I’m getting a little tired of writing about the relationship between science and philosophy when it comes to ethics, as I’ve made my views abundantly clear on this blog and elsewhere.

Nonetheless, more than one of my readers has exhorted me to take on Richard Carrier’s arguments to the effect that science can answer moral questions, as these arguments are allegedly much better than those advanced by more prominent skeptics, such as Sam Harris and Michael Shermer.

I took a look in particular at a recent post by Carrier where he summarizes his views after my debate with Shermer and the commentary about it provided by Ophelia Benson. Indeed, Carrier is significantly more careful (less sloppy?) than either Harris or Shermer, though I think he ultimately still misses the mark.

Before proceeding, a couple of caveats: no, this is not going to be a comprehensive response to everything Carrier has written about this topic. The guy writes too much, is too long winded, far too obnoxious for me to be able to withstand reading him for more than a few minutes at a time, and frankly my interest in the subject matter just isn’t strong enough to overcome all of the above. Moreover, mine is not an attempt to engage Carrier directly (again, for the above mentioned reasons), and if he doesn’t like it that’s just too bad.

I am writing this because I try to be sensitive to my readers’ requests and opinions, and for my own edification. Accordingly, this will be the last post on this topic for a while, and certainly the only one dealing with Carrier.

To begin with, then, a quick recap of my own views, with which Carrier’s take is to be contrasted. I think ethics is an exercise in applied rationality, specifically it is the activity that uses logic and general argumentation to explore the consequences of our actions toward each other in an attempt to provide us with guidance on the many occasions in which our values or intentions clash. Like all exercises in applied rationality it welcomes and indeed requires empirical input. There is no moral philosophy to be done in a vacuum. Some of this input comes from everyday knowledge or observation, other may come from “science,” by which I mean the sort of highly structured activity that comprises research in biology, physics, psychology, neuroscience, and so forth.

I explicitly reject as empty the much broader concept of science notoriously espoused by people like Harris, Shermer, Krauss and so forth — which basically equates science with any bit of empirical information no matter how trivial or disconnected from a theoretical framework. Again, if you don’t like it, so be it, but at least I’m clarifying what I think in the hope of avoiding tiresome talking past each other because of semantic incomprehension. Further, I do not believe in “objective” moral truths in anything like the sense that there objectively is such a thing as the planet Saturn, or even in the (different) sense that mathematical truths are objective.

Ethics is a human creation, it likely originated as a set of prosocial instincts that we share with other social primates, and it further evolved by a mix of cultural practice and rational discourse.

Phew. Now let’s turn to Carrier’s summary of his own positions. The first task he sets for himself is to rephrase Harris’ (and Shermer’s) argument in a more intelligible and defensible way (at which he does indeed succeed). Here is the result, verbatim:
Premise 1. Morals and values are physically dependent (without remainder) on the nature of any would-be moral agent (such that given the nature of an agent, a certain set of values will necessarily obtain, and those values will then entail a certain set of morals). 
Premise 2. By its own intrinsic nature, the most overriding value any conscious agent will have is for maximizing its own well-being and reducing its own suffering. This includes not just actual present well-being and suffering, but also the risk factors for them (an agent will have an overriding interest in reducing the risk of its suffering as well as its actual suffering; and likewise in increasing the probability of its long-term well-being as well as its present well-being). 
Premise 3. All of the above is constrained (and thus determined) by natural physical laws and objects (the furniture of the universe and how it behaves). 
Premise 4. The nature of an agent, the desires of conscious beings, and the laws of nature are all matters of fact subjectable to empirical scientific inquiry and discovery. (Whether this has been done or not; i.e. this is a claim to what science could do, not to what science has already done.) 
Conclusion:  Therefore, there are scientifically objective (and empirically discernible) right and wrong answers in all questions of moral fact and value (i.e. what values people have, and what morals those values entail when placed in conjunction with the facts.
Carrier reassures us that the full argument on which the above summary is based is deductively valid, as testified by “four philosophy professors” who examined it before it was published in a chapter of The End of Christianity (ed. by John Loftus), which Carrier, in his own inimitable style, tells us ought to be required reading for anyone engaging in this sort of debate. Whatever. I find it ironic that later on in the same essay Carrier disparages the academic peer review process, apparently except in the case of his own papers. [He says, and I quote: “Academic peer review (for books and journals in philosophy) simply does not look for, nor even rewards, best cases. They just publish any rubbish that meets their minimal standards (and those standards are not very high, relatively to where they could be).”]

I actually think there is plenty wrong with Carrier’s argument as summarized above, in that several more (currently hidden) premises or clarifications need to be added in order to really make it deductively valid. But it doesn’t matter, for two reasons: first, I don’t think that formal syllogistic reasoning like this can settle complex and fuzzy issues like the ones under discussion; second, several of Carrier’s premises can be challenged, which even he admits would dispatch his argument regardless of its alleged formal validity.

Let us then start with Premise 1: “Morals and values are physically dependent on the nature of any would-be moral agent.” This is trivially true, unless one is a mystical dualist of some sort. But notice that it doesn’t really purchase as much as Carrier seems to think. To see this, turn it into this alternative phrase, dealing with mathematics rather than ethics:

M1: Mathematical objects and truths are physically dependent on the nature of any would-be mathematically thinking agent.

Indeed, but I think we would agree that this observation cannot possibly be used in an argument aiming at proving that science (as opposed to mathematics) is how we discover those objects and truths.

On to premise 2 (though I remind the reader that all that is needed to dismantle Carrier’s logical house of cards is a serious challenge to just one of his premises, any one would do): “By its own intrinsic nature, the most overriding value any conscious agent will have is for maximizing its own well-being and reducing its own suffering.” Let us set aside what Carrier may mean by the “intrinsic nature” of the moral agent. I take it that he is telling us about the most overriding values of said agent because he wants to use such values as the basis for his concept of morality (as in: a behavior is moral if it maximizes the agent’s well-being and reduces his suffering). He doesn’t actually say so, hence my suspicion above that there are hidden premises and further clarifications needed to make his argument fly.

But surely this is a very particular, and highly debatable, conception of morality. Indeed — dare I say it? — it sounds almost Randian (as in the infamous Ayn Rand)! (Boy, is Carrier not going to like this parallel!) Kant certainly would reject it, and so would a virtue ethicist like myself, though on different grounds. Indeed, even a utilitarian should deny that this is a good way to think of morality, because though utilitarians are indeed concerned with maximizing “well being” and minimizing suffering, they are talking at the societal, not necessarily the individual level. So we are 2 for 2 as far as the number of problematic premises in Carrier’s argument.

What about P3? Well, it says: “All of the above is constrained (and thus determined) by natural physical laws and objects,” which is an increasingly popular position among skeptics. But of course the parenthetical statement doesn’t necessarily follow, and if it did it would put a hard stop to any further conversation. There is no question that the laws of physics constrain everything that happens in the universe: regardless of how complex and intelligent you are, you ain’t gonna violate the principle of conservation of energy, or the second principle of thermodynamics. But constraint isn’t synonymous with determination, as the latter is a much stronger statement that is still open to debate (and about which I’m pretty much agnostic

Moreover — and this is a point that provides me with constant amusement — if one really thinks that human actions are rigidly determined from the conditions that obtained at the Big Bang (which, unless I seriously misread him, is what Carrier is implying) then there is no coherent sense in which it is worth having any discussion at all about what is right or wrong: we will do whatever we are destined to do (I guess including the writing of pretentious philosophical posts and sarcastic responses!) and that’s the end of the matter.

That, of course, is why I prefer to entirely sidestep the so-called free will debate and assume that human beings have a capacity of volition — we can make autonomous (which of course doesn’t mean a-causal) decisions. Otherwise, any talk of morality is empty gibberish.

Finally, premise 4: “The nature of an agent, the desires of conscious beings, and the laws of nature are all matters of fact subjectable to empirical scientific inquiry and discovery.” Well, yes they are, but there are two huge caveats here. First, is Carrier attempting to turn ethics from a prescriptive into a descriptive discipline? It would appear so, but that move comes at a high price, since one can no longer talk about “ought,” just of “is.”

Carrier does take this challenge on in the latter part of his essay, borrowing heavily from the work of philosopher Philippa Foot (perhaps best known for having invented the idea of trolley thought experiments). I will get back to Foot and her contribution in the second part of this post.

Second, note that we can again substitute our rational mathematician to Carrier’s moral agent. P4 would remain true, but it would also be irrelevant to the idea that empirical science is going to provide us with the answers we are seeking (for the same reason I brought in when commenting on P1). Lastly, even if we agree that empirical evidence is indeed germane to ethical reasoning (and I think it is), it will still underdetermine it for the simple reason that logical-conceptual space (in which ethical reasoning moves) is much broader than empirical space (in which science operates). What this means, simply put, is that we could agree on all the relevant empirical facts and still disagree on their moral valence, depending on our ranking of values, or on our general ethical framework (i.e., depending on our meta-ethical position).

Let us take stock, then. I think I have good reasons to think that Carrier’s formal argument actually relies on a number of additional hidden premises, and that therefore it is not at all clear whether it is valid. More crucially, every single one of his five premises can be reasonably (and, I think, successfully) challenged. Which means that I don’t really need to add anything else to my case against Carrier’s pretension of having “demonstrated” that science can answer moral questions.

But there is indeed something more, and perhaps more interesting, to be said about his essay. I will do so in a few days...

Originally appeared on Rationally Speaking, October 25, 2013