The morality of the gaps

Kenan Malik is not bowled over by Sam Harris on morality.

Harris is nothing if not self-confident. There is a voluminous philosophical literature that stretches back almost to the origins of the discipline on the relationship between facts and values. Harris chooses to ignore most of it…It is one thing to want to “start a conversation that a wider audience can engage with and can find helpful”, something that many of us, including many of those boring moral philosophers, seek to do. It is quite another to imagine that you can engage in any kind of conversation, with any kind of audience, by wilfully ignoring the relevant scholarship because it is “boring”.

I share that view. (I agree with Polly-O!) The breeziness of the attempt to settle complicated issues while ignoring the existing scholarship is grating.

“How does Harris establish that values are facts?” He describes an utterly crappy life, and an utterly blissful one. See? Facts.

It is a kind of argument that suggests that Harris might have done well to spend a bit more time immersed in all the boring stuff…The insistence that because it seems obvious that rape and murder are bad, and that wealth and security are good, so there must be objective values, seems about as plausible as the argument that because there are gaps in the fossil record, so God must have created Adam and Eve. 

Kenan sums up:

Creating a distinction between facts and values is neither to denigrate science nor to downgrade the importance of empirical evidence. It is, rather, to take both science and evidence seriously. It is precisely out of the facts of the world, and those of human existence, that the distinction between is and ought arises, as does the necessity for humans to take responsibility for moral judgement. 

I did a review of the book myself a few months ago.

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