Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Relative Morality

Okay, I haven't read Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, so I can't comment on it but Russell Blackford has reviewed it and Harris has responded, in a way, at Jerry Coyne's blog.

Russell makes the considerably cogent point, in my not-so-humble opinion, that:

... Harris overreaches when he claims that science can determine human values. Indeed, it's not clear how much the book really argues such a thing, despite its provocative subtitle. Harris presupposes that we should be motivated by one very important value, namely the well-being of conscious creatures, but he does not claim that this is a scientific result (or a result from any other field of empirical inquiry). If, however, we combine this fundamental value with knowledge as to how conscious creatures' well-being can actually be aided, we can then decide how to act. We can also criticize existing moral systems, customs, laws, political policies, and so on, if we are informed by scientific knowledge of how they affect the well-being of conscious creatures.

While this is all coherent, Harris is not thereby giving an account of how science can determine our most fundamental values or the totality of our values. If we presuppose the well-being of conscious creatures as a fundamental value, much else may fall into place, but that initial presupposition does not come from science. It is not an empirical finding. Thus, even if we accept everything else in The Moral Landscape, it does not provide an account in which our policies, customs, critiques of policies and customs, and so on, can be determined solely by empirical findings: eventually, empirical investigation runs out, and we must at some point simply presuppose a value at the bottom of the system, a sort of Grundnorm that controls everything else.

Harris is highly critical of the claim, associated with Hume, that we cannot derive an "ought" solely from an "is" – without starting with people's actual values and desires. He is, however, no more successful in deriving "ought" from "is" than anyone else has ever been. The whole intellectual system of The Moral Landscape depends on an "ought" being built into its foundations.
How often have the Gnu Atheists told us that that there can't be a moral regime in nature (i.e. a God) because of the cruelty and wastefulness of nature, particularly natural selection? You can't have it both ways.

Harris has, so far, avoided the issue:

Blackford (along with everyone else) has gotten bogged down in the concepts of "should" and "ought." We simply don't have to think about morality in these terms.
If we don't, then theists don't either.

If you're not thinking about "should" and "ought" then you're doing ethology not ethics.
Like I said, I haven't read Harris' book but it sure sounds like he is simply assuming that his moral sentiments are self-evidently true and, therefore, do not need to be defended. Need I mention what his reaction to any theist who did that would be?
Bravo, you were visited with simply excellent idea
The author is really cool. But some of the commentators are just posting stupid words.
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