Morality is not Objective

A moral system valid for all is basically immoral.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Sam Harris gave a Ted Talk on objective morality some years ago (link included below) which is basically mistaken. Although I can agree in spirit with the sentiment he expresses, namely that there are morally repugnant actors in the world that need to be stopped/killed, he is fundamentally mistaken in his treatment of the problem, which leads him apparently to misunderstand why the solution to these problems is still not forthcoming after thousands of years of human civilization.

In the video, Harris wisely asserts that moral judgements (ought) are informed by science (is), yet he goes further than this, comparing morality to both the nutritional content in food and string theory in physics. Neither is an appropriate comparison, because both are value neutral with respect to the questions they study. What constitutes nutrition in food is value neutral in relation to our value neutral understanding of the metabolic processes of the human body. String theory is the same in relation to our understanding of the physical constitution of the universe. Moral judgements are not value neutral, however, in relation to our understanding of human action within the context of a collective existence. Here we aren’t dealing with what is incorrect as a matter of value neutral analysis, but with what is wrong as a matter of value laden judgement.

Harris goes on to wonder how we can universally recognize experts in the field of string theory, yet not in the field of moral considerations and general human well being, before asking the question: “How have we convinced ourselves that in the moral sphere there is no such thing as moral expertise?”

To begin, the acknowledgement of ethical considerations as at least partially subjective reflects moral expertise. Asserting that ethical considerations are entirely objective is simply a subjective metaethical proposition not aware of itself as such. The reference frame of the universe (objective frame) has no opinion on how ethical questions be treated. A human being is required to generate the web of valuation necessary for ethical judgement. Harris is simply advancing his own position on metaethics with a wink to the universe as though it has his back. If Harris’s metaethics are objectively correct, then the onus on him is to show them such, which of course he can’t, since there is no such evidence outside of himself. Harris’s argument can basically be disposed of with a single question.

What does society do with a horse thief in service of human well being?

The answer isn’t universally clear, because the various valuations associated with stealing a horse are not intrinsic to the act of stealing a horse. Both involve the objective theft of a horse, yet stealing a horse in 1850 may have been a serious crime, while in 2021 the motive for the crime may be less clear and it may seem more like a bizarre act of mischief. The circumstances of our existence are instrumental in determining the relative valuation core to ethical judgement, and those circumstances are in a state of continuous flux. Further, is the well being of the horse thief included in the category of human well being, or has the horse thief surrendered our concern for his well being as a result of his actions? Can that question actually be answered objectively? Is there some evidence one can use to show someone that the horse thief has surrendered our concern for him?

Harris, of course, would counter by pointing to something more unambiguously wrong, such as murder or female genital mutilation (one of the examples he often uses). Yet even these are not objectively wrong. The reference frame of the universe does not recognize ethical valuation, it requires a human being to recognize the value in genitals or in a human life. The reference frame of the universe may be the wavefunctions of bonding electrons, and as such it is legitimate to wonder whether the reference frame of the universe actually even recognizes the value laden bulk object that is a clitoris, much less whether it has an opinion on its forced removal.

The scientistic trajectory of paving over what is good by what is true is found in Harris’s unspoken sentiment that something needs to be objective before it has value, and this sentiment reflects a moral failing. Calling something objectively wrong removes oneself from the judgement, and simply burdens the universe with holding the judgement, a significant source of our society’s problems. A strong mindset does not step out of its own judgements, it stands inside them, and it feels them fully. Harris’s mindset is typical of a bureaucrat, as it is fundamentally moral cowardice to pass the buck to the universe in such a manner for one’s ethical judgements, rather than fully owning them. Small wonder then that such “moral experts” feel comfortable pronouncing judgements without dirtying their own hands, passing the responsibility of carrying out the necessary violence to someone meant simply to dispense it. This is a social trend already long underway and one which needs to be confronted; Thucydides pointed out centuries ago that “the society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting by fools.”

Ethics and justice must retain its fully subjective humanity to avoid becoming cowardly and bureaucratic.

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