The Moral Equivalent of the Parallel Postulate

By Sean Carroll | March 24, 2010 7:58 am

(Update: further discussion here and here.)

Sam Harris gave a TED talk, in which he claims that science can tell us what to value, or how to be moral. Unfortunately I completely disagree with his major point. (Via Jerry Coyne and 3 Quarks Daily.)

He starts by admitting that most people are skeptical that science can lead us to certain values; science can tell us what is, but not what ought to be. There is a old saying, going back to David Hume, that you can’t derive ought from is. And Hume was right! You can’t derive ought from is. Yet people insist on trying.

Harris uses an ancient strategy to slip morality into what starts out as description. He says:

Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures… If we’re more concerned about our fellow primates than we are about insects, as indeed we are, it’s because we think they are exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering. The crucial thing to notice here is that this is a factual claim.

Let’s grant the factual nature of the claim that primates are exposed to a greater range of happiness and suffering than insects or rocks. So what? That doesn’t mean we should care about their suffering or happiness; it doesn’t imply anything at all about morality, how we ought to feel, or how to draw the line between right and wrong.

Morality and science operate in very different ways. In science, our judgments are ultimately grounded in data; when it comes to values we have no such recourse. If I believe in the Big Bang model and you believe in the Steady State cosmology, I can point to the successful predictions of the cosmic background radiation, light element nucleosynthesis, evolution of large-scale structure, and so on. Eventually you would either agree or be relegated to crackpot status. But what if I believe that the highest moral good is to be found in the autonomy of the individual, while you believe that the highest good is to maximize the utility of some societal group? What are the data we can point to in order to adjudicate this disagreement? We might use empirical means to measure whether one preference or the other leads to systems that give people more successful lives on some particular scale — but that’s presuming the answer, not deriving it. Who decides what is a successful life? It’s ultimately a personal choice, not an objective truth to be found simply by looking closely at the world. How are we to balance individual rights against the collective good? You can do all the experiments you like and never find an answer to that question.

Harris is doing exactly what Hume warned against, in a move that is at least as old as Plato: he’s noticing that most people are, as a matter of empirical fact, more concerned about the fate of primates than the fate of insects, and taking that as evidence that we ought to be more concerned about them; that it is morally correct to have those feelings. But that’s a non sequitur. After all, not everyone is all that concerned about the happiness and suffering of primates, or even of other human beings; some people take pleasure in torturing them. And even if they didn’t, again, so what? We are simply stating facts about how human beings feel, from which we have no warrant whatsoever to conclude things about how they should feel.

Attempts to derive ought from is are like attempts to reach an odd number by adding together even numbers. If someone claims that they’ve done it, you don’t have to check their math; you know that they’ve made a mistake. Or, to choose a different mathematical analogy, any particular judgment about right and wrong is like Euclid’s parallel postulate in geometry; there is not a unique choice that is compatible with the other axioms, and different choices could in principle give different interesting moral philosophies.

A big part of the temptation to insist that moral judgments are objectively true is that we would like to have justification for arguing against what we see as moral outrages when they occur. But there’s no reason why we can’t be judgmental and firm in our personal convictions, even if we are honest that those convictions don’t have the same status as objective laws of nature. In the real world, when we disagree with someone else’s moral judgments, we try to persuade them to see things our way; if that fails, we may (as a society) resort to more dramatic measures like throwing them in jail. But our ability to persuade others that they are being immoral is completely unaffected — and indeed, may even be hindered — by pretending that our version of morality is objectively true. In the end, we will always be appealing to their own moral senses, which may or may not coincide with ours.

The unfortunate part of this is that Harris says a lot of true and interesting things, and threatens to undermine the power of his argument by insisting on the objectivity of moral judgments. There are not objective moral truths (where “objective” means “existing independently of human invention”), but there are real human beings with complex sets of preferences. What we call “morality” is an outgrowth of the interplay of those preferences with the world around us, and in particular with other human beings. The project of moral philosophy is to make sense of our preferences, to try to make them logically consistent, to reconcile them with the preferences of others and the realities of our environments, and to discover how to fulfill them most efficiently. Science can be extremely helpful, even crucial, in that task. We live in a universe governed by natural laws, and it makes all the sense in the world to think that a clear understanding of those laws will be useful in helping us live our lives — for example, when it comes to abortion or gay marriage. When Harris talks about how people can reach different states of happiness, or how societies can become more successful, the relevance of science to these goals is absolutely real and worth stressing.

Which is why it’s a shame to get the whole thing off on the wrong foot by insisting that values are simply a particular version of empirical facts. When people share values, facts can be very helpful to them in advancing their goals. But when they don’t share values, there’s no way to show that one of the parties is “objectively wrong.” And when you start thinking that there is, a whole set of dangerous mistakes begins to threaten. It’s okay to admit that values can’t be derived from facts — science is great, but it’s not the only thing in the world.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Philosophy, Science and Society
  • http://mychemicaljourney.blogspot.com The Chemist

    This isn’t a surprise to me. Sam Harris has been trying to skirt moral relativism for a while now. Come on over Harris! The water’s just fine over here on the deep end of intellectual discussion.

  • Sam Gralla

    You can’t convince a crackpot that relativity is right, and you can’t convince a neo-nazi that Hitler was a scumbag. But the vast majority agree relativity is right, and the vast majority agree Hitler was a scumbag. We make up phrases like “relativity is right” and “Hitler was a scumbag”; since most agree, we call these phrases “facts”.

    Where in your epistomology can you possibly distinguish between an “experiment”–which you say can produce objective facts–and everything else that might influence a person’s opinion, which you say can’t produce objective facts?

  • http://tsm2.blogspot.com wolfgang

    Sean,

    if you really believe in the many worlds interpretation, then you believe that the deterministic, unitary evolution of the wavefunction (of the universe) is all there is.
    There is nothing you can ‘decide’ or ‘change’ about anything.
    The placement of your personal experience in one of the possible worlds is nothing you can ‘control’ in any way.
    There is no debate between ought and is because is is all there is.

  • James Wilson

    You write:
    There are not objective moral truths (where “objective” means “existing independently of human invention)…

    I read this as suggesting that you are a moral relativist, i.e. you don’t believe in universal values, only in subjective opinions of morality. Is that correct? If so, how do you reconcile this position with the concept of international human rights? Consider, for example, campaigns against slavery and female genital mutilation, where these practices occur in traditional cultures which fully approve of them. More generally, this has been an issue impacting the advocacy of women’s rights in countries where traditional values oppose such rights. Are these values somehow “Western” and thus basically arbitrary? Or are they universal human rights, and not just a matter of opinion?

    James

  • Maximus

    I frankly don’t understand why we even have to spend time discussing what Sam Harris says. I mean, who is Sam Harris except an ignorant popularizer that got famous writing an angry book against issues that he himself barely understands? On what possile authority does TED invite him to talk about morality? Is he a scientist? Is he a philosopher? No, neither. (yes, fine he JUST got his PhD. So what? Has he had any significant impact on the scientific community yet? No).

    He’s achieved his popularity cunningly jumping on the new atheists bandwagon, and by being the most populist, ‘folksey’ and offensive of the lot. As a matter of fact, I find amazing that intelligent people like Dan Dennett (or Sean Carroll for that matters) agree to have their name associated with him.

    [mind you, I am not a creationist in disguise, I am as atheist as Harris is. I just find absurd that we give authority to an absolute no-one like Harris]

  • http://www.physics.ucsb.edu/~brewer/ Brendon J. Brewer

    Hi Sean, interesting comments here, but I mostly disagree with you. By the way, Sam is soliciting criticism of his talk over at http://www.samharris.org/ted_talk, so I’d suggest you link him to this post.

    Now, to the disagreement. It’s true that one will never be able to derive moral principles without making some assumptions, like axioms, at the base of everything. You are aware of this, stating “But what if I believe that the highest moral good is to be found in the autonomy of the individual, while you believe that the highest good is to maximize the utility of some societal group?” Clearly if you begin with different goals you will reach different conclusions about what are the most moral actions. And of course those conclusions should be informed by the facts of the matter – for example, there may be ways to enhance “the autonomy of the individual”, and if you’re wrong about what those ways are, then you will fail in your goal.

    But science is no different! Of course the Big Bang is based on facts, but it’s also an inductive generalization, and nothing in the facts tells us that any particular prediction of Big Bang theory is guaranteed to be right. At the base of science there are assumptions, for example, assumptions about how much confidence we should place in inductive generalisations. It’s mostly just an intuition, but that’s enough to get started, and we can make great progress once we stop worrying about the fact that our foundations are not absolutely set in stone. The foundations are solid enough to make progress, and we should not obsess too much over them. Your reaction to Sam’s talk seems to me to be equivalent to a radical sceptic thinking you’re wrong about the Big Bang because it’s impossible to have perfect knowledge.

    In ethics, I think the situation is much the same. Once you decide on a goal (for example, wanting conscious beings to be in more pleasant brain-states), the methods you should use for deciding what actions are moral are basically the methods of science. I see this as Sam Harris’s main important point, but there is another. Now, of course you could choose a different goal and then you would get different conclusions about what constitutes acting ethically. Here, I think Sam makes a second major point (that I also agree with): that wanting conscious beings to be in more pleasant brain-states is implicitly the goal of the vast majority of moral systems. Even religious ones: for example, a fundamentalist Christian who believes in a literal hell may be justified in quite radical acts here on Earth – and this would be right if it was expected to prevent future eternal suffering of conscious beings. The error here is scientific: the evidence for a literal hell is so weak that there almost certainly isn’t one. Also, people who advocate individual freedom, or strong communities, do so because they think it produces the best lives for people – not because it’s an end in itself.

    The foundations of ethics, and science, are not absolutely rock solid – but that’s okay. They’re solid enough to make progress. There is a place for intellectual hand-wringing about foundations, but that doesn’t mean that anything goes and that we may as well give up.

  • http://mychemicaljourney.blogspot.com The Chemist

    @James Wilson

    Ah, but there’s the rub! The short answer is, you can’t. It doesn’t mean it’s untrue. As a practical matter, you have to pretend that isn’t true in your day to day life, but moral relativism is inescapable. It’s kind of not a big deal, after all in our day to day lives we pretend that what we do in life matters- it doesn’t, but that doesn’t bother me.

  • Tom

    A clearly stated point. Facts are facts, observables are observables. How one feels about them, or what kind of behavior you think is desirable, what kind of outcomes you think are desirable, are entirely relative and up to the individual actor.

    Far more discussions would be easier to have if one were to clarify that your argument was over the best WAY to get somewhere, or over the best PLACE to get to (the second being entirely subjective).

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Brendon– I don’t think that’s a good analogy. As you say, we have to distinguish between choosing a goal and choosing the best way to get there. But when we do science we all basically agree on what the goals are — we want to find a concise, powerful explanation of the empirical facts we observe. Sure, someone can choose to disagree with those goals — but then they’re not doing science, they’re doing philosophy of science. Which is interesting in its own right, but not the same thing.

    When it comes to morality, there is nowhere near the unanimity of goals that there is in science. That’s not a minor quibble, that’s the crucial difference! If we all agreed on the goals, we would indeed expend our intellectual effort on the well-grounded program of figuring out how best to achieve those goals. That would be great, but it’s not the world in which we live.

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ Bee

    According to Leibniz, we live in the best of all possible worlds. Ergo, what is ought and what ought is.

  • http://www.physics.ucsb.edu/~brewer/ Brendon J. Brewer

    Sean – I think there is more agreement on goals than you might think. All we need to recognise is that some states of existence are better than others, and that’s enough.

    We may disagree about how we order the states, particularly when it comes to details, but sometimes it’s just obvious. For example, it’s better to live with a loving family than to be held captive by a psychopathic torturer.

    There will also be a lot of states that are equally as good as each other, as far as we can tell. That also doesn’t detract from my point.

  • abb3w

    Technically, what Harris is doing is pointing out that science can determine what IS the common element of all human OUGHT assessments. In that, he is correct.

    He then makes at least three errors thereafter: first, presuming that we OUGHT to use that as the primary bridge across the IS-OUGHT divide; second, neglecting to consider whether this common element is an exact expression, or merely a close approximation; and third, neglecting to consider whether this is a particular case of a more general problem.

    Attempts to derive ought from is are like attempts to reach an odd number by adding together even numbers.

    A closer comparison would be the production of an infinite ordinal by the addition of finite ordinals, because in a sense you CAN do that– the catch being, it requires being able to take an infinite ordinal number of steps in the first place. So, you can get an infinite ordinal… if you have an infinite ordinal. And when someone claims to have produced an infinite ordinal, you simply need to look for where the prior infinite ordinal was.

    However, the typical college graduate will find that a little obscure mathematically.

    It’s okay to admit that values can’t be derived from facts — science is great, but it’s not the only thing in the world.

    Exactly. Once you are playing around with what choices OUGHT to be made, it’s no longer science; it’s engineering.

  • http://pleion.blogspot.com Bjørn Østman

    it’s because we think they are exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering.

    I don’t think Harris is committing the is-ought fallacy here. He starts by assuming that we should alleviate suffering, and given that assumption he says science can then inform us of how to deal with that.

    I happen to agree with his assumption, but beyond that there is of course nothing but moral relativism.

  • http://www.physics.ucsb.edu/~brewer/ Brendon J. Brewer

    I’d also like to mention that I would be against trying to call this philosophy “objective morality”. It’s subjective – just like science – but subjective doesn’t mean capricious and unconstrained. :)

  • Gratex

    Harris’ ideas are based upon empirical evidence – that most people need to feel that their moral decisions are based upon some external authority (thus outsourcing their accountability), and as such we can attempt to assert a scientific authority if our goal is to squeeze some more people out of the Dark Ages. Does it further the ideals of the scientific method to have parishoners of science, though? I doubt it. One could say that Harris is so caught up in his little war against the nutters that he’s become one of them.

  • Lord

    You can’t derive ought from is, but most definitely what is affects what ought to be. What is not and can not be, can never be ought. Is informs ought.

  • eukaryote

    Experiential states of conscious beings are data. Those experiences are part of concrete reality, and they can be assesed as to their inherent goodness or badness. Experiential states of suffering are inherently bad. How else could we define bad?
    If we make those assumptions, that suffering is concretely real, and that it should be minimized, then I don’t see why such an endeavor could not take the form of a scientifc enterprise.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Harris has a tendency towards black and white thinking which is on full display here.

  • Leslie Haber

    Regardless of the logical and linguistic terms of the debate, Harris makes some very important points. First, he argues, impressively, that one person’s opinion may very well not be as informed, and therefore not as viable. Why does everyone have an equal voice in the call for ethical understanding? They shouldn’t.

    And secondly, while we do not have the full understanding of the consciousness and its functions, someday we will. That, as eukaryote notes, puts the realm of ethical behavior solidly in scientific territory.

    Unless we reframe the debate, we are lost in he said-she said, with an iron age book as our primary authority. Harris might not be absolutely correct, but the mere fact that he has started the discussion is valuable, and perhaps morally necessary.

  • http://www.caraleisa.com Carol Roper

    Hey Sean,

    Surprisingly to me, I disagree with you on this one.

    You said: In science, our judgments are ultimately grounded in data; when it comes to values we have no such recourse.

    I don’t agree here. We have lots of data which exemplifies assorted moral stances and I think we can most certainly make reasoned judgements based on them. Look at the blatantly obvious events like the Holocaust, Pol Pot, etc.

    You said: The unfortunate part of this is that Harris says a lot of true and interesting things, and threatens to undermine the power of his argument by insisting on the objectivity of moral judgments. There are not objective moral truths (where “objective” means “existing independently of human invention”), but there are real human beings with complex sets of preferences. What we call “morality” is an outgrowth of the interplay of those preferences with the world around us, and in particular with other human beings.

    I think it’s your qualification (where objective means existing independently of human invention) that seems to be the crux of the disagreement. If I thought that was correct, I’d agree 100% with you. It is patently absurd to presume an objective morality exists outside of human construct.

    But I don’t believe (at least I certainly didn’t hear it that way) that that is what Harris said at all, or even implied. Rather, I thought that his point was quite the opposite – that we can make objective moral analysis and decisions based on historical observation of situations and the obvious effects of those actions.

    I ‘heard’ his talk more as a reaction to the worn politically correct position that we have no right to judge anyone. Yes, it’s definitely a slippery slope when we engage in judging, but for humanity to progress, at some point we must pull up our pants and get to it.

    I believe there is considerable common ground throughout the world to do this. I don’t think it’s up to any individual, self-appointed group or self-nominated country to take on DOING anything about these questions, but a group representing all parts of the world (such as the concept of the UN) should indeed take this next step towards helping humanity. Yes, it’s a ‘goal’, but it is possible to conclude, via scientific methodology -(i.e. data analysis, for example) what has been considered by the majority to be ‘beneficial’ vs ‘harmful’ throughout human history, and subsequently, work to access the disclosed objective ‘beneficial’ for all. It’s scientific if one doesn’t preclude findings based on personal beliefs, but rather permits the data to speak for itself. Some obvious, objective goals that would likely emerge – elimination of pestilences and diseases, elimination of starvation, etc. We could also discover that what we believed would be a ‘benefit’ is not. Then we’d have a VERY subjective moral quandary!

    I didn’t understand Harris to be suggesting that the majority decide on who can marry, or dress codes, (though he was awfully miffed about the veils), but about the larger questions which, really ARE answerable using the scientific method. (In my non-scientist opinion. {grin})

    Or am I misunderstanding your objections?

  • http://guidetoreality.blogspot.com Steve Esser

    Hi Sean. I agree with Harris, and would put it this way. Morality and values are facts about first-person experiences of conscious creatures. So, right, they’re not completely “objective” on one reading of that term (i.e. objective=third-person facts). But I would contend that they are objective in relevant sense in that they are facts about nature, not opinions relative to a point of view. We can and should be able to investigate these experiences in the spirit of how science is conducted in other domains.

    The alternative is to cede first person experience as outside the domain of nature – that’s not what you mean to advocate, is it? I think there is a more general point here that restrictive views of naturalism (materialism) enable the persistance of old-fashioned dualisms and supernaturalisms.

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  • Paul Stankus

    To Maximus @ #5

    Maximus, I notice that you haven’t cited any actual facts or evidence in your denigration of Sam Harris. Why, exactly, should anyone believe your statements, or concur with your judgements, that Harris is “ignorant,” that “he himself barely understands” the issues he writes about, or that he’s a “an absolute no-one”? Not that I have any particular brief for Harris, myself; I’m just pointing out that you’ve added no value in condemning him without showing any evidence beyond your own (anonymous) authority.

    Without either waving credentials or citing authorities, can you take a moment to explain, in plain, non-circular, and passably non-technical language, what is the case against Harris’ writings?

  • Cody

    Wow, lots of good comments, and a very interesting and thought-provoking analysis Sean, thanks!

    I thought I agreed with Harris when I watched this the other day, but I didn’t pay close enough attention to know for sure. I agree with most of what you have written too Sean, as well as much of the comments here. Until I get home, and can re-watch Sam’s talk, I won’t really know if this is related to what he said or not.

    Anyway, here’s my two cents:
    As a moral relativist I figure the differences we have in morals are largely influenced by our environments, but from an evolutionary point of view there ought to be causal reasons why we tend to have the moral values that we have, and with that understanding we can make scientific statements about what morals people have (and why).

    I’ve been very interested (for quite some time now) in modeling the amount of cheating humans are willing to participate in by looking at a game theoretic model describing the cost and benefits of cooperation or defection. I imagine that a reasonably simple model could probably start to reproduce a society in which most people play by the rules, most of the time. This would be akin to describing the origin and dynamics of our morals nearly ab initio.

    I think the absolutist position I have developed with respect to my own moral relativism has provided me with a reflexive objection to any claim that science can provide us with morals, but when I consider how much science can tell us about our morals, where they came from, why we have them, and which ones we have and with what prevalence, etc., I begin to think maybe science does have a lot more to say about this… or at least more than I would have first suspected.

  • Maximus

    Paul, my tones were perhaps too harsh, but I was simply pointing out the fact that I find quite amazing that someone like Harris must be taken as an authority on matters of ‘religion and secularism’ and on morality simply because he happens to vociferously ride the ‘new-atheist’ movement. He has no academic nor intellectual credentials whatsoever. This is a very general observation, regardless of the content of his claims. As for his ideas, I personally believe that he repetedly made claims regarding ‘religions’ (whatever that means for him) which border the irresponsible, and are at least ‘scientifically’ ungrounded. The best possible debunking of the intellactual credibily of Harris came some years ago from anthropologist Scott Atran (ok I am perhaps citing an authority here, but in this context, and for sake of brevity since i happen to agree completely with Atran, I think it is reasonable to do it) see here: [http://www.edge.org/discourse/bb.html].
    Sean is right in saying that ‘morality’ is no science, but does that mean that we can give our time and attention (and hence implicitely invest with some sort of authority) to everyone that happens to have opinions about it?

  • Lagrange

    Hmm, I can’t agree on the video, but I can’t agree with you eighter.
    1) I think there is no absolute moral, or lets better say if there is an absolute moral, we can’t decide if we found it.
    2) In physics we have the mathematical tools which, in contrast to moral discussions, can really tell us if something works or something doesn’t. But experimental data, don’t lead to “absolute facts”. If we have a totally different “better” theory in 100 years, with total different variables and expressions, lets say a theory with no time and no fields, then we might interpret the same data radically different and then our theory will indicate to something totally different.
    In the end general relativity is “just” a theory. You are right if you say that someone denying the mathematical steps from data to predictions _within_ general relativiy lead to the big bang is a crackpot or at least stubborn.
    But even if I think GR is an absolutely lovely theory I don’t “believe” in the big bang. I don’t take it as a “fact” what so ever, meaning if someone comes up with a better idea with no contradictions, then I will not have a problem throwing that elephant “big bang” out of the window, since it’s only accesible within the theory which made it up.
    To cut a long story short: Since data is always just interpretet or searched for with reference to theories or ideas, there is no meaning of “scienticic fact” beyond a physical theory.

  • http://justenoughcraig.blogspot.com Craig, like the list

    So… you’re saying that it’s wrong to claim that some moral judgment is itself right or wrong in an objective sense. I assume, of course, that you recognize that your own argument against the moral objectivity of others is itself necessarily objective. (You’re not trying to claim that a judgment about a moral system is itself not a moral judgment, are you?)

    It’s impossible to argue for moral relativism on objective grounds. Any time you do so, you find yourself, as you have just now found yourself, trapped in a bottomless Gödelian pit of self-referentiality. You’re trying to claim that moral relativism is the only way to go, but really it turns out that meta-morals and meta-meta-morals and so on are all just as relative, and so the original claim (about moral relativism) can’t be made. So you’re left with only your intuition and feelings about the matter.

    This is to say that you may be right after all, but, on the other hand, you may be wrong. Consider the possibility that there _is_, in fact, an objective basis of measurement for moral systems: survival. That is, there might be a definite answer to the question: does one moral system promote a better chance for survival than another?–and the answer to this question may be a sufficient (though disagreeably objective) judgment about moral systems. Will some societal behaviors win out, given enough time, over other behaviors? If so then is this sufficient grounds for saying that the winning–surviving–moral system is, objectively, superior? I’ll leave you with the following two questions with the hope that they promote some more thinking about the matter:

    1. What’s the value of a moral system (as in a moral practice) that no longer exists?

    2. Are humans using moral systems for survival or are moral systems using humans for survival?

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Here, I think Sam makes a second major point (that I also agree with): that wanting conscious beings to be in more pleasant brain-states is implicitly the goal of the vast majority of moral systems

    Kill most of them painlessly and inject the rest with pleasure-inducing narcotics. This produces more pleasant brain-states than any other system that I know of. But this is not the goal of any moral system that I know of.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Moral relativism is a empirical observable fact – if not different people, then different cultures have observably different morals.

    The moral absolutist seems to be saying that empirical reality is immoral.

  • Gordon

    Maximus: I find it disingenuous when you say you are as atheist as Harris. I suspect you are a stealth believer. Harris’ books are not very dissimilar to Hitchens’ or Dawkins’. Also, why must someone have a string of academic credentials to talk about superstition like religion or about morality? This is simple elitism and snobbery. Hitchens isn’t an academic either. What do you think of his books?

  • Neal J. King

    I agree with Sean: Science has nothing to do with “ought”.

    Hitler was a scumbag (to say the least).

    But none of his actions were in violation of the laws of physics.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Consider a cookbook? The recipes tell you how to prepare some item of a cuisine. But is there anything normative – are there any “OUGHT assessments” in it? If you put in some extra spice or throw in a different vegetable in the pot than the recipe calls for, have you violated any “OUGHT”? However, if you deviate from the guidelines too much you will likely end up with something undesirable. So there are cookbook non-normative ethics.

    Now imagine a culture whose “religious books” resemble the cookbook more than they do anything with “OUGHT assessments” – they have recipes for living. In fact, because their books that religionists identify as “religious” contain no “OUGHTs” Christian missionaries think that they are an utterly immoral culture.

    There is a line of thinking out there that such non-normative ethics is what ancient India had.

    Take a flight of imagination and even if this is not what ancient India had, imagine an extra-terrestrial culture with such a way of life.

    And then realize that the morality talked about in the essay above is just one part of experience. There are other ways of conceiving of the world, and dealing with it.

  • http://lablemming.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    Can’t science at least determine whether a particular moral stance is compatible with the physical world? For example, a moral stance that demands that everyone live in a mansion on a tropical island is incompatible with Earth’s geography, or a moral stance that precludes the eating of all living life-forms is incompatible with human dietary requirements.

    So science may not be able to say whether a particular morality is right, but it can show that some are dumb.

  • http://www.russellblackford.com Russell Blackford

    Yeah, Sean, I agree with you. Maybe you go too far in the degree to which you think it undermined the whole talk, but it certainly got the talk off to a bad start. He opened a can of worms that could have been kept shut. If this idea of values as facts of a kind is going to be central to argument of the new book, that will be unfortunate.

    I blogged on this yesterday, over here: http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2010/03/sam-harris-on-science-and-morality.html

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I’ve wondered for a long time if our apparently innate tendency to develop a sense of moral outrage was somehow shaped by selective pressures over the ages. From this one might conclude that morally outrageous things are likely to either be or resemble practices that are objectively dangerous or otherwise maladaptive. So, while it will always be impossible to elevate moral outrage to the level of some cosmic recognition of “right” and “wrong”, it might be possible to demonstrate its utility in many circumstances, at least in terms of adaptivity. It’s also valid, I think, to acknowledge the impact of emotions and to give some deference to our compulsion to minimize pain and grief. That’s about the strongest argument for morality I can come up with…which, I’m frustrated to say, makes me feel immoral.

  • DamnYankees

    Sean, I think you miss the point here. Let me quote this part:

    “That doesn’t mean we should care about their suffering or happiness; it doesn’t imply anything at all about morality, how we ought to feel, or how to draw the line between right and wrong.”

    Here I think you simply miss what Harris is saying. He’s not saying we *should* care about insects or happiness – he is simply saying that we *do*. It’s a fact of nature. It’s how we work as biological, sapient creatures. Harris makes the point that there simply *is* a connection between what we call morality and human consciousness: moral choices are geared towards avoiding the awareness of suffering, whether it be in this world or the next. This isn’t a philosophy he is espousing, but rather an observation of how the world works.

    I find the analogy to eating to be a useful one.

    I think the best way to understand this is to analogize it, like Harris does in the video, to eating.

    When we are hungry, we have a certain feeling. And we don’t always have a hunger for the exact same thing; sometimes we prefer soup, sometimes bread, sometimes Little Debbie’s. And so, how do we decide what the right thing to eat is? Well, at the margins it might be a little difficult, but we can certainly set up some general rules based on our brains and biological makeup: grains are probably a good idea, molten tar notsomuch. Hunger is just a feeling we have, but it is explainable by biology, and it maps to brain states, and we can set up some pretty solid rules governing how it works.

    Same thing with morality. It’s a feeling we have, a desire to do one thing in favor of another. And it’s a function of our biology and our brains. And just like we learn more about what a good nutritional choice is by studying the matter scientifically (tobacco isn’t really that good, for example), we can do the same with moral choices. Just because some people disagree doesn’t really mean anything; you can be an abberation who loves to eat dirt. We just recognize it as objectively irregular and damaging. Same with morality.

  • Ger

    This might be a bit random, but it occurs to me that “you can’t get OUGHT from IS” would also seem to apply to religionists who insist that a moral sense can ONLY come from a belief in God (therefore atheists are without morals, I suppose).

    By the reasoning of Hume, at least as narrowly described for the purposes of this article, belief that God IS real cannot be sufficient to tell us what OUGHT to be. I guess this is why there is a need for holy texts, which can be claimed as the divinely-inspired final word on morality.

  • http://www.physics.ucsb.edu/~brewer/ Brendon Brewer

    “Kill most of them painlessly and inject the rest with pleasure-inducing narcotics. This produces more pleasant brain-states than any other system that I know of. But this is not the goal of any moral system that I know of.”

    Nice reductio ad absurdum. Obviously any practical implementation of this would be a disaster, but I find it hard to see why, if one could magically flip a switch and make it all happen, that would in fact be immoral.

  • http://www.flamencoandarabicpop.com Adam Solomon

    Ahhh! Sean! Don’t put your epistemology ahead of your metaphysics. It makes me so sad.

    My objections (well, some of them) are along the lines of Brendon’s above, and I don’t think your response to him quite did them justice. You essentially dismissed the analogy between science and morality (physics and metaphysics, say) by saying that we agree a lot more on the basic foundations of science than we do on those of morality. Sure, that’s true, but clearly that’s not a fundamental difference between the two. The fact remains that there are plenty of assumptions – the validity of reason, inductive logic, trust in our senses, not being a solipsist, and the like – which go into getting out truth claims from science. The first principles are there in science just as in morality.

    I see a contradiction in the way you treat the two. With the principles behind getting truth in science, you sweep the epistemological objections under the rug, essentially because a) they seem pretty obvious and b) everybody but crazy people agrees on them. But when it comes to the principles behind moral truth, you take the complete opposite tack and make the epistemology sacrosanct over the metaphysics; since we can’t measure moral truths with data, moral truth cannot exist. That’s a ridiculously strong claim and one that I haven’t seen a proper defense of, especially considering you implicitly take the opposite approach to the analogous problem in physics.

    A concrete example may help. It might be a terrible example but it’s the first that comes to mind. Most everyone agrees, despite all other moral squabbling, in something like the sanctity of life, that murder is bad. Most everyone also agrees that observation is a valid way of deducing physical truths. Both of these are principles which technically can’t be proven, only shown to be very useful and to be widely believed. But it seems you’d treat the former as something subjective and the latter as objective. What’s the difference between them?

  • http://www.flamencoandarabicpop.com Adam Solomon

    Take that comment, by the way, as an argument for the possibility of moral truth (as well as other metaphysical truths), not an argument for its existence. By accepting the principles behind science, you accept the existence of a physical realm (the alternative being solipsism). I think we’re both fine with that. By accepting certain moral principles, you accept the existence of a non-physical moral “realm” (the alternative being relativism). It’s possible that this doesn’t exist, it’s possible that it does. I’m still trying to work through that myself, though I’m having trouble bringing myself to categorically reject a non-physical reality like the moral one (as you do) if I accept (as I do) the objective reality of mathematics. That seems to open doors which I have difficulty closing.

  • Dan

    Sam is not trying to say that science can tell us what values to have. He is saying that once we agree on what we value (healthy emotional development in our children, thriving social communities, or what kinds of animal suffering are intolerable), we can use science to inform the decisions we make in attempting to service those values. If we both agree that we value living creatures be spared from suffering, and science shows that primates are capable of greater suffering than insects, we therefore should both agree that primates are more deserving of our concern than are insects.

  • Cody

    I think we might be using the concept of morals in two different ways; first, to mean right and wrong, how we should behave, etc. (which we moral relativists would all agree means have no objective reality to them, in spite of the historical consensus).

    And second, the specific properties of behavior that belong to a species, shaped over millions of years of evolution both physically and socially, combined with an environment for which the rules can be interpreted. Couldn’t we say that ants have a moral code? And couldn’t we understand ant morals in terms of modeling ant behavior and looking for solutions that lead to optimal evolutionary success?

  • Jason Dick

    Well, while there are large areas of disagreement in moral values, there are also broad areas of strong agreement. And it seems that the broad areas of agreement often tend to be more general, fundamental rules, which means that we can plant a stake in these rules that we agree upon and use science to determine whether or not other rules are consistent with them.

    For instance, one rule that most people agree upon is that we should, by default, be nice. We should only be unkind to others when they have done something immoral, or in order to prevent greater harm to them.

    Now, various groups have managed to usurp these rules by adding other ones. For instance, a rule that can easily usurp, “Be kind by default,” is, “The only moral person is a member of .” If a person really and truly believes that members outside of their narrow group are immoral, which can often be empirically tested within the person’s other beliefs, then they no longer feel a need to by default act kind to people outside their narrow group.

    This sort of assault on facts is often what happens in moral disagreements: a minority community is, for instance, accused of all sorts of moral evils (such as drinking blood in the case of Jews). This is, I claim, because if we all agreed upon the facts of most any moral dispute, we would, by large, agree upon the proper course of action. Not always, mind you: our own built-in morality doesn’t necessarily cover every possible aspect of modern interactions. But usually there is no difficulty in coming to moral agreement once factual agreement has been reached.

  • Chris

    “Dan Says:

    Sam is not trying to say that science can tell us what values to have. He is saying that once we agree on what we value (healthy emotional development in our children, thriving social communities, or what kinds of animal suffering are intolerable), we can use science to inform the decisions we make in attempting to service those values. ”

    This can’t be all that Sam is saying. You surely don’t think Sam’s great news was simply that science might be useful in helping us to decide how to achieve agreed goals.?

    Hardly an innovationary idea.

  • Tony V

    Along similar lines, one could ask: Does the scientist engage in science entirely for personal gain, self-gratification, and furtherance of “career”, or, Does the scientist engage in his her craft for the betterment of society at large?
    Or,
    Is there a common thread of seeking “Knowledge for the sake of Knowledge” or “Creativity for the sake of Creativity” that seems to underlie science, metaphysics, theology and virtually any individual or social endeavor?
    In the latter case, one could easily argue that all human activity, when done under the belief that human effort has any sort of meaning or “purpose”, is simply just another form of religion with “Knowledge” as its god.
    All humans become Cartesian dualists the day they learn to speak their first words. And they spend the rest of their lives talking past each other. It is the unavoidable “human condition”.

  • blueshifter

    I know people that crave to be tortured. Others that crave torturing. Plenty of Hitler and murder fans. A minority to be sure, but they exist, you can’t deny them. Trying to find moral axioms in H. sapiens is a fool’s errand. I’m with Team Sean on this one.

  • DamnYankees

    “I know people that crave to be tortured. Others that crave torturing. Plenty of Hitler and murder fans. A minority to be sure, but they exist, you can’t deny them. Trying to find moral axioms in H. sapiens is a fool’s errand. I’m with Team Sean on this one.”

    I know people who like chocolate. Others hate it. Plenty of vanilla and strawberry fans. A minority, to be sure, but they exist, you can’t deny them. Trying to find nutritional axioms in H sapiens is a fool’s errand.

    Do you see how silly that sounds?

  • Andrew Ryan

    DamnYankees: “I know people who like chocolate. Others hate it. Plenty of vanilla and strawberry fans. A minority, to be sure, but they exist, you can’t deny them. Trying to find nutritional axioms in H sapiens is a fool’s errand.”

    Your analogy doesn’t work because liking chocolate or vanilla has nothing to do with their nutritional values. You CAN make objective statements about their nutritional value. The fact that we can’t make objective statements about which is nicer means that your analogy supports rather than refutes blueshifter’s post.

  • DamnYankees

    “Your analogy doesn’t work because liking chocolate or vanilla has nothing to do with their nutritional values. You CAN make objective statements about their nutritional value. The fact that we can’t make objective statements about which is nicer means that your analogy supports rather than refutes blueshifter’s post.”

    My post was sarcasm. Of course we can make objective claims about their nutritional value. The same with morality.

    I was trying to express the point that just because people have subjective disagreements over preferences, that doesn’t mean the field we are talking about has no objective, factual claims to be made.

  • Pingback: Sam Harris: Science Can Answer Moral Questions | Open Culture

  • Andrew Ryan

    Yeah DamnYankees, I got that your post was sarcastic. But your analogy struck me as a strawman of blueshifter’s point. Liking vanilla/chocolate was supposed to be analogous to liking or disliking torture. Making a jump from the preference to the nutritional value seemed to be a non sequitur in a way that blueshifter’s post wasn’t.

    So what was your ‘nutritional value of vanilla’ analogous to? We can calculate the nutritional value of food in an objective fashion. What in ‘craving torture’ can we objectively evaluate? What are the objective, factual claims one can make about it?

  • DamnYankees

    “What in ‘craving torture’ can we objectively evaluate?”

    The effects is has on our biology and brain state. That’s what Harris is saying. So we take a huge population of people and we test them all about their biological and neurological reaction to a moral situation. We can then detect patterns.

    I’m not sure why this is less measurable than nutrition. We can take “ingestion of honey” and “ingestion of tar” and based on that make scientific claims about which is more suitable for human nutrition. Whether or not you can actually find individuals who prefer tar isn’t really relevant; we aren’t trying to come up with blanket rules that apply to every single human, but rather we are trying to detect patters in our biology which connect “the feeling of hunger and eating” to objective scientific facts about how humans work.

    Same with morality. Whether a minority of people like a certain action (like torture) doesn’t mean much. Exceptions are allowed. Rather, we are trying to detect patterns in our biology which connect “the feeling of morality” to objective scientific facts about how humans work.

    Harris makes the point that at the margins it will be hard to really detect which is more suitable to humans. So just like it’s hard to make any definitive statement about chocolate v. vanilla, we can still say a pretty firm statement about chocolate v. mercury. Same with morality: donating time v. donating money? Maybe too indistinct to really make a strong claim. Donating time v. mutilating children? We can probably find a pretty solid pattern of predictability for that one.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Point taken.

    But how do you get to an evaluation of what is BETTER or worse, what is more moral, just from how our brains react to them? Again, it seems to be deriving an ought from an is. We can predict how people’s brains will react to viewing a child being tortured – what does this tell us about morality? A few hundred years ago a large number of people would have no negative neurological reaction to slavery, possibly even the majority.

  • DamnYankees

    “But how do you get to an evaluation of what is BETTER or worse”

    By empirically testing what people actually prefer.

    “Again, it seems to be deriving an ought from an is.”

    I think it’s more than Harris is simply rejecting the distinction. What Harris is saying is that the content of “ought” is “that which avoids suffering”. For so long we have actually kept the two apart, that the idea of folding one into the other is seen as silly.

    But this is Harris’ whoe point! That “ought” is just a certain kind of “is”. To say someone “ought” to do soemthing is to say that that person “is doing something which will avoid the awareness of suffering” (that’s a simplified way of saying it, of course).

    I think a big part of this problem is that almost no one can actually define the word “ought”. It’s really hard. Harris is supplying a definition for the word which relates morality to consciousness. And thus, the better we get at objectively understanding concsiousness, the more we will understand the objective contents of morality.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Testing what people prefer doesn’t help the fact that a while back, lots of people preferred that they should be allowed to keep slaves. Homosexuality was illegal in Britain for decades, based on public preference. Does that make slavery and illegal homosexuality legal?

    “What Harris is saying is that the content of “ought” is “that which avoids suffering””

    And someone else might have a completely different idea of what ‘ought’ to be.

  • DamnYankees

    “Does that make slavery and illegal homosexuality legal?”

    Well factually, they were. I’m not sure what you are asking. Morality and law are contextual, so of course.

    “And someone else might have a completely different idea of what ‘ought’ to be.”

    So? Let them go out and defend it. One of the best sentences Sean ever wrote was when the said “definitions are not right or wrong; definitions are useful or useless.”

    Harris’ is putting forward a definition of “ought” which is open to testing, open to science, and can (in theory) produce predictable results. Anyone can propose any definition they want for any word, but the test of a good definition is how useful it is. The definition Harris puts forward is a useful one, to me. Many other definitions of “ought” seem to be intentionally useless, a talisman used to force an avoidance of actually discussing the issue.

  • keddaw

    Just to be pedantic:

    Is existed before an ought, therefore ought must have come from an is.

    There is also an interesting idea that torturing someone is wrong… unless you know that they have had their pain and pleasure receptors swapped round. Does this mean that it is always the result that determines if something is right or wrong? Does the end justify the means?

    None of which changes the fact Sam Harris makes an assumption and then says science can prove that assumption… by making another assumption*.

    It’s all judgement calls and the fear I have from Sam’s talk is that he believes the majority’s judgement should not just carry the day, but is objectively right!

    * To paraphrase: It’s assumptions all the way down.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “Does that make slavery and illegal homosexuality legal?”
    Sorry, meant to say “does that make them MORAL”.

    “One of the best sentences Sean ever wrote was when the said “definitions are not right or wrong; definitions are useful or useless.””

    Yes, that makes a lot of sense to me. Ought is perhaps a word like ‘natural’ that can have so many meanings that it becomes useless. Is there anything one cannot argue is somehow ‘natural’, if one doesn’t define the word tightly enough?

  • http://www.7duniverse.com Samuel A. (Sam) Cox

    I studied Harris’s presentation. He was very interesting to listen to, if somewhat rambling. I thought his jokes were funny. Apart from that, the idea of using science to establish the location of a kind of moral middle ground is interesting, but well, I’ll think about it…

    I remember when I was a kid, asking my uncle if people were really animals; surely we were a “cut” above the beasts of the field? The idea that people were animals really upset me…and my uncle could sense my upsetment! He reassured me by telling me that people were indeed “something special”.

    I still believe people are “something special” just as each species and kind of plant and animal is “special”. However, we like everything else organic are products of the universe.

    The universe is a servomechanism kind of affair…it is self-correcting. 99% of all species of living things are currently extinct. There have been times in the history of mankind when our existence as a species hung on the fate of no more than 50,000 individuals.

    The instinct to survive is very primal and is related to the individuals quest for power within a society. The elemental needs of humans could be counted on the fingers of two hands. However the way we go about satisfying those needs is determined in large measure by the way we are raised (our family values) and our cultural outlook.

    Humans are tribal and territorial. We ARE animals and our politics and cultural response are only modified “Baboon troop psycho-sexual dynamics”…pushing and shoving- one way or another…and in the end establishing a social hierarchy with alpha individuals (not necessarily the most intelligent, but the most powerful and, for many reasons, attractive or threatening) dominating the masses.

    My observation is that what is rational is not of primary importance in human society, so it is hard for me to understand why Harris seriously thinks being scientific and rational has any real potential in evaluating and modifying human societies.

    We laughingly joke that people vote their pocketbooks, but of course they do. It is very hard to be humorous (Harris tried) about the exremes male humans go to to protect their women from the amorous eyes -and actions- of competitors.

    It is much easier to see the problems of society from outside- from a distant vantage-point. Folks who are raised and live inside a society all their lives, may question, but must conform. More well traveled people, see the advantages of other outlooks, but must not make the mistake of believing that because things are different and subjectively better somewhere else, that changing a society is easier, or that education and science would affect social attitudes.

    Human nature has a very nasty streak. Attempts to change the status quo in any society are (correctly) perceived as a threat to the well-being of established menbers of that society. Human societies tend to develop institutions, and whether those institutions are rationsl is not important-they are very difficult to change. When institutions do change, the change is usually glacial.

    Finally, people in one society are often blind to the abuses of their own society, but are very critical of the abuses they find in other countries. For example, Americans practice infanticide, but are incensed by women wearing burka’s elsewhere. While Hitler was exterminating Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals, American’s in the name of “science” practiced eugenics. In hind-sight, we now know that eugenics was a deplorable practice…what Hitler did was just a horrible, and insanely logical extension of what we practiced in this country for years.

    The most important thing to remember, I beleive, is that the sudden abrupt change of any human society usually causes more problems than are solved…the society is less stable and “safe”, at least for a while. For that reason, playing “Dudley do right” and meddling in the internal affairs of other nations and social groups is seldom really in the best interests of any nation. However, sometimes societies are so brutal, a case CAN be made for a just war of liberation.

    The current involvement of the USA in south Asia, however is basically retaliation. Had 9/11 not happened, Iraq and Afganistan would not have happened either. Still, by intervening in the affairs of those countries, the US has created some serious and persistant problems for those countries, the region and of course ourselves.

    Emotion and instinct, which with environmental adaption, drive human cultural response, have a kind of reason or logic “all their own” but the connection is difficult to scientifically unravel. I liked Harris’s use of the word “fact”. Yes, burkas are a fact of life in parts of the middle east, but personally the way Harris throws “facts” around makes me nervous!

  • DamnYankees

    “Sorry, meant to say “does that make them MORAL”.”

    Ah. Well in that case, remember Harris’ idea of a moral landscape. When you ask if something is moral, it’s always in comparison to something else. The question is always can we find a better peak on the landscape to move to?

    To ask if something is “moral” is to ask two different things: first, is it a net positive or a net negative, and secondly, how does it compare to the alternatives? There’s no blanket answer. Every moral question has it’s own unique answers.

  • Tony V

    Saying that no moral axioms can exist is, itself, an axiom. Saying that morality boils down to individual cravings, is equally an axiomatic assertion.
    Axioms aren’t truths – they are consensually agreed upon definitions selected as a starting point for human created logics. What humans generally agree upon as “truths” are really just logical inferences entirely dependent upon a chosen brand of logic.
    Axioms are inherently metaphysical – they are the products of essentially inductive reasoning that serve as a foundation for certain systems of deductive reasoning. And Godel et al. have shown that this inductive/deductive alternation is an infinite progression, regardless of vector.
    One could argue that the existence of Hitler served as a positive force toward the rapid advancement of technology or as a motivation for a reunification of Judaism in the rec-creation of an Israeli State. But then one could argue that those advancements that seemed like great things at the time are responsible for a vast majority of today’s global problems.
    So you see, moral judgement really boils down to a pattern not unlike the propogation of an electromagnetic wave. It alternates.
    In that respect, perhaps science does have something worthwhile to say toward moral judgement. Science can verify the relativity of it all and demonstrates that value judgements are sufficiently and necessarily derived from that relativity.
    Like the Talking Heads surmised, ” Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens “. So perhaps this thing we call reality is simply a vacation spot that necessarily emerged in order for consciousness to get away from the boring linear redundancy of “heaven”.
    (please excuse the metaphors…I just couldn’t resist)

  • Andrew Ryan

    In fact I’ve had an argument many times with Christian apologists when they say ‘without God, how can you say that Hitler was objectively more evil than Mother Theresa?’.

    Leaving aside the assumption that the latter was a paragon of virtue, my answer generally echoes Sean’s sentiment: the word evil describes a concept that is useful to humans, and can be understand easily without reference to a deity. I ask them if they think one could describe a person as being ‘objectively more dangerous’ than another person.

    Then I ask whether they think it might be useful to have a word to differentiate a person who is intentionally dangerous to other people, from, say someone who carries and infectious disease. No-one has been able to argue a ‘no’ for either question.

    That’s my explanation for why Hitler is more evil that Mother Theresa. Someone else is welcome to offer me a definition of evil that is such that Mother Theresa is judged more evil that Hitler. Just like someone is welcome to give me a definition of ‘best movie’ that allows for Porkys 3 to be superior to Citizen Kane. Perhaps by they judge a film’s quality purely on its nudity content. No problem in someone doing that. But it’s not a definition that will prove particularly useful to them when talking to many other people.

  • http://eternal-cartesian.blogspot.com/ Cartesian

    For homosexuality this is not as simple as some persons do think. Thus some things as the one of pheromones imply that there is normally in a natural way an attraction of a sex by the other in the species which are composed of two sexes. This way the instinctive identification of the opposite sex is justified, but as for the identification of tastes this can be more or less strong, even reversed ; what does imply different types of homosexuality, there is even those who have a normal instinct, but want to do an experiment as the one of tobacco or alcohol. And this is because homosexuality is not so simple, that it is hard to give some possibilities to homosexuals (like the marriage), because they are influencing some in the bad direction, when these have the choice ; and it is a trap because it is hard to leave homosexuality, because this is with two persons, and the pressure of the other on your life can stay and be very heavy, when you want the others to forget it. Finally do not imagine too much things : my instinct is working very well and my curiosity has some limits.

  • keddaw

    @DamnYankees
    Even if Harris is right about the well-being of conscious creatures, there is still a massive judgement call to be made before moving to a higher peak, that being that is involves moving down from the one you are on and across the plateau before climbing another one.

    Or have I taken his metaphor too far?

    But he’s not right The well-being of conscious creatures can be superseded by principles that go above simple well-being. Things like knowledge, freedom, reality. I’d rather be knowledgeable and miserable than play along with ignorance is bliss.

  • DamnYankees

    “Even if Harris is right about the well-being of conscious creatures, there is still a massive judgement call to be made before moving to a higher peak, that being that is involves moving down from the one you are on and across the plateau before climbing another one.”

    He doesn’t address this, but I actually think its right. There are transaction costs in moving from one peak to another. The deeper the valley, the more costly. You’d need to come up with a model for explaining under what circumstances we move from one peak to another.

    “I’d rather be knowledgeable and miserable than play along with ignorance is bliss.”

    There are 2 responses to this:

    1) This is actually non-sensical. The fact that you would choose knowledge over ignorance is because you find knowledge to give you more satisfaction than ignorance. So your claim here is somewhat paradoxical.

    2) You’re moral sense is broken. I don’t mean this in any offensive way, just in an evolutionary way. Remember we are biological machines, and evolution has built us imperfectly. This is just one of the cul-de-sacs we run into where we are fundamentally irrational. The issue at hand isn’t whether or not your desire here is good or bad, but whether it is predictably correlated to your biology and brain states, and thus open to objective scientific inquiry.

  • keddaw

    1) It’s not a paradox. If I was given the choice between knowing an asteroid was likely to hit earth tomorrow or not I would choose to know and that knowledge would give me little-to-know (*cough*) satisfaction.

    2) You’re damn right my evolutionary moral sense is broken. Not to mention our evolutionary morality is self-contradictory, I highly recommend looking at The Trolley Problem to see that there are multiple regions of the brain that have differing moral preferences.

    In fact, putting 1 and 2 together I think that we can see the rational(ish) modern brain does have a requirement for knowledge (not that knowledge gives it satisfaction!) that has been proven evolution to have an advantage. The modern part of the brain has most control over the acts and desires of the body, thus the older parts of the brain, the parts with most pleasure, are held in check, often to the detriment of our overall satisfaction.

    Otherwise we’d all be crazy fat eating sweet things all the time, and some other base instincts that I decided to remove…

  • DamnYankees

    “It’s not a paradox. If I was given the choice between knowing an asteroid was likely to hit earth tomorrow or not I would choose to know and that knowledge would give me little to know satisfaction.”

    Yes it would. Because knowledge is innately satisfactory to you, moreso than ignorance. This is the unfalsifiability of rational choice theory. I’m not saying I buy it, but it’s an argument.

  • keddaw

    Either way, all you can say is that it is my preference. You might be able to show, using brain scans, why that is my preference, or why I prefer green to blue, but unlike Mr Harris claims, you cannot say that I should prefer one over the other.

  • Coriolis

    Harris may well be wrong on his argument (seems like he is), but I do think science has far more to do with morality then most people (even scientists) are willing to admit.

    At the end of the day, relatively few real-world arguments are ones where all sides agree on the facts and there is only an argument about value judgments. Many disagreements over let’s say effect y (good or bad) are primarily about whether x action would really lead to y effect, or what the causes of y effect are, etc. I.e. there is broad agreement in the US that people should not be discriminated based upon race, gender, etc. But there is no broad agreement on whether affirmative action is necessary or unnecessary, whether the low proportion of women in science is due to discrimination or in some sense “natural”, etc.

    It is true that science cannot tell us that discriminating against people is wrong. But it can tell us whether people are still being discriminated against, what actions lead to more or less discrimination, etc. It’s not easy to do of course, and it’s not nearly as clean cut as physics but it’s possible at least to some degree. And if you can show clearly what the effects of your actions are, morals become much easier to agree upon.

  • DamnYankees

    “but unlike Mr Harris claims, you cannot say that I should prefer one over the other.”

    Actually you can. Because once you know one preference, you can very easily suggest another.

    If you tell me “i like chocolate and not vanilla”, I can then tell you what flavor of ice cream you should prefer, and I will probably be extremely accurate in my prediction.

    Similarly for morality, if we can dig deep to figure out, biologically, what moral choices are pleasing to you, we can then tell you what choices you should make morally. And there’s no philosophy there at all; it simply applying a scientifically tested model (your moral preferences) to specific situations. It’s a form of scientific prediction, no different than recommending a certain kind of medicine.

    What Harris postulates, and what I agree with, is that as human being we are biologically programmed for certain kinds of moral preferences. The way Harris puts it is that we make moral choices in a manner consistent with the avoidance of conscious suffering and towards conscious pleasure. We don’t need to advocate for them, any more than you need to advocate “eat when you are hungry” – they are simply built into us. And the challenge is to build a thorough biological model of those preferences which we can then apply to specific situations.

  • keddaw

    Coriolis, try doing economics…

    “At the end of the day, almost all real-world arguments are ones where all sides more or less agree on the facts* and there is only an argument about value judgments.”

    Fixed by an economist.

    *Facts are in the eye of the beholder in economics.

  • piero

    The issues at hand are very complex indeed, and I don’t think I’m qualified to make a substantial contribution. Nevertheless, there are some things that need mention.

    For a start, Maximus should either offer a reasoned critique of Harris’s arguments or shut up. We are discussing issues, not academic qualifications or any such rot.

    “You can’t derive an ought from an is” is, IMHO, bullshit. There are objective facts about our biology (and I include our psychological make-up here) that compel us to embrace certain attitudes and shun others. As Alonzo Fyfe has put it, “desires are the only reasons for action that exist” (atheistethicist.blogspot.com). I believe we can agree that any statement concerning ethics has to start from the recognition that human beings act in order to bring about a state in which their desires are satisfied.

    So we have a multitude of agents, each motivated by his/her own desires, and a successful ethical theory would be one that minimizes the amount of desires that are thwarted.

    Some of our desires are rigid, as in the case of hunger, thirst, sexual attraction, etc. There is nothing we can do to modify them. So any ethical theory has to make sure that those desires are not thwarted.

    Soem desires can be modified, or superseded by a stronger desire. For example, my desire to smoke may be superseded by my desire to be healthy. Those are malleable desires, and can be influenced by society through rewards and punishments.

    Why should I care whether other people’s desires are thwarted or satisfied? Because in a society that endeavours to avoid desires being thwarted, my own desires run less of a risk of being thwarted too. For example, is wanting to kill my mother-in-law a good desire? No, because it leads to a radical thwarting of my mother-in-law’s desires, and if that’s acceptable to society, who is going to guarantee that my desires are not similarly thwarted?

    So I believe morality is a scientific issue. Genital mutilation is definitely wrong, homophobia is definitely wrong, greed is definitely wrong, and moral relativism is a sad excuse for spinelessness.

  • piero

    Sorry, I’ve just realized that Brendon and DamnYankees have already made more or less the same points.

  • Matt

    I know of only one moral imperative that can be applied without running into the kind of logical contradictions (mainly reductio ad absurdum) that prove them to be purely subjective.

    Here it is:

    “All sapient conscious beings are free to do as they please, unless that freedom impinges upon the freedom of another sapient conscious being”

    This could also be just a subjective opinion, but it’s ability to be applied without contradiction singles it out as a *possible* objective rule. To *actually* be an objective moral imperative, it would have to be tied to the workings of the universe in the same way as the laws of physics.

    his, although seemingly unlikely, and certainly unevidenced in any way whatsoever… is not impossible. I just don’t have the time to go into it.

    *chuckle*

  • piero

    Matt, I see one problem with your proposed imperative, namely the definition of “freedom”. For instance, ist it OK for Bill Gates to possess 50 billion dollars and for a single mother in New Orleans to earn 5000 a year? Is the extreme accumulation of wealth a sign of a free society, or is it the mark of economic dictatorship? We know that it is impossible for everybody to be wealthy simultaneously, so is the “freedom” you enjoy under capitalism really “freedom”?

    I believe a desire-based approach is less prone to ambiguities of this kind.

  • HosL

    As much as I am a fan of Dr Carroll, I have do disagree.
    Look at anthropogenic climate change, for instance. Those who are opposed to any action being taken (due to commercial interests or political allegiances) universally claim it doesn’t exist. It is hard to argue that many species are going to disappear, island and coastal regions are going to get flooded, tropical diseases are going to spread, and sources of fresh water will be stretched thin-and yet suggest nothing should be done. (If you ever meet any such people let me know).
    PS “From eternity to here” is a great book. I am finishing it now.

  • Coriolis

    Keddaw just because economics (and most of social science) isn’t nearly as clear as physics, doesn’t mean it cannot be improved. Even in economics which has crashed and burned spectacularly there is some decent work and imrovement.

    There will always be some things that will not be fully explained, but the same is true for natural science. Social science has always been and probably always will be far more problematic then hard science when it comes to clear predictions, but that’s not to say that we haven’t learned a few things.

    And this isn’t a problem for social science only in any case. As HosL says, most people who are against global warming are against it not because of a “value” judgment, but because they don’t believe in it.

  • SteveN

    Andrew Ryan (#62): “my answer generally echoes Sean’s sentiment: the word evil describes a concept that is useful to humans…” Andrew, if you concede this, that is, if you believe that “evil” is a useful concept, you seem to be suggesting that “evil” is at least recognizable. If so, why not use this as a basis of what behavior to condemn (i.e., “ought not’). Also, here’s a question that can be addressed scientifically: “bad” stuff like slavery, torture, the murderous exploitation of vulnerable groups, etc., are pretty much universally condemned today, i.e., regarded as “evil” in today’s world, while this was not so many generations ago. What is it about the evolution of our species that has caused this change to happen? It seems to me that the answer to this question is related to Sam Harris’s suggestion that objective “criteria” for condemning at least some types of behavior may not be a futile exercise and may in fact have actual value (in a sense perhaps yet to be determined) for the human species.

  • Moridin

    The notion that you somehow cannot, even in principle, derive an “ought” from an “is” is pimped up superstition. We all, especially scientists, derive “ought” from “is” all the time, and no one questions its legitimacy. To take an example from philosophical naturalist Richard Carrier:

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

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

    The question here is not whether or not the “is” part is true, but whether or not the “ought” part follows, given that the “is” part is true.

  • jtban

    Morality is relative to the human conscience. Science is knowledge. Conscience is self-knowledge. All humans are born with the same self-knowledge of good and evil. Through culture or environment (learned behavior) the conscience becomes seared and distorted to suppress what an unseared conscience would condemn or reward.

    The human conscience judges actions to be right or wrong and rewards itself by a good feeling or punishes itself by a nagging feeling. The conscience is a judge, jury, and executioner of our thoughts, actions, or inactions.

    Every life begins with the same absolute value system. However, over time through geographic and/or social isolation, education (or lack thereof), experiences, learned behavior, etc… , we develop our own value system, or prism, through which to perceive our universe and what is good or evil–hence, moral relativism.

    Everyone believes 3 things all at the same time. They believe the truth. They believe a lie. And, they believe they don’t have enough evidence to determine what is true and what is a lie. As sophisticated and scientific as we may think we are, we all believe some things without researching them–its impossible not to. I believe George Washington was our first president just because so many people (the consensuses) told me so. I never took the time, and never intend to, research if he ever existed or if he was a political invention to control the masses.

    I had to put in my 2 cents. Moral relativism is a result of the distortion of absolute truth. We are too jaded through our life’s experiences to recognize it.
    jtb

  • Pingback: Sam Harris Derives Ought from Is | The Partially Examined Life | A Philosophy Podcast

  • Neil Schipper

    Sam is trying to start an important conversation. Sean’s argument is adolescent, like much atheist discourse. Case in point:

    Who decides what is a successful life? It’s ultimately a personal choice…

    Most atheists flinch from taking their materialism seriously, and cling to a kind of dualism (I’m gratified that others above have pointed this out).

    When atheism advances from the “Yippee-Ai-Oh-Kayay! I’m free! I get to choose whatever I wanna do (as long as it’s legal)!” stage, to one of reflection about the basis and consequences of such choices, only then could the cellular machines that rely on supernatural notions (to obtain the brain chemicals they need) begin to trust and practice the skills that naturalists demonstrate to be effective. It sure isn’t going to come from mere rational arguments that debunk supernaturalism.

  • keddaw

    @Mordin

    The examples you gave are not ought from is:

    Take the doctor one:

    A doctor not sterilising is more likely to have his patient die.
    A doctor who sterilises is more likely to have his patient live.

    “and it is a fact that the surgeon doesn’t want his patient to die from infection”

    Not necessarily. And not always.

    Even if it was true you are then redefining doctor, you are simply moving the ought one level back to say:
    “Doctors ought not to want their patients to die.”
    Which is not necessarily true.

    And therein lies the problem in every example I have heard where someone claims to have sorted the is/ought problem, they have simply moved it one level back.

    Which is exactly what Sam Harris has done here. He says science can help us to maximise well-being of conscious creatures, but doesn’t really address why we ought to.

  • keddaw

    @Piero

    “desires are the only reasons for action that exist”

    I’d suggest people slipping on ice did not do so out of a desire to fall onto the pavement, car drivers rarely desire to crash etc. etc.

    And not all our desires are rigid like you claim. Buddhist monks have intentionally starved themselves to death to be nearer one-ness. And all desires can be changed, even hunger, thirst and sexual attraction, all it takes is a big enough carrot or stick, or a brain injury.

  • cheshire cat

    Sam Harris has now revealed his underlying bigoted self and his hope of replacing existing authoritative theological doctrine with another designed and built by one Sam Harris. In his condemnation of violence he has appealed to other’s violent tendencies and as typical of most bigots, he has chosen to cherry-pick the evidence to only find those events that support his personal agenda of narcissistic vanity. He is no different than those members of the “advocacy journalism” set that choose to exploit the weaknesses of the many for the gratification of the few.

  • Sarah

    One can’t objectify morality without defining it. Sam Harris has defined morality as “the well-being and flourishing of humans”. Of course, not everyone will agree with that definition. However, once he defines morality as such, then data CAN be used to hold one action against another and say which supports well-being or flourishing. Well-being and flourishing of course need to be defined too, and this is vague because individuals have different ideas of what these mean as well. However, most individuals would like to be healthy physically and emotionally, avoid suffering, and seek happiness.
    I enjoyed the presentation, I haven’t seen Sam Harris speak before and was impressed by his reasoning, and was relieved that he is not a flamboyant speaker with insults against religion just for the sake of it.

  • Thalamus

    Basically, by my lights this disagreement can be reduced to a couple statements:

    Sam is proposing that sicence can guide us on how we shuold live our lives by giving us the facts which are necessary if – and this is his underlying assumption- we are to increase the happiness and reduce the suffering of sentient creatures. I don’t see how this is wrong or invlalid.

    Now, the opposing comments I have rad here and elsewhere seem to have a problem with this question: “Ok yes..that’s fine but science cannot tell us why we should regard the well-being of sentient beings as GOOD”. Here, we hit bedrock. But if science can’t answer this NOTHING else can either. In other words it’s like asking “Why is it moral to be moral?” One cannot answer this question without being thrown into an infinite regress.

    On a different note, moral relativism might be in a way analogous to materialistic deterministm. It might by ultimately true, but it would be absurd to live our lives under this assumption. After all, once we accept moral relativism as a sound and valid position, other propositions follow, e.g. Tolerance for diversity is a good idea. This is an absolute claim, not a relative one. Indeed, if moral relativism is correct, then this is an absolute claim, not a relative one.

  • piero

    @Keddaw
    “Buddhist monks have intentionally starved themselves to death to be nearer one-ness”
    Precisely. They desired to be nearer one-ness, so they acted accordingly.
    I’m not saying that desires are immutable impulses that control our lives. Desires can be malleable. What I am saying is that whenever we act, we act because a desire is pushing us: falling on slippery ice is not an action.

  • Moridin

    @keddaw

    I refuted that particular argument in my comment. It is not, I repeat, not, about whether or not the “is” part is true, but whether or not the ought part follows given that the is part is true. It is completely irrelevant if the doctor does not want his patients to get infected or not, but given that this is so, an ought follows.

  • keddaw

    @Moridin

    It is completely irrelevant if the doctor does not want his patients to get infected or not, but given that this is so, an ought follows.

    I agree, but all you have done is pushed the argument one step further back – OUGHT a doctor want to infect his patients or not?

    You (okay, not you but Richard Carrier) are trying to get round the ought by redefining what a doctor is – someone who wants to not infect his patients.

    it is a fact that the surgeon doesn’t want his patient to die from infection

    That is a radical redefinition of surgeon…

    Given that surgeons all want to kill their patients all surgeons OUGHT NOT to sterilise their equipment.

    That is no more false than what was said before, it follows logically, but misses the key point which is OUGHT surgeons want to harm their patients?

  • Matt

    piero: “Matt, I see one problem with your proposed imperative, namely the definition of “freedom”. For instance, ist it OK for Bill Gates to possess 50 billion dollars and for a single mother in New Orleans to earn 5000 a year?”

    Hi Piero. The suggested freedom imperative would only apply to the +physical actions of conscious beings. To take two of the simplest examples:

    The right to live (so murder is wrong)
    The right to not be physically assaulted (so bodily harm/ sexual assault etc is wrong)

    What you’re talking about is the ownership of a social construct – i.e. money.

    Any objective morality that is real would have to be tied into the working of the universe with laws. These would be laws that apply to consciousness and free will, and therefore of a different nature than the laws that govern physical matter*

    However, since dualism is a dubious position when it comes to the nature of matter and mind, some kind of monistic panexperientialism (where physical properties and experiential properties are the flipsides of the same coin) is required.

    If this is the case then both the laws of physics AND the proposed laws of consciousness would still apply to the same elementary objects in the universe (particles, strings, or whatever). Thus, the laws can only be applied to actual sapient consciousnesses and their relations to each other via physically real objects (a person’s body, a weapon, a prison etc).

    I would think that social constructs like money – though vital in everyday life – couldn’t count in regards to objective morality because of it’s definition. That’s best left to sociology and ethics.

    *For a start, unlike the laws of physics, they would no +have+ to be followed (since in governing free will that would make no sense). Such rigidity in causation is not actually required. All that is required is that following or breaking a rule has some differing or opposing consequences that follow a pattern.

  • Matt

    Just to remind people of the classic example of social ethics confronting morality:

    A doctor has a cure that will save your partner’s life. He will only part with it for $1m. You don’t have $1m so you steal the cure.

    Was the action right or wrong?

    It was right because he right to life trumps the social rules regarding property. Hence that shows that stealing cannot fall under any objective morality. An objective moral imperative has to be logically flawless, without cases of contradiction.

  • http://www.americafree.tv Marshall Eubanks

    I think that, like language, morality is “built-in” (i.e., has a strong if not dominant genetic component). I don’t think we will understand it in any scientific sense unless and until we have independent samples, say alien intelligences, or we develop the ability to communicate with intelligent animals.

  • piero

    @matt
    I don’t think I follow you.
    First, hard and fast rules like “murder is wrong” can always be refuted by constructing situations where murder would be the right thing to do.
    Second, I don´t see how money is a social construct: you cannot socially agree to bring money into existence unless there is wealth behind it. But even if it were so, why would that impinge upon the ethics of hoarding and greed? The consequences of inequality are quite real; they are certainly not social constructs.
    Concerning free will, I didn’t undesrtand whether you meant “laws” as in “laws of nature” or as in “prescription”. If the former, I don’t see why free will should be exempt from scientific scrutiny just as any other phenomenon. If the latter, don’t we do it all the time through rewards and punishments?

  • P

    Matt: “A doctor has a cure that will save your partner’s life. He will only part with it for $1m. You don’t have $1m so you steal the cure.
    Was the action right or wrong?
    It was right because he right to life trumps the social rules regarding property.”

    Not so fast. What if 100 people worked for months gathering rare herbs for this cure and they need the money to feed themselves and their families and will starve to death otherwise?

    What if the company who developed the cure will go broke as a result of the theft and no one else will be willing to produce the cure meaning hundreds of deaths a year from the disease?

    What if some of the people who won’t get paid as a result of theft won’t be able to afford their medicines and die prematurely?

    Those examples show that its certainly not as simple as “the right to life trumps the social rules regarding property” because property is often crucial to survival.

  • Ahmed

    Thank you for the objectivity.

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-26772-San-Francisco-Apologetics-Examiner Maryann Spikes

    Dawkins on Sam Harris’ website: “I was one of those who had unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals. To my surprise, The Moral Landscape has changed all that for me.”

    Does Richard Dawkins now believe there is objective moral truth?

    Does he now believe in a ‘real’ good?

    Maryann Spikes
    San Francisco Apologetics Examiner

  • Matt

    @piero

    Remember that what we’re doing here +isn’t+ trying to find a valid concept of what’s right and wrong in life. I agree with your sentiments regarding money and it’s ethics, but that’s irrelevant. Rather, from the vast pool of moral and ethical ideas we’re trying to identify a subset that are +candidates+ for being part of an objective moral ontology by virtue of their being able to be referenced in the workings of the universe.

    An obvious analogy is to stop talking about Objective Moral Laws of the Universe and return to the more familiar realm of the Objective Physical Laws of the Universe. Take gravity. For the law of gravity to be realised in the physical world, it requires that a) a fixed law applies that is the same for everyone everywhere without exception, and b) The objects or properties that are affected causally by the law are a part of the realm in which the law operates (i.e. physical objects or properties).

    Thus, this discounts the following two applications of the law of gravity:

    1. A conscious being makes a cartoon film of a person on the edge of a cliff. The cliff is not subject to the law of gravity since it has no physical components for the law to act upon. The cliff only has meaning by virtue of it’s symbolic value to conscious beings. It is a subjective conscious construct.

    2. Gravity cannot be held responsible for people falling in love (Albert Einstein). Tehe.

    Money IS a subjective conscious construct. There is no property of a particle, or even emergent macroscopic property of a collection of particles, that can be called “wealth” or “worth”. Objects only have subjective worth or wealth. Like the film reel of the cartoon showing the cliff, there is a physical substrate in which the information “cliff” is +embedded+, but the information is only has meaning for – and is therefore only accessible to – subjective conscious beings. The cliff is NOT accessible to the objective universe and therefore cannot be subject to objective laws like proposed objective moral laws.

    This also covers P’s objections in the following post. Ideas like:

    “What if the company who developed the cure will go broke as a result of the theft and no one else will be willing to produce the cure meaning hundreds of deaths a year from the disease?”

    …are concerned with social constructs, not physical reality. Wealth is something that has no intrinsic meaning, so how can an objective rule of the universe act out if there is nothing to act out upon?

    In fact, the statement above itself only has any truth based on the assumption that all conscious beings will follow the constructed rules of the system of economics and society. Theoretically, the protagonist could choose to ignore the rules, steal a billion dollars and develop the cure themselves. To asses onbjectivity, these argments have to be stripped down to base level, by leaving out the constructions of society and consciousness. The only way of the protagonist being truly +prevented+ from getting the cure is for them to be physically or mentally stopped from doing so (murder, imprisonment, brainwashing etc). This +would+ count as a breach of the moral imperative, because the means of prevention entail real physical or mental events that the universe can work with, rather than only representations of events that it cannot.

    So, economics is a subjective construct that relies on subjective rules to function. By definition, it can no more be part of objective laws of consciousness than it can be part of the objective laws of physics.

    The only relevant interactions of objects that qualify as being part of an objective ontology are:

    1. Consciousness -> Physical -> Consciousness

    The influence of one conscious being on another’s freedom by use of physical tools (i.e. the body or extensions thereof). For example, assault, imprisonment.

    2. Consciousness -> Consciousness

    Direct influence on another’s freedom by use of brainwashing or restriction of withholding of information, or any other means of purposefully affecting that consciousnesses ability to make it’s own uninfluenced free will decisions. For example, indoctrination, infidelity.

    On your first point regarding situations where murder is the right thing to do, I presume you mean for example, where one murder directly prevents another or more. Like any example, it needs to be stripped down. Here you have Person A in a booth with Button 1 that they know will start a 10 second countdown after which lethal gas will kill 10 innocent people in the next booth. Once Button 1 is pressed, Person A cannot stop the countdown. You are outside with Button 2 that will stop the countdown, but will also – you know – immediately kill Person A. Person A presses Button 1. Do you press Button 2?

    I think all such cases you talk of boil down to the situation above. And according the the idea I’m talking about, the answer is yes, because of the caveat in the long version of the suggested Objective Moral Imperative:

    1. All sapient conscious beings are free to do as they please, unless that freedom impinges upon the freedom of another sapient conscious being.

    2. A sapient conscious being that impinges on the freedom of another loses the right to not have their freedom impinged in the same way.

    For something to be a law or a rule, it must have consequences. This is one that I’d propose.

  • N. Peter Armitage

    Sean said:
    >It’s okay to admit that values can’t be derived from facts — science is great,
    >but it’s not the only thing in the world.

    Sounds like non-overlapping magisteria to me…. :)

  • Pingback: What Does Science Say About Morality? « blueollie

  • Charon

    29: “Moral relativism is a empirical observable fact – if not different people, then different cultures have observably different morals.”

    Hmmm… they also all have different creation myths. Cosmology is subjective! Reality is subjective! Physics is bunk!

    Did you actually think about this before you wrote it?

  • Charon

    I would recommend that you take a look at Michael Martin’s Atheism, Morality, and Meaning, Sean. I’m not sure I agree with him, but I’m not sure I agree with you either. Martin presents a reasonably compelling case for absolute moral constructivism, which is appealing because it relies on a wide reflective equilibrium that is much the same as the coherentist epistemology of science.

  • P

    Matt: Ideas like: (…) are concerned with social constructs, not physical reality. Wealth is something that has no intrinsic meaning, so how can an objective rule of the universe act out if there is nothing to act out upon?

    I stated 3 examples to show why your idea that “the right to life trumps the social rules regarding property” was invalid from moral point of view. Your objection that they are “concerned with social constructs, not physical reality” makes no sense, in all of them the final result was death in both cases, are you trying to say that death is a social construct and not physical reality?

  • piero

    @Matt
    I’m sorry I cannot reply to you reply; I didn’t understand any of it.

  • Erstwhilst

    You are the Ted Bundy of discover magazine. :)

  • Al Horn

    (1) Isn’t one’s sense of well-being or happiness largely a function of how much dopamine is being produced by the hypophthalamus? We are going to ground all morality on achieving a brain state induced by a neurotransmitter? Will we be able to get “the Good” in pill form at Rite Aid?

    (2) While it is a fact that conscious beings seek states of happiness and avoid suffering, I don’t see how we get to a moral system without at least an additional axiom of human individual autonomy or self-determination that I am not sure is objectively true in the same way. Are all individuals equally entitled to these states, or are some (say the most intelligent and creative) more entitled? One could argue that societies as a whole benefit when the most talented are given the most advantages, while the stupid folk don’t need the same privileges. Certainly the ancient Greeks whose innovations in science and philosophy and the arts were made possible by a slave state would have agreed with this point of view. Were they wrong? Do we thus condemn the culture that gave us Western Civilization? On what basis do we assume that women should be equally entitled to states of well-being as men? What if by depriving women of equal status in Muslim societies men experience states of well-being far beyond what we men in the West experience such that the mean happiness peak could be equal to that of an egalitarian society? Why don’t we harvest the organs of one healthy man if by doing so we end the suffering of several sick individuals, particularly if we are able to kill without causing the slightest pain or suffering?

    Seems to me a huge donut hole in Sam Harris’s talk was discussion of this principal of human self-determination or autonomy that we seem to take for granted.

  • Itsyourtruth (twitter)

    Some of the arguments here typify what is wrong (in my subective opinion) with the academic community’s approach to progress in science. So much game playing and point scoring….here Mr Harris gives a reasoned, and useful suggestion as to how morality and the human condition can be progessed to a higher plane than it currently sits at…

    There is no objective proof in science of unconscious processing in the brain…we are only 99.95% sure that it exists…..but it is 100% certain that pain and suffering exist in this world and the cause can be reliably and consistently placed at the door of debatable moral values. Why should science not have a role in defining what 99.95% of people would agree is morally wrong? The exact same margin of doubt exists . Maybe the 0.05% of Ted Bundy’s could have their own scientific programme of moral research and set their own agenda for change…would you join them? I would certainly join Mr Harris’ programme for change and salute his stand wholeheartedly.

  • Greg

    How can you object to scientifically quantifying human well-being? We can define ranges and scopes for superior diets, superior exercise routines, superior toys and tools yet morality is somehow outside of our intellectual scope? Harris is saying we should study the matter instead of leaving it up to the ineptitude that religious morons have been dickering with for far too long.

    Just because Hume said it, doesn’t make it true. Certainly, the simple minded are unable to grasp what ought to be from what is – the rest of us, however, find the matter rather obvious.

    There are quantifiable measures to human well-being. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t make it so – it makes us simply ignorant, hence why we should study the matter instead of rotting to death in stagnation.

    Without being insulting, the author of this article either completely missed the point or lacks the intellectual capacity to grasp what Harris was conveying. As much as I’d like to try to explain it, it would be a complete waste of my time since if you can’t grasp the notion when elegantly laid out for you then there’s certainly nothing I can attempt that would educate you further. Aside from that, the shortcomings of others are not my problem.

    Science is how to protect us from lying to ourselves. Religion is the pack of lies we ingest for comfort. What’s actually disappointing is that people like you – while not completely stupid, obviously – are in the way by virtue in lacking the ability to adapt or expand beyond your preconceived notions of reality.

    Between the archaic world-view you are espousing and apparently seek to maintain or even the vaguest attempt at progress that Harris suggests, I’ll take camp with Harris hands down.

  • Matt

    @P

    Sorry, I didn’t address that directly.

    “What if 100 people worked for months gathering rare herbs for this cure and they need the money to feed themselves and their families and will starve to death otherwise?”

    What if the company who developed the cure will go broke as a result of the theft and no one else will be willing to produce the cure meaning hundreds of deaths a year from the disease?

    What if some of the people who won’t get paid as a result of theft won’t be able to afford their medicines and die prematurely?”

    Yes, I accept fully that the deaths in your examples are caused, indirectly, by the free-will decision of the protagonist.

    Now, to judge whether they could be included in any logically possible objective moral framework, we have to ask what is the medium of the indirect causation?

    Those deaths are the direct result of the workings (some would say failings) of the social and economic system in place. The indirect imposition of one free will consciousness on another free will consciousness takes place via the medium of the rules of that system.

    This is not the same as an indirect imposition of will either directly (consciousness to consciousness) or indirectly via the physical (tool use, imprisonment etc). The reason it is not the same is that it is not possible for the universe to uphold objective laws pertaining to constructs, since it cannot have knowledge of such rules.

    Now, I know that life is more complex than that. We live our lives as social beings engaged in a multitude of personal and social constructs, meaning that ethics and laws and rules all play vital roles in our lives and in ultimately in complex processes of causation; that’s why the subject’s a subjective minefield.

    But once again, I stress that I’m not trying to decide upon every right and wrong in life here. I simply stated at the start that an objective morality (one that is somehow built into the workings of the universe) +may+ be possible in regards to some fundamental wrongs that are to do with the free will of conscious beings.

    I went on, not to prove that objectively reality exists, explain it’s mechanism (although I have solid philosophical ideas and strong empirical pointers to how it might), or judge the complete formulation of the consequence aide of any laws (that would be total speculation). All I’ve done is to separate the logically possible from the logically impossible, in regards to what an objective morality would include, if such a thing existed.

  • Omry

    its people like you who give Philosophy its bad reputation. its about time you left your David Hume-coocoon and start living in the real world, where people exist. should we expect another article on how the Taliban are miss-judged by the world and are actually great moralists. gimme a break, and give yourself a pause for a bit of thinking.

  • http://twitter.com/ChrisLindsay9 CW

    “The project of moral philosophy is to make sense of our preferences, to try to make them logically consistent, to reconcile them with the preferences of others and the realities of our environments, and to discover how to fulfill them most efficiently. Science can be extremely helpful, even crucial, in that task.”

    Wonderful.

  • http://disorderedcosmos.com Chanda

    This is a terrible definition of facts: ‘We make up phrases like “relativity is right” and “Hitler was a scumbag”; since most agree, we call these phrases “facts”.’

    By this definition, many facts (like Jews are out to steal your money if you are living in 1930s Germany) that we have _felt_ to be incorrect are defined as, by default of majority rules, true. By contrast, a sociologist who was doing their job properly might have been able to elicit plenty of statistics that could have proven that this was not at all the case. Of course, the problem is that the sociologist might think that Hitler is her master, not the truth. And this is where we run into trouble.

    I think the best way to look back at the difference between facts and human opinions is to look at how freaking dangerous it is to conflate the two. To borrow Sam’s example: Hitler and all of the scientists who fed his racist ideas. Another example, and maybe these are both on my mind because Pesach begins tomorrow, is slavery. There was a lot of argument about the scientific validity of the institution. Head shapes/sizes etc. Racism is often couched in so-called scientific arguments. This is an example of what can happen when we conflate data with opinion or when we think majority opinion can rule, particularly on moral issues.

    Of course, in reality, none of what I said here, however confident, is fact either. This is all my opinion. I can only hope that most people agree with me, so that it is still safe for me to set foot outside my door.

  • Jesper Kristensen

    Sean wants to have his cake and eat it. So how to go about that sort of thing. Well, first he feels the need to explain to everyone that Sam Harris isn’t even a scientist, despite the fact that he’s got a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Harris also has the added benefit of living in a time where evolutionary theory. the discovery of DNA, physics and quantum theory as well as vastly increased neurological knowledge has been revealed.

    What silver bullet to kill such a beastly, evil scientist? Oh, geez, let’s see. YES! We just have to invoke an old philosopher from the 18th century. Add a little cherry picking and we’re there, huh?

    Hume was in fact critical of religion and had he lived today it is more likely that he would have agreed with Harris on a lot of things. Hume, while a brilliant philosopher, just happened to live in a pretty ignorant world.

    Ironically, David Hume appears in Christopher Hitchen’s “The Portable Atheist”.

    Besides … if science can’t answer anything in the realm of morality, are we really better off with the shrill and often outright cruel message from The Bible or Quran? Since when have farmers, cattle drivers and nomadic people, whose alleged “God” weren’t even smart enough to give us, say, the theory of bacteria, become moral lighthouses?

  • James Allen

    @ Maximus

    Re: Bandwagon

    San Harris. The end of faith : religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York : Norton, 2004. Print
    Daniel C. Dennett. Breaking the spell : religion as a natural phenomenon. New York : Viking, 2006. Print.
    Richard Dawkins. The God delusion. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006. Print.
    Christopher Hitchens. God is not great : how religion poisons everything. New York : Twelve, 2007. Print.

    Note the dates of print. He didn’t hop on a “New Atheist” bandwagon. It’s his bandwagon.

  • http://chrishorner.net Chris Horner

    Carroll and Harris are both misleading here. Science can’t tell us what to value, but nor is it the case that values amount to add-ons which we choose in a rush of subjective and arbitrary abandon.

    All human projects, including science, are saturated in the normative and all humans move thru a world that is full of meaning and significance. This significance is real, and although’ it isn’t something you can drop on your foot and it doesn’t have the watertight status of 2+2=4, is still objective. It is independent of your or my mind.

    You can disagree about this or that aspect, about what the right thing to do is, but if you have moral dilemmas at all (and I bet Mr Carroll has them too) you don’t choose the fact that there IS a dilemma in the first place.

    The choice isn’t between hard headed realism and relativism: that is a false choice. Facts aren’t discrete assemblages of ‘hard, real’ stuff, with values as squishy unreal subjective stuff; it isn’t like that. I don’t even think Hume thought that it was.

    So why does Sean Carroll?

  • Deb

    As my brilliant husband said “You can not ‘prove’ faith.. that’s what makes it faith and it is that which we are saved by..

  • QuinnO

    Excellent piece. Kudos.

  • http://disorderedcosmos.com Chanda

    Sean — I’ve been thinking about this a little bit more, and I have to admit to being surprised by the responses that people are posting here. I expected everyone to say, “yes yes, it’s kind of complicated.” That seems like a “fact” in my brain, haHA! I don’t understand the compulsion to reduce complicated individual and cultural behavioral questions to algorithms. And it seems dangerous to try — what happens when we decide with our limited understanding of science that certain cultures are somehow less valid in our reasoning mechanism? How can we be sure that this is a “truth” and not just our ignorance?

    We find out all the time that what we thought we knew, scientifically, we didn’t know at all. Pre-1905 physics is a classic example of a time when we thought we had almost everything figured out and it turned out that physicists actually knew very little.

    Anyway, I guess I just wanted to express my surprise.

  • gordon Wilson

    Yes, Deb, you can’t prove faith, but you can often disprove it. That is what makes it
    stupid. Just why are you “saved” by something you can’t prove? If someone has faith that
    fairies exist, that just shows they are deluded, not saved.

    Sean–just why do you seem to be taking accomodationist stances these days towards atheism?
    Is it your overdeveloped political correctness? (This applies more to a previous thread on “rude atheists”).

  • Michael Waxman

    First, I just have to compliment everyone on this blog. This is the ONLY blog I have ever seen where pretty much everybody is engaged in an intellectual discussion, and nobody is being gratuitously mean-spirited, or leaving hyper text links to pornographic sites. Congrats!

    I’m an attorney, not a scientist or philosopher. Nonetheless, Mr. Harris’ lecture resonated with me on some levels, good and bad. It’s hard to reject the somewhat ethnocentric notion that we know best how to maximize individual and collective happiness, that the United States of America represents a Darwinian end product. Aren’t we the strongest nation on earth? The most influential in many spheres? And I have a 17 year old daughter whom I love with every fiber of my being, so when Mr. Harris talks about cultures in which fathers murder their daughters who have been raped because of the “shame” that she brought to the family, I have a visceral response and agreement that no well-spun argument can ever overcome.

    I agree that we need to reach a place where we can have real discussions about morality that are based on objective information and data. Perhaps there is a way for science and philosophy to work in tandem. There is a very interesting book by John Rawls called A Theory of Justice. His notion is that to derive common, objective principles of morality and rules for living within a society, all we need to do is imagine that we exist behind a “veil of ignorance,” not knowing what position in society we shall inhabit, what color our skin will be, what gender we shall be, what socioeconomic status we shall have. In that position, we may be able to agree on principles of morality and government. Behind the veil of ignorance, we should all be able to agree that maximizing human well-being, maximizing states of pleasure and minimizing states of pain are objective goods. So, this seems consistent with Mr. Harris’ initial premise.

    Religion, however, seems to throw a wrench in the gears. And what if we measured the brain waves and states of women wearing burkas in Iran, and found that they are at least as happy as American women wearing thong bikinis at the beach? Do we just respond that ignorance is bliss? I WANT science to give us moral absolutes. And Mr. Harris is starting us down that road. I applaud him for that.

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  • http://www.twitter.com/cstebila cstebila

    It was Mr. Harris who started my questioning of my faith, however I’ve finally arrived at a moral nihilism after years of pain. Its going to be a long way back from the dissipated path he is creating.

  • Victor

    “We live in a universe governed by natural laws, and it makes all the sense in the world to think that a clear understanding of those laws will be useful in helping us live our lives — for example, when it comes to abortion or gay marriage.”

    I completely agree with you, Sean. Science teaches us that a new human being forms at conception and, therefore, it would be wrong for us to end its life, as it is wrong for an adult human.

  • http://twitter.com/tshrewd Trevor C.

    Sean is right to point out you cannot derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’. But it is a fact that most humans value human well-being/happiness. Evolution gives a good reason for this: values such as these are the basis for social collaboration. Society would collapse without it. And the more ppl value well-being, the more happiness there is in a society.
    Science takes a neutral perspective on the universe, but morality takes a human perspective on the universe. Sean is right that ‘is’ cannot derive ‘ought’, but that’s not exactly what I get from Harris. Harris is (I think) arguing along these lines: Given that the overwhelming goal of human morality is human (and perhaps animal) well-being and happiness, and well-being or happiness can be measured (or one day will be possible to measure), then there are right and wrong answers within the framework of morality. (I agree, it’s unfortunate he likened morality to physics. It’s not that black and white. Maybe morality is more like biology instead.)

  • wds

    I didn’t see this in the thread but I only got part way through. Anyway, what bothered me about this talk was the bit near the end where the whole thing devolved somewhat into religion-bashing. Yes, women in certain parts of the world don’t have a choice in what they wear on their heads. Some people have a kneejerk reaction against religion, and islam in particular, and forget that cultural values often trump local human values, and many see that as a good thing.

    For instance: many beaches in Europe allow you to sunbathe topless, many in the US don’t (I’ve been told, anyway). To go a step further: I am not allowed to go out on the street pantsless. Even though I’m not hurting anyone, even though there’s nothing particularly nasty to see when I go out not wearing any pants, I’ll still get arrested and fined, possibly have to spend the night in jail and/or register as a sexual predator. So “what is the chance that this is the pinnacle of human culture we’re looking at”?

  • Hamish

    If you can’t derive “ought” from “is”, well, what can you derive it from? “Is” is all there is :)

    (And the argument that you can’t derive “ought” from anything is trivially uninteresting. You might as well refuse to breathe on the basis that air can’t be proven to exist.)

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  • His Shadow

    The intellectual deep end? Pretending that objective judgments cannot be made on religious cultural traditions that demean, degrade insult, injure and kill ? How is that enlightened? Harris is judged as wanting intellectually because he makes the point that we *can* make judgment calls on the actions of others? These insults are based on what? The idea that moral relativism is some kind of law, and that since morals can be relativistic, it’s impossible to objectively analyze the outcome of a particular world view and decide whether it is beneficial (or not) to the well being of human beings?

    This is cowardice. I don’t give a damn how sincere someone is in a belief. If that belief causes definable, predictable cultural and personal harm, we indeed can judge that belief as negative and state with conviction that such a belief is detrimental and yes, “wrong”.

  • http://www.infoaxe.com Vijay Krishnan

    I left this comment on Sam Harris’s post. I figured that this is a decent place to put it too.

    Hi Sam,

    I think there is substance to what you are saying but sentences like “My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind”, are easy to refute as Sean Carroll does pretty well in his blog at:
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2010/03/24/the-moral-equivalent-of-the-parallel-postulate/

    I think your the more important and relatively bulletproof point is that science can help us reason significantly better about moral issues, since people have a much more complex bag of values that are often in conflict and pointing out contradictions between their values etc. might get them to rethink their values and change them.

    For example, the extent to which different animals suffer might change what people consider moral PROVIDED they consider other people’s suffering to be bad. Likewise, convincing people that there is little or no evidence for the existence of a God, might prompt people to downweight treating their holy book as the ultimate source of values and rethink a lot of issues. A scientific analysis of the holes in the “Beethoven argument” against abortion might reduce many people’s opposition to abortion.

    So at the end of the day, what science can do is tell us the implications of many different acts with a high degree of accuracy. People can then decide if the implications of the act in question, the opportunity cost of not having the implications of alternative acts etc. makes sense to them.

    It is however not hard to see that one can always have a whacky set of terminal values with very few additional values which would be conflicted by the implications of the aforesaid values. It therefore seems almost absurd to hear you (Sam) claim that there exists a set of moral laws similar to the laws of physics and that science can help us find it.

    We are increasingly realizing that humans are not in principle different from computers. So is it somehow immoral to break a computer or kill a process running on my computer? Stating that there exist ultimate moral laws is almost equivalent to saying that there are ultimate moral laws regarding how we should treat computers and how computers should treat one another.

    So I think the important point here is that science has a great deal to say about factual claims, which includes the implications of different actions which are considered moral/immoral. These can be extremely helpful when two people are discussing their conflicting morals or if a person is re-evaluating their morals. If a person considered A to be immoral but were shown evidence that A causes B where B is a desirable outcome to him, he might re-evaluate his stance towards A. Likewise if a person considers A to be moral and C to be immoral, and were shown evidence that A->B and C->D where he considers D to be a significantly better outcome than B, that might cause him to re-evaluate his relative moral stance towards A and B.

    Vijay

  • Robert H.

    I hope everyone here goes over to http://www.project-reason.org/newsfeed/item/moral_confusion_in_the_name_of_science3/ and reads Sam Harris’ rebuttal to his critics. IMO, he pretty thoroughly dismantles every one of them.

  • Brian

    Although I agree that Sam’s argument hasn’t been completely fleshed out, I think his basic idea that morality can be given an objective basis has some merit. People seem to be stuck on the notion that “ought” is some transcendent concept, when in reality it’s just a word to describe the relation of goal-seeking machines to their goals. As a matter of fact, there are certain things we strive to achieve, such as happiness, comfort, love, etc. Asking whether it’s “right” to have these things is like asking a roomba if it’s “right” for the room to be clean. Answering the question of what is right (in the lofty philosophical sense alluded to in phrases like “ought from is”) first requires us to define what “right” means, and I don’t think it’s possible to do this in a non-circular way.

  • Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth

    Of course, Sam is right as the objectivity isi n the consequesnces of actons on people, other animals and the environment.As with science, that is provisional and debatable; it is also contextual.That is for normal people!
    Please study Beversluis’s comments on what I call wide-reflective subjectivism that I find paradoxically underpins objective morality in ‘C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religiion.” Now, I find ,with Quentin Smith, there are more common decencies that make for the universal morality I call coventnat morality for humanity- the presumption of humanism.

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  • andyo

    I was expecting to see something controversial from Harris here, but I don’t see it. I agree with His Shadow above. What’s wrong about it? Is it that you guys disagreeing are moral relativists? Harris’ speech was mostly against moral relativism, but also careful not to fall into absolutism, which seems about right. He clearly is not advocating either that science can uncover all moral truths that easily, only that there are certain moral extremes that should be clear given what we know about the world. As someone else (and probably others) said above, what is does affect what ought.

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  • Nick

    I find myself, at least on a theoretical basis, falling on the side of saying “what is ought anyway”. Can this, at root, be anything more than a preference? Where do preferences come from? My answer would be: The physical reality of our bodies and their evolutionary and development history. Sounds to me like the “ought” is actually a complicated set “Is” questions. I really like how Brendan J. Brewer put it above.

    However, I question the practicality of the overwhelming approach that Sam is advocating, and see all sorts of danger therein.

    I have not yet watched the Ted video posted above, but have heard an earlier talk from Sam Harris on the same subject and found myself nodding along in the first half of his talk where he describes the concept of deriving “objective” moralities, but then being horrified in the second half of his talk with his examples of the no brainer “everyone would agree with this” axioms of objective morality, which have struck me mostly as a list of his personal cultural hang ups with Islam. Some of which are no doubt valid, but what shocked me is the complete lack of any sort of rigor or scientific approach to coming up with those examples of “universal agreement”. This made the first bit of that talk seem nothing other than window dressing.

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  • Jasper

    @Sean comment 9, @Adam Solomon comment 39:

    I agree with Adam that Sean’s argument for claiming that ethics can not be compared to math is invalid. However, I would like to put forward two arguments why math can not be compared to ethics:

    1. To do math and ethics one has to make assumptions. But for math, we can test the outcome of the exercise *without* using the assumptions that we used to derive the outcome. For example, in Euclidean Geometry we can derive the long side of a triangle using math, and test it using a ruler. But how can we measure morality without making prior assumptions on what morality is?

    2. Mathematical axioms are compatible with each other, otherwise the system is not sound. However, in ethics the starting axioms are already incompatible with each other. Take for example the principles of individual freedom and collective happiness.

  • http://www.dorianallworthy.com daisyrose

    I watched the video of Sam Harris and I could not help noticing the 2 pictures of the Women in the Burkas and the young women on the Magazine covers … and I think it is a provable fact that some of those women in the burkas are looking just like the magazine ladies (under their burkas) and some are not. Not everyone wants the same thing – your right may be my wrong …

    For me: I experience the same wonderment for river rock as I do for insects and primates … now dealing with them is another story… with that we are on our own.

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  • Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth

    Folks, study Michael Shermers’s ” The Science of Good and Evil” and Paul Kurtz’s ” Foribdden Fruit.”
    Covenant morality is universal as opposed to egoism. Quentin Smith has an exceellent book on religion and morality. Note : he knows physics like Sean M. Carroll.
    Ah, have a go @ Objectivism!It is actually part of this and part of that, and Rand used her intutions rather than emprical analysis.
    We ever refine our innate moral sense- empathy-to extend to others, and Kurtz us all to have a planetary ethic.
    Note what Beversluis maintains about subjectivism in both forms, and he notes that with someone like Lord Russell, even simple subjectivism works.
    We can come to agreement.

  • Lilli

    I read so much fear here– fear that the status quo is changing. So much so that some of the comments are obvious ad hominims stating that Harris is ignorant, and somehow implying that because he is not famous enough, we should not listen to him. Has ‘no academic credentials whatsoever’? That’s simply laughable.

    Perhaps everyone needs to take a deep breath and relax a moment. The knee jerk reactions seen here show the insecurity and concern that the paradigm might change. That’s what happens in our world– change. People like this blogger and followers (yes, he has them and knows this :) are focused very intently on Harris. Look at the number of comments. Perhaps they see him as having influence, because a part of what he says makes sense and they must defend, defend, defend…

    It interests me that people are filling in gaps and creating a Harris who advocates a new world order. Some here have actually suggested this; or that he wishes to expunge spirituality. I have read his books, his critics as well; and I’ve listened to his lectures whenever I discovered them. I have known of him for several years now, and, well, beyond all the big words and the ethical questions called up here, it seems rather simple to me:

    To me, Harris does not speak about nature as separate from humans…. we are part of nature and therefore the rules of science that we happily apply to the world around us, apply to us as well. I can accept that and enjoy the ride.

    To me, Harris believes that there are reasons, biological and neurological reasons, why all species do what they do. We are a species. He simply wants to uncover the reasons why we do what we do. Why are so many of you afraid to explore? Or, do you really think that we have reached the apex of human understanding about ourselves?

    To me, Harris envisions a world in which we can CONTINUE to define human suffering and, therefore, continue to reduce it. We’ve done it for a long time; Harris is not really new to this. Why are so many afraid to refine this understanding, just as we have eagerly refined our understanding of technology? It’s funny. Already the human species accepts the science that helps us to understand why hunger causes suffering. And we work to reduce that suffering as a society in many places in the world. Reducing suffering? I’m interested in checking that out.

    To me, Harris is advocating the exploration of scientific understanding so that we can better understand ourselves and improve our lives.

    I’m not really sure what the big problem is…

  • UchicagoMan

    Wow, he’s like a un-funny Ben Stiller.

    Talk about simplifying things.

    I like how he argues there exists a knowable “Moral landscape” function, yet he then states that we will never be able to go to a supercomputer and find a clear answer or optimal solution.

    So, we just need to “think carefully on our own” about our choices and actions and how we feel about things or women and how they dress. Wow, deep.

    “Perhaps we can just find a nice place in the middle”…aa how nice and cute.

    And if it upsets us should we do something about it? Maybe go to war?

    You gonna sign up for the Marines go fight for what you believe?

    What is the optimal moral function for war? How many lives does it cost for removing Burkas from “suffering” Middle eastern women?

    It’s called the rule of law and civilization. And that stuff changes all the darn time.

    What blatant arrogance.

    Don’t tell me how I should feel, pal!

    Cuz’ you don’t know sh*t! ;-)

  • UchicagoMan

    Even baboons are peaceful when they don’t have to fight for a mate and hunt for food.

    The simple fact is without the normal facade of stability and societal construction people are capable of “vwery baaad things”

    “The Horror, The Horror!”

    Would Mr. Harris kill others to uphold his world view? Or to survive?
    Would he die for it?

    Would you join a gang to feed your family or yourself?

  • Mark Fournier

    Hume’s ought/is argument was aimed at the theory of Natural Law, which basically holds that what is is right, because God made the world. It was never intended to invalidate moral intuitions and feelings–without these, there would be no discussions of morality, because we wouldn’t even have a concept of morality. Removing human emotions from the picture not only makes the discussion of ethics impossible, it makes it entirely pointless. This is like insisting that all discussions of physics avoid mention of matter, energy, and mathematics. Harris is simply taking basic human universal needs, wants, and moral concerns as a given, and working from these facts. And yes, there are basic ethical concepts which are common to ALL cultures.

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  • Rob Whited

    Mr. Harris is asking us to be bold enough to take the next step towards equality and potential for self-actualization for all. Just like abolitionists, women’s suffrage, the gay rights and animal rights movement, the idea is that we ALL benefit from others have the same freedoms as the most free. Bravo to Sam Harris and everyone willing to stand up to backward-thinking traditionalists!

  • Timmy

    You guys are all wacky

  • cheshire cat

    Rob
    Mr Harris is leading us down the same tired road of oppression and wanton waste of human life that will occur with absolute mathematical certitude if he is successful in “scientifically” deriving morality. The “truth” of Mr Harris’ flawed logic is well established from the mathematics of axiomatic set theory, and has been well expanded by our friends in computer science. Their a certain level of equivocation that can never be reduced by any structured finite logic system (aka…Euler’s response to Diderot, and the foundation of our concept of God). Sam Harris is unable to understand this, and apparently so are you. In any case, if you try to “maximize happiness” you will quickly find out that mathematically we were happiest before we were born or after we have passed (e.g. minimized suffering). So in summary…zip it.

  • cheshire cat

    p.s.
    you might want to start by reading Cantor, Boltzmann, Turing, Goedel, Shannon, Weaver, Weiner, and their specific references.

    As long as I am writing, the phrase “Their a certain level… “, should be “There is a certain level…”

  • Erik

    #5

    Always amazing to see how people choose ridicule and belittlement when they are out of argument. They appeal to the inferiority complex they presume is hiding behind the titles and formal merites of every person. Just because they suffer from it so badly themselves. If Sam Harris has obtained a PhD or not is of course of no interest for the debate and for his argument, which have to be met on their own merits only.

  • piero

    @Cheshire Cat:
    “Their a certain level of equivocation that can never be reduced by any structured finite logic system”

    Hence, according to your reasoning (or lack thereof) we shoud stop doing mathematics, physics, chemistry, economics, etc. because there is no guarantee that our axiomatic systems won’t lead into contradiction. Good luck with your project: see you in the stone age.

  • chesire cat

    No…that’s not what I said. Every axiomatic system is guaranteed to eventually lead to incompleteness or contradiction. This is a fundamental proof. It is absolutely essential that our society begins to comprehend the impact this has on our ability to actually control things (and people). There is simply no way for an axiomatic system to fully incorporate all the degrees of freedom in our reality, and we are always forced into states of approximation. We can not as of yet even confirm that there isn’t an hierarchy of sets between our limited logical capability and reality as a whole. It is simply beyond our current mathematical ability to support any science that claims to be able to do what Sam Harris’ suggests, and it is a certitude that it is an impossibility with the limited mathematical tools we have available at present. You need to begin to think on your own and stop listening to all the obfuscation you get from poorly informed media sources.

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  • steve wells

    The point is being missed here. When one says that ought cannot be deduced from is, one is making a tautologically true statement as Hume demonstrated. However, to deduce from Hume’s demonstration that moral facts cannot be known is absurd. One does so in exactly the same way that one engages in other varieties of scientific discovery. One examines the argument to determine whether it entails contradictions. If it does, then the argument fails (from a faulty premise if nothing else). This is simple to illustrate. Imagine someone who makes the statement that all humans should be kept totally incommunicado because this will build up their individuality. It’s a values based statement but leads to contradiction. No communication is what we otherwise call dead. The values statement is falsified by the nature of the physical existence we lead.

    It is the demand for conformance with an inappropriate standard of judgement that leads to criticisms of the method Sam Harris is using when he treats moral statements as facts. Insisting that Hume’s problem of induction must be solved before we can know anything about values is a mistaken position. Morality can be scientific in exactly the same way that biology is scientific or that chemistry is scientific. That science can be pursued thru a Popperian process of falsfication in the same way any other science may be pursued. Experimental economics has a decent start on it even.

  • Stephen Redman

    Sean:

    “When it comes to morality, there is nowhere near the unanimity of goals that there is in science. That’s not a minor quibble, that’s the crucial difference! If we all agreed on the goals, we would indeed expend our intellectual effort on the well-grounded program of figuring out how best to achieve those goals. That would be great, but it’s not the world in which we live.”

    When someone says we ought to believe in Creationism because it says so in the Bible, they are using an alternative epistemological program for discovering the truth. (One I consider to be irrational.. Just like I think non-utilitarian models of ethics are irrational. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

    The same is true for ethics. When a utilitarian says we can have objective moral facts, they are (like a scientist) appealing to certain assumptions and purposes. What’s important (in both cases) is if those assumptions and purposes are “rational”.

    The is/ought problem is sound. You can’t get from facts to values. But it cuts both against normative schemes in epistemology (like science) and normative theories on ethics (like utilitarianism).

    (And honestly, I think that both science and utilitarian thinking have both made drastic improvements in our lives. Many of the things Jeremy Bentham argued for a few centuries ago, like equality for women, animal welfare laws and decriminalization of homosexuality, are generally accepted. )

    Just to beat a dead horse:
    1.) Santa Claus is a self-contradictory character. (fact – descriptive)
    2.) We ought not believe in self-contradictory things. (value – prescriptive)
    3.) Ergo, we ought not believe in Santa.

    1.) Having the burka be mandated leads to less happiness in general for women. (possible fact – descriptive)
    2.) We ought to promote general welfare. (value – prescriptive)
    3.) Ergo, we ought not demand women wear burkas.

    How are these two different?

  • piero

    @Cheshire Cat:
    I do think for myself, thank you. I’ve studied Gödel’s theorem, and find it both fascinating (as an intellectual achievement) and useless (as a practical tool). It is certainly irrelevant to Harris’s point, which is not concerned with formal axiomatic systems and statements that assert their own unprovability, but with the pragmatic, pedestrian realities of daily life.

  • Adam

    Sean, if you would kindly(just for a moment, because i realize you enjoy keeping it there) remove your head from your ass. Before you bash a potentially valid theory, would it be too much to ask if we engaged in a 21st century conversation about good ideas and bad ideas.. and how these ideas directly affect our world? and our future? Why can’t we have a discussion(which is what Mr. Harris is begging for) without being so quick to go to war with his ideas. You obviously imagine some sort of scenario where scientists in labs with beakers are determining what church you should go to… I’m finding a hard time believing someone could think in these simple terms. It could be that you didn’t like him or his ideas before he even spoke on this particular subject.. I’ll go ahead and assume that.. lest i assume something much more repulsive.

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  • chesire cat

    piero
    I would have to disagree with you. We have an inherent problem with the communication of moral codes. If we accept that not everyone has the same concept of morality, then we have an implicit need to be able to symbolically express moral statements. As soon as we take this step we run face to face with all the issues explored by Church and Turing in their resolution of the Hilbert decision problem and Oracle machines. We run into a moral paradox of implementing a moral standard that we can never verify as always providing moral answers to questions.

  • Maximus

    I have been quite busy for some time, and it is perhaps too late to reply. Just a couple of observations:

    1) I believe that Harris’ completely uncalled bitchy response to this very post proved my point about his intellectual openness.
    2) I am no stealth believer, don’t know how to prove it but I can simply restate it.
    3) There is nothing like a pure ‘issues’ discussion. Within reason, academic qualifications do count. And so does a personal political agenda. And boy, Harris has a big one.

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  • BJM

    From Sean’s original post:
    “There is a old saying, going back to David Hume, that you can’t derive ought from is. And Hume was right!”

    Right. But humans are moral creatures and that morality evolved because it was beneficial for survival of the species. Science can propose and test various hypotheses concerning our morals and how they serve to ensure the continuation of the species and how they evolved.

    Science can also test how the application of laws based on different moral codes affect individuals and groups. Why is it not possible to have a science of morality?

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  • Amos Elroy

    Ha, reading through this heated thread one wonders where the relativists think morality comes from? I guess it would have to be a divine source or a mystical spirit, if it can not be observed and measured, and if there are no ground rules that drive those functions in our individual brains. So is “what ought” somehow streamed magically into our new-cortex from somewhere where physical law does not govern?!

    As the great Galileo said “Measure what can be measured, and make measurable what cannot be measured.” Everything can be, and should be, boiled down to its physical laws, with the limitations of the uncertainty principle of course, and I don’t see why the uncertainty principle of sub-atomic particles would play a role in morality.

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  • http://abordodelottoneurath.blogspot.com jesús

    Harris’ mistake is that, though morality is about facts, these facts are not about wellbeing, but about human moral evaluations. That you think that you must not eat pork (for example) is a fact of nature, as the fact that salt contains sodium. So, gaining a scientific knowledge about what are the CAUSES that make people have certain moral thoughts about musts and mustnots will tell you EVERYTHING you can know about why YOU have the moral thoughts you have.
    It is true that you can not derive how one thing must be from information about how things are, but you can derive (in principle, if you have enough scientific knowledge, of course) what are you going to think about how something must be, from information about how your brain works.
    So, it is not exactly `how-must-things-be’ what can be derived from a rich enough collection of ‘is-es’, but ‘how-are-people-going-to-think-about-how-must-things-be’. So, ANYTHING we can ASSERT about morals, can be scientifically discovered.

  • http://eatingcannibal.com eatingcannibal

    In quoting Sam Harris, “The crucial thing to notice here is that this is a factual claim,” you’ve placed emphasis on the world ‘factual’ and ended the quote at that word, which I think misrepresents what Sam actually meant to convey in his TED talk. Sam’s next sentence is “We could be right or wrong about this,” much more humble than the absolute certainty you’ve attempted to tie to his statement.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwGFalTRHDA Francisco Boni Neto

    In quoting Sam Harris, “The crucial thing to notice here is that this is a factual claim,” you’ve placed emphasis on the world ‘factual’ and ended the quote at that word, which I think misrepresents what Sam actually meant to convey in his TED talk. Sam’s next sentence is “We could be right or wrong about this,” much more humble than the absolute certainty you’ve attempted to tie to his statement.

    Totally.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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