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Notes On Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape’: Subjectivity V Objectivity.

After looking at some basic terms, very briefly (see here), I want to turn now to something which may seem peripheral, and maybe it is, but is of interest to me nonetheless. What am I speaking about? Relativistic v objectivist morality, and some misunderstandings about it, and where Harris might land on either issue.

Moral Relativism

As stated in the last post, Harris’ thesis is about setting up a moral system that is objective, and based on truth – that is – not relativistic, subjective, and thus not simply relying on the whims, or preference of any given person or culture on any given day.

Moral relativism, however tends to be self-contradictory. Relativists may say that moral truths exist only relative to a specific cultural framework – but this claim about the status of moral truth purports to be true across all possible frameworks. In practice relativism most always amounts to the claim that we should be tolerant of moral difference because no moral truth can supersede any other. And yet this commitment to tolerance is not put forward as simply one relative preference among others deemed equally valid. (Harris, 2010, p. 45)

Harris goes further than this, he states that the motivations for relativism lie in the intellectual reparations for Western colonialism ethnocentrism and racism (p. 45), this being the only “charitable” thing he can say about it.

Later on in his book, the last page in fact, Harris in recognizing some of what anthropologists and cultural theorists might say about the state of relativism, states that it is not subjectivity that is the problem for a moral theory, at least as far as the scientists who study the brain are concerned. No, it is the belief (among those scientists) that there is no intellectual justification for “speaking about right and wrong or good and evil, across cultures.” (p. 190)

Much of this of course might be considered a caricature of what relativists, of any breed- be they anthropologist, atheistic philosopher, Post Modernist (theistic? After all a divine intelligence is a mind is it not? Would a moral law given from such an intelligence be considered simply divine relativism?) or otherwise – might say. He does not engage much with relativistic challenges to his theory, instead choosing to make common sense points, rather than referencing. This is a book written at the popular level however, you may choose to give it wriggle room for that, or not.

The challenge of subjectivity, and what it means to knowledge of all types is a serious one, that many philosophers have struggled with (see here, here, here, here, here). Heidegger, Patocka, Husserl, Foucault and Post Modern thinkers working in that tradition such as Heise are all concerned with how the phenomological, subjective experience is taken into account with theories of objectivity, as Patocka states, theories that situate us in the third person, or as Foucault might say, theories that ignore power relations. It would have been nice to see stronger engagement with this philosophical challenge.

Objective/ Subjective

To further draw out what Harris might mean though let’s turn to what he means when he uses the terms ‘objective’ and subjective’, and indeed ‘absolute’. Harris thinks that many people are confused about what scientific objectivity might mean:

As philosopher John Searle once pointed out, there are two very different senses of the terms “objective” and “subjective”. The first sense relates to how we know (i.e., epistemology), the second to what there is to know (i.e., ontology). When we say that we are reasoning or speaking “objectively”, we generally mean that we are free of obvious bias, open to counterarguments, cognizant of the relevant facts, and so on. This to make a claim about how we are thinking. In this sense, there is no impediment to our studying the subjective (I.e. first-person) facts “objectively. (Harris, 2010, p. 29)

From this Harris uses the analogy of his tinnitus to show that although this is a subjective experience, he is being “objective” in the sense that is he is not lying about his tinnitus, this is not preference or bias. He states his experience can be confirmed by an otologist, which suggests his tinnitus has a third-person (objective) cause that can be discovered. Moreover Harris states that much of the sciences of the mind are predicated on being able to “correlate first-person reports of subjective experience with third-person states of the brain.” (p. 30)  From here Harris states that many people think that just because moral facts relate to experience and are thus “ontologically subjective” all talk of morality must be subjective in the epistemological sense, that is biased, or merely personal. Harris doesn’t think this is so. He doesn’t deny that there is a subjective realm of experience in regards to his talk of objective moral truths, or objective causes of human well-being. He is not saying moral truth exists independently of the experience of conscious creature either, or that some actions are intrinsically wrong. What he means to say is:

I am simply saying that, given that there are facts – real facts – to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worst possible misery and the greatest possible well-being, it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions. (Harris, 2010, p. 30)

Finally, Harris makes the distinction, that is not always obviously delivered in say, debates on morality between atheists and theists, that there is a distinction in moral talk between ‘objective’, that is in either the epistemological or ontological senses discussed above and ‘absolute’, in which a moral truth is so and has no exceptions (see Moreland & Craig, 2003 for an equivocation between absolute and objective). We can speak of morals Harris thinks in objective terms, without speaking about them in absolute ones.

Many people seem to think that a universal conception of morality requires that we find moral principles that admit of no exceptions. If, for instance, it is truly wrong to lie, it must always be wrong to lie – and if one can find a single exception, any notion of moral truth must be abandoned. But the existence of moral truth – that is, the connection between how we think and behave and our well-being – does not require that we define morality in terms of unvarying moral precepts. (Harris, 2010, p. 8)

Reference

Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York, NY. Free Press.

Moreland, J., P., Craig, W., L. (2003). Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL,  Intervarsity Press.

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