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← Moral confusion in the name of 'science'

SilentMike's Avatar Jump to comment 154 by SilentMike

It almost seems redundant to reply at this point and after all these people have weighed in. But I would still like my turn at the keyboard, to say (again) that I also disagree with Sam Harris.

Mister Harris

Thus, by starting my talk with the assertion that values depend upon actual or potential changes in consciousness, and that some changes are better than others, I merely assumed what I set out to prove. This is what philosophers call “begging the question.” I am, therefore, an idiot. And given that my notion of objective values must be a mere product of my own personal and cultural biases, and these led me to disparage traditional religious values from the stage at TED, I am also a bigot.


Sam Harris is not an idiot. He is a very bright scientist and philosopher and a powerful rhetorician. He is not a bigot for saying that what some Muslims do to women is wrong, and that pretty much all the "holy books" are pernicious mumbo-jumbo. I agree with him on these issue as I do on almost every moral statement he ever made publicly, but I strongly disagree with him, like many others here, on this "values are facts" point.

The first grievance I would like to take up with Harris is the false dichotomy he repeatedly invokes. If you disagree with him that values are facts then you must just be the worst kind of moral relativist that ignores the plight of the oppressed women in Islamic countries as they are abused by the men around them. That is not true. I personally hold to values and apply many them to other human beings. I believe strongly that every human being is entitled to freedom just by being human. Many people who disagree with Harris feel the same. Our problem, again, is with this "Values are Facts" thing.

The problem with what Harris is saying is that it isn't really very clear. Harris admits that he doesn't currently have the science of morality ready -the "facts" are not in yet- so we are forced to look at his argument as a purely theoretical philosophical one. Values, according to Sam Harris, are just fact about the "wellbeing" of a certain kind of living creatures.

So what is this "wellbeing" thing? A lot of the criticism Harris gets challenges this idea that "wellbeing" alone is important. Harris' reaction has been to expand the meaning of "wellbeing", to say it can apply to all those other options, that all moral ideas are actually about this "wellbeing" in one way or another, but are probably misguided because the idea of "wellbeing" is still not well understood. This little tricks leaves us with two options: Either "wellbeing" is a specific value asserted by Harris into his system, in which case the "Values are facts" statement is plainly false; or "wellbeing"'s meaning has been stretched so thin it can no longer be said to have any in which case Harris is simply stating something tantamount to "Moral is Moral".

The second option implies that Harris is saying absolutely nothing. But clearly he isn't. That's not what Harris is about. He want's to create social change. He wants a science of morality to emerge in which this holy grail of "wellbeing" will be discovered. And this I fear, since I believe that the holy grail is not there to be discovered. The science of morality can only discover facts about morality, about the way the brain is when were behaving according to moral principles, about the way it is when we're having a good or a bad time. Harris wants the moral scientists, the moral experts, to take that and formulate it as a "discovery" of the values that underline objectively correct moral behavior.

But the discovery isn't there to be discovered, and the "experts" will have to invent it, by inserting their own moral understanding into their science create that discovery. In Harris' world, this type of opinion would be seen as authoritative moral fact.

When you start pretending an opinion is a fact you allow yourself to do things you would never consider otherwise. One must only look at the religious demagogues Harris referenced in his TED speech (The pope, the ayatollahs that run Iran) for examples. I have values that I hold to strongly. My values may cause me to shoot a person attacking an innocent child with an axe, or condemn the abuse of women by fundamentalists everywhere, but I would be careful about acting, or even condemning to loudly in less extreme cases. If we find an excuse to convince ourselves that moral principles like laws of nature, that doing X is right and not doing X is wrong is like humans and lobsters sharing a common ancestor, we may very easily conclude the corollary that forcing people to do X is right whenever the act of forcing is not too costly. And that actually is wrong. Science isn't saying that though. Just me.

This small mistake that Sam Harris made, confusing between facts about morality and morality as a set of facts, it can have pretty severe repercussions. This isn't an appeal to consequences. Harris' point it factually wrong first, and ethically dangerous second. I made sure to make that point but it seems clear that Sam Harris would build a world where no one would. Because when values are facts we can just figure out what to do, and do it. No explanation or apology or argumentation necessary. Unless of course the moral algorithm says that those are the required actions.

Thu, 01 Apr 2010 00:00:00 UTC | #454609