Michael Shermer’s and Sam Harris’s Muddled Views on Moral Philosophy

By | February 1, 2011

In a recent short article titled, “Can Data Determine Moral Values?” (January 2011 issue of Scientific American) Michael Shermer briefly discusses the issue of whether science can resolve questions of morality. He starts by pointing to the insistence by many philosophers dealing with ethics that fact and value are separate matters; this is often stated in terms of the “naturalistic fallacy.” Shermer writes:

“Ever since the rise of modern science, an almost impregnable wall separating it from religion, morality and human values have been raised to the heights. The “naturalistic fallacy,” sometimes rendered as the “is-ought problem”—the way something “is” does not mean that is the way it “ought” to be—has for centuries been piously parroted from its leading proponents, philosophers David Hume and G. E. Moore, as if pronouncing it closes the door to further scientific inquiry.”

Shermer then asserts that

“we should be skeptical of this divide. If morals and values should not be based on the way things are—reality—then on what should they be based? All moral values must ultimately be grounded in human nature,..”

This facile dismissal of the naturalistic fallacy is typical of writers who have a partial understanding of the problems with which ethical philosophers have long grappled. Of course, any viable ethical philosophy should take into account the way things are and the relevant aspects of human nature. But it is one thing to say this and another altogether to state that moral values are “ultimately grounded in human nature.” The latter statement is either trivial or false. It is trivial in the sense that moral values arise from moral behavior which certainly can be the subject of scientific research. But it is false in the sense that an adequate, scientific account of human nature would give us a clear map for stating what values people should uphold. Human nature results in a variety of moral behaviors and a variety of moral values. The answer to the question of the basis for moral values is that humans have based and continue to base values on a variety of things: religion, experience, reason, economics, political ideology, desires, fears, etc. Some moral values will ultimately be grounded in some aspect of human nature; but some will be grounded on something altogether distinct, such as religious or political ideology. Shermer displays his ignorance by telling us that those who make reference to the naturalistic fallacy are merely “piously parroting” it as a form of dogma. The naturalistic fallacy —- the fallacy of confusing the way things are with the way they should be — points to a genuine problem in ethical philosophy, regardless of the somewhat naïve, facile dismissal by the likes of Shermer.

Shermer then touts the recent work of Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape) as knocking down the divide between ‘is’ and ‘ought’:

“Harris’s is a first-principle argument, backed by copious empirical evidence woven through a tightly reasoned narrative. The first principle is the well-being of conscious creatures, from which we can build a science-based system of moral values by quantifying whether or not X increases or decreases well-being…”

This is risible. Shermer writes as if Harris has discovered something new and revolutionary, when in fact this “first principle” by Harris is merely another version of ethical utilitarianism, which has been around at least since the eighteenth century when the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham first developed this type of ethical philosophy. What Harris offers and impresses Shermer is nothing new. There is much to be said in favor of a system of utilitarian ethics; but this philosophy, like other similar ethical philosophies, does not resolve the issue of confusing a matter of fact (people desire pleasure) with an affirmation of value (pleasure is a moral good).

Further down his short article, Michael Shermer brings up the issue of the morality of taxes:

“Harris’s program of a science-based morality is a courageous one that I wholeheartedly endorse, but how do we resolve conflicts over such hotly contested issues as taxes?”

Supposedly, the question concerns the dispute between those who argue that taxes are a good thing and those (Libertarians?) who argue the opposite. Shermer seems to favor the side of those who oppose taxes, as we read in this remark:

“…what happens when the majority of residents … pass laws that force those in the minority …. to help pay for their programs of social wellbeing for everyone? More scientific data are unlikely to eliminate the conflict.”

Shermer quotes Harris as replying along these lines:

“To say that ‘more scientific data are unlikely to eliminate the conflict’ is simply to say that nothing will: because the only alternative is to argue without recourse to facts. I agree that we find ourselves in this situation from time to time, often on economic questions, but this says nothing about whether right answers to such questions exist.”

This shows Harris at his best, making invalid inferences. It does not follow that, because we note that more scientific data are not likely to resolve an issue, nothing will; nor does it follow that “the only alternative is to argue without recourse to facts.” Nothing prevents us from working out some resolution to an issue by reasoned argument or by diplomacy, and in the process make reference to relevant facts. Apparently Shermer does not detect this piece of muddled thinking by Mr. Harris. Instead Shermer hastens to state his agreement with Harris:

“Just because we cannot yet think of how science might resolve this or that moral conflict does not mean that the problem is an insoluble one. Science is the art of the soluble, and we should apply it where we can.”

Shermer is stroking a non-existent problem here. Philosophers who argue more scientific data cannot resolve many difficult moral issues are not claiming that such problems are insoluble. Of course, we should apply the relevant science to resolving problems where the science applies. This is pretty much a truism.

But the tough moral questions and moral dilemmas, those which involve choices and value judgments, cannot be resolved by any science, since in many cases the issue is not a factual issue, but one of values. Centuries ago David Hume pointed out the categorical difference between fact (‘is’ questions) and value (‘ought’ questions). Nothing that science and subsequent ethical philosophies have done since then have eliminated this difference.

And nothing that the sciences have done nor that modern ethical philosophies have done subsequent to Hume have shown how knowledge of the facts could resolve a large class of moral dilemmas such as those involving the morality of war, or differing notions of justice, or those conflicts arising from economic and class distinctions, and, more significantly, those cases in which there are limited benefits to be distributed among almost unlimited numbers of people needing those benefits: e.g. Who gets the organ transplant? Who gets the life-saving medical procedure when medical resources are limited? Who gets rescued first when twenty need rescue and the boat holds only five? Who, among equally qualified candidates, gets the desirable position? Add to this that often we must make moral choices without knowing whether we are really making the right choice (scientific knowledge will not help); as Sidney Hook wrote decades ago,

“every genuine experience of moral doubt and perplexity in which we ask, “What should I do?” takes place in as in a situation where good conflicts with good. If we already know what is evil the moral inquiry is over, or it never really begins.”

In other words, with many of the tough moral situations that people face the applicable knowledge (scientific or otherwise) which would guide people to making the right choice is simply not available. To argue otherwise, as Shermer and Harris do, is to indulge in something akin to wishful thinking or ‘hand waving’ — something more associated with an inferior type of philosophy than with critical thought of a scientific writer.

Science can help in some moral situations; but its applicability is of limited value in the really tough moral situations. It is true that the more we acquire knowledge about ‘human nature’ the more we know and can predict about human behavior and human thinking. And it is true that this will be helpful in dealing with some ethical issues. The more we know the better we can negotiate our way through life. But this rather obvious point should not obscure the actual problems of the moral sphere.

To argue, as Shermer does, that the naturalistic fallacy is merely a pious pronouncement of philosophers ignorant of scientific solutions betrays a fundamental ignorance of the issues and problems with which ethical philosophers have long dealt. And to say, as Shermer and Harris do, that our inability to find a scientific solution to a tough moral problem leaves us without any possibility of resolving the issue seems to me a bit of sophistry. It betrays a fundamental ignorance of moral dilemmas and assumes falsely that the only possible solution to a moral problem is a scientific one.

4 thoughts on “Michael Shermer’s and Sam Harris’s Muddled Views on Moral Philosophy

  1. Sheldon

    It's naive to think that Harris, or anyone else, would say "our inability to find a scientific solution to a tough moral problem leaves us without any possibility of resolving the issue." Slow down when you do your reading/research – if you even do that.

    1. philosophylnge

      Yes, it is surprising that anyone would say this (inability to find scientific solution = inablility to find any solution). But this is exactly what Shermer quotes Harris as saying; and apparently agrees with him. Having read carefully the work of Harris in the past (The End of Faith), I am not much surprised that Mr. Sam Harris would make such a groundless claim.

  2. Digest

    Nicely said! I don't think they have a genuine agenda of making progress in these issues. They just want to say "Look how wonderful science is!". They will just ignore this kind of criticism and write another book.


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