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Can science and materialism solve moral problems?
March 29, 2010 8:32 PM   Subscribe

Sam Harris's talk on morality at TED has sparked a debate on whether science can have anything to say about moral problems. Harris, a prominent author and outspoken atheist, makes the politically incorrect assertion that there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality (as opposed to the concept of moral relativism), and that the methods of science can be used to determine them.

Sean Carroll, Caltech physicist and contributor to Discover's Cosmic Variance blog, responds citing Hume, saying "you can't derive ought from is."

Today, in response to Carroll and other critics, Harris posted this clarification and rebuttal: Moral confusion in the name of "science".
posted by knave (162 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
Science cannot solve moral problems for the same reason that computer programming cannot tell you what to eat for lunch. They are completely different disciplines dealing with completely different facets of human experience.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:37 PM on March 29, 2010 [8 favorites]


I think the only scientific formula one needs to deal with vexing moral issues is Let A=A.
posted by Joey Michaels at 8:39 PM on March 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Surely there's a moral calculus to make moral determinations for us after we've stated the assumptions
posted by BrotherCaine at 8:42 PM on March 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


This is absolutely terrible philosophy. He dismisses noncognitivism like it's not even there, brazenly enshrines his own preferences rather than giving a justification for them, and derides calls for him to justify his assumptions. You'd fail a 300 level course with this argument.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:42 PM on March 29, 2010 [17 favorites]


This is absolutely terrible philosophy. He dismisses noncognitivism like it's not even there, brazenly enshrines his own preferences rather than giving a justification for them, and derides calls for him to justify his assumptions.

Yup, and then he manages to turn around and accuse David Hume of "lazy analysis of facts and values".
posted by strangely stunted trees at 8:45 PM on March 29, 2010


This is absolutely terrible philosophy.

Yeah. Kind of like how when social scientists try to do Science. I recall a paper on my wife's reading list for her degree in Community Development: "Feminism Is The Quantum Mechanics of Post-Modernism".
posted by Jimbob at 8:46 PM on March 29, 2010 [10 favorites]


I was really hoping the first Google return for "ted" would be for Ted Knight. I suppose that now I'm a few years into my 30's I should be used to life letting me down.
posted by item at 8:48 PM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


NPR says morals hate magnets. Or something like that.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:49 PM on March 29, 2010


I recall a paper on my wife's reading list for her degree in Community Development: "Feminism Is The Quantum Mechanics of Post-Modernism".

Alan Sokal's book on the topic of non-scientists appropriating the language of science may be of interest to you!
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:51 PM on March 29, 2010 [7 favorites]


I seem to remember Sam Harris using his super-brain to prove that torturing Muslims was a good idea, based on arguments he claimed were irrefutable, that he'd seen on Fox News, in his first book, The End of Faith. In that book he also claimed that there was compelling data for reincarnated toddlers, and that science might achieve
technological perfection of all the visionary strands of traditional mysticism: shamanism, Gnosticism, Kabbalah, Hermetism and its magical Renaissance spawn (Hermeticism) and all the other Byzantine paths whereby man has sought the Other in every guise of its conception. But all these approaches to spirituality are born of a longing for esoteric knowledge and a desire to excavate ... the mind -- in dreams, in trance, in psychedelic swoon -- in search for the sacred.
Ever since then, however, his handlers have spun him as a rational scientific atheist instead of a post-9/11 panic mystic.
posted by thelastenglishmajor at 8:51 PM on March 29, 2010 [15 favorites]


I don't think it would take too great a leap to go from a couple simple assertions to make a fairly broad definition of "right" and "wrong" -- for example, the Golden Rule has been around for an awful long time, and started in an awful lot of cultures (fairly) independently.

Starting with "adaptive" and "maladaptive" you can get to probably 90% of so-called "morality" by simply starting with the general assertion that the minimizing of suffering is the greatest good.

Of course, you can't jump to "ought" from "is," but you can get most of the way there.
posted by chimaera at 8:53 PM on March 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


His argument seems to be something like this.

Moral relativism is wrong.
Hume's claim that one cannot derive an "ought" from an "is" permits moral relativism.
Therefore, you can derive an "ought" from an "is". (Using science, of course).

Perhaps he should stick to science.
posted by GeckoDundee at 9:00 PM on March 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yeah. Kind of like how when social scientists try to do Science. I recall a paper on my wife's reading list for her degree in Community Development: "Feminism Is The Quantum Mechanics of Post-Modernism".
posted by Jimbob at 10:46 PM on March 29 [+] [!]


This critique of social science would be kind of like if I drew a conclusion about the entirety of Metafilter based on the inanity of this one comment. Seriously, social scientists do a lot of good, and some of those scientists actually work using methods as rigorous as any "hard" scientist.
posted by Jpfed at 9:00 PM on March 29, 2010 [9 favorites]


Not sure why he doesn't make object to moral relativism on the grounds that it's self-contradictory: claiming that there are no moral truths is itself a claim to moral truth. And if there really are no moral truths, there's no problem with people thinking differently, and in fact, you are obliged to respect even the worst racist or fundamentalist viewpoint.
posted by AlsoMike at 9:00 PM on March 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


Any effectively generated theory capable of expressing elementary arithmetic cannot be both consistent and complete. In particular, for any consistent, effectively generated formal theory that proves certain basic arithmetic truths, there is an arithmetical statement that is true, but not provable in the theory.

For any formal effectively generated theory T including basic arithmetical truths and also certain truths about formal provability, T includes a statement of its own consistency if and only if T is inconsistent.
posted by jenkinsEar at 9:03 PM on March 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


There are entire branches of philosophy, and I mean the hard, meaty stuff closer to pure math than further, devoted to ethics. Heck, pure math's usually not pure enough for this. And that's just to get you in the game. This guy's doing the philosophical equivalent to the 4-Day Time Cube, or one of those annoying kids in AP physics who bragged he knew how Einstein was wrong. He's not as much of a polymath as he thinks he is... or worse, he dismisses philosophy entire as a "soft" science.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:04 PM on March 29, 2010 [11 favorites]


I find it amusing that Harris seems to consider a scientifically derived morality as the optimization of some notion of global well-being. The whole notion of picking an axis (or several) on which to optimize IS morality. Perhaps if people did not interact, his program could work, but the fact is that there is no possible way that everyone can simultaneously achieve their personal optimal well-being. As such, you will necessarily have some winners and losers, and it strikes me that how you handle this weighting problem (e.g. how does the personal freedom of person A smoking contrast to the health risks to person B breathing the smoke) is exactly where deep questions of morality arise. Once you've established your goals, science is a great place to look for solutions to how to achieve them.

Trying to optimize global well-being is stacking the deck. There are, in my opinion, good reasons to argue for it as a principle, but declaring it "better" is pre-making the choice of moralities. And personally, I like to think that we can, as a society and as a species, make serious decisions about what we want to achieve for the world. There is something incredibly passive about sloughing values off as objective facts, just as pure moral relativism is useless for anything more that description of the world. Morals should be active.
posted by Schismatic at 9:07 PM on March 29, 2010 [6 favorites]


Maybe it gets better at the end, but I read the first half and most of the times he brings up an opposing point he paints it as a ridiculous strawman. Maybe he should stick to what he knows and leave the philosophy to people who make less disingenuous arguments.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:08 PM on March 29, 2010


Am I missing something? Harris seems to assume utilitarianism is correct and then says that science can provide us with a utility function. I could see an argument for the second part of that statement, but how can science prove that utilitarianism is the 'true' ethical theory?
posted by demiurge at 9:08 PM on March 29, 2010


Just so happens, a few posts down on the front page...

:)
posted by darkstar at 9:09 PM on March 29, 2010


Moral relativism may well be self contradictory, but it's not for the reason given above. The claim that moral judgements are relative is a meta-ethical statement, not a moral judgement itself. The relativist isn't claiming for example that it would be wrong for moral judgements not to be relative.
posted by GeckoDundee at 9:12 PM on March 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


That's right, AlsoMike. Moral relativism is self-refuting, from a strictly logical standpoint. (I thought I was the only one who'd noticed!)

I think rather than relative truths, ethical truths are actually best understood as highly context-sensitive absolutes. But that's neither here nor there.

No, unfortunately, all we've got here is this unholy mess of an argument.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:13 PM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


"you can't derive ought from is...."

It's been a long time since I abandoned a mostly-complete master's in ethics, so I'll probably get flensed by somebody a little closer to the material. But one influential concept I came across in my course work has really stuck with me. It's about this supposed is-ought chasm, and it goes like this:

You *can* move from "is" to "ought." The bridge between "is" and "ought" is "purpose." This is what's known as "teleological ethics" or "teleology" (from the Greek word for "purpose") and it gets a bad rap because it's often tied up with simplistic religious arguments. But it doesn't have to be - I'm a flaming atheist, and I find teleological ethics to be the most flexible, yet firm, system out there, providing the contextual sensitivity of ethical relativism but the moral backbone of a more absolute system. I find it's far more practical than the utilitarian ("greatest good for the greatest number") approach.

My thoughts on the matter were heavily influenced by Alisdair MacIntyre's After Virtue, which I heartily recommend if you're interested in approaching ethics more seriously than most non-philosophers do.
posted by richyoung at 9:13 PM on March 29, 2010 [19 favorites]


Am I missing something? Harris seems to assume utilitarianism is correct and then says that science can provide us with a utility function.

No, you're not missing anything. Not to say that utilitarian considerations don't factor into issues regarding the betterment of humanity as a whole, of course -- far from it, but that's all this is, with all the limitations it entails.
posted by middleclasstool at 9:14 PM on March 29, 2010


There aint no science that can determine morality. This implies that human science somehow doesn't reflect the bias of scientists.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:14 PM on March 29, 2010


The relativist isn't claiming for example that it would be wrong for moral judgements not to be relative.

That's not true. Strong moral relativists claim exactly that.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:15 PM on March 29, 2010


What I probably should have said above is "that's not strictly true"; and I might have added that the less absolute claim you're describing (the one that does permit the possibility of moral absolutes, while allowing for some moral relativism) is the weak moral relativist position.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:19 PM on March 29, 2010


Anyway, back to the show. Sorry for the aside/derail.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:20 PM on March 29, 2010


On a side note, for as many TED talks as there are by brilliant people doing important work, I'm frustrated at how many there are by people whose main claim to fame is the ability make bold statements about the utility of science while remaining willfully ignorant of both how the flaws in their work fits and how it fits into the established intellectual context. I'm especially sensitive to this, having done a lot of work in complex systems where it can be easy to get ahead by saying very interesting, but very wrong things to people who don't have the background to understand the wrongness. I don't believe this is often done willfully, but when saying true things is very difficult, lacking a self-criticism of one's work can be a remarkable asset in particular circles.
posted by Schismatic at 9:26 PM on March 29, 2010 [15 favorites]


Though Harris's philosophy is rather muddled and his picture of moral relatavism seems to be mostly a straw man, I think his overall message is still correct. Regardless of the metaphysical foundations of morality, I believe that secular humanism is the best moral system. It would be nice if there were more prominent voices talking about moral issues from this standpoint.
posted by afu at 9:29 PM on March 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


[Teleology] gets a bad rap because it's often tied up with simplistic religious arguments. But it doesn't have to be

I'm looking at the Wikipedia page on After Virtue, and it seems like a fascinating book that I'd love to read, but to relate it back to this discussion, could you explain how it is that MacIntyre moves from "is" to "ought" without supposing a permanent state of ideals, i.e., divinity?
posted by shii at 9:31 PM on March 29, 2010


Certainly it's true that some people who advocate ethical relativism seem to think (or even claim) that their opponents are not only wrong in fact but wrong in the prescriptive sense. These people aren't exactly the best example to use though.

So despite the temptation to call it "strong" ethical relativism (because it's the "bravest" statement we could give the label to), it's actually the weakest form of that view. It's also pretty confused, of course. Showing that straw man relativism is self-refuting isn't very interesting.

You also seem to make the same mistake yourself. Claiming that there are (or could be) some non-relative ethical judgements is a weaker form of ethical relativism (in fact, it isn't strictly relativism at all), but it's a claim of a different kind to the one you call "strong" relativism.

It's also not really a derail as Carroll seems to think that ethical relativism plays a key role in his argument.
posted by GeckoDundee at 9:33 PM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's not a very good TED talk, but the view is not that novel or even controversial. Many hold that the fact/value distinction of Hume's day is no longer tenable. (e.g. Putnam's famous essay, for example.) Peter Railton holds a "stark raving moral realism" and he is a straightforward empiricist. (For those interested in a good survey of the recent terrain in metaethics, see Darwall, Gibbard, and Railton.)
posted by ageispolis at 9:43 PM on March 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


You also seem to make the same mistake yourself. Claiming that there are (or could be) some non-relative ethical judgements is a weaker form of ethical relativism (in fact, it isn't strictly relativism at all), but it's a claim of a different kind to the one you call "strong" relativism.

All's I know is them's the two forms of the relativist argument I done learned about at the university.

(Granted, it was only a survey course so the arguments may have been simplified--but I'm pretty sure the strong and weak forms of ethical relativism are pretty much exactly as I characterized them: the strong claim is that all ethical claims are relative, while the weak claim is that ethical claims are sometimes relative. I'm not aware of any form of ethical relativist argument that doesn't take one of these general forms.)

Claiming that there are (or could be) some non-relative ethical judgements is a weaker form of ethical relativism

Yeah. That's what I said. That's what I called the weak relativist position.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:44 PM on March 29, 2010


Maybe I didn't listen as closely as the rest of you Mefites, but his argument kind of came down to quantifying the sum of suffering for a given action to determine its moral quantity.

It doesn't really help define what is absolute good and evil, though. Just like his chess analogy, it supports that actions can only be compared to some other action, and not to an absolute truth.

His other point appeared to be that we can't sit by and cling to relativism as a reason for inaction -- to the contrary, since we can compare the summed sufferings of two actions, we can determine which is the "right" action to take.
posted by hanoixan at 9:44 PM on March 29, 2010


Let A=A.

Let bygones be bygones.
posted by fuq at 9:50 PM on March 29, 2010



Here's Carroll's response to Harris's response.
...

There is a weird sort of backwards-logic that gets deployed at this juncture: “if you don’t believe that morals are objectively true, you can’t condemn the morality of the Taliban.” Why not? Watch me: “the morality of the Taliban is loathsome and should be resisted.” See? I did it!

...
Vaguely self-linky in the sense that I'm participating in the comments.
posted by Anything at 9:52 PM on March 29, 2010


The claim "All ethical judgments are relative" is itself an ethical judgment; it's just a categorical, highly abstracted ethical judgment. Unless you just take it as axiomatic (which obviously means you can't prove it).
posted by saulgoodman at 9:53 PM on March 29, 2010


Not sure why he doesn't make object to moral relativism on the grounds that it's self-contradictory: claiming that there are no moral truths is itself a claim to moral truth.

Claiming there are no unicorns is a claim about unicorns. Unicorns still don't exist, even though claims about them may be true. Also, "there are no moral truths" is a statement about morality, but it's not a moral statement, since it contains no "ought" content.

And if there really are no moral truths, there's no problem with people thinking differently, and in fact, you are obliged to respect even the worst racist or fundamentalist viewpoint.

If there were no moral truths, then where would this "obligation" to respect racists and fundamentalists come from?
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 9:54 PM on March 29, 2010 [7 favorites]


Also, "there are no moral truths" is a statement about morality, but it's not a moral statement, since it contains no "ought" content.

But it can also be a claim about morality if you parse the claim as something like "moral judgments ought not to assume absolute moral truths" (which really is the claim: it's implicitly an assertion about how one ought to go about formulating ethical judgments, because obviously I can formulate ethical statements using assumed moral truths).
posted by saulgoodman at 10:01 PM on March 29, 2010


Sorry, I meant to say, "But it can also be a moral claim if you parse the claim..."
posted by saulgoodman at 10:02 PM on March 29, 2010


What a silly argument. I hate it when academics like this think they've had a brainwave in a field they've never professionally engaged with. Actually, to be fair, I only hate it when they go around chucking off like the previous Xty years of study in that discipline has missed something *blindingly* obvious, and it took an iconoclast like them to point it out.

I actually quite like it when they're a bit more humble and focussing on something quite obscure to either discipline.
posted by smoke at 10:12 PM on March 29, 2010


Also, "there are no moral truths" is a statement about morality, but it's not a moral statement, since it contains no "ought" content.

Sorry, but moral relativism isn't just a meta-ethical position, it's also a normative one and it should be obvious from the context of my comment that this is what I'm talking about.

So despite the temptation to call it "strong" ethical relativism (because it's the "bravest" statement we could give the label to), it's actually the weakest form of that view. It's also pretty confused, of course. Showing that straw man relativism is self-refuting isn't very interesting.

Maybe not interesting from an academic standpoint, but from a cultural or political standpoint, if significant part of the population subscribes to a self-refuting moral position, this seems kind of important, especially if those people are in a position of influence. Isn't the idea that adopting a moral standpoint is difficult and risky, so adopting this kind of moral relativism is way to stop thinking about it and (appear to) avoid the risk?

That is also my objection to Harris. His audience wants to disavow the risk of making moral judgments, so he's offering a different type of disavowal: we can build some kind of algorithm that will make the correct moral judgments for us, and our hands will stay clean. It's a bit like a secular, computerized God who really knows right and wrong. Maybe we can get it to write the top 10 most important principles on some stone tablets!

Having said that, maybe the general direction is the right one. Humanity needs some way to make universal judgments about morality, even though this is a risky thing to do. But we shouldn't do away with uncertainty, we need to be able to revise our morality. If we take science as offering nearly unshakable truths about reality, this is not a good place to rest our morality, but if by "science" or "reason" he really wants some kind of universal frame open to everyone where there can be a dialog and tentative conclusions can be reached, I think it's a good idea, and increasingly necessary.
posted by AlsoMike at 10:15 PM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Let me see if I get the argument he is making correct:

1. people only care about things that affect people
2. suffering affects people
.: 3. people care about diminishing suffering

4. Science is a method for determining what works and what does not work,
.: 5. Use science to figure out how to diminish suffering


It seems to me that this is the part that he ignores, and which is what most people even mean when they are talking about morality. How do you define what suffering is? It is suffering when a lion kills a gazelle? Is it suffering to let people go to hell? Should one person be allowed to drag down a whole community? Etc.
posted by rebent at 10:15 PM on March 29, 2010


But it can also be a moral claim if you parse the claim as something like "moral judgments ought not to assume absolute moral truths"

I think that the "ought not to" is not contained within the original statement. It's something that you infer from it, in conjunction with a set of other assumptions that do have moral content (e.g. "it is morally wrong to make claims that cannot be justified").
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 10:19 PM on March 29, 2010


You know who else thought you could get ought from is?
posted by mek at 10:25 PM on March 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Every argument against moral relativism I've seen boils down to someone trying to pretend that his own moral beliefs are better than everybody else's, either because God said so or because of some other made up bullshit.

The truth is, unless we agree on some basic axioms, arguing about morality is like arguing about which ice cream flavor is better.

I am a moral relativist. No, I can't prove that child rapists are immoral. But, I can prove that child rapists are immoral if you and I agree that harming children for one's own pleasure is immoral.
posted by callmejay at 10:31 PM on March 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


rebent: You'd have to be willfully obtuse not to recognize what suffering is a good majority of the time. Especially when it comes to humans, who have the capacity to self-report and describe their suffering.

Sure, there may be plenty of more difficult cases, but something like, say, a malnourished baby crying for its mother is a pretty recognizable example of suffering. We don't need to more words to understand what suffering is.

I think that the "ought not to" is not contained within the original statement.

Sure it is. It's implicit. If not, then it's a completely empty, purely formal statement (it might as well be the claim "All elephants eat spinach" or something similarly nonsensical). Anyway, AlsoMike puts the point much better than I did above (with reference to ethical relativism as a normative position).
posted by saulgoodman at 10:33 PM on March 29, 2010


Immanuel Kant?
posted by [expletive deleted] at 10:33 PM on March 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


Well, my view is that you can use science to determine if a particular action is moral within a certain moral framework.

For example, if you morally believe that we should protect the earth for future generations, then obviously you have to use science to work out whether or not it's moral to dump various materials into the environment.

If you believe killing people is wrong, you can use science to determine if some contamination might kill some people.

You can even use scientific reasoning about things that seem like more basic morality. For example, if you want to prevent unwanted pregnancies and STDs, is abstinence only education a good idea? (The answer is no)

But you can't really use science to derive the moral framework itself. I know there is scientific research being done on people's intuitive moral sensibilities. Testing things like would people shove someone in front of a train to prevent a bunch of people from dying. Or would they try to rescue someone from the tracks if it meant a bunch of people dying. That kind of thing.

But that's just measuring how people feel, it's not coming up with anything on it's own.
posted by delmoi at 10:36 PM on March 29, 2010


Every argument against for moral relativism I've seen boils down to someone trying to pretend that his own moral beliefs are better than everybody else's, either because they don't believe God said so or because of some other made up bullshit.

(That argumentative approach works the other way around, too. And I point that out as a secular humanist.)
posted by saulgoodman at 10:36 PM on March 29, 2010


Sorry, but moral relativism isn't just a meta-ethical position, it's also a normative one

However it needn't be. The normative content ("we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when it runs counter to our personal or cultural moral standards") doesn't follow from the initial claim ("there are no absolute moral truths") and is an unwarranted ought-from-is. If you reject the normative component of moral relativism then is not logically self-refuting.

it should be obvious from the context of my comment that this is what I'm talking about

Sorry if you felt I was misrepresenting your comment. I was just pointing out that the normative part of moral relativism is entirely optional, and so can't really be used to show its supposed self-refuting character or establish that absolute moral truths exist.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 10:40 PM on March 29, 2010


Sure it is. It's implicit. If not, then it's a completely empty, purely formal statement (it might as well be the claim "All elephants eat spinach" or something similarly nonsensical)..

It could also be a purely descriptive statement about the onthological status of morality. Nothing self-refuting about that, unless the notion of a world without objective morality is taken to be inherently absurd.
posted by Syme at 10:43 PM on March 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


(That argumentative approach works the other way around, too. And I point that out as a secular humanist.)

No, it doesn't. Because I'm not in fact claiming that my personal morals are better than other people's. Nor are most other moral relativists.
posted by callmejay at 10:43 PM on March 29, 2010


You know who else thought you could get ought from is?

Hitler.

No, really, that's the Eugenicist fallacy -- that the existence of the phenomenon of genetic adaptation would somehow morally obligate us to accelerate it by force.
posted by Anything at 10:46 PM on March 29, 2010


Thanks so much for this post. I thought Harris advanced some incredible points that don't lend themselves to easy dismissal — I actually gasped at one point during his presentation — and I am glad for the opportunity to chew them over as well as some counterpoints.

I suspect we're only going to see more and more contentious debate in this vein as the realms of faith, science, and morality ever converge.
posted by churl at 10:49 PM on March 29, 2010


I don't think science can define moral good, but science may have a lot to say about our perceptions of morality. There seems to be a relationship between brain function and moral reasoning. If morality is relative, it is relative to the individual. If the individual's behavior is influenced by her brain, then that influence and its mechanisms can be examined through science.

I realize this is not the argument put forward in the fpp, but I don't think science and morality are automatically seperate fields of study.
posted by elwoodwiles at 11:03 PM on March 29, 2010


"All judgments are relative" is itself an ethical judgment

No it's not. That's like saying "mathematics cannot prove a peanut butter sandwich tastes good" is a mathematical statement. It's an attempt to place a system with the larger context of all thought and delineate it.

One of the reasons I like Harris, and this is probably going to be controversial on MeFi is that his thoughts on moral philosophy avoid words like 'ontological' which seem to me to be wrapped up in a species of academic debate that don't get us much of anywhere. One of the things I've always appreciated about Harris, even when I disagree with him, is that he's made a very clear attempt to strip away confusing language and be very direct.

The difficulty in this debate is not that philosophers haven't been thinking about this for a very long time, it's that most of that debate hasn't really entered the public sphere. And say what you will, it's the basis of some of the very strong divisions in America and the world today. Where we get our values needs to be very loudly and strongly debated in the public sphere and it needs to be done now.
posted by lumpenprole at 11:04 PM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Harris is hilarious. He's a good example of the arrogant narcissism that results from using Buddhist self-cultivation methods (in his case, drawn from Zen/Chan) without the 8 fold path to temper the self-focus.
posted by wuwei at 11:26 PM on March 29, 2010 [5 favorites]


Because I'm not in fact claiming that my personal morals are better than other people's. Nor are most other moral relativists.

This isn't very convincing. It let's you can act as if your personal morals are better, like saying that what someone else believes is bullshit, but maintain that you aren't making any kind of real truth claim. Basically you rely on the fact that person you say this to is not a moral relativist, so he or she will interpret your statement as if it was a moral absolute without you actually having to take the position. And this is evidence of what I was talking about earlier: moral relativism (the normative kind!) is morality in self-denial.

I hesitate to say this but since you are a moral relativist you won't care: isn't it kind of cowardly? It's a bit like alcohol-free beer or artificial sugar-free sugar. I think we should fully assume the consequences of our belief instead of purifying them so we can enjoy them without any of the costs.

On top of that, it might well be a performative contradiction. The performance of making a statement implies a commitment to universal truth, and that commitment is immediately disavowed when you say something like "You are Satan incarnate, a being of pure evil! But that's just a personal opinion." If it were just your opinion, you wouldn't have made the statement at all, the act of speaking itself commits you to a position which you then disavow.
posted by AlsoMike at 11:31 PM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Humanity needs some way to make universal judgments about morality, even though this is a risky thing to do.

No we don't. It would be morally good if all of humanity could agree on a moral framework, but this isn't the same as being able to make universal moral judgements.
posted by afu at 12:00 AM on March 30, 2010


I saw this about a week ago and within the first 60 seconds felt completely let down. I watched to the end in hopes that it would improve, but it didn't. All we have here is a rediscovery of good old political economy - that is, the application of economic principles to the pursuit of the public good.

Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill applied themselves to these questions centuries ago, but it's not clear that Harris has ever heard of them. For that matter you could argue that as far back as Socrates philosophers had been wrestling with the challenge of developing a consistent ethical framework in the absence of any divine customer support associates.

I do think he's done some interesting work in neurology, but from a philosophical point of view I'm afraid his positions are so obvious as to be trite. And he seems so in love with these shallow insights that part of me wishes to give him an object lesson by getting him to agree to a few simple lemmas and then asking him to consider some kind of modest proposal arising out of them.
posted by anigbrowl at 12:47 AM on March 30, 2010 [3 favorites]


To answer the question in the original FPP: yes. "Science and materialism" can help us solve moral problems by helping us better understand the biology of our moral intuitions - how they function, what controls them, and from whence they came. A lot of people are working on this, including Sam Harris. No one is saying that the discoveries we will make about the origins of our moral intuitions will eventually point us towards one ideal system of moral behavior. However, these discoveries very well might indicate the moral system that our shared biology is suggesting we follow for the purpose of fitness. If that ever happens, we will then evaluate the usefulness of that system in accordance with all sorts of present contingencies that our biology could never have accounted for. That part will still look a lot like philosophy. But springboard for those discussions will no longer be magic books, Fox News, academic philosophy, Mom, etc. It will be a thorough understanding of our common systems of moral cognition. It's a long, long ways off. Sam is trying to prepare people for it, maybe a bit too early. But he has to pay the bills now. And few people here would argue that our currently-dominant sources of moral understanding are doing an awesome job. So why not get started?
posted by ivanosky at 1:11 AM on March 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


You'd have to be willfully obtuse not to recognize what suffering is a good majority of the time. Especially when it comes to humans, who have the capacity to self-report and describe their suffering.

Sure, there may be plenty of more difficult cases, but something like, say, a malnourished baby crying for its mother is a pretty recognizable example of suffering. We don't need to more words to understand what suffering is.


But these recognizable cases aren't the interesting ones. That is, if all we had were those cases, we wouldn't need to think too much about ethics and morality. But it's the hard cases that, in addition to making bad law, make ethics hard. And science clearly can't answer these hard cases, because people come up with different answers in the absence of science and there's no way to demonstrate correctness of these answers one way or the other.
posted by me & my monkey at 1:21 AM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Science and materialism" can help us solve moral problems by helping us better understand the biology of our moral intuitions - how they function, what controls them, and from whence they came.

There are two problems with this. First, biology is not a useful guide to, well, anything. Biology guided us to murder, slavery, rape, etc. Morality is largely in opposition to biology; if it worked in concert with biology, we really wouldn't need it. Second, "moral intuitions" don't necessarily add up to a system of morality or ethics. There are plenty of moral actions that can cause alienation from moral intuition, but that would also be accepted by most people as morally acceptable or even optimal.
posted by me & my monkey at 1:28 AM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


I sent this link to all of my philosophy major friends to set their teeth on edge a few days ago. It's a shame Harris gets grouped with figures like Dennett and Dawkins as a "New Atheist".

A lot of philosophy seeks to clarify by bridging seemingly untenable conceptual dichotomies. Harris is trying to subsume "ought" with "is", but I think the inverse project might be a bit easier (c.f. Nietschze).
posted by phrontist at 2:36 AM on March 30, 2010


Or Nietzsche, even. But if you called me on it, you'd just be flexing your orthographic will to power.
posted by phrontist at 2:37 AM on March 30, 2010


There are plenty of moral actions that can cause alienation from moral intuition, but that would also be accepted by most people as morally acceptable or even optimal.

Are you asserting that this acceptance is somehow extra-biological?
posted by phrontist at 2:44 AM on March 30, 2010


Science is a method of determining truth via experimentation. To the extent that there is "a" truth and to the extent that it is amenable to experimentation, of course morality is determinable via science.
posted by DU at 3:07 AM on March 30, 2010


Science cannot solve moral problems for the same reason that computer programming cannot tell you what to eat for lunch.

That's gibberish, and not in the way you meant.

They are completely different disciplines dealing with completely different facets of human experience.

Because nobody ever applied something learned in one discipline as a prying bar to gain insight into another. I'm not sure I buy your claim that science can deal with one subset of 'facets' of human experience but not another, either.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:58 AM on March 30, 2010


Harris' basic problem is that he assumes that "human flourishing" is good. (As in, objectively, inarguably, universally good.)

But even if we all agree on that, it's still not a "fact" -- it's a shared opinion. Now, practically speaking, that isn't much of a problem (unless you partake in the unfortunate desire to hold something Absolute in the palm of your hand). We can build systems of morality from a basis of shared opinion, no problem; and even mold laws and institutions to enshrine them. What is wrong with this?

For the life of me, I cannot fathom this mania to turn shared moral feelings into "facts".

.

saulgoodman, I disagree with everything you've said about there being normative judgments residing implicit inside relativism, but I want to say that I really appreciate the skill and candour with which you've argued for it. I need good arguers to disagree with me as much as possible.
-- On the actual issue at hand, I find myself pretty much in agreement with callmejay, but ~ all alignment aside, the way you flipped that statement of his around up there was really neat!
(And genuinely provocative of difficult thought, which is at least a commensurate achievement to being neat.)

.

(Also ~ this is an extremely petty point, but, seeing as no one else has brought it up yet: life expectancy in ancient Greece was "around 30", Sam? You don't think it's a little disingenuous to state that (in a way that most non-statistics-focused people will assume means that the average age of death was around 30), without mentioning that the much-higher infant mortality rates of the time are responsible for a fair bit of that figure's leanness?)

.

callmejay: The truth is, unless we agree on some basic axioms, arguing about morality is like arguing about which ice cream flavor is better.

I am a moral relativist. No, I can't prove that child rapists are immoral. But, I can prove that child rapists are immoral if you and I agree that harming children for one's own pleasure is immoral.


I like this. Let's talk about stuff!

Then we'll use science or whatever to build the kind of world we've decided we want. Meaningful talk of progress within a shared framework!

This is gonna be great.
posted by Rumpled at 4:15 AM on March 30, 2010


makes the politically incorrect assertion that there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality

It is amusing to me how frequently one can replace the phrase "politically incorrect" with the shorter phrase "incorrect". It works in almost every case.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 4:27 AM on March 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


Every argument against moral relativism I've seen boils down to someone trying to pretend that his own moral beliefs are better than everybody else's, either because God said so or because of some other made up bullshit.

Nope, you can object to moral relativism without assuming you've gotten all the moral issues right. You can dismiss anything as "made up bullshit" if you want, but you don't seem to have understood people's objections to moral relativism.

You say you're a moral relativist, so I'd ask you: how should we judge Harriet Tubman or Martin Luther King -- people whose actions went against the mainstream morals of their time?
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:43 AM on March 30, 2010


You know who said: "Morality is Objective..."
posted by ovvl at 4:54 AM on March 30, 2010


Some truly silly attacks on Harris in this thread (e.g. "I seem to remember Sam Harris using his super-brain to prove that torturing Muslims was a good idea, based on arguments...that he'd seen on Fox News") but then again, most discussions of these matters here happen quite predictably and in the end most of the seem to tepidly offer Gould's NOMA argument or just defer to political correctness.

Can't wait to read all of these exact same comments when his book comes out in the fall.
posted by inoculatedcities at 5:01 AM on March 30, 2010


Moral Relativism.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:07 AM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Another question for moral relativists: do you have any opinion on whether a country you don't live in should pass a law saying homosexuality is punishable by death?
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:07 AM on March 30, 2010


In the rebuttal of Harris, he recounts a conversation he had with a prominent scholar (he doesn't mention her by name):

She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?

Me: Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing wellbeing—and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human wellbeing.

She: But that’s only your opinion.

Me: Okay… Let’s make it even simpler. What if we found a culture that ritually blinded every third child by literally plucking out his or her eyes at birth, would you then agree that we had found a culture that was needlessly diminishing human wellbeing?

She: It would depend on why they were doing it.

Me (slowly returning my eyebrows from the back of my head): Let’s say they were doing it on the basis of religious superstition. In their scripture, God says, “Every third must walk in darkness.”

She: Then you could never say that they were wrong.


That is just as disturbing to me as Harris's claims are to most of you. So, what do we do?
posted by King Bee at 5:10 AM on March 30, 2010


Here is a question for you people who believe: What kind of facts about the brain or human cognition would help us answer the question of why hurting an innocent person is wrong?
posted by afu at 5:22 AM on March 30, 2010


That is just as disturbing to me as Harris's claims are to most of you. So, what do we do?

It's only disturbing if you read the conversation on a very superficial level. Harris and the professor are talking about if you can say things are morally wrong in the same way as you can say scientific facts are true or not. So I take to have meant:

She: Then you could never say that they were wrong [in scientific sense, but you could have opinions about if it was wrong or not].

Harris doesn't even both to answer her question at the start.
posted by afu at 5:28 AM on March 30, 2010


saulgoodman, I think you're confusing two different meanings of moral relativism.

One is a meta-ethical claim is that there is no such thing as an objective moral judgment. There is nothing contradictory about this statement.

Normative moral relativism argues that, because there is no objective moral standard, one ought to be tolerant of other cultures' morality. This is clearly contradictory.

Just because one subscribes to the first type of moral relativism doesn't mean it's impossible to condemn an action on moral grounds (in other words, normative "tolerance" doesn't necessarily follow from the first claim). It's simply that those grounds are based on something that is not strictly objective. When I make an ethical argument with someone I try to figure out what our common ethical beliefs are, and then try to show that x follows logically from those beliefs. A bit of deviation in these moral "axioms" is natural, and is, I think, largely the basis for different political beliefs. Extreme deviation from these axioms is why we have police and prisons.
posted by Frankieist at 6:10 AM on March 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


You say you're a moral relativist, so I'd ask you: how should we judge Harriet Tubman or Martin Luther King -- people whose actions went against the mainstream morals of their time?

Arguably they didn't go against the mainstream morals of their time. Here's a sampling:

Some people's racist beliefs contradicted their belief that the bible is the source of morality, or their belief in the values of the Declaration of Independence or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They may have been convinced by the non-violent protest movement and King's speeches.

Some people saw the writing on the wall with the younger generation and kept their views to themselves.

Some people's racist beliefs were so integral to their moral worldview that they fought change violently. I think these people were actually in the minority, and in places within the US where they weren't:

LBJ: O hai! Strom Thurmond isn't president. I can has federal troops to desegregate schools?
posted by Frankieist at 6:42 AM on March 30, 2010


And if they did, well, I'd argue that it's because I prefer my moral beliefs over those that would condemn MLK. If you disagreed I'd try to see if your racist views contradicted more deeply held moral beliefs.

If that doesn't work: protest, work to elect politicians who share one's political beliefs and, in extreme cases like Vichy France, flee the country or fight in a resistance movement to overthrow the government.
posted by Frankieist at 6:48 AM on March 30, 2010


@shli, who asked how Alisdair MacIntyre builds a teleological system without reference to divine sources:
He talks about the roles we have forming purposes for us. Hence, I might incur an obligation as a father to leave work early and see my child's soccer game. I might have a different obligation as a firefighter to stay until the fire is extinguished.

You'll have to read the book to get these ideas in sufficient strength to be convincing ;^)
posted by richyoung at 7:03 AM on March 30, 2010


This will boil down to rights.
posted by Brian B. at 7:09 AM on March 30, 2010


"Think of the champions of “tolerance” who reflexively blamed Salman Rushdie for his fatwa, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her ongoing security concerns, or the Danish cartoonists for their “controversy,” and you will understand what happens when educated liberals think there is no universal foundation for human values."

Yeah, he's losing me here.

"2) Scientists are an elite group, by definition. “Moral experts” would also constitute an elite group, and the existence of such experts is completely in line with my argument."

Lost me. The vast majority of people must take scientific pronouncements essentially 'on faith' because some science is very complex and specialized and most folks don't have a large hadron collider to review findings and follow the experimental process.
So we would have then, what, a group of moral experts making similar pronouncements people have to take on faith as truth for 'maximizing wellbeing.'
Yeah, quite a revolutionary notion there. No one's ever set up a system like that.

And the burka thing is goofy. Unquestionably wrong morally, but not just because it's religious based.
In the U.S. we currently force people to live in metal machines and navigate them against each other in a semi-chaotic manner which often enough injures or kills them and usually pauperizes them if they refuse. That's ok?
Why because the trade off is a better margin? You're always going to have to ask the 'meta' question outside the framework of any system you're looking at.
posted by Smedleyman at 7:12 AM on March 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


I suppose I'm not getting why 'science!' must be the answer and merely having a secular ethical framework for determining these sorts of things is (apparently) unacceptable within Harris' argument.
posted by Smedleyman at 7:14 AM on March 30, 2010


It's a long, long ways off.

I think that's what people typically call "faith".
posted by gimonca at 7:21 AM on March 30, 2010


I hesitate to say this but since you are a moral relativist you won't care: isn't it kind of cowardly? It's a bit like alcohol-free beer or artificial sugar-free sugar. I think we should fully assume the consequences of our belief instead of purifying them so we can enjoy them without any of the costs.

I don't think it's cowardly to base my beliefs on what I think is actually true.

On top of that, it might well be a performative contradiction. The performance of making a statement implies a commitment to universal truth, and that commitment is immediately disavowed when you say something like "You are Satan incarnate, a being of pure evil! But that's just a personal opinion." If it were just your opinion, you wouldn't have made the statement at all, the act of speaking itself commits you to a position which you then disavow.

That's ridiculous. People voice their strongly-held opinions all the time without believing that they are objectively correct.

You say you're a moral relativist, so I'd ask you: how should we judge Harriet Tubman or Martin Luther King -- people whose actions went against the mainstream morals of their time?

The same way we judge everyone -- against our personal morals, with some allowance for the world they grew up in, etc. Being a moral relativist doesn't mean that whatever the majority thinks is right!
posted by callmejay at 7:37 AM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


But these recognizable cases aren't the interesting ones. That is, if all we had were those cases, we wouldn't need to think too much about ethics and morality. But it's the hard cases that, in addition to making bad law, make ethics hard.

I say they are interesting because they potentially help us identify the absolute ethical truths that can form the basis for that ethical framework we all agree has to exist.

If we can acknowledge that, in some cases, suffering is an unambiguous reality, that gives us something certain to build a moral framework on: we can say with certainty that some claims about suffering have an absolute truth value.

One is a meta-ethical claim is that there is no such thing as an objective moral judgment. There is nothing contradictory about this statement.

Right. But it's also unprovable. If the claim is "it is impossible to make ethical judgments that derive from absolute ethical truths," how do you propose to demonstrate that? When we posit the absolute truth of a particular ethical principle, we can derive necessary ethical conclusions from it, if all the circumstances relevant to the analysis are known. Now you can rightly point out that we're only positing an absolute ethical truth, not proving it. But it's nonsense to claim that ethical judgments can't follow from absolute truths because they obviously can and do when we simply posit the absolute truth of an ethical principle (unless you can prove that there are no true absolute claims, which clearly is a self-refuting, absolute claim).

But chiefly, it's the normative claim--the claim that ethical analysis ought not to assume absolute truths--that I'm arguing is self-refuting (and you've acknowledged as much). I don't think it's possible to perform meaningful ethical analysis at all without stipulating at least some axiomatic moral truth, so what strong relativism does is effectively shut down the possibility of meaningful ethical analysis.

Ethical systems are for determining how we ought to behave. Asserting that there is no way to determine how we ought to behave isn't a basis for an ethical system; it's a refutation of ethical systems. There may be some semantic confusion going on here, too. When we say a claim is "absolute" in logical parlance, that doesn't mean the claim is "objective" (whatever that is) it means the claim is categorical--i.e., that it applies in every case.

I argue that although the truth of ethical judgments is extremely contingent on context, if the context of an ethical judgment can be fully accounted for, then ethical judgment is absolute. In every case, categorically, if a man stabs another man just to watch him bleed (and when I say "just to watch them bleed" I mean precisely that: allowing for no other external contingencies), then clearly whatever ethical judgment we make, right or wrong, it applies in every identical case. That's what makes an ethical judgment absolute. Absolute claims in formal reasoning are categorical claims of the form "All," "Every," etc., not claims that assert their own epistemological reality, which is how some here seem to be misusing
the term.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:44 AM on March 30, 2010


Are you asserting that this acceptance is somehow extra-biological?

Unless you simply want to reduce everything to biology, yes. If I believe it would be ok to kill one person to save others, I don't think it's especially useful to frame that as a biologically-driven belief.
posted by me & my monkey at 8:34 AM on March 30, 2010


I say they are interesting because they potentially help us identify the absolute ethical truths that can form the basis for that ethical framework we all agree has to exist.

But they're essentially tautological in nature. They don't tell us anything we don't already accept, even if we disagree about why we accept it or don't know why we accept it.

But it's also unprovable.

First principles often are.
posted by me & my monkey at 8:38 AM on March 30, 2010


First principles often are.

Yes. And any absolute ethical principles we might posit probably are, too, but the fact that we can't affirm their truth status doesn't imply we can deny their truth status either. So strong relativism is as much a conjecture as strong moral absolutism is. The rest is a debate that boils down to two competing positions:

1) We can't have moral certainty, so we shouldn't try to formulate absolute ethical principles at all (and any categorical claim like "killing someone just to watch them bleed is always wrong" is always a false statement);

2) We can't have moral certainty, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't still try to formulate absolute ethical principles (and some categorical ethical claims like "killing someone just to watch them bleed is always wrong" can be true statements, whether we can prove it or not).
posted by saulgoodman at 8:59 AM on March 30, 2010


Relativism is problematic in that it requires the affirmation of both A and ~A. You don't have to be Ayn Rand to obey the law of noncontradiction.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:20 AM on March 30, 2010


saulgoodman: But chiefly, it's the normative claim--the claim that ethical analysis ought not to assume absolute truths--that I'm arguing is self-refuting (and you've acknowledged as much). I don't think it's possible to perform meaningful ethical analysis at all without stipulating at least some axiomatic moral truth, so what strong relativism does is effectively shut down the possibility of meaningful ethical analysis.

NOPE.

Why can't we do meaningful ethical analysis on the basis of shared moral opinion? If you and I concur that murder revolts against our moral sensibilities (except in extreme cases of mitigation, which is something we can talk through), why can't we use that -- and that alone, the shared moral opinion -- to work out systems for minimising the amount of murder that goes on? What need is there to build from a 'truth'?

"Right" and "wrong" are labels that humans apply to things; vehicles for our passions. However strongly we might feel about the immorality of an action (... and, I confess, this is how I always think about it:) the Universe doesn't care. It's wrong to you: and, heck, you might be able to persuade other people to feel it to be wrong, too -- and if you get enough people in your camp then you can claim the moral majority and send that sucka to prison -- but it's only ever a subjective human endeavour.

Which doesn't invalidate ethical inquiry.

It seems very clear to me that meaningful ethical analysis is perfectly possible without the imagined possession of objective & absolute principles. You don't need objectivity when shared subjectivity is just as workable. Thoughts?
posted by Rumpled at 9:38 AM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


With regards to moral relativism, trying to convince somebody to adhere to a philosophical position that allows "killing people who disagree with me" to be moral while not necessarily a false argument, is a bloody stupid one. At least if you have a sense of self preservation.
posted by Zalzidrax at 9:41 AM on March 30, 2010


Relativism is problematic in that it requires the affirmation of both A and ~A. You don't have to be Ayn Rand to obey the law of noncontradiction.

No, relativism argues neither A nor ~A, but says that you believe a while others believe ~a and nobody is objectively correct.
posted by callmejay at 9:43 AM on March 30, 2010


If you and I concur that murder revolts against our moral sensibilities (except in extreme cases of mitigation, which is something we can talk through), why can't we use that -- and that alone, the shared moral opinion -- to work out systems for minimising the amount of murder that goes on? What need is there to build from a 'truth'?

We can, but that doesn't have anything to do with what ethicists talk about when they talk about "moral relativism." That's my point.

No, relativism argues neither A nor ~A, but says that you believe a while others believe ~a and nobody is objectively correct.

This is not the position that ethicists term "moral relativism." It's a claim about epistemology, which is different.

In philosophical discussions of moral relativism, the claim is something like "there are no moral statements that are absolutely true." Now, to a non-philosopher that might sound like some claim about epistemology (i.e., the nature of knowing what's true or not), but it's not that. It's a claim about the possibility of deriving "absolute" conclusions from a given ethical system, and "absolute" is a term that has a very narrow philosophical meaning (again, an absolute claim is just a statement of the form "For every P" or "All P," where if we assign a truth value of T to P, P must always have a truth value of T, or if we assign a truth value of F, P must always have a truth value of F) .

The specific philosophical position that ethicists debate under the name "moral relativism" is the claim that it's not possible to derive ethical statements that are true absolutely, i.e. in every case.

What you're calling "moral relativism" here isn't what ethicists call moral relativism. It's some weird hand-wavy stuff about the epistemological status of ethical truth, which seems to me like a whole other can of philosophical worms that goes well beyond the scope of ethics.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:01 AM on March 30, 2010


We can, but that doesn't have anything to do with what ethicists talk about when they talk about "moral relativism." That's my point.

What are you basing this claim about "ethicists" on? Your survey course?
posted by nasreddin at 10:13 AM on March 30, 2010


One more thing: yes, in case it wasn't clear above, while it is possible to formulate absolute ethical judgments (which refutes the strong form of the moral relativist position), the first principles of any ethical system must themselves be axiomatic, which is probably what's being characterized here as "moral relativism." But that's not a claim about ethics--it's a claim about epistemology. Merely proving that a statement's truth is unknowable is not logically sufficient to refute the statement.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:15 AM on March 30, 2010


saulgoodman:

Yes, I am referring to what is colloquially known as "moral relativism" (as far as I know.) I am not a trained philosopher.
posted by callmejay at 10:16 AM on March 30, 2010


Bringing colloquialisms into a jargon-laden debate is generally not a good idea.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:18 AM on March 30, 2010


What are you basing this claim about "ethicists" on? Your survey course?

And other primary and secondary sources I've read since (like Singer and... crap--can't think of any others more modern that Kant at the moment, but who cares? that's an appeal to authority anyway). I'm sure there are new arguments flying under the banner of moral relativism, but I think it's a mistake to characterize them as anything other than problems in epistemology.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:19 AM on March 30, 2010


Yes, I am referring to what is colloquially known as "moral relativism" (as far as I know.) I am not a trained philosopher.

Don't let him intimidate you. No matter how many P's and non-P's he mentions, his idea of legitimate philosophical debate about "moral relativism" has as little to do with contemporary metaethical debates as the plum pudding model does with contemporary theoretical physics.
posted by nasreddin at 10:19 AM on March 30, 2010


Oh, we also examined a lot of these arguments in both of my formal logic courses (I was a minor in Philosophy, but almost went to grad school in the field).
posted by saulgoodman at 10:21 AM on March 30, 2010


metaethical debates as the plum pudding model does with contemporary theoretical physics.

Meta-ethical? Is that a fancy new way of saying epistemological? If not, what's the difference?
posted by saulgoodman at 10:22 AM on March 30, 2010


Meta-ethical? Is that a fancy new way of saying epistemological? If not, what's the difference?

I'm sorry, but if you haven't heard of metaethics, you have as little claim to be pontificating about what the proper subjects of philosophical discussion about ethics are as Donald Rumsfeld, or, for that matter, Sam Harris.
posted by nasreddin at 10:26 AM on March 30, 2010


This discussion is way more interesting than Harris' contribution. Thanks.

One thing people should keep in mind when discussing Harris' point is this, from his response to the initial criticism:
"Some of my critics got off the train before it even left the station, by defining “science” in exceedingly narrow terms. Many think that science is synonymous with mathematical modeling, or with immediate access to experimental data. However, this is to mistake science for a few of its tools. Science simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in this universe, and the boundary between it and the rest of rational thought cannot always be drawn. There are many tools one must get in hand to think scientifically—ideas about cause and effect, respect for evidence and logical coherence, a dash of curiosity and intellectual honesty, the inclination to make falsifiable predictions, etc.—and many come long before one starts worrying about mathematical models or specific data."

He's using "science" in the broadest sense, saying human knowledge of our context, our selves and cause and effect must be useful in moral thinking. He's not saying understanding mitosis is critical for moral thinking.

I don't think he's arguing anything that anyone disagrees with, which will make his up-coming book quite popular with the "Atheists Have Real Morals" crowd.

I don't have any problem with everyone trying to outdo each other on the morality front, a world where everyone was trying to be more moral than the next guy sounds fine to me.

I've never really thought of the secular social model as being so fully absorbed in any self-contradictory moral relativism, and I don't think that the way it developed after the Reformation and religious wars in Europe (along with the state and all the problems of nationalism) was really about saying that there is no right and wrong. Toleration of other beliefs or ways of life has closer ties to utilitarianism and ideas about social justice than it does to moral relativism. I'd hate to see the Freedom of/Freedom from religion debate be based on the flimsiness of relativist thinking.
posted by ServSci at 10:29 AM on March 30, 2010


I'm not pontificating, nassreddin. Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm not pontificating. I'm willing to admit that in practice, there is no such thing as "objective morality"; my contention is just that this doesn't imply that ethical systems cannot generate absolute moral claims, because they can and do. I'm making a narrow argument against the claim that there can be no moral absolutes. Because it's not true.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:32 AM on March 30, 2010


I'm not pontificating, nassreddin. Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm not pontificating. I'm willing to admit that in practice, there is no such thing as "objective morality"; my contention is just that this doesn't imply that ethical systems cannot generate absolute moral claims, because they can and do. I'm making a narrow argument against the claim that there can be no moral absolutes. Because it's not true.

You're "pontificating" because in this thread you have assumed a position of authority and lectured everyone on what "ethicists" think and what "philosophy" is. That's a really obnoxious argumentative tactic, because it amounts to browbeating. In this case, your legalistic interpretation of "moral relativism" (unsupported by any consensus in the field) has substantially undermined discussion, because what we really want to talk about here is the relationship between moral claims and their hypothetical foundations rather than some trivial bullshit about "generating absolute claims." Since this isn't a philosophy conference this insistence on the absolute authority of jargon is really unhelpful.
posted by nasreddin at 10:39 AM on March 30, 2010


You're "pontificating" because in this thread you have assumed a position of authority and lectured everyone on what "ethicists" think and what "philosophy" is. That's a really obnoxious argumentative tactic, because it amounts to browbeating.

No, what I'm arguing is that it isn't helpful to misuse a term that was originally used in a special field to mean just whatever you or anyone else wants it to mean. Those comments weren't central to my arguments; they were offered as a clarifying footnote, if anything, based on my own (possibly obsolete) knowledge and experiences with the subject in an academic setting.

Would you like to address one of the more substantive arguments or not? I'll be glad to concede a good point, if you care to make one.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:50 AM on March 30, 2010


Let me put it another way: I get the sense you think I'm (deliberately or otherwise) mis-characterizing the underlying claims of moral relativism. If so, then you characterize what those claims are.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:56 AM on March 30, 2010


lumpenprole wrote upthread: "One of the reasons I like Harris, and this is probably going to be controversial on MeFi is that his thoughts on moral philosophy avoid words like 'ontological' which seem to me to be wrapped up in a species of academic debate that don't get us much of anywhere."

In other words, can't we just do philosophy without all the technical terminology?

I think the current argument about moral relativism (where it turns out that the disputants are using wildly divergent definitions of moral relativism -- I think at least three, although I haven't been keeping score) demonstrates why that will always be a short-lived strategy.

One thing some people mean by "philosophy" (which I think is a useful concept, whatever you call it) is "the rigorous practice of discovering what you mean by what you say." ("Moral philosophy" would be a subset: "the rigorous practice of discovering what you mean when you say something is moral.")

Philosophy in this sense is a useful tool for resolving debates. You do it by collaborating with your opponents to assign more and more precise definitions to your terms, until it becomes clear which of your disputes are based on conflicting axioms or perceptions, which were based on logical fallacies, and which were based on simple disagreements of terminology.

In the case of this thread, if we went through that exercise, the term "moral relativism" would be replaced by at least three terms, and a new academic jargon will have been invented solely for our understanding and benefit. That's what you advocate when you ask philosophers to use simple language -- you ask them to abandon thousands of years of development of the field, and work with you to cover the same ground from first principles.

That's a perfectly reasonable request if you're trying to learn, or if you're dealing with non-philosophers -- we can all have a good time and learn something by having unsophisticated philosophical arguments, just like we often have a good time and learn something around here by having unsophisticated arguments about complex math. But if Harris wants to "get us much of anywhere" in the sense of making a new contribution to the field, his choices are to use the existing academic jargon, or invent his own academic jargon that's just as complex -- there's no way to do philosophy without using a bunch of specially defined words, because that's what philosophy is.

(Of course, if philosophers want to affect anything in the outside world, it's helpful if they translate their ideas back into lay language so the rest of us can follow them, by giving us the long-winded explanation we need to replace their technical terms. I agree that Harris is skilled at communicating with lay audiences. The trouble is that, as best I can tell, his ideas don't work very well once you put them back in rigorous terms -- the same way a bad mathematician could be very good at explaining his flawed proofs to lay audiences. I'm sure folks in this thread could recommend better books on philosophy for laypeople.)

(It's interesting how ineffective comment threads are in practice at doing the kind of philosophy I've described. We haven't come close to converging on terms for any of the things someone might mean by "moral relativism" yet [although individual readers might have made progress in their own minds?]. I wonder if wikis are better at this sort of thing.)

(I have no idea why this comment is so long. Go easy on me if I'm off topic or just wrong.)
posted by jhc at 11:12 AM on March 30, 2010 [4 favorites]


Let me put it another way: I get the sense you think I'm (deliberately or otherwise) mis-characterizing the underlying claims of moral relativism. If so, then you characterize what those claims are.

I take "moral relativism" in this context (and in public discourse in general) to refer to the general claim that there are no absolutely, rationally binding reasons to accept claims like "killing innocent children is wrong." The specific variety I would defend would be "moral claims are expressions of personal preferences grounded in culture as well as personal experience, which gives us no reason not to attack other such claims."
posted by nasreddin at 11:14 AM on March 30, 2010


moral claims are expressions of personal preferences grounded in culture as well as personal experience, which gives us no reason not to attack other such claims.

Then you admit your position might be wrong, since your own formulation implicitly denies the possibility of making claims that are absolutely true. Or don't you agree? If not, on what grounds?

You are asserting here that "moral claims are expressions of personal preferences grounded in culture as well as personal experience," which I take to mean the strong claim that "all moral claims are expressions of personal preferences grounded in culture as well as personal experience."

Don't you agree that this is an absolute claim (in other words, it's a claim that permits no exceptions to what it asserts)?

And: "...which gives us no reason not to attack other such claims"?

What a convoluted construction! You're ignoring the other more obvious inference: which gives us no reason to attack other such claims--but even that's a pretty bizzare, contrived assertion.

Why should we attack claims? What are you talking about? Is ethics in your mind the study of deciding what claims to attack and which to leave alone, because that's pretty far afield from what I'd call ethics.

And how do you prove the claim that "moral claims are expressions of personal preferences..."? I don't deny you can assert it. I don't deny you can assert anything, with no regard whatsoever for the truth of your assertions. You, however, seem to deny that anyone can assert the contrary, but you've offered no explanation why.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:33 AM on March 30, 2010


Would you like to address one of the more substantive arguments or not?

OK: you have gone from claiming that "strong moral relativists claim exactly that" and "that is itself an ethical judgment" (with regards to "it would be wrong for moral judgments not to be relative" and "all ethical judgments are relative") to claiming that "what you're calling 'moral relativism' here isn't what ethicists call moral relativism" (with regards to the idea that moral judgments are relative) in the same argument.

Well, which is it? Does moral relativism imply that judgments are relative -- in which case Rumpled's argument about the relative, subjective truth of A and ~A would seem to work just fine -- or does moral relativism not imply that judgments are relative, in which case your own argument about how "self-contradictory" it is falls apart?

You can't have it both ways. You yourself opened the door to Rumpled's argument by claiming that moral relativism implies things "about how one ought to go about formulating ethical judgments". But now that someone is arguing that this implication leads to a non-self-contradictory system of ethical judgment... whoops! Suddenly it doesn't imply anything anymore! Suddenly it's only about how "it's not possible to derive ethical statements that are true absolutely, i.e. in every case"!

On preview: oh, now you're back to claiming that moral relativism implies things about how one ought to go about formulating ethical judgments. Convenient!

The problem here isn't the jargon. It's your attempt to use it to shut other people down by changing the terms of the argument to suit yourself.
posted by vorfeed at 11:42 AM on March 30, 2010


OK: you have gone from claiming that "strong moral relativists claim exactly that" and "that is itself an ethical judgment" (with regards to "it would be wrong for moral judgments not to be relative" and "all ethical judgments are relative") to claiming that "what you're calling 'moral relativism' here isn't what ethicists call moral relativism" (with regards to the idea that moral judgments are relative) in the same argument.

We talked about this upthread already. There's a distinction between "normative" moral relativism (the idea that you ought not go around making absolute moral claims--which is essentially a self-refuting moral claim). And then there's the whole meta-ethical discussion, which is a formal claim about the impossibility of deriving absolute ethical truths. Those are two different subjects. Anyway, see AlsoMike's comment for clarification.

On preview: oh, now you're back to claiming that moral relativism implies things about
how one ought to go about formulating ethical judgments. Convenient!


What? No I haven't. I tried to distinguish between the two different types of moral relativist claims, and I dispute both of them--although I've admitted the meta-ethical version of the claim is unprovable either way.

So what now?
posted by saulgoodman at 11:59 AM on March 30, 2010


You can't have it both ways. You yourself opened the door to Rumpled's argument by claiming that moral relativism implies things "about how one ought to go about formulating ethical judgments". But now that someone is arguing that this implication leads to a non-self-contradictory system of ethical judgment... whoops!

Who proved that? No, it's still clear to me that if the ethical (or normative) claims of moral relativism are true, they're false. Because the normative argument is this:

You ought not to make absolute moral claims.

That's a moral claim that denies itself. If you ought not make moral claims, then why ought you make the moral claim that you ought not make moral claims?

The normative relativist claim is beyond a doubt a self-contradicting proposition.

You can't make a claim about how people ought to go about doing ethics and simultaneously claim it's verboten to make claims about how people ought to go about doing ethics, can you? At least not if you're trying to be even remotely coherent.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:07 PM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here's a quotation from the actual philosophical literature that might help crystallize some terminology if people are interested in carrying this debate any further:

Moral relativism provides a compelling explanation of linguistic data
involving ordinary moral expressions like ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. But it is a very
radical view. Because relativism relativizes sentence truth to contexts of
assessment, it forces us to revise standard linguistic theory.


- Berit Brogaard, "Moral Contextualism and Moral Relativism," Philosophical Quarterly 58.232 (Jul. 2008): 385-409, p. 408.

According to this usage (heavily substantiated through footnotes in Brogaard's article), "moral relativism" is the view that the truth or falsity of moral statements ("Murder is wrong" or whatever) is determined by the "context of assessment." Basically, if Jill thinks murder is wrong, she will evaluate "Murder is wrong" is true, while if Joe thinks murder is not wrong, he will evaluate "Murder is wrong" as false; the moral relativist asserts that there is no ultimate tribunal to which this sort of dispute can be referred, because the context of assessment determines not just what the truth value of the moral claim is thought to be, but what the truth value of the moral claim is.

Logical formalism aside, this seems to me pretty close to the common sense notion of moral relativism.

while it is possible to formulate absolute ethical judgments (which refutes the strong form of the moral relativist position), the first principles of any ethical system must themselves be axiomatic, which is probably what's being characterized here as "moral relativism"

saulgoodman, I think your definition of "moral relativism" is off-base unless it also includes an account of what makes one choice of axiomatic principles superior to another (a question of metaethics). On the strictly logical account, I could choose as my axioms 1. "Eating strawberries is evil" and 2. "Only eating strawberries is evil." All sorts of "absolute" moral truths could be derived from these axioms ("Eating strawberries on Tuesday is always evil," "Murder is never evil"). But it's pretty obvious that this sort of thing is of interest only as a logical exercise. Any substantive discussion of ethics, and any substantive conception of moral relativism or absolutism, needs more than this bare-bones logic.

(On preview: a bunch of comments have appeared while I was writing this comment and I don't have time to read them at the moment, so sorry if any of this is redundant or pre-refuted.)
posted by DaDaDaDave at 12:21 PM on March 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


saulgoodman, I think the metaethical relativism program is a little more consistent than you are claiming.

"You ought not to make absolute moral claims" could be rewritten "One can't truthfully make absolute moral claims", and so the problem with absolute morality is not an "ought" problem. It's simply that people are saying false things.

The metaethical problem with absolute truth and morality, as far as I see it, is that it seems impossible to find any grounding for such claims of truth on a par, for example, for the claims for truth in mathematics or empirical science. I.e. there are no observations which can refute a moral claim. If there are absolutely true "oughts" how can one convince any rational being, no matter their experiences, of those truths?
posted by Schmucko at 12:26 PM on March 30, 2010


On the strictly logical account, I could choose as my axioms 1. "Eating strawberries is evil" and 2. "Only eating strawberries is evil." All sorts of "absolute" moral truths could be derived from these axioms ("Eating strawberries on Tuesday is always evil," "Murder is never evil"). But it's pretty obvious that this sort of thing is of interest only as a logical exercise.

I agree. But older versions of moral relativism did make more or less this formal claim--or at least, proofs asserting this claim were proposed in advancing moral relativism. But right, who cares.

saulgoodman, I think your definition of "moral relativism" is off-base unless it also includes an account of what makes one choice of axiomatic principles superior to another (a question of metaethics)

But surely, that's an epistemological problem, not an ethical one? Maybe I'm just too hung up on how to classify these problems, but to me, what we're calling a "meta-ethical" problem throughout this thread is a problem that falls under the discipline philosopher's have tended to call epistemology, which is concerned with the nature and provability of knowledge.

I agree that we don't have any formal mechanisms for determining superior axioms; what I dispute is that this fact necessarily implies or fully justifies the claim that such axioms couldn't actuality exist and be absolutely true without our being able to prove them, or that there are no valid claims about how we make ethical judgments that are absolutely (always) true independent of the circumstances. It's well established that any sufficiently rigorous formal system can be made to give rise to true statements that are nevertheless not provable given the axioms of the system.

Damn, I've got a web application to finish coding and it's stressing me out. I'll think about what's been proposed some more and see if it makes sense to me.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:59 PM on March 30, 2010


...or justifies the claim that such axioms couldn't actually exist...
posted by saulgoodman at 1:01 PM on March 30, 2010


Don't you agree that this is an absolute claim (in other words, it's a claim that permits no exceptions to what it asserts)?

Things like "moral claims are expressions of personal preferences grounded in culture as well as personal experience" are not themselves moral claims. That's an is, not an ought. And if you wish to continue to claim that these kinds of statements imply moral claims, then you should probably address Rumpled's point about what sort of moral claims they imply, rather than asserting that they only imply what you think they do.

On preview: There's a distinction between "normative" moral relativism (the idea that you ought not go around making absolute moral claims--which is essentially a self-refuting moral claim). And then there's the whole meta-ethical discussion, which is a formal claim about the impossibility of deriving absolute ethical truths.

There is a distinction between normative moral relativism and the meta-ethical discussion, yet you keep trying to conflate the two by taking statements like nasreddin's and L.P. Hatecraft's (which are not normative) and suggesting that they imply normative moral relativism, and are thus self-contradictory. In fact, you've suggested throughout this argument that non-normative moral relativism actually "is implicitly an assertion about how one ought to go about formulating ethical judgments".

Again, which is it: is non-normative moral relativism a meta-ethical claim which is "unprovable either way", or is it an ethical claim which implies a self-contradictory moral position? If it's the former, I see no problem with statements like L.P. Hatecraft's and nasreddin's; if it's the latter, your argument seems quite vulnerable to the fact that more than just one implication can be drawn from an ethical claim.

Some moral relativists are certainly self-contradictory, but the idea that moral relativism is itself self-contradictory is another kettle of fish.
posted by vorfeed at 1:04 PM on March 30, 2010


There is a distinction between normative moral relativism and the meta-ethical discussion, yet you keep trying to conflate the two by taking statements like nasreddin's and L.P. Hatecraft's (which are not normative) and suggesting that they imply normative moral relativism, and are thus self-contradictory. In fact, you've suggested throughout this argument that non-normative moral relativism actually "is implicitly an assertion about how one ought to go about formulating ethical judgments".

Yes, exactly. It's also possible to make the non-normative version of moral relativism more
"interesting" by adding a proviso like "taking into account the lack of absolute grounding for our moral claims may inspire a degree of tolerance for other moral claims," which isn't an ought statement at all, but captures the connections many people make between moral or cultural relativism and normative pluralism.
posted by nasreddin at 1:09 PM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]



But surely, that's an epistemological problem, not an ethical one? Maybe I'm just too hung up on how to classify these problems, but to me, what we're calling a "meta-ethical" problem throughout this thread is a problem that falls under the discipline philosopher's have tended to call epistemology, which is concerned with the nature and provability of knowledge.


The boundaries between these disciplines aren't nearly as fixed as you think they are. No practicing ethicist would deny that an epistemological claim like "I can't know anything outside the boundaries of my immediate sensory experiences" would have ethical consequences that would be worth exploring in the context of ethics.
posted by nasreddin at 1:12 PM on March 30, 2010


That's an is, not an ought.

When I wrote that I though I was pretty f-ing clear it was meant specifically in reference to the normative ethical relativist claim referenced up-thread. How did you not follow that?

There is a distinction between normative moral relativism and the meta-ethical discussion, yet you keep trying to conflate the two by taking statements like nasreddin's and L.P. Hatecraft's (which are not normative) and suggesting that they imply normative moral relativism, and are thus self-contradictor

No, my argument against those claims has been that they rest on the supposed unknowability of absolute truth. I agree that absolute truth is unknowable (unprovable). But in formal logic, there's a distinction between the provability of a claim and it's actual truth status. So just because we can't prove an assumption or assertion of fact does not prove that it isn't true. What I'm saying is that no one here has yet actually argued on behalf of moral relativism in any form: they've just stipulated it. Which is fine, if that's good enough for you, but I'd like to see an argument.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:14 PM on March 30, 2010


“ideas about cause and effect, respect for evidence and logical coherence, a dash of curiosity and intellectual honesty, the inclination to make falsifiable predictions, etc.”

Harris wouldn't say it, but that would also apply to art, music, taste in food, etc.
How can one make a falsifiable statement concerning what makes someone happy in contrast to what someone else observes? (on preview, I see Schmucko sez something analogous)

Depending on consensual validation is no way to live a life.

Beyond that plenty of biological traits we have that are destructive – e.g. monkeys gamble. Primates seem hardwired for it. Why is it wrong? States have lotteries to help fund education. (I myself detest gambling)

And Harris makes no exceptions for the other end of the moral extreme – is it wrong for women to be beaten for not wearing certain apparel? Sure. But what about self-sacrifice?
Is it right to starve oneself to death unless certain social changes are made?
If not – what exempts a particular individual’s action? If so, do we not then all have an obligation to starve ourselves?
Any moral framework has to, at some point, take into account the right to compel - otherwise it's just academic. So respect for evidence, inclination to make falsifiable predictions, sure - how do we compel that? And who gets to says how much a 'dash' of curiosity is, all that?

Why say ‘science’ when he could simply say we can use a secular moral framework? Use the term too broadly and it becomes nonsensical. Science is what – all rational thought and earnest inquiry? We’re all doing 'science' right now then.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:15 PM on March 30, 2010


No practicing ethicist would deny that an epistemological claim like "I can't know anything outside the boundaries of my immediate sensory experiences" would have ethical consequences that would be worth exploring in the context of ethics.

I haven't denied it either. I've said it has consequences for how we do ethics, have I not? Haven't I conceded a gajillion times that the axioms used to form ethical judgments are unprovable?

All I've argued on the contrary is that this fact does not prove relativism or disprove moral absolutism. In fact, it makes it impossible to prove either.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:17 PM on March 30, 2010


No, my argument against those claims has been that they rest on the supposed unknowability of absolute truth. I agree that absolute truth is unknowable (unprovable). But in formal logic, there's a distinction between the provability of a claim and it's actual truth status. So just because we can't prove an assumption or assertion of fact does not prove that it isn't true. What I'm saying is that no one here has yet actually argued on behalf of moral relativism in any form: they've just stipulated it. Which is fine, if that's good enough for you, but I'd like to see an argument.

The unprovability argument doesn't work because in order for moral absolutism to be true, it needs to prove a link between moral claims and the foundations of these moral claims, which would thereby constitute a rationally binding obligation. If the existence of these foundations can't be proven (whether or not it can be disproven) no such link can plausibly be made. Moral relativism is thus true by default.
posted by nasreddin at 1:20 PM on March 30, 2010


Or, I should say, either moral relativism is true by default or a version of moral absolutism in which moral claims are made independently of any foundations for these claims is true by default, which is functionally identical and probably isn't what the moral absolutist has in mind.
posted by nasreddin at 1:22 PM on March 30, 2010


or a version of moral absolutism in which moral claims are made independently of any foundations for these claims is true by default, which is functionally identical and probably isn't what the moral absolutist has in mind.

Sure it is. Divine revelation is about as perfect an example of what you just described as I can imagine.

Moral claims made independently of any (rational) foundations for these claims is precisely what moral absolutists like Fundamentalist Christians believe in.

So you do see my point, then. The two positions are logically equivalent. That's why I reject them both--although I haven't quite figured out what to replace them with yet.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:27 PM on March 30, 2010


So you do see my point, then. The two positions are logically equivalent. That's why I reject them both--although I haven't quite figured out what to replace them with yet.

So, since you haven't figured out what to replace them with, you're a moral relativist too? Or do you think we should take metaethical positions first and then invent foundations for them later? If it's the latter, how are you any better than a moral relativist?
posted by nasreddin at 1:31 PM on March 30, 2010


He's using "science" in the broadest sense, saying human knowledge of our context, our selves and cause and effect must be useful in moral thinking. He's not saying understanding mitosis is critical for moral thinking.

I don't think he's arguing anything that anyone disagrees with, which will make his up-coming book quite popular with the "Atheists Have Real Morals" crowd.


There is more to Harris's argument than that. Look at his main (and only?) example of how science-based morality will/should/could/does work, namely his discussion of psychopathy. In the land of abstract philosophy, where relativism is king, psychopathy is apparently just another point of view, a special outlook on life. Moral philosophers, working with the tools of abstract reasoning, cannot tell us anything beyond that. Scientists, however, have discovered that psychopaths suffer from a disorder which influences their behaviour in various ways: their "neurological deficits" are the mark which sets them apart and allows us to say that what they do is wrong—at which point, having learnt that Ted Bundy is not like everyone else, we can presumably deal with him more effectively, or something. This last achievement is courtesy of empirical science, not conceptual philosophy.

That is how I read it, anyway. The article is a mess. I guess the book may be better, but I prefer the original pragmatists—William James could at least write.

One of the reasons I like Harris, and this is probably going to be controversial on MeFi is that his thoughts on moral philosophy avoid words like 'ontological' which seem to me to be wrapped up in a species of academic debate that don't get us much of anywhere.

Hey, at least I spelled it wrong. Can I still be part of the intellectual proletariat?

posted by Syme at 1:36 PM on March 30, 2010


Contemporary psychologists don't typically believe that psychological disorders are absolute facts either. They're defined in reference to normal or typical psychological functioning in a given community.
posted by nasreddin at 1:40 PM on March 30, 2010


The Godelian argument that there are truths in mathematics that are not provable from within a certain axiomatic system does not really apply here. After all, those truths are still proved to be truths--not from within that axiomatic system, but by metamathematical arguments. These are truths that are limited to mathematical objects that are defined in a certain way, and so those truths are in a way implicit in the way we have set up the system--and even then they are truths of an "is" and not an "ought" nature. It seems to me that an "ought" statement is implicitly a counterfactual. I think it's something we humans can imagine, but only because of our confusion. This is a "positivist" take on knowledge, and perhaps not everyone will agree with it, but I think the compelling case for metaethical relativism is the difficulty in showing how one is supposed to demonstrate ethical truths.
posted by Schmucko at 1:41 PM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


When I wrote that I though I was pretty f-ing clear it was meant specifically in reference to the normative ethical relativist claim referenced up-thread. How did you not follow that?

Because it was pretty f-ing clear that nasreddin -- you know, the person you were quoting -- wasn't making a normative ethical relativist claim. Refuting it as though it was normative indicates, again, that you wish to blur the lines between the two.

No, my argument against those claims has been that they rest on the supposed unknowability of absolute truth.

This is a misrepresentation of your actual argument throughout this thread. You have said, again and again, in the plainest language possible, that you believe non-normative moral relativism implies normative moral relativism. You said that this kind of moral relativism was therefore self-contradictory, not merely "unknowable" or "stipulated".

And as you yourself admit, being against something because it "rests on the supposed unknowability of absolute truth" is no more or less provable than being for something because it rests on the supposed unknowability of absolute truth. Except somehow you've made the former "argument", but everybody who made the latter "just stipulated it"? Come on.

"No one here has yet actually argued on behalf of [this inherently unprovable thing] in any form" is not, exactly, a problem. Especially when your definition of "actually arguing" seems to be blowing your Philosophy Ref whistle at people and declaring all their arguments out of bounds.
posted by vorfeed at 1:49 PM on March 30, 2010


Or do you think we should take metaethical positions first and then invent foundations for them later? If it's the latter, how are you any better than a moral relativist?

Better? Worse? The same? What kind of ethical judgments are you making about me? And what makes you think I'm suggesting one system is better or worse than any other? I'm just saying both positions may be in a certain sense inaccurate.

Beyond that, what else is there to do than just admit what we don't know, and try to consider as much evidence and as many different ethical arguments as possible when making moral judgments? Different ethical systems may apply in different circumstances, some rights and wrongs may be absolute (apply in every case), and others not, but it seems to me there's no room for a priori certainty about the meta-ethics one way or the other.

If science can put ethics on a more solid footing by demonstrating that ethical judgments have a biological basis, at least then we might be able to understand the implicit principles underlying our ethical reasoning, whether or not we choose to accept our biological tendencies as axiomatic.

For instance, the research discussed in this other thread seems a pretty strong demonstration of a biological inclination to consider the intentions motivating behavior in our ethical reasoning. Good or bad, that's part of how humans generally calculate ethics by default. So there's one axiom we might choose to adopt, since it apparently factors into how most of us intuitively make ethical judgments whether we like it or not: Evaluating the morality of behavior depends in some part on the intentions of the moral agent. Obviously, we also posit two implicit classifications for behaviors with a moral dimension (which I don't think all behaviors have, btw): good or bad. The fact that nearly everyone--even relativists--tend to think roughly in terms of these categories makes them seem justifiably axiomatic. Actions with a moral dimension can be either good or bad.

These and other ethical principles we might deduce from our own biology might not be provable, but if these assumptions underlie how we tend to do ethical reasoning by default anyway, why not take them as axiomatic when we reason through ethical problems, unless we find good reason to dispense with them?

But I don't know. I'm proposing a problem, not a solution here.

(Damn. I am so screwed. This code I'm working with is awful. And my deadline is just getting closer and closer... I'm seriously just gonna give this a rest for now.)
posted by saulgoodman at 2:22 PM on March 30, 2010


Because it was pretty f-ing clear that nasreddin -- you know, the person you were quoting -- wasn't making a normative ethical relativist claim. Refuting it as though it was normative indicates, again, that you wish to blur the lines between the two.

But didn't I say I meant that particular point to be taken in reference only to the normative claim? I'm pretty sure I did. If I didn't, I'm sorry if that wasn't clear. My intent wasn't to blur the different versions of the argument, it was to address each of them. It's not my damn fault they're all called the same thing. You have to work through one set of claims at a time with this stuff. Anyway, for real. Gone.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:25 PM on March 30, 2010


.....So you're pretty much a moral relativist whose specific style of moral reasoning involves scientific inquiry. Sounds good to me.
posted by nasreddin at 2:31 PM on March 30, 2010


These and other ethical principles we might deduce from our own biology might not be provable, but if these assumptions underlie how we tend to do ethical reasoning by default anyway, why not take them as axiomatic when we reason through ethical problems, unless we find good reason to dispense with them?

I don't really object to this, but you should know that anyone who treats moral axioms as contingent and pragmatically-determined is by definition a thoroughgoing moral relativist.
posted by nasreddin at 2:35 PM on March 30, 2010


There's too much arguing in this thread. Can't we just use science to find out who's right and move on?
posted by Obscure Reference at 2:53 PM on March 30, 2010 [3 favorites]


Probably so, nasreddin, but I still think my position differs from relativism in the ontological status it affords to absolute moral claims. In my view, there might actually be true moral absolutes, and our practical moral intuitions might even provide an entry point to figuring out what they are, even though we could never prove our moral convictions to be absolute truths beyond all skeptical doubts on the basis of a priori reasoning alone.

It's a practical ethics that remains agnostic where the possibility of absolute moral truth is concerned. (So yes, in practice, it's got more in common with weak moral relativism than absolutism, but in terms of the ontological status it ascribes to absolute ethical truth, it's a significantly different position.)

Screw it. I'm going home. Thanks for setting me straight where I erred; sorry for getting a little heavy-handed at times. As I said, work is stressing me out right now.
posted by saulgoodman at 3:04 PM on March 30, 2010


In my view, there might actually be true moral absolutes, and our practical moral intuitions might even provide an entry point to figuring out what they are, even though we could never prove our moral convictions to be absolute truths beyond all skeptical doubts on the basis of a priori reasoning alone.

It's a practical ethics that remains agnostic where the possibility of absolute moral truth is concerned.


I would agree with this completely if only I had the faintest idea what an "absolute truth" would look like or how I could recognize it when I saw it, not to mention tell it from all the other faux-absolute truths.
posted by nasreddin at 3:19 PM on March 30, 2010


I think I can sum up saulgoodman's argument as "Mormons-in-South-Park":

On the TV show South Park, one of the running gags is that all religions are wrong except for Mormonism. Once one dies, one discovers this, and goes to heaven if they are Mormon (which is boring and everyone is well-dressed), or go to hell if they are not (which is pretty awesome and Satan is a friendly old gay guy).

The argument goes that this situation could be true, and we would have no way of knowing. If it was, then Mormon ethics are absolutely true ethics, but again we would have no way of knowing that. And therefore moral relativism could be false. ....therefore it is false!??

And then, as an addendum, some hand-wavy creationist/ID suggestions that the path to absolutely true morality may be hidden in our "practical moral intuitions". Or in the example, the teachings of Joseph Smith.
posted by mek at 4:38 PM on March 30, 2010


"Many think that science is synonymous with mathematical modeling, or with immediate access to experimental data."

Yes I do. Sounds good to me.
posted by ovvl at 7:06 PM on March 30, 2010


Has half of metafilter turned into Ayn Rand when I wasn't looking?
posted by ovvl at 7:07 PM on March 30, 2010


Randian Objectivism and moral objectivism are unrelated concepts.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:15 PM on March 30, 2010


Well, I mean, Randian Objectivism is morally objectivist, but you don't have to have anything to do with Rand to be a moral objectivist.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:23 PM on March 30, 2010


Heh. Just realized that part of the reason I've been arguing myself in circles here is that, for some reason, I've had it stuck in my head all this time that the term "absolute claim" was a term of art strictly synonymous with the strongest forms of "categorical proposition" in logic. Categorical propositions are statements of the general form "Every moral relativist hates ethics," "Some moral relativists ride bicycles," "No moral relativist eats children," etc. So I was thinking of an absolute claim as nothing more than a universal categorical proposition like A: All P is Q or E: No P is Q.

So my original argument was all muddled up, because I understood one of the basic claims of moral relativism to be the rejection of the possibility of asserting categorical propositions concerning ethics. Obviously, it is possible to make categorical ethical claims like "Murder is always wrong." It just isn't necessarily possible to prove them.

It still isn't really all that clear to me what an "absolute truth" is beyond an assertion of the truth of a universal categorical proposition. That's all I meant by the term "absolute truth" above, anyway. If it has to be provable, too, to qualify as absolute truth, then forget it.

But ultimately, there's no way to compel someone to accept the truth of any logical proposition. Apart from making various inductive and deductive arguments and appeals to intuition, what is there to do? Those are the only tools we have for determining truth (absolute or not). And those are the only tools available to establish the relativist position as well. Even arguments from first principles (despite not being subject to incompleteness) require us to assume our axioms and can lead to infinite regress if we can't agree on a common set of first principles.

"moral claims are expressions of personal preferences grounded in culture as well as personal experience, which gives us no reason not to attack other such claims"

Even in this formulation, this remains an unattractive position to me. Science has now demonstrated at least the strong possibility of a biological basis for some of our moral intuitions, so at least this particular formulation of the claim may be fatally flawed. Actually, the inference doesn't follow anymore either. If moral judgments are not only "expressions of personal preference grounded in culture and experience," but are actually structured by our neurobiology, then there may be a very good reason not to attack certain moral beliefs: the vast majority of us could be hardwired to hold them, so continuing to argue about it would not only be pointless, but in a certain sense, sadistic.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:47 PM on March 30, 2010


Ethical Absolutism
Probably best thought of as the rejection of ethical relativism. If you don't like that it is, in its strongest form, the view that there are moral judgements which are true or false independently of any other consideration (time, place, the person making them, etc).

Ethical Relativism
The view that moral judgements vary from society to society ("descriptive relativism"; something hard to dispute) combined with the view that the truth or falsity of such judgements also vary across societies (essential for making this a meta-ethical position and not just a statement of the obvious).

Ethical Objectivism
Ethical judgements are true or false independently of the subject making them.

Ethical Subjectivism
Ethical judgements are true or false relative to the subject making them.

It isn't easy to keep these positions as neatly separated as this suggests. (Relativism probably collapses into subjectivism, objectivism can be recast as a weaker version of absolutism, etc). Discussions about the relative merits of these different positions constitute what philosophers call "meta-ethics" (meaning, roughly, "about ethics"). This is the study of the nature of ethical judgements. Normative ethics is the field of actual ethical judgements. Someone who works on theories of what actions are right or wrong, or someone who makes moral judgements, are both doing normative ethics.

What may well annoy people who have thought about these things a bit, when they hear or read Harris, is that he doesn't seem to have given it much thought or even done a brief survey of the literature.

Almost nobody holds any of the four views I've outlined, but they use them as a kind of reference point for discussion. Most forms of subjectivism of recent times (and there haven't been any huge shifts in this area in at least 60 years) are very different from cultural relativism. They tend to be based on what's usually called "non-cognitivism". Pope Guilty noted above that Harris completely ignores this.

Non-cognitivism holds that ethical judgements are not actually about what they appear to be about. One version is sometimes called the "yeah-boo" theory. This is really just a development of Hume's theory (presented after he dismissed the idea of squeezing oughts out of iss) and, like many neo-Humean theories, owes it's contemporary popularity to AJ Ayer. It's called the "yeah-boo" theory because it claims that ostensibly ethical judgements are really two-part statements. Take "tax minimisation is wrong". Part one describes the attitude of the person making the statement ("I dislike tax minimisation"), and part two urges the listener to agree ("do so as well!"). Because the second part is a prescription (and the only non-descriptive part), these theories are sometimes called "prescriptivism".

What makes Harris's view sound interesting is that he's offering a scientific account of morality that rejects relativism (and, implicitly, subjectivism). This is interesting because science should be most friendly towards a non-cognitive theory. Psychology can tell us all sorts of things about why people have the views that they do and about how they try to get others to agree with them. Indeed, that's one of the reasons why it took off in the 20th Century. Moral judgements were no longer about Platonic forms (or whatever equivalent 19th Century Idealists had), they were about mental states and we had a new science of mental states.

So, Harris is offering an objectivist account of morality (which usually holds that the subject matter of moral judgements is sui generis and not part of the domain of scientific enquiry) which is still science-friendly. Wow that's interesting!

But when we look at what his account is, we discover that it's a watery version of utilitarianism. Given that you can't swing a cat in the Australian National University without hitting a preference utilitarian, this is so far from being a breakthrough that it's not funny.

My what a long comment. Sorry.
posted by GeckoDundee at 12:07 AM on March 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


Science has now demonstrated at least the strong possibility of a biological basis for some of our moral intuitions, so at least this particular formulation of the claim may be fatally flawed. Actually, the inference doesn't follow anymore either. If moral judgments are not only "expressions of personal preference grounded in culture and experience," but are actually structured by our neurobiology, then there may be a very good reason not to attack certain moral beliefs: the vast majority of us could be hardwired to hold them, so continuing to argue about it would not only be pointless, but in a certain sense, sadistic.

The problem with this argument is that it is inherently relative. If there is any biological basis for some of our moral intuitions, it is relative to our biology. It is totally naive of us to think of humanity as anything other than one of near-infinite forms of life, which are diverse to an almost incomprehensible degree. If biology has anything to do with morality, then morality must be relative. As a crude example, there are many species which devour their mate during the reproductive process: in these cases, murder is not only not wrong, it is right.
posted by mek at 2:30 AM on March 31, 2010


The problem with this argument is that it is inherently relative.

Does your example really demonstrate that though?

Or does is just demonstrates that ethical judgments have to be very specific?

It might be "right" for a mantis to munch off its lover's head, but is it right for a human?

Let me put it this way: Given identical circumstances (at least in all the relevant specifics), would a rational ethical system one day lead to the conclusion that Mantises are evil for biting the heads off their mates, while the next day concluding that they're virtuous?

To me, if a rational ethical system takes into account the full totality of circumstances, it should reach the same ethical judgments every time. That's the sense in which I mean that moral claims can and should be absolute: if an ethical system produces reproducible results, then it generates what I'd call absolute moral truths.

So for example, a mantis biting it's mate's head off, in the absence of any novel factors, should always be viewed as "morally right" in a rational ethical system, while a human biting her mate's head off (if, after considering the totality of the circumstances, we conclude it is wrong) should always be viewed as "morally wrong."

Isn't that all that absolute moral truth really means? That the ethical claims we make, when all relevant factors are considered, are categorical? I don't think you can really call an ethical system rational if it isn't able to assert categorical ethical claims. Sure, ethical claims have to be extremely context specific, but that doesn't make them "relativistic." It just makes them specific.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:11 PM on March 31, 2010


ach. sorry for all the scare quotes. yuck.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:09 PM on March 31, 2010


Or does it just demonstrate that ethical judgments have to be very specific?

How specific? Species-specific? Culturally specific? Individually specific? Sounds like moral relativism to me. At any rate, you're describing an infinitely complex system of moral truths. The statement "murder is wrong", under your argument, requires an infinite number of qualifiers to achieve "absolute truth" status. We have to describe every possible context of the statement. But how do we judge the relevance of context and make a moral claim, without some less sensitive (broader, generic) moral framework to start from? What is this framework?
posted by mek at 11:10 PM on March 31, 2010


But how do we judge the relevance of context and make a moral claim, without some less sensitive (broader, generic) moral framework to start from? What is this framework?

Those are questions we can try to answer using the same methods used in any other analytical field. The conceptual problems being suggested here as unique to ethics aren't really unique to ethics; they apply to all fields of analytical study. You always have to reach consensus on certain first principles and then reason you're way down to specific claims from there. The fact that we can't achieve certainty hasn't prevented us from using reasoning to solve problems in any other field (Science hasn't given us jet packs yet, but it's given us rockets and TVs and cellphones), why should it in ethics?

It's possible that the framework you describe, while to some degree arbitrary or "relativistic," is a crucial part of how societies define themselves to maintain cohesion, part of a society's identity, like an operating charter. Lord knows it's been argued again and again that declining ethical standards are responsible for social collapse. While I don't think the strong version of those claims stand up to scrutiny, I do think some basic ethical principles really might be required for human social cohesion. If we can identify those principles using scientific methods, then couldn't we create an ethical system grounded in reality? For example, a society that doesn't condemn cold-blooded murder might not be able to survive or maintain the necessary bonds of social trust required for cooperation and group cohesion. If we can establish that as a matter of scientific fact, then that's an ethical principle that has a sound basis in reality.

The Categorical Imperative offers one such set of operating principles; the principle of Utility offers another. The Golden Rule does as well. Other ethical systems start from the assumption that the ultimate moral goal is to minimize the suffering of sentient beings.

Just like in any other application of critical reasoning, whatever general principles you start from, they should lead through reasoning to certain truths. Sure, you can always call the soundness of the premises into question, but if the arguments are well-reasoned, they follow necessarily from your premises. In that sense, they are absolute.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:57 AM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


The fact that we can't achieve certainty hasn't prevented us from using reasoning to solve problems in any other field (Science hasn't given us jet packs yet, but it's given us rockets and TVs and cellphones).

The difference being that science is always happy with a working model, it does not need to be absolutely true, it just needs to work. A scientific theory contains methods by which it can be disproven, and even if it is later discovered to be untrue, that does not mean it is not effective. (Newtonian physics, Euclidean geometry, etc.) Now you can reason your way to utilitarianism, sure, it's been done before. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the existence or nonexistence of an absolute ethics, and is perfectly happy with moral relativism too. The ethics is built into the premises. The is-ought problem remains.

This is why you can't build an ethics via analysis:
-How do we know an ethical framework is effective?
-By what can it be measured, how is it proven or disproven?
-Why do you expect effectiveness to correlate with truth-value?

If you have an answer which doesn't beg the question, I'd like to hear it. I don't disagree with your arguments, they just have nothing to do with non-normative moral relativism.
posted by mek at 5:47 PM on April 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


What you're describing sounds more like pragmaticism than moral relativism to me.

Again, the real problem with moral relativism is that it is not an ethical system, or even a useful approach to ethical problems, but a critique of ethical systems generally. You can't use moral relativism to do ethics, so to speak, because it doesn't offer any working foundations (nor does it admit any possibility of discovering such foundations) for the practice of ethics.

That's what makes it a meta-ethical argument, and it's also what makes it largely irrelevant to the practice of ethics and to most ethical problems, and even less useful to anyone asking the normative question "how should I behave," which is ultimately the point of ethics.

And since moral relativism's meta-ethical claims are as inherently unprovable as the claims of ethical absolutists (intuitively appealing as they may be), relativism provides nothing of value to the discussion. It's just an argumentative technique for changing the subject whenever someone wants to talk ethics.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:05 PM on April 4, 2010


More here specifically on pragmatism as an ethical position:

Pragmatism sees no fundamental difference between practical and theoretical reason, nor any ontological difference between facts and values. Both facts and values have cognitive content: knowledge is what we should believe; values are hypotheses about what is good in action. Pragmatist ethics is broadly humanist because it sees no ultimate test of morality beyond what matters for us as humans.

And, finally, how this position is sometimes confused with "moral relativism":

William James' contribution to ethics, as laid out in his essay The Will to Believe has often been misunderstood as a plea for relativism or irrationality. On its own terms it argues that ethics always involves a certain degree of trust or faith and that we cannot always wait for adequate proof when making moral decisions.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:44 PM on April 4, 2010


It's just an argumentative technique for changing the subject whenever someone wants to talk ethics.

Facepalm
posted by afu at 11:50 PM on April 4, 2010


And since moral relativism's meta-ethical claims are as inherently unprovable as the claims of ethical absolutists (intuitively appealing as they may be), relativism provides nothing of value to the discussion.

Back at you!

But, I think I understand. You're a rationalist. I lack that kind of hubris. Have a nice day.
posted by mek at 3:17 AM on April 5, 2010


No. I'm a Pragmatist. No hubris required; just a sense of moral responsibility.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:35 AM on April 5, 2010


That's perfectly compatible with non-normative moral relativism. In fact I don't see how it can deny it, if you accept that non-human civilizations may have different ethical systems. Which seems noncontroversial.
posted by mek at 4:40 PM on April 5, 2010


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