Harris responds to Blackford

Yesterday I called attention to Russell Blackford’s review of Sam Harris’s new book, The Moral Landscape, which asserts that one can use science to judge the morality of different behaviors.  Sam responded in an email to me that, at my request, he’s allowing me to post.  Sam emphasizes, though, that this is a personal email and not a polished piece meant for publication.  (Nevertheless, Sam’s emails are as polished as most people’s books!)  If you haven’t read Russell’s piece, or my post from yesterday summarizing it, it might be salutary to do so before reading Sam’s reply, which is below the line.
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I just noticed your blog post about the Blackford review. At some point, I’ll have to respond to all of this at greater length. But, briefly, in response to your core points:
  • How do we actually measure well being?; for that is what we must do to make moral judgments.  The metric for well being of a person, or an animal, must differ from that of groups or societies, yet they’re to be put on a single scale. In some cases, of course, it’s easy; in others, seemingly impossible.
This is simply not a problem for my thesis (recall my “answers in practice vs. answers in principle” argument). There is a difference between how we verify the truth of a proposition and what makes a proposition true. How many breaths did I take last Tuesday? I don’t know, and there is no way to find out. But there is a correct, numerical answer to this question (and you can bet the farm that it falls between 5 and 5 million).
  • Given that, how do we trade off different types of well-being? How do you determine, for example, whether torture is moral? In some case, as Harris pointed out in The End of Faith, torture may save innumerable lives, but there’s a societal effect in sanctioning it.  How do you weigh these?  How do you determine whether the well-being of animals outweighs the well-being we experience when eating meat?
These are all interesting questions. Some might admit of clear answers, while others might be impossible to resolve. But this is not my problem. The case I make in the book is that morality entirely depends on the existence of conscious minds; minds are natural phenomena; and, therefore, moral truths exist (and can be determined by science in principle, if not always in practice). The fact that we can easily come up with questions that are hard or impossible to answer does not challenge my thesis.
  • There are behaviors that we see as moral, or at least not immoral, that Harris’s metric nevertheless deems immoral.  We favor our children and family, for example, over other people.  According to Harris, we shouldn’t do this unless it increases universal well-being.  Don’t give money to your kids—give nearly all of it to poor Africans who need clean water and medicine.  Yet people do not condemn others for giving their kids a marginal benefit in lieu of tremendous benefits to strangers.
Admittedly, I did not spend as much time on this issue as I could have — but the answer here seems pretty straightforward. There may be many equivalent peaks on the moral landscape: on some everyone might favor their friends and family to a degree that is compatible with universal well-being; perhaps on others everyone is truly impartial. No doubt there will be other regions lower down on the ML where people are highly biased towards their nearest and dearest, at a significant cost to everyone. Perhaps there are also regions where everyone is truly impartial, but their impartiality functions in concert with other factors so as to degrade the well-being of everyone. Every possible weighting of us-vs.-them can be represented in this space, along with all other relevant variables — and each will have consequences in terms of the well-being of everyone involved. Yes, there will be worlds in which some very selfish people make out rather well while causing great misery to others. And yes, it could be impossible to convince these people that life would be better if they behaved differently. But so what? These won’t be peaks on the landscape, and it will still be true to say that movement upwards toward a peak will be constrained by the laws of nature.
Blackford (along with everyone else) has gotten bogged down in the concepts of “should” and “ought.” We simply don’t have to think about morality in these terms. Yes, we feel certain moral imperatives — I can be overcome by remorse, for instance, and feel that I “should” apologize for something that I’ve done. But this is just a folk-psychological way of talking about my experience in relationship to others. What if my apologizing in this instance would create an immensity of suffering for everyone on earth? Well, then, I “shouldn’t” do it. And if I still felt a nagging sense that I still should apologize, I “should” ignore this very feeling. Whether we feel that we should do something, or can convince others that they should do it, is all but irrelevant to the question of whether we will be moving up or down on the ML (modulo the psychological cost of living with nagging feelings of “should”).
I’ve discussed this a fair amount in my public talks. Yes, it is possible for our moral intuitions to be misguided — and we need to learn to ignore certain framing effects. In this case, however, it is also possible that we are responding to the fact that the situations are not actually the same. If pushing a person is just BOUND to have a much bigger effect on us than flipping a switch–well, then, we have to take this effect into account. Needless to say, we could concoct a trolley problem that made this nonequivalence undeniable: just imagine a version in which the man you were being asked to push had the opportunity to plead for his life and show you pictures of his wife and children…
  • According to Blackford, Harris fails to give a convincing reason why people should be moral.  Blackford notes:

If we are going to provide [a person] with reasons to act in a particular way, or to support a particular policy, or condemn a traditional custom – or whatever it might be – sooner or later we will need to appeal to the values, desires, and so on, that she actually has. There are no values that are, mysteriously, objectively binding on us all in the sense I have been discussing. Thus it is futile to argue from a presupposition that we are all rationally bound to act so as to maximize global well-being. It is simply not the case.

Again, this totally misses the point of my argument. And the same annihilating claim could be made about any branch of science. There are no scientific values that command assent in the way that Blackford worries morality should. Why value human well-being? Well, why value logic, or evidence, or understanding the universe? Some people don’t, and there’s no talking to them. The fact that some people cannot be reached on the subject of physics — or use the term “physics” in ways that we cannot sanction — says absolutely nothing about the limitations of physics or about the nature of physical truth. Why should differences of opinion hold any more weight on the subject of good and evil?

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I believe Sam is preparing a comprehensive reply to some of the criticisms of his book, so by all means continue this dialogue in the comments, refraining—as always—from invective.

168 Comments

  1. MosesZD
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 5:38 am | Permalink

    I like Sam. I like Russell. The end result may be I have to buy the book, damn them, to see for myself… 🙂

  2. Posted January 18, 2011 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    Harris’ latest book just moved up my “must read” list.

    I still think that the starting point for “ought” has to be found some place other than the “is”, although in this case it might be only a sorry SOB who doesn’t agree with the moral necessity of reducing suffering.

  3. gk4ca
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    I like Sam. And true to his explanations, his book is about a possibility to answer moral problems using science, not stating a new dogma about morality.

    The wording of ‘landscape’ (I am confident derived from Dawkin’s mountain – isn’t it good to have the apostle reinforcing each other .. :D) is the strong indication. A lot of others (I suspect Blackford included) have a knee-jerk reaction every time they read or think morality, a certainty, a dogma.

    This book is not about that.
    Agree with Coyne, this book is one of the first books to discuss morality not in a priestly sense. I believe there will be more to come, one from Dennett is definitely nice ..

    Cheers!

    • Posted January 18, 2011 at 7:34 am | Permalink

      “…one of the first books to discuss morality not in a priestly sense.”

      Huh? Except for, say, Aristotle, among a few others, like maybe several dozen philosophers I can think of off the top of my head.

      In fact, the best moral philosophy has always come from the non-priestly class. Augustine and Aquinas, guys who really just co-opted pagan and atheist philosophy for Catholicism stick in our memory, only because of the dominant religious-political structure of the last 20 centuries. They really added nothing substantive, only the mythical sky wizard.

      Maybe Harris is making such prodigious philosophy attainable to the masses– which was my hope, that he would re-assume philosophy for the atheists– but alas, I found his book a disappointment… like reading a cartoon version of Shakespeare or Homer.

      • gk4ca
        Posted January 18, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

        Wah wah .. @Tony, seems like I hit a nerve here. Aristotle as an example of non-priestly ? (priestly = evoking god/gods/godlike figures)

        Reading Harris’ book as a comic form of Shakespeare? Haw .. either you don’t get Harris’ or Shakes’ or both?

        Anyway, now I know that not everybody enjoyed Harris (or Dawkins, or Dennett) – somehow that strikes me as nothing unusual ..

        Sam is the most controversial among the Four, remember what his position in spirituality – is almost diametral to the others.

        The spirit of science is to go to where it takes, not to where it ‘ought’ to be. Go Sam GO! 😀

        • Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

          The “god” that Aristotle invokes is not the transcendent Old Testament deity, but rather Providence, ie, a nondescript all-pervading order of things. I think modernists can see such an entity in natural selection, the laws of physics and chemistry. We don’t need an intercessory god to explain things.

          Abandoning the great thinkers as Harris and others have done, basically allowing theists to count them among their own, leaves us unnecessarily without a philosophical foundation.

          My thought is that Aristotle, if he were alive today, would side with Dawkins/ Hitchens/ Dennett/ Harris over Augustine/ Aristotle/ BenedictIV.

      • Lucette Smoes
        Posted January 21, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

        I am afraid Sam Harris is on his way to become the Deepak Chopra of morality.

    • Dave Ricks
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

      My interpretation of Sam’s metaphor of a landscape (from the image in his TED talk) was that when we formulate a mathematical optimization of a system with multiple inputs x, we formulate a performance function (to be maximized) or a cost function (to be minimized) or an objective function (to be maximized or minimized). Those are three names for the same concept, because maximizing one function f(x) is the same as minimizing another function 1/f(x). Wikipedia shows a paraboloid as a simple example we can visualize (where the input x has two variables, and the function f(x) is a quadratic). Sam’s image was more general, with multiple peaks and valleys.

      This is not to say Sam expects to formulate a unique f(x), or expects science to identify a unique one (like classical mechanics identified ellipses being the “right answer” for orbits). His analogy to health persuades me, that science can make qualified claims about what is healthful without waiting for a unique definition of health. And healthcare has dilemmas and judgment calls, so if Sam’s approach still has dilemmas and judgment calls, that seems consistent with his analogy to health.

      • Posted January 22, 2011 at 9:47 am | Permalink

        All the analogy to health means is that well-being and morality are both open to scientific study. It does not show that scientific conclusions of a certain sort just are moral prescriptions, however, and that is the only part of Harris’ project that is controversial. There is a difference between a science of morality and a scientific morality: Harris wants both, but only the former is a viable option. And the former has been well under way for some time, of course.

  4. Posted January 18, 2011 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    Another concern is that if you could, in principle, obtain an objective criteria for moral truth or an objective criteria for universal well-being, would it be worth having? I know this is not an argument against the existence of such properties (in principle), but a truly objective morality could be percieved as inertly boring, and an objective well-being seems, well, creepy. Part of the inventiveness of moral discourse is recognizing the emergent, fluid properties of morality in culture while establishing judicial consensus via process-based expediency. Nonetheless, science should and must play a larger role in this dynamic process.

    • Posted January 18, 2011 at 6:35 am | Permalink

      Who cares whether it’s “boring” if it helps us create a better life? The results would be pretty exciting.

      • Posted January 18, 2011 at 6:46 am | Permalink

        Agreed … as long as a slide-ruler is not involved.

      • Lucette Smoes
        Posted January 21, 2011 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

        Unless the better life is a boring life.

    • Posted January 18, 2011 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      Another concern is that if you could, in principle, obtain an objective criteria for moral truth or an objective criteria for universal well-being, would it be worth having?

      Wouldn’t it be, by definition?

      And this is just sad to me:

      Part of the inventiveness of moral discourse is recognizing the emergent, fluid properties of morality in culture while establishing judicial consensus via process-based expediency.

      As if those things are somehow lost when we recognize an objectivity under them. Yes, life is complicated and it sometimes requires imaginative depth to figure things out. The notion that this somehow goes away or is lost once we have objectivity is just a dogma.

      Related Richard Feynman quote:

      Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination – stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one – million – year – old light. A vast pattern – of which I am a part… What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?

      • Posted January 18, 2011 at 8:30 am | Permalink

        There is a distinction, pointed out by Dennett, Weinberg, and Hofstadter between “good” reductionism and “greedy” reductionism. By any standard, morality would require a compromised reductionism — not that it isn’t an effort worth pursuing.

        • Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink

          My sense is that even a good/greedy distinction isn’t going to impoverish our imaginations when it comes to right and wrong, but that rather the truth would stretch our imaginations, as Feynman said. Also I don’t see that it threatens the reality moral stuff that Sam Harris seems to be after but maybe that was not your point.

          • Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink

            I suppose I should have prefaced my intention in playing devil’s advocate. Clearly the ML thesis can provide a better (and rationally defensible) way of movement upwards toward a peak compared to many forms of speculative moral discourse. It is the top-tier nuances of experience that may forever be immune to objective agreement. I’m trying to envision and predict where future problems may arise by using this method without discounting its intrinsic validity.

        • gk4ca
          Posted January 18, 2011 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

          This is a good critics. I also get the feel that quoting “well-being” is somewhat greedy (reductionism).

          It may point to the right direction, but we need more meat on this skeletal finger ..

          Guess we have to wait, for Sam to move on or somebody else elbow in ..

      • Posted January 22, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

        The crucial word here may be “obtain.” It’s not hard to get a hold of practicable, objective moral standards. We make them up all the time. But we’d be lying to ourselves if we said we got them in the form of scientific conclusions. (Though we can make them up with the help of scientific conclusions.)

        But the question of do we even want this? is interesting. For example, it is plausible that science can tell us that, for the majority of people, happiness/suffering < 1. (I.e., their suffering outweighs their happiness.) So, to improve universal well-being, it would be better for these people not to have been born. Does this mean it is immoral to have children?

        I think the point to absorb here is that any objective standard we develop for our moral thinking will have to be adjusted to fit our moral intuitions. We wouldn't want a metric that forced us to make decisions we felt were immoral. I think that means we can't have a scientific morality, period. We can, however, use science to develop our moral thinking. But this is only half of what Sam Harris wants, and it's not the controversial half.

  5. Posted January 18, 2011 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    Sam: “…morality entirely depends on the existence of conscious minds; minds are natural phenomena; and, therefore, moral truths exist.”

    I think the conclusion is rather that therefore morality is a natural phenomenon. As part of our biological moral endowment, we’re strongly predisposed to think that there are moral truths independent of our moral intuitions to which they correspond and are dictated by. But there aren’t, there are only the varieties of consensus around what’s right and good shaped by cultures, constrained of course by our shared moral instincts. Science can’t replace God as the arbiter of the resulting disagreements about what counts as human flourishing, since it simply describes this variability – it doesn’t prescribe which view we *ought* to subscribe to. But since the disagreements are often generated by differences in worldviews, progress toward a global humanistic consensus about flourishing might be achieved as more and more people take science, not faith, as the basis for their beliefs.

    • gk4ca
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

      As mentioned by Coyne, I tend to agree that Sam’s paragraph above is problematic. Yes, Sam has his problems (who doesn’t?).

      A bigger one, is the definition of “well-being” and its non-definitive boundaries, as discussed by Sam himself.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if later on Sam’s criteria for morality will be somewhat revised (or even overhauled, as long as it is not go back to godly one ..).

      Morality is an aggregated product – it has strong personal individual effects, but its origin and evolution definitely not (only) on individual level, rather on groups of human, in evolutions against other groups.

      Empirically, we are still very early on this kind of agregated values. A few decades worth of economics, politics and sociological studies. We start to understand swarm of robots, but not yet swarm of humans.

      Until then, we will have to struggle with inadequate concepts, toward this new direction of reading on morality.

      I won’t bet my farm on Sam’s ‘well-being’ idea. But something within this vagueness lay the real thing, which will be clearer later.

      And alas! I do think that Sam also think this way. His WBness (well-beingness) is just a signpost in the general direction of the target ..

  6. Simon
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    I was struck by Sam’s (almost) syllogism:

    “morality entirely depends on the existence of conscious minds; minds are natural phenomena; and, therefore, moral truths exist (and can be determined by science in principle, if not always in practice)”

    Does this hold? Let’s try inserting something other than “morality”:

    comedy entirely depends on the existence of concious minds…, therefore comedic thruths exist (and can be determined by science in principle).

    Anyone buy this? or see the problem?

    • Matt
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 7:04 am | Permalink

      Well put

    • Somite
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 7:12 am | Permalink

      Regardless of the details Sam’s book is more useful for the extremes. It is a call to put rational discourse before other considerations.

      My most important lesson was that we should attempt to remove the agonizing over “ought ” and “is” from moral discussions and concentrate on the “we should”. Just like any other human discipline.

      • Posted January 18, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

        But it isn’t a call to put rational discourse before other considerations. The word Sam uses is “science.” That makes his case much more difficult.

    • Dominic
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 7:13 am | Permalink

      I agree with you – insert GOD/S for example…

      Where does that leave us?

      The only place these things exist is in our minds & written/verbal intercourse.

      • gk4ca
        Posted January 18, 2011 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

        Inserting gods will get you nowhere knowledge-wise, but it gives warm feeling to other confused souls, and if you say it forceful enough, might get you a lot of warm dinner invitations and doughs … 😉

    • Tulse
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      Exactly, Simon — my example was going to be “aesthetics”, another area that has had a lot of philosophical cogitation.

      “Aesthetics entirely depends on the existence of concious minds…, therefore aesthetic truths exist (and can be determined by science in principle).”

      While I suppose that both comedy reviewing and art criticism could be somewhat informed by neuroscience, it is absurd to think that there are foundational scientific truths in those domains. Once we define some sort of metric within the domains, it is possible that science could help us measure it (for example, if beauty is in part a matter of symmetry, we could create objective measure of symmetry). But that is very different than actually normatively defining what should be beautiful, or should be funny.

      • MosesZD
        Posted January 18, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink

        Just because you find it offensive, doesn’t mean you’re right. Or are rational about the issue. The mind is not sacred, nor are it’s thoughts. And while it may be difficult, as Neil DeGrasse Tyson says: “When Ignorance lurks, so too do the frontiers of discovery and imagination.”

        In fact, he has really good lecture about what happens with people when they get to the limits of their knowledge. Many, in fact, give up and call in religion or spirituality. You can see it here:

        And that’s what those of you who say “can’t be done are doing.” Sure, you may not be calling the God of gaps directly. But you are, in fact, giving the gap to ignorance/god/spirituality/the unknown.

        And that’s a failure of your process, not science.

        • Tulse
          Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:18 am | Permalink

          Just because you find it offensive, doesn’t mean you’re right.

          Who said anything about “offensive”? The problem is a logical equivocation, not some sort of umbrage. If you disagree with the position expressed, attack the argument, not the person.

    • MosesZD
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

      lol. That’s pretty funny. Because you’re doing a good job in making Harris’ point with your analogy.

      Or were you unaware there are many people in neuropsychology who study humor, laughter and comedy? And there are models that describe the process…

      Because there are…

      Which is amusing. Because while you seem to be implying it can’t be done… It can and is… And with success…

      • Tulse
        Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

        were you unaware there are many people in neuropsychology who study humor, laughter and comedy?

        Do those researcher declare that some joke simply can’t be funny, regardless of whether some people laugh at it? The kind of research you are describing surely is descriptive, and not normative, which is precisely the distinction under discussion.

      • Simon
        Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

        Possibly anything that “depends on concious minds” could the the subject of a neuroscience study. That much should be obvious.

        But such neuroscience would tell us about how “comedy” (or alternative) relates to brains. I don’t think anyone here is arguing that such work is impossible, or unsuccessful. But it does not tell us that certain comedic styles, jokes etc. are “truths” in any meaningful sense I know, or even support the idea that truths in such an area do or could exist. (Would aliens find the same jokes funny?)

        • Austin
          Posted January 21, 2011 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

          I was actually first struck by Sam Harris’ thesis as a great corollary to part of Hume’s view on aesthetics. Hume says that you can tell the difference between a “molehill and a mountain” in terms of art, easier than you can tell scientific truths. We can be more sure of Beethoven’s superiority over Britney Spears than we can be sure that water is made up of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen.

          This is a controversial thesis, but something I find fascinating. So yes, I think there are a few smart and daring people who would argue for a Science of Aesthetics or a Science of Comedy.

          And the fact that you wonder if aliens would find the same jokes funny is weird. Such an effort would apply to humans only…just as our medicine probably wouldn’t work on aliens.

    • Tyro
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      Maybe you can explain what’s so obviously wrong about this.

      We have generally a good intuition about what makes a good joke but I have a hard time imagining that they will not be open to science. I do agree that this would be overkill but then we don’t have people seriously arguing that it’s “funny” to throw acid into women’s faces. If we did, perhaps the extra rigour would be welcome.

      • Lucette Smoes
        Posted January 21, 2011 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

        “We have generally a good intuition about what makes a good joke…”

        A good joke in one culture will often not even be understandable in another culture.

    • lamacher
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure of the equivalence of morality with comedy, but it is a thought. My question is: is there a natural morality? If there is, is it, as has been stated so poetically, if starkly,’red in tooth and claw’, oriented only toward survival? If so, perhaps the rise of consciousness, with the necessity for behaviors governing group dynamics as opposed to solitary existence, has changed the metrics of morality. Therein, behavioral psychology might have a role. Maybe.

      • gk4ca
        Posted January 18, 2011 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

        I think you get something here. Morality definitely not a static metric or concept or anything. Along human evolution, morality must also evolve. There is a ‘red tooth’ version, early agriculture version, early kingdom version, modern version.

        Only within an individual lifetime it seems eternal.

        BUT still.. what defines it? is it ‘well-being’? (!) Or there are some random effects in it too? Some chance encounters, bumps here and there just as the old evolution ..?

        well ..

    • Thanny
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      There is absolutely no problem with there being truths about comedy.

      Comedy is about what people find funny. People are physical phenomena in a material universe.

      How many people would find a given presentation funny is a fact about the physical world that can, in principle, be discovered, even if the only practical way is via direct experiment (which is essentially what stand-up comics do for a living).

      If you think comedy is a concept that exists apart from the physical brains that create and appreciate it, you’re just wrong.

    • Posted January 20, 2011 at 7:38 am | Permalink

      Science is surely at least as applicable to comedy as to morality. Besides, perhaps the fundamental weakness of Harris’s argument is that he can’t really show that we *should* follow a possible objective morality (e.g. one’s religion might override it). That may not be possible in principle, but at least with comedy it’s extremely unlikely that anyone will say you *should* find Fawlty Towers funnier than Little Britain, even though I’m sure it objectively is.

      • Messi
        Posted January 26, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink

        What people are ignoring here is that there can be multiple peaks given your weights. For instance, if you prefer physical comedy over the intellectual type, you will have a different peak on the ‘comedic landscape’ if you will. But, both peaks may be more or less equal in height.

        On the other hand, if you find killing babies to be funny, you might be in a valley on the comedic landscape and thus be open to criticism for your beliefs.

        The point is not that we will find objectively that joke/moral 1 is 20 points greater than joke/moral 2 but that the entire debate of joke/moral 1 vs 2 is entirely open to scientific debate.

        We can empirically test if a particular joke is funny and another joke is not. If you find an unfunny joke funny, well there’s something wrong with your sense of humour.

        • Richard Wein
          Posted January 28, 2011 at 6:37 am | Permalink

          “What people are ignoring here is that there can be multiple peaks given your weights. For instance, if you prefer physical comedy over the intellectual type, you will have a different peak on the ‘comedic landscape’ if you will. But, both peaks may be more or less equal in height.”

          I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood the concept of mathematical landscapes (as does Harris).

          A landscape corresponds to a mathematical function. What function do you have in mind here? You seem to be thinking of comedic value as a function of physicality and intellectuality. But are you talking about some subjective notion of comedic value, so that a given joke can have different comedic value for different viewers? Or are you talking about an objective notion of comedic value which is independent of the viewer? Either way, what you’ve written doesn’t make sense.

          If comedic value is an objective quantity (as you mostly seem to think) then the weights and preferences of different viewers are irrelevant. It makes no sense to say that each person “has a different peak on the landscape”. Each person may have a point in the underlying search space (i.e. a combination of physicality and intellectuality) which most suits his preferences. But that has nothing directly to do with the height of the landscape at that point (which represents only the objective comedic value). Personal preference points needn’t correspond to peaks on the landscape of objective comedic value.

          If comedic value is viewer-dependent, i.e. dependent on the weights he gives to physicality and intellectuality, then the value of the function (the height of the landscape) will be viewer-dependent. In other words, there will be a different function (a different landscape) of comedic value for each viewer. It still makes no sense to say that each person “has a different peak on the landscape”. Each person has a different landscape.

          Harris makes a similar error when he says that different measures of well-being give different peaks on a landscape. No, they give different mathematical functions, corresponding to different landscapes.

          None of this resolves the question of whether there exists an objective comedic (or moral) value. But a faulty understanding of the concept of landscapes gets in the way of discussing the subject clearly.

          • Messi
            Posted January 29, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

            First, I meant comedic value as an ‘objective quantity’ hence the entire scientific approach to comedy etc.

            Second, since you seem to want to approach this mathematically, I hope you realise that no matter how many different points you may have on a plane (two-dimensional or multi-dimensional), you will always have a function that fits them all together UNLESS you have two people who have the same weights but do not agree on the comedic value of a single joke – this is unacceptable and irrational. This can be easily proven as well – you can’t say that even though you like intellectual comedy more if you hate Yes Minister and you love Fawlty Towers.

            “Personal preference points needn’t correspond to peaks on the landscape of objective comedic value.”

            I think I understand your problem here. You are having difficulty grasping that personal comedic functions may be objectively right or wrong. If your personal objectivity function is objectively right, it will be some submapping of the peaks on the objective comedic function. If your comedic function is objectively wrong, it will be some submapping which doesn’t include a single peak on the objective comedic function.

            • Messi
              Posted January 29, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

              Good god – the number of typos/errors is ridiculous in my post. Please forgive me, remove the ‘even though’ in the last sentence of the second paragraph.

              Also, I meant ‘if your personal comedy function’ not your ‘objectivity function’ in the last para.

              Again, my apologies for slop-shoddy proofreading.

  7. donK
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    Anything that depends on conscious minds will be as variable as they are. A moral consensus is obtained when conscious minds reach the same conclusion, not when they all function alike.

    • gk4ca
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

      “A moral consensus is obtained when conscious minds reach the same conclusion, not when they all function alike.”

      Good point. Just as an environment variable answered differently by different organisms, to create a new environment later.

      This is definitely an evolution-thingy!

  8. Dominic
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right”.
    Isaac Asimov (via his character Salvor Hardin).

    • Somite
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 7:14 am | Permalink

      Yes! Asimov is always right : Sam Harris agrees with Asimov : ergo, Sam Harris is right! 🙂

  9. Matt
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    How many breaths did I take last Tuesday? I don’t know, and there is no way to find out. But there is a correct, numerical answer to this question (and you can bet the farm that it falls between 5 and 5 million).

    But you haven’t given any reason to think that well being can be measured, even in principle.

    morality entirely depends on the existence of conscious minds; minds are natural phenomena; and, therefore, moral truths exist (and can be determined by science in principle, if not always in practice).

    The wording here is deceptive. Let’s put this another way: “ought statements exist only in our minds; our minds are natural phenomena; therefore ought statements are natural phenomena (and can be determined by science)”

    Notice that all we get out of this is that ought statements can be “measured” by science, not actual oughts. Of course science can determine what we think we ought to do, but it cannot determine what we actually ought to do.

    “According to Blackford, Harris fails to give a convincing reason why people should be moral.”
    Again, this totally misses the point of my argument. And the same annihilating claim could be made about any branch of science.[…] Why value human well-being? Well, why value logic, or evidence, or understanding the universe?

    Sam, you are the one who has totally missed the point. He’s not saying “you haven’t convinced me to care about morality”. What he is saying is that you have defined “moral” as “contributing to well-being,” but you haven’t given any convincing reason why we ought to contribute to well being. You haven’t shown that well-being is the highest good. (Of course, neither did Jeremy Bentham, but he did not claim to bridge the is/ought gap.) Without using science to show that well-being is the highest good, you cannot claim to have developed a scientific morality.

    • Tulse
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 8:07 am | Permalink

      Notice that all we get out of this is that ought statements can be “measured” by science, not actual oughts. Of course science can determine what we think we ought to do, but it cannot determine what we actually ought to do.

      A very nice point, Matt. You’re right that Harris’ argument rests on this equivocation.

    • SwedishChef
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      I believe the way Sam thinks one can ‘show’ that well-being is the highest good, is via the thought-experiment of a state-of-affairs that is characterized as “The worst possible misery for everyone”. If there are ways of moving away from this state-of-affairs, than that must be a case of what by any rational standard should be considered “good”.

      • Posted January 22, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

        As far as I can tell, that proposed worst-case scenario is supposed to do the work here. I’ve found some serious problems with this point, though.

        First, even if we were to suppose there is such a thing as “the worst possible misery for everyone” (and there is reason to doubt that there is), we could suppose that this state can be realized in many different ways. Moving away from one state of maximal suffering might only lead us towards another. So we may never be able to move away from all such states. This makes it impossible, in principle to define any action as “good” or “bad” by Harris’ standard.

        Furthermore, again supposing that there is such a thing as “the worst possible misery for everyone,” this is not obviously the worst-case scenario. Imagine a state in which every capable denizen of every populated planet in the universe suffers for as much and as long as possible. Now imagine the same state, but in which the denizens of one of those planets (Planet X) is responsible for the rest of the suffering in the universe, and rejoices considerably in all of that suffering. It’s their Thanksgiving and their Christmas. So we have two states, one of maximized universal suffering and one of slightly less suffering, but with a population of sadistic aliens who derive more pleasure from the suffering of small children on earth than you could ever imagine. Which scenario is the most morally devastating? I (and several people I’ve asked from various cultural backgrounds) would rather everybody suffered equally. According to Sam Harris, that means my vote just doesn’t count.

        Anyway, there are good reasons for doubting there is such a thing as “the worst possible misery for everyone,” so I don’t think we should worry too much about this. But it also means that Harris’ equation of morality with the maximization of well-being is without foundation.

    • Wildhog
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      Our capacity to see certain things as “good” is naturally tied to well-being. That doesn’t fall within the realm of philosophy to prove, it’s a fact that’s evident from a study of biology. Our sense of empathy and fairness evolved because they produce greater well-being. To suggest that our concept of “good” is unrelated to well-being is to reject what we know about biology and evolution.

      • Tulse
        Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:35 am | Permalink

        Our capacity to see certain things as “good” is naturally tied to well-being.

        A psychopath would agree, but argue that it is only their well-being that matters.

        • Tyro
          Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:40 am | Permalink

          Indeed.

          But turning to a psychopath for insights into morality is as valuable as turning to a Creationist for insights into evolution. I don’t see why their views should even enter into a serious discussion.

          • Tulse
            Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

            Why not? Your comment is pure question-begging.

            What counts as moral insights is precisely the issue under discussion — you don’t get to dismiss psychopaths a priori without an argument.

            • Tyro
              Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:20 am | Permalink

              Speaking about dismissing things a priori, this looks like yet another case where you’re dismissing his arguments without ever having read them yourself.

              So, to psychopaths. Are you really arguing that they have something valuable to contribute?

              Please share just how you apply this sense of openness in other areas. How do you integrate the views of astrologers into astronomy, of cannibals into cuisine?

              If your moral sense is so ill-formed that you seriously imagine that psychopaths have insight into morality then I think you’re casting your lot with the cannibals and Creationists and should politely be shown the door.

              • Tulse
                Posted January 18, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

                Tyro, instead of invective, how about addressing the argument? The claim that psychopaths are irrelevant to discussions of morality is nothing more than question-begging, as I have pointed out several times. It is not a response to simply get all puffed up and outraged.

                My point is that one way to construct a morality is on pure selfishness, to be concerned only for one’s own well-being. If we want a “science” of morality, then that science should be able to tell use why that particular approach is “wrong”, why we “ought” not behave that way. That is the question I’ve been putting forward. If it can only be answered with vague indignation, that is not comforting.

              • Tyro
                Posted January 18, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

                Tulse,

                What argument? I don’t see one, I just see you critiquing others. If you think your critique isn’t met that’s fine, but don’t pretend like you’ve presented an argument.

                You’ve observed that psychopaths would disagree with Harris’s views on morality and with a wink and a nudge you imply that this is a weakness.

                It is not. It is a strength.

                If you believe that moral systems must be compatible with psychopathy then I can only shudder to imagine what horrors you will unleash should anyone listen to you. Fortunately we do not consult psychopaths on morality for the same reason we don’t consult them on health treatment or justice issues. Any system which a psychopath would endorse is not a moral system anyone would recognize or endorse. If this is somehow opaque to you, please present an argument so we might see what line of thinking has lead to this dark alley.

              • Tulse
                Posted January 18, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

                If you believe that moral systems must be compatible with psychopathy

                Huh? Where above did I say that? I said that moral systems must provide reasons why psychopathic behaviour is wrong. In Harris’ case, a “scientific” moral system must provide objective, evidence-based reasons why such behaviour is wrong. You seem to keep saying that such behaviour is wrong a priori, which simply isn’t an argument.

              • Tyro
                Posted January 18, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

                Tulse,

                You seem to keep saying that such behaviour is wrong a priori, which simply isn’t an argument.

                I apologize if I left that impression, it was not my intent nor my argument.

                I am saying that even a quick look at how psychopaths operate will tell us that their moral views are at such variance with how essentially everyone else views morals that we can exclude them from the discussion. It is not a priori, rather it is based on a consideration of their traits.

                As has been argued elsewhere, morality is about well-being and since psychopaths don’t care about well-being, we should not care what they think either.

                Was there something more that you’re getting at, like having a moral science which must accommodate the views of even the most extreme, aberrant individuals?

              • Tulse
                Posted January 18, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

                their moral views are at such variance with how essentially everyone else views morals that we can exclude them from the discussion

                So we’re making moral arguments based on popularity, rather than something more concrete? At one time slavery was supported by a majority of people, but I presume you’d argue that they were objectively wrong, correct?

                morality is about well-being and since psychopaths don’t care about well-being, we should not care what they think either

                But they do care about well-being — their own. My point is that one needs to provide an argument why pure selfishness is immoral, and not to simply assume it. And in Harris’ case, that argument has to be grounded in science, or else his project has no foundation.

              • Tyro
                Posted January 18, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

                Tulse,

                So we’re making moral arguments based on popularity, rather than something more concrete?

                You mean: did Harris write a book founded on an elementary logical fallacy that Coyne and Blackford didn’t notice after several readings but which you did?

                No.

              • Tulse
                Posted January 18, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

                So then what did you mean by

                their moral views are at such variance with how essentially everyone else views morals that we can exclude them from the discussion

              • Tyro
                Posted January 18, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

                So then what did you mean by

                their moral views are at such variance with how essentially everyone else views morals that we can exclude them from the discussion

                I mean that the term “morality” has a meaning which is broadly set by convention. Harris does try to provide a more precise definition which might be empirically measured and he argues that the popular and conventional understanding of the term “moral” is equivalent to his. That is the level where we need the popularity contest, just like we need for other words.

                But once we have the meaning, we can ask whether something is moral or not and not have to rely on popularity for just the reasons you hinted at.

              • Tulse
                Posted January 19, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink

                I mean that the term “morality” has a meaning which is broadly set by convention.

                “Convention”? That seems a huge retreat from the notion that morality is a scientific issue. Doesn’t such a position completely undermine Harris’ notion that morality is not relativist? If Islamic fundamentalists use “morality” to mean a different set of conventions that those of the secular West, how can Harris’ project of establishing clear objective evaluation of morality proceed?

                Or, more precisely, whose conventions are we following, and most importantly, why?

              • Tyro
                Posted January 19, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

                “Convention”? That seems a huge retreat from the notion that morality is a scientific issue.

                Let’s see.

                You vehemently disagree with a book you’ve never read, you accuse the writer of making elementary logical fallacies without once considering that it may be you who is mistaken, and now you confuse the definition of “morality” with the study of morals.

                If you aren’t a troll, you’re doing a good job of acting like one.

                I bid you good day, sir.

              • Tulse
                Posted January 19, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

                Tyro, that was uncalled for. I’ve been trying to engage in serious arguments, and your responses have, for the most part, resorted to personal attacks rather than actually engaging with the issue. Perhaps you’re right that our exchanges have reached the limits of their potential productivity.

              • Jeremiah
                Posted January 20, 2011 at 10:15 am | Permalink

                I think I have to throw in with Tulse on this one. He backed you into a corner and instead of addressing the question you pivoted on an ad hominem. The idea that morality should be measured by human well-being is a simple assertion. One could just as easily (as utilitarians sometimes do) argue that morality should be measured against human success or any other such term. Harris is presupposing (a priori) that we have to first accept as a moral consensus that human well-being should be the measure of morality and this is the very valid concern that Tulse (and Blackford) have brought up.

                I’ll try to explain. Take slavery like Tulse brought up, or the subjugation of women. In days gone by both were socially acceptable, a moral consensus. Maybe it was a product of a more competitive reproductive environment where things were more ‘dog eats dog’ or maybe we were just stupider, but the fact is that out evolutionary psychology at that time in history told us that it was okay. Now today, maybe with so much comfort and opportunity our reproductive competition is not as fierce and it has softened our edges or maybe we just smartened up, doesn’t really matter, but now our current consensus tells us that human well being should be the measure. That’s fine, I don’t have a problem with that but the point is that our evolutionary psychology of 2000 years ago is different than it is today and in another 2000 years it might be different yet again and we might decide that ‘obviously’ well-being isn’t the correct measure of morality.

                Our judgment is necessarily clouded by our current evolutionary psychology and while we could devise moral measures that might be meaningful to us currently we can’t honestly claim that they are by any measure moral absolutes. An absolute by definition must be immutable, not bound up in cultural and evolutionary shifts.

              • Tyro
                Posted January 20, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

                Jeremiah,

                I gave up on Tulse not because I was in some jam but because his ignorant attacks kept being based on his imaginings and not on anything Harris’s actual argument. He showed no interest in learning what Harris actually said so why engage further?

                If he (or you) want to talk substance, that’s a different story.

                Harris is presupposing (a priori) that we have to first accept as a moral consensus that human well-being should be the measure of morality and this is the very valid concern that Tulse (and Blackford) have brought up.

                Why do you think it’s an a priori claim of Harris? That’s the opposite of what he says in the book and I don’t recall Blackford implying this either. Rather he presents this (with extensive arguments) as an equivalent definition of “morality”, and argues it’s widely held. Without getting the book, imagine what morals are about if they aren’t about well-being?

                Second is the complaint that Harris says we should accept well-being as a measure of morality. Again, this isn’t what Harris has argued, rather Harris argues that we do use well-being as a measure of morality. Again, Blackford has tried to argue that this is incomplete which seems reasonable – I see points on both sides.

                Be that as it may, I don’t think these points affect Harris’s overall thesis and I thought Blackford said as much in his reviews.

                Take slavery like Tulse brought up, or the subjugation of women. In days gone by both were socially acceptable, a moral consensus.

                This isn’t a counter example, in fact it further supports Harris. Both you and Tulse keep latching onto the word “consensus” like it has anything to do with Harris’s argument. It doesn’t, and I said as much to Tulse.

                In fact, given that the whole premise of Harris’s book is that, since we recognize well-being is morally right, we can look at specific behaviours like slavery to see how it holds up, regardless of how well accepted the practice is. He devotes time in the book talking about hypocrisy, religious-based codes and other practices which lead humans to behave immorally while still claiming to be moral (and even convincing themselves).

                I’m really surprised that anyone should think that this undermines Harris rather than as illustrating they don’t understand him. I mean, do you seriously believe that neither Harris nor any of his reviewers had considered slavery while writing the book? Just how much of an imbecile do you think he must be? And neither Blackford nor Coyne mentioned it so that must mean you & Tulse are far smarter than them!

                Yeah, or maybe instead of leaping on this as a counterexample you could both consider that you are missing some pretty major points.

                our evolutionary psychology of 2000 years ago is different than it is today and in another 2000 years it might be different yet again and we might decide that ‘obviously’ well-being isn’t the correct measure of morality.

                I’ve no doubt that many things which we do today will be viewed as barbaric in another time & place. So what? Do you think we can’t make the same arguments today or that our future selves will be using different metrics?

                Let’s say that in 200 years humans have largely given up treating women as property. Do you believe that the moral arguments they make in the future will look any different that if we made the same argument today? Will it be any more or less wrong?

                What we see today is societal acceptance of behaviours but Harris argues that this doesn’t make them moral. And I agree.

                Now maybe I’m missing something but it sounds like at the beginning you were saying that morals can’t be objectively studied, yet at the end you seem to be arguing that morals should be (or are) objective. I think I’m misunderstanding your points and getting myself all muddled. Do you think that slavery is wrong today and was it wrong 300 years ago? Not socially acceptable, moral.

      • Posted January 22, 2011 at 10:59 am | Permalink

        Wildhog, you say, “Our sense of empathy and fairness evolved because they produce greater well-being.”

        You say this is based on everything we know about biology and evolution. Yet, your statement seems to conflict with what I’ve read by scientists on the subject. Fairness (tit-for-tat, for example) has evolved because it is an evolutionarily stable social strategy, and these are optimal from the point of view of genetic replication, not individual (or collective) well-being. Same for empathy: an evolutionary explanation of empathy would look at it in terms of how it leads to genetic replication, and there is no reason to suppose that individual or collective well-being are necessary factors here.

    • Tyro
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      But you haven’t given any reason to think that well being can be measured, even in principle.

      In his book he does present arguments to show that we can measure these things, albeit in a crude fashion. He gives the example of “the good life” (contented, plenty of money, good family life, meaningful job, connection to community & loved ones) vs “the bad life” (children raped & killed in front of you, life of famine, fear & violence, a painful death imminent). At this crude level, we can say that some lives & societies are better and we can support this with evidence & reason.

      Of course this get far harder when the cases become closer & less crude but is there any reason in principle why the situation should change? He also stresses the difference between measurement in principle and practice.

      Notice that all we get out of this is that ought statements can be “measured” by science, not actual oughts. Of course science can determine what we think we ought to do, but it cannot determine what we actually ought to do.

      That’s a lot of oughts. Perhaps you can explain what it means to say that someone “ought” to do something?

      Harris does explain this in his book and makes a pretty good case. I don’t see you addressing his arguments or presenting any sort of counter.

      but you haven’t given any convincing reason why we ought to contribute to well being.

      I hate to keep saying this but as before, he does give several reasons in his book.

      Maybe you aren’t convinced by these hidden references but since Blackford was giving a book review, i think this is entirely appropriate.

      • jose
        Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:40 am | Permalink

        He gives the example of “the good life” (contented, plenty of money, good family life, meaningful job, connection to community & loved ones)

        You mean “the good life of a middle aged, middle class, capitalist American citizen living in current times”, no?

        • Tyro
          Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:05 am | Permalink

          Many Americans and others in the Western world are living the good life compared to many in tribal Africa. No matter what your views are on politics or economics, I think this is an obvious fact, no?

          • jose
            Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink

            No it’s not. The rich western way of life is immoral to me. And certainly it isn’t good by definition. I bet a buddhist monk from the 8th century whose only possesions are a set of clothes and a bowl would consider his own life to be far better for him than any average, $50k-a-year American’s. Are you saying that by saying that, he would be objetively wrong?

            You say Harris tries to measure objectively “well-being”. But it seems like he has picked certain values (a certain kind of social interaction, job, money) that doesn’t appear to be universal to the human species. That’s why I put “good life” in context. It’s not about my views, but about pretentions of universality.

            • Dean Buchanan
              Posted January 18, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink

              You say Harris tries to measure objectively “well-being”. But it seems like he has picked certain values (a certain kind of social interaction, job, money) that doesn’t appear to be universal to the human species. That’s why I put “good life” in context. It’s not about my views, but about pretentions of universality.

              Harris does not presuppose everything about what ‘the good life’ would be, thus, he presents the concept of a moral landscape with many peaks and valleys. As a matter of fact, he thinks we need to hold out the possibility that we can alter our consciousness through meditation and other practices, which are not the norm in our society. The Buddhist monks would like that.

            • Tyro
              Posted January 18, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink

              I think you’re latching on to things which aren’t there. He wasn’t comparing a life of quiet contemplation and asceticism with an indolent western life. He was comparing a life of torture, famine and misery to a life where we have the resources and social connections to pursue a life we find fulfilling – which includes introspection and meditation.

              I think you’re letting your political biases from addressing the question. And I certainly didn’t say it was good by definition, I said that it doesn’t take much thought to see which life we’d prefer to live and which life we’d prefer to encourage.

              As for Buddhism, I have my own thoughts on that but I would rather deal with this question first before jumping to a new topic. Is that fair?

              You say Harris tries to measure objectively “well-being”.

              I don’t think I did say that and if you read Harris here and in his book, he makes it very clear that there is not one single best “well-being”, rather a landscape with many peaks.

              • jose
                Posted January 18, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

                That’s very convenient. You just assert there are many peaks, and when people find moral meaning elsewhere, then you go on and say ‘see? that’s one of the peaks!’

                It makes your claim unfalsifiable. Everything could be a peak. A real scientific approach should describe how science discovers moral truth, and it should make predictions about what morals agents would do according to those truths.

              • Tyro
                Posted January 18, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

                jose,

                That’s two replies without addressing the good life/bad life difference which you are ostensibly replying to. Starting to seem evasive.

                And no, the presence of multiple peaks doesn’t mean that there is no difference between a peak and a valley.

              • jose
                Posted January 18, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

                Addresing what? That many Americans live better than many Africans? I did address it: I said it’s not about my views, but about pretentions of universality.

                Then, the multiple peaks card was played.

                Then, I said any moral value reached by other means (not from science) could be a peak. You could make ad hoc rationalizations about it to make it fit into the scheme, thus rendering the multiple peaks thing unfalsifiable (and therefore, useless.) I also said how a real scientific approach to morality should look like (pretty much like any other scientific theory: it should explain a number of things and make testable predictions based on what it explains.)

                Then, you accused me of being evasive.

    • Nick B.
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      “but you haven’t given any convincing reason why we ought to contribute to well being. You haven’t shown that well-being is the highest good….Without using science to show that well-being is the highest good, you cannot claim to have developed a scientific morality.”

      I’m not sure you’ve read Blackford right but I’ll respond to what you’ve said here.

      If morality and value is not about the well-being of other conscious creatures, what is it about? Can you give an example of a moral system that does not reduce to a concern for the experience of other creatures?

      But there is another fallacy, as I see it. You say that in order to have a scientific morality one must show, scientifically, that well-being is the proper goal of a system of value/morality. Has the general goal of scientific medicine been scientifically demonstrated to be correct? Have the goals of the discipline of chemistry been scientifically demonstrated to be the right ones?

      I agree with you about your first point, that about the problem of measuring well-being in principle.

      • Matt
        Posted January 18, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

        If morality and value is not about the well-being of other conscious creatures, what is it about? Can you give an example of a moral system that does not reduce to a concern for the experience of other creatures?

        Yes, there are many moral systems that do not say that well-being is the ultimate good. The system that tries to maximize well-being is utilitarianism (specifically defining well being as pleasure). Moral systems not concerned with well being include: Libertarianism or any system based on rights, and Kantianism or any other deontology.

        You say that in order to have a scientific morality one must show, scientifically, that well-being is the proper goal of a system of value/morality.

        Yes, precisely. (It need not be well-being, but some highest good – that is, the ultimate goal of every moral action – must be shown scientifically to be correct.)

        I do not understand your point about medicine and chemistry. Those two science are not concerned with “shoulds”.

        • Nick B.
          Posted January 18, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

          The point about medicine and chemistry is that you are making demands for a normative science of morality that you do not make for any other field of science, regardless of whether they are concerned with “shoulds”. (I don’t see what difference that makes).

          And medicine absolutely is concerned with “shoulds”. There are right and wrong ways to treat hypertension. If you want to alleviate the problem of hypertension there are certain things you should and should not do. And when it comes down to it, people do want to do something about their hypertension, as soon as the consequences of not doing so become real to them. But if we could find someone who, fully knowing the consequences of doing nothing to lower his hypertension did not want to, this would be of no consequence at all. We would be right to say that he is wrong with respect to the goal of preserving/increasing his physical health.

          It can be likewise in the moral sphere. If you want to eliminate certain family dysfunctions there are certain things people should and should not do. Not all tried solutions will work equally well. What effects specific actions have are determined by the way the world is altogether. In other words, there are facts to be known.

          But Sam’s thesis (as I read it) goes further. Whether or not we should want to eliminate certain family dysfunctions is a scientific question. That is, do the absence of such dysfunctions generally lead to greater or less well-being? And one can ask the question at the level of any individual in the family, the family as a whole, the community, society, etc. Of course, to borrow a phrase from Harris, we don’t need an NSF grant to make headway on that question, but in principle it is a question that a science of morality, or well-being if you like, could address.

          Your statement that “Libertarianism or any system based on rights, and Kantianism or any other deontology” is “not concerned with well-being” is just ridiculous.

      • Posted January 22, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

        Deontological moral systems are not reducible to concerns about the welfare of anybody. Of course, you might argue that such systems would be useless if they were not of benefit to people; so they must have some positive effect on the welfare of conscious beings, or else we should ignore them. But then you’re making a moral judgment about the value of these moral systems, and you are not countering the simple fact that there are moral systems which explicitly reject appeals to the welfare of people. You might also (as Harris does, I believe) argue that people only follow deontological moral systems because they are concerned about the welfare of their soul. That’s rather presumptuous, though. I think it is very reasonable to suppose that there are and have been a great many people who believed in self-sacrifice and who followed a deonotological moral system because they sincerely believed it was right, and not out of fear for their own welfare. In any case, even if we somehow established that concern for the self was the prime motivating factor behind deontological ethics, it would mean that a good many moral systems are not about the well-fare of any significant portion of the conscious population, but only about the self. That doesn’t seem like a point in Harris’ favor. It doesn’t mean you can reduce these fear-based systems to concern about the well-being of individuals. For example, defense systems can be based on perceived threats from other countries, but we cannot thereby reduce those defense system to the fears which motivate them.

        • Nick B.
          Posted January 22, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

          Perhaps you could give a moral precept or two that is representative of deontological moral systems. You’re not the first person to assert what you did at the top of your post but I have yet to see anyone actually try to make that point.

          (I’m a novice to moral philosophy and I know I need to do some reading;I have Sandel’s ‘Justice’ on order).

          • Posted January 23, 2011 at 12:33 am | Permalink

            I don’t think there are any precepts that are representative of all deontological moral systems. In fact, what distinguishes deontological ethics from other kinds of systems (like consequentialist systems) is not the precepts themselves but the ways in which they are justified. For example, “do not take the Lord’s name in vain” is a well-known religious precept. A possible deontological position would be that this is morally binding on agents regardless of whether or not it increases or decreases universal well-being. Taking the Lord’s name in vain is just not something you should do. The fact that you can be punished by God for it is not what makes it right or wrong; it’s just supposed to motivate you to do the right thing. Rightness or wrongness is not a matter of the consequences, and so appeals to well-being are just irrelevant. That deontological argument seems representative of Christian morality. (But, of course, you could come up with some consequentialist argument for why the same moral precept is good or bad. That doesn’t diminish my point.)

            Kant’s categorical imperative is another moral precept which is commonly discussed in terms of deontological justification. The imperative is not always discussed in the same terms, but here is one (Kant’s first) formulation of it: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” Again, we could look for a consequentialist justification for that statement, but that is not what Kant did. His moral system defined duties whilst explicitly rejecting appeals to consequences. You can read about it here.

            So, again, you can say that such moral systems are just bad, or wrong. But then you only miss the point, which is that there are and have been moral systems which don’t work the way Harris wants them to.

            • Nick B.
              Posted January 23, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

              ….That deontological argument seems representative of Christian morality.”

              I’m afraid that’s all wrong. First of all, you say of the don’t take the Lord’s name in vain precept that “a possible deontological position would be that this is morally binding on agents regardless of whether or not it increases or decreases universal well-being.” Well, that wouldn’t be the Christian position on that. And it’s quiet obvious that such a precept quickly reduces to a concern about well-being. After all, it is God who disapproves (though he’s not the only one). For Christians, God is to be taken seriously and reverently and it is easy to see why, once you know the basics about the relationship between God and “well-being”.

              Rightness or wrongness is not a matter of the consequences, and so appeals to well-being are just irrelevant.

              I don’t know how you could say that about any Christian precept. You certainly can’t say it about the one you’ve mentioned. Christianity is about a concern for well-being through and through. To its core.

              You seem to think that in order for a moral system to be about a concern for well-being, a person advocating a precept of said system must have the consequences for well-being as their consciously held motivation. I can’t see the logic there. It seems clear that with most moral precepts, even where the justification is not in terms of consequences, if you just scratch the surface you will see a concern for the experience of the other and the self. It’s possible for a person to be confused or unaware of what their moral intuitions are doing.

              About Kant’s categorical imperative: You have given no content. There is no morally relevant ought statement in your comment or in the paragraph you linked to. All you have said is that there have been people who have explicitly offered justifications for moral precepts that were not in terms of consequences for the experience of conscious creatures. And that they have explicitly said such consequences don’t matter. So what? You have yet to show that any such precept in fact is not about the experience of conscious creatures. That’s the whole point. I’ll well aware that many people think of certain actions in terms of them being just RIGHT or WRONG, absolutely, with no need of reasons why they are right or wrong. But that says absolutely nothing about whether such judgments stem from a concern for well-being.

              So I’ll ask again, what are those moral precepts?

              …regardless of whether or not it increases or decreases universal well-being

              Think about that. It doesn’t seem to make sense. One ought not do ‘x’ but whether or not you do it doesn’t affect anyone in any way. Right.

              • Posted January 24, 2011 at 12:17 am | Permalink

                Nick, I think you’re wrong about Christian ethics, and I think you don’t understand what the term “deontological ethics” means. IF you understood it, you wouldn’t ask for an example of deontological moral precepts.

              • Posted January 24, 2011 at 6:26 am | Permalink

                Your argument is that, no matter what people say, when they say “x ought to y” they are really expressing concern for the well-being of conscious creatures, regardless of whether or not they explicitly say otherwise. My position (unlike yours) does not require that we blatantly disregard how people actually talk about morality.

                Your comments about Kant’s Categorical Imperative are perplexing. I thought the implicit “ought” was obvious: “[you ought to] act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”

            • Nick B.
              Posted January 24, 2011 at 9:01 am | Permalink

              Your argument is that, no matter what people say, when they say “x ought to y” they are really expressing concern for the well-being of conscious creatures, regardless of whether or not they explicitly say otherwise.

              I am saying that in many cases at least, that is true. I have asked for one example to the contrary and have yet to receive one. What I have received from you is the information that some people actually say that their morality is not about a concern for well-being. And it seems extremely stupid to me to therefore conclude that their morals really aren’t concerned with it. Such a conclusion makes the assumption that people can’t be confused. Let’s just take their word for it and be done with it. No need for any deeper consideration.
              I thought the implicit “ought” was obvious: “[you ought to] act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”
              Yes but there is nothing morally relevant there. One could insert brushing your teeth after breakfast. What maxim would Kant champion? Would it be not lying? Not abusing children? Not cheating? Not eating toast on Wednesdays? Don’t verbally abuse people? The point is that his stipulation that moral rules must never admit of exception is trivial. If he believed one such rule was that one ought to be patient with children, his stipulation would not change the fact that the obvious reason why he thinks one should follow that rule is for the sake of the well-being of the child (at least).

              You say I am wrong about Christian ethics. Well, how am I wrong? How could I possibly be wrong? There exists a God who created man with the expressed purpose of having a harmonious relationship with him. Man disobeyed God, causing everything bad to come into the world. Man is estranged from God but still dependent on God for any good that he has in his life. God decides to have a human sacrifice done (himself, but not himself) to appease himself concerning man’s sin. Those people who accept the sacrifice spend eternity in heaven with God enjoying a blissful experience while those who do not can look forward to the worst possible misery that doesn’t end. And being right with God is not important for the hereafter but for the here and now. We need God’s spirit and love and wisdom and instruction and law and the fear of God to be good individuals, to build good familes, communities, societies, to right just laws, etc. And we need to spread the Gospel because if we don’t, a great many people will go to hell.

              You are hopelessly confused, Jason.

              • Nick B.
                Posted January 24, 2011 at 9:02 am | Permalink

                Your argument is that, no matter what people say, when they say “x ought to y” they are really expressing concern for the well-being of conscious creatures, regardless of whether or not they explicitly say otherwise.

                I am saying that in many cases at least, that is true. I have asked for one example to the contrary and have yet to receive one. What I have received from you is the information that some people actually say that their morality is not about a concern for well-being. And it seems extremely stupid to me to therefore conclude that their morals really aren’t concerned with it. Such a conclusion makes the assumption that people can’t be confused. Let’s just take their word for it and be done with it. No need for any deeper consideration.

                I thought the implicit “ought” was obvious: “[you ought to] act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”
                Yes but there is nothing morally relevant there. One could insert brushing your teeth after breakfast. What maxim would Kant champion? Would it be not lying? Not abusing children? Not cheating? Not eating toast on Wednesdays? Don’t verbally abuse people? The point is that his stipulation that moral rules must never admit of exception is trivial. If he believed one such rule was that one ought to be patient with children, his stipulation would not change the fact that the obvious reason why he thinks one should follow that rule is for the sake of the well-being of the child (at least).

                You say I am wrong about Christian ethics. Well, how am I wrong? How could I possibly be wrong? There exists a God who created man with the expressed purpose of having a harmonious relationship with him. Man disobeyed God, causing everything bad to come into the world. Man is estranged from God but still dependent on God for any good that he has in his life. God decides to have a human sacrifice done (himself, but not himself) to appease himself concerning man’s sin. Those people who accept the sacrifice spend eternity in heaven with God enjoying a blissful experience while those who do not can look forward to the worst possible misery that doesn’t end. And being right with God is not important for the hereafter but for the here and now. We need God’s spirit and love and wisdom and instruction and law and the fear of God to be good individuals, to build good familes, communities, societies, to right just laws, etc. And we need to spread the Gospel because if we don’t, a great many people will go to hell.
                You are hopelessly confused, Jason.

              • Posted January 24, 2011 at 9:30 am | Permalink

                Nick, I never said theology made sense. I said that Christian ethics, at least some of the time, is plausibly deontological. In other words, there are people who make arguments about what is or is not moral, and their judgments are not based on considerations about the well-being of any conscious creatures. If you think they really are just concerned about the well-being of conscious creatures, then you should try to make an argument for that. Instead, you’re just claiming that it has to be your way, because you can’t imagine it being some other way. Indeed, you reject Kant’s Categorical Imperative simply because you don’t see how it is relevant to the well-being of conscious creatures. You are presupposing that as a standard for moral relevance, and thus failing to consider alternative points of view.

                It seems that any proposed counter-example will lead to a similar response. Either you will reject it as irrelevant and not worth thinking about, or you will say it is really (in some mysterious way) just a case of concern for well-being. That’s not argument. It’s just evasion. You have no argument here, Nick. You’re just stomping your feet and insisting that you are right. Peppering your posts with ad hominems doesn’t make you look any better, either.

            • Nick B.
              Posted January 24, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

              Nice job of evasion again. You are not reading what I write and you are dogmatically insisting that “deontological” morality is divorced from considerations about the well-being of conscious creatures. You claim that “their judgments are not based on considerations about the well-being of any conscious creatures”. But you have done very little to support that assertion. Take your example of “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”. That prohibition clearly involves considerations about the well-being of conscious creatures. Do you dispute that?

              And as for Kant’s Categorical Imperative, the way in which this moral view is supposedly not concerned with well-being is that the moral rule (which itself is manifestly to do with well-being) be applied under all circumstances. That simply does not amount to a disregard for well-being. It simply doesn’t. And you have no basis on which to say it does.

              Your talk about stamping feet and evasion and dismissing as irrelevant or not worth thinking about is ridiculous caricature. I have done nothing of the sort. It is you who bears the onus of proof here, don’t forget.

              In some mysterious way? What on earth are you talking about? Maybe, Christian morality?

              • Posted January 24, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

                “That prohibition clearly involves considerations about the well-being of conscious creatures. Do you dispute that?”

                Yes, I dispute that. I think that it is quite plausible that, for a lot of people, when they judge that as a moral dictum, they are not expressing concern for the well-being of any conscious creatures. There’s been quite a lot written about this, so please don’t take my word for it. But also, please don’t be so arrogant as to assume that you couldn’t possibly be wrong about how some people think.

                As for the Categorical Imperative, why do you say it is “manifestly” about well-being? The morality of the dictum, in Kant’s view, is not based on whether or not it promotes well-being. Maybe you think Kant had some ulterior motives, and that he was unaware of the fact that his moral system was actually based on concern for well-being. You could certainly try to argue that, but it would require a bit of work, I’d say.

                Why do you place the burden of proof on me, when you have no argument at all to support your claim that all moral concerns are concerns about the well-being of conscious creatures? Honestly, I think any reasonable person would recognize that the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that morality is always and only concerned with the well-being of conscious creatures. It is absurd to make the claim, and then place the burden of proof on people who disagree with you. You have no basis for disregarding the examples which have been presented to you. You just disregard them because you can imagine how one might construe them as expressing concern for the well-being of conscious creatures. Just because somebody might construe them that way does not mean they are always construed that way. So, really, your argumentative position here is exceedingly weak.

            • Nick B.
              Posted January 24, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

              I think that it is quite plausible that, for a lot of people, when they judge that as a moral dictum, they are not expressing concern for the well-being of any conscious creatures.

              I’m not saying that to take that prohibition as moral is to directly express concern for well-being. I’m saying that if you unpack it, it clearly reduces to a concern for well-being. And that if it didn’t, it wouldn’t make any sense. If you want a moral statement that doesn’t have concern for well-being underlying it, how about “One ought to do summersaults at noon every third Wednesday. If you don’t do it, it won’t affect anyone in any way. But you must do it because it is the right thing to do.”

              …why do you say it is “manifestly” about well-being?

              I don’t say that the imperative is itself manifestly about well-being. It has no moral content. As I said, it could apply to brushing your teeth. You say that the deontologist doesn’t differ so much from the consequentialist in precept but in justification. So, take the imperative and apply it to a precept. Lying is wrong, say.

              …the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that morality is always and only concerned with the well-being of conscious creatures

              I have never claimed that. What I am suspect of is the claim that there are moral systems that are “not concerned with well-being” or that “there are moral systems that are not reducible to concerns about the welfare of anybody”. I see no evidence for that. That is not to say that no moral systems have components or aspects which don’t involve such a concern (or at least seem not to). I do not see how a moral system that shares most precepts with a system explicitly about well-being is “not concerned with well-being”.

              You have no basis for disregarding the examples which have been presented to you.

              How have I disregarded them? I’ve engaged both of them.

              • Posted January 24, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

                The whole point of deontological ethics is that moral judgments are not made based on possible or even probable consequences. You should do X just because it is the right thing to do, where “right thing to do” just means “right thing to do.” It is not a matter of “right for whom?” It is not a matter of “right according to what standard?” It’s just a matter of right, and that’s it. It has nothing to do with what might happen as a result of your actions. In fact, even if you know that bad things will happen, and that more good would come to people if you didn’t do it, you should do it anyway. That is the nature of deontological ethics.

                So, when some people say, “don’t take the Lord’s name in vain,” they do not mean, “because you might upset the Lord.” They do not mean, “because that is what is best for everybody.” They just mean that it is wrong, categorically wrong, to do it. That is what they were taught, and that is what they believe.

                Of course, we could apply some basic psychology here and suppose that they could only have learned such a rule through fear and other emotions. You could argue that they would never follow such a rule if they weren’t in some way concerned with the well-being of at least some people. I wouldn’t assume it; I think an argument needs to be made. But even if it was made, it would not mean that either the rule or the system reduced to concern for the well-being of anybody.

                You say all moral statements (with sense) do reduce to concern for the well-being of conscious creatures, but I don’t see an argument. In fact, as other posts here have made clear, there is good reason to suppose that we should not define “morality” simply as whatever promotes general well-being. We can rationally wonder whether or not we should be concerned about the well-being of conscious creatures. It would not be irrational to wonder about it.

                Anyway, as I noted above, we could clearly identify fear and concern as motivating factors for our national defense system. We cannot, however, say that our national defense reduces to a concern for our well-being. We might say it is justified by such concerns, but that is not the same thing. If you want to push the comparison, you might be tempted to say that our justifications for our national defense system do reduce to concerns about well-being. For some people, that is surely correct. But for people who adhere to deontological moral systems, that is not so clear at all.

                Also, I don’t know why you say that the CI has no moral content. Sure, it can be applied in an indefinite number of ways, but so can “thou shalt not kill.”

              • Posted January 24, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

                What Jason said. Nicely put.

            • Nick B.
              Posted January 24, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

              “The whole point of deontological ethics is that moral judgments are not made based on possible or even probable consequences.”

              Ok, right there, that is what I’m disputing. If that were true then how could it be that most (all?) of the precepts to which “deontologists” are attached very quickly translate into actual or potential changes in conscious experience? Why do we not see among the things they value prohibitions that don’t have anything to do with well-being?

              On the Lord’s name in vain thing, I don’t see how I could make my point any more clearly. You just keep saying the same thing. That people aren’t directly thinking about the consequences for well-being when they espouse that prohibition. And I say ‘yes, that’s probably true most of the time. So what?’. It doesn’t change the fact that the reason they think it is immoral to take the Name boils down to a concern for well-being. Why don’t atheists worry about taking the name of God in vain?

              And I have to say, your characterization of the Christian mindset in inaccurate. It may apply to some Christians but certainly not all. And certainly not the more thoughtful and educated. You essentially say that all they can do when asked why it is immoral to take God’s name in vain is parrot “it’s just wrong” “it’s just wrong” “it’s just wrong”. I’m pretty familiar with Christianity. My parents co-founded a Church. My older brother is a minister. I myself took Christianity quite seriously as a late teen/early adult. I grew up in the church. And I can tell you, many of them have answers to just that kind of question. And the answers trace back in just a few steps to the well-being of conscious creatures.

              In fact, even if you know that bad things will happen, and that more good would come to people if you didn’t do it, you should do it anyway.

              I would love an example of that. I’ve been asking for examples along those lines for several exchanges now.

              You say all moral statements (with sense) do reduce to concern for the well-being of conscious creatures, but I don’t see an argument.

              No I don’t. I’m not going to repeat myself. Re-read my last comment.

              Anyway, as I noted above, we could clearly identify fear and concern as motivating factors for our national defense system. We cannot, however, say that our national defense reduces to a concern for our well-being.

              Huh? Our national defense doesn’t reduce to a concern for well-being? I don’t have any idea how you could argue that. By that logic, the gun in nightstand of the law-abiding citizen living in a bad part of town doesn’t have anything to do with a concern for his or his family’s well-being.

              It’s beginning to seem to me that you have an extremely narrow conception of well-being. If actions taken out of fear for adverse consequences don’t have anything to do with a concern for well-being then I don’t know what you’re talking about. And I don’t think you do either. (not meant to be disparaging)

              • Posted January 24, 2011 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

                Nick, in your earlier post, you wrote, “it clearly reduces to a concern for well-being. And that if it didn’t, it wouldn’t make any sense.” The implication is that, if a moral dictum does not reduce to a concern for well-being, then it wouldn’t make sense. Perhaps you meant this statement to only apply to one particular moral dictum, and not morality in general. But since you have also stated that you doubt the claim that there are moral dictums which do not reduce to a concern for well-being, then it seems that you do take it as a general truth. So why do you deny it, when I say that you believe that “all moral statements (with sense) do reduce to concern for the well-being of conscious creature?”

                You argue that, if a gun in a nightstand isn’t reducible to a concern for well-being, then it has nothing at all to do with well-being. That does not seem logical. Sure, a gun in a nightstand–just like our national defense–does have something to do with well-being–but that does not mean it is reducible to it. There is a world of difference between saying that morality is, in the most general sense, related to the well-being of conscious creatures, and saying that all moral precepts or all moral systems are reducible to concerns for the well-being of conscious creatures. If you were just arguing for the former, we’d have very little to talk about.

                As for Christian morality, you correctly point out that my description “may apply to some Christians but certainly not all.” But that is no point against me. If you look at my posts again, you will see that I have been careful not to assume that I am describing all of Christian morality. I am only describing how some Christians think. And this is well-documented.

                Now, you ask, why is it that so many moral precepts seem clearly related to the well-being of conscious creatures, if they are not all reducible to them? The implication is that, if a lot of moral precepts concern the well-being of conscious creatures, then they all should. That’s just not logical.

                In any case, it doesn’t seem to me that the two precepts I’ve been discussing are about the well-being of conscious creatures. One can think about them without inevitably thinking about well-being.

                You suggest that deontologists just don’t know how to answer the question, “why isn’t it right?” But for deontologists, the notion of “right” or “duty” does not reduce to some other notion.

                So, for example, a deontologist who believes that it is categorically wrong to lie will not tell a lie, even when they know it will help somebody who is in danger, and even when they know that nobody would be hurt by the lie. In fact, an agent-centered deontologist wouldn’t lie, even if they knew that by lying they could prevent other people from lying. (An agent-neutral deontologist would be willing to lie if doing so decreased the chances that other people were going to lie. What is relevant here is not whether or not the lying leads to good or bad consequences for people, but whether or not it leads to further or fewer instances of rule-breaking.)

              • Nick B.
                Posted January 25, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

                In the section after my fourth quote there is a sentence that should read: “That would seem to imply that those people would maintain that not following their precepts does not overall lead to bad consequences.”

            • Nick B.
              Posted January 25, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

              “You argue that, if a gun in a nightstand isn’t reducible to a concern for well-being, then it has nothing at all to do with well-being. That does not seem logical. Sure, a gun in a nightstand–just like our national defense–does have something to do with well-being–but that does not mean it is reducible to it.”

              What is the difference? You’ve lost me. I don’t understand the distinction you’re trying to make. If keeping a gun in the nightstand doesn’t reduce to a concern for well-being, what does it reduce to?

              “There is a world of difference between saying that morality is, in the most general sense, related to the well-being of conscious creatures, and saying that all moral precepts or all moral systems are reducible to concerns for the well-being of conscious creatures. If you were just arguing for the former, we’d have very little to talk about.”

              My view as of now is that the truth is somewhere between those two. I wouldn’t state it as weakly as “in the most general sense”. I’d probably go with “by and large”.

              “The implication is that, if a moral dictum does not reduce to a concern for well-being, then it wouldn’t make sense.”

              What I meant in that instance is that the behavior of the person would be literally unintelligible. But of course their behavior isn’t unintelligible at all. All you have to do is look at what they believe about god. Then there is no mystery.
              And I do not claim that there are no moral dictums which do not reduce to a concern for well-being (though that may be true). I do however suspect that there are not any moral systems which do not reduce to a concern for well-being. I still have seen no evidence of that.

              “Now, you ask, why is it that so many moral precepts seem clearly related to the well-being of conscious creatures, if they are not all reducible to them? The implication is that, if a lot of moral precepts concern the well-being of conscious creatures, then they all should. That’s just not logical.”

              No, that’s not the implication. The implication is that you are contradicting yourself when you say that a moral system doesn’t reduce to a concern for the well-being of anybody, while most (if not all) of the precepts of the system are clearly about actual or potential changes in conscious experience. I’m going off of what you said before. That consequentialists and deontologists largely share moral precepts but differ in justification. What you’re saying would be consistent if the deontologist actually had values like “do summersaults at noon every third Wednesday.” But when the values are “lying is wrong”, there is no question that the reason the act of lying is considered wrong is that it has adverse consequences for conscious creatures. It does not matter whether the person saying it is wrong is consciously thinking that or not. And that seems to be your principle hang-up. You are so focused on the deontologist’s talk about why it wrong and when it’s wrong that you fail to realize what the precept itself is about. You are missing the forest for the trees. The agent-centered deontologist represents a concern for well-being run amok, in my view. He doesn’t have the awareness to realize why he objects to lying in the first place. And you say that for these people what is relevant is not whether lying leads to good or bad consequences, but whether rules are broken. That would seem to imply that those people would maintain that not following their precepts does overall lead to bad consequences. They’re saying they don’t care whether negative consequences accrue. If that’s true we would expect to see a small percentage of their precepts (at best) having an appreciable effect on conscious experience. There are a very large number of possible behaviors. Is it just a coincidence that the good and bad behaviors in the deontologist’s view translate into significant changes in conscious experience?

              “In any case, it doesn’t seem to me that the two precepts I’ve been discussing are about the well-being of conscious creatures. One can think about them without inevitably thinking about well-being.”

              I’m leaving aside the CI for now. Concerning the Lord’s name, no, you can’t. That precept makes no sense except in light of what people believe about God. And you have said nothing that would suggest otherwise. So how are you “thinking about” it if the precept makes no sense at all? By your logic, one can “think about” the precept “you must not neglect to do summersaults at noon every third Wednesday” without inevitably thinking about well-being. What are you thinking about? Someone would be valuing some random thing for literally no reason at all. All the while, the reason why they think it is immoral is in plain view of anyone without a dogma to serve. And I asked you a question that you did not answer. The question was “Why don’t atheists worry about taking the Lord’s name in vain?”.

              “As for Christian morality, you correctly point out that my description “may apply to some Christians but certainly not all.” But that is no point against me. If you look at my posts again, you will see that I have been careful not to assume that I am describing all of Christian morality. I am only describing how some Christians think. And this is well-documented.

              I’m calling bullshit. First, it absolutely is a point against you as you have been assuming to describe Christian morality generally. Recall from one of your first posts to me: “That deontological argument seems representative of Christian morality”. And maybe I’ve missed something but I’ve looked back at your posts, particularly the one that prompted my remarks, and I don’t see anything that suggests you were merely describing “some Christians” and not the Christian mindset generally.
              And what is well-documented? The point we’ve gone over fifty-thousand times? That some Christians only offer a “it’s just wrong” answer when questioned on that precept? Your point would be?

              • Posted January 25, 2011 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

                Nick,

                You say you’ve looked back at my posts, but you only referenced one, and ignored the follow-up in which I clarified that what I meant was “that Christian ethics, at least some of the time, is plausibly deontological.” And, again, speaking of the rule against taking the Lord’s name in vain, I wrote, ” I think that it is quite plausible that, for a lot of people, when they judge that as a moral dictum, they are not expressing concern for the well-being of any conscious creatures.” And, again, in another post, I wrote: “when some people say, “don’t take the Lord’s name in vain,” they do not mean, “because you might upset the Lord.” They do not mean, “because that is what is best for everybody.” They just mean that it is wrong, categorically wrong, to do it.”

                You took my initial claim that deontological arguments are representative of Christianity and ignored the several times I’ve qualified that with “at least some of the time” and “for a lot of people” and “some people.” And then you call “bullshit” when I remind you that I have been making such qualifications. I’d appreciate a little more care and charity. Philosophers generally recognize that their arguments are not always so easily understood, and that subtle (or even not-so-subtle) poiints can be overlooked or misinterpreted. That’s why they try to adhere to a principle of charity: try to give your opponent the benefit of the doubt as much as possible. Don’t assume the worst. I think a logical extension of that would be, don’t call “bullshit” when you haven’t bothered to check the facts.

              • Posted January 26, 2011 at 12:08 am | Permalink

                Now, you say you don’t see a difference between morality being related to the well-being of conscious creatures and morality being reducible to concern for the well-being of conscious creatures. Consider an analogy: The Joint Chief of Staff’s job is related to the President of the United States’ job, but is not reducible to it. Or, the pain in Jack’s leg is related to a problem with his back, but is not reducible to it. Do you see sense in these comments? So why claim that, if morality is related to well-being, it is reducible to it? I don’t see the logic.

                You ask, what does a gun in a nightstand reduce to? Why must it reduce to anything?

                You’ve clarified your view to this: that morality is by and large related to the well-being of conscious creatures. I don’t find any serious problems with that claim, but it in no way suggests that morality even comes closed to reducing to a concern for the well-being of conscious creatures. It’s not logically similar.

                Now you say that, if a person were to refuse to take the Lord’s name in vain without having any concern for how that behavior affected the well-being of conscious creatures, then that person’s behavior would be unintelligible. Where’s your argument?

                Nick, the fact is that people are and have been known to make arguments just of this sort: “it is wrong to lie regardless of what good or bad might come of it.” They explicitly reject the idea that the Right is reducible to the Good. That’s what Kant attempted to prove, and what many other moralists have argued throughout the centuries. The Good (which we could vaguely define in terms of well-being) is not a proper foundation for the Right: that is a meta-ethical position which many, many people have taken for centuries. If you doubt me, just Google “deontological ethics” and do a little research.

                Your argument, I gather, is this: when people consider whether or not some action is right, they are considering some action that has consequences for conscious experience. Therefore, their concern when making a moral judgment is a concern for those consequences. But this is not logical. The fact that the action I am considering has consequences for conscious beings does not mean that my considerations are about those consequences. You suggest that the behavior would be unintelligible otherwise, but I don’t see why that is true. It is just obvious that, for centuries, people have been providing counter-examples.

            • Nick B.
              Posted January 26, 2011 at 7:37 am | Permalink

              I don’t want to spend anymore time on this. Thanks for the reply.

  10. Miles McCullough
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    Honestly, I’m sick of the dicking about over whether well-being is good. Just start a science of well-being already, so we can tell politicians X will cause more well-being or less, and skip the inevitable complaint: “But is it moral?”

    • Tulse
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      Just start a science of well-being already, so we can tell politicians X will cause more well-being or less

      The execs at Goldman-Sachs and Lehman Brothers caused an enormous amount of well-being…for themselves. If you think that sort of well-being doesn’t count, or is somehow not as good as well-being that is spread around, then you need a moral argument.

      • Miles McCullough
        Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

        It’s the scientists job to tally up the well-being, and then the voter’s job to decide how much that matters.

        Though I suspect, the diminishing return of the bankers well-being on a per dollar basis and the long term inefficiency created by their practices would render the increased well-being of that niche tiny in comparison to the decreased well-being of the whole.

        • Tulse
          Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

          the long term inefficiency created by their practices would render the increased well-being of that niche tiny in comparison to the decreased well-being of the whole.

          But why should we care about the well-being of the whole?

          • Miles McCullough
            Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:05 am | Permalink

            That’s kind of my point; I’m trying to move past the “should” word by leaving it up to you to decide if you should care about the well-being of the whole.

            If you really want to know, empathy and self-interest (if the well-being of the whole is not in your self interest today, it probably will be tomorrow) seem like good reasons to me.

          • Tyro
            Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

            But why should we care about the well-being of the whole

            Harris asks us why medicine should care about our health.
            When we get over the somewhat trite objection that we don’t have good basis for caring about well-being (just like we don’t have a basis for caring about science or medicine), we can confront the fact that we do care. If we’re aberrant and if we don’t care, then society rightly ignores us – like taking a Creationist’s views on evolution or a psychopath’s views on morality.

            • Nick B.
              Posted January 18, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink

              Absolutely right. Thanks.

            • Tulse
              Posted January 18, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

              Harris asks us why medicine should care about our health.

              Medicine qua medicine doesn’t care about our health in the larger sense — it is precisely ethics that argues we should apply technology to ease the suffering and improve the longevity and well-being of others, and ethics that determines how limited medical resources get distributed.

              When we get over the somewhat trite objection that we don’t have good basis for caring about well-being

              That’s not trite — it is the foundational problem of ethics. If Harris doesn’t have a “scientific” answer, then all he is doing is offering the specifics of variety of utilitarian calculus, without any argument as to why we should choose that particular variety (or even utilitarianism at all).

              • Nick B.
                Posted January 18, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

                What is the scientific answer to why the goals of scientific medicine should be what they are? What is the scientific answer to why the goals of chemistry, or biology should be what they are?

                There simply is no other intelligible basis for morality and value than concern for the well-being of other conscious creatures.

              • Tulse
                Posted January 19, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

                What is the scientific answer to why the goals of scientific medicine should be what they are? What is the scientific answer to why the goals of chemistry, or biology should be what they are?

                I don’t think there are “scientific” answers to these questions.

                There simply is no other intelligible basis for morality and value than concern for the well-being of other conscious creatures.

                “Intelligible” is doing a lot of philosophical heavy lifting in that claim, and without that more completely unpacked, it is simply an assertion. I think that claim is ultimately correct, but I don’t know how many philosophers or biologists would agree. (Heck, I am a vegetarian precisely because I believe that claim, and I don’t think most people who would argue that claim are.)

              • Nick B.
                Posted January 19, 2011 at 11:38 am | Permalink

                Well if you don’t think there are scientific answers to those questions, then on what basis do you demand a scientific answer in the case of morality? What’s the difference?

              • Tulse
                Posted January 19, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

                on what basis do you demand a scientific answer in the case of morality

                I’m not the one making such a demand — Harris is.

            • Jeremiah
              Posted January 20, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

              “When we get over the somewhat trite objection that we don’t have good basis for caring about well-being (just like we don’t have a basis for caring about science or medicine), we can confront the fact that we do care.”

              That is all well and good and I personally wouldn’t have any objections on creating a moral system based on what we do care about but we have to recognize that doing so just gives us a current moral consensus, not absolute moral truths.

              The idea that science can deliver absolute moral truths does not appear sound at this time. It can probably tell us how actions stack up based on our current values and “what we do care about” but that is something else entirely.

              (hope the blockquote worked okay, couldn’t find a reference for posting tags here)

              • Tyro
                Posted January 20, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

                It can probably tell us how actions stack up based on our current values and “what we do care about” but that is something else entirely.

                Sure. One strong point which Harris raises is that if we make it explicit that what we care about is well-being, we have a very strong, compelling, “moral” (heh) basis for our arguments.

                Remember the context: moral relativists in Europe are saying that we can’t criticize female subjugation or genital mutilation and religious leaders of all stripes say their arbitrary pronouncements are “moral” and binding and beyond criticism. Just standing up on our hind feet and refusing to be cowed by their assumed authority is a big step. Actually having a strong foundation for alternatives is another big step.

                I think it’s an important observation to say that civilized people care about the well-being of others and use it as the basis for moral decisions. Shouldn’t be underrated.

              • Nick B.
                Posted January 20, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

                Wrong. First, who’s saying science can deliver absolute moral truths? On Sam’s view the truths have little ‘t’s. They are provisional, like all science.

                Second, it’s not just about “what we do care about” or mere “moral consensus”. Surely there are reasonable criteria we can arrive at that will allow us to make objective distinctions between levels of well-being (the only intelligible goal of morality and value) enjoyed by different people and different groups of people.

                Not all brain states are equivalent. You simply cannot take any given brain state and say “maybe that is someone’s idea of well-being”. There are many states of mind that are simply “bad”. And those who don’t think think they’re bad are pathological or are not talking sense. How about anxiety? How about fear, guilt, shame, regret, hatred, anger, insecurity, physical pain, the list goes on. These are experiences that lie on the opposite end of the spectrum of human psychology from those that characterize “well-being”. There is no question that people and societies objectively differ with respect to how much of each they enjoy. And these differences are due to the way physical reality is altogether. Thus, insofar as morality and value have as their subject matter the well-being of others (and of the self), scientifically true statements can be made about what is moral and what should be valued.

      • Nick B.
        Posted January 19, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        That well-being would “count” in what calculus? What kind of moral system could condone action that involves complete disregard for the well-being of others? If morality is about concern for the well-being of others then such action would be wrong at the most fundamental level, wouldn’t it?

  11. jose
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Can he give a few examples of moral truths reached by science? I mean, where is the evidence fo his claims?

    • whrrr
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      The point of the book is pretty explicit: human well-being is determined by our physical world — and our physical world is best understood by scientific metrics. That’s it.

      I’m not sure why so many people are getting so caught up on Sam’s inability to calculate that murder is 4.6743 times less moral than armed robbery, or to derive the golden rule from first principles.

      • jose
        Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

        …so he hasn’t been able to present moral truths discovered by science to support his claims.

        A lot of words without evidence. It sure sounds as a philosopher’s job.

        • Karmakin
          Posted January 18, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

          Here’s the way I’d look at it. It’s not that there’s evidence of absolute morality that can be found by science. It’s that discussions about morality should be more or less rational. We can judge the good/harm of a thing/action and as such have a starting point to determine the morality of said thing.

          Not that it’s easy. A lot of morality involves things that are quite complex and as such may have different answers depending on ones point of view. But at the very least it’s an opening to discussion. Which to me is the entire point.

          • jose
            Posted January 18, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

            “It’s not that there’s evidence of absolute morality that can be found by science”

            The title of the book is:

            The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.

            So the title is a lie. Great.

            • whrrr
              Posted January 18, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

              The book is pretty vapourous with the ‘how’, agreed.

              At the same time it’s pretty persuasive with it’s argument that human values are a physical part of our universe, a realm that has been successfully explored only with science.

              That’s the book in a nutshell.

              All of this is still a separate issue from the existence of ‘absolute morality’.

        • whrrr
          Posted January 18, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

          I’m curious — what claims do you actually think he is making?

          The goal of Sam’s book was to establish the field of moral science. Does it do a good job of this? In some ways, yes. In some ways, no.

          Meanwhile, you’re attacking straw men with nonsense about moral truth.

          • jose
            Posted January 19, 2011 at 7:27 am | Permalink

            “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.”

            He proposes science as a tool to determine human values.

            I ask: What human values has Harris discovered using science? Apparently none. So why did he published a book about it?

            Compare it with, for example, The Descent of Man. For each one of the claims Darwin makes, no matter how insignificant, he provides a bunch of examples and anecdotes and reports from other scientists and direct experience. It even get annoying and dense to read, that’s how supported every claim he makes is. I’m not comparing anyhing, it’s just an example of a book that provides evidence for what the author says.

            Science relies on evidence. Without it, what you get is word salad.

    • Nick B.
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      What claims, specifically?

  12. Miles McCullough
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Perhaps my language is harsh, but it illustrates my annoyance that scientists have not yet come out en masse against multiple wars of aggression on false pretenses with an extremely limited chance of success and high cost of continuance when other options exist. That should not be a gray area in the 21st century.

    People will always disagree, so just forge ahead with the science already. Get it in gear, scientists. Give us numbers already on how well-being is affected by US policies on war, aid, education, regressive taxation, etc. Give us numbers on the alternatives, and we’ll decide if we want to do it.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      I’d like this thread to be free of any hint of invective, so could we refrain from that?

      kthxbye

      • Miles McCullough
        Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:05 am | Permalink

        My apologies.

        • Diane G.
          Posted January 18, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

          Seems to me much of this information has been generated,esp. by social scientists and advocacy groups; it is just routinely overlooked/dismissed. You can run it up the flagpole but you can’t make anyone salute.

          (And although scientists may personally feel very strongly, for many reasons science is the last place we want to look for strong advocacy.)

          • Ivo
            Posted January 20, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

            I wholeheartedly agree.

            I recall for instance Pinker’s “The Blank Slate” as a nice book where some of this information on, er,… human well-being can be found at layman level, as well as a strong case that such knowledge should inform policy-making and other (morally relevant) decisions.

  13. matt
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    i couldn’t recommend The Moral Landscape more. agree with him or not, you’re in for one hell of a great book. a profound thinker in times that seem to lack exactly that. great response to the review, to boot.

  14. William Jordan
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    Having poled my barge along this tortured, tortuous groping for the Good, it’s easy to see why most people simply remove an “o” (it doesn’t matter which one) and let it go at that.
    There is a chorus in one of Handel’s oratorios–Saul, Jephtha, Theodora?– somewhere in there, which science can determine–“Whatever is, is right.” It often comes to me in the shower. Not sayin this is true, just sayin’….

  15. Karmakin
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    My feeling on the “Why” question is simply this. I think that humans have a developed need for shared emotional experiences, or catharsis. Being moral, that is making our world a more positive place on the whole, is something that feeds that need for all of us, and makes most people happier.

    I personally think that religion taps into that need, but unfortunately the structure of some (most?) religious experiences results in an emotional experience that is less than fulfilling, often resulting in socially destructive behavior in order to try and reach that fulfillment.

  16. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    There is a difference between how we verify the truth of a proposition and what makes a proposition true.

    Yes, that is why we can have theories. But to verify those through their predictions we need a quantitative measure. There is no reason to expect it here.

    In fact, this gives me reason to suspect that Harris is proposing a “just so” story:

    “Every possible weighting of us-vs.-them can be represented in this space, along with all other relevant variables — and each will have consequences in terms of the well-being of everyone involved.”

    There is no measure here!

    I believe the biologists on this site would see through this, since there is an analogy to fitness landscapes. For them we have

    a) there isn’t an actual landscape (smooth, differentiable surface) guaranteed; though in many cases and in theory it can be a good model, because

    b) there is an explicit measure guaranteed, in the form of differential reproduction; as traits are changed, some change in differential reproduction should in principle be observable.

    I have to read Harris book of course, but what I can see here his ideas are broken. No observable “well-being” or associated cost would follow by changing moral behavior. (There would, should in some cases, be changes in differential reproduction though. But that is evolution theory, not moral theory.)

    The case I make in the book is that morality entirely depends on the existence of conscious minds; minds are natural phenomena; and, therefore, moral truths exist (and can be determined by science in principle, if not always in practice).

    This must be some fallacy (but I’m too tired to see which one), which is easy to see by changing the wording:

    ‘The case I make in the book is that paintings entirely depends on the existence of conscious minds; minds are natural phenomena; and, therefore, artistic truths exist (and can be determined by science in principle, if not always in practice).’

    There is a difference between how we verify the truth of a proposition and what makes a proposition true.

    Yes, that is why we can have theories. But to verify those through their predictions we need a quantitative measure. There is no reason to expect it here.

    In fact, this gives me reason to suspect that Harris is proposing a “just so” story:

    “Every possible weighting of us-vs.-them can be represented in this space, along with all other relevant variables — and each will have consequences in terms of the well-being of everyone involved.”

    There is no measure here!

    I believe the biologists on this site would see through this, since there is an analogy to fitness landscapes. For them we have

    a) there isn’t an actual landscape (smooth, differentiable surface) guaranteed; though in many cases and in theory it can be a good model, because

    b) there is an explicit measure guaranteed, in the form of differential reproduction; as traits are changed, some change in differential reproduction should in principle be observable.

    I have to read Harris book of course, but what I can see here his ideas are broken. No observable “well-being” or associated cost would follow by changing moral behavior. (There would, should in some cases, be changes in differential reproduction though. But that is evolution theory, not moral theory.)

    The case I make in the book is that morality entirely depends on the existence of conscious minds; minds are natural phenomena; and, therefore, moral truths exist (and can be determined by science in principle, if not always in practice).

    This must be some fallacy (but I’m too tired to see which one, an existential fallacy perhaps), which is easy to see by changing the wording:

    ‘The case I make in the book is that twirling thumbs entirely depends on the existence of conscious minds; minds are natural phenomena; and, therefore, “twirling thumbs truths” exist (and can be determined by science in principle, if not always in practice).’

    And so on. It is a statement devoid of meaning, where what is to be ascertained is contained in the conclusion and doesn’t follow from the premises.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted January 18, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, too tired, didn’t see my double paste. My apologies! [A preview would help.]

      FWIW, seems the last half is the more worked out version.

  17. Posted January 18, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    The main problem I have with Sam’s book is that he doesn’t really confront the most obvious difficulty, which is that the problem is not getting us to agree that well-being is good and we want it, it’s getting us to agree that we want it for everyone, and then to act on that. Even people who say they want that don’t act on it, on the whole.

    • The Picard
      Posted January 19, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      What of Harris’ argument that you could apply this problem to any area of science. Can we say that if we agree to define “health” a certain way that everyone should agree with us before we develop a scientific understanding of it?

      • Posted January 19, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

        I would say that epistemic agreement is quite different from normative agreement. Apples n oranges.

        • The Picard
          Posted January 19, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

          But it is apples to apples. In each case you first have the normative agreement on how to define the word/concept. Then you build an epistemic case based on that definition. I don’t see the fundamental difference.

          • Joey
            Posted January 19, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

            You’re basically reiterating Harris’s insistent cry of a double standard between his “science of morality” and the rest of science. There is no double standard: scientists do not consider evidence and logic “good” in the same sense that Harris considers happiness “good.” Scientists believe that evidence and logic can determine the truth; this is the sense in which they think evidence+logic are “good,” and this is the foundation of science. Harris’s belief that happiness is good is not fundamental to scientific inquiry.

            • The Picard
              Posted January 19, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

              You’re missing his point. Harris is saying that we can use logic and evidence to determine morality just as we do to determine other sciences. What makes “health” good is based on a common understanding of what a desirable outcome is regarding “health” issues. The same is true with morality.

              • Joey
                Posted January 19, 2011 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

                I realize that Harris says that, but he hasn’t argued convincingly for it–in fact, all he’s really said is, in various circuitous ways, “I shouldn’t have to argue for it, it’s just obviously true.” The point he thinks he shouldn’t have to argue for is that morality is about “well-being” (itself an escapist non-concept).

                You’re right that what makes “health” good is a common understanding of desirable outcomes. But unlike with morality, people almost always want the same things, health-wise; people want to be HIV-negative, live long, avoid dementia, have healthy kids, etc. Where there ARE tough medical decisions in play, where people might have different preferences, nobody acts like science can pinpoint the right answer (ie, should one give up fertility for a moderately reduced cancer risk?).

              • The Picard
                Posted January 19, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

                “Promoting the well-being of conscious creatures” is as good a definition for morality as I can think of. Do you have any other examples that would differ? Keep in mind that religions will include non-scientific concepts like the afterlife in their concept of well-being. All the more reason for science to address the issue. I don’t agree that “well-being” is an escapist concept. At least Harris doesn’t mean it that way. It’s very practical.

  18. Jackie
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    I have not yet read the comments to this post, but I just read the comments to the post re. Russell Blackford, and I have to say …

    I dunno. The juxtaposition of “science” and “morality” makes me nervous. So often, land-grant university science seeks answers to the wrong questions (eg GMO’s — so shoot me).

    Also, doesn’t much of “right” living follow from being good animals? [Wearing a hajib is not being a good animal.] Jean Liedoff’s The Continuum Concept may slightly romanticize the case, but a socially secure, breast-fed, freely autonomous toddlerhood is critical to maximize human well-being.

    Re: “How do you determine whether the well-being of animals outweighs the well-being we experience when we eat meat.”

    Animals eat animals. Only a city boy who has never humanely raised and butchered a pig or a chicken would ask this. (I haven’t done this yet but am working up to it.)

  19. Yair
    Posted January 19, 2011 at 12:05 am | Permalink

    Sam makes some good counter-points, but I think he fails at answering the last point – which is a shame, since he could be arguing for a scientific morality.

    Sam’s syllogism needs only be altered slightly:

    Our values entirely depend on the existence of conscious minds;
    Minds are natural phenomena;
    Therefore, truths about our values exist (and can be determined by science in principle, if not always in practice).

    This answers all of Blackford’s questions.

    * IF there is broad similarity in the final ends, the things that we value for themselves, and on how to weigh them, then this package of Normal values can be defined as “well being”.

    * This package already includes not just the values but how to compare and contrast them.

    * This well-being is what Normal people want, by construction. If one can rationally or scientifically show that one should do X to advance it, then this should by construction convince any Normal person. It won’t convince non-Normal people, e.g. psychopaths, but that shouldn’t be the concern of Normal people – Normal people should be looking to find out what they want to do, not what others want to do.

    The existence of a scientific rational morality hence depends on the empirical facts regarding human nature. If there is indeed a Normal set of final ends and their values, then the only rational thing to do is for Normal people to follow the moral theory that details how to advance these Normal values. If, however, no such set of values exist, then there is no one broadly-relevant theory of morality. We can only construct theories that advance particular values or sets of values, and let each one choose what theory he prefers according to what values he prefers.

    ———-

    I would note one more thing, which is that Harris effectively talks about increasing happiness and decreasing suffering, weighed equally across humans and even species, as the final ends. I think he’s in error in that while it is true that these considerations matter, they are not the only ones that do. There are other relevant values, such as Truth, and the correct weighing isn’t as uniform as that.

    Also, there are costs to moving across the landscape that Harris doesn’t take into account. Suppose there is society A and society B, and that we determined that A’s well-being is higher. According to Harris, if we could instantly kill all of society B and replace it with a carbon-copy of society A, that would be the moral thing to do. There is a name for that. It’s called genocide. There are things that we don’t want to do, values about actions not just about consequences.

    • Axxyaan
      Posted January 19, 2011 at 3:43 am | Permalink

      “Our values entirely depend on the existence of conscious minds;
      Minds are natural phenomena;
      Therefore, truths about our values exist (and can be determined by science in principle, if not always in practice).

      This answers all of Blackford’s questions.”

      But this no longer seems to present Sams view. As I understand SH, he is trying to convince people that morality is something objective. That science can answer the question what people should value, instead of science answering the question what people actually do value. The way you have formulated the syllogism has shifted the question science is supposed to answer.

      • Jeremiah
        Posted January 20, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

        But this no longer seems to present Sams view. As I understand SH, he is trying to convince people that morality is something objective

        I agree. When you define morality as simply being whatever we currently value then you have more or less created a tautology for the definition of subjective morality. i.e Morally correct behavior is whatever I/we think is right/value.

        • Jeremiah
          Posted January 20, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

          To put it another way. It is like saying that we can objectively measure what conforms (or doesn’t conform) to our current subjective values.

          I could agree with that but it does nothing to get us around the problem of subjective values.

  20. Egbert
    Posted January 19, 2011 at 3:50 am | Permalink

    Although I am reserving judgement until I’ve read The Moral Landscape, I do not think well-being is the motivation behind morality. I think rather that it is sympathy (compassion), empathetic feelings of another’s pain, that motivates our actions toward justice. Sympathy is itself not a positive feeling, but a negative one. We are motivated to rid ourselves of this pain and thereby help the people who are suffering.

  21. Joey
    Posted January 19, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Harris’s “answers in principle” argument is wrong here, because there is not even an answer IN PRINCIPLE if it happens to be the case that the quantity doesn’t really exist, measurably or unmeasurably. What reason do we have for believing that there is some concrete total of well-being in the world?

    I do not at all think Blackford is confusing answers in principle vs. answers in practice. It’s just that Harris has not even demonstrated that answers in principle do, in fact, exist.

    • Posted January 20, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      Question:

      What reason do we have for believing that there is some concrete total of well-being in the world?

      Answer:

      Rank the following three people in order of wellbeing:

      1) An orphaned child in Africa that has been forced into sexual slavery.
      2) A male American citizen earning minimum wage in a trivial job that he hates to pay child support for a family he only gets to see once a month.
      3) A wealthy Harvard Law graduate of comfortable means that, now in his retirement (after a wildly successful career), divides his time between his loving family and friends, and doing charitable pro-bono legal aid for human rights issues in third world countries.

      I think it is possible to rank these three in a clear order of well-being.

      In principle it would be possible to rank every possible state of existence that a human being could occupy – any unclear distinctions could be considered effectively equivalent and occupy the same ranking.

      Take this set of all possible states of being. Start at the lowest possible state. Assign that the label 0.

      Continue labeling in sequential order. 1, 2, 3, and so on.

      Continue labeling until every entry in the set has been assigned a number.

      Add up the numbers for every person on the planet.

      Find the average.

      There’s your quantification.

      Now – in practice we couldn’t find the time to imagine every possible state of human wellbeing. If we did then we wouldn’t have time to sort them all while paying sufficient attention to nuance. And even if we had time for that, some human somewhere would have had time to come up with a new and thus far unconsidered state of wellbeing.

      My above scenario is littered with problems, of course. And there may be better methods for evaluating some measurement of wellbeing in principle than this that someone could come up with.

      But if we can objectively rank 1), 2) and 3) in order of well-being, then it is possible in principle to do this for any other set of states.

      • Posted January 21, 2011 at 4:40 am | Permalink

        I think most of us can agree on how to rank those three cases, but we are not obviously relying on an objective metric for making measurements about well-being. We’re simply agreeing about how we generally regard various human conditions. Furthermore, even if we were to agree on a metric for these cases, it doesn’t follow that our metric applies to all cases.

        Consider trying to identify what, exactly, makes you rank these three cases in one order and not another. Is your ranking based on a supposition about the neurological states of the three individuals? Is it based on suppositions about their ability to productively engage in the world? Would your ranking change if you found out that the successful law graduate was in fact quite unsatisfied with his life, and could not appreciate the loving support of his family? After all, you said he was wildly successful, but you could not have meant that as success qua well-being, because that would stack the cards in your favor; so we can assume you just meant financial or professional success, which does not necessarily have a positive effect on his happiness. Especially if that success was at the expense of his conscience. And what if the child sold into slavery is given heroin regularly, so that her life consists primarily of drug-induced highs punctuated by brief moments of desire for more heroin, until she dies at a young age? Her well-being, in purely neurological terms, is not clearly so bad.

        I’m not questioning our ability to agree on a ranking here. I’m questioning the assumption that such agreement implies an objective metric for measuring well-being. It rather implies a shared revulsion towards certain socio-economic conditions.

        But, okay, let’s say a group of rational and educated individuals agreed on a metric for these, or some larger number of cases. Even if we agreed on metric (which I don’t suspect would be easy, but it is conceivable that we could agree on such a thing), it would still only mean that we had converged on a particular rule, and not that we had discovered a pre-existing continuum of moral truth which was there for science to discover.

        • The Picard
          Posted January 21, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

          Of course all your conditions are part of the puzzle. Daniel Schealler was simplifying it to make a point. Defining well being is going to involve many factors (as you outlined), all of which fall within the scople of scientific inquiry. Consciousness is a natural phenomenon. Well being depends on a natural process which involves so many bits of information that we may not be able to account for all the influencing factors in practice. But in principle, in each case, there is a specific number of bits of information that leads to a particular outcome in the area of well being for conscious creatures. The fact that there is tells us that in principle morality is subject to scientific inquiry.

          No one said anything about a pre-existing continuum of moral truth. Changing conditions such as technology have changed our concept of morality. As conditions continue to change, so will our understanding of moral truths.

          • Posted January 21, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

            But all that Daniel has shown is that we can agree on our attitude towards various socio-economic and interpersonal conditions. He hasn’t shown that any particular facts about well-being are in play. That was my point. Sure, we can agree on cases like this, but when we try to define it in terms of scientific units, we have a problem. We can, of course, come to decide on some particular measurements which we will then define as ‘units of well-being.’ But our definition will have been ad hoc, made to fit particular cases, and not a general rule which we should expect to fit every other case. So Daniel’s argument just doesn’t work. And this is a matter of principle, not of practice.

            I don’t think I’m saying anything Russell Blackford hasn’t already said in his responses to Sam Harris, by the way.

            About my use of the phrase “pre-existing continuum of moral truth,” what I meant was an objective set of facts (or, more exactly, possible worlds) which any properly-situated rational being would regard as determining ‘moral truth,’ such as facts about the well-being of conscious creatures. Sorry I can’t find a nicer way to word that at the moment. The point is just what I said above, that, based on Daniel’s premises, we cannot draw the conclusion that there is “a concrete total of well-being in the world,” or that there is any concrete set of facts which might set an unequivocal standard for our moral judgments.

            • The Picard
              Posted January 21, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

              Many qualities can be considered in determining individual and societal well being such as happiness, compassion, economic security and equal opportunity, education, intellectual & creative stimulation, health and high mortality rates, etc. (this is just off the top of my head). They are areas of scientific study that can factor in to an overall scale which can be used to measure well being. I don’t see this as problem with Harris’ thesis. As for the problem of definition, I addressed that earlier in this thread.

              • Posted January 22, 2011 at 12:49 am | Permalink

                Yes, those are all things that can be studied scientifically. The point is, there is no reason to suppose that, by studying those things, you are getting at a particular quantity of something called “well-being.” Sure, you can make all of your scientific measurements and then, on the basis of your moral judgments, you can assign those measurements some value and call it “well-being.” And, yes, you can then use your quantification of “well-being” to make scientific predictions and whatnot. But all you will have shown is that you can call something you like “well-being.” You will not have shown that this is anything other than a measure of your approval (or distaste) for some particular set of cases. You will not have established a general rule which would be binding in any way on other people; and, even more, it would be reckless of you to suppose that your own definition was binding on your own future moral judgments. In other words, you will not have done anything scientific, unless your quantification fortuitiously led you to some new discovery. It would be like calling some random measurement of trees, apples, and potatoes “trappotoes,” and then saying, “there is a set quantity of trappotoes in the world at any given time. Ok, we might say. There is. But who cares?

                The case with well-being is different than the case of trappotoes, however, because you’re not just making up the word. You’re taking a word that has currency, that people use in clear ways, and you want your random measurement to be in some way about what people are normally talking about when they talk about well-being. But I don’t think people have any such units of measurement in mind when they talk about well-being. So, your attempt to find units of well-being is not only random (as in the case of trappotoes), but incongruous with common usage. If you want to say that there is some concrete level of well-being in the world at any given time, you aren’t clearly talking about well-being in the common sense of the term.

              • The Picard
                Posted January 22, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink

                Jason,

                I (based on Harris’ argument) addressed this concern earlier. Basically, you could make the same case against any area of science. We base our scientific understanding of “health” on a common understanding of what the word means and what a desirable outcome is with “health” issues. I don’t see any reason we should treat “well being” differently.

              • Posted January 22, 2011 at 8:53 am | Permalink

                No, you can’t make the same argument against any area of science. Please, show me one area of science that takes a commonly used term which lacks scientific definition, defines it in a new and arbitrary way, and then claims to have said something about the way the term is commonly used.

  22. Richard Wein
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 4:55 am | Permalink

    It would have been nice if Harris had responded to Blackford’s arguments, instead of responding to some other arguments which he put into Blackford’s mouth. Let’s hope he reads Blackford more carefully before making his full response.

    “The case I make in the book is that morality entirely depends on the existence of conscious minds; minds are natural phenomena; and, therefore, moral truths exist…”

    I find it hard to understand how someone as intelligent as Harris can think this is a valid argument.

    • Richard Wein
      Posted January 21, 2011 at 8:26 am | Permalink

      P.S. I take back what I said about Harris putting words into Blackford’s mouth. On re-reading, I see that his email was merely a response to Coyne’s post. Coyne gave “a combined list of both Blackford’s and my own problems with Harris’s thesis”, but I don’t think he did justice to Blackford’s.

  23. Posted January 23, 2011 at 5:25 am | Permalink

    About defining “morality,” I think there are two assumptions here which aren’t so attractive.

    1) Evolution has favored ways of thinking which promote general well-being.

    2) What people call “morality,” though different in many details, is just those ways of thinking which promote general well-being.

    If we accepted these two premises, we you could argue that what is moral is just what promotes general well-being. There is no sense in saying something could be moral without promoting general well-being, because the definition of “morality” doesn’t allow it.

    I think (1) is plausible, but (2) is not. Russell’s criticism of Harris is worth repeating here (actually, I’ll rephrase it slightly, but the substance is the same): If “x ought to y” just means “If F(x,y), then general well-being will be promoted,” then the statement “we ought to promote general well-being” would be a tautology. It would just mean “by promoting general well-being, we promote general well-being.” This is not be something we could logically refute. Yet, we can say “you ought to promote general well-being” without saying anything apparently tautological. We can, in fact, rationally wonder whether or not promoting general well-being is something we ought to do. This makes the proposed definition of “morality” very unattractive.

    There are other reasons to suppose that our moral thinking is not just about promoting well-being. I tend to think of moral thinking as more about fostering a sense of one’s own dignity. Our moral impulse is our impulse to be dignified rational agents. So, “x ought to y” really means “If F(x,y), then x will foster x’s dignity.” The statement “x should foster x’s dignity” would be tautological, and this isn’t so hard to accept. For it would seem illogical to say to somebody that they should not foster their own dignity. So I would rather define “morality” as “the process of fostering dignity,” and not “ways of thinking which promote general well-being.”

  24. Posted February 29, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

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