Sam Harris Derives "Ought" from "Is"

Here.   Basically it goes like this (cutting to the chase):

(1) x IS an action or practice that will produce the worst possible misery for everyone.

So (SURELY!!!!  COME ON!!!)

(2) x OUGHT not to be done.

Why, you might wonder, should we want to derive an ought from an is? We could just recognize rock bottom normative facts, like--

(3) We ought not engage in actions and practices that will produce the worst possible misery for everyone.

Harris paints himself into this corner by being so determined to extract ethics from science.  He wants it to be the case that scientists come up with facts like (1) and thereby get their hands on ethical conclusions like (2).  If we just started by knowing things like (3), we wouldn't know them as a matter of science.  You don't find normative claims like (3) in science books.

Why's it so important to him to get ethics out of science?  Because he's trying to woo the public away from the belief that ethics is derived from religion.  Science is an impressive alternative source for ethics.  It would be harder to convince the public that we can do away with religion as a foundation for ethics if Harris simply said we all know things like (3).

But maybe we do just know things like (3). And maybe saying so is less problematic than saying (1) entails (2). Logically, it just doesn't.  Even if we do know things like (3), without relying on science, that doesn't mean science has no role to play.  Armed with the knowledge of (3), we need to figure out what does and doesn't produce the worse possible misery for everyone.  Science could certainly help us with that question.


s. wallerstein said...

I may be missing something because I'm very tired, but it seems that
we need 3. to get from 1. to 2.

Wayne said...

I don't get it either. But then again, I don't get why some people insist that ethics can only be derived from religion. I get the occasional student who insists this, then inevitably the drop out because they are met with disagreement, even after I end up presenting reasonable (non-religious) arguments for positions they support. They look at me oddly as if I just constructed some Rube Goldberg device to justify their position instead of quoting a bible passage.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, Yes, that's a nice way to make the point. How did he get from (1) to (2)? Through (3), which isn't an "is"--it's an "ought."

Faust said...

I suspec the problem Harris has is with you notion of "just know things like (3)." HOW do we "just know?" I suspect he's afraid that if we say things like "just know that (3)," that I can say things like "I just know that Jesus wants me to do X."

"Just know" is an empistemolgical question, and Harris is obsessed with proper epistemology.

s. wallerstein said...

"Jesus wants me to do X" isn't an acceptable argument: among other things, it is example of the fallacy of the argument from authority. That will not convince the person who says that Jesus wants me to do X, but then again, neither will the argument that science says that X, since there is now a Jesus science (creationism, etc.) which says that Y. Outside of a certain universe of shared assumptions, among them, that the argument from authority isn't allowed, you can't reason with someone.

Faust said...

I wouldn't say that it's necessarily an argument from authority. What if I "feel it in my heart" or saw him come visit me in a dream? Or even came to me in a waking vision? That's an argument from private experience.

s. wallerstein said...

Why accept what Jesus says, even if he appears in your dreams? Because Jesus is an authority, I think. Because what Jesus says has more weight than what my mother says.

Faust said...

Well in that sense it's ALL arguments from authority. We can replace "Jesus" with "My community," "my tradition," or "what I feel me myself and I (personal authority)."

My main point is "we just know X" is a claim that Harris wants to buttress with hard epistemology. HOW do we just know it. I'm saying that from the perspective of Harris it might as well be saying it came from Jesus, because he wants a rock solid foundation for our ethics that goes beyond mere assertion that "we just know..." (in our hearts, because Jesus told us, because it's a tradition etc).

What moral realism wants to do is get away from "just my opinion" and ground morality in some form of "objectivity." For Harris he think it can be found in a very broadly construed sense of "science." For Jean it's more like "having really strong intuitive widely accepted premises."

Russell Blackford said...

He doesn't need to go through (3). But he at least needs to go through (3*): "We desire to avoid the worst possible suffering for everyone." Or maybe (3**): "We value avoiding the worst possible suffering for everyone." Or (3**) "We fear/are horrified at/don't want the prospect of the worst possible suffering for everyone." Or something closely analogous to these.

And he'll also need to interpret (2) as "We ought not to do X" or "X ought not to be done (by us)." Or perhaps "We ought to refrain from doing X ourselves and, all things being equal, oppose others doing X."

One way or another he'll either need to introduce an outright ought claim or at least a claim that refers to "our" affective attitudes. The latter were never ruled out by Hume. Going from "is" to "ought" is really shorthand for "going from 'is' to 'ought' without introducing affective attitudes". Hume knew very well that you could use affective attitudes to bridge "is" and "ought". But doing it this way makes "ought" subjective ... and Harris wants to argue that it's objective.

One way or another the Harris argument fails. Alas!

Jean Kazez said...

If deriving means making a valid inference, we need (3). If it means just going from one thought to another (not necessarily logically), then (3*) and (3**) would also work. Either way, it seems like something bridges the step from (1) to (2).