Does morality come before science? or the other way around? Maybe it is neither.
In Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson’s podcast “What is True?” https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/what-is-true Sam and Jordan debate for nearly 2 hours and fail to come to any agreement on “what is true”. While some say that it was a waste of time, I found the experience to be enlightening.
I think both Sam and Jordan are trying to grapple with Hume’s law, and are taking opposite sides of it (Sam starts from the “is” side and Jordan starts from the “ought” side). I personally think they are both right and that it is perfectly valid to start from either side.
Throughout the discussion Sam took the position that the only statements that are true are those that are arrived at through a scientific process (that which “is”). Jordan took an alternate position that the only statements that are true are those that are arrived at through a evaluative moral process (that which “ought” to be).
At several points Sam accused Jordan of adopting a strange definition of Truth. In this, I think Sam was partially correct, but also partially incorrect. In everyday English usage, the words true and truth are regularly used in both ways. There are many statements that we all agree are true. Some of them are scientific and some of them are moral. e.g. It is true that the heat we receive from the sun is the result of an enormous fusion reaction. It is also true that Stalin was an evil person because he caused the death of millions of people. People use the word “true” across both domains, and both are valid uses of the word.
Sam was correct in one sense. Jordan’s usage of truth to apply only to statements that are grounded on a moral basis is an uncommon usage. But Sam was also incorrect in the same (but opposite) way. Jordan was trying to make the point that Sam’s position is *just* as unusual. Sam is using truth to apply only to statements that are grounded on a scientific basis.
While it does seem that both of the speakers believe that there are facts on both sides, much of their disagreement was on which of these two was primary.
Sam takes the position that scientific truths are primary. Sam seems to be arguing for a very strong generalization: If there is a contradiction between a moral statement and a scientific statement, then the moral statement is false.
Jordan takes the opposite position that moral truths are primary. He is also arguing for a very strong generalization: If there is a contradiction between a moral statement and a scientific statement, then the scientific statement is false.
Sam spent a LOT of time coming up with specific examples of conflicts between moral statements and scientific statements that were carefully constructed to make it seem obvious that the scientific statement’s truth was primary. Jordan (to Sam’s frustration) never gave in. While I was frustrated by Jordan’s stubborness, I think I understand his position from a pedagogical perspective. Jordan was trying to make the point, that no matter how strongly you feel about the truth of a scientific statement, if it comes into contradiction with a moral fact, then the scientific statement is false *no matter how strongly you believe in the truth of the scientific statement*.
Had Jordan given in on any of these micro-examples, Sam might have felt justified in generalizing this to conclude that scientific claims always dominate moral claims. I think that Jordan saw that Sam was not in fact arguing about the specific examples, but was arguing about the generalization. So in this sense Jordan was correct to fight on each example.
In a sense I think that both of them are taking silly positions. The real maxim ought to be: If there is a contradiction between a moral statement and a scientific statement, *one* of the statements is false. And to judge which one is false takes a complete understanding of the situation.
Back to Hume’s Law. In its normal formulation Hume’s law states that you cannot go from an “is” to an “ought”. You cannot (easily) derive the truth value of normative statements (oughts) from the truth value of postive statements (is).
Typically people start on the “is” side of this (as Sam does) and work hard to try to cross the boundary somehow. But this is really difficult. Jordan knows well that this is really difficult and takes a different approach. He sees that there are some moral claims that are so clearly true that it is necessary to start on the “ought” side. (I personally have never seen anyone do this, so was very surprised by it. I didn’t realize that was possible, and so my eyes have been opened).
Sam’s position throughout the discussion is really just an elaboration of the reversal of Humes law and can be summarized as: You cannot go from an “ought” to an “is”. You cannot (easily) derive the truth value of positive statements (is) from the truth value of normative statements (oughts). (e.g. you cannot start with the claim that “releasing smallpox and killing millions of people is wrong” and use that to justify the truth value of “the chemical structure of the smallpox virus is <such and such>”.
I think they are both right, it is difficult (maybe impossible) to cross Hume’s law *in either direction*.
But there is hope. Since there exist clearly true scientific statements and clearly true moral statements, there must be a way do justify them both. The new thing that I’ve realized is that it may not be necessary to cross Hume’s boundary at all. Maybe there is a way to dervive moral truths from moral first principles just as there is a way to derive scientific truths from scientific first principles.
I personally feel a bit uneasy about Jordan’s philosophy. Why should I accept his Darwinian basis of morality. How does one justify such a view. How do I compare Jordan’s position to other philosophers position on such justifications? Who is right? By what means do I use to judge between them? If the answer is to think really hard, and see whose ideas “resonate”, then I think I have a problem, because that isn’t good enough for me.
I don’t see why we can’t apply the scientific method to moral statements directly. The science of morality doesn’t need to be derived from physical sciences any more than the science of psychology needs to be derived from the principles of physics. They need to be compatible, that is for sure, but one doesn’t need to deductively derive one from the other.
If there were a claim about psychology that conflicts with a claim in physics, there is a problem that needs to be worked out. One of them is wrong, and there is NO way to know a-priori which one is wrong. Similarly if there is a moral claim that conflicts with a scientific claim, one of them is certainly wrong. However, I for one refuse to adopt a generalized rule that a-priori decides which one of these *automatically* wins. So in this sense I disagree with both Sam and Jordan.