Thursday, April 8, 2010

Sam Harris Again

Sam Harris has posted a FAQ that summarizes his claim to derive "ought" from "is." I further summarize his proposal as follows:
  1. There is a state that we can call "the worst possible misery for everyone."
  2. We ought to avoid the worst possible misery for everyone.
  3. "There are behaviors, intentions, cultural practices, etc. which potentially lead to the worst possible misery for everyone."
  4. We ought to avoid those behaviors, intentions and cultural practices.
In my version (and you can check for yourself if you think I've represented Harris's argument correctly) it is clear that Harris does not, in fact, derive "ought" from "is." Rather, he presents a fundamental "ought" which he thinks no one can reasonably deny. In this he is following a tack taken many years ago by Mortimer Adler, who proposed in his essay "Moral Values" (in Ten Philosophical Mistakes) that we can form a basis for morality by taking as an axiom some "ought" statement that is self-evidently true. (I don't know if Adler was the first to make this proposal.)

Adler's suggestion was

We ought to desire whatever is really good for us and nothing else.
Harris, in essence, turns this around and says we ought not to desire that which is really bad for us.

The problem that Adler faces, which is really the great problem of ethics going all the way back to Aristotle, is to answer the question "What is really good?" Harris thinks he can avoid this by asking instead, "What is really bad?" I don't think he succeeds.

It seems obvious (to Harris, anyway) that we should avoid the worst possible misery for everyone. But we first have to ask, what is the worst possible misery for everyone? Is there indeed such a state? We can imagine conditions that are really horrible for nearly everyone, but terrific for a few (a small group enslaving the majority to live in luxury, perhaps). Maybe even worse is a state where each group thinks it is enslaved by the other group, leading to continual conflict, violence, and revolt - not unlike the U.S. Congress. But is there truly a state that is the the worst possible misery for everyone?

Now, you might be thinking, "We don't really need to define the worst possible misery for everyone, Harris is really talking about avoiding some set of states that we can all agree are bad." I think this is basically right. In fact, Harris needs not only a set of states to be avoided, but some sort of gradation of those states, for he writes:
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 #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.
So we can't just avoid  the worst possible misery for everyone, we must be able to do it more fully or less fully, to move toward or away from the worst possible misery for everyone. Harris is sneaking in a utilitarian concept of "greatest good for the greatest number" (or something like that) by way of "the least bad for the greatest number."

On the face of it, then, Harris's argument makes no sense. First of all, he doesn't derive "ought" from "is" - he introduces a fundamental (and, he thinks, undeniable) "ought." Secondly, if our only goal is to avoid the worst possible misery for everyone, and if we are not in the state of the worst possible misery for everyone, then there is nothing more to do. There is no imperative, for instance, to alleviate the misery of a small group, as long as that misery will not bring about the worst possible misery for everyone. His whole program only makes sense if we reinterpret it in some quasi-utilitarian framework. But he hasn't told us what that framework is.


  1. Have you looked into Arrow's Impossibility Theorem? Kenneth Arrow proposes 5 axioms that are each individually hard to oppose, and proceeds to prove that no social welfare function can satisfy all 5 at the same time -- hence there can be no social welfare function whose optimization would solve the problem of how we ought to live together.

  2. Hi, Michael. The Wikipedia article on "Arrow's Impossibility Theorem" is all about voting. The version you refer to seems to be a more general result. Do you have a reference for the more general version?

  3. I think these are the original explications of Dr. Arrow.

    Kenneth Arrow: A Difficulty in the Concept of Social Welfare, J. of Polit. Econ. 58 (1950),

    Kenneth Arrow: Social Choice and Individual Values, 2nd ed. New York: John Wiley &
    Sons 1963.

    There is, indeed, a lot of literature about voting. I think this is because the political science people really liked this mathematical approach to choice. It is said that economists and poly sci academicians have "physics envy".