On science and universal values

Sam Harris gives a Ted Talk consoling “people like us” with the good news that science will provide universal standards of right and wrong, good and evil. Thank you, Science! All those pesky relativist and fanatical religious type can now be put in their place.



His argument is pernicious because it is intuitively appealing (in part through the abuse of the beleaguered relativist straw-man) and evocative in its promise of overcoming moral meaninglessness found at the heart of the modern condition with the exciting and hard to understand magic of neuroscience. But he misses the problem, much less the answer by miles – for a less low-rent version of this line of thinking I would suggest figures like Martha Nussbaum and Alasdair MacIntyre, not only do they confront the problem more directly, they don’t wave their hands over a brain scan and promise us that “science” will provide an objective and sustaining account of the good life.

A proper comment on such matters will surely follow, but for now: Mr. Dewey, did you have something to add?

All the serious perplexities of life come back to the genuine difficulty of forming a judgment as to the values of the situation; they come back to a conflict of goods. Only dogmatism can suppose that serious moral conflict is between something clearly bad and something known to be good, and that uncertainty lies wholly in the will of the one choosing. Most conflicts of importance are conflicts between things which are or have been satisfying, not between good and evil. And to suppose that we can make a hierarchical table of values at large once for all, a kind of catalogue in which they are arranged in an order of ascending or descending worth, is to indulge in a gloss on our inability to frame intelligent judgments in the concrete. Or else it is to dignify customary choice and prejudice by a title of honour. [emphasis added]

John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty (1929)

Preemptive Update – it turns our Kwame Anthony Appiah has already taken care of the task of dignifying Harris with a response, in a review piece for the New York Times (hat tip to Critique my Thinking for the link, as I missed Appiah’s piece when it appeared).

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2 thoughts on “On science and universal values

  1. This is what happens when you start with such #definitionFAILs as “values are facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures”. I can’t say I’m any more inclined to spend time on the smoothly delivered shallowness of Sam Harris than I was during our first and only encounter. I was given ‘The End Of Faith’ (sub-title: ‘Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason’) by a well-meaning relative for Christmas some years back, and had to throw it aside after barely two pages.

    This instruction manual for how to reclaim ‘reason’ begins with a striking tableau. A young man is about to explode himself on a bus. Watching a couple before he slaughters himself and 22 others “the young man smiles” before unleashing “nails, ball bearings, and rat poison…All has gone according to plan.” His parents are told he is dead but “feel tremendous pride at his accomplishment…they know that he has gone to heaven [and] sent his victims to hell for eternity. It is a double victory”. Then Sam Harris tells us: “These are the facts. This is all we know for certain…” (seriously, this is all on the first page). So his difficulties with definition and axiom are clearly not new. The narrative reconstruction of internal mental states and ‘knowledge’ for the purposes of rationalist polemic counted as factual knowledge then, and that many, most or even all value claims are *somehow connected* to propositional content make them facts now.

    The small print, more than 200 pages later, admits that a suicide bomber taken at random is most likely to be a Tamil Tiger and hence a member of a secular organisation (“some readers may object”). We would, however, be wrong to sever the umbilical chord between religion and terrorism because, although not ‘explicitly’ religious, the Tigers “are Hindus who undoubtedly believe many improbable things about the nature of life and death… [They] appear to be basically secular [but] often harbour potent religious beliefs”, something “Secular Westerners” often don’t understand.

    Talk about fetishistic disavowal. Harris knows that his starting anecdote is loaded, and misleading, but he can’t bring himself to engage openly in what is a much more interesting discussion (and a much less toxic political claim that ‘religion=terror’). He shoves it in an endnote and simultaneously tries to cover his tracks. It doesn’t appear to strike him that, by the same logic (nay, ‘reason’), almost all wars waged by European powers and the United States in the last six centuries can also be laid at the feet of religion since, here too, there were majorities of the population who, while not always openly couching their political and military aims in theocratic terms, nevertheless retained latent religiosity, and most certainly believed “improbable things about the nature of life and death”.

    I pretty much decided right then that, if he couldn’t get something this basic right, I wasn’t going to waste valuable rage in proceeding any further.

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  2. Pingback: Rape & Rape Prevention: A Cod-Evolutionary Perspective « The Disorder Of Things

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