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Moral Landscape – naturalistic fallacy

January 13, 2014

It’s been a little while (Christmas and a few other things got in the road) but our sojourn through Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape continues. I’ll have to increase the pace a bit for the challenge begins soon. This series of posts is going at a slow pace, but Harris’ book is very provocative and contains a wealth of ideas requiring analysis and reflection upon each page turn.

On pages 10-11 of The Moral Landscape Harris outlines a key objection to his basic thesis which was famously outlined many years ago by Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume argued that ‘no description of the way the world is (facts) can tell us how we ought to behave (morality)’ (p.10). This follows to the ‘naturalistic fallacy’, which is to attempt to locate moral truths in the natural wold. As Harris appreciates, if Hume is correct and the naturalistic fallacy holds, then Harris’ entire thesis fails.

The naturalistic fallacy and Hume’s is/ought dilemma are crucial obstacles for Harris to overcome, yet unfortunately at this point I don’t think he has quite overcome it. Harris claims that the definitional problems of the ‘open question argument’ are overcome by focusing on well-being. Yet I’m not quite sure how focusing on well-being overcomes this problem. I feel here that Harris hasn’t really justified his point – there are serious philosophical and definitional issues raised through the ‘is/ought dilemma’ and the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ yet Harris seems to sweep these aside and instead is critical of scientists who don’t suggest that his or her work should offer guidance for how people should live.

Harris goes on to outline three senses in which the dividing line between facts and values are illusory (p11).

  1. Whatever can be known about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures must at some point translate into facts about brains and their interaction with the world.
  2. The very idea of ‘objective’ knowledge has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon principles that we must first value
  3. Beliefs about facts and beliefs about values seem to arise from similar processes at the level of the brain: it appears we have a common system for judging truth and falsity in both domains.

All three of these statements can be contested. Whilst we need to see Harris’ full argument some initial comments can be made.

  1. At one level assertion (1) is correct but this still doesn’t solve the ‘is/ought’ dilemma. As I outlined in an earlier post, because we can measure something doesn’t mean that we ‘ought’ to do it (or not). Although, this claim might be correct if we make the prior assumption that well-being the only thing we can value and we can clearly define and measure well-being. But these are problematic assumptions.
  2. This assertion has a very loose use of the word ‘values’ for Harris has merged ‘assumptions’ which are important and foundational with ethical ‘values’. In this point Harris can move from assumptions to values simply through definition. I think he would need to be more precise here otherwise Harris is simply developing an a priori argument.
  3. This claim verges on committing the ‘genetic fallacy’, i.e. that a conclusion is reached on origin rather than meaning. Simply because these different processes emerge from the same place does not make them equivalent. Using this logic you could also suggest that for a man, because semen and urine come from the same place therefore sex and urinating both have the same function and should be treated similarly. Furthermore, Harris is merging epistemology with morality. This merging appears to be foundational to his thesis. I’m not convinced that it can work as neatly as Harris claims, but I’m looking forward to reading more on this. Harris will need to defend his statement here in a bit more detail (which he promises).

Harris concludes that the boundary between facts and values does not exist. I’d like to see him defend this notion more clearly because the three statements he has just written are problematic.

Crucial to Harris’ argument is the nature and definition of ‘well-being’. Yet this claim raises it’s own definitional issues which Harris identifies and we will discuss in the next post.

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