Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Sam Harris on Objectivity in Ethics

Earlier today my teaching assistant called my attention to a TED talk by Sam Harris (author of the atheist bestsellers The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation) in which Harris supports objectivity in ethics--by arguing that science can (eventually, with the help of neuroscience) answer ethical questions. You can find a video of the talk here. Since what follows is my reaction to the talk, you may want to read what I say after having viewed the talk itself.

First, let me say that there is much in the talk that I agree with, especially when Harris talks about what objectivity in ethics implies and what it doesn't. Many of the points he makes are similar to ones I routinely make in my classes. For example, I often point out to my students that to say that a moral claim is objectively true is not the same as saying that moral principles don't admit of exceptions. And I often note that even if there are objective standards of human welfare, it doesn't follow that there is only one way for an individual or community to flourish. I've even used the example of physical health that Harris himself invokes to clarify this point.

And when Harris contrasted the conservative Muslim practice of requiring that women's bodies be covered with America's commercial exploitation of women's bodies, I found myself recalling a paper I recently received from a Muslim student in my business ethics class, in which the student carefully exposed the problems associated with the exploitation of women in advertising and the use of unrealistic ideals of female beauty to sell beauty products, and then made an argument for a cultural practice of modestly covering women's bodies as a solution to these problems--as, in effect, a way for women to be taken seriously as persons rather than being judged by how they look. While my extensive marginal comments raised a range of objections and challenges to his argument, I saw both of us groping towards the same kind of middle ground that Harris was pursuing, albeit each of us laden with our respective cultural backgrounds and so coming from opposite sides of the spectrum that Harris vividly depicted with his extreme images.

But despite a number of points of agreement, I have two broad worries about Harris's line of thinking as developed in this talk. First, while he makes the (to my mind rather obvious) point that we can learn much about the conditions of human flourishing and prospects for flourishing through scientific study of human beings, he leaps without argument from this observation to the conclusion that science can answer moral questions about what we ought to do and what ends or goals are worth pursuing.

He clearly makes this move because he is operating on the (unstated) assumption that what is right is what maximizes human flourishing (a species of utilitarianism). But utilitarianism is hardly an uncontested moral theory. And we can rightly ask with some skepticism whether he really thinks science can demonstrate that the utilitarian principle is correct—as opposed to, say, a deontological alternative which posits the intrinsic moral rightness of certain acts apart from their impact on human flourishing, or an egoistic alternative which holds with Ayn Rand that there is no non-indexical good, that the only good is my good or your good, and that only my good can be a reason for me to act (leading to the view that the right act for me is whatever makes me the happiest, regardless of how it affects others).

In short, while scientific study of the conditions of human flourishing is clearly relevant to answering moral questions, what one does with those scientific discoveries will be a function of moral precepts that do not themselves seem to be amenable to the same sort of scientific investigation. As such, to say that science can answer moral questions is problematic at best. Harris certainly hasn't offered any powerful reasons to think so in this talk.

My second problem goes beyond what is most obviously on display in this talk, having to do with worries about the ideological agenda into whose service Harris's claims about objective moral truth are being put. Harris rightly points out that religious demagogues typically embrace the same kind of moral objectivism he endorses, but they put it in the service of their own ideological agendas (and he expressed discomfort with being in the same camp as these demagogues).

The way I’d describe this is as follows: these demagogues adopt the view that there are objective truths in ethics in part for the sake of identifying an “out-group” of individuals and/or communities who are agents of objective evil, thus seeking to justify an in-group/out-group ideology which renders permissible the suspension of norms of moral decency with respect to members of the out-group. In effect, the good is threatened by the out-group, thereby justifying radical action on the part of the in-group in defense of the good. The out-group must be defeated, or it will be the victory of evil.

While Harris does not emphasize in this particular talk his own ideological opposition to religion, it remains as an obvious subtext—and in other writings that ideology becomes explicit and deeply unsettling, insofar as it precisely resembles in FORM the kind of ideology he rightly denounces when it is wedded to religious zealots. That is to say, Harris is not merely an atheist. He doesn't just think that religious believers are mistaken, nor is he apt to say that religion's moral track record is "mixed." For him, religion is evil and a source of evil, and those who are religious are, in his language, "on the wrong side of an escalating war of ideas," one in which he thinks the very survival of humanity depends on the defeat of the religious side by the secular atheist one. Replace "atheism" and "religion" in this ideology with "Christianity" and "Islam," or with "Catholic" and "Protestant," and you can pretty quickly see that it is the same ideology of religious intolerance that has caused so much horror in history, only with all of religion now cast in the camp of the infidel or heretic, and atheism wearing the shining raimant of orthodoxy.

To put it simply, this kind of in-group/out-group ideology depends upon the premise that there is an objective moral truth, because it distinguishes the chosen group from the other group in terms of who has this truth and who poses a threat to it. That certainly doesn't mean that objectivitism in ethics inevitably entails in-group/out-group ideology (how could one say that such ideological thinking is objectively bad if one denied objective moral truth?). But if, like me, you think that such ideologies really are bad, then the defense of ethical objectivism for the sake of vindicating such an ideology will be a cause of deep distress. And I worry that this is exactly what is going on in Harris's case.

On the basis of years working in the field of nonviolence theory and cooperation and conflict studies--both in my academic work and in more practical terms as a facilitator for Alternatives to Violence Project workshops in prisons and other settings--I have become convinced that the deepest moral truths have to do with how we should resolve conflicts with those whose hopes, aims, and values conflict with our own. And I have become especially convinced that one of these deep moral truths is that we should address such conflicts on the basis of a recognition of shared humanity and a with a commitment to bridging the gap of difference so as to make possible mutual understanding and empathy in the face of profound disagreement and conflict--as opposed to, say, anathematizing those who disagree with us, or calling for their deaths or for their exclusion from full participation in the community.

In other words, I think one of the deepest (objective) moral truths is that when we are convinced we have the moral truth and we come into conflict with someone who we are convinced lacks it, and our conflict turns precisely on this difference, we have an obligation to value and affirm the humanity and integrity of the one we think is dead wrong. And part of that obligation is to listen as charitably as we can to their lived experience--including those elements of their experience which lead them to hold the view we find so misguided. Another part of that obligation is to honestly share who we are and what we stand for in a way that has the possibility of inspiring empathetic understanding rather than defensiveness.

And as I see it, one of the greatest impediments to this kind of engagement is the kind of in-group/out-group ideology that is so easy for most human beings to fall into, and which Harris himself is constantly lapsing into with respect to (western) religious communities. That he does so is not, I think, a matter of serious debate (I point out various ways in which it happens in Is God a Delusion?, as well as in a Religion Dispatches essay a while back in which I respond to his strident opposition to Francis Collins' appointment to head the NIH). The real question is how one is to respond to it.

I must confess to an ironic tendency to respond to it by lapsing into an in-group/out-group ideology with respect to those who resist or succumb to in-group/out-group ideologies. But I see this tendency as an objective moral evil. And seeing it at such is one of the things that helps me in the struggle to resist it.


  1. Hi, Eric-

    I'm with you on this one- Harris is really barking up the wrong tree with objective morals, and you are right to characterize his point as being to beat others over the head for disagreeing with his own desires/point of view.

    He has a very lengthy text addendum to his talk, which is no more enlightening or well argued, actually. His key move is to jump from the most basic possible claims that can be construed as objective (suffering is bad) to a claim that all of morals can be likewise founded. That is not at all the case.

    Even at the most basic level, morals reflect our desires, here mostly inborn. This is objective in a way, but if we were different beings, we would have different desires. After all, some enjoy pain in the most exquisite way.

    When one gets beyond the simple pain-is-bad level, objectivity is completely impossible to support. One enters a welter of conflicting desires (especially short and long-term tradeoffs) and more importantly, a socially (even mythically) constructed self and society which make of our desires playthings to reshape, even reverse. What is human flourishing? There are thousands of perfectly good answers to this question, always in flux.

    The naive American position of freedom to do whatever an individual likes also doesn't wash- we are social beings, always intertwined in social conflict and cooperation, so our ideas of the good have to take mutual control and accommodation into account.

    I would suggest that the idea of democracy is a powerful refutation of the very idea of objective morals. Its attractive power, and its practical success show that at the heart of human existence is not a discernment of what some creator wants or what some ultimate game theory might dictate, but a continual negotiation of our desires over the entire spectrum of the good, best done in the open with everyone getting to voice their individual position.

  2. Regarding Muslim vs Western treatment of women's bodies, I am reminded of Karin Armstrong's observation that demanding that a body be covered objectifies that body just as thoroughly as pressuring it to be flaunted.

  3. With regard to fanatics, objective goods, prisons, and the like, you might be interested in an excellent review in TNR (subscription needed) on Koestler and the Bolsheviks.

  4. Burk,

    Eric was not trying to say there is no objectivity in ethics-- he thinks there is, but is aware that people have conflicting views about e.g. whether or not there are any absolute moral prohibitions, whether or not human flourishing consists in pleasure satisfaction or acting in accordance with certain acquired abilities (virtues) that could be held to be "perfective" of humans because there is in human beings (as in all living beings) an intrinsic "directedness towards" certain sorts of activities which does not depend on human convention or even on the divine will, whether or not humans, by nature, have more intrinsic value than animals, whether or not objectivity in ethics requires that some things have intrinsic value, whether or not the very concept of “intrinsic value” is coherent, etc. But he also thinks there are good reasons to believe that there are objective moral truths, that the obtaining of some states of affairs (e.g. that all children have enough to eat, are decently educated, are loved by their parents and caretakers and are never abused) are objectively preferable, as such, to their not obtaining, and that to argue from the fact that people disagree about moral matters no more shows that there are no objective moral truths than the fact that even very knowledgeable physicists disagree about the strength, and even the scientific credentials, of "string theory", shows that there is no fact of the matter concerning whether or not macro objects are ultimately constituted by strings. (And notice this--even if it is impossible for humans to ever come to know whether or not the string theory is true entails nothing, absolutely nothing, about its truth value).

    What Eric did want to argue, in part, is that Harris assumes a certain moral theory to be true and then, having assumed that, asserts that science can provide us with the answers to all particular moral questions; hence, scientists should replace theologians and moral philosophers as our moral “gurus”. In this regard Harris is like the philosopher Spencer. Spencer assumed something that Darwin's theory of evolution does not, and cannot, show, viz. that it is good that the human race survives—in fact that it is the greatest good. Having assumed that, he went on to praise evolutionary biology as the panacea for all particular moral questions since he thought it would reveal the means by which the human race is most likely to go on surviving into the distant future. But, of course, science simply cannot show that it is good that the human race survive (what possible scientific experiment could show that), even though it can show us much about the means humans should use if they want the race to survive. Notice, finally, that if you assert that if science cannot settle the question of whether or not it is good that the human race survives, that shows that the question is either meaningless or, even if meaningful, unable to be answered, you assume the very positivism that was shown to be self-referentially incoherent in the earlier part of the 20th century. Actually, unknown to most western philosophers, it was shown to be incoherent even in ancient India. The Caravaks, or Indian materialists, who ridiculed the ancient Brahmanic religion (even in its higher forms in the Upanishads) with as much vehemence as the current crop of angry atheists ridicule the theism dear to all of the children of Abraham, put forward the principle that the only means of knowledge is sense perception. But the subtle defenders of the ancient religion pointed out that one cannot know by sense perception that the only means of knowledge is sense perception. In short, the Indian materialists were engaged in cutting off the branch they were sitting on!!

  5. Hi, John-

    "But he also thinks there are good reasons to believe that there are objective moral truths .."

    I know very well that Eric asserts this, but don't think there is much to stand on in this case (or in Harris's). Are some morals highly popular? Yes indeed. Are some violations almost universally abhorrent? Yes again. This only defines a convention, however. Objectivity requires a higher standard of evidence, and is a different matter in kind.

    The comparison with string theory is quite apt. One question is whether anyone claims that string theory is objectively true. I don't think so.. yet. It is regarded as a hypothesis, and a tenuous one at that. Secondly, it deals in objective issues, like matter, measurable energies, etc. Morality deals with subjective phenomena, inherently and by its very definition. There seems to be a large burden of proof on your/Eric's side to jump that divide in a compelling way. If brain scans show that most people share the same moral sentiments, that doesn't really advance the ball either. We pretty much knew that already.

    I think the history is quite clear that claims of objective morality have been power-plays for social control and uniformity, not matters of discernment or research. Sometimes these innovations have been for the good, sometimes for the bad, as I would evaluate them (subjectively).

    "Notice, finally, that if you assert that if science cannot settle the question of whether or not it is good that the human race survives, that shows that the question is either meaningless or, even if meaningful, unable to be answered .."

    I wouldn't take that position. What it actually shows is that the question is .. subjective, not objective. It is one that is deeply meaningful to us without having an objective answer.

    Your cite of the Caravaks is very interesting. I think that modern neuroscience is well on its way to dissolving this conundrum, at least, since our perception is shaped implicitly by the accumulated perception of evolution which pre-patterns our brains to enable them to create and use our immediate perceptions. So the ground of the Caravaks is properly much broader than they appreciated.

    Their basic position, thus expanded, remains correct- that all knowledge comes from our reality-brain perception system. This certainly includes imagination and brain-storms as ways of generating novel ideas and hypotheses. These can not by themselves stand as knowledge, however, if one uses a correspondence theory of truth. If one uses a revelation/implanted by god theory of truth, then one would be arguing on different grounds, and that is the basic dispute, I think.

    This position does not depend on its own observations reflexively, but is simply a logical outcome of taking the correspondence theory of truth seriously- that our mental models (knowledge) are valid only insofar as they correspond with outer reality. We can have all kinds of crackpot ideas, but unless tested, they don't constitute knowledge.

  6. I have some comments to what Sam Harris writes in his follow-up piece in Huffington post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/moral-confusion-in-the-na_b_517710.html

    It appears that here he tries to conflate science with rationality (“the boundary between [science] and the rest of rational thought cannot always be drawn”). Now we all agree that ethics is a rational enterprise, and if one conflates science with rationality then, of course, one places ethics within the domain of science by definition, or rather by the re-definition of what “science” means.

    Further Sam Harris writes: “Rather I was suggesting that science can, in principle, help us understand what we *should* do and *should* want”. Nobody is denying this, so I don’t see why Harris needs to “suggest” it. For example, everybody agrees that science can help us understand what the effects of eating mercury contaminated fish *is*, and therefore help us decide whether we *should* eat such fish. Nobody claims that scientific knowledge is useless in ethical reasoning; the claim is that scientific knowledge is not sufficient for ethical reasoning. Which represents a serious problem for scientific naturalism, for if ethical truths are factual but cannot be reduced to the physical facts of the universe, then there must be facts out there which are non-physical and thus beyond the reach of science.

    I agree with Harris's basic point about the relationship between value and consciousness (“we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value” and “all [sensible] notions of value *will* bear some relationship to the actual or potential experience of conscious beings”). On the other hand I do not agree with his statement in the TED talk that “stones are not objects of moral concern”. They clearly are, as evidenced by the fact that destroying a mountain by strip-mining is morally questionable. Using these insights one can build a (to my knowledge) novel argument for the existence of God:

    Theistic argument from stones:

    1. Every stone is an object of moral concern. [premise]
    2. Everything that is an object of moral concern has value. [premise]
    3. Therefore every stone has value. [from 1 and 2]
    4. Everything that has value entails the actual or potential conscious experience of it. [premise from Harris’s insight]
    5. Therefore every stone entails the actual or potential conscious experience of it. [from 3 and 4]
    6. Non-transcendent consciousness (such as human consciousness) is not such that it can actually or potentially experience every stone. [premise]
    7. Therefore there is a transcendent consciousness that is such that it can actually or potentially experience every stone.[from 5 and 6]
    8. Call the transcendent consciousness that is such that it can actually or potentially experience every stone, “God”. [definition]
    9. Therefore there is God. [from 7 and 8]

  7. Does anyone else here detect the irony of the fact that Burk invokes the "correspondence theory of truth" which is the same theory trumpeted by JP Moreland the evangelical apologist at Biola? See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOJ9GDpQBUI

    Here we see, partly, why the secular and the religious evangelical/fundamentalist are really two sides to the same modernist coin. This is why “evidence” is always interpreted evidence and our interpretations are guided and shaped by faith commitments/presuppositions that are, in themselves, not grounded in the same way, say, we “found” or measure the distance from the earth to the sun. This is what Burk continually misses.

    I would also add that the objectivity of morality is tied to the question of whether or not God or some transcendence exits and if that morality is who that God or transcendence is in the sense of bring intrinsic to that person or force’s very being. The only reason Burk believes there is no objectivity to ethics/morality is because be believes by faith that no god or transcendence exists. One belief is connected to the other. Also notice that Burk does refer to some "spectrum" of the "good"--some ideal or goal, out there, somewhere, and yet at the same time tells us there is no such thing really.

  8. Hi, Darrell-

    I don't think I would venture so far as to say the everything that comes out of a theist's mouth is untrue. Thus the fact that a BIOLA professor professes the correspondence theory of truth is not a problem. Indeed, it is heartening. Whether Jesus was true in claiming to be the prophecies fulfilled is another matter, of course.

    On morals, if god exists, that alone does not establish morals. You also have to know what he, she, or it thinks about morals or has set as objective moral goals, if any. Looking over theological history, this knowledge is even less secure than the entirely questionable issue of whether god exists at all.

  9. Burk,

    No one accused you of thinking that theists are wrong about everything. But you are missing the rather ironic matter of you both claiming the same philosophical framework to start but arriving at completely different conclusions. If you are so sure that we all just need to evaluate and observe the “evidence” then how do you explain the rather awkward relationship here?

    Of course, as to morality and God’s existence that is exactly what Christians posit in that Jesus was God and therefore his life and teaching establish that morality. You clearly disagree, but it doesn’t change the fact that such does ground morality in something other than my subjective feelings or preference.

  10. "To be fair, I have yet to read Harris's book and I am going simply off of Ruse's review."

    I'm sorry, you're reviewing a book you admit you're not read?

    Is that ethical? Or ... wait for it ... moral?

  11. Anonymous--What I review here is Harris's TED talk. If I decide to review Harris's book, I'll be sure to read it first.