Blog Post

On Moral Truths

As I am about to criticize the idea of "moral truth" in the paragraphs that follow, let me begin by saying that I am not defending moral relativism. As Sam Harris points out in his recent book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Moral Values, "one can reasonably doubt whether any consistent moral relativist has ever existed."

The reason Harris doubts the existence of moral relativists, however, is not the same as my reason for doing so. He doubts their existence because he feels that the position is self-contradictory, in that the relativist's own conviction is not held to the same standard of cultural specificity as all others are. But whereas for Harris this failure to subject one's own moral framework to the same withering critical gaze one preserves for all others is what sets the relativist apart and invalidates her position, for me it is a necessary condition of all morality. In other words, we cannot be moral relativists precisely because we are always committed to our own moral framework at the expense of any number of other options.

Now, as someone who concurs with Sam Harris's moral framework in almost all regards—perhaps unsurprisingly, given that we come from similar cultural and educational backgrounds—there is some irony in my picking a fight about his central argument: that because "human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain," and because, "consequently, there must be scientific truths to know about it," we are led to conclude that "there are right and wrong answers to questions of human values."

It is important to reiterate how close my values are in general to Harris' stated values. As an interlocutor I would likely never make a statement of tolerance toward acts of barbarity in other cultures of the sort that causes his draw to drop and him to turn on his heel, as he reports in one amusing anecdote in the book. Most of the cultural practices he finds heinous and barbaric I do as well, and wouldn't and don't shirk from attacking with the same vehemence he does. I also would not defend religions as being better arbiters of morality than science, as many of his opponents might.

So what, then, is the problem with the idea of a moral landscape—which Harris defines as "a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering"—as being the basis, discoverable by science, of moral truths?

My objection is a version of G. E. Moore's "naturalistic fallacy." To be fair, Harris confronts this argument early on in his book; he does not, however, confront this version of it, which I believe is the most pressing, namely, that naturalizing moral truths risks sedimenting potentially immoral practices by dressing the difficult and constantly contested business of judgment with the uncontroversial appearance of settled fact.

Harris believes he can avoid this objection by making morality contingent on improving human well-being, which I imagine he would fall back on as an adequate defense against his moral truths turning out to support potentially immoral practices. But unfortunately the naturalistic fallacy is constantly at work protecting current cultural norms from future critiques.

Let me take an example from me own recent experience. As I write these lines I am just recovering from a hangover self-inflicted on the occasion of the wedding of my good friends' daughter. The hangover was a small price to pay for a truly joyous occasion. Had this been a mere decade or more ago, or even now but in a different part of the U.S., though, I wouldn't be nursing a hangover because the wedding would not have taken place. My friends' daughter married another woman in an interfaith ceremony (presided over, incidentally, by a gay Rabbi who was there with his husband). Harris would be right to point out that prejudice against gays has been encouraged and justified in the name of religion; but it is also undeniable that science and the medical profession were until very recently complicit in naturalizing that prejudice in terms that could easily be wrapped into Harris's formulation of moral truths as deriving from well-being. It is an unfortunate coincidence that at a time when violence against gays seems to be undergoing a (one hopes, temporary) spike, Harris ends his book by mentioning gay marriage in passing as a debate unworthy of debate—although, in all fairness, I can only assume he means that the debate should have been long decided in favor of gays' civil rights.

I think Harris's vulnerability to this mistake stems from a philosophical error that lies at the heart of his thesis. This error, which we could call imaginary reduction, occurs whenever we infer from the fact that there is a way that the world is, independent of our knowledge of is, that the world is in fact as our knowledge of it would be. Harris makes this error when he defends distinguishing between answers in practice and answers in principle to moral questions, and insists that "it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, whether or not we can always answer these questions in practice." The problem arises when one tries to draw any inferences, such as actual moral precepts, from the fact that there must be answers in principle, for what we necessarily do in that moment is to imagine those answers as if they already existed.

The pragmatic, mundane, and rather deflating truth about answers to moral questions is that, while it sounds quite grand to stipulate their existence as answers in principle, they are in the end always practical. The moral landscape, as a kind of ideal map of all the potential rights and wrongs of our actions, past and future, sounds like a panacea, an eternal compass that will allow humans to move past their petty squabbles (like gay marriage) and get down to the really important business at hand (like "nuclear proliferation, genocide," and the other admittedly crucial problems Harris ends his book with). But just as with that other great moral compass that is religious fundamentalism, a science that pretends to know all the answers risks delaying or even halting the progressive change that comes from societies engaging in unfettered dialog about what is right and what is wrong. Science should be and is called on for its insights; but so should religion, law, literature, and art; and none should be permitted to wield the veto of dogma.

Harris refers on more than one occasion in his book to the goal of "creating a thriving global civilization," and to "changing people's ethical commitments" as "the most important task facing humanity in the twenty-first century." As one who largely shares his moral commitments, I profoundly agree. And yet if these are our shared goals, it strikes me that assuming the absolute falsity of the sorts of beliefs underlying the vast majority of our fellow global citizens' commitments is, at best, a questionable first step toward achieving them. While I cannot be anything other than fully committed to the moral judgments that define me at any given time, I can understand those judgments not as the pure expression of neutral facts, but rather as the product of a complex network of interpretations of and attitudes toward those facts. This understanding cultivates tolerance and hope: tolerance, not of barbarism, but of the ultimate fallibility underlying all practices, even barbaric ones; and hope that even the most barbaric and entrenched of those may change.

William Egginton's picture

William Egginton is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches on Spanish and Latin American literature, literary theory, and the relation between literature and philosophy. He is the author of How the World Became a Stage (2003), Perversity and Ethics (2006), A Wrinkle in History (2007), The Philosopher's Desire (2007), The Theater of Truth (2010), and In Defense of Religious Moderation (2011). He is also co-editor with Mike Sandbothe of The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy (2004), translator of Lisa Block de Behar's Borges, the Passion of an Endless Quotation (2003, 2nd edition 2014), and co-editor with David E. Johnson of Thinking With Borges (2009). His most recent book is The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In the Modern World (2016).