Ophelia Benson continues to tangle with the silly and unjustifiable argument by Sam Harris that science can produce morality. Harris has shown himself to be beyond the realm of reason on this matter (and perhaps others), but if it brings her joy, I say mazel tov. At long last, someone is deploying against Harris what may be the most powerful argument against using theism to justify morality: Euthyphro’s dilemma.

Classicists reading this will recall this from the Socratic dialogue in which Socrates prepares to fight the accusation that his views corrupted the youth of Athens. Euthyphro is at the courthouse to prosecute his father-in-law for murder. Socrates asks why he would do this, rather than letting someone else do it or even giving his father a pass for what turns out to be a somewhat convoluted charge.

Euthyphro, after typical Platonic banter, argues that he must do it because it is a pious act, and it is pious because the gods have commanded it. Socrates asks “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” – in other words, is it good because the gods commanded it, or did the gods happen to command doing something good? If Euthyphro says that right and wrong derive simply from the gods having said one thing or another, he must first confront the possibility that the gods will disagree about what is right. He must also confront that the gods have done many things which are nonetheless regarded as wrong, creating a conflict not only among the gods about right and wrong, but a conflict between divine commands and divine examples. Finally, he must answer whether he would commit murder or other acts widely regarded as wrong if the gods ordered him to do so. If so, he is declaring morality to be not only relative, but arbitrary and profoundly mutable. If not, or if he takes the other fork of the first dilemma and denies that what the gods’ will must be right, then he is saying that there is some separate source of morality which can be used to judge the gods as well. At which point, Socrates can pounce and suggest that Euthyphro would be better to ignore the gods’ will and simply behave according to the moral code he would use to select between the gods’ commands, or to supervene their orders. If the gods are bound by some extrinsic code of right and wrong, are they worthy of worship?

Harris’s argument for a scientific account of morality basically says that right and wrong can be scientifically ascertained by examining the brain state of some – or even all – sentient beings, and avoiding that which maximizes suffering for them. This more-or-less maps to Euthyphro’s dilemma by replacing “pious” with “right” and “loved by the gods” with “enjoyed by some sentient beings.” As Benson points out, the Socratic reply still holds because Harris is firmly choosing to say that right and wrong are determined by what sentient beings think they are, that they have no extrinsic reality:

And suppose someone did come up with a survey that found – convincingly – that aggregate well-being was higher when women were more or less forced, by the lack of opportunity to do anything else, to be wives and mothers and nothing else, and lower when they had wider opportunities and correspondingly more freedom. Suppose there is such a survey, that shows aggregate well-being higher and women’s well-being lower. Suppose a world where women are distinctly a minority, as they are in India and China because of selective abortion. Would that outcome – a less happy minority but a happier total – be moral?

No; not in my view at least. But the idea that we can make morality a science by basing it on universal desire for well-being seems to mean that it would be.

And thus does Euthyphro’s dilemma save us from Harris’s asinine argument. If morality were simply a matter of measuring opinion or aggregate brain state, presumably Benson would be willing to accept whatever the findings might be. That’s how science works.

It’s not how aesthetics or morality work, and that tells us something important about them. Those are different spheres of human endeavor, and people have spent a few thousand years talking about this and figuring out what does and doesn’t work in such conversations. They might all be wrong, but ignoring that literature just means reinventing the wheel and having lots of people wonder why you thought it should be triangular. Harris knows the literature exists, and proudly declares that he’s ignored it:

critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. There are two reasons why I haven’t done this: First, while I have read a fair amount of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of mind. Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like “metaethics,” “deontology,” “noncognitivism,” “anti-realism,” “emotivism,” and the like, directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe. My goal, both in speaking at conferences like TED and in writing my book, is to start a conversation that a wider audience can engage with and find helpful.

Before, I wondered if Harris’s arguments were those of a crank. There is no doubt that these are exactly such arguments. Serious people who want to advance a field of study may arrive at their conclusions without having a deep knowledge of the field’s history, but before taking that argument to the public, they first present it to the experts for what scientists call “peer review,” and what Harris seems to think is just boring jabber.

It would be a respectable position to argue that some fields of philosophy have become so esoteric and jargon-bound as to be uninteresting to the general public. But it is not a respectable position to simultaneously argue that such a field is crucial to all society and is to be your own life’s work. If it’s important enough to write a book about, it’s important enough to shop around to relevant experts for peer review – ideally through the formal channels created by journals – appropriately citing prior work on the problem and engaging with the responses of professionals. That’s how science works, and it’s how philosophy works, too.

There is a name for people who declare that their ideas are too important and earth-shattering to be reviewed by relevant experts, or even to bother situating in the contexts of historical dialogue on their topic, and that they alone are brilliant enough to develop the pearls they now offer. The name is “cranks.” Harris has done plenty to earn his spot next to the perpetual motion advocates.

Comments

  1. #1 John S. Wilkins
    May 13, 2010

    I will now retire the draft of my own response to Harris. You cover all the same points, more eloquently and more. I hadn’t thought of the Euthyphro Dilemma; it’s a great tu quoque.

  2. #2 Shashi
    May 14, 2010

    “If [reality] were simply a matter of measuring [physically measurable quantities], presumably [a creationist] would be willing to accept whatever the findings might be. That’s how science works. It’s not how [reality] works, and that tells us something important about [it].”

    I have replaced a few of the words from your essay to try and make the point that Harris is trying to make.

    It’s amazing how you constantly miss the point. Creationists fundamentally disagree about evaluation of reality with people like you and I. They fall back on the bible and you and I fall back on science. Now, based on this lack of agreement on what constitutes ‘reality’ [Science vs Bible] would you be willing to give up the fight about science based reality? I presume not. Harris is merely saying that we can conveniently ignore anyone who pretends that their fundamental concern is not the suffering of sentient beings when it comes to morality [no matter what they like to tell themselves] in the same way we ignore people who like a talk about reality from the point of view of the bible. If someone does not agree about the assumptions [which to most are obvious and reasonable] it does nothing to suggest that a conversation about it cannot be had with someone who does agree. I would go take it one step further and claim that current intellectual community [i]could possibly[/i] be in the same place where majority of the ‘experts’ were before the scientific revolution i.e. trying to understand the world through revelation and not reason [analogy being that they disagreed about the assumptions that had to be made, much like Benson and other 'experts' are disagreeing at the moment] It is completely possible that people will give-up trying to dissent from Harris’ assumptions and would then reach the same conclusions.

  3. #3 Marion Delgado
    May 14, 2010

    If science produces Sam’s morality, I’ll take faith, I guess. But I thought that was the message of Expelled?

    Seriously, he wants us to exterminate people born to Moslem parents because 3,000 years ago the God he claims not to believe in was a realtor.

  4. #4 Anton Mates
    May 15, 2010

    critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. There are two reasons why I haven’t done this: First, while I have read a fair amount of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of mind.

    What a bizarre thing for an academic to say. Does Harris think it’s really that important to the rest of us how he came up with his ideas? The point of engaging with the literature is to check what ideas other people have come with on the subject, just in case you don’t have a monopoly on every useful observation in the last 2500 years.

    Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like “metaethics,” “deontology,” “noncognitivism,” “anti-realism,” “emotivism,” and the like, directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.

    That’s kind of adorable. “I refuse to deal with the scientific and philosophical work on this topic because long words are boring!”

  5. #5 Anton Mates
    May 15, 2010

    Shashi,

    “If [reality] were simply a matter of measuring [physically measurable quantities], presumably [a creationist] would be willing to accept whatever the findings might be. That’s how science works. It’s not how [reality] works, and that tells us something important about [it].”

    I have replaced a few of the words from your essay to try and make the point that Harris is trying to make.

    In so doing you’ve equated a particular category of human thought and activity with “reality,” and you’ve equated Ophelia Benson with a creationist. That illustrates rather nicely why Harris’ approach makes no sense.

    It’s amazing how you constantly miss the point. Creationists fundamentally disagree about evaluation of reality with people like you and I. They fall back on the bible and you and I fall back on science. Now, based on this lack of agreement on what constitutes ‘reality’ [Science vs Bible] would you be willing to give up the fight about science based reality?

    Who in this debate is saying anything about “giving up the fight?” So far as I can see, virtually all of Harris’ opponents have been quite clear that they have no problem with condemning and opposing positions and behavior they find immoral. Harris maintains that he’s beset by FGM-coddling “over-educated, atheistic moral nihilists,” but he doesn’t bother to name names.

    Harris is merely saying that we can conveniently ignore anyone who pretends that their fundamental concern is not the suffering of sentient beings when it comes to morality [no matter what they like to tell themselves] in the same way we ignore people who like a talk about reality from the point of view of the bible. If someone does not agree about the assumptions [which to most are obvious and reasonable]

    Except that they’re not obvious and reasonable to most. We know they’re not, because actual empirical research has been done on this question. See Jonathan Haidt on the pillars of morality, see Marc Hauser on testing our moral sense. Hell, see PZ Myers’ recent post on “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and look at the comment thread.

    For the vast majority of human beings, minimizing the total suffering of sentient beings is simply not their fundamental moral concern, nor is any other consequentialist goal. Harris’ failure to recognize this fact suggests that he’s either ignorant of the field he’s trying to revolutionize or, well, a crank.

  6. #6 Oedipus Maximus
    May 17, 2010

    I am reminded of this portion a lecture by Feynman titled “The Uncertainty of Values”:

    And finally I would like to make a little philosophical argument–this I’m not very good at, but I would like to make a little philosophical argument to explain why theoretically I think that science and moral questions are independent. The common human problem, the big question, always is “Should I do this?” It is a question of action. “What should I do? Should I do this?” And how can we answer such a question? We can divide it into two parts. We can say, “If I do this what will happen?” That doesn’t tell me whether I should do this. We still have another part, which is “Well, do I want that to happen?” In other words, the first question–“If I do this what will happen?”–is at least susceptible to scientific investigation; in fact, it is a typical scientific question…. But the question “Do I want this to happen”–in the ultimate moment–is not. Well, you say, if I do this, I see that everybody is killed and, of course, I don’t want that. Well, how do you know you don’t want people killed? You see, at the end you must have some ultimate judgment.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=mHk4iAQSW6UC&pg=PA44
    [A great book, consisting of transcripts of lectures by Feynman.]

  7. #7 Deepak Shetty
    May 18, 2010

    @Anton

    For the vast majority of human beings, minimizing the total suffering of sentient beings is simply not their fundamental moral concern, nor is any other consequentialist goal.

    Ah but how do you define what is moral? If for e.g. you believe being pro gay marriage is *moral* then why is it moral?.
    I believe Sam’s measure is a start, do you have anything that’s better? Note we are talking about reasonable people trying to arrive at a definition that works , not something that satisfies everyone.
    I guess Josh and Co would ask the mathematicians to prove their axioms too!.

  8. #8 Anton Mates
    May 18, 2010

    Deepak,

    Ah but how do you define what is moral?

    I’m a subjectivist; I define what is moral by its relation to my own moral values. (Or the moral values of another person or group of people, if you’re asking what they consider moral.) In turn, I define certain values as moral mostly by the emotions they’re associated with. E.g., if I’m proud of myself when I satisfy a value, and guilt-ridden when I don’t, and proud of other people who satisfy it, and indignant when they don’t, then it’s a moral value.

    Secondarily, I observe some other unifying features about these values in myself and other people…they tend to be concerned with social interactions and human behavior, for instance, and they tend to fall into some fairly constrained categories like Haidt’s Five Pillars. I’m not sure those features are sufficiently universal to warrant adding them to the definition of “moral,” but they are common enough to suggest we’re talking about a genuine phenomenon in human psychology.

    If for e.g. you believe being pro gay marriage is *moral* then why is it moral?

    I consider it unfair to treat a pair of consenting adults differently depending on whether or not they happen to be the same gender, and unkind to put legal obstacles in the way of two people who love each other and want to build a life together. As defined above, compassion and fairness are two of my moral values. So supporting same-sex marriage is moral as far as I’m concerned.

    I believe Sam’s measure is a start, do you have anything that’s better? Note we are talking about reasonable people trying to arrive at a definition that works , not something that satisfies everyone.

    Sure; you could use my emotion-centered, subjectivist definition from above. Or Jonathan Haidt’s

    “Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, practices, institutions, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.”

    Or John Mikhail’s characterization of a “universal moral grammar” as characterized by a consistent intuitive sense of jurisprudence, a set of “deontic concepts” (“obligatory,” “permissible,” “forbidden”), common topics of prohibition, and a particular set of regions of the brain consistently involved in moral cognition.

    I would say that any of these does a far better job of covering the moral beliefs and reasoning of most “reasonable” people than Sam Harris’ version does.

    OTOH, they’re all descriptivist, and maybe you’d prefer a prescriptive characterization of morality. In that case I’d refer you to everybody from Socrates to Hume and Mill to Rawls and Mackie. That’s why I don’t think it makes much sense to defend Harris (or for Harris to defend himself) as “making a start.” We’ve already made a start. People have been discussing ways to clarify moral conversations for the last 2500 years or so, and Harris doesn’t seem to think he needs to take them into account. That’s crankish behavior.

    I guess Josh and Co would ask the mathematicians to prove their axioms too!

    Not at all. Mathematicians don’t claim that their axioms are supported by science. Nor–in general–do they claim that their axioms are endorsed by all “reasonable people;” they may not even believe those axioms themselves. Math isn’t prescriptive.

  9. #9 Deepak Shetty
    May 19, 2010

    @Anton
    Interesting (read as it will take me some time to actually go through everything you say so I have no response – though I can certainly see problems with your definition too and compassion and fairness both are related to wellbeing).

    and Harris doesn’t seem to think he needs to take them into account. That’s crankish behavior.

    If Harris was unaware and refused to take them into account, then perhaps the criticism is valid. I doubt he is unaware. Perhaps he has taken them into account and dismissed them? Similar to the reason why I would dismiss someone who introduces first cause as proof of God or fine tuning of the universe as proof of God

  10. #10 Anton Mates
    May 19, 2010

    compassion and fairness both are related to wellbeing).

    Well, sure. Like Harris, I’m a utilitarian, and nobody’s claiming that most people don’t find wellbeing morally significant. The question is whether they find it so exceptionally significant that, as Harris argues, we ought to define morality around it exclusively.

    If Harris was unaware and refused to take them into account, then perhaps the criticism is valid. I doubt he is unaware. Perhaps he has taken them into account and dismissed them?

    I think he probably has, but he hasn’t provided his reader with the argument for dismissal. If he was completely unaware of them, he would merely be ignorant, which would be much more forgivable. What makes a crank a crank isn’t that they don’t know about other opinions on the subject at hand; it’s that they don’t care.

    By analogy, suppose Harris was proposing an explanation for the orbital precession of Mercury, and somebody said, “Hey, you know, this guy Einstein already came up with an explanation of that.” If Harris responded, “I know, but Einstein’s explanation is deeply flawed so I’ve dismissed it, and I didn’t need it to come up with my explanation because I just used facts and logic, and anyway, every use of words like ‘space-time’ and ‘metric’ and ‘tensor’ directly increases the amount of boredom in the world,” it would not tend to make him look less crankish.

    Similar to the reason why I would dismiss someone who introduces first cause as proof of God or fine tuning of the universe as proof of God

    If you were actively trying to defend an alternative position on God–like “God doesn’t exist”–I would hope you didn’t dismiss them, but rather pointed out the flaws in their arguments.

  11. #11 Deepak Shetty
    May 20, 2010

    @Anton
    By way of analogy , Newtons corpuscular theory of light had problems but was accepted till Huygens came along and that was accepted till Einstein came along. A theory(or hypothesis) need not explain everything , it just has to be better than the previous one. It also can stand on its own without needing to disprove any other theory(does evolution really need to disprove creationism?).

    Everyone is concluding that Sam will not address some or all of their issues based on a 20 minute talk and a bunch of posts. Clearly if you have a book to sell you are not going to reveal all of your cards and some controversy is always good right? I find it surprising that so many people have already judged Harris. It may be that indeed what they say is correct , but its far too early , imho , to draw that conclusion

    The question is whether they find it so exceptionally significant that, as Harris argues, we ought to define morality around it exclusively.

    An example where you can have a more or less universal morality that is unrelated to wellbeing might make your case. We may not consciously think of wellbeing but its there if you ask enough why’s.

    In any case you almost always point out stuff I have no idea about , so thanks :)

  12. #12 Anton Mates
    May 20, 2010

    A theory(or hypothesis) need not explain everything , it just has to be better than the previous one.

    Absolutely. But to be accepted it has to be shown to be better than the previous one. That means comparing the hypotheses to each other, in terms of parsimony and logical consistency and predictive power and (of course) agreement with the evidence. No one would have embraced relativity if they didn’t already know about the problems with classical physics.

    It also can stand on its own without needing to disprove any other theory(does evolution really need to disprove creationism?).

    Now there I simply disagree. Hypotheses are a dime a dozen, and no theory can be accepted unless it’s shown to outperform its competitors by some metric. Creationism did need to be dealt with for evolution to triumph in the scientific arena; that didn’t necessarily mean disproving it, but simply showing that the various flavors of creationism either made false predictions or made no predictions at all on most issues. If “Goddidit” actually did predict all the same stuff evolutionary theory did, why would anyone bother with all that complicated business about mutation and selection and phylogeny and whatnot?

    Everyone is concluding that Sam will not address some or all of their issues based on a 20 minute talk and a bunch of posts.

    Not really. We’re drawing that conclusion based on Harris outright saying he’s not going to address these issues, because he thinks they’re irrelevant to his own thought processes and aren’t suitable for his target audience. (See Josh’s original post.) If he’d said something like “…and I’ll address all the previous work in moral philosophy and psychology later on, but time prevents me from doing so now,” we’d be complaining much less. Of course, we probably also wouldn’t bother talking about his views much until he got around to doing that.

    Clearly if you have a book to sell you are not going to reveal all of your cards and some controversy is always good right?

    …mmyeah, neither of those tactics is very helpful if you’re hoping for scientific (or philosophical) credibility. I suppose it’s true, this could be a marketing tactic on Harris’ part, but I’d rather not believe that.

    An example where you can have a more or less universal morality that is unrelated to wellbeing might make your case.

    Well, to borrow two examples from Jonathan Haidt, most people believe that it’s wrong for siblings to have sex, or for a family to eat their pet dog, even in scenarios where they agree that no actual harm is done. (e.g. siblings are consenting adults using protection, and dog was hit by a car and known to be disease-free and family heard that dog meat’s delicious.) People who consciously focus on well-being often start by making harm-related arguments against these examples, but once it’s pointed out that no harm is done, they enter a condition called “moral dumbfounding,” where they can’t articulate their objection but just know it’s wrong nonetheless.

    Or, to use one of Marc Hauser’s examples, almost everybody believes that letting a train hit one person in order to save five other people is much more permissible than pushing one person in front of a train in order to save five other people. The outcomes are identical in terms of well-being, but one case your relationship to the person who dies is characterized by inaction and physical distance; in the other case it’s characterized by action and physical proximity. Those factors are massively morally significant.

    We may not consciously think of wellbeing but its there if you ask enough why’s.

    But if you ask enough why’s, you could also connect almost any moral position to, say, the will of the Christian god. In ethics, as in science, hypotheses are a dime a dozen.

    In any case you almost always point out stuff I have no idea about , so thanks :)

    No prob. Unfortunately, I often point out stuff I have no idea about either….