Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sam Harris and the Moral Landscape

Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values is several years old at this point but is still generating controversy. Ross Douthat's recent take on it is here. For my part,  Harris is worth reading because of the straightforward, transparent manner in which he argues his case; Harris is an honest atheist and sincerely wishes to rationally persuade his audience. He also has a certain philosophical naivete, such that he does not always perceive the philosophical consequences of his positions, consequences that atheists have long struggled to avoid. I think this latter aspect of Harris's writing accounts for the not quite friendly response he has gotten from some secular reviewers. But more on this later.

Harris has issued a challenge to critics, offering a cash award for the best criticism of his book and an even larger cash award if that criticism persuades him. (Given that Harris is by definition the judge of the latter, it's not too much of a leap to suppose that prize is in no danger of being won.) I might submit an essay to this challenge just to see what happens. If I do, the essay will run along ideas like the following.

Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape acknowledges a fundamental challenge to his attempt to determine human values through science: If it is through science that human values are to be determined, how is the value of science itself to be determined? Harris recognizes the only possible answer: Science cannot  determine its own value, so that value must be recognized pre-scientifically:
Science is defined with reference to the goal of understanding the processes at work in the universe. Can we justify this goal scientifically? Of course not. Does this make science itself unscientific? If so, we appear to have pulled ourselves down by our bootstraps. (p. 17 - all references to paperback edition)

In the chapter "The Future of Happiness", he argues in this way:

It seems to me, however, that in order to fulfill our deepest interests in this life, both personally and collectively, we must first admit that some interests are more defensible than others. Indeed, some interests are so compelling that they need no defense at all. (p. 191)

The interest of finding truth through science is, of course, the principal interest Harris has in mind. In the Afterword to the paperback edition, Harris puts the matter in a way that makes the philosophical implications clear:

The fatal flaw that Blackford claims to have found in my view of morality could be ascribed to any branch of science - or to reason generally. Certain "oughts" are built right into the foundations of human thought. We need not apologize for pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps in this way. It is better than pulling ourselves down by them. (p.201-202, emphasis mine)

The italicized sentence is the one that will cause heartache in Harris's secular critics, for although Harris appears not to know it,  it is a foundational principle of traditional natural law philosophy, something modern philosophers have been hoping to discredit since the Enlightenment. Indeed, the typical modern philosopher thinks natural law philosophy was discredited at the dawn of the Enlightenment with the "discovery" of the fact-value distinction. This is why Harris's secular critics sometimes, like Colin McGinn, simply repeat the fact-value distinction and think they are done - for the fact-value distinction is a foundational principle of modern philosophy and functions as something of a litmus test. Denying it serves to identify oneself as one of those naive pre-modern philosophers who still believes in things like the natural law, and therefore may be justifiably and summarily dismissed (which is what McGinn does).

As I say, one of the attractive features of Harris is his relative philosophical innocence with respect to the larger philosophical battles waging around him. He simply calls things as he sees them, and does not hedge his views or couch them in obscurity for the sake of broader philosophical consequences. In this case, Harris acknowledges what is obviously true, that there are certain values (certain "oughts") that are self-evident to human reason and need no other justification. He does this because he sees the self-evident value of scientific inquiry. What he doesn't see (which his secular critics recognize with horror) is how much of modern philosophy is undermined, and classical philosophy affirmed, with that simple acknowledgement.

For starters, the Kantian project is shown to be misguided. For Kant's premise is that nothing can be truly known without a prior evaluation of the range of human reason - a "critique" of reason that defines its powers and limits. But if the value of something (in this case science) can be immediately known absent a prior critique, then the Kantian project is shown to be unnecessary and even counter-productive, since it may result in the obscuring of truth that can be immediately known yet might not survive a critique.

Harris doesn't see that the consequentialism he favors - and is popular amongst modern philosophers - is put in danger by acknowledgement of fundamental natural law principle:

Here is my (consequentialist) starting point: all questions of value (right and wrong, good and evil, etc.) depend upon the possibility of experiencing such value. Without potential consequences at the level of experience - happiness, suffering, joy, despair, etc. - all talk of value is empty. Therefore, to say that an act is morally necessary, or evil, or blameless, is to make (tacit) claims about its consequences in the lives of conscious creatures (whether actual or potential). (p. 62)

But Harris has already given us an instance of where the talk of value without respect to potential consequences is not empty: Talk about the value of science itself, which is based on an "ought" built into the foundations of human thought, not demonstrated via its consequences. Given that Harris acknowledges the existence of at least one pre-consequentialist "ought", he must acknowledge the possibility that there might be others (maybe there isn't, but the possibility can't simply be dismissed without investigation). And if there are other pre-consequentialist "oughts", they must be discovered and understood and consequentialist conclusions evaluated in light of them rather than vice-versa.

Another way of saying the point is this: Harris recognizes that "certain oughts are built right into the foundations of human thought." He has in mind the value of science. We "ought" to prefer truth to falsehood and science is the best way of distinguishing between the two. His project is to recognize the value of science pre-scientifically, then use science to bootstrap a comprehensive theory of good and evil. All well and good.

But he fails to see certain consequences of this view. The first is that it is clear that the most important values are the ones known pre-scientifically, for it is on the pre-scientific value of science itself that Harris's whole project is based. All other values stand or fall on it. The second consequence is that there may be other pre-scientific values other than the value of science itself, other "oughts" built right into the foundations of human thought. Simply because Harris only recognizes the value of science and simply ignores any other possible pre-scientific values does not mean that they are not there (and, incidentally, violates Harris's oft-stated distinction between "no answers in practice" and "no answers in principle" p.  3)

It is no good to critique other possible pre-scientific values based on the results of Harris's scientific inquiry into morality: For those other potential pre-scientific values compete with science at the level of science's own value. To take the value of science for granted, then evaluate other potential pre-scientific values in light of science's conclusions, is simply to beg the question against other pre-scientific values that might compete with the value of science. Those other candidate's for value must be evaluated the same way the value of science was: Pre-scientifically.

What I have been just discussing exposes a typical misunderstanding of natural law philosophy found in writers like, well, Sam Harris. Traditional opposition to things like abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage and contraception comes in for rough treatment by Harris in The Moral Landscape, where he writes as though his scientific morality case against traditional views is conclusive almost before he states it. What he doesn't understand is that his case for his scientific morality on those questions begs the question against traditional natural law opposition to them: For that natural law opposition operates at the level of pre-scientific value, "oughts" built right into the foundation of human thought itself, and is susceptible to criticism of the "scientific morality" sort only to the extent that the question is begged.
The natural law opposition may be opposed, but it must be done in the same way that the pre-scientific value of science was defended - not through science, but a philosophical case.

The irony of Harris's project, an irony that I think his modernist critics recognize and want to distance themselves from, is that to the extent Harris is right he must leave off the scientific criticism of the things he most wants to attack (traditional moral views on matters sexual and life-related) and fight them on the traditionalists own turf in the arena of natural law. For the game is all about those pre-scientific values - by Harris's own account the most important ones - that he acknowledges exist but modern philosophers have been struggling to banish to the realm of mythology since the sixteenth century.

The Moral Landscape is, I think, a case of needing to be careful what you wish for.

I will have more to say about Harris's book and its relation to traditional thinking on morality in subsequent posts.


Kevin Tye said...

This is good stuff. I would be interested to read your take on Jeremy Rifkin's view of the "Empathic Civilization". It is something along the lines that science can explain non-scientific things (like why we should care about each other). Here is the link:

David T. said...

Kev, I'll take a look at it.