Sam Harris and the Is/Ought Bridge

Here is Harris’ TED Talk.  Also – I added his Moral Landscape to the Library.

Some of his key points…
  • Claim: the fact/value distinction is an illusion.  (‘A value is a certain kind of fact.’)
  • In speaking of the conditions of well-being in this life, there is a continuum of facts which we appeal to; we know there are right and wrong ways to go about ‘this’.  By extension, in speaking of values, we are speaking of facts.
  • There is no notion/version of human morality that is not at some point reducible to concerns about conscious experience; if culture changes us, it changes us by changing our brains.
  • Central claim (A): Values [can be/are] reduced to facts about the experience of conscious beings, and we can visualize a space of possible changes in the experience of these beings; a moral landscape, with peaks and valleys which correspond to differences in the well-being of creatures, both individual and collective.
  • Qualification: Harris is not claiming that science is guaranteed to map this space.
  • Devil’s advocate: Well-being as open and undefined; there might be many peaks in a moral landscape.  Response: ‘Healthy food’ analogy – that there are many right answers to the question ‘what is healthy food?’ doesn’t mean that poison doesn’t exist.  By extension, a concern with Kant’s deontological ethics (though not explicitly): morality which admits a single exception cannot claim genuine objectivity.  Response by way of chess analogy: sometimes it is good to give up a Queen. [Harris does not bring this challenge up directly, and doesn’t mention Kant at all]
  • Sensationalized Bombshell: What of a culture where when a girl is raped her father’s first instinct is to kill her out of shame?  ‘What are the odds that this represents peak in our moral landscape?’
  • ‘The only people who seem to generally agree with me, and who think there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, are religions demagogues.  And they think they have right and wrong answers to moral questions because they got these answers from a voice in a whirlwind; not because they made an intelligent analysis of the causes and conditions of human and animal well-being.’
  • The demagogues are right: we need a universal conception of human values.
  • Sam Harris is the Ted Bundy of String Theory.  (Alright, I admit this is hilarious)
  • Central Claim (B): We would do well to start acting as though there are objective right and wrong answers to questions of human flourishing.  (Note that central claim B is a restatement of A, but in normative language.)
  • Post-Talk…  It took the host about 13 seconds into the first question to mention ‘cultural imperialism’.

Having not read his work on this, or seriously grappled with his ideas, I’m inclined to call the speaker in the above video Pseudo-Harris; having read quite a bit about this subject in general, I’m inclined to suggest that Pseudo-Harris is basically saying (almost) nothing here.
Throughout this talk, PH basically vacillates between emotionally loaded appeals to common sense within our particular moral environment (which apparently includes Connecticut) and qualifications which render his central, bold claim philosophically impotent.  Normally, this wouldn’t be nearly so important, but when you start by taking a direct swipe at Hume, fuck you.
To my mind, instead of uprooting Hume’s problem, PH’s argument ends up falling along two related tracks:
    1. There is a fact/value priority relationship.
    2. There are moral revolutions in human culture.
To note that there is an epistemic priority relationship between fact and value is (a) screamingly obvious and (b) fundamentally different than to argue against their dichotomous relationship; that there are such things as moral revolutions has been philosophical common currency at least since Nietzsche, and a general sentiment which dates back to the pre-Socratics.
So what is PH doing?  It seems he is arguing for a muted sort of scientism which wants to side-step the question altogether, but he does it in a rather curious way.
PH asks: ‘Is it a good idea, generally speaking, to subject children to pain and violence and public humiliation?  Is there any doubt?’
Well, of course there is doubt.  For goodness sake, the empirical fact that there are punitive systems which incorporate such corporal tools trivially answers this question in the affirmative.  I’m fully aware that his question was rhetorical, but I’m not sure he is fully aware just how perspectively nuanced insular normative systems actually are in the present world, and so I’m inclined to answer with a straight face.  So: yes, there is a doubt.  And it takes more than a nod to Connecticut and pretentious posturing to dismiss it as vacuous and retrograde.  Retrograde with respect to what?  I’m sure those same backwater cultures would raise an eye-brow at our inclination to medicate away every quirk, wrinkle and character flaw in the spirit of making our brains suitable for the brave new world.  Speaking personally, I’d rather get a single  slap to the mouth (or three; hi mom) than recurring doses of Ritalin for acting out, but the difference is I’m not inclined to scale this ‘solution’ out to the fine children of all of Connecticut.  But more broadly, iI do suspect that a moral revolution will certainly render corporal punishment obsolete and dissolve (not solve) it from the arsenal of value-governing engagements, but we can’t engineer such revolutions from a god’s-eye view, and attempting to do so strikes me as a terrifying prospect.  Whereas PH wants to shake his head at Hume, Nietzsche just shrugs.
And here the perspectivism that emerges under (2) is something PH doesn’t even touch, as far as I can tell.
  1. That said, I am sympathetic with PH’s much more modest (indirect) claim (1).  I am prepared to (and do) argue that science is a special sort of knowledge, and when push comes to shove, often takes precedence over other forms of ‘knowing’.  I think PH hedges a little around exactly how this push comes to shove, but this is only a sin when one runs roughshod over someone like Hume, and even here I can understand why it might end up at such extremes.  Practically speaking, the sort of folks who would think it’s a good idea to hack off a chick’s clitoris probably aren’t the sorts of folks who would generally display the appropriate sort of world-facing humility (perpetual openness, appeals to a universal inter-subjectivity, willingness to refine, doubt, etc.) which earns us hard-won facts through which we govern/guide/direct our values to begin with, and so in an admittedly crass and vulgar sense, I am deeply sympathetic with Harris’ attitude to tell the Ken Hams of the world to stop playing games with the sorts of things that respectable folks call knowledge and science.  But this isn’t a claim about the epistemic status of scientific knowledge so much as it is a claim about specific agents in the world misapplying its scope, and I can’t say this reflex is rooted in anything but my own prejudices. I certainly can’t say that Hume wasn’t onto something deeply intractable.  Still, to my estimation the fact/value priority relationship is not always given due credence, and often in alarming and vulgar ways, and that’s where I think folks like Harris (Dawkins, et al) shine.  Sometimes Darwin needs a rottweiler.
  2. There is something compelling about the idea of a human community evolving into a community governed by core set of universal values which, in turn, normatively govern all human intercourse in a sort of pseudo-objectivity.  In fact, this was Kant’s great hope – the root of his precious humanism – but note that (arguably) Kant suggests that the rules of the game would never allow the occasional sacrifice of the Queen, or perhaps to put it more in line with his style, that such radical moves would simply have no place in the game he aims to play.  Universality is far more demanding than merely demonstrating that there are localized right/wrong answers – peaks and valleys – such as Harris’ multiple-good-food/poison example.  It’s not always clear that Harris differentiates ‘decidable’ from ‘universal’.  In fact, Harris’ own admission that there might be multiple peaks does real violence to the ‘universality’ of his program, a word mentioned in passing more than once during his talk, and far too casually for the weight of his claims.

Of course, it’s another question to wonder if we are heading to a place where the Scientific Image further eclipses the Manifest Image of Man in the world.  (Sellars’ naturalism is so much more palatable to me that Harris’ scientism.)  In such a case, the ‘norm objectivity’ which would emerge would be a secondary by-product of the harmony achieved organically.  They wouldn’t be correctly-answered normative questions; they would cease to be questions.


2 thoughts on “Sam Harris and the Is/Ought Bridge

  1. Brandon, thanks for posting this and making your summary comments.

    First, Sam Harris (SH) is clearly an intelligent and eloquent speaker. However, it seems to me that SH is conflating science and Aristotelian ideas of flourishing. There may be compelling arguments for an either Bald Naturalism (McDowell) or Scientistism relating to flourishing and moral behavior, but he didn’t logically argue for Science being directly related to morality. Stated differently, there were plenty of good arguments in the talk, but there wasn’t a strong argument for his major thesis about Science and morality. He is promoting his idea that Science is directly related to morality, but no where is the scientific method is needed for this. Better stated, he could have said that intuitions (read Kant), or observable phenomenon, and the principle of flourishing lead to morality. (By the way, in the middle of the talk he also leaves open the idea of all species having a possible moral voice, which he no where later addresses.)

    In addition, some of his arguments were straw men that were easy to make an agreed socially acceptable point (e.g. about women in burkas or the father chopping off his son’s head) rather than rigorous logical arguments based on Science. They were based on ideas of flourishing for which you don’t need the scientific method. This shows a certain cultural view, that although is not NECESSARILY wrong, it just isn’t Science with a capital S. By this you will see that I am echoing what Brandon said much more eloquently and thoughtfully.

    1. I agree. PH is simply appealing to concerns outside of the realm of science proper, and aiming to secure their legitimacy with the seal of approval that robust, successful scientific investigation wins. This epistemic sleight of hand is nothing new.

      I do think we should both be careful not to be too critical of Harris’ ‘arguments’, however, just given that the forum he is speaking in is necessarily limited. I realize that I ran a long distance above, but it was more in response to the general sentiment expressed by some of his claims, projected onto PH. Harris has an entire book to back them up, and until I read it, I can’t in good faith say he’s on the wrong track. I just highly suspect it.

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