Thursday, December 01, 2011

You Can't Derive "Ought" From "Is"

One of my philosophical interests is the ontology of morality. This is to be distinguished from the epistemology of morality, which concerns how we know what is morally right and wrong. The ontology of morality concerns the metaphysical foundation of morality.

It is generally understood, philosophically, that science says nothing, qua science, about "duty" or "value." Science weighs, measures, dissects, analyzes, and quantifies physical reality, or "matter." Science can tell me, compositionally, about the nature of the plastic keyboard I am now typing on. But science cannot tell me about things like beauty, truth, meaning, good, evil, right, wrong, and even (as Hume showed us) cause and effect. Science can tell us what is, materially, but not about what we ought to do. Famously, we can't derive "ought" from "is."

Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, disagrees. Harris admits that "no one expects science to tell us how we ought to think and behave." Most think there is a gap between scientific "facts" and moral values. Harris is out to prove such things wrong. He thinks there are objective moral values, and that science provides their ontological foundation. He writes: "If there are objective truths to be known about human well-being... then science should one day be able to make very precise claims about which of our behaviors and uses of attention are morally good, which are neutral, and which are worth abandoning."

"My goal is to convince you that human knowledge and human values can no longer be kept apart. The world of measurement and the world of meaning must eventually be reconciled." And:  I will argue that morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science.” Has Harris convinced anyone about this? Is is hypothesis convincing? University of Rochester biologist H. Allen Orr doesn't think so.

Orr, in "The Science of Right and Wrong," reviews Harris's book. Here, in bullets, are the highlights.

  • Harris hopes to convince "his readers that objective moral truths exist and that we possess a (properly secular) means for discovering them."
  • "Harris is aware that such large claims will invite charges of naive scientism, but he is unfazed. In particular, he is well aware that a long intellectual tradition insists that anything resembling a science of morality is impossible: science trades in facts and ethics trades in values and, according to the tradition, facts can never justify values. So Harris’s project will require him to do battle with some deep, and widely shared, views."
  • The result of this, writes Orr, "is not particularly pretty."
  • Harris examines the fact-value distinction, and finds its origin in Hume.
  • "Harris will have none of this."
  • Harris makes three big claims. "The first is that he believes that the is/ought problem is a nonproblem. Indeed the divide between facts and values is, he says, largely illusory."
  • To support claim 1 Harris uses neuroimaging studies. "Neuroimaging studies of the human brain at work reveal that the same regions of our brains are active when people judge the truth or falsity of both factual statements (“Spain is a country”) and ethical statements (“Murder is wrong”)."
  • "Harris’s second big claim is that he has identified the correct conception of the good. It is the well-being of conscious creatures. Indeed Harris suggests that any other conception of the good either is equivalent to this one or is nonsense: “Concern for well-being (defined as deeply and as inclusively as possible) is the only intelligible basis for morality and values.”"
  • "This leads to Harris’s third main claim. Given that the moral landscape reflects a world of facts, it can be studied by science."
  • Orr finds all of Harris's three claims "dubious."
  • Orr on claim 1:  "his reasons for finding the fact/value distinction illusory leave a bit to be desired. Harris’s use of neuroimaging studies here is far from compelling. While the data themselves are certainly interesting—indeed, Harris’s original scientific publications are fascinating—his interpretation of them in The Moral Landscape is extravagant. It seems odd to try to assess the relationship between two ideas or judgments by analyzing whether the same brain regions are active when each is represented in the human mind. Surely such an assessment requires one to analyze the ideas or judgments themselves. If the same brain regions are active when people mentally perform addition and multiplication, would Harris conclude that the addition/multiplication distinction is illusory?" Orr says more. You can read his entire essay to pick up the details.
  • "Harris’s second main claim—that the only intelligible morality involves the maximization of well-being—can certainly be challenged. His view of morality is a species of utilitarianism and plenty of people have raised plenty of questions about utilitarianism—for example, the late Bernard Williams in some of his most telling writings... But there’s a more important point. Harris’s view that morality concerns the maximization of well-being of conscious creatures doesn’t follow from science. What experiment or body of scientific theory yielded such a conclusion? Clearly, none. Harris’s view of the good is undeniably appealing but it has nothing whatever to do with science. It is, as he later concedes, a philosophical position."
  • "Where, then, does actual science enter into Harris’s science of morality? This takes us to his third main claim and, unfortunately, the answer is somewhat unclear. Harris spends considerable time talking about neurobiology, particularly the functional neurobiology of belief. But throughout The Moral Landscape, he mostly enlists science in the cause of revealing how to enhance human well-being." Science can help us to live a good life, depending on the definition of "good life" that we hold to. But science cannot tell us what a "good" life is. This is precisely the point. Orr is certain Harris misunderstands this. Orr writes: "If you’ve decided that the ultimate value is living a long life (“one ought to live as long as possible”), medical science can help (“you ought to exercise”). But medical science can’t show that the ultimate value is living a long life. Much of The Moral Landscape is an extended exercise in confusing these two senses of ought."
  • Orr concludes: "Despite Harris’s bravado about “how science can determine human values,” The Moral Landscape delivers nothing of the kind."
To me Harris's attempt to pull the moral rabbit out of the scientific hat shows the importance of developing an ontology of moral value. For the atheist who wants objective moral values, science as the study of material reality is their only hope. Regarding this, Harris's valiant attempt fails.