5/6/10

Wanted: Metaethicist

I'm following the debate about Sam Harris's forthcoming book (which I will certainly read) with genuine interest, but also with bewilderment.  We now have the hardest issues of metaethics being hashed out by a neuroscientist/writer, a physicist, a biologist...and various and sundry.  I keep thinking:  might it actually be helpful to call in some full-time, card-carrying metaethicists?  It's not because you have to be certified by the US Board of Metaethics to "do" metaethics, but it's kind of a complicated business, and experts actually do know a thing or two. 

Here's Sean Carroll trying to show that Sam Harris is wrong to think we can "derive ought from is." All that strikes me as a red herring.  What really matters (or should matter!) to Harris is to show that.
  1. There are objective moral truths (just like religious moralists think), and...
  2. They are "tied" to the natural world sufficiently closely that...
  3. Science, instead of religion, can illuminate what the moral truths consist of.
The question is: what's the "tie? This is a heavy duty question in metaethics.  It's heavy duty because there are so many possibilities.  Another reason why it's heavy duty is because there are parallel worries about other domains. For example, much as we want to know how morality is tethered to the natural world that science studies, we want to know the same thing about consciousness, and mentality more generally.  It pays to think about all these problems together.  Consciousness is mysterious, and ill-defined, and people disagree about it (as Carroll says about morality), and we can't logically derive psychological claims from physical claims, yet claims analogous to 1-3  are true:
  1. There are objective psychological facts (just like soul-ologists think), and...
  2. They are "tied" to the natural world sufficiently closely that...
  3. Science, instead of soul-ology, can illuminate what the psychological facts consist of.
What's the "tie" in the morality case? Maybe it's the tie we already need in the psychology case.  To make up your mind,  you would need to read and  think about a whole bunch of complicated stuff, and it's probably all going to get technical.  You might even want to call in the experts. Not me, I hasten to add.  I read only enough in this area to feel humbled by it.

6 comments:

amos said...

Everyone is entitled to an opinion about metaethics, but there is a certain amount of hubris in publishing about metaethics and writing about it extensively online, as Harris does, without being an expert on the subject or at least without having read the literature on the subject in depth. It's what might be called Chomsky's error: someone who has made a contribution to a specific field of knowledge and who perhaps has 20 points of IQ more than the rest of us begins to pontificate about subjects that he or she does not have sufficient expertise about. By now, Chomsky, after years of pontificating on the subject, is almost a specialist on international affairs, but it takes a while to go from neophyte to expert, and there is a temptation to want to skim the first stages.

Faust said...

Sean Carrol: 1. Sam Harris: 0.

Jean Kazez said...

Agreed, if those are the two players, that's the score. I think if you add a bunch of card-carrying metaethicists to the game, there will be a different winner, and it might be someone saying something more or less in Harris's camp.

Faust said...

Then Harris better call in some reinforcements quick. He needs to get Peter Railton on speed dial.

I of course think you are wrong, and that no such victory is available. But...surely there are people out there that can do a better job with this than Harris.

Jean Kazez said...

I will just say--there are people who could do a terrific job of making it appear that Harris is right. Throwing around fancy words would certainly help.

Faust said...

Supervienience! A posteriori! Internalism!Semantic minimalism! Gogogogoogogogogoggogo