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.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:
[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]
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.