About Rationally Speaking

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 Landscape came 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.


  1. I'm with you. I absolutely understood all of Blackford's criticisms, but I found myself bewildered as to how it could be that pretty much every point Harris made was so problematic yet the book could remain worthwhile.

  2. Harris contributed not to philosophy by his book but to [secular] society. Which will eventually contribute to philosophy.

  3. Mitaad,

    and what exactly is Harris' contribution to secular society in this book? And may I remind you that secular society exists (in part) because of philosophy, not the other way around.

  4. What I don't understand is how such a flawed book received so much attention. There are other books with "naive" moral opinions. Why this one?

  5. I've been reading Blackford's posts for a while, and all his posts basically sound like "so except for the massive flaws in all of his central arguments, his book is really marvelous, and I agree with Harris on a variety of points." He's too eager to praise the book. All of the reasonable points that Harris makes are obvious and would not be remarkable in a sophomore-level philosophy paper. Does he just not want to admit that The Moral Landscape is crap?

  6. I speculate that Blackford has a slight reluctance to condemn the book too strongly despite its glaring flaws (as do I, to be honest) because it may serve as a 'gateway drug' for scientifically-engaged laymen into ethical philosophy.

    In this role, alas, a rather bad book may sometimes serve better than a good one. My own introduction to ethics did not occur via the best literature extant on the topic.

    Also, I feel like giving Harris a cookie for managing to make an adequately good (and well-publicized) case against moral relativism to both the skeptical community and to liberals. I know Massimo doesn't think that particular intellectual tendency is too dangerous (even though he agrees relativism is incoherent); but I beg to differ.

  7. Ian, I understand your point, but aren't we skirting a bit too close to intellectual elitism here? Are you saying that a demonstrably bad book is still a good thing because most people aren't capable of (or interested in) a better book on relativism? That's lowering the bar significantly.

    Instead, I thing what we are seeing here is an example of herd mentality. Harris is one of the New Atheists, the New Atheism is good (for some people), so we are not going to criticize anything a NA says too strongly. Not a good example of critical thinking, or even intellectual honesty, quite frankly.

  8. Massimo--

    I think there's a herd mentality to it, but I also think they just think his 'arguments' are valid. I met somebody who honestly believed that "there are different opinions about physics, but that doesn't mean there are no facts about physics" was a solid response to moral skepticism. These people don't understand equivocation as a concept. They are really taken in.

  9. Massimo, one thing you either haven't considered, or seen fit to make public, is the possibility that "Brother Russell" is being disingenuous.

  10. When I consider this further, although I think Harris' book generates net positive utility, that does not provide any good reason to refrain from criticizing it strongly, since people who understand the criticism are not in the target demographic anyway.

    So what I said above is true but irrelevant, and Blackford had no good reason to treat the book with kid gloves.

  11. I don't see how a bad book can serve the purpose better than a good one. There are good accessible books on metaethics, so why not prefer them to Harris's?

  12. Oh, that's what Ian Pollock just said, pretty much. Never mind.

  13. axelrod's simulations go a long way to showing that science possibly can tell us about what morality is - an evolutionarily fit strategy calculated by the subconscious and passed to the conscious as a feeling of right and wrong.

  14. Dr. Pigliucci,

    At the risk of getting slightly off topic, I wanted to share a quandary that I'm in the middle of right now; perhaps you could shed some light on it. I understand Hume's is/ought problem, as well as Moore's related naturalistic fallacy - it makes sense to me; indeed, it seems so perfectly obvious that I'm wondering why such concepts weren't discovered centuries earlier (but that's a different issue).

    No statement of fact can ever logically entail a statement of value - so far so good. Here's where I'm puzzled: where does one go from there? Attempting to build an ethical foundation by moving from "is" to "ought" is a dubious enterprise, but I'm getting the disconcerting feeling that ANY attempt to build an ethical foundation will be dubious (if not equally dubious).

    What is left of ethical theorizing? Should we abandon the attempt to propose or justify any concept of obligation, and let ethics be only an aloof attempt to elaborate on this peculiar human idea of "we ought to act in such-and-such a way"? Are we left only with picking whatever basic assumptions happen to tickle our fancy, and hope to God (idiomatically speaking, of course) that we can have some degree of internal consistency in our arguments? In other words, we could be as rational and coherent as possible, but at the end of the day, does it not all come down to our own personal preference as far as where we begin the argument?

    If that's the case, for me it's a toss-up between virtue ethics and consequentialism (perhaps a possible synthesis of the two?), but I only have an elementary understanding of the concepts (as in much else in philosophy). But more importantly, I don't like the idea of maintaining a theory or belief simply because it suits me; I've spent the last three-and-a-half years in recovery from (Protestant) Christianity trying to break that silly (albeit natural) habit. I should also add that I've just started reading a book you recommended for me a few months ago - "Why It's Hard To Be Good: An Introduction To Ethical Theory." Will these questions of mine be answered once I finish the book (and perhaps after re-reading it)?

  15. Ophelia, I'm getting alarmed by how much we agree on lately... ;-)

    Michael, good questions. This isn't the place for a full, or even partial, answer. A couple of things, though. First, "foundational" projects seem to me to be doomed, not just in ethics, but in science and even in logic and math. Nobody has been able to provide a logical foundation for any type of human knowledge or reasoning. Time to give up.

    That doesn't mean one cannot engage in useful thinking - witness the progress of science, math, logic and, I would submit, ethics.

    Here is a good introduction to metaethics:


    And here is another book I think you'll find phenomenally useful:


    And finally, here is my take on the major ethical systems available these days:


    I hope this helps!

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  17. Baron, no. Science can inform us on the likely consequences of particular courses of action, which every moral philosopher would acknowledge. In that sense, science enters the game. But no amount of "could" can possibly determine your values or the logic of your moral reasoning.

  18. So, to be clear, science can tell us how to get to some end, but it cannot tell us why we should desire such an end. Yes?

  19. 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.

    How much does the book differ from the 12-part TV series of the same name?

  20. Don't know, I haven't watched the series.

  21. Having read Sandel's book and watched the series (albeit, what seems like many months ago), I can recall that they seemed to contain more or less the same information, only with different presentations. I personally enjoyed the book more than the series overall, but the latter featured some fun confrontations with the students.

  22. Michael, pretty much. Science provides us the instrumental means to achieve our ends, it cannot set what our ends should be.

  23. Then perhaps the most pressing moral project is to get humans on the same page regarding our desired ends.

  24. Ah, if only it were so easy. As Sandel's book elegantly shows, there can be reasonable disagreement over what some of those ends might be, as well as reasonable disagreement on priorities among contrasting ends.

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  26. Baron, I don't follow. I'm not sure what you mean when you say that logic is eliminative and determinative, and I certainly don't see why from that should follow that science can restrict the choices of our values.

  27. Indeed, but we might be able to lessen our disagreements.

  28. The book and the lecture series are pretty closely matched, though i think the book has 10 chapters and there are 12 lectures. I watched and read in tandem and would recommend doing the same.

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  30. Massimo, I believe it's 'Brother Blackford'. One must address correctly, lest the gnus get restless.

    Just kidding, I'm a gnu, at least, I'm a something.

    Yeah, I have to agree with you on this Massimo. There does seem to be a bit of 'Harris is one of our guys, so we'll salvage what we can' approach.

    I started reading Harris' book, and stopped pretty quickly. He dared not pay enough reverence to the great Hume (empiricism be upon him). Or it might have been that I'm easily distracted and didn't get into the book. One or the other.

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  32. Baron, I keep loosing you. Now you bring in Bayesian analysis, of which I'm fond. I still don't get how you go from matters of fact to matters of value by way of statistics or science. I'm not trying to be dense, I guess I really am.

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  34. Thanks for the info jcm. I found the series on iTunesU and grabbed it, so it's the same essential information then I guess I'll just watch it.

  35. @Baron, some constructive criticism: I'm reasonably certain you have some good points to make, but they're getting lost in your prose style, which is very very hard to follow and seems to suffer badly from the illusion of transparency. This last comment of yours is supposed to clarify things for Massimo, but it's almost totally opaque.

    To be blunt, a lot of the time, the way you write makes you seem like a crackpot, which I suspect you're not.

    - Talk to me like I'm stupid, not like I'm already inside your mind;
    - Choose your words very carefully so that they reflect common usage (I think you might be using 'logic' to describe probabilistic inference when it's usually used for deductive logic?);
    - Above all, use specific and well-explained illustrative examples. For example, maybe you could show (and number) all the steps involved in how "anticipatory logical processes" lead to moral judgments about a particular moral issue, say animal welfare or capital punishment.

  36. Dr. Pigliucci,

    Thanks once again for the resources and recommendations. I'll be looking into that book shortly (do you know if one can get it on iBooks?) and soaking up the Standford article in the meanwhile.

    Having thus far read your RS post from 2005 and part of the encyclopedia article, I have to say that, in spite of them being informative, I'm left with more questions - which I *suppose* is a good thing. :s But I'll do more reading before I bother you with my queries.

    Thanks again!

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  38. Massimo said: As Sandel's book elegantly shows, there can be reasonable disagreement over what some of those ends might be, as well as reasonable disagreement on priorities among contrasting ends.

    I did some follow-up reading on-line about Sandel, after reading his book and watching the related lecture series on PBS, and that introduced me to communitarianism.

    Massimo, I'm curious to know if you're familiar with this school and, if so, if you have an opinion on it (either here or, even better, in a new post). After all, it seems an interesting critique of liberal theory (including the egalitarian variety, often represented by Rawls) and seems to underpin Sandel's approach to the subject of justice. But it also seems like it could lead to moral relativism.

  39. jcm,

    as the Stanford entry makes clear, Sandel (and the others mentioned there) don't actually label themselves as communitarians, it's what their critics say of them. My take having read the book is that Sandel's critique of Rawls et al. stems from his virtue ethics (neo-Aristotelian) approach, for which I have much sympathy. However, I also sympathize a lot with Rawls, and I have currently not reconciled that tension. Working on it...

  40. Yeah, I saw that. But, labels aside, I recall Sandel's having much to say about the influence of community or society in shaping morality & ethics. I recall one of his examples from the Jim Crow South, although (since you bring up Aristotle) the example of slavery in ancient Greece also seems on point. That's not to suggest that I believe our (liberal, eqalitarian, and/or modern/European/Anglo-American) ethics is necessarily irreconcilable with ancient (or even neo-Aristotelean) virtue ethics. But the surface tension (and thereby the threat of moral relativism) does seem quite real.

  41. Right, as I said, there is indeed a tension. But I really don't think it leads to relativism, as both Rawlsians and virtue ethicists reject relativism.

  42. 'First, "foundational" projects seem to me to be doomed, not just in ethics, but in science and even in logic and math' - Massimo

    I haven't been reading Harris' project as a foundational one, but rather, as a pragmatic one. Something like: much the way we should assume causation so we can get on with the business of science, we should assume well-being in order to get on with the business of morality. Whether well-being is the best assumption or whether natural science can assist once that assumption has been made, are another matter. Have I just been reading Harris completely wrong?

  43. I think it depends on the nature of that tension. If their reasons for rejecting moral relativism contradict one another, then wouldn't that undermine at least one of them?

    Of course, it's possible that how an individual responds in the Rawlsian "original position" is as culturally variant and contingent (or nearly so) as how one defines virtue and vice. In other words, however compatibly the two schools agree in their rejection of moral relativism, they might both fail to refute it for similar reasons.

  44. jcm, neither Rawlsianism nor virtue ethics are about rejecting relativism. The latter is an issue for metaethics. So no tension between two views of ethics can reasonably be construed as evidence for relativism.

    James, no Harris' project isn't foundational, I was responding to Michael's point.

  45. Massimo, speaking of tension, first you say "both Rawlsians and virtue ethicists reject relativism" and then you say "neither Rawlsianism nor virtue ethics are about rejecting relativism." Perhaps the resolution hinges on what you mean by "about."

    Also, I'm not sure that I agree that rejecting moral relativism is all about meta-ethics, given its descriptive and normative manifestations.

  46. James, I don't think there is any tension in what I wrote. I meant that of course Rawlsians and virtue ethicists reject relativism, so do deontologist and consequentialists. Indeed, anyone who is not a relativist rejects relativism. But these individual ethical schools are not metaethical, obviously, and I do think that the rejection of relativism requires a metaethical discourse. I could be wrong.

  47. Sorry, meant "jmc" not "James." Where's my martini?

  48. OK, I think I get it; viz. that Rawlsian theories of justice and virtue ethics are normative topics, whereas moral relativism (MR) is a meta-ethical topic. Is that right? If so, then no argument there (although I believe that Rawls did try to explicitly tie his normative theory to a meta-ethical theory, which he called "political constructivism").

    I'll just add that, even if actual Rawlsians and virtue ethicists say that they reject MR (thereby, according to your categorical claim above, stepping out of the normative arena and into the meta-ethical one), it's not at all clear to me that they do so logically.

    This is what I was trying to get at in my comment above, where I alluded to 'how an individual responds in the Rawlsian "original position" [might be] as culturally variant and contingent (or nearly so) as how one defines virtue and vice.' While it's an empirical question how factual or counter-factual that statement is, it nonetheless seems to cast some doubt on the idea that these normative theories are necessarily incompatible with MR, doesn't it?

  49. It depends on how you think about ethics. It isn't supposed to be a referendum across cultures, it's supposed to be about universalizable (i.e., not necessarily universal) principles.

  50. Massimo, my point is that, whatever these normative theories are "supposed to be" (e.g. according to their original authorial intent), I fail to see how they logically contradict moral relativism.

    What's more, it seems a bit hallow to declare any principle that would, in fact, fail to pass a cross-cultural referendum "universalizable." Perhaps it would be more honest simply to pose the question: Wouldn't it be nice if we lived in a world where such-and-such-a-principle were universally accepted? Naturally, some will agree and others will disagree.

    If we're lucky, a majority opinion will form - one which won't be too hard on the minority.

  51. jmc, again specific ethical theories cannot contradict relativism because they are not metaethical, but they do assume that relativism is wrong.

    As for universilabilitty, I disagree. For instance, I can coherentky say that slavery is wrong even though some cultures snags in it.

  52. I agree that you can say that "slavery is wrong" coherently (e.g. as an expression of your opinion re: what a virtuous vs. a vicious character would stand for), but then Aristotle apparently did not share that opinion, which might reasonably lead one to believe that your opinion on the matter has less to do with virtue ethics per se and more to do with what's acceptable in the here-and-now (or within the social circles that you and I frequent).

    Mind you, I'm not claiming that MR is necessarily true. But, when you insert that these normative theories "assume that relativism is wrong", I think: inasmuch as that's true, they may be hitching their wagons to a meta-ethical position on which they do not logically depend.

  53. Moral relativism is, at least in part, the belief that there are no universal moral truths. By definition, any belief which claims to be universal will not partake in moral relativism. That includes Rawls and Sandel, and Kant (from whom Rawls traces his moral picture).

    Consider as well that a referendum isn't a valid test of whether a universal claim actually is what it purports to be - we can remind ourselves that a majority once thought the world was flat. Besides, if you did do a referendum, you would find that the vast majority of people believe that there are universal moral truths. Regardless, the claim that there ARE universal truths is different than the claim that people BELIEVE there are universal truths or that people AGREE with regard to the content of those beliefs. The former is the kind of claim a philosopher would make (Rawls, Sandel, et al.); the later claims are the sort a sociologist might try to demonstrate.

    (this is just a fleshing out of what Massimo said above)

  54. jmc, that's why nobody today is an Aristotelian, there are only neo-Aristotelians. Aristotle's principles were more universal than his specific beliefs. He believed that other groups, or women, were inferior and therefore could not participate in the polis. He was simply wrong about a matter of fact.

  55. James, thanks for the added flesh. You make some good points.

    Sure, Rawls, Sandel et al. might sound less like philosophers if they didn't claim knowledge of universal moral truths. But is it not possible to offer useful tools for thinking about morality without making that (rather grandiose) claim?

  56. Massimo, I share your puzzlement at Blackford's favourable remarks about the book, when his arguments eviscerate the core of Harris's position. But I think you've misrepresented the degree to which Blackford agrees with your criticism.

    Your review is almost entirely concerned with Harris's use of the word "science". But Blackford, though not entirely approving of the usage, says it "seem fair enough to me". Hardly a significant criticism, and very far from being the implicit "accusation" of "scientism" that you claim.

    I think that Blackford would agree with me in saying that your review largely misses the point. The main problem is Harris's metaethics, not his use of the word "science". If Harris had replaced the word "science" with "rational thinking" throughout his book, almost all of your review would be rendered redundant. Yet virtually all the significant metaethical problems of the book would remain, and you barely mentioned these.

    Moreover, some of Blackford's most significant criticisms of Harris's metaethical position could equally well be aimed at yours, and I hardly think you would agree with him on those. In particular, he wrote:
    >> Sometimes 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. <<

    The position that Blackford criticises here is much the same one that you expressed some time ago, when you wrote this:
    >> To be as clear as possible, then, I define as moral an action that increases human welfare and/or flourishing... <<

    The one point on which Blackford says he agrees with you is this:
    >> However, I do agree with Pigliucci that Harris has conspicuously failed to derive "ought" from "is" in the way that he sometimes seems to think he can do. <<

    But, as far as I can see, your review didn't actually say this (though I don't doubt you agree with it).

  57. Richard,

    fair points. But I actually see Harris' scientism driving the whole enterprise, just like it drives much of what the New Atheists say. So for me Harris' misguided metaethics stems directly from his science-based arrogance.

    But of course you are right that I would disagree with some of Blackford's own views on morality and metaethics.

  58. Thanks for that reply, Massimo. I didn't expect us to find that much agreement!

    While I'm here, can I raise another point about your review. You wrote:

    >> Lastly, as an obvious corollary of our moral realism, both Harris and I think that moral relativism is a silly notion, and that it is in fact downright pernicious in its effects on individuals and society. <<

    To be picky, this isn't an obvious corollary, since an idea can be wrong or misguided without being silly. I think moral realism is wrong and misguided, but I don't think it's silly.

    More important, you seem to be taking "moral relativism" to be the exhaustive complement of "moral realism". That seems to be a common usage (and Harris's) but I think most philosophers use "moral relativism" in a much narrower sense, which doesn't include such forms of moral anti-realism as error theory, non-cognitivism and subjectivism. (To complicate matters further, the SEP says that there are moral realist versions of moral relativism.)

    The SEP defines moral relativism as follows: "Metaethical Moral Relativism (MMR). The truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons."

    I'm a supporter of error theory. I reject moral realism, but I would also firmly reject the label "moral relativism". I say that moral statements are necessarily untrue, not that their truth is relative to anything.

    To avoid any confusion, I recommend you use the term "moral anti-realism" (or "moral skepticism" or "moral nihilism") unless you mean "moral relativism" in the narrow sense.

    Might I politely suggest that as a skeptic you should be more willing to consider an idea which strikes you as "silly", especially when so many philosophers accept it. I'm sure that evolution, relativity and even atheism once seemed silly. Personally, I must say that moral anti-realism never seemed silly to me. Before I thought about the subject I was an unthinking moral realist, but as soon as I started thinking about it, moral realism became untenable for me.

  59. Richard, again, point well taken. I do NOT include anti-realism within moral relativism. The latter, however, does strike me as somewhat silly. That said, I am going to host a Philosophy Now dinner in Manhattan in March on moral relativism, with my CUNY colleague Jesse Prinz as a guest. He is a relativist, maybe he'll convince me that the position isn't silly, just wrong... ;-)


  60. Massimo,

    I spoke with Sam about your recent responses on Tuesday night after the debate he did with Hitchens in CA, and I thought his remarks were worthy of sharing, to say the least.

    After mentioning your name the conversation went something like as follows:

    Sam: Oh, that guy? Yeah he pops up in my inbox sometimes. I don't really take him seriously. Russel Blackford, however, does a much better job, and I've replied to him recently.

    Me: Yeah, I've read it all, I follow it pretty closely. Really, what I wanted to ask was why you feel academic moral philosophy is "boring"?

    Sam: I've responded to this in a footnote in my book.

    At this point he grabbed his book from a nearby fan and flipped to the footnote, although he didn't manage to enlighten me as to what it said. I have only listened to The Moral Landscape on audio book so I wasn't aware of this footnote (and I'm still not because I haven't read it yet).

    After this he managed to restate the fact that he "didn't take you seriously" and the conversation ended.

    Now, I've followed Harris for a long time and generally agree with most of his past work, but this response definitely left a sour taste in my mouth. Apparently my question wasn't worth even a serious two minutes. He promptly went back to talking about religion - which is far more easy to bash of course - leaving me "hanging".

    I'm assuming you feel this footnote isn't satisfactory? *sarcasm here*

    I have plenty of opinions about this topic myself being a student of philosophy, but I'll leave that for another time. Thought you might enjoy my lovely experience!

  61. John, thanks for sharing this. Well, I can't say my ego is crushed by not being taken seriously by Harris. Though I'd like to point out that I at least took him seriously enough to read the entire darn book.

    Please, at your first opportunity do check that footnote. It says: "“Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy ... I am convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics,’ ‘deontology,’ ... directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.”

    In other words, he doesn't "deal" with it, it dismisses the whole of moral philosophy in one fell swoop for the simple reason that he finds it boring. Talk about anti-intellectualism.

  62. He does read that in the audio book, which means he avoided my question entirely then. What I really wanted to hear was if he thought it was all worth shelving or if any of it was valuable, and if so what exactly. He didn't allow me to get that far however.

  63. Given that the book was for the general public, not philosophers, I wouldn't necessarily expect Harris to explicitly address the alternative metaethical views and arguments. But I would expect him to have considered them carefully enough to have understood them. If he'd done so he might have avoided some of his rookie errors. At the very least, the lack of consensus among philoposophers should have alerted him to the fact that this is a tricky subject requiring extremely careful thought. But I suspect Harris took the multitude of views as a sign that philosophers were making the subject unneccessarily complicated, and he decided he could do better by just cutting the Gordian knot. I would agree with Massimo that this looks like arrogance. It's one thing to be arrogant and right. But to be arrogant and wrong is not a pretty combination.

  64. "It depends on how you think about ethics. It isn't supposed to be a referendum across cultures, it's supposed to be about universalizable (i.e., not necessarily universal) principles."

    universalizable - Now there is an interesting word. Does it mean that a system of thought that you could compel everyone to think and obey or perhaps a system of thought that you could convince everyone to think and obey? Because I am thinking that since people like to think well of themselves you will have a rather difficult time convincing those who profit from slavery that it is wrong at which point we would arrive at a situation where Massimo (and many other certainly) say it is wrong and the slavers say it isn't. Which seems to be a conflict of opinion rather than objective fact. I also suspect that were fossil fuels suddenly to become rare that slavery (and justifications for it) would enjoy a resurgence in popularity. Certainly you could argue about it's efficiency or lack thereof and economic viability, but those are really different arguments.
    Also I wonder how broad a definition of slavery you are using. When I was 18 years old I registered with the Selective Service so that if the people in power decided I could then be found and compelled to fight against my will under threat of punishment. In other words I would essentially have become a slave. Do you think that is wrong as well?

    science-based arrogance. The arrogance of science and its proponents are entirely justified. Science gets results. Science gives you options you never would have enjoyed without it. Unless you huddle around a fire every night you are warm and sheltered because of science and technology. Unless you catch, clean and cook your food over that aforementioned fire you are fed because of science and technology. If you have ever had an operation, or take any medicine you owe some of your health to science and technology. You have indoor plumbing and electricity because of science and technology. The cornucopia of science and technology are overflowing. You move, eat and communicate people all over the planet with its bounty. And if you should decide to eschew them you have the option to go live naked in the forest. What exactly has philosophy done for those of us who don't get paid to do it lately? Using the benefits of science and technology to decry the arrogance of science and technology is just supersaturated with irony.

    As for truth the gold standard of science is the reproducible, double blind peer reviewed experiments. Certainly they are not perfect, but nothing people do is. However they are the best approximation of truth that we have whereas according to the logo above in philosophy 'truth springs from argument among friends'. Even aside from the fact that this is an unsupported argument from authority, and what you are likely to get from such interactions is consensus rather than truth it is brimming with silliness. For example, what pray tell springs from argument between one friend and somebody who is just an acquaintance? What springs from an argument between enemies? Falsehood? Since friends have been arguing for tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of years I think it perfectly fair to ask just where or what is all this truth that these arguments are supposed to be producing?

  65. Thameron, I really wished you got off this anti- philosophy obsession of yours, it's bad for your mental health. As for the arrogance of science, I happen to believe that arrogance is *never* justified, even if one is right, it's a bad character trait. Lastly, slavery: people have produced good ethical arguments for why slavery is immoral (it violates individual rights to self determination, it exploits people without fair compensation, it debases their humanity, etc.). If someone disagrees there are several possibilities: they may have not understood the examples, or they may be psychopaths, or they may belong to a society that hasn't much developed ethically. The mere fact that someone disagrees with a notion doesn't make that notion a simple matter of taste.

  66. Who is Richard Wein and does Harris take him seriously? And if not why not?

  67. @Thameron:
    >Using the benefits of science and technology to decry the arrogance of science and technology is just supersaturated with irony.

    That is true, and if anybody had "decried the arrogance of science and technology" (as opposed to the subtly but importantly different calling A scientist arrogant), we would have something to talk about.

    But there is a parallel hypocritical and ironic abuse, which is to complain that philosophy hasn't built you a better refrigerator recently, while you enjoy the political, moral and intellectual zeitgeist made possible by 3000 years of philosophical (and scientific) argument chipping away at tradition and authority.

    In case it wasn't obvious (apparently it isn't): you do NOT live in a modern democracy under rule of law with recourse to social safety nets, publicly accessible education and medicine, intellectual freedom and the right to deploy your genitals in the consensual manner of your choosing

    because somebody did a confounded DOUBLE BLIND STUDY!!!

  68. Thameron to Massimo: universalizable - Now there is an interesting word. Does it mean that a system of thought that you could compel everyone to think and obey or perhaps a system of thought that you could convince everyone to think and obey?

    According to the meta-ethical view universal prescriptivism (UP), it means "whoever makes a moral judgment is committed to the same judgment in any situation where the same relevant facts obtain."

    That said, the question of whether or not a moral judgment (e.g. "slavery is wrong") will, in fact, compel or convince "everyone to think and obey" strikes me as a largely non-ethical question (as in: Now how do we sell the idea?) - a good question for marketers or political advisors, perhaps, but less so for a moral philosopher.

    As a side note, UP is anti-realist (or non-cognitivist) in the sense that it rejects the claim that ethical statements are either true or false. However, whether or not a particular moral agent would agree to commit to a judgment, were she in a particular position, seems a valid question with a potential for a true or false answer.

  69. @ianpollock

    >> But there is a parallel hypocritical and ironic abuse, which is to complain that philosophy hasn't built you a better refrigerator recently, while you enjoy the political, moral and intellectual zeitgeist made possible by 3000 years of philosophical (and scientific) argument chipping away at tradition and authority. <<

    I think there's an important difference. Science has improved the world through giving true explanations (or at least approximations to the truth). To the extent that philosophers have improved the world, it hasn't been through true explanations but through a kind of political persuasion. For example, propounding "the rights of man" may well have been useful in producing a society that is more conducive to most people's well-being, but it hasn't established anything true because (in my moral anti-realist view) no such rights exist.

    I'm not saying, by the way, that philosophers have never discovered the truth (or an approximation to it). But good philosophy doesn't usually achieve a consensus. And in any case I don't think it's of much practical value. For example, I say that good metaethical philosophy points to moral anti-realism, but I don't see moral anti-realism as having much practical benefit. It may even be harmful.

    I think about philosophy because I find it interesting, not because such thought will be useful. That said, one area in which analytical philosophy could eventually have a practical pay-off is AI development. Perhaps also in fundamental physics (pace Stephen Hawking).

  70. @jeremybee

    >> Who is Richard Wein and does Harris take him seriously? And if not why not? <<

    Perhaps I'm being dense, but I can't work out whether that's a dig at me or at Harris. ;-)

  71. Richard, of course the contributions of philosophy are of a different kind than those of science. So are those of music, literary criticism, logic, mathematics, and so on. The thing that has really gotten on my nerves lately - and I say this as someone who has been a practicing scientist for more than two decades - is why so many people think that science and its methods are the golden standard of all human activities.

  72. ...why so many people think that science and its methods are the golden standard of all human activities

    Perhaps you meant something like "...why so many people within the skeptical community that I frequent..."

    In other words, I'm not so sure that your observation would obtain for the general population; i.e. even outside of creationist and politically conservative circles, where all kinds of woo are in wide circulation. But I would certainly agree that there is a lot more to critical thinking than a scientific education.

    In my own life, I feel that I owe at least as much credit to history, literary/textual criticism, and philosophy as I do to the natural sciences. Each of these disciplines served me with nails to hammer into the coffin of my religious dogmatism, which overtook me during my early adulthood. Art & music played likely roles, as well, but those were already big parts of my life before I became very religious, so they were clearly insufficient guards. (Indeed, I simply took up a greater interest in religious art & music during that latter period.)

  73. jcm, that is correct, I meant the RS readership, not the world at large. The funny thing about my public writing is that I find myself defending science with the broader public, at the same time that I feel the need to restrain the scientistic attitudes of the skeptic community. With the result that sometimes it really feels like I simply manage to displease everyone. Oh well.

  74. Massimo, I hope that my own (occasionally critical) comments don't come across as signs of displeasure. Your blog is one of my favorites.

  75. jcm, trust me, the typical tenor of comments on this site is much better than in many other places. In fact, I'm thinking of writing a column about the venom I apparently elicited over at eSkeptic with the review of Harris' book...

  76. Since you've censored my last two comments, I see no public harm in offering my opinion privately as to the remark that:
    >sometimes it really feels like I simply manage to displease everyone<
    Perhaps it's your egalitarian management of simplicity that's the real culprit here.

  77. A few of my thoughts from reading Sam Harris The Moral Landscape. At the outset he seems to make a simple category mistake. I always thought science was about explaining and predicting phenomena based upon theories and facts. If he is trying to redefine science, he should say so at the outset. Sure there are ethical ways to do science, good and bad science, and science itself has an implicit value at the very least of trying to obtain an objective picture of the world as possible, but science has not to my knowledge been about determining what is or is not ethical. As these reviews pointed out, apparently Harris has a basic contempt for philosophy in general, apparently thinking there are only two choices available – science and religion. He seems to be obsessed with all things related to Islamic extremism – but more generally radiates the sense that if we don’t come up with this scientific morality soon we won’t be able to effectively complain about burkas or female genital mutilation.

    But what I also found interesting was the rather typological or essentialist vision held by Sam Harris of what the good life is. It could be read as a bourgeois version of the ubermensch, a mini me version of Sam Harris himself, or vaguely like a less wealthy version of Bill Gates. Like medieval theologians he has a hard time coming up with what human flourishing might look like, but he can very clearly point out what hellish conditions and states of mind might consist of.

    Am I missing something, it seemed to me that not only did he not make his case of a science based morality, but he didn’t even try to make his case. We got vague hints about how fMRI brain scans might help us determine the relative well being of people based on their brain states. It seems to me that if Harris is going to come up with a new science of morality, he should at least try to provide a skeletal key to what this scientific scheme is supposed to look like. For example, when Stephen Wolfram developed “A New Kind of Science,” he at least gave us an approximately 1200 page tome with lots of equations and examples to look at to at least try to figure out what he was talking about. If he is going to solve a problem that has eluded scientists and philosophers for thousands of years, do we deserve any less.

    I don’t understand why this book hasn’t received more critical scrutiny, could there be friendship biases at work here?

  78. jeremybee, I only rejected one of your comments, because it wasn't really making any point and it was insulting toward another commenter. If you care to rephrase your point I will gladly publish it.

    As for your accusation that my problem resides in my egalitarian management of simplicity, I haven't the foggiest about what you mean.

  79. Massimo, I've re-read some of your reviews and they have in common what seems to be a simplicity of tone, content and effort. If the book purports to take a new slant on some shared problem, you seem to almost take it personally that the writer didn't ask you first before he put it out there. Because then if he had you wouldn't have the duty now to correct his mistakes. Which would then appear to be the only things you look for.
    But I've started reading Harris' book as well, and I'm astonished at the differences between what I've already found and what you say you haven't.
    That you've taken the simple way out on more than one occasion was part of what I meant, and I don't think I'm the first to mean that.
    Was that an accusation my part? Perhaps. There was also a reference there to the one book you've written differently several times.
    Which on pain of censorship is all I care to say for publication.

  80. Jeremy, you are of course entitled to your opinions. What you are describing is simply the tone of any negative review, ever read the New Yorker? What you call simplicity in my view is clarity, or at least an attempt at it. Let's not forget that we are talking about non technical writings. If you'd like to see me in a more complex mode just check one of my technical papers or books.

  81. I find it disappointing that Harris dismisses moral philosophy because he finds it boring. That doesn't seem to me to be a rational or intellectual way of acting.

  82. @zemiron
    Harris only said that in Massimo's imagination. I had a different dream as to what he coulda woulda said about the exuberance of Isms in the moral philosophy dominion.
    Where all of the devoted subjects congregate at the critical thinking symposium and pull out their little book of ISMS to see what dogmatic category the idea or suggestion on the table might fit into, and if it's not in their particular dogmatic tract set, find ways to reject it out of hand. A "don't even think about it" moment will have been shared by all, before the mob disperses and goes about their business none the wiser.

  83. Jeremy, Harris says that in a note right at the beginnig of the book. Have you actually read it?

  84. Yes, I have it right here on my Kindle and he didn't write that he finds moral philosophy boring.
    That's your spin on what he actually wrote, which I invite you to quote here and compare that to your published version.

  85. Jeremy, either you have the wrong book or you are reading English differently from me. In the first footnote to chapter 1, Harris says: “Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy … I am convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics,’ ‘deontology,’ … directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.” I challenge you to construe this as anything other than saying that he can't be bothered engaging moral philosophy because he finds it boring.

  86. Massimo, Harris did that "construing" himself in the part of his footnote that you've left out. Here's the entire passage:

    "Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. There are two reasons why I haven't done this: First, while I have read a fair amount of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of the mind. Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like "metaethics," "deontology," "noncognitivism," "antirealism," "emotivism," etc., directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.
    My goal . . . in writing this book is to start a conversation that a wider audience can engage with and find helpful. Few things would make this goal harder to achieve than for me to speak and write like an academic philosopher. Of course, some discussion of philosophy will be unavoidable, but my approach is to generally make an end run around many of the views and conceptual distinctions that make academic discussions of human values so inaccessible. While this is guaranteed to annoy a few people, the professional philosophers I've consulted seem to understand and support what I am doing."

    Now you can interpret that last section several ways, but to say that the public finds these matters of discussion inaccessible is not to say that if they could access and assess them, they'd necessarily be bored. The subject matter would be one thing, the discussions might be quite another.
    What's boring, and it seems Harris has agreed, is the categorical delineation of the ideation that passes for an understanding of the subject matter.

  87. @jeremybee

    Massimo isn't the only one that is saying this about Harris. I don't know how that line can be interpreted in any other way. Please enlighten us how is should be properly interpreted.

  88. Jeremy, thanks for posting the whole thing. Now, how does that change the discussion, or contradict what I wrote about him? Harris says that the ethical philosophy literature is boring and refuses to engage because some unnamed philosophers said it was okay for him to do so. Arguing that philosophy is inherently boring for the public flies against the facts. Many popular philosophy books sell very well, for instance Sandel's on Justice. And surely science can be boring as well, but that's no excuse for not writing about it. Indeed, that's whe we see if someone is a good writer or not: can you explain something difficult in terms understandable for the public? Clearly Harris didn't even try because he didn't care.

  89. Harris says in effect that he didn't write a book about philosophy because for one it's not his specialty, and thus he felt it more instructive to write a book about the application of the science that was his specialty to the understanding of our natures and inherent propensities for modes of societal behaviors; to thereby aid us in doing these things more successfully by an understanding on a more scientific basis of what most likely motivates us.

    But what he calls reasons you persist in calling excuses.
    You've tried here to restrict his stated purposes to those only in that footnote and that's simply another spin on the whole of his intentions that's patently unfair. (According to some sets of principles of equality and justice, in any case.)

  90. James, at this point you are climbing on mirrors. I never restricted the scope of his book to a footnote, I published a detailed review of it. And it is simply intellectually dishonest of Harris to entirely ignore a huge field directly pertinent to the object of his book just because he doesn't feel like it.

  91. I guess if you spin those mirrors enough I could be doubled up with James. And scope could be singled down to purpose.

  92. Jeremy: Harris DID write a book ABOUT philosophy, though he clearly (and willfully) didn''t write a book OF philosophy, especially not good philosophy.

    I have to admit I haven't read his book, not even the audio version I have, because I find Harris maddening. He says things that SEEM patently ridiculous, but upon closer reading end up being obvious or empty.

  93. @BubbaRich,
    You are of course entitled to your opinions. Although I'm not sure why, if you've chosen not to read the book they're supposedly based on.

  94. Sorry, just asking. Did my previous comment get lost in cyberlimbo?

  95. Piero, well, I didn't see anything recently from you before this, so you may want to resubmit your comment.

  96. Sandel's "Justice" - you were right...........but now I've got more questions.........


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