Commentary on the Jordan Peterson – Sam Harris discussion

A major problem when criticizing or commenting on someone’s position is to avoid misrepresenting their position, resulting in an attack on a straw man. I will therefore try to restate their position in such a may as not to misrepresent them, and then add commentary.

Jordan Peterson presented their overall problem as the problem of grounding morality in facts. He further added that the grounding should avoid dogmatism, on the one hand, and relativism on the other; and Harris agreed.

As it turned out, both agreed that there are different categories of “facts.” There is, first, the category of empirical or experiential facts; second, the facts of mathematics and logic; third, the realm of subjective facts: such as likes and dislikes, desires, consciousness; fourth, there is the realm of social facts, including religions. I leave open the question whether there are other types of facts.

Sam Harris’ thesis was that many people base their morality on religions as expressed in sacred books. The narratives of these books can be taken literally (as by fundamentalists) or in some non-literal interpretation. And his position was that some of the prescriptions, taken literally,  in some of these books are not only harmful, but atrocious. The harmful ones are predominantly sexual in nature, as, for example, forbidding masturbation. The atrocious one are those which prescribe killing either of individuals or groups.

Harris adds that those who take the religious texts in a non-literal way, obviously have some extra-textual criterion for their reading. That criterion is an independent understanding of morality. Thus, the grounding of morality in texts is not necessary.

Peterson did not disagree with this. His interest was to understand religious texts from an evolutionary perspective, and that since any cognition requires a priori categories, he wanted to know what were these evolutionary a priori categories. [For the reader — a priori categories are those concepts or structures which are independent of experience, but which make human experience possible. Such categories include the concepts of time, space, causality, and substance.]

Harris said that morality is grounded in the fact that people avoid pain and seek contentment and flourishing. And from this we can generalize to see that life is a possible continuum from a miserable life, on the one end, to  a happy one, on the other. Peterson saw this as the religious distinction between hell and heaven.

Although Peterson agreed with Harris’ grounding of morality in the distinction between good and bad, he wanted a more solid grounding in some a priori structure. When pushed to elaborate, he insisted on what both of them called a “metaphoric truth.” The example Harris gave was of how one should handle a gun. The proper or heuristic manner of handling a gun is to pretend that the gun is loaded even if you know it is not. In other words, handle the gun as if it were loaded. [To the reader: Hans Vaihinger wrote a book, The Philosophy of ‘As If’]

Peterson tried to use this idea of metaphoric truth to make, what he claimed to be, a deeper insight into human behavior, namely, that people — including Harris, and other so-called atheists, in fact, act as if God existed.

When pushed to give a definition of God, it turned out to be a prescription or recommendation of how to understand the concept of God. God, as Peterson understands it, is some kind of a priori evaluative apparatus whose tendency is, like that of Medieval scholastics, to strive for the Good, the Beautiful, and the True. [I hope I did not misrepresent.]

Harris’ reply was that people normally do not think of God in this way.

During Peterson’s search for a grounding of morality and religion in an evolutionary framework, they found themselves focusing on the widespread practice of human sacrifice by primitive people. Peterson pointed out that historically, because of harsh living conditions, people had to sacrifice babies, especially crippled one, as well as useless old people — all for the sake of survival. And he tried to extract from this the principle that a sacrifice brings some greater good, and he offered the example of parents sacrificing things for their children.

By contrast, Harris’ position on the religious narratives was that they reflected a vacuum in knowing how nature worked, but a vacuum which, I may add, was filled with an imaginary narrative — using the technique of “as if” thinking.

Here is my answer:
What is the nature of this as if? Appealing to anthropology, primitive people have a picture of the universe as if totally composed of persons — a radical animism. Using the model of humans as well as animals, it is evident that all living things must eat to live, and that at some point when hunger is satiated, the animal will stop eating. There are visible animals like crocodiles, wolves, and lions which kill humans to eat them, and there are other tribes which kill human beings in order to take their possessions, and some of them are even cannibals.

Given the power of imagination, humans can envision by a process of extrapolation,  generalization, and idealization that there is a chain of beings — an evolutionary continuum — stretching from insects to some beings even superior to humans. These extraordinary beings are heroes and gods. Since humans eat and want goods, these superior beings — primarily, the gods — must want to eat also. Being choosy, they want the best of food — humans. And they do not want to eat old human meat, but young and tender children, just as we prefer suckling pigs.

I saw no disagreement between Peterson and Harris — but a difference in interest. Harris, believed that regardless of the origins of a belief or practice, it could be judged on its own merits on the basis of our present knowledge and practices. Peterson did not disagree with this, but insisted on finding an explanation in both evolution and a priori structures — a structure which he called God.

My disagreement with both of them concerns the foundations of morality. Both dismiss ethical relativism. This is their mutual error. What Harris describes is the ethics of Robinson Crusoe on an island without Friday. But by adding Friday to the island, the nature of ethics cannot be limited to what is good and bad for one person because there are different hardships being avoided and different goods pursued by different people; so, it must include inter-personal behavior. There is even a position that holds that morality is exclusively social — and what a person does with his own life is irrelevant, except when it impinges on the lives of others, which almost invariably it does.

The foundation of morality is to be found in agreements. These are either implicit composing customs and traditions, or explicit as formulated in moral precepts and laws. [Without further elaboration I send you to the writings of Gilbert Harman.   Here is one piece: Moral Relativism Explained. Here is another: Moral Relativism Defended The Philosophical Review, Vol. 84, No. 1 (Jan., 1975), pp. 3-22]

Given the history and taxonomy of ethical theories, and the strain between the good and the right, Harris is giving priority to the good. Talk of what is good and bad is totally intelligible for a Robinson Crusoe on an island without Friday. Even talk of right and wrong is intelligible relative to things pursued, what Kant called Hypothetical Imperatives.  These are things which are prescribed on the condition that you want to achieve some goal X. For example, projects can be more easily and efficiently done by the use of tools, and even better by the proper or “right” use of tools.  However, on the island, Robinson Crusoe, in my view, has no Categorical Imperatives, despite what Immanuel Kant would say.

My reason for grounding morality in human agreements can be gleaned from sports and even games involving mortal combat. In these activities there are injuries and deaths. But the person who does the injury or causes the death is not held to have done anything immoral. Why? Because as long as he did everything by the agreed to rules, the consequence is irrelevant. The Categorical Imperative is to abide by your agreements.

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