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Why Sam Harris is wrong on ethics as science

Massimo Pigliucci

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz'd to nd, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or afrmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. -David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, 1739

Hume vs. Harris: the great is/ought debate and the difference between science and philosophy

Harris project

- Religion has nothing to do with morality - Moral relativism is dangerous nonsense - Moral questions are factual and therefore admit of non-arbitrary answers - Science provides the only meaningful answers to moral questions

What this discussion is NOT about

Can evolutionary biology tell us something about how a moral sense originated? Can cognitive science tell us something about how our moral sense operates?

Why that sort of science couldnt tell us anything about the truth of moral judgments

exact calculations, shared with language

estimations, shared with spatial tasks and analogies

But is Fermats theorem true?

Two important caveats (tucked in the endnotes)

Note 2 to Intro: I do not intend to make a hard distinction between science and other intellectual contexts in which we discuss facts. Oh? That means The Moral Landscape is NOT about How Science Can Determine Human Values

Note 1 to Chapter 1: Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy ... [but] I am convinced that every appearance of terms like metaethics, deontology, noncognitivism, antirealism, emotivism, etc. directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe. Really? Too bad thats the discussion that justies the entire project! (And Im sure other people would nd terms like parietal lobe, cerebellum, fMRI scan and norepinephrine equally boring...)

Harris Project: 1-Religion has nothing to do with morality

The point which I should rst wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.

Harris Project: 2-Moral relativism is dangerous nonsense

* Relativism doesnt explain moral conict (we dont disagree about abortion as we do about chocolate vs vanilla) * Relativism doesnt give us any guidance for how to live (leads to nihilism) * If every moral judgment is relative, relativism is not, well, relative

Simon Blackburn

Peter Singer

Harris Project: 3-Moral questions are factual Yes, they are, but factual may mean several things... (9) = 3 If X then Y X Therefore Y A bachelor is an umarried man

Harris Project: 4-Science can answer moral questions

Warning, morally reprehensible picture coming up (if you are not a relativist)

Why is genital mutilation of young girls morally wrong?

Harris: because it causes pain, which reduces human well being, and we can measure this via brain scans (neurobiology rules!)

Okay, but: a) Surely we dont need science to tell us that! b) This assumes we think that inicting pain on children is wrong. c) Which may be because we think it is good to increase happiness and decrease pain (utilitarianism). d) Or because we think human beings have a right not to be harmed (deontology). e) Or because we think it is not conducive to anyones eudaimonia to harm children (virtue ethics).

An example of how philosophy approaches moral questions

Meat Boy: Why are you a vegetarian? Veggie Girl: Are you in favor of bestiality? < MB is surprised, but thinks about it > MB: Its yucky. VG: Thats not a good reason, you are indulging in emotivism. < MB is a bit embarrassed, thinks some more... >
Thanks to JG for this scenario

Meat Boy: Well, bestiality is forcing something on the animal without consent. Veggie Girl: I see. And dont you think that eating an animal is in the same ball park? < MB is now really embarrassed > Options available to Meat Boy at this point: a) Admit that vegetarianism is as moral as refraining from bestiality (or more). b) Admit that bestiality is moral (so he can go on and eat meat). c) Look for a better argument that discriminates between vegetarianism and bestiality.

What then?
Irrational discourse Religion Relativism Emotivism Math Rational discourse

Logic Philosophy Science