A Confutation of both Sam Harris and Richard Carrier on Science and Morality

September 5, 2013

A refutation of an argument typically exposes a false or unknowable premise, or a fallacious inference. A confutation can admit the soundness of argument, while pointing out how it fails to prove what it was intended to prove. 

Richard Carrier raises solid concerns about Sam Harris’s defense of the view that science can determine moral truth -- the genuine knowledge of objective moral truths. Carrier reconstructs Harris’s attempted argument, quoted next. I won’t be submitting a 1,000 word “refutation” to Harris’s challenge. My confutation of both Harris and Carrier takes less than 2,000 words.

Carrier’s argument:

1. Morals and values are physically dependent (without remainder) on the nature of any would-be moral agent (such that given the nature of an agent, a certain set of values will necessarily obtain, and those values will then entail a certain set of morals).

2. By its own intrinsic nature, the most overriding value any conscious agent will have is for maximizing its own well-being and reducing its own suffering. This includes not just actual present well-being and suffering, but also the risk factors for them (an agent will have an overriding interest in reducing the risk of its suffering as well as its actual suffering; and likewise in increasing the probability of its long-term well-being as well as its present well-being).

3. All of the above is constrained (and thus determined) by natural physical laws and objects (the furniture of the universe and how it behaves).

4. The nature of an agent, the desires of conscious beings, and the laws of nature are all matters of fact subjectable to empirical scientific inquiry and discovery. (Whether this has been done or not; i.e. this is a claim to what science could do, not to what science has already done.)

5. Therefore, there are scientifically objective (and empirically discernible) right and wrong answers in all questions of moral fact and value (i.e. what values people have, and what morals those values entail when placed in conjunction with the facts of the universe).

My confutation is basically this: That it can be proven that truths ‘exist’ does not necessarily, by itself, either constitute a method for specifically learning those truths, or supplying the grounds for deducing those truths so that they can be known. Hence, this argument only creates the mirage that there are real answers, but there won’t really be any actual answers. Perhaps there can be scientifically objective knowledge about morality, in the abstract. I strongly doubt that this reliance on this applied science, or any amount of science and applied science, can concretely yield what we would all regard as objectively discernible knowledge about specific moral duties (or virtues, etc.) That is to say, moral truths there may be, but moral knowledge there may never be, if we rely only upon the sciences (broadly understood) alone. 

In general, having a soundly deducible conclusion that there must be a truth to X doesn’t necessarily yield information about what specifically can be known by humans about X. Now, we must recognize how “There is a truth about X” cannot be disproven by “We can’t figure out what about X is specifically true.” Ignorance may be an excuse, but it is no counter-example. However, between the claims made by Harris and Carrier about science and applied science for application to morality, no detailed procedure or specific expectation about an actual person’s moral duty/duties in a concrete situation could ever follow. This isn’t really their fault alone. Some vague duties may be suggestible, but any specific moral duty so suggested is “radically underdetermined” by all the relevant scientific work available, even in principle. 

Carrier helpfully exposes precisely where this confutation is directed, as he expands and simplifies his preferred argument to include this needed point: 

5. What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances is an empirical fact that science can discover.

Seems so simple, yes? Yet applying this maxim involves maximizing the satisfaction for a person in “a particular set of circumstances”. There are three divergent and ineliminable senses to this phrasing.

5a. “What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances, as those circumstances are understood by that human being, is an empirical fact that science can discover.”

5b. “What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances, as those circumstances are understood by us science-minded observers, is an empirical fact that science can discover.”

5c. “What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances, as those circumstances truly are although we can’t ever know what they actually are, is an empirical fact that science can discover.”

Accepting 5a for applying moral calculations seems intuitively right, because we expect persons to grasp some connection between their understanding of their circumstances and what they morally ought to do. Suppose you instead claim, “No, it matters nothing whether a person grasps much of a connection between their circumstances and their moral duties.” This claim is unethical in the extreme. It denies a fundamental right to a person: to control their sense of moral duty. Perhaps complete autonomy shouldn’t be the ethical ideal either, nor am I endorsing the idea that all moral duties must be grounded solely in a person’s express beliefs. But extreme paternalism can’t be ethical. Some sense of autonomous control over our moral life is necessary for moral learning and ethical growth, and probably personhood in general. Denying 5a instead yields moral conformity, and also ethical tyranny. Religions may respect blind submission, but humanism shouldn’t.

Defenders of 5b see a potential compromise: determine the relevant circumstantial facts for the moral calculations, and then instruct the people about them, so they ‘understand’ the grounds for their moral duties. But this only heightens the ethical problem here: what are the “relevant circumstantial facts” for determining morality? The very essence to the destructiveness of colonialism was the way that well-intentioned scientists, using the ‘best’ knowledge of facts ‘relevant’ to human welfare, approved of vast and abrupt social changes to “primitive” peoples, but few truly ethical results were obtained, alongside many fresh evils. Today, we shake our heads at 19th century colonialism and fault their “primitive” and biased science. But do we know that we are in the best ‘scientific’ position to paternalistically decree morality for all societies today? Is just science involved, if we do this?

When scientific-minded and logical aliens arrive to inform us that our most relevant circumstantial facts have largely to do with the suffering and/or extinction of insects, amphibians, fish, and wildlife, and then give us a moment to absorb that fact before announcing how all industrial production must be cut in half across the planet immediately, are we immediately enlightened about the most morally relevant circumstantial facts? Some ardent environmentalists would say, “We knew it all along!” The rest of us wouldn’t be so easily convinced. The aliens would remind us, “We have vastly superior science, so it is hardly your place to dispute our scientific methods and conclusions.” I expect that many of us would respond, “We want to see what normative premises you inserted into your ‘purely’ scientific reasonings about what constitutes our ‘morally’ relevant circumstances.” We’d suspect the presence of a deeply buried “Is-Ought” gap, and we’d be right. The “moral” to this story is that unless we exercise some control over the inclusion of normative premises within the scientific selection of “morally relevant circumstantial facts”, we won’t learn much from our moral instructors and we will feel unethically tyrannized. Perhaps that reaction would ‘objectively’ be in the wrong; my point is that our moral knowledge isn’t guaranteed.

Humbled admirers of science will now perceive the core to this problem: the very notion of how specifically to “maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances” is far too vague to apply methodologically for concrete results. The phrase “in any particular set of circumstances” is especially vague because (1) it fails to mention how only genuinely morally relevant sets of circumstances should be used for procedural calculations about moral duties, and (2) it therefore hides the way that science, by itself, does not discern what OUGHT to be the morally relevant circumstantial “facts”. The defender of strict science can try to respond like this: “Well, I already told you about the genuine morally relevant circumstantial facts, because they are precisely the ones relevant for maximizing the satisfactions of those human beings.” Yes, you have said some things about those crucial circumstantial facts, but you are now in a vicious circle, leaving matters too vague again. What maximizes human welfare must involve those relevant circumstantial facts, and the ‘right’ circumstantial facts are just the ones relevant to maximizing human welfare! Too neat! Also, too uninformative for yielding a specific method for determining moral duties for any actual person in a real situation. 

Must we then resort to 5c? I hope not, because as worded, 5c seems paradoxical and false. Read 5c again: “What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances, as those circumstances truly are although we can’t ever know what they actually are, is an empirical fact that science can discover.” If you stubbornly want to retain some sense to 5c, you could claim that some perfected future science would discover those crucial empirical facts of the matter about our current moral circumstances, even if we won’t learn anything about all that. But this optional sense for 5c only ends up agreeing with my confutation: we can’t know enough now about our relevant circumstances now, so we can’t learn our true moral duties today. Moral truths ‘existing’ in some platonic or noumenal realm tell us nothing specific about our moral duties here and now. If you want to adore vaporous moral absolutes, consult your nearest religious authority, not an ethical humanist. Vague moralist platitudes like “Try not to steal” or “Don’t kill others” of course don’t count here either.

To summarize, there is no assignable sense to the phrase “in any particular set of circumstances” that avoids collapsing the entire procedure of applying science for determining specific moral knowledge into either unethical tyranny, hasty paternalism, fallacious “Is-Ought” leaps, tight vicious circles, utter paradoxes, or unknowable absolutes. That’s quite a list, and it looks familiar to any critic of religion’s tyranny over the spirit of humanity. If there is a genuinely ethical way to determine our concrete moral duties here and now, the procedures outlined by Harris and Carrier are not headed that way. Objective truths in no way guarantee human knowledge, or human wisdom.

Dying paradigms often burst into spectacular fireworks before expiring. I will be lectured about how the distinction between Objective Moral Truth and relative moral fallibility is the pillar holding up all that that is Good and Right about Progress and Civilization. (Which civilization, one needn’t wonder.) But I don’t frighten easily at ignorant darkness, and I don’t scare easily at false dichotomies either.

By the way, those moral platitudes mentioned just now actually supply the needed clue to climb out of this ethical darkness of our own making. After all, those platitudes represent the collective accumulated experience of innumerable real humans living real lives. In that spirit of respect for ethical wisdom, I already explained in a blog years ago what is required. As pragmatist philosopher John Dewey realized a century ago, the path forward is not to derive morality from scientific procedure, but to make moralities more procedurally experimental. Since you can’t close the “Is-Ought” gap with more factual science, you have to improve your ethical practices with more intelligence. Some of that intelligence of course includes what science can tell us now, but there’s ethical matters we can understand just as well as anything scientific, for considering the future lives that we ought to lead.


#1 ZF (Guest) on Friday September 06, 2013 at 11:15am

A few questions:

- Do you agree with Harris’ assertion that morality is concerned about the experience of conscious beings? It seems like a reasonable point. I can’t imagine any sort of morality in a universe devoid of consciousness.

- Is morality a natural, material phenomenon? Obviously a believer might say so, but I wouldn’t. I don’t accept any notion of supernaturally-delivered morality.

- Our behavior and the consequences of it are natural, material phenomena, correct?

Based on the ideas above, morality appears to me to be a natural, material phenomenon. If so, it should be, in principle, describable through science.

I’m relatively new to the is/ought problem, but my understanding is that no amount of descriptive work in the absence of an insertion of a value judgment can tell us what we ought to do. Again, I wouldn’t accept any supernatural “solution” to this problem.

The best link I can think of is mirror neurons or more generally how the experiences of one entity can influence those of another. I have my own positive experiences (pleasure, satisfaction, comfort, etc) and negative experiences (pain, disappointment, discomfort). Those experiences in others also affect me. Fictional characters can even evoke feelings in me. I feel other people’s pleasure/pain, happiness/sadness, etc.

- Does the is/ought problem apply to my own approach of positive experiences and retreat from negative ones?

#2 David Thomas Devine (Guest) on Friday September 06, 2013 at 2:23pm

As Sam Harris himself pointed out, if you replace all references to moral well being with physical well being (health), it seems that this author has refuted the idea that we can never really get to a place where people are healthy through the use of scientific principles of observation. 

(Consider: “the very notion of how specifically to “maximize the (health) of any human being in any particular set of circumstances” is far too vague to apply methodologically for concrete results”)

Further, declarations such as “We’d suspect the presence of a deeply buried “Is-Ought” gap, and we’d be right.” are asserted without evidence ... where is the ‘is-ought’ gap that the aliens are concealing from us?  (Generally speaking I have not found arguments for ‘is-ought’ to be convincing, aside from the specific idea that authors of philosophical material often make jumps without explanation, in the model of - Step 1: The way things are, Step 2: ???, Step 3: Profit!)

#3 John Shook on Saturday September 07, 2013 at 11:04am

Hi ZF, good questions. I am a naturalist so I agree that everything about how human beings do morality is natural—nothing unnatural is required for explaining how humans maintain and enact their moral beliefs. That’s just a descriptive matter, not a prescriptive matter. The question of which things people actually take to be moral is one issue, while the issue of what truly are our moral duties is quite another. Not everything we think is moral is really moral. Hence the need for more wise thinking about what we really OUGHT to be doing.

You ask whether “morality is concerned about the experience of conscious beings”? Morality is actually concerned with what conscious beings do to each other. Of course, unless there is consciousness (in some minimal sense of awareness), what you do to an unaware thing isn’t a moral problem as far as that thing is concerned.

#4 John Shook on Saturday September 07, 2013 at 11:12am

Hi David,

Sorry, my points are immune from the refutation you offer.

You write, “this author has refuted the idea that we can never really get to a place where people are healthy through the use of scientific principles of observation.” That’s just a refusal to read my final point about using science to determine useful means for achieving our decided-upon values.

Of course I’d rely on science to tell me how to live healthily to 200 years of age, if I decided to try to live to that age.  But no amount of science could tell me that I can know that I have a moral duty to live to 200 years of age. It can’t even tell me that I ought to want to live to be 200 years old. If can tell me what shall constitute “being healthy” as I grow older. But whether I ought to grow that old is not a moral value determinable by science alone.

#5 ZF (Guest) on Monday September 16, 2013 at 4:21am

Dr. Shook - Thanks for your response. Some further thoughts:

I can’t decide whether the present quandary over the is/ought problem is deep, insightful philosophy or an exercise in obtuseness.

From a practical viewpoint, i think Harris is on pretty solid footing. Is it not reasonable to treat wellbeing as axiomatic in a discussion of morality? Is there not sufficient convergence of human experience to address fundamental issues (e.g. pain) and perhaps more complex ones (e.g. dignity)?

If our sense of obligation is naturally produced, we should be able to scientifically describe the “ought” phenomenon. Does this get us anywhere? Or would we just push the problem up a level and have to consider what our oughts OUGHT TO be?

I’m still contemplating the issue of one’s own experience and motivation. Is there an is/ought problem to be found in my own desire to avoid aversive experiences and pursue pleasant ones?

#6 Philosophia (Guest) on Thursday September 19, 2013 at 5:47pm

Dr. Shook, Will you be replying to Dr. Carrier’s rebuttal of your confutation found at:

#7 steph (Guest) on Wednesday October 02, 2013 at 4:16pm

why have you disabled comments on your previous post?

#8 steph (Guest) on Thursday October 03, 2013 at 10:54pm

Humanism fosters learning, inquiry, and the critical spirit, including the ability to be self critical. In your previous post, in which you make the insensible claim that religion is the “opposite” of humanism, you have by inference equated humanism with atheism.  Your claim is both is “epically silly and ... historically indemonstrable”.

By disabling comments on your post you have contradicted the humanist spirit of critical inquiry and demonstrated that you hold your opinions with uncritical conviction preventing honest discussion. As a cultural spirit, humanism is focused on the quest for knowledge and meaning on the works of men and women rather than on the works of gods or claims of beliefs or non beliefs.  Atheism is not a sufficient description of its content. From the time of its earliest practitioners in the west, humanism has been a celebration of human achievement in all spheres of learning, art, craft, and ethics.  I think you are well aware that Joseph Hoffmann has refuted you in his response on The New Oxonian.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.