The Moral Landscape

Cosmic Variance
By Sean Carroll
Jan 18, 2011 6:34 PMNov 20, 2019 2:07 AM


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Last year we talked a bit about Sam Harris's attempts to ground morality on science:

See especially the third one there, where I try to be relatively careful about what I am saying. (Wouldn't impress a philosopher by a long shot, but by scientist/blogger standards I was careful.) Upshot: concepts relevant to morality aren't empirical ones, and can't be tested by doing experiments. Morality depends on science (you can make moral mistakes if you don't understand the real world), but it isn't a subset of it. Science describes what happens, while morality passes judgments on what should and should not happen, which is simply different. By now Harris's book The Moral Landscape has appeared, so you can read for yourself his explanations in full. In a different world -- one where I had access to a dozen or so clones of myself with fully updated mental states, willing to tackle all the projects my birth-body didn't have time to fit in -- I would read the book carefully and report back. This is not that world. Happily, Russell Blackford has written a longish and very good review, in the Journal of Evolution and Technology. He also blogged about it, and Jerry Coyne blogged about Russell's review. As far as I can tell, Russell and I basically agree on all the substantive points, and he's more trained in philosophy than I am, so you're actually doing a lot better than something one of my clones would have been able to provide. It's an extremely generous review, always saying "I liked the book but..." where I would have said "Despite the flaws, there are some good aspects..." So you'll find in the review plenty of lines like "Unfortunately, Harris sees it as necessary to defend a naïve metaethical position..." Any lingering urge I may have had to jump into the debate again in a substantive way has been dissipated by Harris's response to Blackford's review, which appears in the form of a letter to Jerry Coyne reprinted on his blog. It seems that very little communication is taking place at this point. Coyne paraphrases Blackford as asking "How do we actually measure well being?; for that is what we must do to make moral judgments." Seems reasonable enough to me, and echoes very closely my first point here. Harris's response is:

This is simply not a problem for my thesis (recall my “answers in practice vs. answers in principle” argument). There is a difference between how we verify the truth of a proposition and what makes a proposition true. How many breaths did I take last Tuesday? I don’t know, and there is no way to find out. But there is a correct, numerical answer to this question (and you can bet the farm that it falls between 5 and 5 million).

This misses the point, to say the least. The problem of measuring well-being is not simply one of practice, it's very much one of principle. I know what a breath is; I don't know what a "unit of well-being is." The point of these critiques is that there is no such thing as a unit of well-being that we can look inside the brain and measure. I'm pretty sure that's a problem of principle. Of course, Russell and Jerry and I (and David Hume, and a large number of professional moral philosophers) may be wrong about this. The way to provide a counter-argument would be to say "Here is a precise and unambiguous definition of how to measure well-being, at least in principle." That doesn't seem to be forthcoming. Latter Harris says this:

The case I make in the book is that morality entirely depends on the existence of conscious minds; minds are natural phenomena; and, therefore, moral truths exist (and can be determined by science in principle, if not always in practice).

Taken at face value, this implies that truths about the best TV shows or most delicious flavors of ice cream also exist. My opinion that The Wire is the best TV show of all time is a natural phenomenon -- it reflects the state of certain neurons in my brain. That doesn't imply, in any meaningful sense, that the state of my brain provides evidence that The Wire "really is" the best TV show of all time. Nor, more programmatically and importantly, does it provide unambiguous guidance concerning which new programs should be green-lit by studio executives. The real problem -- how do you balance the interests of different people against each other? -- is completely ignored. At heart I think the problem is that Sam and some other atheists are really concerned about the idea that, without objective moral truths based on science, the field of morality becomes either the exclusive domain of religion, or simply collapses into nihilism. Happily for reality, that's an extremely false dichotomy. Morality isn't out there to be measured like some empirical property of the physical world, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to be moral or to speak about morality in a rational, thoughtful way. Pretending that morality is a subset of science is, in its own way, just as much an example of wishful thinking as pretending that morality is handed down by God. We have to face up to that temptation and accept the world as it is.

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