There is a view of morality, most notably being propagated by misogynist and bigot Sam Harris, which claims that morality is reducible to general human well-being. He claims, on that basis, to have identified the scientific underpinnings of morality. These are laughable claims to anyone who knows about moral views and their defeaters, but it seems that a lot of atheists don’t know enough on the subject to really address these claims.
Equating morality with something like “human well-being” is called reductionism- a meta-moral position which reduces evaluative properties (like “good” and “evil”) to some factual property or properties. Sam Harris defines this in his introduction:
I will argue, however, that questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc.
This is the reductionist trick that Harris is using: that evaluative properties can be reduced to questions about emotions, impulses, laws, institutions, and neurophysics. According to this view, knowing enough facts related to these things means that we can make moral judgments, because questions of value are really just questions about these scientific issues. A moral statement can be reduced to some set of factual statements. So when I say, for instance, “torturing babies is wrong,” I am actually making a statement about scientific issues, such as the pain caused by torture, the nervous system of babies, the emotions that a torturer goes through, and so on, which I express through evaluative terms like “wrong.”
The first thing to point out is that there is no evidence to demonstrate that morality is reducible in this manner, there is no evidence to demonstrate that “general human well-being” is actually what morality reduces itself to. The common response given by Harris and others to this objection is: “if you don’t think morality is simply about well-being, then why should we care about what you think morality is?” But this is a poor response. A negative utilitarian could also say the same thing: “if morality is not about minimizing suffering, then why should we care about it?” Likewise for someone who believes morality is reducible to, say, happiness, self-accomplishment, the accumulation of knowledge, or whatever.
This brings me to my next point, which is that this “general human well-being” standard is a utilitarian standard, and therefore can be no more valid than any other utilitarian standard. For instance, Sam Harris cannot validate inter-subjective calculations any more than any other utilitarian can (although they claim far and wide that they can, until you ask them how). Furthermore, like most (but not all) utilitarian positions and like adaptationist positions, it cannot explain acts of self-sacrifice and justifies acts of sacrifice which are clearly immoral.
For instance, we widely believe that the people who helped hide Jews during the Holocaust were acting morally. If morality is reducible to general well-being, then this position is incomprehensible. After all, the act of hiding Jews was a sacrifice of well-being (depending on the country, you could be executed if you were found hiding Jews), at little to no gain in general well-being. Anyone who seriously believes that morality can only mean maximizing general well-being should boo Schindler’s List. Likewise, utilitarian advocates must hold that sacrificing the lives of innocent, non-consenting people in the name of a greater good (like, say, Hiroshima and Nagasaki) is a good thing.
I am not saying that any moral position which entails these views is necessarily wrong, but that these are at least pretty strong counter-arguments. It also gives a lot more weight to our “why should we care” questions. If your moral position entails that self-sacrifice of well-being to help others is bad, and that sacrificing innocent lives for the general well-being is good, then why exactly should we care about it? This seems to be no less a coherent question than the one they ask us.
Another problem, which is a problem for all reductionist positions, is that the well-being standard is an attempt to get evaluative properties from factual statements, which we know is logically impossible. You cannot get moral statements from non-moral statements, any more than you can get esthetic statements from non-esthetic statements, logical statements from non-logical statements, objective obligations from inter-subjective orders, and so on (in that regard, the is/ought dichotomy is really not special at all, but a rather commonplace principle). The formal argument demonstrating the is/ought gap was written by Toomas Karmo in 1988 (I am going here from the description by Michael Huemer in Ethical Intuitionism).
I will spare you the details, but the gist of the argument is this. There are statements that can break the is/ought barrier, but these statements are necessarily trivial (for instance: “it is good to do good things,” or “murder is bad”). For a moral statement to be non-trivial, it must be the case that under some possible sets of values the statement is false, and that under some other possible sets of values the statement is true. For instance, “torturing babies is wrong” is true under most possible sets of values, but it can be false under a possible set of values where torture is an absolute good, therefore the statement “torturing babies is wrong” is non-trivial. To derive a non-trivial moral statement, we must have some way of rejecting some sets of values and not others, but that itself would require a moral judgment. Therefore, no collection of factual statements alone can derive a moral statement.
Suppose a person knew everything there is to know about “positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc,” but held to no value system. This person would still not be able to make non-trivial moral statements. They certainly would not be able to derive “what is good (/desirable/ought to be pursued/whatever) is what furthers general human well-being,” unless they were first able to logically eliminate all possible value systems which do not further well-being, which they cannot.
Sam Harris also addresses intuitionism, but his reasoning is, well, bizarre:
I am arguing that everyone also has an intuitive “morality,” but much of our intuitive morality is clearly wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective well-being).
Of course it doesn’t. Why should we expect intuitions to jibe with someone’s manufactured moral system? To take an example I’ve already used, intuitively we do not boo Schindler’s List, but Harris’ standard means we should. Does that mean the intuitions are clearly wrong? The only way this argument makes any sense is if we assume Harris’ morality is true by definition and the golden standard by which we should evaluate all other moral claims, but as I think I’ve demonstrated here, this is very silly.
This also brings up another big problem with Harris’ moral stance. How do we know he’s right? Since no amount of factual information can validate it, we must therefore validate it through our own morality. But this, in turn, means that Harris’ position is itself secondary to some other principle, the principle that was used to evaluate whether the position is valid or not. If someone thinks that well-being is a good standard, the moral principle by which he has judged it good must therefore be superior to, and replace, well-being. And if we cannot judge Harris’ stance as being morally good, then why follow it?
There are a few ways by which people can just dismiss radical ideas and go on with their lives without bothering to think about them. One way is to simply dismiss radical ideas as being unpopular, and therefore not worthy of consideration. This is, of course, a simple argument from popularity. How popular an idea is has nothing to do with whether it’s true or not. It just makes it easier to ignore. This is not really an argument, just an emotional appeal (an appeal to our desire to be part of the group, part of the gang, not be an outcast).
There is, however, a further argument which is based on this. There are people who believe that truth should be judged based on its utility, and who call themselves pragmatists or concerned with practicality. This has nothing to do with pragmatism as it was formulated in philosophy, but has been a common straw man about it. Either way, their strategy consists of something like the following:
1. Radical ideas are unpopular and will never be implemented.
2. Ideas which cannot be implemented are not practical.
3. There is no point in holding as true something that is not practical.
4. Therefore, there is no point in holding radical ideas as true.
Some will even so far as to say that radical ideas are actually false because of this, but I have given a charitable version of the argument here.
There is a sense in which this argument is somewhat valid: if you think there’s no point in believing something, then don’t believe it. However, it is not clear why our standard should be “whether it’s practical.” Many of our fundamental ethical principles are not very practical, but we adopt them anyway. For instance, many people happen to believe that people shouldn’t be treated as means to an end, or that we should not initiate harm, or things of the sort. From what we know of human history and current events, this is supremely impractical, but that doesn’t make these principles any less valid. Indeed, if you agree with the idea that morality and ethics only arise because of our disappointment with the world, then the whole point of ethical ideas is to point to something better than what we have now, so they must be impractical almost by definition.
It seems that “practical” can be more or less equated to “whatever we have now,” because whatever we have now is already implemented. And indeed this sort of argument is often used to defend the status quo: we know the status quo can be implemented because that’s what we have right now, while ideas for changing it are inherently uncertain and therefore not practical. While this argument is more complex than the popularity fallacy, it does to some extent reduce itself to popularity as well, because what is considered practical in our societies is generally what is popularly understood and believed. Our accepted conceptions of the human being, of society, of economics, and so on, dictates what is seen as practical and impractical.
The obvious reply is that this is not how truth works. We do not determine truth by practicality in any area of life. Truth, as commonly defined, is correspondence to reality (I expound on my own closely related theory of truth in this entry). But it seems to me that we need to be more specific here, because there are a number of claims being conflated. What do we mean when we say, for instance, that antinatalism cannot be true because it’s not practical? The way I see it, there are three propositions involved here:
(1a) There is sufficient rational evidence for the proposition that “procreation is wrong.”
(1b) Procreation is wrong.
(1c) We can prevent everyone from procreating.
Proposition 1b is the antinatalist view, so any antinatalist must believe (1b). Perhaps there are some antinatalists who do not believe (1a), but generally speaking people who believe (1b) will also tend to believe (1a). The reverse is much stronger: people who believe (1a) are very likely to believe (1b), and indeed, if they are honest, they should believe (1b).
On the other hand, there are no antinatalists I know who believe (1c). According to the pragmatist, this makes antinatalism false, or at least not true. But “antinatalism” is commonly defined as the proposition that procreation is wrong, not the proposition that we can prevent everyone from procreating. If that’s the pragmatist’s argument, then it’s simply incorrect, since refuting (1c) does not refute antinatalism in any way. The pragmatist may argue that it does make antinatalism useless, but whether (1c) is true or not, antinatalism still has an effect on people’s lives and cannot be discounted as useless. If it has any effect on people’s lives and some effect on society as a whole, no matter how small, it cannot be useless.
In a sense, the argument assumes that (1c) justifies (1b), that the practicality proves the truth of the proposition. What I believe, based on how we validate truth, is that a proposition like (1a) is what is needed to justify (1b), that what we need is rational evidence that the proposition is true. (1a) is a statement of fact which has nothing to do with practicality or implementation of any kind: an argument is either valid or invalid, a piece of evidence is either relevant or it is not relevant, and so on. While it may be complicated to reason through, the question “is there sufficient rational evidence for something” is a statement of fact which ultimately has only two answers, yes or no.
Another area where people use this sort of argument is in the case of left-wing ideologies. Let me take Anarchism as an example:
(2a) At least most hierarchies are not rationally justified. (the Chomsky Principle)
(2b) We should organize society along egalitarian lines.
(2c) We can organize society along egalitarian lines.
An Anarchist is most likely to agree with (2b), given that it is basically a restatement of Anarchism. An Anarchist may disagree with (2a), although I would think it rather unlikely. But an Anarchist does not have to agree with (2c). Here, we must point out that, as in the case of antinatalism (with the Shakers and the Cathars, to name only two), there have been instances of communities organized along egalitarian lines, historically and in the present. But when the pragmatist argues against Anarchists, the argument is that “our society” (whatever society that might be) cannot be organized along egalitarian lines, not “a society.” That is to say, it may be pragmatic for a Zapatista to believe in Anarchism, because it’s their status quo, but it’s not ours.
But this view, if correct, leads to the rather distressing conclusion that their idea of truth is no longer universal, but is rather culture-dependent. This is a red flag which shows that what they call truth is not really truth but something more wonky. What they are talking about is something like an “accepted belief” or “popular belief.” Truth is truth regardless of where you are or what society you’re in (except for things like indexical propositions, which have a meaning that itself depends on context, like “I am tired”). While you may not have access to evidence that other people can access due to being closer to its source, it does not mean that you have a “different truth,” it simply means that you have less evidence on which to base your judgment.
Of course, the issue of whether any given hierarchical society can be organized along egalitarian lines is a difficult one and can be asked in many different ways (is it feasible if there is the will to do it? will there ever be the will to do it?). But the simple fact is that no one can provide a definite answer to that question. Likewise, no one can definitely say that it will never be the case that no one will procreate. I will grant that the possibility is vanishingly small, but it is non-zero. However, whether the possibility is zero or non-zero, the issue of practicality has no bearing upon the truth of (1a) or (2a). The arguments for antinatalism are either valid or invalid. The Chomsky Principle is either true or false.
In some cases, we get a variant of this argument, which consists of stating that, while there is a possibility, that possibility is too frightening to contemplate. I have discussed this in the case of gender. It is also sometimes invoked in the case of denying free will (if people start denying their free will, they’ll go on a rampage!). This is a similar sort of argument, in that it still relies on general agreement, popularity, the status quo, and so on. If people believe a given hierarchy or ideal is necessary, then they will balk at the idea of losing it, and based on that, other people will say “look at what might happen if we lose this ideal.” But this still has nothing to do with whether this is a truthful evaluation.
This way of arguing goes hand in hand with a reformist, gradualist mindset. Gradualists want everyone to believe that their way is the practical way, the realistic way, that slow, gradual change within the system is what will work in the long run, and that radicals and revolutionaries are “utopian.” So it’s a natural step from there to argue that radicals are simply not being practical, that their way will never work, and that therefore there’s no point in considering their ideas. Of course, this is all nonsense: most social changes have not been accomplished by reformists (rather, they generally take credit for the changes after they take over a movement and tear it to shreds in order to make it socially acceptable).
Because issues of practicality are rather difficult to analyze, it’s also easy for these people to frame radical ideas as personal opinions, something like “well, you may think that X is better, but that’s just your opinion and I can ignore it because most people disagree.” So that’s another way in which the argument can collapse into a popularity contest.