Whither Morality?

There are no such things as objective good and evil.  Human morality is a behavioral artifact of natural selection.  What’s that?  If there’s no objective morality then anything is permitted?  If there’s no objective morality then Hitler wasn’t really evil?  If there’s no objective morality then it’s just as true that female genital mutilation is “good” as that it is “evil?”  If there’s no objective morality, then “moral progress” is a fantasy?  To all this the answer is obvious.  So what?

What are you telling me?  That you don’t want to deal with reality?  That the consequences of the truth are so bad that the truth can’t be true?  That if the truth were generally known, civilization would collapse into a chaos of moral relativism?  That if the level of virtuous indignation among learned professors of philosophy increases beyond a certain point, objective good and evil will magically pop out of the luminiferous aether like Athena from the head of Zeus?  I don’t think so.

Good and evil are purely subjective constructs.  That is the truth.  What if, overnight, the entire human population of the planet suddenly accepted that truth?  What would happen?  I’m not the pope, dear reader.  I lack the divine gift of infallibility.  All I can serve up on this blog is my opinion, and my opinion is that nothing much would change, or at least not in a hurry.  In any case, I doubt the result could be any worse than the world of absurd morality inversions and self-righteous scarecrows we live in now.

We would certainly not all become moral relativists, because it is our nature to perceive good and evil as absolute objects.  I can show you examples of highly intelligent people who have accepted the truth of the subjectivity of moral claims, and yet continue to strike pious poses with the assurance of so many saints, hurling down anathemas on anyone with the temerity to rub their moral emotions the wrong way.  No, the orgasmic pleasure of virtuous indignation is much too great for anything like moral relativism to insinuate itself among us.  I suspect that, even if we all accepted the truth, nothing much would change in our moral behavior, or at least not in a hurry.

On the other hand, some of us might begin to realize that the behavior inspired by our moral emotions hasn’t exactly been accomplishing the same thing lately as it did when those emotions evolved.  Indeed, for many of us, moral behavior is accomplishing the opposite.  Where once it promoted life, now it promotes death.  In the radically altered environment we have created for ourselves, we witness the remarkable sight of both western liberals and Moslem suicide bombers joyfully embracing their own extinction.

Assuming that care has been taken to point out to these individuals some of the facts set forth above, I certainly have no objection to their rushing to their own destruction.  If they insist that they must because Allah demands it, or the “moral progress” of mankind makes it imperative, so be it.  I would, however, ask of them the same thing that I would ask of someone who is considered doing away with themselves by jumping in front of a passenger train, or leaping off a highway overpass into rush hour traffic; be so kind as to not involve the rest of us.

And what of the residue of mankind that decides, on sober consideration of the truth about morality, that they would prefer survival to the alternative after all?  Given the damage uncritical indulgence of moral emotions has done in our recent history, I suggest it would behoove us to constrain their sphere within the narrowest possible limits.  It seems clear that we can’t do without morality in our day-to-day interactions with each other as individuals.  There is simply no viable alternative.  To serve that purpose, it should be possible to come up with a simple moral code in harmony with our emotional nature that reduces friction among us to a minimum.  As noted above, we are not moral relativists by nature.  Most of us would tend to perceive the rules of such a code as absolutes.  “Free riders” who decide to ignore the rules, because of the absence of a God to back them up, or they because they conclude the rules lack objective legitimacy, or because they decide society has no right to constrain their behavior, would be dealt with in the same way that free riders have always been dealt with in healthy societies since time immemorial.  They would be punished in a way that demonstrated both to themselves and others that there was nothing to be gained and much to lose by their defiance.

On the other hand, when it comes to making broad policy decisions on a higher level, the reasons for making them one way and not another should be carefully scrutinized.  In the end, those reasons will never amount to a distillation of pure logic.  As Hume rightly pointed out, reason must always be the slave of passion.  An emotional whim of some kind or another will always lie at the tail end of the chain of logic.  It will be important to determine exactly what that whim is, and why satisfying it will work to what most of us would consider their advantage, and not their harm or destruction.

All this is painted with a very broad brush, of course.  In the end, the result would depend on a great deal of trial and error, not to mention the inevitable decision each of us will make regarding who belongs to their ingroup and who their outgroup.  The ingroup will never, under any circumstances, include “all mankind.”  It should be chosen wisely, based, among other things, on whether ones whim is to survive or not.

Would such a world, based on a clear appreciation of the truth about morality, be better than the one we have now?  That, of course, will depend on each individual’s point of view.  I think that, for most of us, the result will be agreeable enough.  If nothing else, it should reduce to a bare minimum the number of pious peck sniffs whose constant state of offended virtuous indignation is such a nuisance for the rest of us.

The Consequences of Natural Morality

Good and Evil are not objective things.  They exist as subjective impressions, creating a powerful illusion that they are objective things.  This illusion that Good and Evil are objects independent of the conscious minds that imagine them exists for a good reason.  It “works.”  In other words, its existence has enhanced the probability that the genes responsible for its existence will survive and reproduce.  At least this was true at the time that the mental machinery we lump together under the rubric if morality evolved.  Unfortunately, it is no longer necessarily true today.  Times have changed rather drastically, making it all the more important that, when we speak of Good and Evil, we actually know what we’re talking about.

Philosophers, of course, have been “explaining” morality to the rest of us for millennia, erecting all sorts of complicated systems based on the false fundamental assumption that the illusion is real.  Now that the cat is out of the bag and the rest of us are finally showing signs of catching up with Darwin and Hume, it’s no wonder they’re feeling a little defensive.  Wouldn’t you be upset if you’d devoted a lot of time to struggling through Kant’s incredibly obscure and convoluted German prose, only to discover that his categorical imperative is based on assumptions about reality that are fundamentally flawed?

A typical reaction has been to assert that the truth can’t be the truth because they would be unhappy with it.  For example, they tell us that, if the enhanced probability that certain genes would survive is the ultimate reason for the very existence of morality, then it follows that,

•  We must all become moral relativists

•  Punishment of criminals will be unjustified if Good and Evil are mere subjective impressions, and thus ultimately matters of opinion.

•  We cannot object to being robbed if some individuals have genes that predispose them to steal.

•  We cannot object to racism, anti-Semitism, religious bigotry, etc., it they are “in our genes.”

…and so on, and so on.  It’s as if we’re forbidden to act morally without the permission of philosophers and theologians.  I’ve got news for them.  We’ll continue to act morally, continue to be moral absolutists, and continue to punish criminals.  Why?  Because Mother Nature wants it that way.  It is our nature to act morally, to perceive Good and Evil as absolutes, and to punish free riders.  If you need evidence, look at Richard Dawkins’ tweets.  He’s a New Atheist, yet at the same time the most moralistic and self-righteous of men.  If asked to provide a rational basis for his moralizations, he would go wading off into an intellectual swamp.  That hardly keeps him from moralizing.  In other words, morality works whether you can come up with a “rational” basis for the existence of Good and Evil or not.  Furthermore, morality is the only game in town for regulating our social interactions with a minimum of mayhem.  As a species, we’re much too stupid to begin analyzing all our actions rationally with respect to their potential effects on our genetic destiny.

Other than that, of course, the truth about morality is what it is whether the theologians and philosophers approve of the truth or not.  They can like it or lump it.  My personal preference would be to keep it simple, and limit its sphere to the bare necessities.  We should also understand it.  In an environment radically different than the one in which it evolved, it can easily become pathological, prompting us to do things that are self-destructive, and potentially suicidal.  It would be useful to recognize such situations as they arise.  It would also be useful to promote instant recognition of the pathologically pious among us.  Their self-righteous posing can quickly become a social irritant.  In such cases, it can’t hurt to point out that they lack any logical basis for applying their subjective versions of Good and Evil to the rest of us.

Anthropocentric “Facts” and the Illusion of Value

In my last post I noted Jonathan Haidt’s classification of facts as “anthropocentric” and “non-anthropocentric” in his refutation of Sam Harris’ scientific morality.  The terms were coined by philosopher David Wiggins, and Haidt defines them as follows:

Facts of chemistry, physics, and other hard sciences are non-anthropocentric. They do not depend on any aspect of human nature. If intelligent aliens had come to visit the earth long before humans appeared, they would have found that the earth is the third planet from the sun, and that copper is a better conductor of electricity than is aluminum.

Anthropocentric facts, in contrast, are only true given the kinds of creatures that we happen to be, due to the twists and turns of our evolutionary history. Examples include the facts that  sugar is sweeter than ascorbic acid, and that extended solitary confinement is painful. Those are not just my personal opinions; they are facts about sugar  and isolation.

As I pointed out earlier, the value of such terms is dubious.  When applied to morality, they are downright misleading, because they rationalize the elevation of moral judgments to the status of “facts.”

Consider the examples given of the sweetness of sugar and the pain of solitary confinement.  “Sweet” describes a sensation experienced through one of the senses, namely, taste.  Senses are diagnostic tools that evolved because they enabled the life forms that possessed them to perceive facts about the environment, the knowledge of which made it more likely that they would survive and reproduce.  If we taste something as sweet, or feel it as hard, or see it as green, those impressions tell us something about the real, physical nature of the objects we are sensing.  All these subjective impressions are referred to in the jargon of philosophy as “qualia.”  Philosophers argue endlessly over the nature of their existence, whether they can exist in the context of materialism, their implications for  the mind-body problem, etc., etc.  Sophisticated Christians even use them to bamboozle themselves and amaze their friends with fancy proofs of the existence of God.  That’s neither here nor there as far as this blog post is concerned.  What matters is that all of them exist because, at some point in the past, their existence enhanced the probability that our ancestors would survive and reproduce, and that all of them are subjective impressions in the minds of individuals.

To the extent that they are “facts,” then, these qualia exist only as such subjective impressions.  Physical objects can give rise to them (in the case of sense perceptions) or not (in the case of subjective impressions of good, evil, rights, values, etc.), and they can communicate information about the qualities of physical objects.  However, they are not physical aspects of the objects in themselves.  For that reason, it can be very misleading to label them as facts, even if one tosses in the qualifying adjective “anthropocentric.”  They are only “facts” if one bears constantly in mind exactly what kind of “facts” they are.

Haidt’s essay is a case in point.  Having introduced the term “anthropocentric,” he immediately begins using it as a rationalization for converting subjective to objective.  In the end, he drops the adjective altogether, and suddenly, we no longer find ourselves talking about subjective impressions, but simply about “facts.”  He begins his perambulation into the swamp by claiming that his own, subjective impressions must necessarily be the same as everyone elses:

Those are not just my personal opinions; they are facts about sugar  and isolation.

In fact, they are his personal opinions.  I firmly believe Mother Nature has been parsimonious in this affair, and hasn’t gone to the trouble of having everyone experience “sweet” and “pain” differently, but I have no way of proving it.  As the philosopher Daniel Dennett pointed out, qualia are private.  In other words, there is no way for me to describe to a blind person precisely what I mean when I say describe something as “red.”  Haidt continues with such remarkable assertions as,

Because of our shared evolutionary history, it will be an anthropocentric fact everywhere that sugar is sweeter than ascorbic acid. Yet many other anthropocentric facts are emergent –– they emerge only when people interact, in a particular cultural or historical era. Prices are a good example: It is a fact that gold is more valuable than silver. That is not just my opinion.

I’m sure Haidt could argue very convincingly that gold really is more valuable than silver.  The last time I checked, the price of gold was 60 times that of silver, give or take.  However, that price is the distillation of subjective value judgments by many individuals.  It has nothing to do with the objective nature of gold or silver, nor does it make sense to insist that gold “really” is more valuable than silver unless we are careful to add that we are speaking of subjective impressions as they exist at a given time and place.  It is also a “fact” that when people read a statement like, “It is a fact that gold is more valuable than silver,” they will take it to mean just what it says, without calling to mind any hair-splitting distinctions between “anthropocentric” and “non-anthropocentric.”

This willy-nilly conflating of objective and subjective continues when Haidt finally gets around to discussing the theme of his essay; morality.  Suddenly, all the adjectives somehow melt off the “emergent culture-specific anthropocentric truths” Haidt was talking about in earlier paragraphs, and we find them standing there naked as simple “truths.”  For example,

I believe that moral truths are of this sort. This still makes it possible to critique practices in other cultures. All cuisines are not equal – French cuisine was better than 1950s American, and Julia Child offered Americans a way to improve. Similarly, a culture that oppresses categories of people against their will is worse than one that does not. Massive human rights violations, in which large numbers of victims are crying out for foreign assistance, can justify a military response  from other nations. But the fact that humanity has reached that point is an emergent fact about modernity and our changing moral standards.

Here, Haidt has ended by bamboozling himself.  In the end, the difference between him and Harris isn’t one of substance, but of a mere sterile quibble over which “facts” can be described as “scientific” and which not.  Other than Haidt’s qualification that the “facts” only apply at a given place and time, after “emerging,” the result is exactly the same.  The subjective strings drop away, and impressions in the minds of individuals suddenly and magically acquire normative powers over other individuals.  Some cultures really are “worse” than others.  Some military responses really are “just.”  In the last sentence of Haidt’s quote, we find that the impressions that some cultures are “bad” and some military interventions are “just” can be transmogrified into “facts” merely by virtue of a shift in popular opinion.  Thanks to this magic elixir, the impressions “good” and “evil” spring out of their cocoons, and emerge as full-fledged Things-in-Themselves.  From good and evil, they are transformed into “Good” and “Evil,” complete with the autonomous power to bludgeon anyone who doesn’t happen to be quite on the same page with Haidt’s or Harris’ version of modernity.

Haidt is really too smart for this.  It’s hard for me to imagine how he could come up with stuff like this after writing a book like The Righteous Mind, unless he’s finally succumbed to the moralistic bullying that Harris invariably resorts to when anyone points out the obvious absurdity of his “scientific morality.”  Perhaps it finally became unbearable to Haidt to have to put up with accusations that he is “evil” because he doesn’t believe that female genital mutilation, for example, is objectively “bad.”  In the end, he cooked up this stew of philosophical leftovers so he, too, could declare, in the odor of sanctity, and without qualification, that, “Female genital mutilation is bad.”

As it happens, the subjective impression that FGM is bad exists in my consciousness, too.  I hope many others will agree with me, and that together we can end FGM once and for all.  I am no “moral relativist.”  Unlike Haidt and Harris, I have gone beyond the writing of essays and have taken up a weapon to fight for these subjective impressions of mine in the past.  I found these impressions, these whims, if you will, entirely adequate to justify my actions to myself.  It is simply worth it to me to put my life on the line to end certain things that I don’t want to live with.  However, it was never necessary for me to stoop to the lazy conceit that I was fighting for the Good-in-Itself.  Indeed, I am firmly convinced there is no such thing.  And while Haidt may be disappointed to hear it, there is also no such thing as an emergent, culture-specific, anthropocentric Good-in-Itself.





Four Lame Responses to Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape Challenge

Four of the editors at David Sloan Wilson’s This View of Life website have submitted essays in response to Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape Challenge.  That challenge was to refute the central premise of Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape, which is as follows:

Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that  fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

All of the four editors (Jiro Tanaka, Michael Price, Mark Sloan, and Jonathan Haidt) are apparently aware that moral emotions exist because they evolved.  At least one of them, Haidt, has read, understood, and quotes at length in his own work David Hume’s masterful demonstration that it is impossible to use reason to establish moral truths in his A Treatise of Human Nature.  It is a testimony to the powerful force of the illusions that the process of evolution has planted in our minds, causing us to interpret our emotional responses as actual objects or things that exist independently of our minds, that none of the four could supply a simple, straightforward response to the challenge.  In fact, to a greater or lesser extent, all four of them, with the possible exception of Haidt, actually agreed with Harris, at least by implication, that the illusions are real.

It boggles the mind, really.  Presumably all four of these gentlemen are aware that moral emotions are just that – moral emotions.  The ultimate cause of those emotions, and the only reason that they exist at all, is evolution by natural selection.  One can pontificate about the wild and spectacular differences in the actual manner in which those emotions are expressed in different human cultures all day long, but the ultimate cause remains the same.  Evolved traits do not have a purpose.  Purpose implies a creator, and presumably all four reject that hypothesis.  Moral emotions, like every other evolved trait, exist because their presence increased the probability that the genes responsible for the existence of those traits would survive and reproduce.  Moral emotions, and the associated illusions of the existence of Good and Evil as things in themselves, exist as subjective impressions in the minds of individuals.  There is no way in which they can acquire the power to transcend those individual minds, and acquire some kind of a mysterious “scientific” normative power over other individuals.  There is no way that they can magically acquire a purpose.

So much is really obvious without the benefit of Darwin’s theories.  Suppose there were no human beings in the universe.  Would morality exist?  Would one stone on some rocky planet be “Good,” and another “Evil?”  Obviously, the answer is no.  Now supply that universe with one human individual with the usual suite of moral emotions.  Would the presence of those emotions in the mind of one individual suddenly change everything?  Would objective Good and Evil suddenly ripple out from the mind of that one individual at the speed of light, acquiring some kind of normative power independent of the mind of the individual throughout the entire universe?  No.  Suppose we supplied the universe with more such individuals.  Is there any conceivable way in which the moral emotions of the first individual could jump out of his skull, acquire an independent existence of their own, and acquire the power to prescribe to the newcomers what they, too, are bound to agree are Good and Evil?  No.

Still, the illusions commonly trump reality, even in the most carefully reasoned attempts to approach the subject of morality.  Like Kafka’s Castle, it beckons like a real thing, yet remains out of reach.  Mother Nature didn’t mess around.  As if taunting their authors, she left her stamp on all four essays.  In the first, entitled Necessary but not Sufficient, Jiro Tanaka, immediately concedes that the term well-being, as used by Harris, “carries moral weight.”  Really?  What on earth does he mean by that?  How can something have “moral weight” unless there is some objective standard by which to measure that weight?  Reading further in the essay, we find that Tanaka doesn’t really disagree with Harris at all about the possibility of a “scientific morality.”  He’s simply quibbling about how to get there.  For example, he writes,

Harris’s “multiple peaks” argument sidesteps the fact that a concern for well-being, while a necessary condition for a scientific morality, is still far from sufficient.

Despite the presence of irrationality in academe, there are also rational scholars who are conversant with modern science. How is “science” in the broad sense any different from the best moral philosophy and political science as we have it already?

In other words, there actually is a “scientific morality,” which enables us, among other things, to establish a Good by which we can answer such questions as what is the “best” moral philosophy.  There’s no fundamental disagreement here at all; just a minor squabble over details.  Chalk up one for Harris.

In his How Science Can Help Us Be More Reasonable About Morality, Price has apparently concluded, against all reason, that Harris is unaware of the evolutionary wellsprings of morality.  The man has a degree in philosophy from Stanford and a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and yet Price presumes to lecture him like a child about the characteristics of our moral emotions.  For example, he writes,

Humans are adapted to strive for goals that would have promoted their individual fitness (genetic survival and reproduction) in the evolutionary past.

and, therefore,

If people use moral rules to better pursue their shared interests, then it becomes clear why Harris’ proposal – that reason-based morality ought to promote the well-being of conscious creatures – will not generally apply. People judge the reasonableness of a moral rule not by how much it benefits conscious beings in general, or even other people in general, but primarily by how much they perceive the rule to promote the interests they share with their group.

A promising start, and yet, somehow, Price cannot cut to the chase and pin down the reasons why Harris’ attempts to redirect morality “will not generally apply.”  Instead, his cart runs into the same rut as Tanaka’s.  He, too, ends up actually agreeing with Harris that a particular version of the Good is real; apparently the one currently favored in the ivory towers of academia.  His only problem with Sam is that he hasn’t chosen the optimum path to approach it.  After carefully explaining to the infant Sam the basic characteristics of evolved human moral emotions, he cobbles together his own approach to the summum bonum of “well-being.”  Choosing as his example the problem of income inequality, he writes,

The wealthier classes tend to argue that inequality is morally justified (e.g., “It’s the result of rewarding people who work harder than others”), whereas the more deprived classes tend to say it’s immoral (e.g., “It results from unequal opportunities”).

Then, in what must come as an epiphany to Sam, he reveals that a couple of academics named Wilkinson and Pickett have triumphantly solved the problem!  All that’s necessary to get the lion to lie down with the lamb is to explain to them that they will be much better off forming a bigger “group” whose “well-being” will best be served by (you guessed it), adopting the Good favored in academia.  He writes,

Wilkinson and Pickett attempt to transcend this conflict by focusing on inequality’s impact on the larger group to which both coalitions belong: They present evidence that countries with higher inequality score worse on many different indicators of national performance. Their analysis has not been without its critics, but regardless, they have the right idea about how to be reasonable about morality: They attempt to assess the moral value of a group’s practice by investigating how successfully that practice has been in promoting the group members’ shared interests. Their analysis indicates how an appeal to a higher-level coalitional interest (the national interest) could help transcend lower-level coalitional conflicts between socioeconomic classes.

One can just imagine Harris (and Karl Marx) slapping their foreheads at this point and exclaiming, “Gee, why didn’t I think of that!”   All we need to do to get those greedy rich people to joyfully redistribute all their wealth is to dump a batch of “studies” in their lap about the correlation between high income inequality and national performance!  Then the scales will fall from their eyes and they will become truly Good, or, as Price puts it, they will finally grasp the “moral value” of coughing up their wealth.  In other words, Price doesn’t dispute the existence of “moral value.”  He just has his own ideas about how to approach it.  Chalk up number two for Harris.

On to the third essay.  The first few paragraphs of Mark Sloan’s essay, Mainstream science of morality contradicts Sam Harris’ central claim, are even more promising than Price’s.  He writes,

…the largest component of what people consider morality is a natural phenomenon with the universal function of increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups; however, morality lacks any fixed, ultimate goal. Indeed, morality as a natural phenomenon has been used by groups to obtain a range of goals such as reproductive fitness and increased material goods – as well as increased well-being.

This contradicts Sam Harris’ claim that, as a matter of science, the goal of moral behavior is fixed as well-being.

There is plentiful evidence in science for the claim that morality, as a natural phenomenon, has no fixed ultimate goal. No equivalent evidence exists in science for Harris’ claim: Harris cannot coherently claim that the goal of a natural phenomenon “ought” to be something different than it “is” without agreeing that the hybrid product is no longer a purely natural phenomenon. This moves his contention beyond the domain of science.

And then, Sloan wanders off into the same swamp as Price and Tanaka.  He is no more able than them to resist the power of the illusion.  For him, as for the other two, the Good exists.  Without even bothering to provide a basis for the claim that his version of the Good actually exists (and his version just happens to agree with the version currently favored in academia, wink, wink, nod, nod), he simply throws it out there, and sagely explains to Sam that either science is the wrong tool, or his version of science is too crude a tool, to approach it.  It’s really hard to tell which one, because at this point Sloan’s essay becomes completely incoherent.  Sloan associates his version of the Good, which is presumably floating out there in the luminiferous ether with an independent life of its own, like those of Tanaka and Price, with “altruistic cooperation strategy”:

What can the science of morality tell us about right and wrong moral norms? Using morality as a natural phenomenon as its criterion, science can tell us if the moral norm actually is an altruistic cooperation strategy and therefore moral in this sense.

and if something is “moral in this sense,” it turns out to be really Good!  Sloan doesn’t leave us hanging on this point.  He spells it out for us:

Consider the norms: “Homosexuality is evil,” and “women must be subservient to men.” These both have the necessary “violators deserve punishment” part and altruistic parts of all altruistic cooperation strategies as described above. However, are they really altruistic cooperation strategies? They appear to be if you look no further than the in-groups that may altruistically cooperate to impose them and benefit. But how do they measure up regarding altruistic cooperation between the in-group and the out-group? They reduce altruistic cooperation because the out-group generally cannot equally punish the in-group; consequently, the out-group is exploited. So these two norms (like all norms allowing exploitation) are immoral by this universal moral standard.

Indeed, it turns out that Sloan is in possession of some kind of an absolute standard for deciding what is “shameful,” as he continues,

Could acknowledgement of the two norms’ shameful origins in exploitation and that they are immoral by this universal moral standard change the mind of a religious person? I expect a religious person would be more likely to reinterpret Holy Scriptures – motivated by these science of morality insights, rather than being motivated by simply being told “Science shows the ultimate goal of morality is well-being.” Let’s do all we can to make the science of morality useful to religious people; some need a lot of help.

And so, this “universal moral standard” certainly exists.  Like the other two, Sloan is just quibbling about the best way to realize it.  Chalk up number three for Harris.

It is with a heavy heart that I turn to Haidt.  I have admired his books and papers.  He really seems to “get it.”  At least he doesn’t fall into the same slough as the others by actually agreeing with Harris about the existence of the Good, and merely quibbling about how to get there.  Haidt is someone who, by all appearances, should be able to debunk Harris’ “scientific morality” in a few sentences, and yet, somehow, he can’t seem to cut to the chase.  Instead, he comes down with a severe case of philosophical flatulence before our eyes.

In his essay, Why I think Sam Harris is wrong about morality, Haidt comes up with two objections to Harris’ claim.  The first is that “well-being” can’t be measured in “an objective way that is similar to measurements in the natural sciences.”  This is really just arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  All Harris has to do is marshal his gazillions of counter-arguments that well-being can, in fact, be measured scientifically, and we are right back where we started from.  Haidt introduces his next objection by trotting out two completely unnecessary bits of philosophical jargon, succeeding thereby in throwing a smoke screen over the rest of the objection.  He uses one of the terms in the title of the objection itself: The claim that moral facts are non-anthropocentric facts.  To avoid confusing the reader any more than necessary, I will let Haidt speak for himself:

The philosopher David Wiggins (1987) distinguishes between “Non-anthropocentric” and “anthropocentric” facts. (This is similar to Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities).  Facts of chemistry, physics, and other hard sciences are non-anthropocentric. They do not depend on any aspect of human nature. If intelligent aliens had come to visit the earth long before humans appeared, they would have found that the earth is the third planet from the sun, and that copper is a better conductor of electricity than is aluminum.

Anthropocentric facts, in contrast, are only true given the kinds of creatures that we happen to be, due to the twists and turns of our evolutionary history. Examples include the facts that  sugar is sweeter than ascorbic acid, and that extended solitary confinement is painful. Those are not just my personal opinions; they are facts about sugar  and isolation.

Harris is asserting that correct moral claims are non-anthropocentric facts. He is asserting that if intelligent aliens came to Earth today, they could in principle judge the moral worth of human societies, as long as they learned about human brains and could take accurate measures of well-being.

But moral facts are anthropocentric facts. If intelligent aliens came to visit, we can have no confidence that they would reach the same moral conclusions that Harris reaches, based on his utilitarian ethos.

All I can say to Haidt is, “Lose the ‘anthropocentric’ and ‘non-anthropocentric,’ already!”  It’s just not that complicated!  The illusion of the Good increased the probability that our genes would survive and reproduce.  It exists only for that reason.  There is no way that it can somehow shed its evolutionary strings and become a real thing.  The answer Harris is looking for, but will certainly fail to see, is really just as simple as that.

Apparently Harris received hundreds of essays in response to his challenge.  Forgive me if I don’t read any more of them.

An Unofficial Entry to Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape Challenge

Sam Harris is soliciting essays for what he calls the Moral Landscape Challenge.  In his words,

It has been nearly three years since The Moral Landscape was first published in English, and in that time it has been attacked by readers and nonreaders alike. Many seem to have judged from the resulting cacophony that the book’s central thesis was easily refuted. However, I have yet to encounter a substantial criticism that I feel was not adequately answered in the book itself (and in subsequent talks).  So I would like to issue a public challenge. Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in under 1,000 words. (You must address the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.) The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $2,000. If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $20,000, and I will publicly recant my view.

The “central argument of the book” is defined as follows:

Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that  fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

I doubt my power to compose an answer of sufficient caliber to blast right through Sam’s confirmation bias and convince him that his whole “scientific morality” project has been a waste of time, or even to get him to shake loose a paltry $2000 for the lesser prize, so I will limit myself to posting one here on my blog.  Here it is:

1.  Evolution by natural selection is the ultimate reason for the existence of morality.

2.  Morality evolved because it promoted the survival and procreation of the genetic material carried by individuals.

3.  Since evolution by natural selection is a natural process, as an evolved trait, morality cannot have a purpose or goal in general, nor the specific purpose or goal of promoting “human flourishing” in particular.

4.  Therefore, the notion that morality has some goal, and a goal (such as human flourishing) that has nothing to do with the reasons that resulted in the evolution of morality to begin with, is false.


It’s a testimony to the power of the illusion of the Good that Mother Nature planted in our brains that so many seemingly sane people who pass for scientists have bamboozled themselves into believing there can be such a thing as “scientific morality.”  The old lady didn’t mess around.  Assuming she ever experimented with moral relativism to begin with, no doubt she gave it up as a bad job when she noticed that her test subjects were dying like flies.  No, we perceive the Good as an object, a thing-in-itself, and there are few things harder than recognizing the illusion for what it is.

Normally, as is the case with Sam Harris, who is forever  chasing his moral butterflies, the rationalizations we come up with are remarkably flimsy.  Others can see the little man behind the curtain perpetrating the fraud immediately, assuming he’s not doing the special effects for their illusion as well.  As I’ve mentioned before, religious believers, who have their God to fall back on, may come up with some of the most whacked out versions of the divinity imaginable, but haven’t the least problem seeing through the secular versions of the charade.  For example, while I may have pronounced the Interdict on David Bentley Hart in my last post, I must admit that, in one of his rare lucid moments, he wrote,

If we examine the premises underlying our beliefs and reasoning honestly and indefatigably enough, we will find that our deepest principles often consist in nothing more – but nothing less – than a certain way of seeing things, an original inclination of the mind toward reality from a certain perspective.  And philosophy is of little use here in helping us to sort out the valid preconceptions from the invalid, as every form of philosophical thought is itself dependent upon a set of irreducible and unprovable assumptions.  This is a sobering and uncomfortable thought, but also a very useful reminder of the limits of argument, and of the degree to which our most cherished certitudes are inseparable from our own private experiences.

which can be rendered into the vernacular as, “Your personal opinions about what’s Good are not binding on me.”  And I must also admit that, if you accept Hart’s rarified, mystical version of God as an Ansatz, and aren’t too fussy about a little metaphysical fuzziness around the edges, his “proof” for the existence of the Good-in-itself makes a lot more sense than Harris’.

Alas, I personally deem the existence of Hart’s God no more likely than the possibility that Harris’ own version of the Good can somehow manage to come flying out of his skull, grab me by the scruff of the neck, and escort me kicking and screaming into his brave new world of “human flourishing.”

Does that mean I’ve relapsed into moral relativism under the stern scowl of Mother Nature?  Heavens no!  I’m just as prone as the next person to grab a rifle, sing the Marseillaise, and sally forth to battle for my own version of the Good (indeed, I have, minus the bit about the Marseillaise).  I just don’t flatter myself that there is some objective reason that my Good must necessarily be everyone else’s Good as well.  I don’t further flatter myself that the fits of self-righteousness I occasionally suffer with the rest of our species (especially when I’m driving), and which Jonathan Haidt described so well in The Righteous Mind, can have any objective justification whatsoever.  If everyone agreed with me on that point, I think it might actually promote “human flourishing.”  At the very least, it might restrain the pathologically pious among us from their most flamboyant and ostentatious displays of virtuous indignation.  I’ve always found that sort of thing very irritating (in others, of course), and think the world would be a better place without it.