Discussion of The Moral Landscape at Booktalk.org

Robert Tulip
Robert Tulip
Total Posts:  4
Joined  10-07-2011
10 July 2011 06:06

Loved this book!

We had a good discussion of it at http://www.booktalk.org/the-moral-landscape-by-sam-harris-f172.html

Here are some of my comments

The main agenda in The Moral Landscape is the political weakness of science as a moral force. Harris zeroes in on what to some may seem an obscure point of logic, the fact-value distinction, as the philosophical source of this weakness. For traditional positive science, scientific work is about providing accurate descriptions of reality. The enlightenment philosopher David Hume, who remains a main inspiration for Anglo-American analytical philosophy, observed that logically, a description of reality cannot directly imply an argument about how we should respond to that description, that an ‘is’ never implies an ‘ought’. Our response to situations, our sense of what we ought to do, Hume says does not come just from the evidence, but from our inner values, the norms of conduct that inform our moral sentiments. Moral norms, the basis of normative ethics, are thereby seen as having a distinct source from descriptive observations.

Harris brilliantly observes that this logical argument by Hume has devolved into the modern myth that science has no right to comment on morality. He argues that the categorical distinction drawn between fact and value as respectively descriptive and normative is logically invalid. Followers of Hume such as the empiricist philosophers Bertrand Russell, George Moore and Karl Popper have been wildly influential in getting scientists to see their work as purely descriptive and never normative. Harris points out against this tradition that relation to reality is the only thing that can make morality sound, so values should be based on facts.

How simple is this argument? My view is that Harris has an important and valid moral argument that values should be based on facts, but his logical presentation has some gaps. His main theme is that well-being is good, and that maximising well-being should be the aim of morality. This term well-being means roughly the same as flourishing. The trouble I have with this argument is that Harris wants to say it is a fact that well-being is good, like it is a fact that atmospheric CO2 concentration is increasing. This is the type of argument that Hume calls a category mistake, because all our moral sentiments are just expressions of value, not fact.

To deal with Hume’s logic, and especially with its degraded social impact in the idea that science has no contact with morality, we can either accept or reject it. Harris takes the rejection path, arguing valiantly that Hume commits a logical error. Harris feels it is so obvious that abundant happiness is better than abundant misery that the value we place on well-being amounts to a fact, something only a psychopath could dispute.

The trouble is that even this persuasive argument does not dispense with Hume’s logic regarding the source of moral sentiments. Like in geometry, we still need some moral axioms, fundamental assumptions that themselves are not based on observation. The claim that flourishing is good is the prime example of such a moral axiom. Harris owes an unconscious debt to the empiricist tradition in his effort to deny the fact-value tradition with his argument that some values are so important that they are facts. His resistance to the argument that morality can have a source other than observation is based on the distinguished view that anything not based on observation is metaphysical, and therefore suspect. Harris seems to find repugnant the idea that his cherishing of well-being could be a statement of metaphysics, because a deep sentiment within modern science is that metaphysics is intrinsically wrong.

This gets back to the nub of the problem: by rejecting metaphysics, science is nihilistic. Values requires axioms, and axioms are not derivable from observation. By accepting a source for ideas other than pure description, philosophy enters the metaphysical terrain that Kant called the synthetic a priori, or necessary truth. Anglo-American tradition has associated this continental idealist theory with totalitarianism, and has preferred to erect the logical barrier between facts and values, seen in extreme form in Gould’s crazy ‘separate magisteria’ argument. The problem is that the opposition to necessary truth is not sustainable, as values are needed to live by. To say ‘our only value is accurate description’ just does not cut it as a political reality; science has to show how accurate description provides the basis of an ethical philosophy.

Robert Tulip
Robert Tulip
Total Posts:  4
Joined  10-07-2011
10 July 2011 06:12

The problem is the epistemic status of the statement ‘flourishing is good’. Harris argues it is a fact, while mainstream science says it is an expression of sentiment, and cannot be called a fact because it is not an objective description of something real. Kant was alive to this problem of the seemingly absurd consequences of rigorous logic. Hume had argued on similar lines that we do not know if the sun will rise tomorrow, or if there is a necessary connection between cause and effect, or if our moral sentiments are objective. Kant held that to express certainty about these type of questions requires what he called the transcendental imagination, seeing causation, time and space as necessary truths. He recognised that this necessity is logical rather than empirical, so did not try to broaden the domain of the factual in the way that Harris does.

If we say a claim if factual, we implicitly say it is absolutely and objectively true. By definition a fact cannot be partly true because then it is no longer a fact. Analytically, we can say all facts are objectively and absolutely true. Can we say that about the statement ‘human flourishing is good’? While we may want to say yes, there is the nagging issue that it is true for us, but ‘it suits us to believe it’ is not the same as ‘it is objectively true’.

The trouble is, Harris argues there is a rigorous basis to ground values in facts and that in morality sound practical advice should be based on coherent theoretical foundations. 

Harris says “no framework of knowledge can withstand utter skepticism, for none is perfectly self-justifying.” (p204)  But his whole book is all about providing a framework of knowledge that withstands skepticism by the self-justifying argument that flourishing is good.  I just think there is an element of cultural confusion in the argument of The Moral Landscape, with some unexamined elements of logical positivism retained that are worth making explicit.  Harris would do well to allow his inner Kant to flourish more, expanding on the nod towards the categorical imperative on page 81 by exploring the need for self-justifying arguments. For example Kant says space and time are real because they are the necessary conditions of experience. Harris easily withstands those who might be skeptical about such obvious universal truths by calling them imbeciles (p204), hinting at the need for universal axioms.

I am sympathetic to Harris’s call to collapse the fact-value distinction (p14), and indeed this was a main theme of my MA thesis, on ethics and ontology in Heidegger.  Where I think that Heidegger and the Kantian tradition provide a better method than what Harris presents is in their recognition that basing values on facts does not diminish the autonomy of the moral sphere.  When Harris says (p14) “the divide between facts and values is illusory”, I still feel he is relying more on rhetoric than logic.

Total Posts:  1
Joined  15-11-2011
15 November 2011 07:00
Total Posts:  10
Joined  13-06-2011
15 November 2011 08:18

The problem is the epistemic status of the statement ‘flourishing is good’. Harris argues it is a fact, while mainstream science says it is an expression of sentiment, and cannot be called a fact because it is not an objective description of something real.

I could be wrong, but I thought Sam handled this basic objection in his book. The analogy he frequently draws is to that of physical health. It seems that the science of health and medicine is based on at least a few fundamental assumptions, one of them being that healthy is better than being sick or dead. If someone tries to tell you that it’s better to be sick or dead rather than healthy, we would probably assume they were suffering a psychological problem. But even if we learned that they weren’t, we would be under no obligation to credit their opinion on physical health (without some very persuasive supporting ideas). And without those ideas, it wouldn’t be unscientific to dismiss this opinion that illness and death are superior to being healthy.

Sam’s basic point is that not all ideas are equal, and not all objections to argument carry weight just by virtue of the fact that someone thought to utter them in the first place. He doesn’t seem to think anyone can get behind and undercut the statement that “flourishing is good.” I haven’t heard anyone do it. The best I’ve heard is for someone to say that it’s just an assumption, and no better or worse than any other.

Michael Kean
Michael Kean
Total Posts:  173
Joined  16-10-2011
23 November 2011 16:38
BlackLight - 15 November 2011 01:18 PM

The problem is the epistemic status of the statement ‘flourishing is good’. Harris argues it is a fact, while mainstream science says it is an expression of sentiment, and cannot be called a fact because it is not an objective description of something real.

He doesn’t seem to think anyone can get behind and undercut the statement that “flourishing is good.” I haven’t heard anyone do it. The best I’ve heard is for someone to say that it’s just an assumption, and no better or worse than any other.

Hey, have you guys read the 50-page speech by the character John Galt in the novel “Atlas Shrugged” (Ayn Rand, Plume USA, 1957/2007, pp924-979)?  It is a bit PI these days but rather relevant to the current discussion and I can’t really argue against it. 
P.S. I’m not trying to convert anyone to objectivism, but I do think on this topic Rand has some very relevant things to say.  And considering they were said some 54+ years ago (i.e. before the theory of evolution had the scientific influence and acceptance that it enjoys today) I find this pretty amazing.

In his speech Galt suggests that the simple ‘good’ in life is to live it naturally, as our consciousness-plus-instincts would suggest, perhaps like the lilies of the field live the life of a lily, a bird the life of a bird, a tiger the life of a tiger, etc.  Galt then goes on to describe some of man’s natural attributes and means of survival, such as his abilities to think and make choices in an awareness of his environment and own being (its strengths and weaknesses).

To live effectively, Galt suggests man must have a code of values to guide his thoughts and actions and that this code of values, if freely adopted, is also his moral code.  He then suggests, all that promotes human flourishing in life is the good and all that destroys human flourishing is the evil.  Thus a man’s own life, how he perceives and respects and lives it in step with his values, becomes his moral standard, his ongoing purpose and his reward or success in terms of the happiness he derives from achieving the expression of his own values.  Clearly, such a man truly loves his life and the dance of life within his environment.

Galt then goes on to consider how man ought to deal with others within his society, firstly suggesting that, as being dependent on our rationality for survival, it is only our own (indirect) knowledge and judgments of truth that we truly possess (rather than direct material possessions), may exploit or share or trade.  Galt suggests it is reality that will teach us where we have made errors in such judgments of truth. He also suggests that man’s judgments need to be directed by his own moral integrity, lively reason and respect for life if he is to minimise his errors of judgment and maximise his knowledge of truths.  Thus Galt suggests that a lover of life, and lover of man as a rational and volitional being, is also a lover of truth and a highly moral and heroic person.

In fact he suggests that man’s reason is also man’s moral faculty, and that the height of man’s nobility as a species is reflected in the man that is prepared to take full responsibility for his thinking.  Galt also suggests that the basic virtue or value-in-action that promotes human flourishing is man’s willingness and decision to think, from which all other human virtues must necessarily follow.  Of course this means Galt sees man’s basic vice as his refusal to know and judge truths.  It is in this sense that Galt castigates the “sceptics” and “mystics”.

The three most important values that Galt promotes are reason, purpose and self-esteem.  As already noted, reason is seen as man’s only legitimate means of gaining knowledge and judging truth (for himself and amongst his fellows).  Purpose is seen as the proper use of that reason and knowledge in each man’s pursuit of human flourishing.  A deep respect for life seems to demand a deep purpose for life.  Self-esteem is thus seen as a part of that respect for life and respect for the physical and mental competency life has granted man as a unique species.  According to Galt, all other human virtues are either implied or required by these three values.  Further, all man’s virtues pertain to man’s existence and the attributes of his particular species (his consciousness-plus-instincts) as a rational and volitional being.  Galt lists these virtues as rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness and pride.

Galt has little to say on the topic of emotions, except to see emotions as a capacity like a motor that can take us from point A to point B (where we want to go), given we feed that motor with the precious and undiluted fuel of our values-in-action.  This seems a very worthy observation: It suggests that instinctive emotions can provide the motor for our rational consciousness if we link the two (instincts and consciousness) via an immutable set of values.  Further, a true sense of joy or deep satisfaction is only achieved as we experience the congruence of planned outcomes, such as what we are able to produce and trade via our chosen and rational actions, motivated by our positive values.  Thus Galt sees the honest trader as a symbol of all that is good in man as a species, because the trader respects his counterparty as he respects himself and his own values (such as reason, volition and justice).  Conversely, Galt sees the abrogation of volition and the use of force as the end of morality amongst men and as disrespectful of life, and thus a promotion of the opposing principle of death.

Galt also has some interesting observations to make on the doctrine of original sin.  Original sin as a sin every man commits without free choice, Galt sees as immoral in itself.  Original sin as something innate within human nature Galt sees as a mockery of nature – and perhaps nature’s driving survival principle of “Life-and-Being Here-and-Now”.  Further, Galt suggests that to hold a man guilty for a crime where no possibility of innocence exists as flouting reason and thus he sees the punishment of man for his original sin as the ultimate injustice.  Galt, perhaps like Nietzsche, thus appeals to us to reconsider the root, and perhaps effect also, of the West’s Christian moral code.

Galt also considers the “myth” which surrounds the doctrine of original sin.  He suggests that eating from the tree of knowledge merely reflects that man evolved into a rational being (consciousness was added to his instincts, perhaps as the oversized prefrontal lobes and neo-cortex were added to the older cortex).  The knowledge of good and evil likewise reflects that man became a moral being, and thus perhaps somewhat aware of the values he must choose to promote human flourishing.  For his original sin, man was sentenced to earn his survival by his own labour, thus man became a productive being who had to learn how to use his volition and reason in order to survive.  He had to innovatively form his own purposes.  Finally, Galt says that man was sentenced to experience reproductive desire, and thus he gained the capacity for sexual intimacy and enjoyment through the process of shared human reproduction, life and flourishing.  By this means, Galt charges the myth with the sin of debasing all four cardinal values of the human species – (outward-looking & scientific) reason, (outward-dependent & social) morality, (independent & self-reliant) creativeness and (inward-looking & introspective) joy.  Finally he suggests that the creature in the Garden before the Fall, who was without reason, without morality, without productiveness and without joy, was actually no human at all, but more like a robot or perhaps an insect with instincts but without any consciousness.

Galt also has somewhat to say against the idea of self-sacrifice and altruism.  He suggests that a surrender of self as an act of altruistic self-sacrifice is contrary to the nature of our species and thus a betrayal of it, because he sees the ultimate sacrifice of self as a sacrifice of the immutable values which we embody as we live.  Conversely, he suggests that to truly love someone is to love the values they uniquely embody and express.

Galt therefore warns us against falling for the trap of believing in the superiority of others (and their systems of worship).  He sees each man as a wonderful end in himself rather than a means to the ends of others.  Thus if anything is to be adored, it is the values resident within us, which are also evidently resident, with greater or lesser degrees of expression, within our fellows.  These resident values are ours by inalienable fact, by the pattern or rule of our evolving species, as man.  Man is seen as a moral being, although morality is a matter of each man’s exercised reason and choice.  Galt thus sees legitimate human rights, such as the right to freedom, as conditions that allow man’s nature as a species to survive and flourish.  Thus true human rights are not conferred by government decree, but by process of evolution itself. 

In summary, Galt suggests that what constitutes and justifies our human flourishing lies in our objective evolution as a species.  In which case Kantian imperatives or moral axioms would not be required.  But has Galt (and Sam) been caught out by the naturalistic fallacy?  Or not?  Any comments?

[ Edited: 23 November 2011 20:00 by Michael Kean]