A Sting for Absolutes

Sam Harris can sting. Well known for his sharp criticisms of religion, this social gadfly has picked a new target: moral philosophy. His recent TED talk and later articles about the science of morality (here and here) have caused a bit of a ruckus in philosophical circles as well as a feisty response from the general public. His main claim is simple enough: science can give us answers to moral questions. Not just inform our moral judgments or help us get what we want out of life, but actually tell us what we ought to value. In his words, values are a certain kind of fact.

Many of the responses to Harris (amidst howls of “scientism!”) have been focused on those last seven words. He is charged with making a Philosophy 101 blunder by conflating facts and values, as well as promoting his own biases under the guise of “objectivity.” I won’t continue in that vein of criticism here. Whether or not you agree with his position on the science of morality, I think there is a larger issue that emerges from his talk and subsequent discussion.

This is the issue of absolute (or very rigid) positions in the realm of morality. Harris is attempting to dispel  – or at the minimum, disrupt – two of these. The first is an extreme moral relativism that sees morality as a myth or a mere opinion. It rejects the possibility of any meaningful discussion about moral questions because there can be no “right” morality. Judging from Harris’s anecdotes of encounters at scientific conferences, as well as written responses to his talk, this view is more common than many would expect. The problem Harris sees with extreme moral relativism is that it shuts down any debate on the matter – there is literally nothing to say on questions of morality. He thinks the real world practical consequences of such silence (in the name of intellectual “tolerance” of moral difference) are disastrous. The stakes are much too high for extreme moral relativism to taken seriously any longer.

Another absolute position Harris criticizes is the unshakable reverence to Hume’s “is/ought distinction” – namely, the idea that no description of how the world is can tell us how the world ought to be. Harris is not simply disputing the content of the distinction (he does that too, and on this front, he certainly has his work cut out for him). But Harris is more fundamentally attacking the hallowed status of Hume’s analysis, its elevation to something akin to a mathematical truth and treated like the final word on the subject of moral philosophy. Sean Carroll’s response to Harris exemplifies this tendency:

“Attempts to derive ought from is are like attempts to reach an odd number by adding together even numbers. If someone claims that they've done it, you don't have to check their math; you know that they've made a mistake.

Harris disparages this righteous citation of the is/ought distinction as if it were “now an unmovable object around which all future human thought must flow.” Regardless of his own position (or that of his critics) on the relationship between facts, values, science and morality, Harris is arguing for the necessity of having a debate on the subject. It is not enough to simply toss the is/ought distinction out as a conversation stopper.

In both these cases, Harris is not just rejecting the conclusions of the moral relativist or philosopher; he is criticizing their refusal to engage the question. The dismissal of moral judgment as mere opinion is dangerous because it prevents thinking about particular situations and experiences. And lifting moral concepts to a quasi-axiomatic state is risky because it gives finality to a subject anything but. While many of Harris’s claims are provocative and controversial, his attempt to shake up the absolutes in the realm of morality is a worthwhile endeavor. And it’s certainly got many people talking. The sheer magnitude of response from the public – whether in praise or criticism – is exactly what Harris wants. It furthers his goal of increasing discussion of science and values, lest anyone think we have reached a final destination. Whether we agree with him or not, this won’t be the last sting from Sam Harris.

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4 Responses to A Sting for Absolutes

  • Ashton says:

    Now where’s that hemlock.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    By now you know my position on this. Morality is not “myth or mere opinion”, but it’s not fact either. It’s a choice. And it’s a choice, of course, that can be debated.

  • There is also the reverse relationship, how facts depend on morality. We can see this at the most basic level of interaction with external reality through statistical tests. The ‘p-value’ that is chosen to determine ‘significance’ reflects a balance between the costs of excess sensitivity and excess selectivity; it should be adjusted to the circumstances of each test. And those costs will have a background in the values of the relevant research community, as influenced by those of the broader society.
    The other connection is through quality-assurance in science. This depends directly on morality, for in its absence there will be no quality, and junk-science will rule. This is easily seen by the condition of science outside Max-Weber-Land, and indeed of weaker fields everywhere.

  • Dennis Tuchler says:

    Hume is not necessarily right. Science, that is, social science, might cause the fact/value distinction to become foggy, so long as the inquiry is focused narrowly.

    Why not say that ethics, the guide to the question “what shall I do?”, is factual in the sense that an anthropologist can find out the answer to such a question by studying the local culture? That approach answers the question, whether we can talk about ethics sensibly, logically and in a way that makes a difference to one or all of the discussants. But it leaves open the problem, what does one do in another culture? Does one rescue a slave from an owner in a culture that accepts slavery?

    On the other hand, that seems to make international Human Rights -type assertions a kind of cultural imperialism. I don’t think that is entirely damning. It’s a kind of international trade (conversation).

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