Tag Archives: Sam Harris

Ethics and the fact/value dichotomy

I went to the first day of this conference at Harvard on Tuesday. My main takeaway was a humbling one: I realized that I have a lot to learn about 20th century American philosophy, and that I dislike detailed discussions of ontology. Keeping in mind that I still have a lot to learn, it also reinforced my faith in neo-pragmatism and my skepticism of both analytic and continental philosophy.

I was only able to make it to the first day of this four-day tribute to the life and works of Hilary Putnam; my wife just got a job, our retired research beagle has separation anxiety, and one day of ‘camp’ was expensive enough. The day was divided into three sessions: one on ontology, one on ethics, and one on perception. The first and the third, while fascinating, flew right over my head.

The second session, on science and ethics, contained an interesting talk by Tim Scanlon on the fact-value dichotomy. This idea, originally from David Hume’s assertion that ‘you can’t get from an is to an ought’, has been getting a lot of play recently: Peter Singer’s embedded video agrees, and he argues that the biologically natural and the normative are two distinct spheres; Sam Harris’ recent work is on the other end of the spectrum, denying, at least partially, that the dichotomy even exists.

My main impression of both ethics talks (the other was by Mario de Caro, who provided less original work and more of an overview of Putnam’s positions) was that Aristotelian virtue ethics was much more important to most people in the room than were either consequentialism or deontology. Indeed, de Caro explicitly stated that Putnam rejected both positions in favor of moral particularism. De Caro distinguished between ontological realism, semantic realism, and ontological/semantic non-realism, placing Putnam in the semantic realist camp. I definitely hope to learn more about his views when I get back into grad school.

Scanlon’s talk addressed facts and values by setting up a the following 4 place relation: R (p, x, c, a). He distinguished between pure normative claims, pure non-normative claims, mixed normative claims, and the the impact of ‘thick’ concepts like cruelty and cowardice. His central point was that purely non-normative claims have nothing to say about pure normative claims, and the fact-value relationship only holds for mixed normative claims. This was also how he got around supervenience and covariance (the idea that normative facts are fixed by non-normative facts, and that normative facts depend on non-normative facts, respectively).

As the argument is constructed, this makes sense. And, indeed, Scanlon agreed in the Q&A that utilitarians are using the same moral vocabulary but have different ideas of what constitutes a pure normative claim. All that was really missing here was an accounting of what actually counts as a pure normative claim…but this wasn’t the point of this particular discussion, I guess. I gather than Scanlon’s conception of the domain of the moral is centrally concerned with rational agents rather than with a broader conception of sentience, so this explains where we would part ways. I would like to read more of his on the justification for different moral claims.

In the Q&A, someone asked Putnam “how can we prove that the Nazis were bad”, to which he responded “rigor can only go so far in ethics.” I agree both with this claim and with Scanlon’s configuration of the purely normative versus the non-normative and the mixed, but this necessary lack of rigor–and this is where something like Rorty’s ironism comes knocking–is problematic once we start tearing down anthropocentric barriers. Some would say it’s cruel to serve coffee with gallons of factory-farmed milk at a conference on ethics, for example. Just sayin’.

Putnam stated that he believed some societies were crueler than others (Sparta, Nazi Germany, and Stalinist Russia were examples), but I’m wondering what, if anything, either Putnam or Scanlon has written on the structural violence committed against nonhuman animals in the industrialized West. Putnam also professed his faith in the Enlightenment project, so his corresponding (speciesist) humanism makes sense in this context.

I really enjoyed the ethics Q&A. There was lots of engaging back-and-forth on the possibility of ‘objectivity without objects’, on Dewey, on ‘degrees of cruelty’ and the concept of moral progress. In fact, I wish it had gone on for eight hours, and that we could have skipped over the philosophy of perception and ontology. My general takeaway from this lecture was that I need to learn more philosophy, at the very least so I can understand what people are talking about when they talk about disquotation and mereology.

Oh, and Bittman’s Opinionator piece in today’s NYT, on how we’re dangerously addicted to meat, is excellent. As usual.

The moral landscape – Bentham through the back door


It seemed appropriate to follow up a post introducing moral philosophy with my thoughts on Sam Harris, science, and morality. Harris’ new book, The Moral Landscape, has been getting a lot of attention from various camps, with some of the most cogent reviews, in my view, here and here. In lieu of having the actual book on hand to critique, this interview with Julian Baggini provides a handy overview of Harris’ position that I hope is generally representative. Briefly put, it looks like Harris is trying to ride roughshod over debates in moral philosophy by saying utilitarianism won but calling it science.

A lot of the research I’ve done over the last few years involved competing definitions of what it means to be “science-based” in the domain of farm animal welfare, so Harris’ work immediately caught my attention when I saw the above TED video last year (which I’ve played bits of for my Intro to Political Thought students). An engaging Facebook back-and-forth with an aspiring cognitivist I met in Canada also got me to thinking.

With some caveats, I’m on board with Harris’ critique of religious normativity, although he and his New Atheist brethren could use a primer or three in diplomacy. (The caveats are from reading people like Huston Smith and Karen Armstrong.) Not surprisingly, I have a problem with his other attack, on Hume’s ought/is distinction in particular and, apparently, on moral philosophy in general. The irony here is that what he is espousing is essentially an empowered utilitarianism in which moral values have been upgraded to moral facts–incommensurability and indeterminacy notwithstanding.

Kennan Malik writes in The New Humanist that “the issue is not so much that wellbeing is a fuzzy category as that it can, in specific cases, be well-defined but in a number of different ways that are often conflicting in a manner that science cannot resolve.” I think this is right, and we needn’t look beyond moral philosophy to see it. Plato, Nozick, Rawls, and Tronto will give you fundamentally different but internally coherent visions of moral reality. I need to read more of Harris’ work to get a clearer view of how he supposes we can overcome these differences–but I fear he just dismisses them out of hand as being irrelevant.

My core problem here returns to Berlin’s idea (filtered through Sandel) that we live in a “tragically configured moral universe”. If this is the case, and I think one can make an argument based primarily on the second law of thermodynamics that it is, science itself isn’t going to tell us which preferences and which values deserve prioritization over which others. Especially once we acknowledge that “well-being” extends beyond the species line to all conscious entities (which Harris does), how do we go about making the inter-species valuation of preferences that will distinguish between right and wrong courses of action? I’m not saying that this isn’t desirable as an endpoint–indeed, It’s one of my core goals–I just don’t see how merely revealing preferences will let us figure out policies that balance them equitably.

I was especially struck by the hubris of this closing assertion from Harris’ interview with Baggini: “I view philosophy as essentially the womb of the sciences. Whenever a question is not experimentally tractable, not quantifiable, then it’s squarely in the domain of philosophy. The frontier between philosophy and science is never clear. But the moment you start actually talking about data and neurophysiology it would seem you’re playing more the language game of neuroscience than philosophy.”

As someone who’s spent a lot of time at the disciplinary intersection between the social sciences and the humanities, a few things leap out here: the ‘womb’ analogy–and Harris’ central assertion–presume that quantification is both possible and desirable in all cases. While it is theoretically possible to quantify all the possible mental states of all the possibly conscious inhabitants of a given ecosystem, the difficulties of performing this kind of moral calculus dwarf even the more common criticisms of utilitarian aggregation. More problematic still is the power and influence this would grant to “experts” at the expense of everyone else, including other experts.

Again, I haven’t read Harris’ book yet, but I suspect he may underplay the extent to which science is enormously political in practice–from the fight for grant money to the funding of research by pharma giants to the positioning of Monsanto and co. in the fight over IPR–and to just categorically preference quantitative over qualitative knowledge runs the very serious risk of turning a democracy into a technocracy.

Then again, the impression I get is that Harris using a relatively fast-and-loose definition of “science” that accords more closely with the Enlightenment project in general, so maybe Harris’ work has more in common with the likes of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History than it does with Dennett’s take-down of consciousness or Dawkins’ FSMism.