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.