Tag Archives: values

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

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.

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I must agree with my boss

By Socrates

By the gods, how many times have I seen people following the lead of authority figures, I don’t care to count. Sometimes authority figures are clever orators who can build agreement through carefully crafted rhetoric. We know these people as sophists. They make bad arguments look good and good arguments look bad.

But sometimes people follow the lead of authority figures even when they don’t agree with the arguments. Rather than challenge the arguments, they turn a blind eye and feign agreement. By Zeus, I have even seen people become so accustomed to a bad argument that they come to agree with it.

My life has been dedicated to challenging bad arguments. Identifying faulty premises is the first step in finding an antidote to poor reasoning. I must admit, however, that this approach eventually led to my trial and subsequent penalty. Nevertheless, I have been commanded to continue my work and I shall do so by examining every day reasoning.

I met an intelligent person whose boss had convinced him that a certain workplace policy should be enacted. But he wasn’t convinced through good argument. Rather, he was following his own behavioral reasoning based on this syllogism:

P1. (premise) If my boss believes that we should enact a new policy, then I should believe it too

P2. (premise) My boss believes we should enact a new policy

C. (conclusion) Therefore, I should believe it too.

Now, you are a wise reader and will no doubt find it confusing that anyone should follow behavioral reasoning such as this. But when we examine the reasoning more closely, we see that the first premise (P1) emerges from a prior deduction:

P1. (premise) I must have the approval of my boss

P2. (premise) If I must have the approval of my boss, then if my boss believes that we should enact a new policy, then I should believe it too

C. (conclusion) Therefore, if my boss believes that we should enact a new policy, then I should believe it too

This syllogism deduces the first premise of the main behavioral argument. So, good reader, you can see that my friend was agreeing with his boss because he believes he must have his boss’s approval.

For clarity, let us construct the reasoning in full.

P1. (premise) I must have the approval of my boss

P2. (premise) If I must have the approval of my boss, then if my boss believes that we should enact a new policy, then I should believe it too

C1. (conclusion) Therefore, if my boss believes that we should enact a new policy, then I should believe it too (from P1, P2)

P3. (premise) My boss believes we should enact a new policy

C2. (conclusion) Therefore, I should believe it too (from C1, P3)

How can we help this unfortunate person? We can help by identifying weak or false premises. For example, premise 2 could very well be false. It is possible that my friend’s boss might not approve of unquestioned agreement. He may prefer to be challenged and therefore approve of employees who can articulate weaknesses in a plan.

But the main problem my friend’s reasoning is his first premise: I must have the approval of my boss. It may be true that he will gain his boss’s approval, but in insisting that he must have approval, my friend puts at risk his ability to think for himself. He risks his soul being twisted into a new shape by someone else.

At a more fundamental level, the word “must” implies that approval is unconditional and that there is no other way the world can be. My friend must have his boss’s approval. But surely his boss is free to decide for himself where he places his approval. There is no must, as if it is a universal law. I wonder what my friend would think if someone held him to the same demand: “you must approve of me”.

Our stoic friends would remind us that we cannot control the thoughts of others. They choose for themselves where they place their approval. We can, however, control our own actions. Insofar as it is more rational to focus on the things one can control rather than the things one cannot control, my friend should focus on developing his own values and making his own decisions. This, to me, seems preferable than assimilating someone else’s values in the hope of gaining approval.

— Socrates

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