Appiah reviews Harris’s The Moral Landscape

In yesterday’s Sunday New York Times Book Review, polymath philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah reviews Sam Harris’s new book.  As you probably know, the thesis of The Moral Landscape is that there are objective scientific criteria for morality—to wit, moral acts are those that increase “well-being.”

When I read about this, and heard Harris’s TED talk on the topic, I smelled trouble.  Wasn’t this just updated utilitarianism, with all its attendant problems?  And whose well-being is to be maximized?  What if society’s well-being (the overall total) is maximized by treating some people abysmally? Is it moral to torture somebody if that would save hundreds of lives? Or would that ultimately reduce well-being by degrading social standards?  And what is well-being, anyway? How do you trade off things like economic well-being versus physical well-being when these come into conflict?

Because I hadn’t read Sam’s book, I reserved judgment; but I predicted that philosphers would handle the book roughly as the incursion of an upstart into their territory.  Appiah gives it a mixed review, singling out some of the issues that concerned me:

In fact, what he [Harris] ends up endorsing is something very like utilitarianism, a philosophical position that is now more than two centuries old, and that faces a battery of familiar problems. Even if you accept the basic premise, how do you compare the well-being of different people? Should we aim to increase average well-being (which would mean that a world consisting of one bliss case is better than one with a billion just slightly less blissful people)? Or should we go for a cumulative total of well-being (which might favor a world with zillions of people whose lives are just barely worth living)? If the mental states of conscious beings are what matter, what’s wrong with killing someone in his sleep? How should we weigh present well-being against future well-being?

It’s not that Harris is unaware of these questions, exactly. He refers to the work of Derek Parfit, who has done more than any philosopher alive to explore such difficulties. But having acknowledged some of these complications, he is inclined to push them aside and continue down his path . . .

Harris was a philosophy major at Stanford, but he is inclined to scant most of what philosophers have had to say about well-being. There is, for example, a movement in contemporary philosophy and economics known as “the capabilities approach,” which takes seriously the question of identifying the components of well-being and measuring them. But neither of the two leading exponents of this approach — the philosopher and economist Amartya Sen and the philosopher and classicist Martha Nussbaum — gets a mention in the book.

But Appiah lauds Harris’s exposition of the science (and criticizes his bashing of religion):

Still, there’s plenty of interest in “The Moral Landscape.” Harris draws our attention to the fact that “science increasingly allows us to identify aspects of our minds that cause us to deviate from norms of factual and moral reasoning.” And when he stays closest to neuroscience, he says much that is interesting and important: about the limits of functional magnetic resonance imaging as a tool for studying brain function; about the current understanding of psychopaths (whose brains display “significantly less activity in regions of the brain that generally respond to emotional stimuli”); about the similarities in the ways in which moral and nonmoral belief seem to be handled in the brain. I found myself wishing for less of the polemic against religion, which recurs often and takes up one entire chapter — he has had two bites of that apple already, and will soon be reduced to gnawing at the core — and I wanted more of the illumination that comes from our increasing understanding of neuroscience.

Appiah notes that “a real contribution to the old project of a ‘naturalized ethics’ would have required a fuller engagement with its contradictions and complications,” but there’s a problem with this criticism. Had Harris made his book a thorough exposition of his neo-utilitarianism, complete with references to all previous work and discussions of all possible problems, it would have become a scholarly tome rather than, as he intended, a “popular” discussion of science and morality. (As it is, it’s plenty scholarly with many pages of footnotes.)  Similarly, had Dawkins dealt with all “sophisiticated” theology in The God Delusion, many fewer people would have read it.

I now have a copy of The Moral Landscape. It’s a short book—191 small pages of text and 43 pages of footnotes—and, judging from the introductory chapter, it’s well worth reading.  The mantra of “‘is’ doesn’t imply ‘ought'” has been accepted too uncritically, and it’s time for all of us to revisit the Naturalistic Fallacy. I’ll post my take in a few weeks, and maybe others can then chime in with theirs.

UPDATE:  Sam put an excerpt from his book (and a very short video) up at HuffPo.  And it would be good for people to read Sam’s book before they criticize his thesis!

84 Comments

  1. andrew
    Posted October 4, 2010 at 5:03 am | Permalink

    I just ordered the book! But judging from the ted talk, I think the scientific method can be generally applied to morality. Remember, that notions of well being can be factual. And these facts can change! That’s why there is a landscape! Of course things can get cloudy…but isnt it the same way in science?

    Personally, I’m quite fond of this whole idea.

    • Tulse
      Posted October 4, 2010 at 7:08 am | Permalink

      notions of well being can be factual

      By what metric? Taking heroin makes one feel good, so does it increase well-being? If so, should everyone be mandated by the state to take it?

      And even if one can come up with a non-controversial notion of individual “well-being”, what in science tells us that such metric ought to be the standard for morality? So what if we know what maximizes individual well-being? Why is that the criterion we use for ethics?

      • Nihlo
        Posted October 4, 2010 at 7:29 am | Permalink

        I think that your use of the heroin example shows that you already have an inkling of what the metric is, even if it is difficult to comprehensively describe in this format.

        The criterion of well-being ought to be used for ethics because well-being is the underlying physical state that our minds are communicating to us with moral sense.

        • Tulse
          Posted October 4, 2010 at 7:59 am | Permalink

          I think that your use of the heroin example shows that you already have an inkling of what the metric is, even if it is difficult to comprehensively describe in this format.

          The criterion of well-being ought to be used for ethics because well-being is the underlying physical state that our minds are communicating to us with moral sense.

          I’m not sure I follow that — care to unpack it a bit more?

  2. Raskolnikov
    Posted October 4, 2010 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    “If the mental states of conscious beings are what matter, what’s wrong with killing someone in his sleep?”

    You have to be pretty stupid to think this is an argument against utilitarianism. Just imagine a society in which we would let people kill others in their sleep. It’s obvious that people would live in permanent fear of each other, that this could never lead to a workable society.

    The main take away message of utilitarianism is that moralities are developed to achieve societal goals. That this is not an easy thing to do is certain, but difficulties don’t invalidate the attempt.

    Utilitariansim is not a scientific theory about morality but a practical approach to morality. It can be accomodated to factor in scientific insights. You like it or not, but frankly, what alternative do you propose? All the alternatives I know of are mired with their own problems. This goes for deontology, virtue ethics, etc…

    • Jack
      Posted October 4, 2010 at 6:59 am | Permalink

      Exclude all other factors: no one notices, instant death, there is no harm to any conscious being (including the killer). All unlikely, of course, but murder per se seems a perfectly neutral act to me.

    • Tulse
      Posted October 4, 2010 at 7:10 am | Permalink

      Utilitariansim is not a scientific theory about morality but a practical approach to morality

      Exactly, which is why, by itself, it cannot serve as a foundation for morality. Utilitarianism is one way to realize moral principles, but it requires those principles to begin with.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted October 4, 2010 at 7:13 am | Permalink

        I believe Sam’s thesis is that dissecting morality shows that it ultimately rests on assessments of well-being, so it’s not something artificially introduced as a criterion of morality. But I need to read the book before I comment further!

        • Tulse
          Posted October 4, 2010 at 8:32 am | Permalink

          I haven’t read the book either yet, but the notion that morality rests at least in part on some sort of conception of “well-being” isn’t all that controversial, nor does it get us very far. The most virulent racist has a morality based on “well-being”, just limited to certain types of people.

          • Tim Harris
            Posted October 4, 2010 at 8:59 am | Permalink

            Two doubtless naive questions. Why does one want a foundation for morality? What would one look like?

            • Tulse
              Posted October 4, 2010 at 9:13 am | Permalink

              Why does one want a foundation for morality?

              To avoid profound moral relativism, in which (for example) we could no longer say that the Khmer Rouge wiping out millions of people was “wrong” in some meaningful sense.

          • Tim Harris
            Posted October 4, 2010 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

            I have never come across so ‘profound’ a moral relativism, except in descriptions of psychopaths and sociopaths who lack the emotional foundation that underlies and allows moral judgement; I think that what you are talking about is a total and cynical nihilism, whic is another matter. A degree of moral relativism is of course no bad thing, and sensible people are in fact moral relativists, not moral absolutists: it allows them to get on with people from different cultures and with different customs. Which is not to say that one has to accept, in the name of moral relativism, the treatment of the dancing boys of Afghanistan, say.

  3. Lurker #753
    Posted October 4, 2010 at 5:38 am | Permalink

    I admit to not being very widely read, but if the standard utilitarian argument is (strong) “the best way is as follows….” or (weak) “a best way exists”, then SH seems to be looking strictly at the other end of the spectrum and saying “forget about that argument for a minute, what about identifying complete non-starters?”

    I recall SH earlier claiming that “there is such a thing as moral high-ground, and it’s possible to *not* be standing on it”.

    (Caveat: I haven’t read the book, but have seen the TED talk)

  4. Posted October 4, 2010 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    I’ve only read the short excerpts of the book that Harris posted, but it promises to be interesting.

    Without much background in this subject, I still have an opinion: I think we have to decide — without much if any aid from science — which values we hold. Science can then help us learn how to achieve goals consistent with those values.

    We might (and I hope we do) decide that minimising human and intelligent animal suffering is a value that we cherish. But “maximising well being” is not the same value, and it might conflict with the “minimising suffering” value.

    Science can’t give us those values. We have to find them some other way.

    • Darrell E
      Posted October 4, 2010 at 7:14 am | Permalink

      I am certainly no expert myself, but I thing that scientific methodologies can be used to help us figure out, or inform us to some degree, what values people do have, and why (or maybe a better word would be “how”). And that such information could, and should, be used to inform our formulation of values.

      I think “maximising well being” is a worthwhile metric to use, but figuring out how to apply it to real world situations will be extremely complex. But it may be useful to set that as a goal to strive for. Tons of work yet to do though.

      • Tulse
        Posted October 4, 2010 at 8:35 am | Permalink

        scientific methodologies can be used to help us figure out, or inform us to some degree, what values people do have, and why

        That was the promise of sociobiology, whose practitioners not infrequently argued that such things like sexism and racism are simply values that we evolved to have.

        Harris seems to have the naive view that we can use science to justify Jeffersonian democracy. I think that is profoundly misguided.

        • Tim Harris
          Posted October 4, 2010 at 9:10 am | Permalink

          Of course science can help us come to some kinds of moral enlightenment (let us say, about gay people and trans-gender and trans-sexual people) in that it dissolves ignorant prejudices, but then one recalls the career of Harry Harlow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (or Madison, Wisconsin – I can’t remember which way round it is) and his denial of moral responsibility regarding the baby monkeys he tortured no doubt in good faith for what he thought was the higher moral end of science.

          • Tulse
            Posted October 4, 2010 at 9:57 am | Permalink

            Of course science can help us come to some kinds of moral enlightenment (let us say, about gay people and trans-gender and trans-sexual people) in that it dissolves ignorant prejudices

            Even there whatever science is doing is piggybacking on pre-existing morality. There is nothing about homosexuality being biological that confers moral status one way or another (there is strong evidence that psychopathy is primarily biological, for example, and there are plenty of non-biologically-determined behaviours that we deem OK).

            • Tim Harris
              Posted October 4, 2010 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

              Yes, of course. There is, and will be, a constant interplay between a society’s mores and what scientists come up with; and it is clear that science has and does influence people’s moral beliefs. But it seems to me to be silly to pretend that science is going to provide us with cast-iron moral answers about things. Science’s role, surely, is to complicate matters and to provoke us into either more thoughtfully holding on to the moral beliefs we have or revising them.

        • Darrell E
          Posted October 4, 2010 at 9:35 am | Permalink

          Tulse,

          Yes, people so often try to push an idea too far. And often people become so enamoured of an idea that they fall prey to fallacies, such as the naturalistic fallacy, that they would in other circumstances clearly see, in order to support it.

  5. Pete Carlton
    Posted October 4, 2010 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    If morality can be scientifically studied, so can sports like baseball. Do the replacement (replace “well-being” with “winning the game” etc) with one of Harris’s monologs on morality and you can see where some philosophical problems start.

    • Darrell E
      Posted October 4, 2010 at 7:27 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure I understand what you are saying here, or rather what you think of Harris’s ideas on morality. It is clearly true that sports, including baseball, can and are fruitfully studied scientifically.

      I do agree that there are problems with Harris’s ideas on morality. But then, there are problems with even our most evidentially supported theories as well, such as TOE, the Standard Model, General Relativity, and so on. These theories are still quite useful though, and it is possible that Harris’s ideas on morality may turn out to be useful as well.

  6. Chris
    Posted October 4, 2010 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    I think what is too often missed is that ethics is about conflict. I can easily step back and look at the world from my perspective. I have my own set of preferences and desires and can analyze how they are objectively satisfied. I can imagine how easy it would be to solve world hunger, eliminate poverty, or save a billion souls for god. And because these subjective preferences and values are satisfied in objective ways it is easy to imagine that ethics is as a whole objective. The “is does not imply ought” problem is not over whether things that I think “ought” to be can be brought about through scientific study of the objective world. The problem is not over how to end world hunger. The problem is getting agreement that we “ought” to eliminate it at all. That is the conflict. I do have certain preferences. You do have certain preferences. To say that you objectively “ought” to have a preference that you do not in fact have is to say that some counterfactual state of the universe (one where you prefer what I prefer) is more “true” than the actual current state of the universe (where you are telling me to bugger off).

    By all means, we should continue to talk about the world and how we want it to be and how science and reason can help us to get from here to there. We should at times fight for what we believe. But until we get others to want what we want, we do no good pretending that our preferences are somehow privileged as “objectively” better. Our preferences are real components of the world, but so are everyone else’s.

    • Darrell E
      Posted October 4, 2010 at 7:42 am | Permalink

      “But until we get others to want what we want, we do no good pretending that our preferences are somehow privileged as “objectively” better. Our preferences are real components of the world, but so are everyone else’s.”

      I think there are more problems with this point of view than with Harris’s point of view. And why would you fight for your beliefs if you didn’t believe that they were “objectively” better than your opponents? Why not then adopt beliefs that resolve the conflict without having to fight?

      • Chris
        Posted October 4, 2010 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

        I am not sure why this is a problem. Obviously, like every other person on the planet I sometimes adopt beliefs that resolve conflict (called negotiation and compromise) and sometimes I do not (again like everyone on the planet.)

        And obviously I do believe that some of my beliefs are, in a sense, objectively better. They may be better merely because they better reflect my desires or because they reflect the kind of world I wish to live in. Just like everyone else.

        I am not saying that people “ought” to be subjectivist. I am asserting that they are whether they like it or not. Not because people are selfish but because there is no way to say that your preferences are somehow privileged over someone else’s.

        • Explicit Atheist
          Posted October 4, 2010 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

          We can decide that a person’s preferences are proper or improper. If we look at two other people in a conflict we sometimes can determine with much confidence that one of the two is cheating, lying, claiming more then he/she is entitled to, stealing, acting with ill-will, and the like. Its complete nonsense to deny this.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted October 4, 2010 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

      Another thing that is being missed, it seems to me, is that morality is a very complicated thing and not a mere branch of moral philosophy so that if you have the right theory or you hold the right ideas you are going to somehow behave rightly. Our moral feelings do not derive from the intellect (so far as that can be separated off, and this is not to say that ideas do not influence our moral feelings: obviously they do), but are founded in our being as social animals. But because the intellect has grown to be so powerful in human beings, we can certainly use ideas or beliefs – generally religious or political, or sometimes, as in the case of Harry Harlow, deriving from what amounts to a political belief in the virtue of science – to over-ride moral qualms that otherwise (if we are not psychopaths) we might have had.

  7. Dominic
    Posted October 4, 2010 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    For those of you interested there is a utilitarianism resources web page here-
    http://www.utilitarianism.com/bentham.htm

    I always like to look in on Bentham when I can (he looks as waxy as Lenin of course!) as I work for “that godless institution in Gower Street”.

    I am reminded of Isaac Asimov writing as the character Salvor Hardin “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is reight”.

    • Dominic
      Posted October 4, 2010 at 6:36 am | Permalink

      Right! oops…

  8. Ray
    Posted October 4, 2010 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    For a good discussion of the is ought problem on the philosophical end:

    http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/197301–.htm

    Generally speaking, people overstate what you can’t get from what because they misunderstand what Hume was trying to say.

    • Chris
      Posted October 4, 2010 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

      I have looked through the article. I am definitely in the neutralists camp and like, I suppose, most neutralists find his argument wanting. I don’t think that Singer is so much correcting our misreading of Hume but presenting a different approach to the question. One thing I do note is that Singer does acknowledge that both camps in the debate understand and accept the role of objective truth in ethics. Everyone can agree that giving money to the poor can alleviate suffering and enhance the happiness of the poor. These are facts that can be shown to be true. What he also realizes, though, is that the facts, in and of themselves, do not tell us what we “ought” to do.

      Singer seems to find the neutralist position a problem, not so much because it is flawed logically or that it is simply wrong, but that it fails to adequately present a “strong” moral position concerning issues Singer finds important.

      • Ray
        Posted October 5, 2010 at 12:21 am | Permalink

        The way I read this, Singer was pointing out that the difference between neutralism and descriptivism was merely semantic. If you want ought statements to be objective, you’re a descriptivist, while if you want ought statements to be compelling you’re a neutralist. Either way, the practical reality remains that no rational argument will convince a sociopath to behave himself. Values still cannot be dismissed as a source of moral disagreement

        To bring this back to the main topic: ultimately, Harris is correct if and only if, in practice, values are similar enough and beliefs are dissimilar enough that it is the latter that is the major source of moral disagreement. Given the amount of outright fabrication going on one particular side of the political spectrum, I do think Harris is probably right. although I don’t expect him to justify himself in these terms.

        • Christopher Kline
          Posted October 5, 2010 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

          If it is true that I can just want normative statements to be objective (in the sense as having truth independent of my preferences) than I have a problem with this position meta-ethically. If this is true (and I don’t see how it could be)than objectivity in ethics is completely different than objective reality.

          When Singer says that the objective nature of ought statement (as per Descriptivists) is not compelling, he is making this point. Statements about gravity are objective and compelling in the sense that they are truly independent of our beliefs, wishes, desires, or preferences. That “objective” ethical statements lack this compellingness is a backhanded way of admitting that they are not really objective. It also admits to my main point. People assert that some ethical proposition is objective not because they can demonstrate (compel) its truth (outside of their own preferences,) but because calling ethical propositions objective is an attempt to privilege their preferences and hence to make them more “compelling”.

          I agree with your last point. As a pragmatic matter I agree that it is almost always best to assume that we are similar in values and attack wrong beliefs. But even with a total agreement our values and a general agreement in beliefs we will still run into trouble. Just look at the prisoners dilemma.

  9. NewEnglandBob
    Posted October 4, 2010 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    The more I hear and read from Sam Harris, the more I like what he is saying. I really look forward to this book.

  10. Posted October 4, 2010 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    Just a brief comment on rescuing utilitarianism: As far as questions like “Why then would it be wrong to torture” or “why couldn’t you kill somneone in their sleep”, I think that takes a naive view of “well-being”. We are, after all, homo sapiens, and individuals of that particular species of primate tends to get very upset, for example, if they worry they might be killed in their sleep. Similar logic applies to torture, if you take an expansive enough view of “well-being”. Utilitarianism can be mostly (but not completely) rescued by recognizing that human emotions — which are often not particularly utilitarian — are part of the equation.

    • Tulse
      Posted October 4, 2010 at 8:37 am | Permalink

      As far as questions like “Why then would it be wrong to torture” or “why couldn’t you kill somneone in their sleep”, I think that takes a naive view of “well-being”. We are, after all, homo sapiens, and individuals of that particular species of primate tends to get very upset, for example, if they worry they might be killed in their sleep. Similar logic applies to torture

      …which argues not that it is immoral to torture, but just to get caught doing so.

      • Darrell E
        Posted October 4, 2010 at 9:48 am | Permalink

        I don’t understand.

        “…which argues not that it is immoral to torture, but just to get caught doing so.”

        If I understand James Sweet’s point correctly, I understand his argument to be that torture causes the “well being” of the victim to be reduced. Therefore if you are using the metric of “maximizing well being” to determine if something is moral or not, then torture is not moral.

        Of course that only works for people that agree that the effects of torture on the victim do indeed reduce the “well being” of the victim. But I don’t understand your point about this argument only applying to getting caught torturing. I don’t see it.

        • Tulse
          Posted October 4, 2010 at 10:09 am | Permalink

          Perhaps I misunderstood James’ original point, which I took to be that the well being of a general populace who worried about being tortured would be less than that of a populace that had no such worry. In other words, the main utilitarian impact of torture comes from knowledge that such a thing happens, and not the effect on the tortured individual themselves.

          This notion of the social cost of torture is one way to craft a utilitarian-based prohibition against torture in general (since of course any deontological basis is unavailable to a utilitarian, and one can always create scenarios where naive utilitarian principles would seem to justify torture). But this move seems to me to be special pleading, an attempt to capture “what we know is right” in some sort of utilitarian terms, rather than using utilitarian principles to guide us directly.

          And, to the point of my comment, this position only argues that we should prevent the use of torture from becoming widely known, not that we shouldn’t actually torture (this is the A Few Good Men principle, aka “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”).

          • Darrell E
            Posted October 4, 2010 at 10:19 am | Permalink

            I understand. Thanks for unpacking that.

    • Posted October 4, 2010 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      I don’t see how science tells us that we “should” maximise “well being” (especially that of others) or any such thing. Science can only describe and explain what is, not what it should be.

      It could tell us what people on average think about such things, or what their actions indicate they really believe about it, but again: what is doesn’t tell us what should be.

      However, once we decide what we desire, science can give us the map and tools to get there.

      • Thomas
        Posted October 9, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

        What is being proposed is not that science can or will tell us that we should desire happiness, or that we should desire wellbeing, rather the prediction/hypothesis is that all humans fundamentally desire happiness and wellbeing and that the scientific method can confirm this to be a universal truth about humanity. Once we’ve confirmed that humanity shares the universal desire X, then X will become the measure for how we ought to behave. And since X is a truth of human nature I don’t see why anyone would question it’s use as the measure of morality since it’s not as if some desire is being imposed on someone else, indeed, it’s a desire everyone else would share.

        If this is the case then we get the following:

        1. We want X (wellbeing) more than anything else.
        2. Y (compassion, as an example) increase the wellbeing of both ourselves and of society overall.
        3. Therefore, we should be compassionate. Not only that, compassion is therefore a moral fact, given the truth of premise one and two.

        No rational, fully informed person will not seek to be compassionate given the truth of premise one and two. If their ultimate desire is happiness and wellbeing (scientifically demonstrated), and if it is proven that some behaviours or lifestyles can lead them to this desire, then they will embrace them. The only reason they won’t would be due to ignorance.

        • Chris
          Posted October 9, 2010 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

          You are being sneaky here, but you are still committing a fallacy and are trapped by the is-ought problem.

          Even if I accept premise one and two as true (and I do not, at least not without clear defined terms) your conclusion does not follow.

          Knowing that I want to be happy and that being compassionate leads to increased happiness (1), the only conclusion that follows is that if I am compassionate, than I will increase happiness. Sneaking the word should is the problem. Should is normative and is therefore kin to “ought”. This “should” does not follow from the two premises, which only reference objective facts. It is perfectly reasonable that someone might well agree with the premises and might still not wish to be compassionate. That is why you say they “should” be compassionate rather than they “will” be compassionate. But why is this so? People always act in their best interests, as they see things. You may argue that people are often mistaken about facts of the world do things that lead to unhappiness. But I believe it is quite likely that there are ways to increase personal happiness at the expense of others.

          (1) Knowing that compassion (which is not very well defined, and seems to me to don not much more than to reference action we label “nice”) increases happiness tells us nothing about whether it is consistent in all cases with maximal happiness.

          This is an important point. I do not think there is some possible world where everyone lives in a maximal happiness in perfect balance with everyone else. I think all evidence shows that every conceivable society of widespread happiness requires that some (usually, but not always, a minority) give up significant power or freedom (political or economic) in order for this society to thrive. It is further true that everyone has to give us some power for the “good” of the people (which actually means that we are spreading happiness to more and more people.)

  11. Posted October 4, 2010 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    Like many others, I haven’t read the book and look forward to its arrival in a few days. In psychology, the main criteria for establishing mental equanimity is when intrapsychic issues and their inevitable contextual(social)effects can be reduced to a manageable level. Understanding boundaries and effective communication are also key components in the equation. It’s simply a reduction of intrapersonal and interpersonal friction.

    I look forward to reading Sam’s distinctions between cultural well-being versus physiological well-being (how he attempts to square that circle). I’m reminded of Freud’s acknowledgement of the “id” and its social implications. Reducing suffering and allowing for balanced personal pleasures is a political, ethical, and philosophical art form.

  12. karmakin
    Posted October 4, 2010 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    The main problem I see, is that between rationalism/utilitarianism and authoritarianism, there really is no other option I think. It’s not like there’s some super real source of morality floating out there that we can find and it’ll make everything sparkles and unicorns.

    The main problem for rationalism is that morality is extremely complicated, often with repercussions that we can not possible see or understand. Mind you, if this is a problem for rationalism, it’s doubly so for authoritarianism, which basically doesn’t even TRY.

    I like the excerpt, mainly because he acknowledges this. It’s not that with rationalism we’ll make the perfect decision every time, it’s that we’ll be better equipped to make a better decision.

  13. Kevin
    Posted October 4, 2010 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    Well, at the risk of reading too much into the excerpts, it seems to me that the issue is whether all people everywhere represent a single-layer-thin-uber-equal organism or not.

    I think not.

    Despite our lofty assertions that all persons are created equal, nobody really believes that for the very real reason that it isn’t true. We place different values on different people based on their relationship to us. My brother is way more important to me than your brother is to me and vice versa.

    Humans, like just about every other social animal I can think of, behave in a predictable manner based on the proximity/relatedness of their inner circle. If there’s an exception, I’d like to know it.

    We are marked by intra-tribal altruism and cooperation and extra-tribal conflict and competition. This helps us allocate scarce resources to those who matter most to us, and protect those resources from outsiders.

    The issue is that discerning who is “in” your tribe and who isn’t is orders of magnitude more complex than it used to be when tribes were almost completely delineated by two-days-walk proximity and familial relatedness.

    Worldwide issues such as global warming make this issue even more complex, because we’re in effect trying to recruit “others” into our tribe for a narrow purpose (saving the planet), while continuing to exclude them for other purposes (economic strength, access to raw materials and jobs, political borders, and just about anything else).

    I sense that is the primary issue Harris is trying to tease out. There aren’t many real conflicts with regard to standards of how we treat or should treat “our own”. The conflicts exist in our treatment of “those others” — however you define that individually — and their relationship to us.

    And, of course, more-civilized cultures have both institutionalized our propensity for extra-tribal competition and de-fanged it to a certain extent. For example, I would suspect that 99% of American baseball fans born and/or raised outside of the New York metropolitan area can complete the following phrase:

    Yankees _____.

    • Tulse
      Posted October 4, 2010 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      Despite our lofty assertions that all persons are created equal, nobody really believes that for the very real reason that it isn’t true. We place different values on different people based on their relationship to us.

      Just because we place different values on people doesn’t mean we should. Racists place different values on people, but we don’t think that is acceptable. Again, the problem is deriving “ought” from “is”.

      • Kevin
        Posted October 4, 2010 at 8:54 am | Permalink

        I’ll disagree. That’s too simplistic. It’s who is “in” versus “out” of your own personal circle of altruism.

        Who you perceive is “in” your tribe and who isn’t depends on your specific situation, upbringing, etc. It’s personal, local, and situational.

        Racism has been intractable because skin color is an instant marker as to whether someone is “like me” or not. I believe there is a genetic or neurocognitive basis for initially distrusting/fearing someone “not like me”. That’s not to say it can’t be overcome. Certainly, over the past 30 years or so the disapprobation associated with inter-racial relationships has fallen dramatically.

        But still, we parse and encircle and tag persons with labels in order to identify them in a certain way. Sometimes at odds with the clear facts. For example, Tiger Woods is the child of a 100% Thai woman and an African-Euro-Native-American man.

        And yet, we call Woods “black”. Why? He’s more Asian than black. He’s (I believe) 1/8th Cherokee, yet the Native American community barely acknowledges him. Why?

        It’s in part to delineate whether or not he’s “us” or “not us”. Not whether we “ought” to treat him a certain way or not. That part’s over and has been for several decades.

        It’s not “ought” versus “is”. It’s “ought” versus “do”.

        • Tulse
          Posted October 4, 2010 at 9:09 am | Permalink

          I believe there is a genetic or neurocognitive basis for initially distrusting/fearing someone “not like me”.

          Which is an example of why I’m dubious of neuroscience informing us of what values we should have.

          It’s in part to delineate whether or not he’s “us” or “not us”. Not whether we “ought” to treat him a certain way or not. That part’s over and has been for several decades.

          But why is “that part over”? Why ought we treat all members of homo sapiens the same?

          (And, of course, we don’t actually do that — we treat those who are brain-dead, or who have severe mental or cognitive disorders, quite differently.)

          • Darrell E
            Posted October 4, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink

            “Which is an example of why I’m dubious of neuroscience informing us of what values we should have.”

            I almost agree with this. I think it is a matter of degree. I do think it is absolutely necessary to be cautious.

            If you changed the words “informing us of” to “defining for us” I would agree 100%. But I really don’t see how neuroscience could not be useful for informing us about our selection of values. Surely having more information, accurate information of course, about reality is better than having less when faced with such problems as formulating moral values?

          • Kevin
            Posted October 4, 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink

            The part that’s over is how we “ought” to treat members of our “in” group.

            The question is still who is “in” and who isn’t.

            Racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and misogyny all have their roots in declaring someone to be “out” when others declare them to be “in”. The obsession over religious identification is clearly part-and-parcel of this issue, as well the immigration debate.

            My original point is that we treat “out” worse than “in”. And I see no evidence that’s necessarily an untenable position. The most pacifistic, tree-hugging, kumbaya-singing, one-world-chanting, “Co-exist” bumper sticker-using hippy will place her kids’ welfare above that of mine. And I’m fine with that, as long as she recognizes that I do the same.

            The issue these days is that your personal “ins” are much harder to identify. Who is “in” versus not changes based upon conditions – it’s ever-shifting. When you’re talking global warming, the Chinese are “in” our circle (as long as they’re needed to work cooperatively to come up with a solution). When you’re talking trade, the Chinese are “out”.

            We cooperate with those who are “in”, we compete with those who are not.

            Fundamentally, it’s about membership in the club.

            I think there also needs to be a recognition that a certain amount of this appears to be hard-wired. I have a visceral reaction to those who are “out” that I can overcome with logic, reason, and knowledge…but the visceral reaction is still there. Is that nature or nurture? My impression is that there is an overarching instinctual component, upon which is layered culture, education, and personal experience.

            However, culture, education, and personal experience serves to not just allow previously “out” to become “in”, it also can serve to fix who is “out” or “in”, making it almost impossible to overcome.

            I think sports is a great metaphor for what we’re talking about. I lived in New York for 20 years, but never ever ever would fill in the blank mentioned my the original post with any other word other than “sucks”. It’s the same reason Lou Holtz always picks Notre Dame to win. Why? Because his prejudice (in this case, a positive one in favor of his former team) is fixed.

            It is rational? Clearly not – in fact, I think counter-rational is probably the best way to describe the phenomenon. Is it beneficial? Sometimes. But not if you’re voting against your own economic interests on the basis of a prejudice, for example.

            Is it demonstrable? I think so.

  14. Brian
    Posted October 4, 2010 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    The problems of optimal utilitarianism *can* be brushed aside when comparing some utilitarian outcomes against others. We can doubt that heroin injection leads to the happiness we ideally want while preferring heroin delivered with a clean needle to that delivered with a dirty one, all else being equal.

  15. astrosmash
    Posted October 4, 2010 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Looking forward to SH’s book. My take, at least from the TED talk, is that Harris is not as interested in the inevitable sophistry that these arguments fall into as much as trying to figure out a functionally valid way to” increase well being”…Let me just say that I am not so fond of that term. IMO the objective should be toward decreasing suffering because there really are very objective things we can say about that. the examples of using torture when it could save lives, etc although very valid points, should be concerns farther down the equation. Food , Shelter, Medical care. These are the basic things that must be in place before any of the other stuff can begin to matter

    • Explicit Atheist
      Posted October 4, 2010 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

      Decreasing or avoiding harm is the proper goal of human/civil rights law. Laws should avoid going beyond that because they are coercive and are enforceable on all with penalties. However, morality is not so limited, morality is more properly conceptualized as aiming to promote well-being.

  16. Heber
    Posted October 4, 2010 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Yes I’m also eagerly waiting for the book to come out tomorrow to rush in and get it!

    Here is what I think is Harris’ two central points:

    1) There is an objective moral truth that is independent of human opinion and cultural contingencies. This thesis, although accepted by most philosphers (as mentioned in the review of the book), is contested my many scientists. Indeed I think Harris has obliterated the intellectual basis of religionists with his past two books and is now confronting adamant scientists who show intellectual reticence when talking about morality.

    2) The only way to get to these moral truths is through scientific inquiry, e.i. science contrued in a broader sense, as synonymous to reason – as opposed to faith or any other epistemological means.

    3) Although it might by muddy and complicated to get to moral thruths (or instances of human well-being)as indicated by the sharp peaks on the moral landscape, it is certainly much easier to distinguish moral wrongs -as reflected in the numerous amount of valleys under the peaks. There are many acts that we can now proclaim to be obviously immoral, like throwing acid on a girls face for the crime of wanting to learn how to read.

    • Andy
      Posted October 4, 2010 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      That’s a fair summation. “Science,” in Sam’s usage, does seem to encompass “evidence-based rationality.” The “big idea” of Sam’s book is: People say that science can tell us NOTHING on questions of morality. That’s false, and here’s an argument that provides a way for us to think about just how and why that’s false.

      • Chris
        Posted October 4, 2010 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

        Harris seems to have his knickers in a wad over cultural relativism and post modernism. The problem is not whether science can inform us on matters of ethics. Since our desires manifest themselves in the real objective world, science can do a lot to tell us how to get from here to there. Science cannot tell us a damn thing about whether we ought to get from here to there.

        Oughts reflect our preferences. Science has no preferences.

        • Heber
          Posted October 4, 2010 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

          This is why Sam is establishing an axiom as a starting point. Oughts must always refer to a way of maximizing human well-being. Any “ought” that makes reference of something like flaying babies alive would simply be deemed a misapplication of the term.

          • Chris
            Posted October 4, 2010 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

            Well, swell, he is setting it up as an axiom. Then anything that derives from the true axiom would be true, by definition.

            Not quite the objective foundation I was expecting. In any case, he faces the same problems any utilitarian faces. I think he will discover that at the end of the day, setting up a framework is never enough. Everyone is trying to maximize human happiness (their own.) The trick is how to deal with the inevitable conflicts when I must curtail some immediate or long term happiness for the good of the group. But I should be more precise. The conflict will happen when the group, in the name of maximizes happiness (and maybe are actually maximizing happiness) tries to curtail my desires.

            • Kevin
              Posted October 5, 2010 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

              …and, of course, you have those people who firmly believe that you should NOT maximize human happiness. The “thou shalt not” ascetic religions are quite numerous.

              And there are others who firmly believe that the only way to maximize their happiness is to make someone else miserable. I call them “Republicans”.

            • Heber
              Posted October 7, 2010 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

              “Then anything that derives from the true axiom would be true, by definition.

              Not quite the objective foundation I was expecting.”

              You completely lost me there.
              2+2= 4 is an axiom. It is something we know apriori, and it couldn’t get any more objective than that. OF course people are free to doubt or even deny the truth of said mathematical calculation, but we’re also free to not take them seriously and exclude the from any honest and open-ended conversation of mathematics.

              And so it could be with morality. If you don’t accept the axiom that morality must be our best effort to maximize the well-being of conscious creatures, then you will simply mirit nothing but exclusion from any serious dialogue about ethics and morality.

              You may ask whose well-being ought to be maximized. Moalrity need not be a zerosum game in which people attain happiness soley when at the expense of others. Finding that balance is the challenging task of this nascent science of good and evil.

            • Chris
              Posted October 7, 2010 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

              ”2+2= 4 is an axiom. It is something we know apriori, and it couldn’t get any more objective than that. OF course people are free to doubt or even deny the truth of said mathematical calculation, but we’re also free to not take them seriously and exclude the from any honest and open-ended conversation of mathematics.
              And so it could be with morality. If you don’t accept the axiom that morality must be our best effort to maximize the well-being of conscious creatures, then you will simply mirit nothing but exclusion from any serious dialogue about ethics and morality.”

              You are kidding, right? You are seeking an analogy between mathematics and morality? Because we accept the a priori nature of mathematics,(1) you believe this tells us something about ethics? Besides, hinting at, at best, a meager understanding of the philosophy of mathematics, you completely blow meta-ethical theory. Do you really mean you needed to see this connection between a trivial mathematics axiom and morality to decide that you should maximize happiness? Right. I suppose I could accept, as an axiom, that we ought to try to maximize the well-being of conscious creatures. But why would I do that? (2) I would not do it if I did not find value in doing so. I would not do it unless doing so actually increased my happiness, right? But if I already prefer to live a life where I try to maximize my happiness, then why go through all the idiotic game of setting up ethics like some Logic 101 homework project?
              But you miss the point. We don’t need to have as an axiom that we should maximize happiness–we do that quite naturally. I will say it again. Ethics is not about me wanting the world to be a certain way. It is about the conflicts we all have over how to get to that world. These conflicts are what leads us to say what people ought to do or not to do.
              “You may ask whose well-being ought to be maximized. Moalrity need not be a zerosum game in which people attain happiness soley when at the expense of others. Finding that balance is the challenging task of this nascent science of good and evil.”
              I have never said it is a zero sum game. This is what is so maddening about dealing with any objectivist–religious or secular. You all sound the same. You apply the same apologetics and over fondness for logical axioms. Subjectivist, I hear from both camps, must or ought to be selfish, wishy-washy scum bags who support oppression of women in Muslim countries and whatever other issue Harris is worked up over this week. Why don’t you just stand up for what you believe to be right. If the issue is serious enough, fight for it. Use science to clearly articulate the actual consequences of what do or do not do, but at the end of the day, be mature enough to admit that people will not always value what you value–even if you all agree on the objective facts.
              At the end of the day, I suspect Harris understands this. He is going to simply use science and reason to articulate a vision of a world he values. He is hoping to get as many people to value the same world. But the key is that he (and all of us) have to get people to prefer or value what we value. Logic does not do it. Facts won’t either, since we frequently disagree over issues of value even when we agree upon all the facts.

              you need to study the history of geometry to see just how far a “true” a priori system can go to actually mirror the objective universe.
              I may prefer to do it. My point is that I am not compelled to support the axiom independent of my preferences. My preferences, in any case, are far more compelling than any silly axiom.

            • Chris
              Posted October 7, 2010 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

              My foot notes did not take on my previous post. My last two paragraphs go with the two foot notes.

  17. Posted October 4, 2010 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Reading all the responses so far I get the impression that almost everybody thinks that there is (or should be) some sort of Platonic ideal of morality. In specifics, y’all seem to be arguing over whether or not it is moral to pick up twigs on a particular day of the week.

    For me, morality is simply an optimal strategy (in the sense of the term used by game theory). And, therefore, many acts that are moral for one individual or group would be equally immoral when performed by another individual or group.

    Sam Harris is heading in the right direction when he attempts to maximize wellbeing, but he falls flat on his face when he suggests that there one can decide for another what constitutes wellbeing. (At least, not having read his book, I get the strong impression that he takes such a top-down approach to wellbeing.)

    We must each decide for ourselves what constitutes our own wellbeing. For some, that might be gluttony, knowingly placing short-term intense pleasure over long-term goals. For others, that will be the exact opposite. Some will take the most pleasure in personal pleasure; others, in vicariously enjoying the pleasure of others. Regardless, it is not my place to make such a decision for you, and it most emphatically is not my place to impose one decision or the other upon you — though it may (or may not) be my place to advise you if I think you’re making the worng decision.

    I have yet to formulate a better strategy than this:

    I. Do not do unto others as they do not wish to be done unto.

    (The First Rule may be broken only to the minimum degree necessary to otherwise preserve it.)

    II. And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.

    III. An it harm none, do what thou will.

    The rules must be applied in that order. For example, following the second rule is not permissible in circumstances which require violating the first rule (except as provided for by the Exception).

    First and foremost is a prohibition against most of the acts y’all are objecting to. You should not kill me in my sleep, even if you think that might somehow enhance my wellbeing or the global average wellbeing or whatever, for the simple reason that I do not wish to be killed in my sleep.

    If I were attempting to actively do something to others that they did not wish me to do unto them, and if killing me in my sleep were the least harmful method to me of preventing me from doing that, then it would be permitted to kill me in my sleep. But, let’s face it. There probably isn’t any threat I might post to others that couldn’t be solved by imprisoning me but that could be solved by killing me in my sleep. And, for that matter, in practical terms, you could almost certainly just tell me what it is you want me to stop doing to you, and that would be sufficient; no need for violence at all.

    In more concrete terms, if you were to come across a thug mugging an old lady, the First Rule says that, since the thug doesn’t want you to interrupt him, you must not do so. However, since the old lady doesn’t wan the thug to mug her, the Exception grants you the option to stop the thug — but only in the gentlest way possible. If you yourself are another little old lady armed with a pistol, that may well mean killing the thug. But, if you’re a cop with an umpteenth-degree black belt, the worst the thug should suffer is chafing from the handcuffs.

    But we still haven’t addressed the question of whether or not you should rescue the old lady; that’s the domain of the Second Rule. And, again in concrete terms, it says that, if you want people to rescue you when you are in need, then you are obliged to rescue others when they are in need. Pretty much everybody would want to be rescued; therefore, if it is at all in your power to do so, you should rescue the old lady.

    I’ve probably already taken up too many column inches here, so I’ll shut up now.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Tulse
      Posted October 4, 2010 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      it is not my place to make such a decision for you, and it most emphatically is not my place to impose one decision or the other upon you

      How far does that go? Should one not attempt to prevent genocide? Fight against slavery? Work to overthrow dictators? However mushy I may think the foundations of morality are, I’m not willing to go that relativist.

      • Posted October 4, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

        Erm…I thought that was the entire point of the second half of the post.

        No, seriously. I think I made the most solid and emphatic case I’ve ever heard that atrocities such as genocide should be stopped and prevented; that slaves must be freed; and dictators deserve to be deposed.

        If you still don’t get it after a re-read, let me know where the disconnect is.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Tulse
          Posted October 4, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

          My apologies — I obviously replied far too quickly to have really read your full comment.

          I’m curious, though, as to how your formulation deals with the problem of just who “counts” in the formulation. Those who advocated slavery (and, for that matter, the original US constitution) didn’t see dark-skinned human beings as “people”, at least not to the same extent as light-skinned humans. They did not count as “men” or “others” under your proposed rubric.

          • Posted October 4, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

            That’s probably the hardest question I’ve yet to resolve.

            Are chimpanzees people? Dolphins? Slime mold? Strawberries? Humans in a permanent vegetative state? Humans one minute before birth? Humans one minute after conception?

            Or are only the adult members of my immediate family deserving of full personhood?

            The extremes show us that there is a division to be found somewhere…but where, and how? If rights should be graduated, on what basis and what scale?

            Would it be wise to deny the franchise to an adult with an IQ in the low 70s? Or to grant it to a pre-teen child genius?

            I don’t have answers; only questions. Sorry.

            Cheers,

            b&

      • astrosmash
        Posted October 4, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

        I agree. Plus I think Harris made the point somewhere that pure speculation is unnecessary to the degree that we have living examples of human flourishing and human despair…Sweden vs. Somolia? The correlatives of success or failure are endless…

        • astrosmash
          Posted October 4, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

          Also societies can’t be in the “happiness provider” business. Individual requirements for happiness are too varied and abstract to be dealt with reasonably. But again looking at the diparate examples of Swedn and Somalia…Which country does Individual happiness have a chance to flourish? (I’m sure that depots in the Sudan are very happy with their sitch, but no successful culture accomodates the desires of sociopaths…Or do so at their peril…

  18. Vladimir Krasny
    Posted October 4, 2010 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    What I take from this book is the realization that there are situation (moral dilemma) we are able to decide objectively about what is right or wrong. Its time to stop letting some people hide behind “but its our culture” argument..

  19. Neil
    Posted October 4, 2010 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    I would have thought from the title, drawing an analogy between the moral landscape and the fitness landscape, that Harris was a relativist on morality. I’ll have to read this.

  20. Kevin
    Posted October 4, 2010 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure this is the place for this, but a couple of days ago, the issue of morality and situational ethics was pointed out to me by two back-to-back news stories from NPR.

    The first was about the increasing use of armed drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan by US-NATO forces. While there was some mild hand-wringing about possible civilian casualties, there was little in the way of a discussion about the overall morality or ethics in the use of this weapon. The tone was one of praising the effectiveness of this technique.

    The very next story was about an alleged execution of captured Taliban fighters by Pakistani troops. Here, the issue was framed in exactly the opposite direction — how worried the State Department was about the lack of morals/ethics displayed, whether the action raised to the level of war crime, and all the rest. With the clear implication that the Pakistanis were somehow morally challenged in their response to this.

    As I listened, I had a hard time trying to distinguish between the two outcomes — in fact, you can’t because they were identical. Both resulted in dead Taliban fighters. One is deemed acceptable within the context of a war; the other unacceptable no matter the context.

    To me, the only difference is the proximity of the executioner to the executed. Why is one acceptable and the other not? Do we want the Taliban dead or not? If so, are we objecting to the vigor with which those wishes are carried out? Or merely the distance from which death is meted out? Or perhaps discriminate versus indiscriminate use of deadly force? The hypothetical ability of the target to fight back or run away? What exactly is the moral imperative here?

    I have to say I came away deeply troubled by our ability and unthinking willingness to merely push buttons and kill people. Or that we would think that this is in any way a “good” thing…no matter how many of our troops are kept out of harm’s way.

    But then, it is war (yes, it is) and in war the object is to make the other sunuvabitch die for his country. And “the rules” say you can do this but not that in order to accomplish that goal.

    It’s all very disturbing.

    • Tulse
      Posted October 4, 2010 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      While there was some mild hand-wringing about possible civilian casualties, there was little in the way of a discussion about the overall morality or ethics in the use of this weapon.

      I have read in several places discussions about the morality of drone attacks, and whether the US pilots could in fact be charged with war crimes. (See, for example, coverage by Wired and CBS News.)

      • Kevin
        Posted October 4, 2010 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

        Why would using a remote weapon automatically rise itself to the level of war crime?

        Drones are merely logical extensions of other air-delivered armaments. Perhaps much more precise in their ability to target who you want to hit. Contra the CBS News report, it would seem to me that drones would offer more precise targeting, and actually reduce the concerns of civilian casualties. And if the rules of engagement are the same, why should it matter whether the joy stick is in the hands of someone from the Air Force or the CIA?

        What’s the alternative? Carpet bombing? Medium-range missiles? Small nukes?

        Is it the cross-border implication? It’s OK to target someone on this hill but not that one?

        Or perhaps people just object to the far-distance of the operator from the intended victim. Again, this appears to be a proximity issue.

        Or maybe it’s a matter of fairness — of ability to fight back. In other words, it’s OK to fight with swords, only partially OK to fire a gun, less OK to use a mine or IED, less OK to use a mortar or heavy artillery, even less OK to use an airplane-dropped bomb, even less than that OK to use a missile fired from a distant ship or land-based installation, and not OK at all to have a 19-year-old kid playing a for-real video game in Las Vegas (where most of the drones are controlled from)?

        But then the distance from the target becomes relevant again when the issue of ability to fight back/run away comes into play. If the target is in close proximity but has no ability to get away (ie, a captured fighter), that’s worse morally than if the target is killed without even knowing what hit him from a drone-guided smart bomb.

        To me, dead is dead. I don’t see how the method of delivery or the relative proximity of the deliverer has any bearing on the issue of the morality of killing someone else.

        I haven’t worked my way through all this. Frankly, I think all of it is appalling. Every last bit of it. And yet, I’m completely at a loss as to how to deal with a group of people who have declared us to be their enemies and who would do anything and everything in their power to cause us harm.

        • Explicit Atheist
          Posted October 4, 2010 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

          Warfare is always tragic in a big way when looked at from the point of view of the people who are wounded, killed, and harmed in all sorts of ways. This is not a situation that has any easy or quick exit. If we stopped trying to prop up the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan, we would still be compelled to actively attack people in those countries, and in other countries, who are trying to attack us. The only alternative is try to capture them alive, but is that practical? These can be hostile places, it could result in placing more of our soldiers lives at risk, give the targets more opportunity to escape uncaught, result in ground battles that increase the overall amount of violence, place more civilians at risk, and just be logistically impractical due to terrain and a host of similar factors. Its a bad situation, and it looks like its going to bad for a long time.

          • Kevin
            Posted October 5, 2010 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

            Capture them alive, sure, but as you point out, to what end?

            The reason Guantanamo is such a cluster fuck is that we captured these people and now we don’t have a method to dispose of them in any way that both protects society at large from further harm and protects the captured from cruel and unusual punishment.

            You’re right; there’s no good answer. Only a series of slightly more distasteful answers.

  21. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted October 4, 2010 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    My take on morality:

    there are objective scientific criteria for morality

    That is (some chosen) criteria for ethics, not morality. Ethics may be useful for legal purposes on account of consistency.

    Basic human moral behavior is reflexive and, seemingly, evolved. It isn’t expected to be internally consistent, but perhaps expressing “interlocking complexity” to borrow Muller’s terminology. The mapping between reflexive behavior and cultural outcome (which isn’t always immediate and reflexive) is unlikely to be simple.

  22. Simon
    Posted October 7, 2010 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    For DC area residents, Sam will be discussing his latest book at GW Lisner Auditorium on Tuesday October 12: http://www.lisner.org/eventdetails.asp?id=611

    More dates at other cities can be found here: http://www.samharris.org/site/speaking/

  23. Thomas
    Posted October 9, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    Chris, October 4, 2010 at 6:19 am:

    But until we get others to want what we want, we do no good pretending that our preferences are somehow privileged as “objectively” better. Our preferences are real components of the world, but so are everyone else’s.

    This is a misunderstanding. At a fundamental level everyone shares the same desire(s), a universal desire. It’s not a case of getting others to want what we want.

    Happiness and wellbeing, I would argue, is what make up this universal desire; a desire that we all share. Everyone does what they do because they believe they will increase their happiness and wellbeing. People may behave in different, often contradictory ways, nevertheless each believe that what they are doing will increase happiness and wellbeing.

    These are all empirical questions that science can answer for us. We can use science to inform us what it is that we want more than anything else (this universal desire), then science can establish which behaviours and which lifestyles have a greater chance of taking us to this goal. Science can tell us this because, like I said, these are all empirical questions.

    You and I share the same desire with the Taliban: the desire for happiness and wellbeing. Although the Taliban require women to talk around in a cloth bad and ban girls from education, they do this because they believe this will maximise happiness and wellbeing (probably in the next life). This is an empirical question. If it is indeed the case that we desire happiness and wellbeing more than anything else, then we can ask: does banning girls from education improve happiness and wellbeing? What about throwing battery ace over them, or requiring women to completely cover themselves up?

    Someone else said that science can’t tell us what values to hold. Of course it can’t, but this is not what is being proposed. Rather, what is being proposed is employing science to inform us what it is we already desire, at a fundamental level; it’s about using science to find some desire that is common to all human beings. Aristotle argued it was happiness and he’s probably right.

    I’d recommend Richard Carrier’s chapter on natural morality in his book Sense and Goodness Without God. Here’s a video presentation of this empirical approach to morality: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dce8mE0q4zA

    • Chris
      Posted October 9, 2010 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

      I did not think I needed to have science tell me that I consistently seek happiness. If it is such a universal desire, I would not get too worked up. This is not on the level of Relativity. If is more like discovering that we typically try to avoid direct contact with a flame. To say we all seek happiness is not helpful. It is even less helpful to believe that there must be some set of facts about said happiness that we can use to compel universal (or near) agreement.

      I think that a world of generally pleasant and compassionate people would be wonderful but would still fall pray to the prisoners dilemma. The trouble with the prisoner’s dilemma is that there is no way to solve the dilemma without at least acknowledging that even people who want universal good will act in ways that are rational and yet not consistent with universal good.

  24. Thomas
    Posted October 9, 2010 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Also, on the is-ought problem, consider this also, from Carrier:

    That’s untrue. Alex has fallen into a common fallacy: the belief that you can’t get an ought from an is. Yes, you usually hear the fallacy is the other way around, but that is the fallacy. And it’s easily proved to be. Because we all, especially scientists, derive oughts from an is all the time. 

    Consider a surgeon: if he wants his patient to survive, he ought to follow strict sterilization and antiseptic protocols. That is not an opinion. That is not a human creation. That is neither false nor vacuous. It’s a material fact of this universe that surgeons ought to follow strict sterilization and antiseptic protocols. That “ought” follows from an “is”: it is a fact that surgery patients will likely die from infection, it is a fact that there are only certain protocols that can reduce that risk, and it is a fact that the surgeon doesn’t want his patient to die from infection. Put those facts together, the total overall “is,” and you automatically get an “ought”: surgeons ought to follow strict sterilization and antiseptic protocols. Ought from an is. We do it in engineering (“architects ought to build bridges to withstand seismic waves”), we do it in agriculture (“farmers ought to fertilize and irrigate their fields”), we do it in every area of human life (“I ought to use a hammer instead of my hand to drive a nail”). Thus, the claim that we can’t get an ought from an is is decisively refuted by simple observation. To the contrary, we always get an ought from an is. In fact that is the only place you can get an ought from.

    Now if this is true in every endeavor of human life (medicine, engineering, agriculture, business, law, etc.), then it is certainly going to be true in interpersonal relations and personal life choices. In other words, morality. You just have to give up the fear that “egoism” reduces to “egotism.” Self interest is not a synonym of selfish. We care about others and make some sacrifices for them because, ultimately, let’s be honest, it pleases us to, and we would feel much worse about ourselves if we didn’t do at least something for them. In fact, psychologically, we feel bad about ourselves precisely as much as we fail to live up to our own expectations, and good about ourselves precisely to the extent that we realize in ourselves who we really want to be. Which is why the Golden Rule is the most universal moral ought: because if we do for others what we expect from them, we are neither exceeding nor falling short of what we want to be as a person. Any more, and we would harm ourselves and be unhappy. Any less, and we would disappoint ourselves and be unhappy. Thus, it is a material fact of this universe that human happiness depends on living by the Golden Rule. That is not an opinion. That is not a human creation. That is neither false nor vacuous. Just as for the surgeon, for all of us this “is” entails a very real “ought.” And it does so in many more ways than what I have just summarized. I detail all the scientific facts (the total overall “is”) from which a definite set of moral “oughts” follow, in my book Sense and Goodness without God.

    http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2009/11/rosenberg-on-naturalism.html

    • Chris
      Posted October 9, 2010 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

      Carrier makes a common mistake here. To say that doing x usually leads to y, therefore if we really want y, we ought to do x is just plain wrong, at least if you try to pretend that the ought used here is analogous with moral oughts.

      To say that x leads to y says nothing more than doing x you will usually get y. If you want y, and there were no other salient considerations, than you would probably do x. So the surgeon who really wants to eliminate infection will certainly follow certain hand washing procedures. Of course, even here there are other considerations. The power of being lazy is considerable. It sometimes takes great effort to force doctors to (not to mention restaurant workers)actually follow all the best practices involved in eliminating infection. I am a teacher, and I am sure I often say “If you want your grade to go up, you ought to do x, y, z to prepare. Suppose, doing x, y, z, really do lead to higher test scores, and the student really wants to get higher scores. So the student will study? If he or she does, of course consistently, the whole need to say he or she “ought” to study is moot. It is like saying if you step off the cliff, you ought to fall.

      But we all know that the student may not study. Maybe getting a high score is not the only path to happiness the child sees. Maybe the joy of playing Farmville is just too compelling. Maybe the child wants to make out with his or her boy or girl friend. Who can argue with that. Of course, it is these possibilities that lead me to asserting my preference and say “you ought to study”.

  25. Posted January 4, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    I am an admirer of Sam Harris. His is eminently articulate, thoughtful and rational. I have not yet read this book, but I also recall misgivings during his TED talk about morality and science.

    He kept on saying: it is clearly better that a society do such and such… and I agreed with him, but as it is we who are making that judgement, the judgment itself is suspect. It is not a universal truth.

    Take the human urge for revenge. It is a powerful natural force in us all and it has been a major factor in our development over the millennia. Is it right or wrong, justifiable, or not? Is it legitimate in certain circs. only?

    Revenge is a found in individual, societal, political, religious conduct. The desire to seek revenge can probably be determined in a chemical reaction in the brain, strongly associated with the urge to survive, prosper and reproduce.

    It is accepted as legitimate in some form in most societies, but increasingly less so, as we discover more and more the harms it causes, it’s self perpetuating/cyclical nature, and even the sense of ill being that can come with it. So we might say that “revenge” is a human urge (instinct) which has evolved and is evolving.

    If one looks at the structure of the universe and its evolution and inevitable development to whatever it will become, there is really no room for the concept of “good vs evil” “right vs wrong”. These are human concepts which have definite chemical origins as we also evolve. To me “revenge” is unacceptable, yet I can feel it within me as a desire at times, even in small silly ways, and I can definitely see that people in other cultures take it mortally seriously, justifiable and proper at times. It occurs in most judicial systems, realpolitique, “w” used it as one reason to attack Iraq.

    I’ll read Sam’s book, but I do not see morality as an absolute, but as a naturally evolving order of human society.

  26. Posted September 7, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    You might like this light-hearted but important 25-page ebook, “How to Talk to Your New Age Relative” (see website). It is designed mostly for secularists who have had limited exposure to the New Age, and who are struggling with a close relative. If you want a review copy contact me and I will forward the Word doc – it is only 25 pages. Thnx! Hoagy.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Appiah reviews Harris’s The Moral Landscape (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com) […]

  2. […] Why Evolution Is True – Appiah reviews Harris’s The Moral Landscape […]

%d bloggers like this: