10/3/10

Appiah on The Moral Landscape

Kwame Anthony Appiah reviews The Moral Landscape in today's NYT book review.  If we don't need religion to explain right and wrong, good and bad, how to live, how not to live, what do we need?  Science, says Harris.  What about ethics--what ethicists have been doing for a couple of thousand years--and science?  No, apparently the answer is only science.  
Only science can help us answer these questions, he says. That’s because truths about morality and meaning must “relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures,” and science alone — especially neuroscience, his field — can uncover those facts. So rather than consulting Aristotle or Kant (let alone the Bible or the Koran) about what is necessary for humans to flourish, why not go to the sciences that study conscious mental life? ...

But wait: how do we know that the morally right act is, as Harris posits, the one that does the most to increase well-being, defined in terms of our conscious states of mind? Has science really revealed that? If it hasn’t, then the premise of Harris’s all-we-need-is-science argument must have nonscientific origins.

In fact, what he ends up endorsing is something very like utilitarianism, a philosophical position that is now more than two centuries old, and that faces a battery of familiar problems. Even if you accept the basic premise, how do you compare the well-being of different people? Should we aim to increase average well-being (which would mean that a world consisting of one bliss case is better than one with a billion just slightly less blissful people)? Or should we go for a cumulative total of well-being (which might favor a world with zillions of people whose lives are just barely worth living)? If the mental states of conscious beings are what matter, what’s wrong with killing someone in his sleep? How should we weigh present well-being against future well-being?

It’s not that Harris is unaware of these questions, exactly. He refers to the work of Derek Parfit, who has done more than any philosopher alive to explore such difficulties. But having acknowledged some of these complications, he is inclined to push them aside and continue down his path.

That’s the case even with something as basic as what’s meant by well-being. Harris often writes as if all that matters is our conscious experience. Yet he also insists that truth is an important value. So does it count against your well-being if your happiness is based on an illusion — say, the false belief that your wife loves you? Or is subjective experience all that matters, in which case a situation in which the husband is fooled, and the wife gets pleasure from fooling him, is morally preferable to one in which she acknowledges the truth? Harris never articulates his central claim clearly enough to let us know where he would come down. But if he thinks that well-being has an objective component, one wants to know how science revealed this fact.
I think Appiah hits the nail on the head, or at least this was exactly the problem I saw in Harris's Spring TED talk.  If the book really does say only science is needed to grasp right and wrong, good and bad etc, my guess is that Harris is simplifying because he's writing a polemic. His purpose it to combat the belief that religion is authoritative about moral matters and he writes for a public that respects religion first, science second, and philosophy not much.  So "only science" might be a strategic answer.

Then again, Harris could be just plain confused.  If you think moral facts supervene on physical facts, you might erroneously conclude that they can best be investigated by experts on the relevant physical facts.  But which physical facts are relevant?  Sadly, you just aren't going to know before "doing" a lot of ethics to find out the precise contours of the moral facts.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  More on Harris after I've read the book.

17 comments:

Faust said...

Menschliches, Allzumenschliches

Matthew Pianalto said...

(Yawn.) The yawn is directed at Harris, not Appiah...

Jean Kazez said...

B-b-b-but....

So why am I interested in this book? Um. Well, because I think it's good for these issues to be dealt with in the public square, and Harris is in the public square. And because I think he's smart enough that I think he could say something interesting about religion-science-ethics. But did he? I'm still determined to read and find out for myself, despite Appiah's review.

Anonymous said...

Sam Harris is the Kirk Cameron of atheism.

amos said...

Wouldn't it be a wiser strategy to point out that the question of whether God decrees the good goes back to Plato's Euthyphro and that the question of whether there are moral facts to Plato's Republic, if not to anterior sources and to invite others to join this 2500 year old debate?


After all, even if we convince people that science has solved the problem when it hasn't, we've only formed a group of dogmatic believers in science, which isn't all that different than a group of dogmatic believers in the Bible or in the Little Red Book of Chairman Mao (which talks a lot about science by the way).


Since the goal is to open minds, to get people to think, not to create a new dogmatism, the best strategy (and it's not easy) would be for someone to write a book inviting the general public to reflect on those questions: divine command theory, moral realism, etc. That is a real challenge. Harris seems to want to take a short cut.

Jean Kazez said...

I think Jerry Coyne really misses the boat here--

http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/10/04/appiah-reviews-harriss-the-moral-landscape/

Appiah's point is not that Harris's book has to be filled with arcane philosophy, but that he's offering a distorted picture of who the experts are, where ethics is concerned. He's saying "ask the scientists, instead of the priests," and he's making that seem believable by enormously simplifying the nature of right and wrong, good and bad.

Appiah's own work needs to be appreciated before anyone concludes that this is territorial, that he wants philosophers, NOT scientists to take care of ethics. His last book was an appreciation of the new experimental approach to ethics and many of his books (including his new one) are extremely interdisciplinary. I don't think Appiah's reaction to Harris is anything at all like theologians resenting Dawkins.

Faust said...

"The mantra of “‘is’ doesn’t imply ‘ought’” has been accepted too uncritically, and it’s time for all of us to revisit the Naturalistic Fallacy."

My God he's right, I'd never thought before how much discussion on this subject is languishing. I mean, moral realists have basically been uncritically following Hume and Moore since...well since they came up with those ideas. Thank goodness Harris is comming along to wake everyone up from their slumber so they can revist those questions! What? What's that you say? There has been plenty of work trying to get free of both the is/ought problem and the "open question?" That you could spend literally YEARS studying the literature on this subject? Weird.

In discussion with friends I've suggested if there is one good thing that may come of this book is that is may help push this general subject into the open. The funny thing is: the average person on the street doesn't even know what the is/ought problem and the naturalistic fallacy even ARE, and furthermore not only do not accept them uncritically, but in fact frequently assume that what IS very much OUGHT to be, and that "the good" is very much a CLOSED and not an "open question." Witness the typical discussion of "why homosexuality is wrong." Well it's UNATURAL right? Therefore, it's wrong. QED.

Not that I'm suggesting Harris will be mundane on this topic, far from it. But the irony is that his argument is with other academics and thinkers, the grey they of the relativist set, we bad moral irrealists, yet he's making his case to a general public. He wants to connect his anti-religion polemic with a robust positive "scientific morality" because he thinks (correctly) that leaving the is/ought dichotomy in place gives faithiests and accomodationists a back door into the reconcillation of science with religion. Gould's NOMA, for example, is entirely based on the use of the is/ought dichotomy.

Jean Kazez said...

Ha--the "grey they" sounds like an unsavory crowd. Relativists and "we bad irrealists"--ugh!

I really don't see what NOMA has to do with "is/ought" issues, since the "magisteria" of science and religion both deal with is's, not oughts. Or are you thinking religion is really about how we ought to live or some such? Maybe that's it...

Faust said...

Gould very specifically calls out is/ought in his book, and yes he identifies religion with ethics in general (which I think is stretchign things, but that's what he does).

So he exploits the is/ought dichotomy to give room to religion. Since is and ought are fundamentaly separate, and because science deals with IS and religion with OUGHT, then there is fundamental and unbridgable space between the magesteria. Hence: NOMA.

Jean Kazez said...

OK. Didn't know that. (Whisper: which book?)

Faust said...

Rocks of Ages is the full book, but you can get the short version with this essay here:

http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_noma.html

He doesn't go to the is/ought connection explicitly in this essay (he does in the book), but hes does explicitly say science covers "is" and religion covers "values."

Personally I think Rock of Ages is a weak book, I only read it because NOMA has become a standard point of refernece in these debates and I was curious how he fomulated.

My own view is that there is a kind of NOMA that can be legitimately argued for, but that while Gould introduces an interesting buzz word, the whole problem goes very deep and he doesn't actually gain any particular new traction on it. Whatever traction he DOES gain, is essentially parasitic on the is/ought problem and rises and falls with it depending on one's position on these issues.

Jean Kazez said...

Let's see--what's a claim that couldn't possibly be affected by any scientific discovery, ever, period? It's not that easy to come up with one, so I don't know about NOMA. "Non-overlapping" is a pretty strong claim.

Faust said...

I love my duaghter. Is that a "claim?"

There are physical objects. Is that a "claim?"

How would science tell me anything about either one of these "claims?"

Jean Kazez said...

But...they are claims! Science could tell you about what love is, what causes it, how it's connected to other thoughts and feelings etc. Science could tell you what objects are--why they hold together, instead disintegrating, etc. etc. I don't see why there can't be at least an interplay between "folk" claims about love and objects and scientific knowledge.

Faust said...

There can be an interplay between science and love, science and presupositional concepts, but ONLY an interplay.

Do we know more now, as a result of science than Plato did when he wrote the Symposium? Or Goethe the tale of Werther? Can science tell me how to love my duaghter? It might tell me that if I want her to leran such and such, that the best pedagogy to use is xyz. And it might tell me that excessive spoiling may produce unwanted effects like such and so. Of course I'm not sure that we ever needed science to do those things. That's an interesting side question. But the raw FACT of one's EXPERIENCE of love, is not something "science" can do anything with. It can only place it into a third person "heterophenomenology" to use Dennet's term. I report a feeling of love, then you tell me some stuff about it, and I decide how to weave that information into my web of belief, my habits of action. But the love comes first, and I may simply elect to ignore what you have to tell me. I might decide that there are more things on this heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

To take the other side consider this: what if through some deficit of charcter it turns out I DIDN'T love my daughter. What then of science? What FALSIFIABLE HYPOTHESIS, what DATA could you present that could MAKE me love my daughter as I OUGHT to? Love doesn't flower out of data, though some people love data like they love people.

As for physical objects...science can telll us all about them, but it doesn't tell us that there ARE physical objects. "Physical Object" is a presuppositional concept, not a a discovery of science.

Jean Kazez said...

Yeah, but NOMA says "non-overlapping," so no interplay whatever. Science and religion are about entirely different things, so each has to just be silent about the other. I don't think "I love my daughter" is about something that science has absolutely nothing to say about. In fact, it has a fair amount to say about the subject, and I think you could even learn something useful about parental feelings from science....e.g. from positive psychology. Which doesn't mean we should go in for "scientism"--that science tells us everything worth knowing.

Faust said...

Well speaking for Gould he says they are non-overlapping but that they "rub up against each other." Very suggestive! So there is some cake and eat it too there.

But let us say that a strict "non-overlapping" is just going to far, that there is a back and forth between "facts" and "values." That seems clear, because one needs to have some facts in hand as one engages with the world. The question is whether or not the two spheres can become coextensive. And let us be clear: if they are overlapping to some degree (the degree to which they overlap is the interesting question) then is the direction of influence only one way? Is it ONLY science that informs values? Do not our values also influence our scientific pursuit? If the influence is two way then that makes the whole thing quite a bit more complicated. Then it will not be as Harris subtitles his book that science determines values, but that something much more complex is going on.

Anyway, it's out today yes? I doubt I'll have time to pick up a copy for a few days.