Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ought We to Dismiss the Is/Ought Problem?

Now muddling my way through Sam Harris's new book, The Moral Landscape, I find myself wondering why its argument necessarily has anything to do with the is/ought problem that was first articulated by David Hume. Here's Anthony Appiah:

Harris means to deny a thought often ascribed to David Hume, according to which there is a clear conceptual distinction between facts and values. Facts are susceptible of rational investigation; values, supposedly, not. But according to Harris, values, too, can be uncovered by science — the right values being ones that promote well-being. “Just as it is possible for individuals and groups to be wrong about how best to maintain their physical health,” he writes, “it is possible for them to be wrong about how to maximize their personal and social well-being.”
Curiously, not only critics but Harris himself is convinced he cannot sustain the argument without bridging the is/ought gap. Philosopher Simon Blackburn broached it in last week's Science Friday broadcast, and Harris's forceful reply reflects the stance he takes over and over in the book:
[Blackburn]: It's the gap between what is the case - that is, the nature of the environment we live in, the world we inhabit - and the policies that we ought to pursue in dealing with it, and in accommodating ourselves to it and to each other.
[Host]: Let's talk a bit about that. Sam Harris, you write in your book: Science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want and therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible.
[Sam Harris]: Yeah. Yeah, well, I think this gap between is and ought, or between facts and values, is imaginary. I think it's a myth. And we need not take it seriously. [emphasis mine]
Odd. Harris's argument need not convert the is/ought gap to unserious myth; it needs only to adopt a moral postulate -- a value judgment, if you must, one issued in approximately the same spirit as "we hold these truths to be self-evident." He does exactly this, but rather than leaning on its self-evidence alone, he issues various arguments for it, starting with these:
Let us begin with the fact of consciousness: I think we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What is the alternative? I invite you to try to think of a source of value that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings… whatever this alternative is, it cannot affect the experience of any creature… Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is – it would seem, by definition – the least interesting thing in the universe. ... All other notions of value will bear some relationship to the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. So my claim that science is the basis of human values and morality is not an arbitrary starting point. ... My further claim is that the concept of "well-being" captures all that we can intelligibly value. And "morality" – whatever people's associates with this term happen to be – really relates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the well-being of conscious creatures.
In his review, Appiah suggests truth as an alternate starting point for value, but that (it seems to me) begs the question of how truth would count without any conscious creature to notice it. True and false have nothing to do with, and no discernible effect on, a lifeless galaxy featuring the comings and goings of stars.

I suspect I am missing something, but it strikes me that Harris is beginning with a more or less defensible value judgment -- that the well-being of conscious creatures is the highest moral priority. Thereon he proceeds to the rather banal claim that the methods of science can, in principle if not always in practice, tell us whether any given congeries of thoughts and actions will get closer to or more distant from achieving that well-being.

Notwithstanding some of the criticism of the book, Harris is not claiming to have all of these scientifically-derived insights and facts in hand, ready for spoon-feeding to the reader.

Whatever the book's qualities or shortcomings, its entanglement in the is/ought problem seems a non-issue. 


Serah B. said...

I saw Harris, Blackburn and a host of other totally awesome minds (Peter Singer, Steven Pinker, Lawrence Krauss et al) discuss science and morality at a panel in Phoenix last weekend. I think the is/ought problem was referred to by the moderator as the "ultimate philosophical smack down." It almost turned into a brawl between philosophers (who said science can't bridge the is/ought gap) and scientists (who said philosophy is dead). It got kind of intense! I haven't sorted it all out for myself, but I don't think we're bound to use deductive reasoning for every moral choice we make in day-to-day life, so even if you can't get from is to ought with deductive reasoning, you get there with the inductive reasoning we use to get through our day.

Dale said...

Serah, quite so. This is not a genuine problem for the way people actually move through the world. We seamlessly weave together facts and values all the time, and for the most part, it doesn't create any problems, contradictions, nonsense conclusions, etc.

(I do say that Hume has spotted a genuine philosophical problem here. I'm simply denying that it necessarily matters. This is true of many high-flying conclusions in philosophy and beyond.)

The difficulty, if there is to be any, comes in when people make unexamined assumptions about value commitments, only then to realize that not everyone is on board with the commitments, and/or that the commitments need to be adjusted to accommodate a new insight, and/or that the commitments lead, if taken to the Nth degree, to unexpectedly bad places. Etc.

Which is to say: not all axioms of value are equal. The axiom "a god is monitoring the minute-to-minute thoughts and deeds of every human being" is not on par with "the experience of flesh and blood conscious beings matters." Under one scheme, we observe that the pain of chopping off an arm is a bad thing, whereas administering a treatment that restores eyesight is a good thing. We see that pulling a broken and rotten tooth is, on net, a good thing, and that doing the same with the benefit of anesthetics is even better.

Under the other scheme, we look in an old book and learn, for example, that we are required to shun menstruating women, or kill people with rocks if they have the wrong sexual inclinations.

Harris seems weirdly disinclined to simply state that he's making a value commitment (though not always, curiously). I say the thing to do is to make a good, defensible, reasonable value commitment, and be prepared to tweak it over time if that becomes necessary as we learn more.

Ichthus said...

The is-ought fallacy is a real fallacy, and is why knowledge is justified, true belief. In order to be knowledge, a belief must both be justified by the evidence, and true by correspondence. If we consider justified a belief that only corresponds, we commit the is-ought fallacy. If we consider a belief true merely due to evidence in favor of it, we commit the ought-is fallacy. Related to moral truth--if a justified (answering the question of Ethics--"How and why should we be or behave with the Other and self?") moral standard doesn't describe anything in reality, to consider it "true" commits the ought-is fallacy. If we take something from reality and call it moral truth, neglecting to consider whether it is justified (answering the question of Ethics), we commit the is-ought fallacy. In order for there to be moral truth, it must both correspond to (a) real being, and it must be justified (answering the question of Ethics). Its correspondence is not its justification (is=/=ought), and its justification is not its correspondence (ought=/=is).