Comment on Ryan Born’s Response to the Moral Landscape Challenge …

So, I’ve read Ryan Born’s response to the Moral Landscape Challenge, and want to comment on it a bit here. But first, it must be noted that the biggest problem with attacking Sam Harris’ views is that there really isn’t any kind of central point or analogy in it, no overall moral system that you can attack at one place and bring it down. Instead, Harris has set up multiple fronts, and seems to be willing to stake his entire claim on any one of them at any time, switching between them as necessary to avoid having to address tough arguments. Well, okay, perhaps that isn’t quite fair. Perhaps it is more reasonable to say that instead of having a system that works together to build out a fully-formed moral philosophy, Harris has instead a group of independent statements about morality that he brings together under the umbrella of “morality” but which are all, for the most part, independent. No one could refute all of them in 1000 words, and so one has to pick one to attack. But even if that attack is successful, Harris is open to saying “Well, what about this? You have to refute this to refute my view”, which he does tend to do. In preparing my response, I had at least two other main points that I could have attacked:

1) Argue against his main point by arguing that just because morality may be something that you have to be conscious to have, it doesn’t mean that morality is a property of consciousness.

2) Argue against the health analogy by pointing out that health is a state, not a normative value. You can be healthy without trying to be healthy or valuing it at all, but you can’t be moral without valuing being moral or having your actions motivated by valuing morality.

Ultimately as already seen, I went with moral disagreement. Born took on a fourth principle, that of whether you can subsume morality under science, pointing out that Harris’ basic principle that morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures is a philosophical/conceptual argument, not a scientific/empirical one.

This, to me, is a relatively weak counter. The first reason is that Harris’ main point ends up being essentially this: Given that morality is in at least some way critically defined by or related to the well-being of conscious beings, and given that all properties of conscious beings as conscious beings are explained by their brain, and given that explaining the brain is something that can be done scientifically, then morality is in some way critically defined by or explained by science. Born’s response that the first “given” isn’t scientific doesn’t actually touch this part of the point, and so has to aim at another angle, that the initial given is itself not scientific and needs justification from something other than science.

This leads to the second reason, which is that Harris doesn’t seem to care whether that initial given is scientific or not. First, as we’ve seen when he discusses scientism, Harris will quickly argue that saying that something must be proven philosophically and not scientifically is defining science too narrowly. So if philosophy becomes science, then that given is still justified scientifically. Yes, this isn’t a very good point, because it ends up taking the only really novel thing Harris says — although not new, since naturalization of philosophical claims has been done for at least half a century — and makes it meaningless, because it would still allow for the normal armchair philosophizing about morality to proceed and might change those discussions not one bit, leaving Harris’ view saying nothing new while attempting to imply that it does. Second, Harris has been consistent in maintaining that he doesn’t really need to actually justify the idea that morality is about maximizing well-being; all of his defenses of that, even in his latest response, end up being that he can’t see any other basis for morality and essentially challenging all comers to prove something else is right or better or else he must be right. His health and logic examples always boil down to saying “Well, we just take this as a given and we have to take these things as a given so why not take my initial given as a given?”. So given that he doesn’t seem to care about justifying that initial given, it seems unlikely that he’ll care whether that non-justification is done scientifically or not, even in the narrow or broad sense of the term “science”.

That was why I chose the specific approach I did, aiming it more at Harris himself and what you’d have to do to convince him than in creating a full, formal philosophical argument. The aim was to force Harris to take a question that he’d be sure that there was an actual, objective answer to, but demonstrate that he couldn’t do it without defining and justifying at least some sort of view of well-being, while demonstrating that no physical facts nor facts about the brain would be able to answer that question. Essentially, the only thing critical to all conceptions of his view is that initial given of morality essentially being the well-being of conscious creatures, and destroying that would destroy his view.

2 Responses to “Comment on Ryan Born’s Response to the Moral Landscape Challenge …”

  1. Héctor Muñoz Says:

    I have read his response but I have not read the book at all This guy is slippery.

    His arguments to defend reduce to saying that “empirical intuitions” of what is good are a form of “scientific” thinking that must guide ethics. Then he states that ethics should not be prescriptive and then prescribes that making good to others is what you should do not to be considered bad.

    I think his view is a twisted rationalization of a moral system guided by the emotional impulses of empathy and compassion, and that following those impulses will make you feel good and that makes you good.

    The problem I see with this is that we tend to be empathetic and compassionate with people who are like us and can be ruthless with people who aren’t.

    We also can be compassionate and empathetic with close people and relatives who act wrong even if we know they did wrong.

    Is flooding our brain with serotonin and dopamine a valid moral principle?

    • verbosestoic Says:

      For the last, Patricia Churchland certainly seems to think so, and while she and Harris have gone at each other a bit I really have no idea why.

      The big problem with people like Harris and Churchland is that they know a little about the history of ethics but not enough about it, and so they tend to make broad pronouncements of solving these issues without realizing that their solutions were already tried, and then not understanding the objections to them, and then retreating to things like “turf defense” when challenged. Harris’ overall system is a mess of, as I said, individual principles that don’t support each other (even if they don’t obviously contradict), his moral stance is effectively Utilitarian with all of the attendant problems, and his view of how science can shape morality at best gets met with a shrug and “If that’s what you mean by science, well, then we never disagreed with that”. But Harris never seems to address any of those issues, instead slipping away to his analogies or to claims of “People can be wrong about their well-being” without even bothering to tell us how to figure out what well-being really is.

      I do want to get at his response, hopefully in the next few days, because that’s a case where most of his claims are all in one paper and hopefully one good scattershot can take them all out.

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