Morality Denialism (The Moral Landscape)

Being outraged is what Sam Harris does best.  His angry indignation is what made The End of Faith so captivating, and in that book it was appropriate.  Harris was angry about 9/11, and about the crazy religious ideas that were in the minds of the 9/11 terrorists, and about unwillingness to look at religion as a cause of violence, and about other religious ideas that have caused other forms of violence.  In The Moral Landscape, he's still outraged.  Partly it's the same outrage, at the same things, but in the first chapter he's outraged about something new--morality denialists, as he might call them (considering his outrage).  Harris thinks there are a lot of them--

It seems me ... that most educated, secular people (and this includes most scientists, academics, and journalists) believe that there is no such thing as moral truth--only moral preference, moral opinion, and emotional reactions that we mistake for genuine knowledge of right and wrong.
Because of all this rejection of moral truth, these people make bad relativistic judgments, Harris says.  For example, he thinks it's because "educated liberals think there is no universal foundation for human values" that they're excessively tolerant of practices like female genital mutilation, and excessively intolerant of people like Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the Danish cartoonists.   The answer?  We should understand that there are "right answers to moral questions for science to discover."  The answers are going to be based on scientific facts about human well-being.

In principle, I should be receptive to Harris.  I actually wrote a book about well-being (or "the good life"), and in the book I argue that we should use our understanding of well-being to evaluate the rightness and wrongness of real-world practices (like FGM), whether or not they take place within other cultures. I have a chapter arguing against moral relativism, and defending the idea that there are moral truths. I'm all for drawing on science to illuminate what well-being is, and what increases it and decreases it.  So what's the problem?

Problem #1--I think he's wrong about the prevalence of moral skepticism.  I've talked to lots of people about the nature of moral truth: mainly students in ethics classes.  When they discuss metaethics, they do often embrace skeptical positions like relativism.  However, this is essentially epiphenomenal--their relativism has no effect at all when it comes to the way they think about moral issues.  All students, including the morality skeptics, think it's right for me to grade their papers fairly, wrong for me to assign them grades randomly.  They can reject moral truth when metaethics is the subject, then adamantly argue for the death penalty (or against abortion, or for stem cell research, or whatever) in the next breath.

The shallowness of moral skepticism is a lot like the shallowness of mathematical skepticism. If you ask people if math is a body of truths that we discover, or invent, many people will say "invent." They just don't see how numbers, and the relationships between them, can be part of the fabric of the world.  Numbers are weird things, and mathematicians don't operate like the classic fact-finders, empirical scientists.  But just minutes after expressing skepticism about mathematical truth, all skeptics will act as if it's deeply rooted in the nature of things.  They want the bridges to be built according to "normal math," not some other invented system.  They want to get the right change from cashiers and the right interest on their bank accounts.

Real, functioning moral skepticism is rare, and I don't see it much, whether in students, journalists, or academics.  Even when people are tolerant about goings on in other cultures, it shouldn't be assumed that the basis of that is genuine relativism.  It could be, rather, that they are reasoning from a different notion of well-being than Harris favors, or notions of personal or cultural autonomy that Harris would reject. It's downright absurd to think that no moral principles could be appealed to in any conceivable argument challenging the Danish cartoonists, or even Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Salman Rushdie. Note to Mr. Harris:  all moral conclusions you disagree with do not come from moral relativism. They can proceed from a package of moral principles and factual assumptions some parts of which you reject.

But sure. There are some genuine moral relativists, who really do arrive at a refusal to make any judgments, no matter how horrendous the horror, from relativism.  But why (on earth) pretend that "most educated secular people" think like this? 

Problem #2.  The "right answers to moral questions" are (surely) not simply "for science to discover."  If scientists start announcing the discovery of moral facts--future headline in New York Times:  SCIENTISTS DISCOVER STEM CELL RESEARCH IS MORALLY REQUIRED--no sane person will go along with it. To get to a headline like that, you need moral premises.  They may be true, fact-stating, robust, maybe even as solid as mathematical truths;  but the moral premises aren't going to be drawn directly from science itself.  We're going to have to have rational, philosophical conversations to find these truths. 

OK, so I don't care for chapter 1, but I'm still hopeful about chapter 2.

Previously on The Moral Landscape: Are Liberals Relativists?


s. wallerstein said...

Functioning moral skeptics (aside from psychopaths) are difficult to find.

Here is an excerpt from a letter by Nietzsche, the king of Theoretical Moral Skeptics: "She told me herself that she had no morality--and I thought she had, like myself, a more severe morality than anybody...."

Two other famous moral skeptics, Michel Foucault and Richard Rorty,
participated in numerous progressive causes.

I suspect that Harris is upset because many progressive intellectuals are not as indignant as he is about the sins of religion
or about Islam, to be more specific. However, those same progressive intellectuals show their moral indignation about other causes, the invasion of Iraq, poverty, racism, the lack of decent healthcare for all.

Not everyone agrees with Harris that religion is the root of all or most evils, but that hardly indicates that those who do not share Harris's religiophobia are functional moral relativists.

Faust said...

What is the difference between:





J. J. Ramsey said...

As for how widespread moral skepticism is, I'd say it depends on how you define "moral skepticism." I've often seen it mean simply that morals aren't simply facts "out there" for humans to discover. That leaves a lot of options open for morality. For example, one can point out that human beings in practice do share values (e.g. not wanting one's life to be "nasty, brutish, and short," to borrow a turn of phrase from Hobbes) and that one can build a moral system on those shared values.

Jean Kazez said...

JJ, My point is that it doesn't much matter how many people will give skeptical or relativist answers to metaethical questions, because these beliefs make very little difference to how people make real life moral judgments. That's what I argued in the post (see analogy with metamathematics).

Amos, I think that really is the long and the short of it.

Faust, Hmm.

Justin Horn said...

Given the lip-service Harris pays to science, shouldn't he try to provide some empirical evidence for his claim that "most educated, secular people... believe that there is no such thing as moral truth"? At the very least, he could find/conduct some surveys or cleverly designed X-phi studies. (I haven't actually read the book yet, so it's possible that he does so, but I doubt it.) It just seems odd that he would trumpet science as the solution to moral problems, but at the same time be willing to rely on the way things "seem" to him when motivating his project.

s. wallerstein said...

Harris's narrative of evil begins with the fatwa against Rushdie, continues with 9-11, the Danish cartoon incident, etc.

However, there's at least another progressive narrative; let's call it the Paul Krugman narrative, which does not mention any of those events.

It begins with the Reagan and Thatcher counter-revolution against the welfare state and against market regulation in the 1980's, continues with the collapse of communism as a counter-ideology to market fundamentalism (which allowed capitalism to take off the gloves since it no longer had to pretend to be nice), with the Dotcom collapse, with the subprime collapse, with the increasing precarity of working conditions, with the race to the bottom regarding wages incentivated by slave wages in China, with
an incredible concentration of wealth, not seen since the days before World War I, with the outsourcing of just about everything that can be outsourced,
with the proletarianization of much of the middle and lower-middle class, with the increasing use of
the market to measure everything, including academic performance, with the fact what was once public becomes increasingly privatized, etc.

Those progressives or leftists who
are partial to the Paul Krugmann narrative of what is wrong in the world tend to see 9-11 as a freak event and tend to condemn George W.Bush for increasing the concentration of wealth more than for his views about sex education.

Paul Krugman is perhaps the most moderate and best-known of those share this point of view. I have never seen Krugman condemn
religion in one of columns yet he
seems to be animated by a sense of
ethical outrage which equals or surpasses that of Harris.

Jean Kazez said...

Justin, I agree 100%. He needs x-phi! One important question--how many secular people really voice moral skepticism? I think it's far fewer than he says. Even more important--what does it matter? When they do have some skeptical metaethical view, what impact is there on the sort of moral judgments they make? My bet is: not much impact. My database is students I teach, newspaper columnists, etc., etc, but this can be empirically studied.

Michael Faulkner said...

Hey Jean, few things.

A point on morality deniers.

Last week I was talking with a fellow undergrad, I asked him, if childhood leukaemia is a perfect example of ill health and an objective example of something that no one, even cross culturally could recognise as bad.

He told me that it was just worlds that didn’t refer to anything in the world. He was a (rorty fan)

Secondly, I think Harris is right, as he was with faith, to point out the double standards, especially by intelligent liberal people. Faith gets a pass in religion and it is condemned in every other area.

Like with morality, we know that there are differences in the quality of peoples lives, and the reasons for believing and acting on certain beliefs can have good or bad reasons, in short we know a lot about the good life, but out come the double standards, how can we really know, who is to say this is right or wrong etc.

I think someone like John Haidt is a good example, a man whose work I otherwise admire, he knows better than most about human flourishing, but at the same time he has a reluctance about criticising cases where people because of their beliefs are clearly doing harm.


On the issue of wellbeing and moral realism.

I think Harris positions can be philosophically defended, (if he chooses to do that is another thing)

I think moral - anti-realism, the distinction between fact and values and the gap between is and ought are based upon philosophical presuppositions, that I believe had their day with the logical positivists.

Furthermore, I think memories of religious authoritarianism, dogmas of multiculturism, and concessions to religion has obscured people from understanding that ethics can be “real” as real as medical science and engineering.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with pratically everything you wrote in your article, well maybe except your criticism of Harris.

First i think your dismissal of moral skepticism is unjustified. You assume too much.

You are assuming (like most moral people tend to do) that everyone must do the so called "moral decisions" based on morality. What about simple common sense and emotions? Why couldn't i make decisions based on rational self-interest and instincts and emotions, without ever bothering with good and evil, or right and wrong, like a decision what to eat for lunch for example?

The fact is, there are no "moral truths" that can be demonstrated to describe objective reality. The whole concept of moral truth is nonsensical - just like talking about whether the statement "Mozart's music is beautiful" is true or false. It is neither, it is subjective judgement, not a property of reality.

Second, just because someone shows empathy or good judgement about consequences doesn't mean he is automatically moral. The decision could be based on completely different reasons. Consider someone who doesn't steal because he realizes he would be punished under the law - is he being moral? No, he just shows good common sense. To assume that your students who claim moral skepticism are in fact moral just because they make decisions of which you morally approve is to completely overlook the possibility of there being other means of decision making. And it is awfully presumptuous too.

And last, and this is perhaps the most important criticism because this error is so widespread (and often encouraged by the religious) - moral skepticism doesn't imply moral nor cultural relativism.

For me, comparing two possible actions based on morality is like trying to determine which tastes better - apples or oranges. You cannot say that apples objectively taste better, and you can't say that oranges objectively taste better. Does that imply they objectively taste equally well? That statement is just as nonsensical as the other two.

There are no moral facts, that doesn't mean we can't compare moralities - we just can't compare them objectively morally. But we still can compare their effects on society (these are objective), and we can still go with our subjective valuations, whether they are moral or not.

For example, i can compare possible actions of other people based on how they benefit me - no morality needed. I can happily condemn the so called female circumscision based on the insecurity of people who require it, i can deride their stupidity, and i can oppose the intrusion of such practices in our culture (precisely because i am aware of how fragile it is - there is no "moral truth" that would make it necessary outcome), all this without a shred of morality.

You criticize Harris for making unsupported assumptions about what other people think (and rightly so), and yet you do precisely the same mistake with moral skeptics.

And one last thing about mathematical skepticism since you mentioned it - you claim mathematical constructs are "part of the fabric of the world", and that people want to use "normal math", not some inventions ...
Really? What about imaginary numbers for example? What about quaternions? What about modulo multiplicative groups? What about Galois fields? All iventions of humans, and yet all of them usable for specific purposes. Mathematic constructs are models, and as such you can invent whatever you want, and what gets used in the end is determined based on the usability in particular situation, not on some ideological nonsense about realism.