golden rule.(1) Mill tries to do it with some ham-fisted handwaving about maximizing the common good(2) and Rawls makes some brilliant game-theoretic leaps to try to overcome the flaws in Kant’s categorical imperative(3).

We humans seem to limp along without an objective morality, basically surviving in societies in which self-interest is the norm and there’s a constant struggle for power – not justice: power. It seems to me that the search for morality is silliness; it ought to be pretty clear that all attempts to establish an agreement in principle amount to nothing more than reifying one person’s opinion as “right” – usually the person with the biggest stick. Harris fails to start with  moral nihilism as his default position and to move from there probably because he doesn’t really understand what he’s doing. He’s not really very well-educated when you come right down to it.

(1) Imagine that the world you live in is the world in which everyone acts as you do; therefore you should act well.  Objection: this is obviously simply Kant’s opinion; we can see that selfishness exists and therefore Kant is simply projecting his moral sense onto others.

(2) Objection: how do you know your idea of what the common good is is fact and not merely your opinion? I.e.: “the common good” presupposes you have a working morality, which is begging the question.

(3) Imagine that you construct the world you will live in, with no advance knowledge of your place in it; the argument is that a rational person will create the most fair world possible. Objection: this is actually an appeal to self-interest hidden behind smoke and mirrors; if you’re willing to assume that self-interest is the basis for morality you’ve actually scored an own-goal.

Comments

  1. Kevin Henderson says

    No particle or field in the universe makes moral claims. Deriving normative claims from the physical universe or from transcendent beings is unjustified.

    However, rational thought, science, and empiricism can lead people to determine moral actions. Moral claims can arise through science, but they are procedural and subject to revision just like all claims made by science.

  2. iplon says

    Agreed, Kevin.

    This is also my biggest problem with the is-ought problem. I don’t find it particularly interesting. For me, after encountering it so many times, I’ve become numb. It’s almost always brought up, in the debates I tend to watch, as a favorite form of special pleading, “You can’t derive an ought from anything but my conception of a god!”

    In the end, I think Harris has done one thing very, very right. That’s not answering, or even really attempting to answer, this question. He’s selfishly hijacked a route that is normally dominated by the theologian in debates, about what the source of morality is. If I may paraphrase him, “If you don’t believe it is bad to cause more suffering in the world, we can’t even begin to have a conversation on Morality.”

    At the very least it is pragmatic, in my opinion, to adopt Harris’s approach to this one issue, so long as you can stand the sour smell of knowing about his other views.

  3. says

    Moral claims can arise through science, but they are procedural and subject to revision just like all claims made by science.

    I frequently encounter the argument that moral claims are social artifacts (which is what I believe you are saying) – in which case it seems that the game is similar to what the “compatibilist” believers in free will are playing – redefining free will into something that can actually be had though it bears no resemblance to what people often appear to be talking about when they use the word. Let me refer to this, then, as the Inigo Montoya objection. ;)

    When people talk about “morality” they appear to be generally trying to answer Socrates’ question to Euthyphro with the claim that there is an objective standard of ‘good’ behavior – that there is a “right” and “wrong” that can be known and that is shared: if I say “killing people is wrong” I expect you to understand what I mean, and to share that view. Of course we moral nihilists always point out that there’s someone who’ll cheerfully play philosopher dudebro and keep coming up with thought experiments in which killing is not wrong… That doesn’t mean we respect the philosopher dudebro, but it does mean there’s a problem with the naively conceived idea of morals or right and wrong.

    As a moral nihilist, when I hear someone say “killing is wrong” I automatically rewrite it into “I don’t like killing” and that way I find the semantic content of what the other person said is unchanged and their statement is comprehensible. I’d argue that if one’s right and wrong are indistinguishable from opinion, then maybe we shouldn’t even talk about morality. Because it confuses people – perhaps deliberately – if we state our opinion as if it’s the right thing to do in some objective sense.

    The way you’re describing morality, it’s “moral” to not eat 4 donuts when I could get by eating one or none. No, that’s not morality: that’s just an opinion and as an opinion I can disagree with it or agree with it without affecting you at all. If we were talking about a system of right and wrong, I’d expect you to be outraged if I ate the 4 donuts. Because everyone including me would know I had done the wrong thing. You may wish to avoid using moral language altogether, as I generally try to do, simply because you risk confusing your opinions with fact or absolute truth.

    Yes, we should be dismissive of opinions; opinions really are like assholes. Facts and objective truths are not: they must be shared, to be useful and interesting. If you want to say “rational thought, science, and empiricism can lead people to determine moral actions” and by “moral actions” you mean “facts” then it’s my opinion that your words will be more accurate if you use the word “fact”. I.e.: “it is a fact that eating 4 donuts will increase your chance of cardiac disease.” See how easy that is?

  4. dezn_98 says

    This is a silly post.. Nothing can be further from the truth. In fact, this post seems like the very wankery it was seeking to defend against.

    Now, before I get to why this post is silly.. first let me say that the context around the post is important. I was reading the other post that prompted this comment… and I agree with most people on there that Harris, either ignorantly or arrogantly assumed he “solved” a huge intellectual issue on morality – where a lot of intellectual heavyweights before him could not. That alone is worth condemnation.. and it is worth pointing out his errors because he is whitewashing a lot of important intellectual philosophical work. I have lots of respect for philosophy and I can understand a philosophers disdaid for Harris… as it is well deserved. However, this post goes far beyond making objections to Harris and enters the realm of wankery.

    The “is-ought” problem is a very important issue for philosophers, especially when talking about morality. It is an issue that had been talked about for decades and deserves serious consideration. You can not come into this issue, ignorant of all the talk that has gone around it – this was the mistake Harris made, and that is why he sounded like a hack. You do not go into this field of study without at least attempting to cover the literature on the problem you are attempting to “solve”.. and this was Harris’s biggest mistake. He deserves to get blasted by philosophers for that….

    However, the idea that the “is-ought” problem is such a huge issue that one can hardly have expansive and debatable viewpoints on moral decisions,… is way over reaching. That is simply not true.

    Let me give an analogy here. I came from a background on science, and philosophers have been talking about a similar problem in science called “the problem of induction” for decades. Now, while at my uni, I never read anything by philosophers.. I was a little too busy doing and learning actual science. Most scientist side step such a problem because they consider it un-resolvable, or trivially resolvable.. either way, not worth expending vast amounts of energy debating the point when we can just skip it and go and do science anyway. This, though has lead to many scientists not understanding the “problem of induction” as a whole and dismissing it in a fashion that is a little to out of hand. In that, many scientists are, IMO, far too dismissive of the idea, and this leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of the idea in the first place. Now, when I finally started learning about the problem of induction.. I found it fascinating. I also found my ignorance of the philosophy around the subject shameful.. so I grew appreciative around the intellectual debates around the subject area. This exploration gave me a more expansive world view of science that I did not get from my formal education at my uni. I am personally appreciative of it because it made me a better thinker… However, it did not make me a better “scientist,” no more than reading linguistics and having a better grasp at language because of it make me a better “scientist”… and I argue, it such knowledge of philosophy does not make any person a better scientist. You simply do not need it to do good science… Which is why scientist find it insulting when philosophers go on and rant about “the problem of induction” in a fashion that makes it seem as if one simply can not engage in science without understanding that complex philosophical question.. when in reality, the opposite is true. You can be completely ignorant of philosophy and do just fine. Which is why, scientist, rightfully so.. push such arrogant philosophers aside and accuse them of wankery.. because that is what they are engaged in.

    I contend that this analogy extends into the realm of morality.. In that.. no you do not need a good knowledge of the ‘is-ought” problem in order to have a complicated discussion on moral issues. Maybe I read this post wrong, and correct me if I did.. but it seems to me that this post was trying to say that knowledge of the “is ought” problem is necessary for a competent moral language. Frankly, I think this is insulting and empirically untrue. You do not need to have a competent understanding of that in order to come to a conclusion on huge moral issues such as “should the US bomb syria?”.. and I think it is silly to even discuss that philosophical issue in light of such huge moral problems. It far easier, and probably necessary to side step that philosophical problem and talk about the real moral issues of the day.

    So while I am deeply appreciative of philosophers like Kant on moral issues, or Popper on scientific issues (who arguably had a more practical impact).. and I can say for a fact that reading them lead me to be a clear thinker (everybody should read philosophy to expand their minds).. I find it particularly appalling when someone over estimates the importance of the philosophical issue. In that, if someone is saying you can’t do science without knowing the “problem of induction” or saying you can’t talk about morality without knowing the “is-ought” problem.. I think, it may be OK on this point to dismiss it as intellectual wankery because nothing can be further from the truth.

    I think these ideas are important.. but far too many times to novice philosophers overestimate their importance and try to make it into a “huge” issue that almost inhibits people from side stepping the issue and talking about ones that have more practical impact. Fact is that Harris was wrong in many ways when he talked about morality and this probably stemmed from ignorance, in that he did not take the time to read the literature related to the subject he is talking about… however, as another poster suggested… there are many times were it is prudent simply to side step an issue and get to the meat of the subject – instead of engaging in an intellectual circlejerk that is guaranteed to end no where (I mean it takes a lot of Hubris to think you can find a solution when people like Kant did not).

    So yes.. the “is ought” problem matters, and things like the “problem of induction” maters….. and I think they are not given enough of a fair shake in discussions.. however, they certainty do not matter in the sense that “nothing of substance can get done without first knowing about these problems”.. that is just silly. Maybe I read this post wrong… but it sounded to me like someone was saying something that was simply not true.

  5. says

    “If you don’t believe it is bad to cause more suffering in the world, we can’t even begin to have a conversation on Morality”

    If you can’t explain what “bad” is, you certainly can’t begin to have a conversation about morality, either.

    There are a lot of foolish people who try to anchor their morality on ‘god’ but that doesn’t make attempts to do the same thing under a cloud of handwaving about science this and that any more successful.

  6. iplon says

    The key is you have to start with an assumption about what *is* morality. If you can define morality properly, then you can in fact determine what you *ought* do in order to act moral (if you want to be really cheap you can make a tautology: “morality is what you ought do”, but that’s useless except as a joke).

    I think they key that was missing from the moral landscape, at least from my point of view, is that he could have fairly easily pointed out to the history of moral thinking and what it has been attempting to get at, or at least what are the common threads to many systems. I think, with this approach, it would be easy to arrive at his conclusion that morality deals with the well being of conscious creatures. Virtually all religions have put forward frameworks that would, if followed, lead to more moral lives… if only their presumptions about reality were well founded.

    With that, you can even appeal to Christianity as being moral if it is really true: if you experience infinite happiness for believing in Jesus and infinite suffering if you do not, the moral thing to do is to believe in Jesus and convince others to believe in Jesus (even though it would be worth pointing out that the system itself is immoral). However, since we don’t have sufficient reason to believe Christianity is true, then we should go with the actions that we do have sufficient reason to believe have positive results for the well-being of conscious creatures.

    But, Harris misses this key part, which would in a scientific paper essentially be the background. He’s added a strong and modern backbone to old utilitarian positions, but he could have done more to show that there is a heart of utilitarianism behind most moral thinking (though, admittedly many of them were selfish utilitarianism).

  7. dezn_98 says

    @iplon

    That is exactly how I read it as well. I am strongly leaning towards utilitarianism myself.. so I was suprised to see Harris just make a douche of himself and fire point blank assuming “utilitarianism is true.. we all know it” and then proceeding from there. I knew he was going to get blasted by anyone who say the assumption he went with – which was just a form of utilitarian calculus and not even bother discussion the criticisms utilitarianism has come under. That just seemed like a dumb move to me.. He could of said his assumption was utilitarianism and then defended it, and the book would have not been such a failure. Instead he took that assumption, and then ran with it .. convinced he solves a problem that in reality he simply skipped over.

  8. says

    However, the idea that the “is-ought” problem is such a huge issue that one can hardly have expansive and debatable viewpoints on moral decisions,… is way over reaching. That is simply not true.

    Yes, that’s why I tried to inventory a few of the credible attempts to ground moral systems on some kind of argument based in fact. Another way of putting it would be to say that the is/ought problem is Hume’s way of describing the difficulty we have in graduating from opinions about morals(right/wrong) to facts. I’m quite comfortable with you saying it’s your opinion that killing is wrong. It gets more complicated when you try to say that it’s a fact that killing is wrong. Because facts are (I’d say by definition) always true, whereas opinions are interpretations of the truth based on an individual’s nature and nurture and the situation and are appropriately mutable.

    Hume’s formulation of the problem as “is/ought” is just one of the many ways of trying to get people to think about the problem. It’s not my favorite, actually, but it’s the context in which a lot of people discuss it and it’s been cropping up a lot in the thread.

    Another way of doing it (which I prefer) is to simply reject the idea of morals as unsupported because its supporters have failed to argue convincingly that there are moral facts rather than mere opinions about morals. If you prefer to do it that way, have at it.

    Which is why, scientist, rightfully so.. push such arrogant philosophers aside and accuse them of wankery.. because that is what they are engaged in.

    Well, here’s the problem – if someone comes forward as Harris has, and claims in his ignorance to have solved this problem, the philosophers’ objections will perforce be framed as philosophical argument. It’s not wankery, it’s communication. If some philosopher came to the physics department and claimed that perpetual motion must be possible because of Zeno’s paradox, the physicists’ objections would also be in the language of physics. There’s a process of educating both sides to reach understanding in a common ground – ironically – that’s a big piece of both the “induction” and the “wankery” you simultaneously appreciate and dismiss as wankery.

    you do not need a good knowledge of the ‘is-ought” problem in order to have a complicated discussion on moral issues

    Of course. You can discuss your opinions about morals until the cows come home and die of old age. But, like with any constructive domain of human thinking, if you want your ideas to build upon eachother, you’re going to stumble into objections if you haven’t established your foundation solidly – at a certain point you’ll waste all your time wanking – even you – unless you’ve got shared ideas and facts. Which, of course, is the problem: are there moral facts, or are there only opinions about morals? If you want to discuss (excuse me, “wank”) about your opinions regarding what is moral, you can do that endlessly. If you want to explain why you are in possession of moral facts, you’ve got a different problem and you’re not going to get away with doing like Harris does and trying to sweep aside objections to your epistemology by calling them “wanking” or “silly” or whatever.

    I know you understand this, because you’re obviously a real scientist. You know, a real scientist of the sort who argues with facts, rather than simply dismissing things as “nothing can be further from the truth” or “wankery” With respect to my comment, since overall what I am saying is that the case has not been made that there is a truth, and I am far from that truth, are we to assume that you’re in possession of that truth? Surely, you will win all the philosophical marbles once you explain it to us.

    there are many times were it is prudent simply to side step an issue and get to the meat of the subject

    You can do that in physics because it is possible to argue that there are facts, by suporting them with evidence. So you can bypass some of the basics – like arguing if there is gravity – because you have this wonderful mechanism of observation that lets you sort certain facts from certain opinions.

    If you’re really a scientist, why would you even use the word “morality” at all until you’d convinced yourself there is such a thing? And then, how do you distinguish it from your opinion and ground it in facts?

    By the way, even novice philosophers are cued to detect attempts to bypass objections by referring to them as wanking, silly, far from the truth, etc. That carries as much weight as trying to dismiss a mathematician’s work as piffle while avoiding offering a substantive critique would. In every sense of the word, you are the one engaging in “wanking.”

  9. says

    We humans seem to limp along without an objective morality…

    This is nonsense: we humans have, in fact, managed to develop at least semi-objective morality, using an admittedly wonky combination of empirical observation of what is beneficial or harmful to us, and social-contract agreements to respect each other’s shared interests (i.e., “I won’t rob you if you don’t rob me, because we both know that robbery is observably harmful to the person being robbed”). It’s nowhere near perfect, of course, but it’s still a lot more “objective” than any morality based on “The all-powerful avenging being of my imagination says so!”

    And no, it’s not just atheists who base their morality on such reasoning. Theists do it too, at least to some extent (whether or not they admit it), and that’s why people of such vastly diferent faiths have so many similar rules (i.e., do unto others, thou shalt not steal, etc.).

  10. iplon says

    Exactly. It’s also something I have to repeatedly say whenever dealing with Harris (I am admittedly a big fan of much of his work apart from this one giant issue): Harris espouses that scientists show great humility when talking outside of their fields, and you are about as likely to see real arrogance coming from scientists at a conference as you are to see nudity.

    Here, Harris is caught running through the field with his trousers down (I am left to presume the conference was of biologists). While he chides Deepak Chopra, and rightly so, for making grandiose claims about theoretical physics despite being an MD, he brings this up. But, when it comes to the fields of sociology, philosophy, and ethics, and security, he apparently has solved major issues (sometimes in contradictory ways, such as with his position on gun ownership). I do think he has some meaningful things to say on the topics, he needs to follow his own advice and tread very, very carefully.

  11. says

    I think the main problem with Harris’ contest is that his position isn’t really rigorous or rich enough to properly refute. The interesting part of the problem (which Harris doesn’t delve very far into), is whether there can be an ontological basis for normativity. Just like with the problem of consciousness, our current language and conceptual frameworks make it hard to think through this. “You can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is'” tends to be a pretty strong intuition.

    There are a few hints, however, about how it might work. First of all, moral questions tend to share aspects of both aesthetic questions and pragmatic questions. Dealing with pragmatic questions is not as vexed for us as moral questions are. For example, it’s easy, relatively speaking, to determine whether one sorting algorithm is “better” than another, because the “values” at work (speed, completeness, simplicity, etc) are something close to tautological.

    In the same way, organic physical systems have some of these same near-tautological normative features. The most simple of these is the value of survival. You will not find an organic system without this value because such systems would be extinct. It’s built in, as it were, to the very constraints that make such a system possible.

    It’s a long way from these embryonic ideas to an ontological basis for normativity, but it doesn’t seem totally impossible to me that it could be done. I think Terrence Deacon made a good start in Incomplete Nature with his discussion of “teleodynamic” systems.

  12. says

    That just seemed like a dumb move to me..

    It was a dumb but necessary move, because otherwise he couldn’t have even written the book.

    There are very good objections to utilitarianism, both theoretical and practical, and they haven’t been convincingly resolved. One of them is the observation that it’s hard to get from opinions about what is best for everyone (everybody’s got one of those) to facts about what is best for everyone. There are also objections about whether a utilitarian morality would be dependent on circumstance, and to what degree (i.e.: can we say cannibalism is wrong? what if soylent green turns out to be a rational product in the future?) I think the most profound objection to utilitarianism is our obvious inability to have good enough knowledge upon which to make utilitarian decisions – begging the question that utilitarians would have to have such good knowledge about outcomes in a situation that we may as well say we only can have morals about the things that are so obvious that there’s no reasonable question what to do. And, of course, there’s the problem of the circularity of defining good outcomes as good.

    Harris just didn’t do his research well enough. :\

    PS – utilitarians far too often happen to align their idea of what they want with the common good. That ought to be as suspicious as when the christian asserts (with no basis for true knowledge) that the supreme being creating the universe just happens, coincidentally, to want what he wants.

  13. says

    The most simple of these is the value of survival.

    Ok, this is a great example to work on.

    Is what is valued survival? Or reproduction? Or reproduction in an environment of an offspring that is able to survive and reproduce?

    The nice thing about science is that we can (often, hopefully) introduce facts to support our conjecture. If we’re trying to argue about sorting/searching algorithms we can introduce facts about the approximate time-order of the algorithm traded off against memory use and base it on the projected amount and type of data that will be sorted – then, we’ve got something we can base our opinion about what we should do on.

    Where utilitarianism goes off the rails is when Bentham and Mill thought that they’d be able to reduce situations down to the point where much of the situation could be treated like fact: this option or that option is better because x, y, and z. But that’s exactly the process that humans have failed to accomplish as long as there have been humans! We start arguing about opinions immediately, because it’s all opinion!

    Let’s imagine we’re all on a town council. We have to decide how to allocate the budget between education and dykes around the town to keep it from being flooded if there is a hurricane. There are all sorts of facts that we can introduce about the effects of dollars in education on outcomes for children, and we can introduce lots of facts about the likelihood of hurricanes, average storm surge, etc, etc. And we have a big meeting and (let’s imagine) the decision is close enough that it’s just not obvious what we should do. And that’s the problem: there is no additional utilitarian calculus we can add to make our decision easier because we wouldn’t even be having the meeting if it was obvious enough that there were some utilitarian calculus we could apply to the obvious facts. Every time someone makes a mistake and applies 20/20 hindsight to see what they did wrong, utilitarianism dies a little more.

  14. dezn_98 says

    @Marcus Ranum

    You speak of facts as if they are clearly defined…. They are not. Facts are always changing. The closest determination we can get to anything like “fact” is through the various methods of science and probably logical absolutes. Even then, the methods of science are under constant criticisms and there is rather dense philosophical materiel discussion the necessity of logical absolutes. The “fact” is that anyway you define “fact” is going to be problematic. Stating something is a “fact” is not an endgame.. because the question can always be asked of “how did you arrive at the conclusion that this is a fact?” and there will be always debates that give rise to a rightful sense of skepticism around how we get to “facts.” So, going from “opinion” to “fact” is not an endgame in itself in any moral debate.. as the very process in which we crown an idea as fact is always questionable. The line between what is opinion and what is fact, is grey, as it has always been. So I have no idea why you bring this up… unless you are assuming I am some kind of moral realist – which I am not.

    I am not arguing that saying “killing is wrong” should be approached as a fact… What I am saying is that while certain metaphysical arguments around morality are intellectually important and make you a better thinker… they are NOT required to have a competent moral discussion around ethical issues. I am asking you if this is what you are saying.. because if it is.. this is trivially false. We do not need to go into the metaphytsics of morality to talk, with some substance, on whether or not racism is wrong. You do not need a strong intellectual base to have arguments about morality or ethics with substance. That is what I am saying is over reaching.. and if this is what you are saying.. then this is pure wankery. What I am trying to figure out is…. is this what you are saying?

    I agree that issues like these are important.. what I do not agree with is some elitist BS opinion that you need this kind of background to discuss moral issues with competence… because you don’t need such a background.

    My point that irregardless of that fact that I may have this metaphysical opinion on morals.. we are both going to argue about morals in much of the same way outside the metaphysics. If you are a moral realist and I am a moral fictionalist… my claim is that such metaphysical stances are not going to be a part of the practical ethical issues around things like “murder” or “racism.” I am saying that your mind can be changed on any ethical issue without actually touching upon your metaphysical assumptions – and they rarely need to be discussed. You are going to be able to change the mind of a realist or a fictionalist on the moral issue of “colonialism is wrong” in the same exact way – as such you do not need to engage in a metaphysical debate with either of them. As such, if you are claiming what I think you are, and I am not sure yet, that… a complex dialogue around the “is/ought” problem is a necessary primer to discuss moral issues with any competency.. than I am saying that is a pile of intellectual wankery.

    Well, here’s the problem – if someone comes forward as Harris has, and claims in his ignorance to have solved this problem, the philosophers’ objections will perforce be framed as philosophical argument. It’s not wankery, it’s communication. If some philosopher came to the physics department and claimed that perpetual motion must be possible because of Zeno’s paradox, the physicists’ objections would also be in the language of physics. There’s a process of educating both sides to reach understanding in a common ground – ironically – that’s a big piece of both the “induction” and the “wankery” you simultaneously appreciate and dismiss as wankery.

    I am not against philosophers giving Harris, or myself, a much deserved intellectual beating when we say something highly ignorant about a field we know so little about. However, what I am saying is that many times.. they “go too afar.” Insisting things like “a proper understanding of the problem of induction is sooo important that you can not do science without it!”… is a statement, that I say is BS. (No one really says that ofcourse, but many times it is heavily implied by novice or undergraduate philosophers – not by more established philosophers, as I do not want to insult an institution I have come to respect – although there are some wankers out there as well.) That statement, sounds like something you are saying above in regards to morality. I want to know is this is in fact what you are saying.. I am arguing that while such philosophical concepts are important and while we need to be very appreciative of them.. they are not necessary to do “moral thinking” on a practical scale, and not necessary to do scientific work on a practical scale.

    Of course. You can discuss your opinions about morals until the cows come home and die of old age. But, like with any constructive domain of human thinking, if you want your ideas to build upon eachother, you’re going to stumble into objections if you haven’t established your foundation solidly – at a certain point you’ll waste all your time wanking – even you – unless you’ve got shared ideas and facts. Which, of course, is the problem: are there moral facts, or are there only opinions about morals? If you want to discuss (excuse me, “wank”) about your opinions regarding what is moral, you can do that endlessly. If you want to explain why you are in possession of moral facts, you’ve got a different problem and you’re not going to get away with doing like Harris does and trying to sweep aside objections to your epistemology by calling them “wanking” or “silly” or whatever.

    I also want to make clear that I am not defending Harris.. I think all objections to his work are on point. What I am saying is that the post above seems to indicate something else, something that is objectionable. I have tried to make it clear what I think is objectionable.. but I am still unclear on what you are trying to say.. because to me it sounds like you are saying: “moral problems can not be discussed without this philosophical background”…and I am saying that is BS. Hopefully, I am reading this wrong.. now.. am I?

  15. dmcclean says

    Could you flesh out point 3 a bit?

    (3) Imagine that you construct the world you will live in, with no advance knowledge of your place in it; the argument is that a rational person will create the most fair world possible. Objection: this is actually an appeal to self-interest hidden behind smoke and mirrors; if you’re willing to assume that self-interest is the basis for morality you’ve actually scored an own-goal.

    I don’t think it’s immediately obvious why it should be an own-goal, actually. Because the smoke and mirrors already involved changing the definition of self-interest to this enlightened hypothetical version of self interest, not the empirically observed and hedonistic kind of self-interest, and so it isn’t clear that “assuming that self-interest [in this sense] is the basis for morality” is silly. (It remains tautological, or damn close to it, though, the same “in your opinion” issue.)

    What am I missing?

  16. dezn_98 says

    @ Marcus Ranum #12

    I do not think it is necessary for him to have made that dumb move…. in fact he did not need to actually even resolves the various problems around utilitarianism… All he had to do was..

    1) I am assuming utilitarianism is the best moral foundation!
    2) Here are the objections to utilitarianism!
    3) Here is why I think they fail!…
    4) I am going to go on and write my book with the assumption that utilitarian calculus is the best ethical method.

    J.L. Mackie.. did something similar in his book on ethics. Where he defended a fictionalist account of morals and then built an ethical foundation off of that defense.

    Though.. I guess this would have made Harris’s book utterly unremarkable and just fall into place with dozens of other utilitarian thinkers. He would also have to take his “amazing” claim to solve philosophical problems out of his book… which… is maybe why you are right… he may have HAD TO make that dumb move to even write the book. Where as if he did research, he may not have had the will to write the book at all…

    Meh…

  17. robertwilson says

    Am I correct in stating that moral nihilism is the position that nothing is inherently right or wrong. If so what does this even mean? Right and wrong are descriptors we give to actions based on how they affect us or others (not just people) and relative to our ability to empathize. The use of inherently or other such qualifiers is word salad to me.

    I do absolutely agree that communication is one of the issues, much like on the topic of free will and on the topic of “nothing”. The ideas of morality, free will and nothing as described by philosophers are made up. We don’t know if they happen to exist or not.

    Morality, free will and nothing as described by science, do exist and we can better udnerstand them through empirical observation.

  18. brianpansky says

    i agree with #3

    As a moral nihilist, when I hear someone say “killing is wrong” I automatically rewrite it into “I don’t like killing” and that way I find the semantic content of what the other person said is unchanged and their statement is comprehensible. I’d argue that if one’s right and wrong are indistinguishable from opinion, then maybe we shouldn’t even talk about morality. Because it confuses people – perhaps deliberately – if we state our opinion as if it’s the right thing to do in some objective sense.

    but also kind of #4

    However, the idea that the “is-ought” problem is such a huge issue that one can hardly have expansive and debatable viewpoints on moral decisions,… is way over reaching. That is simply not true.

    the thing that can tie these disagreeing people together (at least a little bit) is that there is actually quite a lot of agreement between the opinions of different people.

    still, i wish “moral” VS “not moral” would go away from our language because it masks differences of opinion on *what* the definition of those categories are. this is bad because it may distort the understanding of how much impact those differences might have.

    overall, i think that harris has entered a territory where he has to do better. so i do disagree with #4
    that this is wankery.

  19. dezn_98 says

    @robertwilson

    Moral Nihilism is the belief that there are no “objective moral facts.” It is a metaphysical position. In that there are no “moral truths” as there are truths like the fact that atoms exist. Instead morality is defined by us for various different reasons. I myself am a moral nihilist, as I am of the opinion that there exists no universal rules of morality that get discovered.

    The idea is that.. we wonder if there is any “moral truth” or is morality just a construct made up by us. Think of it like math… is math real? Do numbers and such really exist or are they just abstract fictional constructs we make up to communicate? It is not a “word salad” these things do have meaning and you can discuss them.. however, “answers” to such questions, much like the debate on “free will” are no where to be found – rather it is just debates filled with really interesting points of view.

    These debates have a lot of meaning behind them, as much meaning as the words “empirical observations”.. it is just that answers are not produced, rather view points are produced that are worth exploring. I think that, just because these debates to no produce answers.. does not mean the debates themselves are not useful. I think they are useful in helping you explore ideas. So I do not think they should be dismissed so easily, I also do not think they their importance should be overly emphasized.

  20. Sophia, Michelin-starred General of the First Mediterranean Iron Chef Batallion says

    I’ve always thought of the is/ought problem to be like an apple/cheese problem. Category error. The concept of “ought” is analagous to the concept of “should”, which to me says “a thing that one feels is the right thing to do”. “Ought” isn’t a scientifically distillable concept like an “is” (fact) in terms of pure logic, because it’s based on sociological and societal functions. It’s the same problem we have with people calling the social sciences “soft” or even not sciences. They’re based on the murky (but still testable) realms of human emotion and interaction.

    Of course, you’ve always got the “right thing to do” problem, but that’s dependent on one’s own sense of morality. Most people have their own evolving definition of what is moral. You can’t derive an ought from an is because a fact and a feeling aren’t in the same logical category yet – not until we manage to completely understand the exact ways in which our brains function and how that affects the ways we process observation/stimulus into emotion. I think it’s possible, but we’re not anywhere near that. Until feelings are an “is”, we’re stuck creating our own definitions of morality.

    Morality as we use it commonly is agreement based (especially as coded in law), and generally focuses on a combination of rational morality (benefit-over-harm based) and codified dogma, though thankfully a lot of that is on the way out.
    Anyway, I see the is/ought problem as one that… doesn’t really matter, unfortunately. It’s far more important to use what we do have and try to engage in the reduction of harm and maximising of benefit, extended over as many people as possible. That’s my morality, anyway.

  21. says

    Marcus Ranum

    As a moral nihilist, when I hear someone say “killing is wrong” I automatically rewrite it into “I don’t like killing” and that way I find the semantic content of what the other person said is unchanged and their statement is comprehensible.

    Alternately, the statement ‘killing is wrong’ can be unpacked into ‘A society which tolerates people killing others is highly likely to suffer certain classes of social problems, including a mortality rate far above what it could have, that in turn having a variety of usually negative effects on those who are not dead. As a person who is not dead, I prefer that the society in which I reside not suffer from such, and further prefer that no one kill me. In order to minimize the liklihood of myself and/or persons important to my life of being killed, I therefore wish to see strongly enforced social norms prohibiting killing people.’ Alternately, it can be unpacked to ‘I hold that all human beings have intrinsic value, because if this is generally accepted, others are also required to treat me as though I have value, and I benefit thereby. In the service of this, no-one should be allowed to go around killing people.’

    denzn_98

    Do numbers and such really exist or are they just abstract fictional constructs we make up to communicate?

    Both, in the same sense that language is both real and a social convention.

  22. says

    @Marcus #13

    Is what is valued survival? Or reproduction? Or reproduction in an environment of an offspring that is able to survive and reproduce?

    I’d say all of these things, based on the way living systems behave. But my point is not to try and ground a universal value system. If you don’t believe (or set aside the belief) that moral values have some sort of separate existence and accessibility, then “oughts” (values) do in some way arise out of “is” (the nature of reality). At a basic level, no sentience is needed for organisms to act teleologically. Lacerations are healed, to the best of the body’s ability; infections are fought.

    None of this means that science can tell us what is moral and what’s not. Any system that acts teleologically is acting with regard to a future that is provably not fully predictable. So in the same way that the value of survival/persistence is built into the system, so is its epistemological imperfection.

    So I basically agree with you about utilitarianism. If memory serves, Harris’ technique is to say that some situations are epistemologically crystal clear (imagine the trolley problem with 5 people on one track and zero on the other), and that is enough to prove that there is a “moral reality”. The other, less clear situations, then, have a “real” solution in principle. This kind of thinking doesn’t even apply to algorithms.

  23. says

    This reminds me of the Courtier’s Reply.

    Maybe Sam has found a solution, from the backside.

    Given:
    1) a robust model of consciousness (maybe Integrated information theory?)
    2) a high resolution neurological scanner (probably an implant)
    3) neuro-data from everyone, each moment (or a suitable statistical sample)
    4) matching behavioural data (one’s own and that of proximate others)
    5) an algorithm for comparing neuro-states (well vs. suffering)

    Ethics becomes a “big data” problem. Patterns will emerge, and behavioural prescriptions can be found scientifically.

    The only philosophical component is the well vs. suffering value judgement, but I suspect even this is not too hard to quantify (much like with “good” health).

  24. bad Jim says

    Just as science seems to do just fine even though induction isn’t necessarily respectable, we seem to be able to argue moral issues and even, perhaps, make progress, without ever having resolved the underlying philosophical issues.

    Scientific progress speaks for itself – it works – and few of us would disagree that we’ve made progress with respect to racial and sexual equality, or that democracy and environmentalism are improvements over the arrangements that preceded them.

    The most interesting moral issues are what we should and shouldn’t do. The question of how we decide might be more usefully studied descriptively than prescriptively.

  25. says

    For the benefit of everyone who may have subscribed to one thread’s comments and not the other, I will repeat this in all: I have explained my agreements and disagreements with both Ophelia and Sam in my analysis of this contest and its aims in What Exactly Is Objective Moral Truth? I don’t think the contest is all that bad an idea. And I am certain Harris’s core thesis is correct. (It’s just that I’m almost as certain he’s not the best man to defend it.) I explain both there.

  26. Walton says

    Great post.

    As a moral nihilist, when I hear someone say “killing is wrong” I automatically rewrite it into “I don’t like killing” and that way I find the semantic content of what the other person said is unchanged and their statement is comprehensible.

    I think I agree with this. I find myself convinced that moral nihilism is the only position which makes any sense: I have written about my reasons for disagreeing with Dan Fincke on that subject. Admittedly I haven’t read Harris.

  27. qapla says

    The “is-ought ” problem ?

    David Hume Treatise of Human Nature section 3.1.1, ‘Moral Distinctions Not deriv’d from Reason’:
    “In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation,’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it … [I] am persuaded, that a small attention [to this point] wou’d subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv’d by reason.”

    He said morals do not come from God and they are not arrived at be the reason of the rationalists (which is they are not subjective in the Cartesian cogito/ego or made up in a persons head) they are instinctual or in born or as he put it “natural” and can be got at through empiricism “founded on fact and observation.”

    He went on to write a lot about morals. He thought morals were natural and based in reason and sentiments and empiricism could describe and formulate them based on empirical observations of objective facts and actions of how they play out in real life interactions of people.

    Hume proposed a total naturalistic “science of man” that examined the psychological basis of human nature. In stark opposition to the rationalists who preceded him, most notably Descartes.

    “The science of man (or the science of human nature) is a topic in David Hume’s 18th century experimental philosophy A Treatise of Human Nature (1739). The science of man expanded the understanding of facets of human nature, including senses, impressions, ideas, imagination, passions, morality, justice, and society.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_of_man
    .
    Hume’s Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals
    Section I ‘The Principles of Morals’:

    “Those who have denied the reality of moral distinctions, may be ranked among the disingenuous disputants; nor is it conceivable, that any human creature could ever seriously believe, that all characters and actions were alike entitled to the affection and regard of everyone.”
    133 my page 169

    “…that reason and sentiment concur in almost all moral determinations and conclusions.”
    137 my page 172

    “As this is a question of fact, not of abstract science, we can only expect success, by following the experimental method, and deducing general maxims from a comparison of particular instances. ”
    138 my page 174

    “In full time they should attempt a like reformation in all moral disquisitions; and reject every system of ethics, however subtle or ingenious, which is not founded on fact and observation.”
    138 my page 175
     
    Religious people often argue that the is–ought distinction threatens the validity of secular ethics. But I don’t think most people understand what Hume is saying or that he is arguing against Christianity.

    Hume argues that he can defeat all ‘vulgar’ systems of morality ( Christianity and the subjectivists that just make up ethics/morals in their heads) by noting that the person begins with all sorts of propositions that describe “is” relationships (e.g. God created man), and then suddenly and inexplicably shifts to “ought” relationships (e.g., man ought to obey God).

    “… reject every system of ethics, … which is not founded on fact and observation.”

    The whole “is-ought” “problem” is based on a misunderstanding and misreading of David Hume.
    http://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/2014/01/27/win-20k-from-sam-harris/#more-24829

    Since I’ve been reading and thinking over Hume I thought I’d listen to the Episode 17: Hume’s Empiricism: What Can We Know? and Episode 45: Moral Sense Theory: Hume and Smith podcasts again.
    I’ve listened to them twice and I have really enjoyed them yet again.

    I think bringing in others of his time like Smith really illustrates the conversations going on then, but it also blurs Hume himself.

    I mean to get a better understanding of the conversation from Hume’s perspective I think you have to include his Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals because he clarifies or appends many of his positions/arguments.

    In 45 guest Getty Lustila mentioned the theologian Bishop Butler that the way to bridge the is-ought gap is an idea of God which Hume’s first “is” that can not be used to base morality on is God.
    “In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, …. establishes the being of a God,”

    The second which was mentioned is the reason of the Rationalists with the subjective Cartesian cogito who thought that knowledge could be derived from reason independently of the senses or others who just make up s#!* in their heads – non-empirically.

    For Hume and the Empiricists morals are based in human sense experience and for Hume who clarifies later he is not really a non-cognitivist as he ways into the debate of are morals from reason or sentiment he says both
    “…that reason and sentiment concur in almost all moral determinations and conclusions.” 137

    There were many interesting thoughts about the third person observer but the most obvious one not mentioned since we’re talking about Empiricists and the scientific method. The “observer” is that morals are objective.

    (although not in the sense that moral propositions refer to objective facts independent of human experience such as propositions in physics)

    Hume “… reject every system of ethics, … which is not founded on fact and observation.” 138

    “As this is a question of fact, not of abstract science, we can only expect success, by following the experimental method, and deducing general maxims from a comparison of particular instances. ” 138

    “Those who have denied the reality of moral distinctions, may be ranked among the disingenuous disputants; nor is it conceivable, that any human creature could ever seriously believe, that all characters and actions were alike entitled to the affection and regard of everyone.” 133

    from Hume’s Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals
    Section I ‘The Principles of Morals’ – seven pages long

    David Hume very much thought of his project as scientific “The science of man (or the science of human nature) is a topic in David Hume’s 18th century experimental philosophy A Treatise of Human Nature (1739). The science of man expanded the understanding of facets of human nature, including senses, impressions, ideas, imagination, passions, morality, justice, and society.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_of_man

    Which was taken up by Charles Darwin and others that were and are influential in the development of the sciences of psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, etc. today.

    To name only a few

    ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’ is a book by Charles Darwin, published in 1872

    Darwin’s ideas were followed up in William James’ ‘What Is An Emotion?’

    Freud’s early publications acknowledged debts to Darwin’s work on emotional expression.

    Dr. Paul Ekman research on the specific biological correlates of specific emotions, demonstrating the universality and discreteness of emotions in a Darwinian approach.

    Dacher Keltner current research in his Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory focuses on prosocial behavior, compassion, moral reasoning, and collective emotions

    et alia

    David Hume

    “In full time they should attempt a like reformation in all moral disquisitions; and reject every system of ethics, however subtle or ingenious, which is not founded on fact and observation.” 138

    http://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/2011/10/29/episode-45-moral-sense-theory-hume-and-smith/

  28. Riley says

    The is-ought problem to me is meerely a trick off language and absolutely not a deathblow to everything that is objective morality. People who say ” the universe doesn’t make statements off good and evil” yeah, correct humans make those statements. Humans also make statements about what constitutes anything.So what would happen if somebody didn’t agree with the general laws of physics? I mean, the universe doesn’t make statements about what entails the laws off physics, it’s meerely us who use the three words to describe specific phenomenology. So for instance: good and evil.

    What constitutes evil and good in all communities? Well, every culture would agree that cruelty is bad and compassion is good. The problem comes when it’s time to face with another culture or when somebody from within the culture clashses with the current norms in different ways .Then it becomes a question of either welcoming these new memes, cooperating or just killing and ostracizing. And this is where people’s actions become condemnable. So it breaks down to what values we hold, if I hold an anxiety about my daughter showing her ancles, am I really wrong? Well yes. Why? Well, because I hold my values because I want my life or my community to be as fullfilling as possible. If I then make decisions that reliably cause stupid amounts off misery, such as killing my daughter for fornicating or cutting my sons head off because he’s gay, well then yes, my values are wrong with respect to my goal. Consider for instance whether I should smoke or stop smoking. My life would be better if I stopped smoking.

    Notice that nobody for instance attack the philosophical underpinnings of health. Consider this:

    ”smoking is dangerous” is a factual statement. Are you gonna come dragging with something like
    ”how is it dangerous?”
    ”well, it causes lung cancer and lower my life’s possibilites by a stretch”
    ”well what if you meet someone who wants to die in lungcancer?”
    ”Well, if you want to die in lungcancer, there is obviously something wrong with you.”
    ”Objectively?”
    ”Yes of course, if you desire to die an early death and are aware off it, then yes, your brain is obviously not in the condition it should.”
    ”so you ought not to smoke?”
    ”given that you want to live a fullfilling life, well yes”

    That sort of question just has to go over our heads. We don’t have to care about people who don’t hold values that makes sense to create a sane world to live in, where we are globally compassionate and don’t harm one another.

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