Thursday, January 11, 2018

Sam Harris: Deriving "ought" from "is"

Allow me to briefly interrupt my critique of Sharon Street's "Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value" to critique Sam Harris on deriving "ought" from "is".

Sam Harris has made another failed attempt to derive “moral ought” from “is”.

His attempt fails at exactly the same spot utilitarian attempts have failed at for 200 years. There is nothing new here.

Still, a legion of his followers will praise and share it.

So, I would like to go through his argument in detail, show exactly where it goes off of the rails, pick up the pieces, and see where we can go.

Harris: 1/ Let’s assume that there are no ought’s or should’s in this universe. There is only what *is*—the totality of actual (and possible) facts.

Alonzo: Technically, this is a bad assumption, since we are going to prove that there are oughts and shoulds in the universe. This assumption would lead to a contradiction. But, it plays no role in the argument.

Harris: 2/ Among the myriad things that exist are conscious minds, susceptible to a vast range of actual (and possible) experiences.

Alonzo: I am not too certain that consciousness exists. Regardless, consciousness is not what is important here. What matters is that, among the myriad things that exist, there are intentional agents. These are agents who act based on beliefs and desires. There is some dispute over whether beliefs and desires exist. However, until scientists acquire some sort on consensus on an alternative model, we go with the best we have.

Harris: 3/ Unfortunately, many experiences suck. And they don’t just suck as a matter of cultural convention or personal bias—they really and truly suck. (If you doubt this, place your hand on a hot stove and report back.)

Alonzo: Desires are mental states that attach value to states of affairs. Almost all of us have an aversion to pain - a desire that assigns a negative value to the state, “I am in pain”. This fact explains the observations typically associated with many of the effects of putting one’s hand on a hot stove. However, the fact that I have an aversion to my own pain does not imply that pain is bad in some transcendental, supernatural sense. All we have established is that each person dislikes the state in which they are in pain.

Harris: 4/ Conscious minds are natural phenomena. Consequently, if we were to learn everything there is to know about physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, economics, etc., we would know everything there is to know about making our corner of the universe suck less.

Alonzo: If an agent had true beliefs, he would know how to prevent the realization of a state in which he is in pain. For example, if you knew that the stove was hot, and that putting your hand on the hot stove would realize a state in which you were in pain, and you have an aversion to being in pain, then you can reliably conclude that you can avoid realizing a state in which you are in pain by not putting your hand on the hot stove. But this does not say anything about putting somebody else’s hand on a hot stove.

Harris: 5/ If we *should* to do anything in this life, we should avoid what really and truly sucks. (If you consider this question-begging, consult your stove, as above.)

Alonzo: There is a sense of “should” or “ought” that says that if you have a motivating reason not to put your hand on a hot stove (e.g., an aversion to the pain that would result), then you “should not” or “ought not” put your hand on a hot stove. This is called the “hypothetical ought” because it depends on the hypothesis that one has an aversion to pain. If this aversion to pain were to vanish, then the reason not to put one’s hand on the hot stove vanishes. This is not a "moral ought". It is consistent with this that if I have an aversion to pain, and I can prevent the smallest amount of pain by putting your whole body in a hot fire, then I practical-ought to put your whole body in a hot fire. It is consistent with this that if I desire to live in a community without Jews, and I can identify a course of action that will kill all of the Jews, then I practical-ought to kill all of the Jews.

We see here the beginnings of where Harris' train starts to derail. He uses the word "we". This term is ambiguous in a way that makes it easy to commit the fallacy of composition. Take, for example, the fact that each carbon atom has 6 protons. It does not follow from this that a whole lump of coal contains 6 protons. Instead, the lump of coal is made up of carbon atoms each containing 6 protons. The "we" in this premise means "each of us individually". However, Harris will soon equivocate and start to make (false) claims that - he says - are true of all of us collectively.

Harris: 6/ Of course, we can be confused or mistaken about experience. Something can suck for a while, only to reveal new experiences which don’t suck at all. On these occasions we say, “At first that sucked, but it was worth it!”

Alonzo: This is actually a footnote or a caveat - not a premise in the argument. As a matter of fact, we each have more than one desire, and we have to weigh them against each other. I have an aversion to pain. I also have a desire for future experiences. Because of my desire for future experiences I may need to endure some short-term pain (e.g., surgery). It is true that the situation is more complicated than described. However, in the same way that physicists can deal with massless strings and frictionless surfaces, and chemists can deal with electron orbits, we can deal with beings having only one desire for the sake of simplicity.

Harris: 7/ We can also be selfish and shortsighted. Many solutions to our problems are zero-sum (my gain will be your loss). But *better* solutions aren’t. (By what measure of “better”? Fewer things suck.)

Alonzo: And, now, the train has gone off of the rails. I have an aversion to pain. I can avoid a small amount of pain if I throw you into a fire. I can be selfish. Why "ought" I not to be selfish? Everything written so far has brought us only to the point where I practical-ought to throw you in the fire to prevent the slightest pain. Now, Harris wants to leap to a definition of "better" that is completely at odds with what I have a practical-ought or hypothetical-ought reason to do. This is the is-ought gap that Harris claims to be able to cross. Yet, he crosses it by twitching his nose or blinking his eyes and magically teleporting us across it.

Harris: 8/ So what is morality? What *ought* sentient beings like ourselves do? Understand how the world works (facts), so that we can avoid what sucks (values).

Alonzo: The Nazi ought to kill all of the Jews, the dictator ought to torture and kill anybody who threatens his power, the drug dealer ought to get as many people as possible hooked on his drugs, the the rapist ought to understand how the world works so that he can rape while avoiding what sucks (going to prison). If this is morality, it is not the morality as people typically understand it.

So, let's pick up the pieces and see if we can move a little further down the tracks.

What survives the train wreck are individual practical-oughts grounded on desires.

I want to add a few more facts:

(1) Assume that you, with your aversion to pain, find yourself in a community filled with other intentional agents who also have an aversion to pain.

(2) Assume further that desires are malleable - interactions between an agent and its environment will change what a person comes to desire. More specifically, each agent has a "reward system" such that rewards and punishments (including praise and condemnation) can ultimately come to result in changes in its desires and aversions.

(3) Each of us is a part of the environment for other agents. Thus, each of us have the power to use rewards and punishments (including praise and condemnation) to alter the desires of other agents.

(4) There exists a set of rewards and punishments (including praise and condemnation) that will create in others an aversion to causing pain to others. By rewarding/praising those who refrain from causing pain to others, and punishing/condemning those who cause pain to others, we can create a community of individuals that, at least to some degree, will be substantially made up of individuals who, in addition to their own aversion to pain, will also have an aversion to causing pain to others.

If we add these facts to the fact that survived the trainwreck, we can conclude that each person has a practical-ought reason to use these tools of reward/praise and condemnation/punishment to promote - universally (in the whole population, or as much of the population as possible) an aversion to causing pain to others.

For this case, we do not need to assume that these reasons to create this aversion are themselves universal. We can simply focus in the possibility that people generally - for the most part, but to a large degree - have reasons to promote (to whatever degree they can promote it) a universal aversion to causing pain to others.

When I say that an act-type is morally wrong I am going to mean by this that people generally have practical-ought reasons to promote, universally, an aversion to performing acts of that type using the tools of reward/praise and condemnation/punishment. So, in the situation described above, causing pain to others would be morally wrong.

I would argue that, in the real world, I can make a case for promoting a universal aversion to lying, breaking promises, taking property without consent, physical assault, murder, rape, and the like.

Here, I will argue that I have a moral-ought derived from facts. However, moral-ought in this case is not identical to practical-ought. It is a sub-species of practical-ought. It is that subset of practical-ought concerned with the desires that people generally practical-ought to promote universally (or as close to universally as possible) using the tools of reward/praise and punishment/condemnation. All of the other practical oughts are non-moral oughts. There is no mystery in deriving practical-ought from is.

Some people may now complain that this is not what they mean by moral-ought. They mean a particular type of ought that cannot be reduced to a type of practical ought. However, my response to them is that their oughts do not exist. They are fictions. Because of this, all of their moral-ought statements are false. At least some of the moral-ought statements defined above are true, and that gives this account a distinct advantage over competitors.

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