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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Sam Harris on deriving "ought" from "is"

Allow me to point you to the newest attempt by Sam Harris to derive "ought" from "is".

I don't want to spend another week bogged down with this issue, so I'm not going to say much, especially since my original criticism was not so much that he purports to derive "ought" from "is" as that he fails to show that morality is objective in the sense discussed in contemporary metaethics. It might, however, be plausibly suggested that these are two sides of the same thing - indeed, I think they are.

However, the trick was always to derive "ought", in the sense of having reasons, from "is" statements that say nothing about what any being desires, fears, hopes for, wants, aims at, values, etc. Once you introduce something about those psychological phenomena, deriving "ought" from "is" is very easy. Even without those phenomena, you can say that someone "ought to" act in a way relative to an institutional standard, such as the current standards of law, etiquette, fashion, or a system of positive morality. No one denies that all these sorts of oughts and derivations of "ought" are possible.

So yes, there are various well-known ways to derive "ought" from "is". You can also do the job if you redefine "ought" so that it is no longer about having reasons for action, but about actions that conform to a stipulated definition of "good", e.g. we apply the word "good" to actions that produce pleasure or eudaimonia. But that's just cheating. Worse, your opponent can say, without making any mistakes: "I accept that Action X is 'good' by your definition, and that I therefore 'ought' to do it by your definitions of 'good' and 'ought'. But what's that to me?. You still haven't given me a reason, acceptable to me, for me to do it."

The trick is to avoid cheating with stipulative definitions and to avoid relying on human psychology or human institutions. You are supposed to derive that I really, really ought to do X without relying on any of those short-cuts. That is the sort of derivation that so many people want, as it's a derivation that will transcend subjectivity or semantics or culture. If you do the job, you've made normativity "objective".

Some people think that they can do the job by relying on the (alleged) commands of God, but that turns out to have fundamental problems. Kantians/moral rationalists (such as Nagel and Korsgaard) think they can rely on an exercise of pure reason without appealing to any contingent psychological phenomena, but I don't believe they've ever succeeded. In fact, I don't believe that the job can be done.

64 comments:

NewEnglandBob said...

"...the trick was always to derive "ought", in the sense of having reasons, from "is" statements that say nothing about what any being desires, fears, hopes for, wants, aims at, values, etc..."

If no one has been able to do that in the thousands of years that it has been discussed, then maybe it is time to abandon that task and take another approach, no?

Russell Blackford said...

Well, here's a radical approach that makes sense:

http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Morality-Ethics-Action-Richard/dp/1566391083/ref=tmm_pap_title_0

But look at the sales rank! Not much of a market, it seems, for really good work in metaethics. By contrast, the book by Sam Harris will be a guaranteed best seller.

Russell Blackford said...

Or here's a book that I'd dearly love to have a copy of:

http://www-personal.usyd.edu.au/~rjoyce/worldwithoutvalues.html

But if you follow the link to Amazon and see the price tag, you'll fall off your chair.

Richard H said...

The worst part is that we don't actually need to get to a universal ought for his points about moral expertise to hold.

Instead, he could just ask outright, "Are we trying to build a society where people are happy and self-actualizing?"

Then, if a group like the Taliban (to use his example from TED) said no, then we humanists can dismiss any future suggestions they make out of hand.

It would be the same as if someone came into a philosophy discussion and said that they weren't even attempting to build sound and honest arguments.

xavierc said...

Oh dear, well it looks like 'DM' is giving a practical example of "someone coming into a philosophy discussion and saying that they weren't even attempting to build sound and honest arguments".

Great blog Russell (not just this entry, I mean in general). I went along to your lecture on Atheism at Newcastle Uni earlier this month and found it quite interesting. I think it had quite a good turn out.

We are currently looking at the is/ought question and moral relativism in my course at uni (I'm studying by distance through UTAS) so I'm finding all this very interesting

RichardW said...

>>However, the trick was always to derive "ought", in the sense of having reasons, from "is" statements that say nothing about what any being desires, fears, hopes for, wants, aims at, values, etc. Once you introduce something about those psychological phenomena, deriving "ought" from "is" is very easy.<<

Hi Russell. I don't like that way of putting it. It could be taken to mean that we can derive a moral ought from facts about psychological phenomena. But we can't derive a moral ought at all. I think the correct distinction to make here is about whose ends (desires, values, etc) are at stake.

I've been thinking about this quite a lot over the last few days (God help me) and I've clarified my ideas a bit. I think it's reasonable to define the surface meaning of "ought" in terms of reasons, so "you ought to do X" means "you have compelling reasons to do X". But what constitutes a reason to do X? Well, I have a reason to do X if that will help me achieve my ends. So such a reason arises from a combination of facts about my ends and facts which determine the best way to achieve those ends.

The problem arises when we claim that the subject has reasons to act other than in pursuance of his own ends. That's when the "ought" takes on a moralising quality. But there can be no such external reasons. We cannot be rationally motivated by ends other than our own, except in so far as achieving those ends achieves our own ends. (This is another way of saying that you can't get a moral "ought" from an "is".)

In defining "ought" in terms of reasons, I've moved the presuppositional error from the belief in moral "oughts" to a belief in external reasons. But I think it helps to look at this way instead, because it unites what I've called moral and non-moral "oughts", making the distinction clearer and allowing an "ought" to have both elements, i.e. it allows that the speaker may be incorporating both internal and (imagined) external reasons into a single judgement.

I would say that a speaker who makes a moralising "ought" claim is behaving as if his own ends gave the subject a reason to act. If speaker and subject both have the same moral values then the corresponding ends can be both internal and external to the subject.

As I see it, all "oughts" work by changing our ends. If I'm motivated by the belief (rational or not) that I ought to do X, then doing X becomes an end in itself. But I would make a distinction between believing that I ought to do X and being motivated by that belief.

Of course, I'm sure all this has been covered far more thoroughly by philosophers, and I'm only scraping the surface.

Jambe said...

Nice blog as usual, Russell.

Might I suggest moving Metamagician 3000 to wordpress.com? There's an excellent comment moderation toolset over there. You can blacklist people by IP address; I think that'd be handy.

I haven't used blogger in years so perhaps it's improved, but I remember it lacking in terms of comment-management.

artikcat said...

Et alors Dr. Blackford? A discussion of 'self-agency' (as in "rational" agents acting on their own behalf) as a critical boundary for human moral "oughts" is in the horizon for a 'scientific' approach to morality? I 'feel' that our western societies dont have a way out of it-i mean deriving moral values from scientific "facts"-when free-market economies and "democracies"-are the epitomes of 'cultural evolution". Yes, I know I have jumped many arguments, I hope intelligibly.

Anonymous said...

"Worse, your opponent can say, without making any mistakes: "I accept that Action X is 'good' by your definition, and that I therefore 'ought' to do it by your definitions of 'good' and 'ought'. But what's that to me?. You still haven't given me a reason, acceptable to me, for me to do it.":

But what Harris says is, by this reasoning, how is science different? A creationist will say "by your definition of science, I am incorrect, but by my definition, I am correct, so we are both equally scientific." And yet nobody (I hope) has any problem saying that the creationist is full of it.

Steve Zara said...

I have been waiting to read your take on this Russell. I'm a bit concerned that Harris may do damage to his status with the promotion of flawed positions. I also don't think it will help atheist politics if others, like Dawkins, jump in and support Harris because of their trust of his judgment and a general "go science!" impression of what Harris is doing.

The rigour of qualified philosophers like you is needed.

josef said...

I agree that you can't make the kind "ought from is" derivation that Nagel and others are trying to make.

But isn't that an indication of the problem itself being malformed?

Imagine if we tried to explain the structure of DNA to a vitalist. Or that, we had even discovered how to create self replicating structures that follow rules specified by DNA. We could show the vitalist every relevant fact, and the vitalist could triumphantly reply "yes, that self-replication stuff is all well and good, but is that life?"

The fact that the question is grammatically correct doesn't mean the question is legitimate. And yet it is possible to reply to any description of life, even the correct description, with exactly this kind of open question.

Just the same with Moore's open question, and just the same people who say there is a kind of "ought" that isn't factual in nature. It's possible that no such ought exists in the first place, making the requirement that we specify one illegitimate.

I will not say we should take this for granted, but those asking for an ought, so far as I can tell, have done nothing to differentiate our world from a world in which those oughts simply do not exist.

Then, if this is true, all those thousands of people suggesting Harris's position is "flawed" are guilty not merely of not showing that this ought exists, but of taking these non-existent oughts for granted.

Ophelia Benson said...

The problem arises when we claim that the subject has reasons to act other than in pursuance of his own ends. That's when the "ought" takes on a moralising quality. But there can be no such external reasons. We cannot be rationally motivated by ends other than our own, except in so far as achieving those ends achieves our own ends.

I've been saying this at intervals all day at Harris's post - for all the good it may do me, since no one is paying the slightest attention. But it seems like a rather large omission to me - the 9 facts seem to simply assume that people care as much about everyone's well being as they do about their own.

Steve Zara said...

Ophelia-

But isn't the caring about other's well-being assumed in the common usage of "ought"?

Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

@ Steve
I assume that ought, in the broadest sense, means that we have a particular preference concerning other's behaviors which may or may not be related to what they want. But, yes, we do seem to imply that it is all for their "good".

@ anonymous

You say:
But what Harris says is, by this reasoning, how is science different? A creationist will say "by your definition of science, I am incorrect, but by my definition, I am correct, so we are both equally scientific." And yet nobody (I hope) has any problem saying that the creationist is full of it.

Of course we have no problem with saying it, but not because the proposition "One ought to follow the scientific method" is truth apt, but because we have a strong preference towards the scientific method. That this preference is pragmatically related to how well science objectively provides us what we desire does not change that. Our goal should be to change the preferences (broadly defined) of those we disagree with--assuming of course that you share this preference.

josef said...

Ophelia,

I put up a second response to you at Harris' site, comment #198. I suspect I don't fully understand, but I tried to answer as best I understood it.

DM said...

Atheists,

GET OUT OF MY UNIVERSE


you little liars do nothing but antagonize...

and you try to eliminate all the dreams and hopes of humanity...


but you LOST...



THE DEATH OF ATH*ISM - SCIENTIFIC PROOF OF GOD


http://engforum.pravda.ru/showthread.php?t=280780




Einstein puts the final nail in the coffin of atheism...


*************************************

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7vpw4AH8QQ

*************************************



atheists deny their own life element...




LIGHT OR DEATH, ATHEISTS?

********************************
***************************LIGHT*********
************************************

PNRJ said...

Wait, WHAT?

Why are we not allowed to use ANY information about subjective experiences of sentient beings?

Of course we can't do THAT; the experiences of sentient beings are the FUNDAMENTAL CONCERNS OF ETHICS. Ethics is about what we should do, given our desires and the desires of everyone else. Without those desires, yes, there are no moral "oughts"; but that's precisely because there is nothing for moral "oughts" to be about! If pain were not aversive, or if death were not permanent, yes, our moral standards would be radically different. SO WHAT?

You have tied our hands and laughed at us for our infirmity.

It'd be like saying "If physics is true, you should be able to derive everything there is to know about physics without talking about energy or atoms"; or "If psychology is true, you should be able to derive everything there is to know about psychology without talking about brains or thoughts".

OF COURSE we can't meet this demand; that's because it's an absurd demand!

PNRJ said...

"Of course we have no problem with saying it, but not because the proposition "One ought to follow the scientific method" is truth apt, but because we have a strong preference towards the scientific method."

Really? You actually think that? That the only reason science is good is that we happen to prefer it?

Are you missing a part of your brain or something?

PNRJ said...

I can only shake my head in shame. If the scientific method isn't truth-apt, then nothing is truth-apt, and a fortiori the claim that the scientific method isn't truth-apt can't be truth-apt either.

Hence, we are all just jabbering meaningless sounds and we might as well starting biting each other like every other chimpanzee.

PNRJ said...

And has it ever occurred to you, Dr. Blackford, that Harris's books might sell well because he is eloquent and has good ideas?

Richard H said...

@PNRJ Regarding science, there are two questions:

Do we care about making accurate predictions?
and
What methods result in the best predictions?

The second question is empirical. The first question comes down to preferences.

So, [i]given[/i] that we care about predictions, we ought use the scientific method.

But, if we care about other things, we might well use another method for creating models of the universe.

It's true for ethics, too. If we care about other people's happyness, then we can study how to maximise that. But, those results wouldn't mean much to someone who's trying to build an optimally religious society.

yashwata said...

Russell said that Harris's opponent (that is: Russell) 'can say, without making any mistakes: "I accept that Action X is 'good' by your definition, and that I therefore 'ought' to do it by your definitions of 'good' and 'ought'. But what's that to me?. You still haven't given me a reason, acceptable to me, for me to do it.'

I wish, Russell, that I didn't have to point out how ugly it is for you to insist on this. Sam's reason is just this: avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone. If that is not "acceptable" to you as a reason for action, then what kind of person are you, and why should I give a shit what you think?

Let me explain why this makes me so mad. Sam Harris is trying to do something very, very hard. He is trying to use logic to convince people, including you, to care about other people more than they already do. The project may be doomed, I don't know. But to respond by picking at the loose threads in his logic, as if he's back in PHIL 101 and you're his teaching assistant, is sophistry — and implies a fundamental misunderstanding of the question at hand.

The problem is how to make the world a better place; to get further from, not closer to, the worst possible misery for everyone. If you'd like to help with this project, that would be great. If you're far enough "beyond morality" that making the world a better place is beneath your concern, then just shut up and leave us alone. We're trying to work.

Chris said...

PNRJ said:

Chris said: "Of course we have no problem with saying it, but not because the proposition "One ought to follow the scientific method" is truth apt, but because we have a strong preference towards the scientific method."

Really? You actually think that? That the only reason science is good is that we happen to prefer it?

Are you missing a part of your brain or something?


No, I did not and never will say that anything is "good" merely because we prefer it. "Good" is not a property of the objective world and certainly does not arise in something merely because we happen to have a subjective experience of preferring it.

Science provides all sorts of immediate benefits and certainly provides, in a sense, truth. Part of getting people to prefer using the scientific method is to get them to see this. We can show people the connection between, for example, medical knowledge and the scientific method and the total disconnect between, for example, prayer, and healing.

Those are all facts.

It is also a fact that some do not prefer the scientific method.

The question is not over the facts or what "is". It is over the question of whether the statement "One ought to prefer science over superstition" is truth apt. If you think that people prefer superstition over science because they lack "facts" you are kidding themselves.

There is a difference between saying that science will lead to a, b, and c which I (and possibly you, too) prefer and saying one "ought" to prefer science. Presumably, we say one "ought" to do this or that only when in fact they don't do this or that and you want them to.

Ophelia Benson said...

Oh come on, folks - Russell isn't arguing against liberal morality, he's pointing out problems with what Sam is arguing.

Chris said...

Richard Said "It's true for ethics, too. If we care about other people's happyness, then we can study how to maximise that. But, those results wouldn't mean much to someone who's trying to build an optimally religious society."

I agree with the rest of your post, but want to add something here.

I think any attempt to even try to outline a maximal level of happiness fails because of the Prisoner's Dilemma.

I could believe that it is in my best interest that people generally tell me the truth. It is not however obvious that it is in my best interest to always tell others the truth. But everyone can analyze this in the same way as me. They want everyone to tell them the truth, but want to reserve the right to tell periodic lies if it suits them. So we have a dilemma in that we all agree on the value of living in a society where everyone is a routine truth-teller and yet have perfectly valid reasons to tell lies when it suits us. In other words, we could all agree that we gain far more overall happiness by having all of us cooperate to tell the truth and that we would be in a far worse state if everyone defected on their agreement to cooperate. And yet, the members of this society of "good" people, all in perfect agreement, would still find it rational to personally lie at times (if for no other reason, that we might be dreadfully hurt if we attempted to form truthful relationships with habitual liars). This analysis is open to all members which means there are rational reasons in this example for everyone to defect.

We, of course, mitigate this through complicated social constructions that provide immediate social punishment for lying.

The point is that we can easily assume a set of values on which we all agree and yet still have good people defect on upholding them. And these good people defect not because they are doing something "bad"; in fact they defect because it is rationally better to defect. It is just that if everyone does it we are worse off. We are forced to mitigate this through some level of coercion that deliberately forces people to give up immediate "good" for the overall "good" of the community.

And this is what would happen when we agree upon the value in question and the facts on how to obtain said value. What can we do when we don't even agree to the value in question?

Chris said...

yashwata,

Harris is trying to use logic to convince us to care for other people? If that is his attempt, and I don't believe it is, he will fail. People care or they don't those are facts. I can work to expand someone's natural empathy to include people outside their group. But we can't use deductive logic to convince people of anything until they agree with the premises. If he were using inductive logic, then I fear his argument falls under the gun of Hume's "Is-Ought" problem which is what we are debating. The logic is irrelevant until he can show how to get around this problem.

I think some are confusing meta-ethics with normative ethics. I suspect that most people on this forum agree upon a set of values and many of us work hard to make the world a better and more rational world. We are disagreeing over meta-ethics and the nature of objective moral truth.

yashwata said...

"Oh come on, folks - Russell isn't arguing against liberal morality, he's pointing out problems with what Sam is arguing."

Is that it? Sam's formal argument is rough around the edges, that's all Russell is saying?

As I understand it, Sam is arguing that (some variety of) utilitarianism is better supported by the facts of the world than other moral systems. Russell disagrees. No moral system is based on facts, he says: 'the trick was always to derive "ought", in the sense of having reasons, from "is" statements that say nothing about what any being desires, fears, hopes for, wants, aims at, values, etc.'

Well, yes, that would be a clever trick. Because of course you can't derive moral judgments from observations that omit any mention of sentient beings. That would be like trying to make design a comfortable shoe without knowing anything about feet. It's impossible — and unmotivated. True, without the desires of sentient beings in the picture, morality has no point and no meaning. Stars and volcanoes and shoes don't have opinions on those matters, and even if they did, an opinion is not a fact.

But we are in the picture. If you want to talk about morality, then you have to talk about people. And when you're talking about people, the proposition that there are no facts that make kindness better than cruelty obviously false, and people who insist on it do not deserve out trust.

Now, that sounds awfully strong. I don't want to think of Russell as having poor moral qualities — or Ophelia, God forbid. So I must have missed something.

yashwata said...

Chris said, "I think some are confusing meta-ethics with normative ethics. I suspect that most people on this forum agree upon a set of values and many of us work hard to make the world a better and more rational world. We are disagreeing over meta-ethics and the nature of objective moral truth."

I agree that this is a hazard. I am trying to avoid it. If, reading my earlier comments, you can tell me where I've mixed up those two things — if I have! — I would appreciate it.

Chris said...

yashwata said,
"the proposition that there are no facts that make kindness better than cruelty obviously false"

No it is not obviously false. The key word is better. "Better" is relative and normative. There are certainly facts that many people do hold kindness to be preferable to cruelty and many that do not.

All you can say is that it is a fact that being kind under some given set of conditions will lead to some specific outcome that you find preferable. But there are conditions where being traditionally kind is not something most would support. Coercing someone into jail is not kind but we do it for many people who are sufficiently cruel. Although I do support treating prisoners with respect and affording some dignity, I don't pretend that we are being particularly kind to those in jail--certainly the prisoners do not believe we are.

I do believe that as a matter of normative principle that we should be, all things considered, as nice as possible. Meta ethically, however, normative propositions are subjective. This is OK. It does not mean that normative propositions are arbitrary or completely divorced from objective reality. It does not mean that I think that people "ought" to let everyone do whatever they want, since this is not a particular value I support.

It is a fact that people generally act in their own best interest and I doubt that any moralizing is going to fundamentally change that. What can change, is our own realization that there are ways to increase our individual happiness through cooperation. I also know that even the best laid plans will produce conflict (which is the real starting point of ethics) which will require persuasion, personal commitment, and yes science.

It can be frightening to realize that we can completely and passionately believe in some value and be in complete disagreement with someone else and have no obvious way cross this divide. But that person, like us, is acting in his own best interest. He, like us, desires cooperation and agreement. I am sure he believes he is in the right and has the facts to back it up. He is perplexed that we just cannot see his point of view (you think religious people don't think their way of life has clear factual benefits?)

As far as your willingness to trust those who hold a differing opinion ("and people who insist on it do not deserve out trust.") than you, maybe you should wait for all the facts to come in before deciding. ;)

yashwata said...

Chris said, "It can be frightening to realize that we can completely and passionately believe in some value and be in complete disagreement with someone else and have no obvious way cross this divide."

The way across might not be obvious, but it exists.

"I am sure he believes he is in the right and has the facts to back it up."

Maybe he believes it, but the facts are not in his favor. (Besides, aren't you arguing that there are no such facts?)

"He is perplexed that we just cannot see his point of view (you think religious people don't think their way of life has clear factual benefits?)"

He acts perplexed. He says it has clear benefits. That he really believes this we do not know.

"As far as your willingness to trust those who hold a differing opinion … maybe you should wait for all the facts to come in before deciding. ;)"

We all have access to the relevant facts. Some of us choose to acknowledge them; others, to ignore or discount them.

Russell Blackford said...

RichardW, it's hard to get this precisely right, and I need to (re)familiarise myself with some of the literature. Accordingly, I may not be putting some of these points in the most perspicuous way, and I find much of what you've been saying helpful.

But I don't necessarily agree that we can't ever derive a moral ought. It depends on what that means. There are doubtless (don't you agree?) institutional oughts, as when a society's positive moral code tells us not to kill. If someone in that society relies on its positive morality and says, "You shouldn't kill!", isn't that a moral ought?

The problem is that it doesn't have the transcendent backing that may be assumed by those who pronounce moral oughts. I suppose that might make some or all of the relevant ought statements false (if they assert the transcendent backing that doesn't actually exist), but even if that's so I don't see why we can't call them moral oughts.

And what if someone says: "You shouldn't torture Sam because it will cause him severe suffering"? That seems to me like a moral ought backed up by a reason. Admittedly, the moral ought might not be backed up by a transcendent reason, but it still seems like an ought, and it is moral at least in the sense that it is appealing to something other than the narrow self-interest of the would-be torturer. Furthermore, if the person who says it is not relying on a transcendent standard but merely on a value (that of non-suffering) that the would-be-torturer might agree to after rational reflection, then this ought statement may actually be true! She is saying, perhaps, "Judged by a standard that I support and that I hope you will support upon rational reflection, you ought not to torture Sam."

I'm not sure why that is not a moral ought or why it is not true. If so, contrary to strict error theory, there are moral oughts that are true. However, they are not objectively true in the sense we're talking about; i.e. they are not true based on a transcendent standard. They are true based on somebody's standard. The standard need not be arbitrary.

I suppose the issue is whether it's conceptually true that moral oughts appeal to transcendent standards or only contingently true that they often (perhaps pervasively) do so. If the former, can't we still have perfectly useful "schmoral" oughts that rely on non-arbitrary but non-transcendent standards? (I once gave a paper called "schmoralising", though the idea is not original to me; I probably got it from Garner's useful book.) If the latter, then can't we have a whole lot of true moral oughts after all?

I'm not sure about this aspect, and would like to bat it back and forth a bit.

yashwata said...

Russell said (in a reply to RichardW), "I suppose the issue is whether it's conceptually true that moral oughts appeal to transcendent standards or only contingently true that they often (perhaps pervasively) do so."

Moral oughts cannot appeal to transcendent standards, because (as you of course are aware) there are no such standards. People may appear or pretend or claim to ground their chosen norms in something transcendent, but it cannot be done — conceptually, contingently, or any other way.

To be meaningful, to be more than empty slogans, "oughts" need to be grounded not in something transcendent but in something real — the actual life experiences, for example, of actual human beings.

Chris said...

yashwata,

There are facts that some things will lead to me being more happy. There are facts that some different things lead someone else to happiness. None of these facts can show that the proposition "He ought to do X" is true. Presumably, I am making this proposition because he is not currently doing X and has no desire to do X. I can certainly point out facts to him and if he sees that doing X leads to something he does in fact value, then he may well agree to do X. But until he develops the subjective preference to do X then all of my posturing about how he ought to do X is empty.

But I disagree more severely with one point you make. Most religious people are religious because it makes them happy (even if this happiness is mostly from social acceptance.) He will have facts to back up that point. Do you think most religious people are lying when they say they are content? Do you think they are delusional in whether they are subjectively happy?

Yes there are facts and pointing out facts that discount the existence of God is fine and might work to change people's values and outlook. Facts do impinge on our morals obviously. Use facts, please. I agree that facts are important. But I am unwilling to make the jump to the notion that facts make an ought statement true. Facts affect our preferences, but until a person changes their preferences all we can say is that that person in fact has different preferences than us. Saying that you have facts that indicate that he ought to change his preferences only tells me something about you. (Your facts may impact my preferences including that I would like him to change his preferences.

My point about trust was not clear. I was merely suggesting that maybe you should wait for evidence that someone is not to be trusted before you stop trusting, particularly over meta-ethical disagreements.

RichardW said...

Russell,

I took it for granted that we were talking about objective moral statements, i.e. interpreting moral statements in the way that a moral realist or error theorist would.

You're now proposing a relativist interpretation. I'm far from convinced that many people actually use moral statements in this sort of relativist way. So I'm not inclined to mention it unless someone is arguing that such usage is widespread.

RichardW said...

P.S. Russell, you define "objective" here as based on a "transcendent standard". I don't like to think of morality as being relative to standards, whether transcendent or human. I always come back to the question of what "ought" actually means. Telling me what standards it's relative to doesn't tell me what it means. If you say "relative to standard X, you ought to do Y", then "ought" seems to be just a meaningless label. As far as I can see, that would only be telling me "if we assign the label 'ought' in accordance with standard X, then we will assign it to Y".

Russell Blackford said...

Well, sophisticated relativists like Gilbert Harman and Stephen Finlay do argue that this usage is either widespread or at least that we should "charitably" ascribe this usage to the folk, so that's a position to take into account (not saying I agree with it ... certainly not if it's put that simply).

Is does seem to me that what I do in my own most rigorous pieces on practical ethics issues gets close to this, though. At the cutting edge of controversial issues on which we know that our opponents have different values, at least prior to rational reflection but possibly even afterwards, I think we're pushed towards a degree of relativism or explicit subjectivism ... or at least that's how it looks to me at the moment.

But perhaps this is schmoralising.

RichardW said...

I heard Stephen Finlay in an interview recently, and he had some very interesting things to say. But I can't accept it's charitable to attribute relativist meaning to people who are clearly moral realists. I'll be charitable to him, though, and accept that his moral claims really are relative.

Not being an activist, a teacher or a parent, I don't find myself needing to make moral claims very often. When I do, I'm likely to prefix them with "I think", "as far as I'm concerned", etc. However, when I feel something more forceful is needed, I'll drop the qualifier. At that point I'm just interested in having the desired effect, and I'll turn a blind eye to the fact I don't strictly believe what I'm saying. Anyway, in the heat of the moment it may be my moral realist deeper self speaking, not my intellect.

Well, that's my excuse.

yashwata said...

Chris said, "I agree that facts are important. But I am unwilling to make the jump to the notion that facts make an ought statement true. … Saying that you have facts that indicate that he ought to change his preferences only tells me something about you."

Clever phrasing, but this is still the relativist's claim that there is no factual warrant for any moral statement, outside of individuals' preferences. "Killing babies is good sport," for example, is merely a statement about someone's preferences and de gustibus non est disputandum.

Then you wrote, "Most religious people are religious because it makes them happy …"

Certainly not. They are religious because they were persuaded (coerced, really) into it by the community of their birth.

"Do you think most religious people are lying when they say they are content? Do you think they are delusional in whether they are subjectively happy?"

That religious belief makes one happy is more an assumption than a fact. And it is assumed as a result of its relentless promotion by religious apologists. The proposition is itself an article of faith. What evidence is there that religion promotes happiness? Here's what I think: a person who says, "my religion makes me happy" is neither lying nor deluded; she is mechanically repeating a slogan. She does not actually have an opinion on the matter. She is saying it not because she believes it but because it seems like the right thing to say.

yashwata said...

RichardW said: "At that point I'm just interested in having the desired effect, and I'll turn a blind eye to the fact I don't strictly believe what I'm saying."

Thanks for that warning, Richard. I guess it's safest, from now on, to ignore everything you say.

Chris said...

Come on yashwata, your comment to Richard is unfair. He is not saying he is lying about any facts or about his own values or preferences. He is hedging somewhat on the matter of meta-ethics. He is saying, I believe, that when he claims something like "X is abhorrent" he believes he is coming off as making an objective statement about X when he doesn't really believe this. But, he does have a real abhorrence of X, which is really all he, or any of us have. I do not think he should worry about it. There is no problem holding strong principled preferences about the world an being a subjectivist. I find his position to be much more true than any dozen "objectivists" trying to disguise their own preferences as if they have discovered some truth from on high, whether from the heights of heaven or from a superior scientific vantage point.

But yashwata, I am curious. What facts about the world have led you to believe that you ought to automatically disbelieve everything someone says, without evidence, simply because they have a different view of meta-ethics than you?

Chris said...

Clever phrasing, but this is still the relativist's claim that there is no factual warrant for any moral statement, outside of individuals' preferences. "Killing babies is good sport," for example, is merely a statement about someone's preferences and de gustibus non est disputandum."

yashwata, I am not sure you understand the difference between meta-ethics and normative ethics. Obviously when a person says "Killing babies is good sport" he is telling us something about his preferences. So? I am not required to share his likes nor am I required to allow him to do what he wants. De gustibus non est disputandum is pithy, but not particularly insightful. Even in areas of mere taste, we can argue and discuss and even bring up facts. I am drinking a decent Australian wine right now. I can certainly describe what I objectively like about it and maybe someone else might try it. If he doesn't, then I guess there is no arguing. If the baby killer wants to describe why he likes what he does, he can see how far he will get. I have no problem putting him in jail forever. Maybe you have some logical argument that will change him forever, but then again maybe you and Sam will discover that people who hold radically different values than you are not as amendable to reason as you might like.

At some point you have to deal with the actual preferences that people have and the fact that they are almost impossible to change merely through a listing of facts.

Chris said...

""Do you think most religious people are lying when they say they are content? Do you think they are delusional in whether they are subjectively happy?"

That religious belief makes one happy is more an assumption than a fact. And it is assumed as a result of its relentless promotion by religious apologists. The proposition is itself an article of faith. What evidence is there that religion promotes happiness? Here's what I think: a person who says, "my religion makes me happy" is neither lying nor deluded; she is mechanically repeating a slogan. She does not actually have an opinion on the matter. She is saying it not because she believes it but because it seems like the right thing to say.


This is truly scary, and I am an atheist.
I hope that Sam is not so deluded to believe this stuff. This is the path to totalitarianism. First, I did not say that religion makes people happy, although it does for some. I said that religious people are often happy and seem to enjoy their experiences. When a person says that religion makes them happy, then you should take what they say on face value. Even if you do not believe them, you have no business assuming anything else. Please tell me you are not proposing a society where the people who hold the correct views of morality get to decide when people are and are not happy or fulfilled or whatever, despite what they say? If you do believe there is a path to true maximal happiness and you also are willing to ignore peoples statements that they are happy in what they are doing what stops you from coercing people away from their private "delusions" of happiness and toward what you believe is right. (note: I have no problem stopping people from hurting others and I am all in favor of working towards less religion. But, considering that you seem to almost be saying that atheists with subjectivist and relativist leaning are also delusional you worry me.)

yashwata said...

Chris said, "Come on yashwata, your comment to Richard is unfair. He is not saying he is lying about any facts or about his own values or preferences. … He is saying, I believe, that when he claims something like "X is abhorrent" he believes he is coming off as making an objective statement about X when he doesn't really believe this. But, he does have a real abhorrence of X, which is really all he, or any of us have."

That is what is at issue here. I disagree that intuitive preferences are really all we have.

"There is no problem holding strong principled preferences about the world [while] being a subjectivist."

Again, this is exactly what is under dispute. Some of us do regard it as a problem.

"But yashwata, I am curious. What facts about the world have led you to believe that you ought to automatically disbelieve everything someone says, without evidence, simply because they have a different view of meta-ethics than you?"

This paragraph spitefully misrepresents my position, so I will not bother replying to it.

yashwata said...

Chris said, "yashwata, I am not sure you understand the difference between meta-ethics and normative ethics. Obviously when a person says "Killing babies is good sport" he is telling us something about his preferences. So? I am not required to share his likes nor am I required to allow him to do what he wants. … If the baby killer wants to describe why he likes what he does, he can see how far he will get. I have no problem putting him in jail forever."

What has this to do with meta-ethics?

"Maybe you have some logical argument that will change him forever, but then again maybe you and Sam will discover that people who hold radically different values than you are not as amendable to reason as you might like."

Again, this is off-topic. The question is not whether I might be able to convince someone that he's wrong. The question is whether we are justified in saying that he's wrong. I say he is, and you (and Russell and so on) say you're not sure. That's what scares me.

yashwata said...

I said: That religious belief makes one happy is more an assumption than a fact. And it is assumed as a result of its relentless promotion by religious apologists. The proposition is itself an article of faith. What evidence is there that religion promotes happiness? Here's what I think: a person who says, "my religion makes me happy" is neither lying nor deluded; she is mechanically repeating a slogan. She does not actually have an opinion on the matter. She is saying it not because she believes it but because it seems like the right thing to say.

Chris said: "This is truly scary, and I am an atheist. … This is the path to totalitarianism."

What??

"First, I did not say that religion makes people happy,"

Here are your words: Most religious people are religious because it makes them happy.

"… although it does for some. I said that religious people are often happy and seem to enjoy their experiences. When a person says that religion makes them happy, then you should take what they say on face value."

I should? What makes you say that?

"Even if you do not believe them, you have no business assuming anything else."

I'm not assuming anything, Chris. That's what you're doing.

"Please tell me you are not proposing a society where the people who hold the correct views of morality get to decide when people are and are not happy or fulfilled or whatever, despite what they say?"

That is correct. Duh.

"If you do believe there is a path to true maximal happiness and you also are willing to ignore peoples statements that they are happy in what they are doing what stops you from coercing people away from their private "delusions" of happiness and toward what you believe is right."

What stops me? I'm just not the fascist you want me to be. Sorry!

"I have no problem stopping people from hurting others and I am all in favor of working towards less religion. But, considering that you seem to almost be saying that atheists with subjectivist and relativist leaning are also delusional you worry me."

I almost said something that you would have considered idiotic? Then I guess your complaint is almost coherent!

Chris said...

Chris said, "yashwata, I am not sure you understand the difference between meta-ethics and normative ethics. Obviously when a person says "Killing babies is good sport" he is telling us something about his preferences. So? I am not required to share his likes nor am I required to allow him to do what he wants. … If the baby killer wants to describe why he likes what he does, he can see how far he will get. I have no problem putting him in jail forever."

What has this to do with meta-ethics?


Because you cannot argue against a meta-ethical position by resorting to normative considerations. If it is true that moral “oughts” are a reflection of a person’s preferences, as I hold, pointing out that someone has a horrible preferences (killing babies) is no argument. However, I have had enough arguments with objectivists to know where this is going. Here, on this thread, the problem is my supposed inability to deal with people who support “killing babies”; in a different thread, it might be “raping children” and in yet another it is “You can’t even tell Stalin he was a bad guy.” It gets wearying. This is what I mean by the mix up between normative and meta-ethics. My meta-ethical position that normative propositions are ultimately about our own preferences does not entail me to hold to some sort of cultural relativism just on your say so.
But this brings up the bigger issue....

Chris said...

"Maybe you have some logical argument that will change him forever, but then again maybe you and Sam will discover that people who hold radically different values than you are not as amendable to reason as you might like."

Again, this is off-topic. The question is not whether I might be able to convince someone that he's wrong. The question is whether we are justified in saying that he's wrong. I say he is, and you (and Russell and so on) say you're not sure. That's what scares me.


Well, go ahead and say he is wrong (“It is evil to kill babies,” or “One ought never to kill babies” ) and then do something about it. Why do you need a theory of objective morality? Presumably, you have held that killing babies is wrong long before Harris began on his specific theory of objective morality. Maybe it was just your intuition. Maybe it was an evolutionary artifact or a cultural legacy. But, really, none of that matters. The thought of killing babies makes you ill. You can justify it just fine, and there are many good reasons to hold this position, but you probably do not worry too much about it and you do not likely hold to your position because of the facts. Your strong beliefs or preferences are what guide you to act.
But even in a more difficult moral situation, you still often have to fall back on your preferences or intuition, whatever you want to call it. You are obviously someone lucky enough at least to attempt to examine your beliefs in the light of the world (lucky, because I am the same boat and know that I am happier for it.) There are probably times when your preferences changed because of some facts. Yes, facts influence moral beliefs!
Science can tell us much about why we hold particular moral positions and how we can get from here to there. It is the “there” that I am concerned about meta-ethically. It is the “there” wherein lies the “ought.” The “there”, manifested in our “ought” statements is a counterfactual; the here and now is all there really is. But, there is no right way for nature to be (“should the Panda have better thumbs?). Because there is no right way for nature to be, there is nothing science can tell you about what ought to be. All any of us can do is to work as hard as we can to convince others (peacefully or not) to do what we want. I prefer a world where this is done with as much kindness as possible and with as much freedom as possible. Are you saying I have no good reason to support these positions?
Why are you scared about what Russell or I might do? Do you think that we will wring our hands and let people kill babies just because we (well, not me, actually) are unsure about some obscure meta-ethical position? You do not trust our intuition; that is fine. Why should you? You are free to trust those who are best able to get you to that “there” you keep in your head. In any case, you ultimately have to live with yourself. That is whom you have to trust. Keep in mind, this sort of criticism is a two way street. Should I be worried until you and Sam develop an effective means of determining the truth of ethics? I mean, if you already know what is right or wrong, then maybe you should email Sam and save him the trouble.

Chris said...

yashwata,

I realize that Harris is not developing a theory of morality to tell us whether we should kill babies. I went there because you brought it up (and it is not the first time I have had this happen). You have to realize how similar that kind of argument is to what we hear from religious folk when we point out we are unbelievers?

But I am sorry if I have been too snarky.

yashwata said...

Chris said, "If the baby killer wants to describe why he likes what he does, he can see how far he will get. I have no problem putting him in jail forever."

I said, "What has this to do with meta-ethics?"

Chris said, "Because you cannot argue against a meta-ethical position by resorting to normative considerations."

But that was my point! "I have no problem putting him in jail forever" is not a meta-ethical position.

I guess this was meant to reassure me that although you regard your opposition to baby-killing as personal rather than objective, you still do feel very strongly that baby-killing is wrong, so not to worry: "My meta-ethical position … does not entail … cultural relativism …"

How can it not entail cultural relativism?

"Why do you need a theory of objective morality?"

I don't – not if 'objective' means 'transcendentally justified', because there is no such thing. On the other hand, I agree with Sam Harris that we can have a theory of morality that is supported by observable facts about sentient beings. In traditional philosophy, such facts are denigrated as "contingent" rather than "objective". But it is misleading to use this distinction in the context of morality, because in morality it is only the "contingent" facts that are relevant to the discussion!

"There is no right way for nature to be."

This is irrelevant.

"Because there is no right way for nature to be, there is nothing science can tell you about what ought to be."

That does not follow. As Harris points out, the "science of human flourishing" can tell us a lot. Actually, I would have preferred that he refer to "observation" or "practical knowledge" rather than "science". It isn't science per se that is needed. We have plenty of clear knowledge about what helps and hurts people.

yashwata said...

Chris said, "All any of us can do is to work as hard as we can to convince others (peacefully or not) to do what we want."

I still hold out the possibility of showing people that it is in everyone's best interests to do what is in everyone's best interests. As more people understand that, the world will become better for everyone.

"I prefer a world where this is done with as much kindness as possible and with as much freedom as possible. Are you saying I have no good reason to support these positions?"

No, you are saying you have no good reason! You "prefer" kindness and freedom, but you will not go so far as to say that you know, with as much certainty as anyone could ever need, that kindness and freedom are better than cruelty and coercion. It's the darnedest thing I ever saw.

"Why are you scared about what Russell or I might do? Do you think that we will wring our hands and let people kill babies just because we (well, not me, actually) are unsure about some obscure meta-ethical position?"

Yes, that's exactly what I'm worried about. Exactly this kind of hand-wringing is going on this very minute in the case of, for example, female genital cutting. People are not sure that the cutters are wrong to do it – so it goes on.

"Should I be worried until you and Sam develop an effective means of determining the truth of ethics?"

The situation is not symmetrical in the way implied by that question. I am arguing, not that I have some special knowledge that others don't, but that everyone has most of the knowledge needed to solve most ethical problems. Should I cut off my daughter's clitoris? If she gets raped, should I kill her? It is situations like these that make this issue urgent. The people who think cutting and murder are OK tell us that the question is so difficult that we need transcendental guidance to unravel it. Your "meta-ethics" supports them in this assertion, but it is a lie. The cutting and the murder are wrong, and this can be clearly perceived by almost anyone.

Chris said...

Chris said, "All any of us can do is to work as hard as we can to convince others (peacefully or not) to do what we want."

I still hold out the possibility of showing people that it is in everyone's best interests to do what is in everyone's best interests. As more people understand that, the world will become better for everyone.


I assume that we will convince others, or at least some, through the use of facts. But if they do not want to get to your “there” you are in the same boat as me. Btw, before you get too giddy about the possibility of finding “everyone’s” interest, study the Prisoner’s Dilemma.” (note: A person’s interest is internal to them, hence subjective. Again, your problem will be in dealing with people who’s interest (which objectively exists inside the person) diverges from what you think it “ought” to be (a counterfactual that exists in your mind).)

Chris said...

"I prefer a world where this is done with as much kindness as possible and with as much freedom as possible. Are you saying I have no good reason to support these positions?"

No, you are saying you have no good reason! You "prefer" kindness and freedom, but you will not go so far as to say that you know, with as much certainty as anyone could ever need, that kindness and freedom are better than cruelty and coercion. It's the darnedest thing I ever saw.


Let me be clear. I have good reasons relating to my own happiness. These are facts. You are saying, without evidence, that I have no reasons.

"Why are you scared about what Russell or I might do? Do you think that we will wring our hands and let people kill babies just because we (well, not me, actually) are unsure about some obscure meta-ethical position?"

Yes, that's exactly what I'm worried about. Exactly this kind of hand-wringing is going on this very minute in the case of, for example, female genital cutting. People are not sure that the cutters are wrong to do it – so it goes on.


I am not a cultural relativist. They are wrong philosophically (the few that there are). People who do not support action against people who brutalize children have different preferences. I am not happy with it, but I suppose we could show them that it is in their interest to change. But I am not required to listen to them. In fact, most complaints about supposed cultural relativists are mostly bogus anyway. These, mostly anthropologists, who hold to some version of cultural relativism also helped us to learn not to slaughter every tribal group in the world simply because they were “objectively” inferior to us.

Again, you are assuming, wrongly, that a particular meta-ethical position has any specific bearing on a particular set of normative principles, thus proving my point.

Chris said...

Here is what I am driving at. Historically, nearly every society has had strict rules making it a crime for members to randomly kill other members. Nearly every society has strict rules concerning simple property rights. There are obvious reasons for these laws.

However, historically, nearly every society has allowed slavery, degradation and rape of women (at least those not of one’s tribe), the killing of homosexuals, and the king or leader to kill just about anyone they please. Do you honestly believe we were all somehow aware of the facts—the truth—concerning simple property rights and random killing but failed to recognize the (we would say) the more obvious wrongness of the rest?

Sorry, but I think it is much more obvious, if we actually look at the facts, that it is people’s preferences (broadly speaking) that changed.

yashwata said...

Chris said, "historically, nearly every society has allowed slavery, degradation and rape of women … . Do you honestly believe we were all somehow aware of the facts—the truth—concerning simple property rights and random killing but failed to recognize the (we would say) the more obvious wrongness of the rest. Sorry, but I think it is much more obvious, if we actually look at the facts, that it is people’s preferences (broadly speaking) that changed."

Let me think. Which is more likely?

1. People have been accumulating knowledge of the facts regarding human flourishing and how to foster it; this has encouraged and enabled them to lobby in favor of more humanitarian societal rules.

2. People used to be OK with their friends and family-members getting raped or murdered; but lately, for no particular reason, their tastes have changed.

yashwata said...

Chris said, "People who do not support action against people who brutalize children have different preferences. I am not happy with it, but …"

How is this different from cultural relativism?

"anthropologists who hold to some version of cultural relativism … helped us to learn not to slaughter every tribal group in the world simply because they were “objectively” inferior to us."

Irrelevant, unless "objectively" means the same thing as objectively.

"Again, you are assuming, wrongly, that a particular meta-ethical position has any specific bearing on a particular set of normative principles, thus proving my point."

So the study of meta-ethics has no moral value. Fascinating! Does it have some other benefit? Like, can you make a career from professing it?

I mean this is just amazing. Sam Harris says, "Clearly, the central concern of morality is human flourishing," and a crowd of deep thinkers objects. "You don't know that." they say. "Because of meta-ethics and everything."

It's like a theologian saying, "You're wrong, lad. Haven't you read Aquinas? Oh, everyone should read Aquinas before publishing ill-considered opinions about whether a woman should be put to death for disobeying her husband. St. Thomas thought about that very carefully, and he was smarter than both of us put together, everyone knows that."

Chris said...

You do not no what cultural relativism is.

You do not know what meta-ethics is.

If all Harris is interested in is letting us know his desire for greater happiness and less misery, then I will join him. But Harris is interested in the meta-ethical question of how and if ethical propositions can be true. This is irrespective of any particular normative proposition. You see, complaining that meta-ethics is not a moral concern is a little like complaining to Karl Popper that all he is interested in is the scientific method rather than the specifics of hydrocarbon molecule bonds.

Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

Let me think. Which is more likely?

1. People have been accumulating knowledge of the facts regarding human flourishing and how to foster it; this has encouraged and enabled them to lobby in favor of more humanitarian societal rules.

2. People used to be OK with their friends and family-members getting raped or murdered; but lately, for no particular reason, their tastes have changed.



This is grossly intellectually dishonest.

You have absolutely no evidence that people began to go against slavery and subjugation of women because of a change in knowledge. This goes against most of recorded history.

Number two is so lame and dishonest there is no point in even commenting.

yashwata said...

Chris, you said, "I think it is … obvious … that it is people’s preferences … that changed." You wrote that. That was you.

Let's put aside the fact that have no evidence for this outlandish claim.

Let's just note that you were contrasting the idea of changing preferences to the idea that in the past "we were all … aware of the facts … concerning simple property rights and random killing but failed to recognize the … more obvious wrongness of slavery, degradation and the rape of women" – in other words, the idea that some sort of learning has taken place. Instead, you reckon it as "obvious" that we have merely changed our opinions about what is right and wrong.

You insist, meta-ethically, that we remember that there is no way to be certain that slavery, degradation and rape are wrong.

But you're not a relativist. Perish the thought.

yashwata said...

Chris said, "Harris is interested in the meta-ethical question of how and if ethical propositions can be true."

When he learns that the only correct answer is "No, they can't," I predict that he will lose interest.

yashwata said...

For a reality check I watched the Authors@Google version of Harris's talk. It is just about the most reasonable thing you ever saw. To reject it on the basis of philosophical nuance is – how can I say this – just wrong.

Chris said...

Yes it would be irrational to reject everything that a person says because of a philosophical quibble. Now, can you point to someone who actually is doing rejecting everything he says over a quibble? (Note: it is not me.)

Yes, we certainly would not want to make irrational assertions based on minor philosophical quibbles, such as deciding not to trust anything someone says because you disagree over a minor philosophical quibble, or fret over the future safety of young girls facing genital mutilations because someone in this forum is supposedly a cuuulllltuurrrralll reeellllaattiivviiissttt.

We certainly would not want to be so irrational as to make repeated inane comments to the effect that because someone believe morals reflect our subjective preferences they are somehow not allowed to have preferences that you approve.

Or maybe we would want to avoid the irrational inability to tell the difference between a philosophical discussion and life (Listen, you don't need to pretend that a centuries old debate over the "is-ought" must be decided right NOW, in your favor, in order to fight against slavery, female mutilation, and baby killing.)

But, you do show your true self in your last line. You get to do that wonderful act that all objectivists get to do: You get to label any damn thing you want as being "wrong".

yashwata said...

My then-girlfriend once told me, "Now I see what you're really made of."

I said, "You see nothing."

We separated a few weeks later — thank God.