Sam Harris on objective morality

Since objective morality is The Topic That Won’t Die here at TSZ, I think we need Yet Another Thread to Discuss It.

A Sam Harris quote to get things rolling (h/t walto):

There are two mistakes I see moral subjectivists making. The first mistake is believing in the fact-value dichotomy. The second mistake is conflating moral philosophy and psychology, suggesting that our psychology ought to be the sole determinant of our beliefs.

I’ll only address the fact-value dichotomy mistake here. Subjectivists typically exaggerate the gap between facts and values. While there is a useful distinction to be made between facts and values, it’s usually taken too far.

Let me explain. Facts in science are held in high epistemic regard by non-religious people, including me. But scientific facts are theory-laden. And theory choice in science is value-laden. What values inform choices of scientific theory? Verifiability, falsifiability, explanatory value, predictive value, consistency (logical, observational, mathematical), parsimony, and elegance. Do these values, each taken alone, necessarily make or prove a scientific theory choice correct? No. But collectively, they increase the probability that a theory is the most correct or useful. So, as the philosopher Hilary Putnam has put it, facts and values are “entangled.” Scientific facts obtain their veracity through the epistemic values listed above. If I reject those epistemic values (as many religious people do), and claim instead that a holy book holds more epistemic value for me, does that mean science is subjective?

I maintain the same is true of morality. Moral facts, such as “X is right or good,” are at least value-laden, and sometimes also theory-laden, just like scientific facts. What values inform choices of moral belief and action? Justice, fairness, empathy, flourishing of conscious creatures, and integrity (i.e. consistency of attitudes, beliefs, and behavior between each other and over time). Do these values, each taken alone, necessarily make or prove a moral choice correct? No. But collectively, they increase the probability that a moral choice is the most correct or useful. So again, as the philosopher Hilary Putnam has put it, facts and values are “entangled.” Moral facts obtain their veracity through the values listed above (and maybe through other values as well; the list above is not necessarily complete).

Now, the subjectivist can claim that the moral values are subjective themselves, but that is no different than the religious person claiming scientific values are subjective. The truth is that we have no foundation for any knowledge whatsoever, scientific or moral. All we have to support scientific or moral knowledge is a web of entangled facts and values, with values in science and morality being at the core of our web. Our values are also the least changeable, for if we modify them, we cause the most disruption to our entire web. It’s much easier to modify the factual periphery of our web.

If we reject objectivity in morality, we must give up objectivity in science as well, and claim that all knowledge is subjective, since all knowledge is ultimately based in values. I reject this view, and claim that the scientific and moral values listed above provide veracity to the scientific and moral claims I make. Religious people disagree with me on the scientific values providing veracity, and moral subjectivists disagree with me on the moral values providing veracity. But disagreement doesn’t mean there is no truth to the matter.

543 thoughts on “Sam Harris on objective morality”

  1. petrushka

    keiths:
    petrushka,
    You think that mere consensus establishes something as objectively true?

    I thought the discussion was about morality. How did it get to be about truth.

    Morality is about feelings and preferences, and consensus is relevant.

  2. keithskeiths Post author

    petrushka,

    I thought the discussion was about morality. How did it get to be about truth.

    The discussion is about objective morality and whether it exists. If it does, then statements like “X is immoral” are objectively true or false.

  3. waltowalto

    keiths: If two of my subjective values clash, then it is objectively true that there is an inconsistency in my subjective moral system. It remains true that my subjective values are subjective, not objective.

    Let’s see how many times you can use “subjective” in a sentence….and without the term actually doing anything!

    Consider:
    If two of my values clash, then it is true that there is an inconsistency in my moral system. It remains true that my values are my values.

    Other than the question-begging, what has been lost?

  4. petrushka

    keiths:
    petrushka,
    The discussion is about objective morality and whether it exists.If it does, then statements like “X is immoral” are objectively true or false.

    Are granny smith apples objectively green or subjectively green?

  5. keithskeiths Post author

    petrushka,

    If you think you can make a case for objective morality, then have at it. I’ll be happy to take a look at what you come up with.

  6. fifthmonarchyman

    keiths: If two of my subjective values clash, it does not mean that either of them is objectively mistaken. To say that either is objectively mistaken is to assume the existence of objective morality.

    I have no idea what “objectively mistaken” is supposed to mean in this context. Does it mean something like undoubtedly mistaken or unquestionably mistaken?

    The fact is that if hold to two mutually exclusive moral positions at least one of them is mistaken due to the law of non-contradiction.

    That is just simple logic.

    If you you can be mistaken about one of your moral positions then objective morality exists. You have already granted as much in your response to KN.

    Now apparently you want to introduce a new concept of “objectively mistaken” if so you need to define it and explain why it’s necessary to modify “mistaken” in this way.

    peace

  7. keithskeiths Post author

    walto,

    I’ve already looked at your model of objective morality and found some serious problems with it, as I explain here and here.

    Your response to those criticisms? Or do you think your model is fatally flawed and not worth defending?

  8. keithskeiths Post author

    fifth,

    I have no idea what “objectively mistaken” is supposed to mean in this context.

    It’s to emphasize that a moral assertion can be mistaken only if objective morality exists.

    The fact is that if hold to two mutually exclusive moral positions at least one of them is mistaken due to the law of non-contradiction.

    Only if you assume that objective morality exists. You do assume that, and thus you are assuming your conclusion.

    If I subjectively hold that it’s immoral to mix plaids and stripes, and I also hold that it’s not subjectively immoral to mix them, then I’ve made a mistake, given that I want my moral system to be consistent.

    That obviously does not mean that the following statement must be objectively true or false:

    It is immoral to mix plaids and stripes.

  9. keithskeiths Post author

    keiths:

    If two of my subjective values clash, then it is objectively true that there is an inconsistency in my subjective moral system. It remains true that my subjective values are subjective, not objective.

    walto:

    Let’s see how many times you can use “subjective” in a sentence….and without the term actually doing anything!

    Consider:
    If two of my values clash, then it is true that there is an inconsistency in my moral system. It remains true that my values are my values.

    Other than the question-begging, what has been lost?

    Considering that my entire point was to correct Erik’s confusion over subjectivity, it made perfect sense to use the words “subjective” and “objective”.

    Erik’s statement:

    I also didn’t miss this, “It’s possible for subjectively chosen moral values to clash, indicating a mistake.” Here you are saying subjective moral values can be mistaken, leaving one to wonder why you should call it subjective. If there’s a mistake, it can be demonstrated. If it can be demonstrated, then it’s not subjective.

    His mistake is the same as fifth’s, which I explained above.

  10. keithskeiths Post author

    dazz,

    Besides your bizarre characterization of subjectivists as “psychopaths”, there is another obvious problem with what you wrote:

    Keiths, seems to me the only way one can justify enforcing one’s subjective moral values onto others who may hold different views is to deem one’s own judgement superior to everyone else’s. Which pretty much turns you into a… I don’t know. Supremacist has terrible connotations that wouldn’t be appropriate in this case.
    Maybe psychopath is more like it

    You’re forgetting that you do the very same thing when you make moral judgments regarding other people who disagree with you: you’re deeming your own moral judgment superior to theirs. The only difference is that you think your judgments reflect an objective morality rather than a subjective one.

    So by your own (ridiculous) standards, you are a “psychopath” who deems his moral judgment superior to that of others.

    You are doing exactly what William J. Murray does: claiming that your moral system is superior to that of a subjectivist because you know that you somehow have access to objective morality, unlike those poor deluded folks who think that morality is subjective.

  11. keithskeiths Post author

    Some reminders of what would be required, at minimum, for a workable defense of objective morality.

    First, you’d need to establish its existence. You could do that by showing that objective morality is somehow logically necessary, or by identifying some of its distinguishing entailments and showing that they actually obtain.

    An objective morality that wasn’t logically necessary and had no entailments would be vacuous. It could have no causal impact on our world and thus might as well not exist.

    Having established the existence of objective morality, which would be quite a feat in itself, you’d need to explain its nature and how it works. Hence my earlier questions:

    In an earlier comment, I explained why the conscience can’t be put on an equal footing with senses like vision or hearing. There is another problem for those who argue that our consciences give us access to objective morality: how does that work, exactly?

    Some obvious questions are:

    1) What is the nature of our consciences?

    2) What is the nature of objective morality?

    3) How does the conscience operate so as to gain access to objective morality?

    4) How does objective morality causally affect the conscience, and through it, one’s bodily actions?

    5) Why do consciences go so badly wrong, as in the example I gave earlier?

    Some people feel outrage when adulterers are stoned to death. Others feel outrage when they are not. They can’t all be objectively right.

    Similar questions would apply for those who don’t think that our consciences are indicators of objective morality but believe in some other causal linkage between objective morality and our world.

    Last, an objective morality would have to be, or be derivable from, an actual state (or states) of affairs. You would have to show not only that the states(s) of affairs obtained, but that their obtaining created an objective moral obligation.

    For example, if you could show as a logical necessity that plaids should never be worn with stripes, then that would count as a (logically necessary) state of affairs that could serve as the basis for a proscription of plaid/stripe mixing.

    If your state of affairs weren’t inherently moral, though, you would have to show how your state of affairs — an is — manages to bridge Hume’s gap and become an ought.

    Walto’s proposal doesn’t satisfy these criteria, obviously. The question is whether there are better proposals that would work. I certainly haven’t seen any.

  12. Erik

    keiths: Some reminders of what would be required, at minimum, for a workable defense of objective morality.

    Another question is: Are we to defend objective morality or objective morality? If the first, as seems to have been the case thus far, then we have already established that your peculiar objective/subjective distinction stinks and merits no further debate. But if we are talking about the latter (i.e. about morality itself rather than objectivity/subjectivity), then your admission that one can be mistaken about moral values and judgements already concedes that it’s objective in the relevant sense. Your remaining hang-up seems to be that you prefer to say “subjective” where it would be rational to say “objective”.

  13. keithskeiths Post author

    Erik,

    …we have already established that your peculiar objective/subjective distinction stinks and merits no further debate.

    What we’ve established is that you were unable to make the case for objective morality, despite trying quite hard. Hence your belated attempt at face-saving.

    But if we are talking about the latter (i.e. about morality itself rather than objectivity/subjectivity), then your admission that one can be mistaken about moral values and judgements already concedes that it’s objective in the relevant sense.

    No. See my response to fifth, above.

  14. Erik

    keiths: What we’ve established is that you were unable to make the case for objective morality, despite trying quite hard.

    You can begin establishing things after you have defined the terms you use as instructed by everyone, not just me. Your subjective morality looks at times objective and at times nonsensical. You will have to sort it out on your own.

  15. fifthmonarchyman

    keiths: It’s to emphasize that a moral assertion can be mistaken only if objective morality exists.

    can any assertion be mistaken if objective morality does not exist?

    If so then moral assertions can be mistaken when they violate the law of non-contradiction

    If not then you have left rationality behind

    Is that really the road you want to go down?

    peace

  16. dazzdazz

    keiths: You’re forgetting that you do the very same thing when you make moral judgments regarding other people who disagree with you: you’re deeming your own moral judgment superior to theirs. The only difference is that you think your judgments reflect an objective morality rather than a subjective one.

    The difference is that, if you think it makes no sense to speak of moral truths in isolation, yet you still try to push your “subjective” morals onto others, it makes no sense to do it on the basis of being right. The only alternative is complete disregard of others opinions.

    At any rate, I’ve just been parroting what Walto, KN, Erik and FMM have been telling you here, and if they couldn’t change your mind, neither will I.

    Moving on

  17. fifthmonarchyman

    keiths: If I subjectively hold that it’s immoral to mix plaids and stripes, and I also hold that it’s not subjectively immoral to mix them, then I’ve made a mistake, given that I want my moral system to be consistent.

    Again I not sure why subjectively is modifying moral here.

    Does it mean “moral just for you” or “moral for everyone but only in your personal opinion” ?

    It seems to me that if you mean the latter it’s not a moral statement at all but one of personal preference like “I like ice cream” or “curly hair is icky”.

    I think you are back to defining moral as simply strong personal preference

    on the other hand if you mean the former

    If you hold that it’s truly immoral for you to mix plaids and stripes, and you also hold that it’s truly not immoral you to mix them, then you’ve made a mistake, and therefore the following statement must be objectively true or false: given the law of non-contradiction

    It is immoral for you to mix plaids and stripes.

    Peace

  18. PatrickPatrick

    petrushka: I thought the discussion was about morality. How did it get to be about truth.

    Morality is about feelings and preferences, and consensus is relevant.

    Is that your definition of “objective morality”? If so, I contend that it isn’t what most people would mean by the term and the use of “objective” in that sense is not aligned with common usage.

    I hope KN explains his reasoning for thinking objective morality exists. There’s a lot of confusion here.

  19. waltowalto

    Keiths seems to think that he has a “fan base” which is like Trump’s in that if he continuously praises himself and attacks everybody else, the expectation is that they’ll just EAT IT UP.

    As explained by about ten people here, his concept of subjectivity makes no sense whatever, but, he just keeps putting out there how wonderful he is and how awful everybody else is, complete with past remarks of his, as if THOSE made more sense, and, well….I guess that’s supposed to do it!

  20. keithskeiths Post author

    walto,

    This thread is about objective morality. I’m arguing against the existence of objective morality. You’re supposed to be arguing for it, unless you’ve gotten cold feet, in which case just let us know.

    I’ve already looked at your model of objective morality and found some serious problems with it, as I explain here and here.

    Your response to those criticisms? Or do you think your model is fatally flawed and not worth defending?

  21. keithskeiths Post author

    Patrick,

    I hope KN explains his reasoning for thinking objective morality exists.

    In the past, he has said that actions are objectively moral or immoral to the extent that they promote or hinder “human flourishing”.

    The choice of human flourishing as a moral criterion is itself subjective, of course, and I’ve pointed that out to KN.

    There is no objective way of demonstrating that “human flourishing” is a greater moral good than “obedience to God”, for instance. Morality is inescapably subjective.

    In my earlier example, Buford’s belief that Canadian geese are evil is subjective. Having made that subjective choice, he can then objectively consider which approach to goose eradication will deliver the most bang for the buck. That doesn’t somehow make goose eradication objectively moral, of course.

  22. waltowalto

    keiths: You’re supposed to be arguing for it, unless you’ve gotten cold feet

    My feet are quite warm, I just know the utter pointlessness of trying to have a sensible discussion with you. I think others here know very well what I mean by that. If you don’t, OK. There’s a lot you don’t understand.

  23. keithskeiths Post author

    walto,

    Your response to those criticisms? Or do you think your model is fatally flawed and not worth defending?

  24. keithskeiths Post author

    keiths:

    You’re forgetting that you do the very same thing when you make moral judgments regarding other people who disagree with you: you’re deeming your own moral judgment superior to theirs. The only difference is that you think your judgments reflect an objective morality rather than a subjective one.

    dazz:

    The difference is that, if you think it makes no sense to speak of moral truths in isolation, yet you still try to push your “subjective” morals onto others, it makes no sense to do it on the basis of being right.

    It would make no sense to do it on the basis of being objectively right — so I don’t.

    In my subjective moral system, murder is immoral. I feel quite strongly about that and want it to apply to everyone, not just me. I’m glad that the government prosecutes and imprisons murderers. I think the world would be a better place without murder. Better by whose standards? Mine, of course.

    There is no inconsistency in any of that.

    At any rate, I’ve just been parroting what Walto, KN, Erik and FMM have been telling you here, and if they couldn’t change your mind, neither will I.

    Not unless you come up with a sound argument for objective morality. It ought to bother you that you can’t — and that no one else here can, either.

    You’re letting intuition override reason, like IDers who just know that there’s a mind behind it all, despite being unable to make that case.

    Old intuitions die hard.

  25. Kantian NaturalistKantian Naturalist

    Patrick: I hope KN explains his reasoning for thinking objective morality exists. There’s a lot of confusion here.

    I find the use of “exists” here to be perplexing.

    I don’t think that there’s some specific set of moral obligations that is somehow imposed on us by the very structure of reality. Perhaps that is how some theists imagine morality to be, but it is not part of my conception.

    In affirming that morality is objective, what I mean is this: there are facts of the matter about what material conditions are conducive to human flourishing, such that whether any particular moral system actually promotes or hinders human flourishing doesn’t depend on what the practitioners of that system take to be the case.

    There’s a lively debate about whether non-human animals can be moral. I haven’t looked at it too carefully, but de Waal makes the case for apes and MacIntyre makes the case for dolphins. There’s a promising book on the subject, Can Animals Be Moral?, reviewed here. The review notes the promising suggestion than many nonhuman animals should be counted as ‘moral subject’ even if they are not ‘moral agents’: that is, animals can act on the basis of moral reasons without taking themselves as acting on the basis of moral reasons. Without having read Rowlands’ book I can’t say more, but that seems highly plausible to me.

  26. keithskeiths Post author

    KN,

    In affirming that morality is objective, what I mean is this: there are facts of the matter about what material conditions are conducive to human flourishing, such that whether any particular moral system actually promotes or hinders human flourishing doesn’t depend on what the practitioners of that system take to be the case.

    Do you acknowledge that the choice of that criterion — human flourishing — is subjective, and that there is no objective way of demonstrating that “human flourishing” is a greater moral good than “obedience to God”, for instance?

  27. PatrickPatrick

    Kantian Naturalist:

    I hope KN explains his reasoning for thinking objective morality exists. There’s a lot of confusion here.

    I find the use of “exists” here to be perplexing.

    Fair point. A better phrasing might be “I hope KN explains his definition of objective morality and why it has a real world referent.”

    I don’t think that there’s some specific set of moral obligations that is somehow imposed on us by the very structure of reality. Perhaps that is how some theists imagine morality to be, but it is not part of my conception.

    In my experience that’s not far off from what most people mean by objective morality.

    In affirming that morality is objective, what I mean is this: there are facts of the matter about what material conditions are conducive to human flourishing, such that whether any particular moral system actually promotes or hinders human flourishing doesn’t depend on what the practitioners of that system take to be the case.

    As keiths has pointed out, you are subjectively taking human flourishing to be the primary value that morality serves. There are no doubt additional subjective views of what flourishing entails. Why do you consider that criteria to be objective?

  28. keithskeiths Post author

    Walto’s model of objective morality also runs into problems with evolution, as I explained in the earlier thread:

    Flint,

    I think it’s unavoidable that those who adopt the first approach, like humans, to regard the avoidable loss of a single offspring as morally objectionable. And if humans used the second strategy, stressing over the loss of even most offspring would be a waste of time.

    I don’t see any moral objectivity here. I see only attitudes consistent with the optimal survival strategy, as a function of reproductive approaches.

    Yes, and it’s symptomatic of another problem with walto’s model — the lack of selective pressure for the ability to sense objective morality, assuming the latter even exists.

    Evolution “cares” only about what gets genes into future generations. It doesn’t care about objective morality, so there is no reason to expect that our consciences have evolved to be accurate diviners of objective morality. A false or purely subjective sense of morality is perfectly fine by the lights of evolution — all that matters is that it promotes reproductive success.

    And the two strategies you highlight — few offspring and a large investment in each versus many offspring and little or no investment — also pose a challenge for walto in this sense: his aggregating function aggregates desires across all sentient beings. How does that work? Do the mass reproducers have a moral say in how the heavy investors treat their offspring? Vice-versa? Is it species-restricted? Do the mass reproducers of Alpha Centauri, who outnumber us by many trillions, get to determine what is and isn’t objectively moral here on earth?

    It’s a bit ad hoc, to put it mildly.

    None of these problems arise with subjective morality.

  29. petrushka

    Patrick: Is that your definition of “objective morality”?

    I haven’t seen a coherent definition of morality, subjective or objective. Do you have one? I am interested in why people would jump int a lengthy argument about something that has no good, non circular definition.

  30. PatrickPatrick

    petrushka: I haven’t seen a coherent definition of morality, subjective or objective. Do you have one? I am interested in why people would jump int a lengthy argument about something that has no good, non circular definition.

    I’ll take your bait. What’s wrong with the dictionary definition of “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior”?

  31. keithskeiths Post author

    walto,

    How would you defend your model of objective morality against the criticisms I’ve raised?

    Let’s start with this one.

  32. colewd

    keiths,

    Evolution “cares” only about what gets genes into future generations. It doesn’t care about objective morality, so there is no reason to expect that our consciences have evolved to be accurate diviners of objective morality. A false or purely subjective sense of morality is perfectly fine by the lights of evolution — all that matters is that it promotes reproductive success.

    If you make the assumption that the theory of evolution is false what happens to your hypothesis?

  33. keithskeiths Post author

    colewd,

    If you make the assumption that the theory of evolution is false what happens to your hypothesis?

    It survives just fine. Read the thread. There are many problems with walto’s model besides that one.

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