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jayman
23rd March 2010, 10:33 AM
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hj9oB4zpHww


This is Sam Harris at TED. Can science answer moral questions? Does Sam Harris even answer that question in this talk?

What do you think?

bluskool
23rd March 2010, 11:17 AM
I struggle with this issue. He seems to be saying that morality is based on human flourishing and he claims that some things are "really right" and some things are "really wrong." IOW, objective morality exists. But he doesn't explain why. Why is human flourishing the grounds for objective morality?

bokonon
23rd March 2010, 11:30 AM
I haven't watched the TED talk yet, but in a local interview I heard that was conducted at the TED conference, he mentioned that he'll soon have a book coming out on the subject. Perhaps if he doesn't adequately answer the question in the 15-minute talk, he will in the book.

ponderingturtle
23rd March 2010, 11:33 AM
Well what kind of society and what are we assuming is an answer to a moral question?

It can refute moral arguments, it could using some arbitrary measurements determine if one society is more effective than another. It can inform moral positions.

IF you view those as answering moral questions then sure it can.

quixotecoyote
23rd March 2010, 11:44 AM
I didn't watch the video, but it seems obvious that if you accept certain base moral assumptions, then science can help find the best way to make a given decision or question match those assumptions.

Science might not be able to tell you what the base moral assumptions should be, but it might even be able to tell you what assumptions you would be most comfortable with and then proceed as above.

TraneWreck
23rd March 2010, 11:47 AM
Well what kind of society and what are we assuming is an answer to a moral question?

It can refute moral arguments, it could using some arbitrary measurements determine if one society is more effective than another. It can inform moral positions.

IF you view those as answering moral questions then sure it can.

One of the most important moral questions in human history was pretty conclusively answered by genetics: are there meaningful differences between races?

Hell, they basically showed "race" isn't even a discernable concept genetically speaking.

I suppose you could argue that the old naturalistic fallacy prevails, and just because we have that knowledge, we can't draw any conclusions about how to behave towards other humans. But I think it's pretty clear that rejecting the basis of various race-based arguments is sufficient to undermine those claims and the resulting behavior.

paiute
23rd March 2010, 12:14 PM
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hj9oB4zpHww


This is Sam Harris at TED. Can science answer moral questions? Does Sam Harris even answer that question in this talk?

What do you think?

As morals are relative and science is not, no.

But as other posters have noted, he has a book coming out, so it does not matter as long as you buy the book.

I can't fault him. Just look at my sig, for Bob's sake.

bokonon
23rd March 2010, 12:44 PM
I struggle with this issue. He seems to be saying that morality is based on human flourishing and he claims that some things are "really right" and some things are "really wrong." IOW, objective morality exists. But he doesn't explain why. Why is human flourishing the grounds for objective morality?
I don't think that's exactly what he's saying. More like "life" flourishing, where human life is given a bit more value based on the range of experiences it is capable of, sentient life is given more value than plant life, and plant life is given more value than rocks. I don't think he would argue that dogfighting is moral based on the fact that it benefits some humans and doesn't physically injure any.

What he is saying is that there are objective answers to moral questions, and it would be good to acknowledge that. "It's all relative" is an amoral position which values Ted Bundy's opinion on the best way to spend an idle evening equally with the Dalai Lama's.

bluskool
23rd March 2010, 01:02 PM
I don't think that's exactly what he's saying. More like "life" flourishing, where human life is given a bit more value based on the range of experiences it is capable of, sentient life is given more value than plant life, and plant life is given more value than rocks. I don't think he would argue that dogfighting is moral based on the fact that it benefits some humans and doesn't physically injure any.

It's not a question of what things we value. It's a question of why certain actions are objectively wrong and certain actions are objectively right. What is the basis for saying one or the other.

What he is saying is that there are objective answers to moral questions, and it would be good to acknowledge that. "It's all relative" is an amoral position which values Ted Bundy's opinion on the best way to spend an idle evening equally with the Dalai Lama's.

I know, but what makes those answers objectively correct?

bokonon
23rd March 2010, 01:46 PM
It's not a question of what things we value. It's a question of why certain actions are objectively wrong and certain actions are objectively right. What is the basis for saying one or the other.

I know, but what makes those answers objectively correct?
I haven't read his book, so I don't know what Harris' answer would be, but my own would probably involve agreeing on some measure of benefits.

Meters and joules don't exist objectively, they're a convention that people have agreed to adopt. Once adopted, however, they enable us to quantify things in wildly different situations, and say things like this one is bigger or stronger or louder or redder than that one.

I doubt we'll ever have meter-like precision for units of morality, but even crude units might enable us to quantify things we can't currently compare very well. Once crude standards are familiar tools, perhaps refinement and increased precision will become possible too.

Ziggurat
23rd March 2010, 02:01 PM
Meters and joules don't exist objectively, they're a convention that people have agreed to adopt.

You are wrong. Units are objective. In general, they are also arbitrary, but arbitrary is not the same this as unobjective. And the difference matters. Whether I measure energy in Joules, calories, BTU's, or megatons, these are all still objective measurements. Our choice of units is irrelevant, any calculation or measurement of energy can be done in any units, and conversion between units is trivial.

But morality is not objective. It isn't simply a matter of finding "units" for it: units will do no good if we can't even agree on which of two outcomes is morally preferable. No system of measurement will work if we cannot agree on that. And we cannot.

Trent Wray
23rd March 2010, 02:04 PM
I don't think science can answer moral questions with absolutes and objective responses until we are capable of immortality.

Kahalachan
23rd March 2010, 03:32 PM
It's an obvious plea to a society that already agrees with most of his values he presented. He's pretty much intolerant of any belief system that is religious.

Yes, we do value human life and equality.

But there are also metaphysical moral concepts that just can't be studied. How would you scientifically study honor?


I used to think as Harris until I couldn't answer the question bluskol posed "Why is human flourishing the grounds for objective morality?"

Cavemonster
23rd March 2010, 03:45 PM
Here's a great moral question that I've been thinking about lately.

PSA tests are used to detect prostate cancer. However, the data is showing that at the current recommended age for PSA screening, a lot of false positives turn up, and many men have unneeded surgery and other treatment procedure which can lead to a whole slew of serious complications, not to mention a gigantic amount of stress.

So, doctors must weigh that earlier tests prolong a few more lives by catching the cancer early, but they damage the quality of life of a much larger number of patients.

This is an essential question. When quality of life is pitted against quantity, how are the values compared? This is a question I don't think we can ever handle objectively.

Trent Wray
23rd March 2010, 03:56 PM
Here's a great moral question that I've been thinking about lately.

PSA tests are used to detect prostate cancer. However, the data is showing that at the current recommended age for PSA screening, a lot of false positives turn up, and many men have unneeded surgery and other treatment procedure which can lead to a whole slew of serious complications, not to mention a gigantic amount of stress.

So, doctors must weigh that earlier tests prolong a few more lives by catching the cancer early, but they damage the quality of life of a much larger number of patients.

This is an essential question. When quality of life is pitted against quantity, how are the values compared? This is a question I don't think we can ever handle objectively. Suppose a large number of people trust in a psychic. They even base their lives off her input. Suppose this psychic is correct some of the time, and some of the time she's not.

Do you think her hit/miss ratio is fair to determine whether or not she is a legitimate psychic? At what point do you tell people to stay away from her, regardless of whether or not you believe she is a legit psychic? Afterall ... people are trusting her with their lives at times.

INRM
23rd March 2010, 05:31 PM
While he makes some interesting points, I don't know if it's a good idea to rely excessively on science to answer and "map" every single moral question...

Dragoonster
24th March 2010, 02:04 AM
I haven't read his book, so I don't know what Harris' answer would be, but my own would probably involve agreeing on some measure of benefits.

Which is a subjective judgement. There's always going to be some axiomatic, subjective basis for any morality that claims "x is desirable".

Moral questions have as many answers as there are moralities, and none of the answers are objective. If science can answer moral questions, that means science is now one of many moral philosophies merely with a science-leaning set of axioms, making subjective judgements on what is desirable and what's not.

I'd much rather science stick to objective facts. It's incapable of answering any moral question. In the "race" example above, it's answering a scientific question. The scientific question is: "how do "races" differ?" The moral question is "why does this matter morally and what should we do with the information?" The language, definition, or sociological question is "what is a race?"

If some person based their morality on exactly how many atoms are in a gram of salt does "how many atoms are in a gram of salt" become a moral question?

ponderingturtle
24th March 2010, 06:54 AM
One of the most important moral questions in human history was pretty conclusively answered by genetics: are there meaningful differences between races?
Well this can be shown with out genetics, because you can't get people from different cultures to agree on what races there are.

I suppose you could argue that the old naturalistic fallacy prevails, and just because we have that knowledge, we can't draw any conclusions about how to behave towards other humans. But I think it's pretty clear that rejecting the basis of various race-based arguments is sufficient to undermine those claims and the resulting behavior.

But so what? Why does there have to a meaningful difference between my group and some other group to get people to fight for the dominance of the group that they are in? This idea of equality needed to be there first. For example has science proven that say the king is the divinely ordained ruler of all of our nation, who's word has the force of rightness? Could genetic studies show that you can't distinguish between the king and his butler do anything to disprove that?

The thing is that with many positions it depends on how they frame the argument as to if it can be refuted with evidence or is something that must be accepted or rejected and evidence can play no roll in its determination.

On a non ethical ground take this question, can science disprove the biblical creation story? Well it depends on what the person believes about it, if they believe that the evidence supports a 6 day creation of the world 6000 years ago, then it can be. But if they believe that some supernatural entity hid all the evidence of creation and replaced it with evidence of a 14 billion year old creation of the universe, then science can not say anything about that belief.

ponderingturtle
24th March 2010, 06:58 AM
It's an obvious plea to a society that already agrees with most of his values he presented. He's pretty much intolerant of any belief system that is religious.

Yes, we do value human life and equality.

But there are also metaphysical moral concepts that just can't be studied. How would you scientifically study honor?

You could look at the impact of honor on societies and work out if it is beneficial or detrimental to those societies relative to others with out it.

Of course a truly valid experiment on this subject would be both impractical and immoral.

MG1962
24th March 2010, 07:09 AM
You are wrong. Units are objective. In general, they are also arbitrary, but arbitrary is not the same this as unobjective. And the difference matters. Whether I measure energy in Joules, calories, BTU's, or megatons, these are all still objective measurements. Our choice of units is irrelevant, any calculation or measurement of energy can be done in any units, and conversion between units is trivial.

But morality is not objective. It isn't simply a matter of finding "units" for it: units will do no good if we can't even agree on which of two outcomes is morally preferable. No system of measurement will work if we cannot agree on that. And we cannot.

Thank you - you saved me a lot of typing

TraneWreck
24th March 2010, 07:09 AM
Well this can be shown with out genetics, because you can't get people from different cultures to agree on what races there are

Sure, but the genetics provide a global rejection of all such arguments. Certainly that's important.


But so what? Why does there have to a meaningful difference between my group and some other group to get people to fight for the dominance of the group that they are in? This idea of equality needed to be there first. For example has science proven that say the king is the divinely ordained ruler of all of our nation, who's word has the force of rightness? Could genetic studies show that you can't distinguish between the king and his butler do anything to disprove that?

I don't quite follow. Knowledge about genetics doesn't solve every problem with human interaction, it explicitly rejects one type of argument almost universally advanced through human history that justifies/d a massive amount of horrible behavior.

Anyone arguing for equal treatment of all people has had their position strengthened by genetic discovery.


The thing is that with many positions it depends on how they frame the argument as to if it can be refuted with evidence or is something that must be accepted or rejected and evidence can play no roll in its determination.

Sure, but again, there was and is one form of racist argument based on the inherent inferiority or some other "racial" trait (Jewish greed) that justifies some sort of oppression or violence. This is not a minor argument in human history, and genetic discovery has shown it to be entirely specious.


On a non ethical ground take this question, can science disprove the biblical creation story? Well it depends on what the person believes about it, if they believe that the evidence supports a 6 day creation of the world 6000 years ago, then it can be. But if they believe that some supernatural entity hid all the evidence of creation and replaced it with evidence of a 14 billion year old creation of the universe, then science can not say anything about that belief.

If you're arguing that people will simple alter auxiliary hypothesis to maintain whatever belief was undermined by scientific discovery, I don't disagree at all. But just because something can't solve all problems, that doesn't mean it can't solve some.

Edit: maybe one way to think about how this genetic science has altered ethical debate is to looke back on the 19th/20th centuries. There used to be a class of "intellectual racists." People like Kipling and Carlyle, and even people who tried to advance human rights on some fronts but were incredibly racist, like Woodrow Wilson, made reasoned arguments about the inherent inferiority of some races. That sort of racist no longer exists. Thinking people cannot advance such arguments.

Certainly you're right and there will always be racists, but that sort of thinking, like YE creationism, becomes more and more marginalized over time precisely because the scientific facts are so much more compelling.

Michael Redman
24th March 2010, 07:22 AM
In the "race" example above, it's answering a scientific question. The scientific question is: "how do "races" differ?" The moral question is "why does this matter morally and what should we do with the information?" True, and the popular inability to distinguish between the two is why "science" gets blamed for genocide.

Paulhoff
24th March 2010, 08:06 AM
Bottom line, the Bible etc were written by men, not so-called gods. So where do they really get their morals from, besides debating about them before writing them down to paper or whatever.

Paul

:) :) :)

dudalb
24th March 2010, 11:06 AM
I am betting that it will be variation on the "All Morality Is Rooted In Suvival Instincts" theory.

bokonon
25th March 2010, 05:17 AM
You are wrong. Units are objective. In general, they are also arbitrary, but arbitrary is not the same this as unobjective. And the difference matters. Whether I measure energy in Joules, calories, BTU's, or megatons, these are all still objective measurements. Our choice of units is irrelevant, any calculation or measurement of energy can be done in any units, and conversion between units is trivial.
Good point. I was wrongly conflating "unobjective" and "arbitrary".

But morality is not objective. It isn't simply a matter of finding "units" for it: units will do no good if we can't even agree on which of two outcomes is morally preferable. No system of measurement will work if we cannot agree on that. And we cannot.
I think we might be able to do so in many instances. If we make "beneficial to life" the good end of the moral scale, and "detrimental to life" the bad end of the scale, it is clearly possible to agree that the outcome of not killing one's daughter because she was raped is morally preferable to the outcome of killing one's daughter because she was raped.

Surely you can't argue that randomly killing people on the street is no better and no worse than feeding the hungry. While it may not always be possible to resolve where two actions lie on a numeric scale, it should be possible to study outcomes objectively and determine which are more helpful than harmful and which are not.

Thank you - you saved me a lot of typing
Now, don't be lazy.

Apathia
25th March 2010, 06:35 AM
Science is descriptive, not proscriptive.
It can identify a generally healthy diet or healthy behaviors.
It can inform a decision.
But it provides no way to calculate or measure when risky behavior is appropriate to an end of mixed consequences or what pursued value takes the priority.

There is no scientific method for determining when the good of the collective or the good of the individual gets first place.
Some cultures, such as "American" place a higher value on the individual. Some, such as Japanese, place more value on the dynamics of the group.
There's no science that says either is more healthy or moral.
Our socio-cultural contexts have the major role in morality.
("Mores," you know.)

What's more, compassion and empathy are not a method of making the other an object of a moral calculation.

But many people in our age of anxiety who crave some way to be always right and free of blame would love to believe that a holy book or a scientific authority could have a ready answer, or at least that there are absolute answers.

Having lost the holy book and other means of moral divination, I suppose some people would now want science and technology to become their moral authority and shepard.

"I'm glad I'm not a gamma!"

dudalb
25th March 2010, 11:12 AM
Let's face it, Sam Harris has been talking a lot of Piss recently.

Paulhoff
25th March 2010, 11:31 AM
Science is descriptive, not proscriptive.
Science is people.

Paul

:) :) :)

TraneWreck
25th March 2010, 11:58 AM
Science is descriptive, not proscriptive.
It can identify a generally healthy diet or healthy behaviors.
It can inform a decision.


Isn't that enough to answer the OP's question in the affirmative?

For instance, "are there inherently inferior races?"

Science: "No."

That doesn't give us a positive answer about how to move forward, but it certainly rejects a category of behavior. It does actually proscribe action by rejecting the factual justifications that guided it.

The Scientific Method has definitively told us that any activity based on the assumption that some races are inferior to others has no basis in reality.

One way to answer a moral question is define appropriate behavior. The other is to describe inappropriate behavior. Science is very good at the latter.

Apathia
25th March 2010, 04:29 PM
Science is people.

Paul

:) :) :)

"Better a gramme than a damn!" :wackygrin:

Dragoonster
25th March 2010, 05:51 PM
Isn't that enough to answer the OP's question in the affirmative?

For instance, "are there inherently inferior races?"

Science: "No."

That doesn't give us a positive answer about how to move forward, but it certainly rejects a category of behavior. It does actually proscribe action by rejecting the factual justifications that guided it.

The Scientific Method has definitively told us that any activity based on the assumption that some races are inferior to others has no basis in reality.

One way to answer a moral question is define appropriate behavior. The other is to describe inappropriate behavior. Science is very good at the latter.

Is a 100 IQ inferior to a 120 IQ? Is a 100-degree body temperature inferior to a 120-degree body temperature? Are molecules with 100 atoms inferior to molecules with 120 atoms?

Scientists can conclude that some values work better to achieve certain results in certain conditions, but it needs such context, and can't conclude that the results achieved are desirable without an additional context. A 120-degree body temp is "inferior" to a 100-degree body temp only if someone has decided that it's more desirable to be alive than dead. A lower IQ is inferior to a higher only if one has decided that it's more desirable to be smarter.

"If the average inherent black IQ is less than the white does this mean blacks are inherently inferior to whites?" or "if the inherent IQ of blacks is at least 10 points less than that of whites, can we treat them differently?" are moral questions, which science is incapable of answering. The moral answers would be "yes" or "no" to those, and it doesn't matter what the science will show. Testing the actual IQs is going to return a numerical value, not a yes or a no.

Apathia
25th March 2010, 06:33 PM
Isn't that enough to answer the OP's question in the affirmative?

Yup! (If that's all Sam Harris means to say.)
Science is informative.

Allow me to unpack Pauloff's quip, "Science is people" a bit.

Soylent Green has been determined by extensive testing to be an excellent nutritional source for Human Beings with no contraindications.
It's after all a recycled, processed protein product.
The science indicates its good for you.

However ...

The moral issue is in the however.
The science provides valid information, but doesn't address the issue in full of whether we really ought to be consuming that product.
The science sees nothing reprehensible about it, but that doesn't answer it.

I became a vegetarian in my teens. Part of the reason involved a desire to avoid contributing to animal suffering.
I attempted to go whole no-hog by becoming a vegan, but that wasn't giving me the protein my body needed. So I compromised with dairy products.

At age fifty I got into a relationship in which I was sexually active. It felt to me at that time that my vegetarian diet wasn't up to it, and that I needed some "preprocessed protein." So I began eating fish or poultry once a week.

Recently I decided to return to my vegetarian diet (I'm done with sex!)

Science tells me I'm an omnivore. Meat is good for me. My kind has chowed down flesh from before my species evolved.
But that's not the final word.
The final word on what I should do is a quite subjective matter for me.
At most science just says I have the option.
But I'm not a vege because I have the option.
It's because I don't feel right taking those lives.

I know a guy who is vegan.
It's obviously not good for him. (He's terribly thin and looks like death warmed over.)
And he admits that. He says he knows his veganism isn't good for his body, but he asserts he does it for his spirit (He's a strict Buddhist.)
It seems dubious to me that abuse of one's body could be good for the spirit. But I understand his moral convolutions, and that he must come to a decision that science can't make for him.
(BTW He did not raise his son as a vegan.)

Science can inform us what is healthy and what isn't, but more soul searching is involved in determining what is right for us.

It's not a moral authority.

Paulhoff
25th March 2010, 06:54 PM
A very very cheap shot, YOU GAVE UP SEX, explains a lot. :D

Paul

:) :) :)

I'll crawl back under that rock.

Apathia
25th March 2010, 07:16 PM
A very very cheap shot, YOU GAVE UP SEX, explains a lot. :D

Paul

:) :) :)

I'll crawl back under that rock.

A friend tells me I should practice "vegan sex."
(that's sex without orgasms.)

I suppose "science" tells me I ought to be fulfilling the biological imperitive by helping to crank out more members of my species so that we can dominate the galaxy.
But I'm scientifically and Catholicly immoral. :wackyembarrassed:

TraneWreck
26th March 2010, 07:36 AM
"If the average inherent black IQ is less than the white does this mean blacks are inherently inferior to whites?" or "if the inherent IQ of blacks is at least 10 points less than that of whites, can we treat them differently?" are moral questions, which science is incapable of answering. The moral answers would be "yes" or "no" to those, and it doesn't matter what the science will show. Testing the actual IQs is going to return a numerical value, not a yes or a no.

There are a ton of assumptions in that. Genetic research has quite conclusively shown that traits related to intelligence have nothing to do with so-called "racial" traits. You're picking a test with dubious scientific value and applying to a population with far more variables at play than just genetics and trying to conclude something about science from that.

The point I'm making is much more simple: in human DNA there is no basis to conclude that racial characteristics have anything to do with superiority/inferiority.

You're making a claim about society. The two are very different.

TraneWreck
26th March 2010, 07:39 AM
Yup! (If that's all Sam Harris means to say.)
Science is informative.

[...]

Science can inform us what is healthy and what isn't, but more soul searching is involved in determining what is right for us.

It's not a moral authority.

Sure, I don't think we're really disagreeing. My point is simply that science can clearly reject certain moral claims. This might not tell what IS moral, but it certainly tells us what ISN'T.

When a positive moral assertion is made, rejecting the facts on which its based is sufficient to undermine the claim.

Apathia
26th March 2010, 08:07 AM
Sure, I don't think we're really disagreeing. My point is simply that science can clearly reject certain moral claims. This might not tell what IS moral, but it certainly tells us what ISN'T.

When a positive moral assertion is made, rejecting the facts on which its based is sufficient to undermine the claim.

Yes, for example the so called "female cicumcision" practiced in some Middle Eastern and African countries (and falsely attributed to Islam).
The science is that it is unhealthy and dangerous.
The facts then inform a moral judgement that is cruel and reprehensible.

AlBell
26th March 2010, 10:42 AM
One of the most important moral questions in human history was pretty conclusively answered by genetics: are there meaningful differences between races?

Hell, they basically showed "race" isn't even a discernable concept genetically speaking.

I suppose you could argue that the old naturalistic fallacy prevails, and just because we have that knowledge, we can't draw any conclusions about how to behave towards other humans. But I think it's pretty clear that rejecting the basis of various race-based arguments is sufficient to undermine those claims and the resulting behavior.
Have you alerted the medical community they are wrong as they assign differing probabilities of illness based on race?

cienaños
26th March 2010, 11:05 AM
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hj9oB4zpHww


This is Sam Harris at TED. Can science answer moral questions? Does Sam Harris even answer that question in this talk?

What do you think?

Well, I actually watched the thing. I'm not sure what's going on in this thread, but it seems like the content of the video is not being addressed.

At the top, he posits that the separation between science and human values is an illusion. He goes on to link facts with values. One observable fact he uses is a comparison (pictures) of a weeping mother in extreme poverty vs. a joyful mother who is not in extreme poverty.

Sci•ence: \ˈsī-ən(t)s\ noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin scientia, from scient-, sciens having knowledge, from present participle of scire to know; perhaps akin to Sanskrit chyati he cuts off, Latin scindere to split — more at shed

1 : the state of knowing : knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding


Scientific Method: noun. circa 1810
Principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses


Science is not ignorant to the fact that malnutrition leads to accelerated physical decay. The mind, being the "command center" clearly suffers as well. The scientific method applied to this could be something like, for one year, let's have 50 people live in abject poverty, and 50 people live in stability, well nourished. The focus of this particular study is malnutrition and how it affects human well-being. The conclusion of course is obvious.

Now, I think he does address, somewhat shakily I'll admit, the gradations that exist between two such extremes. He also fully admits that he does not believe science will someday answer all moral questions. From this I gather that he is not claiming science be the only tool in bettering human well-being. It feels like he's more trying to build a bridge, or to say hey, let's build a tool kit, and science, can be one of the key tools.

The game of chess analogy he uses, functions as a response to the "objectivity" question. And the relativity question. He uses the 'sacrificing the queen for the win move' as an almost perfect example. ie. my family will sacrifice their queen (my life), for the win (pull the plug) to end my suffering (were I in a coma with zero chance of recovery), -- given that I'd clearly expressed that to be my final request of course.

Just because gradations exist, that shouldn't tempt us to say "it's all or nothing." Science/Scientific Method is but one tool. A powerful one, yes. But, if we have it, why not modify our human attachment to it so that we can decrease human suffering?

There's a great quote that I think applies to this, this stubborn trait that I see in science circles as well as religious circles: "It's okay to have beliefs, just don't believe in them."

Peace Love

TraneWreck
26th March 2010, 11:20 AM
Have you alerted the medical community they are wrong as they assign differing probabilities of illness based on race?

Growing up in Kansas I've had the great fortune to meet several honest to goodness racists. I've never heard someone say, "Segregation was a good system because African Americans (probably not the phrase they would use) have higher rates of sickle-cell anemia."

Dragoonster
26th March 2010, 01:31 PM
I should've watched the video from the start.

Basically it seems an argument against moral relativism using scientific knowledge vs. scientific ignorance as analogous to moral rightness vs. moral wrongness. That if we can obviously tell that one expert physicist's theory is more correct (or maybe likely to be correct, but he seemed pretty absolutist in the other twin of the analogy) when compared to a physics theory of a plumber who doesn't even know what an atom is, then we should be able to obviously tell that one expert moral philosopher is more correct than a non-expert. Except he doesn't really define what makes a person an expert moralist. He compares the Dalai Lama with Ted Bundy, but makes no reference to which of the two has actually studied moral philosophy more than the other, or independently discovered more moral truths than the other, which makes that particular analogy a bit wonky.

He referenced religious leaders who believe in a universal morality as defined in their holy books, and led to this sentence that I found cringeworthy: "but the demagogues are right about one thing--we need a universal concept about human values". He appears to be a desire utilitarianist, though I might have the wrong term for it. He doesn't explain why human suffering is bad, or why human joy is good; he seems to be justifying his position by appealing to the majority, as in "in Islamic society some fathers punish their daughters for being raped by killing them. Can you imagine? that's clearly wrong" (not an actual quote but that's the gist). At the same time he doesn't embrace this solution to the merging of cultures he notes is coming--that morals should be decided as in democracy--if enough people think veils or starvation or murder is immoral, then they'll either make laws or perform social duties relevant to that by majority decision, or they'll lobby for it.

Instead he seems to want his particular view on what is objectively good and what is objectively bad to be if not held by all others, at least the perceived universal law of the land, or the inherent correct version. That even if a person disagrees with that version, they should recognize that it's more correct than theirs.

I didn't see much in the way of how science itself can achieve such a vision, as the only way it can is if the observer of its conclusions has a preconception of what outcome they desire. If the person thinks starvation is undesirable, an experiment with two groups, one malnourished, the other plump, will reach the conclusion "the best moral course is to feed people". Obviously if one thinks starvation is desirable, the best moral course is the opposite. So at least there some of my comments in the thread prior to watching the tape are a bit on-point.

But all in all I found it unimpressive. It's an objective moralist attempting to win people to his position by any means necessary--science, rhetoric, appeal to authority, appeal to majority, and if they don't agree he'll still be right.

bluskool
26th March 2010, 02:00 PM
The game of chess analogy he uses, functions as a response to the "objectivity" question.

It doesn't answer the question at all though. In chess the object is to win so there is always an objectively correct move to make. In life, there is no object, meaning or purpose behind it except that which we ascribe to it. We can say that we generally want certain outcomes from life and then create a moral system to achieve them, but that just makes morals subjective. They are just based on what most people generally want.

Michael Redman
26th March 2010, 02:32 PM
How can "the well-being of conscience beings" be a fact? He uses extreme examples to imply a quantifiable spectrum, but gives no indication of how movement along such a spectrum could be quantified. If you can't measure happiness, how can you apply science to it?

And even if you could, how could you compare different types of happiness and suffering to each other to reach an objective conclusion? Exactly how happy would you have to make one person to justify making several other people mildly unhappy? Or does the fact that there are more people on one side alone tip the balance in that direction? What does science tell us?

Is it morally OK to punish an innocent person if it makes the community feel safer?

It is better to live a short, exciting, hedonistic life, or a long, contemplative life of moderation?

Is happiness/suffering the only moral concern? It morally OK to sterilize the entire population and let the species go extinct if the last generation gets an increase in happiness due to the ability to waste all resources?

Is it better to have loved and lost . . .

cienaños
26th March 2010, 03:44 PM
I should've watched the video from the start.

Basically it seems an argument against moral relativism using scientific knowledge vs. scientific ignorance as analogous to moral rightness vs. moral wrongness. That if we can obviously tell that one expert physicist's theory is more correct (or maybe likely to be correct, but he seemed pretty absolutist in the other twin of the analogy) when compared to a physics theory of a plumber who doesn't even know what an atom is, then we should be able to obviously tell that one expert moral philosopher is more correct than a non-expert. Except he doesn't really define what makes a person an expert moralist. He compares the Dalai Lama with Ted Bundy, but makes no reference to which of the two has actually studied moral philosophy more than the other, or independently discovered more moral truths than the other, which makes that particular analogy a bit wonky.

You're correct. He doesn't make philosophical or moral enlightenment/study references between the two. What does that have to do with the analogy or it being wonky?

He referenced religious leaders who believe in a universal morality as defined in their holy books, and led to this sentence that I found cringeworthy: "but the demagogues are right about one thing--we need a universal concept about human values". He appears to be a desire utilitarianist, though I might have the wrong term for it. He doesn't explain why human suffering is bad, or why human joy is good; he seems to be justifying his position by appealing to the majority, as in "in Islamic society some fathers punish their daughters for being raped by killing them. Can you imagine? that's clearly wrong" (not an actual quote but that's the gist). At the same time he doesn't embrace this solution to the merging of cultures he notes is coming--that morals should be decided as in democracy--if enough people think veils or starvation or murder is immoral, then they'll either make laws or perform social duties relevant to that by majority decision, or they'll lobby for it.

(I agree with your cringe-worthy comment by the way.) Maybe it's just what I brought into it, but I did get the "why" about human suffering being bad. Accelerated physical decay is not good. More on that later.

The merging of the cultures I thought was clearly not only embraced, but he made a show of it. He played on the emotions of the issue so much so as to generate the audience to embrace this solution of merge. The example was the comparison he made of the burqa vs. the slutty mags in the west. He went on to suggest "why can't there be somewhere in between, in the gradations, where we can meet? How? I don't have all the answers, I'm just kicking ideas around here guys." (comically loose paraphrase).

Instead he seems to want his particular view on what is objectively good and what is objectively bad to be if not held by all others, at least the perceived universal law of the land, or the inherent correct version. That even if a person disagrees with that version, they should recognize that it's more correct than theirs.

Can you point to some examples please?

I didn't see much in the way of how science itself can achieve such a vision, as the only way it can is if the observer of its conclusions has a preconception of what outcome they desire. If the person thinks starvation is undesirable, an experiment with two groups, one malnourished, the other plump, will reach the conclusion "the best moral course is to feed people". Obviously if one thinks starvation is desirable, the best moral course is the opposite. So at least there some of my comments in the thread prior to watching the tape are a bit on-point.

This is addressed in my earlier post. Is my English that bad? I mean, not immoral, just bad - I mean, poop!

But all in all I found it unimpressive. It's an objective moralist attempting to win people to his position by any means necessary--science, rhetoric, appeal to authority, appeal to majority, and if they don't agree he'll still be right.

Also addressed (the quote at the end) in that earlier post.

Peace

cienaños
26th March 2010, 03:52 PM
It doesn't answer the question at all though. In chess the object is to win so there is always an objectively correct move to make. In life, there is no object, meaning or purpose behind it except that which we ascribe to it. We can say that we generally want certain outcomes from life and then create a moral system to achieve them, but that just makes morals subjective. They are just based on what most people generally want.

Really with Seth and Amy?

Is your object of desire in life to live in some poverty-stricken, war destroyed, AIDS and/or genocide infested society? If it is, congratulations. You're living in one. One of the tamer versions, yes, but still.

In life, there is an objective. Survival. The objective is there. Waiting for us to catch up.

EDIT: Sorry I forgot to address your chess comment: The game of chess was not created by un-life.

bluskool
26th March 2010, 03:55 PM
Really with Seth and Amy?

Is your object of desire in life to live in some poverty-stricken, war destroyed, AIDS and/or genocide infested society? If it is, congratulations. You're living in one. One of the tamer versions, yes, but still.

In life, there is an objective. Survival. The objective is there. Waiting for us to catch up.

It doesn't matter what my objective is. Of course my objective is to live a happy, meaningful life, but it is still my objective, which is, by definition, subjective.

cienaños
26th March 2010, 04:09 PM
How can "the well-being of conscience beings" be a fact? He uses extreme examples to imply a quantifiable spectrum, but gives no indication of how movement along such a spectrum could be quantified. If you can't measure happiness, how can you apply science to it?

And even if you could, how could you compare different types of happiness and suffering to each other to reach an objective conclusion? Exactly how happy would you have to make one person to justify making several other people mildly unhappy? Or does the fact that there are more people on one side alone tip the balance in that direction? What does science tell us?

Is it morally OK to punish an innocent person if it makes the community feel safer?

It is better to live a short, exciting, hedonistic life, or a long, contemplative life of moderation?

Is happiness/suffering the only moral concern? It morally OK to sterilize the entire population and let the species go extinct if the last generation gets an increase in happiness due to the ability to waste all resources?

Is it better to have loved and lost . . .

Last one. I'm getting tired.

My apartment. Science gives me what? the exact dimensions, temperature, geometry, uses, and other basic information.

Someone bangs on my door screaming saucy language. Science gives me what? It gives me half. The other half is reason. Combining science with other constructs in this thing we call world - that can be a good thing. Science is not your ruler. It's okay. It's just one of the guys. There are others that are pretty cool too.

cienaños
26th March 2010, 04:19 PM
It doesn't matter what my objective is. Of course my objective is to live a happy, meaningful life, but it is still my objective, which is, by definition, subjective.

This I think, is why I have a deep respect and love, for language.

Let me ask you a philosophical question. If you'll indulge me?

When you were in your mother's womb, who got what label? Who was the subjective? Who was the objective? Did that change after you reached an age of consciousness? And before that, when you were partly in your mother, and your other part swam in lustfully, where - at what scientific measurement did you become your own idea of subjective/objective - apart and completely separate from your parents?

And when you feed the worms one day. Will you be doing so subjectively, or objectively?

Kahalachan
26th March 2010, 05:09 PM
Looks like Sam Harris is ignorant of science and delving into pseudoscience.

Paulhoff
26th March 2010, 05:28 PM
Science gives me what?
What, is it all about you?

What does religion give you, lies.

Paul

:) :) :)

Turn off that computer, and if your chest hurts, stay home.

Kevin_Lowe
26th March 2010, 05:43 PM
He may have a BA in Philosophy, but I'm guessing Harris slept through Hume.

If he's solved the is-ought problem (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Is-ought_problem) that would be amazing news, but it's about as likely as him having come up with a watertight logical proof for the existence of the Christian God.

Dragoonster
26th March 2010, 06:08 PM
You're correct. He doesn't make philosophical or moral enlightenment/study references between the two. What does that have to do with the analogy or it being wonky?

Because the reason we defer to a professional physicist's theories over a layman's is because the physicist has studied physics and is respected for his knowledge in the area. Maybe it's an implied assumption that the Dalai Lama has studied more philosophy than Bundy. Otherwise the analogy is just an odd way of saying "the Dalai Lama is the philosophical expert because Bundy's philosophy was clearly inferior".

(I agree with your cringe-worthy comment by the way.) Maybe it's just what I brought into it, but I did get the "why" about human suffering being bad. Accelerated physical decay is not good. More on that later.

The merging of the cultures I thought was clearly not only embraced, but he made a show of it. He played on the emotions of the issue so much so as to generate the audience to embrace this solution of merge. The example was the comparison he made of the burqa vs. the slutty mags in the west. He went on to suggest "why can't there be somewhere in between, in the gradations, where we can meet? How? I don't have all the answers, I'm just kicking ideas around here guys." (comically loose paraphrase).

But he wants the cultures to meet in his defined area, where morality is objective. There is a right amount of skin to show, and he believes it's not either extreme because...why exactly? He's either already determined the correct amount or he disbelieves one of the two has discovered the correct amount and it happens to be one of the extremes. Maybe I missed something.

The additional reason I don't think he supports "majority-decided morality" which would result from a merger is that he claims moral X is still objectively bad even in societies where everyone thinks it's objectively good. So there he specifically denies that majority-decided morality is a good way of deciding morality. Iran is a society, yet if its morality can't be defined as objectively correct for it even if the society thinks it is...it follows that a global merged society's morals couldn't be defined as objective for it even if most of the world thinks it is.

Can you point to some examples please?

I think he pretty much explicitly stated such, but didn't record the quote. Might be wrong.

This is addressed in my earlier post. Is my English that bad? I mean, not immoral, just bad - I mean, poop!

I don't think any moral component was addressed. Science tells us humans starve without food. That's the only conclusion science makes. It doesn't conclude whether human death is good or bad.

I don't know if you mean I totally missed your point (which I might have!) because I don't read English well, or that it's not your native language, because your English seems perfect to me.

Also addressed (the quote at the end) in that earlier post.

Peace

I agree with the bottom of your post, and many of your assesments. I'm not sure that Harris does though. Was hard to tell when he was being absolutist and when he was being compromising.

cienaños
27th March 2010, 08:36 AM
What, is it all about you?

What does religion give you, lies.

Paul

:) :) :)

Turn off that computer, and if your chest hurts, stay home.

Oh you Paulhoff you. You're funny. I'm sure you understand context and the framework surrounding the "what does science give me?" quote.

Just so we're clear, I'm not religious. And yes, religion gives people lies.

Also, thanks for the advice. I did as you said and now I feel super. It was my head though, not my chest. I have pills for my chest. Pills created by scientists with the wacky idea that they might ease human suffering just a bit.

Paulhoff
27th March 2010, 11:06 AM
Oh you Paulhoff you. You're funny. I'm sure you understand context and the framework surrounding the "what does science give me?" quote.

Just so we're clear, I'm not religious. And yes, religion gives people lies.

Also, thanks for the advice. I did as you said and now I feel super. It was my head though, not my chest. I have pills for my chest. Pills created by scientists with the wacky idea that they might ease human suffering just a bit.
Ppppppppppffffffffffffffffffffffff :D

Paul

:) :) :)

Earthborn
27th March 2010, 12:26 PM
Why don't we have ethical obligations toward rocks? Why don't we feel compassion for rocks? It's because we don't think rocks can suffer.Here we have a factual claim that seems to point to the base of Harris' argument; that our sense of morality stems from our feeling of compassion, and our compassion is directed towards things we know are capable of suffering. It is a factual claim; it would be disproven if people are capable of feeling compassion for lifeless objects or if we feel we have ethical obligations toward them.

To answer this claim, two words:
Pet Rock.

People are perfectly capable of feeling compassion for lifeless objects, even if they know they aren't really conscious beings. Our compassion isn't that directed. We can get emotionally involved in a computer animated story about a rusty old robot. We might feel the need to play with a Tamagotchi, or "heal" it when it "gets sick". Many people will feel some sadness when they bring their old car to the junk yard, as if they are betraying an old friend. They may in fact feel more emotionally involved in lifeless objects than they are toward other humans in a far away place.

Let's say there is a huge pile of rocks Sam Harris claims we have no ethical obligation towards, and we call it a mountain. Suppose a mining company wants to blow it up, shovel it down, grind it to bits to extract whatever ores there are in it. The mining company will of course deny it has any ethical obligation toward its preservation, but you will probably find that many people profoundly disagree; even people who do not believe a mountain is capable of experiencing suffering.

Whether a natural feature of a landscape, or shaped by humans into great cathedrals, statues or other buildings, many piles of rocks have many people feeling great ethical obligation toward their preservation. Harris does not show how they are wrong.

Oystein
28th March 2010, 04:18 AM
Harris begins his argument with the concept of consciousness, which is vested in brains, and the property of our consciousness to fell empathy. That is, we can relate to other beings who also possess consciousness and thereby asses their well-being.

He manages to drop that line of thought early on, and he also manages to not mentionm the Golden Rule - where, I think, one would naturally end up when following through with this reasoning.

What he is saying is: Individual happiness and suffering are real things in the sense that there is a bodily organ (then brain) bringing forth such emotions through processes that can, in principle, be described and detected in strict scientific terms. And this indeed can and must be admitted.

Now when it comes to translating human experience into objective values: I don't think he is suggesting that we can measure experiences, in the sense of assigning numbers on a scale to them, and then compute and compare the numbers. But it should in many cases be possible to order experiences. Clearly, inflicting pain is inferior morally to not inflicting pain, with pain being a property the existence of which can be objectively verified.

But Harris misses one obvious point: Pain is worse than no pain only with all other things being equal! His example of flogging pupils ignores the justification brought forward even by people who do not follow Scripture as such: They assume that a little suffering now will spare the kid more suffering later, because only by the use of force will they learn some lessons properly. Now you may (as do I) question the veracity of this assumption, and maybe you can show scientifically that it is indeed wrong. But maybe you cannot? Maybe it is true after all? Then you must weigh pain now against pain later, and that argument will be subjective and probably science won't be able to evaluate the two options.

Another rather obvious thing Harris misses: When talking about burkas, he assumes that it is obvious that many women who veil themselves completely in muslim lands do so under threat - and that they would be free in their choice of clothing (to veil or not to veil) in the USA. But I am pretty sure Harris saw no naked or topless folks in attendance at TED. Now - do all American woman cover their breasts fully voluntarily? Or are they not subject to the threats of the culture they happen to born to, that heaps ridicule and court orders upon women (or men) who would want to run around in the nude? Would the Sam Harris of the Yanonami not talk about American clothing rules in the very same terms as the real Harris does about the Taliban, for obviously, every person should be free to be naked anywhere anytime?

Oystein
28th March 2010, 04:27 AM
...
Whether a natural feature of a landscape, or shaped by humans into great cathedrals, statues or other buildings, many piles of rocks have many people feeling great ethical obligation toward their preservation. Harris does not show how they are wrong.

Emotional feelings do not equal moral values. When we make a moral choice not to obliterate an inanimate object, we not do so on the grounds of inate properties or rights of said object, but based on what we would do to other humans and their emotions.

I have a toy bear that I would very dearly miss if you destroyed it, so my sadness would make your act immoral. However if there was a container full of identical toy bears somewhere that belong to no one, and you burn it up, I couldn't care less, because you would not cause any suffering. Certainly not to the bears, no matter how cute and cuddly they may be.

bluskool
28th March 2010, 08:42 AM
This I think, is why I have a deep respect and love, for language.

Let me ask you a philosophical question. If you'll indulge me?

When you were in your mother's womb, who got what label? Who was the subjective? Who was the objective? Did that change after you reached an age of consciousness? And before that, when you were partly in your mother, and your other part swam in lustfully, where - at what scientific measurement did you become your own idea of subjective/objective - apart and completely separate from your parents?

And when you feed the worms one day. Will you be doing so subjectively, or objectively?

The answer to them all is that it doesn't matter. Something is not objective when two people share the thought. Even if the entire human race agrees on what is moral, that doesn't make morality objective. So the question of "who got the label" is meaningless.

Earthborn
28th March 2010, 10:34 AM
Emotional feelings do not equal moral values.No, but Harris expects us to accept as self-evident that such feelings don't exist ("Why don't we feel compassion for rocks?") and we have absolutely no ethical obligations toward them, while many people feel they do. The fact that there are people who do feel ethical obligations toward rocks means he'll have to come up with a better argument why "objectively" or "scientifically" we don't actually have them.

It is a very old claim that there are no ethical obligations toward rocks. It is not easy being a rock in Western philosophy, and not much easier being a tree or an ant. It is such an old cliché that when most of us hear it we automatically accept it as self-evidently true, but like so many things claimed to be "self-evident" it isn't. For a guy who claims that morality is derived from the well-being of concious beings, it is perhaps strange that he doesn't give rocks a bit more respect considering that the concious beings he cares about have only managed live and thrive on a big rock.

When we make a moral choice not to obliterate an inanimate object, we not do so on the grounds of inate properties or rights of said object, but based on what we would do to other humans and their emotions.Is that the only reason? I think many of the people who ethical choices toward inanimate objects refer to properties they believe are innate.

Oystein
28th March 2010, 03:55 PM
...Is that the only reason? I think many of the people who ethical choices toward inanimate objects refer to properties they believe are innate.

Such as? Do rocks really have these properties, or is that just make-believe and projection?

I (and, I would thinkm Sam Harris) do not deny that some people think it is moral to be nice to some rocks, but Harris argues that they are objectively wrong, because they would argue the morality of such behaviour with properties, that rocks do not in fact possess.

cienaños
28th March 2010, 03:56 PM
The answer to them all is that it doesn't matter. Something is not objective when two people share the thought. Even if the entire human race agrees on what is moral, that doesn't make morality objective. So the question of "who got the label" is meaningless.

But according to label purists, such as those who must label a thing either objective or subjective, not only is the question not meaningless, but essential.

Separately,

I don't believe I ever claimed morality to be objective even if the entire human race agrees on what is moral. I never claimed it, because I don't believe it. It doesn't even make sense.

Peace

Dragoonster
28th March 2010, 04:34 PM
Such as? Do rocks really have these properties, or is that just make-believe and projection?

I (and, I would thinkm Sam Harris) do not deny that some people think it is moral to be nice to some rocks, but Harris argues that they are objectively wrong, because they would argue the morality of such behaviour with properties, that rocks do not in fact possess.

But (and I'm likely getting some of these arguments of his wrong):

1. Human well-being is the highest priority and what makes a thing moral
2. That's tied to or can be evaluated by brain-states
3. Contentment increases well-being brain-states
4. Mountains make the most people more content than any possible replacement to mountains (or a particular mountain)
5. Preserving mountains is an objectively good moral decision

Does that make sense?

Piggy
28th March 2010, 05:03 PM
I think Harris is correct that science can answer moral questions. (Note his disclaimers at about 6:00, btw.)

What he's saying is that there are right and wrong answers about what makes us happy and what makes us flourish, and none of it is mystical, so it's all amenable to scientific inquiry.

Morality is simply a phenomenon of the activity of the brains of certain animals. That's all. There's no reason why it can't be approached and understood scientifically.

And for the critters that have those brains, understanding the biological basis of morality, happiness, and flourishing will tend to lead us to correct answers.

Kevin_Lowe
28th March 2010, 05:37 PM
Or in other words "science can answer moral questions, if you make the right non-scientific presuppositions". What a shaft of insight.

cienaños
28th March 2010, 09:06 PM
I pose this question in all sincerity to anyone who can provide some insight for me regarding this notion of objectivity vs. subjectivity. Previously, it went unanswered when I asked someone else.

This I think, is why I have a deep respect and love, for language.

Let me ask you a philosophical question. If you'll indulge me?

When you were in your mother's womb, who got what label? Who was the subjective? Who was the objective? Did that change after you reached an age of consciousness? And before that, when you were partly in your mother, and your other part swam in lustfully, where - at what scientific measurement did you become your own idea of subjective/objective - apart and completely separate from your parents?

And when you feed the worms one day. Will you be doing so subjectively, or objectively?

Kevin_Lowe
28th March 2010, 10:58 PM
I pose this question in all sincerity to anyone who can provide some insight for me regarding this notion of objectivity vs. subjectivity. Previously, it went unanswered when I asked someone else.

Quote:
This I think, is why I have a deep respect and love, for language.

Let me ask you a philosophical question. If you'll indulge me?

When you were in your mother's womb, who got what label? Who was the subjective? Who was the objective? Did that change after you reached an age of consciousness? And before that, when you were partly in your mother, and your other part swam in lustfully, where - at what scientific measurement did you become your own idea of subjective/objective - apart and completely separate from your parents?

And when you feed the worms one day. Will you be doing so subjectively, or objectively?


Subjective is a label we use to refer to certain brain events and certain beliefs. The taste of mushrooms is a subjective brain event and the view that mushrooms taste nasty is a subjective belief.

Beliefs and brain events only exist (so far as we currently know) in the meaty brains between the ears of animals. So before you have a functioning brain you have no subjective brain events or beliefs. After you no longer have a functioning brain (i.e. you are worm food) then you also have no subjective brain events or beliefs.

Subjective and objective are not really opposites. The subjective is a subset of the objective, since the brains we use to have subjective thoughts with are part of the objective universe and are made out of objectively observable atoms.

However the subjective/objective distinction is still quite useful. For example we can say that whether or not mushrooms taste nice is a subjective matter about which different views are simultaneously true. They might taste nice to you and nasty to me, and both of us is right about what we taste. Whereas whether or not mushrooms are fungi is an objective matter about which only one view is true.

Does that answer your questions?

Oystein
29th March 2010, 03:27 AM
But (and I'm likely getting some of these arguments of his wrong):

1. Human well-being is the highest priority and what makes a thing moral
2. That's tied to or can be evaluated by brain-states
3. Contentment increases well-being brain-states
4. Mountains make the most people more content than any possible replacement to mountains (or a particular mountain)
5. Preserving mountains is an objectively good moral decision

Does that make sense?

Yes, absolutely! Exactly my stance!
I'd even agree if you argued with the contentment of the mountain animals that live on that pile of rocks.

Nothing in your argument assigns the mountain itself any inherent properties that make it a valid object of moral considerations - it does not deserve to be preserved on its own accord, the moral value is fully derived from the conscient beings that behold it.

Should we encounter a mountain that is generally more disagreeable to most or all humans (and animals) than agreeable, then the objective moral stance would be to get rid of it.

Oystein
29th March 2010, 03:44 AM
...
Beliefs and brain events only exist (so far as we currently know) in the meaty brains between the ears of animals. So before you have a functioning brain you have no subjective brain events or beliefs. After you no longer have a functioning brain (i.e. you are worm food) then you also have no subjective brain events or beliefs.
...

I agree with most skeptics, that all subjectivity is dependent on the existence of a functioning "brain".

However, there are brains that function but do not bring forth consciousness. And there are brains that temporarily do not function at all, or at a level functionally indistinguishable from dead. So the question is valid: Can dead or nonfunctional brains be the object of moral considerations?

An example to illustrate this subtle point: In most jurisdictions, the death penalty is outlawed, following the realisation of many people, that subjecting a fellow human to the agony and pain of dying is immoral.

In some jurisdiction, like some states of the USA, certain methods of putting a convict to death have been ruled unconstitutional on the moral ground of "cruelty". In those states, it is mandatory to first put the convict into an unconscious state, and then kill him, to spare them the pain and some of the agony of dying.
So, apparently, constituents and courts in those states think that it is immoral to kill some fellow humans while they are awake, but o.k. to kill them when unconscious.

edd
29th March 2010, 06:37 AM
Having watched this, I think I would sum it up not so much as "science can answer moral questions", but "moral questions can be considered rationally, and science can inform that rational thinking".

Deep down, I'm not sure the two are actually different however.

cienaños
29th March 2010, 08:26 AM
Subjective is a label we use to refer to certain brain events and certain beliefs. The taste of mushrooms is a subjective brain event and the view that mushrooms taste nasty is a subjective belief.

Beliefs and brain events only exist (so far as we currently know) in the meaty brains between the ears of animals. So before you have a functioning brain you have no subjective brain events or beliefs. After you no longer have a functioning brain (i.e. you are worm food) then you also have no subjective brain events or beliefs.

Subjective and objective are not really opposites. The subjective is a subset of the objective, since the brains we use to have subjective thoughts with are part of the objective universe and are made out of objectively observable atoms.

However the subjective/objective distinction is still quite useful. For example we can say that whether or not mushrooms taste nice is a subjective matter about which different views are simultaneously true. They might taste nice to you and nasty to me, and both of us is right about what we taste. Whereas whether or not mushrooms are fungi is an objective matter about which only one view is true.

Does that answer your questions?

Thanks Kevin. Not only did you answer my questions eloquently, you also answered my questions.

So then, if "the subjective is a subset of the objective", do we conclude that the subjective can only exist if the objective exists first?

More importantly, do we conclude that the objective can exist without the subjective?

Regards

Piggy
29th March 2010, 10:58 AM
Or in other words "science can answer moral questions, if you make the right non-scientific presuppositions". What a shaft of insight.

And what would those be?

dudalb
29th March 2010, 10:59 AM
Looks like Sam Harris is ignorant of science and delving into pseudoscience.

He is trying to apply the rules of Physical Science to Human Behavior..which is always a bad idea. They just don't apply.

TraneWreck
29th March 2010, 11:03 AM
He is trying to apply the rules of Physical Science to Human Behavior..which is always a bad idea. They just don't apply.

If only. I'd be in the NBA if it weren't for that goddamn gravity...

Paulhoff
29th March 2010, 11:09 AM
He is trying to apply the rules of Physical Science to Human Behavior..which is always a bad idea. They just don't apply.
Soooooooooo, we are not physical, OK.

I quess the text in an old black book it what should be used, seems to be working out so well today.

Believe it or not, humans do not have an infinite range of responces to every situation, they can be quantified.

Paul

:) :) :)

AlBell
29th March 2010, 11:32 AM
Believe it or not, humans do not have an infinite range of responces to every situation, they can be quantified.

And once subjective guidelines have been chosen, the responses can be sorted from best to worst.

Then you can sort the subjective guidelines from best to worst, once subjective guidelines have been chosen (to evaluate the previous subjective guidelines) .... etc.

drkitten
29th March 2010, 12:07 PM
Having watched this, I think I would sum it up not so much as "science can answer moral questions", but "moral questions can be considered rationally, and science can inform that rational thinking".

Deep down, I'm not sure the two are actually different however.

They're quite different. Science has two parts : logic and observations. Logic, in turn, has two parts : rules of inference and axioms. While observations are at least in theory public, both rules of inference and axioms need not be shared.

If you think (axiomatically) that suffering is bad, and someone else thinks that suffering is good, science can inform the question about which pain medication is most effective. Science can even explain the best way to reduce suffering. On the other hand, it can't convince someone who believes that suffering is good that reducing suffering is a desirable goal.

edd
29th March 2010, 02:41 PM
They're quite different. Science has two parts : logic and observations. Logic, in turn, has two parts : rules of inference and axioms. While observations are at least in theory public, both rules of inference and axioms need not be shared.

If you think (axiomatically) that suffering is bad, and someone else thinks that suffering is good, science can inform the question about which pain medication is most effective. Science can even explain the best way to reduce suffering. On the other hand, it can't convince someone who believes that suffering is good that reducing suffering is a desirable goal.

Quite agree.

edd
29th March 2010, 02:50 PM
Harris responds to criticism: http://www.project-reason.org/newsfeed/item/moral_confusion_in_the_name_of_science3/

I still don't see that it excludes a need for some kind of initial moral axiom that gives us some way of evaluating good against evil though. I can't see a place when something like a God of Eth argument doesn't apply.

bokonon
29th March 2010, 04:39 PM
Harris responds to criticism: http://www.project-reason.org/newsfeed/item/moral_confusion_in_the_name_of_science3/

I still don't see that it excludes a need for some kind of initial moral axiom that gives us some way of evaluating good against evil though. I can't see a place when something like a God of Eth argument doesn't apply.
I thought he clearly stated that his initial moral axiom is that "good" is that which is beneficial to sentient beings. While I googled "God of Eth", I found that I didn't want to read what looked like several pages of blurple to understand what is, so I'm not clear on what argument you think necessarily arises here. It doesn't seem to me that Harris' initial axiom is any more unreasonable than the others he cites (i.e., why is experimental evidence "better" than the lack of same?).

edd
29th March 2010, 05:15 PM
I thought he clearly stated that his initial moral axiom is that "good" is that which is beneficial to sentient beings.
Yes, I think that's fairly clear too, but then it doesn't really make it a matter of science. Science is telling you how to optimise some function, not what that function is.

The God of Eth argument is that the problem of evil is rubbish on the basis that the 'problem of good' is at least as powerful an argument for an evil God.

I don't see here that you couldn't replace the axiom with one telling you to be evil and argue that science tells you to be completely vile. Only the fact that you personally wouldn't want to do that would push things from it. Or maybe that's Sam's point, in which case I think he's got a fair point.

Kevin_Lowe
29th March 2010, 05:16 PM
I agree with most skeptics, that all subjectivity is dependent on the existence of a functioning "brain".

However, there are brains that function but do not bring forth consciousness. And there are brains that temporarily do not function at all, or at a level functionally indistinguishable from dead. So the question is valid: Can dead or nonfunctional brains be the object of moral considerations?

We're getting into a different question here to the one I answered, which was just about subjective and objective views.

I would say no to dead ones, barring resurrection. By the same token I'd say no to permanently nonfunctional ones.


An example to illustrate this subtle point: In most jurisdictions, the death penalty is outlawed, following the realisation of many people, that subjecting a fellow human to the agony and pain of dying is immoral.

In some jurisdiction, like some states of the USA, certain methods of putting a convict to death have been ruled unconstitutional on the moral ground of "cruelty". In those states, it is mandatory to first put the convict into an unconscious state, and then kill him, to spare them the pain and some of the agony of dying.
So, apparently, constituents and courts in those states think that it is immoral to kill some fellow humans while they are awake, but o.k. to kill them when unconscious.

I don't see that as counterintuitive. I think it's immoral to conduct surgery on a person who is not anaesthetised but moral to conduct surgery on a person who is anaesthetised. (Given the usual sorts of circumstances in which surgery is performed in the modern world). By the same token if you are going to kill someone then all else being equal it's better that it be non-traumatic as far as is possible.

I'm not endorsing the death penalty, I'm just saying that a non-traumatic death penalty is preferable to a traumatic one.

Thanks Kevin. Not only did you answer my questions eloquently, you also answered my questions.

So then, if "the subjective is a subset of the objective", do we conclude that the subjective can only exist if the objective exists first?

It certainly seems to work that way in this universe. We've never yet seen a subjective thingie outside a meaty brain thingie.


More importantly, do we conclude that the objective can exist without the subjective?

It certainly seems to work that way in this universe. By all appearances the universe was around for billions of years before life existed and hence before subjective thoughts and beliefs existed.

And what would those be?

Drkitten did an excellent job of explaining this. If you start with a non-scientific premise like "It is bad to cause suffering", or "It is bad to act in such a way that you cannot wish that all people in relevantly similar situations would act likewise" or whatever, then science can inform you about which of your actions are likely to cause or ameliorate suffering. Or it can inform you about the likely consequences of all people in relevantly similar situations acting likewise.

What science cannot do is bootstrap you to a moral conclusion from strictly factual premises. There needs to be a moral premise in there as well.

Earthborn
29th March 2010, 05:48 PM
Many of my critics piously cite Hume’s is/ought distinction as though it were well known to be the last word on the subject of morality until the end of time.Well, it is unless someone comes up with a way to derive an "ought" from an "is", which nobody has so far.

... a reference to something Robert Oppenheimer once wrote, on the assumption that it was now an unmovable object around which all future human thought must flow. Happily, that’s not how physics works. But neither is it how philosophy works. Frankly, it’s not how anything that works, works.I find this a very strange statement by Harris. If morality was something that is scientifically knowable, Oppenheimer's statement would be true. It would mean moral truth would be reduceable to the underlying physics.

The deeper issue, however, is that truth has nothing, in principle, to do with consensus: It is, after all, quite possible for everyone to be wrong, or for one lone person to be right.Let's for a moment assume that there is such a thing as "scientific truth" where one lone person might be right and everybody else wrong (a view highly contested by most philosophers of science). This does not mean the same is true of "moral truth".

Strangely, Carroll also imagines that there is greater consensus about scientific truth than about moral truth. Taking humanity as a whole, I am quite certain that he is mistaken about this. How about taking the consensus among relavent experts? I think you'll find that most experts of morality don't take the position that "moral truth" is a meaningful concept. Most people might disagree, but sometimes the few are right and the many are wrong.

In fact, I believe that we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What’s the alternative?The obvious alternative is of course that there is no "intelligible domain of value". But Harris decides to argue against a point of view that is not even the issue:

Imagine some genius comes forward and says, “I have found a source of value/morality that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings.” Take a moment to think about what this claim actually means. Here’s the problem: whatever this person has found cannot, by definition, be of interest to anyone (in this life or in any other). Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is—again, by definition—the least interesting thing in the universe.Notice how similar this is to how scientific truths are discovered; those are often things that very few people are interested in, or are even able to understand. If he wants to argue that there are scientific moral truths, he should not be afraid of truths that few people care about or understand. That's because as Harris put it himself: "It is, after all, quite possible for everyone to be wrong, or for one lone person to be right."

The same criticism of "not being of interest to anyone" can used against the idea that consciousness is the domain of value. Suppose science discovered that plants had a conscious mind just like us. How many would be interested in that truth and suddenly decide it is immoral to eat them? Not many, I reckon.

And, as I pointed out at TED, all the people who claim to have alternative sources of morality (like the Word of God) are, in every case that I am aware of, only concerned about wellbeing anyway:All the people? Or is Harris just twisting the beliefs of many of them?

They just happen to believe that the universe functions in such a way as to place the really important changes in conscious experience after death (i.e. in heaven or hell).In other words, forever outside the scope of science. Which makes it very difficult for science to show how the morality based on such ideas is wrong.

Fanciers of Hume’s is/ought distinction never seem to realize what the stakes are,Or perhaps they do, and they realise that the stakes are higher than Harris realises. There have been many ideologies based on the view that what "ought" can be derived from what "is", and that science can be used to decide moral issues. And from Nazism to communism they all managed to produce a perversion of both science and morality, and human suffering. It usually leads to "science proves that I am right and you are wrong, so do as I tell you."
Both science and morality demand a level of humility, which is lost if you want to back up your morality with science, or want science to decide what is moral.

Look into their eyes, and tell me that what has been done to them is the product of an alternative moral code every bit as authentic and philosophically justifiable as your own.This is the sort of argument that always pops up against claims that morality is not "scientific" or "absolute" or whatever: the preposterous argument that if one cannot justify one's morality on "something higher" one refuses to make a moral judgement. It is not true no matter whether that "something higher" is God or science. Moral relativism is not itself a moral judgement.

Harris' statement is an appeal to emotion to boot.

Think of the champions of “tolerance” who reflexively blamed Salman Rushdie for his fatwa, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her ongoing security concerns, or the Danish cartoonists for their “controversy,” and you will understand what happens when educated liberals think there is no universal foundation for human values.It appears Harris has already decided which moralities are best, without doing the science on which he wants to base them. What if science discovers that human wellbeing is maximised by not allowing people to angre others? Will he then change his mind on these issues?

Piggy
29th March 2010, 06:01 PM
Drkitten did an excellent job of explaining this. If you start with a non-scientific premise like "It is bad to cause suffering", or "It is bad to act in such a way that you cannot wish that all people in relevantly similar situations would act likewise" or whatever, then science can inform you about which of your actions are likely to cause or ameliorate suffering. Or it can inform you about the likely consequences of all people in relevantly similar situations acting likewise.

What science cannot do is bootstrap you to a moral conclusion from strictly factual premises. There needs to be a moral premise in there as well.

I don't believe there does need to be any purely arbitrary moral premise. (Again, keeping in mind the comments circa 6:00.)

The notions, for instance, that human beings as a species prefer on the whole to be happy, healthy, fed, safe, and loved are not unscientific.

I don't see any problem with taking a scientific view of questions such as what is good, what is best, what should we do?

You can imagine looking at another species and asking, from a scientific point of view, what would be the best way for these creatures to act in a given situation, knowing what we know about what makes them thrive, and how their brains are wired, so that they get the most preferable outcome?

We can do that for ourselves as well.

This is not to say that science is at all prepared and equipped to actually perform such a task in all cases.

But I don't think that's what's being argued. Rather, he's only observing that science can answer moral questions. That it's not a contradiction in terms to say that moral issues can be tackled, and solved, scientifically.

Piggy
29th March 2010, 06:05 PM
It would mean moral truth would be reduceable to the underlying physics.

And perhaps it is.

In fact, if it is not, then what does it ultimately come down to?

If we are indeed just a physical phenomenon -- as are stars, black holes, squid, and volcanic ash -- then everything we do, including making the types of moral judgments that people tend to make, is simply a result of the elaboration of the physics.

There is no reason to believe that this particular type of behavior (making moral judgments) by these particular objects (people) is not entirely determined by the physics and couldn't, if we had enough knowledge, be understood entirely in that framework.

Dragoonster
29th March 2010, 06:07 PM
Good breakdown. Yeah, it seems Harris is just coming in with a preconceived morality and trying to shoehorn science to fit it. If science "showed" that overall well-being would be best increased by everyone in the world converting to Islam and every female wearing a burka, would he accept that and convert? Should he, any more than a Muslim should convert to science? Science is falsifiable by objective experiment, morality by subjective opinion.

I hope this science-morality beast never gets solid traction.

Dragoonster
29th March 2010, 06:11 PM
And perhaps it is.

In fact, if it is not, then what does it ultimately come down to?

If we are indeed just a physical phenomenon -- as are stars, black holes, squid, and volcanic ash -- then everything we do, including making the types of moral judgments that people tend to make, is simply a result of the elaboration of the physics.

There is no reason to believe that this particular type of behavior (making moral judgments) by these particular objects (people) is not entirely determined by the physics and couldn't, if we had enough knowledge, be understood entirely in that framework.

Sure but not seemingly in any way that wouldn't require a mapping of entire brain function, and the only output we'd get is that different brains have different moralities (which is already very obvious). What to do then? Genetically engineer brains to hold to the current majority morality, or that of those with the power to engineer them? Abort everyone found to have an inferior morality? What's the point? What's the goal?

Kevin_Lowe
29th March 2010, 06:22 PM
I don't believe there does need to be any purely arbitrary moral premise. (Again, keeping in mind the comments circa 6:00.)

As Earthborn and I have already said, if you've found a way around the is/ought problem you'll be the first person in history to do so.


The notions, for instance, that human beings as a species prefer on the whole to be happy, healthy, fed, safe, and loved are not unscientific.

Now you're helping yourself to the unstated moral premise that satisfying human preferences is morally good. That's not a scientific premise, it's a moral one pulled out of thin air.

As moral premises to pull out of thin air it's not a bad one though. It's flawed but there are much worse ones you could have gone for.


You can imagine looking at another species and asking, from a scientific point of view, what would be the best way for these creatures to act in a given situation, knowing what we know about what makes them thrive, and how their brains are wired, so that they get the most preferable outcome?

Same trick again. You are hiding the moral premise that satisfying the preferences of such creatures is morally good, and then claiming that your whole position is based on purely factual premises.


But I don't think that's what's being argued. Rather, he's only observing that science can answer moral questions. That it's not a contradiction in terms to say that moral issues can be tackled, and solved, scientifically.

That can only happen if the people involved have already agreed on at least one non-scientific, moral premise.

Without that moral premise to start off with you can pile facts as high as you like without ever getting to a moral conclusion.

Earthborn
29th March 2010, 07:23 PM
If we are indeed just a physical phenomenon -- as are stars, black holes, squid, and volcanic ash -- then everything we do, including making the types of moral judgments that people tend to make, is simply a result of the elaboration of the physics.No doubt the mechanisms we use to make moral judgements are reducible to the underlying physics. We may even figure out what causes most people to have the same sort of moral judgements on many issues. But showing how people make them and what judgements they make is not the same thing as finding "moral truths". More likely science would discover why people tend to make moral judgements that are detrimental to wellbeing and should therefore according to Harris be considered moral untruths. He says so very clearly:
Everyone also has an intuitive “morality,” but much intuitive morality is wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective wellbeing) and only genuine moral experts would have a deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal wellbeing.What he's basically saying is that we need "genuine moral experts" to decide for us what is right and what is wrong. If only he could convince the "genuine moral experts (http://justiceharvard.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1&Itemid=25)" to agree with him instead of promoting moral relativism.

Democracy Simulator
29th March 2010, 09:28 PM
Early on in his presentation, Sam Harris, says:

"Values = Facts about the wellbeing of conscious beings"

This is a prescriptive statement about what values should be and not a descriptive definition. Here's another prescriptive one:

Values = Facts about the nature of God

In fact Sam Harris' argument seems to break down to this:

Values (should be based on) Facts about the wellbeing of conscious beings

So Sam Harris' moral premise is Utilitarianism, or as he calls it, 'wellbeing/human flourishing'.

As other have pointed out, how has this has managed to sidestep the 'is / ought' problem? Where morality is concerned the difficulties humans have are establishing the 'facts' of a situation, and then determining what we ought to do, given those facts. Of course, science can help us determine what the facts are in a given situation, but we cannot look to science to tell us what we ought to do (values), without also assuming a moral premise. We cannot 'arrive' at a Utilitarian premise, simply by knowing the facts. We must decide that 'the greatest benefit for the greatest number' is what we value.

So when Sam Harris talks about the people who believe that science will never answer the most important questions, if the questions are based on ethical values, then those people are right.

cienaños
29th March 2010, 11:46 PM
Thanks Kevin. Not only did you answer my questions eloquently, you also answered my questions.

So then, if "the subjective is a subset of the objective", do we conclude that the subjective can only exist if the objective exists first?

It certainly seems to work that way in this universe. We've never yet seen a subjective thingie outside a meaty brain thingie.

More importantly, do we conclude that the objective can exist without the subjective?

It certainly seems to work that way in this universe. By all appearances the universe was around for billions of years before life existed and hence before subjective thoughts and beliefs existed.


So then if science is the objective, and morality the subjective, do we conclude that science is not only to blame for the existence of morality, but given that science is the progenitor of morality, it very well is the only thing in existence that can affect it?

Kevin_Lowe
30th March 2010, 03:30 AM
So then if science is the objective, and morality the subjective, do we conclude that science is not only to blame for the existence of morality, but given that science is the progenitor of morality, it very well is the only thing in existence that can affect it?

Scientific knowledge is an approximation of objective reality, but science is not "the objective".

Morality is subjective, but since there are other subjective things it cannot be said to be "the subjective", as opposed to merely "subjective".

As has been discussed already in this thread, science alone cannot answer any questions about morality. No amount of objective knowledge ("is statements") can get you to an "ought statement".

Paulhoff
30th March 2010, 05:38 AM
Values = Facts about the nature of God
I see you pulled a so-called god out of your hat, when did he say anything about a so-called god being needed for Values or Facts.

Paul

:) :) :)

bokonon
30th March 2010, 06:59 AM
As has been discussed already in this thread, science alone cannot answer any questions about morality. No amount of objective knowledge ("is statements") can get you to an "ought statement".
Big deal. Science starts with "ought" statements: We "ought" to value evidence. We "ought" to prefer hypotheses which explain the most observations with the fewest assumptions. We "ought" to value theories with proven predictive power. We "ought" to strive to understand the rules by which the universe operates.

And why?

I believe it's the same fundamental "ought" which Harris proposes: to benefit sentience, and especially human sentience. Why is it important to understand that food crops grow best in a temperature range which returns at roughly the same time and lasts roughly the same portion of every year? To improve our ability to reliably feed ourselves. Why is it important to understand that eating that plant nourishes, while eating this plant kills? The knowledge benefits those who choose which plants to eat. Why should we try to understand the world around us, rather than simply attempting to appease imaginary gods which direct its seemingly capricious unfolding?

Because it's good for us.

The is-ought problem is irrelevant to what I believe Harris is proposing. Get me Hume on the phone, and ask him to tell me why we ought to know what is. The ought-is problem supercedes his. We start with "ought", and all of our actions (and especially the pursuit of science) proceed from that.

cienaños
30th March 2010, 07:43 AM
Scientific knowledge is an approximation of objective reality, but science is not "the objective".

Yes, I agree scientific knowledge is an approximation...

Morality is subjective, but since there are other subjective things it cannot be said to be "the subjective", as opposed to merely "subjective".

Never said Morality was "the subjective." I was referring to the abstract, hypothetical "the subjective" you mentioned. See highlight.

Subjective and objective are not really opposites. The subjective is a subset of the objective, since the brains we use to have subjective thoughts with are part of the objective universe and are made out of objectively observable atoms.

Moving right along. So is it the universe that is "the objective"?


As has been discussed already in this thread, science alone cannot answer any questions about morality. No amount of objective knowledge ("is statements") can get you to an "ought statement".

I be this discusser you speak of...

post #39 by cienanos
Science/Scientific Method is but one tool.

I'll cut to the chase as I suspect my attempt at the Socratic Method has been sniffed out. The question I posed was about the cyclical nature of life and death. And how two things can be true at once, which you I think also touched on: I am sitting down, still. Yet the planet is spinning, so I'm not really still. Your mushrooms example. Etc.

So, if two things can be true at once, and we know that our experience/essence/energy on this planet is in constant flux, why can't we apply this knowledge, using science as one tool, to help alleviate human suffering?

Harris makes this point quite clearly. The "how" is where he fails of course, but that shouldn't be a deterrent for the rest of us, it should be a challenge embraced. We're all just one cycling glop on a rock near some heat and light.

Dragoonster
30th March 2010, 08:05 AM
I'll cut to the chase as I suspect my attempt at the Socratic Method has been sniffed out. The question I posed was about the cyclical nature of life and death. And how two things can be true at once, which you I think also touched on: I am sitting down, still. Yet the planet is spinning, so I'm not really still. Your mushrooms example. Etc.

So, if two things can be true at once, and we know that our experience/essence/energy on this planet is in constant flux, why can't we apply this knowledge, using science as one tool, to help alleviate human suffering?

Harris makes this point quite clearly. The "how" is where he fails of course, but that shouldn't be a deterrent for the rest of us, it should be a challenge embraced. We're all just one cycling glop on a rock near some heat and light.

In his rebuttal to the arguments it seems he's going well beyond the how (my bold):

Nor was I merely saying that science can help us get what we want out of life. Both of these would have been quite banal claims to make (unless one happens to doubt the truth of evolution or the mind’s dependency on the brain). Rather I was suggesting that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, perforce, what other people should do and want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind.

He's not just saying for a particular morality science can help people find ways to maximize it. He's saying there IS a particular morality, and it IS the promotion of well-being. He wants science to be used to show that this well-being axiom isn't subjective, but an objective truth, as "truthful" as a scientific truth. He's attemting to prove that his belief in a single moral truth should be true for all people, only he's using science rather than the Bible.

At least that's my impression, the video presentation was pretty confusing, and the linked rebuttal was quite long.

ETA: I haven't been able to follow you and Kevin's discussion as well as I should so if this has nothing to do with what your points were you can disregard it as such

cienaños
30th March 2010, 11:31 AM
In his rebuttal to the arguments it seems he's going well beyond the how (my bold):



He's not just saying for a particular morality science can help people find ways to maximize it. He's saying there IS a particular morality, and it IS the promotion of well-being. He wants science to be used to show that this well-being axiom isn't subjective, but an objective truth, as "truthful" as a scientific truth. He's attemting to prove that his belief in a single moral truth should be true for all people, only he's using science rather than the Bible.

At least that's my impression, the video presentation was pretty confusing, and the linked rebuttal was quite long.

ETA: I haven't been able to follow you and Kevin's discussion as well as I should so if this has nothing to do with what your points were you can disregard it as such

Hey Dragoonster,

Thanks for posting. I hadn't read the rebuttal (half-way thru it now), you are correct. The TED video painted him in a soft wash. The fact that it was less than 20 minutes didn't help. But now there's discussion, so at least that's subjectively good. ;)

So, here it is. You can thank me later for deciphering the enigmatic sudoku that is the Da Harris Code.

The guy is a schizophrenic logistics magician of morality with a porn-level addiction to science. For example, he would find the following to be creamy:

caveman1: ugh. (one day, we will fly like birds.)
caveman2: ugh. (that's mad crazy, yo!)
caveman1: ugh. (also, with a magic potion, grow animals to feed more.)
caveman2: ugh. (okay you can stop now. people are looking at you funny.)

You get the gist. Ironically, his argument falls apart when the variable of time is applied. (Yes there are many others, but time is all that's needed.)

With time comes new science. New science creates new ideas surrounding morality. The nukeler bomb comes to mind. The question of whether it's moral to evaporate 1 million in order to save 1 million & 1 lives in the Land of Gray.

In other words, cherries hide from him, having seen him on To Catch A Picker.

Still, I think his heart is in the right place. He just needs to use/understand different language and adjust his ego.

from sam harris' rebuttal:
It is also worth noticing that Carroll has set the epistemological bar higher for morality than he has for any other branch of science. He asks, “Who decides what is a successful life?” Well, who decides what is coherent argument? Who decides what constitutes empirical evidence? Who decides when our memories can be trusted? The answer is, “we do.” And if you are not satisfied with this answer, you have just wiped out all of science, mathematics, history, journalism, and every other human effort to make sense of reality.

The above quote in and of itself explains my thesis on the enigmatic sudoku that is the Da Harris Code.

INRM
30th March 2010, 02:34 PM
What flaws are there in the utilitarianism argument which this is basically a revamped version of?

drkitten
30th March 2010, 03:24 PM
The notions, for instance, that human beings as a species prefer on the whole to be happy, healthy, fed, safe, and loved are not unscientific.

But just because "human beings as a species prefer" something does not make it "good." For example, human beings as a species prefer not being shot, but desertion in the face of the enemy is still immoral,.... to the point that armies will punish it with death.

The idea that "it is sweet and seemly to die for one's country" (yes, I do know it in the original Latin, why do you ask) is a statement that a particular behavior is moral despite being exactly what human beings as a species do not prefer.

The moral code you outline above -- whatever people like is good, or more tersely, pleasure is good -- is one moral theory. It has the name "hedonism." There are lots of other moral theories that are not hedonism, such as deontology.

Feel free to prove "scientifically" that hedonism is "correct."

You won't be able to.

drkitten
30th March 2010, 03:25 PM
What flaws are there in the utilitarianism argument which this is basically a revamped version of?

The primary flaw is that it gives the wrong answer sometimes.

For example, committing gang rape gives you and your mates more pleasure than it deprives the woman of. If you can figure out a way to reduce your risk of being caught to an acceptable level -- perhaps by murdering her afterwards -- then utilitarianism would say "go for it."

AlBell
30th March 2010, 04:12 PM
UCE should be happy. NOMA keeps getting re-discovered; whether it's "Science or god", or "Science or not-Science" makes no difference to the problem.

Kevin_Lowe
30th March 2010, 05:03 PM
Big deal. Science starts with "ought" statements: We "ought" to value evidence. We "ought" to prefer hypotheses which explain the most observations with the fewest assumptions. We "ought" to value theories with proven predictive power. We "ought" to strive to understand the rules by which the universe operates.

"Ought statements" in that context refers solely to moral "ought statements". "You ought to be nice to your little sister" etc.

Science starts with the observation that applying those methods yields more predictive power than alternative methods. It does not make any moral judgment about them.

Scientific ethics, which is a different beast to science, does generally hold that it is ethical to do good science and unethical to do bad science.


And why?

I believe it's the same fundamental "ought" which Harris proposes: to benefit sentience, and especially human sentience. Why is it important to understand that food crops grow best in a temperature range which returns at roughly the same time and lasts roughly the same portion of every year? To improve our ability to reliably feed ourselves. Why is it important to understand that eating that plant nourishes, while eating this plant kills? The knowledge benefits those who choose which plants to eat. Why should we try to understand the world around us, rather than simply attempting to appease imaginary gods which direct its seemingly capricious unfolding?

Because it's good for us.

You and Piggy are both just utilitarians claiming to be scientists. You've snuck in the unstated premise that it is morally good for humans to be happy and flourishing, which is not a scientific premise at all. Then you argue from there.

There's nothing wrong with that, as long as you understand what you are doing. There is no other way to get to supported moral claims, in fact.


The is-ought problem is irrelevant to what I believe Harris is proposing. Get me Hume on the phone, and ask him to tell me why we ought to know what is. The ought-is problem supercedes his. We start with "ought", and all of our actions (and especially the pursuit of science) proceed from that.

Yeah, this is just utilitarianism trying to position itself as the one, true fundamental moral system. It's not science.

Piggy
30th March 2010, 05:20 PM
As Earthborn and I have already said, if you've found a way around the is/ought problem you'll be the first person in history to do so.



Now you're helping yourself to the unstated moral premise that satisfying human preferences is morally good. That's not a scientific premise, it's a moral one pulled out of thin air.

As moral premises to pull out of thin air it's not a bad one though. It's flawed but there are much worse ones you could have gone for.



Same trick again. You are hiding the moral premise that satisfying the preferences of such creatures is morally good, and then claiming that your whole position is based on purely factual premises.



That can only happen if the people involved have already agreed on at least one non-scientific, moral premise.

Without that moral premise to start off with you can pile facts as high as you like without ever getting to a moral conclusion.

I don't believe Harris was proposing -- and I don't intend to either -- that there is a purely scientific approach to working through all moral issues.

What he does seem to be saying -- and I agree -- is that there is no reason to exclude science from any part of the process, including deciding among basic precepts.

Take the issue of whether we're better off organizing our societies in a way which ensures happiness and thriving for the broadest spectrum of persons, or whether we should instead encourage social orders in which a few live in comfort and happiness while the majority live in general misery.

You could take a completely non-scientific view of that question, of course.

You could take, say, a religious view, citing scriptures which contend that those born into the ruling families are blessed by the gods for good acts in prior lives, while others are being cursed for evil acts in prior lives.

You could take a purely selfish point of view, eschewing all attempts at reason or evidence and say simply, well, I'm among the powerful so screw everybody else.

You could claim that your tradition tells you that other races or tribes aren't quite human, so they don't actually feel pain like you do, don't grieve over dead children like you do, can't be educated, and so forth, so it's perfectly fine to enslave them.

That sort of thing.

But we also have the option of using a scientifically informed approach. And if we do, we'll come to the conclusion that we all have similar brains and nervous systems; that those scriptures have no basis in fact; that there are benefits even to the ruling classes if there are not extreme differences in conditions between them and the poor; that humans are more psychologically fit when they develop empathy; and so on and so forth.

In other words, science can have something to say about the matter. And not just after you've picked your premises arbitrarily or to suit yourself.

I think that's what his argument essentially comes down to -- that it's an error to say that science really isn't or can't be involved in moral issues at all levels.

Kevin_Lowe
30th March 2010, 05:29 PM
But we also have the option of using a scientifically informed approach. And if we do, we'll come to the conclusion that we all have similar brains and nervous systems; that those scriptures have no basis in fact; that there are benefits even to the ruling classes if there are not extreme differences in conditions between them and the poor; that humans are more psychologically fit when they develop empathy; and so on and so forth.

In other words, science can have something to say about the matter. And not just after you've picked your premises arbitrarily or to suit yourself.

But hang on, why is it better for humans to be "psychologically fit"? Why is it better for there to be more equal societies?

Science can tell us how to bring about such things. It can tell us in factual terms what the consequences of such things will be.

It cannot tell us whether we ought to bring about such things. To do that you need to bring in some non-factual premise to the effect that X is morally preferable to Y.

Piggy
30th March 2010, 05:40 PM
But just because "human beings as a species prefer" something does not make it "good." For example, human beings as a species prefer not being shot, but desertion in the face of the enemy is still immoral,.... to the point that armies will punish it with death.

The idea that "it is sweet and seemly to die for one's country" (yes, I do know it in the original Latin, why do you ask) is a statement that a particular behavior is moral despite being exactly what human beings as a species do not prefer.

The moral code you outline above -- whatever people like is good, or more tersely, pleasure is good -- is one moral theory. It has the name "hedonism." There are lots of other moral theories that are not hedonism, such as deontology.

Feel free to prove "scientifically" that hedonism is "correct."

You won't be able to.

Why would you think I would ask you about the Latin?

In any case, it's a good example, because of course we have Owen's brilliant response on the other side.

Is it sweet and fitting to die for one's country?

Sometimes.

Does science have anything to say about when it is and when it ain't?

Well, yeah, as it turns out, it does.

We can use a scientifically informed view of history and psychology to better understand under what circumstances human beings are likely to deem it proper to sacrifice themselves or to lose loved ones in the national interest, and what the consequences are of pusing people beyond those limits and forcing sacrifices which people deem bitter and unfitting.

And we can use that to inform policy. That is, to answer moral questions about how to wage war.

Will our answers be better if we include scientific inquiry than if we exclude it? There's every reason to think that, yes, they will be.

Of course, you're never going to get everyone to accept that, especially when it comes to religion and power.

You're always going to have people who say, for instance, that their scriptures have the answer to thus-and-such a question, and science is either of the Devil or a fraud or something like that. And you're always going to have people who say, well, I don't care what the science has to say about this issue, I'm doing whatever I want because I can and it's in my interest.

But this is no different from any other field of endeavor. So that shouldn't stop us from using science to answer moral questions, to solve moral problems, even to establish moral premises.

Piggy
30th March 2010, 05:57 PM
But hang on, why is it better for humans to be "psychologically fit"? Why is it better for there to be more equal societies?

Science can tell us how to bring about such things. It can tell us in factual terms what the consequences of such things will be.

It cannot tell us whether we ought to bring about such things. To do that you need to bring in some non-factual premise to the effect that X is morally preferable to Y.

Of course it can tell us why we ought to bring about such things.

Or, to be more accurate, it can help us to answer the question of whether we should or should not.

Science can help us to predict potential outcomes, to understand why we want what we want (e.g. why extended confinement and isolation causes stress to a calf but not to a rockfish), and so forth.

And it can help us remove the question of "Why is it better?" from the black hole of pure relativism and provide some more concrete answers, such as "It is better because evolution has shaped us so that we want it and we thrive when we get it, and thwarting it has eventual repurcussions which serve up consequences that evolution has shaped us to dislike."

Science can also help us with thorny conflicts, such as when the "we want" part clashes with long-term thriving.

Of course, evolution produces maladaptations as well, so that, for instance, we get people like Larry Bittaker and Dean Corll who simply get off on watching other people suffer. They're going to come to their own conclusions, and that's just the way it is.

But for the rest of us, science does indeed have something to say about why psychological fitness is preferable to trauma, and why the benefits of more equal societies are to be preferred over those of highly polarized ones.

I simply don't see any place in the process of moral reasoning where it's justifiable to build a wall of exlusion to the participation of science, and to declare "There be dragons".

bluskool
30th March 2010, 06:19 PM
"Ought statements" in that context refers solely to moral "ought statements". "You ought to be nice to your little sister" etc.

Science starts with the observation that applying those methods yields more predictive power than alternative methods. It does not make any moral judgment about them.

Scientific ethics, which is a different beast to science, does generally hold that it is ethical to do good science and unethical to do bad science.

That's right. Scientific ethics assumes that we want to have productive science. Similarly, Harris's assumption is that we want human beings to flourish. Harris is saying that all sciences have assumptions at the heart of them and he wants this "scientific morality" to start with this "flourishing" assumption. After reading his rebuttal, it doesn't seem like a bad argument. But I'm of two minds on this issue.:confused:

Kevin_Lowe
30th March 2010, 07:11 PM
That's right. Scientific ethics assumes that we want to have productive science. Similarly, Harris's assumption is that we want human beings to flourish. Harris is saying that all sciences have assumptions at the heart of them and he wants this "scientific morality" to start with this "flourishing" assumption. After reading his rebuttal, it doesn't seem like a bad argument. But I'm of two minds on this issue.:confused:

That "flourishing" assumption is just utilitarianism. It beats me how Harris managed to stagger through a philosophy degree without picking up that point but maybe he skipped ethics.

Once you figure that out, Harris' point is utterly banal. The fact that science is useful to utilitarianism is not news and never has been news.

Of course it can tell us why we ought to bring about such things.

Or, to be more accurate, it can help us to answer the question of whether we should or should not.

Science can help us to predict potential outcomes, to understand why we want what we want (e.g. why extended confinement and isolation causes stress to a calf but not to a rockfish), and so forth.

Those are brute facts, not moral judgments.

"If I shoot you with this gun you will be in pain, and experience terror, and then die" is a factual claim.

It has absolutely no moral content until you pair it up with some kind of non-evidence-based moral claim, such as "you should not cause pain" or "you should not frustrate a person's preferences by killing them".

"Extended isolation causes a calf or a human infant stress" is a factual claim. It has no moral content until you pair it up with some kind of non-evidence-based moral claim, such as "you should not cause stress".

Science can only tell you what the outcomes will be as a matter of brute fact. It cannot tell you which outcome you should prefer from a moral perspective until and unless you establish some criteria for which outcomes are morally preferable.

Science cannot establish those criteria. It can only tell you what actions will bring about situations that meet those criteria.


And it can help us remove the question of "Why is it better?" from the black hole of pure relativism and provide some more concrete answers, such as "It is better because evolution has shaped us so that we want it and we thrive when we get it, and thwarting it has eventual repurcussions which serve up consequences that evolution has shaped us to dislike."

Before you were being a utilitarian, and utilitarianism is a fairly useful moral theory. It's imperfect but it's pretty decent.

Whereas now you're wallowing in the Naturalistic Fallacy. Something is not better just because we have evolved to like it. We've evolved to like kidnapping women from neighbouring tribes and raping them, yet rape is almost universally held to be immoral. We've evolved to like hitting people who annoy us in the face, but that too is generally held to be immoral.

You can't pick and choose some evolved preferences as moral preferences, and some as immoral preferences, without first adopting some kind of non-evidence-based moral assumptions.


Of course, evolution produces maladaptations as well, so that, for instance, we get people like Larry Bittaker and Dean Corll who simply get off on watching other people suffer. They're going to come to their own conclusions, and that's just the way it is.

It's not a maladaption from an evolutionary perspective unless and until it limits their chances of passing on their genes.

Personally, I hold moral views such that I think that behaviour is immoral regardless of whether it helps or hinders the transmission of their genes.


I simply don't see any place in the process of moral reasoning where it's justifiable to build a wall of exlusion to the participation of science, and to declare "There be dragons".

You and Harris, it seems to me, are both making the same fundamental error and attacking the same straw man.

The straw man is the imaginary position that holds that nothing science says can ever be relevant to moral evaluations. That position is straightforwardly daft if you give any weight to consequences at all, and almost all sane people place at least some weight on consequences when evaluating the morality of an action. (Kant would not do so, but Kant was a bit nutty that way).

The fundamental error is sneaking in utilitarianism (broadly, utilitarianism is the position that "good" is maximising desirable outcomes) without acknowledging it as a non-evidence-based moral assumption, and then claiming that your utilitarian moral philosophy is purely scientific with no non-evidence-based moral assumptions at all.

That just makes you a confused utilitarian, and a bad scientist. It's greatly preferable to be an honest utilitarian and a good scientist - at least according to my non-evidence-based moral assumptions.

Democracy Simulator
30th March 2010, 07:47 PM
I see you pulled a so-called god out of your hat, when did he say anything about a so-called god being needed for Values or Facts.

Paul

:) :) :)

He didn't. Sam Harris' statement about Values/Facts is a proscriptive moral premise, much in the way that the 'God' statement is a proscriptive moral premise. Neither position of which can you arrive at through science.
The confusing thing about Harris' statement is that it is a moral premise masquerading somewhat as a definition. It is certainly not an adequate definition!

A definition of 'Values' might be along the lines of, 'Beliefs concerning how humans ought to behave'.

Note a definition doesn't tell us what those values should be.

The chief problem with Harris' entire presentation is that when he uses the word values, he equivocates between the definition of values and what values ought to be. I am surprised that he intends to release a whole argument which seems to be based largely on a fallacy of equivocation. No wonder he thinks he's solved the problem!
:)

Democracy Simulator
30th March 2010, 08:27 PM
That "flourishing" assumption is just utilitarianism. It beats me how Harris managed to stagger through a philosophy degree without picking up that point but maybe he skipped ethics.

Once you figure that out, Harris' point is utterly banal. The fact that science is useful to utilitarianism is not news and never has been news.



+1

To the doubters:

Even if we knew every relevant fact about a situation (and this is where science can help out, e.g. forensics), to arrive at a value statement about what we want to do about it, we have to also incorporate a moral premise:

Person A stole person B's jewellery (Fact X)

Person B was mildly upset to lose the jewellery for a couple of hours and didn't tell anyone about the theft, but person A and their whole family were absolutely elated that person A stole it (Fact Y)

Stealing is bad (Moral premise)

Let's punish person B (Action/Value statement)

or,

The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number/Utilitarianism (Moral premise)

Let's not punish person B (Action/Value statement)

There are two common moral premises/values here that produce different outcomes. What does science say about who is right here?

bluskool
31st March 2010, 05:04 AM
That "flourishing" assumption is just utilitarianism. It beats me how Harris managed to stagger through a philosophy degree without picking up that point but maybe he skipped ethics.

Once you figure that out, Harris' point is utterly banal. The fact that science is useful to utilitarianism is not news and never has been news.

It seems more like a form of moral realism.

drkitten
31st March 2010, 06:45 AM
Why would you think I would ask you about the Latin?

In any case, it's a good example, because of course we have Owen's brilliant response on the other side.

Is it sweet and fitting to die for one's country?

Sometimes.

Really? Prove it.


Does science have anything to say about when it is and when it ain't?

Not a thing, actually.

By your own admission:


We can use a scientifically informed view of history and psychology to better understand under what circumstances human beings are likely to deem it proper to sacrifice themselves...

... which isn't the same as understanding under what circumstances it is proper.

We know that humans make mistakes in judgment; Nobel prizes have been for won studying the circumstances and types of mistakes.

Of course, the only reason we know these are "mistakes" is because we have access to an objective "truth" about the problem at hand. We know what the correct answer is, because we've phrased the problem in terms of mathematics or something, and we know that humans can't do math with perfect reliability.

Why do we assume that humans can do "morality" with perfect reliability? -- especially since we know that at least two humans differ on exactly this question, so we know that either Horace or Owen was an unreliable source.

Piggy
31st March 2010, 03:25 PM
Those are brute facts, not moral judgments.

"If I shoot you with this gun you will be in pain, and experience terror, and then die" is a factual claim.

It has absolutely no moral content until you pair it up with some kind of non-evidence-based moral claim, such as "you should not cause pain" or "you should not frustrate a person's preferences by killing them".

"Extended isolation causes a calf or a human infant stress" is a factual claim. It has no moral content until you pair it up with some kind of non-evidence-based moral claim, such as "you should not cause stress".

Science can only tell you what the outcomes will be as a matter of brute fact. It cannot tell you which outcome you should prefer from a moral perspective until and unless you establish some criteria for which outcomes are morally preferable.

Science cannot establish those criteria. It can only tell you what actions will bring about situations that meet those criteria.

This doesn't at all contradict what I'm saying, nor what I believe Harris is saying.

My point is simply that science does have a role in making moral judgment, that it has something to contribute, and that we're going to make better moral judgments if we include science in the process.

I don't believe this is any sort of radical idea.

And I don't see how it can be claimed that one must first "establish some criteria for which outcomes are morally preferable" without the help of science in order to make moral judgments. There's no reason to believe that.

And "you should not cause stress" is not in fact a "non-evidence-based moral claim". Knowing what stress does to an animal, in particular whether the animal is conscious of the effects, has a great bearing on that "should" there.

And let's not pretend that our moral preferences are entirely arbitrary. They're not. They're biologically based. Surely, a clear understanding of the biology of the brain, of evolution, of the psychology of emotion will enhance our understanding of how we make moral choices and which ones are preferable.

So far, I don't see any valid argument here for excluding science from any part of the process.

Piggy
31st March 2010, 03:27 PM
Before you were being a utilitarian, and utilitarianism is a fairly useful moral theory. It's imperfect but it's pretty decent.

Whereas now you're wallowing in the Naturalistic Fallacy. Something is not better just because we have evolved to like it. We've evolved to like kidnapping women from neighbouring tribes and raping them, yet rape is almost universally held to be immoral. We've evolved to like hitting people who annoy us in the face, but that too is generally held to be immoral.

You can't pick and choose some evolved preferences as moral preferences, and some as immoral preferences, without first adopting some kind of non-evidence-based moral assumptions.

You omitted the very next bit of my post which addresses this.

You're grossly mischaracterizing my argument here.

Piggy
31st March 2010, 03:28 PM
You and Harris, it seems to me, are both making the same fundamental error and attacking the same straw man.

The straw man is the imaginary position that holds that nothing science says can ever be relevant to moral evaluations. That position is straightforwardly daft if you give any weight to consequences at all, and almost all sane people place at least some weight on consequences when evaluating the morality of an action. (Kant would not do so, but Kant was a bit nutty that way).

The fundamental error is sneaking in utilitarianism (broadly, utilitarianism is the position that "good" is maximising desirable outcomes) without acknowledging it as a non-evidence-based moral assumption, and then claiming that your utilitarian moral philosophy is purely scientific with no non-evidence-based moral assumptions at all.

That just makes you a confused utilitarian, and a bad scientist. It's greatly preferable to be an honest utilitarian and a good scientist - at least according to my non-evidence-based moral assumptions.

Please, spare me the labels.

If you agree that there's no part of the process from which science must be excluded, then it looks like you're agreeing with me and with Harris.

Kevin_Lowe
31st March 2010, 04:10 PM
This doesn't at all contradict what I'm saying, nor what I believe Harris is saying.

My point is simply that science does have a role in making moral judgment, that it has something to contribute, and that we're going to make better moral judgments if we include science in the process.

I don't believe this is any sort of radical idea.

You're arguing two inconsistent cases at once.

#1 is "Science has something to offer in helping come to moral conclusions". Absolutely nobody is disagreeing with that claim.

#2 is "Science can answer moral questions just by stacking up factual claims, with no need for non-factual moral axioms". This is completely wrong.

What you are doing is presenting arguments for #1, and then acting like you have presented arguments for #2.


And I don't see how it can be claimed that one must first "establish some criteria for which outcomes are morally preferable" without the help of science in order to make moral judgments. There's no reason to believe that.

On the contrary, there is excellent reason to believe that no moral judgments can be made without doing so.


And "you should not cause stress" is not in fact a "non-evidence-based moral claim". Knowing what stress does to an animal, in particular whether the animal is conscious of the effects, has a great bearing on that "should" there.

This is a manoeuvre akin to claiming that the world sits on a turtle, and when asked what the turtle sits on claiming that it sits on another turtle.

We ask "Why should you not cause stress?" and you respond "Because of what it does to an animal, and because it is conscious of it". So we ask "Why does that mean we should not cause stress?". You can try to position yet another factual turtle under yourself ("Don't you know that stressed animals die sooner?") but then we'll just point out that this turtle in turn is standing on nothing ("Why should we care if an animal dies sooner?").

The only way out is to stake a moral claim of some sort, such as "suffering is morally bad just because it is".


And let's not pretend that our moral preferences are entirely arbitrary. They're not. They're biologically based. Surely, a clear understanding of the biology of the brain, of evolution, of the psychology of emotion will enhance our understanding of how we make moral choices and which ones are preferable.

Straw man. Nobody has ever said otherwise.

That said, while science may enhance our understanding of these issues it's also insufficient to ever get to a moral conclusion. A clear understanding of why people rape, murder and steal will not tell us whether or not it is moral to rape, murder or steal.


So far, I don't see any valid argument here for excluding science from any part of the process.

Straw man. Nobody has said that science should be excluded. Rather we have explained to you that science alone is insufficient to ever get to a moral conclusion.

As I said earlier, what you are doing is sneaking in utilitarianism (the moral claim that we should maximise desirable outcomes, for defined values of desirable) and then trying to pretend that utilitarianism is a factual claim.

Handwaving this away as "labels" is a serious philosophical error. There is a very important difference of kind between factual claims and moral claims and you will continue to be confused about moral issues until you get that straightened out.

MattusMaximus
31st March 2010, 06:37 PM
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hj9oB4zpHww

This is Sam Harris at TED. Can science answer moral questions? Does Sam Harris even answer that question in this talk?

What do you think?

Yes, to both questions.

Piggy
31st March 2010, 08:24 PM
#2 is "Science can answer moral questions just by stacking up factual claims, with no need for non-factual moral axioms". This is completely wrong.

It may be completely wrong, but since it's not anything I've actually said, I'm not too concerned about it.

Piggy
31st March 2010, 08:25 PM
On the contrary, there is excellent reason to believe that no moral judgments can be made without doing so.

I would be interested in hearing those reasons.

Piggy
31st March 2010, 08:26 PM
This is a manoeuvre akin to claiming that the world sits on a turtle, and when asked what the turtle sits on claiming that it sits on another turtle.

We ask "Why should you not cause stress?" and you respond "Because of what it does to an animal, and because it is conscious of it". So we ask "Why does that mean we should not cause stress?". You can try to position yet another factual turtle under yourself ("Don't you know that stressed animals die sooner?") but then we'll just point out that this turtle in turn is standing on nothing ("Why should we care if an animal dies sooner?").

The only way out is to stake a moral claim of some sort, such as "suffering is morally bad just because it is".

You don't appear to be actually reading what I'm writing.

Piggy
31st March 2010, 08:28 PM
Rather we have explained to you that science alone is insufficient to ever get to a moral conclusion.

But that is not something I've ever disagreed with. And I've said so explicitly.

ETA: If you're interested, my view is that morality is useless anyway, and no one really bases any actions on it at all, but I think that's a tangent.

Piggy
31st March 2010, 08:31 PM
Handwaving this away as "labels" is a serious philosophical error.

No, it's not.

Every field has its lingo. Lingo is quite useful in making communication efficient among colleagues.

But when discussing a field with others who come from other fields, the lingo becomes a stumbling block.

If you understand what you're talking about, you can have a conversation without the lingo.

And when talking with folks from other fields, it's best that you do.

Kevin_Lowe
31st March 2010, 08:34 PM
It may be completely wrong, but since it's not anything I've actually said, I'm not too concerned about it.

Okay. I have no idea what you are trying to communicate then.

I would be interested in hearing those reasons.

Especially since you just said you didn't disagree with this, but now you want to hear those reasons, and you seem to be unaware that we've been discussing exactly this point for some time.

But that is not something I've ever disagreed with. And I've said so explicitly.

ETA: If you're interested, my view is that morality is useless anyway, and no one really bases any actions on it at all, but I think that's a tangent.

By my reading so far you've affirmed that you are a utilitarian, denied that you are a utilitarian, and now you're affirming the (unfalsifiable) egoist position that nobody ever acts morally anyway. Is it any wonder I'm confused about what your position is supposed to be?

You don't appear to be actually reading what I'm writing.

That or what you are saying is self-contradictory or sufficiently unclear that reading it does not do one much good.

ETA:

No, it's not.

Every field has its lingo. Lingo is quite useful in making communication efficient among colleagues.

But when discussing a field with others who come from other fields, the lingo becomes a stumbling block.

If you understand what you're talking about, you can have a conversation without the lingo.

And when talking with folks from other fields, it's best that you do.

I defined the term when I used it. Do you want me to define it some more, or do you want to google it, or what?

Piggy
31st March 2010, 08:38 PM
Kevin, let's back up here.

Besides the contention that Harris is addressing a straw man, where do you disagree with him?

I mean, if someone were to say, "Everyone who says the sky is polka-dotted is wrong -- it's blue," I would disagree with the straw man claim, but I would agree with his claim about the sky.

If someone were to say, "Everyone who says the sky is polka-dotted is wrong -- it's plaid," I would disagree with his claim about the sky.

So disregarding for the moment any of Harris's claims about whatever other folks might say about the relationship between science and morality, what is it in his speech, concerning his own ideas on the topic, that you disagree with?

Kevin_Lowe
31st March 2010, 08:55 PM
So disregarding for the moment any of Harris's claims about whatever other folks might say about the relationship between science and morality, what is it in his speech, concerning his own ideas on the topic, that you disagree with?

Harris does what you did earlier. He tries to smuggle utilitarianism (defined one more time for you, the moral theory that good actions are those which maximise desirable consequences for all involved) in as a fact, rather than a value judgment. He does this quite blatantly in the first two minutes of the video, claiming that value judgments are actually facts about the natural world.

Harris is simply flat-out wrong on this point. He's failed to grasp the fact/value distinction and if he gave this talk in a first year philosophy course he'd get metaphorically slapped over the head with a first year philosophy textbook.

As such, his talk is a mishmash of the trivially obvious and the completely wrong.

I am, of course, merely repeating myself because I have said exactly this already.

Piggy
31st March 2010, 09:08 PM
Harris does what you did earlier. He tries to smuggle utilitarianism (defined one more time for you, the moral theory that good actions are those which maximise desirable consequences for all involved) in as a fact, rather than a value judgment. He does this quite blatantly in the first two minutes of the video, claiming that value judgments are actually facts about the natural world.

Harris is simply flat-out wrong on this point. He's failed to grasp the fact/value distinction and if he gave this talk in a first year philosophy course he'd get metaphorically slapped over the head with a first year philosophy textbook.

As such, his talk is a mishmash of the trivially obvious and the completely wrong.

I am, of course, merely repeating myself because I have said exactly this already.

Since I don't think that's an accurate assessment of his talk, I don't reckon we have anything to talk about, actually.

Kevin_Lowe
31st March 2010, 10:09 PM
Since I don't think that's an accurate assessment of his talk, I don't reckon we have anything to talk about, actually.

If you had any way to back up your opinion with logic, we would have something to talk about.

cienaños
1st April 2010, 11:30 AM
Since I don't think that's an accurate assessment of his talk, I don't reckon we have anything to talk about, actually.

Wow. Kevin Lowe is still holding it down here.

If I may?....

All one has to do (forgive me if you guys have gone over this already), is read and comprehend Harris' response to his TED criticisms. Kevin Lowe is correct. Harris is attempting a mishmash.

He takes ideas that, separately, are nice and shiny. Good ideas. Facts. But then he tries to jam these ideas together and they just do not fit.

This bears repeating, so I'll say it again. Scientific knowledge is but one tool that can be used to address the issue of alleviating human suffering. This question of well-being (and the perception of it) is so immeasurably vast and complex that we do it a disservice to believe it can be banged away at and fixed with one tool.

It's like giving a guy a measuring tape and asking him to build you a nuclear missile with that one tool.

Again, my apologies if this is a retread for you.

Peace

Kevin_Lowe
1st April 2010, 04:21 PM
All one has to do (forgive me if you guys have gone over this already), is read and comprehend Harris' response to his TED criticisms. Kevin Lowe is correct. Harris is attempting a mishmash.

He takes ideas that, separately, are nice and shiny. Good ideas. Facts. But then he tries to jam these ideas together and they just do not fit.

I think some people like Piggy are getting exited because they like the idea of an objective, scientific morality that tells them exactly what they want to hear ("Taliban bad! Science good!"). Once you're pumped up on the heady idea of being objectively right about your moral judgments, it's hard to exercise critical thought.

Whether or not that sexy idea is actually rigorously logical, it's a hell of a lot more fun than the frustrating idea that you cannot condemn the Taliban without first making some kind of non-evidence-based value judgment.

Personally I'd be all for government policies based on a combination of scientific fact and a suitably modified version of utilitarianism, but I'd want it to be acknowledged as exactly that: the scientifically-aided pursuit of a non-evidence-based ideal.

Piggy
1st April 2010, 05:07 PM
If you had any way to back up your opinion with logic, we would have something to talk about.

I may be misunderstanding you, but I think you're making an error in how you view moral decisions.

You seem to be saying that we begin with a philosophical premise, and one of those premises is that we do what feels right to us, but there are other premises we may adopt.

However, in my personal experience, and in the research I've read about the brain, and in my professional experience and reading of research on decision-making, I don't find that to be at all true.

Rather, what seems to be the case is that we always do what we feel like doing. We encounter dilemmas when we have equivocal feelings regarding our choices.

So if I live in a society which, for example, puts people to death for being homosexual, or for publicly disagreeing with the government, or for rejecting the state religion, then if I am emotionally ok with all of that, I have no moral dilemma. I'm a good citizen and I go on with my life.

However, if my genetics and development have given me a brain that's wired so that I'm emotionally distressed by all of that, then I have what you might call a moral choice to make.

Do I suck it up and toe the line, regardless of those negative emotions? Or do I try to change the status quo in order to move into a psychological space that I can more easily live with -- even if doing so puts me in physical danger?

You see, it's always about satisfying our emotions and figuring out what we have to do to get into an acceptable emotional state.

I think all Harris is saying is that you're going to have a different experience if you come from a religious perspective, or a selfish perspective, or a scientific perspective, or what have you.

So it follows that there must be a scientifically oriented, or scientifically informed, morality. Just as there is a religiously informed morality. Or a morality informed only by one's own immediate gratification (e.g. the sociopathic morality of Ted Bundy).

If you honestly believe that the Bible or the Quran is the Word of God, then that has a profound impact on your state of mind when deciding questions such as "Should women be subservient to men?"

Your community's interpretation of those texts will also have a lot to say in how you feel about that question.

But if you're coming from a scientific frame of mind, the interpretations of those texts by any community has no bearing. And that changes how you feel about those issues.

Yet in all cases, it comes down to how you feel about the alternatives, and what you can do that you think you can "live with".

Harris would say that a perspective based on science, rather than on interpretation of religious scripture, is superior because that point of view is more accurate when it comes to modeling reality. And I agree.

But you don't even have to agree with that point in order to accept Harris's central premise, which is that a science-based approach to moral questions is indeed possible.

You may well disagree with his conclusions about particular questions (as I do, as well) but I'm not seeing any evidence that he's wrong about the big picture.

Piggy
1st April 2010, 05:24 PM
I think some people like Piggy are getting exited because they like the idea of an objective, scientific morality that tells them exactly what they want to hear ("Taliban bad! Science good!"). Once you're pumped up on the heady idea of being objectively right about your moral judgments, it's hard to exercise critical thought.

I wasn't aware that I was excited. The things you learn....

Anyway, I think you're mischaracterizing both what Harris is saying and what I'm saying.

Harris simply says that our "value" decisions are fundamentally informed about what we believe about the world we live in, and that science is our best way, so far, of making those beliefs conform as much as possible to what is real.

Religious fundamentalism, on the other hand, based on adherence to ancient scripture, is more likely to warp our view of reality so that it is less accurate. And when we have a less accurate view of reality, we're less likely to make correct decisions.

So "moral" decisions coming from a fundamentalist perspective (or from Ted Bundy's perspective, for other reasons) are less likely to be correct or beneficial than are decisions coming from a scientifically-informed perspective.

He acknowledges from the outset that we make "moral" decisions because we're wired to. That's just our biology. That's the starting point.

The question is, as he puts it, whether or not we can look to science to help us answer questions such as what is good, what is the nature of life, what's worth living and dying for?

The answer is clearly yes.

But here's what he's explicitly NOT claiming:

Let me be clear about what I'm not saying. I am not saying that science is guaranteed to map this space. Or that we will have scientific answers to every conceivable moral question. I don't think, for instance, that you will one day consult a supercomputer to learn whether you should have a second child, or whether we should bomb Iran's nuclear facilities....

If we're going to discuss Harris's talk, then please, let's discuss what he's actually saying here.

Democracy Simulator
1st April 2010, 06:15 PM
I wasn't aware that I was excited. The things you learn....

Anyway, I think you're mischaracterizing both what Harris is saying and what I'm saying.

Harris simply says that our "value" decisions are fundamentally informed about what we believe about the world we live in, and that science is our best way, so far, of making those beliefs conform as much as possible to what is real.

If we're going to discuss Harris's talk, then please, let's discuss what he's actually saying here.

Well Sam Harris doesn't 'simply' say that. He clearly sets out a fallacious argument at the beginning:

Harris says:

'It's generally understood that questions of morality, questions of good and evil, of right and wrong, are questions about which science officially has no opinion... it is thought that science can help us get what we value, but it can never tell us what we ought to value... most people here think that science will never answer the most important questions of human life, questions like what is worth living for, what is worth dying for, what constitutes a good life.
I'm going to argue that this is an illusion, the seperation between science and human values is an illusion...'
My bold.

So from this opening statement, I think it is extremely useful to list the things he is arguing for, just so we are clear about them:

1. Science should/can have an opinion about good and evil and right and wrong.

Answer: No, it neither should, nor in fact can have an opinion on these matters. Science is an epsitemological tool.

2. Science can tell us what we ought to value.

Answer: No it cannot tell us what we ought to value. It can tell us how our actions might affect the world, but it cannot tell us what values we should have.

3. Science will answer the most important questions of life, what it is worth living and dying for and what constitutes a good life.

Answer: No it will not answer those questions. There is no scientific answer to these questions. It depends on what you value as good and worthy

Once we decide what we value, science might tell us how to get the best result. This is essentially the only substantial point that Harris makes that I agree with him on. As Kevin Lowe has pointed out, it is certainly not an earthshaking development in moral philosophy.

Harris problem is that he initially sets up argument A:

Science can tell us what we ought to value.

And then makes argument B:

Science can tell us what the best action is, given our values.

The shift comes via his dodgy Values/Facts statement which has been pulled apart earlier. This is why I said his argument failed because of the fallacy of equivocation.

Piggy
1st April 2010, 08:26 PM
Well Sam Harris doesn't 'simply' say that. He clearly sets out a fallacious argument at the beginning:

Harris says:

'It's generally understood that questions of morality, questions of good and evil, of right and wrong, are questions about which science officially has no opinion... it is thought that science can help us get what we value, but it can never tell us what we ought to value... most people here think that science will never answer the most important questions of human life, questions like what is worth living for, what is worth dying for, what constitutes a good life.
I'm going to argue that this is an illusion, the seperation between science and human values is an illusion...'
My bold.

So from this opening statement, I think it is extremely useful to list the things he is arguing for, just so we are clear about them:

1. Science should/can have an opinion about good and evil and right and wrong.

Answer: No, it neither should, nor in fact can have an opinion on these matters. Science is an epsitemological tool.

2. Science can tell us what we ought to value.

Answer: No it cannot tell us what we ought to value. It can tell us how our actions might affect the world, but it cannot tell us what values we should have.

3. Science will answer the most important questions of life, what it is worth living and dying for and what constitutes a good life.

Answer: No it will not answer those questions. There is no scientific answer to these questions. It depends on what you value as good and worthy

Once we decide what we value, science might tell us how to get the best result. This is essentially the only substantial point that Harris makes that I agree with him on. As Kevin Lowe has pointed out, it is certainly not an earthshaking development in moral philosophy.

Harris problem is that he initially sets up argument A:

Science can tell us what we ought to value.

And then makes argument B:

Science can tell us what the best action is, given our values.

The shift comes via his dodgy Values/Facts statement which has been pulled apart earlier. This is why I said his argument failed because of the fallacy of equivocation.

Ok, fine. That's a wonderful premise.

Now, what exactly is your argument for it?

You've made some important assertions here.

How are you going to go about defending and supporting them?

Apathia
1st April 2010, 08:44 PM
Science could tell us (to a rather trivial extent) what values might (when held in extreme or in rigid interpretation) be unhealthy to Human Kind (at this juncture in our evolution).
It can inform values clarification. But it only speaks to what might be healthy as opposed to unhealthy. It doesn't answer all of when physical health should, should not, or to what extent be risked for some goal.
Sure. It tell us that people who value their health live longer.
But it doesn't tell me why I should live longer.
Why do I want to be old and infirm without the means to be healthy?

Does Science tell us the ant is wiser than the grasshopper?
Well, actually not.

Piggy
1st April 2010, 09:14 PM
Let me ask this.

Consider the points of view informed primarily by (a) modern science, (b) the fundamentalism embraced by the Taliban, and (c) the mindset of Ted Bundy.

Is there anyone here who really doubts that those different points of view will have a significant impact on the question of whether, and to what degree, women should be subject to domination by men?

I sure don't.

And if you accept that, then how can you say that science does not have something to say about how we answer moral questions?

The fact is, science already does have a profound impact on how we answer those questions.

As Harris explains, that's simply a fact.

Apathia
1st April 2010, 09:27 PM
Let me ask this.

Consider the points of view informed primarily by (a) modern science, (b) the fundamentalism embraced by the Taliban, and (c) the mindset of Ted Bundy.

Is there anyone here who really doubts that those different points of view will have a significant impact on the question of whether, and to what degree, women should be subject to domination by men?

I sure don't.

And if you accept that, then how can you say that science does not have something to say about how we answer moral questions?

The fact is, science already does have a profound impact on how we answer those questions.

As Harris explains, that's simply a fact.

I do indeed want science to inform my decisions about how I treat people.
I don't see anyone here disagreeing that science should inform our decisions.
That's the high moral ground I'll take.

Dragoonster
1st April 2010, 09:34 PM
Let's say science shows us that the best way to promote maximum social well-being is to have the society entirely made up of women, because of physical traits making them more pacifistic, or their social interactions being better for well-being, or whatever.

Science would suggest we should isolate men to breeding camps, where we extract their semen. And we abort all male fetuses that are not needed to repopulate those camps.

Science would also say we should genetically engineer those women to be lesbians so they wouldn't lose the positive sexual well-being.

That an okay "moral answer" for you?

ETA: My point might not be clear. Or the example might not be the best. But it's that if we belive science can tell us what we ought to do, we run a great risk of giving up our own moral judgement to it, so anything we saw it suggested would be accepted, no matter how actually immoral it was. In that sense I don't see much if any difference between his science morality and Islamic morality or any of the other things he doesn't like.

Or...if this would be "balanced" by introducing our judgement to stop excessive scientific guidelines to achieve well-being, then science isn't really necessary as a decider of "ought" at all, since our subjective judgement would override it.

Democracy Simulator
1st April 2010, 10:06 PM
Ok, fine. That's a wonderful premise.

Now, what exactly is your argument for it?

You've made some important assertions here.

How are you going to go about defending and supporting them?

Tell me where I'm wrong in my analysis of Sam Harris' argument.

Sam Harris makes a certain argument, provides a key premise 'Values = Facts about the wellbeing of conscious beings' and proceeds to make a different argument due to the equivocation contained in this premise. Is that not so?

Democracy Simulator
1st April 2010, 10:18 PM
Let me ask this.

Consider the points of view informed primarily by (a) modern science, (b) the fundamentalism embraced by the Taliban, and (c) the mindset of Ted Bundy.

Is there anyone here who really doubts that those different points of view will have a significant impact on the question of whether, and to what degree, women should be subject to domination by men?

I sure don't.

And if you accept that, then how can you say that science does not have something to say about how we answer moral questions?

The fact is, science already does have a profound impact on how we answer those questions.

As Harris explains, that's simply a fact.

Science can tell us a lot of things about how our decisions will affect the world. In that way, it can help us to answer moral questions. No-one is arguing this point.

What science cannot do is tell us what our values ought to be. Sam Harris asserts that it can. Remember:

1. Science should/can have an opinion about good and evil and right and wrong.

2. Science can tell us what we ought to value.

3. Science will answer the most important questions of life, what it is worth living and dying for and what constitutes a good life.

Do you not see the difference in the argument he claims he is making at the beginning and the actual argument he goes on to make? Yes he is right when he makes the later argument, but this does not make the earlier argument (what he said he was arguing for), right. This is the problem when we equivocate. It is easy to fool oneself and others that you have the answer to a question, if you actually then answer a different question.

Kevin_Lowe
2nd April 2010, 01:22 AM
I may be misunderstanding you, but I think you're making an error in how you view moral decisions.

You seem to be saying that we begin with a philosophical premise, and one of those premises is that we do what feels right to us, but there are other premises we may adopt.

However, in my personal experience, and in the research I've read about the brain, and in my professional experience and reading of research on decision-making, I don't find that to be at all true.

Rather, what seems to be the case is that we always do what we feel like doing. We encounter dilemmas when we have equivocal feelings regarding our choices.

So if I live in a society which, for example, puts people to death for being homosexual, or for publicly disagreeing with the government, or for rejecting the state religion, then if I am emotionally ok with all of that, I have no moral dilemma. I'm a good citizen and I go on with my life.

However, if my genetics and development have given me a brain that's wired so that I'm emotionally distressed by all of that, then I have what you might call a moral choice to make.

This is called "psychological egoism" is philosophy, the idea that we don't actually make moral choices, we just do whatever we want to do.

It's unfalsifiable. Nothing anyone does can prove it wrong. If you donate your fortune to charity, or throw yourself on a grenade to save your platoon or whatever, it doesn't matter. The psychological egoist just says "That must have been what they really wanted to do".


I think all Harris is saying is that you're going to have a different experience if you come from a religious perspective, or a selfish perspective, or a scientific perspective, or what have you.

Actually you are completely wrong. He makes, very clearly, the arguments which have just been enumerated by Democracy Simulator. Harris is not just saying that you're going to have a different experience if you come from a religious perspective, or a selfish perspective, or a scientific perspective, or what have you.

He's saying that the fact/value distinction is erroneous, and that science can tell us what we ought to value.


So it follows that there must be a scientifically oriented, or scientifically informed, morality. Just as there is a religiously informed morality. Or a morality informed only by one's own immediate gratification (e.g. the sociopathic morality of Ted Bundy).

If you assert the truth of psychological egoism then all talk of morality is meaningless. So if we replace "morality" with "(meaningless) opinions about morality", then your statement is correct in your own terms. There would only be "scientifically informed meaningless opinions about morality", "religiously informed meaningless opinions about morality" and so on.

However this position of yours is nothing like Harris' position. It's also unfalsifiable and hence uninteresting.


Harris would say that a perspective based on science, rather than on interpretation of religious scripture, is superior because that point of view is more accurate when it comes to modeling reality. And I agree.

One more time: Absolutely nobody is saying otherwise.


But you don't even have to agree with that point in order to accept Harris's central premise, which is that a science-based approach to moral questions is indeed possible.

That's not his central premise. Democracy Simulator enumerated his central claims for you quite precisely.


You may well disagree with his conclusions about particular questions (as I do, as well) but I'm not seeing any evidence that he's wrong about the big picture.

You've been shown knock-down arguments that he's wrong about the big picture, unless you are defining "the big picture" be something other than what Harris is actually claiming. If you're not seeing them it's not because they have not been posted for you.

INRM
2nd April 2010, 12:04 PM
Dr. Kitten,

The primary flaw is that it gives the wrong answer sometimes.

For example, committing gang rape gives you and your mates more pleasure than it deprives the woman of. If you can figure out a way to reduce your risk of being caught to an acceptable level -- perhaps by murdering her afterwards -- then utilitarianism would say "go for it."

You actually make a very good point

Piggy
3rd April 2010, 07:34 PM
Let's say science shows us that the best way to promote maximum social well-being is to have the society entirely made up of women, because of physical traits making them more pacifistic, or their social interactions being better for well-being, or whatever.

Science would suggest we should isolate men to breeding camps, where we extract their semen. And we abort all male fetuses that are not needed to repopulate those camps.

Science would also say we should genetically engineer those women to be lesbians so they wouldn't lose the positive sexual well-being.

That an okay "moral answer" for you?

There's really no point going into that because, first of all, it has nothing to do with what Harris is actually saying, or what I'm actually saying, and second of all it's so outlandish as to be ridiculous.

Piggy
3rd April 2010, 07:35 PM
Tell me where I'm wrong in my analysis of Sam Harris' argument.

Sam Harris makes a certain argument, provides a key premise 'Values = Facts about the wellbeing of conscious beings' and proceeds to make a different argument due to the equivocation contained in this premise. Is that not so?

Perhaps it is so.

Would you mind explaining what the "different argument" is?

Piggy
3rd April 2010, 08:19 PM
Science can tell us a lot of things about how our decisions will affect the world. In that way, it can help us to answer moral questions. No-one is arguing this point.

What science cannot do is tell us what our values ought to be. Sam Harris asserts that it can. Remember:

1. Science should/can have an opinion about good and evil and right and wrong.

2. Science can tell us what we ought to value.

3. Science will answer the most important questions of life, what it is worth living and dying for and what constitutes a good life.

Do you not see the difference in the argument he claims he is making at the beginning and the actual argument he goes on to make? Yes he is right when he makes the later argument, but this does not make the earlier argument (what he said he was arguing for), right. This is the problem when we equivocate. It is easy to fool oneself and others that you have the answer to a question, if you actually then answer a different question.

Let me start by saying that I don't agree with everything Harris says in his talk.

But let's take these points one at a time.

1. Science should/can have an opinion about good and evil and right and wrong.

I find it impossible to argue against that, as it's stated.

"Good and evil", "right and wrong" are products of the human brain. Science is our best bet for understanding them. Surely, science has a better shot at it than either religion or introspection.

So yes, I don't see why science should not have an opinion about these things. But on to the more nuanced, and more important, bits....

2. Science can tell us what we ought to value.

I wouldn't take this single phrase at the beginning of the lecture -- where he's simply laying out the topics he's going to address -- as the gospel.

He says "It's thought that science can help us get what we value, but it can never tell us what we ought to value." And he's very clear that he's going to argue against that position.

But that's a thumbnail.

What does he mean by "tell us"? Well, he's very explicit in the body of his talk that, first of all, science can't simply hand us the answers to tough moral questions. So obviously, by "tell us" he does not mean that we can apply the scientific method to moral problems and get a solution in the way we get solutions to problems of chemistry.

So you if you want to contend that this is his position, then obviously it's a strawman.

When he elaborates what his position actually is, it's clear that he's talking about science playing a part in coming to decisions about what we ought to value.

Now, can it do that?

Well, yes, within the terms and scope of this lecture. For instance, he compares a scientifically oriented approach to issues of women's rights to approaches based on scriptural fundamentalism and narcissistic sociopathy.

I don't actually agree with his assertions about the conclusions one must reach from a scientific perspective, but that's beside the point. The point is that there exists a scientifically oriented viewpoint on this question -- or, more acurately, viewpoints.

Is a scientifically informed viewpoint superior to a fundamentalist or sociopathic viewpoint? I say yes, it is, for the same reason that any objectively informed, reality-based view of any topic is superior to a view based on faith-centered belief in ancient scripture or based on narcissistic impulses.

But to slice and dice the lecture and claim that he's contradicting himself, rather than taking the entire lecture and coming to a conclusion about what his points really are, is unproductive, to say the least.

3. Science will answer the most important questions of life, what it is worth living and dying for and what constitutes a good life.

My response to this is pretty much the same as my response to point 2.

Imagine, for example, that we were talking about another species and trying to understand them.

Science would certainly be our best means of figuring out what that species considers to be worth living and dying for and what constitutes a good life.

We can, and should, use the tools of science to better understand those same impulses in ourselves.

For example, when we see religious fundamentalists committing murder-suicides because they believe it will get them into heaven, or because they believe we are in the End Times and they need to battle the Antichrist or some such, does science have nothing to say about whether this is a correct position to take?

Of course not. Because using science, we can determine that those beliefs are delusional, or at the very least misinformed, and that these folks are giving their lives and taking other lives in the service of a phantasm, which they would not do if they had a better grasp on reality.

Science does has something to say about what's worth living and dying for, simply because it has something to say about which ideas are accurate and which are not.

A scientifically informed person may have the same moral hard-wiring as any other person, but they're less likely to make mistakes when making actual choices about what to do, because their understanding of the world is clearer.

In other words, it's simply a fact that having a scientific world view does affect your views of what behaviors are beneficial and detrimental. It just does. And we should acknowledge that.

Piggy
3rd April 2010, 08:25 PM
This is called "psychological egoism" is philosophy, the idea that we don't actually make moral choices, we just do whatever we want to do.

It's unfalsifiable. Nothing anyone does can prove it wrong. If you donate your fortune to charity, or throw yourself on a grenade to save your platoon or whatever, it doesn't matter. The psychological egoist just says "That must have been what they really wanted to do".

Your narrow focus on philosophical isms is not only tiresome but unproductive.

Of course people do what they want to do, given what they believe their choices are.

But it's not that simple, of course. The role of emotion and intellect, for example, is a fascinating topic.

In any case, if you adhere to a philosophy which states that people actually do things other than what they want to do, given their perception of their choices, it's a rather bizarre philosophy on its face. And one which, as far as I know, has no objective backing to it.

Piggy
3rd April 2010, 08:30 PM
Actually you are completely wrong. He makes, very clearly, the arguments which have just been enumerated by Democracy Simulator. Harris is not just saying that you're going to have a different experience if you come from a religious perspective, or a selfish perspective, or a scientific perspective, or what have you.

He's saying that the fact/value distinction is erroneous, and that science can tell us what we ought to value.

He says that values are a particular kind of fact, and he's certainly correct about that.

If we were an alien species studying humans, we would treat questions about human values as questions of fact. There's no reason we should do otherwise simply because we are attempting to study ourselves.

And you're right that he's not just saying that you're "going to have a different experience" if you're coming from a scientific perspective. He's very clearly saying that your moral judgments are going to be not merely different but superior, because they will be more accurate.

He's saying that science not only can but does have something to say about moral questions. Present tense. And no one should pretend that it doesn't.

Piggy
3rd April 2010, 08:47 PM
If you assert the truth of psychological egoism then all talk of morality is meaningless. So if we replace "morality" with "(meaningless) opinions about morality", then your statement is correct in your own terms. There would only be "scientifically informed meaningless opinions about morality", "religiously informed meaningless opinions about morality" and so on.

However this position of yours is nothing like Harris' position. It's also unfalsifiable and hence uninteresting.

No, that is not correct, because if we begin by observing that individudal moral dilemmas are conflicts between contradictory emotions that are very closely balanced, and that interpersonal moral conflicts arise when there are differences in emotional responses and/or in perceptions of the world, then moral decisions are certainly very worthy of study, especially when we consider how frequent such decisions are and how important they can be.

There is nothing in my argument, or Harris's, which would lump these decisions in the category of "meaningless".

To the contrary, it is precisely because these choices are so fraught with meaning that they are so important and so interesting.

Let's take the Terri Schiavo case, which I'd hardly call "meaningless".

You had one side which was very vocal about their opinion that removing life support was murder, and morally reprehensible.

You had another side which asserted that Terri could not possibly be conscious because the areas of her brain which would be responsible for consciousness had been destroyed.

This is a clear example -- and a much neater one than Harris's burka issue -- of a case in which science does in fact have something quite important to say about a moral conflict.

If it's true that consciousness is a product of brain activity, and that Terri's brain had been rendered incapable of such activity, then this has a profound effect on what it means to remove life support.

On the other hand, if it's true that all people have souls which make us human, and that these souls are not dependent on brain activity, and that an all-mighty God has commanded us not to end human life (except in certain specified circumstances) then the moral balance tips in a very different direction.

So in the Schiavo case, science did in fact have something to say about what was good and right under the circumstances.

And that's not because science somehow ignores our moral hard-wiring.

Piggy
3rd April 2010, 08:52 PM
Democracy Simulator enumerated his central claims for you quite precisely.

Actually, DS claimed that there was a fundamental contradiction because rather than taking the lecture as a whole -- which any sensible person should do -- s/he instead separated the thumbnail statements in the introduction from the subsequent explanations.

I mean, really, listen to what the man's saying.

Piggy
3rd April 2010, 08:53 PM
You've been shown knock-down arguments that he's wrong about the big picture, unless you are defining "the big picture" be something other than what Harris is actually claiming. If you're not seeing them it's not because they have not been posted for you.

I don't know where you imagine those "knock-down arguments" are.

timf1234
3rd April 2010, 08:58 PM
I didn't watch the video, but it seems obvious that if you accept certain base moral assumptions, then science can help find the best way to make a given decision or question match those assumptions.

Science might not be able to tell you what the base moral assumptions should be, but it might even be able to tell you what assumptions you would be most comfortable with and then proceed as above.

Excellent point.
I agree.
Rationality can find common grounds among various cultural/religious morality more than by means of any other methodolgy.

Dragoonster
4th April 2010, 09:28 AM
There's really no point going into that because, first of all, it has nothing to do with what Harris is actually saying, or what I'm actually saying, and second of all it's so outlandish as to be ridiculous.

I'm trying to figure out where reliance on science as a finder of "ought" should end. And if it should end at some point, then apparently it isn't so absolute after all. You say in another post:

"Good and evil", "right and wrong" are products of the human brain. Science is our best bet for understanding them. Surely, science has a better shot at it than either religion or introspection.

So, let's say you or Harris currently hold a moral belief or opinion formed from introspection (or any non-scientific means), belief x. You use science to determine if x truly does promote well-being, and find to your surprise it doesn't. Not only does it not, but not-x promotes it better than a neutral position on x. Are you truly going to reverse your moral position because you find science superior as a finder of good/evil and "ought"?

For Harris, his introspection or utilitarianism or empathy or whatever has brought him to believe forcing women to wear burkas is immoral, for one example. Most westerners would agree with him. But let's say a scientific/sociological/brain experiment shows that if all women wore burkas in all societies, people would eventually accept this, and it would actually promote more people's well-being or to higher levels for enough of the people to make it a net well-being gain. I'm not asking you to accept that this is a likely result, only asking you (or Harris) what your reaction would be. Would Harris accept it and alter his moral thought to believe women should wear burkas?

As someone said earlier, he already assumes that the objectively correct restriction on clothing should fall somewhere inbetween two extremes, his example scantily clad women vs. Islamic women. He's assuming that Islam hasn't actually chanced upon what science may eventually say is the correct amount of clothing.

At worst he's simply entering a moral discussion with preheld beliefs, and attempting to justify them by using science as a basis. Why science? Because he's an atheist, or feels comfortable believing science would support his views. But if it ends up not supporting his views, I doubt he'll continue calling for it to decide the "ought" rather than just the "is".

If this is a strawman, it's understandable why we'd build it. His video presentation and retort to counterarguments are unclear and sloppy. He doesn't seem to have much of an understanding of philosophy, ethics, or science, as related to each other. Not saying I do either, but I think even I can tell his propositions have logical flaws, moral flaws, and class flaws. For science to contribute to morality, at least one moral axiom must already have been decided, from non-scientific reasoning or dogma. For Harris, it's that well-being is desirable, possibly also the most important goal of any moral system. If someone else thinks individual freedom is that most important goal, then their initial beliefs will be dissimilar to his, and the "oughts" they foolishly try to derive from science will be dissimilar. Neither Harris nor that person will be more or less objectively correct than the other.

Kevin_Lowe
5th April 2010, 12:54 AM
I don't know where you imagine those "knock-down arguments" are.

Then you need to start paying attention. Have you grasped what the fact/value distinction is yet? Have you grasped that no number of "is" statements can get you to an "ought" statement?

It might help if I teach you some more philosophy. I know, I know, you consider learning what other people have already said about this issue unproductive, if it means you have to learn a new word or two. Bear with me anyway.

One kind of (moral) good is an instrumental good. It is good because it helps us achieve a goal, and that goal is seen as good. Money, for example, is strictly an instrumental good. It's good because you can use it to do good things. It is of no value in and of itself. Science is also an instrumental good.

This is distinct from an intrinsic good. An intrinsic good is good just because it is good. It does not depend for its goodness on achieving anything, it is morally desirable just in and of itself.

Instrumental goods are only good because they can bring about some other, intrinsic good.

So far so good.

Science can not tell us what is intrinsically good. Not ever. It can only ever tell us what is instrumentally good.

Based on what you've said earlier you might be inclined to reply "But the intrinsic good is just whatever our brains are wired to think is good. That's all morality is, it's just us following our biological programming".

However that road leads to a moral black hole. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and every other torturer and murderer in history were following their biological programming. If that's morality it's no good to anyone.

So the usual next move is to retreat a bit and say "I didn't really mean that everything that we are wired to think is good is good. Gosh, that would be really silly. I knew that all along. Obviously what I really meant was that the following list of instinctive desires are the good desires: Blah, blah, blah and blah. The other desires are bad desires, because they clash with the good desires. If you insist on using those unproductive philosophical terms then blah, blah, blah and blah are the intrinsic goods".

That's a better position, but guess what? You just pulled a non-evidence-based moral axiom out of thin air. You decided arbitrarily that some higher standard of what is good exists than mere biological urges, and that only biological urges which fit with that higher standard of good are good.

By the same token you need to pull some non-evidence-based moral axiom out of thin air if you want to claim that we should respect other people's desires when they clash with our own. If Person A wants to rape Person B, and knows they can get away with it, why should Person A care what Person B feels about the issue? You can't appeal to mirror neurons and empathy and such, because obviously Person A's empathy to Person B does not extend to not wanting to rape them. If there is anything to say about the morality of Person A's actions it necessarily involves some kind of non-evidence-based opinion about respecting other people's desires.

Utilitarianism does this by pulling out of thin air the axiom "good actions are those which maximise good outcomes for all beings involved". It's not evidence-based or scientific. It's just an axiom. You pull it out of thin air, see what follows if you provisionally accept it as true, and if what follows is useful and coherent you decide that it's a good axiom.

Now to your other post:

He says that values are a particular kind of fact, and he's certainly correct about that.

If we were an alien species studying humans, we would treat questions about human values as questions of fact. There's no reason we should do otherwise simply because we are attempting to study ourselves.

You are stumbling here over the difference between descriptive ethics, which is just documenting what people reckon is ethical, and normative ethics, which is making claims about what really is morally right or wrong regardless of what people reckon about it.

If aliens were here to do some descriptive ethics work, sure, they would just be collecting facts about what people reckon.

However if you think that's all there is to ethics, you're right back to endorsing Hitler as being a moral guy. If you think that Hitler was not a moral guy, then you're making some kind of normative moral claim, saying that Hitler should not have done what he did even if he felt like it.

Your narrow focus on philosophical isms is not only tiresome but unproductive.

What's tiresome and unproductive is the fantastical conceit you hold that nothing anybody has ever said or thought about this issue before can possibly educate you. People just as smart or you (or, if you will entertain the possibility for a second, maybe even smarter!) have been thinking about these exact issues for thousands of years, and have been doing so with a rationalist, scientific background for nearly two hundred and fifty years.

You and Harris are not the first people to try to dress up the naturalistic fallacy as a coherent moral philosophy. Once you understand that, you might be willing to finally make some kind of effort to catch up to those of us who aren't still in the philosophical eighteenth century.


Of course people do what they want to do, given what they believe their choices are.

But it's not that simple, of course. The role of emotion and intellect, for example, is a fascinating topic.

In any case, if you adhere to a philosophy which states that people actually do things other than what they want to do, given their perception of their choices, it's a rather bizarre philosophy on its face. And one which, as far as I know, has no objective backing to it.

As I told you once already the claim that people only do what they really want to do is circular, hence unfalsifiable, and hence completely uninteresting.

When someone throws themselves on a grenade, or gives billions to charity, or stands in front of a tank, it adds nothing to the discussion to say "There was nothing moral in what they did, because they merely did what they wanted to do. The proof that they wanted to do it, is that they did it. QED. Therefore there is no morality that goes beyond doing what we want to".

The fact that you keep making this point as if it was cogent merely confirms that you would indeed benefit from making the effort to learn philosophy. This exact discussion was hashed out in the nineteenth century by philosophers like Hazlitt. It's not new, and it's not useful.

Actually, DS claimed that there was a fundamental contradiction because rather than taking the lecture as a whole -- which any sensible person should do -- s/he instead separated the thumbnail statements in the introduction from the subsequent explanations.

I mean, really, listen to what the man's saying.

It's already been explained to you that Harris' later arguments do not match up with his "thumbnail statements", and also that his "thumbnail statements" are false.

Harris starts out by stating that he is going to prove A (that the fact/value distinction is erroneous). Then he instead proves the completely boring and already-known thesis B (that given fixed values, science can help tell us how to achieve those values).

You can't defend Harris by saying "He didn't really mean that he was going to prove A, just because he said exactly that using well-defined and well-understood philosophical terms which he ought to have understood since he has a philosophy degree. Really, you need to listen to him when he proves B. B, B, B! Why can't you see that B is so obviously true? What have you got against B? Why can only I see the glorious light that is B?".

B is not news. Nobody disagrees with B. We all agree with B. There is no contest about B. You can stop flogging B, it's dead.

We're talking about A, which Harris said completely clearly and explicitly he was going to prove, and which turns out to be completely wrong.

bokonon
4th October 2010, 04:44 PM
I see that Harris is appearing on The Daily Show later today, which I assume means his book is finally available. Maybe we can replace supposition about what we think Harris might argue with his actual arguments, and see if this discussion is worth reviving.

Piggy
4th October 2010, 05:40 PM
Sorry I was away from the forum for so long. I've been back for a little while, but this thread was dormant until now.

I think my points about the "ought" are better expressed in my discussion of Pinker's biological take on morality in this thread (http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=185883), btw.

The "ought" comes from the fact that we share a common biology, and as a species we share some common traits, including suffering by severe confinement, physical pain, mental torment, severe restriction of liberty, sexual violation, knowing our loved ones are suffering, and so forth.

And while there are always anomalies, that's the basis for the "ought", and science helps us determine that.

quarky
6th October 2010, 05:26 AM
excuse me please; I haven't read this thread at all. Nor have I played many video games.
Yet, the few I played seemed to be loaded with something akin to morality:

Don't go after that cheap score! Its a trap!

Paulhoff
6th October 2010, 05:52 AM
Well, seeing that scientists are human, or so it has been rumored, I think they just may be able to know what questions are needed to be asked about morals.

Paul

:) :) :)

INRM
6th October 2010, 04:07 PM
Bokonon,

Yeah, I saw him on Jon Stewart's show too

Soapy Sam
7th October 2010, 02:57 AM
The primary flaw is that it gives the wrong answer sometimes.

For example, committing gang rape gives you and your mates more pleasure than it deprives the woman of. If you can figure out a way to reduce your risk of being caught to an acceptable level -- perhaps by murdering her afterwards -- then utilitarianism would say "go for it."

That's begging the question. You say it's the wrong answer , then point out that fom one POV it isn't.
Any moral relativist stance eventually hits this problem, just as any objectivist stance ends in a mass of arbitrary dogma.

There are inconsistencies either way.
Is it moral to a-bomb a city? It is if you can get away with it.
Perhaps the only consistent system would be a hierarchical one? Washing your doorstep is a moral act at street level because it keeps the neighbours happy, but immoral at a global level because the dirty water goes down the drain and pollutes the planet? (Silly examples, but a lot of morality seems silly because we lack the appropriate social context- I can't imagine why cutting a clitoris off could be moral, but some apparently can).

bokonon
7th October 2010, 03:52 AM
The primary flaw is that it gives the wrong answer sometimes.

For example, committing gang rape gives you and your mates more pleasure than it deprives the woman of. If you can figure out a way to reduce your risk of being caught to an acceptable level -- perhaps by murdering her afterwards -- then utilitarianism would say "go for it."
I don't think even as stated that this is true. The pleasure "you and your mates" get is fleeting; the pleasure the woman is deprived of may span years.

However, a more nearly complete picture of utilitarianism doesn't merely consider pleasure gained, but pain inflicted. The pain inflicted on the woman by you and your gang-raping mates is immense, while the pain you'd experience by foregoing the attack is non-existent.

Therefore, utilitarianism would say refrain.

There probably are cases for which utilitarianism gives the wrong answer, but I don't think yours was one of them.

I haven't read Harris' book yet, but it's possible that his position differs from utilitarianism as it's being generally understood here. He speaks about societies "thriving", which seems to be something other than simple pain or pleasure. Certainly a society in which gangs of roving rapists ran rampant would be a valley rather than a peak.

Paulhoff
7th October 2010, 05:59 AM
Is it moral to a-bomb a city? It is if you can get away with it.
A-bombing happened twice, done by the orders of a god fearing man. So what it is about these morals that science can't answer and only religion can.

Paul

:) :) :)

Piggy
7th October 2010, 09:03 AM
Therefore, utilitarianism would say refrain.

The problem with utilitarianism is that people don't actually think that way. For certain decisions, sure, but not most of the time, and certainly not as a rule when moral choices are involved.

bokonon
7th October 2010, 12:16 PM
The problem with utilitarianism is that people don't actually think that way. For certain decisions, sure, but not most of the time, and certainly not as a rule when moral choices are involved.
Whether people actually think that way is somewhat beside the point, the point being that Harris is proposing a more rigorous way of thinking that he claims will lead to better choices.

In some ways I see your "ought arises from biology" as inadequate. Biology has given us vision systems which can be fooled by optical illusions, and I'd argue that our gut reactions (intuitive emotional responses) are similarly fallible. Science is a method for minimizing errors of observation and analysis, and I'm willing to at least consider the possibility that it may prove to be a useful tool for minimizing errors of observation and analysis when making moral choices as well.

Piggy
7th October 2010, 02:12 PM
Whether people actually think that way is somewhat beside the point, the point being that Harris is proposing a more rigorous way of thinking that he claims will lead to better choices.

In some ways I see your "ought arises from biology" as inadequate. Biology has given us vision systems which can be fooled by optical illusions, and I'd argue that our gut reactions (intuitive emotional responses) are similarly fallible. Science is a method for minimizing errors of observation and analysis, and I'm willing to at least consider the possibility that it may prove to be a useful tool for minimizing errors of observation and analysis when making moral choices as well.

Uh... the argument from biology has nothing to do with following your gut.

The argument is that an understanding of our common biology, informed by science, informs us of universal human nature, and it is that understanding -- not our gut reactions -- that informs our moral choices.

Our gut might tell us "those people are inferior" or "that group doesn't feel pain like we do" or "God hates those folks". Science tells us otherwise.

bokonon
7th October 2010, 03:45 PM
Pinker identifies another type of morality, which is just built-in. For example, objection to incest, objection to eating a family pet that has passed away (unless you're literally starving to death), repulsion at a person who betrays a family member or close friend for money, anger at political traitors.

While all these objections can be justified rationally, they're primarily gut reactions against acts that most of us would insist are "just wrong" no matter what the contrary argument was.

Some of these are simply inherited in our wiring, like a physical revulsion to eating the flesh of someone you love, even if it's an animal.


Uh... the argument from biology has nothing to do with following your gut.
Whatever you say.

Piggy
7th October 2010, 04:23 PM
Whatever you say.

How do those cherries taste, bokonon?

Pinker is 100% right to identify a category of "gut reaction" moral responses, such as an objection to eating a pet dog just because you heard dog meat was pretty tasty.

Most people really do feel that way, very strongly, and we can't help it.

But, of course, in citing this the way you do, you're wilfully ignoring the larger argument.

A biologically-based morality accepts the reality of such hard-wired responses. It recognizes that some moral objections are instilled in us by evolution, even though they cannot necessarily be defended by purely logical arguments.

But this in no way justifies simply "going with your gut" as a method of making moral choices.

That kind of approach would justify shooting someone you're angry at because it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

Pinker's approach rejects such a conclusion because it is narrowly self-centered -- that is, it fails to take all facts into consideration -- and because it ignores the biological fact that people don't want to be shot, that they suffer when they're shot and wounded, and that their loved ones suffer if they are killed.

Just because we recognize a category of moral judgments which are "gut level" -- on a species scale, not on an individual scale (that is the key here) -- does not mean that we then advocate "going with your gut" in making all moral decisions.

Which, of course, is clear from my arguments in that thread.

bokonon
7th October 2010, 05:24 PM
How do those cherries taste, bokonon?
Not bad, how's the crow?

Just because we recognize a category of moral judgments which are "gut level" -- on a species scale, not on an individual scale (that is the key here) -- does not mean that we then advocate "going with your gut" in making all moral decisions.
So, when you read a statement like "I see your 'ought arises from biology' as inadequate. [...] I'd argue that our gut reactions (intuitive emotional responses) are ... fallible," and you apparently agree that "going with our gut" is not an adequate basis for making all moral decisions, it might be more appropriate to say "I agree, but just to clarify..." rather than "it has nothing to do with following your gut." I don't believe my statement specified or implied an "individual" or "species" scale.

"going with your gut" as a method of making moral choices [...] would justify shooting someone you're angry at because it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

Pinker's approach rejects such a conclusion because it is narrowly self-centered -- that is, it fails to take all facts into consideration -- and because it ignores the biological fact that people don't want to be shot, that they suffer when they're shot and wounded, and that their loved ones suffer if they are killed.
I had in mind a "gut" which included such facts (our intuitive emotional response comprehends that wounding and killing causes suffering), and still regard it as inadequate, but no matter...

I haven't read Pinker, and my comment was based on my understanding of your characterization of his ideas. Frankly this exchange has reminded me why I tend to regard these philosophical discussions as a mostly boring hair-splitting waste of time. Whether I go on to read Harris' book or not, I think I may be done with this thread.

Piggy
7th October 2010, 05:44 PM
Frankly this exchange has reminded me why I tend to regard these philosophical discussions as a mostly boring hair-splitting waste of time.

I'm sorry, but I could not even follow the first part of your post.

As for this, Pinker wasn't writing philosophy, and I am not discussing philosophy.

fls
7th October 2010, 06:18 PM
Let's say science shows us that the best way to promote maximum social well-being is to have the society entirely made up of women, because of physical traits making them more pacifistic, or their social interactions being better for well-being, or whatever.

Science would suggest we should isolate men to breeding camps, where we extract their semen. And we abort all male fetuses that are not needed to repopulate those camps.

Science would also say we should genetically engineer those women to be lesbians so they wouldn't lose the positive sexual well-being.

That an okay "moral answer" for you?

I don't think that is what is meant when people claim that science can be used to answer moral questions. There is a similarly vague concept which we generally agree science can deal with which has a lot of correspondence with moral questions, and that is 'health'. Part of the definition of health even includes 'well-being'.

"Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." (WHO definition)

Similarly, "science could tell us that the way to maximize health is to euthanize the old and infirm." Yet I don't think anyone would expect this to be a persuasive argument against the use of science to answer health questions. Where do we get the idea that we 'ought' to concern ourselves with the absence of death or disability in relation to 'health'?

Linda

fls
7th October 2010, 06:26 PM
One kind of (moral) good is an instrumental good. It is good because it helps us achieve a goal, and that goal is seen as good. Money, for example, is strictly an instrumental good. It's good because you can use it to do good things. It is of no value in and of itself. Science is also an instrumental good.

This is distinct from an intrinsic good. An intrinsic good is good just because it is good. It does not depend for its goodness on achieving anything, it is morally desirable just in and of itself.

Instrumental goods are only good because they can bring about some other, intrinsic good.

So far so good.

Science can not tell us what is intrinsically good. Not ever. It can only ever tell us what is instrumentally good.

I don't know if you are still following this thread, but what would be helpful would be an example of an intrinsic good and what it was that told us it was an intrinsic good. The way you've described it, only by indicating what it isn't, it could be an empty category.

Linda

Beth
7th October 2010, 07:58 PM
I don't know if you are still following this thread, but what would be helpful would be an example of an intrinsic good and what it was that told us it was an intrinsic good. The way you've described it, only by indicating what it isn't, it could be an empty category.

Linda


Intrinsic goods can be consumables - things that you use to live and make life enjoyable. Food and clothing fit into this category. Intrinsic goods can also be intangibles, things like music and justice. Intrinsic goods are valued for what they are.

Paulhoff
9th October 2010, 11:57 AM
ihdlsARGAJk

Paul

:) :) :)

Wowbagger
9th October 2010, 12:24 PM
I would like to join this debate, but I would be joining in very late. And, I certainly did not read all (or even most) of the posts in this thread. But, I will say one thing, that I think needs emphasis:

A society's values (morals, ethics, etc.) are based on the needs and interests of that society. As those needs change and adjust, you would expect values to be adjusted along with them, in the long run. Of course, in the short term, there could be resistance, because of the illusion of values being "immutable". But, change is inevitable, as long as the planet is not homogenous across time.

There is no reason why science cannot study the driving forces behind social change, and the shift in values that come with that.

But, even as some things change, certain things do not seem to do so, or at least not as much. (Murder, for example, is almost universally reviled by societies.) There is no reason why science cannot investigate how these nearly innate, core values have emerged. The ultimate causes are almost obvious: Survival of the species depends on some of them. But, the proximate, more specific ways in which these are implemented, and how they play out with other factors such as culture, could still be ironed out within the realm of science.

I saw Sam Harris speak in NYC, on Thursday. Although I was never a big fan of his, I do think he could be on the right track. If we accept "bad" meaning the health and wellbeing of nearly everyone is extremely poor, and "evil" as those who would put us there; then there is room for science to shed light on values. Science can turn its magnifying glass on which social policies maximize or minimize the general health and wellbeing for everyone. But, I will say more about that, once I finish reading his book.

AlBell
9th October 2010, 01:53 PM
I don't know if you are still following this thread, but what would be helpful would be an example of an intrinsic good and what it was that told us it was an intrinsic good. The way you've described it, only by indicating what it isn't, it could be an empty category.

Linda


Intrinsic goods can be consumables - things that you use to live and make life enjoyable. Food and clothing fit into this category. Intrinsic goods can also be intangibles, things like music and justice. Intrinsic goods are valued for what they are.
As I see it any intrinsic value a consumable might have is assigned by the user. A logical nihilist would state that nothing has intrinsic value. Other philosphies might cite 'happiness' or 'pleasure' or 'virtue' as having intrinsic value.

I'd say Gould missed the mark by assigning Religion as the second magisteria; better said it is 'personal choice, or perhaps acceptance' assigning intrinsic value. Religion is a method that can persuade individuals to agree with certain choices as having intrinsic value; Religion and the sword, or just the sword, can achieve that same objective.

I also contend Science cannot by itself assign intrinsic value. Science can of course examine the actual and/or apparent effects specific choices may have or had on the individual and society.

Dragoonster
9th October 2010, 09:43 PM
I don't think that is what is meant when people claim that science can be used to answer moral questions. There is a similarly vague concept which we generally agree science can deal with which has a lot of correspondence with moral questions, and that is 'health'. Part of the definition of health even includes 'well-being'.

Sure...but health also means (presumably to Sam Harris though he of course never explained why) "humans' health" so there's an implicit moral axiom that human health is to be valued, and/or even more than other species or inanimate objects' "health".

p.s. what "people" mean isn't the big topic here, it's what "Sam Harris" means, and his meaning is laughable.

"Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." (WHO definition)

Similarly, "science could tell us that the way to maximize health is to euthanize the old and infirm." Yet I don't think anyone would expect this to be a persuasive argument against the use of science to answer health questions. Where do we get the idea that we 'ought' to concern ourselves with the absence of death or disability in relation to 'health'?

Linda

It seemingly should be a persuasive argument according to Sam Harris' naive and simplimentary calculus. He's like a 10-year old arguing utilitarianism imo, bolstered by his favorite belief in science, as opposed to a random 10-year old's belief in matchbox cars, or Johnny Depp posters.

Bascially nothing he says in this topic is at all interesting or at all compelling. That's at-best; at-worst he's seeking a new moral religion based on science. Actually, at-worst he's offered no basis for anything he claims. No philosophy, no ethics, nothing.

Kevin_Lowe
10th October 2010, 04:46 AM
I don't know if you are still following this thread, but what would be helpful would be an example of an intrinsic good and what it was that told us it was an intrinsic good. The way you've described it, only by indicating what it isn't, it could be an empty category.

Linda

What is an intrinsic good is a value judgment, not something which can be scientifically shown to be correct or incorrect.

Kant would have right acts as being intrinsically good, Bentham would have pleasure, Mill would have "higher pleasures", others would have the satisfaction of preferences, or the satisfaction of only well-informed and rational preferences, or "flourishing", or the cultivation of moral virtues.

Every moral system has to start, or perhaps finish, with some kind of leap of faith where you choose to value something over something else just because. They all have a point where you can no longer answer the question "But why do you value that?" with anything other than "because it seems to me to be good".

For this reason I'm pretty sure that you just can't have a moral system with no intrinsic goods, or where the set of intrinsic goods is an empty set. Instrumental goods by definition are good because they let you do something you value, but you have to value something before instrumental goods can even exist. Otherwise they aren't instrumental goods (to you) at all, because they cannot bring about a state of affairs which you value if you are genuinely ambivalent about all possible states of affairs.

Kevin_Lowe
10th October 2010, 04:55 AM
The problem with utilitarianism is that people don't actually think that way. For certain decisions, sure, but not most of the time, and certainly not as a rule when moral choices are involved.

There's a distinction to be made between a normative moral philosophy and a moral decision-making strategy. It's not necessarily inconsistent to hold, for example, that utilitarianism is the best normative moral philosophy but impractical as an everyday decision-making strategy.

The ideal moral theory would of course fulfil both roles perfectly, but such a beast may not exist.

fls
10th October 2010, 07:27 AM
What is an intrinsic good is a value judgment, not something which can be scientifically shown to be correct or incorrect.

Okay. For no good reason on my part, I thought you were specifically denying that.

Kant would have right acts as being intrinsically good, Bentham would have pleasure, Mill would have "higher pleasures", others would have the satisfaction of preferences, or the satisfaction of only well-informed and rational preferences, or "flourishing", or the cultivation of moral virtues.

Every moral system has to start, or perhaps finish, with some kind of leap of faith where you choose to value something over something else just because. They all have a point where you can no longer answer the question "But why do you value that?" with anything other than "because it seems to me to be good".

For this reason I'm pretty sure that you just can't have a moral system with no intrinsic goods, or where the set of intrinsic goods is an empty set. Instrumental goods by definition are good because they let you do something you value, but you have to value something before instrumental goods can even exist. Otherwise they aren't instrumental goods (to you) at all, because they cannot bring about a state of affairs which you value if you are genuinely ambivalent about all possible states of affairs.

And this confirms for me the correspondence between our study of health and the purported study of morals. At some point, we have assigned intrinsic value to certain outcomes - an ability to walk, life, perceived well-being, an absence of a specific disease - within humans. But these values are as arbitrary as "higher pleasures". Science cannot show us that they are correct or incorrect. Yet we go ahead and use all of them to make statements about which actions improve 'health' as though we have something meaningful to say. And I don't notice endless threads on this forum pointing out that science cannot answer health questions.

Linda

fls
10th October 2010, 07:30 AM
I also contend Science cannot by itself assign intrinsic value. Science can of course examine the actual and/or apparent effects specific choices may have or had on the individual and society.

I agree. It cannot be said that one drug is 'better' than another simply because one drug cures an otherwise terminal condition while the other does not.

Linda

AlBell
10th October 2010, 07:39 AM
I agree. It cannot be said that one drug is 'better' than another simply because one drug cures an otherwise terminal condition while the other does not.

Linda
That needs the underlying intrinsic value assignment: life is better than death.

Seems ok, yet, if you are the terminal cancer patient sceaming in pain, will you agree the assignment is intrinsic?

And in your medical drug trials, quality of life issues may again question the 'intrinsic value' assignment.

What does Science say here?

fls
10th October 2010, 08:10 AM
That needs the underlying intrinsic value assignment: life is better than death.

Seems ok, yet, if you are the terminal cancer patient sceaming in pain, will you agree the assignment is intrinsic?

And in your medical drug trials, quality of life issues may again question the 'intrinsic value' assignment.

What does Science say here?

Again, it doesn't say anything about whether we ought to value quality of life. It only tells us something once we have decided to do so.

Linda

Dani
10th October 2010, 09:01 AM
The sphere of facts and the sphere of values are intrinsically different.

The sphere of facts (knowledge) explains how things are, while the sphere of values (morals) explains how a subject would like things to be.

This is not a misconception and we shouldn't confuse it with moral relativism.

Of course I agree that, within a moral context, we can rationally or scientifically decide that one action is more objectively correct than another. But this isn't a value, it's just a fact. The value has already been chosen.

Kevin_Lowe
10th October 2010, 02:02 PM
Okay. For no good reason on my part, I thought you were specifically denying that.


If I had been, that would have been pretty silly.


And this confirms for me the correspondence between our study of health and the purported study of morals. At some point, we have assigned intrinsic value to certain outcomes - an ability to walk, life, perceived well-being, an absence of a specific disease - within humans. But these values are as arbitrary as "higher pleasures". Science cannot show us that they are correct or incorrect. Yet we go ahead and use all of them to make statements about which actions improve 'health' as though we have something meaningful to say. And I don't notice endless threads on this forum pointing out that science cannot answer health questions.

That health is good and morbidity/mortality is bad is one of those value judgments that is so widespread that it almost never comes up for discussion. However it is still merely a value judgment.

The debate about when treatment is appropriate for potentially terminal conditions and when it should be abandoned in favour of palliative care, or indeed euthanasia, illustrates that we are dealing with value judgments about how we wish the world to be, not purely factual matters.

Similarly the conflict between those who would label autism a mental disorder and those who would label it "neurodiversity", and the conflict between those who consider deafness a disability and those who do not show that there is also scope for people to disagree about whether certain states of being are pathological or not.

Science can only answer health questions once we have made a prior value judgment of some sort about what kind of states of being are preferable to others. It's uncontroversial because our judgments on these matters almost always line up with those of everyone else, so it's very rare for anyone to pick nits about it. In such discussions I just assume everyone agrees that mortality and morbidity are bad and do not make an issue of it.

"Ebola is something which it is morally good to prevent" is still a value judgment, even if it's a highly uncontroversial one. You can't infer from the fact that nobody picks a fight about a given moral claim, that the moral claim in question is a scientific truth.

fls
10th October 2010, 03:28 PM
That health is good and morbidity/mortality is bad is one of those value judgments that is so widespread that it almost never comes up for discussion. However it is still merely a value judgment.

The debate about when treatment is appropriate for potentially terminal conditions and when it should be abandoned in favour of palliative care, or indeed euthanasia, illustrates that we are dealing with value judgments about how we wish the world to be, not purely factual matters.

Similarly the conflict between those who would label autism a mental disorder and those who would label it "neurodiversity", and the conflict between those who consider deafness a disability and those who do not show that there is also scope for people to disagree about whether certain states of being are pathological or not.

Science can only answer health questions once we have made a prior value judgment of some sort about what kind of states of being are preferable to others. It's uncontroversial because our judgments on these matters almost always line up with those of everyone else, so it's very rare for anyone to pick nits about it. In such discussions I just assume everyone agrees that mortality and morbidity are bad and do not make an issue of it.

"Ebola is something which it is morally good to prevent" is still a value judgment, even if it's a highly uncontroversial one. You can't infer from the fact that nobody picks a fight about a given moral claim, that the moral claim in question is a scientific truth.

Yeah, we clearly don't really need to be dealing in scientific truths in order to use science to approach an issue. So why do people feel the need to bring this up with regards to moral questions, as though it represents an argument against our ability to use science with respect to morality, or as though it represents a unique situation?

Linda

AlBell
10th October 2010, 03:56 PM
Yeah, we clearly don't really need to be dealing in scientific truths in order to use science to approach an issue.
Who said there was?


So why do people feel the need to bring this up with regards to moral questions, as though it represents an argument against our ability to use science with respect to morality, or as though it represents a unique situation?
Linda
Or why anyone would ask that question after Kevin's careful explanation?

fls
10th October 2010, 04:16 PM
Who said there was?

Well, there's five pages to this thread which suggests that at least some people disagree with Sam Harris' contention that science can address moral questions. There's Gould's NOMA, which some people seem to treat as a legitimate distinction. And the issue of values is often raised in these sorts if threads as though it is relevant to whether something can be subject to scientific scrutiny.

Or why anyone would ask that question after Kevin's careful explanation?

I thought his explanation concurred with my observation that the scientific inquiry of health reflected a study of values?

Linda

Kevin_Lowe
10th October 2010, 04:29 PM
Yeah, we clearly don't really need to be dealing in scientific truths in order to use science to approach an issue. So why do people feel the need to bring this up with regards to moral questions, as though it represents an argument against our ability to use science with respect to morality, or as though it represents a unique situation?

Only because Harris made the assertion that he was going to show that the is/ought distinction didn't exist and that science alone could answer moral questions without needing to team up with non-scientific value judgments.

He failed to follow through on this, but his claim to do so is what this thread is all about. Blame him. :)

AlBell
10th October 2010, 04:35 PM
Nicely said.

bokonon
10th October 2010, 04:57 PM
That needs the underlying intrinsic value assignment: life is better than death.
Not really. It really comes down to a different intrinsic value assignment: having a choice about whether one lives or dies is better than not having such a choice.

Seems ok, yet, if you are the terminal cancer patient sceaming in pain, will you agree the assignment is intrinsic?
I think that patient would also appreciate having a choice.


The debate about when treatment is appropriate for potentially terminal conditions and when it should be abandoned in favour of palliative care, or indeed euthanasia, illustrates that we are dealing with value judgments about how we wish the world to be, not purely factual matters.
Whether or not a drug effectively cures a condition may still be a matter of fact. The availability of such a drug increases the range of choices available to someone afflicted with a given condition. Unless there are hidden costs (i.e., creating a dose of the drug requires the sacrifice of twelve virgins to the volcano gods, or the drug is only being made available to young Hitler, etc.), this expansion of choices would seem to be a good thing.

Science can only answer health questions once we have made a prior value judgment of some sort about what kind of states of being are preferable to others. It's uncontroversial because our judgments on these matters almost always line up with those of everyone else, so it's very rare for anyone to pick nits about it. In such discussions I just assume everyone agrees that mortality and morbidity are bad and do not make an issue of it.

"Ebola is something which it is morally good to prevent" is still a value judgment, even if it's a highly uncontroversial one. You can't infer from the fact that nobody picks a fight about a given moral claim, that the moral claim in question is a scientific truth.
An ineffective treatment is still "worse" than an effective treatment, all else being equal. It provides a choice, which can then be used or not, depending on one's values.

fls
10th October 2010, 05:27 PM
Only because Harris made the assertion that he was going to show that the is/ought distinction didn't exist and that science alone could answer moral questions without needing to team up with non-scientific value judgments.

Oh. That seems very different from what he said in the TED talk referenced at the start of this thread. What are you basing this on?

Linda

Kevin_Lowe
10th October 2010, 07:14 PM
Oh. That seems very different from what he said in the TED talk referenced at the start of this thread. What are you basing this on?

Linda

Now we are going around in circles.

He makes these (philosophically ridiculous) claims right at the start of his talk.

Then he completely fails to back them up and spends the rest of his time talking about the trivially true fact that science can discern facts which we can use with our value judgments to make informed moral choices.

Dragoonster
10th October 2010, 07:46 PM
Oh. That seems very different from what he said in the TED talk referenced at the start of this thread. What are you basing this on?

Linda

It sounds precisely like his TED talk and his accompanying text (a link to which was provided early in the thread iirc). His presentation is sloppy, amateurish, illogical, arguably biased, and not compelling in any way.

Oh, possibly relevant:

Well, there's five pages to this thread which suggests that at least some people disagree with Sam Harris' contention that science can address moral questions.

The issue isn't with "addressing", obviously science can be a useful tool in addressing morals and consequences, once the morals have been decided.

Harris takes it MUCH further and asserts that science can "decide" such questions. He is completely missing that the scientist (him) enters with a preconceived morality. And/or he has no interest in asking the right "questions" from basic philosophy on--he has settled on a personal arbitrary philosophy and has no interest in exploring (or scientifically justifying) whatever occurred before he reached his personal ethical view.

In this he is absolutely no different than any other human who attempts to spread their subjective morals among the masses. His only difference is in the justification. But a religious justification is just as poor as an "atheistic" or "scientific" justification if both axiomatic justifications are completely irrational and unsupported.

Piggy
10th October 2010, 08:04 PM
What is an intrinsic good is a value judgment, not something which can be scientifically shown to be correct or incorrect.

That is, if you bother with notions like "intrinsic good".

I think Harris and Pinker are not much concerned about Platonic concepts like that, and I'm sure I'm not.

But science can tell us a lot about human nature, about how people suffer, and about what can be done to ameliorate suffering.

And if you think ameliorating suffering is an arbitrary value, I'd say you're quite wrong.

Piggy
10th October 2010, 08:05 PM
It's not necessarily inconsistent to hold, for example, that utilitarianism is the best normative moral philosophy but impractical as an everyday decision-making strategy.

I don't know if it would be inconsistent, but if it's impractical then it's useless, so consistency wouldn't even matter.

Piggy
10th October 2010, 08:10 PM
At some point, we have assigned intrinsic value to certain outcomes - an ability to walk, life, perceived well-being, an absence of a specific disease - within humans. But these values are as arbitrary as "higher pleasures". Science cannot show us that they are correct or incorrect.

I think that's quite wrong, actually. Health and freedom are not arbitrary and need not be assigned to anything. We are hard-wired to suffer by excessive constraint, physical pain, the loss of loved ones, and so forth. That's just reality. And science can show that this is the norm for our species, not just for one group or one race.

Science can also show the very real benefits of human contact, healthy intimate relationships, enjoyment of music, fulfilling sex, and other pleasures.

Dragoonster
10th October 2010, 08:34 PM
And if you think ameliorating suffering is an arbitrary value, I'd say you're quite wrong.

According to what? Science?

Piggy
10th October 2010, 08:50 PM
According to what? Science?

Anybody can use a reality-divorced sort of abstract on-paper philosophizing to argue any position at all. But what use is it?

Of course the avoidance of suffering is not an arbitrary value. Look around you. Look at yourself. People don't like suffering.

Life's too short to have to waste time defending the obvious, or arguing with folks who willfully ignore it in favor of bickering over angels on pinheads.

Dragoonster
10th October 2010, 08:58 PM
Anybody can use a reality-divorced sort of abstract on-paper philosophizing to argue any position at all. But what use is it?

Of course the avoidance of suffering is not an arbitrary value. Look around you. Look at yourself. People don't like suffering.

Life's too short to have to waste time defending the obvious, or arguing with folks who willfully ignore it in favor of bickering over angels on pinheads.

I accept that moral stance but have no idea what it has to do with Sam Harris' contentions. He seemingly wants to scientifically determine all morals, despite not justifying his morals in the first place. Why should we accept his determinations anymore than an Imam's or Christian's?

Why don't you subscribe to "avoidance of suffering" is an axiom thus supporting Jesus Christ? Just how many "avoidance of suffering"-based morally-certain paradigms have you believed in prior to Sam Harris?

Kevin_Lowe
10th October 2010, 09:22 PM
That is, if you bother with notions like "intrinsic good".

As I have already explained, every moral philosophy (including yours and Harris') absolutely requires one or more things, be they acts, outcomes, virtues or something else entirely, to be judged as good in and of themselves. For no other reason than that you think they are good, and not because they are instrumental in bringing about some other good.


I think Harris and Pinker are not much concerned about Platonic concepts like that, and I'm sure I'm not.

That's okay, as long as you don't want to be entitled to an opinion.


But science can tell us a lot about human nature, about how people suffer, and about what can be done to ameliorate suffering.

And if you think ameliorating suffering is an arbitrary value, I'd say you're quite wrong.

Here's an exercise for you. Specify exactly why you think it is morally good to ameliorate suffering. Is it good in and of itself, or is it solely good because it brings about some other good?

If it's good in and of itself, then it is indeed an arbitrary value. Science cannot prove that it is good in and of itself.

If not, repeat the exercise until you come to that thing or things which is good in and of itself, for no other reason.

I don't know if it would be inconsistent, but if it's impractical then it's useless, so consistency wouldn't even matter.

Careful now - you need to read and respond to exactly what I say. Sloppiness makes good philosophy impossible. I said it might be impractical for everyday problems. That is not at all the same thing as being useless.

Governments, for example, have the luxury of throughly working out the costs and benefits of a new health policy. For them utilitarian calculations are a most useful tool.

I think that's quite wrong, actually. Health and freedom are not arbitrary and need not be assigned to anything. We are hard-wired to suffer by excessive constraint, physical pain, the loss of loved ones, and so forth. That's just reality. And science can show that this is the norm for our species, not just for one group or one race.

We are hard-wired to do, think and feel all sorts of things. Some good, some bad. We are hard-wired to love, hug, rape and commit genocide.

The idea that what we are hard-wired to think is good is good is just one more example of the naturalistic fallacy.


Science can also show the very real benefits of human contact, healthy intimate relationships, enjoyment of music, fulfilling sex, and other pleasures.

I think we managed to figure those out long before science came along actually. ;)

Kevin_Lowe
10th October 2010, 09:28 PM
Anybody can use a reality-divorced sort of abstract on-paper philosophizing to argue any position at all. But what use is it?

Of course the avoidance of suffering is not an arbitrary value. Look around you. Look at yourself. People don't like suffering.

Congratulations, you're a hedonistic utilitarian... for the moment anyway. Since you keep espousing mutually contradictory moral theories I can't say what you will be in your next post.


Life's too short to have to waste time defending the obvious, or arguing with folks who willfully ignore it in favor of bickering over angels on pinheads.

For better or for worse, not everyone is convinced that hedonistic utilitarianism is the one true moral theory validated by science. It may appear obvious to you that you are right, but then again it appears obvious to the Taliban that they are right too. That alone proves nothing.

Ron_Tomkins
10th October 2010, 09:38 PM
I haven't seen the video until the end cause it's late and I gotta get up early, but I liked the fact that he started the speech by showing three pictures: a picture of rocks, a picture of an ant and a picture of a monkey; because even though he never actually said this, that is exactly at the core of the moral issue: Empathy. From left to right, you have a consistently increasing line of empathy: We tend to feel more empathy towards bugs than rocks, but more empathy towards mammals than bugs.

Our moral codes are rooted in our genetic structure. The whole history of our ancestors lies in such genetic code, where our deepest, most basic emotional responses are hidden. We have a preference towards the species that are closer to us and this is why you see vegetarians who said they stopped eating meat after seeing pigs getting tortured, but they have no problem making an exception with the occasional shrimp cocktail. Our moral codes are created by us, they concern us and thus, they do not represent anything outside our culture. A human moral code would be significantly different from a martian moral code.... but also, very different from a monkey moral code (Planet of the Apes is all about that principle).

I don't think Sam Harris is saying that science is here to say what's right and what's wrong, but rather that science is here to tell us why we choose certain things as right and certain things as wrong. Science is here to describe how our brain is wired to make us create certain moral codes (And may I remind you, there are thousands of moral codes only within the human species... each one of them contradicting the other one in more than a couple pointers)

Ivor the Engineer
11th October 2010, 01:39 AM
Science could be used to determine the intrinsic goods that most or all people value.

Science could be used to determine the influence genetics has on the things we select as intrinsic goods and the value we place on them.

Science could be used to estimate the costs and benefits of various courses of action and be used to select which are likely to be in closest alignment with our values.

Science can answer the 'ought...if' question.

Kevin_Lowe
11th October 2010, 02:06 AM
Science could be used to determine the intrinsic goods that most or all people value.

Tick! Well done.


Science could be used to determine the influence genetics has on the things we select as intrinsic goods and the value we place on them.

Tick! Going strong.


Science could be used to estimate the costs and benefits of various courses of action and be used to select which are likely to be in closest alignment with our values.

Tick! You are really doing well.


Science can answer the 'ought...if' question.

Oops, oh well. Three out of four ain't bad.

Ivor the Engineer
11th October 2010, 04:48 AM
<snip>

Oops, oh well. Three out of four ain't bad.

I haven't made myself clear. By 'ought...if' I meant that science can tell us what we ought to do if we want to achieve a particular outcome or not violate pre-conditions.

But maybe I've got the wrong end of the stick. Is Mr. Harris claiming science can discover absolute moral principles?

Kevin_Lowe
11th October 2010, 05:16 AM
I haven't made myself clear. By 'ought...if' I meant that science can tell us what we ought to do if we want to achieve a particular outcome or not violate pre-conditions.

But maybe I've got the wrong end of the stick. Is Mr. Harris claiming science can discover absolute moral principles?

(Aha! I thought you had mistyped "ought... is").

That was indeed his claim, that he'd found a watertight way to get from "is" statements to "ought" statements without needing to make any value judgments.

Paulhoff
11th October 2010, 05:50 AM
So, you think humans are so unpredictable that there can never be a theory to explain morals and how they work.

Paul

:) :) :)

fls
11th October 2010, 11:11 AM
Now we are going around in circles.

He makes these (philosophically ridiculous) claims right at the start of his talk.

Then he completely fails to back them up and spends the rest of his time talking about the trivially true fact that science can discern facts which we can use with our value judgments to make informed moral choices.

I'm sorry. I think I am understanding Harris differently than you. He seems to be saying that 'ought' questions are not independent of context, such that they depend upon (or are at least informed by) an understanding of what 'is'. Rather than the trivial observation that facts can act with values, he is pointing out that values are not independent of facts to begin with (not 'facts' as in 'discovered truths about the universe', but 'facts' as in 'a description of the space these values inhabit').

Anyway, it is clear that different ways of interpreting what Harris is trying to say can make his ideas nonsensical or reasonable. I'm not trying to get in your way. :)

Linda

fls
11th October 2010, 11:23 AM
I think that's quite wrong, actually. Health and freedom are not arbitrary and need not be assigned to anything. We are hard-wired to suffer by excessive constraint, physical pain, the loss of loved ones, and so forth. That's just reality. And science can show that this is the norm for our species, not just for one group or one race.

Science can also show the very real benefits of human contact, healthy intimate relationships, enjoyment of music, fulfilling sex, and other pleasures.

My statement didn't deny any of what you've just said. Rather than asking whether science can show us that we suffer or are fulfilled, the question becomes (if we want to pretend that we ever apply the ought/is question when we aren't suffering from moral relativism :)), on what basis can human health (suffering and fulfillment) warrant a scientific approach?

Linda

Kevin_Lowe
11th October 2010, 02:06 PM
I'm sorry. I think I am understanding Harris differently than you. He seems to be saying that 'ought' questions are not independent of context, such that they depend upon (or are at least informed by) an understanding of what 'is'.

To me this is stating the obvious. If Harris thinks this is news to anyone I think he must have slept through most of his philosophy classes.


Rather than the trivial observation that facts can act with values, he is pointing out that values are not independent of facts to begin with (not 'facts' as in 'discovered truths about the universe', but 'facts' as in 'a description of the space these values inhabit').

I'm not clear what you intend to convey by "a description of the space these values inhabit", but the sense of the word "fact" used in the fact/value distinction in perfectly well understood in philosophy, so if he's trying to solve the problem by covertly redefining "fact" then he's not really solving the problem.


Anyway, it is clear that different ways of interpreting what Harris is trying to say can make his ideas nonsensical or reasonable. I'm not trying to get in your way. :)

As I said, the meaning of the terms he uses are perfectly well defined in the field of philosophy, which Harris has a degree in. If he's using them to mean something idiosyncratic that's about as daft as a physicist making up their own meaning for words like "energy" or "electron".

fls
11th October 2010, 02:45 PM
To me this is stating the obvious. If Harris thinks this is news to anyone I think he must have slept through most of his philosophy classes.

Then I'm surprised he is getting flak over this.

I'm not clear what you intend to convey by "a description of the space these values inhabit"

Just avoiding equivocation. :)

Stuff like 'conscious beings', 'humans', 'habitable environment', etc.

but the sense of the word "fact" used in the fact/value distinction in perfectly well understood in philosophy, so if he's trying to solve the problem by covertly redefining "fact" then he's not really solving the problem.

As I said, the meaning of the terms he uses are perfectly well defined in the field of philosophy, which Harris has a degree in. If he's using them to mean something idiosyncratic that's about as daft as a physicist making up their own meaning for words like "energy" or "electron".

I didn't see him using them in any way that wasn't ordinary. In fact, his argument (AFAICT) seems to depend upon their usual meaning.

Linda

Dr. Trintignant
11th October 2010, 03:34 PM
He tries to smuggle utilitarianism (defined one more time for you, the moral theory that good actions are those which maximise desirable consequences for all involved) in as a fact

Another point that straddles the line between trivially obvious and the completely wrong.

Every moral system can be reduced to a form of utilitarianism. It goes something like this:
1) List all possible actions available to an individual.
2) Simulate the universe as it would behave if each of those actions were performed.
3) Apply a moral fitness function to each simulated outcome.
4) Perform the action which maximizes the value of the fitness function.

Utilitarianism, Kantianism, Christianity, Objectivism, Nihilism, "Harrisism", or whatever all fit in this framework.

The differences, of course, all arise in the construction of the fitness function, and you dismiss the differences between Mill and Harris as trivial even though they are not as obviously similar as any other two moral philosophies.

- Dr. Trintignant

Piggy
11th October 2010, 04:49 PM
I accept that moral stance but have no idea what it has to do with Sam Harris' contentions. He seemingly wants to scientifically determine all morals, despite not justifying his morals in the first place. Why should we accept his determinations anymore than an Imam's or Christian's?

Why don't you subscribe to "avoidance of suffering" is an axiom thus supporting Jesus Christ? Just how many "avoidance of suffering"-based morally-certain paradigms have you believed in prior to Sam Harris?

Since he explicitly denies that science can answer all moral questions, your first claim is incorrect.

The reason I agree with Harris has nothing to do with accepting proclamations, and everything to do with the fact that it makes perfect sense that science -- our best means of investigating reality -- can inform our moral choices, because it is impossible to argue that any choice is improved by being less informed about reality.

I have no idea why you're talking about Jesus.

But prior to Harris I have understood exactly one fundamental proposition about the importance of avoiding suffering when it comes to moral decisions, and it's the same one I'm discussing here. The one which, to put it bluntly, is rather foolish to deny.

Piggy
11th October 2010, 04:50 PM
As I have already explained, every moral philosophy (including yours and Harris') absolutely requires one or more things, be they acts, outcomes, virtues or something else entirely, to be judged as good in and of themselves. For no other reason than that you think they are good, and not because they are instrumental in bringing about some other good.

Philobabble.

The biological approach does not require any such judgment, because it does not truck in useless Platonic abstractions.

Piggy
11th October 2010, 04:53 PM
Here's an exercise for you. Specify exactly why you think it is morally good to ameliorate suffering. Is it good in and of itself, or is it solely good because it brings about some other good?

Have you stopped beating your wife?

Suffering is bad because in the real world people don't like to suffer.

If you really have a problem wrapping your mind aaround that, then I recommend pulling your nose out of the philosophy book and taking a long walk around town.

Piggy
11th October 2010, 04:55 PM
Careful now - you need to read and respond to exactly what I say. Sloppiness makes good philosophy impossible. I said it might be impractical for everyday problems. That is not at all the same thing as being useless.

Yeah, I heard you the first time, and yeah, if it's impractical for everyday problems, then for all intents and purposes, it's useless.

It's like saying, "This is a wonderful house, the only problem is, you can't actually live in it."

Piggy
11th October 2010, 04:58 PM
We are hard-wired to do, think and feel all sorts of things. Some good, some bad. We are hard-wired to love, hug, rape and commit genocide.

Now you're starting to catch on!

And how do you know these things?

Hint: Two syllables, starts with s, ends in e.

Now, are you going to tell me that knowing those things has no impact on your moral decisions?

If so, then you are engaging in reality-free thinking.

Piggy
11th October 2010, 04:59 PM
I think we managed to figure those out long before science came along actually.

You believe the health benefits of music were confirmed before modern science?

Hm.

Kevin_Lowe
11th October 2010, 05:00 PM
Have you stopped beating your wife?

Suffering is bad because in the real world people don't like to suffer.

Why should I care about what other people like? The mere fact that they dislike it is meaningless, unless you also make some kind of value judgment to the effect that it is morally better not to make other people suffer.


If you really have a problem wrapping your mind aaround that, then I recommend pulling your nose out of the philosophy book and taking a long walk around town.

It would be nice if it was that simple, just as it would be nice if we could all prove God's existence for ourselves just by going for a walk and thinking about how amazing the world is.

Piggy
11th October 2010, 05:01 PM
Congratulations, you're a hedonistic utilitarian... for the moment anyway. Since you keep espousing mutually contradictory moral theories I can't say what you will be in your next post.

My moral theories are entirely consistent. If they don't happen to fit nicely into your ism boxes, well, that's not my problem.

Piggy
11th October 2010, 05:03 PM
It may appear obvious to you that you are right, but then again it appears obvious to the Taliban that they are right too. That alone proves nothing.

Nor am I arguing that it proves anything.

The Taliban base their morals on a combination of ancient scripture and a desire for absolute political power.

I base mine on the only method of inquiry and analysis proven to consistently work.

Kevin_Lowe
11th October 2010, 05:04 PM
Another point that straddles the line between trivially obvious and the completely wrong.

Every moral system can be reduced to a form of utilitarianism. It goes something like this:
1) List all possible actions available to an individual.
2) Simulate the universe as it would behave if each of those actions were performed.
3) Apply a moral fitness function to each simulated outcome.
4) Perform the action which maximizes the value of the fitness function.

Utilitarianism, Kantianism, Christianity, Objectivism, Nihilism, "Harrisism", or whatever all fit in this framework.

Kant was very explicit that you should absolutely ignore outcomes, and focus only on acts. If "moral" acts lead to a completely undesirable outcome, as far as he was concerned that was just tough cookies.

Jesus was pretty clear that you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you (which probably made him a fun guy at singles bars), which excludes all sorts of things like killing people in a just cause which can in theory lead to good outcomes.

Nihilism by definition rejects the very idea of a moral fitness function.

In other words, most of what you are saying is totally wrong.

Piggy
11th October 2010, 05:05 PM
My statement didn't deny any of what you've just said. Rather than asking whether science can show us that we suffer or are fulfilled, the question becomes (if we want to pretend that we ever apply the ought/is question when we aren't suffering from moral relativism :)), on what basis can human health (suffering and fulfillment) warrant a scientific approach?

Linda

Thank you for the clarification.

Kevin_Lowe
11th October 2010, 05:06 PM
My moral theories are entirely consistent. If they don't happen to fit nicely into your ism boxes, well, that's not my problem.

"I say two plus two is five, and my maths are entirely consistent. It's not my problem if you want to pigeonhole me with your fascist definitions of two, five, plus and equals".

Piggy
11th October 2010, 05:06 PM
Why should I care about what other people like? The mere fact that they dislike it is meaningless, unless you also make some kind of value judgment to the effect that it is morally better not to make other people suffer.

It is impossible to have rational discussions with people who insist on making Black Knight arguments. All you can do is ride on.

Piggy
11th October 2010, 05:08 PM
"I say two plus two is five, and my maths are entirely consistent. It's not my problem if you want to pigeonhole me with your fascist definitions of two, five, plus and equals".

Funny that, from the Platonist.

The sensible man picks up two rocks, then another two rocks, and sees that he now holds four.

Then he moves on to other matters.

Dani
11th October 2010, 05:21 PM
This one's for Piggy:

How can science answer questions when two or more options lead to different situations that can provide the same amount of happiness to the individual?

Piggy
11th October 2010, 05:30 PM
This one's for Piggy:

How can science answer questions when two or more options lead to different situations that can provide the same amount of happiness to the individual?

Well, as I said in the "objective morality" thread, and as Harris has also said in his talk, science cannot answer all the questions.

Just because we can use science (especially biology) as an objective basis for morality doesn't mean that reality is obliged to hand us answerable questions every time.

There's absolutely no reason why we can't be confronted by cases in which conflicting claims are evenly balanced.

Dani
11th October 2010, 05:41 PM
Well, as I said in the "objective morality" thread, and as Harris has also said in his talk, science cannot answer all the questions.

Just because we can use science (especially biology) as an objective basis for morality doesn't mean that reality is obliged to hand us answerable questions every time.

There's absolutely no reason why we can't be confronted by cases in which conflicting claims are evenly balanced.

I agree. And there's where we make a moral decision. Morals assume values, and values aren't facts. Values can be based in facts (biological) but are experienced as conscious decisions about our behavior, not as conscious decisions about what's true.

Kevin_Lowe
11th October 2010, 05:48 PM
It is impossible to have rational discussions with people who insist on making Black Knight arguments. All you can do is ride on.

Ride on, sir.

Just out of curiousity, are there any other fields besides ethics and logic which you feel you are an expert in on the basis of "I went for a walk! Duh, it's obvious!"? Or did your walk only make you the world's foremost authority on those two topics?

Dr. Trintignant
11th October 2010, 05:48 PM
Kant was very explicit that you should absolutely ignore outcomes, and focus only on acts. If "moral" acts lead to a completely undesirable outcome, as far as he was concerned that was just tough cookies.

Acts still leave their residue on the universe, not just in the outcome of a particular moral concern but also by memories, recordings, etc. A moral fitness function can easily take this into account.

Jesus was pretty clear that you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you (which probably made him a fun guy at singles bars), which excludes all sorts of things like killing people in a just cause which can in theory lead to good outcomes.

Again, acts leave a trace. One might argue that the principle of a matter is more important in the long run than a particular individual's death, say. It is not difficult to create a fitness function that incorporates this concept.

Nihilism by definition rejects the very idea of a moral fitness function.

Equivalently, it says that the fitness function is very simple--it returns the same value for any action.

In other words, most of what you are saying is totally wrong.

Try again.

- Dr. Trintignant

Piggy
11th October 2010, 05:50 PM
I agree. And there's where we make a moral decision. Morals assume values, and values aren't facts. Values can be based in facts (biological) but are experienced as conscious decisions about our behavior, not as conscious decisions about what's true.

But then the question becomes: Where do we get the values?

And if we posit external sources for those values, there's another question lurking there: Why do we choose those sources?

Values are facts, after all, you see.

And there are facts underlying all our values, whether we go with our guts, or choose to cite scripture, or anything else.

Piggy
11th October 2010, 05:52 PM
Ride on, sir.

Just out of curiousity, are there any other fields besides ethics and logic which you feel you are an expert in on the basis of "I went for a walk! Duh, it's obvious!"? Or did your walk only make you the world's foremost authority on those two topics?

I was merely recommending that you get some air. And that you make some sort of attempt to base your assertions at least in part on actual observation of the real world and real people, rather than abstract systems of logic which have little bearing on actual people and how they behave and how their brains operate.

You know Charles Darwin made a few interesting contributions to our understanding of the world and ourselves based on his rambles in the countryside.

Dani
11th October 2010, 06:06 PM
But then the question becomes: Where do we get the values?

And if we posit external sources for those values, there's another question lurking there: Why do we choose those sources?

Values are facts, after all, you see.

And there are facts underlying all our values, whether we go with our guts, or choose to cite scripture, or anything else.

I don't follow you. What do you mean by "posit external sources for those values"?

Values are facts as thoughts, as processes that occur in our brains, not as concepts that have a correspondence with the reality. "More social equality is desirable" is not a fact from the world, but a moral thought. Yes, it's a fact because it's happening in my brain, but Superman also happens in my brain and doesn't have a correspondence with reality.

Kevin_Lowe
11th October 2010, 06:35 PM
Acts still leave their residue on the universe, not just in the outcome of a particular moral concern but also by memories, recordings, etc. A moral fitness function can easily take this into account.

You're still getting Kant completely wrong. He just does not care about outcomes, full stop. He does not care what residue acts leave on the universe.

He doesn't even care if his good acts themselves cause more or fewer good acts by others in the future. "Do good, though the heavens fall" is Kant's theory.


Again, acts leave a trace. One might argue that the principle of a matter is more important in the long run than a particular individual's death, say. It is not difficult to create a fitness function that incorporates this concept.

Again you are trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole, and handwaving away the important bits that you have sheared off. Jesus definitely never said "Kill a few dudes if you have to, if it's a good cause". He wasn't a utilitarian in any meaningful sense, he was a kind of radical communist deontologist.


Equivalently, it says that the fitness function is very simple--it returns the same value for any action.

That is not at all the same thing. Zero is not the same thing as "that was a stupid question". A nihilist would say that there is no such thing as a moral fitness function, not that all outcomes are morally equal, because to a nihilist there is no such thing as "morally equal". To them you might as well be asserting that all colourless green dreams sleep equally furiously.


Try again.

- Dr. Trintignant

I don't think I need to - the violence you are doing to both utilitarianism and every other theory you try to shoehorn into it is still fairly extreme.

Kant, Jesus and nihilists simply aren't maximalist, universalist utility-maximisers however you define utility as far as I can see. Their moral theories are different enough that trying to redefine them all as subtypes of a particular kind of consequentialism is actively counterproductive to understanding or applying them.

Piggy
11th October 2010, 06:56 PM
I don't follow you. What do you mean by "posit external sources for those values"?

Well, for example, fundamentalists posit their scriptures as external sources for their values. They see their values as coming not from themselves, but from divine revelation.

Values are facts as thoughts, as processes that occur in our brains, not as concepts that have a correspondence with the reality. "More social equality is desirable" is not a fact from the world, but a moral thought. Yes, it's a fact because it's happening in my brain, but Superman also happens in my brain and doesn't have a correspondence with reality.

Well, like Superman, values don't need to have a correspondence with reality.

But the scientific/biological approach begins with values-as-facts in themselves.

Here are our values, in all their strange variety.

Now, how do we make a moral choice between, say, the Taliban's custom of essentially treating women as men's property, on the one hand, and the modern Western approach of recognizing women as having equal (if not identical) rights with men?

Well, the Taliban point to their book to argue that their judgments are correct.

A bio-sci approach looks to science to determine that the brains of women and men are not different in any way that should make women suffer less from confinement, restriction, and being treated like property, much less being subject to punishments such as having their noses, eyes, and lips cut off for failing to conform to such treatment.

Are these two ways of viewing the question equally valid? Are they "arbitrary"?

No, and no.

They are not equally valid because scripture can say anything at all, and has a track record of being demonstrably wrong on all sorts of verifiable points, whereas science has demonstrably led to concrete advancements of knowledge and understanding of our world.

They are not arbitrary for the same reason.

So science cuts through both Gordian knots.

Moreover, science can help us understand why people do cling to scripture in the face of contrary evidence.

But it doesn't stop there.

Science helps us decide how to handle the situation in which these values clash. Just because science offers us an objective basis for our moral decisions, it does not follow from there that we can simply ignore the opinions of religious fundamentalists.

No, we must take them into account because they are a reality, and so we can use science to help us understand how to properly address a situation like religious persecution without inadvertently making the situation worse by being heavy-handed about it and simply ignoring human nature.

At every turn, science can inform our decisions and actions: the is, the ought, and the should.

Kevin_Lowe
11th October 2010, 08:11 PM
A bio-sci approach looks to science to determine that the brains of women and men are not different in any way that should make women suffer less from confinement, restriction, and being treated like property, much less being subject to punishments such as having their noses, eyes, and lips cut off for failing to conform to such treatment.

Again I ask you, so what? So what if they do not suffer less?

It only matters that they suffer if you have made a prior value judgment that other people's suffering matters, or that justice is good. Those are not scientific facts.

Even if you found some wiring in the brain that made us think these things are good, that would still be utterly irrelevant to the question of whether we should think them to be good. Just as finding wiring that made people think slavery was good would not morally validate slavery, finding wiring that makes people think utilitarianism is good would not morally validate utilitarianism.

Really, the very idea is laughable. Unless you believe in some flavour of Intelligent Design, you have to acknowledge that our brains evolved to maximise our reproductive success, not to uphold universal moral truths, and that maximising our reproductive success is not all there is to morality.


Are these two ways of viewing the question equally valid? Are they "arbitrary"?

No, and no.

They are not equally valid because scripture can say anything at all, and has a track record of being demonstrably wrong on all sorts of verifiable points, whereas science has demonstrably led to concrete advancements of knowledge and understanding of our world.

They are not both equally valid as arbiters of fact. Science does not claim to be an arbiter when it comes to value judgments, however, and people like you and Harris who try to elevate it to the status of a moral oracle both misunderstand it and do it a disservice.

Piggy
11th October 2010, 08:31 PM
Again I ask you, so what? So what if they do not suffer less?

It only matters that they suffer if you have made a prior value judgment that other people's suffering matters, or that justice is good. Those are not scientific facts.

Kevin, if you simply decide to ignore reality and live in your little abstract Platonic bubble, I suppose you can pretend that it doesn't matter at all.

The trouble is, nobody really lives there. It's just a fantasy.

I deal with the actual reality I live in.

Piggy
11th October 2010, 08:36 PM
They are not both equally valid as arbiters of fact. Science does not claim to be an arbiter when it comes to value judgments, however, and people like you and Harris who try to elevate it to the status of a moral oracle both misunderstand it and do it a disservice.

That's begging the question, my friend.

In any case, the question is not whether "science claims to be an arbiter of value judgments" -- as if science could claim anything, but that's for another thread -- but rather, whether or not science can or cannot inform our moral decisions.

Harris (and Pinker) proposes that science has just as much value to us in deciding moral questions as it does in deciding questions such as where to route a railroad. And he's right.

It would make no sense to argue that science is irrelevant to the question of where to put a railroad on the grounds that "science does not claim to be an arbiter when it comes to transportation".

Skeptic Ginger
11th October 2010, 09:01 PM
Science can answer the 'ought...if' question.
Oops, oh well. Three out of four ain't bad.This is the standard answer. I see Harris as thinking outside the box and I have agreed with Harris' premise for many years.

Try looking at the problem a different way.

Most agree science can describe the process of morality. The issue arises when people throw out the usual, science cannot tell you who to love or what is moral, yadda yadda. But everything we use the scientific process for is not simply asking and answering questions. Defining and describing the Universe is a huge part of the function of science.

If I explore the evolution of morality using the scientific process. And I find how the morality function of the brain works, how it evolved, how it is expressed in non-human primates and other non-human animals, how children decide moral questions based on their nature and I tease out what was nurture, and how brains vary in moral reasoning (like we vary in intelligence) vs what defects and and how do they result in an abnormal brain expressing abnormal moral behavior, ... at some point I can develop a very good idea of what the range of human morality is, what the range of abnormal or dysfunctional morality is, and so on. Like it or not this is the 'ought' you seem to think is beyond science.

It takes a paradigm shift. I've gone with the shift and though I've not read Harris' book, and only heard him briefly describe it, I believe Harris has also made the same paradigm shift. One has to stop seeing science as limited in which questions it can and cannot answer. But more importantly one needs to quit viewing certain aspects of the brain as being in some magical realm, outside the observable/detectable Universe.

Can science tell you what is and is not normal intelligence? You have to choose some criteria you are going to define intelligence by. Can science then tell you what is and is not normal morality? Of course it can. Is the fact there is a range of morality that still falls within the range of normal mean one canot view morality using the scientific process? No. These are biological processes within biological brains. There's no magic pixie dust that is sprinkled in the eyes of newborns instilling in them their moral guidance. Nature and nurture, no big mystery here.

Democracy Simulator
11th October 2010, 09:09 PM
Now, how do we make a moral choice between, say, the Taliban's custom of essentially treating women as men's property, on the one hand, and the modern Western approach of recognizing women as having equal (if not identical) rights with men?

Well, the Taliban point to their book to argue that their judgments are correct.

A bio-sci approach looks to science to determine that the brains of women and men are not different in any way that should make women suffer less from confinement, restriction, and being treated like property, much less being subject to punishments such as having their noses, eyes, and lips cut off for failing to conform to such treatment.




The actual 'hidden' value here is Egalitarianism, which is behind the 'Western Approach' you referred to. Egalitarianism is the value that everyone should be treated equally under law, regardless of physical/social/cultural/religious differences. Therefore, bio-sci has nothing to say about whether Egalitarianism is valid or arbitrary, or right or wrong.

You put forward the argument that women should have the same rights as men because they have the same capacity to suffer as men, which we know because of the facts of bio-science. Behind this argument lies the implicit value that if women did not have the same capacity to suffer as men, they should not have the same rights as men.

So the question I would put to you is how does bio-sci (or any science for that matter) help us decide between Egalitarianism and the approach that you put forward that people should be granted rights according to their capacity to suffer?

Piggy
11th October 2010, 09:11 PM
@Skeptic Ginger: I don't know that this is Kevin's fundamental problem. Rather, Kevin seems to be wedded to this notion that the process of deciding moral questions must necessarily involve, as a first step, the defining of certain abstract Platonic ideals such as "intrinsic good".

He doesn't appear to be able to even consider a method of approaching morality that is entirely grounded in observable reality and which, therefore, simply dispenses with such purely idealistic notions.

I doubt he will even be able to consider your argument until and unless he kicks off those training wheels, which he appears to have no intention of dispensing with anytime soon.

Piggy
11th October 2010, 09:26 PM
The actual 'hidden' value here is Egalitarianism, which is behind the 'Western Approach' you referred to. Egalitarianism is the value that everyone should be treated equally under law, regardless of physical/social/cultural/religious differences. Therefore, bio-sci has nothing to say about whether Egalitarianism is valid or arbitrary, or right or wrong.

You put forward the argument that women should have the same rights as men because they have the same capacity to suffer as men, which we know because of the facts of bio-science. Behind this argument lies the implicit value that if women did not have the same capacity to suffer as men, they should not have the same rights as men.

So the question I would put to you is how does bio-sci (or any science for that matter) help us decide between Egalitarianism and the approach that you put forward that people should be granted rights according to their capacity to suffer?

The first step will be to forget the schools and the isms altogether. Then you don't have any choice to make between "Egalitarianism" and any other ism and you can just move on.

Once you do that, then your moral choice will either be informed by science -- which is our best method for determining objective reality -- or it won't.

But in fact, the bio-sci approach does not require that we assess each individual person's capacity for suffering in order to "assign rights".

Which is not to say that it's totally irrelevant.

For instance, a bio-sci approach sides with Terry Schiavo's husband and not her parents because science clearly shows that she has no conscious experience, and that the concept of a "soul" inhabiting her body is nonsense; therefore, she's not being harmed by being taking off of life support.

But that's a rare case. For the most part, we have to come up with general rules that apply to all of us, just because it's manageable.

Anyway, if it were true that women did, in fact, enjoy being subjugated to men and being physically punished for resisting this subjugation, then sure, making them second-class citizens would be fine.

And in fact, there are actual sex differences that may have a real impact on our moral decisions.

For instance, there's good reason to believe that some types of sexual molestation are much more traumatic to girls than to boys. Which means that there's a legitimate argument for unequal punishment.

But that has to be weighed against the reality of social norms which may make such discriminations impractical.

More to the point, there's the case of animal cruelty.

If we eventually crack the problem of how the brain creates consciousness, and we discover, for instance, that dogs have the same sort of capacity for suffering that humans do, but that crickets are no more self-aware than rocks are, then we're justified in prohibiting cruelty to dogs but allowing people to use crickets as fish bait.

Kevin_Lowe
11th October 2010, 09:28 PM
That's begging the question, my friend.

In any case, the question is not whether "science claims to be an arbiter of value judgments" -- as if science could claim anything, but that's for another thread -- but rather, whether or not science can or cannot inform our moral decisions.

I am very tired of you trying to pass this straw man off on us. It is dishonest of you, and it is boring.

Nobody in this thread has ever once argued that science cannot inform moral decisions. Not once. Next time you start to think about posting otherwise kindly refrain.

Kevin, if you simply decide to ignore reality and live in your little abstract Platonic bubble, I suppose you can pretend that it doesn't matter at all.

The trouble is, nobody really lives there. It's just a fantasy.

I deal with the actual reality I live in.

You do no such thing: You merely attempt to pass off your unscientific value judgments as the product of science, because you like the sound of it.

You don't understand that this is simply a category error on your part.


This is the standard answer. I see Harris as thinking outside the box and I have agreed with Harris' premise for many years.

Try looking at the problem a different way.

I don't see him as thinking outside the box at all, he's just making a very old philosophical error which has been made probably millions of times before. It's not new, clever or notably original.


Most agree science can describe the process of morality. The issue arises when people throw out the usual, science cannot tell you who to love or what is moral, yadda yadda. But everything we use the scientific process for is not simply asking and answering questions. Defining and describing the Universe is a huge part of the function of science.

If I explore the evolution of morality using the scientific process. And I find how the morality function of the brain works, how it evolved, how it is expressed in non-human primates and other non-human animals, how children decide moral questions based on their nature and I tease out what was nurture, and how brains vary in moral reasoning (like we vary in intelligence) vs what defects and and how do they result in an abnormal brain expressing abnormal moral behavior, ... at some point I can develop a very good idea of what the range of human morality is, what the range of abnormal or dysfunctional morality is, and so on. Like it or not this is the 'ought' you seem to think is beyond science.

No it isn't.

"Piggy holds utilitarianism to be true" is a factual claim science can address.

"Utilitarianism is a sound basis for moral claims" is a value judgment science cannot address.


It takes a paradigm shift. I've gone with the shift and though I've not read Harris' book, and only heard him briefly describe it, I believe Harris has also made the same paradigm shift. One has to stop seeing science as limited in which questions it can and cannot answer. But more importantly one needs to quit viewing certain aspects of the brain as being in some magical realm, outside the observable/detectable Universe.

Can science tell you what is and is not normal intelligence? You have to choose some criteria you are going to define intelligence by. Can science then tell you what is and is not normal morality? Of course it can. Is the fact there is a range of morality that still falls within the range of normal mean one canot view morality using the scientific process? No. These are biological processes within biological brains. There's no magic pixie dust that is sprinkled in the eyes of newborns instilling in them their moral guidance. Nature and nurture, no big mystery here.

This is not a paradigm shift, it's the same boring wallowing in the naturalistic fallacy. Just because something is normal or natural does not entail that it is moral.


@Skeptic Ginger: I don't know that this is Kevin's fundamental problem. Rather, Kevin seems to be wedded to this notion that the process of deciding moral questions must necessarily involve, as a first step, the defining of certain abstract Platonic ideals such as "intrinsic good".

He doesn't appear to be able to even consider a method of approaching morality that is entirely grounded in observable reality and which, therefore, simply dispenses with such purely idealistic notions.

I doubt he will even be able to consider your argument until and unless he kicks off those training wheels, which he appears to have no intention of dispensing with anytime soon.

This is quite amusing: A mind stuck in the philosophical 16th century, proudly proclaiming that centuries of thought and progress are "training wheels" which it has cast aside to return to primitive stupidity. While lying about my position, since he knows I've never said anything about Platonic ideals.

Didn't you find any ethical rules about honest debate on your walk? A pity.

Piggy
11th October 2010, 09:35 PM
I am very tired of you trying to pass this straw man off on us. It is dishonest of you, and it is boring.

Nobody in this thread has ever once argued that science cannot inform moral decisions. Not once. Next time you start to think about posting otherwise kindly refrain.

Oh, don't play dumb.

You know darn well what I'm talking about, because I've explained it at length.

I'm on record as saying that science can inform, in a game-changing way, not just the facts in evidence, but also the "ought" as it's being called. I'm not trying to hide the fact that this is what I'm discussing.

I'm not about to go through the effort to spell that out every time. If you don't know what I mean by now, it's your fault, because you darn well should.

Piggy
11th October 2010, 09:36 PM
You don't understand that this is simply a category error on your part.

Say hello to Plato for me.

Piggy
11th October 2010, 09:44 PM
This is quite amusing: A mind stuck in the philosophical 16th century, proudly proclaiming that centuries of thought and progress are "training wheels" which it has cast aside to return to primitive stupidity. While lying about my position, since he knows I've never said anything about Platonic ideals.

Are you kidding? You're entirely fixated on Platonic ideals. What do you think your abstract "intrinsic good" is?

And there's no way you can seriously argue that I'm advocating any kind of naive or intuitive approach.

I mean really, I tell you to get your nose out of the book and take a walk, and you interpret that to mean that I think we can understand the world by naive impressions, despite the fact that I'm obviously arguing for making our decisions based on scientific inquiry? Despite the fact that I've already told you what I meant by that?

This is getting ridiculous.

Democracy Simulator
11th October 2010, 09:56 PM
This is the standard answer. I see Harris as thinking outside the box and I have agreed with Harris' premise for many years.

Try looking at the problem a different way.

Most agree science can describe the process of morality. The issue arises when people throw out the usual, science cannot tell you who to love or what is moral, yadda yadda. But everything we use the scientific process for is not simply asking and answering questions. Defining and describing the Universe is a huge part of the function of science.

If I explore the evolution of morality using the scientific process. And I find how the morality function of the brain works, how it evolved, how it is expressed in non-human primates and other non-human animals, how children decide moral questions based on their nature and I tease out what was nurture, and how brains vary in moral reasoning (like we vary in intelligence) vs what defects and and how do they result in an abnormal brain expressing abnormal moral behavior, ... at some point I can develop a very good idea of what the range of human morality is, what the range of abnormal or dysfunctional morality is, and so on. Like it or not this is the 'ought' you seem to think is beyond science.

I

No it is not, your simple assertion ('like it or not') will not do. Science can answer positive questions about what is. It cannot by itself answer normative questions about how things ought to be. Like it or not, ought refers to 'what should be' and not 'what is'. If you can demonstrate how we derive what 'ought to be' from 'what is', without at some point expressing a moral value that is not decidable scientifically, then congratulations you've solved a puzzle of Philosophy that has stood the test of time from Hume onwards. Please proceed.

Dr. Trintignant
11th October 2010, 10:13 PM
You're still getting Kant completely wrong. He just does not care about outcomes, full stop. He does not care what residue acts leave on the universe.

What is an act if it leaves no outcome at all? In the universe we actually live in, all acts leave a residue, since information cannot be destroyed.

Kant is free to say that only acts count, but the only sensible interpretation of this is that he was focused on the direct, immediate outcomes of the act in question. If one holds the maxim "thou shalt not kill", then in a Kantian system one must never kill, even if the ultimate outcome is that many more people died (you failed to stop a mass murderer, or whatever). Violating this maxim has the direct result of a person dying.

I do not know Kant's position on action vs. intent, but it doesn't work as a loophole in any case. Supposing one tried to kill another and failed, it still leaves memories of the act on those involved. A philosophy in which intent was primary would still have a fitness function.

Jesus definitely never said "Kill a few dudes if you have to, if it's a good cause". He wasn't a utilitarian in any meaningful sense, he was a kind of radical communist deontologist.

Who said that our moral fitness function must in any way resemble what's "good"? We already knew that pure Utilitarianism has some consequences that some might deem bad. Jesus's moral fitness function was based on adherence to his moral code.

A nihilist would say that there is no such thing as a moral fitness function, not that all outcomes are morally equal, because to a nihilist there is no such thing as "morally equal".

The two are still functionally equivalent--assuming equal tie-breaking functions, a "true" Nihilist and a "nil-Utilitarian" are indistinguishable from their actions. I would posit that two things are the same if they are indistinguishable in every way (yeah, some philosophers disagree with even that).

Their moral theories are different enough that trying to redefine them all as subtypes of a particular kind of consequentialism is actively counterproductive to understanding or applying them.

Which is actually the point of the exercise. I don't think you know enough about Harris's philosophy (Harris may not know enough about it) to say whether defining it as simply a form of Utilitarianism is valid. What Harris means by "human flourishing" could be quite sophisticated and include factors which are not simply equivalent to global happiness. For instance, to avoid getting stuck in local minima, one might want a factor for "diversity in moral thought". This necessarily means that a global maxima cannot be reached and thus is not simple Utilitarianism.

- Dr. Trintignant

Democracy Simulator
11th October 2010, 10:27 PM
For instance, a bio-sci approach sides with Terry Schiavo's husband and not her parents because science clearly shows that she has no conscious experience, and that the concept of a "soul" inhabiting her body is nonsense; therefore, she's not being harmed by being taking off of life support.



It would depend on your values. Given that bio-science could prove that Terry Schiavo could not suffer, isn't the real question here balancing the suffering of her husband if the life-support is continued, with the suffering of her parents if the support is stopped? We have the fact that Terry Schiavo cannot suffer. We have the fact that her husband will suffer if (A) is the outcome and that her parents will suffer if (B) is the outcome. If the parents will presumably suffer more collectively as there is two of them, then shouldn't we side with them? Surely bio-science and math tells us that two suffering brains is more suffering than one?

Kevin_Lowe
12th October 2010, 12:34 AM
What is an act if it leaves no outcome at all? In the universe we actually live in, all acts leave a residue, since information cannot be destroyed.

Kant is free to say that only acts count, but the only sensible interpretation of this is that he was focused on the direct, immediate outcomes of the act in question. If one holds the maxim "thou shalt not kill", then in a Kantian system one must never kill, even if the ultimate outcome is that many more people died (you failed to stop a mass murderer, or whatever). Violating this maxim has the direct result of a person dying.

I do not know Kant's position on action vs. intent, but it doesn't work as a loophole in any case. Supposing one tried to kill another and failed, it still leaves memories of the act on those involved. A philosophy in which intent was primary would still have a fitness function.

You snipped the bit where I talked about the specific characteristics of utilitarianism and didn't respond to it, and I think that gets to the heart of the disagreement we are having here.

As far as I can tell your "fitness function" seems to be indistinguishable from "consistent value judgment". Put like that, all it seems to me that you are saying is "all of these moral philosophies make consistent value judgments".

Utilitarianism isn't just a system that makes consistent value judgments - as I think you are saying, all moral philosophies do that. Utilitarianism makes value judgments based on universalist utility-maximising for specific definitions of utility. I'm pretty sure Jesus, Kant and nihilists don't do that.

The two are still functionally equivalent--assuming equal tie-breaking functions, a "true" Nihilist and a "nil-Utilitarian" are indistinguishable from their actions. I would posit that two things are the same if they are indistinguishable in every way (yeah, some philosophers disagree with even that).

I'd argue that it's self-contradictory to posit a utilitarian who defines utility as nothing at all, and that such a beast has never existed.


Which is actually the point of the exercise. I don't think you know enough about Harris's philosophy (Harris may not know enough about it) to say whether defining it as simply a form of Utilitarianism is valid. What Harris means by "human flourishing" could be quite sophisticated and include factors which are not simply equivalent to global happiness. For instance, to avoid getting stuck in local minima, one might want a factor for "diversity in moral thought". This necessarily means that a global maxima cannot be reached and thus is not simple Utilitarianism.

If so this sounds pretty much like what Parfit referred to as Objective List Utilitarianism, where there are a plurality of utilities none of which depend on any of the others. If "diversity in moral thought" is on your objective list, then tradeoffs against other utilities on the list like happiness or preference satisfaction are perfectly acceptable.

Kevin_Lowe
12th October 2010, 12:46 AM
Are you kidding? You're entirely fixated on Platonic ideals. What do you think your abstract "intrinsic good" is?

It's got nothing to do with any abstract realm of pure form, that's for sure.

"Intrinsic good" is a label fallible humans choose to slap on to phenomena or outcomes that they see as desirable in and of themselves, that do not need to appeal to any underlying reason for their goodness.

You might decide that happiness is an intrinsic good, and all that means is that you think that bringing about happiness is good (all else being equal), full stop. End of sentence. It's not good because of anything, it's just good in your opinion.

Everything that is good but not an intrinsic good is an instrumental good, one that is good only because it brings about an intrinsic good like happiness (in your opinion).

In your explanations of your moral philosophy, it looks to me like to the extent there's any consistency at all you just have a random bunch of instrumental goods chasing each other's tails: Following our instincts is good because our instincts have evolved to be adaptive which is good because adaptive things are good because they prevent suffering and make us happy which is good because we have evolved to like being happy and it's good to do what we have evolved to do because that is adaptive... and so on forever.


And there's no way you can seriously argue that I'm advocating any kind of naive or intuitive approach.

I mean really, I tell you to get your nose out of the book and take a walk, and you interpret that to mean that I think we can understand the world by naive impressions, despite the fact that I'm obviously arguing for making our decisions based on scientific inquiry? Despite the fact that I've already told you what I meant by that?

This is getting ridiculous.

I'm seriously arguing that you are inconsistent. One minute you wrap yourself up in science, the next naive appeals to common sense, the next some variation of the naturalistic fallacy, the next some inchoate version of utilitarianism, and despite the fact that these views are either stupid or mutually incompatible you seem to think that if you shout loud and long enough that you are being consistent that it will come true.

Kuko 4000
12th October 2010, 01:32 AM
Harriet Hall writes about the book at Science-Based Medicine:

http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=7465

I have frequently said that science can only provide data to inform our decisions but can’t tell us what we “should” do; that it can determine facts but not values. I stand corrected. A persuasive new book by Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, has convinced me that science can and should determine what is moral. In fact, it is a more reliable guide than any other option.


Interesting to see what early critics such as Massimo Pigliucci (http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/04/about-sam-harris-claim-that-science-can.html) have to say about it when they have read the book.