Sam Harris Responds

Update and reboot: Sam Harris has responded to my blog post reacting to his TED talk. In the initial version of this response-to-the-response-to-the-response-to-the-talk, I let myself get carried away with irritation at this tweet, and thereby contributed to the distraction from substantive conversation. Bad blogger.

In any event, Sam elaborates his position in some detail, so I encourage you to have a look if you are interested, although it didn’t change my mind on any issue of consequence. There are a number of posts out there by people who know what they are talking about and surely articulate it better than I do, including Russell Blackford and Julian Sanchez (who, one must admit, has a flair for titles), and I should add Chris Schoen.

But I wanted to try to clarify my own view on two particular points, so I put them below the fold. I went on longer than I intended to (funny how that happens). The whole thing was written in a matter of minutes — have to get back to real work — so grains of salt are prescribed.

First, the role of consensus. In formal reasoning, we all recognize the difference between axioms and deductions. We start by assuming some axioms, and the laws of logic allow us to draw certain conclusions from them. It’s not helpful to argue that the axioms are “wrong” — all we are saying is that if these assumptions hold, then we can safely draw certain conclusions.

A similar (although not precisely analogous) situation holds in other areas of human reason, including both science and morality. Within a certain community of like-minded reasoners, a set of assumptions is taken for granted, from which we can draw conclusions. When we do natural science, we assume that our sense data is more or less reliable, that we are not being misled by an evil demon, that simpler theories are preferable to complicated theories when all else is equal, and so forth. Given those assumptions, we can go ahead and do science, and when we disagree — which scientists certainly do — we can usually assume that the disagreements will ultimately be overcome by appeal to phenomena in the natural world, since as like-minded reasoners we share common criteria for adjudicating disputes. Of course there might be some people who refuse to accept those assumptions, and become believers in astrology or creationism or radical epistemological skepticism or what have you. We can’t persuade those people that they’re wrong by using the standards of conventional science, because they don’t accept those standards (even when they say they do). Nevertheless, we science-lovers can get on with our lives, pleased that we have a system that works by our lights, and in particular one that is pragmatically successful at helping us deal with the world we live in.

When it comes to morality, we indeed have a very similar situation. If we all agree on a set of starting moral assumptions, then we constitute a functioning community that can set about figuring out how to pass moral judgments. And, as I emphasized in the original post, the methods and results of science can be extremely helpful in that project, which is the important and interesting thing that we all agree on, which is why it’s a shame to muddy the waters by denying the fact/value distinction or stooping to insults. But I digress.

The problem, obviously, is that we don’t all agree on the assumptions, as far as morality is concerned. Saying that everyone, or at least all right-thinking people, really want to increase human well-being seems pretty reasonable, but when you take the real world seriously it falls to pieces. And to see that, we don’t have to contrast the values of fine upstanding bourgeois Americans with those of Hitler or Jeffrey Dahmer. There are plenty of fine upstanding people — you can easily find them on the internet! — who think that human well-being is maximized by an absolute respect for individual autonomy, where people have equal access to primary goods but are given the chance to succeed or fail in life on their own. Other people think that a more collective approach is called for, and it is appropriate for some people to cede part of their personal autonomy — for example, by paying higher taxes — in the name of the greater good.

Now, we might choose to marshall arguments in favor of one or another of these viewpoints. But those arguments would not reduce to simple facts about the world that we could in principle point to; they would be appeals to the underlying moral sentiments of the individuals, which may very well end up being radically incompatible. Let’s say that killing a seventy-year-old person (against their will) and transplanting their heart into the body of a twenty-year old patient might add more years to the young person’s life than the older person might be expected to have left. Despite the fact that a naive utility-counting would argue in favor of the operation, most people (not all) would judge that not to be moral. But what if a deadly virus threatened to wipe out all of humanity, and (somehow) the cure required killing an unwilling victim? Most people (not all) would argue that we should reluctantly take that step. (Think of how many people are in favor of involuntary conscription.) Does anyone think that empirical research, in neuroscience or anywhere else, is going to produce a quantitative answer to the question of exactly how much harm would need to be averted to justify sacrificing someone’s life? “I have scientifically proven that if we can save the life of 1,634 people, it’s morally right to sacrifice this one victim; but if it’s only 1,633, we shouldn’t do it.”

At bottom, the issue is this: there exist real moral questions that no amount of empirical research alone will help us solve. If you think that it’s immoral to eat meat, and I think it’s perfectly okay, neither one of us is making a mistake, in the sense that Fred Hoyle was making a mistake when he believed that conditions in the universe have been essentially unchanging over time. We’re just starting from different premises.

The crucial point is that the difference between sets of incompatible moral assumptions is not analogous to the difference between believing in the Big Bang vs. believing in the Steady State model; but it is analogous to believing in science vs. being a radical epistemological skeptic who claims not to trust their sense data. In the cosmological-models case, we trust that we agree on the underlying norms of science and together we form a functioning community; in the epistemological case, we don’t agree on the underlying assumptions, and we have to hope to agree to disagree and work out social structures that let us live together in peace. None of which means that those of us who do share common moral assumptions shouldn’t set about the hard work of articulating those assumptions and figuring out how to maximize their realization, a project of which science is undoubtedly going to be an important part. Which is what we should be talking about all along.

The second point I wanted to mention was the justification we might have for passing moral judgments over others. Not to be uncharitable, but it seems that the biggest motivation most people have for insisting that morals can be grounded in facts is that they want it to be true — because if it’s not true, how can we say the Taliban are bad people?

That’s easy: the same way I can say radical epistemological skepticism is wrong. Even if there is no metaphysically certain grounding from which I can rationally argue with a hard-core skeptic or a Taliban supporter, nothing stops me from using the fundamental assumptions that I do accept, and acting accordingly. There is a weird sort of backwards-logic that gets deployed at this juncture: “if you don’t believe that morals are objectively true, you can’t condemn the morality of the Taliban.” Why not? Watch me: “the morality of the Taliban is loathsome and should be resisted.” See? I did it!

The only difference is that I can only present logical reasons to support that conclusion to other members of my morality community who proceed from similar assumptions. For people who don’t, I can’t prove that the Taliban is immoral. But so what? What exactly is the advantage of being in possession of a rigorous empirical argument that the Taliban is immoral? Does anyone think they will be persuaded? How we actually act in the world in the face of things we perceive to be immoral seems to depend in absolutely no way on whether I pretend that morality is grounded in facts about Nature. (Of course there exist people who will argue that the Taliban should be left alone because we shouldn’t pass our parochial Western judgment on their way of life — and I disagree with those people, because we clearly do not share underlying moral assumptions.)

Needless to say, it doesn’t matter what the advantage of a hypothetical objective morality would be — even if the world would be a better place if morals were objective, that doesn’t make it true. That’s the most disappointing part of the whole discussion, to see people purportedly devoted to reason try to concoct arguments in favor of a state of affairs because they want it to be true, rather than because it is.

This entry was posted in Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

155 Responses to Sam Harris Responds

  1. Ahmed says:

    Apparently the morality of Sam Harris falls short of the everyday decency expected in communications of reason. The irony is a little thick in the air right now.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. DamnYankees says:

    While Harris was rather rude in calling you an idiot, I feel he is substantively right in his analysis.

    Sean, you’re entire post the first time around was essentially just a restatement of Hume’s is-ought stance. You didn’t justify it; you merely repeated it and said it in a few more words. You put this out as a critique of Harris. If I was him I’d probably be annoyed also. Seeing as his entire talk was about rebutting that Humean stance, to have people merely repeat it as though that were an argument is about as compelling as having a Creationist say “there are no transitional fossils!” over and over and over again.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  3. Robert H. says:

    Sean, get over yourself already. Martyr complexes don’t become scientists. Sam Harris wasn’t accusing *you* of being stupid, merely the controversy over his comments as stupid (which indeed, much of it is).

    Again, your confusion over Hume and “is/ought” suggests to me that your strength isn’t in philosophy. A lot has happened in that realm since the 18th century. It’s OK that you aren’t aware of those advances, but don’t blame those who are.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  4. DamnYankees says:

    “The problem, obviously, is that we don’t all agree on the assumptions, as far as morality is concerned.”

    But we don’t all agree on the assumptions of science, either. There are lots of people in this world who literally think logic is stupid and unnecessary. Does the existence of these people invalidate the legitimacy of your profession?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  5. DamnYankees says:

    One more thing -

    Sean, after reading this post again, I realize that I literally have no idea what you think morality is. Harris’ gives his definition of what it is. Religious people have their definition of what it is. But I have no idea what your definition would be.

    You seem to be unwilling to accept Harris’ definition of morality, but you have provided no replacement for it. You keep speaking about how morality works, but you haven’t actually said what it is! When you use a word in such an undefined way, it’s hard to really take your argument here seriously. You say that people can’t agree on the assumptions about morality. But presumably they all need to agree on thee *definition* of morality on some level, otherwise you aren’t even talking about the same thing.

    So Sean, what definition of morality can you provide which would be useful in explaining how everyone uses the word in a way to communicate with each other?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. Brian says:

    Asking whether something is right or wrong is only relevant in the context of making a decision of whether to do it or not. When the decision is easy, like “Should I eat today?”, we don’t worry about the philosophical implications. We’re simply built in such a way that we will try to eat food today. But for more difficult questions, where there is some conflict between goals (both internally and externally), we’ve set up this framework of “morality”. “Should I steal a loaf of bread to feed my starving family?” There are costs and benefits to this, and to help us make the decision we have set up a system of rules that work well in most cases. There’s nothing transcendent about this. Ultimately, morality is just a word to describe the relationship between goal-seeking machines (us) and our goals.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. David K. says:

    Well said. Maybe it’s a sign of the strange world we live in that Sean’s articulated position on this isn’t just the default and that people require extensive (though false) justifications to act empathetically.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  8. Monotropa says:

    Sam Harris has always trended a bit dangerously towards characterizing the world as totalistic black-and-white. Forcing every conceivable moral issue into a false dilemma is a fool’s bargain.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. Brian says:

    Just to expand on my previous post, my point is that in trying to understand morality, we’re basically trying to understand why it is we make the decisions we do. And I think that’s a perfectly good scientific question. If science can help us better understand what our goals are, and how best to achieve them, that seems like a good area of study. If we don’t get our morality from religion, we must get it from rational discussion, and science is just a more structured and rigorous version of this.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. leisurelyviking says:

    I agreed with you on the previous post, and it was unnecessarily hostile of Harris to call you stupid. However, now that he has explained and justified his views more fully, I think he’s right.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  11. Timo Sinnemäki says:

    My goodness, this is awful to watch. The intersubjective account of morality which you’ve described is perfectly sufficient, but Sam Harris, in his hurried ignorance, has convinced himself and his admirers otherwise, and with the drawn-out spitefulness of his response I’m afraid he’s committed himself so heavily to his mistaken position that backing down would be too much of an embarrassment. A good number of his followers will waste precious time campaigning for a dead-end moral philosophy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. Robert H. says:

    Monotropa wrote “Sam Harris has always trended a bit dangerously towards characterizing the world as totalistic black-and-white. Forcing every conceivable moral issue into a false dilemma is a fool’s bargain.”

    Except, of course, that Harris has never done any such thing. I defy you to point out one instance of him veering into absolutism in his TED presentation, or elsewhere. Indeed, he always goes out of his way to qualify his assertions as tentative, and to encourage skepticism amongst his readers. Nor has he ever advocated for “forcing every conceivable moral issue into” *anything*.

    Have you actually _read_ Harris?

    Here’s a handy shortcut for you: Hume postulated an unbridgeable gap between “is” and “ought”. One could characterize Harris as having postulated that “is” and “ought NOT” are relatable. Feel free to try to argue that he’s wrong, but I hope you can bring something more substantive to the argument than “he’s an absolutist (and probably dangerous)”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  13. Philippe says:

    I read half of Sam’s response. The only thing on which he is wrong is when he uses the word “science” to describe his field (morality). Just like an anthropologist uses the word “science” to describe his’.
    You can use the same sort of reasoning in morality as you can use in psychololgy or in physics. It doesn’t mean it’s a science. Also, it doesn’t mean it can’t make any progress in it’s own field.
    I’d say Sam is trying to establish wellbeing as a paradigm in morality (with the definition of paradigm of Thomas Kuhn).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  14. Ahmed says:

    The comments above are unreal.

    First of all, Robert H, Sean is not going to ‘become’ a scientist: he already is. Second, if a theoretical physicist, who has the imagination and clarity of mind to write at both the graduate level and the popular level on some of the deepest issues in the natural world, from both technical and philosophical viewpoints – if that kind of mentality does not constitute the necessary vista from which some materialistic moral landscape can be visible, then maybe that particular landscape is little more than an illusion. The problem is not with the mentality, but the reasoning you want to impose on it.

    My comments so far are in general. Specific to this case, Sean is right and you are wrong. The mistakes Harris has made are blatant, and typical. Several people have commented on them, and others (like Julian Sanchez mentioned above) were so taken back with the false reasoning they preferred to respond to the responses rather than the silly mistakes themselves. Finally, there is nothing that has happened since Hume, no particularly enlightening explosion of materialist utilitarian thought, that would render any of Harris’s fallacies true, or Sean’s simple assertions about them false.

    As for post #2, there is no substance there. Yes, he mentioned an argument by Hume because it applies to the case at hand. Why should he justify Hume? There is no need to justify Hume at all here. It would be the incoming ‘writer’ who would have to justify why and how things ‘ought to be’ in a universe agnostic to all things, even its own natural laws.

    It is painful reading your writings above Sean. Painful because, though you say you scrammed it out in a few minutes, you are working at an incredible level of meticulous detail in comparison to what you are responding to, that it hurts. Oh well. At least you are not alone.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  15. andyo says:

    Just posted on the other thread. Damn do people like to hate Harris. I agree with Robert H. Above. That you are against moral relativism (which I naively thought was incontroversial for most scientific people) doesn’t mean you are an absolutist either.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. Michael says:

    It seems you have had to resort to derisive badinage in the face of a superior argument (and a prevailing intellect). Mr. Harris trounced you! I suggest you stick with your real work.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  17. Dean says:

    I’m a big fan of Sean’s analysis, even though it isn’t entirely rigorous etc.

    We are talking about how people make decisions. Decisions are ultimately rooted in instinctual or nurtured desires – like a person’s desire to follow a set of rules that she deems to be ‘moral’ (because it makes her feel ‘good’ to follow these rules) or a person’s desire to be in another certain future situation over some other situation (like one in which food is abundant over one in which she can only eat bread and water each day, all other things being equal, because that’s just a desire that she has).

    For those prospective future situations which have no precedent in the person’s life, she has to resort to estimated comparisons with other prospective future conditions based on analogies with previous experiences, reasoning based on others’ experiences (literature is very useful) and reasoning based on her evolutionary history (which is the source of some desires) amongst other types of reasoning.

    science is, in principle, able to discuss the origins of these desires (evolutionary and fostered through nurture) and how best to arrive at a preferred future situation. but once the desires are in place, there’s no reason why a certain set of ‘moral’ laws necessarily will become the basis for decisions. despite the fact that sam harris would like that to be the case.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. Troy says:

    Interesting post. What do you say, however, to some of the obvious real-world counter examples to your argument? You say that collectivism versus individualism (a common theme in lots of historical areas) is an irreconcilable difference in axiomatic terms. What of the United States’ graded income tax? Isn’t that a compromise system? What about the shades of socialism that make up that system as well as the entitlement programs of the EU’s countries?

    There are no simple data points to support US tax code or the EU’s social welfare systems. Does science have to be reducible to ‘simple’ data to be consensus based? Do either of these systems even have to be empirically derived to be the agreed-upon method of conducting our national business? Clearly not. Does each system have moral implications? Of course.

    Although epistemology is an interesting facet of this debate, it strikes me that it is only the first hurdle in a longer course of discussion. This goes to your second point. I would imagine that Sam Harris uses extreme examples because it is much easier to describe simple phenomena than complex ones. It’s much easier to say, for example, that, if no human should take another human being’s life, murder should be punished or prevented as often as possible. It is much more difficult to argue over issues such as the nature of that punishment or prevention, abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, assisted suicide, etc. Yet agreeing that murder is bad covers a lot of ground and we can make a lot of decisions based on our agreement while discussing our differences. If science can add to that discussion, why would we fear it?

    Much of your latter point seems a discussion of degree rather than kind.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  19. andyo says:
  20. 14.   Ahmed Says:

    March 29th, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    First of all, Robert H, Sean is not going to ‘become’ a scientist: he already is.

  21. See the transitive verb definition here.

    Second, if a theoretical physicist, who has the imagination and clarity of mind to write at both the graduate level and the popular level on some of the deepest issues in the natural world, from both technical and philosophical viewpoints – if that kind of mentality does not constitute the necessary vista from which some materialistic moral landscape can be visible, then maybe that particular landscape is little more than an illusion.

    Argument from authority?

    My comments so far are in general. Specific to this case, Sean is right and you are wrong.

    Is what follows really an explanation for why he’s wrong?:

    The mistakes Harris has made are blatant, and typical. Several people have commented on them, and others (like Julian Sanchez mentioned above) were so taken back with the false reasoning they preferred to respond to the responses rather than the silly mistakes themselves.

    I don’t see it.

    Finally, there is nothing that has happened since Hume, no particularly enlightening explosion of materialist utilitarian thought, that would render any of Harris’s fallacies true, or Sean’s simple assertions about them false.

    I’m still unclear how Harris’ are so clearly fallacies, as you seem to presume. He addressed the Hume citations in his response. I never thought they were relevant in the first place, regarding what I saw on the video of his talk.

    Yes, he mentioned an argument by Hume because it applies to the case at hand. Why should he justify Hume? There is no need to justify Hume at all here.

    Because otherwise it would be an argument from authority.

    It would be the incoming ‘writer’ who would have to justify why and how things ‘ought to be’ in a universe agnostic to all things, even its own natural laws.

    which is exactly what Harris does or at least attempts to do according to some.

    It is painful reading your writings above Sean. Painful because, though you say you scrammed it out in a few minutes, you are working at an incredible level of meticulous detail in comparison to what you are responding to, that it hurts. Oh well. At least you are not alone.

    Cause everyone who disagrees with you is so obviously stupid?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  22. ChicagoMolly says:

    Ahmed:

    Robert H didn’t say, “Sean is not going to ‘become’ a scientist”: he said, “Martyr complexes don’t become scientists.” He’s using don’t become in the sense of is unflattering or inappropriate. It’s not really an obsolete usage, but you don’t hear it much nowadays. I took the sentence as meaning that Robert feels that Sean has taken Harris’ tweet way too personally, and that such a reaction is unbecoming for a scientist.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. Robert H. says:

    ChicagoMolly and andyo: precisely.

    Perhaps what I should’ve said is “Martyr complexes are unbecoming to scientists.”

    Ahmed wrote “Second, if a theoretical physicist, who has the imagination and clarity of mind to write at both the graduate level and the popular level on some of the deepest issues in the natural world, from both technical and philosophical viewpoints – if that kind of mentality does not constitute the necessary vista from which some materialistic moral landscape can be visible, then maybe that particular landscape is little more than an illusion.”

    That illusory nature may be debatable, but it’s very easy to turn your comment around, thus:

    “Second, if a *neuroscientist* who has the imagination and clarity of mind to write at both the graduate level and the popular level on some of the deepest issues in the natural world, from both technical and philosophical viewpoints – if that kind of mentality does not constitute the necessary vista from which some materialistic moral landscape can be visible…”

    Since I presume you don’t want to turn this into a battle of the bona fides, I assume you will extend the same latitude to Sam Harris, as you described him above.

    I do not mean to denigrate Sean, I mean to criticize his approach to Sam Harris’ expressed views on a path of inquiry that I do not believe that Sean really grasps. That his argument is predicated upon Hume’s “is/should” is just one tip-off to me. It seems to me that Harris’ argument doesn’t rest upon Hume or neuroscience or any other individual field; he is arguing for a new path of inquiry. Trying to use 18th century notions to invalidate Harris’ views is rather like quoting Newton to argue against string theory.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  24. josef johann says:

    There is no such thing as carbon. What we choose to call carbon is just a personal preference.

    No scientist can give any type of objective argument showing that six proton atoms have to be called ‘carbon’ and cannot have any other name. The decision to call six proton atoms ‘carbon’ is arbitrary and subjective.

    Not only is it the case that the scientist cannot objectively prove that six proton atoms must be called ‘carbon’ – that this choice is not arbitrary – but can give no objective answer to the question of why he has decided to give a presentation at Ted about 6-proton atoms.

    There are over a hundred different atoms that the chemist could be talking about – hydrogen, oxygen, iron, uranium. The decision to talk about carbon atoms, as opposed to one of these other types of atoms – is entirely arbitrary. It is up to the whim of the chemist what atoms he is going to give a presentation about That is to say, the choice is totally subjective. Therefore, chemistry is totally subjective.

    (end sarcasm)

    Sean, 95% of your objection simply fails to interact with anything Harris puts forward in his talk. You don’t dispute a syllable put forward by Harris about the reality of pleasure or pain and you don’t even seem to doubt that all cultures seem to talk about changes in consciousness when they talk about morality. And even if you didn’t want to call it “morality” you would probably still agree that there is a difference in well being between Michael Phelps and the Besotho child who will starve to death by the time I’m finished writing this sentence. Once you concede that much, that’s the ball game. Because that means that we really can adjudicate over cultural differences when they claim that are doing harm or good, and we can do so with investigation into the relevant factual issues.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. J.J.E. says:

    I lean toward being convinced more by Sam’s reasoning than by Sean’s. That being said, I don’t think Sam would have sacrificed a scintilla of impact by substituting something for “stupidity”. I mean, Sean may be very very very wrong, but stupid he is not. And his argument can be very very very wrong, but stupid it is not. Perhaps “misguided and counterproductive”, “perniciously irrelevant”, or “surprisingly oblivious” would all have communicated Sam’s disapproval with as much punch as “stupidity”, but the blow would have landed above the belt?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. Timo Sinnemäki says:

    Here’s one crucial point from Sean’s original post which neither Harris nor any of his supporters here have had an answer to. Please read it again:

    “But what if I believe that the highest moral good is to be found in the autonomy of the individual, while you believe that the highest good is to maximize the utility of some societal group? What are the data we can point to in order to adjudicate this disagreement? We might use empirical means to measure whether one preference or the other leads to systems that give people more successful lives on some particular scale — but that’s presuming the answer, not deriving it. Who decides what is a successful life? It’s ultimately a personal choice, not an objective truth to be found simply by looking closely at the world. How are we to balance individual rights against the collective good? You can do all the experiments you like and never find an answer to that question.”

    In Harris’s attempt at an answer he ends up here:

    “It is also worth noticing that Carroll has set the epistemological bar higher for morality than he has for any other branch of science. He asks, “Who decides what is a successful life?” Well, who decides what is coherent argument? Who decides what constitutes empirical evidence? Who decides when our memories can be trusted? The answer is, “we do.””

    There you have it: “We do.”; he contradicts himself and concedes the entire argument to Carroll, but keeps on talking down to him like nothing had happened.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  27. Dean says:

    I should add the explicit relevance of my previous post:
    deciding to follow a certain ‘moral code’ or set of moral ‘laws’ is a decision nonetheless and is therefore subjected to the regular analysis of any decision: ‘why was this decision made – what future situation is the decision maker trying to create?’ this will always boil down to the desires of the decision maker: ‘what future situations does the decision maker desire’?

    so the decision to follow a certain ‘moral code’ or ‘moral rules’ is entirely dependent on the desires of the decision maker. one such desire of the decision maker might be to feel good in knowing that she has followed her ‘morality’. reasons like these are ultimately the only reasons for following a ‘moral code’.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. Sean,

    > At bottom, the issue is this: there exist real moral questions that no amount of empirical research alone will help us solve

    Even if this is true, it does not mean that science cannot be used to answer other moral questions.

    It is the same case in physics. Suppose there two ways of something happening, but either way, the observable outcome is the same. By the definition of such a situation, empirical research cannot tell us which way things happened. But that does not mean empirical research cannot answer other questions about the world.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. DamnYankees says:

    ““But what if I believe that the highest moral good is to be found in the autonomy of the individual, while you believe that the highest good is to maximize the utility of some societal group?”

    I really just don’t know what to say about this kind of formulation. Let me put it to you as an analogy:

    I believe chocolate is the tastiest of all ice creams. You believe it’s vanilla.

    Is all food science now out the window?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  30. eukaryote says:

    The only assumptions that we need begin with, to start talking about the possibility of a science of morality are: that conscious states are concrete facts about the Universe; and that some of those conscious states are better to be in than others.
    The word ‘better’ seems to be problematic here, but there is little doubt that some states of consciousness are more desirable to find oneself in than others. Well-being versus suffering – surely the acknowledgment that such a spectrum of phenomenal states exists is not too much of a consensus to expect.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  31. Robert H. says:

    Timo Sinnemäki wrote “There you have it: ‘We do.’; he contradicts himself and concedes the entire argument to Carroll, but keeps on talking down to him like nothing had happened.”

    You might want to leave that celebratory champagne in the ‘fridge, Timo; Harris neither contradicted himself nor did he concede anything.

    When Harris wrote “We do”, he’s saying that “we…decide what is a successful life…what is coherent argument…what constitutes empirical evidence…when our memories can be trusted” — _we_ do all of these things, and we do them as best as we can with the tools we have.

    We don’t decide what constitutes empirical evidence on a whim. We don’t decide what a coherent argument is because a burning bush tells us what criteria to use. We don’t decide what memories can be trusted on command of the State. *We* (tool-using H. sapiens) decide.

    What Sean and others here seem to be suggesting is that, since there are no clear-cut instructions for how to do this, and since there are cultural disagreements about the matter, that the _only_ remaining course of action is inaction. We can’t construct a foolproof system, so the status quo must remain intact. It’s a good thing that Darwin didn’t subscribe to that notion!

    Sean’s original post said “It’s ultimately a personal choice, not an objective truth to be found simply by looking closely at the world. How are we to balance individual rights against the collective good? You can do all the experiments you like and never find an answer to that question.”

    Well, I’m sorry, but _rubbish_. I’m deeply suspicious of any scientist who claims “we can never find an answer to that question”. How often has that been proved true? Has it *ever* been proved true? We’re tool-makers by nature. To claim that the necessary tools to perform any task cannot be created, simply because we don’t yet know what they are or how to use them, is to dismiss nearly the whole of human achievement. Scientists ought to be very circumspect when it comes to even harboring such thoughts, much less making declarations to that effect.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  32. Timo Sinnemäki says:

    DamnYankees (I’m sorry to see you’ve heavily edited your post 27, making mine unintelligible, but I’ll leave it here anyway):

    1) I think there’s a danger of misattribution here. If a group of people want to make me act in some way against my own desires, for the sake of common good, I might justify (to myself) my refusal solely based on the principle of individual autonomy, while still arguing to the others based on common utility, merely as an effort to persuade them to leave me alone.

    2) I think Sean has made it quite clear that he doesn’t argue against the usefulness of science in resolving moral questions, in cases where the *premises are agreed upon*.

    3) Yes, I would smile, nod, and move on. Luckily there are larger groups of other people whose goals, including reasons for supporting astronomy, I find more sensible. The reasonable uniformity (based on biology and culture) of such moral communities permits us to declare that morality is non-arbitrary, while not giving an inch to claims of ‘universality’.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  33. DamnYankees says:

    To respond with respectiove points:

    1) I’m not sure what this means. You mean people will lie to get their own way? Well…duh. Not sure what you are trying to say.

    2) And Harris has provided a premise that enough human beings agree upon that we can usefully study this as a science. I still haven’t seen anyone rebut his contention that moral actions are almost 100% always geared toward create a state of pleasant consciousness free from suffering. Now, you might say that premise is too vague, but it is a premise on which we basically all agree.

    3) I’m not sure why a reasonable uniformity of moral opinion is somehow not enough to build a scientific foundation, but a reasonable uniformity of the usefullness of empiricism is good enough to build a scientific foundation. Harris makes this point in the linked article, and I haven’t seen anyone address it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  34. Timo Sinnemäki says:

    Robert H.: “What Sean and others here seem to be suggesting is that, since there are no clear-cut instructions for how to do this, and since there are cultural disagreements about the matter, that the _only_ remaining course of action is inaction. We can’t construct a foolproof system, so the status quo must remain intact. It’s a good thing that Darwin didn’t subscribe to that notion!”

    I’m glad to say that you’ve completely made that up. Go through both posts: there’s not a shred of evidence for what you said.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  35. archgoon says:

    Sorry, I’m an idiot. He kept making comparisons to physics, but I couldn’t figure out what experiments we could perform that resolve value differences.

    Could someone explain how he does this?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  36. PJM says:

    It seems that both Sean and Harris ultimately get to a point where communication stops. In Sam’s case, it was when he talked to the academic who defended Burka-wearing. He described how his final argument was to drop his jaw, turn and walk away. So much for discourse, let alone scientific discourse. Sean, for his part, describes how, for some, “We can’t persuade those people that they’re wrong by using the standards of conventional science, because they don’t accept those standards (even when they say they do). Nevertheless, we science-lovers can get on with our lives, pleased that we have a system that works by our lights…” So after all this talk, we’re back to science and religion ultimately shrugging their shoulders and walking away from each other, as they’ve done for thousands of years, each one shaking his or her head and muttering “Can you believe that guy!?”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  37. Timo Sinnemäki says:

    DamnYankees:

    1) It doesn’t have to have anything to do with lying. My common-good argument might make sense to both parties. My point was that just because I present a common-good argument to the other party, my own decision to refuse might not rely on that common-good argument but on the principle of individual autonomy.

    2) He’s not merely saying that we *can* use maximum well-being as a premise in scientific inquiry, he’s *equating* morality with maximum well-being. As to whether nearly 100% really do take it as the ultimate moral axiom, well, the burden of proof is on him, and whatever the result, I fall outside that group. (applies to number 3) as well)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  38. DamnYankees says:

    1) That’s true, but I’m not really sure what your point is. No one said morality was simple. There are always competing norms within all of us.

    2) Actually, he has zero burdon of proof, because he’s not really trying to prove anything. Rather, he is *defining* morality that way because it is a highly useful definition. We went over this in the last thread, so pardon me if I repeat myself. Harris’ is putting forward a definition of “morality” which is open to testing, open to science, and can (in theory) produce predictable results. Anyone can propose any definition they want for any word, but the test of a good definition is how useful it is. The definition Harris puts forward is a useful one, to me. Many other definitions of “morality” seem to be intentionally useless (eg “what God wants”), a talisman used to force an avoidance of actually discussing the issue.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  39. Xeridanus says:

    “I merely assumed what I set out to prove.” – Sam Harris

    I’d like to point out that this is not science, this is a fanciful thought exercise with no real world applicable benefits. grade 10 students are taught this. in science you should assume the opposite of what you’re trying to prove. if you fail to prove it is wrong, it must be right. at least until something changes at which point you go through it all again to see if the same conclusions hold.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  40. SteveN says:

    Sean, if someone said that they would prefer to raise their children in a cave, malnourished and exposed to disease, presumably you would argue that it’s their perfect right to do so since they may not share the same “underlying assumptions” as 99.9% of the rest of the world about what constitutes physical health. A point that Sam Harris makes is that objective measures of mental or emotional wellbeing (e.g., freedom from abuse) may not be fundamentally different from objective measures of physical wellbeing (e.g., freedom from disease). If so, then science can show us how to proceed. Granted, what constitutes mental health is much fuzzier than physical health, but advances in neurophysiology may one day change that. I think Harris is saying that certain assumptions about biological wellbeing — and by extension certain shared assumptions about an environment in which people flourish — transcend culture, religion, etc. Apparently Hume would argue that we can’t prove that sexually molesting children or torturing small animals for fun is “objectively” immoral. But who cares.

    I also agree with the point made by DamnYankeesSays who asks an important question: how do rational beings make moral decisions? This is not just a subject for philosophers, but the question itself can be scientifically addressed (by social scientists, psychologists, neuroscientists, etc.). Obviously there are huge gray areas (e.g., burkas vs. bikinis), but there are also areas that probably 99.999% of the human race would agree on, e.g., reducing the physical suffering of innocent people. These could be part of the “shared moral assumptions” that Sean mentions, but shared among (almost) all people. The fact that 0.001% of the human population might disagree may prove Sean’s (and Hume’s) point, but in the real world their point is purely academic anyway.

    Ahmed: you claim that nothing has happened since Hume. Wrong. Many moral philosophers would agree that a significant step forward was made by the 20th century philosopher, John Rawls (see post #120 in the earlier thread on Harris). A good recent book that discusses Rawls’ contribution is “Justice” by Michael Sandel, based on a course he teaches at Harvard on moral philosophy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  41. Timo Sinnemäki says:

    SteveN, did you not read this?:

    “Even if there is no metaphysically certain grounding from which I can rationally argue with a hard-core skeptic or a Taliban supporter, nothing stops me from using the fundamental assumptions that I do accept, and acting accordingly. There is a weird sort of backwards-logic that gets deployed at this juncture: “if you don’t believe that morals are objectively true, you can’t condemn the morality of the Taliban.” Why not? Watch me: “the morality of the Taliban is loathsome and should be resisted.” See? I did it!”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  42. archgoon says:

    SteveN, I believe that you didn’t read Sean’s second point.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  43. Doug Watts says:

    how do rational beings make moral decisions?

    by developing a sense of morals, which has nothing to do with rationality.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  44. archgoon says:

    DamnYankees,

    Timo considered your second point, that Harris was simply defining morality as such. He disagrees:

    “He’s not merely saying that we *can* use maximum well-being as a premise in scientific inquiry, he’s *equating* morality with maximum well-being.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  45. DamnYankees says:

    “Timo considered your second point, that Harris was simply defining morality as such. He disagrees:”

    I am aware. I can read.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  46. archgoon says:

    DamnYankees,

    Than I am thoroughly perplexed why you simply reiterated the claim?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  47. Cosmonut says:

    I think Sam and Sean are both right. Let me elaborate.
    It’s all about axioms. Sam believes there’s an axiomatic framework on which to ground questions of morality, Sean thinks there isn’t.

    To an extent, I think Sam is right. Let me offer a candidate axiom.
    Axiom M: No human being should be killed or made to suffer just for the heck of it.

    I wager it will be very difficult to find any sane person who disagrees with this.
    In fact, many people would have no problem extending it to other living creatures as well.
    Now Sam offers an example of a society that blinds every third child (I’ll call them the Blinders), and is appalled when a fellow academic sees nothing wrong with it.
    But if we ask ourselves what exactly bothers us about this society, the answer is, “A blatant violation of Axiom M”. Children are being made to suffer horrendously for no reason.

    But say, it turns out the Blinders do have a reason for this practice.
    They claim that the blinded children lead a blessed life.
    They also claim that this practice protects them from the wrath of God.
    Of course, we rationalists know that this is mere superstition – Axiom M is still violated.

    But what if it turns out that the Blinders are right?
    Suppose, after extensive study, you find that the blinded children do indeed go on to lead very successful lives in all other respects and become great scholars and leaders?
    Additionally, it is proved beyond doubt that the society suffers huge calamities whenever blinding is stopped and prospers otherwise?

    Now we come to Sean’s side of the table.
    This is the question of individual choice versus social wellbeing and Axiom M can’t help us here.
    In fact, it seems extremely difficult to find any axiomatic framework which helps settle this issue (at least, I couldn’t think of any).

    So, to summarize, I agree with Sam that morality isn’t “completely relative”, that there are statements like Axiom M which could be used to argue against extreme practices.
    On the other hand, I agree with Sean that such axioms may not be broad enough to address more generic ‘individuality versus social good’ issues – especially since individuals may have very different ideas on what is good for society.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  48. josefjohann says:

    @ Xeridanus

    ““I merely assumed what I set out to prove.” – Sam Harris”

    No. He observed that the vast majority (if not all, I think he said all), of cultures with moral concerns are concerns about changes in consciousness.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  49. Xeridanus says:

    @josefjohann

    I think you’ll find those were copied and pasted from his post, which is why I placed those words in quotation marks and attributed them to Sam Harris.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  50. blueshifter says:

    @DamnYankees

    You have taken statements about moral axioms, which necessarily imply a choice (is this action good or bad?), then modified those statements and turned them into predilection choices about nutritionally irrelevant flavors – which are not moral choices by definition, and then you make the leap that these ice cream choices relate to nutritional values in the exact same way that moral choices relate to moral values. You fail to see the missing piece in there. Are you saying the very nutritional emptyness of chocolate and vanilla, equeate the moral irrelevance of comparing greed vs. altruism? I hope not, cause that really is a non sequitur.

    Perhaps in your analogy you actually meant that the flavor choice IS meaningful, one has more nutritional value than the other. So let for argument’s sake say that this vanilla we’re talking about is rich in protein, complex carbos, and some nice polyunsaturated fats. Omega-6, why not. Plus all the micro-nutrients you need. The chocolate is nothing more than sweet, delicious chocolate. Now that flavor choice “vanilla vs. chocolate” can unequivocally be shown to prolong life in one organism over the control organism. Now, we are talking about whether it’s actually “good” or “bad” to choose one over the other. with our axiomatic end goal being to “live long enough and reproduce” vs. “tragic death from massive chocolate overdose on 6th birthday.”

    Back to the quote:

    ““But what if I believe that the highest moral good is to be found in the autonomy of the individual, while you believe that the highest good is to maximize the utility of some societal group?”

    Here, using the now modified analogy, how we can measure the ‘nutritional value’ of greed vs. altruism? which one is ‘good for ya’, and ‘good for the whole clan’? Is classical neo-darwinian fitness to be our measuring stick? So the strategy that makes most babies wins! altruism it is. but wait – no, Harris says it’s that ‘most of the indiviuals’ be at peace or happy most of the time. ok, fine, we should be able to bash out a balance there, make it all workout all groovy, man.

    However! Someone else might say, that the point is to create a society where the opportunity of maybe someday becoming REALLY rich and REALLY happy, yet for only a small minority of the group; is the most ‘moral’ of all solutions. Or better yet – that all statements of good or bad come only from the man with the VERY LARGE HAT. Or that there are no morals, really. only highly fluid, situational, conditional group behavior rules developed unconsciously by hyper-intelligent apes trying to simultaneously satisfy a plethora of mostly contradicting impulses both within themselves and the other 7 billion apes crowded around it.

    I’ve heard all of those, very elegantly argued, plus many more. And I am sure you have as well. The point being that they all share the characteristic of being wholly arbitrary. Kind of like “i personally like when people are like this-and-that to me, so ALL people should behave like this-and-that to me” Nice enough of a thought, but a bit of a problem when you consider the vast spectrum of actual human behavioral variation.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  51. Furcas says:

    I think Sam and Sean are being about equally stupid. Fundamental moral values aren’t like evidence-based beliefs about reality, as Sam says, nor are they like assumptions about reality, as Sean says. They’re like mathematical axioms. But then, Sean doesn’t seem to acknowledge the difference between assumptions and axioms.

    Beliefs and assumptions can both turn out to be false, but axioms can’t: They’re the things _by which_ we judge whether a statement/theorem is true or false. If you’re wondering which axioms or fundamental moral values are ‘true’, you’re harboring some serious misconceptions.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  52. Robert H. says:

    Timo Sinnemäki wrote “I’m glad to say that you’ve completely made that up. Go through both posts: there’s not a shred of evidence for what you said [that "Sean and others here seem to be suggesting is that, since there are no clear-cut instructions for how to do this, and since there are cultural disagreements about the matter, that the _only_ remaining course of action is inaction. We can’t construct a foolproof system, so the status quo must remain intact."]

    Let’s see:

    “There are not objective moral truths”

    “When people share values, facts can be very helpful to them in advancing their goals. But when they don’t share values, there’s no way to show that one of the parties is ‘objectively wrong.’ And when you start thinking that there is, a whole set of dangerous mistakes begins to threaten.”

    “The problem, obviously, is that we don’t all agree on the assumptions, as far as morality is concerned. Saying that everyone, or at least all right-thinking people, really want to increase human well-being seems pretty reasonable, but when you take the real world seriously it falls to pieces.”

    “there exist real moral questions that no amount of empirical research alone will help us solve”

    “I can only present logical reasons to support that conclusion to other members of my morality community who proceed from similar assumptions. For people who don’t, I can’t prove that the Taliban is immoral.”

    …and so on. Sounds very status quo-y to me — that since there aren’t clear-cut instructions, and there are cultural disagreements, we can’t construct a foolproof system, ergo, your proposal fails.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  53. Timo Sinnemäki says:

    Robert, you’re being either extremely lazy or dishonest. I will quote this one more time:

    “Even if there is no metaphysically certain grounding from which I can rationally argue with a hard-core skeptic or a Taliban supporter, nothing stops me from using the fundamental assumptions that I do accept, and acting accordingly. There is a weird sort of backwards-logic that gets deployed at this juncture: “if you don’t believe that morals are objectively true, you can’t condemn the morality of the Taliban.” Why not? Watch me: “the morality of the Taliban is loathsome and should be resisted.” See? I did it!”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  54. Timo Sinnemäki says:

    By the way, here’s a famous example of this form of reasoning in practice, from Charles James Napier, British commander-in-chief in India:

    “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  55. Ahmed says:

    Thanks all for the clarification, ‘unbecoming of’ is indeed an easier way to write that line, but though your sentence is grammatically sound, I am afraid it is still rather strange. There was no martyr complex in display here – Sean made a decent, straightforward post about science and what it can and cannot say. Harris referred to the article as ‘stupidity’, and wrote a response (entitled ‘Moral Confusion..’, mind you), so riddled with misconceptions about what Harris likes to call ‘science’, that I dare not attempt a full response to it here. Yet Sean continues to write, not minding the silly condescending remarks of Harris, who I am now convinced is largely clueless.

    Take this for instance:
    ‘It is also worth noticing that Carroll has set the epistemological bar higher for morality than .. any other branch of science. He asks, “Who decides what is a successful life?” Well, who decides what is coherent argument?’

    Logicians everywhere must be sitting around staring at each other, mouths agape. The coherence of an argument, when precisely stated, can be mathematically established by a little thing called ‘resolution’. Sophomores in comp sci can write theorem provers for this reason. A successful life, or the morality of eating meat (to borrow from Sean) cannot be decided upon in the same way until you have axioms to base your arguments on, and science does not acknowledge the language of, let alone provide axioms in, these topics. The emotions moving Harris to call Sean stupid, and write all these words, did not happen because natural law insists that is the right thing to do. They are instead, the product of the myriad chaotic forces that constitute his life, and his character, and his understanding of the world. He could have been a million other things.

    Somewhere above, Troy asks an important question: “If science can add to that discussion, why would we fear it?” The answer is that we must fear absolute authority when it comes from humankind. When people claim something like this, they are resorting to the authority of science, beautiful, objective science, as ground on which this moral landscape will be drawn. Assuming you can prove (as Sam Harris so badly wants) that something is absolutely right or wrong, then anyone who assails you, whatever your conclusion, is wrong, or at best insane.

    That would be a calamity in the hands of a man. Sam Harris has apparently advocated things like torture. It’s a good thing he’s completely wrong, or we’d be in a sad situation.

    He’s using the face-veiled women of Afghanistan as cover art. Yes the Taliban were oppressive barbarians, and the women may indeed hate that veil so very much, but brief them on this man and put him at their reach: those ladies would tear him apart.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  56. Robert Strong says:

    Timo, though that is action it would be inaction in relation to changing the status quo.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  57. afu says:

    “If we don’t get our morality from religion, we must get it from rational discussion, and science is just a more structured and rigorous version of this.”

    This is a false dichotomy, and one that plays right into the fundamentalist mind set. For one thing science is not just a more structured and rigorous version of rational discussion, it needs to be empirical. And you can never come to pure value judgement from mere empiricism.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  58. Ahmed says:

    @update: Again, a mark of your respectfulness in debate Sean. I do not know what part of his condescending reply warranted this change, he truly does not deserve it.. never mind.

    In any case, there is no argument from ‘science’ made so far by Harris. The only time science was mentioned as understood by those of us who practice it in some capacity, is when he specifically stated how he is not using it to come up with anything, because, he realizes, this is impossible by definition.

    “So my claim that consciousness is the basis of values does not appear to me to be an arbitrary starting point.”

    There you go. Not science – consciousness. Basically, this is utilitarian morality as taught in philosophy 101 classes since time out of mind, but with a healthy dose of the word ‘science’ thrown in, and maybe a splash of humanism here and there when the arguments get difficult.

    Contrast all this arrogance, this strange desire to make unassailable laws, with the attitude taken by (brace yourself here) religious scholars in the most meticulous of theologies. Have you ever heard of Malik ibn Anas? He is known as the Imam; the leader.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malik_ibn_Anas

    He was prolific, yet despite all the tomes of jurisprudence he wrote, his favorite words when asked were: “I do not know”.

    At times, folks would travel for weeks to ask him. He did not want to say anything about right and wrong. It is a very serious matter, and he did not want to be held to account for what he told people to do. They would sometimes say, frustrated with him: “So and so has asked me to ask you, what should I tell them?”

    The answer was: “Go back to them, and tell them that Malik is telling you that he does not know”.

    What bizarre times we live in.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  59. josefjohann says:

    @Xeridanus

    Here is the full paragraph:

    “And here is where the real controversy begins: for many people strongly objected to my claim that values (and hence morality) relate to facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures. My critics seem to think that consciousness and its states hold no special place where values are concerned, or that any state of consciousness stands the same chance of being valued as any other. While maximizing the wellbeing of conscious creatures may be what I value, other people are perfectly free to define their values differently, and there will be no rational or scientific basis to argue with them. Thus, by starting my talk with the assertion that values depend upon actual or potential changes in consciousness, and that some changes are better than others, I merely assumed what I set out to prove. This is what philosophers call “begging the question.” I am, therefore, an idiot. And given that my notion of objective values must be a mere product of my own personal and cultural biases, and these led me to disparage traditional religious values from the stage at TED, I am also a bigot. While these charges are often leveled separately, they are actually connected.”

    I admit I didn’t read that passage. However, it remains true that I am correctly characterizing Harris, and you aren’t. Your “quote” of Harris is simply Harris paraphrasing what his critics were saying about him. He was not claiming that he himself assumed what he set out to prove.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  60. Lug says:

    I think Sean and Sam Harris may agree more than they realize, but are hung up over the usage of “objective morality”. Throughout Harris’s argument, there seem to be two distinct claims about morality:

    (1) There exist objective moral truths (“objective” meaning “existing independently of human invention”). Thus it is factually correct to claim that “X is (objectively) morally right” for some behavior X.

    (2) We can use science to determine what set of behaviors and/or precepts maximizes human well-being, where “well-being” refers to some empirical metric. (For example, imagine that 100 years in the future, neuroscience has progressed to the point that we can recognize exactly what patterns of brain activity correspond with varying degrees of happiness. Not only that, but machines have been invented that can directly measure the level of a person’s happiness. (Yes, this is contrived and unrealistic, but humor me, please.) Researchers could then sample the happiness of the adherents of different moral systems, and so determine which moral system maximizes happiness.) Thus it is factually correct to claim that “X maximizes Y” for some behavior X and some metric of human well-being Y.

    Note that (2) makes no appeal to objective moral truth, but does appeal to objective scientific truth (at least, to the extent that objective truths can be known scientifically). Also note that (2) can be true while (1) is false.

    Harris argues for (2). He then conflates (2) with (1) — or, at least, seems to be saying that we might as well use (2) to determine what the truths in (1) are. And this is where I think his message gets muddled. I don’t think he’s wrong, I just think he doesn’t communicate very clearly. From my perspective it seems that Harris DOESN’T actually believe (1) is true, at least not in the way that Sean assumed. Harris seems to think that the concept of what I and, I think, Sean would call “objective” morality is useless (Harris calls it “transcendental”). He then applies the label “objective” to the morality determined by (2), NOT because (2) necessarily leads us to (1), but because he thinks (2) is the most useful way to construct moral systems.

    I think this usage of “objective morality” is confusing. (In fact, I think the phrase is nonsensical. IMO moral truths are necessarily subjective. And subjective does NOT imply arbitrary.) If Harris had not made claims about (1) and stuck with talking about how (2) would be good to look into and if it worked wouldn’t it be great to base our morality on it, I think few people would have found his TED talk controversial. The real issues would be HOW exactly we use science to measure human well-being (in the absence of an accurate and practical happiness-meter). Which, frankly, is what I expected when I started watching his TED talk. Instead, we’re caught up in fruitless arguments about what is objective morality really.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  61. Robert Strong says:

    Timo wrote:
    By the way, here’s a famous example of this form of reasoning in practice, from Charles James Napier, British commander-in-chief in India:
    “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”

    If the affect of such beliefs / customs as in your example on ‘well-being’ (not a very well defined term but it is a perfectly good starting point for a discussion) could be determined do you think it would be worthwhile? Keep in mind (not that you wouldn’t) that your example is very similar to beliefs people hold today and that it would also apply to much more subtle cases. It might be possible to achieve a higher consensus with the knowledge gained from this research in the same way that some people today that have read the studies on nutritional health have taken to eating healthier. There will always be those that will eat big macs but there will be those that will listen… hopefully with skepticism but that is true for everything until the evidence is undeniable.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  62. Dan Davis says:

    Sean said: The only difference is that I can only present logical reasons to support that conclusion to other members of my morality community who proceed from similar assumptions.

    A slight but I think important correction. You can persuade people who disagree with you on certain moral points by appealing to other values they might have, and it isn’t necessary for you to share those values either.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  63. slw says:

    Objective morality requires either a set of axioms that every community in the world agrees to or at the very least a definition of the desired goal of morality that every community in the world agrees on. If Sam Harris can indeed find either of those then I will stand in awe.

    This however ignores the larger point, which is that there is nothing more dangerous than a man who believes he is right. Any system in the past that has attempted to impose absolute morals has ended up in war with a group of people that don’t agree with them. You are trying to create a religion, Mr. Harris and it’s absolutely disgusting.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  64. Robert Strong says:

    slw: do you agree with the premise that in general it is best not to give up your queen in chess when possible? Do you agree that it is best to avoid physical altercations when possible? Do you agree that it is best not to physically abuse children? Do you think any of these can be quantified so they can be shown scientifically? Think on what people a century ago would think about when presented with what is possible today. Isn’t it possible that it is possible to quantify this?

    I never heard Harris state that there is only one way to live and that people should live one way. I did hear him state that we should attempt to understand the affect of different behaviors in relation to well being and that there would likely be many different ways to live that could improve well being. Think about the percentage of people that don’t believe in evolution. Should future work on evolution be stopped just because a large percentage of people don’t believe in it? So, if people choose not to live their lives based on the findings does that mean research into how to optimize well being be stopped?

    I also suspect that most scientists believe they are right in regards to their understanding of their subject matter with the understanding that there is more that they don’t understand. I don’t view them as dangerous though of course anyone could be dangerous but that would be due to other reasons.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  65. cheshire cat says:

    SAM HARRIS IS A BIGOT!!!

    Sam Harris is still a bigot (and if people don’t know what that means, please look it up). He wants us to believe that morality can emerge from science. He may be right, but the morality emerging from science tells us that because of our individual uniqueness, we are all equivalent to gods that are centers of our own little universes. Actions by gods can not be judged immoral, unless might makes right. So does Sam Harris have the might?

    Sam Harris’ ego is the only thing that allows him to pass moral judgments on the rest of us. If he were appropriately humble (and scientific) he would realize that his position is isomorphic to the one that allowed for the conquest of the Americas by our European ancestors. So although my Viking ancestors would largely approve of his general position, and my puritan English side would agree that I am allowed to make judgments on the savagery of competing cultures, my jewish side, post-holocaust (and pre-holocaust as well, since my jewish ancestors all showed up due to old world hate-mongers like Sam Harris) would argue that Sam Harris is a complete bigot.

    SAM HARRIS IS A BIGOT!!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  66. slw says:

    Robert: Yes, I agree with the premise that in general it is not a good idea to lose your queen if the following two conditions are met:
    1) Losing your queen does not give you a direct advantage in the game.
    2) You are trying to win.

    The second condition is the critical one here. I would be most interested to know how you define “winning at life”.
    Similarly, plotting the moral landscape is only useful if every actor presented on the landscape has the same goals. In case that is not the case, peaks don’t represent anything else than majority rule and discussing them as scientifically optimal solutions is extremely dangerous.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  67. Marc says:

    Completely off-topic, but the first 7 TeV collisions, with some beautiful events, began 10 minutes ago.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  68. Tim says:

    chesire cat,
    your use of the caps lock is a devastating logical argument. Your judicious use of not one, not two, but three exclamation points makes your position fundamentally undeniable. But repeating your assertion twice is what makes your post a true model of rational argument. Thank you for showing us all how it’s done.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  69. Milton C. says:

    If Sam Harris wants to assert that empirical evidence can clearly lead us to deem moral stances as this whitewashed right or wrong, perhaps he should look at science first: where empirical evidence often just creates a clusterf*ck of confusion. Empirical evidence does not always lead to “Hypothesis A is correct and hypothesis B is false.” Oftentimes it leads you to hypothesis C…which incorporates both the true components of A and B.

    Applying this reasoning to morality is no different, as Sean correctly asserts. Viewing a stance as wholly “right” or “wrong” is a fool’s bargain, and it’s an approach that fails before it even gets off the ground. Let’s dispense with the labels and be more realistic.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  70. cristian says:

    the second point is very rortian.

    indeed, this need of absolute, transcendental foundation in order to commit oneself to certain values is a stupid (religious) bias.

    we (western liberal democracies) have certain values, standards and, why not, beliefs… we are more coherent and more sincere when justifying our commitment to them and by no means do we believe that we can persuade everyone to share our standards of metajustification.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  71. Philip Jr. says:

    That’s the most disappointing part of the whole discussion, to see people purportedly devoted to reason try to concoct arguments in favor of a state of affairs because they want it to be true, rather than because it is.

    That is precisely the danger of Sam’s argument. I love Sam Harris; he’s a brilliant guy, and he does indeed have some good arguments in this talk. But I agree with Sean here about the dangers of letting a banner of “reason” really just play into a confirmation bias-esque facade of subjectivity when it comes to empiricism.

    As an example, we need look no further than science. I’m an evolutionary biologist, and I spend a goodly portion of my time reconstructing phylogenetic trees (hypotheses about the ancestry of organisms). There are multiple ways to do this, of course, but the most widely used types of data in phylogenetics are morphology and sequence (DNA, RNA, protein) data. And oftentimes, the hypotheses you end up with from using two different types of data don’t match up. At all.

    This isn’t really a problem, of course, because we know enough about biology and evolution to really look at those differences (and reasons behind them) and understand why such difference exist. But the problem relevant to this discussion comes in what some of my (very intelligent and very rational) colleagues fall into: selecting one of two (or more) competing hypotheses as the “right” one simply because it matches with their preconceived notions about what is true/right. There may be equally-strong empirical evidence supportiing both hypotheses, but the breaking factor ends up being a preconceived notion that was formed without any evidence at all.

    I could easily see that danger being applied to moral reasoning, i.e. if someone has a moral assertion that they want to be true, they’ll look for evidence to support it and stop there. End of story: “I’m right and you’re wrong.” In reality, of course, there may be supporting evidence for two different assertions, and the issue is far from clear cut. I think Sam is allowing for a bit too much ignorance of this inconvenient reality of empirical reasoning when he’s making his argument here, at least to that regard.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  72. SteveN says:

    On some level this whole debate is nonsensical since the line between “moral” behavior and ordinary behavior is not well-defined; that is, one could argue that there are really no “moral” choices, just choices. So science can’t even tell us which choices are moral, much less what the correct choice is. However, I do agree with Sam Harris that there are certain behaviors that are pretty much universally regarded as a “good thing,” e.g., when a mother feels a need to protect and nurture her child (Taliban mothers too). But does this mean she “ought” to protect and nurture her child? Hume would say no and he may be correct, but that doesn’t mean there will never come a time when this behavior becomes a fairly universal assumption of what is considered good practice (if it isn’t already) because it seems to benefit both individuals and society (e.g., resulting in fewer homicidal individuals). It may also happen that in the far future the consensus on what is regarded as truly of value among different cultures and worldviews may continue to converge — all on its own without help from Sam Harris (at least to a much greater degree than today). For example, the percentage of people on the planet who think slavery is a good thing is way smaller than it was 200 years ago.

    The view put forth by a few people here that Sam Harris is promoting some dangerous, rigid, dogmatic, authoritarian moral code is really pretty funny.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  73. Jamie says:

    Once upon a time, in an intro philosophy course, I wrote an essay that made a clear distinction between the words “objective,” “universal” and “absolute.” I argued that while it may be logically possible that there are objective truths about morality, that didn’t imply that any given truth was “universal” or “absolute.” I got an A, but I didn’t pursue a degree in philosophy. In any event, does anyone buy this?

    It seems that much, but not all, of the controversy over Harris’ thesis is that people think that to assert science can help us figure out what values might be “true” (eg. does a 1 week old human embrio have the same value as an adult human? — science can weigh in on whether it has a nervous system capable of subjectivity and self-value), that means he is saying science can directly dictate laws that must be universally and absolutely applied. I don’t think he is.

    It seems to me that whether or not everyone agrees about a given value, or whether or not we can determine with absolute certainty that a given value is correct, is independent of whether or not it is actually true. It is either objectively true that morality should founded on considerations of utility, or it is objectively false. I don’t know which one it is, I only have a belief, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an objective truth to the matter. My belief is right or wrong. If there is a God whose will trumps human utility, then the utilitarian is wrong. Even if everyone on earth was a utilitarian and nobody believed in God. If there is no God, and subjective consciousness is the only realm of moral concern, then to value God’s will over human utility is wrong, even if everyone believes in God and agrees on God’s will.

    This leaves me frustrated with a lot of the furor over his talk and rebuttals. The word “objective” is too loaded. There are probably good points to be made on both sides without getting too tripped up over the “objectivity” issue.

    FWIW

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  74. I’ll be responding to Sam Harris over the next few days. I think he misses the point of my psychopath example, and I suppose I’ll have to explain why at some stage. But what most dismays me is the attitude that he has taken in publicly referring to Sean’s original post as “stupidity”. That is not a good way to treat a valuable ally who has written a civil and thoughtful comment about your work – especially after you’ve sought feedback. And then there is at least one person out there in the blogosphere who has characterised Sean’s mild and thoughtful criticism as a vicious attack (really, mate, that’s just lunacy).

    I do believe that there is much of merit in what Harris said in the original talk, as I said on my blog at the time, but there is also much that is confusing at best. I could probably translate his position into language that I agree with, but I don’t agree with it as worded and I don’t think I am being “stupid” in being thrown by some of the metaethical comments he made early on in the talk. (I doubt that Harris would accept my translation, but I can’t read his mind – so who knows?.)

    My own attitude is that he asked for constructive feedback, and he’s been getting it. Some of the points being made against the talk are powerful, but he could probably take them on board while keeping the main political message (although it’s probably too late to revise his forthcoming book in the light of the comments). Some of the problem might be that there are different sense of “value”, “objectivity”, and so on, in play, in which case we can seek to clarify them.

    Really, this is how intellectual progress is made. In my case, I’m sharpening up some of my preexisting ideas about metaethics, perhaps revising some, and certainly deepening and extending some. I have not been convinced that morality is objective in the sense that’s usually meant in these discussions, but I’ve always maintained that it is non-arbitrary (these are *not* the same thing, at least as I understand them). I’m now trying to get that distinction clearer and to work out whether it would be possible to put what I see as meritorious in the TED talk into my words and concepts without losing too much of the rhetorical force. I’d like to be able to convey something of the same thing but without the metaethical aspects that I disagree with or find confusing.

    Again, this is an opportunity to make progress. There’s a time and place for acrimony, but this is not it, and I saw nothing acrimonious in what Sean originally wrote.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  75. DamnYankees says:

    “But does this mean she “ought” to protect and nurture her child? Hume would say no and he may be correct.”

    The only reason this sentence isn’t laughed out of the room is that the word “ought” has no definition. The moment you actually define the parameters of the word “ought” is the moment this sort of logic competely falls apart.

    It’s like saying, we know that when you take 2 apples and add 1 more, you end up with 3 apples. But does 2 + 1 ought to equal three? Of course not!

    It’s hilariously non-sensical, but pervasively accepted.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  76. Craig says:

    It seems like people might be conflating two things. One is that there are no hard lines that separate different kinds of human knowledge. The other is that its not pragmatically useful categorize human knowledge. I think that Sam Harris is going from the first claim to the second. I think it is very useful to distinguish what we know about the moral status of murder and what we know about the big bang. Its impossible to say exactly what makes these two areas of knowledge different, but things are a lot clearer to people if we speak as though they are. I will say that one advantage to maintaining the pragmatic distinction is that it breaks down cultural barriers. Utilitarian and Kantian philosophers can both believe in the big bang without any difficulties. The same is true for the effectiveness of medical treatments. Also I suspect that setting our moral commitments to the side helps us to do better science. I don’t think there is any real danger of moral relativism from recognizing the value of these distinctions.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  77. Dave says:

    @Lug:

    “Researchers could then sample the happiness of the adherents of different moral systems, and so determine which moral system maximizes happiness.”

    This still is assuming that the overall sum of happiness is the objective. There are other reasonable objectives, like maximizing minimum happiness, or maximizing median happiness, etc. Science can not help us decide which of these objectives is correct.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  78. DamnYankees says:

    “Science can not help us decide which of these objectives is correct.”

    What does “correct” mean in this sentence?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  79. Dave says:

    Exactly.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  80. DamnYankees says:

    “Exactly.”

    So you used a word that you don’t even know how to define, and you see this as an actual benefit of your argument?

    You, as well as many others, are simply using vague and undefined words like “ought” and “better” and “correct”, and not even supplying definitions. This lets you simply avoid the issue.

    If I walk up to you and say that 2+1=4 is a “more correct” equation than 2+1=3, you would rightly think I’m an idiot. But if I do the same with a moral claim, you don’t. I would like to see someone explain why.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  81. Dave says:

    No one can define it, that’s the point. Any definition of what “correct” means in this context is subjective. In the Big Lebowski’s parlance it would be “just like your opinion, man”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  82. DamnYankees says:

    “No one can define it, that’s the point.”

    Lots of people can define it. Anyone can define anything. Harris defines it in his talk.

    You do realize there’s a difference between “can’t define” and “I don’t like how you define it”. You are doing the intellectual equivalent of putting your fingers in your ears and saying “LALALALALALALA”.

    Sean himself has made this point many times in various posts when he tries to define “science” in a useful way. And he has said many times that definitions are never right nor wrong, they are merely useful or useless. Harris is trying to define our morality in a useful way, such that is it open to testing and empirical evidence based on scientific principles.

    You are taking the route of a moral Luddite, quite frankly, not only unwilling to join the progress, but actively trying to deny the existence of the argument.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  83. Robert Strong says:

    slw: I don’t have a definition for a “winning at life” but I would like to understand more about how to optimize life. I do have beliefs such as using physical violence on my child is not a good method to raise my child which is backed by research. Could this and other research into what are the best answers to optimal methods raising a child or optimize “well being” be of value? I believe the answer is yes.

    There are many values that are shared among people to one degree or another on the moral landscape. Also, it was considered acceptable not that long ago to punish children physically and it still is acceptable in a large portion of the world. What if the answer to this can be found in neuroscience through this research? The danger you speak of as I see it is if these optimal ways to promote ‘well being’ are institutionalized and have nothing to do with the study of these optimal ways to promote ‘well being’ beyond the possibility that after the evidence is published the evidence can be used to institutionalize the findings. I personally have less fear of that happening than I do of previous belief systems that claim a “one size fits all” way of life becoming institutionalized since I am sure there will be those people that don’t fit the norm studied as much if not more than those that are considered the norm.

    There have also been regimes that have done what you are worried about without the research into how to optimize “well being” and I highly doubt that the research in and of itself would be the cause of such a regime. Maybe it will be a genie that can’t be put back into the bottle but it would still be the regimes that have the desire to institutionalize ways to live that are the real problem and not the knowledge that is attained.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  84. cristian says:

    DamnYankees , how old are you? like 15? did you just discover logical positivism? don’t worry, with hard work you’ll get over it. keep up the good work!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  85. Dave says:

    Moral Luddite? Where do you come up with this stuff?

    By “can’t” define, I obviously meant “there are many ways to” define, where science does not provide a suitable criteria for evaluating the “usefulness” or “value” of the definitions.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  86. DamnYankees says:

    “By “can’t” define, I obviously meant “there are many ways to” define, where science does not provide a suitable criteria for evaluating the “usefulness” or “value” of the definitions.”

    There are many ways to define everything. There are multiple ways to define logic. There are multiple ways to define knowledge. There are multiple ways to define reality. We’ve had entire nations define logic is weird ways which led to ridiculous results, like Lysenkoism, but this huge disagreement on basic forms of math and logic didn’t seem to trouble us in the West. Does these disagreements render all logic subjective and thus not open to science? Presumably not, but I have no idea on what basis you would say so. Is it simply that a larger majority of people agree on what “compelling logic” is than what “compelling morality” is? If it’s just a numbers game, I’m afraid your bright line categories fly away.

    You continue to make the fallacy that if people disagree on something, it must therefore not be amenable to scientific inquiry. I have no real response when you merely re-assert the same argument over and over. The answer has been provided to you many times in this thread and all over the interwebs. This is the time when I smile, shake your hand, and move on, I guess.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  87. DamnYankees says:

    Oh, and as for moral Luddite, I made that up. Not sure it really works as a metaphor, but I went with my gut.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  88. Dave says:

    I’m not saying there are _no_ questions for which scientific inquiry can not provide answers, just this specific one – namely “what does the word ‘correct’ mean in my original post?”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  89. Dave says:

    I mean if you really want to answer this question, provide me a way that you would scientifically investigate whether it was better to maximize (using some future neuroscientifically derived happiness metric):

    a) the overall sum of human happiness (say arithmetic mean, to normalize for pop. size)
    b) the mimimum happiness of all humans

    (This is just an example. There are obviously many other possible objectives that meet Harris’s “wellbeing” criteria.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  90. religionistheissue says:

    I think what Sam is after is a logical solution to the need for morality other than religion. So, to that end, he is proposing the building blocks for logical alternative to the purely faith based morality that currently dominates human decisions. His examples of killing a daughter who was raped and throwing acid on a girl for learning to read are (obviously) pointed at (dangerous) morality founded in religion.

    To deconstruct every word of Sam’s logic, seems contrary to the point. If we deconstruct the logic in any religious text, we’d never get anywhere. Sam is not perfect. Show me someone who is? God? Unfortunately, He has “written” so many contradictory books, that I am not buying it.

    Is their anyone posting here that would argue for morality purely based on religious texts? If not, shouldn’t we be constructivists rather than deconstructionists. Shouldn’t we take Sam’s suggestions and correct mistakes, make adjustments, and retest their merits?

    Morality is messy to be sure. To expect pure logic to conclusively design a set of standards is ambitious. He postulates that with advancing technology, we’ll get closer (better). We need to.

    Have you seen the news lately?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  91. Lug says:

    @Dave

    “This still is assuming that the overall sum of happiness is the objective. There are other reasonable objectives, like maximizing minimum happiness, or maximizing median happiness, etc. Science can not help us decide which of these objectives is correct.”

    Yes, exactly. Which is why I make the distinction between my points (1) and (2). Harris seems to want to conflate them. I don’t think conflating them is necessary in order to think that (2) is a good way to build a moral system (where “good” can be subjective or objective, depending on your own personal take on morality). Conflating them seems to mainly lead to people writing a lot of blog posts and calling others’ arguments stupid.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  92. Mike says:

    Hot off the press in Science Daily:

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/03/100329152516.htm

    “MIT neuroscientists have shown they can influence people’s moral judgments by disrupting a specific brain region — a finding that helps reveal how the brain constructs morality.”

    Which way does this cut?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  93. UchicagoMan says:

    Wow, quite the responses here!

    All I can say is, of course the damn universe is absurd! Get over it.

    We must plod along like Albert Camus suggests. At every moment we must create and re-create (in our mind’s eye) that which does not exist, and fight on.
    We can give it a try. But nothing is absolute!

    Accept the the dark abyss! Accept the Matrix!

    Accept one’s own insignificance and contradiction! (and fight it will all your might, for all its worth!)

    And you see, in order for there to be “room for moral judgment” it is necessary that no absolute definition or standard exist. To learn, there must be freedom to adapt. And blurriness.

    Beside we are all just one drug/neurological disease or impairment away from “feeling” very differently about everything.

    “Life Goes on within You and without You”

    You didn’t exist before. And soon you will cease to.
    Life goes onward.

    Your very thought this moment didn’t exist a second ago. And it too will cease a moment later.
    But your heart keeps beating…… until it doesn’t.

    Get over it.

    Anyway, I think this is why Aristotle emphasizes “Politics” as so important.

    Cheers all!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  94. Chris says:

    @DamnYankee
    I still haven’t seen anyone rebut his contention that moral actions are almost 100% always geared toward create a state of pleasant consciousness free from suffering. Now, you might say that premise is too vague, but it is a premise on which we basically all agree.

    Far too vague, you can’t sensibly measure it nor test for it except, perhaps, as an average for society.

    What on earth does “pleasant consciousness” actually mean. Sounds like new age woo speak.
    Also, suffering isn’t always bad in the long run. No pain no gain.

    Now if you claimed that it was personal maximisation of progeny, that could be argued for.
    Personal power and wealth could also be argued for.

    For either of these to come about someone else may have to do worse.

    Who wins and who chooses who loses?

    Mr Harris needs to state a measurable thing, explain it clearly (no weasel words or waffle) and give a reasonable argument for it. Then his “morals” might be considered

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  95. PJM says:

    “Pleasant consciousness, free from suffering”?! Obviously written by someone who has never had children. Having a child is a journey FILLED with suffering, both physical, in the case of the mother, and emotional, in everyone’s case. What rational reason is there for having children? You don’t really need them to take care of you when you get older any more, and most rational, scientific minds would argue that the world is overpopulated anyway. They break your heart, they exhaust you physically, emotionally, and financially. They suck your resources, they put themselves and you in danger…. I would argue that having children is utterly irrational, and violates most every rational definition of moral utility. And yet most of us not only devote our LIVES to our children, but usually find religion in the process. You think there are no atheists in foxholes? There are no atheists with 10 year-old kids. How to explain that?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  96. Dino Rosati says:

    I posted this on Sam’s site:

    I find the positions of Sean Carroll and Russell Blackford, both of whom I admire greatly, to be surfing from a kind of Godelian vertigo when we come to this is/ought nonsense.

    Godel showed that even in the pristine world of mathematics, non-trivial systems can never be both complete and logically consistent. This did not render the enterprise of mathematics pointless. Enormous amounts of mathematical knowledge pours daily from those industrious minds.

    As Sam has repeatedly pointed out, splitting philosophical hairs may be an entertaining occupation in the Ivory Towers but if we are to survive contact with reality, humanity must converge on rules for living together that attempt to maximize useful metrics for the health of societies. This must become a high priority SCIENTIFIC enterprise if any headway is to be made.

    When I read quotes like “I’ve never yet seen an argument that shows that psychopaths are necessarily mistaken about some fact about the world” (Blackford) or “Why should we value human well-being?” (Carroll) from very smart and admirable minds I begin to despair for the world.

    Kudos to Sam for shining some light on these matters.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  97. Timo Sinnemäki says:

    Your horror towards those quotes is unfounded and you should think their words through before you start to pass around insulting non-sequiturs about ivory towers and Gödel and such.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  98. spyder says:

    From another thread in another forum: “No matter, never mind.” –Gary Snyder, Turtle Island
    Go outside, sit under a tree, and ask yourself if either of the two arguments offered above are relevant.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  99. someone says:

    shock of egos…
    the need to be proven right… humm…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  100. Matt T says:

    I wonder if and how this will factor into the discussion:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2010/03/30/magnetic-zaps-to-the-brain-can-alter-peoples-moral-judgments/

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  101. Imagine for a moment that Harris is right; that we live in a world with some real, knowable moral answers, but they’re obscured by a position usually condescendingly called moral relativism (don’t worry about why this is).

    Now imagine we’re in Carroll’s world, where moral certainty is unobtainable. Forget the chains of reasoning and ask: would there be any observations we could make of actual human behavior that would suggest that one or the other view is correct?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  102. Anthony Ai Quoc says:

    I think the only thing that constitutes bad blogging is ranting monologue; strong remarks about an individual’s intelligence do not.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  103. rockhog says:

    What I find interesting is that most of these discussions, on both sites, are dealing with fine details about what each author said and are missing the whole point. If you step back and see the forest instead of focusing on the trees, you see that Sam is saying that there are right and wrong answers to the most important moral questions, and that we as human beings can and should have open discussions about them. Further, people should not be able to hide behind religion when it comes to discussions about these moral questions. We should be able to speak up when we see obvious human suffering occurring in the name of, or condoned by dogma, weather religious or otherwise, and we should strive to move towards a global society where this form of discourse is the rule and not the exception.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  104. Robert H. says:

    Timo Sinnemäki wrote “Robert, you’re being either extremely lazy or dishonest. I will quote this one more time:

    ‘Even if there is no metaphysically certain grounding from which I can rationally argue with a hard-core skeptic or a Taliban supporter, nothing stops me from using the fundamental assumptions that I do accept, and acting accordingly. There is a weird sort of backwards-logic that gets deployed at this juncture: ‘if you don’t believe that morals are objectively true, you can’t condemn the morality of the Taliban.’ Why not? Watch me: ‘the morality of the Taliban is loathsome and should be resisted.’ See? I did it!’”

    Nice try, but no sale.

    First, you’re attempting to negate the quotes *I* provided with other quotes. But they don’t negate them, they just *contradict* them.

    Second, claiming that one can “argue with a hard-core skeptic or a Taliban supporter” or even “condemn the morality of the Taliban” is not the issue at hand. That just maintains the status quo (see above), since Westerners have been doing those very things (arguing and condemning) for years. And where has it gotten us? Exactly nowhere.

    What Harris is advocating is using scientific inquiry to produce a new set of tools for establishing standards for behavior. Without those metrics, we’re left with the status quo of subjectivity. “You’re wrong.” “No, YOU’RE wrong!”

    And as for “Robert, you’re being either extremely lazy or dishonest” — leave out the ad hominem schoolyard bullshit, pal; you’re not impressing anyone with it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  105. R33 says:

    Moral relativism is the only rational perspective.

    There is certainly no universal morality, history clearly shows that most human males will keep raping and murdering as long as there are no negative consequences for them. People will will always be willing to increase their well being at the cost of others.

    There is nothing inherently wrong in murder or rape, they are both part of human nature and can form a basis of a successful reproductive strategy. Biology purposefully puts us on a collision course, competition is beneficial for the species, even if it leads to untold suffering of individuals.

    There is certainly no universal morality. That doesn’t however mean we cannot or should not setup our own rules for our own benefit, we can and we should, but they cannot be grounded in some nonsensical notion of universal morality, they have to be grounded in pragmatism. Every society should agree on a set of such rules and most do, they are called laws.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  106. Timo Sinnemäki says:

    There is no contradiction.

    You should also elaborate on the status quo issue because I don’t understand what you’re saying.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  107. Dino Rosati says:

    Timo Sinnemäki Says:
    “Your horror towards those quotes is unfounded and you should think their words through before you start to pass around insulting non-sequiturs about ivory towers and Gödel and such.”

    I guess my point about Godelian vertigo was a bit obscure. As Sam notes the heart of the matter is: “‘Who decides what is a successful life?’ Well, who decides what is coherent argument? Who decides what constitutes empirical evidence? Who decides when our memories can be trusted?”

    When justifying a position on values one eventually slams into a cognitive wall as impenetrable as Godel’s incompleteness theorem. There is no way to step outside the system and see absolute truths. All logical systems require some axioms that cannot be justified within the system. But that’s OK. We don’t need absolute truths. We need explanations that work well enough to improve our collective lot in life. Stuffing women into cloth bags to prevent their bodies form driving us poor men into sinful rages of lust is obviously not one of them.

    Science is the art of not fooling yourself, to paraphrase Richard Feynman. Its an enterprise devoted to separating explanations that work form those that don’t.
    There are no reason-free-zones and this is especially true of moral reasoning.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  108. cheshire cat says:

    Tim (66), your sarcasm is inversely proportional to your substance.

    Mike (90) , your article is nice evidence to show that Sam Harris, or anyone who argues that morality is anything but a human driven abstraction, is flat out wrong. It is interesting to see that feelings of morality do appear to be involuntary, and this gets back to arguments that morality may be an evolutionary artifact. One thing that is interesting is that it is known in mathematical psychology circles that humans are a species that do not always follow optimal solutions, even when less intelligent animals like rats do. I suspect that morality is linked to human capacity to compute non-optimal solutions. This would make evolutionary sense, because it would give them an advantage against species that would always take optimal paths.

    I further suspect that the large set of contradictory moral values that people tend to have are a hallmark of non-optimization.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  109. cheshire cat says:

    Tim (66), your still not funny.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  110. Jon says:

    Chesire cat (107), in reference to Mike’s (90) article, apparently it plays a key part in Harris’ thesis.

    See Richard Dawkins’ comment on his website in regards to Harris’ article.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  111. Pingback: Sam Harris and Sean Carroll Debate « The Skepticalist

  112. Mike says:

    Jon (109),

    Here is Dawkins’ quote regarding the issue:

    “I was one of those who had unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals. To my surprise, The Moral Landscape [Sam's upcoming book] has changed all that for me. It should change it for philosophers too. Philosophers of mind have already discovered that they can’t duck the study of neuroscience, and the best of them have raised their game as a result. Sam Harris shows that the same should be true of moral philosophers, and it will turn their world exhilarating upside down.”

    He doesn’t go into further detail on his blog, but my initial reaction when I saw the article reporting the study was that it is only a matter of time until science shines the light of reason on moral questions as it has with respect to other areas where humans have historical been ignorant. Part of that answer will come from neuroscience, but just as physics reductionism isn’t the whole answer with respect to a “TOE,” there will be role to play for, among others, moral philosophers. This area, like other aspects of physical reality (including what it means to be human) will give up its secrets one at a time. We are fortunate indeed that our brains have the ability to model the world that we live in and can interpret that world in a verifiable ways.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  113. Jon says:

    Sorry, I misspoke, Dawkins didn’t say it played a key part in Harris’ thesis, but said “Relevant to Sam’s thesis is this research, showing that moral judgments can be experimentally altered by magnetic pulses administered to particular parts of the brain.”. It can be found in the comment section of the article on his site.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  114. Chanda says:

    @Matt T – Sam’s editorial on justifying torture makes me want to throw up, and reminds me that Sean should be commended for being so polite in his responses to Sam.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  115. RMB says:

    Chanda (113),

    I respect the depth of your feelings in this regard, but they are unrelated to the validity, one way or the other, of the issue being discussed, and I fail to see how they relate to the comment from MattT. Sorry.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  116. James Allen says:

    re: point1.

    “At bottom, the issue is this: there exist real moral questions that no amount of empirical research alone will help us solve.” – Sean

    Sam’s point is that the same can be said of all scientific questions (see. Hume’s induction problem). In a sense, you and Harris are in agreement. If someone made a factual proposition that could not in principal (could not possibly) be tested, you would reject it. Sam is saying, likewise, that any moral proposition that can not in principal be tested, should be rejected. As with science, underlying assumptions are going to be required to get moral science rolling, but the need for – or existence of – those assumptions is not an argument against the prospect of an ethical science.

    “The crucial point is that the difference between sets of incompatible moral assumptions is not analogous to the difference between [competing theories drawn from common assumptions]“. – sean

    This is, of course, logically true – to compare propositions, we need common presuppositions. Harris’ claim is that there is an existing global consensus on the root (or radical if you like) presupposition of morality. He calls it “wellbeing” (broadly speaking, the absence of suffering – I think this is a fair translation). He also claims that suffering can be measured, and so this is a basis for scientific inquiry into ethical propositions. If others want to propose other presuppositions, that’s fine, but isn’t it necessary to inquire into the truth of moral propositions whatever their underlying presuppositions may be? And doesn’t it make sense to reject any moral proposition whose underlying presupposition is by design unverifiable?

    I think there are a few objections one might make.
    1. There is no consensus on wellbeing. Harris’ claim, in this regard, is errant.
    2. Wellbeing cannot be measured.
    3. There are presuppositions that are better than wellbeing.
    4. Science is bogus to begin with, so why muddy morality with it?
    5. Untestability is not an adequate ground for rejecting an ethical proposition.

    You appear to be attempting an argument for the last point. I hope this helps a bit.

    re: in conclusion…
    “That’s the most disappointing part of the whole discussion, to see people purportedly devoted to reason try to concoct arguments in favor of a state of affairs because they want it to be true, rather than because it is.” – sean

    This isn’t valid given your previous arguments. If truth, any truth, is ultimately dependent on a chosen presupposition, then every truth is ultimately only true because the believer wants it to be. According to your own reasoning, the truths we “want” to be true, are not simply the only truths we have, but the only truths possible. It doesn’t seem reasonable to criticize others for expressing mere preferences when you’re doing the same thing yourself.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  117. religionistheissue says:

    @JamesAllen

    Now we are getting somewhere. Construction of alternatives.

    Quote:
    I think there are a few objections one might make.
    1. There is no consensus on wellbeing. Harris’ claim, in this regard, is errant.
    2. Wellbeing cannot be measured.
    3. There are presuppositions that are better than wellbeing.
    4. Science is bogus to begin with, so why muddy morality with it?
    5. Untestability is not an adequate ground for rejecting an ethical proposition.
    End Quote.

    1. Does not everything start from a point where definitions are worked? I believe in his talk he said if we can agree that there is some measurable thing called wellbeing then science would be useful. He showed a continuum and gave analogies to physical wellbeing. He also said that in the future we might find technology lets us measure it.

    2. Yet. And, in my profession there are many things I can not measure, yet that does not mean that a weight does not exist. For example, how do you measure the strength of a teacher? Is it how well pupils do on a standardized test? How happy the pupils are? How much they contribute to the educational community? Quantification fails continuously, and yet surely we can agree that there are good and bad teachers.

    3. Now we are getting somewhere! What are your suggestions? The Buddha seemed to boil it down to these two (suffering and cessation of suffering) and after intense meditation many Buddhists reach the same conclusion. They seem to have beat us to the punch because they are willing to forgo the above scientific debate and use another method for arriving at truths.

    4. Maybe you are right, but it works so well for so many things as does mathematics.

    5. Scientifically, of course it is. Which is why Harris is trying to pigeon hole it by defining axioms.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  118. Chanda says:

    RMB, thanks for catching that. I actually should have directed that at @spyder who posted the link (just a few comments above Matt’s comment).

    As for the relevance — I think that we can talk philosophy or we can talk about reality or we can talk about both. If you want to keep it just at philosophy that’s fine, but I don’t think it’s irrelevant to look at the real world implications of the ideas under discussion. From that point of view, I think Harris’s perspective and application of his so-called reasoned-to-moralism is extremely relevant.

    So, a hearty thanks to Spyder for pointing out the link and reminding me that Sean is to be commended for being so polite.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  119. James Allen says:

    @ religionistheissue

    I didn’t intend to argue those points, but to point out that they are possible lines of contention. I should probably clarify the last one – I think you’re misunderstanding what I meant to say.

    “5. Untestability is not an adequate ground for rejecting an ethical proposition.” – me

    Part of Harris’ argument is that untestable ethical propositions *should* be rejected. Why else would he say that testing ethical propositions is necessary? If someone wanted to object to this claim (ie. sean), they could argue that there are ethical propositions that cannot be tested by any presupposition, but are nonetheless necessary – or something to that effect.

    Sean is close to arguing this, but not exactly. He hasn’t yet claimed that there are necessary ethical propositions that cannot be tested. He has merely argued that wellbeing is not currently a presupposition of science, and that he does not believe that such a presupposition can be successfully integrated into science. If he’s right, of course, science will not be able to answer ethical questions. Sean has provided some arguments for WHY an ethical presupposition can’t be integrated into science, but Harris has used the same points to say exactly the opposite. In the end, Sean’s arguments do no more to note the impossibility of ethical science than they do to note the impossibility of any kind of science.

    It’s not that he’s “wrong”, but that he hasn’t said anything beyond his own preferences.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  120. RMB says:

    Chanda (117),

    In light of your original comment taken as a whole, I assume when you say that Harris’ perspective and the application of a “reasoned-to-moralism” approach is extremely relevant, you mean that his particular way of seeking moral answers through the scientific process would result in torture.

    I think he would (with certain caveats) argue the opposite: human history clearly is most rife with widespread torture and barbarism in exactly those places and times where morally informed decisions are based on religion, superstition, blind nationalism, racism, and other outmoded ways of analyzing the world. As the world has become more oriented to a scientific way of thinking, torture and barbarism have generally declined in scope and severity. I think of that as progress.

    I don’t think he’d argue that a moral system more closely based on science (i.e., ought from is) would eliminate torture altogether, and he acknowledges that such an approach could well support otherwise objectionable methods of, for example, obtaining information in extreme situations — this issue might be an absolute for you, but insert whatever extreme hypothetical situation you wish that might compel otherwise objectionable behavior.

    From my perspective, I would greatly prefer a world where morals are increasingly informed by science, however incomplete and messy that may be at any given time.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  121. Chanda says:

    I think my objection, RMB, is that in a scenario where you become the victim of “incomplete messiness,” I’m sure you would hope that people would stop to think about whether what they intend to do to you resonates with their inner moral voice, and not just whether some kind of logic tells them that it is ok. And it’s not clear to me that this particular quality (“appealing to inherent humane sensibilities” if you will) is completely tangible or deducible.

    I guess in the end some people might say that it is illogical for me to be absolutely against “objectionable behavior” on par with torture. But I’m okay with it because I know in my gut that the world I want to live in is one where this is not how we acquire information, no matter how badly we want it. And I hate the idea of a moral system that doesn’t leave room for those kinds of gut reactions, even when they aren’t based on immediately obvious evidence.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  122. James Allen says:

    @Chanda

    “And I hate the idea of a moral system that doesn’t leave room for those kinds of gut reactions, even when they aren’t based on immediately obvious evidence.” – Chanda

    Moral systems by definition disambiguate between gut feelings and moral truth, evoking the later in order to suppress the former. These are the only kind of moral systems we’ve ever known. There has never been, for example, a legal code that allows for a “gut feeling” defense. But I get your point. I don’t think Harris is suggesting that people shouldn’t have gut feelings (could we even stop ourselves if we wanted to?), but that when we endeavor to suggest codes of conduct to our fellows (codes intended to override our gut feelings), we should form those moral codes using the best means available. Besides, there’s nothing to say that “gut feelings” wont be a factor in the development of wellbeing – or whatever else is considered important and measurable. Harris might focus on cognitive research as a basis, but others focus on experimental philosophy, and thee might be other better ways still. If there is an over-arching point though, it’s that we should start taking right and wrong seriously rather than leaving it to cultural accident.

    # A little mini-play on the subject#
    Judge: James Allen, you stand here accused of first degree murder. How do you plead?
    James Allen: Sure, I did it, but my gut told me it was right.
    Judge: Oh! Why didn’t you say so? [the judge slams down the gavel] Case dismissed!
    [the court cheers and spontaneously bursts into a musical number]

    … not really how things work.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  123. cheshire cat says:

    I would highly recommend all the would be Sam Harris inspired torturers to watch the movie Brazil.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazil_(1985_film)

    As far as the questions Sam is bringing up, there is no new space to explore here. We visited the realm of the abusiveness of science based morality several times. One of the most recent episodes involved eugenics.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics

    It is important to understand that eugenics is better known by the well established science of selective breeding.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selective_breeding

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  124. cheshire cat says:

    I almost forgot this one

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Darwinism

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  125. cheshire cat says:

    I really like this article as highlighting the darkside of the “moral values” that will be determined by our would be future “moral” overlords.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/21/science/21belief.html?_r=3&n=Top/Reference/Times%20Topics/People/T/Tyson,%20Neil%20DeGrasse&pagewanted=all

    I think this quote nicely sums up the morality of science:

    By the third day, the arguments had become so heated that Dr. Konner was reminded of “a den of vipers.”

    “With a few notable exceptions,” he said, “the viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  126. Joey Frantz says:

    Sam Harris did not offer an adequate response to Carroll. His argument rests on the whole idea that “morality is a matter of well-being” is as fundamental a truth as, say “1+1=2″ or something of that nature. It’s not. Take Harris’ world-view, delete moral realism, and you still have a perfectly consistent and informed world-view.

    Moral realism isn’t necessary to have a fully enlightened, scientifically viable view of the world. And since it isn’t supported by deductive or inductive reasoning, its irrational to believe in the existence of moral truth. Hume got it right; Carroll probably quoted him not because he was appealing to authority, but because his statement makes sense.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  127. Jacob says:

    man i’m missing Ahmed in here.. :D

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  128. argh says:

    Well, to put it very simply, Harris’s fallacy is in assuming that because a bunch of people happen to feel the same way about something, that makes them Right. There have been innumerable situations throughout history where people in groups have committed acts most people today would find horrific, under the firm conviction that everyone who mattered felt the same way. Because everyone (everyone who counted, that is) felt it was obvious that black people were primitive and animalistic, of course it was moral to treat them like other domestic animals. Because everyone who counted felt that women were obviously emotional and irrational, it was moral to deny them voting rights and education.

    Ultimately, our moral feelings are just feelings. I’m sure you could use statistical information about prevalent human values to design a system that works better for most humans – at least within a particular culture. And most people would probably advocate that. I would. But that is completely different from saying that because humans in general happen to feel the same way about something, the generally prevalent feeling is the Right one.

    Let’s be clear, too, that the main reason we discuss morals at all is to condemn people we think are immoral. When everyone agrees – when morality is truly universal – systems are simply designed to conform to human morals as common sense. We only need moral rules when somebody wants to break them. Therefore, what Harris is advocating can only amount to imposing every moral that is held by a majority on every minority that disagrees. Since one of the most universal moral intuitions is the existence of a jealous deity and the righteousness of punishing infidels, atheists should be very, very worried by this suggestion.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  129. Jimbo says:

    Whew ! 127 mostly intelligent people & Sean, who’s more intelligent than most of us,
    spending all this time X Energy = Action to hash out a TED talk…??
    Does’nt anybody have anything better to do ?
    How does one do Science, blogging this much ?
    There are only so many hours left in the day, man,
    and all this existential HS does not amount to a hill of beans anyway.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  130. Froggy says:

    A couple of questions I’m wondering about:

    1. Sam Harris assumes, very early on, that ‘human flourishing’ (or sometimes ‘wellbeing’) is an objective, absolute good. Is it possible to back this up, or even to define those terms explicitly?

    2. When he points out things that are ‘bad’, he generally mentions actions where there is already a consensus in the West, like honour killings and domestic violence, so it’s easy to say, “that’s just bad” and have everyone agree. How would you apply this morality to questions where there is less consensus like in, say, genetic engineering or human cloning?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  131. Dennisca says:

    @Cosmonut (46) says that given the possibility that blinding every 3rd child makes the blinded child to lead successful life etc and at the same time prevents calamities caused by God’s anger if not done so, we have the moral right to blind children.

    I think that argument has many flaws. Does it also mean we have the right to determine who will marry whom given we can determine the best outcome for every man and women that want to marry? Not really. We are trying to minimize individual suffering rather than maximize well being otherwise you completely take away the right to choose. We should try to maximize individual freedom of choice at the same time. Therefore, children have the right to decide themselves whether they want to become blind and the anger of Gods is not their problem. Society has to deal with that because God’s anger is morally wrong in the first place and children should not pay for it.

    @PJM (94) says having a child is a journey filled with suffering, danger etc. Yes and the exactly same reasoning can be applied to life. You could argue who would wants to live? Same as with life, children give us more than suffering and they are our purpose in life. No need to include religion in this at all. Where is your proof there are no atheists with 10 year-old kids?

    @R33 (105) says that “history clearly shows that most human males will keep raping and murdering as long as there are no negative consequences for them.” Look around you. Would you say most men in developed nations (places that I am most familiar with) do not kill or rape because of negative consequences or because it is considered morally wrong? Your claims have no evidence.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  132. Chanda says:

    @Dennisca: your comment about rape made me think of a study I read about:
    http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist/2009/11/12/rapists-who-dont-think-theyre-rapists/

    I’m not sure who it gives evidence to, but I think the issue is much more murky than “men in the west don’t do it because they know it’s wrong.” That certainly doesn’t jive with the statistic that 1 in 6 American women will experience an attempted or completed rape. So clearly, plenty of men in the west do it and they get away with it. (This number jumps by 4 times when we look at college-educated women.) If you spend some time learning about the issue, the horrifying reality is that all of us probably know at least one aggressor, if not more. We just may not know who they are.

    I do appreciate that this discussion has gone in the direction of trying to understand how these ideas are applied when evaluating real-world situations.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  133. melior says:

    What exactly is the advantage of being in possession of a rigorous empirical argument that the Taliban is immoral? Does anyone think they will be persuaded?

    Apparently this was written before reading (carefully?) Sam’s response.

    The answer is, of course, the same that Sean applies to the astrologers: “We can’t persuade those people that they’re wrong by using the standards of conventional [morality], because they don’t accept those standards (even when they say they do).”

    Sean completely misses the larger point that meat-eating, etc., are questions of how (best to), not whether (we agree to) maximize the welfare of conscious beings.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  134. James Allen says:

    “Sam Harris did not offer an adequate response to Carroll. His argument rests on the whole idea that “morality is a matter of well-being” is as fundamental a truth as, say “1+1=2″ or something of that nature. It’s not. Take Harris’ world-view, delete moral realism, and you still have a perfectly consistent and informed world-view.” – Joey Frantz

    That’s not a very accurate representation of Harris’s argument. There are two primary propositions at stake.

    1. Ethical propositions should be treated with the same scientific rigour that non-ethical propositions are granted. This can be done by giving ethics the same sort of underlying presuppositions that we grant empiricism.

    2. That underlying presupposition should be “wellbeing”.

    Even if “wellbeing” does not hold, proposition one still can. Sean has not given any reason why the first proposition should not hold except to say the he thinks ethical pluralism is more likely than ethical monism. He may be right, but that is all that has been said. Harris’ response is that ethical monism is necessary. Sean has not offered a rebuttal specifying why he thinks ethical monism is not necessary, nor has he offered an argument specifying why he thinks ethical pluralism is necessary.

    Sean’s position is currently in the “failed” state.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  135. Joey Frantz says:

    James Allen:

    In order for ethical propositions to be treated with the same degree of scientific rigor as non-ethical propositions are, ethical propositions would have to have the same sort of clarity and investigability that non-ethical propositions often have. This is where ethical propositions fall short: “it is wrong to lie” is not clear and investigable. Redefining morality so that it is not obligatory to be moral (that is, defining morality as “the maximization of happiness” rather than as “the doing of what one must do”) is no good.

    You, like Harris, are skirting the issue with regards to moral truth. Harris simply has not, despite what you suggest, provided logical reasons to believe that there is some sort of moral truth out there. He’s just pulled one axiom out of his Utilitarian rear (“morality is a matter of happiness and suffering” or something like that) and acted as though it were obviously true. He has not given a convincing argument for it.

    Carroll is the skeptic and Harris is the believer. Harris can’t support his position, so I really can’t say that Carroll’s position is “failed”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  136. James Allen says:

    @Joey Frantz

    “Harris simply has not, despite what you suggest, provided logical reasons to believe that there is some sort of moral truth out there.” – Joey Frantz

    Why? Because you say so? You have provided no logical argument against my previous propositions. I’m not even convinced you understand the argument. In fact, I’m fairly certain you have not. If you had, you would not be asking for proof of “some sort of moral truth out there”. But, as a rejoinder, can you provide logical reasons to believe there is some sort of empirical truth out there? Philosophers and scientists everywhere will be deeply impressed if you can.

    Carroll’s position has failed because empiricism itself fails under the same radical skepticism that he is applying to ethics. If he isn’t willing to be radically skeptical of empiricism, then I’m skeptical of his move to be so of ethics. As should you.

    Also, I’ve already argued that there are two positions at stake (see above). The form of the argument is that the second proposition is dependent on the first, not the other way around, which is what you seem to want to think. Said simply: neither proving nor disproving the viability of “wellbeing” (proposition two) will have any effect on proposition one. Proposition one is what Carroll needs to get past in order for his skepticism to survive a charge of arbitrariness (or he needs to abandon empiricism). He simply can’t have it both ways.

    Now, read very carefully and give it some thought before you respond.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  137. Joey Frantz says:

    James Allen:

    You act as though Proposition 1 has some sort of importance or meaning outside of proposition 2. Look at it:

    “1. Ethical propositions should be treated with the same scientific rigour that non-ethical propositions are granted. This can be done by giving ethics the same sort of underlying presuppositions that we grant empiricism.”

    Exactly how are ethical propositions to be treated scientifically? If I suppose that the sun is composed of cheese, there are scientific ways of dealing with my supposition. On the other hand, if I suppose that it is morally good to wear moleskin hats to work every day, how are we to morally analyze the proposition? Hm?

    The second part of proposition 1 states that ethical propositions can be analyzed scientifically if we “give ethics the same sort of underlying presuppositions that we grant empiricism”. Such as, what? That there is an external universe governed by physical laws? That these laws can be discerned by observation of phenomena?

    One could, as Sam suggests, just assume that it is good to make people happy. But this is not an assumption of empiricism; it is an assumption of Utilitarianism. Utilitarians accept your second proposition.

    This is what I’m saying: Proposition 1 is useless on its own, since ethical propositions just can’t be treated scientifically under the standard methods of modern science. Proposition 2 would indeed remedy this problem, but it has not been rationally argued for.

    I take this issue seriously. Don’t act like I don’t carefully consider my opinions on this topic. You may not have presented the arguments that you think you have; Harris may not have either.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  138. TB says:

    The article on the brain and moral judgement isn’t really relevant to the issue, unless someone is arguing that moral truth (whatever that is) is somehow hardwired into our brains and can therefore be discovered experimentally by disrupting specific areas that account for moral behavior. I don’t think that’s what anyone is proposing here.
    At that point you give people the ability to dismiss arguements by saying “oh, he’s just genetically predisposed to believe that” without judging the merits of the arguements.
    In a way, the experiment is also one that’s been run since the advent of alcohol. But I’ll refrain from mocking it until I know more about their line of inquerie.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  139. Pingback: The disintegration of memory | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine

  140. Pingback: The Moral Equivalent of the Parallel Postulate | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine

  141. StephenR says:

    I don’t get the solid difference between the normativity of different ethical schemes and different epistemological schemes..

    Those of us who believe scientific reasoning is the most effective way of determining truth can’t disprove people who use different underlying assumptions without merely asserting ours. (I.E. If Jimmy thinks that scriptures are the best way of discovering truth, then showing empirical evidence to the contrary of the Bible account won’t persuade him. Likewise, if someone believes morality comes from God, showing that Biblical morality causes undue suffering won’t persuade them.)

    Sean:

    ” There are plenty of fine upstanding people — you can easily find them on the internet! — who think that human well-being is maximized by an absolute respect for individual autonomy, where people have equal access to primary goods but are given the chance to succeed or fail in life on their own. Other people think that a more collective approach is called for, and it is appropriate for some people to cede part of their personal autonomy — for example, by paying higher taxes — in the name of the greater good.”

    That’s an empirical question. Libertarians and liberals think that they both represent the way to get to the greatest welfare for the greatest number – but (at least) one of them is wrong.

    That’s not really a disagreement with Sam Harris’ position. He thinks there’s an answer in principle, not that we know the answer. (Just like two scientists might have a disagreement on the facts, while agreeing with each other on their assumptions.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  142. Dennisca says:

    @Chanda:

    The article you referenced says:
    “That’s six percent of the survey’s respondents who copped to either rape or attempted rape.”

    So we are talking about a small number of men. Most likely none I personally know falls into that 6%.

    Chanda, you say that:
    “That certainly doesn’t jive with the statistic that 1 in 6 American women will experience an attempted or completed rape. So clearly, plenty of men in the west do it and they get away with it.”

    Number of raped women does not give you the number of rapists and the article confirms this:
    “a) The vast majority of acquaintance rapes are committed by the same people”

    In conclusion, I see only minority of men committing murders and rapes. Education (and early childhood education) is the key to ensuring these numbers will stay as low as possible.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  143. fburnaby says:

    Hi Sean. It’s nice to see such an articulate summary of the problems with Sam’s original talk. I think the disagreement is kind of ridiculous, though. I was initially very confused by his talk, but went through it a bit more, to see if I could understand his position. I’m pretty sure he acknowledges all of these things, and — as you say — wants to downplay their relevance by refusing to discuss them at all. But maybe that’s defensible; the objections, though philosophically very relevant, don’t actually amount to much in practice. As you point out, it’s still perfectly fine to say the Taliban is morally wrong, so the distinction is kind of pedantic.

    The problem as I see it is that Harris is polluting the already well-established namespace in this discussion. He talks about the moral landscape, and this concept is very coherent, and potentially useful. But then, he goes and says he’s getting ‘ought’ out of it. Well, no he’s not. Not the way that it’s been spoken about since Hume right up until before his talk. But he *is* getting at something right. He’s helping derive a litmus test for ‘oughts’, which is really the only part that matters on a practical level. This explains why anyone who’s thought about this sort of thing before is hell-ass confused by his seemingly outrageous claims, and anyone who hasn’t is so excited by his talk. He’s *is* right, he’s just severely abusing the established jargon.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  144. Neal says:

    I find myself almost ready to be convinced by your argument, Sean (admittedly I was in Harris’ camp before stumbling upon this post), but I get caught up trying to scale the argument. Clearly, for a society of one (ie, yourself) whatever moral principles you take as axiomatic are, de facto, “morality”. This scales fine if you expand to a “society of like-minded individuals,” where everyone in your community shares the same axiomatic beliefs. And I agree, there is still nothing wrong about saying “the Taliban is wrong and misguided in the way they treat women”; under the axioms of western morality, we conclude that women ought to be treated equal to men. We probably can’t convince the Taliban of their mistakes (because reasoned argument fails when our axioms are incompatible), but we can still pass judgement. And this even works ok on a global scale, because we are here in our own country with laws that reflect our values, and they are in their country (or were) with laws that reflect their values. But there is bound to be a clash of values on a more local level, which you don’t explain how to deal with. The appeal of empirically derived axioms is that anyone can point to them and say “these are true” and let reason carry on from there. To say otherwise would be to directly contradict experience, and that person would end up on the losing end of a bet if they attempted to make predictions based on their axioms (the true test). Take the issue of gay marriage. There is an unfortunately large faction in our society that believes gay marriage is wrong and immoral, and impose their will on the rest of us. We can say “they are wrong” all we like, but if they don’t change their axioms, we won’t succeed in convincing them otherwise. So while there is no *need* (in any necessary sense) to have empirical justification for morals, I don’t see any good way of coexisting when one group’s moral axioms contradict another’s– the more powerful group passes judgement, and the less powerful group suffers. An empirically based axiomatic framework would (theoretically) avoid this, because any two rational beings should agree on empirically necessary facts.

    How do you propose coexisting alongside people who’s moral framework sanctions stripping you of your rights? It seems you will have an easier time convincing them they are wrong if you can rigorously back up your claims from principles everyone agrees on. (Although, granted the epistemological skeptic is a lost cause from the beginning.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  145. I think “radical empirical skepticism” IS how science should be done actually. Science is a process for maintaining an appropriate balance between rationality and intuition, with the ultimate goal of explaining phenomena, and morality is a process for maintaining an appropriate balance between action and inaction, with the ultimate goal of minimizing harm; it is doubtful that science or morality will ever be more than imperfect approximations, but that says nothing of science’s usefulness:

    http://www.theinductive.com/articles/2010/3/30/an-uncertain-defense-of-deboer.html

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  146. Matunos says:

    You may have legitimate objections to Harris’ views, but cockeyed high-school ethical hypotheticals are not among them.

    Harris describes the motivating principle for an objective morality to be wellbeing. Hence, the way to resolve your dilemma would be to study how would it impact the wellbeing of the people involved:

    Clearly, the sacrificed person is not better off, because he was killed against his will.

    Your assumption is that the beneficiaries of the organ harvesting have an improved wellbeing, however, is faulty. If, as you suggest, most people would disapprove of a society that killed a person against his will in order to harvest his organs, then I would suggest that the wellbeing of everyone in such a society would be harmed, because the functioning of that society would go against their will. Even if the individual beneficiaries of the organs did have an increased wellbeing, they would be vastly outnumbered by the people who did not get any organs, but yet find themselves living in a world where the government can decide to harvest your organs.

    The alternative case differs insofar as people’s opinion on whether the action is acceptable for society or not. That is something that can be studied. Why in one case might people not be willing to live in a society that forcibly harvests organs while in another case (an existential threat), they would be willing to live in a society that sacrifices an individual to protect the species from annihilation? Clearly, there is a neurological processes going on there that allows the same person to reach two different conclusions based on the different circumstances you’ve described.

    Not everyone will reach the same conclusions, but everyone’s conclusion will have a basis in what’s going on inside their head, and that, in principle at least, can be studied and reported. Wouldn’t it be better if we could do those studies and make those reports in order to inform our policies, rather than just make assumptions about how the world should be run for the better of society? If my government is going to reserve the power to sacrifice the few for the many, then I’d rather they have an idea of where the moral line is drawn in most people’s minds than to cede all decision-making to a single executive (this is the same reason I don’t want the president to have the power to label anyone a terrorist subject to detention and torture).

    (Personally, I am more of an absolutist: it is never morally acceptable to sacrifice one against their will for the good of the many. I’m sure there are neurological reasons that I feel that way.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  147. Pingback: The Last Dogma Picture Show « Around The Sphere

  148. Greg says:

    Some excellent posts!..I must agree at this juncture Sean is most correct..The discussion is more existential; Can the human mind/brain ever understand itself and if so, what then has it become?…Causality begets Determinism as inquiry of nature unfolds. Morality etc., cannot be explained until we are able to look from the outside in and we just ain’t there yet. This does not preclude suppositions. But they are, regardless of our scientific/philosophical position(s) du jour,(not, “de jure”), just that, suppositions.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  149. ceti says:

    The problems with all of these circular discussions on morality is that they focus on the personal realm, when really most decisions that affect the greatest number of people are for the most part made at a distance by corporate, military, or state actors. Moreover, these decisions are made with deceptive claims to certain morality that has nothing to do with religion, but everything to do with power and greed.

    Take for example the issue of the suicide bomber who kills himself while in all probability causing civilian casualties. Then take the drone that is remotely piloted, and where a push of the button takes out even more civilians. How is morality factored here? Then take the fact that the suicide bomber is in his own country fighting for what he understands is freedom, while the drone is piloted by the invading army from across the globe. Things get pretty dicey very quickly.

    I wonder if Sam has even contemplated this moral quandary. From what I’ve seen, Harris’ biases move him to talk up allegedly religious motivated acts of suicide bombing, without even one iota of historical or political context (namely, suicide bombing is a weapon of the weak, whereas imperial armies have plenty of cruise missiles, drones, helicopters, etc. at their disposal, and where martyrdom has also been a secular tool of political mobilization for centuries). Indeed, if he were to objectively and scientifically run the numbers of people killed, maimed, and tortured in the world, he wouldn’t sit so comfortably condemning others and using loaded examples to provoke, while reaping the benefits of a system built on so much human misery.

    Indeed, Sam by his very arguments reveals the dangerous possibilities inherent in such a absolutist drive for allegedly objective moral values. This drive reveals a fundamentalist crusading atheism far more similar to the fundamentalist theism that the new atheists decry. While universal values are a noble goals as embodied in various UN conventions, ignoring the very real power structures to force a particular moral outlook has always done more harm than good, especially when they serve to justify the acts of the rich and powerful at the expense of the desperate and hopeless.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  150. oogly says:

    I’m rather inclined to agree with Harris’ argument. I think it should be fairly obvious to a scientist like yourself that although the system that needs to be studied in order to answer questions about morality ( presumably all human beings and their environments/experiences) is incredibly complex and well beyond our current ability to study empirically, there must still be certain truths that could in principle be deduced if we start with the goal of maximising human wellbeing and minimising suffering.

    If we could find a way to empirically measure happiness, wellbeing and the like (through very complex neuroscience and social studies probably), then why couldn’t we come up with answers to questions about morality? The answers probably wouldn’t put every human being on the planet into a state of bliss if properly implemented, as this isn’t how Harris’ “moral landscape” proposal works. In a world with so many people of conflicting experiences and environments, why would we expect one correct answer, or a perfect state of being. However it seems reasonable to assert that with a logical and objective study of reality, we could find ways to raise the wellbeing and dignity of human beings.

    Ceti, your argument makes a lot of sense even though I don’t personally see this coming through in his talk. He does make an example of the violence done in the name of gods, probably simply because these are the kind of atrocities that still occur today and still in the name of (or at least under the mask of) religion. Presumably these kinds of moral problems are ones that his idea of objective morality should in principle be able to understand. Your suicide bombing dilemma is very potent, but surely both nations in your example are at fault; one for convincing a man to kill himself and many civilians, and the other for sending a remote controlled drone to also kill civilians. It isn’t very helpful to look at these as black and white situations and conclude that in one reality the suicide bomber is right, and in another the country that sent the drone is. Surely a fully developed scientific study of morality would be able to pick up on these nuances.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  151. cow say dung says:

    Ahmed’s dislike for Sam Harris probably springs from Harris’s antipathy towards Islam. Just saying.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  152. Pingback: Not all facts are empirical | Love of All Wisdom

  153. Amod Lele says:

    I had written a comment linking to my own response on this subject, but accidentally entered it on your post about the Pope. Sorry about that (you can delete that comment if you like). Better to link to it here:

    http://loveofallwisdom.com/2010/04/not-all-facts-are-empirical/

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  154. Pingback: Grounding Morality In Science « Cruel Mistress

  155. Pingback: Can science answer moral questions? « these vibes are too cosmic

  156. Pingback: You Can’t Derive Ought from Is | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine