Reductive Empiricism

I’ve made this point several times in the past with varying degrees of success, but I like Matt Yglesias’ way of putting it:

For my part, I’m continually baffled by the degree to which thought-leaders and politicians on the center-left think it’s credible and/or political useful to present our agenda as wholly un-ideological and “pragmatic,” somehow emerging magically through empirical study. Quine’s Word & Object isn’t about politics at all but it’s full of valuable insights. All efforts to understand the world meld empirical and theoretical efforts, and all efforts to understand the world in a way that’s politically relevant are thus necessarily ideological.

I highlight Matt’s take because it seems tangentially related to the ongoing debate I’ve been having in the comments of a couple posts over whether or not moral principles can be derived through pure empirical observation. Both the political “non-ideological pragmatist” and Sam Harris the moral naturalist make the same category error: they take their own highly subjective value judgments as a given, so that any empirical observations they make can be neatly plugged into a preexisting conceptual framework.

So for example, in The Moral Landscape, Harris just sort of blithely asserts that anyone who uses the phrase, “You ought to do that” in any sort of moral context is really saying, “You doing that would contribute to overall human flourishing.” There’s no real reason to think that everyone everywhere considers overall human flourishing as the ultimate end of their various moral systems, but Harris clearly believes that they should. But he also distrusts non-empirical intuitions, so the only way to justify his own moral intuitions is to construct a book-length, profoundly wobbly line of reasoning that will obscure the fact that his moral convictions don’t spring fully-formed from rigorous scientific investigation.

What I’m saying is that Sam Harris is essentially the No Labels of moral philosophy. The way those guys roll is basically the same: they start from some first principles that they don’t feel like defending on philosophical grounds (like say the notion that a large federal deficit is worse for voters than the fact that many of them live in areas so impoverished they resemble third-world countries) and duck the issue entirely but just declaring their claims non-ideological and highly scientific.

I used to occasionally call this impulse “scientism,” but that sounds too much like a crack at science itself. Really what we’re talking about is an abuse of science. So I’m going to start calling this “reductive empiricism” instead — i.e. the overweening belief that any conceivable problem can be reduced to an empirical matter.


12 Responses

  1. It always seems kind of rich when people try to present matters of taste or morals as somehow shown “scientifically”, misusing the authority that science has in society. Science is a tool to solve certain kinds of problems and generate new knowledge, not a deity to be worshiped or an authority to summon to silence critics. (although as a scientist I do sometimes fall into the latter trap myself, unfortunately) It’s kind of like trying to use a hammer when you need a screwdriver.

  2. But I do believe that ethics can be be explored empirically and that an ethical framework must spring from a logical analysis.

    Kant made a good go of it in the 18th Century, and by the early 20th Sarte had pretty well mopped up the floor, leaving us to an existentialist ethics that is rational and universal-isable.

    The fact that other people’s ethical starting points are *not* rationally based (for instance Fundamentalist Christians or Muslims) should be something us in the rational world should highlight, not avoid.

    • Neither Kant nor Beauvoir (you give credit to Sartre, but Simone de Beauvoir was the person to write The Ethics of Ambiguity) base their moral systems on empirical observation. And neither of them is a moral naturalist. I’m a big fan of existentialist ethics in large part because of how it emphasizes interior reflection over attempts to divine some kind of mind-independent natural law.

  3. The weird thing is that, as you present him, Harris thinks human flourishing is a concept that’s all hunky-dory for reductive empiricists. There’s a real strain of Aristotelian non-reductive naturalism in ethics. These thinkers say that human flourishing is the primary source of right and wrong, but don’t think science is the primary source of knowledge about what constitutes flourishing (though obviously useful for helping us flourish by curing disease and whatnot).

    You might look at Phillippa Foot’s Natural Goodness for a straightforward presentation of some of these ideas, Michael Thomson’s Life and Action for a different, more involved but also more obscure take. I think Anscombe is a sort of precursor, though the religious component has a large role for her that it doesn’t obviously have for Foot and Thomson.

    • I should be clearer. I’m saying that human flourishing is not obviously a concept that’s amenable to reductive empiricism. A lot of the ethical views based on human flourishing are non-reductive and maybe even non-empiricist (the Aristotelians). Then there’s also a lot of views, reductive and non, which might accept a concept of human flourishing, but don’t place it at the center of their ethics.

      • Maybe it’s because I don’t have much truck with Aristotelians, but I’ve always found teleological concepts like “flourishing” to be kind of thin.

    • Yeah, I didn’t mean to suggest that Harris’ view was typical of metaethical naturalists. I’m not one myself, but I acknowledge that most of the actual philosophers working on that project have much stronger arguments. Thanks for the recommendations.

  4. I think the words “reductive” and “empiricism” have way too much baggage for that meaning not to conflict with possible conceptual space in philosophy of science. I would go for something more like “imagined consensus about X value” or “naive foundationalism about X.”

    • But “reductive empiricism” is so (relatively) catchy!

      • That, I can’t contest. I sat staring at the screen for like half an hour and those were the best I could come up with.

    • I think that “naive positivism” would be the most accurate label.

  5. […] 3 CommentsJust as a quick follow-up to my post on The Moral Landscape, I wanted to share an excerpt from  Ned Reskinoff’s blog (but go ahead and click through for the whole post):…it seems tangentially related to the […]

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