Scientism and the Is/Ought Gap

moral

Justinthecanuck has generously provided the following essay, which he wrote for a soon to be published book, for us here at Episyllogism, as a part of the discussion on morality, naturalism, constructionism,  the is/ought distinction, and a number of important themes in moral philosophy. Thank you!

Readers may want to review our recent discussion:

  1. Moral philosophy and empirical psychology;
  2. Point/Counterpoint – Moral Psychology: An Exchange;
  3. Philosophy, psychology, anthropology: morality

 

The following essay will appear, with minor edits, as a chapter in a forthcoming volume on scientism edited by Maarten Boudry and Massimo Pigliucci. I include it here as a sneak preview in case any episyllogists are interested: please cite only with permission.

 

Scientism is the view that the only facts are those that could in principle be learned exclusively from the natural and social sciences, empirical observations, mathematics, and logic, and that any beliefs that can only be justified in some other way are merely sham knowledge. And yet, adherents of scientism often speak and act as though we ought to do things (for instance, that we ought to accept scientism). Clearly, if it is a fallacy to derive an ought from an is, then these devotees of scientism are in trouble.

The putative fallacy of deriving an ought from an is, sometimes called the naturalistic fallacy, arises from the simple observation that an argument whose conclusion non-trivially contains a concept that does not appear in any of its explicit or implicit premises cannot be valid. An apparently straightforward application of this general principle is that an argument whose conclusion non-trivially contains the concept ‘ought’ (or ‘morally right’, ‘morally good’, etc.), but whose premises do not contain that concept, cannot be valid.

Is it possible that the naturalistic fallacy is not in fact a fallacy? While the reasoning behind the fallacy diagnosis seems airtight, there is one possibility that could, in theory at least, make room for a scientistic approach: the possibility that the move from an ought to an is may be legitimate in some cases. As Charles Pigden remarks in ‘The Is-Ought Gap’[1], certain deontic logics may employ logical ‘ought’ operators that appear in the premises without being mentioned in the conceptual content of the statements, but that become more salient in the conclusion. Since it is a matter of considerable controversy which modal logical system, if any, is to be preferred in such cases, and which system of deontic logic, if any, is the correct correlate of that general modal system, it remains a live possibility that an ought can legitimately be derived from an is[2]. I explore this interesting possibility a little later.

Much of the discussion of scientism takes place in popular books and lectures, far away from technical controversies over operators and metatheorems in deontic logics. In these popular discussions, it is common for moral philosophers to be portrayed in caricature as benighted longhairs stumbling around in the dark for want of empirical enlightenment – enlightenment that scientism alone can provide. Sam Harris, perhaps the most notorious among the ‘scient-ists’ in the popular press, has written a book and given several talks in support of the supposedly revolutionary view that science can inform human values and steer us away from moral relativism.[4] The fact that prominent philosophers have been articulating clear moral views, and opposing relativism, for millennia appears not to impress Harris: in his self-presentation, the attempt to use observations (and, curiously enough, non-empirical thought experiments such as one involving a fictional society that systematically blinds every third child in obedience to some religious scriptures[5]) represents a new and hitherto neglected direction in moral thinking.

It is hard not to wonder why Harris thinks his approach of considering the overall levels of happiness in objective or hypothetical cases is some sort of novelty, or why he would brazenly present this view with great fanfare as a significant achievement if he recognized that it is what most philosophers, and perhaps most people, already employ and have perhaps always employed in working through moral issues. It is also tempting to wonder, at times, whether Harris is entirely capable of grasping the nature of the is/ought problem, as when he says:

Moore felt that his “open question argument” was decisive here: it would seem, for instance, that we can always coherently ask of any state of happiness, “Is this form of happiness itself good?” The fact that the question still makes sense suggests that happiness and goodness cannot be the same. I would argue, however, that what we are really asking in such a case is “Is this form of happiness conducive to (or obstructive of) some higher happiness?” This question is also coherent, and keeps our notion of what is good linked to the experience of sentient beings.[6]

Unfortunately, Harris does not tell us what his argument for that conclusion would be in the unspecified circumstances under which he “would argue” for it. But to be as fair as possible to Harris, I focus on what I take to be his clearest articulation of how he thinks it possible to cross the is/ought divide. His plan is to make the crossing via an articulation of the synonymy of certain moral and non-moral terms:

To say we “should” follow some of these paths and avoid others is just a way of saying that some lead to happiness and others to misery. “You shouldn’t lie” (prescriptive) is synonymous with “Lying needlessly complicates people’s lives, destroys reputations, and undermines trust” (descriptive). “We should defend democracy from totalitarianism” (prescriptive) is another way of saying “Democracy is far more conducive to human flourishing than the alternatives are” (descriptive) … Imagine that you could push a button that would make every person on earth a little more creative, compassionate, intelligent, and fulfilled — in such a way as to produce no negative effects, now or in the future. This would be “good” in the only moral sense of the word that I understand. However, to make this claim, one needs to posit a larger space of possible experiences (e.g., a moral landscape). What does it mean to say that a person should push this button? It means that making this choice would do a lot of good in the world without doing any harm. And a disposition to not push the button would say something very unflattering about him. After all, what possible motive could a person have for declining to increase everyone’s well-being (including his own) at no cost? I think our notions of “should” and “ought” can be derived from these facts and others like them. Pushing the button is better for everyone involved. What more do we need to motivate prescriptive judgments like “should” and “ought”? [7]

Harris’s partner-in-scientism Michael Shermer attempts to cross the is/ought boundary in a similar way:

Morality involves how we think and act toward other moral agents in terms of whether our thoughts and actions are right or wrong with regard to their survival and flourishing. By survival I mean the instinct to live, and by flourishing I mean having adequate sustenance, safety, shelter, bonding, and social relations for physical and mental health. Any organism subject to natural selection – which includes all organisms on this planet and most likely on any other planet as well – will by necessity have this drive to survive and flourish, for if they didn’t they would not live long enough to reproduce and would therefore no longer be subject to natural selection … Given these reasons and this evidence, the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is my starting point, and the fundamental principle of this system of morality. It is a system based on science and reason, and is grounded in principles that are themselves based on nature’s laws and on human nature – principles that can be tested in both the laboratory and in the real world.[8]

Continue reading