At various times I have written (here, for example) about whether, under a naturalistic view, there can be objectively existing moral truths. I have argued that there cannot. There can be “facts of the matter” about what our moral intuitions tell us, and how they came to be what they are, but there is no external, objective standard (no “truth-maker”, as the philosophers would say) against which the “truth-value” of our moral propositions can be measured. We can say that if we want X, then we ought to do Y — and as evolved, living organisms we certainly have a great many interests that lead naturally to us wanting some things and not wanting others — but there is nothing in nature that tells us what we ought to want. Nature just is; it doesn’t care.
Sam Harris disagrees. I think he is mistaken. He made his case, briefly, at the most recent TED conference. Here’s a video of his talk.
It is easy to understand Sam Harris’s motivation here; it is no secret that there is an uncomfortable tension between the naturalistic, Darwinian worldview and our hunger for moral certainty. The idea that we came to be what we are not because of the guiding, designing hand of a benevolent God, but rather as a result of an entirely mindless natural process, is unsettling to many, if not most, people; it is an idea that can lead some minds quite directly to a corrosive nihilism. (Whether it must do so is an interesting question in itself; see here.) This is obviously a P.R. problem for naturalists (although the idea of rooting goodness in God has been known, since ancient times, to present upon close examination equally vexatious difficulties), and Dr. Harris wants to make the problem go away. To this end he makes two moves. First, he adopts a rather glib and straightforward utilitarianism, claiming that the summum bonum to be sought is some sort of maximization of human “wellbeing”, or conversely, a minimization of the suffering of conscious beings; second, he makes the claim that science is in a position, in principle at least, to inform us as to what maximizes and minimizes those quantities, and as to how effective various moral policies actually are.
As you might imagine, Dr. Harris’s remarks, which rather flatly contradict some very well-established philosophical principles about “is” and “ought”, have prompted a fair amount of discussion online. Writing in Discover magazine, physicist Sean Carroll takes Harris to task, rightly, for smuggling “oughts” over the border:
Harris is doing exactly what Hume warned against, in a move that is at least as old as Plato: he’s noticing that most people are, as a matter of empirical fact, more concerned about the fate of primates than the fate of insects, and taking that as evidence that we ought to be more concerned about them; that it is morally correct to have those feelings. But that’s a non sequitur. After all, not everyone is all that concerned about the happiness and suffering of primates, or even of other human beings; some people take pleasure in torturing them. And even if they didn’t, again, so what? We are simply stating facts about how human beings feel, from which we have no warrant whatsoever to conclude things about how they should feel.
Dr. Carroll also (and also rightly) points out that we don’t need to have objective bedrock for our moral intuitions, anyway:
A big part of the temptation to insist that moral judgments are objectively true is that we would like to have justification for arguing against what we see as moral outrages when they occur. But there’s no reason why we can’t be judgmental and firm in our personal convictions, even if we are honest that those convictions don’t have the same status as objective laws of nature. In the real world, when we disagree with someone else’s moral judgments, we try to persuade them to see things our way; if that fails, we may (as a society) resort to more dramatic measures like throwing them in jail. But our ability to persuade others that they are being immoral is completely unaffected — and indeed, may even be hindered — by pretending that our version of morality is objectively true. In the end, we will always be appealing to their own moral senses, which may or may not coincide with ours.
This is exactly right.
Sam Harris has since posted a lengthy rejoinder, which you can read here. His main point is that moral truth simply is that which maximizes the “wellbeing” of conscious entities. Now you may object, he admits, that we may not be able, in practice, easily to determine just how to measure an individual’s “wellbeing”, and that there might be many practical obstacles to determining just what policies and actions maximize that wellbeing — but there is nevertheless, he insists, an objective “fact of the matter” in principle, whether we are able to discover it or not. If this is true, then science — meaning of course his own specialty, neuroscience, with its privileged access to the brain and its cognitive states — will be our best tool for advancing toward our goal of putting the greatest number of brains into minimally suffering states.
I wince to think what someone like Bill Vallicella would do with an argument like this. It is, first of all, vulnerable at the most basic philosophical level, a point that Dr. Harris — surprisingly for one with a philosophy degree in his c.v. — stubbornly denies. The objection is this: You can tell us that doing X will put a person into an enjoyable brain state, or even that doing X will put the whole of humanity into such brain-states. And we might all agree, in accordance with our naturally evolved moral intuitions, that X would be a good thing to do. But that’s as far as it goes. There is nothing in nature, beyond our own moral intuition, that marks X as something we ought to do; an assertion like that could only be meaningful in terms of our own goals and interests. What Sam Harris is saying, then, is that the goals and interests that would lead us to doing X are the goals and interests we ought to have. But why? Either you can just take that as an axiom, in which case the discussion is over, or you can make an argument based on another term Dr. Harris used often in his talk: that morally “good” actions are those that foster human “flourishing”.
Well, to be sure, a great deal of what we consider good is indeed conducive to human flourishing: caring for our young, working productively with others, and all manner of altruistic behaviors. But there is a great deal more that has enabled various human groups to flourish that might not seem so morally uncontroversial: for example, ruthlessness in war. Indeed, a great many groups have, and still do, “flourish” precisely because of behaviors that I think Sam Harris would consider unambiguously reprehensible.
Now I suppose the rejoinder would be that such behaviors, favoring only particular groups at the expense of others, fall short of the utilitarian goal of attaining a true global maximum. Clearly Dr. Harris believes that, in principle at least, such a maximum is “out there” somewhere. For this to be true even in principle, however, assumes that there is a single, correct calculus by which the individual brain-states of the relevant set of individuals (which, presumably, includes everyone on Earth) can be summed over, and that there is a coherent moral policy that leads to this global maximum.
This is a lot to swallow, and even at this rarefied level of meta-moralizing one can still, as always, raise the same basic objection, which is to say “Well, yes, there may even be such an optimum policy, but why ought we pursue it?” To Sam Harris, however, it simply seems axiomatic that there is, and that we should. And if you don’t agree that this constitutes real, moral objectivity, of exactly the kind that philosophers have sought for millennia, well then, you’re just stupid:
One of my critics put the concern this way: “Why should human wellbeing matter to us?” Well, why should logical coherence matter to us? Why should historical veracity matter to us? Why should experimental evidence matter to us? These are profound and profoundly stupid questions. No framework of knowledge can withstand such skepticism, for none is perfectly self-justifying. Without being able to stand entirely outside of a framework, one is always open to the charge that the framework rests on nothing, that its axioms are wrong, or that there are foundational questions it cannot answer. So what? Science and rationality generally are based on intuitions and concepts that cannot be reduced or justified. Just try defining “causation” in non-circular terms. If you manage it, I really want hear from you. Or try to justify transitivity in logic: if A = B and B = C, then A = C. A skeptic could say that this is nothing more than an assumption that we’ve built into the definition of “equality.” Others will be free to define “equality” differently. Yes, they will. And we will be free to call them “imbeciles.” Seen in this light, moral relativism should be no more tempting than physical, biological, mathematical, or logical relativism. There are better and worse ways to define our terms; there are more and less coherent ways to think about reality; and there are—is there any doubt about this?—many ways to seek fulfillment in this life and not find it.
Frankly, I’m rather saddened by all of this, because, leaving aside the overblown philosophical puffery, there is much of value in what Dr. Harris says. But in his zeal to put scientific naturalism in religion’s traditional seat as a source of moral truths, he overreaches. He needn’t even have bothered: his argument will never persuade theists that their necessary moral absolutes are to be found in random and uncaring Nature, and the rest of us have pretty much given up on objective moral absolutes anyway. So why bother?
So, in my opinion: nice try, but no cigar. Watch the video, and read the links. What do you think?