Is My Harris Prize Slipping Away?

Oh dear!
Both the number of people who share my view (and arguably express it better than me), and my inability to quickly convince everyone else, in the long discussion thread on this post at Ophelia Benson’s blog makes me fear that Russell Blackford too might miss the uniquely devastating brilliance of my demolition of Sam Harris’ thesis (for which the most successful argument as judged by Blackford will earn $2000 – and $20000 more if Harris himself concedes the point)


Much of the discussion[1] on Ophelia’s post revolves around a post by Richard Carrier which criticizes Harris’ argument but purports to prove the same thesis.

Carrier claims to have given a much better argument than Harris in a book published a couple of years earlier, but the quality of his blog post[2] does not convince me that I would get any more from his book than I already said I think I would from Harris’

The main point at issue is that Carrier considers himself to have established that “What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances is an empirical fact that science can discover.”

And my main objection to this (and to Harris’ thesis) is that since there are clearly different (and possibly incompatible) kinds of “satisfaction” it is not in any way apparent that science can discover one parameter which combines them in such a way that one can always say that one situation or behavioural strategy is more satisfactory than another.

[1] The discussion of Carrier was initiated when one ‘brianpansky’ recommended it and then suggested that one who disagreed with it just didn’t “get it”.

‘sawells’ then responded with

please don’t assume that people who don’t _agree_ with Carrier’s argument on morality “don’t get it”. There are cogent arguments against several of his supposedly unassailable premises. I gave up arguing with him on his threads because I felt he was missing the obvious, he clearly thought the same in reverse, there was no point banging on about it. As a moral philosopher I think he’s an excellent historian.

Just to recap briefly the issues, his argument depends on six heads:

1. Moral truth must be based on the truth.
–True in the sense that moral truth should not be false, but this doesn’t establish that moral truth must depend on any non-moral truth, nor does it establish that there is any such thing as moral truth. Flogwarbling sneegfluffles must flogwarble; so what?

2. The moral is that which you ought to do above all else.
–Entirely meaningless because of the “ought to do … in order to get what?” question. It assumes that there _is_ an “ought to do”; this is not a fact in evidence. It also sits poorly with the following head 3, in that it doesn’t specify the “in order to” part; it’s clearly not what you ought to do in order to survive at all costs, or in order to be popular… the moral is what you ought to do in order to be moral. Whoop-de-do.

3. All imperatives (all ‘ought’ statements) are hypothetical imperatives.
–Absolutely. This is why I am what is apparently called a “moral nihilist” (horrible term). I think all moral claims are ultimately preferences and we should own that.

4. All human decisions are made in the hopes of being as satisfied with one’s life as one can be in the circumstances they find themselves in.
–Laughable, it sounds just like the economic strategy of saying that everyone maximises their utility and then post-hoc defining their utility as whatever was maximised by whatever they did… among other problems, this head implies that people are unitary rational decision-making entities, whereas in fact we should be aware that we each typically have multiple potentially decision-making systems in play at once in our minds. People frequently do things that they immediately regret. Also I don’t believe it properly captures the factor of reducing one’s current satisfaction in the uncertain hope of increasing it in the future.

5. What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances is an empirical fact that science can discover.
–Possibly true but not necessarily; probably irrelevant in any case, because moral conflicts arise when two different human beings have incompatible wants or needs. Being certain about what they each want/need for Satisfaction Maximisation, if that exists, will not help make moral decisions if they can’t both have what they want/need. Usually at this point Richard starts appealing to game theory. I’m dubious that that’s a morality.

6. There are many fundamentals of our biology, neurology, psychology, and environment that are the same for all human beings.
–Also true but likely irrelevant for the same reason. If we all need food but there’s not enough to get us all through the winter, knowing exactly what we all need is not going to solve the moral problem of who eats whom.

I responded in support of this with

What @sawells said! esp#4
The idea that our various drives are somehow combinable into an overall concept of “well-being” is made without any serious support and is opposed by masses of evidence. That’s part of what said I long ago contra Harris but I won’t feel slighted if sawells gets the prize instead of me.

Discussion ranged over whether Carrier’s “satisfaction” is in any way different from Harris’ “well-being” and over Carrier’s acknowledgement of some possible “Value Pluralism” in reply to one of the comments on his blog. But he does not (in that comment) *mention* the important possibility of different base values/desires etc within one person’s brain.

To be fair though, on further reading in a follow-up post that brianpansky linked to, I did see that in response to Babinski’s rebuttal of Harris, Carrier does claim that “I formally address the question of competing interests (e.g. competing imperatives, as would derive from competing spheres of concern) in TEC, pp. 425-26 n. 33.” So perhaps he does. But I haven’t seen it and (as explained below) I doubt that he can really have done it in a way that saves his point#5 in the unqualified form that it is actually stated.

The problem with having *multiple* things to measure is that, although when they “line up” there will be no difficulty in deciding what will make you most satisfied, when they conflict, there may be no particularly sanctioned rule for adding them together into one. This *may* not preclude some form of moral progress through science, but I strongly suspect that any such will have to be through something more complicated than just “maximizing” (as that implies having reduced the everything relevant down to a single number).

Now one might argue that whenever we make an action our brain must have used some combination of the available inputs to make a selection and fire the appropriate action neuron, but that ultimately happens at a subconscious level and I have not seen any good reason proposed either for the choice to be more than essentially random (depending perhaps on blood sugar level or other morally irrelevant factors) or for there to be a conscious equivalent. In fact I have often had the uncomfortable experience of mixed satisfaction and regret with no stable sense in my mind of either one of them clearly dominating or cancelling out the other, so on the basis of that “scientific” observation I think I can say for sure that human “satisfaction” is not always reducible to a single number.

I should also note that sawells pointed out another way in which Carrier’s #5 is wrong:

A second way is a basic problem of physics – there may be no such fact, and if there is, it may not be discoverable. Consider the following three points.
(i) argument from chaotic dynamics: what will maximise your satisfaction if you’re going to live for a hundred years is clearly not the same as what will maximise your satisfaction given that you’ll die tomorrow. But nobody can possibly know, even in principle, if they’re going to be struck by lightning tomorrow, because that sort of event is governed by dynamics that are quite impossible to simulate or predict to the required level of accuracy.
(ii) argument from relativistic causality: you will in the future be causally influenced by events which currently lie outside your last light cone, and about which it is therefore impossible even in principle for you to have any knowledge. This point, incidentally, means that perfect prediction is impssible even for a fully deterministic system, because you cannot possibly know its future inputs.
(iii) argument from quantum indeterminacy: quantum events appear to be genuinely random and not predictable even in principle. Yet there are causal chains directly linking quantum events (e.g. the decay of a radioactive atom) to your life or death (because that radioactive decay damaged your p51 gene and now you have cancer).

[2] re Carrier’s first three premises (though these are *not* what I consider to be the rock that sinks his argument):

1. Moral truth must be based on the truth.
If a conclusion is based, at all, on false propositions, that conclusion cannot be claimed to be true (it may or may not be true; but if you are deriving it from false propositions, you cannot claim it is true). This holds in morality as much as in any other domain of knowledge. So “how do you know [x] is fact and not merely your opinion?” is answered when x follows with logical necessity (hence without fallacy) from only true propositions. If any of the propositions you are deriving x from are false, x is not a true moral fact (or not known to be). And you cannot legitimately claim otherwise (lest you become a pseudoscientific crank).

What on earth is this supposed to mean? In what sense is truth ever “based on” anything?Arguments, in order to be sound, need to be based on true premises. But it is certainly possible to reach true conclusions via unsound arguments – either by invalid reasoning or by valid reasoning from false premises. Does Carrier mean that nothing can be true unless there is a sound argument for it? There is a very natural sense in which that is known to be false in mathematics, so I don’t see why it should be any more true in a less well-defined discipline.And for that matter I can claim that 2+2=5!
Is Carrier’s “you cannot claim it is true” supposed to mean “you cannot correctly claim to have a valid proof that it is true”? If so then why didn’t he say that? I wouldn’t quibble like this with anyone else, but there’s no need to cut any slack for the guy who says (of Sam Harris in fact, but it doesn’t really matter whom) “I’ve tried, and given up, getting him to be more philosophically rigorous about what he is arguing, and I suspect he himself doesn’t quite know what he means or what the underlying logical structure of it is”

2. The moral is that which you ought to do above all else.
This is the most reductive possible definition of moral fact. It is a tautology (as all definitions are), but …

No it is not a tautology – at least not in the logical or the repetitive senses (though I might admit it as one in the rhetorical sense of “a self-reinforcing pretense of significant truth”). And indeed most definitions are not tautologies in any sense. But it is a circular definition if, as Carrier seems to be doing, you define a “higher” imperative as one which is more “moral” than other ones (such as those for survival or leaving surviving offspring for example).

3. All imperatives (all ‘ought’ statements) are hypothetical imperatives.

Now, along with the paragraphs that follow it, this may be a tautology in every sense of the word! Logically, every statement P is equivalent to a hypothetical of the form “If T then P” where T is known to be true. But even if the term “hypothetical imperative” is taken to be defined by the example form “if you desire x, then you ought to do y”, then it’s still a tautology as it basically just reduces to “if you want to be good then you ought to do good” where a good act is defined as an act that confers the quality of goodness on the actor.

P.S. I would be inclined to work harder at saving these with a more “charitable” interpretation if either I saw any hope of saving his #5 or I saw any evidence of similar charity in Carrier’s own handling of the arguments of others.

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