Sam Harris is wrong about science and morality
By Brian Earp (Follow Brian on Twitter by clicking here.)
WATCH MY EXCHANGE WITH SAM HARRIS AT OXFORD – ON YOUTUBE HERE.
I just finished a booklet by “New Atheist” Sam Harris — on lying — and I plan to write about it in the coming days. But I want to dig up an older Harris book, The Moral Landscape, so that I may express my hitherto un-expressed puzzlement about Harris’ (aging) “bold new” claim — presented in this book — that science can “determine human values” or “tell us what’s objectively true about morality” or “give us answers about right and wrong,” and the like.
In his new book (the one about lying) Harris says, in effect, you should never, ever, do it — yet his pretense in The Moral Landscape to be revolutionizing moral philosophy seems to me the very height of dishonesty. What he actually does in his book is plain old secular moral reasoning — as non-religious philosophers have been doing for a very long time — but he claims that he’s using science to decide right from wrong. That Harris could be naive enough to think he’s really bridged the famous “is/ought” chasm seems unlikely (Harris is a very smart writer and researcher, and I tend to like a lot of what he publishes), and so I submit that he’s exaggerating* to sell books. Shame on him (or his publisher).
*A previous version of this post had the word “lying” here, but I was told that my rhetorical flourish might be interpreted as libel. I hope “exaggerating” is sufficiently safe. Now onward to my argument:
I’ll start by saying what the “is/ought” divide is, in case you haven’t heard of this before. It’s an old idea, tracing at least to David Hume, and its gist is that there is no way to reason from facts about the way the world is, to statements about the way the world should be. You can’t derive values from data. I’ll use one example to illustrate and then move on.
Example. It’s a fact that rape occurs in nature — among chimpanzees, for instance; and there are some evolutionary arguments to explain its existence in humans and non-humans alike. But this fact tells us exactly nothing about whether it’s OK to rape people. This is because “natural” doesn’t entail “right” (just as “unnatural” doesn’t necessarily mean wrong) — indeed, the correct answer is that it’s not OK, and this is a judgement we make at the interface of moral philosophy and common sense: it’s not an output of science.
You get the idea. The domain of science is to describe nature, and then to explain its descriptions in terms of deeper patterns or laws. Science cannot tell us how to live. It cannot tell us right and wrong. If a system of thought claims to be doing those things, it cannot be science. If a scientist tells you she has some statements about how you ought to behave, they cannot be scientific statements, and the lab-coat is no longer speaking as a scientist. Questions about “How should we live?” — for better or worse — fall outside the purview of “objective” science. We have to sort them out, messily, by ourselves.
Now: if there were a way to get from “is” to “ought” it would take a work of philosophical genius to lay it out, and Harris’ book is not a work of philosophical genius. I can summarize his argument in a few lines:
1. Morality is “all about” improving the well-being of conscious creatures.
2. Facts about the well-being of conscious creatures are accessible to science.
3. Therefore science can tell us what’s objectively “moral” — that is, it can tell us whether something increases, or decreases, the well-being of conscious creatures.
Here’s the problem. Premise (1) is a philosophical premise. It’s not a fact of science, it’s not a fact of nature (and it’s not derivable from science or nature either): it’s a value judgment. You might think this is a good premise; you might not – and even if you think it’s basically on track, there’s a lot of philosophical work to be done to spell it out. (Exhibit A – how do you define well-being in the first place, “scientifically” or otherwise?)
What this boils down to, then, is that given a certain philosophical value, premise, or starting-point, science can feed us relevant facts in our sorting-out of how to live. Ok, but so what? That’s just what science has always been able to do. This is just secular moral philosophy, minding the facts.
But let’s grant Harris his first move. Let us give him his philosophical premise. Maybe he means that science is getting sophisticated enough to help us solve certain precise moral puzzles that exist within the overarching philosophical framework we’ve agreed to (i.e., some version of utilitarianism). Maybe neuroscientists will one day tell us astonishing things about how pain is processed in the brain, and this will allow us to deduce the correct moral outcome in some particular case (again, premises granted).
Maybe. But if this is what Harris wants to say, the examples he comes up with are weak. Such as? How about the Taliban. Harris says that according to science, the Taliban’s treatment of woman (enforced burqa-wearing, etc.) is objectively morally wrong. Why? Because enforced burqa-wearing (etc.) is not conducive to the well-being of conscious creatures, namely the conscious creatures forced to wear burqas.
I hope you’ll agree that we didn’t need science to tell us that treating women in this way is bad (or at least seriously problematic in a number of different ways): common sense, or, better, secular moral philosophy, will do just fine. And if someone disagrees, say, the Taliban, intoning “but science says you’re mistaken” will do little to change their minds. What Harris is doing is trying to hijack the prestige and “objectivity” of the scientific enterprise to label the behavior of certain groups as categorically WRONG.
In philosophy, of course, there’s a big debate about whether certain moral systems are better than others, or whether, indeed, there are “objective” moral facts at all. This has been going on for a few hundred years. By asserting that all we need to know about morality is that utilitarianism is correct, and that, further, there are strict facts about what sorts of things maximize utils, Harris adds nothing to the debate. He just sidesteps it.
By the way, Sam Harris came to Oxford several months ago to give a talk about The Moral Landscape called, “Who says science has nothing to say about morality?” This particular talk was hosted by Richard Dawkins. To kick off the Q&A, Dawkins pressed Harris on just what he was saying that was new. Here’s a bit of that conversation:
Dawkins: You’re facing the classic problems that moral philosophers have been facing for a long time… You appear to be bringing to those problems a new thought, which is that science, as opposed to just philosophic thinking — reason — could help. Now, moral philosophy is the application of scientific logical reasoning to moral problems. But you are actually bringing your neurobiological expertise to bear, which is a new way of doing it. Can you tell me about that, because I’m not quite clear about how doing neurophysiology adds insight into these moral problems.
Harris: Well, I actually think that the frontier between science and philosophy actually doesn’t exist… Philosophy is the womb of the sciences. The moment something becomes experimentally tractable, then the sciences bud off from philosophy. And every science has philosophy built into it. So there is no partition in my mind.
So by “science” Harris evidently means, “philosophy” … or at least something that’s not different from philosophy in a principled way. Let me check my brochure for a second and confirm what the title of his talk was — the radical-sounding title that sold so many tickets — yes, here it is, it’s, “Who says science has nothing to say about morality?” If we do a quick update based on Harris’ personal definition of science, we get … “Who says philosophy has nothing to say about morality?”
The answer is: no one ever said that. Moral philosophy plus facts is not “science” telling us objective moral truths.
I’ll close on a personal note. I was in the audience at Harris’ Oxford talk, and during the Q&A I nudged him on two points. First, how exactly did his argument get us over the is/ought divide; and second, what can “science” tell us about morality that we didn’t know from common sense (or plain old secular moral reasoning). Our exchange can be seen in the video below, and I’ll make just one comment before you watch it. Notice the first four words of Harris’ reply to my question: “The moment you grant …” My point has been that what Harris wants you to grant is a philosophical, not a scientific, premise; hence, his “moral landscape” is not scientifically determined as he claims.
Here’s the link (please forgive my animated gesticulation).
OTHER GOOD CRITIQUES OF HARRIS’ ARGUMENT:
I made a few stylistic edits to this post today, January 21, 2015, because I felt that the earlier version was much too snarky. This version is still snarky, but less so. For more of my thoughts about snarkiness in ethical argument please see, “Things I’ve learned (so far) about how to do practical ethics,” published elsewhere on this blog.