Someone actually gave Sam a PhD, for his moral landscape thesis. I hope all the universities aren’t giving out PhDs for theses based on not knowing the definition of a word. The word Sam doesn’t seem to know the definition of is “objective”.

Science can answer moral questions

I’m going to speak today about the relationship between science and human values. Now, it’s generally understood that questions of morality — questions of good and evil and right and wrong — are questions about which science officially has no opinion. It’s thought that science can help us get what we value, but it can never tell us what we ought to value. And, consequently, most people — I think most people probably here — think that science will never answer the most important questions in human life: questions like, “What is worth living for?” “What is worth dying for?” “What constitutes a good life?”
So, I’m going to argue that this is an illusion — that the separation between science and human values is an illusion — and actually quite a dangerous one at this point in human history.

Some of Sam’s fans have the strange notion that Sam is only arguing that science can be used to help us reach moral decisions. But, as he clearly states here, Sam acknowledges that people already use science in such a way. I’ve never heard anyone argue that you can’t use science in such a way. So, no, that is not the gist of Sam’s argument. That would be a Captain Obvious line of argument, that would deserve little attention, and would be even less worthy of a PhD. What he is setting out to do, “the separation between science and human values is an illusion”, is to argue that you can get an “ought” from an “is”. He laughingly thinks he has solved the is/ought problem.

In case you haven’t heard of the is/ought problem before…

The Is / Ought Problem

How does Sam manage to bridge this gap? Through make believe, is how he does it.

Well being is not new concept, but Sam likes to pretend that he has found the perfect objective definition for “well being”. And, if you don’t believe him, well then, you’re an “imbecile”.

Now, many of you might worry that the notion of well-being is truly undefined, and seemingly perpetually open to be re-construed. And so, how therefore can there be an objective notion of well-being? Well, consider by analogy, the concept of physical health.

Okay, let’s consider the concept of physical health. Science can show us that, if you do what is healthy, and avoid what is unhealthy, then you have a better chance of living longer. So what? I also have a better chance of living longer if I never go sky diving. That doesn’t mean I ought to never go sky diving. Science will also show us that, if we find a cure for all sickness, disease, and aging, that we will likely have a serious population problem on our hands. Nowhere does science tell us that we ought to prolong the lives of as many people for as long as possible. That’s just something we decide to do, all on our own because we, as individuals, would like to live as long as possible.

Science doesn’t actually care about you, or me, one little bit. While science can show that someone is riddled with cancer it, in no way, tells us what we ought to do about it. I could just as easily use facts to support putting them out of their misery immediately, as I could to support prolonging their lives as long as possible. It would reduce suffering and save money, if we just put them down, as quickly as possible. I could use that argument to put down a lot of people, which is the slippery slope that led to Social Darwinism or euthenasia which some of Sam’s critics have previously mentioned. Sam just ad homs those arguments away, without taking them seriously.

Well think of how we talk about food: I would never be tempted to argue to you that there must be one right food to eat. There is clearly a range of materials that constitute healthy food. But there’s nevertheless a clear distinction between food and poison.

Sam seems to be suggesting that we ought to avoid putting poisons into our bodies. This is a very strange notion. I’m glad he’s not an actual medical doctor. I take it Sam has never heard of treatments for cancer, or that death due to over-dosing is listed as death due to poisoning, by the CDC. We put “poisons” into our bodies constantly. You are only actually “poisoned”, if you take too much of something. Aside from drugs and alcohol, you can also “poison” yourself with things like caffeine, and black licorice. You can even “poison” yourself to death with too much water. I would hope Sam doesn’t suggest that everyone avoids water.

At best, we can objectively state that, if you put X amount of substance A into your body, you will likely die. Now, if you don’t want to die, then it might seem obvious that you ought not do that. But, what if dying, or killing, is exactly what you want to do? Some places that have deemed capital punishment a valid punishment for certain crimes, poison people to death. Sometimes we are in favour of compassionate assisted suicide and poison people to death. If we bend the rules for certain things, does it cancel out any objectiveness? I’d say yes. I’d say the end goal is relative to the situation.

According to Sam, the answer is no. He believes you actually can bend “objectivity” all you want. Another very strange notion…

Consider, by analogy, the game of chess. Now, if you’re going to play good chess, a principle like, “Don’t lose your Queen,” is very good to follow. But it clearly admits some exceptions. There are moments when losing your Queen is a brilliant thing to do. There are moments when it is the only good thing you can do. And yet, chess is a domain of perfect objectivity. The fact that there are exceptions here does not change that at all.

What actually is objective, about chess? The board is 8 squares by 8 squares. A certain piece is allowed to move in a certain way. If your king is captured, you lose the game. And, that’s about it. A good principle is not objective, at all. What you ought to, and ought not, do is totally relative to your goal, and the situation you are in. Even winning being the goal isn’t “objective”. If you are playing your child, and want to let them win, then you ought to let your king be captured. If you’re in a situation where you believe the best move is to lose your queen, then you ought to lose your queen. There is no “perfect objectivity” to chess. You make your move relative to the situation you are in, and relative to your end goal.

Sam seems to have a serious problem understanding, exactly, what “objective” means. It should mean that something is true, independent of a mind. Something that is true should always remain true. If a mind is deciding that something is true sometimes, but false at other times, to suit them, then that something should not be considered “objective”.

Now, this brings us to the sorts of moves that people are apt to make in the moral sphere. Consider the great problem of women’s bodies: What to do about them? Well this is one thing you can do about them: You can cover them up. Now, it is the position, generally speaking, of our intellectual community that while we may not like this, we might think of this as “wrong” in Boston or Palo Alto, who are we to say that the proud denizens of an ancient culture are wrong to force their wives and daughters to live in cloth bags? And who are we to say, even, that they’re wrong to beat them with lengths of steel cable, or throw battery acid in their faces if they decline the privilege of being smothered in this way?

Sam likes thought experiments, so let us imagine that someone we love is doing something that almost anyone on the planet would consider immoral…something absolutely vile, disgusting, horrid. You can pick the worst think in your own mind. Now, would it be an “objective” fact that we ought not hurt said loved one, in an attempt to stop them? I don’t know about anyone else, but I can think of reasons why I might hurt, or even kill, someone I love, in an attempt to stop them from doing the unthinkable (molesting a child is my pick for the worst). So, I don’t see the “objective” ought not beat, harm, or even kill someone you care about, should the worst be happening.

Again, we’re faced with a subjective and relative judgement. In my personal opinion, a wife or daughter going out whenever they want, wearing whatever they want, shouldn’t be grounds for resorting to such extreme behaviour. Someone else might consider those things terrible. There is no “objective” truth, here. If I want them to change, I have to convince them of the validity of my truth. Or, if we both change a bit, we might be able to come to some kind of subjective consensus about what is, and isn’t, acceptable, that we can both live with. That’s how the democratic process works. If there were objective, scientifically demonstrable, moral truths we wouldn’t need democracies.

Now the irony, from my perspective, is that the only people who seem to generally agree with me and who think that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions are religious demagogues of one form or another.
But the demagogues are right about one thing: We need a universal conception of human values.

This “irony” becomes somewhat less ironic the more Sam’s arguments land him on the side of religious demagogues. It’s becoming expected. While “we need” is a swell appeal to emotion, it won’t make your argument any more true. Sam has provided zero evidence of any kind of objective morality.

Now, what stands in the way of this? Well, one thing to notice is that we do something different when talking about morality — especially secular, academic, scientist types. When talking about morality we value differences of opinion in a way that we don’t in any other area of our lives. So, for instance the Dalai Lama gets up every morning meditating on compassion, and he thinks that helping other human beings is an integral component of human happiness. On the other hand, we have someone like Ted Bundy; Ted Bundy was very fond of abducting and raping and torturing and killing young women.

Sam goes on to suggest that we can just discard moral opinions that we don’t agree with, just like we can discard the opinions of scientists who aren’t specialists in the field we’re discussing. Now, is science going to tell us which voices we can discard? According to my science, we can discard the opinions of someone who justifies torture, justifies more guns, justifies financial support of the worst Islamist country in the world, justifies a nuclear first strike, justifies profiling, justifies fear mongering, etc. By Sam’s own “logic”, I say we can discard The Moral Landscape, and all opinions on morality, presented by such a morally inept person.