The Question of Naturalistic Ethics: Sam Harris on Science and Morality

Below Sam Harris outlines and then discusses with Richard Dawkins his argument against Hume’s erroneous (IMO) notion that we cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ – what philosopher’s call the “naturalistic fallacy” or “Hume’s Guillotine”.

Hume discusses the problem in book III, part I, section I of his book, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739):

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, 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 surprised to find, 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 affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; 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. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.[1]

Hume asks, given knowledge of the way the universe is, in what sense can we say it ought to be different? Hume calls for caution against such inferences in the absence of any explanation of how the ought-statements follow from the is-statements.

This discussion was filmed at The Sheldonian Theatre, University of Oxford on April 12, 2011 and was titled, “Who Says Science has Nothing to Say About Morality?”

6 responses to “The Question of Naturalistic Ethics: Sam Harris on Science and Morality

  1. As soon as we suggest that ethical regard is based in basic human capacities for empathy, and suggest ethical issues are concerns about the well-being and health of other sentient beings, we can see how looking at what “is” – the general ecology of matter, energy and social power – can lead to assertions about what “ought” to be changed so as to maximize the conditions of well-being for particular beings. It’s not about good or evil but about our animal empathy attached to attempts to discern that which affords well-being, or not, and minimizes suffering, or not. Ethics is a design issue for the types of affective capacities we choose to enact in the world, and what we want to do with what Harris calls the “space of possible experiences”. Its an issue of ecological sensitivity coupled to hominid social desires. Ethics is a navigation problem that science can help us with.

    • Wondering if anyone has a response to Harris re: why we should adhere to the doxa that ought cannot derive from is..?

      • Yeah d, I’d really like your take on this.

        What ‘is’ includes knowledge about how things ‘do’ – in terms of function and causal relations, which flows into issues of natural development, sustainability, autonomy operation, regulation, etc. Implicit or explicit ontographies of the situations and relations we exist with-in are the very cognitive basis for all human projects, and thus can’t help but be entangled and mangled into our sense of what we ‘ought’ to do…

        Also, I have come across Prinz’s work before and to be honest i’m not impressed. The way he juxtaposes “moral decision-making” to empathy does not even begin to address the complexity of ethical sentiments. Empathy as pure emotion almost never exits, implicated as it always is in our conceptions of self and others, and the world generally (the what is). As Prinz himself puts it, “emotions are not just narcissistic but are calibrated to the conditions of other people around us.” Of other people and of how we think of the world generally (i.e., what feels pain and what does not, what sustains health and what does not). Empathy is about ethical imagination, a manifesting image-play of animal regard, not just a base individual bonding, nor is it as Prinz puts it, “dyadic”. Where it is strong and elaborated it modifies greatly human motivations and interests – and thus projects. It is a capacity for emotionally coding our conceptual judgments. And so-called “moral reasoning” is just ad hoc logical representation and justification for empathic regard.

        Where the rubber meets the road for a consistent post-nihilist, however, is how empathy, and its manifest ethical imaginations and deliberation, acts as the pragmatic glue for personal relationships that fulfill inherent/evolved human desires, and for social solidarity (with its effectiveness for exploration and other more extensive projects). The “value” of empathy is given in its relation to adaptivity within generalizable human situations.

      • m, what would be the scientific basis for prioritizing “well-being” ? can’t say for example that my own studies of evolution or physics or chemistry or such would lead to such a move. harris seems to be taken with a kind of consequentialism which isn’t so interesting/useful philosophically to me, but i would be interested in hearing more of if you think that particular interests/values/ends are somehow prioritized by something in human-being over other aspects/interests? for myself i’m interested in how we can hack what is to get more of what we want and hopefully to be open to adjusting both what we want and how we go about it (avoid the tyranny of the means) but i don’t see any necessity to such priorities as we might now have just the contingencies of our particular lives, for me nihilism isn’t something (like some mythological death of god) that marks a loss of some old (or future for that matter) Order but the awareness of Contingency.

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