Sam Harris‘s recent public utterances on the old fact-value/ought-is debate, particularly at TED, have re-ignited a lively discussion and rekindled my interest in doing a course on the subject. [Thanks to my unpaid but not unappreciated quasi-research assistant D. for bringing “Toward a Science of Morality,” in the Huffington Post, so quickly to my attention.]
Harris’s forthcoming new book, due out in October, is called The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. It already has Richard Dawkins’ endorsement. Not, probably, Karen Armstrong‘s.
Here’s a statement sure to infuriate many of my professional friends and colleagues:
Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. There are two reasons why I haven’t done this: First, while I have read a fair amount of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of mind. Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like “metaethics,” “deontology,” “noncognitivism,” “anti-realism,” “emotivism,” and the like, directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.
Ha! “Avoid boring people” is solid counsel; but Jim Watson should have added, and Sam should heed: avoid pissing people off if you want them to give you a respectful listen. (From what I’ve heard, Watson also missed that lesson.)
The line between boredom and depth of insight is difficult to draw. Academics and philosophers need to attempt it. I might argue that one’s capacity for boredom is in direct proportion to one’s receptivity to reasonable persuasion. Sometimes you have to wade through some stuff to get to the goods.
Jennifer Hecht is not boring. Her account of Hume’s salon party with the French atheists Diderot, d’Holbach et al in 1763 suggests that he has been misunderstood all these years. His ought/is distinction was in service of moral skepticism, but not an attempt to de-nature our ascriptions of value.
Well, not wishing to bore you on such a lovely Mother’s Day morn I’ll just state a couple of facts: (1) someone really ought to do a course on this; and (2) nobody loves you like your mother, so you should go and call her. Right now.