Abbé Boulah reviews a book review on the science of morality

NYRB: H. Allen Orr on Sam Harris’ book “The Moral Landscape”.

– Hey Abbé Boulah, your coffee’s getting cold. What are you reading there?

– Ah, Bog-Hubert: and a good morning to you too. What I am reading while I am waiting for somebody to talk to in this deserted Fog Island Tavern? Something about the old quarrel between science and ethics: another round. In the New York Review of Books.

– Another round of that? Sounds like it’s all settled in your mind. So why are you even bothering with it?

– Trying to keep it open, that’s all. The mind, not the controversy. This time, the reviewer — H. Allen Orr — takes on the new book by Sam Harris about ‘The Moral Landscape’ .

– Have you read the book?

– Nah. And I don’t think I’m going to. The review seems to summarize its main points nicely enough for me to see that I don’t agree with them. Nor with the reviewer either, for that matter.

– Your mind opened a little and slammed shut again so soon? Not like you. And on both the author and the reviewer? How did that happen?

– You’re right in wagging your finger at the possibility that I’m jumping to unsupported conclusions. Especially about morals and neuroscience of which I admittedly know nothing. But wait ‘till you hear this.The insights of neuroscience — research about how the brain works when dealing with questions of scientific fact and moral issues — lead Harris to the claim that a science of ethics is possible. A science! And that this science, though it is a yet undeveloped branch of science, can discover objective moral truths. That the widely accepted distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ claims (the view that one cannot derive moral ‘ought’ truths from scientific facts) is a ‘nonproblem’, and that the split between these claims is an illusion, and that the objective basis for a science of morals is the ‘correct’ conception of the good as the well-being of conscious creatures.

– I can see how you get aggravated by those views — I remember your tirades about how truth doesn’t apply to moral claims. And the reviewer bought all that?

– No. Orr remains unconvinced about the validity of these claims but is open to the possibility Harris’s belief that a science of morals might be possible — he just doesn’t think Harris has made his case. Yet.

– Maybe that’s just a polite way of saying that it looks like BS but that he’ll keep his mind open, eh? Just in case?

– No, I think they are both barking up the wrong tree. Wrong question. As long as they keep arguing from within the paradigms of science (and true facts about the world) and ethics or morals (and moral truths).

– But if that’s what they are worried about, what else should they be discussing?

– You’ve got a point there. But you see, they are stuck in their way of looking at the issue. And that way of looking at it makes it seem quite unlikely that the controversy will ever be resolved to the satisfaction of either camp — science and ethics, especially the religious-based ethics.

– So what’s the better way of looking at it, then? Are you going to get in the middle of that?

– Well, I might enter the fray with some observations about the concepts of truth, or about the human urge to find moral precepts. But, I admit, those are not backed by any superior expertise or authority of mine either as a scientist or as a philosopher of ethics, or even a religious expert, none of which I claim to be. Just by some stupid commonsense questions.

– I agree, common sense is often uncommonly stupid. So what are those questions?

– Starting with truth, doesn’t it seem obvious that if there IS a real world out there, it would be useful to know what it IS like, really: to know the truth about what the world is like and how it works?

– Right: that’s the job of science, is that what you are saying? So far, I don’t see the controversy.

– Not yet. To all that, the criterion ‘truth’ applies: we would like to know it — even though people may have expressed different opinions about what that truth is. Science is supposed to try to sort that out. And it seems equally obvious that there exists a human desire for moral or ethical guidance about what we ought to do. I don’t know about you, but it holds for a lot of people.

– Hey, what are you insinuating here? Better watch it all the time, buddy.

– Sorry, I didn’t mean to insinuate anything. It’s too early for insinuating. Coffee hasn’t even kicked in yet. Now: The precepts we are offered are often called ‘moral truths’.

– Ain’t that the truth. Just got on a radio station this morning that was full of that. Full of it, I tell you.

– I know what you mean. Well, while many of them look quite convincing, isn’t there a difference between such claims and the claims about reality?

– They both refer to fat books: what’s the difference?

– I think there is a big difference. You know it. The descriptions by science about the real world refer to the past and present, — what IS. Well, and sometimes carelessly about the future: predictions about what will be, based on what we know about what was and what is. Later, the predictions are then seen as having come true (resulted in true facts) or false (when things didn’t turn out as predicted). The test is the observed reality at that time. In contrast, aren’t precepts about what we OUGHT to do made precisely because they are not true (yet)? And because there is the possibility that we might not heed them and do something contrary to the recommended moral rule?

– You are right: the preacher on that radio sounded like most people are breaking the moral rules all the time. Got all worked up about it, too…

– So if we want to use the same term ‘truth’ for both the scientific and the moral claims, shouldn’t we make a distinction between the kinds of ‘truth’ involved: ‘reality-truth’ and ‘moral truth’? And then Hume’s warning that we can’t derive the latter from the former kind still applies — or would have to be convincingly resolved.

– Whose warning?

– Hume’s.

– Who’s Hume?

– David Hume. He was an old English philosopher who first stated that you can’t logically derive ought claims from facts. And it’s something that many smart people have pretty much accepted. And logic too.

– Oh. And now this Harris Neurowhatnot is saying that’s not true? And you are saying Harris is wrong?

– I am not in a position to make any comments about whether neuroscience can resolve that issue. I don’t believe it can, but what I do suggest is that its’ the wrong question. And that a resolution of a kind is possible from a different perspective — that of design, planning, policy-making.

– And you can prove that?

– I think it’s a better story. Proof, I don’t know: not about ought-claims. Which is the point.

– So what’s the story?

– It begins with the observation that humans (possibly other species too, but we know about humans for sure) act, and make plans for actions, for changing the environment they find themselves in. The purpose for such action is survival: food, shelter, procreation etc. at the basic level.

– And happiness, don’t forget.

– Right. Happiness, I guess. Now they find, unhappily, that such plans sometimes conflict with the plans of other people. They also find that they then have several options available, several possible actions among which they have to decide. For example: they can decide to just try to get rid of the guy with the other plan and go ahead with their own. Chase him, make him an offer he can’t refuse, hit him over the head with a blunt object, you know the routines. Or they might recognize the possibility of being gotten rid of by the other guy — perhaps he has a bigger club — and run away, forgetting about their plan. Or, to look for some way of reconciling the differences between the plans (all the while seeking to keep up the appearance of having the bigger club…). They may also entertain a vision that perhaps by joining forces in pursuing a common plan, they might achieve an outcome that would be even preferable to that of either individual plan, and opt for cooperation.

– I see. I think. So what should I do when that happens?

– Ah! You put the finger on it!

– I put the finger on what? The guy with the bigger club who’s interfering with my plan? Don’t think so.

– No: Think! You put the finger on the origin of basic ought – questions of the kind ‘what should I do?‘ Which of the options of fighting, fleeing or surrendering, or negotiating to choose. And of the more elaborate questions of the kinds of agreements that must be entered to ensure successful cooperative planning, if you select the last option of negotiating a common plan.

– What kind of agreements are you talking about?

– Good question. First, there is something of a vague acknowledgment that the outcome of the plan must be better than the existing (or predicted) situation or at least acceptable, for both parties. And secondly, that to find out what that mutually acceptable plan should look like, requires communication: talking, negotiation. It also requires some mutual assurance that the clubs will have to be left outside the negotiating hall. The talk must aim at clarifying the features of the common plan, and the application or threat of force, coercion don’t relate to the quality of the plan, and therefore would immediately revert the situation to the fight/flight option. So the agreement to abstain from force is a basic necessary element of such situations.

– Okay, I can see the need for those agreements. Now are you saying those are moral truths?

– Not truths: agreements. This distinction is important: these starting agreements or rules for cooperative planning are not truths — they are mutual understandings, commitments, promises. Even the concept of ‘thieves’ honor’ expresses this: two scoundrels may know and acknowledge that they are scoundrels when negotiating a deal — but also know that making certain commitments will have to be honored if the negotiating option is to be maintained — but that they can always switch to one of the other options.To call the agreements, promises, ‘truths‘ is not doing justice to the concept of truth, don’t you think? But they work just as well, don’t they?

– Yeah. At least I see that they are very different kinds of truths than the facts of reality. So truth is gone from planning, then?

– No: This does not mean that truth is absent from the process. Quite the contrary: In explaining to each other what features the plan should have or not have, the parties make proposals of the kind: ‘the plan should have feature x’ — and try to convince the other party with an argument justifying that suggestion. The argument will take something like the form: “The plan should have feature x, because having x will lead to (cause) a situation with feature y, and feature y is desirable”. Such an argument will ‘work’ in persuading the other party only if that ‘opponent’ or planning partner feels / is convinced that the claim ‘x will cause y’ is true. So at least for that part of the argument, we are looking for truth: ‘reality-truth’, if you go along with the distinction we made.

– Okay: but what about the part that says we ought to have y?

– Right. The problem is that we talk about this in different ways, some of which look like the term ‘truth’ applies, even though we saw that it doesn’t, or that it is a different kind of truth.

– Your are confusing me here.

– It can be confusing. Let’s see. You agreed, didn’t you, that saying ‘we ought to have y’ is not true in the same way as ‘doing x will produce y’. If only because different people may have legitimate and obvious disagreements about whether we should have y — one person’s benefit is another person’s cost, remember? But they should eventually come to an agreement whether x causes y: it depends on the nature of x and y, not on whether they like it or not. I’m not saying that is always easy to pin down. But the confusion comes when we speak about the effect or goal y like this: “Having y is desirable” or “Y is a good thing”. Notice the use of the word ‘is’ here? That’s the source of the confusion.

– Why?

– It sounds more like a statement about reality that’s independent of how we feel about it — so people use ‘truth’ for such statements as if they were also ‘reality-truths’. Blurring the difference.

– Okay: So what b… blurring difference does that make in deciding what we should do?

– Patience. There will usually be a number of such arguments being bandied back and forth, some supporting the plan having feature x, some against. Each party must decide whether and when to end the discussion by agreeing to the plan or ending the cooperation, based on some ‘weighing’ of all these pros and cons: a decision. What does this mean? It means, for one, that the decision is made on the strength of the person’s perception of the truth of the claims ‘x will lead to y’ etc. in all the arguments. More specifically, the decision is not made on the basis of the actual truth of the claims — but on the person’s degree of confidence that the claim is true. An important distinction: we never know with complete certainty whether x will cause y; it is a prediction that may turn out not true (due to all kinds of unforeseen circumstances) even if we know with reasonable certainty that in the past x has always caused y. But even that isn’t always very certain. What about the claim that y is desirable? Again: y may be desirable to one party but not so much for the other. So is ‘true’ the proper term for whatever level of confidence we have for such claims?

– Well,you convinced me that it isn’t quite the same. But what else do you suggest?

– I suggest that we use something like ‘plausible’ instead — with degrees of plausibility ranging all the way from complete agreement or conviction, to complete disagreement, with an in-between point of ‘don’t know’ or ‘undecided’. And all the ‘pro’ and all the ‘con’ arguments (of which there is always at least one, pertaining to the cost or effort involved of getting the desired outcome, plus any other disadvantages) must be weighed against one another according to their relative importance for each party.

– The short and long of all this is that the planning argument contains two different kinds of premisses: (at least two; there may be some qualifying claims added, or statements about conditions under which x causes y, and whether those conditions are present) but the two key premisses are these: one ‘factual’ or ‘factual-instrumental’ which will have to be justified, supported by means of what we might loosely call the ‘scientific’ approach: observation, logic, calculation. Aiming at ‘objectivity’ — our judgments about it should aim at conforming to the property of the reality, the object we are judging, not according to what we would like it to be or how we feel about it. But that kind of judgment is preciseley what we have to make about the second kind, the ‘deontic’ premiss: “we ought to achieve y”. Both premisses can of course we challenged’: the former will call for ‘scientific’ evidence for support, as I said — but the latter can only be supported with more arguments of the same kind. Which students of argument will have recognized the argument pattern as being inconclusive from a formal logic point of view: “y should be pursued because y will lead to z, and z is desirable” — more arguments that cannot be decided by ‘scientific’ means, if only because their deontic premises in turn may be desirable to one party but unacceptable to the other.

– This is getting kind of complicated. How does all this relate to a science of morality?

– If you think about it for a while, it will sort itself out. But here is where it gets back to morals and ethics. Some such discussions may end up invoking deontic claims, principles, rules that are accepted, even seen as ‘evident’ or ‘self-evident’ by all participants. Is the search for such universally claims and rules what morality, ethics is all about?

– From what I know about it, yeah. Obviously, it would be useful to have such a set of precepts that could help settle disagreements about what we ought to do.

– I quite agree. And the very planning discourse itself embodies some such rules: for example, we must assume, for a truly cooperative discussion towards a mutually desirable plan, that the claims we make are ‘true’, in the sense that we do not make claims which we are convinced are not true: our claims should have a reasonable degree of plausibility. We shouldn’t make deceptive or knowingly untrue claims; they would jeopardize the quality of the plan.

– That makes sense. But hey, not lying and not telling the whole truth can be different things, can’t they? Should we also be obliged not to hold back knowledge we have reason to believe would constitute weighty arguments for or against, for the other party?

– You are getting it, my friend. What about explicitly spelling out reasons — for and against some proposal — that some may feel are so obvious that they should be taken for granted as being known and taken into account by the other? What about mentioning possible effects of the plan that would be desirable for us, but undesirable for the other party — but that the other party is not aware of?

– Well how does all that relate to the claims of that book? Does he have an answer for these questions?

– To be honest, I’m not sure; since I haven’t read the book, only the review. But there seems to be a claim for some ultimate answer in there, that I have trouble accepting. It is the claim by Harris regarding the ‘correct conception of the good‘ being the well-being of conscious creatures. Ultimately, the deontic premisses that must be accepted as ‘self-evident‘ and not requiring further debate would rest on the identification of such well-being — in the planning case, of all parties involved in the planning discussion because they might be affected by the outcome in some way.

– And the author thinks science can do that?

– Apparently. Sure: If science could clarify what is required for such well-being, this would indeed provide us with at least a workable set of ultimately and commonly acceptable deontic premisses for the planning discourse: morality. This would then be described by the scientists who — as Orr seems to accept — may be in a position to do so because of their expertise in neuroscience. If neuroscience has those answers — which is another question.

– You sound like you don’t think so? And I imagine there would be other people who don’t like where this is going?

– You are probably right. Another round of quarreling. There is, from the planning perspective, at least one good reason for the visceral reaction one must expect to this vision, in my opinion.

– I’m glad you have more than another visceral reaction. What’s the reason?

– The notion of ‘well-being’. Doesn’t it look like a rather static concept: one set of circumstances that produces the optimal constellation of neural responses in the human brain? What if it cannot be determined with any degree of certainty?

– I’d suspect it won’t be that easy…

– Right — not just because of its complexity. The real difficulty is that it isn’t a static, constant condition. Don’t humans, at least many humans, have an innate desire to change not only their environment to increase their well-being, but essentially themselves?

– What do you mean? All I ever hear is about people wanting to find out ‘who they are’?

– That’s a distraction people have been brainwashed into accepting. Well, I guess it’s somewhat justified in that it helps people get out from under what other people keep telling them they are. No, the real issue is who they want to be. Think about it. Expressions such as ‘make a difference’ are one indication. People want to stand out, be recognizable as individuals, not as indistinguishable specimens of the same species. They’d be very unhappy if they found out that what they really are is just a cog in the wheel, one of millions of indistinguishable worker ants. They try to ‘live up to’ certain images, visions of what they could be. Don’t you agree?

– Not that you explain it — Was that what Bob Dylan was saying in his song ‘I’ve got nothing, ma, to live up to’?

– Right. And just the basic two or three choices of the original planning situation described above demonstrates that different images lead to very different ‘moral’ rules. Some people may have a stronger tendency (perhaps even on a genetic basis: that would be something for science to study) to deal with conflicts according to the ‘fight’ option.The ‘warrior ethics’ has some very demanding rules, internal consistency and ethical precepts that demand acknowledgment and even grudging admiration even from people who themselves are more inclined to the ‘cooperation, mutual assistance’ attitude with its very different ethical implication. And people throughout history have designed very different visions of who they wanted to be and to become, to be seen as — expressed in their art, their architecture, their manners, and their moral rule systems.

– To the casual observer such as myself, this may look like just baseless, what do they call it, moral relativism, without any firm foundation. Isn’t there a desire, a need for something more, something more universal, timeless?

– You have been listening to too much talk radio. No, the question is a valid one. Where does this desire for a firm foundation for morality come from? The individual, certainly, confronted with choices, must make decisions and justify these to others; with arguments resting on deontic premisses that are acceptable to others: this is one if not the major basis for a desire for morality. Yes: people want to ‘do the right thing’ — as acknowledged even by others from which they also want to distinguish themselves (‘stand out’…). A bit of a dilemma, right? But there are other motivations. For people whose existence involves intense interaction with other people — and especially for anybody aiming at leadership roles or positions of power in society, the predictability of the moral rules of others is a significant aspect of their own planning: so there is a strong incentive to try to influence people to adopt and adhere to a consistent set of moral or ethical rules.

– Are you saying they are trying to brainwash us to toe the line?

– Would I ever say any such thing?

– No, you sly devil, you trick me into saying it…

– Well… And to ensure adherence by imposing sanctions for violating them. If this conflicts with assumptions about avoiding ‘enforcement’ by application of force, the strategy has been to invoke supernatural beings who will carry out the requisite enforcement sanctions or rewards, if not in this life, then in the hereafter…

– I think you’d better watch it all the time. You are making yourself a tad unpopular here.

– Why, even in this mythical fogged-in tavern? I guess it can’t be helped: the questions just keep coming up. Can humanity find a workable balance between its members’ desire to invent and live up to ever new and different images of who we might be, encourage their creativity and ability to devise inspiring, noble, beautiful visions of what humans can be — and the need for predictability of the resulting ethic rules of each of those visions?

– Gee, don’t ask me, Abbé Boulah.

– Why not?

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