In my discussion of the possibility of a science of morality, I have been asked to compare and contrast my views with those of Sam Harris.
I cannot do this justice in one post, but I can provide a brief (superficial) outline of the similarities and differences.
Sam Harris starts out with a simple observation. He will put a picture of a mother playing happily with her child side by side with one who is grieving over a dead child that is the victim of violence or illness. Then he states that it is absurd to claim that there is no fact of the matter that distinguishes the quality of these two states of affairs.
Harris says that there is clearly a difference, and there is no reason to believe that science cannot identify that fact of the matter accounting for this difference in quality.
On this, I agree.
I have come to express my own objection to the claim that values cannot be facts as follows:
There’s no distinction between what is and what ought. There’s only a gap between is and is not. So if there’s no room in what is for what ought. Then ought must find its home in ‘is not’.
In other words, rather than a fact/value distinction, I recognize a fact/fiction distinction. Moral claims are either facts, or they are fictions. Moral claims refer to something in the real world, or they belong in the realm of make-believe.
This rules out any mysterious third realm - a realm of value that is not fact and not fiction.
People have accepted as unquestioned truth for the last 250 years at least that there is this mysterious third realm. I don't think they have given serious thought to how utterly strange this claim is. That there is this realm called 'value' that sits outside of this realm called 'fact'. Even though 'ought' is not a part of what 'is', it can and does move matter around in the real world. The atoms in our body can be sent into motion - somehow - by these 'ought' properties sitting outside the realm of what 'is'.
Or, if 'ought' doesn't move matter around in the real world, why are we talking about it as if it is relevant to what happens in the real world?
All of this leaves open the possibility of denying the existence of 'ought' and claiming that all 'ought' statements are fictions. That option doesn't do the least bit of damage to the proposal I advance. Desires will still exist. Desires will remain the only reasons for action that exist. Some desires will continue to remain malleable - subject to social forces such as praise and condemnation. People will continue to have reason to bring these social forces to bear - promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibiting desires that tend to thwart other desires.
Say that morality does not exist if you wish, the facts that I emply will remain a part of the real world. I will use the word 'better' to describe states that there is more and stronger reason to pursue, but somebody else can use a different word if they wish.
So, Harris and I agree that there is some fact of the matter distinguishing various states of affairs, whereby the mother playing happily with her child is a better state than the one with the mother wailing over the body of a child lost to violence, injury, or illness.
The next question, then, is, “What is this 'fact of the matter'?”
Harris says that it is “the well-being of conscious creatures”. From this he derives a rather standard form of act-utilitarian ethics; the right act is the act that maximizes the well-being of conscious creatures.
Unfortunately, this type of move is 200 years old and in those 200 years moral philosophers have come up with a huge set of arguments against it.
First, it is an empty thesis. It states, in effect, that goodness is found in states of being that are good. That's not a big help. What is the quality of a state of being that is good?
Second, it does not provide any answer to the question of how "the well-being of conscious creatures" acquires this property of goodness. Why is it the case that the well-being of conscious creatures is good and not, say, the preservation of a natural wilderness that has no conscious creatures? Ultimately, some critics will argue, Harris simply likes the well-being of conscious creatures. Somebody else might like the preservation of pristine nature and pick that as their ultimate good. How would we go about showing that one was right and another wrong?
Harris' thesis runs agound on philosophical rocks that have been well charted over the past two centuries. His clear failure to address these challenges invites two responses.
The most common form is, "See, there is no such thing as value-facts. Yet another attempt to describe a value-fact has failed, for exactly the same reasons that all past attempts have failed, and for the same reasons that all future attempts will fail."
The second possible objection – Harris' route does not work. The response above is correct in stating that this route will never work. The response above is incorrect in assuming that no other route is available. Let's try a different route.
Now, let's contrast the route that I suggest to the one that Harris used.
Desires are propositional attitudes where a desire that P gives an agent a motivating reason to choose those actions that will realize states of affairs where the proposition P is true.
Let us assume that an agent has a desire for the preservation of pristine nature. For example, a creature, Alph, has a desire that the something like the moon Pandora from Avatar – this one consisting only of a garden without conscious creatures - continue to exist. This is Alph's only motivating reason for action, and it motivates him to choose those actions that will realize states of affairs in which the garden moon Pandora continues to exist.
Under the assumption of no conscious creatures on Pandora, there is no connection at all between a state of affairs in which Pandora continues to exist and one concerning the well-being of conscious creatures. Yet, in this hypothetical universe, where Alph is the only creature, the continued existence of Pandora is the only thing anybody cares about.
Harris' account would have Alph abandon the preservation of Pandora in favor of his own "well-being" – whatever that is – even though the preservation of Pandora is his only interest. Harris would demand that Alph see to his own well-being even though the only thing Alph wants to do is to make sure that Pandora continue to exist.
When I claim that Harris cannot explain how the well-being of conscious creatures can have value, I am asking for an explanation of how the well-being of conscious creatures can have a demand on Alph's actions when he has no interest in that end. Indeed, I have to ask how "the well-being of conscious creatures" can even make sense. How can Alph even know what it is for Alph to be well off?
In this example, if you change the desires that exist – if you change what people care about – you change what they have reason to bring about. This means that you change what has value. The well-being of conscious creatures could have value if there are desires that P where P is true in states of affairs that contain the well-being of conscious creatures.
However, we are still dealing with the handicap that we do not have an account of what "the well-being of conscious creatures" is. How do we determine if one state of being is better than another?
On the account that I advance, where desires are the only reasons for action that exist, well-being consists of states of being in which the propositions that are the object of the agent's most and strongest self-referring desires are true.
For example, one of my self-referring desires is that I am not in pain. The fact that the word "I" appears in the proposition P ( P = "I am not in pain") makes the desire self-referring. States of affairs in which the proposition "I am not in pain" are true are states in which I am better off (my state of well-being is better) then states in which it is false - all else being equal.
However, many of my desires are NOT self-referring. In writing these posts, I have asserted that I would prefer that people see through the mistakes I make and reject these ideas if they are wrong, then for me to lead them into error. Like Alph, I value the preservation of pristine nature and would choose the preservation of a garden planet such as Pandora over minor setbacks to the well-being of conscious creatures - such as foregoing the benefits that might come from the destructive mining of resources there.
I have desires for my wife's wishes to come true. And though I refer to her by referencing her relationship to me, this is still not a self-referring desire. My wife is not myself. Nor is it a desire for her own well-being because, like me, she might value some things that are worth the loss of a little well-being.
Now, statements about whether particular agents have particular desires are objectively true or false - like statements about the eye color, blood pressure, age, and weight are objectively true or false. Statements about states of affairs are true or false. Statements about whether the proposition P that is the object of some desire is true in a given state of affairs are objectively true or false. An examination of these facts never needs to leave the realm of science.
At the same time, they provide a complete account of value.
So, I agree with Harris that value claims fit within the realm of science claims. He is wrong to say that value resides (entirely) in the well-being of conscious creatures. That theory leaves us to ask what "well-being" is and why it can have value while other states of affairs cannot. I argue instead that desires are the only reasons for action that exist, that they take the form of a propositional attitude, and they are motivating reasons for people to choose actions that realize states of affairs in which those propositions are true. Those propositions often are, but they need not be, self-referring and thus may have nothing at all to do with well-being. Yet, they identify ends that those with the desire have motivating reason to bring about. Moral value has to do with the malleable desires that people generally have the most and strongest motivating reasons to bring about – using social tools such as praise or condemnation. A desire for the destruction of the earth – while it gives the agent a motivating reason to bring about the destruction of the earth – is a desire that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn.
We do, in fact, have a great many self-referring desires. As a result, a desire for the well-being of conscious creatures is a desire we have many and strong reasons to promote. But there is nothing magical in the well-being of conscious creatures that gives it this property, nor is it a property unique to the well-being of conscious creatures. Harris is wrong to suggest otherwise.