Why Sam Harris’ Ethical Empiricism Is Wrong

Sam Harris
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I an earlier post about the holes in empirical atheism, I briefly mentioned Sam Harris’ argument that science can answer moral questions. Since the post was already running sort of long, I dismissed Harris (pictured) rather quickly by linking to what I thought was a good takedown by philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci. Commenter Josef Johann replied:

Dissenter warning!

Harris only commits a category error if you think there is a divide between what science is about and what morality is about in the first place. Claiming there is a category error is just a repackaging of one’s first-order disagreement with Harris. It doesn’t contain the why.

Yes, you did link to Massimo at the end, and that would be fine if the issue weren’t contentious, but being that it is contentious I think that’s a rather weak way of backing up your post’s fundamental premise.

I’m not trying to be uncivil but I’m flabbergasted by this type of assertion-by-fiat argument, as if dogmatic repetition of the very position Harris is arguing against is sufficient to rebut him. It isn’t. The trick is to reply to Harris in a way that isn’tquestion begging.

Resorting to empiricism to resolve questions may appear to you to be “cheap and intellectually lazy.” But someone from my side could just as well say that this viewpoint reflects a lack of imagination with respect to the explanatory scope of empiricism. And it surely wouldn’t be the first time- history is replete with confident declarations that X is outside the scope of science (e.g. Newton’s claim that there may from time to time be divine intervention to stabilize the orbit of the planets, the belief the human brain couldn’t be produced by natural selection or any other evolutionary mechanism, a belief that was argued for in respected circles in the 20th century).

So we return to the question of whether Harris’ definition, or any other, captures all the different ways we use the word morality. If it can’t even be done inprinciple, well, that requires argument just like everything else. I argue in the affirmative, you argue in the negative, and we explain why. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, but at least in the context of rebuttals to Sam Harris, all I see are assertions-by-fiat masquerading as arguments.

Also, a recent PhilPapers Poll shows most analytic philosophers are moral realists. It can mean many different things, but one of its meanings is that moral issues can be decided by factual matters, which the Cornell Realists certain seem to have thought. So Harris’ view isn’t as completely out of the mainstream as is, I think, commonly believed.

Maybe my dismissal was overly glib, but I don’t think I was arguing by “dogmatic fiat” or “assertion-by-fiat.” I was letting Professor Pigliucci do the arguing for me. But in the interest of trying to put Harris’ deeply flawed argument behind us once and for all, I’m happy to expand on why on the professor’s argument a bit.

Harris argues that we can uncover moral facts using scientific principles. But in order to make that argument, he needs to first overcome David Hume’s is/ought distinction — the argument that you cannot derive an “ought” solely from an “is.” Harris devotes all of two paragraphs to knocking down the great Scottish philosopher. In his book The Moral Landscape, he writes:

Many moral skeptics piously cite Hume’s is/ought distinction as though it were well known to be the last word on the subject of morality until the end of the world. 20 They insist that notions of what we ought to do or value can be justified only in terms of other “oughts,” never in terms of facts about the way the world is. After all, in a world of physics and chemistry, how could things like moral obligations or values really exist? How could it be objectively true, for instance, that we ought to be kind to children?

But this notion of “ought” is an artificial and needlessly confusing way to think about moral choice. In fact, it seems to be another dismal product of Abrahamic religion—which, strangely enough, now constrains the thinking of even atheists. If this notion of “ought” means anything we can possibly care about, it must translate into a concern about the actual or potential experience of conscious beings (either in this life or in some other). For instance, to say that we ought to treat children with kindness seems identical to saying that everyone will tend to be better off if we do. The person who claims that he does not want to be better off is either wrong about what he does, in fact, want (i.e., he doesn’t know what he’s missing), or he is lying, or he is not making sense. The person who insists that he is committed to treating children with kindness for reasons that have nothing to do with anyone’s well-being is also not making sense.

Does that hold up? No it does not. In his rush to accuse his detractors of excessive piety and constrained thinking, Harris shows a remarkable lack of imagination when it comes to picturing all of the “oughts” a person could possibly imagine. Most crucially, he ignores the philosophical concept of the Ideally Coherent Eccentric: a person whose morally principles are completely internally consistent but bizarre to the point of being unrecognizable. We can imagine, as Hume did, a man who prefers the destruction of the universe to the scratching of his finger. Or we can imagine, as NYU philosopher Sharon Street did, an ideally coherent anorexic who is both completely lucid and so committed to not eating that she feels no compunction about starving herself to death. Both of our ICEs pursue “oughts” that have little or nothing to do with “a concern about the actual or potential experience of conscious beings.”

In fact, we don’t even need to go that far to find moral frameworks that sharply diverge from Harris’ supposedly universal one. “We ought to treat children with kindness” may seem like a proposition identical to “everyone will tend to be better off if we treat children with kindness,” but there are plenty of deontological moral philosophies that would argue that human well-being is entirely beside the point. Harris has nothing to say to the deontologist who replies, “No, we should treat children with kindness because, even if it had an ultimately deleterious effect on human flourishing, the act in of itself would still be good.”

Harris declines to grapple with these questions because he has another agenda. Later in the book, he writes:

Fanciers of Hume’s is/ought distinction never seem to realize what the stakes are, and they do not see how abject failures of compassion are enabled by this intellectual “tolerance” of moral difference. While much of the debate on these issues must be had in academic terms, this is not merely an academic debate. There are girls getting their faces burned off with acid at this moment for daring to learn to read, or for not consenting to marry men they have never met, or even for the “crime” of getting raped. The amazing thing is that some Western intellectuals won’t even blink when asked to defend these practices on philosophical grounds.

So now it’s come to this: either you submit to Harris’ flimsy dorm room philosophizing or you’re morally deficient. Might I suggest instead this detractors are just as appalled as he is by the Taliban’s crimes against humanity and that this is in fact partly why they take the study of ethics so seriously? A bad argument is a bad argument and this matter is important enough that it demands good arguments.

As for Josef’s other concerns:

But someone from my side could just as well say that this viewpoint reflects a lack of imagination with respect to the explanatory scope of empiricism. And it surely wouldn’t be the first time- history is replete with confident declarations that X is outside the scope of science (e.g. Newton’s claim that there may from time to time be divine intervention to stabilize the orbit of the planets, the belief the human brain couldn’t be produced by natural selection or any other evolutionary mechanism, a belief that was argued for in respected circles in the 20th century).

Yes, but saying that science deals with empirical phenomena isn’t to show a “lack of imagination” — it’s to reiterate the definition of science. Matters of planetary orbit and natural selection are empirical problems, so to conflate them with questions of moral goodness is to commit a grievous category error.

Also, a recent PhilPapers Poll shows most analytic philosophers are moral realists. It can mean many different things, but one of its meanings is that moral issues can be decided by factual matters, which the Cornell Realists certain seem to have thought. So Harris’ view isn’t as completely out of the mainstream as is, I think, commonly believed.

Appeals to authority are really neither hear nor there. If every living philosopher happened to agree with Harris, that wouldn’t eliminate the flaws in his argument. Lucky for us though, most philosophers know their trade a little better than that — if we’re going to go down the “appeals to authority” road, I might note the dearth of blurbs from academic philosophers on the back cover of his book. I might also note that while it’s true that the majority of analytic philosophers are moral realists, that doesn’t mean they come within miles of subscribing to Harris’ beliefs. I think you’ll find that quite a few moral realists are happy to claim moral principles as metaphysical truths, not empirical ones.

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7 Responses

  1. I appreciate your taking more time to go into this. Even though this is a big comment I still feel as it if were truncated, so I will probably post another comment on this eventually. Skip everything and just read #4 if you must.

    1. I don’t desire to make any arguments from authority. Showing that Harris’ views are mainstream and similar to those held by respected philosophers can function as an argument from authority but it can also, I think, serve to show that his views deserve not to be belittled as “dorm room” philosophy, and that thinking you can put the entire field of moral realism “behind us once and for all” is a dismissive way to treat an alive-and-kicking academic discipline. So it’s not entered as proof, just as circumstantial evidence in favor of Harris’ credibility as a moral philosopher.

    2. I think the wheels are spinning a bit on whether science can include moral facts. Asserting that there is a difference does not, I think, carry any revelatory force or move the conversation forward. I’m sure Harris (and Peter Railton and Peter Singer and Shelly Kagan, and…) are aware of the asserted distinction.

    Descriptions of what science “really is” tend to make me queasy and leave important things out. But I like this one from Richard Feynman:

    We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress, we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.

    One can go further than that, but it’s at risk of artificially limiting the scope of science. In fact I would go so far as to say a fact/value distinction can never be proven. In the spirit of empiricism, the best one can do is look at the seeming lack evidence take it to be suggestive.

    3. This is my interpretation, but it looks like Harris is saying belief in human value is a Moorean fact, a fact with which we are better acquainted than the alternative facts we would be asked to entertain by a skeptic. So if he’s suggesting a deficiency in a doubter, it’s because we ought to be acquainted with the Moorean facts that suggest human value and priveledge it over skeptical arguments.

    I think a major purpose of this book isn’t to convert people into moral realists but to get them to realize they already are. Our belief in human value is exhibited in daily activities- we buckle seat belts, get cancer screenings, etc. We can later make philosophical arguments that these activities were insincere but it will seem preposterous. Harris intends, I think, to cash in this everyday certainty against skeptical arguments.

    4. Lack of universal assent is only a problem for moral realism if you are intent on deploying radical skepticism. But if you are going to deploy radical skepticism, you are going to inadvertently destroy physics, chemistry etc. on the way to destroying moral realism.

    And here, the category distinction can’t save you. One can argue that moral stuff is different from empirical stuff. But I don’t think moral objectivity has a different kind of objectivity than scientific objectivity. And radical skepticism addresses itself to the character of objectivity, it does not leverage any fact-value distinction to make its point.

    And so we can deal rather easily with the Ideally Coherent Eccentric: she is probably wrong. Lack of consensus doesn’t threaten the objective character of a field. We wouldn’t feel any worse about calling them wrong than we would a hollow earth theorist or young-earth creationist.

    Consensus on moral issues is not universal, but does appear to converge on certain culture-transcendent preferences- to be free from famine or excruciating pain, to be exposed to some minimal level of environmental stimulus to ensure mental health etc. Perhaps the best support for the universality of these preferences comes from the way they sometimes scream their way out of us despite or even prior to cultural conditioning.

    You can argue that you don’t need to deploy radical skepticism, that a purported moral science fails to even meet the lower bar of objectivity we attribute to the “real” sciences. This, at least, is a valid way to argue against moral realism and is worth digging into.

    5. Not related to anything you said, but positive psychology exists. I think this is very much what Harris wants, he would only desire that we bring tools of a maturing neuroscience to bear on these questions. Would you regard positive psychology as psuedo-science? Maybe. But I wouldn’t.

    • A couple notes:

      My point with regards to the limitations of science is that it is, by definition, an empirical endeavor. The scientific method is a fundamentally empirical one. So if we’re going to take morality to be something that can be explained by science, we need to be able to approach it as an empirical question. Sam Harris’ account of how we might do that is wholly unsatisfying.

      Take the ideally coherent eccentrics. They aren’t a problem for Harris because they show that there isn’t universal consensus — in fact, Harris excoriates a lot of people for being wrong about morality. The problem is that in order to show that there is some objective “ought,” Harris first attempts to establish that everyone, regardless of their beliefs about specific moral questions, uses “ought” to point towards fundamentally the same “why.” Wittgenstein said that the only objective moral truth would be the road that all must walk down or feel guilty for not doing so, and Harris tries to establish the existence of that road in a manner I found pretty sloppy.

      As for positive psychology, I don’t know enough about it to embrace it or dismiss it. But I will say that when psychologists feel a moral imperative to use their knowledge to enrich lives, that’s a good thing. If they think that moral imperative is some sort of scientific fact embedded in the very nature of their discipline, that is noble but incorrect.

      • Harris first attempts to establish that everyone, regardless of their beliefs about specific moral questions, uses “ought” to point towards fundamentally the same “why.”

        Except when they don’t. And when they don’t, we are in the presence of moral error. If someone makes what they think are “moral” decisions based on their religious doctrine, Harris will argue that the doctrine is false and their behavior need not be incorporated in moral theory.

        This could raise the problem of whether Harris is excluding the very examples that would disprove his theory. But if that’s the case I’d prefer to dig into those examples that rather than gesture toward the possibility and call it a day.

        So lets. I do think he is trying to put forward a definition that captures behavior we typically call moral.

        Is there not a physiological basis to the various pleasures and pains we always enter into our moral calculus? Isn’t it true that by learning more about these pleasures and pains we are learning information that is relevant to our moral decisions?

        I think no one disputes that human desires can at least in principle be investigated empirically (they’re in the brain after all). Instead the argument is “but on what basis do you call those things moral in the first place?”

        The whole point of even using the word moral at all is that there is a wide swath of human behavior already out there, than can be meaningfully accounted for by invoking such a term. Whether Harris’ definition is successful is a question of whether the term can be invested with empirical meaning without making the term any less useful, i.e. whether it leaves out something more uncaptured by an empirical definition.

        And what would that something more be? The problem with arguing that there is something more, and that it is real, is to explain in what sense they are real without being empirically real. If they can be explained as empirically real, the alternative explanation is unnecessary.

        Arguing that there is some extra “moral” thing which is both real and outside the scope of any scientific inquiry has all the same problems that dualist theories have. (This isn’t to say empirically grounded definitions win by default, they win because, on Harris’ view, they happen to succeed.)

        If they think that moral imperative is some sort of scientific fact embedded in the very nature of their discipline, that is noble but incorrect.

        More argument by fiat.

      • No, that’s argument by arguing. It’s not “argument by fiat” when I reiterate my point after providing supporting evidence.

        Here’s the problem: rather than support moral realist theories, the so-called “physiological basis” for moral value instead provides a really, really big problem for them. I invite you to read a paper on the topic called The Darwinian Dilemma.

        (Incidentally, I’m not a moral realist — I never claimed that moral values are “real,” as in facts about the world, in the same sense that physical facts are facts about the world. You might want to read some of the prior posts I’ve done about metaphysical claims.)

  2. shucks. failed to close my “moorean facts” link. hope that’s fixable.

  3. […] observation of the human brain. These views sound attractive, but they’re fundamentally unsound and philosophically […]

  4. […] That’s more or less in agreement with what Russe argues above, though he does some extra work to connect this position to the Darwinian tradition. He also connects it to the Humean tradition, acknowledging the importance of the is/ought distinction that reductive materialists tend to reject out of hand. […]

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