The Primate Diaries

In his recent TED Talk Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter To A Christian Nation argues that science can and should be used to address moral issues. His newest book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, will be published in October, 2010.

For more see Sam Harris, Franics Collins, and the NIH, The Feeling of What Happens, and the debate with Michael Shermer, Deepak Chopra, and Jean Houston Does God Have A Future?

Comments

  1. #1 Quinn O
    April 11, 2010

    What are your thoughts on the presentation, EMJ? Can science answer moral questions?

  2. #2 Parabola
    April 11, 2010

    Pending his answer, I’d like to elbow in on this if I may.

    I would think that science does have some input, but I also think this will be a hard sell if you take a wide view of the debate circuit. It seems to me so long as people continue to blend their morality with dualism we’re going to have a hard time with the discussion.

    I can hear the arguments from D’souza and Douglas Wilson already: without an objective standard for morality, what’s the value of the morality?

  3. #3 Quinn O
    April 11, 2010

    I think that science can tell us how to promote well-being; it can’t tell us that we should value well-being. Science can’t even establish that life itself has value.

    How to maximize well-being isn’t a moral question. The moral question comes when maximizing well-being means sacrificing autonomy.

    For anyone interested,

    Sean Carroll’s response to Harris’s talk: http://tiny.cc/jfvtx

    Harris’s response to Carroll: http://tiny.cc/oycti

    Carroll’s response to Harris: http://tiny.cc/k6p4b

  4. #4 EMJ
    April 11, 2010

    I would say that there is no absolute morality, as evidenced by the diverse moral systems in societies across the globe. This means that the objective standard we use to make our moral decisions is based on the real world. Since science is an important tool for understanding the real world I see no reason why science shouldn’t inform those moral decisions.

    As it works now, we get our morality the same way we get our language: from the community we’re raised in. Like language, morality has an innate template that is modified based on local circumstances. Understanding that template (and those of other species) could tell us a great deal about who we are.

  5. #5 Bob
    April 11, 2010

    I think scientists need to spend less time feeding off the ideas of each other, and get out into the real world. There really seems to be a thought collective in academia that does not tolerate any ideas other than their own.

    I was raised in a community where theft of money and goods was considered the norm, and we all accepted that anyone who did not submit to this theft should be killed immediately. Under my community’s set of norms, I should not be put in jail for armed robbery and murder, right?

    The illusion that science is pure is the final obstacle on the path to truth.

  6. #6 gregorylent
    April 12, 2010

    there is a faster way than waiting around for “science” to decide what is testable, or fundable … develop expanded consciousness .. pretty simple to do, hundreds of methods .. eff science, except with matter

  7. #7 Quinn O
    April 12, 2010

    EMJ,

    The diversity in moral systems across the globe would suggest that our objective moral standards are subjectively determined (we’re all living in the real world). Moral decisions are made only in establishing these standards; subsequent decisions, with which science can help, really aren’t of a moral nature.

    In determining the basis for our moral system (our core values and their relative importance), science can’t help. I would agree that understanding morality’s innate template can tell us a lot about who we are, but it can’t tell us anything about who we should be.

    I posted a comment yesterday that never turned up. I got a ‘thank you for your comment, it’ll be held for moderator approval’ type of message. Did I break the rules?

  8. #8 Taco
    April 12, 2010

    I would say that there is no absolute taco, as evidenced by the diverse taco systems in societies across the globe. This means that the objective standard we use to make our taco decisions is based on the real world. Since science is an important tool for understanding the real world I see no reason why science shouldn’t inform those taco decisions.

    As it works now, we get our morality the same way we get our language: from the community we’re raised in. Like language, tacos have an innate template that is modified based on local circumstances. Understanding that template (and those of other species) could tell us a great deal about who we are. Taco.

  9. #9 Matt
    April 13, 2010

    He’s touched on some things that I’ve had on my mind for quite a while before watching this. Even though I will never be successful enough in this society to speak my mind in front of dozens of people; he has, and all I can say is listen to this man.

  10. #10 DuWayne
    April 13, 2010

    Quinn O –

    In determining the basis for our moral system (our core values and their relative importance), science can’t help.

    Actually, I would argue that this is pretty much all that science can potentially tell us about morality. Our moral frames are derived from a variety of sources, with an underlying template that is quite plausibly organic – the latter assertion being supported by the fact that excepting pathological sociopaths, everyone seems to have a moral frame. But the sources that contribute to our moral frames – that fill out that template, are all factors that while exceedingly difficult to untangle, are nonetheless not impossible to untangle. Psychology, anthropology and sociology are actually sciences and all have something to contribute to such an investigation.

    Bob –

    I was raised in a community where theft of money and goods was considered the norm, and we all accepted that anyone who did not submit to this theft should be killed immediately. Under my community’s set of norms, I should not be put in jail for armed robbery and murder, right?

    That depends on whether or not your community has laws against those things that are enforced. And even if it does not – which is indeed the default in some places even today, that does not mean that others have to accept your actions as being moral. Accepting that others function under different moral frames than one’s own, does not mean I have to accept their actions as moral. It merely means that I recognize they have a different moral frame from my own.

  11. #11 Quinn O
    April 14, 2010

    How could science tell us what our core values should be? The moral sense evolved only because it confers some benefit to survival. The same goes for our ability to perceive states of well-being and suffering. Science can’t even tell us that we should value survival, or that life itself has any meaning or purpose. It can’t tell us that we should value anything until we’ve unscientifically assigned meaning to something.

    Harris suggests that we can draw scientific conclusions about the morality of religious and cultural practices on the basis of their effects on well-being. There’s a dangerous implication here. If we conclude that a particular cultural practice has a negative effect on well-being, then we can feel morally and scientifically justified in abolishing it. However, science can’t tell us that we should value well-being, and it certainly can’t tell us that we should value well-being more than autonomy. Science can’t provide moral justification for cultural oppression. Harris’s arguments are dishonest.

  12. #12 EMJ
    April 14, 2010

    Science probably can’t (and shouldn’t) answer the question of “How should I be good?” because there’s no one way. But scientists can seek to understand the neurobiology of moral reasoning and prosocial behavior. There are aspects of morality that evolved and will be universal in humans (and other primates as well). Where moral systems differ is the realm of anthropology and sociology.

    I don’t think anyone is talking about a justification for cultural oppression (though that is an important concern given the history of scientific racism). What I think is being discussed is an approach to understanding the biological roots of morality. Harris has already published two scientific papers seeking to do just that. It’s an exciting project.

  13. #13 Quinn O
    April 14, 2010

    Harris goes way beyond discussing an approach to understanding the biological roots of morality. According to him, science can tell us what’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for.

    His own cultural biases are clear. He repeatedly uses aspects of Islamic radicalism to illustrate his points. Some might argue that US foreign policy played a role in establishing and perpetuating this extremism. *Their* culture might not be entirely to blame, yet he does seem to blame their culture.

    He states, “it is possible for individuals and even whole cultures to care about the wrong things”. According to Harris, we can no longer “respect and tolerate vast differences in notions of human well-being”. What kind of action do you think he’s advocating?

    Can we be scientifically justified in forcing well-being on others?

  14. #14 JesseS
    April 15, 2010

    @ Quinn O.

    I’m hesitant to defend Sam Harris because I don’t want to put words in his mouth but I have a clearly different interpretation of his points then you seem to.

    Yes, he took a lot of shots at Islam, I happen to agree with most of them but that is beside the point, he also took a couple shots at Western Culture and repeatedly stated that it was extremely unlikely that we had the best system. In fact he goes out of his way to illustrate, with a 20 foot wide diagram, that there is no single best solution, that there are multiple ways to have a good, ethical, society.

    You state;

    “Harris goes way beyond discussing an approach to understanding the biological roots of morality. According to him, science can tell us what’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for.”

    Where, exactly, does he state anything resembling this?

    I don’t ever recall him saying that science should be the sole way we determine our values (if you are going to say that he has asserted that then you’ll need to tell me at exactly what time in the video he does, because I’ve watched it multiple times and still haven’t heard him say anything close to that), what he seems to be arguing, and maybe I’m mistaken here, is that we need to ground our value judgments in a scientific framework. Nearly everyone agrees that Happiness is better then Sadness and that Well Being is generally considered worth progressing towards, taking that as a given we need to understand, on a massive level, what causes happiness and sadness or generates well-being.

    There are factual claims to be made here, both subtle and obvious. It is a fact that getting hit in the face with a rock does not encourage happiness or well-being, but what about the tribal nature of the world with its hundreds of competing nation-states? Do arbitrary political boundaries contribute more to happiness or sadness? Do they cause stress by artificially separating people or are they sources of comfort by providing people with a feeling of belonging to a group?

    These are questions that have a direct relation to morals and are also scientifically explicable.

  15. #15 DuWayne
    April 15, 2010

    There are factual claims to be made here, both subtle and obvious. It is a fact that getting hit in the face with a rock does not encourage happiness or well-being, but what about the tribal nature of the world with its hundreds of competing nation-states? Do arbitrary political boundaries contribute more to happiness or sadness? Do they cause stress by artificially separating people or are they sources of comfort by providing people with a feeling of belonging to a group?

    The problem with this, is that there are not factual claims to be made. It is impossible to make factual claims based on a completely subjective metric and that is exactly what Harris is trying to do and you are repeating here. You simply cannot make objective statements of fact about “well being.”

    The other problem with this is that the necessary definition of morality – even if this were an objective measure, bears little resemblance to any reasonable definitions of morality. So on the one hand, Harris is trying to get fact from completely subjective criteria and on the other, he is trying to define morality in such a diffuse manner that it becomes virtually useless as a governor for individual behavior. There is nothing wrong and a whole lot right about moral relativism.

    When I sit down at a table with five other people, there are going to be six different moral frames. While there are generally many similarities, there are often going to be more differences between them, when you start parsing minutiae – sometimes very important minutiae. The advantage to this, is that because we own our moral frames – because we develop our moral frames in very personal ways, our moral frames are going to have a profound effect on our behavior, outside the context of external enforcement mechanisms.

    Look at it this way; how often do we see religious leaders engaging in behaviors that they themselves would claim are immoral? If it is that easy to engage in somewhat mild behavior you believe is immoral, how much easier does it become to engage in more egregious immoral behaviors? When people habituate themselves to engaging in behavior they believe is immoral, they become increasingly dependent on external enforcement mechanisms to govern their behavior – it is that simple.

  16. #16 JesseS
    April 15, 2010

    “The problem with this, is that there are not factual claims to be made. It is impossible to make factual claims based on a completely subjective metric and that is exactly what Harris is trying to do and you are repeating here. You simply cannot make objective statements of fact about “well being.””

    I’m sorry but this is ‘not even wrong’. There are most definitely objective facts about the human condition and well being.

    For example;

    An increasing amount of studies are showing a link between sunlight and happiness, in countries at extreme latitudes (Canada, Scandinavia, Russia etc) there is significant increase in depression in the winter months. Doctors are looking into treatments using UVB emmitting lights, vitamin D and other ways to mimic the effects of natural sunlight. (1)

    There is a definite increase in well being and happiness if a person has proper nutrition, and a decrease in happiness and well being in people who are malnourished.

    And just to go to extremes here it is patently obvious that if your nation is riven by warfare and you have a significant chance of being killed every day you will not be living a very happy life, and your well being will be minimal.

    These are all FACTUAL claims, and sciences such as neurology and psychology are constantly researching more. It is a complicated process because these are sciences where cause and effect are not obvious, and there are many, many interactions. Just because they are hard does not make them not worth it.

    Factual claims such as these can easily inform our morals. Since it is a factual claim that proper nutrition boosts well being and happiness by significant degrees then any practice that actively denies people proper nutrition is inherently immoral.

    You could, from an extreme moral relativist perspective, argue that I have an innate bias here, it is my chosen perspective that promoting well being and happiness should be at the top of the pile of priorities, a hypothetical someone else might not be interested in promoting happiness and well being. That’s fine, you are right, there could someone like that, there most certainly are people like that in the world. I see no reason why I should include someone like that in any discussion about morality and ethics.

    (1)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seasonal_affective_disorder
    http://www.vitamindcouncil.org/depression.shtml

  17. #17 Quinn O
    April 16, 2010

    JesseS,

    What he’s actually saying with his big diagram is not that there are multiple ways to have a good, ethical society, but that there are multiple ways to have a society that promotes well-being. The problem is that he’s presupposing that well-being is universally the most important human value and the basis of morality.

    You suggest that denying access to proper nutrition would be immoral. I wouldn’t disagree. But what about denying access to junk food? If science can clearly show that certain foods have negative health effects, would it be moral to deny people access to these foods, or should people have the right to choose? Could autonomy be more important than well-being? If we decide that it’s moral to ban religious practices that harm well-being, would we advocate prayer if science shows that it confers mental health benefits? Or is reason more important than well-being and autonomy? These are moral questions. Science can’t answer them.

    //You state “According to him, science can tell us what’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for.” Where, exactly, does he state anything resembling this?//
    About 30 seconds in he says, “it is thought that science can help us get what we value but it can never tell us what we ought to value; and consequently most people, I think most people probably here, think that science will never answer the most important questions in human life. Questions like, what is worth living for? What is worth dying for? What constitutes a good life? So I’m gonna argue that this is an illusion, that the separation between science and human values is an illusion and actually quite a dangerous one in human history.”
    It’s implicit that he thinks science can tell us what is worth living for, and what is worth dying for.

    //I don’t ever recall him saying that science should be the sole way we determine our values//
    I didn’t exactly say he did. He does imply that science can tell us what we ought to value, and that science can give us a foundation for morality and human values.

    //Do arbitrary political boundaries contribute more to happiness or sadness? Do they cause stress by artificially separating people or are they sources of comfort by providing people with a feeling of belonging to a group?
    These are questions that have a direct relation to morals and are also scientifically explicable. //
    They may be related to morals, but they are not moral questions. The moral questions are what do we value and what is the relative importance of each value. Once our values are decided and prioritized, the moral decisions have been made and the best course of action can be established scientifically. Whether we make the ethical choice is then a question of integrity.

    //… he also took a couple shots at Western Culture and repeatedly stated that it was extremely unlikely that we had the best system.//
    Where in the video does he state that it’s extremely unlikely that we have the best system? I think the closest he comes to this is to suggest that our system is probably not optimal.

    Harris’s “shots” at Western culture also reveal his biases. Corporal punishment and the objectification of women are hardly among Western society’s greatest evils. Americans have far more deleterious effects on well-being in foreign countries than they do at home. Consider the US military’s recent shooting of the civilian bus in Kandahar. Was that conducive to well-being? Was it immoral? Or does the end justify the means *in our case*? We can’t make moral judgements without knowing the full context. Harris paints a distorted, ethnocentric picture of Western and Middle Eastern cultures.

    As I said previously, science can’t even tell us that we ought to value life; it can’t tell us that we ought to value well-being, and it certainly can’t tell us that we ought to value well-being more than autonomy. To suggest otherwise is an insult to intact reasoning faculties.

  18. #18 DuWayne
    April 16, 2010

    An increasing amount of studies are showing a link between sunlight and happiness, in countries at extreme latitudes (Canada, Scandinavia, Russia etc) there is significant increase in depression in the winter months. Doctors are looking into treatments using UVB emmitting lights, vitamin D and other ways to mimic the effects of natural sunlight. (1)

    First of all, sunlight has nothing to do with morality. But beyond that this is still relative. There are people who thrive in the winter months of less sunlight – people who are perfectly happy to slog through the snow and who are not bothered in the least by the shorter periods of sunlight. That a statistically significant percentage of people have a negative reaction doesn’t make it a fact that shorter periods of daylight are inherently damaging to well being.

    There is a definite increase in well being and happiness if a person has proper nutrition, and a decrease in happiness and well being in people who are malnourished.

    This may sound ridiculous to you, but that is not nearly so obvious to me as it is to you. I mean on it’s face it seems obvious – common sense would imply this is true. But science isn’t about common sense. And while a full belly may well make a person happier, it also may make no overt difference – especially when you factor other aspects of being human. It may well be that there is no overt difference or even that some of the trade offs make it a net loss.

    And just to go to extremes here it is patently obvious that if your nation is riven by warfare and you have a significant chance of being killed every day you will not be living a very happy life, and your well being will be minimal.

    That is all fine and good, but then the implication would be that sans war would inherently increase well being, which is not so patently obvious.

    But the deeper problem with this, is that assuming that the opposing experience to all of these negatives is a net positive, you are still not making factual claims. You are still using a subjective metric that does not have a consistent definition. “Well being” and “happiness” are completely relative to the individual.

    These are all FACTUAL claims, and sciences such as neurology and psychology are constantly researching more. It is a complicated process because these are sciences where cause and effect are not obvious, and there are many, many interactions. Just because they are hard does not make them not worth it.

    No, they are not factual claims – see my last para. But you are correct that neurology and psychology are doing a great deal of fascinating research. Sociology and anthropology are also playing a role in this sort of research and I totally think it is worth it. Indeed in a few years I will very likely be engaging in this research as well. But the best we are going to get, is a breakdown of how we as individuals develop our moral frames.

    Factual claims such as these can easily inform our morals. Since it is a factual claim that proper nutrition boosts well being and happiness by significant degrees then any practice that actively denies people proper nutrition is inherently immoral.

    And this is where it suddenly gets extremely complicated and political. The way you word that has absolutely no place whatever in a discussion of morality. It is politically loaded and quite frankly it is bullshit. The implication you make is that the reason there is malnutrition is because people are actively engaged in activities that prevent the malnourishment from being ended. But in most cases that is not why people are malnourished. In most cases it is the lack of action that allows people to be malnourished.

    You can argue that not acting to end that malnourishment is immoral – I would personally even agree with you. But the reality isn’t nearly so cut and dry as you think. In this case, who is the immoral agent? And if non-action is immoral, then isn’t it equally immoral to allow civil wars that kill thousands both directly and indirectly through disease to continue? If so, again – who is the immoral agent?

    More importantly, who gets to decide the best way to promote well being and happiness? What metric are they going to use to decide this act or that is being successful?

    You could, from an extreme moral relativist perspective, argue that I have an innate bias here, it is my chosen perspective that promoting well being and happiness should be at the top of the pile of priorities, a hypothetical someone else might not be interested in promoting happiness and well being.

    But how does it figure that these subjective concepts should be at the top of the list? Note that I am not saying that I have no interest in promoting happiness, just that it isn’t so obvious to me that this should be at the top of the list. Personally, I think that treating people and the world around me in a fashion that I believe is moral should be at the top of the list. I believe that not acting in ways that I believe are immoral is more important than an abstraction like promoting happiness.

    That’s fine, you are right, there could someone like that, there most certainly are people like that in the world. I see no reason why I should include someone like that in any discussion about morality and ethics.

    You don’t have to. You can do the exact same thing that religions do and promote a dogmatic moral framework – ignoring anything that anyone who disagrees with you has to say about morality. But in the end you will not have anything that is substantively different than what religions provide. More importantly, what you have will have no greater value than the dogmas that religions peddle.

    But moral relativity will still exist. Other people will engage in what they believe to be moral behavior – whether that conforms to your dogma or not. And the moral frames of people who accept relative morality will have a far more valuable moral frame than you do. Right or wrong in ever circumstance, they will have a superior governor for their actions than you do.

    As for why one might want to bring people they believe are acting or thinking immorally into the discussion – personally I am rather fond of convincing people who I believe are engaging in immoral actions or believe immoral things that they are wrong. Pretending that they have no moral compass is just a good way to alienate them. You needn’t decide to validate their moral frame to accept that they believe they are acting morally. And approaching them from that perspective has a much better chance of establishing dialogue, than simply pretending they are completely amoral and often engage in immoral behaviors.

  19. #19 DuWayne
    April 16, 2010

    Jesse (and anyone else who believes in objective moral truth –

    A couple of questions have occurred to me, but before I go there, I would like to thank those who are engaging in this discussion. While I am not using the morality discussions I have been engaged in online as direct references, I am definitely gleaning a net benefit from them, as I am working on a paper about morality across cultures.

    What do you think the benefit of an objective moral framework would be? Why is it so important to bring a universality to the table? How do you believe society would benefit from such a frame?

    I mean I know why I am so interested in this discussion and in untangling the inputs into our moral frames. For me, it is part and parcel with my desire to untangle the inputs of what makes us who and what we are. Something that is of interest to me because I should very much like to see the inception of a new paradigm for how we deal with psychopathologies.

    So if you don’t mind my asking, what motivates your desire to see objective moral truths?

  20. #20 Quinn O
    April 16, 2010

    @DuWayne,

    “You simply cannot make objective statements of fact about well being”. You simply can.

    “An increasing amount of studies are showing a link between sunlight and happiness, in countries at extreme latitudes (Canada, Scandinavia, Russia etc) there is significant increase in depression in the winter months.”

    This is an objective statement of fact about well-being. It doesn’t say anything about morality and it doesn’t mean that sunlight makes every person happy; it says there’s a link between sunlight and happiness and this link has been demonstrated empirically.

    Jesse’s other examples of statements about well-being also hold.

    “There is a definite increase in well being and happiness if a person has proper nutrition, and a decrease in happiness and well being in people who are malnourished.”

    This isn’t based on common sense. There’s solid evidence that vitamin deficiencies impair health. Vitamin D deficiency can lead to rickets, vitamin A deficiency can cause blindness, vitamin C deficiency can cause scurvy, etc. There are also studies that have linked consumption of certain foods to diseases. For example, consumption of sugary foods increases the risk of pancreatic cancer.(1) Malnutrition can result from blockades that are imposed for political reasons. Consider the US embargo against Cuba.(2) Some would say such actions are immoral.

    I agree that morality is relative, but well-being generally is not. We are all capable of suffering and the things that cause suffering are similar for most people. Take physical pain for example. We can make objective statements about people’s experience of pain. This is how we are able to study the efficacy of pain medications.

    Though morality is clearly relative, this doesn’t mean that we have to take a laissez-faire approach to everything of a moral nature. I find child abuse morally repulsive and I have no problem imposing my moral views on the issue on everyone. If I see someone beating a child, I’ll try to stop him. I feel no need to scientifically establish the act as immoral in order to feel morally justified in intervening.

    (1) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17093171
    (2) http://www.cubasolidarity.net/Kirkpatrick-lancet.pdf

  21. #21 JesseS
    April 16, 2010

    Whew, lot to respond to, if I miss any points you think are important please bring them up a second time.

    First off; I am not a moral absolutist, nor am I moral relativist. I am somewhat in the middle. There are objective truths in the universe however, we call them facts, and understanding how they relate to morality is of utmost importance to me. For example the Sun is vastly larger then the Earth is an objective truth (though perhaps not a very useful one in the moral sphere). However there are plenty of facts in medicine, anthropology, psychology that may be relevant to the moral sphere (oxytocin promotes bonding between people, excess testerone promotes aggression, people working together causes the body to produce oxytocin etc). I’m not saying that any of my examples are guaranteed to be useful in understanding and deciding our morals, but I think saying that a better understanding of the chemical basis for emotions will go leaps and bounds towards improving our understanding of morality is a pretty safe bet.

    Now to (try and) hit all the excellent points both of you bring up;

    Quinn O;
    Taken out of context, I would agree with you that that one quote seems to prove your point, if it weren’t for all the qualifying statements scattered throughout the rest of the talk. I think on this we’ll just have to agree to disagree, as the only way to settle it would be to directly ask Sam Harris, and I don’t have his phone number.

    Just as an aside, “Where in the video does he state that it’s extremely unlikely that we have the best system? I think the closest he comes to this is to suggest that our system is probably not optimal.” You just answered your own question, that is what optimal means. By saying that it is not optimal he is saying it is not the best system, they are equivalent statements.

    “As I said previously, science can’t even tell us that we ought to value life; it can’t tell us that we ought to value well-being, and it certainly can’t tell us that we ought to value well-being more than autonomy. To suggest otherwise is an insult to intact reasoning faculties.”

    Science can tell us that we ought to value life though. If it is true that humans are, in general, hardwired to be happier when surrounded by living friends and family, which is certainly true, and that the loss of one of those friends or family brings sorrow, which is certainly true, then there is an obvious benefit to preserving life, which is the same thing as valuing life. You could go out and measure, chemically and electrically, ten thousand peoples brains and prove this with reams of data. I don’t actually think we need to do that, you don’t need a scientific reason for everything.

    There are various levels of morality, there are the Big Issues, whether or not to value life, equality of the sexes etc. Most of these have been pretty fairly settled, I see no reason to go back and try to prove something we have already established.

    Where science can be the most useful is in the medium and smaller moral judgments. Is abortion moral or immoral? You can’t even begin to have a credible stance on this until you understand all the variables, does a fetus feel pain, does it have memory etc etc. Is torture moral or immoral? Well that question changes dramatically depending on whether or not it is an effective way to gain information. It has been scientifically proven that torture does not produce accurate results, so the moral question becomes ‘is it right to inflict great pain and damage to produce primarily shoddy and inaccurate information of extremely limited use?”, whereas if it had been shown that it DID in fact produce highly accurate information then you are faced with highly different moral questions ‘does the information I have acquired through torture outweigh the pain and suffering I have inflicted?’. These are nuanced moral questions you couldn’t have even legitimately asked without that scientific background.

    Just to finalize, you are right Quinn O that Sam Harris does indeed happen to carry an anti-Islamic bias (don’t call it Middle Eastern, large swaths of the Middle East are not Islamic, you are over-generalizing). However I can agree with most of his points, especially the framework he is building, without agreeing with that bias. However, just to put all my biases on the table in the interest of honest dialogue, having traveled in the Middle East and North Africa extensively I have MASSIVE grievances against Islam and the culture it generates. I also have a long, long list of grievances against Western Culture, not least of which is our ethical double standard in regards to the well being of our citizenry compared to the rest of the worlds.

    DuWayne;

    First off I’d like to thank you for such a great dialogue, I wanted to say that first because what I point out next could be considered rude and I wanted you to know, up-front, that I am enjoying this dialogue immensely.

    Secondly, I’m sorry but you need to go learn what ‘relative’ and subjective’ mean, because you are not using them properly.

    The fact that some people are more affected by the lack of UVB sunlight in winter and some people are less (or not at all) affected does not make it ‘relative’. It means that only a specific subset of the population carries the genetic or physiological trait that makes them susceptible. Saying this makes it relative is like saying that it is relative whether or not I have natural blond hair.

    It is still a factual claim that there is a link between sunlight and happiness. Should I have qualified that with “for a significant portion of the population”? Maybe, but this is an internet comment stream, I don’t see the need to add every qualifier.

    “This may sound ridiculous to you, but that is not nearly so obvious to me as it is to you. I mean on it’s face it seems obvious – common sense would imply this is true. But science isn’t about common sense. And while a full belly may well make a person happier, it also may make no overt difference – especially when you factor other aspects of being human. It may well be that there is no overt difference or even that some of the trade offs make it a net loss.”

    You are both right and wrong here, science isn’t always about common sense, and it could have been shown that nutrition has nothing to do with well being. However there has been an incredible amount of research done on this and there is indeed a direct causal link between nutrition and happiness. Go to Google Scholar and punch in ‘nutrition happiness’, you will get back over 44,000 articles, punch in ‘nutrition well being’ and you get an astonishing 1,130,000 articles. This is a well established fact.

    In regards to war, I’m sorry but just because something isn’t a corollary doesn’t negate its status as a factual claim. War always decreases happiness and well being for the general population in the short term. Can we think of situations where going to war could decrease happiness and well being in the short term but promote them in the long term? Certainly. Can we think of situations where NOT going to war promotes Hap&WB in the short term but decreases them in the long term? Certainly. The fact that this is ungodly complicated doesn’t change it’s factual nature, it just means that when you string together a huge assortment of variables in the natural world you should expect the decisions to be complicated and difficult.

    Math is actually a great analogue here;

    2+2=4 is always true, and many people want morality to always be that simple. It isn’t though.

    Morality is more like;
    2+2-5×6+11/3-7 etc etc =15

    At each stage there are concrete factual claims, but they don’t exist in a vaccuum, they are modified by each other.

    Consistently I have used Happiness and Well Being as my metric for measuring morality. I do this because historically every moral framework I have ever come across promotes Happiness and Well Being within the chosen group (not so much for those outside the group), and also because I like being Happy, everyone I know likes being Happy, even people suffering from extreme forms of mental illness, of which I know and work with many, generally prefer to be Happy.

    The general consensus of the world is that Happiness should be a priority.

    At the end of your post you switch from a reasoned dialogue to twisting my words and trying to equate me with religious extremists. While I firmly believe in diversity, especially of opinion, no one is as relativistic as you are trying to claim to be. Not all opinions can be accommodated. Could I have a productive dialogue with someone who places Hap&WB on a different level then I do on the scale of importance? Certainly. Someone might put Freedom of Speech or Environmental Stewardship (or both) above Hap&WB. These are just a few examples, there are many more. I could even have a dialogue with people who place Hap&WB under a pile of other priorities.

    However, I would not have a dialogue with someone who doesn’t place Hap&WB anywhere on their list of priorities.

    Everyone, no matter how relativistic they might claim to be, has a limit to what they can actually countenance. I am just being more honest then most about where my limit lies.

  22. #22 JesseS
    April 16, 2010

    @ Quinn O.

    Please read my long comment without regard to your final comment (#19), it was posted while I put up my long diatribe and I haven’t had a chance to read it properly or incorporate it into my thought process yet, and I wont have time till later tonight. Thank you.

  23. #23 DuWayne
    April 16, 2010

    Please don’t worry about potential offense – I am not easily offended. Rather I tend to inadvertently cause offense myself when conversing online where many elements of communication are missing.

    QuinnO –

    This is an objective statement of fact about well-being. It doesn’t say anything about morality and it doesn’t mean that sunlight makes every person happy; it says there’s a link between sunlight and happiness and this link has been demonstrated empirically.

    Ok – so I am perfectly comfortable asserting that it is a fact that for many people there is an important link between hours of sunlight and depression. I have indeed read a couple of papers on the subject and entirely agree. That is not what I am saying is subjective about the assertion.

    And ultimate more than anything else, the term well-being is what I am having issues with, right along with happiness. And it may well be that if the terms are reasonably defined that problem may not be such a problem. But people are throwing around terms that on their face have no objective meaning and using them as an objective metric.

    And to be clear, “happiness” is not necessarily a lack of depression. Being on medication to (among other things) manage my depression has not in fact made me happy. And unless you want to define wellbeing to mean increased functionality, neither has it improved my wellbeing.

    I apologize if it appears I am just trying to be difficult. I am not. It is just that I am being inundated with the importance of clearly defining terms when engaging in science on a virtually daily basis. Even when those terms aren’t particularly subjective on their face. This has been firmly reinforced by the fact that I am also taking classes to prepare me for a dual degree program in neuropsychology and linguistics and have a very firm grasp of the nature of linguistic evolution/linguistic drift. While I am not nearly as good about defining terms as well as I should in daily communications, I do tend to both define terms and expect terms to be clearly defined when they are completely subjective on their face.

    This isn’t based on common sense. There’s solid evidence that vitamin deficiencies impair health. Vitamin D deficiency can lead to rickets, vitamin A deficiency can cause blindness, vitamin C deficiency can cause scurvy, etc. There are also studies that have linked consumption of certain foods to diseases. For example, consumption of sugary foods increases the risk of pancreatic cancer.

    I really didn’t explain myself very well at all – and here I am bitching about clarity. And to be very clear before I go on, I am all for providing people with what they need to eat. I would even go as far as to say that I believe that those who can provide aid have a moral imperative to provide the aid that they can to people who are malnourished or otherwise in need of help. That is why in spite of my ability to maintain a great level of healthcare for myself, I have sent money in to help kids in Nevada get vaccinated and sent money to Doctors Without Borders to help in Haiti. I weighed the need and decided that because of the advantages I have being where I am, that I could suffer through some serious back pain and send the money I would have paid my doctor to help me to Haiti instead. But that is what my moral frame demands of me.

    Malnourishment doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Having mentioned it already, I will use the example. Haiti is several kinds of the very worst sorts of hell in which to live. Now I have already come out with what I believe is the moral thing to do. If I could do more, I would. But the help that I have provided is going to help get some Haitian through a crisis. If I could provide a monthly donation to feed a Haitian family or two, that would even take care of another need. But in the scheme of things would I be truly increasing their wellbeing? Or would I just be sustaining their survival in conditions that I wouldn’t force a yippy little dog to live in – and trust me, I do not like little yippy dogs.

    Again – the answer seems like common sense. And I have already admitted that if I were and when I am in a position to provide sustained help to some trouble areas, I will damned well do just that. But I do not take it as a fact that my doing so is actually causing a net benefit to the wellbeing of the people I would help. I mean sure, I would be improving physical health – but for what exactly? So that they can live longer in truly horrific conditions? So that their suffering in other ways will last that much longer?

    My moral compulsion to help such people is not born of some idea that I am improving their wellbeing – I honestly suspect that I am merely prolonging their suffering. My moral compulsion to help, is born of their desire for my help which is born of their having some kind of hope. It could just as easily be argued that for the wellbeing of future generations likely to suffer in much the same way, it would be immoral to provide sustenance. Or it would be that the best way to increase overall wellbeing would be to provide sustenance in exchange for ensuring they cannot reproduce. (to be extremely clear, I do not believe that to be true nor would I countenance such a thing)

    We are all capable of suffering and the things that cause suffering are similar for most people. Take physical pain for example. We can make objective statements about people’s experience of pain. This is how we are able to study the efficacy of pain medications.

    And if you are defining wellbeing as a lack of or relief from pain, then that is correct. But is that the only definition of wellbeing – even in this context? I have a rather frustrating conundrum that is relevant to this very issue. I spent several years roofing and then working in all sorts of contorted positions as a handyman and remodeler. I am 34 now and sincerely doubt that even with all the exercise I manage that I will pass 50 without at least one of my knees being reconstructed – probably both. And my back is also in unbelievably excruciating pain better than fifty percent of the time – bad enough that it has actually caused chronic migraines.

    Relief from the vast majority of my pain however, doesn’t contribute very well to my wellbeing. I am taking eighteen credits this semester – all of them heavy academic credits. If I take the medicines that relieve the pain to any reasonable extent, I can’t manage the focus I need to study. So I don’t take the muscle relaxer and my xanax until bedtime – if I take one or both then. Unless of course the pain interferes with my ability to study, more than the fog interferes. My wellbeing under the circumstances is a balance between competing interests and pain relief is generally on the losing end of the bargain.

    Though morality is clearly relative, this doesn’t mean that we have to take a laissez-faire approach to everything of a moral nature. I find child abuse morally repulsive and I have no problem imposing my moral views on the issue on everyone. If I see someone beating a child, I’ll try to stop him.

    And I would agree with you wholeheartedly for doing so. That other people have other moral frames does not mean that I don’t believe that I am right and they are wrong if their is a conflict. For example, I could care less how someone else views homosexuality as a moral issue. I believe it is immoral to deny two people – whether they are the same sex, same gender or whatever, the right to a legal union that is no different than anyone else’s. Moreover, I will happily fight for what I believe is right in that context.

    Recognizing that the moral frames of some people consider it entirely valid to stone homosexuals to death, does not mean I would not try to prevent it. As for kids – suffice it to say I am a parent.

    JesseS –

    The majority of response to what you mentioned, I addressed in my response to Quinn. But I will make a couple of additional points.

    That a statistically significant percentage of people have a negative reaction doesn’t make it a fact that shorter periods of daylight are inherently damaging to well being.

    This is in fact a true statement. Just like it is true if I say that just because people with red hair tend to be more susceptible than most people to skin damage from UV rays, not wearing 50-75SPF sunscreen detracts from the wellbeing of people who go to the beach on a sunny day. If my sister in law goes to the beach with anything less, or is out there too long, she is putting herself at considerable risk for skin cancer.

    And it is not the qualifiers that would change this. The various reactions we have to the environment are quite often relative to the individual. I have a relatively low tolerance for too much sunlight. I love spring, winter and fall in Portland, OR, because I really get energized and am just generally more comfortable under gray skies. And while there are a lot of people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, there are a lot who don’t and who indeed thrive in that environment the same way that I do. I also really love it when it gets dark earlier – about 4:30pm to about 8:something am, at the shortest in Portland. The impact of the shorter days and less sunlight on wellbeing in general is in fact relative to the individual. The same is true of allergens and a great many other health related issues.

    Unless of course you are going to define wellbeing to be the negative impact of various environmental conditions on the people for whom the impact is negative.

    In regards to war, I’m sorry but just because something isn’t a corollary doesn’t negate its status as a factual claim. War always decreases happiness and well being for the general population in the short term.

    Two questions; What general population? and How are you defining happiness?

    Take Londoners during the blitz. It was a horrifying time in many ways for many people. At the same time, it had a net positive benefit for a substantial portion of the population as crisis often does. People set aside differences and created a united front. Strangers were stepping up all over the place to help complete strangers.

    Sure, war is generally likely to cause suffering and decrease any reasonable measure of happiness among effected populations. But that is not an absolute and on some levels happiness will go up. There are a lot of people who thrive when they are tested, who learn things about themselves that are very important to their happiness.

    And the long term consequences cannot be discounted either. If we are talking in terms of a net benefit and what will create a positive standard of living for a general population, then sometimes increase discord in the short term is going to create more happiness.

    The fact that this is ungodly complicated doesn’t change it’s factual nature, it just means that when you string together a huge assortment of variables in the natural world you should expect the decisions to be complicated and difficult.

    See…The problem I have is not the complexity. The problem I have is calling this morality. While I think that it is entirely reasonable to say that you derive your position on this from your moral frame. I do too and haven’t the least hesitation is saying so. In all honesty, I would imagine that neither of us know very many people who’s positions would not be derived in part, from their moral frame. The problem is that I don’t see morality as a game of consensus.

    This keeps boiling down to something you really haven’t addressed that is really and truly the most important component of this conversations. That would be what you believe the role of morality should play – what morality really means to you. And the reason that I throw religion into this discussion, is not to insult you. Rather I am trying to get you to see what I am seeing in this discussion.

    I spent the vast majority of my life struggling with my religious faith and the impact of my upbringing. When I was young I spent an immense amount of time studying theology, which included as you might imagine, a lot of investigation of morality. While there is some variation about the minutiae of moral dogma, the underlying substance of what morality is was virtually universal (the exception to this would be some truly absurd Calvinist sects and some of the more liberal sects).

    To most Christians and ultimately a great many theistic constructs, morality is two things. It is universal – i.e. what “we” say God tells us is moral is objective moral truth. And it is the ultimate governor/arbiter of one’s behavior – i.e. it is our inner sense of right and wrong. That is what morality means in most theistic constructs.

    The reason that I am so very adamant about the relativistic nature of morality, is because I believe that the greatest value that morality can have is as the ultimate governor/arbiter of any individual’s behavior. And what I have observed and can be observed consistently throughout the history of theism, is that presumed objective moral truth is easy to break down as a arbiter of human behavior. Church leaders and members consistently fail to live up to various aspects of their moral frames – this starts out with petty bullshit and often ends up with adultery and other forms of (by their moral standards) all sorts of debauchery.

    And ultimately, we end up with a situation where we have virtually uncountable dogmatic moral frames. Even when you have someone who actually lives up to his or her moral frame, that moral frame contradicts the moral frames of others who are living up to their own. So obviously even in the community of people who live up to/adhere to their moral frames, there are differences – sometimes very significant differences. This tells me that there are very good reasons not to attempt to find objective moral truths. Ready made moral frames are simply too easy to break down.

    And what is the point? Do we really need to sit around patting each other on the back for being so enlightened as to object to genocide, genital mutilation, honor killings and to support happiness and general well being – however we want to define those to fit particular situations? Is it really and truly so hard to engage in an intellectual discussion about what we would like our society to look like and formulate laws that will help us achieve that?

    Bear in mind that when we sit around patting each other on the back, because we have eliminated from the discussion anyone who doesn’t believe that happiness and wellbeing are a moral imperative – we are still sharing a planet with those people. Unless we decide that their lack of belief in happiness and wellbeing as moral imperative grants us the right to eliminate them from the equation and we just go an kill them, we still have to deal with them. And if we are couching vision for society in moral, rather than intellectual terms, we are going to run into serious conflict with people who disagree.

    Look at our current political climate. Look at the nature of the rhetoric. The U.S. is more polarized and divided than we have been since Vietnam. Have been since the mid to late nineties and it took off like a wildfire after 9/11. There is a very good reason for that – the rhetoric is rife with arguments from morality.

    Screw that. Morality is and should be personal. Not personal in the sense that we can’t talk about it and try to influence each other on a personal level. I believe rather firmly that lying to and cheating on one’s partner is immoral. I know people who just don’t see it that way. Accepting that this is part of my own moral frame, doesn’t mean that I have to accept their belief that such behavior is not immoral as valid and if I have an appropriate relationship with people who feel that way, I see nothing wrong with trying to convince them to come around to my way of thinking.

    But when it comes to deciding what we want our society to look like, morality rhetoric has absolutely no place in the discussion. There is nothing wrong with our moral frames influencing how we want society to look. But if it can’t be intellectually justified, then it probably isn’t appropriate to push that on everyone. And when the discussion is restricted to intellectual justifications, it is a lot easier to come to a consensus with people who have different moral frames – even people who don’t believe that happiness and wellbeing are moral imperatives. Because as I mentioned, we either have to live with them too, or we have to kill them.

    Killing them is against my moral frame. And I can intellectually justify it by the simple fact that I don’t want them trying to kill me and mine.

  24. #24 DuWayne
    April 16, 2010

    I would also like to point out that my position about many aspects of this discussion is not static. I do apologize if I contradict something I said earlier without posing recognition to something you may have said that influenced a change. I am engaging in this discussion in several fronts both online and off, so as my views are being molded, it is honestly rather hard to pinpoint the source of any specific change.

  25. #25 Quinn O
    April 17, 2010

    @JesseS

    //”Where in the video does he state that it’s extremely unlikely that we have the best system? I think the closest he comes to this is to suggest that our system is probably not optimal.” You just answered your own question, that is what optimal means.//
    Not exactly. Our system could be the best that exists and still be suboptimal. He’s saying our system probably isn’t perfect; he’s not saying it isn’t the best.

    //Is abortion moral or immoral? You can’t even begin to have a credible stance on this until you understand all the variables, does a fetus feel pain, does it have memory etc etc.//
    I’d argue that you can’t even begin to have a stance until you’ve decided on your core values and their relative importance. What’s most important? Well-being, autonomy, or life itself? If life is most important, then terminating one is wrong regardless of the fetus’s ability to feel pain. Abortion’s tricky because we have to decide when the fetus becomes a person who should have rights. If we define this as the age at which it could survive outside the mother’s body, or the age at which it develops the ability to feel pain, then science can give us an answer. But science can’t tell us what the criteria should be. Maybe it should be moral to kill a full-term baby if we anesthetize it first. Science doesn’t tell us that humans should have rights, let alone at what stage in gestation they should be conferred.

    //Is torture moral or immoral?//
    The moral question is: Which is more important – individual or collective well-being? Science may help us decide if the torture of an individual is likely to have a net positive effect on collective well-being. It can’t tell us that torture is right or wrong – only whether it’s consistent with our predetermined priorities.

    //Science can tell us that we ought to value life though.//
    Not really. Science can’t tell us what we ought to value until we subjectively assign meaning to something. *If* we value well-being, then we should value things that promote well-being. It’s always an ‘if A, then B’ scenario, where A is an unscientific value judgement. Science doesn’t answer moral questions; it answers this one: given our established morals/priorities, what choices make the most sense?

    //“don’t call it Middle Eastern, large swaths of the Middle East are not Islamic, you are over-generalizing”//
    You’re quite right. Thank you for pointing this out. I think over-generalizing is a good word here too, since “Islamic” and “Western” also generalize, but to a lesser extent.

    //…I have MASSIVE grievances against Islam and the culture it generates. I also have a long, long list of grievances against Western Culture, not least of which is our ethical double standard in regards to the well being of our citizenry compared to the rest of the worlds.//
    We don’t differ all that much here. However, I’m not convinced that Islam is entirely to blame for Islamic radicalism and I don’t have such massive grievances with the former. I know a number of Muslims who are quite moderate and have values that are similar to my own.

  26. #26 JesseS
    April 17, 2010

    Gonna be a loooong post.

    “Over-generalizing”

    I think this is actually one of the most useful concepts I’ve ever come across. It is impossible to have a conversation the way we are without generalizing to an extent. As Quinn pointed out ‘Western Culture’ is a generalization, in fact two of the largest parts of it, Canada and the U.S.A, are radically different. However, they have enough in common that you can clearly see how they are related when compared to, say, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. However there is always the chance of taking those generalizations too far.

    “Islam”

    Again, we have similarities here. I’m certain Quinn O that you know some very agreeable Muslims. I know some as well. However, they are all what I would call 21st Century Muslims. There are most definitely two major trends in Islam, a progressive one that is willing to start incorporating secular values (many Muslims who live in NA, a fairly significant population of the ones in Jordan, an unfortunately shrinking population of them in Turkey and Pakistan), and a very reactionary brand of them that unfortunately holds sway over most of what we would call the Islamic World, good examples being the leadership in Iran, Saudi Arabia and the very militant groups gaining sway in the Philipines and Indonesia. It is this later group I have the most grievances with and the ones I find truly abhorrent, but I find a massive lack of will to criticize the reactionary side amongst the first group and that bothers me immensely.

    “Happiness and Well Being”

    I haven’t defined these because it actually doesn’t affect my argument in the slightest. Like I said the factual claims I’m making require more qualifiers then I’m going to bother with in an internet conversation. Any metric you choose to properly define can still be measured and described in factual terms. They will tend to be statistical claims across a population, but they will still be factual claims. Being difficult and quibling about the specific definitions of words is, frankly, just beginning to annoy me. You know what is generally and loosely meant by Happiness and Well Being, and, for the purposes of this conversation, that is good enough.

    “Can Science Answer All the Questions.”

    I’m not sure how I ended up arguing that science should answer all our questions. I don’t believe that it should, I do however believe that it can***.

    I’ll explain;

    Historically there are trends in morality and moral frames. Regarding the in-group the vast, vast (VAST) majority of moral frames have always declared that murder, theft and dishonesty are immoral. Take a random sampling and this is nearly always the case.

    It is a nigh-certainty that there is a physiological or neurological basis for this. A lot more of our behaviour is programmed than most people are comfortable with. When we have a much better science of the mind it will be very easy to build a moral framework based exclusively on this knowledge. We will know exactly why we make these original primal moral judgments. Well will, quite literally, be able to say which genes and neural structures cause us to overwhelmingly value life (within our in-group).

    What I’m not arguing is that you can justify any moral judgment with science, nor am I arguing that a purely scientifically derived moral framework is even desirable. From this same research there is likely to be a genetic reason for racism, that does not make racism, to me, desirable.

    While it will be very easy once we have this knowledge to simply pick out the most prominent moral values that have been selected for over millions of years of evolution I doubt it would be a moral framework I would entirely endorse.

    So you see it is very easy for science to tell us what are criteria can be, most religious people recognize this and it terrifies them, that is why there so much hysteria over evolution teaching our children that ‘since they are just animals they should act like animals’.

    To reiterate again though, just because science can establish our criteria doesn’t mean I feel it should establish our criteria.

    To me, if there is any point to being human, it is the quest to move beyond the programming of our genes.

    What I am arguing is that you cannot have a credible moral framework without it being solidly grounded in science. You cannot eventually do away with racism until you understand the genetic and neurological basis for racism, for example

    What I have been trying to show with my examples is that, regardless of the metric you choose, there will be factual claims you can make about it. If I choose to define happiness as a specific chemical process in the brain that relates to endorphins then there will be definite factual claims to make about how nutrition, literacy, equal rights etc affects that metric. These claims will be complicated. That’s fine. Science is generally complicated and difficult.

    *** I’m qualifying this with ‘most probably’, all our research to date points to what I am stating being true, but we still have an imperfect science of the mind so there is always the chance I could be spectacularly wrong about this.

    Moral Frames

    This one is specifically at DuWayne;

    A person’s moral framework is NOT what the claim it to be, it is how they actually act. People don’t fail to live up to their morals, they just claim to have different morals than they actually hold.

    The problem in the States is that the moral framework most of the country believes it holds, and the politicians drone on endlessly about, does not really resemble any of the actual moral frameworks people or groups actually do hold in the country.

    Suffering, War and Tolerating Other Moral Frameworks

    Have you actually ever been in a war zone? Worked in a Third World slum? I have. Regardless of whatever definition you have for Happiness I guarantee you war and starvation decrease it.

    If you are actually concerned with moral and ethical questions you need to get some personal experience in these situations.

    It is all well and good to talk about tolerating moral differences and other forms of opinion but it is something only armchair philosophers twice removed from the actual problems do.

    There are core values and secondary values. Core values are those things that, without them, you honestly don’t give a flying fuck about anything else.

    Core moral values are pretty universal and can all be summarized basically as; the sanctity of life and being free from undo suffering. If you are starving, truly starving, you cannot care about anything else. If you are being indiscriminately slaughtered you cannot think about anything else. If you and your entire village are being wiped out by bubonic plague, or ebola virus, you cannot care about anything else. Every other moral judgment, right etc is subservient to these core needs.

    The core moral value is the sanctity of life, protecting it from undo violence, hunger and disease. Whatever you define as happiness, or well being for that matter, you cannot have it without these.

    Anyone who does not recognize this is either deluded (for example, someone who thinks that someone starving to death cares one whit about their Freedom of Speech) or morally bankrupt (someone who just doesn’t care about the suffering of others).

    All the secondary values and morals I’m fine with having a reasonable debate about.

    The core value though, the sanctity of a life free from undo suffering, or as I prefer to call it the Primacy of Happiness, no, I am not willing to compromise about, I will happily wall up those people away from the rest of the world until they either assimilate to that one core value or kill themselves off.

  27. #27 DuWayne
    April 18, 2010

    JesseS –

    It occurs to me that the biggest problem we are having with this conversation is a lack of definition. I have explained in great detail what I mean when I say morality. I have also provided a very solid reasoning for why I define it that way. But you haven’t even defined morality, much less explained why your definition of morality is superior. What do you mean when you use the term morality? What role do you believe morality plays? What is the value of morality then, in the context of your response to those other two questions?

    You know what is generally and loosely meant by Happiness and Well Being, and, for the purposes of this conversation, that is good enough.

    I am sorry that this annoys you, but the language being used is important and “generally and loosely meant” is not acceptable – it is not how science is done. The bottom line is that happiness and well being do not have objective definitions and both mean very different things to different people – even when they are being used in the same context.

    If you want to make a factual claim, then you need to use precise language. And neither happiness or well being are precise descriptives. In the context of this conversation they are rather central to the principle you are espousing. Yet neither can be defined in such a way as to apply to more than one aspect of the moral frame you are trying to describe.

    This driving force of your frame has no consistency within the frame.

    It is a nigh-certainty that there is a physiological or neurological basis for this. A lot more of our behaviour is programmed than most people are comfortable with. When we have a much better science of the mind it will be very easy to build a moral framework based exclusively on this knowledge. We will know exactly why we make these original primal moral judgments. Well will, quite literally, be able to say which genes and neural structures cause us to overwhelmingly value life (within our in-group).

    See now, you have me with the first to sentences but then you totally lose and lose me big time. You are diving headlong into my intended field of research and something that I actually know quite a bit about – mainly what we don’t know and what we do, sort of.

    People have a lot of innate characteristics. We are born with a great deal more than most people are comfortable with, as you say. But we are also shaped from the moment of inception. Your mistake is assuming that it is all genetics. I can assure you that it is not – not even all that we are born with.

    You are also assuming that we all overwhelmingly value human life within our in group. This is simply not true, not even close. While it generally holds true in the west, it is not true in a great many non-western cultures.

    In the developing world there is a certain value placed on human life, but it is a very different value. When infant mortality rates are so very high, it is an absolute necessity to place a very different value on human life. When you couple that with extremely high population density among the impoverished, that value changed even more – even within the family unit. Outside the family unit little value is placed on the lives of one’s neighbors – even if they are friends, because if the neighbor dies there is a little less competition for scarce resources. In the family unit another child may not be possible and therefore either abortion or infanticide become reasonable options.

    And that infanticide may well be the best moral choice in the circumstances.

    There is also China, where the value of human life is considerably less as a baseline. In China it isn’t uncommon for parents who have a girl to kill the child, so they might have another and end up with a boy. Never mind the legality of that act, it happens quite frequently. And because of the overwhelming numbers, as a general cultural rule human life has very little value.

    From this same research there is likely to be a genetic reason for racism, that does not make racism, to me, desirable.

    No, actually that isn’t the least bit likely. The claim that it is is a rather huge pet peeve of mine. Race is a social construct, not a genetic one.

    What I am arguing is that you cannot have a credible moral framework without it being solidly grounded in science. You cannot eventually do away with racism until you understand the genetic and neurological basis for racism, for example.

    Bullshit. While I am all about using science to understand how our moral frames are derived (remember, I actually think this is critically important – just for different reasons that you do), we can and most of us do have a credible moral framework.

    I assume that you are a standup sort of guy who I would have a lot of respect for, if I were to engage you in person. I also assume that you would feel the same way about me. While there are probably some differences to our moral frames, the important issues are ones we would agree on. The reason why we interact with the world around us is that we have credible moral frames.

    As for the underpinnings of racism issue, we need to change the language you are using a little bit. And I am not saying this to be a pedantic ass, I am saying this because the language we use is critically important. There is a great deal of evidence to support the notion that our use of language has the single greatest impact on our neurodevelopment.

    You are not talking about racism, you are talking about xenophobia. The same mechanisms that cause some people of one color or body shape to actively oppress people of another skin color or body shape, also cause biases against people who are different in other ways. And while there is definitely more to learn about it, we can actually make some assertions about the nature and origins of xenophobia that are quite likely very accurate.

    Discrimination is based on two factors. Fear of the “other” and presumptions of our own superiority. It is a little more complicated than that, because those two factors are not separate. For example, even as we assume superiority, we fear the other is superior. It is somewhat complicated, but really isn’t all that difficult to parse. There are, of course, innumerable factors that feed our specific reaction to a specific outgroup but they are largely superficial. We know that because of how such prejudice is broken down – again, a bit more complicated in practice, exposure to members of said outgroup is what breaks those biases down.

    A person’s moral framework is NOT what the claim it to be, it is how they actually act. People don’t fail to live up to their morals, they just claim to have different morals than they actually hold.

    This is simply not true. The assumption that it is renders the concept of morality completely useless. More accurately, depending on how you define morality this is not true. This really is a huge part of the problem we are having here. I have repeatedly defined what I mean when I use the word morality. You still haven’t done so and this discussion isn’t going to really go anywhere until you do.

    Have you actually ever been in a war zone? Worked in a Third World slum? I have. Regardless of whatever definition you have for Happiness I guarantee you war and starvation decrease it.

    Probably not nearly to the extent that you have, but yes, I have some experience in both contexts. And I am not really arguing that war and starvation make people happy – I am arguing that it just isn’t as clear cut as you make it out to be.

    It is all well and good to talk about tolerating moral differences and other forms of opinion but it is something only armchair philosophers twice removed from the actual problems do.]

    You keep implying that I actually do tolerate certain moral differences. Despite my repeated assertion that I merely accept that people who act in ways that are contrary to my own moral frame are often operating off of their own moral frame that accepts such behavior as acceptable. That I do not have to accept those moral frames as correct and indeed believe that the actions committed that comply with that person’s moral frame are completely unacceptable.

    Recognizing that someone else can commit egregious and in my opinion immoral acts may well believe their acts are not immoral does not equal acceptance or tolerance. I am not sure I can make it any clearer than that.

    The core moral value is the sanctity of life, protecting it from undo violence, hunger and disease. Whatever you define as happiness, or well being for that matter, you cannot have it without these.

    You really seem to have a very ethnocentric world view. I hate to break it to you, but this is simply not consistent across cultures. It is certainly prevalent. But it is far from universal.

    I mean I will give that all humans probably want to live and be free from violence, hunger and disease. But what I want in life doesn’t equal morality. Morality is all about how we interact with others and the world around us. In that context your assertion is far from a universal value.

    The core value though, the sanctity of a life free from undo suffering, or as I prefer to call it the Primacy of Happiness, no, I am not willing to compromise about, I will happily wall up those people away from the rest of the world until they either assimilate to that one core value or kill themselves off.

    I am not suggesting you compromise that core value. I share that core value and consider it a moral imperative. What I am saying is that you need to recognize that that is not a core value for everybody or every culture. And that is why I think it is critically important to remove the rhetoric of morality from the discussion about what we want society to look like.

    Just because someone or some cultures don’t share that core value, doesn’t mean that an intellectual argument can’t be made in support of that core value being foundational to society. Those people and those cultures are here, whether you want them to be or not. They are a part of our society, whether you want them to be or not. So we can either choose to kill them, or we can choose to convince them that the best society we could have. That the society that would best serve their needs as well as the needs of everyone else, is a society founded on that core value.

    Pretending that simply because we find even very fundamental aspects of someone else’s moral frame repugnant, they must not have a moral frame is worse than useless. Because unless you are willing to kill them off, we are going to share a planet with them. Telling them that instead of their moral frame being wrong in your opinion, they simply have no real moral frame is not going to bring them to the table and provide the opportunity to influence how they live in practice.

  28. #28 Quinn O
    April 19, 2010

    @JesseS

    //I’m not sure how I ended up arguing that science should answer all our questions. I don’t believe that it should, I do however believe that it can***.//
    How could science tell us that we ought to value well-being? Harris’s argument is not simply that science can tell us about our morals and values and their neurophysiological underpinnings, but that it can tell us what our morals and values *ought* to be.

    //So you see it is very easy for science to tell us what are criteria can be, most religious people recognize this and it terrifies them, that is why there so much hysteria over evolution teaching our children that ‘since they are just animals they should act like animals’.//
    This is a bit presumptuous. I think it’s more likely that creationists oppose the teaching of evolution because it refutes some of their cherished beliefs. Science *can* tell us that the book of Genesis is wrong. A lot of religious people accept evolution.

    //You cannot eventually do away with racism until you understand the genetic and neurological basis for racism, for example.//
    Sure you can. We’ve gone from black people not having the right to vote to a black president, all with little knowledge of the biological aspects of racism. And racism continues to become less and less acceptable. I’d say social pressures and ethnic mixing will eventually drive it to extinction. Understanding the genetic and neurological basis of racism wouldn’t necessarily help us get rid of it, anyway. What would we do then, genetically modify people who have racism genes?

    My argument is not that science can’t give us a framework, but that it can’t give us a foundation. The moral questions are answered in the laying of the foundation. The questions answered in the construction of the framework (Does torture generate reliable information? Can a fetus feel pain?) are not moral questions.

    Harris assumes that well-being should be the basis of our morality. It seems like an obvious choice until you weigh it against autonomy. I value well-being, but I don’t want anyone else forcing healthy choices on me. Sustainability and equality might also be good candidates for our top priorities. In order for everyone on the planet to enjoy the same standard of living and have it be sustainable, people in the West would have to make big sacrifices. We might have to temper our well-being for the sake of equality and posterity.

    My biggest beef with Harris’s talk is with his statements that we can no longer “respect and tolerate vast differences in notions of human well-being” and that it’s possible for “whole cultures to care about the wrong things”- meaning Islamic culture, mainly. We need to consider the reasons and motives for immoral behaviors, particularly if we’re involved. And we need to take a closer look at our own actions. Does the US embargo against Cuba improve well-being? Are extrajudicial assassinations moral?(1) What we can no longer tolerate and respect are vast differences between our notions of morality and our behavior. We need more integrity, not more intolerance.

    Again I ask, when Harris says we can no longer “respect and tolerate vast differences in notions of human well-being”, what kinds of action do you think he’s advocating?

    (1) http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=10&categ_id=5&article_id=113666#axzz0l2bgBgEr

  29. #29 wreaver
    May 9, 2010

    I didn’t read the other comments (yet) due to the sheer number of them, so perhaps this has already been said. But, my first reaction is….

    I don’t think that all people are trying to maximize the “well-being” of the population, as their moral “goal”.

    My understanding of what Sam Harris is saying seems in hinge on this assumption.

    I do see value in understanding the “instincts” that can drive or influence human morality. And I see value in judging moral frameworks with respect to various “goals”. But I don’t see a way of judging moral “goals” without using other “goals”.

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