I was having a back-and-forth on Twitter with Craig Mazin (@clmazin) about Sam Harris’s claim that morality is a scientific and not a metaphysical question. As evidence, Mazin pointed me to Harris’s TED talk, which I dissected.
Sam’s Happy Talk
Now, since it’s important to begin by saying something nice, I note that Harris wore a suit, for which I praise him; alas, sans cravat. The moderator wore ugly jeans (forgive the grammatical tautology) and a sloppy t-shirt.
Harris’s thesis is that, “The separation between science and human values is an illusion. And actually quite a dangerous one at this point in human history.” His introduction (with [my handy lettering]):
[A]Values are a certain kind of fact. [B]They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures. [C]Why is it that we don’t have ethical obligations towards rocks?…Because we don’t think rocks can suffer. And if we’re more concerned about our fellow primates than we are about insects…it’s because we think they’re exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering. Now the crucial thing to notice here is that this is a factual claim. This is something we could be right or wrong about. [D] If we misconstrued the relationship between biological complexity and the possibilities about experience, why then we could be wrong about the inner life of insects. There’s no notion, no version, of human morality and human values that I’ve ever come across that is not at some point reducible to a concern about conscious experience and its possible changes.
[A] Values in this sense can be a “certain kind” of fact, namely particular observations. Examples: “Jones holds that same-sex ‘marriage’ is moral” or “The residents of North Carolina do not.” But head counts (votes) do not make or prove a value ethically or morally right or wrong. The mere observation that people are generally “for” or “against” some value is never a proof that that value is morally right or wrong. And even if it was, the proposition “Votes [observations] decides what is morally right or wrong” is not scientific and subject to empirical verification. No escaping metaphysics here (or anywhere, considering any argument uses logic, which is not scientific but metaphysical).
[B] False: they are observations (in his sense), which may be against the wellbeing of conscious creatures, as with people who purposely inflict pain or harm (and not just negatively: think of self-defense, war, and capital punishment).
[C] It is observed people that don’t care about rocks (except for Pet Rocks, of course, and New Age crystal mongers) and do care about macaques, which is another “factual claim.” But this is just an observation, which is not a proof etc.
[D] It could be mosquitoes just want our love. But to claim all morality should begin with a “concern about conscious experience” is not scientific, but metaphysical.
Harris then lists marks of a “failed state”: things like mothers not being able to feed their children, strangers who can’t peacefully collaborate, presence of wanton murder. And then he lists, as his example of contrasting idyllic conditions, his talk (yes). All very well, but more observation. Not even a hint of a proof that metaphysics can be eliminated. He here and elsewhere seeks audience support by listing moral goods and evils which are indisputable, and by that act hoping nobody notices he hasn’t proved that mere agreement is not proof these values are the values which are best. Perhaps this is done with calculation (see below), or maybe he just doesn’t know what he’s doing.
In talking about values, we are taking about facts…[E] If we’re talking about human wellbeing, we are of necessity talking about the human brain…So what I’m arguing is that values reduce to facts, the facts about the conscious experience of conscious beings and we can therefore we can visualize a space of possible changes in the experience of these beings…[F] Perhaps there are states of human wellbeing that we rarely access, that few people access…perhaps there are other states we can’t access because the way our minds are structured but that other people can access.
[E] No, human wellbeing is not “of necessity about the human brain”, coincidentally Harris’s day-job focus, except that, say, if you lose your foot you need your brain to help shout “Ouch!” But never mind.
[F] Here comes the scientific Buddhism. Secret, hidden doors exist in your brain which can be unlocked if we could only find the key! Send $19.99 (plus S&H) and I’ll show you how to fetch one of these keys. Even if this science fiction were true—I’ve reached level 92, thank you very much—it does not prove the judgments of Enlightened Ones is more moral, it presupposes it, a metaphysical proposition.
For his next non sequitur, he mentions corporal punishment and claims the rationale for it is solely religious. “Is it a good idea generally speaking to subject children to pain and violence and public humiliation as a way of encouraging healthy moral development and good behavior?” Perhaps the main fallacy is better labeled special pleading. You be the judge. The error in fact (only religious people spank) is just sloppy research.
He finally asks if there can be an objective definition of wellbeing. He compares by analogy that changing notions of health does not make health vacuous. And then he gives examples of moral wrongs, such as the mistreat of (mainly Muslim) women, and of the common open displays of lascivious pictures (concupiscence). He wondered whether a balance might be reached (this earned audience cheers).
It was at this point in the video that my Spidey sense twinged (start at 11:30). He puzzled over whether it was A-OK for a man to kill his daughter after she had been raped in order to save his (and her) honor. Most of us say no, though our mere agreement is not a proof we’re right. But look how Harris milks it! He says it once, twice, thrice, and then brings out the onion. How big his heart is! Good thing the tear almost fell, because it distracted everybody from realizing that he left his question sitting alone in the corner, unanswered.
He next claimed those who agree with him about the existence of moral absolutes are “religious demagogues” (and to prove his childish bona fides, as an example he shows a picture of emeritus Pope Benedict). “The demagogues are right about one thing: we need a universal conception of human values.” In so admitting what is true, that there are moral absolutes, he has not proved these absolutes are scientific. So his talk is a failure, even though we agree on many of the absolutes themselves. He then lapsed into standard foolish mistakes about religion that we needn’t bother with, they not being to the main point.
Since he still had time to fill, he contrasted the Dalai Lama and Ted Bundy and their notable differences of opinion in practical morals, making the valid point that academics mired in relativism can’t say which man is right, which wrong. He develops this by comparing his opinion on string theory with those of a physicist (“I’m the Ted Bundy of string theory”, a good joke). “How have we convinced ourselves that in the moral sphere there is no such thing as moral expertise? Or moral talent? Or moral genius? How have we convinced ourselves that every opinion has to count?…There are right and wrong answers.”
Amen, brother, there are. But they cannot be proved scientifically.