Is Sam Harris an Objectivist?

Jameson's picture
Submitted by Jameson on Sat, 2010-04-24 04:45

He expands on his talk, limited by the short format of TED, here.


Harris & Hume

Jameson's picture

Okay, I accept he isn't an Objectivist. But is he an ally?

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How can you derive an “ought” from an “is”?

A response to David Hume (or the Hume of popular imagination).

The 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume famously argued that no description of the way the world is (facts) can tell us how the world ought to be (values). Hume’s argument was actually directed against religious apologists who sought to deduce morality from the existence of God. Ironically, however, his reasoning has since become one of the primary impediments to linking morality to the rest of human knowledge.

The Worst Possible Misery for Everyone

(Getting from “is” to “ought” 1.0 )

FACT #1: There are behaviors, intentions, cultural practices, etc. which potentially lead to the worst possible misery for everyone. There are also behaviors, intentions, cultural practices, etc. which do not, and which, in fact, lead to states of wellbeing for many sentient creatures, to the degree that wellbeing is possible in this universe.

FACT #2: While it may often be difficult in practice, distinguishing between these two sets is possible in principle.

FACT #3: Our “values” are ways of thinking about this domain of possibilities. If we value liberty, privacy, benevolence, dignity, freedom of expression, honesty, good manners, the right to own property, etc.—we value these things only in so far as we judge them to be part of the second set of factors conducive to (someone’s) wellbeing.

FACT #4: Values, therefore, are (explicit or implicit) judgments about how the universe works and are themselves facts about our universe (i.e. states of the human brain). (Religious values, focusing on God’s will or the law of karma, are no exception: the reason to respect God’s will or the law of karma is to avoid the worst possible misery for many, most, or even all sentient beings).

FACT #5: It is possible to be confused or mistaken about how the universe works. It is, therefore, possible to have the wrong values (i.e. values which lead toward, rather than away from, the worst possible misery for everyone).

FACT #6: Given that the wellbeing of humans and animals must depend on states of the world and on states of their brains, and science represents our most systematic means of understanding these states, science can potentially help us avoid the worst possible misery for everyone.

FACT #7: In so far as our subsidiary values can be in conflict—e.g. individual rights vs. collective security; the right to privacy vs. freedom of expression—it may be possible to decide which priorities will most fully avoid the worst possible misery for many, most, or even all sentient beings. Science, therefore, can in principle (if not always in practice) determine and prioritize our subsidiary values (e.g. should we value “honor”? If so, when and how much?).

FACT #8: One cannot reasonably ask, “But why is the worst possible misery for everyone bad?”—for if the worst possible misery for everyone isn’t bad, the word “bad” has no meaning. (This would be like asking, “But why is a perfect circle round?” The question can be posed, but it expresses only confusion, not an intelligible basis for skeptical doubt.) Likewise, one cannot ask, “But why ought we avoid the worst possible misery for everyone?”—for if the term “ought” has any application at all, it is in urging us away from the worst possible misery for everyone.

FACT #9: One can, therefore, derive “ought” from “is”: for if there is a behavior, intention, cultural practice, etc. that seems likely to produce the worst possible misery for everyone, one ought not adopt it. (All lesser ethical concerns and obligations follow from this).

No, he's not

Richard Goode's picture

Harris is pointing out that one of the consequences of accepting Hume's sundering of fact and value would be the end of physics

No, he's not. He's pointing out that the assumption that the future will lawfully relate to the past is better than the assumption that it won't.

The importance of context

Rick Pasotto's picture

To save others the trouble of reading all of Harris' comments, here's the full paragraph from which Dr NoGoode extracted one phrase:

And the philosophical skepticism that brought us the division between facts and values can be used in many other ways that smart people like Carroll would never countenance. In fact, I could use another of Hume’s arguments, the case against induction, to torpedo Carroll’s entire field, or science generally. The scientific assumption that the future will lawfully relate to the past is just that—an assumption. Other people are free to assume that it won’t. In fact, I’m free to assume that the apparent laws of nature will expire on the first Tuesday of the year 3459. Is this assumption just as good as any other? If so, we can say goodbye to physics.

In other words, Harris is pointing out that one of the consequences of accepting Hume's sundering of fact and value would be the end of physics -- a consequence he finds totally unacceptable.

Not Objectivist

Doug Bandler's picture

Harris is a Kantian. While I think he is the best of the new atheists, his specific positions on philosophic issues are bad. He doesn't believe in an objective reality because he agrees with the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics; i.e an "observer created reality". He has the Kantian belief that human perception is not of the real world because we distort reality by our methods of perception. He thinks that morality is an evolutionary phenomenon and that "moral intuition" is hardwired into the human genome. Lastly he thinks that morality must revolve around alleviating suffering which means he inevitably ends up an altruist. He is better than most secular humanists but in the end he is still part of the cesspool that is today's secular philosophical milieu. I like him despite his flaws but he is no Objectivist and I would bet dollars to donuts that he would have nothing good to say about Ayn Rand. Harris is a Leftist after all.

OK

Richard Goode's picture

Care to expand on your answer?

He says, after mentioning Hume's problem of induction,

The scientific assumption that the future will lawfully relate to the past is just that—an assumption.

No Objectivist would accord Hume such respect!

Also, there's no mention of Ayn Rand or Objectivism on his Wikipedia page.

Certainly, however, Objectivists will agree with much of what he has to say.

You're welcome, Richard

Jameson's picture

Care to expand on your answer?

No, he's not

Richard Goode's picture

A great talk, Glenn, thanks for posting it.

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