Harris… treed

Shorter Sam Harris: A Response to Critics:

People are saying mean things about my bad book and I don’t know what to say.

[6600 words later]

If I pretend morality is just like health, then all the objections are wrong.

Comments

  1. #1 Mike McRae
    January 29, 2011

    The irony is that while many do treat even health in a strictly biophysical fashion, it also has sociological components that means it’s impossible to objectify completely. Health or morality, both can’t be understood by stretching values to be universal.

    And that’s the problem Harris simply can’t seem to get away from – he seems to think by stating morality is about wellbeing, he’s solved the whole issue. Of course, then he simply insinuates that wellbeing is value free (which, like health, is not), therefore consistent across humanity. Never mind the complexity embedded in this concept.

    The more he speaks, the less respect I have for him. He reiterates the same points in each of his articles as if through repetition it will eventually be true. While religion has no monopoly on value-based behaviour, neither does science. It’s a sociocultural phenomenon which only ever works contextually.

  2. #2 bob koepp
    January 29, 2011

    I don’t think that having a social dimension implies that health isn’t an objective state of affairs. That would depend on precisely what sort of social facts were implicated. But that doesn’t help Harris. If health is objective, that doesn’t mean it’s inherently valuable — which is what he would need to establish for his analogy to do any work.

  3. #3 Anna
    January 29, 2011

    Any mother could tell you that well-being is sometimes a zero-sum game.

  4. #4 FUG
    January 29, 2011

    Morality as well-being is one of the more accepted normative theories in ethics at the moment, so I don’t think “pretending” pertains to his claim. Certainly there are those who object, and he is still required to argue for, but his thesis, on its face, doesn’t strike me as implausible.

  5. #5 Keith
    January 30, 2011

    “People are saying mean things about my bad book and I don’t know what to say.”

    Way to go to pass off your disparaging remark as Harris’s own words. This is not, of course, what he says: he says that it is difficult to formulate a response, not that he’s at a loss for words.

  6. #6 Saikat Biswas
    January 30, 2011

    @5 : Not the first time he’s displayed a lack of reading comprehension.

  7. #7 Francis
    January 30, 2011

    Having read the book and the response, I don’t think either Harris’ argument or response have been treated reasonably. Nowhere does Harris say that we can apply science and determine the right thing for anyone on any dimension of well-being. What he does say is that the question of right and wrong and well-being (if you don’t think they are apposite) are amenable to scientific analysis, and that we can learn more about them in the process. He goes further to say that we can, through science, determine with some certainty that certain kinds of societies and treatments of human beings are more or less productive of human well-being.

    Does someone think that’s really not so? It’s about as simple a ‘no-shit’ as could be hoped for.

    Social scientists have long been measuring well-being and how it is produced or reduced. We know that human happiness, for instance, doesn’t much depend on economic circumstances, once you get food and shelter handled. It doesn’t matter if you’re the prize winning quarterback or the late-shift clerk at the video store. You’ll have pretty much the same likelihood of being happy. But we know that happiness/ well-being goes way down for the hungry and the hopeless. That’s already been studied. Not a new idea. If someone tells you that the hungry, huddled masses are as happy as we are, don’t believe them. The miserable really are miserable. And, knowing that, we should feel some compunction to take action to alleviate it?

    We know a fair amount about why certain behaviors are productive of happiness and some of misery. Should we not be applying our best efforts to furthering our understanding in this arena?

  8. #8 Josh Rosenau
    January 31, 2011

    Keith: You seem not to understand how shorters work.

  9. #9 Josh Rosenau
    January 31, 2011

    Francis: Harris now claims that he doesn’t want (as you say) to “apply science and determine the right thing for anyone on any dimension of well-being.” But he did say: “When I speak of there being right and wrong answers to questions of morality, I am saying that there are facts about human and animal wellbeing that we can, in principle, know—simply because wellbeing (and states of consciousness altogether) must lawfully relate to states of the brain and to states of the world.”

    Which sure sounds like he thinks we can apply some brainscanning science and thereby determine right and wrong (I replied at length here). Note especially “states of consciousness altogether,” which I think covers not just “any dimension of well-being” but every dimension He later purported to offer a series of facts justifying his claim that we can get from “is” to “ought,” which is the foundation of his whole argument, by assuming one can empirically determine that some actions produce minimal or maximal well-being not just “for anyone” but for just about every sentient being (my reply).

    Also the subtitle of the book is “how science can determine human values.” Not “…some human values”, not “…values for some humans.” Not “how science and empirically untestable value judgments…” So I think your second sentence is wrong: Harris does argue that science can determine the right thing for anyone and everyone ever.

    Of course we should be taking action to alleviate the suffering caused by poverty. Few people disagree about that goal, though many disagree about how it can be done effectively, and others disagree about how to do it morally. And some do disagree. Not that they like poverty, but they contend that those poor people must be poor for a reason (perhaps because of their own moral failings), and therefore it would be wrong for the wealthy to sacrifice their well-being for the well-being of the poor. This is why they oppose things like the tax on multi-million dollar estates, or high taxes on stock market profits, or universal healthcare.

    I think those people are wrong, and that’s why I’m not a Republican. But they control the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, and held the Senate and the White House for disturbing stretches of time, so we can’t treat this as a trivial fringe. Are they wrong scientifically, or are they wrong morally? Harris’s contention is that they are scientifically wrong, but to get there, he has to assume utilitarian philosophy to be not only true, but scientifically true. And it isn’t.

    Furthermore, Harris’s approach does an awful job handling the ethical importance of other important things, wilderness being the example that leaps out at me. By his standards, we should drill ANWR and let Dick Cheney skullbugger the caribou there because it makes Cheney happy and the rest of us will never go there anyway, so it doesn’t diminish your well-being. The notion that wilderness, or anything at all, has intrinsic moral weight beyond that assigned based on the happiness it causes humans, has no place in Harris’s philosophy.

    And I’d ignore Harris’s philosophy if he didn’t keep trying to dress it up as science, when it isn’t. He isn’t using science to determine values, he’s using value judgments to determine values, and then misleading people about what science is and what science does. And that’s not OK.

  10. #10 Hammill
    January 31, 2011

    IMO Harris is putting forth some very fascinating arguments and ideas, and anytime one sticks their neck out with new ideas such as these, there will be a big backlash.

    My problem, to somewhat echo Josh in #9, is simply that Harris is treating many of his ideas as if they are already settled and scientific, as if the debate on this should be closed, when it is most certainly not. He also has displayed a bit of habit for oversimplifying the consequences of his philosophy, which I suppose might be unavoidable with the kind of arguments Harris is making. However, he has acted perturbed when others point this simplicity out (i.e., “I will be responding to this stupidity”) rather than embracing it and using it as a jumping off point for more in-depth discussion. IMO he did this worse with TEOF, but there’s been a bit of it present with this book, as well.

  11. #11 Francis
    January 31, 2011

    It still seems to me like the critiques of Harris’ proposals can mostly be assigned to two categories: 1) The argument from, bad things could happen if you pursue this line of reasoning, so it’s wrong and don’t do it; and 2) I don’t understand how you could ever arrive at the answers to the questions you say you can answer via this project, so I reject the project.

    Neither of those are legitimate reasons for anyone but a funder to say no. We’ve been taking direction on morality from patently amoral traditions for a very long time now. I think it’s entirely possible to study, for example, the 10 commandments (or however many there really are) in the Judeo Christian tradition and ask the question, Does obedience to this increase, decrease or have no effect of human well-being? One could do a correlational study and measure self-reported well-being of people who do and don’t obey any stricture that might be of interest, as a start. Or measure at the level of culture – crime, poverty, etc. Does a population that espouses a given set of values have greater or lesser self-reported well-being? Take their own word for it for a start and go from there. If, at some point, measurement of brain activity can be made precise and practical enough, then do that.

    Or, consider projects such as this one that use content analysis to gauge the mood of the country/ region, etc. http://www.ccs.neu.edu/home/amislove/twittermood/. This and other projects like it are amenable to rigorous study that might eventually lead to a reasonable model for measuring well-being broadly. They might not accomplish this, but that’s what you find out when you do the science. So, shouldn’t we be doing it, and supporting the doing of it?

    Whether our great philosophers have said that something is possible or not seems entirely irrelevant to the question of whether we should try. We are standing on their shoulders and ought now to be able to see farther.

  12. #12 Thp
    January 31, 2011

    Quoting Josh:
    [[something about poverty and republicans, basically saying the world’s a complex place..]
    I think those people are wrong, and that’s why I’m not a Republican. But they control the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, and held the Senate and the White House for disturbing stretches of time, so we can’t treat this as a trivial fringe. Are they wrong scientifically, or are they wrong morally? Harris’s contention is that they are scientifically wrong, but to get there, he has to assume utilitarian philosophy to be not only true, but scientifically true. And it isn’t.]

    I didn’t quite catch Harris saying that republicans are wrong scientifically, just that if indeed they are, it can in principle be proven by science.
    You know what else is not scientifically true? science. (not saying it’s untrue either)


    [Furthermore, Harris’s approach does an awful job handling the ethical importance of other important things, wilderness being the example that leaps out at me. By his standards, we should drill ANWR and let Dick Cheney skullbugger the caribou there because it makes Cheney happy and the rest of us will never go there anyway, so it doesn’t diminish your well-being. The notion that wilderness, or anything at all, has intrinsic moral weight beyond that assigned based on the happiness it causes humans, has no place in Harris’s philosophy.]

    If “the wild” is of value to you, than that’s just another part of the equation.
    Have you tried reading the book, or just reviews? I really don’t get where you pull things out like Harris liking to ‘drilling the anwr’ or having Dick CHeney go it’s way.
    If something doesn’t diminish your well-being, it simply doesn’t diminish your well-being full stop.
    Also, literally speaking, what kind of scale do you think can weigh a thing’s ‘moral weight’?

    [And I’d ignore Harris’s philosophy if he didn’t keep trying to dress it up as science, when it isn’t. He isn’t using science to determine values, he’s using value judgments to determine values, and then misleading people about what science is and what science does. And that’s not OK.]

    I think you’re just not informed (enough) about Harris’ claims and arguments, but that’s allright, again, try reading his book.

  13. #13 Josh Rosenau
    January 31, 2011

    Thp: “something about poverty and republicans, basically saying the world’s a complex place..”

    No. The point is that different people assign moral value to well-being in different ways, and there’s no scientific basis for saying those people are right or wrong. Harris wants to say that we can get to right and wrong – from “is” to “ought” – without reference to personal and empirically untestable values. But he does so by assuming a particular set of values that cannot be scientifically tested.

    You ask me “what kind of scale do you think can weigh a thing’s ‘moral weight’,” but I’m not the one claiming that morality is scientifically measurable. I place a lot of weight on wilderness protection, other people don’t, and I think it’s immoral to simply treat wilderness as being valuable to the extent that people value it. I think wilderness has intrinsic value, and Harris offers no way to even think about the intrinsic value of anything that isn’t sentient. I think that’s a failing.

    Francis: I have not seen anyone make your first argument (but maybe I’m misunderstanding what you’re trying to summarize). As to the second, the issue is not that people think what he’s doing will be hard, the issue is that people think what he’s claiming to do is impossible, and his arguments for why he thinks it is possible are fallacious.

    If he had restricted himself narrowly to the question of well-being, and ways to measure it in individuals and in aggregates, that would be one thing. It’d be a book of interests to a small group of specialists, but might be interesting.

    What makes the book of interest to a general audience is that he’s claiming to go from well-being to morality, to scientifically evaluate values, as if science were totally value-independent and as if values could be put in a test tube.

    But if there are different sorts of well-being, and different weights that different people put on different types of well-being and on well-being in different individuals, then Harris has to be able to use science to say that some of those are wrong, or else he hasn’t actually gotten a scientific account of morals. He’s just measuring the effects of different moral valuations, and no one ever claimed science couldn’t do that. So he’s making extraordinary claims, and the evidence he’s offering is not only not extraordinary, it isn’t even relevant.

    As to philosophers and their shoulders, I’d note two things. First, if something’s been tried and shown not to work, it’s stupid to try doing the exact same thing, and much that Harris does is repetitive of earlier failed attempts at a science of morality. Second, Harris knows others had tried this, and rather than standing on their shoulders, he simply holds himself up as smarter and better than them, and concludes that they aren’t worth citing or discussing. And that’s arrogant, stupid, and wrong.

  14. #14 Thp
    February 1, 2011

    Quoting Josh

    “No. The point is that different people assign moral value to [..]”

    He isnt saying that at all, he is just saying that morality lingers in the same spot as the concept of health, no scientific basis to say that we should value it, some are confused, some dont care about it at all, yet here we are practicing medicine.
    Harris allows for the option that republicans and democrats just envision different peaks on the moral landscape, making politics the debate on which peak is highest and/or which one is the easier (less tiring) climb, etc.


    “I place a lot of weight on wilderness protection, other people [..]”

    Saying you want people to treat the wild as if it had intrinsic value, that’s not a problem, it just makes the moral landscape more complex than previously thought of. But it does have to be conducive of someone’s wellbeing, and nothing but wellbeing in the end.
    If you don’t care about the wild producing wellbeing with respect to it’s intrinsic value, even if it’s your own, then I don’t know what you mean with something having value, your words would resemble ‘white noise’ and thus I can safely ignore you.


    “[..] as if science were totally value-independent and as if values could be put in a test tube.”

    Harris would be the first to say that Science itself is based on certain values. And that’s part of his argument, we universally accept the values behind science and we can ignore those confused who radically, unalterably don’t.


    “But if there are different sorts of well-being, and different weights that different people put on different types of well-being and on well-being in different individuals, then Harris has to be able to use science to say that some of those are wrong. [..]”

    Like there are different sorts of health and different weights that differen people put on different types of health and on health in different individuals? Well, some people would consider themselfs healthy sitting still virtually without food or water for 2 years, others say that a minuscule part of alcohol mixed with a liter of water would cure cancer of the throat, but I’m not buying it. But if so, then I don’t think I would care much about their ideas on health.

  15. #15 Jean Kazez
    February 1, 2011

    Josh, I think you summed it up perfectly: “He isn’t using science to determine values, he’s using value judgments to determine values, and then misleading people about what science is and what science does.” I agree his response to critics was unbelievably dismissive. I bet that will teach many philosophers not to waste their time on Harris.

  16. #16 Orac
    February 2, 2011

    As a physician, all I can say is that, OMG, that article by Harris was painful to read. Methinks he misunderstands the difference between science and being science-based, for one thing.

  17. #17 Taylor
    February 3, 2011

    distill a twisty, mendacious … argument into a single brief passage that manages both to accurately portray the thoughts and sentiments of the victim, and to highlight the argument’s absurdity.

    You failed!

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