The Moral Landscape – Part 2: Facts and Values

the-moral-landscapeAs previously noted, Harris put forth his three senses to demonstrate that the division between values and facts are illusory. The Christian theist may find it difficult to combat such claims, because, truly, each of the three senses is a correct assessment of the relationship between values and facts. There is indeed a relationship between values and facts, a relationship defined by translation (premise 1), causation (premise 2), and measurement in the human brain (premise 3). Notice, however, that the agreed upon relation between facts and values is not the same as agreeing that there is no distinction between ‘facts’ and ‘values.’ Values certainly and necessarily relate to facts at some level, but this in no way necessitates the marked distinction between ‘values’ and ‘facts’ as illusory. Relationship, even a derivative relationship, expresses distinction. Although values may be derived from facts, the substance of the transference is not purely and exclusively the substance of the fact, the antecedent. The fact does not intrinsically produce the value. There is a process that transforms the fact into a value, and this transformation is conducted through human agency, which differs in its interpretive value contrived from the fact. It is apparent why Harris differed so much from his fellow atheist scientists and philosophers in regards to the relationship between facts and values – i.e. he allowed the agreed upon relation to abolish the distinction. Nevertheless, how does the relationship between facts and values reconcile ‘is’ and ‘ought’?

Harris referenced Hume in his notorious ‘is/ought distinction,’ where he “argued that no description of the way the world is (facts) can tell us how we ought to behave (morality).”[1] The philosopher G. E. Moore agreed with Hume’s observation and produced the ‘open question argument,’ which Harris unraveled:

Moore argued that goodness could not be equated with any property of human experience (e.g., pleasure, happiness, evolutionary fitness) because it would always be appropriate to ask whether the property on offer was itself good.[2]

In regards to Harris’ morality, implementing this ‘open question argument,’ one may ask, ‘Is the property well-being itself good?’ It is a question of justification, not of disagreement. Rarely would one find someone who posed this question because they disagreed with Harris’ premise; and as such, an objective morality is agreed upon.[3] First, one must analyze Harris’ treatment of Hume.

Does the claim that values are a type of fact disarm Hume’s ‘is/ought distinction?’ Is the resolution as plain and simple as recognizing that all values are built from facts? How could these philosophers be so blind? Obviously, it is because one cannot see what one is not looking at – i.e. Hume’s ‘ought’ is not the same as Harris’ ‘values,’ but Hume’s ‘is’ is equivalent to Harris’ ‘facts.’ Harris’ claim demonstrated the non-distinction between ‘is’ and ‘is,’ because he shows that values are types of facts; but he does nothing to demonstrate a non-distinction between ‘ought’ and ‘is.’ For example, ‘ought’ is not necessarily removed from valuations. If one were to claim that they value the act of giving to charity, both in their life and in the lives of others, does such a claim nullify another person’s questioning as to why they ‘ought’ to give to charity? Harris would then point the questioner to the fact that charitable-giving maximizes the well-being of conscious creatures. And it appears that the cycle would continue on in its normal fashion, because values are types of facts, and facts have no ‘ought.’ Harris’ merely noted that values are extended facts, thus expanding Hume’s ‘is,’ and then concluded that there is no division between ‘is’ and ‘another type of is.’

There appears to be a missing premise: (A) Values are a type of fact. (B) … (C) Therefore, the ‘is/ought’ distinction is illusory. Though (C) was not explicitly espoused by Harris, he appeared to mean to lead the reader to such a conclusion. Adding ‘values’ to the discussion, and then marking them as facts, merely placed the ‘ought’ question further along. Harris apparently attempted to supplement ‘ought’ for ‘values’ and then, in the act of demonstrating values were a type of fact, attempted to lead his readers to believe that ‘ought’ is a type of ‘is.’ One cannot prove that there is no distinction between a cat and a turtle by placing another turtle in the room, calling it a cat, and then demonstrating its similarities to the other turtle. In doing so, one has made all cats to be turtles (and vice versa), and thus there is no distinction between the cat and the turtle. A turtle is not a cat whether you call it one or not. And how has the third turtle called cat now affected the overall deliberation? It has only prolonged the real distinction of concern. Once the turtles were proven akin, the cat still remained in the room, remaining to be dealt with. Harris’ ‘values’ is simply an ‘is’ calling itself an ‘ought,’ while the ‘ought’ still remains in the room, remaining to be dealt with. The question remains: why ought one be concerned with the maximal well-being of conscious creatures? Why should human flourishing be an objective moral good? And stating that maximizing well-being ought to be ‘good’ because ‘good’ is defined by that which maximizes well-being can hardly be called an answer, let alone a satisfactory answer.

[1] Ibid., 10. In his footnotes, Harris cited Dennett’s response to Hume: “If ‘ought’ cannot be derived from ‘is,’ just what can it be derived from?…ethics must be somehow based on an appreciation of human nature – on a sense of what a human being is or might be, and on what a human being might want to have or want to be. If that is naturalism, then naturalism is no fallacy,” Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (London: Penguin, 1996), 468. Similar to Hume, G. E. Moore noted “that any attempt to locate moral truths in the natural world was to commit a ‘naturalistic fallacy’ (Moore, Principia Ethica [1903], 13; cited in Harris, 10.)

[2] Harris, Moral Landscape, 10.

[3] Harris agreeably noted, “I do think anyone sincerely believes that this kind of moral skepticism makes sense,” ibid., 32.


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