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Sam Harris is Nonsensical in Principle

In my younger days, when I was full of libertarian bluster, I used to formulate arguments in terms of "Natural Rights." Murder was Wrong (with a capital 'W') because it violated your "right to life." I used to go on like this all day, until finally my friend Cesar (I think) kindly pointed out that I was full of shit.

I'm still full of libertarian bluster, I suppose, although you'd never in a million years catch me arguing based on "natural rights," which (after my youthful indiscretions) I came to realize represent either religious ("they're the rights god gave us") or pseudo-religious ("they're self-evident!") attempts to create an "objective" basis for one's policy preferences. (As a general rule, if most people refuse to agree with a proposition even after you've made your best case for it, it's not "self-evident.")

There's no shortage of people who want an "objective" basis for their policy preferences. It turns them from opinions (e.g. "it's my opinion that we should pay teachers more") or hypothetical imperatives (e.g. "if we want to make teaching a more attractive profession, we should pay teachers more") or self-interest (e.g. "speaking as a teacher, we should pay teachers more") into "facts" (e.g. "it's a fact that we should pay teachers more") and "morals" (e.g. "if you don't think we should pay teachers more, you're a moral reprobate"). You can argue against opinions, but you can't argue against facts! You can rail against self-interest, but not against morals!

It's a nice sleight of hand when you can pull it off. Unfortunately, you usually can't. Neither can Sam Harris, who has a new book out claiming that "science has a universal moral code."

The book's not quite out yet, but he's posted an excerpt online.

Since it's Sam Harris, his purpose is of course to debunk one of the arguments for god:

The defense one most often hears for belief in God is not that there is compelling evidence for His existence, but that faith in Him is the only reliable source of meaning and moral guidance.

It's true that this is sometimes offered (I wouldn't say "most often") as a defense of religon. In my own book it's addressed in chapter 85: "But without religion..."

Some people argue that religion is a necessary source of morality, and that if people all realized their religions were false, they would no longer have any incentives to fly airplanes into skyscrapers, to chop off the tips of their babies' penises, to restrict poor people's access to contraception, to censor cartoons, to make it difficult to purchase liquor on Sundays, to stone homosexuals, or to murder apostates and heathens. Society, they argue, would subsequently break down.

Of course, the sensible's person rejoinder to this is that the truth of a belief is independent of its consequences. And anyway we don't need an absolute morality, we just need a set of rules to help us get along. We don't want to be murdered, and we don't want our friends and neighbors to be murdered, so we outlaw murder and we punish murderers. We (ideally) enact new rules if they seem necessary and (ideally) repeal them if they seem counterproductive. There's no need to embarrass ourselves by dragging philosophy into things and trying to make metaphysical statements about murder in the abstract.

It's disappointing, then, that Harris's klugy response is to advocate for a "science" of morality. Science is (among other things) a spirit of inquiry. If you're serious about using science to solve a problem, then you're committing to accepting science's answer whatever it turns out to be.

If you believe that science can make a statement that (say) child abuse is wrong in some absolute sense, then you're tacitly accepting that new evidence might reveal that child abuse is not actually wrong. If you're not open to that possibility, then you're not doing science. You can call it science, but it's not science.

Maybe he doesn't care. (Or maybe he's open to the possibility that child abuse might be "moral," but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.) Maybe he's only interested in the name:

But whether morality becomes a proper branch of science is not really the point. Is economics a true science yet?

I'm not sure whether economics is a "true science." But most honest economists are forthright that the scientific part of what they do is only the positive part. Economics can tell you which allocation rules satisfy certain "fairness" criteria. But it can't tell you which criteria are the correct ones.

Look, I think murder is awful. But I don't pretend that this is some sort of scientific judgment. It's my opinion, and luckily most everyone else agrees with me.

You know what else is awful? Putting people in jail because they like to use drugs. It's wicked, it's evil, it's barbaric, it's disgusting, it's shameful, it's every bad adjective you could apply to it. This is as plainly obvious to me as is my feeling that murder is awful. And I'm not just talking marijuana. I'm talking heroin, cocaine, opium, you name it. Somehow, though, most people disagree with me. Most scientific people disagree with me. Of course, I'm right and they're wrong. But science is powerless to settle this dispute. Science tells you what drugs do and what happens when you mix them and how to get a better high. Science tells you the likely consequences of your policy of throwing drug users in prison. But science doesn't tell you whether it's evil to throw drug users in prison. Science can't tell you whether it's evil to throw drug users in prison. Science can't tell you how to find "peaks" on a "moral landscape" because there's no such thing as a "moral landscape."

This isn't a problem unless you decide to start worrying about the bizarrely abstract:

Imagine how terrifying it would be if great numbers of smart people became convinced that all efforts to prevent a global financial catastrophe, being mere products of culture, must be either equally valid or equally nonsensical in principle. And yet this is precisely where most intellectuals stand on the most important questions in human life.

I've puzzled over this section for a long time, and I can't make the slightest sense of it. Whether you're evaluating "efforts to prevent a catastrophe" or "the most important questions in human life," you ought to be concerned with practical things like "whether they'll work" and "what side effects they'll have" and "how much they'll cost." Worrying which ones are "valid in principle" (whatever on earth that means) is a perfect way to waste time and not solve anything. Not unlike the new Harris book, I suspect.

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