Thursday, May 20, 2010

Carroll v. Harris: The Irrelevance of Definitions and Differences

I am writing about Sean Carroll's argument as to why we cannot have a science of morality as described by Sam Harris in his talk to the TED conference.

Carroll wrote:

The point [of a science of morality] is simply that the goal of morality should be to create certain conditions that are, in principle, directly measurable by empirical means. (If that's not the point, it's not science.). Nevertheless, I want to argue that this program is simply not possible.

I will accept this account of a science of morality . . . except I am hesitant to say that the conditions must be directly measurable. It sems that science is filled with a long list of situations that are only indirectly measureable. Even here, there are fields of science in which certain situations are not measureable.

Against this possibility, Carroll provides three arguments. I will discuss one of those arguments in each of the next three posts.

(1) There is no single definition of well-being.

I am amazed at how many people think that this is a good argument. I encounter it all the time. People cannot agree on a definition of morality; therefore, morality cannot be made into a science.

How do scientists decide on the meaning of a word?

They simply decide. They state, "Okay, we're going to use this word to mean that thing over there.." Sometimes, they take a vote. None of this interferes with the objectivity of science.

Scientists seem unable to agree on the definition of a planet. Some of them insist on continuing to use a definition in which Pluto is classified as a planet. Yet, nobody has even suggested that "There is no single definition of 'planet'" would be a threat to the science of astronomy.

If there is a single definition of a word it is because a group of scientists have made an arbitrary decision to adopt a particular definition - and everybody else has decided to yield to the authority of the few. Yet, even there, we see no threat to the objectivity of science.

What scientists have realized, that too many people who write about ethics get flat wrong, is that definitions do not matter. Definitions are not about things in the world - they are about the language we are going to use to talk about things in the world. Anybody who insists that a particular definition - whether of atom or malaria orplanet orwell-being is the one and only possible ever in the whole universe correct definition of this term is starting out with such a warped sense of the role of language that everything that follows is nothing but confused gibberish.

When it comes to definitions of good or morality or well-being my answer is always, "If you don't like my definitions, then choose definitions you do like. It does not matter to the theory. The only effect that this will have on the theory is that some effort will need to go into translating the theory from the language I am using (a version of English) into another language 9(e.g., a different version of English). The theory itself is unaffected - no matter what definition of well-being you might adopt.

However, Carroll was not responding to my claims. He was responding to Harris' claims.

Which brings up (again) another objection to Carroll's argument. Carroll continues to confuse the task of criticizing Harris's view that morality is concerned with the well-being of conscious creatures with the question of whether a science of morality is possible. He continues to commit the fallacy of arguing against the former claim (which is easy to do - since Harris is wrong) with the claim that there is a possibility of moral science. He defeats the former then suddenly asserts that he has defeated the latter.

When we get into the meat of the debate, Carroll does not talk so much about the definition of 'well-being'. In fact, he spends the rest of this section using the term 'well-being' as if we are substantially in agreement over what it means, and claiming instead that it is not something that everybody values.

First, there are people who are not interested in universal well-being at all.

While I'm happy to admit that people are morally confused, I see no evidence whatsoever that [all people] ultimately value the same thing. The position doesn't even seem coherent. Is it a priori necessary that people ultimately have the same idea about human well-being, or is it a contingent truth about actual human beings? Can we not even imagine people with fundamentally incompatible views of the good? (I think I can.) And if we can, what is the reason for this cosmic accident that we all happen to agree? And if that happy cosmic accident exists, it's still merely an empirical fact; by itself, the existence of universal agreement on what is good doesn't necessarily imply that it is good. We could all be mistaken, after all.

Before responding to this passage we should note that Carroll confuses two distinct things - what we value, and what we believe about what we value. Carroll starts by talking about what we want - which I can easily understand to be a statement about what we desire. However, he quickly slips into speaking about our "ideas about human well-being" and "views of the good" as if these are the same thing.

The difference between what we value and what we believe about what we value is as plain as the difference between what I drive and what I believe about what I drive. I may think my car is a classic 1950s model Chevy that was once driven by James Dean. This could accurate describe what I believe about my car without accurately describing the car.

It turns out that neither interpretation is going to get Carroll where he wants to go. However, it does create some.

I agree with Carroll that it is absolutely false that we all value the same thing. And that we do not all believe the same things about what we value. In fact, one of my objections against Harris is that he cannot come up with even a remotely plausible story of how all value got wrapped up into one package called "the well-being of conscious creatures".

I pointed out, among other things, how evolution is going to give us desire that are more immediate and relevant. Animals have a desire to have sex, to eat, to drink, to be in a comfortable environment. They have no interest in "the well-being of conscious creatures." So, how is it that we only have an interest in "the well-being of conscious creatures" and gave up all of these other concerns? And where is the evidence for that transformation?

The difference between Carroll and myself is that I wrote in the context of a blog in which I argue not only for the possibility but the actuality of deriving 'ought' from 'is', and Carroll wrote his claim in an article that "you cannot derive 'ought' from 'is'"

So, I want to know how the fact that we have different desires, or the fact that we have different beliefs about what we value, at all supports the proposition that we cannot derive 'ought' from 'is'.

Our desires are not the only facts about us that differ from person to person. It is also the case that one person's age, height, weight, hair color, location, blood pressure, blood alcohol content, pulse, potassium levels, also differ from one person to another. Yet, nobody takes these individual differences to prove that that we cannot have a science of medicine. They also do not infer from this that some people that there is only one "correct" blood pressure and anybody whose blood pressure deviates from this amount has an "incorrect" blood pressure.

In short, none of this proves the impossibility of proving 'ought' from 'is'. All of these facts are true about desirism yet it still can derive 'ought' from 'is'. It simply includes among the is statements that it derives 'ought' from that different people have different desires.

In fact, one of the conclusions that we get from desirism is that, in some situations, different people ought to have different desires. It is better, all things considered, if some people desire that A and others desire that B than it would be if everybody desired A or everybody desired not-A. It is better that some people value teaching and other people value medicine than it is that all people value teaching (and not medicine) or that all people value medicine (and not teaching).

Carroll concludes this section by writing:

When two people have different views about what constitutes real well-being, there is no experiment we can imagine doing that would prove one of them to be wrong. It does not mean that the conversation is impossible, just that it is not science.

As it turns out, this is a wholly different argument, unrelated to the arguments that came before. It is not an argument based on the arbitrariness of definitions (which fails because all definitions in all fields of study are arbitrary). Nor is it an argument from individual variability (which fails because age, height, weight, location, and any number of other properties vary from individual to individual yet are still unashamedly used in science). It is an entirely new argument, which I will responid to in an entirely new posting.

9 comments:

Kip said...

> In fact, one of the conclusions that we get from desirism is that, in some situations, different people ought to have different desires. It is better, all things considered, if some people desire that A and others desire that B than it would be if everybody desired A or everybody desired not-A.

Is that "some people moral ought to have different desires"? How does this statement affect the claim that morality must be universal?

josef said...

Outstanding! I was hoping you would tackle Carrol's post, which was for me somewhat cringe-inducing. I will pester Carrol to take a look.

As a side note, I don't know if Harris would say human flourishing is substantially different from desire fulfillment. In response to critics, including Carrol, he wrote:

I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of mind. Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like "metaethics," "deontology," "noncognitivism," "anti-realism," "emotivism," and the like, directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe. My goal, both in speaking at conferences like TED and in writing my book, is to start a conversation that a wider audience can engage with and find helpful. Few things would make this goal harder to achieve than for me to speak and write like an academic philosopher.

My sense is that Harris would agree substantially (entirely?) which what you characterize as desire-fulfillment. He did not seem, in his TED talk, to be advocating a particular value or set of values, but to say that such values exist. So it's not clear to me that Harris is wrong.

cl said...

josef,

My sense is that Harris would agree substantially (entirely?) which what you characterize as desire-fulfillment. He did not seem, in his TED talk, to be advocating a particular value or set of values, but to say that such values exist. So it's not clear to me that Harris is wrong.

I agree. Whenever I hear Alonzo say that Harris or Mill or whoever else advocates a maximization theory "is wrong," I tend to think that at the root, what Fyfe advocates isn't much different.

For example, I think it's accurate to say something like, "people ultimately desire happiness." Though I don't have a direct quote handy at the moment, I've heard Fyfe reply to that statement by saying something like, "No, people ultimately desire to keep true their propositions... sometimes people will sacrifice happiness for some other desire."

That is true, but it doesn't mean that person is not ultimately after their own happiness, or satisfaction. It seems reasonable to say that any person who would sacrifice happiness A would only do so for the purpose of some greater happiness B. Or, that any person who would willingly endure pain would only do so for some greater happiness.

Kip said...

> I think it's accurate to say something like, "people ultimately desire happiness." ... It seems reasonable to say that any person who would sacrifice happiness A would only do so for the purpose of some greater happiness B.


This is only true if by "desire happiness" you mean the same thing that is meant by "seek that which fulfills the most and strongest desires".

Andy said...

Josef,

Alonzo has a thought experiment detailed here for why people are aiming to fulfill their desires and not their general happiness.

http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2006/09/happiness-vs-desire-fulfillment.html

Syndic said...

You said: They have no interest in "the well-being of conscious creatures."

What? That's false. I have interest in "the well-being of conscious creatures." So do most people. In fact, I'd go farther in saying that I have interest in "the well-being of non-conscious creatures." That is, creatures who have some form of awareness that's not consciousness.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly enough, Harris has responded to Carroll and his other critics here - http://www.project-reason.org/newsfeed/item/moral_confusion_in_the_name_of_science3/.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Syndic

They refers to non-human animals . . . who have no interest in "the well-being of conscious creatures" because they can't even perceive such a thing.

It would be as easy for them to have an interest in "the chemical composition of Kupyer Belt Objects."

Beastinblack said...

'Animals have a desire to have sex, to eat, to drink, to be in a comfortable environment.' That is why humanity has an overpopulation crisis - simply because as a species we want everything for nothing.