Harris Vignettes: evaluating “The Moral Landscape” a little at a time

On a friend’s advice I picked up Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values” in December and read it. I’ve been meaning to write something about it, a review of sorts, but I find my responses to it too numerous and disconnected to write a single book review. I might blame myself for this misdirection, but I think it is not entirely inappropriate to blame Harris for writing a book intersecting cognitive science and moral philosophy without first learning something about moral philosophy, or considering that his view of cognitive science is not the singular or consensus view. In short, he writes from a position of authority, authority which relies on his position as a neuroscientist – but uses this authority as if it allowed him to make unilateral statements about moral philosophy, and specifically about freewill. But the book, overall, remains a valuable contribution and of interest to anyone concerned with the general topic of the relation of science and values.

So, instead of try to write a comprehensive critique and appreciation of Harris’ book, I’ll instead post a series of vignettes – quotes, for which I’ll try to provide context, followed by critique. I will even try to post some sections with which I agree. I hope these relatively short and directed posts will provide ample opportunity for discussion.

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11 thoughts on “Harris Vignettes: evaluating “The Moral Landscape” a little at a time

  1. The is-ought fallacy (Hume) is a real fallacy, and is why knowledge is justified, true belief (Plato). In order to be knowledge, a belief must both be justified by the evidence, and true by correspondence. If we consider justified a belief that only corresponds, we commit the is-ought fallacy. If we consider a belief true merely due to evidence in favor of it, we commit the ought-is fallacy.

    Related to moral truth–if a justified (answering the question of Ethics–“How and why should we be or behave with the Other and self?”) moral standard doesn’t describe anything in reality, to consider it “true” commits the ought-is fallacy. If we take something from reality and call it moral truth, neglecting to consider whether it is justified (answering the question of Ethics), we commit the is-ought fallacy. In order for there to be moral truth, it must both correspond to (a) real being, and it must be justified (answering the question of Ethics). Its correspondence is not its justification (is=/=ought), and its justification is not its correspondence (ought=/=is).

    http://www.theswordandthesacrificephilosophy.blogspot.com/

  2. I also think it would be challenging to respond to Harris with one post. If I did, I think it would produce such a long and detailed post that nobody would be willing to read it and respond. As such, I agree that it makes sense to go bit by bit.

  3. @Ichthus77

    It’s not very useful or inviting to discussion to simply assert that the is/ought fallacy is “real”. Whether it is a “real” fallacy is in fact really a debate in the 20th century literature. I don’t think it’s useful here to go into the technical literature, but we can discuss the fundamental issue in laymens terms: first, no facts are independent from values in experience, because if you do not value facts, or a particular fact, within a given context, you won’t pay attention to it. This doesn’t, however, show that the fact itself is value-neutral, just that my experience of it is never without an evaluative context. Second, there are plenty of valuative facts – many performative utterances for instance, if I promise to remain polite to Harris in this discussion, it becomes a fact that I have promised this. This promise is clearly normative, and yet it is a result of the fact that I have uttered a promise.

    Concerning “true justified belief”, I don’t think anyone defends this view of knowledge, or at least that version of it, any longer:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gettier_problem

  4. “In order for there to be moral truth, it must both correspond to (a) real being, and it must be justified (answering the question of Ethics).”

    Clearly ethical statements correspond to “real being”, otherwise they would be nonsense. The fact we understand other people’s ethical claims proves they are “about” something – if there were no shared referents we simply wouldn’t know what other people were talking about.

    For example, Harris proves the basic outline of his view with easy cases, like “The Bad Life”:

    “…Today, your seven year old daughter was raped and dismembered before your eyes. Worse still, the perpetrator was your fourteen-year-old son, who was goaded to this evil at the point of a machete by a press gang of drug addled soldiers. You are now running barefoot through the jungle with killers in pursuit. While this is the worst day of your life, it is not entirely out of character with the other days of your life: since the moment you were born, your world has been a theatre of cruelty and violence.” (15)

    This “bad life” is contrasted over against an average idea of the “good life”, which certainly comes from his own biases. He does not mean to pretend one is the best life, and one is the worst, but rather that there clearly exists an evaluative difference between them: one is worse, and everyone recognizes this. His argument actually relies on everyone simply agreeing with this as a primitive:

    “Let me simply concede that if you don’t see a distinction between these two lives that is worth valuing… there may be nothing I can say that will attract you to my view of the moral landscape.” (16)

    I think Harris is right to make this concession – moral discourse relies on some basis of shared moral perception; if the values between two individuals are so different that one cannot recognize that the “bad life” is worse than the good one, there is simply no point in talking to them about ethics.

    So, I don’t think the debate about is/ought is about whether moral statements have referents at all. The question is whether being is univocal – whether being revealed normatively is the same as or on a continuum with being revealed descriptively. If you think there are different substances which correspond to descriptive and normative facts respectively, then you can run your is-does-not-equal-ought distinctions and maintain some semblance of the actual world we live in. But, the best analyses I’ve seen (starting with Heidegger, now being confirmed in modern cog sci) is that descriptive claims are species of normative claims, or rather that “objectivity” is a derivative form of practical engagement; first we encounter the world as a practical world of tools, and then through a transformation we begin to consider specific bits of it as if we were not in any specific relation to it – the neutralization of our own perspective corresponds with the arising of a “fact”, but in fact, it occurs for purely practical reasons (either it is useful, or I simply desire “knowledge”).

  5. @Ichthus77

    Wait a minute, I’m confused. What is your comment in response to? I don’t mention the is/ought fallacy in this post. I don’t mention anything specific about Harris at all. Is this just your general critique of Harris?

  6. I’m familiar w/ Gettier…mention him here…see first seventeen points:
    http://theswordandthesacrificephilosophy.blogspot.com/2008/08/sword-and-sacrifice-philosophy.html

    As far as corresponding to a real being goes–none of us are perfect, so none of us is the being to which a real ought would correspond. Even if we are temporarily perfect, that would mean the ought is only temporarily real/correspondent. It gets even more complicated, but I am limited on time.

    The real ought (if there is one) describes only the being to which it corresponds, if such a being does exist. It does not necessitate that such a being exists, of course–that would be the ought-is fallacy (of reification).

  7. @Ichthus77

    The way you are using the expression “real ought” appears to be an obfuscation. If the “real ought” does not “correspond” to anything, then it has no meaning. Moral discussions are, in fact, meaningful, and therefore they respond to a content in the world which is perceptible to more than one individual. In fact, I think moral discussions are discussions about values, and they tend to be productive only when there is more agreement than disagreement about what values are the right ones, and what priorities they should take. Values are not non-existents, they are perspectives and we can recognize them in others through our capacity for empathy.

    An ethics based on “real oughts” which are radically distinct from real existent values and norms seems theological because it requires a radically separate form of intuition through which the “real ought” would be recognized.

    As for “none of us our perfect” – this has no bearing on real questions of ethics. We don’t need to actualize oughts in order for them to correspond – because notions can correspond to hypothetical actions. If you really want a referent for the totality of “real oughts”, it is simply any person as their best moral judgement would have them act. This is virtual, of course, but we use virtual referents to understand the meaning of utterances all the time – nothing strange about that.

  8. At a more basic level, moral actions need not correspond to a real physical entity to be real and avoid the is/ought fallacy anymore than an order, such as “Get me some red soup” need to correspond to a physical entity in order to be real. Performative utterances are not descriptions of states of affairs (certainly, “Get me some red soup” is not a description of my mental state of desiring someone to get me red soup – it is an enactment of that desire). And yet, they clearly exist. I see no reason to not think of moral reality much differently.

    Not every philosophical tradition sets up its presuppositions to make is/ought look like a fallacy. For Hegel, as an example, an ought is far more real than a state of affairs – i.e. the moral rightness of an action is concrete, whereas the existence of a chair is merely contingent.

  9. N.S., so sorry for the delayed reply.

    You said, “ If the “real ought” does not “correspond” to anything, then it has no meaning.”

    –True.

    You said, “Moral discussions are, in fact, meaningful,”

    –If the meaning is a construct, there is no objective moral truth.

    You said, “there is more agreement than disagreement about what values are the right ones,”

    –truth is true regardless agreement/disagreement

    You said, “Values are not non-existents … An ethics based on “real oughts” which are radically distinct from real existent values and norms seems theological because it requires a radically separate form of intuition through which the “real ought” would be recognized.”

    –Do you think values and norms are non-existents or real existents? Why do you think real existent oughts would require a radically separate form of intuition than real existent values and norms? Do you think oughts are different from values and norms?
    You said “notions can correspond to hypothetical actions. If you really want a referent for the totality of “real oughts”, it is simply any person as their best moral judgement would have them act. This is virtual, of course, but we use virtual referents to understand the meaning of utterances all the time – nothing strange about that.”

    –Care to expand on this? “Best moral judgement” sounds like subjectivism. Hypothetical=/=categorical. Virtual=/=real.
    You said, “At a more basic level, moral actions need not correspond to a real physical entity to be real and avoid the is/ought fallacy anymore than an order, such as “Get me some red soup” need to correspond to a physical entity in order to be real.”

    –How is “get me some red soup” real? To what does it correspond? Below you suggest it corresponds to (or, is an enactment of) a subjective desire. How does this relate to objective moral truth?

    You said, “Performative utterances are not descriptions of states of affairs (certainly, “Get me some red soup” is not a description of my mental state of desiring someone to get me red soup – it is an enactment of that desire). And yet, they clearly exist. I see no reason to not think of moral reality much differently.”

    So you are a subjectivist? Do you think Sam Harris is a subjectivist?
    “Not every philosophical tradition sets up its presuppositions to make is/ought look like a fallacy. For Hegel, as an example, an ought is far more real than a state of affairs – i.e. the moral rightness of an action is concrete, whereas the existence of a chair is merely contingent.”

    I’m not sure you understand the significance of the is-ought fallacy, or, I don’t understand how it relates to Hegel (whom I have not studied in-depth). And I would say that if Hegel considered the “real ought” to be God, it is no wonder he considered it ‘more’ real (assuming you are correct). Would I be mistaken to assume he considered God (the real ought) “necessary being” – and all of creation to be “contingent” on his being? But that does not violate the is-ought fallacy.

    I just wrote two things that may shed some light:
    http://ichthus77.blogspot.com/2011/01/norris-gettier-euthyphro-hume-and-plato.html
    http://ichthus77.blogspot.com/2011/01/answering-gettier.html

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