Sam Harris – An attempt at getting “ought” from “is”


Meditations of a 21st century incarnation of Socrates as composed by Brent Silby


On this cloudy winter’s day I have been meditating on a short argument recently presented by Sam Harris on his Facebook page. This popular thinker has, for some time, been attempting to reduce ethics to science, and he has recently put forward an argument which he believes succeeds in doing so. As someone who knows very little, I find myself drawn to people who make big knowledge claims. I am, as you know, especially interested in Ethics, so I eagerly read Harris’s argument.

Harris wants to show that ethics and values can be derived from facts about the world. If he succeeds in doing this, he will solve the famous is-ought problem. The is-ought problem suggests that no amount of knowledge about how the world happens to be can lead us to conclusions about how the world ought to be and how we ought to behave. Decisions about how we should behave may be informed by empirical facts, but ultimately they are based on values which do not seem to be derivable, in themselves, from empirical facts.

Here is Sam Harris’s attempt at solving the problem. It takes the form of a direct argument rather than an extended composition of prose. And I am grateful for this. It is straight-forward and allows for direct examination.

P1. (premise) Let’s assume that there are no ought’s or should’s in this universe. There is only what is—the totality of actual (and possible) facts.

P2. (premise) Among the myriad things that exist are conscious minds, susceptible to a vast range of actual (and possible) experiences.

P3. (premise) Unfortunately, many experiences suck. And they don’t just suck as a matter of cultural convention or personal bias—they really and truly suck. (If you doubt this, place your hand on a hot stove and report back.)

P4. (premise) Conscious minds are natural phenomena. Consequently, if we were to learn everything there is to know about physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, economics, etc., we would know everything there is to know about making our corner of the universe suck less.

P5. (premise) If we should do anything in this life, we should avoid what really and truly sucks. (If you consider this question-begging, consult your stove, as above.)

P6. (premise) Of course, we can be confused or mistaken about experience. Something can suck for a while, only to reveal new experiences which don’t suck at all. On these occasions we say, “At first that sucked, but it was worth it!”

P7. (premise) We can also be selfish and shortsighted. Many solutions to our problems are zero-sum (my gain will be your loss). But better solutions aren’t. (By what measure of “better”? Fewer things suck.)

C. (conclusion) So what is morality? What ought sentient beings like ourselves do? Understand how the world works (facts), so that we can avoid what sucks (values).

I have reproduced the wording Harris used. It is simple to understand. Harris is saying that all phenomena in the universe are physical; some events are terrible; we can learn how to avoid terrible events; if we should do anything, we should avoid terrible things; so we should understand how the world works.

While reading this, I found myself immediately drawn to premise #5.

P5. (premise) If we should do anything in this life, we should avoid what really and truly sucks.

This is a conditional, which is used to deduce a sub conclusion (not stated) that leads (jointly with the other premises) to the deduction of his main conclusion, which I will reword properly so that it doesn’t contain a question:

Sub Conclusion: We should avoid what really and truly sucks

C. (conclusion) Sentient beings like ourselves ought to understand how the world works (facts), so that we can avoid what sucks (values).

Harris believes he has thus derived an ought (how we ought to behave) from facts about the world. But I am not so sure. Again, I am interested in premise #5. This is a conditional premise. It takes the form: if P, then Q. In order to use a conditional to deduce Q, we need to affirm the antecedent, P. In the case of Harris’s argument, the antecedent is: we should do anything in this life. Or, worded more precisely, we should do things in this life.

Now, my friends, this seems to indicate a problem. For Harris to deduce his sub-conclusion: we should avoid what really and truly sucks, he needs to include a premise, which he has left suppressed. The premise is: We should do things in this life. Let us take a look at the complete argument with the suppressed premise and sub-conclusion included.

P1. (premise) Let’s assume that there are no ought’s or should’s in this universe. There is only what is—the totality of actual (and possible) facts.

P2. (premise) Among the myriad things that exist are conscious minds, susceptible to a vast range of actual (and possible) experiences.

P3. (premise) Unfortunately, many experiences suck. And they don’t just suck as a matter of cultural convention or personal bias—they really and truly suck. (If you doubt this, place your hand on a hot stove and report back.)

P4. (premise) Conscious minds are natural phenomena. Consequently, if we were to learn everything there is to know about physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, economics, etc., we would know everything there is to know about making our corner of the universe suck less.

P5. (premise) If we should do anything in this life, we should avoid what really and truly sucks. (If you consider this question-begging, consult your stove, as above.)

P5a. (premise) We should do things in this life

C1. (sub conclusion) Therefore, we should avoid what really and truly sucks

P6. (premise) Of course, we can be confused or mistaken about experience. Something can suck for a while, only to reveal new experiences which don’t suck at all. On these occasions we say, “At first that sucked, but it was worth it!”

P7. (premise) We can also be selfish and shortsighted. Many solutions to our problems are zero-sum (my gain will be your loss). But better solutions aren’t. (By what measure of “better”? Fewer things suck.)

C2. (conclusion) So what is morality? What ought sentient beings like ourselves do? Understand how the world works (facts), so that we can avoid what sucks (values).

Take a look at premise 5a, my wise friends. Harris needs this assumption to make his argument work. But look at premise #1. I may be foolish, but it seems to me that Harris has a contradiction in his argument. He starts by assuming that there are no oughts. But to make his argument work, he needs to assume at least one ought as revealed in premise 5a: we should do things in life.  This ought needs a separate justification.

I am grateful to Sam Harris. He has, in this argument, revealed the difficulty in deriving oughts from facts. He has demonstrated that in reasoning from facts to oughts, one must assume at least one ought.

— Socrates

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