Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Genuinely puzzled: what exactly is Blackford saying about Harris?
by Massimo Pigliucci
Ever since my (frankly, negative) review of Sam Harris’ book, The Moral Landscapecame out, staunch Harris supporters have told me that I really ought (is that a value or a fact, I wonder?) to check out what Russell Blackford has to say about the book. I respect Blackford, regardless of our disagreements on the epistemic limits of science, and even despite the fact that Jerry Coyne has come to refer to him as “Brother Russell” (Brother, really?). So I checked what Blackford has to say about Harris. It’s a long review, well worth the read, but it left me seriously puzzled, primarily because in a follow-up post, Blackford himself says that he pretty much agrees with my criticisms of Harris.
Blackford starts out with high praise for the book: “[harris] presents an eloquent, passionate, but scholarly defense of his particular take on the phenomenon of morality,” which led me to think he must have actually read a somewhat different book. I remembered the passion, but certainly not the scholarship. Blackford goes on: “In that sense, I need go no further. Is this book worth obtaining and reading? Emphatically yes.” But in fact he does go further, for quite a long while, essentially dismantling every single piece of Harris’ “scholarly” arguments. Don’t take my word for it, what follows is a series of extracts from Blackford’s own review. See if you get to the end and don’t feel as puzzled as I did when I finished reading it (the italics and parenthetical statements are mine).
Concerning Harris’ take on moral relativism and ethics: “Unfortunately, Harris sees it as necessary to defend a naïve metaethical position; and, although the defense itself is conducted with considerable sophistication, he does not seem to understand the more sophisticated theories ... Harris reaches these conclusions only by offering what strikes me as a highly implausible and ultimately unsustainable account of the phenomenon of morality ... Harris is impatient with all this, and often resorts to outright scorn in rejecting considerations that don’t fit with his position.”
On values as scientific “facts”: “Harris overreaches when he claims that science can determine human values. Indeed, it’s not clear how much the book really argues such a thing, despite its provocative subtitle [seems to me that’s what the book is all about, but okay] ... Harris is not thereby giving an account of how science can determine our most fundamental values or the totality of our values ... He is, however, no more successful in deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’ than anyone else has ever been [this was another central part of Harris’ project]. The whole intellectual system of The Moral Landscape depends on an “ought” being built into its foundations.”
On “well-being”: “Unfortunately, [the idea that the point of moral systems is to promote well-being] would not assist Harris in insisting that moral questions have determinate, objectively correct answers ... There could end up being legitimate disagreement on what is to be done, with no answer that is objectively binding on all the disagreeing parties ... Harris, however, appears committed to the view that there are determinate and objectively correct answers to all moral questions, even if we cannot discover them in practice ... [but] I doubt that there really is a metric that we can use to gain fully determinate answers to questions of what will maximize well-being.”
On the objectivity of moral judgments: “‘How am I to act?’ and ‘How am I to live?’ It’s these questions that really matter, if we’re looking for guidance for our actions. Harris never provides a satisfactory response to this line of thought, and I doubt that one is possible ... Harris seems to think that the course of conduct which maximizes global well-being is the morally right one because ‘morally right’ just means something like ‘such as to maximize global well-being.’ But this won’t do ... Harris toys with the rather desperate idea that even the word ‘should,’ or the expression ‘ought to,’ can be translated along the lines that ‘You should do X,’ or ‘You ought to do X’ means ‘X will maximize global well-being.’ Apart from the inherent implausibility of this for any competent speaker of the English language, it misses the point ... Harris does not seem to understand this idea ... Leaving aside Harris’ habitual over-reliance on the words ‘clear’ and ‘clearly,’ often to support assertions that are not clear at all, Mackie [whom Harris dismisses for engaging in naïve philosophy] makes no such error.”
Now, given all the above, I understand why Blackford agrees with my criticism of Harris. The only thing he seems to complain about concerning my review is that I claim that Harris is affected by the common malady of scientism. But even there, Blackford writes: “In the end, the problems with The Moral Landscape aren't so much about thinking that all problems can be solved by science. Even if Harris may sometimes seem to think that, the real problems are elsewhere.” Well, yes, there are plenty of other problems elsewhere in the book, as Blackford’s own damning (though superficially positive) review clearly shows. But I do think that a major problem with the whole project is precisely the stubborn attempt to overextend the reach of science which is properly labeled as scientism. And Blackford implicitly agrees that Harris can fairly be accused of such, he just doesn’t agree that that is the major problem with the book.
What I don’t understand is why — given all the above — Blackford concludes that Harris’ book makes a valuable contribution. Apparently, such contribution is to be found not in Harris’ idea that science can derive an ought from an is, but simply in Harris’ criticism of moral relativism, a criticism that Blackford himself labels as rather naïve in the middle of his review. So, I wish to thank “Brother Russell” for doing a masterful job at showing why Harris gets the most important parts of his project completely wrong. And to people who really wish to learn something about ethics and how moral judgment works, please do yourself a favor and read Michael Sandel’s wonderful Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? instead. You’ll thank me for that.