Sam has to presume a great big “ought”

I’m rummaging in the archives, locally and globally, for more on the Sam Harris Contest to Find the Genius Who Can Persuade Harris that he didn’t actually invent the new best only way to think about morality all out of his own head by thinking and taking some notes. My rummaging has turned up an article on Harris v Pigliucci at old B&W and under that a comment by Harris’s newly appointed judge, Russell Blackford.

Well, my eyes glaze over whenever I see a complaint about “scientism”. But surely Massimo is right this time, at least on the main point. The Moral Landscape conspicuously fails to derive any “oughts” from “is’s” in the sense that philosophers mean. In order to get started, Sam has to presume a great big “ought” which relates to how we ought to maximise well-being in some sense of the latter. I suppose you could concede that, but then say his overall point stands because it’s just obviously true that we ought to maximise well-being in the requisite sense. But it’s not obvious at all. It’s a substantive, highly controversial claim. You really can’t say that failing to agree with it is analogous to adopting some sort of radical epistemological scepticism (complete with deceiving demons, brains in vats, the radical unreliability of our senses, and the like). That’s just not so. You might as well say that refusing to agree with the claim that there is a God is analogous to radical epistemological scepticism.


I think Harris just took it as given without realizing that he was doing so, and then when a lot of people pointed it out to him after the book was published…well I don’t know: he didn’t understand their point, or he doubled down, or whatever, but he didn’t accept that that was what he had done.