Sunday, February 9, 2014

My response to Sam Harris's Morality Challenge

Below is my entrance into a competition created by the 'New Atheist' Sam Harris on his blog site. He asked readers  to submit 1000 words designed to him that his central thesis (see here) in the "Moral" Landscape" is wrong or flawed. It is of course very hard to respond and put my 'subjectivist' case in so few words, but he was offering $10,000 for the winner and $20,000 for anyone who persuaded him, so I thought why not?! For readers who do not have time to read Sam Harris own 'response to critics' he has summarised his core thesis as follows:

Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, of course, fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science. On this view, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect 
to what they deem important in life.'

Dear Sam,

In response to your central argument in the “Moral Landscape” I would argue your premises are correct, but the conclusion does not follow. It is true that our subjective values depend on our consciousness and experience of the world as sentient creatures, but it does not follow, as you assert, that ‘there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science.’ To establish your case, you have to show us that science can reveal moral ‘truths’, which exists independent of what anybody happens to desire or prefer. One can demonstrate, scientifically, that a wooden table has certain objective chemical and physical properties that exist regardless of what anyone thinks about the matter. But how could science ever demonstrate that, for example, cruelty is ‘wrong’ regardless of what people prefer? If all people on earth approved of cruelty would it still be wrong? And if so, what is this strange ‘wrongness’ quality in cruelty that you say science can detect? My argument is that science has never revealed a realm of moral truth.

You bring forward several arguments designed to show that moral statements have a truthful quality, but they do not convince. It’s obviously true, you say, that some level of human welfare must be better than ‘the worst possible misery for everyone.’ But actually this is not a ‘true’ statement in the same sense as ‘water is at a higher temperature than ice’. There is no quality of ‘betterness’ that science could detect, built into a world based on more or less misery!  That happiness is ‘better’ than misery is actually your own subjective value judgment. As it turns out, of course, most humans would share that value judgment! But that gets you ‘inter-subjectivity’ not an objective moral truth independent of human preference.

Your analogy between medicine and morality does nothing to solve ‘the value problem’. There are truths to be known about ‘medicine’ if we care about human health. Just as there will be wise courses of action if we care about  ‘human well-being’. But it does not follow that anybody ought to care about either their own, or anybody else’s ‘well-being’ (or health). There is no way ‘science’ can show that a person who does not care about the health of children growing up in poverty, for example, is ‘wrong’ to do so.

In attempt to ground human values in science, you claim that ‘people’s values and desires are fully determined by an objective reality, and that we can conceptually get behind all this.’ But this is beside the point. Science probably can reveal a great deal about how people came to hold their values. Studying value formation, however, will not change the observed reality that people have, at any given moment, very different value hierarchies. Some people for example will place a high value on the welfare of factory-farmed chickens. Others will place far greater value on their freedom to consume cheap chicken meat. Nobody in that debate is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; there is just a conflict of value preference.

At one point in your response to critics, you discuss the differences between ice-cream flavors and moral values. You admit that the difference between ‘mere aesthetics and moral imperatives… is more a matter of there being higher stakes, and consequences that reach into the lives of others, than of there being distinct classes of facts regarding the nature of human experience.’ That statement is exactly right, but you do not seem to realise that it undermines your whole case! Our moral preferences are formally no different to our preferences for certain ice-cream flavours! Of course, as you point out, there is likely to be a qualitative difference: the disgust you feel towards an act of cruelty is likely to be much stronger than your disgust with strawberry flavoured ice cream. And these two things will therefore have a different priority within your value hierarchy. But, the point is, the vast majority of people think there is something additional to consider in the case of cruelty. For them it’s not just a matter of what you want or prefer. Nor is a matter of the likely consequences of cruelty (ie break down in social relations etc) and how you feel about that. For most people there is also the simple fact that cruelty is ‘wrong’. Otherwise how could they condemn the perpetrator of cruelty, who really likes being cruel (and didn’t care about the impact on social fabric etc), for doing something morally ‘wrong’? But, my point is, most people are deluded about the ‘wrongness’ of cruelty. There is no evidence, scientific or otherwise, for such a belief. I must immediately say, of course, I detest cruelty…

You, like most people, would probably think that the subjectivist account of morality leads directly to pure nihilism. But actually subjectivism, though it does do away with ‘moral truth’, leaves us with everything we need to construct workable moral systems. Without moral facts we still have human desires. And we can still study and observe the consequences of human actions and rules. We can therefore evaluate whether our actions/rules are effective in satisfying our desires (or we can re-evaluate our desires in light of the consequences). Moral issues are formally no different from road rules. Most people want to travel safely when they drive. It therefore makes sense for us to have rules like ‘drive on the right’! This makes for an orderly and safe system. In other words, for the subjectivist morality is only ever an instrumentalist affair: the statement ‘you ought to do X,’ only ever makes sense when immediately followed with, ‘if you want Y’. In this above sense there can indeed be a science of morality. But Sam, what science cannot detect is an objective realm of moral truth, independent of human desire or preference. This is the moral law delusion, which, like the God Delusion, most people still suffer from!  

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