Sam Harris – The Moral Landscape (review)

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 12, 2010 in Ethics,Reviews

Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape argues that science can tell us what is morally good and bad, right and wrong. Stand aside, philosophy: science is here to save the day once again!

Harris’ main enemy this time is moral relativism, which he represents with a quote from Donald Symons:

If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, leaving only a tiny hole for urine and menstrual flow, the only question would be… whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction. But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, suddenly it becomes “culture,” and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible…1

Behind the shitty book cover is Harris’ crisp, exciting prose – this time discussing moral philosophy, but with plenty of arrows fired at religion along the way.

Harris’ central claim is that:

…questions about values – about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose – are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc.

Now, here’s the thing. A great many moral philosophers would agree that if we define morality in terms of the “well-being of conscious creatures,” then obviously most of moral theory becomes a science. When you ask “What actions, desires, institutions, laws, cultures produce the most well-being in conscious creatures?” – well, that’s an empirical question! (Assuming you define “well-being” in terms of a certain brain state.)

The question is really this: Why should we define morality in terms of “the well-being of conscious creatures”?

P.Z. Myers puts the criticism this way:

I don’t think Harris’s criterion – that we can use science to justify maximizing the well-being of individuals – is valid… Harris is smuggling in an unscientific prior in his category of well-being.

To which Harris responds:

we must smuggle in an “unscientific prior” to justify any branch of science. If this isn’t a problem for physics, why should it be a problem of a science of morality? Can we prove, without recourse to any prior assumptions, that our definition of “physics” is the right one? No, because our standards of proof will be built into any definition we provide.

This is the same issue debated by Julia Galef and Massimo Pigliucci. The problem seems to be that we have all agreed on definitions for words like “atom” and “electron” and “field” and “electromagnetic wave.” But we have not all agreed on definitions for “morally good” and “morally bad” and “morally right” and “morally wrong.”

What to do? Harris defines “good” as “that which supports well-being.” And, he’s a consequentialist, so he thinks we ought to maximize the well-being of conscious creatures.

Well, fine, but why should we accept that set of definitions instead of the definitions for moral terms offered by the social contract theorist, or the Kantian, or the hedonic act utilitarian, or the preference satisfaction utilitarian, or the virtue ethicist, or any of the other several dozen moral theories currently defended?

Harris repeatedly says we “must” define morality in terms of the well-being of conscious creatures. But why?

Why choose Harris’ definition?

It is difficult to extract Harris’ argument for why we “must” define morality in terms of the well-being of conscious creatures instead of something else. Mostly, he asserts this position and then responds to objections, and offers a few stories as intuition pumps. But when it comes to positive argument, his case is thin.

I did find a few hints of a positive argument. For example he writes:

Let us begin with the fact of consciousness: I think we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What is the alternative? I invite you to try to think of a source of value that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings… whatever this alternative is, it cannot affect the experience of any creature… Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is – it would seem, by definition – the least interesting thing in the universe.

…Now that we have consciousness of the table, my further claim is that the concept of “well-being” captures all that we can intelligibly value. And “morality” – whatever people’s associates with this term happen to be – really relates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the well-being of conscious creatures.

But here, it’s again difficult to locate a positive argument that morality is concerned well-being.

And, perhaps “well-being” is a question-begging term. Is well-being defined in terms of moral goodness? Then Harris’ claim is empty and circular. Or perhaps well-being just means happiness? Then his claim is not circular, but is probably false. We humans value other things than happiness, which is why many modern utilitarians speak of maximizing “preference satisfaction” or “desire satisfaction” rather than happiness.

Harris makes another attempt to justify his position later on:

Moral view A is truer than moral view B if A entails a more accurate understanding of the connections between human thoughts/intentions/behavior and human well-being.

But now, this only begs the question in favor of “well-being” again. So again we ask: Why “must” we define moral goodness in terms of the well-being of conscious creatures? What is the positive argument for this?

Despite Harris’ whirlwind tour of popular highlights from the last 50 years of moral psychology and moral philosophy, I could not find much positive argument for Harris’ position.

In fact, I could not even get clear on what his position was. It appears he thinks something is “morally good” if it helps to maximize the well-being of conscious creatures. But why doesn’t the well-being of non-conscious creatures matter? What is well-being, and why should it be maximized instead of preference satisfaction or desire fulfillment or happiness or pleasure? In fact, why should well-being be maximized at all? Harris denies that anything has intrinsic value, which means well-being has no intrinsic value. So why should we maximize well-being? Is it because well-being is what we care about? If so, what about the other things we care about besides well-being? Or does Harris define well-being so that it, by definition, encompasses everything we care about? What are the primary objects of moral evaluation? Acts? Rules? Desires? Institutions? Are one of these central, such that the others derive their valence from it? If not, what if they come into conflict?

But perhaps Harris’ position isn’t clear in the book because it isn’t even clear in his head. Maybe he thinks we’re not that far along yet in the science of morality, and we can’t answer those questions. So maybe he can’t really define his position clearly or give a persuasive positive argument in favor of it, but nevertheless he suspects this is the right way to go, and we just need time to develop it more clearly.

If so, fair enough, though that stance is much weaker than how he puts his claim at the opening of his book or in his TED talk.

How has science shown that morality must be defined in terms of “the well-being of conscious creatures”? Harris does not say. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t even say how philosophy has “shown” any such thing. But his book, at least, is an enjoyable read, and will spark many, many conversations on my favorite topic: What is morality?

  1. Quoted in The Blank Slate. []

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{ 139 comments… read them below or add one }

Polymeron October 12, 2010 at 5:16 am

When listening to Harris’ TEDTalk, I had the exact same thoughts.

I saw him say that science can help us determine moral truth, and said “well sure, if we can accurately define what ‘moral’ even means”.

Since it was TED, I was not ruling out that he had something interesting up his sleeve, so I listened intently until he gave that exact vague, unsupported claim, as if as an afterthought, before plowing on in his talk. Which prompted from me a loud cry of “on what basis?!”.

I find Sam Harris’ ideas dangerous precisely because he allows himself that level of confidence in something he isn’t even beginning to grasp, that brazen determination to make decisions based on very vague ideas.

We are better off without this sort of recklessness.

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Robert Gressis October 12, 2010 at 7:31 am

Sadly, his work is going to get vigorously discussed, while any moral philosopher who does anything carefully is going to be thought to be boring and so will be ignored, relative to the discussion Harris receives.

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lukeprog October 12, 2010 at 7:40 am

Moral philosophers are welcome to write books for a popular audience, too.

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Kip October 12, 2010 at 7:46 am

> I saw him say that science can help us determine moral truth, and said “well sure, if we can accurately define what ‘moral’ even means”.

I would rather embrace Harris’ definition of “moral” or “good” than have us be solipsists or relativists and have no shared idea or vision on which to base making this world a better place. For that reason alone, I applaud Sam Harris and his attempt at shaking up the scientific and philosophical communities to snap out of their collective fog.

If we want to make the world a better place, then we best come to a shared understanding of what “better” means. And for those that don’t care about making the world a better place, then they can dismiss themselves from our conversation (for now, anyway).

Of course, I think there is a better definition of “better” than the one Harris proposes. Maybe his is in the right direction, though? Is it a good enough “rule of thumb” heuristic to go with for now? We don’t seem to have a hard and firm definition of “health” but that hasn’t stopped medical science from progressing to make us healthier.

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Robert Oerter October 12, 2010 at 8:25 am

Thanks for this summary, Luke.

I would add that maximizing the well-being of “conscious creatures” might mean we should kill all the humans so insects can feast on their corpses – if insects are conscious, of course.

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Steven October 12, 2010 at 8:34 am

Once again, my main problem with talking about morals is, on what basis are we supposed to critique other moral theories and systems? That is, how could anyone prove that my claim that interacting with any other human being is morally reprehensible wrong? You can prove it impractical, you can prove it harmful to humanity’s social needs, but I don’t see how you would refute the claim that my moral theory makes; all you can do is appeal to other people’s preconceptions about morality and their self-interest.

To use a less extreme example, if my moral system says that rape is as morally reprehensible as arranged-marriages, how is can you criticize that? “I don’t think arranged-marriages are bad because they don’t induce the same level of mental trauma as rape”? But what if my moral system disregards mental trauma? How would you prove that mental trauma is essential to morality?

It is this (admittedly) crude thought-process (I think I explained my objection better on the last episode on Desirism) is what leads me to believe that absolute morality cannot be reached and that all absolute moral claims are invalid on the basis that they’re unprovable and irrefutable. Instead, I suggest trying to find universal morals on the basis of “rational self-interest”; instead of finding absolute, we can use evolutionary science, social empiricism, etc. to determine what are [i]optimal[/i] morals. Nobody wants to go outside and face a high probability of facing murder, therefore, murder is wrong; if you are a woman, you wouldn’t want your genitals to be mutilated, therefore it is wrong–and men who can’t determine what a woman would like can use the concept of the “Veil of Ignorance” to imagine that they were women and they were morally assaulted–, so on so forth. Now, obviously people will object, “people have different preferences, therefore the idea of universal morality is impractical”. Sure, but what critics forget is that humans are capable of giving consent. This way, otherwise morally “wrong” acts would be justified if consent was given WITHOUT inflicting severe mental torture or manipulation on another human being. That’s as far as I have worked it out.

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Steven October 12, 2010 at 8:36 am

*To imagine that they were women and they were mentally and physically assaulted.

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krinu October 12, 2010 at 8:40 am

Sam wasn’t the first to propose a scientific platform of morality. I’m surprised no one has yet mentioned The Science of Morality by Joseph Daleiden. Great book.

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Dan October 12, 2010 at 8:42 am

It IS a terrible cover!

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Kip October 12, 2010 at 9:29 am

That is, how could anyone prove that my claim that interacting with any other human being is morally reprehensible wrong?

How could anyone prove that having cancer all of your body, and dying at age 25 is “unhealthy”? I mean, who’s to say that dying at age 25 with cancer isn’t “healthy”?

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Hermes October 12, 2010 at 9:47 am

It’s a start.

From Luke’s summary, it seems like Harris is starting with the facts at hand even if he or others have to flesh it out later. He did title the book the moral landscape, so I take it as his intent not to deal with things too much at ground level.

That said, a couple items stood out for me;

* Harris: “Let us begin with the fact of consciousness: I think we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What is the alternative? I invite you to try to think of a source of value that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings… whatever this alternative is, it cannot affect the experience of any creature… Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is – it would seem, by definition – the least interesting thing in the universe.”

* Luke’s review: “Harris denies that anything has intrinsic value, which means well-being has no intrinsic value.”

As Harris’ box example shows, values aren’t properties that exist abstractly, nor can they be measured coherently without conscious and interested beings getting involved. Values have meanings to … a valuer, they don’t exist in the absence of a valuer. A volcano is not callous when it wipes out a village of humans or burns trees and animals alive. It isn’t aware on any level. A volcano does not hold any spite against either geography or conscious valuers if it’s lava is diverted to some other location.

I think the problem with religious and informal impulses is that they don’t respond well to investigation. The individuals have already decided that there must be a meaning to events even when no conscious driver of those events are apparent, or no meaning is derivable by examination of the available facts. Asserting that there is a meaning is a common reflex and it allows some people to think that they have dealt with the situation even if they have only distanced themselves from reality.

Dan Dennett gave an example of his dog being startled by the sound of snow falling off his roof. The dog attributed intention to the snow. This attitude tends to give more intention to the snow, to the volcano, or an invisible yet asserted to be interested volcano driver than an impartial investigation would warrant. Yet, even with the false positives, the reflex to act when we don’t know is a handy personality quirk and keeps us and other animals aware in many instances where we really should be, though sometimes it works against us. [see Everyday Survival, Why people do stupid things for more examples ]

All people — religious or not — should scorn nonsense such as ‘AIDS is caused by not following the edicts of a deity’ and ‘the disaster was the fault of the victims’. Yet the speakers are barely criticized and seem to have no embarrassment for such sloppy and even rabid thinking. Instead, they are bolstered by others with similar sentiments and ways at looking at the world.

I gave a long explanation at one time of how perfection does not exist, but there is such a thing as “perfect for”. Perfection in the limited and obtainable case of an incident being perfect for a specific environment and/or individuals still depends on many details, and is not really perfect in the unobtainable absolute abstract sense. Watch a game, and if in the last moment the underdog scores a winning shot in a nearly unbelievable way and you may experience perfection and the satisfaction of that instant even if vicariously. If it’s not your team, you may instead experience dread and feelings of disaster. You may even confidently assert that you were cheated.

Morals also include valuers, so it should not be a surprise that discussions of morality that deal with specific unique instances follow a similar arc to that of perfection in the form of perfect for.

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Garren October 12, 2010 at 10:23 am

@Kip

I would rather embrace Harris’ definition of “moral” or “good” than have us be solipsists or relativists and have no shared idea or vision on which to base making this world a better place. For that reason alone, I applaud Sam Harris and his attempt at shaking up the scientific and philosophical communities to snap out of their collective fog.

Yes! I agree. Philosophers will always argue the nature of things, but meanwhile there is an urgent need for a better shared stance on morality than a tug of war between religious extremists and secular relativists.

Harris’ definition has another thing going for it: religious extremists can embrace it. A Christian or Muslim who advocates something which seems to decrease human flourishing from a purely secular perspective can cite Harris’ definition and say, “When the afterlife is taken into account, these practices ARE morally good because they maximize human flourishing on the whole.”

But at least at that point we’re arguing about facts, not definitions.

Unfortunately, Harris himself fails to divide his projects. I want his moral project to succeed even among people who don’t agree with his religion-is-anti-reason project. But I see why he might not want to separate them. In order to claim that science can settle moral questions (under his definition), science would first need to settle religious claims. Science can’t declare Muslim oppression of women wrong without first declaring Islamic doctrines wrong which claim it’s for their own good in the afterlife.

…and my complaint wasn’t the cover so much as the repetitive writing.

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Bill Maher October 12, 2010 at 12:11 pm

I do like that he combines his field (neuroscience) with a ton of great philosophers, like Nagel, Dennett, and the Churchlands.

It is also a fun read and brings up a lot of important issues into the mainstream. It is kind of like a more scholarly version of The God Delusion. Its a fun read but with no real argument.

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Josh October 12, 2010 at 12:21 pm

How could anyone prove that having cancer all of your body, and dying at age 25 is “unhealthy”? I mean, who’s to say that dying at age 25 with cancer isn’t “healthy”?

While there is an issue of defining “health” in general, what we have here is a concept that has, in a lot of cases, an obvious meaning: being “healthy” is being normal and not feeling poorly. On average, people do not get cancer and die when they are 25, and those that do say that it fucking sucks, so it must not be healthy.

That definition of healthy doesn’t quite get at the concept ENTIRELY, but it is almost there. The problem is that everyone has some internal conceptual definition of morality that may or may not be the same as someone else’s in MANY of the details. For instance, if my conception of morality has something to do with maximizing welfare, and someone else’s has to do with obeying Krishna, then we will NEVER be able to agree.

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Robert Gressis October 12, 2010 at 12:55 pm

I don’t know how easy it is to write a book that is both marketable and careful. To be marketable, it seems that you have to be extravagent in your claims. There are probably some exceptions, though–I wouldn’t want to be extravagent in my claim.

See how boring that was to read?

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Kip October 12, 2010 at 1:23 pm

@Josh: It does seem that “moral” terminology is more varied than “health” terminology, but the main point I was making still stands: the people using the words to refer to things in the real world are the ones that define them. We can refer to whatever we want to refer to.

It seems to me that language evolves to refer to things in useful ways. We are trying to communicate with each other, to share ideas. Why? Because we have goals that we are trying to accomplish. It seems to me that the “moral” language, although varied, has at its core a common idea. The idea is that we don’t want people to do things that tend to keep us from fulfilling our goals, and we want them to do things that tend to help us fulfill our goals. This is the core of the ethic of reciprocity.

If by “well-being” Sam Harris means “that which tends to fulfill our goals”, then I think he’s pretty much summed up everything that could possibly have value, including anything that could be the target of moral evaluation.

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Keith October 12, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Josh said:

“While there is an issue of defining “health” in general, what we have here is a concept that has, in a lot of cases, an obvious meaning: being “healthy” is being normal and not feeling poorly. On average, people do not get cancer and die when they are 25, and those that do say that it fucking sucks, so it must not be healthy.”

In a similar vein, we can look for a word to describe the phenomenon of feeling content, or being happy, or having one’s desires fulfilled. If we wish, we can use the word “moral”.

It’s a waste of time to start with a word and argue about how we should define it. Let’s focus on concepts instead. For example, maximizing well-being is a concept that Sam Harris wants to explore in his book. He happens to choose the word “morality” to describe this concept, but I suspect he’d rather reject the word “morality” before he’d reject the key concept of maximizing well-being. If we are queasy about his word choice, we can always replace “morality” with some other word.

Science is yet another example of this, as Harris himself has pointed out. Who really cares how we define the word “science”? It’s just a word. What’s really important is a discussion of whether we should establish truths about the natural world or not – and we can call this process “science” if we so wish, or we can call it something else.

So, I agree with Harris that some sort of attempt to maximize human well-being (however that is eventually defined) is as worthwhile a goal as, say, doing science, even though neither pursuit is strictly necessary, or even justifiable, from a philosophical point of view. Both pursuits arise from human nature: we’re curious, so we do science. We hate suffering, so we concern ourselves with improving well-being. Philosophy can help us get there, but it cannot tell us that we *should* get there. Nothing can.

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Kip October 12, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Philosophy can help us get there, but it cannot tell us that we *should* get there. Nothing can.

That depends on what you mean by “should”. I’d suggest that if we use “should” to mean what most people mean for it to mean, then indeed, we “should” concern ourselves with improving well-being.

Now, I don’t think anything can tell us what “should” should mean, but I think it’s irrelevant. There is a word that has a concept that most (English-speaking) people mean by “should”, and it is that concept that I’m using above.

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Eric October 12, 2010 at 2:06 pm

It’s been brought up that we may have different understandings about what “health” means but that doesn’t stop us from developing a scientific understanding of it. This is a good point. What does psychological health mean for example? Does every psychologist agree on the definition? Should this fall within the purview of science? Of course it should! How is this different from morality?

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Michael October 12, 2010 at 2:42 pm

The last time atheists incorporated totalizing moral systems into action was a human catastrophe. Stalin and Mao and the governments which oversaw their respective “maximization of human well-being” murdered over 100 million persons in forced collectivizations of agriculture, cultural re-educations, gulags and lagoi, and on and on. And we atheists are still and will, probably for generations to come, be blamed for those human horrors. Let’s not do it again.

I think Harris is really smart and so is Dawkins. But whenever I read their arguments on moral/political issues, I read ideologues who haven’t thought it through. Now Harris looks to wrap his views about what is good for you and I and everyone in the raiment of science. And I am concerned that he means to institutionalize those views: he means to have government act to “maximize the well-being of conscious beings.”

That constructs ethics as a totalizing project: persons and their behavior are of value only insofar as they are means to achieve a totalized outcome – the maximization of overall well-being. You cannot choose to smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol if the state has discovered that those are suboptimal behaviors, you don’t get to be a homosexual if your choices bring the maximization below what it miht otherwise be, you don’t get to be an atheist if your expressed views undermine others’ esteem or confidence, you don’t get to invent and market a more fuel-efficient automobile if it will mean that millions will lose their jobs, and on and on.

Harris’s project is misguided at the core. We’ve been there before and the result was monstrous. Far better to have no total ethical system than this. Again.

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Eric October 12, 2010 at 2:58 pm

@Michael, I haven’t read the book yet, but I seriously doubt he’s trying to create a moral authority. Reliance on authority for morality would be amoral by the standards he outlines.

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Michael October 12, 2010 at 3:19 pm

I haven’t read it either. So if Harris actually concludes that morality ought to be founded on the value of choices made by individual moral agents rather than on some calculus performed over the social/global effects of our actions upon conscious beings, I will apologize. I had to do that once before… in 1993 I think…

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Silver Bullet October 12, 2010 at 3:22 pm

“Why does the well-being of conscious creatures matter?”…”why should well-being be maximized at all?” Really, Luke? What kind of answer would satisfy you?

“Why doesn’t the well being of non-conscious creatures matter?” Because without consciousness, it can’t matter to them, and if their well-being doesn’t matter in any way to any other conscious creature, then quite simply, it doesn’t matter.

“What is well-being, and why should it be maximized instead of preference satisfaction or desire fulfillment or happiness or pleasure?” Preference satisfaction, desire fulfillment, and happiness are probably all components of well-being. I think that questions like these may be attempting to put too fine a point on a complex concept.

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Steven October 12, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Kip, you misunderstand my objection. Health is defined is physical (and mental) well-being, and someone who has cancer probably has neither of these traits. Morality, on the other hand, is a harder beast to define, and what I’m pointing out is that moral systems often lead us to conclusions that seem odd to us (take desirism and it’s possible implication that a rapist that uses a condom is not as bad a rapist that doesn’t use one), and that there is no real proper way to judge morals.

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Michael October 12, 2010 at 3:38 pm

So I did a little bit of homework and read a couple reviews… Harris’s examples are going my way:

He goes after the legality of corporal punishment in some states by pointing to scientific evidence that there are ways it harms kids. Harris isn’t restricting the scope of his conclusions: he means them to be applied to governance – it this specific example to laws which make it illegal for parents to spank their kids.

Some other examples are similarly illustrative. He discusses burkhas and thinks science can illuminate how those issues should be decided. I have little doubt that he and his conclusions would be to encourage legislation which required women to wear burkhas IF the scientific literature showed that the result would be healthier people in a healthier society.

Homosexuality? Well instead of privileging the free choices of individual moral agents, we should ban it if science shows society benefits from executing homosexuals. Smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, expressing dissident or otherwise “unhappy, unfriendly, or depressing” ideas? Human beings don’t get to act freely, they get to act in the way we tell them to… but our dictates will be based on science… really this time.

My point is that we have done this before and it was a catastrophe. Totalizing ethics enacted by totalizing states.

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Silver Bullet October 12, 2010 at 3:43 pm

“moral systems often lead us to conclusions that seem odd to us (take desirism and it’s possible implication that a rapist that uses a condom is not as bad a rapist that doesn’t use one)”

That doesn’t seem odd to me.

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lukeprog October 12, 2010 at 3:51 pm

Silver Bullet,

Questions like the one I raised make a big difference. A normative system that tries to maximize well-being will give you very different recommendations in some circumstances than one that tries to maximize preference satisfaction. Likewise, a normative theory that treats desires as the primary object of moral evaluation will give you a very different set of recommendations than one that treats acts as the primary object of moral evaluation.

I’m not trying to say Harris is wrong, I’d just like to see a clearer argument. What reason for action do we have to maximize well-being? Or, is Harris just asserting that “the maximization of well-being” is the definition of morality? If so, then it isn’t science after all that gives you that. Which doesn’t undermine moral realism, but does undermine Harris’ claim that science shows us that morality is concerned with maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures.

Anyway, it’s a tricky subject matter.

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Silver Bullet October 12, 2010 at 3:53 pm

“I have little doubt that he and his conclusions would be to encourage legislation which required women to wear burkhas IF the scientific literature showed that the result would be healthier people in a healthier society.”

Are you against laws that prohibit people from driving cars without wearing seatbelts, or riding bicycles or motorcycles without wearing helmets?

Harris is suggesting that human beings need to think hard about moral questions and search for empiric data to help us figure them out in an open ended conversation. What’s wrong with that? I do not think that Stalin and Mao advocated what Harris is advocating.

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Michael October 12, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Sam Harris from Saturday’s Globe and Mail:

“Imagine how our view of the human condition would change if we ever found a cure for racism, xenophobia and other forms of bigotry. What if there were perfectly safe ways to increase feelings of compassion and altruism? I think interventions of this sort – pharmacological and otherwise – are probably in our future. Neuro-imaging technology could also change our lives profoundly. We will probably develop reliable lie detectors, so that when the truth really matters, it will be impossible for a person to lie. This will change politics and diplomacy rather profoundly. There is no telling how developments of this kind could put pressure on popular beliefs.”

Mao v2.0 anyone?

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Jeff H October 12, 2010 at 4:04 pm

I think the key problem with this is that if Harris is trying to address moral relativists, not having any positive argument for why his definition of morality should be used essentially means the book is worthless to them. He’s not going to convince anyone who says morality is culturally defined by saying “Morality isn’t like that. It just isn’t.”

I also think that if “well-being” isn’t properly defined, it’s going to end up being a measure of how Westernized something is. It can be dangerous for old, white guys to determine what is best for everyone – it usually ends up being suspiciously similar to what is best for old, white guys.

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Michael October 12, 2010 at 4:10 pm

NO… Harris is not saying “we need to think hard about ethics.” Harris is tackling specific ethical issues as they manifest themselves in the real world. His answers really do look to “maximize (global) well-being of conscious entities” according to the results of science.

That is totalizing and understands human beings as means to achieving an end-state.

I think state laws that require licenses, seatbelts, and helmets to use state-controlled roads make sense if that’s what we as citizens collectively choose. When I ride on private property, I expect the state to have nothing to say about it.

Do you think a law which required women to wear burkhas in public if sociologists concluded that would serve the greater good is required by morality? How about to forbid the expression of atheism, even in private, if the studies showed it caused lots of distress in other people?
Before you even think these are unrealistic possibilities…

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cl October 12, 2010 at 4:36 pm

While I found it refreshing to hear Luke criticize another atheist’s ideas on morality, I feel that myself and others are dismissed when we raise similar objections to desirism. In fact, Luke reacts to Harris’ theory much like I react to desirism. For example,

Why should we define morality in terms of “the well-being of conscious creatures”?

Why should “we” define morality in terms of desires fulfilled and thwarted?

Why choose Harris’ definition?

Why choose Fyfe’s?

What reason for action do we have to maximize well-being?

What reason for action do “we” have to maximize desire-fulfillment?

etc.

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lukeprog October 12, 2010 at 4:45 pm

cl,

I do not answer your questions because you do not listen to my answers. Case in point: For the billionth time, desirism does not claim we ought to maximize desire-fulfillment.

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Hermes October 12, 2010 at 4:49 pm

Robert Gressis: I don’t know how easy it is to write a book that is both marketable and careful. To be marketable, it seems that you have to be extravagent in your claims. There are probably some exceptions, though–I wouldn’t want to be extravagent in my claim.

It depends on the facts being discussed and how vibrant you want to make the imagery. Describe the Earth as being similar to an apple — the cool upper crust and the bright red skin are about the same ratio — and seemingly abstract ideas become clear.

Bring in additional details — that the crust is actually about 1/2 as thick as the skin on an Earth-sided apple — and there’s more room for sounding extravagant without the loss of accuracy.

The only limitation is the time taken to explain the details with the appropriate direct explanation or indirect analogy. Put it in human-scale terms, and people tend to get it.

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toweltowel October 12, 2010 at 4:51 pm

Here’s A. J. Ayer on why to reject a Harris-style “utilitarian analysis of ethical terms”:

We cannot agree that to call an action right is to say that of all the actions possible in the circumstances it would cause, or would be likely to cause, the greatest happiness, or the greatest balance of pleasure over pain, or the greatest balance of satisfied over unsatisfied desire, because we find that it is not self-contradictory to say that it is sometimes wrong to perform the action which would actually or probably cause the greatest happiness, or the greatest balance of pleasure over pain, or the greatest balance of satisfied over unsatisfied desire. And since it is not self-contradictory to say that some pleasant things are not good, or that some bad things are desired, it cannot be the case that ‘x is good’ is equivalent to ‘x is pleasant,’ or to ‘x is desired.’ And to every other variant of utilitarianism with which I am acquainted the same objection can be made. (Language, Truth, and Logic, p. 107)

The argument goes like this:

There is nothing self-contradictory about disagreeing with utilitarianism.
If a utilitarian analysis of ethical terms were correct, then it would be self-contradictory to disagree with utilitarianism.
Therefore, no utilitarian analysis of ethical terms is correct.

A similar argument goes as follows:

If a utilitarian analysis of ethical terms were correct, then anyone who uses these terms in a non-utilitarian way is (in effect) speaking a different language.
If utilitarians and non-utilitarians are merely speaking a different language, then their apparent ethical disagreement is in fact only a pseudo-disagreement over terminology.
But utilitarians and non-utilitarians really do have a genuine ethical disagreement with each other.
Therefore, utilitarians and non-utilitarians are speaking the same language.
Therefore, no utilitarian analysis of ethical terms is correct.

These arguments apply not only to utilitarian analyses, but any direct reductive analysis of ethical terms.

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Hermes October 12, 2010 at 4:57 pm

Michael, if you’re trying to stir the nest note that you’re not getting much of a response. The reason why is that what you say is not only in error, it’s boringly so. Many people have commented on those issues and in detail. If you are not aware of those responses, I’ll dig up a few canned ones. If you are, why mention it again?

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lukeprog October 12, 2010 at 4:59 pm

toweltowel,

1. There is nothing self-contradictory about disagreeing with the current physics’ definition of “atom.”

2. If current physics’ analysis of “atom” were correct, then it would be self-contradictory to disagree with current physics’ analysis of “atom.”

3. Therefore, current physics’ analysis of “atom” is not correct.

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Camus Dude October 12, 2010 at 5:00 pm

OT (and sorry if I’ve mentioned this on a different thread – I can’t remember if I have or not), but I have two suggestions for the blog Luke (if they’re not too much trouble):

1) It would be great if you could get some social media buttons to make it easier to share content (especially StumbleUpon and Twitter);

2) It would also be nice if each comment had an anchor/individual URL.

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Hermes October 12, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Camus Dude, I’ll second your #2. #1 I can see a reason for, but I have no personal interest in.

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Steven October 12, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Luke, I’m sorry for being so seemingly out of the discussion (I haven’t studied any sort of philosophy and my knowledge of moral systems is pedestrian at best), but how on Earth are you to judge another moral system? How can you posit that some observation gives you insight as to the real nature of morality, when whatever observation we make is affected by our cultural norms? You note that people who base morality on what they feel “is good” for the time can be morally atrocious the next generation (case in point, slavery), but how can we determine whether or not our moral system is leading astray–say, it somehow ends up justifying slavery. Are we to object to it on the grounds that we don’t feel slavery is correct, modify the moral system so that it makes slavery incorrect, or switch on over to another moral system because it reached a conclusion we disapproved of? But all of this sounds no better than judging a moral system based on what we already consider good and bad, or, if we accept the moral system that is leading us to slavery, well, how can we determine whether or not it is real?

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Kip October 12, 2010 at 5:08 pm
Why should we define morality in terms of “the well-being of conscious creatures”?

Why should “we” define morality in terms of desires fulfilled and thwarted?

Why choose Harris’ definition?

Why choose Fyfe’s?

Good questions. Hopefully Luke & Alonzo address these in their desirism podcast.

What reason for action do we have to maximize well-being?

What reason for action do “we” have to maximize desire-fulfillment?

Desirism doesn’t make that claim.

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Kip October 12, 2010 at 5:11 pm

Preference satisfaction, desire fulfillment, and happiness are probably all components of well-being.

I think well-being is probably a component of desire fulfillment, rather than the other way around.

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Godlesscitizen October 12, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Well, I can’t speak for Sam here but morality defined as “the well-being of conscious creatures” is perhaps the most inclusive and least arbitrary defintion of the word that’s been offered so far. Is it not safe to say that the word “well-being” simply connotates all the posible changes in brain states on the moral spectrum whether they’re in a positive or negative direction?

So for example, psychological health as well as physical health will be included in that assessment. If socio-economic inequalities exist, then that would correspond to the negative side of the spectrum. Who would be able to honestly say that inflicting physical harm, pyschological harm, violating individual rights or depriving a person of all the means in which they could live a fullfilling life, would not be immoral?

Just because there are people who would define “well-being” differently doesn’t mean their objections are necessarily valid.(anymore than a creationists objections to the scientific consensus on evolution would be valid.)

Morality or well-being are not terms that religions should be allowed to define. Unlike “sin”, “holiness” etc. morality does exist and has consequences in the world. It can thus be quantified to various degrees.

Therefore only definitions which involve facts and testable claims should count as valid.
There’s no reason for example why concepts such as “purity”, “honor”, “loyalty” or obedience to authority(which mostly means god in this context) should be included in the defintion of morality. Anything that’s nebulous, and thus outside the realm of human experience clearly has no priviledged place in any moral discourse.

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Joel October 12, 2010 at 5:40 pm

@toweltowel

Luke is right. You conflate analytic equivalency with synthetic equivalency.

You give a variant of Moore’s open quesiton argument. Since we can ask meaningfully, “Is X good”, X is not analytically equivalent to the good (unlike how bachelors are tautologically unmarried men).

However, this does not preclude synthetic equivalency. Remember Frege’s sense-reference distinction. Two words (e.g. water & H2O) may not be analytically equivalent (H2O involves 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom; water does not), but they can refer to the same object out there in the world. Hence, in Luke’s example, ‘atom’ refers to some physical object out there.

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Brent Meeker October 12, 2010 at 6:10 pm

A lot of very interesting comments. I don’t know the answer to relativism either, but I think I know part of it. There should be a distinction drawn between personal values (morals) and social values (ethics). Then ethics, social rules, can be better or worse according to how well they facilitate the realization of personal values. The personal values can be taken as incorrigible for this purpose.

Of course we generally think some personal values are better or worse, independent of their ethical implications. But that comes down to judging what kind of people are best. I see no objective standpoint from which to judge that. Maybe Darwinian survival is the only judge there.

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Jeff H October 12, 2010 at 6:15 pm

Godlesscitizen,

If, as you say, well-being refers to all possible changes in brain states, how would purity, honour, and loyalty not be included in this? All of these things make real, distinct changes in brain states. These things are largely a product of culture, and culture has an enormous effect on how we think and (correspondingly) how our brain works.

On what basis are you excluding these categories, but including psychological and physical health, socio-economic inequalities, etc.?

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lukeprog October 12, 2010 at 6:22 pm

Joel,

Yup!

Another way of getting at this is to recognize that Moore’s Open Question Argument commits what is called the ‘Masked Man Fallacy.’ You can Google it.

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Hermes October 12, 2010 at 6:38 pm

I take the issue of relativism to be a mistaken one as are many other issues.

As individuals, we act on multiple levels. On the one hand, as individuals we subjectively make decisions. On the other, we aren’t in our own environments like logical solipsists incapable of interacting with others. Each of us as individuals share a staggering set of common environmental factors and even who we are — humans — leads to yet more common results.

So, it’s only relativistic in the extreme case.

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Garren October 12, 2010 at 6:41 pm

The way I see it, there are two basic possibilities:

1) When we talk about morality, we’re all ultimately referring to the same thing.

2) We’re not all referring to the same thing.

In the first case, meta-ethics is advanced by figuring out a way to explain morality which accounts for all the ways people talk about it. If a candidate explanation of morality fails to account for one way of talking about morality, we know it’s deficient. (A lot of quick criticism of Harris’ definition, Desirism, etc. are of this form.)

In the second case, meta-ethics will forever be stuck in a rut if people think the first case is true. Instead, meta-ethics is advanced by distinguishing the different meanings and then partitioning our terminology to fit. (I’ve heard this approach implied when advocates of a meta-ethical view ask for what they’re talking about to be considered on its own merits even if people don’t consider it “morality” proper.)

In either case, there are reduction projects going on. The difference is whether the reduction is expected to reach unity. I would like to see moral philosophers stop obsessing about finding a unified concept and see how well a partitioning project might work. To make an analogy to Biblical inerrancy, maybe the best way to harmonize everything is to admit disharmony.

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Godlesscitizen October 12, 2010 at 6:47 pm

@jeff H:

“Honor” is an intangible abstract, you cannot measure it. It has no correlate in the real world.(Unlike suffering or the increase of societal health in terms of numerous quantifiable critera)

Loyalty can be considered a value I suppose, and the religious may deem it a “virtue” for all that’s worth, but the harm done by betrayal would already be part of the overall values of justice, fairness and harm. There is however no state of conscioussness one specifically feels while being loyal to a cause.(and if im wrong about that it matters not, as it doesn’t deserve special moral consideration that invovles a more expansive definition of morality.)
The basis for including physical health or mental health should be obvious as these things can cause immense suffering to fellow human beings or other animals. Socio-economic conditions being abyssmal tends to produce suffering and misery.

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Godlesscitizen October 12, 2010 at 6:55 pm

Perhaps my most recent blog might help clarify where I stand.(which isn’t too far from what Harris thinks regarding this stuff)
I think the issue of morality has simply been bombarded with too much incompatible and abstract philosophy.(Kant’s “categorical imperatives”, “you cannot get an ought from an is” etc.)
Anyway here’s my post concerning morality(although its main focus is to show why religious morality isn’t good enough)
:
http://atheistmultiverse.blogspot.com/2010/10/why-religious-morality-is-insufficient.html

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Hermes October 12, 2010 at 6:58 pm

Garren, good points. I especially like the way you handled your conclusion.

I think that we have the same intuitions and often those are good enough to be the same thing. Roughly your #1. Yet, moral questions that are trivial to one group or at a specific time are answered differently by a different group or the same group at a different time. Not close to your #2, but it shares some aspects.

We have some common, basically hard wired, sense of right and wrong. That hard wiring is not immune to the messy impact of social considerations and the necessities of life. If anything, the wiring drives how we handle social considerations as well as the necessities of life.

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Godlesscitizen October 12, 2010 at 7:27 pm

I’m trying to play devil’s advocate and see if there are any real considerations for the domain of morality that would somehow not be covered by “the well-being of conscious creatures”.

Unless a person feels that killing plants is immoral(which would render even vegan’s immoral in that scenario), then I’m coming up short here. It’s clear that plants don’t feel pain, thus don’t enter the moral domain.
I would include polluting an ecosystem as immoral, but only because of the harm done to us as a species or other species as well. So still no new considerations needed so far.

I also fail to see as well how certain moral theories like desirism which Luke subscribes to are actually incompatible with this definition as to have to “admit disharmony”.

If a person’s desires to be healthy, happy, free of harm and wants the best for everyone around him or her in society, won’t those concerns be included as part of “well-being”?

The one thing though I think is wrong with desirism is that a person could have really horrible desires. So let’s say we limit morality to everyone’s desires being fulfilled(mutually) and all goals relate to that. What’s to stop someone from saying that wanting to hurt as many people as possible is the desire they seek to constantly fulfill?

What I’m really getting at is, desires outside the realm of being concerned with maximizing well-being and reducing or eliminating suffering on an individual or societal level, should’nt be included in any definition of morality.
Now if that’s what desirism is really limited to anyway, then I see no disharmony with it and Harris’s view.

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Godlesscitizen October 12, 2010 at 7:40 pm

Thanks for this summary, Luke. I would add that maximizing the well-being of “conscious creatures” might mean we should kill all the humans so insects can feast on their corpses – if insects are conscious, of course.  

First of all, I’m pretty sure their cognitive awareness is much more dimished than our own or even that of say a mouse. Seondly, the implicit balancing of competing interests for the shares of maximal well-being would simply not render Harris’s view incoherent.

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toweltowel October 12, 2010 at 8:07 pm

Luke,

I think your parody doesn’t work, due to a mixing of first-order and second-order. There’s no reason to accept this premise:

If current physics’ analysis of “atom” were correct, then it would be self-contradictory to disagree with current physics’ analysis of “atom.”

After all, from the proposition that current physics’ analysis of “atom” is correct, all that could follow is that first-order claims like “some atoms are not ____” are self-contradictory (where the blank stands for the analysans). But the self-contradictoriness of those sort of claims is quite different from the self-contradictoriness of disagreeing with the analysis. To give a simple example, if an analysis of “bachelor” as unmarried male is correct, all that follows is that first-order claims like “some bachelors are married” are self-contradictory, but it doesn’t follow that “‘bachelor’ cannot be analyzed as unmarried male” is self-contradictory.

Likewise, if a utilitarian analysis of ethical terms is correct, what follows is that ethical claims like “some utility-maximizing acts are wrong” are self-contradictory, not that the metaethical claim “ethical terms cannot be given a utilitarian analysis” is self-contradictory.

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lukeprog October 12, 2010 at 8:09 pm
toweltowel October 12, 2010 at 8:11 pm

Joel,

I’m not conflating the two.

I take it that Harris is making full-blooded claims of analytic equivalence, not mere claims of synthetic equivalence. Thus he is still vulnerable to the Open Question Argument.

If he wants to back off to synthetic equivalence like the Cornell realists, then he owes everyone a semantic account that explains why ethical terms refer to utilitarian-friendly ontology, at which point he will be vulnerable to Moral Twin Earth.

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toweltowel October 12, 2010 at 8:57 pm

Luke,

Ayer’s argument would commit the masked man fallacy only if it had a metaphysical conclusion: e.g., that goodness is not the same as pleasure, that rightness is not the same as utility-maximization. But the conclusion is in fact a semantic one: no utilitarian analysis of ethical terms is correct. Therefore, it does not commitment the masked man fallacy.

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Michael October 12, 2010 at 9:13 pm

@ Hermes. Huh. And here I thought I was making some good arguments.

If you are referring to atheist answers to my point about 20th Century Communism, save them. I have been an atheist for nearly 4 decades now and have responded many times to the charge that atheists committed horrendous atrocities.

My point is that atheists are pinned with the monstrous atrocities committed by the Communists. The kernel of truth in the charge is that these horrific governments and their leaders were atheists and their morality consisted of Marxist ideology and not any religious faith. That has to give any atheist of good conscience pause.

Or were you referring to my points about Harris’ view of morality? If so, I invite you to explain how his view, as far as I can come to it, would NOT endorse women being required to wear burkhas in public if the best science available indicated that doing so would maximize the well-being of society? Or how it wouldn’t conclude that you have an affirmative moral duty to stop being an atheist if doing so causes net harm to others or society in general.

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toweltowel October 12, 2010 at 9:18 pm

Michael,

Why should any “atheist of good conscience” feel a worried pause over the abhorrent actions of totalitarian Marxists? Should any theist of good conscience feel a worried pause over jihadists and Inquisitors?

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lukeprog October 12, 2010 at 9:23 pm

toweltowel,

I’m pretty sure Harris is making a claim of synthetic equivalence. And yeah, I don’t recall him responding to Moral Twin Earth – but hey, it’s a book for the public! It’s not clear to me that he defends a Cornell-type new wave moral semantics, either. Nor is it clear to me that Harris defends a dispositional semantic theory. Basically, Harris’ position is not at all clear to me. :)

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AnonGradStudent October 12, 2010 at 9:24 pm

Um, it’s not at all clear that Moore’s OQA commits any interesting fallacy. If you want to base your ethical beliefs on the assumption that the OQA argument must be fallacious, well, feel free, I guess. Maybe you think Moore didn’t seal the deal? Have you considered whether the deal can be sealed? If Moore failed, does it follow that a close variant of his argument must also fail? Of course not. Have you considered those possible variants? Do you care? Are you interested in truth?

I recommend you read (among other things): Terry Horgan and Mark Timmons, “Troubles for New Wave Moral Semantics: The Open-Question Argument Revisited”. Think more. Assert less. For god’s sake, man.

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lukeprog October 12, 2010 at 9:25 pm

toweltowel,

Huh? I never said that Ayer’s argument committed the masked man fallacy.

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Steven October 12, 2010 at 9:27 pm

Hermes, I completely agree with your observation. But that seems to me to point towards possible universal morals (as I talked about earlier on) but not objective morals. I don’t have a problem when we say it can apply to all of humanity as a result of rational self-interest or some other near-universal feature of humanity, but when we claim that from this we can derive objective morals…well, I just don’t see it.

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lukeprog October 12, 2010 at 9:30 pm

AnonGradStudent,

I do not recall claiming that no variant of Moore’s argument succeeds, nor that Horgan & Timmons fail. You apparently think I assert too much because you put imagined assertions in my mouth.

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Hermes October 12, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Michael: And here I thought I was making some good arguments.

I’m commenting on a subset only. I don’t begrudge you your pride in any other part, or in an updated version of what I’m now commenting on.

Michael: My point is that atheists are pinned with the monstrous atrocities committed by the Communists. The kernel of truth in the charge is that these horrific governments and their leaders were atheists and their morality consisted of Marxist ideology and not any religious faith. That has to give any atheist of good conscience pause.

In that case, I think you might be mashing together disparate groups as well as undefined individuals.

Note, by contrast, that any random generic theist might be either a member of some religious sect — say, Sikhism or Scientology — or they may be theistic but not religious. (Theism in this context being the belief in a god or gods, not narrowly monotheism or some Christian derived religious sect.)

As you are probably aware, religion and theism are associated but are not necessarily tied together. I myself was a Catholic non-theist/atheist for about 10 years; I followed the religion and considered it worthy of devotion but did not consider that there were any actual gods attached to it. That may sound strange — a non-theist Catholic — but how many times have you heard of cultural Jews and not thought that also was strange?

Since you know the arguments, I’m wondering how atheists in general should be concerned at all.

I don’t ask a generic theist to take responsibility for some other theist’s actions. Yet, when does responsibility come in? If they are in a specific sect that promotes activities that are noteworthy, then yes they are responsible in the same way that any group member is responsible for the company they keep and the actions they directly or tacitly support.

In the same way, if an atheist should take responsibility, it’s not for their generic atheism just as a theist is not responsible for their generic theism. It’s for the add-ons. Just as in the case for the theists who choose a specific sect that promotes or does not work against negative acts done in the name of their sect. There is another difference, though; theism is an active belief as opposed to atheism which is not a belief at all. Theism has some built-in possibility for responsibility, while atheism does not have any without other additions being inserted.

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Camus Dude October 12, 2010 at 10:02 pm

OT, I read a fair bit by Timmons when I was in my MA program for philosophy (which I later dropped out of), and I really enjoy reading his work. It’s interesting, and not turgid or boring as fuck like some academic ethics and metaethics philosophical writing can be.

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toweltowel October 12, 2010 at 10:12 pm

Luke,

If Harris means mere synthetic equivalence, then why all the talk of definition? What leads you to think he means to defend only synthetic equivalence?

As for Geirsson, he offers no relief for metaethical naturalists defending synthetic equivalence. On the contrary, he argues that the semantic accounts they offer do not work, and that since direct reference theories are unpromising for ethical terms, the Open Question Argument is still a threat.

Moreover, I don’t think Geirsson’s critique of Moral Twin Earth is successful. Even if he is right that genuine disagreement can arise without sameness in meaning, the scenario that proves the point subtly presupposes analytic equivalences of the sort we were all seeking to avoid. Geirsson gets a genuine disagreement going by having an earthling adopt the referential intentions of the twin-earthlings. But these referential intentions either involve direct indication of what is being talked about (e.g., Donnellan’s case, water and XYZ) or else they involve a reference-fixing description. But a reference-fixing description is just an analytic equivalence all over again, and a direct indication presupposes that ethical terms can be analyzed with a description like “what we are both observing”.

In other words, Geirsson avoids Moral Twin Earth only by setting aside semantic meaning, introducing speaker meaning, and (in effect) construing it in terms of a naturalistic analysis. And naturalistic analyses are exactly what we were hoping to avoid.

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toweltowel October 12, 2010 at 10:15 pm

Luke,

Sorry: you said “Moore’s Open Question Argument” in agreement with Joel’s criticism of “a variant of Moore’s open quesiton argument”, which presumably referred to the argument of Ayer’s I quoted. So I thought you too were referring to Ayer’s argument. Speaker reference and all that!

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Michael October 12, 2010 at 10:23 pm

@toweltowel

Yes to your 2nd question. All theists should be concerned with the actions of jihadists and Inquisitors. Jihadists commit horrendous acts because they believe Allah sanctions their behavior. For many theists, the ultimate test of whether an act is moral or even a duty is whether Allah/God allows or demands it, then Jihadists pose an obvious problem. Inquisitors committed horrendous acts because they were carrying out the will of God’s representative on Earth, God’s Church, and the conclusions of the most esteemed Christian scholars of the time. If theism can go so wrong, then that is an obvious problem with theism. So of course every theist should be very concerned with jihadists and Inquisitors.

As to the first question, Soviet Russia and Communist China were the most visible states based on atheism: they banned or at least attempted to do away with religious instiutions. Stalin and Mao were atheists. These governments murdered about 100 million of their own citizens and those 2 men committed some of the worst atrocities in recent human history. I have made the extended argument that atheism is not communism hundreds of times in my life. And you know what? The preachers and priests and imams still just have to point to make their point.

And they have a point: atheist morality needs to get it right or we risk another human catastrophe. Endorsement of totalizing moral schemes which direct The State to achieve end-states just repeat the same blunder. They place insufficient value in individual human persons and their decisions about how to live their own lives. You know, because we have a moral duty to “maximize the well-being of conscious beings” according to the results of science… even if that means you don’t get rights of thought and expression, even if it means doing away with private property or freedom of religion, even if it means that some persons need to be requirted to take pharmacological agents to increase their sociability (see Harris above), and so on…

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toweltowel October 12, 2010 at 10:34 pm

Michael,

Your reasons for theists to feel concerned do not apply to all theists. At most, they apply to those theists who accept divine command theory, plus a moral epistemology that puts a premium on divine revelation. I see no reason why, say, a nonreligious philosophical theist should care about jihadists and Inquisitors.

Likewise for atheists. At most, your reasons apply to those atheists who accept “totalizing moral schemes which direct The State to achieve end-states”. I see no reason why, say, a Mill-style individualist liberal atheist should care about totalitarian Marxists.

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lukeprog October 12, 2010 at 10:35 pm

toweltowel,

Yeah, I removed the Geirsson reference from my earlier post, though apparently not quickly enough. Geirsson, of course, attacks metaethical naturalism in his own way.

Let me step back and ask you a question about moral semantics in general. Timmons & others attack moral naturalism by appealing to our intuitions about what moral terms mean, and claiming that the naturalist’s reduction of moral terms doesn’t match our intuitions about moral terms. Joyce & others attack moral realism in general by arguing that our intuitions about moral terms strongly favor claims about moral absolutism (or motivational internalism) that are untrue or unsupported. How concerned do you think moral realists should be about such arguments?

As for me, I suspect that any theory about essentially contested concepts like morality will be subject to such criticisms. After all, moral terms (and art terms, and so on) are used in a great variety of ways, and our intuitive sense of them is vague and fuzzy and probably not coherent. So it will not be hard for a critic to say that some feature of our intuitions about a contested concept do not fit with a proposed theory. But does this mean there can be no true theories about essentially contested concepts in general? I don’t think so. I think it just means we need to acknowledge that our intuitive ideas of essentially contested concepts are molded by their fuzzy evolutionary history (and their use in competing cultures of discourse, which we witness). Then, we can make a pragmatic decision about whether it’s worth chucking the contested concept altogether, or whether we want to define it more precisely and use the concept more precisely and successfully.

What do you think?

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Hermes October 12, 2010 at 10:41 pm

Steven, agreed on your emphasis of what you call universal morals. That’s probably the path to go down even though the final destination is by definition not known absolutely.

I trust people. With moderate concern, and given enough time, we as a group will figure it out. The path may be paved in blood, yet I expect that the stain will thin to a trickle eventually, but only through our own efforts and not relying on mystery or dogma. The short cuts based on wishful thinking will probably lead to misery not a promised land.

Objective morals do not make sense in an absolute sense. While they do sound like a good idea, a temptation, inserting absolutes and abstractions inappropriately while ignoring our own limits and ignorance is not a good idea. In most cases, we have to constantly pick up the garbage and fix things not just pick the ideal absolute and then have it magically down for us.

An aside: I’ve realize that not only are we biased by biology and society, we are also bigots. We can’t easily escape it. I try and be aware of my own bigotry and biases yet at the same time I do not let that paralyze me. I’m not constantly shamed by my own failures, yet at the same time it is also important to acknowledge how we think and when we aren’t moving in the direction of an ideal (even if there are limits and the ideal is not obtainable).

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Camus Dude October 12, 2010 at 10:43 pm

For my part, I think moral realists ought to be very concerned by the arguments of Joyce. But I was already an error theorist from Mackie, and a moral skeptic from Nietzsche and Brian Leiter (or rather his work on Nietzsche and moral realism).

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toweltowel October 12, 2010 at 10:55 pm

Luke,

I think the essentially contested concepts you mention are going to be very resistant to any sort of referential semantics that could make sense of realist-friendly truth-conditions. I think our fuzzy sense of the concepts reflects the fuzziness/flexibility of the concepts themselves, which means the concepts aren’t going to have enough determinate content to refer to any particular piece of ontology in the world to the exclusion of others. So I think the expressivists are on the right track, in trying to understand normative concepts in a non-referential way.

And that means I don’t view the fuzziness of the concepts as a flaw that would justify discarding them or precisifying away the fuzziness. Precisifying normative concepts will only eliminate their normativity (rendering any resulting objective truths hollow), and any would-be justification of discarding normative concepts faces both a Moorean common-sense problem and a problem of self-refutation (justification being a normative concept itself).

In any case, I’m not sure how else to evaluate the pros and cons of a theory of moral semantics other than seeing how well it captures the semantic intuitions of competent speakers.

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toweltowel October 12, 2010 at 11:00 pm

If I can continue to dogmatize, I think Joyce ought to be worried about his own realist commitments: namely, his belief in objective facts about the normative reasons embodied in hypothetical imperatives. Presumably we can explain all that needs to be explained about means-end animal behavior without introducing special normative facts, a consideration which ought to weigh pretty heavily with an error-theorist.

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lukeprog October 13, 2010 at 12:42 am

toweltowel,

Well said. I agree that if we keep concepts fuzzy, they’ll have a hard time successfully referring. But then, if I want to talk about real things, can’t I use the nearest term available, as long as I clarify which sense of the essentially contested concept I’m using? Sometimes new terms will have to be invented, but often enough, an existing term will do, as long as we clarify: “By atom I don’t mean it’s indivisible, but I do mean it’s the thing of which molecules are made.” Or: “By ‘great art’ I mean that it was intended as art, and was hugely influential on lots of future artists.”

I think the reason I view the fuzziness of concepts as a flaw to be corrected is that so much of the time, concepts are not meant to be used only to emote, but also to refer. I, at least, often use fuzzy concepts in an attempt to refer, but when pressed, I find that I have to do a lot of clarifying to make myself clear. But I accept the task because I was, in fact, trying to refer, and not merely to emote. (Emoting is so often attached to referring.) And it appears that many other people attempt to do the same.

Also, why would precisifying normative concepts only eliminate their normativity? Could keeping them vague retain their normativity somehow?

As an aside, I’ll mention that I don’t feel the force of the Moorean common-sense problem. Nobis and I discussed this a bit, though I don’t think we named Moore. Also, I do defend the existence of one source of normativity: the hypothetical imperative, which supervenes on a motive and a prediction but still accounts for ought-talk.

I agree that we can compare theories of moral semantics by how well they capture the semantic intuitions of competent speakers. But I also think we can evaluate them based on successful reference, because I think that is in a great many cases – and perhaps most – part of their intended purpose. That’s why we changed from one semantic theory of the atom to another – we discovered that the old theory (which depended on the assumption of indivisibilty) did not refer.

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John W. Loftus October 13, 2010 at 4:43 am

Hi Luke, I have not read through these comments, but I’ll tell you that I am tired of people asking me exactly what the Outsider Test for Faith is all about. They act like they don’t know what I’m talking about, not because I am unclear about it, but because they want to find an excuse to dismiss it. They disagree with it on other grounds. I am not writing for the professional philosopher. If I was then I would need to provide a detailed analysis of all the terms involved complete with the logical notations. Here’s what those philosophers must do. They must give it a charitable interpretation if they seek to criticize it. That’s right, a charitable interpretation.

Now along comes Sam Harris. He’s not writing for the professional philosopher either. What to do? Just give his argument a charitable interpretation. Hey, if Aristotle can say happiness needs no justification because it’s the only end in and of itself, then so can Harris with regard to well-being and human flourishing.

Moreover, since Harris is arguing that science can tell us in principle what morals we should have it only stands to reason that the morals he points us to must be expressed in terms of health, like human flourishing. So until we know that which makes for human flourishing people will always ask what that is, you see.

Richard Carrier wrote a chapter for my next book arguing that Sam Harris is correct.

Cheers.

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John W. Loftus October 13, 2010 at 5:02 am

Luke wrote: “Harris repeatedly says we ‘must’ define morality in terms of the well-being of conscious creatures. But why?”

Uhmm, because there is no other alternatives.

In my opinion all other moral theories speak about what makes for morality, but Harris provides a means for testing them. Why would anyone disagree? We have arrived at a sufficient way to test all other forms of ethics, and in so doing they can all be subsumed under the health and well-being of human beings.

I do not find it necessary that in order to make his case he must also criticize other moral theories. I think if we approach his book with a charitable interpretation what he argues for will be clear and non-controversial for godless people who have become atheists due to the sciences. The sciences. That’s all we have. We argue for them in every other single area when it comes to the truth of the cosmos. I am not willing to turn morality over to the philosopher since I think, after years of studying philosophy, much of it is nothing but special pleading based on cognitive dissonance theory. The book “Mistakes Were Made But Not By Us” is important to see why I think this:

http://www.amazon.com/Mistakes-Were-Made-But-Not/dp/0156033909/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1286971298&sr=1-1

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Kip October 13, 2010 at 5:34 am

Alonzo Fyfe did a series of posts in reply to Sam Harris’ claim that “well-being” was the foundation for morality. I’d encourage everyone to check (or re-check) them out:

Sam Harris: Science and Morality
Sam Harris: Well-Being vs. Desire Fulfillment
Sam Harris: The Concept of Well-Being
Sam Harris: Health and Well-Being

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Polymeron October 13, 2010 at 6:36 am

@Kip

Huh. I’ve been saying for a while now that Alonzo’s solution to the is-ought gap was to just stay on the “is” side and at most name some things in it an “ought”. I didn’t realize that he actually said as much in so many words.
Thanks for the link.

@John Loftus,
I don’t think I can be particularly charitable about this. Harris is making some pretty serious claims, the implications of some of which are no less than culture war. He’s essentially telling us to make very important decisions based on a process he recommends, but he has no basis for this recommendation.

The crime here is twofold:
1) Asserting something as the foundation of morality with no basis other than his subjective idea. Now, to be charitable, this is the lesser crime, because at least he alludes (crudely) to the fact that we *prefer* to use his meter as it suits us. If not presented so crudely, this could be the beginning of an argument stating that “It doesn’t matter whether it represents anything that exists, we prefer to use this arbitrary meter anyway to better our lives”. So, being charitable, on that level at least he doesn’t fail so utterly and miserably. Which cannot be said for…

2) Using as the foundation of something he claims needs to be the foundation of scientific exploration, a word which not only has no meter or units of measurement, but is in fact not clearly defined at all. “Well-being” means precisely nothing: What I think it means may well be different than what you think it is. Is there a scientific way to determine what well-being is? No? Then shut up about your way being scientific!

I work in requirements management. If I write a requirement that says “The system shall be good” I will lose my job, because it doesn’t mean anything, has no set meter, and is untestable. And if someone publishes a book about requirements and says “Systems are poorly designed, because no on puts in the requirement that they be good for their user”, I will not be charitable to that view just because the target audience is not engineers. I will treat it with the scorn that this dangerous idiocy deserves.

I cannot be charitable about this just because Harris is not a moral philosopher and didn’t write his book to philosophers. It fails on levels that should be easily dismantled in lay conversation, much less at the level of recognition that his ideas actually receive. In fact, it is much MORE serious because by proposing these ideas he is conflating the actual good ideas – using science to make decisions about the world around us – with his own arbitrary and vague ideas, thereby possibly causing a lot of people to miss the point.

People should be careful about the ideas they float around, and especially about assertions which they shoot with an air of certainty about them. Doing otherwise is reckless, pure and simple, and so I name Harris reckless in his ideas.

Think first, publish later. That’s all I have to say.

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Kip October 13, 2010 at 7:09 am

I’ve been saying for a while now that Alonzo’s solution to the is-ought gap was to just stay on the “is” side and at most name some things in it an “ought”. I didn’t realize that he actually said as much in so many words.

There is no “is-ought” gap as normally understood, because there is no such thing as an “ought” without an “is”. There are no “categorical imperatives”, in other words. At least, I’ve seen no evidence of them, so I don’t think it makes sense to include them in any model of the universe.

So, I think it’s a good thing that Alonzo stays on the “is” side of the “is-ought” gap. That means he’s talking about things that actually exist. Further, I think we can get sufficient “oughts” from the “is” side to get us where we want to be. (TANGENT: I hold a similar view in the “freewill” debate — there’s no reason to posit libertarian/contra-causal freewill, since we have no evidence it exists, and the compatibilist notion of freewill gets us where we want.)

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Daniel Richardson October 13, 2010 at 7:42 am

“The problem seems to be that we have all agreed on definitions for words like “atom” and “electron” and “field” and “electromagnetic wave.” But we have not all agreed on definitions for “morally good” and “morally bad” and “morally right” and “morally wrong.”

So, the only way to justify “unscientific priors” is by consent? If there were Christian physicists that defined their terms in such a way as to confirm a literal interpretation of Genesis, would you then conclude that there could be no science of physics? Would there be any reason to take them seriously just because they value different “unscientific priors.”

“The book ‘Mistakes Were Made But Not By Us is important to see why I think this”

Great book, BTW

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Silver Bullet October 13, 2010 at 12:12 pm

“Questions like the one I raised make a big difference. A normative system that tries to maximize well-being will give you very different recommendations in some circumstances than one that tries to maximize preference satisfaction. Likewise, a normative theory that treats desires as the primary object of moral evaluation will give you a very different set of recommendations than one that treats acts as the primary object of moral evaluation.”

Kind of like how a health system that maximizes longevity might give different recommendations than one that maximizes quality of life, for instance?

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Silver Bullet October 13, 2010 at 12:17 pm

“NO… Harris is not saying “we need to think hard about ethics.” Harris is tackling specific ethical issues as they manifest themselves in the real world. His answers really do look to “maximize (global) well-being of conscious entities” according to the results of science.”

We disagree. Harris is speaking out against moral relativism, which basically robs people of a framework with which to think about ethics. I think that “maximizing well-being of conscious entities” takes a great deal of thought, and provides a framework for that open-ended conversation.

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Michael October 13, 2010 at 1:29 pm

I neither meant that all atheists are communists nor that all theists are jihadists. Penn Jillete and I are both atheists and neither of us care much for a fulsome State. I take Hermes at his word that he is not now and has never been an Inquisitor, despite his shady past as a Catholic. My point there was that when atheists ran stuff in the USSR and Communist China, it turned out horribly bad. So we don’t get to screw up again.

Sam Harris’s moral views, from what I can glean of them without actually reading his book (!), are at their core, authoritarian. That’s because they don’t give sufficient weight to the value of the individual human person and the decisions we make about the proper conduct of our own lives. Instead, his morality instructs us to act so as to “maximize well-being of conscious entities” according to the results of science. His examples in interviews make clear he means the state to enforce his conclusions.

Meera Nanda provides a pretty good explanation of why Harris’s moral landscape looks to remove the individual human person in her New Humanist piece from a few years ago: ( http://www.newhumanist.org.uk/973/spirited-away ). My apologies if you all are familiar with her argument already, but it is new to me. Here is an excerpt:

“Even if one were to play along with Harris’s badly flawed, theology-centered diagnosis of religious extremism, it is simply not true that spiritual, non-dualistic eastern religions are free from violence. Violence and authoritarianism run deep in societies which worship at the altar of ‘one-ness.’ Harris, who is so alert to the ‘inherent’ violence of the Koran, is completely blind to the religious sources of violence in the ‘spiritual east’.

The Jains of India may not be committing acts of suicide bombings, as Harris reminds us repeatedly, but can one honestly say that Jains and pious Hindus have shown any ‘one-ness’ with the Muslims, Christians and other religious minorities in India? Has their Hinduism prevented Tamil Tigers from conducting suicide bombings against the equally ‘spiritual’ Buddhists of Sri Lanka or the Buddhists from discriminating against the Tamils? Didn’t Zen Buddhists actively and enthusiastically support Japan’s ultra-nationalism in the brutal imperialist wars against China and Korea? There is a complex history of nationalism, spiritualism and violence behind each one of these historical episodes.

Harris appears oblivious to the authoritarian implications of the one-ness he worships. Shedding one’s ‘I-ness’ is a recipe for group-think and authoritarianism. The individual in her everyday life is treated as an illusion of no consequence when seen from the mystical highground of one-ness. Of course the Gnostic vision of one-ness is not supposed to be available to all. The enlightened have always constituted a spiritual aristocracy in deeply unequal Eastern societies. When one-ness is made into the highest religious ideal you get the ‘holism’ of caste society.”

She made my intuitions concrete: Harris’s mysticism informs his moral understanding. The individual human person is not our moral concern and neither are their desires, decisions, or will. Harris cares about the forest, not the trees. Alas.

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cl October 13, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Luke,

I do not answer your questions because you do not listen to my answers.

That’s laughably false, and you make it sound like persistent questioning is a bad thing! No offense, but it’s not my fault you guys have presented your theory confusingly for the past year and are only now beginning to improve in clarity.

Truth be told, I listen intently to the answers you and Alonzo supply. I think about them for days, weeks, even months at times. I write my own posts about your answers in an earnest effort to make sense out of them. That I find many of your answers inconsistent does not mean mean that I’m not listening to them. You are confusing “cl not being persuaded by your logic” with “cl not listening to what you’re saying.” There’s a difference.

Case in point: For the billionth time, desirism does not claim we ought to maximize desire-fulfillment.

Sorry, but that’s no “case in point” at all. Since I’ve quoted you and Alonzo as making that claim both here and on my own blog, your response suggests you aren’t listening very carefully to what I’m saying. IOW, yeah, I know that you and Alonzo say desirims doesn’t claim we ought to maximize desire-fulfillment, but you also say that desirism makes “hypothetical prescriptions,” which leads an inquisitive person to ask what type of “hypothetical prescriptions” does desirism make? In Short List Theories of Morality, Fyfe tells us: “[Desirism] prescribes in favor of those desires that tends to fulfill other desires, and against those desires that tend to thwart other desires.”

Okay then, desirism makes “hypothetical prescriptions” in favor of desires that tend to fulfill other desires. So how is it not fair to say that desirism makes hypothetical prescriptions in favor of maximizing desire-fulfillment? What’s the difference between saying “desirism prescribes in favor of those desires that tends to fulfill other desires” vs. “desirism prescribes in favor of maximizing desire-fulfillment?”

So accuse me of “not listening” if it toots your whistle, but I think your defense of desirism might go a lot further if you answered the very same questions you tossed at Sam. I know for a fact that such would help clarify things for me.

Kip,

Good questions. Hopefully Luke & Alonzo address these in their desirism podcast.

Well thanks. I hope they do, too.

What reason for action do “we” have to maximize desire-fulfillment? [cl]

Desirism doesn’t make that claim. [Kip]

I know that when asked, Luke and Fyfe use that stock response, but I have no choice to question it because their other answers seem to present a desirist structure that does maximize desire-fulfillment. Else – if maximizing desire-fulfillment is not a key component of the theory – how could Fyfe claim that “[Desirism] prescribes in favor of those desires that tends to fulfill other desires, and against those desires that tend to thwart other desires?” From every angle I’ve got, that seems 100% consistent with the concept of maximizing desire-fulfillment.

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cl October 13, 2010 at 2:44 pm

Anyways…

There was a post or thread a while back where Luke discussed when “why” becomes a non-sensical question. We discussed children as an example, specifically, how a child can just respond to any answer given with another “why” question. I see this phenomenon at play in Luke’s post here, and in discussions of atheist morality in general. Someone like Harris comes along and plants a goalpost, then everybody else sits around and asks “why” that goalpost should be accepted as opposed to some other one. If our ongoing discussions of desirism or Massimo and Julia’s current debates are any indication, this phenomenon seems to occur regardless of the goalpost actually planted: someone says, “why should well-being be the goalpost,” while another says, “why should happiness be the goalpost,” etc. etc. ad nauseum, and a whirlwind of seemingly intractable philosophical banter ensues.

This is part of the reason I say I’d be an error-theorist if I were an atheist. More specifically, I’d be an error-theorist who believed that a social contract was the best means for justifying the use of praise and condemnation. To have only one human body establishing the criteria of morality – be it Fyfe, Harris, or even a consensus of scientists – and then trying to enforce that criteria for everybody – seems fascist, or at least a step in that direction.

Instead, a group of people can establish a community and say “here are the rules of this community, if you accept them you can be among us, if not, you can’t, and we will use measures of force to ensure that you do not.” This deals with the is/ought gap without needing to appeal to any categorical imperatives: if a person values what the rest of society values, then that person ought to follow the rules.

In an atheist context at least, this seems to be a better way that theoretically circumvents the inevitable bickering and accusations of subjectivity. Instead of trying to herd a bunch of cats to one goalpost or another, the adherents of the social contract could skip the tiresome discussion of “what’s really right or wrong” altogether. They could start on the same page, and then devote their energies to the actual practice of morality.

Of course, this wouldn’t be without problems either, but it seems a lot more fruitful than the alternatives explored to date.

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Kip October 13, 2010 at 2:59 pm

@Michael: why would it be bad for the State to enforce the moral rules determined to be optimal by science?

Well… I could wait for your response… but I’ll assume it will be something along the lines of: “because that would be bad”. And you could give examples of the terrible things that have happened in history when States have tried to do that.

So… yeah, I agree. But that doesn’t invalidate the concept. The fact that States are unable to enforce (all*) moral dictates is one of the facts that must be considered in the moral landscape. If Sam Harris thinks the State could do this, then that’s an empirical question that he’s probably wrong about. And that empirical question is also open to scientific enquiry.

(*) States do enforce some moral dictates… and unless you are an anarchist, then you are probably okay with the State doing some of this: imprisoning people for murder, for instance.

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cl October 13, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Michael,

I have to say, I’ve been following your comments and agree with them for the most part. For example,

Instead, [Harris'] morality instructs us to act so as to “maximize well-being of conscious entities” according to the results of science. His examples in interviews make clear he means the state to enforce his conclusions.

Harris appears oblivious to the authoritarian implications of the one-ness he worships. Shedding one’s ‘I-ness’ is a recipe for group-think and authoritarianism.

That’s pretty much what I was getting at in parts of my previous comments. I share your concern over a panel of scientists making rules for the rest of us. Sure, atheists can quip with their little “science works bitches” rhetoric all they want, but the truth is that science also doesn’t work at times. The question is, can we afford to risk science “not working” when it comes to morality? Haven’t we learned from our experiences with eugenics?

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Michael October 13, 2010 at 3:32 pm

@ Kip of course my answer was/is “because that would be bad”.

Above comments point to a few specific ways it would be bad, that is to particular potential violations of our moral intuitions. If sociologists determined that requiring all women to wear burkhas in public (or private for that matter) would improve overall well-being (of conscious beings or perhaps even of the women themselves) then the State would enforce that. It wouldn’t matter, except perhaps indirectly, that some, many, or even all women did not want to wear burkhas: it is science that decides not individual persons. But to your other questions, it wouldn’t even matter, except perhaps indirectly, that large majorities of persons expressed preferences that women not wear burkhas or that the state not require them to do so: the sociologicl studies will have spoken and that is that. Morality is no longer a question of what individual persons want or choose or will and it isn’t even a matter of what we collectively desire, decide, or insist upon: it is a matter of what science determines is for the well-being of conscious beings.

Homosexuals need to be converted if their lifestyle is determined to be unhealthy, society needs to be purged of Jews or Gypsies and certainly of Atheists if science concludes these persons undermine our attempts to maximize well-being, and on and on.

If you think these examples are unrealistic, then you missed the 20th century.

I am not an anarchist. I do, however, think that any morality worth trying must sufficiently value individual human persons and the decisions they make about their lives. We know how it turns out when States act to maximize the well-being of the collective instead.

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Hermes October 13, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Cl, great! You’re back and talking about morals again!

With your presence, it is possible to continue our discussion. What details would you like to discuss? If you don’t have a preference for a specific topic from what we were discussing, I can recommend specific ones and you can provide your insights.

What say you?

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cl October 13, 2010 at 4:10 pm

Hermes,

What details would you like to discuss?

I’m already discussing them. Did you have something to add?

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Steven October 13, 2010 at 4:20 pm

Cl, this isn’t just a problem for “atheistic” morals. Why should I follow what God says is right? Why should we set God as a goal-post? Why should we trust what God says? So on so forth.

Furthermore, if God created morals, then on what basis did God create them? How could God determine what was right or wrong if right and wrong didn’t exist at the time God created morals? Or, if God DID have something to judge it by, morality exists outside of God, and God can be removed from the equation when talking about morals. Lastly, if God’s nature IS good, then what makes it good? Is it is God’s nature, or because there is something we can compare God’s nature against? If the former, morals are subjective and God’s nature could be that of a mass murderer and we would call it good. If the latter, then some standard to compare God’s nature must exist, meaning that, once again, talk of morality can go on without God. At best, God becomes superfluous, at worst, he becomes a liability.

Lastly, people like Harris aren’t deciding what morality is, but judging on what to base morality on. I also don’t see anything “fascist” about that.

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Steven October 13, 2010 at 4:21 pm

*Lastly, if God’s nature IS good, then what makes it good? Is it because it is God’s nature, or because there is something we can compare God’s nature against?

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Hermes October 13, 2010 at 4:23 pm

Cl: I’m already discussing them.

[looks]

Where?

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Kip October 13, 2010 at 5:27 pm
What reason for action do “we” have to maximize desire-fulfillment? [cl]

Desirism doesn’t make that claim. [Kip]

…I have no choice to question it because [Alonzo & Luke's] other answers seem to present a desirist structure that does maximize desire-fulfillment. Else … how could Fyfe claim that “[Desirism] prescribes in favor of those desires that tends to fulfill other desires, and against those desires that tend to thwart other desires?” From every angle I’ve got, that seems 100% consistent with the concept of maximizing desire-fulfillment.

Well, I’ve got a better Alonzo Fyfe quote for your fodder:

We are not seeking to maximize pleasure over pain, or happiness over unhappiness. We are seeking to maximize desire fulfillment over desire thwarting.

See… Alonzo is not God… he’s not perfect… and he may have misspoke, or he may have changed his mind, or he may have not worded this clearly. Either way, he has since posted many times that “desire fulfillment” does not have intrinsic value, and is therefore not something we are trying to maximize.

Desire Utilitarianism and Objective Moral Relativism – Part I:

I speak about desire fulfillment in this theory. However, desire fulfillment is not a thing to be maximized. … The biggest mistake people make when they encounter the term “desire utilitarianism” is that they assume that it is an act-utilitarian theory that calls for maximizing desire fulfillment – the way that other utilitarian theories call for maximizing pleasure, happiness, or preference satisfaction.

The Value of Desire Fulfillment:

Desirism does not talk about maximizing some entity called ‘desire fulfillment’. It talks about making or keeping true those propositions that are the objects of our desires.

***

So, while other theorists may say that we are concerned with eudemonia, or pleasure, or happiness, or preference satisfaction, or the well-being of conscious creatures, or even desire fulfillment, I deny all of these possibilities.

*** I highly recommend reading everything between those last two blockquotes that I clipped. ***

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Kip October 13, 2010 at 5:45 pm

If you think these examples are unrealistic, then you missed the 20th century.

@Michael: I don’t think those examples are unrealistic. I think what you are saying is that people can be wrong about what they think is good. This is precisely the reason we need a science of morality. This doesn’t mean we appeal to Sam Harris’ moral intuitions. This means we don’t appeal to anybody’s intuitions, traditions, holy books, or authority. We look at the evidence. The same way we determine whether the earth revoles around the sun, or the sun around the earth. The same way we determine whether diseases are caused by germs or by witches casting spells. We gather data, we build models that make predictions, and we test those models. If we have a lot of data, that has been tested and verified many times, and never refuted, then we know the model is pretty accurate. Otherwise, we don’t. We make decisions based on the confidence we have in our models, which in turn are based on how well supported they are.

I highly suspect that one of the things we will find as we study the moral landscape is that letting people keep as much freedom as possible will tend to fulfill more and stronger desires (i.e. it will be good). We don’t have to base this on intuitions, or tradition, or historic documents. We know it because we’ve studied it empirically. Alonzo has written many times that this is the case because people are the most informed and least corruptible agents to fulfill their desires. That makes a lot of sense to me. I bet if we test this, we’d probably find it to be true. There would be exceptions, of course, and that’s where a study of this “moral landscape” comes in. What are those exceptions? When is it better to restrict people’s personal freedoms? When they are under a certain age? Or over? Or mentally handicapped?

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Silver Bullet October 13, 2010 at 6:42 pm

cl wrote:”There was a post or thread a while back where Luke discussed when “why” becomes a non-sensical question. We discussed children as an example, specifically, how a child can just respond to any answer given with another “why” question. I see this phenomenon at play in Luke’s post here, and in discussions of atheist morality in general. Someone like Harris comes along and plants a goalpost, then everybody else sits around and asks “why” that goalpost should be accepted as opposed to some other one. If our ongoing discussions of desirism or Massimo and Julia’s current debates are any indication, this phenomenon seems to occur regardless of the goalpost actually planted: someone says, “why should well-being be the goalpost,” while another says, “why should happiness be the goalpost,” etc. etc. ad nauseum, and a whirlwind of seemingly intractable philosophical banter ensues.”

Wow. cl & I agree on something.

This is why, when Luke wrote, “Why does the well-being of conscious creatures matter?”…”why should well-being be maximized at all?”, I asked him, “Really, Luke? What kind of answer would satisfy you?”

There is a point in the Kagan vs William Lane Craig debate about morality requiring god where Kagan points this out to Craig and asks him the same quesion. I think something similar is going on in Luke’s questioning in this review.

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Rob October 13, 2010 at 8:12 pm

Silver Bullet,

Harris answers Luke’s question hilariously:

“While I do not think anyone sincerely believes that this sort of moral skepticism makes sense, there is no shortage of people that will press this point with a ferocity that often passes for sincerity.”

I don’t think for one second that Luke wonders why the well-being of conscious creatures should matter. But if he really does not know why it should matter, then he is not qualified to have a discussion about morality.

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Kip October 13, 2010 at 8:23 pm

I don’t think for one second that Luke wonders why the well-being of conscious creatures should matter.

It matters for the same reason anything matters: because it’s something that we value. But, it’s not the only thing that we value. And that’s the point.

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toweltowel October 13, 2010 at 8:27 pm

John W. Loftus and others seem to think there are no alternatives to a utilitarian morality centered on “the well-being of conscious creatures”. But there are plenty of (apparent) alternatives that occur to me:

* You might think that some happiness is bad: e.g., the malicious joy of Schadenfreude, the thrill of wanton violence.
* You might think that some happiness is worthless: e.g., the insipid happiness that comes with being drugged, the happiness of animals and other non-rational beings.
* You might think that some suffering is good: e.g., the suffering of a great creative spirit, the suffering of a criminal being justly punished.
* You might think that some suffering is morally irrelevant: e.g., the suffering of animals and other non-rational beings.
* You might think some things are good irrespective of their relation to well-being: e.g., beauty, order, unity, life, the perfection of a thing’s nature, the disposition to act on duty, wit, charisma, military heroism, creative genius, intellectual honesty.
* You might think some things are bad irrespective of their relation to well-being: e.g., ugliness, disorder, plurality, death, incompleteness, egotistical pride, cruelty, stupidity, gullibility.
* You might think some things have a positive moral status (e.g., rightness) irrespective of their relation to value: e.g., keeping promises, showing gratitude, making up for past wrongs.
* You might think some things have a negative moral status (e.g., wrongness) irrespective of their relation to value: e.g., breaking promises, showing ingratitude, leaving past wrongs unaddressed.

I’m taking these alternatives from Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, and Ross. Plenty of people seem to have value systems that clash with utilitarianism. Indeed, a radical divine command theorist would think that, if God commands us to maximize unhappiness, then it would be immoral not to. So I don’t see how utilitarianism could possibly claim to be the only ethical system there is. But maybe I’m missing something.

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nate October 13, 2010 at 9:47 pm

I agree toweltowel. Morality should be defined as the study of how people should act. Trying to define morality so that one system wins by default is stupid. also, sam harris is a clown.

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cl October 14, 2010 at 12:56 am

Kip,

You quote from Fyfe 2004:

We are not seeking to maximize pleasure over pain, or happiness over unhappiness. We are seeking to maximize desire fulfillment over desire thwarting.

Well thanks, I guess, for supplying yet another example of Alonzo saying one thing later followed by its polar opposite. It’s precisely this type of ambiguity that leads to confusion.

[Alonzo] has since posted many times that “desire fulfillment” does not have intrinsic value, and is therefore not something we are trying to maximize.

I’m aware that Alonzo has now distanced himself from his previous claim. Again, I am – and have been for some time now – fully aware of Luke and Alonzo’s stated position on this matter. The problem is, the rest of what they’re saying seems to directly contradict their stated position.

I highly recommend reading everything between those last two blockquotes that I clipped.

As in, a third time? Generally speaking, a thread that I’ve commented reflects an OP that I’ve read top-to-bottom at least once. I was in the thread of the post you just told me to read. In fact, I asked you some questions in that thread that are relevant here:

Imagine a state in which desires have been harmonized such that no desires are being thwarted. In such a state, would you agree that it would be accurate to say something like, “desire fulfillment has been maximized,” or something like, “the number of true propositions that are the object of desires has been maximized,” or something like, “desire fulfillment harmonizes as it maximizes”… ?

You didn’t answer, and neither did Alonzo, and that was way back in May.

Alonzo says,

[desirism] talks about making or keeping true those propositions that are the objects of our desires.

Okay, and since Alonzo also says that “[Desirism] prescribes in favor of those desires that tends to fulfill other desires, and against those desires that tend to thwart other desires,” then it is 100% accurate to say that desirism talks about maximizing the number of fulfilled desires – IOW – maximizing desire fulfillment.

I don’t mean to be provocative, but until somebody can make this make sense, I have to revert to my tentative conclusion that Alonzo is simply splitting hairs here. Maybe you can help me out.

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cl October 14, 2010 at 1:05 am

Steven,

Hey there. I began a reply to you on another machine, I apologize for the delay. I just wanted to acknowledge you before Hermes jumps the gun and starts trying to accuse me of “evading.” If you want the short version now, asking “why” we should follow the decrees of an omniscient, omnibenevolent God is much like asking a calculator “why” 3 x 4 = 12.

Kip,

I think you and Michael have a salient exchange going. FWIW, here’s my take:

I think what you are saying is that people can be wrong about what they think is good. This is precisely the reason we need a science of morality.

The way I see it, that is precisely the reason why we don’t need a science of morality, at least not a science of morality that shapes legislation. Scientists have been wrong about many, many things in the past, and scientists are probably still wrong about who-knows-how-many things today. Now, it’s not that big of a deal if scientists are wrong about the distance to the nearest red dwarf or the chemical composition of the lunar surface, but we can’t afford to have scientists be wrong about morality.

This means we don’t appeal to anybody’s intuitions, traditions, holy books, or authority. We look at the evidence. The same way we determine whether the earth revoles around the sun, or the sun around the earth.

Well yeah, in theory, but the problem is that the scientists responsible for looking at the evidence will effectively become the “authority” you imply we ought not appeal to. After all, any reliable scientist must be an expert, and only a minority of humans are expert scientists. Believe me, I can sympathize with your penchant for testing and empiricism, but I think you’re overlooking the negative ramifications of a very likely scenario.

I highly suspect that one of the things we will find as we study the moral landscape is that letting people keep as much freedom as possible will tend to fulfill more and stronger desires (i.e. it will be good). We don’t have to base this on intuitions, or tradition, or historic documents. We know it because we’ve studied it empirically. Alonzo has written many times that this is the case because people are the most informed and least corruptible agents to fulfill their desires. That makes a lot of sense to me.

Like most of Alonzo’s generalizations, that hardly makes any sense to me. Society is literally full of people whose own corruptibility has resulted in the overall thwarting of their desires, and in many cases, the situation results directly from their unchecked freedom.

Of course, the real reason I do not believe we should define “morality” as “that which promotes the well-being of sentient creatures” is because I don’t want ice cream to become immoral!

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lukeprog October 14, 2010 at 1:46 am

Silver Bullet,

Have you read the four posts Kip linked to at Alonzo’s blog? That’s the point I’m getting to, though of course in this short post it’s not at all evident.

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Kip October 14, 2010 at 6:36 am

Imagine a state in which desires have been harmonized such that no desires are being thwarted. In such a state, would you agree that it would be accurate to say something like, “desire fulfillment has been maximized,”

No I wouldn’t, because you can always add more desires that could be fulfilled to increase the amount of “desire fulfillment”. Thus, we are not trying to “maximize desire fulfillment”. And this is precisely why we are not trying to do that. Because we have no reason to go around creating desires in order to fulfill them.

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Kip October 14, 2010 at 6:43 am

Now, it’s not that big of a deal if scientists are wrong about the distance to the nearest red dwarf or the chemical composition of the lunar surface, but we can’t afford to have scientists be wrong about morality.

Can we afford to have scientists be wrong about whether or not a multi-megaton asteroid asteroid will hit the earth in the near future, and if so, how to stop it? Or should we just use our intuitions for that too? Can we afford to have scientists be wrong about whether or not vaccines cause autism and should be avoided, or help prevent diseases and should be embraced? Or should we listen to the intuitions of non-scientists for that?

I’m sorry, but as soon as someone says we shouldn’t use science to know something about the real world, I immediately put them into the “idiot” category.

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Hermes October 14, 2010 at 8:39 am

I’m not worried about Harris’ description. Here’s why;

Let’s say that instead of valuing the “well-being of conscious creatures” Harris picked something entirely random. Say, ‘dust production’ or ‘large planetary bodies’.

At some point, whatever the choice — be it Harris’ “well-being of conscious creatures” or my nonsense ‘dust production’ or something else equally random — that choice will be scrutinized. Not only as an impulsive or philosophical abstraction, but if it seems credible with actual careful analysis that includes comparing the valued category to reality. This purges the nonsensical categories quickly or draws out some subtleties in the more likely categories.

What we see in practice is that Sam Harris knows this, probably expects this, and has actually changed his own focus.

If you remember his previous category, it was not “well-being of conscious creatures” it was a more informal plea for “human flourishing”. That change opens up many issues that weren’t covered in the more species-limited “human flourishing”.

Harris was not mistaken to start with an emphasis on humans because human needs and biases are implicit in many conversations and dealing with non-humans is rarely necessary. In this case, it is useful to be a bit more inclusive and not take that implicit bias as an ideal starting point.

It could be that “conscious creatures” will turn out to only be a set of humans. Conversely, pigs, elephants, octopuses, some primates, or the archetypal visiting alien may join humans in that category. Regardless, if we attempt to build and then follow fact-based morals not ones based on whim or cultural biases, the mix will be an appropriate one not an arbitrary one. At the minimum, it may lead to vegetarian or quasi-vegetarian limited diets, or it may show that vegetarianism is morally questionable itself.

While there are many other potential implications. A guess would be that that there will probably be drastic changes in large-scale farming. Speculating further, from the results of some animal self-awareness studies^, I could see that over the next few decades industrial pig farms will become a hot issue and may be legally phased out, but I see no similar possibility — or moral support — for the same to be done to industrial turkey or fish farms. [^. Yes, self-awareness is a higher bar than simple consciousness. I think it has more meaning and can be examined with less ambiguity, so I would expect that Harris and others will move in that direction in some respect over time.]

Even if I am mistaken, just framing it as Harris has is probably a reasonable starting point for a through investigation as opposed to the species specific “human flourishing” just as human flourishing is superior to my nonsense examples or the fractal tree of contradictions and unspoken concerns that drive an uncritical recitation of a religious text.

Even if we end up back at some currently existing category once we do a through investigation, it is necessary to do that work so that we can have confidence in the answer. If that does happen, I expect that even the ‘right’ answer will be enhanced by the scrutiny placed upon it.

* * *

How this applies to our discussions about deities…

This type of expansion — from the group (humans) to a more generic set (conscious creatures) — is valuable in investigating morality. It leaves many questions open, but does not drag along with it a hard dogmatic edict — a dogmatism who’s origins are self-referential and no promoter questions with an eye towards making substantive changes to.

As a parallel, the expansion from using a narrow group deity (God) to a more generic group (a set of deities) is my focus.

Just as Harris shows in his examples that examining the moral landscape through a sectarian religious lens distorts what morality actually is, using the word God also invites a similar distortion.

The distortions caused by using it are very relativistic as what one group or even individual means by the word is largely undefined. To drive this point home, when I attempt to get some theists to describe what a god is — not their god named God but just the set that contains gods in general — they frequently cling to the named God that they personally think exists and they try and define-out any deity that isn’t their narrow idea of what capital-G proper name God is. Simpler definitions or even ad-hoc reasoning is available, yet there is a strong compulsion to drag their personal deity back in.

Unfortunately, many atheists also succumb to this tendency, and speak of their conception of a deity — god or God — for use in different types of discussions. When other people hear them, they instinctively insert their own narrow singular conception of a god or the God and they don’t say what deity it is that they are talking about.

That’s why I don’t use God or god but deities or better the set of all deities or a set of some deities.

There may be no deities, there may be many. At this time, I believe there are none. Yet, holding to a narrow religious and personal conception of a named deity doesn’t further conversations but instead — as in the case of morality — binds them to dogmas that are asserted to be true just because and can never be understood without presupposing them to be true.

Anyone who wants to say that Harris is promoting dogmatic adherence to an inflexible ideal does not have my reflexive support. If he is like notorious dogmatists, then the person who thinks that is actually true has to show how Harris is like those dogmatists — really — not just raise the flag of warning as an abstract possibility. Well, no kidding. It’s possible that a great many people are dogamtic authoritarians just hiding and plotting for their chance to take over part or all of the world. We can look at those who succeeded for a time to take over large parts of the world and then look for people today who seem to be similar to the dogmatic authoritarians of the past. Do we see that in Harris?

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Michael October 14, 2010 at 9:32 am

I logged in to put the argumentative beat-down on some of you but Hermes’s comment sent me in an entirely different direction.

My facebook page has a heated argument between my best friend from high school 30+ years ago and I. He is an Eastern mystic guy like Harris but he doesn’t think much of atheism.

He argued that atheists were those who believed that God didn’t exist and proceeded to argue that agnosticism dominated atheism argumentatively because of various “you can’t be sure arguments.” Yeah, I know… noob stuff but bear with me. I proceeded to do my standard crush-smash annihilation of his argument, but then I came up with an argument that I hadn’t read before. Feel free to point out that it is actually old-hat but I hadn’t read it before.

Atheism ought to be understood as not believing in God. (Nearly) All atheists assign different sorts or amounts of nonbelief to different posited Gods. I, for example, hold a strong, affirmative, positive belief in the nonexistence of Yahweh and Allah and Huitzilopocatli and a long list of other actually-worshipped Gods. I however, am a “weak atheist” with respect to the existence of Spinoza’s God: I don’t see evidence or a good reason for positing its existence, but it seems a relatively innocuous pantheistic entity. I hold a similar negative non-belief in Einstein’s God. There is also an open-ended list of Gods yet-to-be-worshipped-by-anyone about which i literally have no belief at all: for example, you do not at this time have any belief about Yahsusllah or Pepsicoketab or Inoutabout or even about Cazic Thule itself. And I think (nearly) all atheists understand their beliefs the same way and the only sensible short definition that captures our beliefs is “does not believe in (any) God(s)”.

My friend retreated in shame and defeat, his argument in tatters. I take Hermes’s thinking as congruent: there is great potential in greater detail and specificity – both in how we think of “God” but also in how we think of “atheist” and, no doubt, other things too.

This is also congruent with what I intended to write here. I just don’t think a project like “scientific foundation for morality” is worth pursuing. Which scientists, with what agendas and assumptions, funded by which institutions and individuals, to pursue and evaluate which “facts”? The politicization of science is already becoming a huge mess… The track record of science in the human realm is … mixed… race and IQ, eugenics, electroshock come to mind of course but so does breast-feeding, alar, global warming, pesticides, and on and on. And I think you agree too.

Suppose scientists conclude that homosexual men commit suicide at a substantially higher rate, have substantially lower lifespans, and are susceptible to much higher rates of drug abuse than heterosexual men. Are you prepared to require homosexuals to take the red pill so they and we can “fluourish”? Because, “on average” homosexuality works against well-being according to science? I am not: science be damned – human persons get to decide how to live their own lives (so far as we are able to accommodate each other’s choices).

Similarly I doubt there are any real chances for a moral scheme which looks to sum over the well-being of conscious entities and search for local or global maxima. How to weight the very many factors over billions of individual entities? My bet is that is an even larger waste of cognition than the science part.

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Hermes October 14, 2010 at 9:58 am

Michael, you personally don’t have to support or agree with what Harris is saying just as you don’t need to support or agree with what any other individual is saying. He’s still going to do research, as will others, and if history is any measure we will learn some astounding things over the next few decades regardless of if Harris’ general goals are met, not met, or shown to be the wrong direction to go in. You personally not seeing it as possible or even as a waste of time is fine for you. As the results of the research come along, I hope that you do not require that our current estimations be given preferential treatment on this topic.

As for details, it’s clear that you don’t agree with my personal emphasis on not using proper names when describing generic categories, let alone not using a word that tends to muddle conversations. On the last part, I’m not going to nit pick too much.

On the first part — using proper names in place of a generic category — can you show me where anyone does that for any other word or idea?

I’m hard pressed to find any, but maybe I’m just not looking in the right place. Even when someone writes or thinks kleenex in place of the generic word tissues they don’t treat the word as a proper name even though in other contexts — ‘Kleenex ™ brand tissues’ — it is treated as a proper name just like Bob or the Eiffel Tower or Earth.

If you can show me any generic category of anything that is also treated as a proper name, I’d appreciate it.

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Michael October 14, 2010 at 11:20 am

I believe I pre-empted your worry that I am worried about a monster-under-my-bed rather than Sam Harris. There are lots of comments here, but one of my earlier ones quoted Sam Harris last week in a Globe and Mail interview:

“Imagine how our view of the human condition would change if we ever found a cure for racism, xenophobia and other forms of bigotry. What if there were perfectly safe ways to increase feelings of compassion and altruism? I think interventions of this sort – pharmacological and otherwise – are probably in our future. Neuro-imaging technology could also change our lives profoundly. We will probably develop reliable lie detectors, so that when the truth really matters, it will be impossible for a person to lie. This will change politics and diplomacy rather profoundly. There is no telling how developments of this kind could put pressure on popular beliefs.”

That is, for me, presumptive evidence that Sam Harris does not sufficiently respect individual human lives and the decisions they make. It sure sounds like he is prepared to “cure” attitudes and ways of thinking that he concludes work against well-being. He is, in fact, prepared to prescribe pharmacological agents which increase sociability (ironic given his public discussion of his own drug use). And lie-detectors for “important” matters? Come on, if this doesn’t give you the CREEPS about the moral world of Sam Harris, then…

As to the point about specificity… I wasn’t disagreeing with your thinking, merely offering an example of how not relying on generic or ill-defined concepts can help. Moving beyond “atheism” as existing on a spectrum from weak to strong or some such, to understanding that atheist belief is more nuanced and fine-grained, that our beliefs vary from God to God (or deity to deity), new arguments become available to us. The masthead quote, for example, blossoms: atheist disbelief tracks the quality of evidence and argument offered on behalf of particular Gods (deities), just as it should, while theists’ absolute belief in their God and near-absolute disbelief in other Gods is made much more difficult to justify.

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cl October 14, 2010 at 11:36 am

Kip,

Can we afford to have scientists be wrong about whether or not a multi-megaton asteroid asteroid will hit the earth in the near future, and if so, how to stop it? Or should we just use our intuitions for that too? Can we afford to have scientists be wrong about whether or not vaccines cause autism and should be avoided, or help prevent diseases and should be embraced? Or should we listen to the intuitions of non-scientists for that?

No, we can’t afford to have scientists be wrong about such an asteroid. No, we can’t afford to have scientists be wrong about whether vaccine causes autism. Problem is, those are red herrings.

I’m sorry, but as soon as someone says we shouldn’t use science to know something about the real world, I immediately put them into the “idiot” category.

That’s too bad you leaped to that conclusion, because I’m not saying “we shouldn’t use science to know something about the real world.”

Apparently my comments to you were wasted time. Eh, oh well. My instincts told me not to engage you anyways. You won’t stay focused, and you insist on attributing to me things I did not say. Though, if you can drop the pretense, I’m still very much interested in hearing you answer the question I asked way back in May, as it’s quite pertinent to this discussion.

Steven,

Cl, this isn’t just a problem for “atheistic” morals.

I disagree.

Why should I follow what God says is right? Why should we set God as a goal-post? Why should we trust what God says? So on so forth.

I understand the hesitation, but the answer depends on the God in question. If the God in question is all-knowing and that God’s decrees always work towards maximizing the well-being of sentient creatures, then all who value the well-being of sentient creatures ought to follow that God’s decrees. Asking “why” we ought to follow the decrees of such a God would be like asking a calculator “why” we ought to believe that 2 x 2 = 4.

If the former, morals are subjective and God’s nature could be that of a mass murderer and we would call it good. If the latter, then some standard to compare God’s nature must exist, meaning that, once again, talk of morality can go on without God. At best, God becomes superfluous, at worst, he becomes a liability.

Although I essentially agree with your assessment of the former, your conclusion on the latter is too hasty for me. In a trivial sense, sure, talk of morality could go on without such a God, but that’s about all it would amount to. Without such a God, we would still be in the same boat we’re in now: amidst loads and loads of seemingly intractable philosophical banter about what Joe, Bob or Bill believes is right.

Lastly, people like Harris aren’t deciding what morality is, but judging on what to base morality on. I also don’t see anything “fascist” about that.

I understand that Harris isn’t “deciding what morality is.” What I’m saying is that I don’t want a panel of scientists deciding what morality is, either, especially if that panel is going to be influencing legislation for the rest of us.

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Hermes October 14, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Come on, if this doesn’t give you the CREEPS about the moral world of Sam Harris, then…

No. It doesn’t. For a simple reason; he’s not advocating any of those things you are creeped out about. He is noting what he sees as possibilities and with that advocating a full and open discussion and investigation.

For example, if you fell into a vortex that landed you back in time — somewhere at the end of the 1970s — what would you do?

Let’s say you decide to tell the people of that time that in the not so distant future mood altering stimulants similar to cocaine would be given to children. That those drugs would be prescribed by doctors, were totally legal, and frequently demanded by parents to improve the grades of the children and alter their social reactions, what do you think they would say? Would they wonder if you personally were advocating giving children those drugs? Do you think it would be wise to bring up the practical, ethical, and other issues with those drugs — the good and the bad as well as the dull but important details?

To extend the example, before getting dumped back at the end of the Disco era, maybe you heard that children who were younger in a specific grade were much more likely to be prescribed that drug and that it’s possible that they ‘needed help’ because they were — as should be expected — developmentally less mature on average than others that are older but in the same grade?

It would not be creepy to bring these issues up, just as it’s not creepy for Harris to make an informed statement on where he sees things going technically as well as scientifically. It’s not moral to ignore potential problems just because they are unsettling and there are no pat answers to them especially since categorizing things as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ while ignoring the details usually ends in an increase in bad decisions as well as promoting ignorance.

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Hermes October 14, 2010 at 12:50 pm

On details: roughly I agree. A long running poll of mine covers over 20 categories of religious positions. It even allows for multiple votes to cover differing categories of belief on specific deities or types of deities.

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cl October 14, 2010 at 2:17 pm

Anyways, to bring this thing full circle, I still think Luke should use “common sense morality” here, meaning that I think he should apply to desirism the same objections he has applied to Harris’ ideas. I think that would make an awesome post. It would be like Luke doing a review of himself!

Kip,

Well this is weird, it seems I owe you an apology. You did in fact answer the question I asked you back in May. For some reason, when I checked the thread on a different computer earlier, I only saw the response where you misconstrued what I said to imply I was an idiot. So, if nothing else, thanks for answering. You said,

No I wouldn’t, because you can always add more desires that could be fulfilled to increase the amount of “desire fulfillment”. Thus, we are not trying to “maximize desire fulfillment”. And this is precisely why we are not trying to do that. Because we have no reason to go around creating desires in order to fulfill them.

I don’t assume that “maximizing desire fulfillment” necessarily entails “creating desires in order to fulfill them.” There are two different contexts in which the phrase “maximization of desire fulfillment” is being used here:

1) increasing the total number of fulfilled desires;

2) increasing the total number of currently unfulfilled desires.

I’m using “maximization of desire fulfillment” more along the lines of 2, whereas your response applies to 1. Therefore, when Alonzo says we should “promote desires which tend to fulfill other desires,” that is 100% consistent with 2.

Silver Bullet,

Wow. cl & I agree on something.

You act so surprised! Truth be told, I’m willing to bet we agree on far more than this issue.

This is why, when Luke wrote, “Why does the well-being of conscious creatures matter?”…”why should well-being be maximized at all?”, I asked him, “Really, Luke? What kind of answer would satisfy you?”

I applaud your comment and think you are well within reason to ask it. It’s unfortunate to see Luke simply point you off to Fyfe’s blog instead of taking the bull by the horns, but, that’s just my opinion.

Rob,

Harris answers Luke’s question hilariously:

“While I do not think anyone sincerely believes that this sort of moral skepticism makes sense, there is no shortage of people that will press this point with a ferocity that often passes for sincerity.”

I don’t think for one second that Luke wonders why the well-being of conscious creatures should matter. But if he really does not know why it should matter, then he is not qualified to have a discussion about morality.

I agree. That’s why I asked him to extend “common sense morality,” meaning that he ought to apply the same reasoning to his own theory.

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Kip October 14, 2010 at 3:05 pm

There are two different contexts in which the phrase “maximization of desire fulfillment” is being used here:
1) increasing the total number of fulfilled desires;
2) increasing the total number of currently unfulfilled desires.
I’m using “maximization of desire fulfillment” more along the lines of 2, whereas your response applies to 1. Therefore, when Alonzo says we should “promote desires which tend to fulfill other desires,” that is 100% consistent with 2.

#2 is a confusing thing to mean by “maximizing desire fulfillment”. If that’s all you mean by it, then I don’t think it’s any different than what Alonzo is saying. But, then, it’s just a semantic disagreement. And in my opinion, your semantics are outside the norm in this regard. But, I’m not interested in having that discussion.

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cl October 14, 2010 at 3:39 pm

Perhaps Alonzo can explain precisely what he used to mean when he did claim that desirism -> maximization of desire fulfillment, and also an explanation of why he changed his position. That might help.

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Kip October 14, 2010 at 4:07 pm

#2 is a confusing thing to mean by “maximizing desire fulfillment”. If that’s all you mean by it, then I don’t think it’s any different than what Alonzo is saying.

And… to retract and clarify… I don’t think he’d just be concerned with the number of desires fulfilled, but also their strengths. Basically, given the pool of all desires, we want to fulfill those desires that are strongest and most plentiful. Further, we want to promote malleable desires that tend to fulfill those desires that are strongest and most plentiful, and we want to demote malleable desires that tend to thwart those desires that are strongest and most plentiful.

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Steven October 14, 2010 at 7:52 pm

Cl, I completely disagree. Why should we care about maximizing the well-being of sentient creatures? Why should we care about God at all? The “why” question can be used on anything and everything.

I really don’t have much else to say to the rest of your comment.

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cl October 14, 2010 at 9:39 pm

Kip,

I don’t think [Alonzo would] just be concerned with the number of desires fulfilled, but also their strengths.

Good eye for detail, but I’m not sure this is a salient emendation. Desirism still seems to prescribe in favor of those desires that lead to maximizing desire fulfillment, taking both strength and numbers into consideration: we are to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires. This, in turn, will aim towards maximizing the number of kept- or made-true propositions that P, where P is the object of our desires. So, these alleged “differences” still seem like ambiguous hair-splitting to me.

Question: do you think Fyfe has anything to lose by saying desirism aims to maximize desire fulfillment? Why do you think he changed his position? In what way do you think desrism suffers if we say that it promotes maximization of desire fulfillment?

Steven,

Cl, I completely disagree.

That’s fine, I just wish you would provide a valid reason for doing so.

The “why” question can be used on anything and everything.

Yes, but, there is a point where the “why” question becomes nonsensical, and, for reasons I’ve already explained, I believe both you and Luke are at that point in your “why” questions – unless of course you actually have a valid reason for challenging true statements.

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Kip October 15, 2010 at 9:12 am

Question: do you think Fyfe has anything to lose by saying desirism aims to maximize desire fulfillment? Why do you think he changed his position? In what way do you think desrism suffers if we say that it promotes maximization of desire fulfillment?

I’ve already answered this. What you mean by “maximize desire fulfillment” is not what he means, and it’s not what I mean, and it’s not what most people would probably think it means. That’s the answer. Now that this has been clarified, why do you insist that he (and everyone?) use your terminology?

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Kip October 15, 2010 at 9:20 am

And… to reiterate… and emphasize:

Imagine a state in which desires have been harmonized such that no desires are being thwarted. In such a state, would you agree that it would be accurate to say something like, “desire fulfillment has been maximized,”

No I wouldn’t, because you can always add more desires that could be fulfilled to increase the amount of “desire fulfillment”. Thus, we are not trying to “maximize desire fulfillment”. And this is precisely why we are not trying to do that. Because we have no reason to go around creating desires in order to fulfill them.

Saying that we are trying to “maximize desire fulfillment” implies (to most people, by how that phrase is interpreted) that “desire fulfillment” has value. It doesn’t (for the most part). Thus, we have no reason to create a state of affairs that increases “desire fulfillment”.

We have reasons to create states of affairs that fulfill our desires. But, this is not the same thing. If you can’t see the difference, then keep thinking about it. It’s pretty glaring once you see it.

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Silver Bullet October 15, 2010 at 9:24 am

Luke wrote:”Silver Bullet, Have you read the four posts Kip linked to at Alonzo’s blog? That’s the point I’m getting to, though of course in this short post it’s not at all evident.”

Finally found some time last night to read this over and think about it. I certainly understand where you’re coming from now, Luke.

Kudos to Kip who has been very patient and done a nice job of steering the discussion and reading to relevant places.

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Hermes October 15, 2010 at 9:44 am

Kudos to Kip who has been very patient and done a nice job of steering the discussion and reading to relevant places.

Seconded. Good job Kip.

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Hermes October 15, 2010 at 10:10 am

Cl, what is your take on the following quote from Alonzo Fyfe;

If you are not talking about facts, then you are talking about fiction. If, in making a moral claim, you are not talking about something real, then you are grounding your life on myth and superstition.

Those are the only two options.

It came from one of the links Kip provided earlier; Sam Harris: Science and Morality.

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Kip October 15, 2010 at 10:44 am

Thanks Silver Bullet & Hermes! :-)

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Yair October 15, 2010 at 2:05 pm

I see Harris makes the same basic metaethical mistakes in his book as he did in his TED talk – which is not surprising. Thanks for the review.

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cl October 16, 2010 at 5:33 pm

Kip,

Thanks for staying on board with me, but I’m still pretty confused. Honestly, the issue seems entirely semantic, which is why I wonder why Luke and Fyfe are so adamant in distancing desirism from other utilitarian theories.

When I asked,

…do you think Fyfe has anything to lose by saying desirism aims to maximize desire fulfillment? Why do you think he changed his position? In what way do you think desrism suffers if we say that it promotes maximization of desire fulfillment?

…you replied,

I’ve already answered this. What you mean by “maximize desire fulfillment” is not what he means, and it’s not what I mean, and it’s not what most people would probably think it means. That’s the answer.

That might be an answer, but it’s not an answer to any of the three questions I asked. Granted, those questions are tangential and the real issue I’m seeking help with is this “maximization of desire fulfillment” business, but I would still like to hear your thoughts on them.

…you can always add more desires that could be fulfilled to increase the amount of “desire fulfillment”.

Wouldn’t this also apply to all other utilitarian theories? Couldn’t we always add more happiness? Couldn’t we always add more pleasure? Etc. If yes – which I think is the undeniable answer but correct me if I’m wrong – then would you also say that Millian and Benthamite utilitarianism actually do not prescribe maximization of happiness and pleasure, respectively? Why or why not?

…we have no reason to go around creating desires in order to fulfill them. Saying that we are trying to “maximize desire fulfillment” implies (to most people, by how that phrase is interpreted) that “desire fulfillment” has value. It doesn’t (for the most part).

I understood that objection the first time you made it. To clarify, while I would say the statement “desire fulfillment has value” is nonsensical, it is true that people value desire fulfillment.

When I say “desirism prescribes maximization of desire fulfillment,” I’m not saying “desirism says we should create desires in order to fulfill them.” In the same way, when I say Millian utilitarianism prescribes maximization of happiness, I am not saying that Millian utilitarianism says we should go around creating desires so that we might increase happiness.

When I say desirism prescribes maximization of desire fulfillment, I am saying that desirism says we should cultivate desires that tend to fulfill other desires, i.e., we should cultivate desires that maximize the fulfillment of other desires. Isn’t that in fact what desirism says?

Thus, we have no reason to create a state of affairs that increases “desire fulfillment”. We have reasons to create states of affairs that fulfill our desires. But, this is not the same thing. If you can’t see the difference, then keep thinking about it.

Trust me, I’ve been thinking about it for some time now. You may be correct, but I don’t see the difference. If you’ve got the time, I’m all ears.

Silver Bullet,

Finally found some time last night to read this over and think about it. I certainly understand where you’re coming from now, Luke.

Perhaps you can throw me a lifeline then? Though Luke likes to falsely accuse me of “not listening,” I’ve read – and reread – those four posts, and I still see no meaningful difference between “maximizing desire fulfillment” and “maximizing states of affairs in which our desires are fulfilled.”

Hermes,

If you are not talking about facts, then you are talking about fiction.

True as stated.

If, in making a moral claim, you are not talking about something real, then you are grounding your life on myth and superstition.

Slippery slope fallacy.

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cl October 16, 2010 at 6:05 pm

Kip,

Here’s a little snippet from our conversation in May that still represents the heart of my response to your objection:

That I claim “desirism maximizes desire fulfillment” DOES NOT MEAN that I claim “desire fulfillment is the ultimate desire-as-end in desirism”.

[from The Value of Desire Fulfillment]

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Kip October 16, 2010 at 6:19 pm

Wouldn’t this also apply to all other utilitarian theories? Couldn’t we always add more happiness? Couldn’t we always add more pleasure?

According to “happiness” Utilitarianism, if we can add more happiness, then that state of affairs with more happiness would be better than the state of affairs with less. “Happiness” (or pleasure, etc.) has value according to utilitarianism. So, yes, according to those theories, we seek to maximize “happiness” (or “pleasure” or whatever).

Desire fulfillment doesn’t have value, though… unless you desire “desire fulfillment”.

This is answered in depth in this post: The Value of Desire Fulfillment

Specifically, read the part that starts after the line: “Desire fulfillment has no value.”

Here’s another post with a similar analogy: Desire Fulfillment Rule Utilitarianism

I am not saying that Millian utilitarianism says we should go around creating desires so that we might increase happiness.

Well, it does say that. If you can create desires and increase happiness, then you should do that according to “happiness” Utilitarianism. You should do whatever maximizes happiness.

When I say desirism prescribes maximization of desire fulfillment, I am saying that desirism says we should cultivate desires that tend to fulfill other desires, i.e., we should cultivate desires that maximize the fulfillment of other desires. Isn’t that in fact what desirism says?

Your semantics is strange. There’s a reason why Alonzo words it the way he does. His way is far less confusing than your way, given what I (and I think) most people understand the words to mean. But, whatever. If you like your way, then so be it.

I’ve read – and reread – those four posts, and I still see no meaningful difference between “maximizing desire fulfillment” and “maximizing states of affairs in which our desires are fulfilled.”

That second phrase doesn’t make sense, either. My advice to you, and I’ve given you this before… but I really mean it… is this: seek first to understand.

As much as you may think you are doing that… I highly doubt that you are. But, I’m being generous in my assessment. You could be trying really hard, and just be really dense. But, I doubt it. You seem like an intelligent person.

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Steve Cornell October 19, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Harris and his gang (Dawkins and Hitchens) contradict themselves so much that I have trouble taking them too seriously. And this latest effort on the part of Harris appears to be an effort to cover for their most blatant self-contradiction

Their dilemma: How can they thunder at people with such strong moral judgments while at the same time rejecting any basis for absolute morality. It simply gives away the game. It looks like this: “We reject all notions of a God (but our deepest hostilities are reserved for Christianity because it’s really politically correct to do this and we get big applause when we do it). And, FYI: we are SO ANGRY at the obvious growth and spread of religion on the globe (especially when our agenda to distort the science of biological evolution to spread philosophical naturalism should have persuaded these dimwits to get over their religious non-sense a long time ago!). So, brace yoursleves because from our new Mount Sinai, we will thunder forth our own commandments against religion.”

Even the tone of their writings (although perhaps Harris works the hardest to be calm) gives the game away! Their tone is based on their underlying emotional outrage and anger which leads them into a quagmire of illogical argumentation.

I think it ironic and absurd that atheists like Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens engage such strong moral opposition to decry other moral appraisals. Especially since a consistent atheist position is that morality is a man-made measure and therefore all of it is merely opinion without superiority —except what people attribute to it for their own purposes. How dare they imply that the bible or any other view is inferior to their own. This is where they give the game away.

See: Atheists contradict themselves:

http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2008/11/01/atheists-contradict-themselves/

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cl October 19, 2010 at 4:17 pm

Kip,

My advice to you, and I’ve given you this before… but I really mean it… is this: seek first to understand.

Right. First you imply that I’m an idiot, and now this. Gee, I wonder why so many people think atheists can be smarmy, condescending, and arrogant? I’ll tell you what: let me start eating my Wheaties in the morning, and then, maybe, just maybe, I could be as smart as you.

Contrary to the vibe I’m getting from you, I have no problem whatsoever being wrong. I wouldn’t waste my time here if I didn’t seek to understand. If I was the only one who had a hard time wrapping my head around some of Alonzo’s verbose and contradictory writings, I’d consider that you might have a point. Yet, dozens upon dozens of confused commenters testify that that’s far from the case, and part of the reason Alonzo’s writings are confusing is because – contrary to his claim – he does not use moral terms in “substantially the same way they’ve been used.” Further, as you yourself know, he allows contradictory statements to persist in his writings. So, stop with your silly, false accusations that I’m not trying to understand the man. You sound like Luke.

Anyways, getting back to the discussion at hand:

Desire fulfillment doesn’t have value, though… unless you desire “desire fulfillment”.

To use Alonzo’s exact words, “For an agent with a desire that P, states of affairs in which P is true have value.” Well then, for an agent with a desire that P, states of affairs in which P is true == states of affairs in which desires are fulfilled. IOW, for the agent(s) with desires, states of affairs in which desires are fulfilled have value.

Or, IOW, how about this: the act of desire fulfillment has no value, but fulfilled desires do. Is that better, your highness?

If you can create desires and increase happiness, then you should do that according to “happiness” Utilitarianism. You should do whatever maximizes happiness.

Okay, so I anticipate that you’d say when it comes to desirism, we should not increase desire fulfillment, because desire fulfillment has no [intrinsic] value. Right? That’s exactly what Alonzo writes in the post you link to that I’ve now read five times. But then, Alonzo says, “For an agent with a desire that P, states of affairs in which P is true have value.” So, what’s the difference? Instead of belittling me, explain the difference. Is the only difference that we ought not maximize “states of affairs in which P is true,” even though “states of affairs in which P is true have value?” If that’s the case, is there anything we are to maximize in desirism? If not, then why call the theory desire utilitarianism if there’s nothing to maximize?

I’ve read – and reread – those four posts, and I still see no meaningful difference between “maximizing desire fulfillment” and “maximizing states of affairs in which our desires are fulfilled.” [cl]

That second phrase doesn’t make sense, either. [Kip]

It was intended to be equivalent to Alonzo’s, “For an agent with a desire that P, states of affairs in which P is true have value.” Consider it thus.

Steve Cornell,

See: Atheists contradict themselves:

There’s no need to. Just look at Alonzo Fyfe’s introductory article to desirism vs. what he writes on his blog. Then, for an extra laugh, watch as all the Fyfists accuse dissenters of being dense!

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magnus October 25, 2010 at 4:36 am

Dude, this is really silly. It’s obvious from the start that living in the kind of society that you’re outlining would create a society of fear and quickly kill any sense of well being. If you weren’t allowed to do any of the things you like to do, would that maximize your
well being? No, it would not.

You write (seemingly believing this to be a persuasive illustration of what Sams’ “utopia” would look like)
“Human beings don’t get to act freely, they get to act in the way we tell them to”. Are you kidding me? Do you seriously think we would be able to show with, for example, FMRI scans that such a policy would maximize well being? I give up…

You seem to be confusing ‘well being’ as Sam talks about, with ‘health’ which you keep talking about. Good health is one aspect of well being, but it is not the ultimate goal. Hence, you bringing up examples like smoking, alchohol consumption etc, is really just a result of your failure to understand what Sam’s position is. Please read the book.

Case closed.

Also, could you please stop blaming, among other things, stalinist Russia on ‘atheists’? What they had there was a state religion, and hardly a result of asking the hard questions about what would maximize well being among the people.

Why are you so scared of legislation? Do you think it’s a bad thing that we have laws forbidding murder? Do you think it would make for a shitty society if we had a universal, absolute law saying “It’s illegal and morally wrong to burn womens’ faces off with acid!”?
You’re killing me with this stuff…

So I did a little bit of homework and read a couple reviews… Harris’s examples are going my way:He goes after the legality of corporal punishment in some states by pointing to scientific evidence that there are ways it harms kids. Harris isn’t restricting the scope of his conclusions: he means them to be applied to governance – it this specific example to laws which make it illegal for parents to spank their kids. Some other examples are similarly illustrative. He discusses burkhas and thinks science can illuminate how those issues should be decided. I have little doubt that he and his conclusions would be to encourage legislation which required women to wear burkhas IF the scientific literature showed that the result would be healthier people in a healthier society. Homosexuality? Well instead of privileging the free choices of individual moral agents, we should ban it if science shows society benefits from executing homosexuals. Smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, expressing dissident or otherwise “unhappy, unfriendly, or depressing” ideas? Human beings don’t get to act freely, they get to act in the way we tell them to… but our dictates will be based on science… really this time.My point is that we have done this before and it was a catastrophe. Totalizing ethics enacted by totalizing states.  (Quote)

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Magnus October 25, 2010 at 4:41 am

So you get your morals from the bible?

Harris and his gang (Dawkins and Hitchens) contradict themselves so much that I have trouble taking them too seriously. And this latest effort on the part of Harris appears to be an effort to cover for their most blatant self-contradictionTheir dilemma: How can they thunder at people with such strong moral judgments while at the same time rejecting any basis for absolute morality. It simply gives away the game. It looks like this: “We reject all notions of a God (but our deepest hostilities are reserved for Christianity because it’s really politically correct to do this and we get big applause when we do it). And, FYI: we are SO ANGRY at the obvious growth and spread of religion on the globe (especially when our agenda to distort the science of biological evolution to spread philosophical naturalism should have persuaded these dimwits to get over their religious non-sense a long time ago!). So, brace yoursleves because from our new Mount Sinai, we will thunder forth our own commandments against religion.”Even the tone of their writings (although perhaps Harris works the hardest to be calm) gives the game away! Their tone is based on their underlying emotional outrage and anger which leads them into a quagmire of illogical argumentation.I think it ironic and absurd that atheists like Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens engage such strong moral opposition to decry other moral appraisals. Especially since a consistent atheist position is that morality is a man-made measure and therefore all of it is merely opinion without superiority —except what people attribute to it for their own purposes. How dare they imply that the bible or any other view is inferior to their own. This is where they give the game away. See: Atheists contradict themselves:http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2008/11/01/atheists-contradict-themselves/  (Quote)

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Magnus October 25, 2010 at 4:46 am

This should help clear up some confusion. From The Moral landscape:

“Those who assumed that any emphasis on human “wellbeing” would lead us to enslave half of humanity, or harvest the organs of the bottom ten percent, or nuke the developing world, or nurture our children a continuous drip of heroin are, it seems to me, not really thinking about these issues seriously. It seems rather obvious that fairness, justice, compassion, and a general awareness of terrestrial reality have rather a lot to do with our creating a thriving global civilization–and, therefore, with the greater wellbeing of humanity. And, as I emphasized in my talk, there may be many different ways for individuals and communities to thrive–many peaks on the moral landscape–so if there is real diversity in how people can be deeply fulfilled in life, this diversity can be accounted for and honored in the context of science. As I said in my talk, the concept of “wellbeing,” like the concept of “health,” is truly open for revision and discovery. Just how happy is it possible for us to be, personally and collectively? What are the conditions–ranging from changes in the genome to changes in economic systems–that will produce such happiness? We simply do not know.”

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Wildsman February 18, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Honestly, all of the arguments here are nothing short of philosophical sophistry and verbal diarrhoea. Harris is offering a practical, grounded, intellectually honest view of morality and everyone here is bent upon debating whether ‘morality is really about well being’.

Here’s the answer: with a sufficiently broad conception of well being, hell yeah!!

Any aspect of moral goodness you can think of, happiness, prosperity, health – they can all be brought under this banner.

I suggest we start answering the easy questions first and then get to the tougher questions of morality. None of the other sciences developed in a day – I don’t know why people expect ‘Moral Sciences’ to do so.

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Shmuelish March 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm

Stephen said:

Cl, this isn’t just a problem for “atheistic” morals. Why should I follow what God says is right? Why should we set God as a goal-post? Why should we trust what God says? So on so forth.

I couldn’t agree more with this. Seems to me that the type of objections we get from the moral argument, and from atheists alike, can be applied to any moral system one proposes.

The theist will say that moral good is equatable to something like “adherence to the wishes/nature of God”. Why should anyone accept this definition of the Moral Good? The theist will no doubt assert that the very nature of god is just objectively, by definition, the moral good… but how is this different to the atheist asserting that well-being is just, by definition, objectively morally good? Or that suffering is just morally bad?

The Utilitarian will say the moral good is in maximizing utility, the consequentialist will say it is to do with the ends of any means, the desire-utilitarian will say “whatever it is that DU proposes is the moral good”, but notice that in every case, we can make that very same objection – “Why should we accept that definition of ‘the moral good’?” We could make that objection to all concepts and “objective truths” in existence! Under this line of reasoning, nothing is objectively true!

Honestly, all of the arguments here are nothing short of philosophical sophistry and verbal diarrhoea.

Couldn’t agree more with Wildsman either. Sorry Luke – I love your website and your work – but I think this perpetual argument on the meaning of “good” and “bad”, of the sort frequenting these religious debates, won’t produce anything much of value at all. It can never be settled, as such. This entire branch of philosophy, meta-ethics, seems to me to be largely a waste of time – the perpetual “why” that can forever be asked of any ethical stance one proposes. And I hate to be harsh, but consequently I think desire utilitarianism is a waste of your time too. Just being honest (you said you liked criticism heh).

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Ben June 16, 2011 at 11:13 am

why would an insect have a preference for human flesh, and surely a few humans would suffer as a result of being fed to insects, sooo…. that would be bad.

Thanks for this summary, Luke.

I would add that maximizing the well-being of “conscious creatures” might mean we should kill all the humans so insects can feast on their corpses – if insects are conscious, of course.

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