He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Surveying the Moral Landscape Again

Back in 2013, I responded to a TED Talk given by Sam Harris about how science can determine human values by pointing out that even if he's correct, this has consequences with which he should not be pleased.

Though my argument about the consequences of his view may have been highly unusual, I was far from the only philosopher to take issue with Harris' claim that science can determine human values.  And he graciously responded by offering a challenge to other philosophers seeking to refute his position.

Ryan Born's surprisingly brief essay was the winner of that challenge (in the sense that his response was judged to be the best), though he definitely did not persuade Harris to recant his position that science can determine morality.  Nonetheless, his essay from 2014 is well worth reading.

It provides an excellent summary of the basic argument against Harris' claim that he has found a way to determine human values using scientific means.  Harris, of course, responded to the essay with one of his own to defend his position.  And, having read it, I found it very helpful.

At the very least, it makes his position more understandable, whether one agrees with it or not.  His rebuttal offered to Ryan Born's points is fairly effective, and I recommend that everyone with an interest in the topic read it at his blog under the title "Clarifying the Moral Landscape" for that reason.

Harris' response isn't intended to address my previous critique, and I don't want to re-hash that argument here even though my argument could certainly use some refinement.  Nonetheless, I do want to address some of his responses to Born's essay.  Harris writes:

I also disagree with the distinction Ryan draws between “descriptive” and “prescriptive” enterprises. Ethics is prescriptive only because we tend to talk about it that way—and I believe this emphasis comes, in large part, from the stultifying influence of Abrahamic religion. We could just as well think about ethics descriptively. Certain experiences, relationships, social institutions, and technological developments are possible—and there are more or less direct ways to arrive at them. Again, we have a navigation problem. To say we “should” follow some of these paths and avoid others is just a way of saying that some lead to happiness and others to misery. “You shouldn’t lie” (prescriptive) is synonymous with “Lying needlessly complicates people’s lives, destroys reputations, and undermines trust” (descriptive). “We should defend democracy from totalitarianism” (prescriptive) is another way of saying “Democracy is far more conducive to human flourishing than the alternatives are” (descriptive). In my view, moralizing notions like “should” and “ought” are just ways of indicating that certain experiences and states of being are better than others.
Many readers seem confused by the fact that my account of ethics isn’t overtly prescriptive.

I don't find myself confused at all that Harris' account of ethics is first and foremost a descriptive account of how we experience various states.  It makes perfect sense if one's goal is to understand morality as a science in the general sense in which he uses the term "science".  Science is a descriptive endeavor, though its descriptions help clarify our sense of what the world is like and how to navigate it.

And in the same way, Harris thinks that the descriptions of science help us clarify our sense of the moral options available to us so that we can navigate them.  It's completely coherent with his general worldview, which tries to reduce everything to and ground everything in the descriptive methodology of science defined more generally.

The spuriousness of our traditional categories in moral philosophy can be seen in how we teach our children to be good. Why do we want them to be good in the first place? Well, at a minimum, we’d rather they not wind up bludgeoned in a ditch. More generally, we want them to flourish—to live happy, creative, meaningful lives—and to help make the world a better place. All this entails talking about rules and heuristics (deontology), a person’s character (virtue ethics), and the good and bad consequences of certain actions (consequentialism). But it all reduces to a concern for the well-being of our children and (generally to a lesser extent) of the people with whom they will interact. I don’t believe that any sane person is concerned with abstract principles and virtues—such as justice and loyalty—independent of the ways they affect our lives.

Harris is right, I think, that traditional categories in moral philosophy suggest clear distinctions that might not exist with such stark separation as they are often presented, though I do think they have more merit than he does (you can see why below).

I'm less sure that he's right that all these factors (moral duties and heuristics, personal character, consequences for ourselves and others) reduce to a concern for well-being.  Mature ethical reasoning on our part does seem to at least take into account well-being in some way, but I'm not sure why the consistent inclusion of well-being suggests that we can reduce those other factors to well-being.

What's the evidence for the claim that they all reduce to a concern about consequences?  The general attitude of parents cited by Harris doesn't persuade me on this point any more than Ryan Born's points persuaded him.

Ryan also seems to take for granted that the traditional categories of consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics are conceptually valid and worth maintaining. However, I believe that partitioning moral philosophy in this way begs the very question at issue—and this is one reason I tend not to identify myself as a “consequentialist.” Everyone knows—or thinks he knows—that consequentialism fails to capture much of what we value. This is true almost by definition, because, as Ryan observes, “serious competing theories of value and morality exist.”
But if the categorical imperative (one of Kant’s foundational contributions to deontology, or rule-based ethics) reliably made everyone miserable, no one would defend it as an ethical principle. Similarly, if virtues such as generosity, wisdom, and honesty caused nothing but pain and chaos, no sane person could consider them good. In my view, deontologists and virtue ethicists smuggle the good consequences of their ethics into the conversation from the start.

Harris is correct that both deontologists and virtue ethics take consequences into account, though I'm not sure that it's fair to say that either group of ethicists are smuggling them in.  The difference between a consequentialist and deontologist is one of the order in which their principles are invoked.

For a consequentialist, the first principle in ethical reasoning is the consideration of consequences, and the consideration of intentionality because intentions often lead to consequences, and the consideration of virtues is performed because our character produces consequences for ourselves and others.

For a deontologist, the order is different.  The first principle in ethical reasoning is the intentional carrying out of our moral duty (the Kantian categorical imperative, for example), though we may need to cultivate various virtues in order to carry out our moral duty reliably, and the foundational moral duty may be defined in the way that it is (at least in part) because it reduces the harmful consequences of our behavior when it is carried out.

I used this example because I wanted to avoid presenting my own position (which is in the virtue ethics tradition) in a self-serving way, but we could understand virtue ethics similarly as positing that the first principle of ethical reasoning is to define and cultivate virtues, virtues being understood as habits of character which lead us to behave intentionally in ways that consistently reduce harmful consequences for others and for ourselves.

That is not my own theory of virtue ethics, but it has some important parallels with the other examples, and so I've used it here.  Regardless, what differentiates the various theories of ethics from one another is the order in which the various factors in ethical reasoning are invoked.

Of course, the differing orders of application of these factors can have serious consequences for our navigation of the moral landscape, and thus for our well-being, and perhaps Harris might see them as worthwhile distinctions to make for that reason.

Surveying the Moral Landscape - Surveying the Moral Landscape Again

Note: The above is a picture I took while running alongside a river.


  1. Interesting: "But it all reduces to a concern for the well-being of our children and (generally to a lesser extent) of the people with whom they will interact. I don’t believe that any sane person is concerned with abstract principles and virtues—such as justice and loyalty—independent of the ways they affect our lives."

    I think further discussion would be needed to define "well-being," especially when it comes to doing the hard right. When we live in relative comfort, with adequate shelter, food, clothing, and safety, and the societal structures around us are conducive to freedom of expression, it's much easier to talk about ethics as contributing to our well-being. But in Nazi Germany, do the right thing and you could easily end up "bludgeoned in a ditch." Do the wrong thing, maybe turn in a Jewish family or two in exchange for money, and you might just "flourish," but in the worst sense of the word. Is it OK to kill a thousand Nazis with a "shock and awe" assault so that you can set free a few dozen Jewish prisoners, or do you try to besiege them and get them to surrender, knowing that the starving Jewish prisoners will likely die in the meantime? Is it OK to steal bread from your starving neighbor so that you don't starve? I have an idea about how Christian ethical systems would answer those questions, but I'm not sure how Harris would approach them. Would he let the Nazis live because doing so would result in more people surviving? (I doubt he would, though I'd like to ask him and find out the reasons why) It would be difficult to justify the option of killing all the Nazis without also making some kind of judgment about evil and virtue (e.g. that innocent suffering people are more worthy of our protection and consideration than are their oppressors).

    1. Jack, I think you're right that it would be valuable to discuss what Harris means by things like "well-being" or "human flourishing"?

      Also, I think Harris would agree with you that it is in thinking through the hard cases that we find moral bedrock.