Thoughts on the Sam Harris/Jordan Peterson Vancouver Debate

Sam HarrisSam Harris and Jordan Peterson recently engaged in a debate at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver on June 23rd (the first night) and June 24th (the second night). The discussion centered around metaethics (specifically moral epistemology), which focuses on the foundations of ethics. In contrast to normative and applied ethics, which argue for specific actions in specific circumstances, metaethics asks: how can we ground morality in something objective? (If this is in fact possible.)

Both Peterson and Harris made the attempt to answer this question, both asserting that there are objective moral facts and that moral relativism, which asserts that all moral claims are equally good or valid or true, is false. Let’s look at both Peterson’s and Harris’s metaethical positions, starting with Peterson.

Peterson’s appeal to God and the Euthyphro dilemma

While it’s been notoriously difficult to get a handle on Peterson’s beliefs on the existence of God, he did state during the debate that he “acts as if God exists.” He also at one point provided an extended definition of his conception of God, which is open to interpretation as to exactly what he meant. But we don’t need to know exactly what he meant. Whether or not Peterson believes that God exists in a metaphysical or metaphorical sense, he is making the claim that morality can be objectively grounded on some transcendent metaphysical property best identified as “God.” We’ll see that this is a problem either way.

Interpretation # 1: God actually exists

First, let’s assume that God actually exists. Can we base our morality on God’s commandments, as most religious people in general, and Christians in particular, suppose? The argument goes something like this: God created the universe and everything good within it. God is therefore the only reasonable arbiter of what is good and bad, and in fact, without God, good or bad is entirely subjective and dependent on the whims of human fallibility and corruption.

I can understand both the argument and the concern; without an objective standard in which we can evaluate our actions, the concept of good and bad is dependent only on how one defines it. However, by invoking God or a supernatural agent as the source of moral authority, we are simply pushing the question back one level without really answering it.

In one of Plato’s dialogues, titled Euthyphro, Socrates famously asks if pious acts are approved by the gods because they are pious, or if they are instead considered pious acts because they are approved by the gods. Framed in another way,  we can ask: are certain acts approved by God because they are moral, or are the acts moral because approved by God? This is known as the Euthyphro dilemma.

If God’s commandments are good according to some independent standard, then the question of where morality ultimately comes from is still left unanswered. So, for example, if God commands us to kill our neighbors without cause, we might rightfully question this commandment on moral grounds by comparing the commandment with some outside source of moral sensibility, therefore refuting the argument that God is the foundation for morality after all. This is, in fact, what people actually do when they cherry-pick the Bible for acceptable verses and discard or ignore the morally barbaric verses, for example Leviticus 20:13, which says that homosexuals must be put to death. The basis for ignoring this verse does not come from within the Bible, it comes from outside the text. This means that the Bible, or God, cannot be the foundation of an objective morality, even for the religious.

If, however, we instead claim that God’s commands are good in themselves, no matter what the content, then we can rightly ask why His commandments should be followed at all. Surely the command to murder your children, on a whim, for no reason, would be immoral even if commanded by God. It seems that our moral sense comes from some other source that even God must conform to, and we’re left with the same question: what is the source of morality?

Interpretation # 2: God exists only metaphorically

Even if Peterson is only suggesting that “God” represents some sort of transcendent principle or set of principles, the problem of origins and authority is still present. Peterson seems to be claiming that the source of morality is best found within the archetypes of religion, particularly the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The problem with this was pointed out by Harris; there is no method by which to evaluate the relative merit of competing traditions with different archetypes. Hinduism and Christianity both have different archetypes for “good and evil,” and there is no method by which you can select which archetype should represent the objective grounds for morality. So, for example, how can you select between the Christian tradition, which claims that the source of all evil is the disbelief in God and scripture, and the source of all good the surrender to faith, versus a tradition like Hinduism, or even strands of western philosophy, which claims that the source of all evil is ignorance, and that the source of good is reason and knowledge?

Peterson offers no solution other than to note his personal preference for Christianity. But a mere psychological preference for one tradition over another does not make that tradition objectively superior enough that it can be claimed as the foundation for all morality.

Harris’s appeal to science

Harris faces the opposite problem by claiming that morality can be based on science, and that science can provide the necessary objective, factual basis by which we can evaluate all of our actions.

David Hume developed the most challenging objection to Harris’s position, which is the “is/ought gap,” which states that all moral claims, even if based largely on facts (“is” statements), must contain at least one evaluative statement (an “ought” statement). So, for example, if you infer that someone is in pain and that something bad is happening, that statement must at least include the evaluative assumption that pain is always bad.

Harris seems to believe that he has solved the is/ought gap by appealing to a scientific conception of well-being, but all he has really done is find a set of evaluative premises that everyone can agree on. But as we’ll see, these premises are not doing much work.

The example Harris uses is a thought experiment where all conscious creatures are experiencing the worst possible suffering for the longest possible time, and states that if this scenario is not considered “bad,” then it makes no sense to use the word “bad” at all. Morality is then simply a matter of moving away from this situation, reducing suffering, and promoting well-being (which is itself difficult to define with no scientific consensus). Of course, we can all agree with Harris on this, but these types of obvious evaluative statements don’t do us any good when faced with more difficult moral dilemmas. What about when different types of pain or well-being is in conflict? The selection among competing priorities is not resolved by recognizing that the greatest amount of possible suffering is bad.

To see this, consider a thought experiment I’ll call the “Harris machine.” Imagine that this machine was created by an evil scientist, to which he has hooked up 10 individuals. The machine can be calibrated to create the greatest possible suffering for each individual, or can be calibrated to produce any level or type of suffering imaginable, or no suffering at all. The greatest amount of suffering is set at level 10 for various variables, with no suffering set to level 0.

Next imagine that the scientist tells you that you must make a choice regarding the level of suffering the 10 people hooked up to the machine must endure. He gives you two options:

  1. One person experiences the greatest possible suffering for one hour and the nine others experience no suffering at all, after which all are released.
  2. All ten people experience level 6 suffering for ten hours and are then released.

If you refuse to make the choice, all ten people receive level 10 suffering for ten hours.

Selecting between option 1 and 2 presents a conflict between utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest number), represented by option 1, and deontology (the recognition that humans should not be used as means to an end), represented by option 2. This conflict cannot be solved by referencing facts. If you select option 1, you must support that choice with the evaluative statement that the greatest amount of suffering has been reduced and that this is preferable. If you select option 2, you must support that choice with the evaluative statement that no one should be used as a means to achieve some end or subjected to that level of suffering. But the point is, you cannot use science to make this decision and to provide the justification. (The various “trolley” problems and related thought experiments demonstrate the same conflicts.)

You can come up with several different variations of the Harris machine experiment to demonstrate the point that the really difficult moral decisions are precisely the ones that we can’t all agree on. What Harris is doing is asking us to choose between the following:

  1. Level 10 suffering for all ten people.
  2. Level 0 suffering for all ten people.

Of course, we would all pick option 2, but this doesn’t prove anything and simply dodges the moral dilemmas that are at the crux of the problem, the very dilemmas that cannot be solved by science or statements of fact.

The problem of the criterion

While Harris won this debate without question, both are underestimating the difficulty of grounding morality in something objective. Peterson cannot answer the Euthyphro dilemma and Harris cannot answer the Harris machine experiment by appealing to their usual arguments.

The primary issue in both cases is captured in the problem of the criterion, which asks the following two questions:

  1. What do we know? What is the extent of our knowledge?
  2. How are we to decide whether we know? What are the criteria of knowledge?

The problem is, it seems that you need an answer to question (1) before you can answer question (2), but at the same time, you need an answer to (2) before you can answer (1). At the highest epistemological level, this shows that we can never fully justify any of our beliefs, because we must always work from at least one foundational assumption or basic belief that we can’t further justify. General principles will inevitably conflict with particulars, and vice versa. What we need is a theory that accounts for this fact, which neither Harris nor Peterson provides.

The problem of the criterion can be rewritten in moral terms:

  1. What acts are moral? What is the extent of our moral knowledge?
  2. How are we to decide what is moral and what is not? What are the criteria of moral actions?

We need to answer (1) before (2) and (2) before (1), suggesting that moral knowledge, like knowledge in general, is subject to the same skeptical challenges and perhaps even more so.

You can’t solve this by invoking God or religion any more than you can solve this by invoking science, utilitarianism, or deontology. Even virtue ethics must confront the questions of which virtues should be considered superior and which virtues, among competing alternatives, should be developed.

Neither Peterson nor Harris has solved this problem, or for that matter much advanced the ethical debate in either direction. In the heat of the debate and rooting interests on both sides, we’ve lost sight of the fact that both parties are advocating simplified positions that philosophers specializing in ethics have long since refuted.

So what’s the answer? If ethics cannot be grounded in science, religion, God, utilitarianism, deontology, or virtue ethics, is moral relativism right after all? Is it really the case that morality is an illusion and that one set of moral values cannot be said to be any better or worse than any others? No, I don’t believe so, but the answer is to be found elsewhere, specifically in some combination of contractualism and reflective equilibrium, which I’ll cover in the next post.