Metaethics Too Dull for Words

Sam Harris responds to criticism at the Huffington Post.  One criticism in particular caught my eye--
Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy.
Part of his explanation:
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.
Fair enough.  He goes on to say...
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. Few things would make this goal harder to achieve than for me to speak and write like an academic philosopher. Of course, some discussion of philosophy is unavoidable, but my approach is to generally make an end run around many of the views and conceptual distinctions that make academic discussions of human values so inaccessible.
He's right that we need a discussion of the nature of ethics in the public square, and it can't sound like a philosophy seminar room debate.  However, it's possible for a very accessible discussion to have lots of underlying sophistication.  Philosophy needs its Richard Dawkins's and Jerry Coynes--people who are masters of the subject and good at talking about it to the public.

Where metathics is concerned, is Sam Harris that master of the subject and its communcation?  We'll see when his book comes out.  As to the rest of the Huff Po editorial, more later.


Faust said...

I'd like to nominate Harris for the "Director" position in Huxley's Brave New World.

Jean Kazez said...

Read it too long ago--kindly explain.

Faust said...

Ahh a quick grab off the shelf shows I didn't get it quite right. The position is "Controller" and the speech delivered by one "Mustapha Mond:"

"The world's stable now, People are happy; they get what they want and they never want what they can't get. They're well off; they're safe; they're never ill; they're not afraid of death; they're blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they're plagued with no mothers or fathers; they've got no wives or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they're so conditioned that they practically can't help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there's Soma."

The Controller goes on to discuss how they had to chuck science in favor of happiness: clearly not the position Harris takes (not the position he THINKS he takes), but this I think, is what he fails to see: that when you make science a tool to solve suffering and promote happiness, you no longer need worry about science as discovery. You only need determine a stable social apparatus that produces "the right consequences." You only need a machine that outputs "well-being." You can be a Controller and engineer an entire society: if everyone is happy, and 99% of the people say they are happy, and your cerebrescopes all read their brains as outputting the agreed upon indicators of happiness: what is the problem? Answer: there is none.

You might have to give up freedom along with way...but is that really such a problem if everyone is happy: as defined their direct reports and brain scans?

amos said...

Having lost 10 straight games of chess, Mr. Harris proclaims that the game is boring: otherwise, known as sour grapes or being a poor loser. Here's an interesting discussion on moral anti-realism, which for me at least is a lot less tedious than most science.


There are a number of philosophers who explain technical matters for the layperson: Martha N., Peter Singer, Simon Blackburn,
Julian Biaggini, Roger Scruton,
Anthony Grayling, Jean Kazez and the whole "Ask Philosophers Crowd".
Why don't more philosophers write for a lay audience? I suspect that it's question of demand: science sells more books than philosophy. It is interesting that no philosopher would brag about knowing nothing about evolution or cognitive science these days, while a scientist like Harris brags about how little he knows about philosophy and thus shows how provincial and narrow his mind is. Scruton might pretend to have never read anything about Darwin, but I suspect that he has read a lot on the subject.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, It's interesting how it sounds so dreadful to run a society based on what promotes well being when there's a comprehensive plan and a "conroller" involved, but it doesn't sound dreadful at all in a more limited form.If you're just evaluating customs and institutions one by one, you DO want well being to be a huge consideration. You want that, rather than custom, or religion, or money (or lots of other things) to be primary.

Amos, It's very nice of you to put my name on that list. I just wish I made the big bucks those people do (chuckle). I don't see Harris bragging about how little he knows. I thought he was just saying it was pointless to get into technical philosophy--it just puts people to sleep. Plus, he says he came to his views by another route.

My main quarrel with Harris is that I think he's making it seem as if moral realists must equate ethics and science. Not so--there are lots of forms of moral realism.

amos said...

Not only are there other routes to moral realism besides through science, but there are other forms of moral anti-realism or moral skepticism besides the moral relativism (Harris's straw-man) of
"we can't condemn genital mutilation". There's a hidden populism in Harris's position:
1. technical metaethics is boring and a game for ivory tower intellectuals.
2. us real folk prefer the down-to-earth, concrete ways of science.
3. ergo, science can do the job of justifying moral realism.

Jean Kazez said...

Just for the record, I don't read him as saying any of that. He's an incredibly successful writer (look at how many comments there are on the Huff Po editorial!) who wants to have a "public dialogue." So it just can't be full of arcane vocabulary. As to tying ethics to science--I don't see what's populist about that. What he's really after is tying ethics to something people see as believable, but not religion. My attitude is--can't we find anything believable outside of religion and science? Surely we can!

Faust said...

It may seem reasonable on a case by case basis, because it doesn't require (though sometimes even there) a radical re-weaving of our beliefs.

The trick Huxley pulls off in BNW is to mix some things that we find repulsive, taking away mothers and fathers, wives and children, and placing human beings in a tightly controlled environment while simultaneously giving us what we supposedly want: stability, pleasure, everything we want. But to our ears this rings false, we think no, we need freedom to choose, and we regard the shattering of families as inhuman.

But from a raw consequentialist perspective, from the perspective of Harris's "multiple moral landscapes" there is simply NO DEFENSE against BNW. Let us say that the shift to BNW would result in 10,000 units of suffering as people resisted the initial change (it's really a kind totalitarianism). But then, after the happiness regime is in place, there is almost 0 units of suffering and untold units of happiness. OUGHT we not to choose it? We must. (as an aside I think you can argue that BNW is a knockout meat argument for humans).

Harris thinks he can get away from deontology. He thinks we can skip the problems raised by Parfit in "Reasons and Persons." I mean he explicitly say that. But he's just waving his hands and saying "lets not think about those difficulties." They haven't gone away, and if we put Sam Harris in charge of the world, it would become very Brave indeed.

Faust said...

Oh, and: Happy Mother's Day!

Anonymous said...

you might be interested in Singer's thoughts about the "triviality" of these discussions: