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. When you give up the will to kill and enslave large numbers of people, decadence sets in.

    And apparently conversion to Christianity (no doubt the wrong kind for J-Mac, so you know…) couldn’t save Roman morality or families. Good point, J-Mac.

    Glen Davidson

  2. Erik:

    False due to the conflations that I pointed out. First – if adultery is immoral (and a significant crime) then it must be punished. From there, your dichotomy crumbles down.

    Um, no. My question still stands:

    Is it objectively moral, or objectively immoral, to stone adulterers to death? How did you make that determination?

  3. keiths: Um, no.

    You mean adultery is not a crime as per natural law? Then you are not assuming objective morality even for the sake of the argument.

  4. Erik,

    An objective morality in which adultery is immoral is not the only possible objective morality.

  5. In any case, my question isn’t about the morality of adultery, it’s about the morality of a particular punishment for adultery. One could agree that adultery is immoral yet find stoning to be a disproportionate, barbaric, and hugely immoral punishment,

  6. That’s easy. Consider, for example, an objective morality in which everything goes. Nothing is immoral, including adultery.

  7. keiths:
    In any case, my question isn’t about the morality of adultery, it’s about the morality of a particular punishment for adultery.One could agree that adultery is immoral yet find stoning to be a disproportionate, barbaric, and hugely immoral punishment,

    Doesn’t depend on circumstances at all? Know the constructed dilemma about telling the Nazis where the Jews are? The dilemma is supposed to show that even though lying is not right, lying to Nazis is okay. Similarly, stoning may be quite appropriate punishment given some cultural circumstances.

    Anyway, if you concede that adultery should be punished, then you concede everything. If you don’t concede this, then you cannot be reasoned with.

  8. Erik,

    Doesn’t depend on circumstances at all?

    You tell me. You’re the one claiming that morality is objective.

    When is it objectively moral to stone adulterers, and when is it not?

  9. keiths:
    That’s easy.Consider, for example, an objective morality in which everything goes.Nothing is immoral, including adultery.

    That’s absence of morality. You evidently cannot tell the difference between morality and where there’s none if it. I was right about you. Thanks for making it clear.

  10. That’s absence of morality.

    Are you one of those goofy guys who thinks the empty set is not a set?

  11. And even if you were right about that, you’d be missing the point. An objective morality in which only one thing were immoral — say, wearing your underwear inside out — would still qualify as an objective morality. In such a system, adultery would not be immoral.

  12. l

    keiths: Are you one of those goofy guys who thinks the empty set is not a set?

    You are one of those goofy guys for whom non-A is A.

    When talking about objective morality, we are not talking about mathematical fiction like sets. We are talking about ontological reality (because objective, duh).

    Suppose you want cream in your coffee and I only make a gesture as if pouring it, not really pouring it. When you object, I cannot say you are a sort of goofy guy who does not understand empty sets, can I? Similarly, morality is not the sort of thing that when it’s devoid of nature and substance, there’s still some of it there.

    Nominalists always fail to comprehend the ontology of universals, mistaking them for abstractions. They are goofy like that.

    This discussion is over. You can go off to bed.

  13. Woodbine,

    Absolutely NOT! They could have been a very small part of the society but the main problem was the the family fundamentals; the love and bond within the family even if one of their members had homosexual tendencies…
    Are homosexual tendencies any different than rage tendencies? How about addictions? Alcohol or drugs? How different are they ?

  14. Erik,

    Let’s not go off on that irrelevant tangent.

    As I said:

    And even if you were right about that, you’d be missing the point. An objective morality in which only one thing were immoral — say, wearing your underwear inside out — would still qualify as an objective morality. In such a system, adultery would not be immoral.

  15. J-Mac,

    Are homosexual tendencies any different than rage tendencies?

    No. They’re exactly the same, in every respect. 🙄

  16. Erik,

    Don’t run off before addressing this:

    Erik,

    Doesn’t depend on circumstances at all?

    You tell me. You’re the one claiming that morality is objective.

    When is it objectively moral to stone adulterers, and when is it not?

  17. l

    keiths: And even if you were right about that, you’d be missing the point. An objective morality in which only one thing were immoral — say, wearing your underwear inside out — would still qualify as an objective morality. In such a system, adultery would not be immoral.

    False.

    When you pose a question about the morality of stoning and adultery, you pose a question strictly about moral principles that concern them both. You cannot randomly exclude adultery from the moral equation when your question is about it. Well, you can, but that makes you an immoralist, objectively speaking.

    Sleep it off.

  18. You’re confusing two different questions. Perhaps it will help if we focus on one at a time. Let’s start with this one:

    Erik:

    Doesn’t depend on circumstances at all?

    keiths:

    You tell me. You’re the one claiming that morality is objective.

    When is it objectively moral to stone adulterers, and when is it not?

    ETA: And of course the followup question: How did you determine this?

  19. keiths: When is it objectively moral to stone adulterers, and when is it not?

    like all actions It’s objectively good if and only it conforms to God’s revealed moral will and objectively evil when it does not.

    It’s important to understand an action is not objectively good because God wills it and God does not will it because it’s objectively good. Therefore Euthyphro’s dilemma does not apply

    Rather God is objective good and his revealed will is just the outward expression of his nature.

    When it comes to stoning adulterers A.D. we happen to have some idea of what God’s revealed will is. (John 8:1-11)

    peace .

  20. J-Mac: Are homosexual tendencies any different than rage tendencies? How about addictions? Alcohol or drugs? How different are they ?

    Anyone who poses a question like that shows that they’re uninterested in being taken seriously by intelligent adults.

    One more for the ‘ignore’. Keep ’em coming!

  21. Erik: Nominalists always fail to comprehend the ontology of universals, mistaking them for abstractions. They are goofy like that.

    That seems like a non sequitur, at best. What’s the connection between nominalism vs realism about universals and one’s position on whether moral values are objectively real?

    Even if one were a nominalist, one could still think that moral values are concrete particulars.

    The move you seem to be looking for is actually (at least!) three different stages:

    1. only concrete particulars are ultimately real;
    2. only physics (maybe other sciences) can tell us what the ultimately real concrete particulars are;
    3. any form of understanding other than physics (and maybe other sciences) is at best inferior and at worst illusory.

  22. fifth:

    When it comes to stoning adulterers A.D. we happen to have some idea of what God’s revealed will is. (John 8:1-11)

    But if it were B.C., you’d be eager to pick up a rock and do “God’s revealed will”.

  23. keiths: But if it were B.C., you’d be eager to pick up a rock and do “God’s revealed will”.

    If you were a Nazi soldier in WW2 you would be eager to push Jews into the gas chambers.

    If you were a member of the Mongol horde you would think nothing of slaughtering folks for fun.

    If Donald trump was married to Michele Obama he would support Obama care

    If my aunt had gonads she be my uncle.

    Since I’m not living in the theocratic nation of Israel under the old covenant the perspective of such a person is completely unknown and foreign to me. I am a product of my nature and experiences. If I had a different nature and experience I would probably find different things to be morally objectionable

    However

    If I was to live in under the radically different circumstances you describe the person in question could hardly be thought of as me.

    peace

  24. fifth,

    If I was to live in under the radically different circumstances you describe the person in question could hardly be thought of as me.

    Don’t try to dodge it. You already told us this:

    like all actions It’s objectively good if and only it conforms to God’s revealed moral will and objectively evil when it does not.

    You believe the Bible when it says that God wanted the Israelites to stone adulterers to death. That was God’s “revealed moral will”, and thus stoning was “objectively good”, according to you.

    So if tomorrow you were transported back in time to ancient Israel, you actually believe it would be objectively good for you personally to participate in the stoning of adulterers, and objectively evil for you to refuse.

    Religion has really fucked you up, fifth.

  25. Fifth wouldn’t actually participate in the massacre.

    People can quote the bible, and make bullshit Divine Command arguments when it doesn’t matter on a discussion-board, but Fifth was raised in a western country in the current civilization. If you actually transported Fifth 2017 back to that era, and handed him a rusty sword, and told him god wanted him to go impale that group of woman and children, he wouldn’t actually do it. Because he has a modern conscience, which is where your morality derives on a day-to-day basis, and if the rubber met the road he’d find it too sickening to participate. Because bullshit arguments aside, his actual morality, having been raised here and now, is vastly superior to some horrific story written by people with much more barbaric consciences.

  26. (assuming fifth is a normal person and not a sociopath, which i think i can generally assume about random people)

  27. all those stories were written by people who typically lived and died within a mile of the same place, travelling often meant death, running into people different than you meant they were likely to kill you or you were likely to kill them, people lived in constant fear of raids from people they didn’t know existed, starving because you were run off your land, etc. Surviving under those kinda conditions required seeing different behavior as right and wrong than we do now, behavior which we rightly find repellant today.

  28. AhmedKiaan,

    Fifth wouldn’t actually participate in the massacre.

    People can quote the bible, and make bullshit Divine Command arguments when it doesn’t matter on a discussion-board, but Fifth was raised in a western country in the current civilization. If you actually transported Fifth 2017 back to that era, and handed him a rusty sword, and told him god wanted him to go impale that group of woman and children, he wouldn’t actually do it.

    I agree, and you can see that in how fifth is trying to avoid the question. He doesn’t want to be seen as the kind of guy who would stone people to death, yet he also doesn’t want to say that God’s “revealed will” is not objectively moral in this case. He’s stuck between a rock and a hard place.

  29. So how about it, fifth?

    If tomorrow you were transported back in time to ancient Israel, and if you were in charge, do you really think it would be evil — objectively evil — for you to refuse to command the stoning deaths of adulterers?

  30. AhmedKiaan,

    (assuming fifth is a normal person and not a sociopath, which i think i can generally assume about random people)

    I don’t know about “normal” 🙂 , but I don’t think he’s a sociopath.

    Religion has turned him into an apologist for Yahweh’s atrocities, however.

    Kids, stay away from Christianity, particularly of the fundagelical kind.

  31. keiths: So if tomorrow you were transported back in time to ancient Israel, you actually believe it would be objectively good for you personally to participate in the stoning of adulterers, and objectively evil for you to refuse.

    no it would have to involve more than just transporting back in time it would have to involve changing myself from a modern Christian to a ancient Jew in the old Covenant. Such a radical transformation would involve removing what it is that makes me me.

    keiths: I agree, and you can see that in how fifth is trying to avoid the question.

    I’m not avoiding the question the question is nonsense. It assumes a view of morality and the world that I don’t hold.
    Virtue ethics is not divine command ethics.

    keiths: He doesn’t want to be seen as the kind of guy who would stone people to death, yet he also doesn’t want to say that God’s “revealed will” is not objectively moral in this case.

    You don’t understand “God’s revealed will in this case” is situational and limited it applied to only a certain people in a certain place in a certain circumstance .

    Your problem is that you mistake objective for universal and sweeping.

    It might have been objectively moral for Harry Truman to drop an atomic bomb on Japan in world war two. But that does not mean it’s objectively moral for me to drop an atomic bomb on my annoying neighbor.

    It should not take but a moments reflection to realize that

    This is not rocket science but your bias and prejudice is again leading you to make elementary errors when it comes to your opponents position.

    I would have hoped you would have learned something from your last experience

    peace

  32. keiths:

    You believe the Bible when it says that God wanted the Israelites to stone adulterers to death. That was God’s “revealed moral will”, and thus stoning was “objectively good”, according to you.

    So if tomorrow you were transported back in time to ancient Israel, you actually believe it would be objectively good for you personally to participate in the stoning of adulterers, and objectively evil for you to refuse.

    fifth:

    no it would have to involve more than just transporting back in time it would have to involve changing myself from a modern Christian to a ancient Jew in the old Covenant. Such a radical transformation would involve removing what it is that makes me me.

    God wanted those adulterers stoned. Are you saying you would have defied his “revealed will”? If so, good for you! But if any Israelites had joined your rebellion against the punishment of stoning, you’re saying that they would be doing something “objectively evil”. Got it.

    I’m not avoiding the question the question is nonsense. It assumes a view of morality and the world that I don’t hold.
    Virtue ethics is not divine command ethics.

    The question doesn’t say anything about virtue ethics or divine command ethics. It relies only on your statement:

    like all actions It’s objectively good if and only it conforms to God’s revealed moral will and objectively evil when it does not.

    Getting cold feet about that, fifth?

    keiths:

    He doesn’t want to be seen as the kind of guy who would stone people to death, yet he also doesn’t want to say that God’s “revealed will” is not objectively moral in this case.

    fifth:

    You don’t understand “God’s revealed will in this case” is situational and limited it applied to only a certain people in a certain place in a certain circumstance .

    Perhaps you should ask God to reveal the meaning of the words “in this case”.

    It might have been objectively moral for Harry Truman to drop an atomic bomb on Japan in world war two. But that does not mean it’s objectively moral for me to drop an atomic bomb on my annoying neighbor.

    The question is whether you’re committed to doing “God’s revealed will” or not. Though you’re reluctant to say so, the answer seems to be “not if he wants me to stone adulterers to death”. That’s good! It shows that you have a conscience, and that you aren’t blindly committed to following God’s will.

    You rebel, you.

    This is not rocket science but your bias and prejudice is again leading you to make elementary errors when it comes to your opponents position.

    I would have hoped you would have learned something from your last experience

    Are you referring to the bogus claim that I confused fideism with presuppositionalism? You were in a tough spot, and that was your lame attempt at extricating yourself.

  33. Kantian Naturalist: That seems like a non sequitur, at best. What’s the connection between nominalism vs realism about universals and one’s position on whether moral values are objectively real?

    Even if one were a nominalist, one could still think that moral values are concrete particulars.

    I connected nominalism to a particular (mistaken) view about universals, not about moral values. But nominalism may be the wrong word for it, because keiths simply fails to open his own stance. Due to this failure it’s also quite iffy to categorize him and show him how he actually fails to address objective morality in its own terms even though he claims to be doing it.

  34. keiths: God wanted those adulterers stoned. Are you saying you would have defied his “revealed will”?

    If I was in the old covenant of course I would have defied his revealed will. That is because that’s what everyone did. That was the very point the Old covenant was meant to illustrate.

    Sometimes I think that you have never actually read the Bible.

    keiths: The question is whether you’re committed to doing “God’s revealed will” or not.

    Of course I am but that is only because I live in the new covenant

    The New covenant does not include provision for stoning adulterers and provides a means by which I by nature love to do his will.

    None of that was the case in the OC

    keiths: Though you’re reluctant to say so, the answer seems to be “not if he wants me to stone adulterers to death”. That’s good! It shows that you have a conscience, and that you aren’t blindly committed to following God’s will.

    No it’s because I’m not an ancient Jew living under the old covenant.

    Has your bias really left you completely unable to understand the importance of specific context and situation in ethics?

    Think man.

    God told Noah to build an ark therefore it was objectively moral for Noah to build an ark but that does not mean that everyone should build an ark.

    If you were using your head that would go with out saying.

    peace

  35. Kantian Naturalist: Even if one were a nominalist, one could still think that moral values are concrete particulars.

    Wait a minute. Moral values are “concrete particulars”? This is not objective morality for a moral realist, for an essentialist or for an idealist. Not for anyone who matters. Show me a natural law ethicist or theologian who thinks moral values are concrete particulars. You probably think Sam Harris has a say on this issue. Good grief…

  36. Erik: Doesn’t depend on circumstances at all?

    keiths: You tell me.

    I say it does.

    keiths: You’re the one claiming that morality is objective.

    Yes. And you said you were assuming the same for the sake of the argument, but you are failing miserably.

  37. Erik: Wait a minute. Moral values are “concrete particulars”? This is not objective morality for a moral realist, for an essentialist or for an idealist. Not for anyone who matters. Show me a natural law ethicist or theologian who thinks moral values are concrete particulars. You probably think Sam Harris has a say on this issue. Good grief…

    I’m quite aware that no essentialist or natural law ethicist would say that moral values are concrete particulars. I was simply raising the possibility that one could defend moral realism within a nominalist metaphysics if moral values were concrete particulars.

    And for what little it may be worth, I don’t think Harris has the right way of defending moral realism.

  38. Erik,

    Why stop there, instead of quoting the last part of my comment and addressing it?

    When is it objectively moral to stone adulterers, and when is it not?

    ETA: And of course the followup question: How did you determine this?

  39. KN,

    And for what little it may be worth, I don’t think Harris has the right way of defending moral realism.

    Your own way has some problems which I’ve pointed out here.

  40. fifth:

    Has your bias really left you completely unable to understand the importance of specific context and situation in ethics?

    Think man.

    God told Noah to build an ark therefore it was objectively moral for Noah to build an ark but that does not mean that everyone should build an ark.

    Will you never tire of distorting my position? Do you really think Jesus approves of that crap, or are you just counting on forgiveness?

    Read the following again, honestly this time:

    He doesn’t want to be seen as the kind of guy who would stone people to death, yet he also doesn’t want to say that God’s “revealed will” is not objectively moral in this case.

    See the words “in this case”?

  41. keiths:

    God wanted those adulterers stoned. Are you saying you would have defied his “revealed will”?

    fifth:

    If I was in the old covenant of course I would have defied his revealed will. That is because that’s what everyone did.

    You actually think that no Israelite was ever stoned for adultery, because everyone in “the old covenant” refused to carry out God’s will? Please.

    That was the very point the Old covenant was meant to illustrate.

    Sometimes I think that you have never actually read the Bible.

    Interestingly, I’ve often thought that you’ve never read the Bible without projecting your own desires and dogma onto it.

    keiths:

    The question is whether you’re committed to doing “God’s revealed will” or not.

    fifth:

    Of course I am but that is only because I live in the new covenant

    OK, so you’ve said that if you were transported back to ancient Israel, you would refuse to do God’s revealed will — that is, you would refuse to stone adulterers to death. That’s good! It shows that there’s some decency left in you under the fetid layers of religious indoctrination.

    However, you still maintain that

    like all actions It’s objectively good if and only it conforms to God’s revealed moral will and objectively evil when it does not.

    In other words, you actually claim that it was objectively evil for an Israelite to refuse to stone an adulterer to death.

    Religion has fucked you up, fifth.

  42. keiths: You actually think that no Israelite was ever stoned for adultery, because everyone in “the old covenant” refused to carry out God’s will? Please.

    Do you have any evidence that any Israelite was ever stoned for adultery?

    Off the top of my I know of at least two cases in the OC where adulterers were not stoned and in both cases the lack of corporal punishment was in accordance with God’s revealed will.

    What you need to do is provide the actual circumstances involved when a person was stoned and show that it was in fact in accordance with God’s revealed will.

    In fact should be obvious that if folks in the OC carried out God’s will no would have been stoned for adultery at all because no one would ever commit adultery.

    keiths: In other words, you actually claim that it was objectively evil for an Israelite to refuse to stone an adulterer to death.

    When exactly was a common run of the mill Israelite ever commanded to stone an adulterer to death in the Old Covenant? Be specific

    keiths: See the words “in this case”?

    Despite plenty of opportunity You have yet to specify what “this case” actually is. If you don’t describe the actual situation and it’s specific context I have to assume that you are making some sort of blanket statement with out any justification for doing so.

    Your problem as I see it is that you misunderstand objective morality to mean some sort of universal rule that applies equally at all times and all contexts.

    You are looking for an algorithmic one size fits all process when morality is by it’s very nature a personal thing limited by individual circumstances.

    peace

  43. fifth,

    You’re really struggling here.

    Do you have any evidence that any Israelite was ever stoned for adultery?

    Are you actually hoping against hope that no one ever got stoned for adultery, and that God was just shooting off at the mouth when he commanded it?

    Even if by some miracle it were true that such stonings never happened, it doesn’t help your case. Hasn’t that occurred to you?

    Remember, you wrote:

    like all actions It’s objectively good if and only it conforms to God’s revealed moral will and objectively evil when it does not.

    God revealed his moral will, unless you think he was lying here:

    If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel.

    If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you.

    Deuteronomy 22:22-24, NIV

    So my statement stands:

    In other words, you actually claim that it was objectively evil for an Israelite to refuse to stone an adulterer to death.

    That’s shameful, fifth. Religion has corrupted your morality.

  44. The good news is that you appear to be ashamed of Yahweh’s cruel and idiotic commandment and eager to argue that it was never carried out. There’s hope for you yet.

    That doesn’t make the commandment any less cruel and idiotic, though.

  45. keiths: When is it objectively moral to stone adulterers, and when is it not?

    Is it objectively moral to punish adulterers or not? I say it is. Given certain cultural predispositions, stoning is the most appropriate available punishment. Or would you argue electric chair is better? In bronze age, there were no electric chairs…

    keiths: ETA: And of course the followup question: How did you determine this?

    If adultery is immoral and worthy of punishment, it follows.

    Now your turn: Instead of stoning adulterers, what do you suggest and why?

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