Utility and Truth

Via Ned, H. Allen Orr’s review of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape says most of what needs to be said. I haven’t read the book, because I am a mortal creature and I have better ways to spend my time on Earth, but Orr’s review does remind me of something incoherent in Harris’ reasoning that’s been nagging me since the book came out. Here’s Orr quoting Harris:

The very idea of “objective” knowledge (i.e., knowledge acquired through honest observation and reasoning) has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon principles that we must first value (e.g., logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony, etc.).

While there are a number of different philosophies of science and epistemologies that can accommodate the scientific method, Harris is certainly correct that you have to accept one of them for the whole thing to work. Harris’ choice appears to be scientific realism, which, in short, is the view that science describes a world that is really “out there”, and that a scientific observation is true when it corresponds to this real world.

Which is funny to me, because Harris is a utilitarian. At least that’s what I and Orr make of his conclusion that the good is the “well-being of conscious creatures”. A quick scan of the book shows that Harris explicitly identifies identifies as a consequentialist (see page 62; sadly there’s no Google Books preview I can link to). Consequentialism + a hedonic conception of the good = good old fashioned utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism, unlike some other ethical theories, has philosophical implications outside of ethics. In particular, I think it commits you to some form of pragmatism. If the answer to “what should I do?” is “whatever action maximizes the general happiness” then the answer to “what should I believe?” is “whatever belief is conducive to maximizing the general happiness”. That starts to look a lot like pragmatists’ argument that what is true is what is most useful to believe.

As Richard Rorty pointed out in my favorite essay of his –  “Religious faith, intellectual responsibility, and romance” – this affinity between utilitarianism and pragmatism is historical as well as logical. William James was a great admirer of John Stuart Mill, and The Will to Believe can be read, in Rorty’s words, as an attempt at a “utilitarian ethics of belief”. And James, of course, believed strongly that religious faith could be a force for good.

This makes sense. Under pragmatism, the statement “God exists” is true if it is useful to believe that God exists. This may seem a flimsy reason to believe, and Rorty lays out a number of ways in which it limits what one can believe, but it is no flimsier a foundation than pragmatism offers for believing in science, and most would consider that foundation pretty strong. No one would mistake Quine and Sellars and Dewey for arch opponents of science, after all.

So Harris has a problem. He can be a scientific realist, which rules out both pragmatism (which rejects the idea that there needs to be a real world “out there” which true statements reflect) and utilitarianism (because it implies pragmatism). Or he can be a utilitarian, and a pragmatist, and acknowledge that religion is often a source for good in the world and a source of joy for many privately. But you can’t be a utilitarian and a scientific realist, and you certainly can’t try to get to utilitarianism through scientific realism, which is what he’s trying to do now.

10 thoughts on “Utility and Truth

  1. One of the reasons the debate between pragmatists and scientific realists has proven so intractable is that when the positions are fully fleshed out, and not merely sketched, the differences become significantly less dramatic. The usefulness of our beliefs is greatly influenced by their overall coherence, and the beliefs which the pragmatists endorse because they work well with our overall theory of the world and the beliefs which the realists insist are true end up being pretty much the same ones. Rare indeed are the pragmatists who will say “believing God exists makes some people happy, so we should believe it.” Of course there are pragmatist theists, but there are also realist theists; the pragmatist theists generally have much more to say about God belief than that it just makes people happy (they’ll say many of the same things realist theists say, in fact).
    That what the realists call true is almost inevitably useful is sometimes used as an argument for pragmatism; the pragmatists say that the realists must really be tracking usefulness, whatever superstitious nonsense they may say about “truth,” or they wouldn’t so reliably zero in on the useful results. Conversely, of course, the realists will sometimes argue that the usefulness of our beliefs would be an amazing coincidence if those beliefs weren’t metaphysically anchored, if they weren’t somehow tracking the truth. Both lines of argument obviously rely on the fact that the practical differences between realism and pragmatism are usually negligible.
    All this being the case, it hardly seems like there is any unusually great incoherence in someone being a utilitarian and believing that truth is consistently more useful than falsehood, and so valuing truth as well. Seems like a plausible interpretation of Mill, and probably many other utilitarians. Furthermore, while different thinkers have had different accounts of how discovery of moral truth is possible, there are certainly such accounts on which it’s perfectly conceivable that utilitarianism could be what you’d discover. So, again, thinking you could get from realism to utilitarianism doesn’t look problematic in principle; if there are any problems, they’d be in the details (and perhaps Harris gets the details horribly obviously wrong; I don’t actually know his view. I’m only criticizing your broad theoretical points here).

  2. If the answer to “what should I do?” is “whatever action maximizes the general happiness” then the answer to “what should I believe?” is “whatever belief is conducive to maximizing the general happiness”. That starts to look a lot like pragmatists’ argument that what is true is what is most useful to believe.
    This might look a lot like it, but it’s not the same thing.
    Beliefs are not actions. All that is actually required is that a utilitarian’s presentation of his beliefs to others results in maximizing the general happiness; this may or may not be the same thing as what he actually believes.

  3. meilor – But what of the effect of that on the utilitarian’s own utility? If believing something results in more happiness for him than just appearing to believe it, then he should actually believe it, if he can. This is what I think goes on with a lot of religious belief: the believer gets a lot out of it, and very few other people are affected. I think that’s great. Harris has devoted his life to stopping it. That strikes me as a curious project for a utilitarian to embark upon.
    Aaron – I’m with you on the similarities between pragmatism and realism on most questions. Pragmatism would be a lot less attractive if it required you to discard large chunks of modern science. But things that can’t be investigated empirically – like the existence of God – are where I think a divergence happens. There, things can be useful without being “true” in the way that a realist means.

  4. Eh, I’m not really buying it. I like Peirce and James too, but you’re conflating utilitarianism as a ethical system with utilitarianism as a epistemological method, and that just seems odd. Utilitarians don’t believe utilitarianism is the answer to the question “what should you believe”, nor is it clear that the question of “what should you believe” should be a subset of the question “what should you do.” Taking that step basically is an accusation that utilitarianism collapses into solipsism or pomo skepticism, and even if you think that’s true, it feels more like a basic attack on the idea of utilitarianism than any real inconsistency between utilitarianism and scientific realism.
    If you instead take the more traditional route of starting with epistemology and then using your epistemological system into the realm of ethics, the connection between scientific realism and utilitarianism appears quote strong. If all we have is mass and motion, then forging and ethical system based on maximizing utils and minimizing suffering is a perfectly logical systematic and comprehensive approach to ethics. Neuorologists such as Haidt confirm that utilitarian / consequentialist moral reasoning is highly associated with high level cognitive behavior. I think that’s mostly wrong, but it’s a logical enough system.

  5. Your argument reads like this.
    Utilitarianism => We should believe those beliefs that are useful.
    Scientific realism => Beliefs are true if they correspond to the external reality.
    To make the argument work, you need an additional premise. Either:
    1. We should believe that which is true. (Why?)
    or
    2. If there does not “need to be a real world” then there isn’t a real world at all. (???)
    On 2: Doesn’t pragmatism require an external world – else how would you tell what it is useful to believe?

  6. Regarding the magnitude of the gap between the results of scientific-realist and (proposed) utility-based grounds for belief, there are questions of both (1) the basis for judgments of utility, and (2) regardless of that basis, a special risk of unintended consequences.
    Setting aside the idea that utility actually determines reality (presumably making HIV vanish, etc.), the utility of beliefs that affect consequential actions will depend on the objective causal relationships that determine those consequences.
    Problem (1) is that actual utility depends on objective causal relationships, hence a thoroughgoing abandonment of realism would sever judgments of utility from their necessary basis (this is essentially Sawin’s point #2). Beyond this, slippage from reality-based belief could create illusory benefits of further slippage, in a spiral with no inherent stopping point.
    Problem (2) is that non-reality-based beliefs have both consequences for other beliefs and consequences for actions in a scope that cannot, in general, be anticipated. Although this parallels the usual problem of judging the (partially unanticipated) consequences of actions, it cuts deeper in that it affects the basis for judgment itself across an indefinitely large range of future actions.
    This should reinforce belief in the utility of beliefs that closely track reality.

  7. Pingback: Inverting the stack | Dylan Matthews

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