Well Being is not Enough

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Discussion by: Red Dog

In The Moral Landscape Sam Harris proposes that the study of ethics is a legitimate field for scientific inquiry.  He argues that human well-being is the only metric required for making moral choices.  I will describe two simple examples that demonstrate that well-being alone is not sufficient to explain all moral decisions.  I will use examples of moral outcomes defined as follows: 

  • An example population of 100 people
  • An example measurement scale of well-being from 100 (perfect happiness) to -100 (absolute misery)

The Privileged 5%

The first example involves a case where a subset of the population enjoys great happiness at the expense of the rest. Imagine the following scenario:

We have to decide between two different moral choices:

Moral Choice 1
100 people
95 have well-being of -1
5 have well-being of 100
Mean well-being = 4.05

Moral Choice 2
100 people
100 have well-being of 4
Mean well-being = 4

With moral choice one 95% of the population will have a well being of -1, minimally unhappy. However, 5% of the population will have a well being of 100, supreme happiness. With moral choice two everyone will have a well being of 4, mildly happy. If we were to use only mean well-being as our decision metric then we would select choice one. However, if the population were to vote on the outcome they would choose moral outcome 2.

This simple example demonstrates that well-being alone is not enough to cover our understanding of moral choice. There must be some notion of fairness as well. I.e., if a few people are made very happy, resulting in an overall greater level of well being while at the same time resulting in a great disparity in well-being it is not the most intuitive moral decision. Indeed, some modern approaches to morality such as the work of John Rawls make fairness rather than well-being the absolute arbiter of morality. I think Rawls essentially makes the same error as Harris but from a different direction. However, the important point in relation to Harris is that clearly intuitions as well as respected philosophers such as Rawls don't all see well-being as the one and only criterion for morality.

Victims and Criminals

The next example deals with the way our  society deals with criminals. Imagine we have ten criminals to deal with and two possible alternative outcomes. This is an advanced society that knows quite a lot about neurology and well-being so they know the minimal amount of punishment guaranteed to prevent future crimes.  In moral outcome one they apply only this minimal punishment to the ten criminals resulting in the following levels of well-being in the population.

Moral Outcome 1
100 people
80 well being = 50
10 victims well being = -20
10 punished criminals well being =  -20
Mean Well Being = 36

However, they also know that while a certain level of punishment will deter future crimes it will not completely satisfy the desire of their victims for retribution. In outcome two they apply a more severe form of punishment. This punishment satisfies the desire for retribution in the victims as much as possible and yields slightly greater well-being for the victims at the cost of much lower well-being for the criminals:

Moral Outcome 2
100 people
80 well being = 50
10 victims well being = -10
10 punished criminals well being = -40
Mean Well Being = 35

Although the overall well-being is lower in Outcome 2 many people would choose this outcome as preferable.  This illustrates the second flaw with simply using well-being as our criteria for ethics. It does not take into account that we typically believe some people are more deserving of well-being than others. 

These simple examples illustrate that while well-being is certainly an important component in any theory of morality it doesn't completely capture the intuitions that many people have about morality. 

An objection might be raised that the whole point of a scientific approach is to get beyond common sense intuitions about morality. In fact it was an objection that occurred to me often as I read Harris's book. And that is the ultimate problem with his approach, it is grounded only on common sense intuitions about morality.  Harris's solution to morality is not based on any deductive argument or empirical evidence. Instead it is an appeal to common sense, essentially saying all rational people can agree on well being as the ultimate arbiter for moral decisions. These examples illustrate that on the contrary many people have intuitions about morality that are based on other principles such as fairness and justice.

 

230 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t have a source, but I remember Harris himself pointing out that examples like this illustrate that our aim should be subtler than “maximise the mean” (or the total, e.g. by producing an enormous number of people of low positive “value”).The point isn’t that the first nineteenth century guess about how to do the felicific calculus is 100 % right; the point is that consequences are what bother us. If this means more than one parameter matters, so be it.

    This is related to a common claim, which I find annoying, that means aren’t all that statistically illuminating, because distributions for which X has the same mean can be very different. I think the best way to summarise the problem with means is to point out that specifying a probability distribution is equivalent to specifying infinitely many means. (It’s sufficient to specify the mean of exp(itX) for all rational t.) In other words, the problem isn’t with the data type; it’s with how many examples you’ll need.

    The “a high mean isn’t good if it’s unfair” intuition is based on observed the variance is high. Like all properties of the probability distribution, the variance is expressible in terms of means; it is -( squared). It may well be that we never get a single measure of “how good” a situation is. We may find we can only partially rank options. This would still be a step up from “anything goes”. In any case, many mathematical structures have only partial orderings. They can still be quite helpful.

  2. Hi Red Dog,

    I can see a problem with what you are saying here, I’d be interested in your response.

    You seem to be taking a short term view in your argument here, I’m not sure Sam’s argument is suggesting anything as simple as you seem to imply. Will long term human happiness be benefited by only 5% of the population being happy? If you included a time scale in this equation you might find that over decades that the 95% overthrow the 5% or the society collapses because the 5% do not provide enough education for the 95% to become engineers, doctors etc. I could throw out 100′s of other examples where only 5% benefiting from the products of society will result in its ultimate destruction which under Harris’s model would not equate to the well being of humans. I would suggest that it would be likely that there is a lower limit of happiness/well being that is required for the majority of the population to survive long term.

    Likewise for the prisoners, the judicial system juries etc. formed because no-one wanted to live under a system where they maybe treated with undue harshness. I’ve done jury service and I can tell you from first hand experience that many jurors are not that smart, there need to be wiser people with the ability to stop the conviction of the innocent. It’s not good for the well being for innocent people to worry unduly about being treated as harshly hence a legal system that stops short of pandering to the braying crowd, because they will be braying for the innocent also. Again you seem to be oversimplifying the model. Human well being is about more than short term human wants.

  3. Looks to me, quite trivially, as though your thought experiments are incoherent.

    For you to conclude that well being is not sufficient, there has to be something motivating you to believe this. If this belief is correct then a priori what you have calculated as the resulting well being is not the true well being for the described situation. A true belief that some outcome is bad amounts to the same thing as a true belief that well being is not as high as it might otherwise be.

    If you calculate the amount of well being for all possible situations, and conclude that the situation corresponding to the highest well being is not the best, then by necessity, your calculation is no good. You have perhaps not accounted for all components of well being in your calculation.

    For example, if behaving in a way that I believe to be shamelessly self serving makes me feel bad, then by definition, if my resulting bad feeling is accurate, the behaviour in question is not really self serving.

  4. The trick of this is not in thinking we’ll model the thing right straight out, simply because we need to learn about how we ultimately feel about the simple minded metrics we start with.

    I believe some process of moral calculus will work if we copiously measure outcomes (health, wealth, robustness to shock, inventiveness and happiness by direct and indirect means.) publish the results to everyone. Have parties to promote policies to maximise the figures with different emphases based on their own moral calculus and allow democratic choice of which of the competing set of policies and let evolution do the rest.

    Given the society performance data measured consistently by independent means, the population will find out how it feels about the stuff and alter its prioritising of the policies it votes for.

    Simple utilitarian models fail at so many points by not allowing people to grow into the metrics, by failing to account, for instance, for concerns of a variety of futures beyond our own and beyond that of our kids. Why aren’t we shock testing our economic systems? How much should we spend on asteroid avoidance or sustainable living?. We need to know the numbers before we can say how happy we are….

    This is where technology and Big Data can make this possible. What Wilkinson and Picket have done in gathering society performance metrics together for the Equality Trust is an example of what we need to do but on a very much grander scale and with greater consistency and reliability.

    Denmark, by its metrics, is astonishingly good, but culturally its more than a little flat. 100% happy sounds a hellish sort of happy. Maybe there is a metric to go with “how happy”….”how alive do you feel”…

    • In reply to #5 by phil rimmer:

      Denmark, by its metrics, is astonishingly good, but culturally its more than a little flat. 100% happy sounds a hellish sort of happy. Maybe there is a metric to go with “how happy”….”how alive do you feel”…

      A little flat! What sort of criticism is that? :-)
      Considering the awful weather , I think they’re doing very well to score so well on the happiness scale. The stats show us that an egalitarian society is a happy one and this should be the aim of all countries.

      • In reply to #6 by Nitya:

        In reply to #5 by phil rimmer:

        The stats show us that an egalitarian society is a happy one and this should be the aim of all countries.

        My point is that our metrics may be a little crass. We should be prepared to nuance these things. Danish culture is a little flat (I’ll dig up a book reference I’m drawing that from), though they are rightfully proud of their achievements. Would they come top of the “aliveness stakes”? How equal is too equal? What are the risks of losing the problem finding urge if your society is at its homeostatic resting point with no itches to scratch?

        At the end of the day all I am proposing is that we create (say) an aliveness metric and let people use it. I’m not sure we should be so quick to limit metrics. We are all different.

        • In reply to #9 by phil rimmer:

          In reply to #6 by Nitya:

          In reply to #5 by phil rimmer:

          At the end of the day all I am proposing is that we create (say) an aliveness metric and let people use it. I’m not sure we should be so quick to limit metrics. We are all different.

          Am I right in thinking your aliveness metric would be an index measuring the cultural vibrancy? I can imagine such a scale would include cultural activities that would give the members of a society a feeling of joy and connectedness. Such a culture would include many fiestas and opportunities to dance, sing, feast, dress up and express themselves as a group. Many Latin American countries would score highly on such a scale, but they could also experience the ever constant fear of being caught in the crossfire of some local drug war. The joy would need to be offset with the fear of injury.

          This is beginning to look very difficult to quantify. I think it’s better to keep it simple and measure factors that are able to be measured such as distribution of wealth, life expectancy, education levels etc.

          Another thought…I wonder about the truth in the statement that the culture in Denmark is very flat. I remember such comments were once made about Belgium. Perhaps disparaging comments are made about wealthy societies in general?

          • In reply to #10 by Nitya:

            In reply to #9 by phil rimmer:

            In reply to #6 by Nitya:

            In reply to #5 by phil rimmer:

            Am I right in thinking your aliveness metric would be an index measuring the cultural vibrancy?

            I’m talking about self reporting here so not difficult to collect at all. Remember this is data to be used mainly to feed back to the population themselves to see what they feel about the changes that have happened. Yes it is viewed by policy makers to help them form those policies and behind them may sit a barrage of analysts trying to discern epidemiological dependencies with other metrics.

            In psychology in trying to assess a person’s level of happiness it is usual to ask the same thing in a variety of ways to form an aggregate view. This is in part an attempt to do that, but also to usefully identify kinds of happy.

            Am I happy?

            Personally I never expect to be happy more than half the time. Should I answer 50% or 100%?

            Do I feel alive and engaged in my life?

            Yep. Very high score here. (I have experienced mild depression and I thought it devastating. The daily round of people kept me afloat and would net a happy score above my alive score.)

            Am I bored often?

            Very rarely. Boredom is like death to me. Cotards Syndrome is not far behind it seems.

            Etc. etc.

            Ignorant happy and educated happy are different kinds of happy. To repeat, now we can collect this stuff painlessly. Big Data is upon us.

            A great failing in concepts like utilitarianism is to fail to notice the wide spread of cognitive varieties in the population. Creativity and problem solving (the primary source of wealth creation) often flows from the cognitively eccentric. In truth most people are cognitively eccentric (off the norm). A society that doesn’t cater for this healthy spread, that doesn’t foster a degree of non conformism is consigning itself to an impoverishment of cultural DNA.

            A Swedish friend (an electronics wizard) came to the UK because he was “suffocating in the conformity” of his home country. There is a balance to be struck, and it will be different for different countries affected by natural resources and near neighbours and a wealth of other parameters, but to strike it you have to measure it.

  5. I’m sure both real life and thought experiments will both show that simple rules about maximizing well being won’t be just.

    I agree that justice and morality in general will involve maximizing human well being, but it will be tempered by things like the strong distaste most people have for using people as a means to an end. This means that most people will want some sort of rule stating: you may not directly harm other people under most circumstances, even if this means that some simple metric of average well being would be reduced.

    For example, most people would be find it unjust to kill and harvest the organs of a person even if it saved the lives of 12 people.

    Taking your moral code from a book written when women were considered chattel, slavery was normal, and torture followed by execution was considered a good sentence for a vast array of minor crimes seems like a bad idea to me. A worse idea if you then refuse to consider any improvements.

  6. Your model assumes that happiness as a variable is finite only to be distributed such as with a finite good.

    In order to make unhappy people happy, you do not necessarily need to relinquish your own happiness.

    Being polite to someone having a bad day, can make their day a whole lot better, and possibly your own.

    • In reply to #8 by JPatrick:

      Your model assumes that happiness as a variable is finite only to be distributed such as with a finite good.

      In order to make unhappy people happy, you do not necessarily need to relinquish your own happiness.

      Being polite to someone having a bad day, can make their day a whole lot better, and pos…

      Sure if we all behave like hippies and go around loving each other then the world would be a groovy place, I agree and I’m all for it. But the reason we have morality is because sometimes, inevitably, and even for the most mellow of us there are conflicts between your well being and my well being. Of course you can tweak my simple examples into examples where everyone wins by just making more assumptions but that ignores the point. Are you saying that every moral problem can be handled with a win win solution? How about when someone murders another person or steals from them or commits terrorism?

    • In reply to #11 by QuestioningKat:

      I’m having some trouble following this…Happiness, well-being…seems conflated. Are Judeo-Christian values being projected onto this definition?

      I have no idea where you got that. What in anything that I wrote or that Harris wrote “projects Judeo-Christian values”?

  7. Harris’ basic proposal is certainly better than the hodge-podge of political, religious, philosophical & cultural-relativist opinions disguised as ‘Truths’ we have now.
    It’s a complex subject, but at least using modern knowledge uncovered by the scientific method & rational reasoning will likely lead to some progress over moral & ethical ‘rules’ that are rooted in ancient ignorance, fear & submission to undeserved power & authority? Mac.

    • In reply to #12 by CdnMacAtheist:

      Harris’ basic proposal is certainly better than the hodge-podge of political, religious, philosophical & cultural-relativist opinions disguised as ‘Truths’ we have now.
      It’s a complex subject, but at least using modern knowledge uncovered by the scientific method & rational reasoning will likely lea…

      Saying it’s better than the confusion that results from systems such as religion isn’t exactly high praise. And it’s not as if Harris is the first person to address morality without seeing all the answers from God or religion. Plenty of people: Socrates, Hume, Mill, Nietzsche, Rawls, just to name a few have very coherent things to say on the subject. In fact that is part of my point is that Harris really just sweeps under the rug the actually hard philosophical problems.

      • In reply to #29 by Red Dog:

        Saying it’s better than the confusion that results from systems such as religion isn’t exactly high praise. And it’s not as if Harris is the first person to address morality without seeing all the answers from God or religion. Plenty of people: Socrates, Hume, Mill, Nietzsche, Rawls, just to name a few have very coherent things to say on the subject. In fact that is part of my point is that Harris really just sweeps under the rug the actually hard philosophical problems.

        Hi Red Dog.

        Harris is just making a start on the problems we face in taking the concepts of ethics & morality out of the spheres of religion or philosophy & building a more solid foundation, using all the new knowledge uncovered by recent advances in understanding how things actually are – in physics, cosmology, geology, biology, evolution, genetics, psychology, neuroscience, etc.

        The ‘hard philosophical questions’ need foundations better than the mythical ones we’ve struggled with & under for millennia. These very new methods of understanding life, the universe & everything are still in their infancy, with a long way to go before we have a good handle on the facts, processes, possibilities & consequences.

        Many more well-qualified folk need to work hard on deepening & widening our perceptions & ways of addressing our problems before there are good, encompassing ways of progressing, since the old ways are so deeply entrenched in our families, schooling, laws, politics & social structures, just as the mythtakes of religious & political mafias have done so much damage to humanity, whatever the underlying reasons were when they emerged & ‘worked’ in our ignorant, fearful infancy.

        I’m hopeful that we’ll learn enough about reality so we can ethically, morally & intellectually move forward before those bad old ways take us down as a species after doing so much damage to all life on our Pale Blue Dot…. Mac.

  8. Moral Choice 1

    • 100 people
    • 95 have well-being of -1
    • 5 have well-being of 100
    • Median well-being = -1

    Moral Choice 2

    • 100 people
    • 100 have well-being of 4
    • Median well-being = 4

    You can play with statistics all you like. Don’t expect a meaningful outcome unless you ask a meaningful question.
    “What is the average?” is very often exactly the wrong question to ask, especially when the distribution is nothing like a normal distribution. It is this sort of statistic that is generally used to justify injustice.

    • In reply to #13 by Stuart Coyle:

      You can play with statistics all you like.

      In what sense was I “playing statistics”? I’m not sure what that criticism even implies. What I was doing was to develop some trivial examples to see if the theory that Harris put forward in The Moral Landscape really does seem like a rational foundation for making moral decisions.

      Don’t expect a meaningful outcome unless you ask a meaningful question. “What is the average?” is very often exactly the wrong question to ask, especially when the distribution is nothing like a normal distribution. It is this sort of statistic that is generally used to justify injustice.

      The meaningful question I was trying to ask was not about fairness or whether some people should make more money than others. The meaningful question I was trying to answer was “Does the Harris theory of well being really correspond to the intuitions all rational people have about morality?” and to show that it didn’t I proposed two examples (which I admit were overly simple and contrived) to test the theory. Since his theory doesn’t work for even these contrived examples I think that shows it can’t work as a complete theory of human morality.

  9. Red Dog makes an interesting point, but I am not sure that his statement of SH’s view as being that “human well-being is the only metric required for making moral choices.” is an adequate rendering.

    Harris has summarized his theses (or perhaps re-stated/clarified them, in the face of a barrage of criticisms) in launching the Moral Landscape Challenge (see http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-moral-landscape-challenge1), which appear to protect against Red Dog’s-type of argument. He specifically cautioned against failure *” to notice the distinction I make between answers in practice and answers in principle, or if you narrowly define science to mean finding the former” *

    It would be interesting to know soon what comes out of this challenge.

    • In reply to #14 by catphil:

      Red Dog makes an interesting point, but I am not sure that his statement of SH’s view as being that “human well-being is the only metric required for making moral choices.” is an adequate rendering.

      Harris has summarized his theses (or perhaps re-stated/clarified them, in the face of a barrage of c…

      I’ve seen that article by Harris and I didn’t see where he addressed these kinds of questions. Can you site a specific quote or section where he starts to talk about the complexity of actually calculating the well being for a population or issues such as maximizing fairness as well as or instead of well being because I haven’t seen those.

      • In reply to #30 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #14 by catphil:
        Can you site a specific quote or section where he starts to talk about the complexity of actually calculating the well being for a population or issues such as maximizing fairness…

        No, I cant. As I read him, he is making a number of general (and controversial) points on principle, such as the possibility of deriving values from facts, but he does not address-nor tries to- the complexity of actual calculations. I assume he thinks these will come out in the wash. This is what why he is talking not about “answers in practice”, but merely of “answers in principle”. But , IMO, this is rather facile , since, as in all matters, the devil is in the details!

  10. A bit out of my depth in discussions like these but it reminds me of Hari Seldon in Asimov’s Foundation Series where he worked out a mathematical model to predict human behaviour. Seldon was successful so good luck RedDog.

    From my amateur viewpoint, I found my brow furrowing up a bit. There is what we think morality should be and then there is what morality 30,000 year old stone age humans will submit to, put up with, or implement in 2014. In any problem solving, there will be things that are constants that can’t be changed and things which can be argued. I am of the view that there are a lot of hard wired evolutionary drives still active, because evolution hasn’t had time, and may never have time to dispose of them. Obvious ones like tribalism, a wonderful survival strategy 30,000 years ago to band together with mostly genetically near relations and act with common cause to kill the mammoth. That tribalism now manifests itself today as nationalism or the desire of humans to belong to “Groups”. Like football fans. There is a very strong evolutionary imperative for us to attach ourselves to “tribes” of common purpose. And sometimes, belonging to a tribe results in appalling atrocities, because you stop thinking as a rational individual with no thought to morality.

    I think our moral behaviour is limited by these inbuilt foundation evolutionary drives. I know what RedDog is asking, and I have read extensively on arguments about morals and ethics, but I suspect if we ran a test over the whole world’s population, only a small minority of people would have the intellectual drive to reason out what is moral and what is not. Most just act on instinct and greed. But the conclusions of such reasonings can never be imposed on the real world. Just like Communism’s failure. Most of the people I know are too busy following the “Footy Team”, watching The Biggest Loser, cooking shows, or So You Think You Can’t Dance. Listening to news broadcasts that are either infotainment, product endorsements or loosely disguised party political rants. How many of these people will ever put into practice RedDogs, or anyone elses moral rules for human behaviour and live by them.

    We’re actually a short attention span stone age man, mostly selfish apart from near genetic relatives, and abusers of the Commons.

    • In reply to #15 by David R Allen:

      A bit out of my depth in discussions like these but it reminds me of Hari Seldon in Asimov’s Foundation Series where he worked out a mathematical model to predict human behaviour. Seldon was successful so good luck RedDog.

      That was always one of my favorite parts of the Foundation trilogy, the philosophical issues that Asimov works into the book and the idea that some day we may be able to have a science of social theory with the rigor and predictive accuracy of physics. It’s one of the reasons I was so interested to read Harris’s book when it first came out and why I was rather disappointed when I got to the end. It seemed he spent the whole book arguing that science could be used to study ethics (something I already was convinced of) and very little time actually doing any scientific thinking on the topic.

      Getting back to Asimov, looking for a science of the social world is one reason I find game theory so fascinating, it really is a start at just that a way to quantify human interactions in a way that can can be measured empirically. If you are familiar with John Nash he proved various things about stability (Nash equilibrium) between rational agents (where the agents could be animals, humans, or corporations) competing for and sharing resources that have been validated in observations from biology and economics.

    • In reply to #15 by David R Allen:

      From my amateur viewpoint, I found my brow furrowing up a bit. There is what we think morality should be and then there is what morality 30,000 year old stone age humans will submit to, put up with, or implement in 2014. In any problem solving, there will be things that are constants that can’t be changed and things which can be argued. I am of the view that there are a lot of hard wired evolutionary drives still active, because evolution hasn’t had time, and may never have time to dispose of them. Obvious ones like tribalism, a wonderful survival strategy 30,000 years ago to band together with mostly genetically near relations and act with common cause to kill the mammoth.

      I think we actually agree quite a bit. I think what Harris is trying to do is analogous to a simplistic religious solution. The various religions of the world make morality easy by just appealing to one divine ruler or one sacred book. Harris is, in my view, also trying to oversimplify things, he says we can just look at one metric: well being — and that’s all we need to care about as far as morality goes. I think his approach glosses over the hard philosophical problems and ignores all the really interesting theories starting to be developed (e.g., see Marc Hauser’s book) that relate our common sense view of morality with various evolutionary drives that can be traced back to things like kin selection, tribalism, and reciprocal altruism. To me that is where a real scientific theory of morality has to work, not in just defining one thing and then saying “now wait for the neuropsych people to tell us how to measure and control well being” which I believe is essentially what Harris says.

  11. These figures are completely arbitrary, and subjective to each individual.

    First off, in what kind of world would anyone, 5% or otherwise, have 100% well-being? What does 100% well even mean and what sort of socioeconomic mechanisms would allow for this to be the stark privilege of only 5%?

    Also, why is the only alternative to this fantasy scenario a world in which everyone only has +4 well-being? This seems pitifully low. Even with these figures being arbitrary and subjective, I would wager that a good day in subsaharan Africa results in a good +5 average well-being, while the average in most of Europe being +10-20 happy. And even the most wealthy billionaires on the planet probably only score a maximum of +50, with the most content people on earth (although still only in the +80′s) being those without billions of dollars, with just an average standard of living and good social and psychological fulfilment.

    Are you supposing that we drug 5% of the population to artificially induce a +100 happiness rate in order to shift the average? I can’t see ANY moral justification for that, but if we can do that, why not drug everyone? Is it that the act of drugging people to artificially induce happiness has a negative effect on their wellbeing, so it doesn’t actually solve anything?

    As for the second scenario, just to drive home the point of the subjectivity of these figures, why would it require a -20 added to the criminals misery to alleviate 10 points from the victims? And do you have any reason to suppose that punishing the criminal more does alleviate any of the victims misery?

    What if the criminals were already miserable, and giving them a roof over the heads even in the form of a prison sentence actually makes them more happy?

    What if the misery suffered by the victims is actually more than the misery suffered by the criminals? What if it’s -100? Does that justify executing the criminals, taking them out of the equation altogether thus shifting the average back up?

    All in all, this is a nice numbers game, but I don’t think it has ANY baring on actual morality.

    • In reply to #16 by Seraphor:

      These figures are completely arbitrary, and subjective to each individual.

      Yes, it’s a thought experiment. It’s not meant to be a complete example of what a realistic theory would look like in practice. Its designed to show that even on trivial examples Harris’s solution doesn’t work. And by doesn’t work I mean doesn’t correspond to intuitions that all rational people have about morality and since that is all his theory is based on, it’s his contention that with a bit of thought we can all just agree on well being as a definition of morality, since that theory can’t handle even these simple contrived examples it clearly isn’t a viable theory for human morality.

      First off, in what kind of world would anyone, 5% or otherwise, have 100% well-being? What does 100% well even mean and what sort of socioeconomic mechanisms would allow for this to be the stark privilege of only 5%?

      Again, it’s a thought experiment. I don’t know and don’t care what the answers are to your questions, they are irrelevant. That is what you do in a thought experiment you abstract away a LOT of details and you say “suppose we make the following assumptions can theory X work for this contrived example?” That is what I’m trying to do, I’m saying “suppose we had a very rigorous theory of well being such that we could calculate things like 100% well being reliably” even in cases such as THAT (which I admit may be a situation we will never see in reality) Harris’s theory won’t work so it obviously won’t work on less contrived examples.

      If you ever read any game theory for example they start with totally trivial games and examples such as the basic prisoner’s dillema. Now with the prisoner’s dilemma you can, and I’ve heard people do, the same thing as you are doing, ask questions like “well what if the crooks made a pack before they got caught” or “what if one crook knows the other will kill him if he cooperates”, etc.

      And those objections all miss the point which is to focus — to start with — on toy examples where we ignore details to see if the theory even makes sense in the most basic cases. For game theory it does and we go on to more complex examples requiring calculus and statistics and additional variables. My point is that for Harris his model breaks down even on these trivial examples.

    • In reply to #17 by QuestioningKat:

      Someone please define well-being and how it can be consistently attained. Am I missing something here…?

      Personally think the United Nations Human Development Index is a pretty good measure. Well being is defined by the absence of anti-well being factors such as disease, oppression, crime, ignorance, poverty, isolation, etc. So well-being can be consistently attained by eliminating as many of these factors as possible. It is true that this will not guarantee that perfectly healthy, well feed, secure, rich and popular human beings will not still end up sitting around feeling sorry for themselves but that is probably due to ignorance itself so even this would not happen if such ignorance could be eliminated.

      • In reply to #20 by Catfish:

        In reply to #17 by QuestioningKat:

        Someone please define well-being and how it can be consistently attained. Am I missing something here…?

        Personally think the United Nations Human Development Index is a pretty good measure.

        I see the discussion is focusing on the different possible measurements of “well-being” and “happiness”. This is a vast subject. Certainly the UN HDI is not a very good measure in this regard . This is why, under the leadership of Bhutan, a Gross National Happiness Index has been constructed- and much debated internationally. The GNH compromises 9 domains: psychological wellbeing, time use, community vitality, cultural diversity, ecological resilience, living standard, health, education, good governance. Leaving aside data and definitional problems , the relevance of these 9 dimensions is is far from getting world wide consensus.

        • In reply to #24 by catphil:

          Certainly the UN HDI is not a very good measure in this regard . This is why, under the leadership of Bhutan, a Gross National Happiness Index has been constructed- and much debated internationally

          Actually, I believe that the Bhutan index was a dodge to avoid facing the country’s shortcomings by concocting standards that wouldn’t show up the government’s failings so starkly. However, the point about the UN Human Development Index is that it measures the conditions in which individuals are free to make choices that can lead to a happy life. The resources for physical and psychological well-being are available but effort and good judgement is required to make the best use of them.

    • In reply to #17 by QuestioningKat:

      Someone please define well-being and how it can be consistently attained. Am I missing something here…?

      Harris says that eventually we will get the definition of well being from neurobiology. But his thesis is that even without a rigorous definition we can all agree that whatever it eventually is, once we have it, that will be our starting point and ending point for making moral decisions. My point was that even if we assume that there is such a definition, that lets us make an analysis such as “event X will yield perfect well being for person A” with strong certainty, even in THOSE cases there are still major conceptual problems with relying on well being as the only metric for moral choices.

  12. Thanks for posting an interesting discussion. Am personally still recovering from Caption Finke (that guy almost turned me into a creationist). Think a few other people have pointed out that you have downgraded Sam Harris theory a bit. My memory is that he referred to well being of sentient creatures (not just human well being). Is important point for me as I am not a fan of human exceptional ism. I think the type of thought experiments you propose need to take into account the concept of sustainability as well. Other people have pointed out that a world of 5 happy and 95 misery would not be sustainable because the 95 misery would naturally seek to improve their situation and certainly achieve some success eventually. North Korea has been going for a long while but looks close to falling apart now. Thank (once again) to the improvement in science and world wide communication systems. So I think your argument is valid but the underlying premises (ie. that is possible to sustain a environment of such extreme in balances) are unsound. Thanks again for the post, anyway.

    • In reply to #18 by Catfish:

      Thanks for posting an interesting discussion.

      Thanks for saying that.

      Am personally still recovering from Caption Finke (that guy almost turned me into a creationist).

      LOL.

      Think a few other people have pointed out that you have downgraded Sam Harris theory a bit. My memory is that he referred to well being of sentient creatures (not just human well being). Is important point for me as I am not a fan of human exceptional ism.

      You are correct but I don’t think that impacts my argument. You can make the example a lot more complex. In fact you obviously would need to make the example more complex if we were talking about the real world. For one thing you probably can’t measure the impact of an act on the whole population. But I agree if you do want to do that then under Harris’s theory (and on this I agree with him and with you) it’s not fair to exclude other animals and restrict it to just humans. To take an obvious example, a psycho who get’s pleasure out of torturing cats isn’t justified under Harris’s theory.

      But I don’t think the simplifications I made impact the actual argument. You can scale it up to talk about billions or to have more realistic descriptions about the communities that are impacted or what kind of act we are actually talking about etc. I tried to stay away from those issues precisely because people will inevitably end up focusing on the details of the example rather than the general issues.

      The important thing is that even in far more complex realistic examples I think you could still easily find cases where the intuitions of people as to what is moral don’t just come down to only maximizing well being. They also require that immoral people get punished and that there is some notion of fairness as well as maximizing happiness.

    • In reply to #19 by wegoweg:

      ‘I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves – such an ethical basis I call more proper for a herd of swine.’-A.Einstein

      Well being doesn’t just refer to ease and happiness. What it does refer to is problematic and I agree with the people who question if it’s even possible to have a simple number that says for some person they are X% of perfect well being. Which is another problem with Harris’s theory. My point was that even if we assume Harris is right and we are wrong about the difficulty of calculating well being, even if we assume, as I did in my examples that we CAN do such measurement then well being still doesn’t completely define morality as it’s used by rational people.

  13. What you present is the old dilemma of utilitarianism. Or in other words, whether the happiness of a few is better than all people suffering a little less. One can also see this dilemma as whether individual happiness is more important than the greater good. I think this is a straw man, based on a very simplistic understanding of utilitarianism. Fairness is a crucial component of human well-being. If most of the people feel they are being treated unfair, I think it’s absurd to talk about well-being. In the other case, I also think it’s a misrepresentation of what utilitarianism is about. Individual happiness, or happiness of the ones close to us is of course to most of us of more concern than the happiness of strangers. But, that does not mean that we can’t find ways to balance these two objectives. In fact, our individual happiness is in many ways bound to the greater good. In societies where most people are happy you are much more likely to find individual happiness or well-being than in societies where only a few thrive. Hence, even from an individual perspective it’s rational to care about the greater good. Studies in fact show, that helping others is often the thing that people find gives them the most joy and happiness in their lives.

    My point is that, your argument that well-being is not enough when making moral choices is a straw man, since fairness is a crucial component of well-being.

    • In reply to #21 by Nunbeliever:

      My point is that, your argument that well-being is not enough when making moral choices is a straw man, since fairness is a crucial component of well-being.

      I don’t recall anything from what Harris writes where he talks about fairness. In fact he discusses Rawls just a bit and dismisses him — for what reasons it wasn’t clear to me but he clearly thinks Rawls is wrong. It’s not a strawman argument if your opponent is actually making that very argument. And nothing that you said supports saying that Harris considers fairness a part of well being.

      What is more if you define well being so broadly then it becomes a meaningless definition. The whole point of having a metric is that we can cut through various dilemmas and just say “whatever maximizes well being (or fairness if we believe as Rawls does) is the moral decision” That is one thing that philosophers try to do, find a rational foundation for what are emotional and often highly non-rational decisions that most humans currently make. If you define “well being” to be a sense of fairness in the community and the idea that all people have universal rights you are no longer using the theory as Harris defined it, I think even he would agree with me on that.

      • In reply to #41 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #21 by Nunbeliever:

        My point is that, your argument that well-being is not enough when making moral choices is a straw man, since fairness is a crucial component of well-being.

        I don’t recall anything from what Harris writes where he talks about fairness. In fact he discusses Rawls ju…

        I don’t really care what Sam Harris argues or not. Your argument was that “well-being is the only metric required for making moral choices” is wrong. According to you fairness is necessary for this equation to make sense. My point is that fairness is a crucial component of well-being. That is not a particularly broad definition. It’s not that hard to imagine that a person who perceives he/she is treated unfairly is less likely to be happy. Well-being and happiness is a very abstract and broad subject anyway. You try to reduce it into absurd quantifiable numbers, and blame people who do not agree with your very narrow definition of well-being as proponents of a “meaningless definition”. I’m sorry to say that it feels like you have not really thought this through. Your argument feels very shallow and arbitrary. I have had quite a few discussions about utilitarianism and other philosophical concepts, and your argument is a quite common straw man in this regard.

  14. The moral philosopher is first of all a political scientist. What is the society within which humans can fulfil their potential? The UN Human Development Index provides a classification of countries according to the standards of human well-being which they meet. The top ten are (2013)1 Norway 2 Australia 3 United States 4 Netherlands 5 Germany 6 new Zealand7 Ireland 8 Sweden 9 Switzerland 10 Japan
    When the economic, social and political conditions are in place, then it’s up to individuals to maximize their satisfaction with life as best they can.

  15. In reply to #2 by Reckless Monkey:

    You seem to be taking a short term view in your argument here, I’m not sure Sam’s argument is suggesting anything as simple as you seem to imply.

    I don’t recall Harris ever discussing these kinds of complications or even hinting that they exist. Do you have a reference for where he discusses this?

    I agree that time is another important unresolved issue but I think on things like that you could agree on some arbitrary definitions, say one year out because anything further becomes unreliable given how unpredictable the future in general is.

    The important point I was trying to make is that the more fundamental claim, that he can solve the is ought problem by an appeal to a common sense definition of well being that all rational people will agree to is demonstrably false by even simple examples such as these. I think the examples expose that when we try to actually define what well being is in a meaningful way we start talking about all sorts of additional abstractions, like the long term good of society, the fact that all people should have some basic innate rights, that some people contribute a lot more and should be rewarded for it, etc. I.e., we are right back where we started.

    • In reply to #25 by Red Dog:

      In reply to #2 by Reckless Monkey:

      You seem to be taking a short term view in your argument here, I’m not sure Sam’s argument is suggesting anything as simple as you seem to imply.

      I don’t recall Harris ever discussing these kinds of complications or even hinting that they exist. Do you have a ref…

      Hi Red Dog,

      Thanks for the reply, I think you may be missing his broader point. That being that in principal questions of human well being are no less scientific questions than say questions of health which is similarly poorly defined and yet we do not right sciences place out of health care because of this. He is arguing against the ‘is ought’ distinction not claiming to have the system worked out. He openly acknowledges in his TED talk and in the book the difficulties in doing this. He talks about the moral landscape where there are peaks of wellbeing and valleys of the opposite, he states that there may be many alternative ways of achieving this. He does not claim to know exactly what they are or how they will be discovered. He talks about there being ways of sitting on high peaks that our minds may not be able to access because of the way our minds are structured, he says that he does not think science is guaranteed to map this space, He is not claiming to know what each position is or even that it will be possible to find them.

      He is claiming that there are no moral questions that do not reduce to the well being of thinking/feeling creatures. He calims that we can in principle discover these ways of maximizing well being for conscious creatures and that questions of morality are questions that can be addressed by science. I think you are running the risk of creating a strawman by arguing that he is simply stating that a numerical value of well being based upon an average of happiness is what is required here, this isn’t his position as far as I can tell.

      Sam is making an argument that the is ought distinction is wrong. His book I think (although I am not a philosopher or particularly well read in this area) makes a good case but would be happy to hear an argument to contrary, I actually have some blind spots when thinking about these things and I cannot make it clear in my own head until I engage in debate with people. However I don’t think he is claiming to know all the answers but rather that we shouldn’t exclude the scientific process from finding the solutions.

      I think the examples expose that when we try to actually define what well being is in a meaningful way we start talking about all sorts of additional abstractions, like the long term good of society, the fact that all people should have some basic innate rights, that some people contribute a lot more and should be rewarded for it, etc. I.e., we are right back where we started.

      This is where I think you are wrong, a) your example doesn’t represent what Sam suggests we do. b) as you correctly state it’s complicated by things like the long term good of society etc. But that that puts us right back where we started is not true at all. Where we are now is mostly living in societies where rabid holy books are considered to be the basis on which objective morality is based, by far the majority of people think this. I have just finished reading the bible again and am now about 20% of the way through the Koran – neither of these should have any foundation in moral teaching and culture, yet they do! Most people haven’t read them of course but they still consider them the foundation of their morality. Admitting that our morality has evolved with us, understanding our weaknesses and built in aggressive tenancies will help us mitigate them profoundly. Admission that morality is about the well being of thinking/feeling creatures and can be looked at by science does not put us back where we started it puts us in more in control of our ethics, even if we cannot agree on them.

      • In reply to #43 by Reckless Monkey:

        In reply to #25 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #2 by Reckless Monkey:
        He is claiming that there are no moral questions that do not reduce to the well being of thinking/feeling creatures. He calims that we can in principle discover these ways of maximizing well being for conscious creatures and that questions of morality are questions that can be addressed by science. I think you are running the risk of creating a strawman by arguing that he is simply stating that a numerical value of well being based upon an average of happiness is what is required here, this isn’t his position as far as I can tell.

        But I think I’ve shown that there are obvious examples where it doesn’t just come down to maximizing well being. Where we can imagine a scenario where our intuition is not based on just maximizing well being. If to get to the intuitive moral outcome we have to use some other metric than maximize well being then his model is fundamentally flawed. That is why I chose those two examples. In both of them the maximum well being decision is not the obvious moral decision. Questions of equal distribution (i.e. fairness) or giving people the well being they deserve which may not always be maximum (i.e. justice) are what satisfy our intuitions.

        I don’t think you correctly characterize the way Harris describes the issues with his theory. He does admit that there are more complex issues, issues that some people have touched on in the comments: do we measure well being now or in the future, can we even come up with a number, etc. I agree Harris would say that those are unresolved issues but those issues don’t negate his theory.

        But if you can come up with examples where you say “let’s assume as part of a thought experiment that we’ve solved all those problems and we have a situation like X” and in situation X you still can’t just use “maximize well being” as the thing that fits with your moral intuition then Harris is wrong that we all agree on this the way he claims we all agree on what health is. (BTW, I don’t even agree that defining health is as easy as he thinks it is but certainly not morality).

        Another set of data that shows it’s more complicated than Harris believes comes from social science research. There is something called the ultimatum game, you give person A $10 and tell her she must give some percentage to person B. Person B then has the decision to accept or reject the offer. If B accepts both A and B get the value that A chose if B rejects everyone gets nothing. If our intuition was just to maximize well being people would accept all offers no matter how selfish. Even if A chooses to keep $9 and give B only 1 B would still be $1 better off if she accepts but people usually reject if the shared number is less than 20%.

        • In reply to #44 by Red Dog:

          In reply to #43 by Reckless Monkey:

          In reply to #25 by Red Dog:

          In reply to #2 by Reckless Monkey:
          He is claiming that there are no moral questions that do not reduce to the well being of thinking/feeling creatures. He calims that we can in principle discover these ways of maximizing well being fo…

          Hi Red Dog,

          Thanks again for the reply, I genuinely appreciate it as I said before I believe I have some blind areas when it comes to philosophy, I often find myself not getting a particular point of view and I find the only way I have of inching towards some understanding is to argue with people like yourself willing to engage with me, so please don’t take any criticisms I throw your way with any personal intent I’m quite prepared to admit I’m wrong on this I’ve had arguments with people about this before, but I have not been able to convince myself that Sam is wrong on this.

          Anyway to the debate.

          My view is that Sam has made a broad claim about the is-ought distinction being wrong. He’s not the first if anyone is interested Bronowski also wrote about this in his book Science and Human Values available on Kindle. As he is not claiming to have a method worked out for measurement of human well being so I don’t think you can disprove a claim he hasn’t yet made. This may be a weakness in his argument, I personally see it as a good starting point. Your examples I think also present a situation where the majority of people are not doing well. I see some problems with this as a method of producing well being in most people. For this reason the metric you seem to be proposing is not one anyone would choose to use. So what it seems like you have done is to present a bad way of coming to moral decisions then claiming that this proves Sam’s position is wrong. What I would ask you is this. Is there a way of using scientific knowledge to measure human well being such as lifespan, choice, crime rates and any number of metrics that would allow us to use scientific methods to make decisions about how societies should organize laws and culture? If yes then Sam as far as I can tell has a point.

          As has been said above Sam’s position is basically a utilitarian one, I’ve heard many criticisms of this position that don’t seem to ring true, but I’ll focus on just one the idea that harvesting human organs of one patient to save many is cited as a refutation for the greatest good for the greatest number. Frankly I see this as a pretty weak attack. It is pretty clear that while a small minority (those with impending organ failure) may feel better about living in such a world the rest of us would feel pretty insecure.

          Can you come up with a single example of a situation where the moral act is not linked to the well being of thinking creatures? It seems to me that essentially that is Sam’s point and to the extent that science can illuminate that well being then it should inform and guide our morality.

          Your second example looks to me like the Prisoners dilemma. If this is right then again this seems to make Sam’s point. People often make the poor choice in this game especially if they are only playing one round of the game. However when playing multiple rounds those that cooperate win more. The tit for tat strategy cooperate, but punish if someone defects against you but forgive if they begin to cooperate again has been shown to be the most successful strategy. Politicians would do well to pay heed to this. And where did this model come from Game Theory, science. This is I think making Sam’s point for him. Science illuminates with testable outcomes models for optimum human behavior that if adopted work in real life. Where the holy books are replete with contradiction, bigotry, sexism and cruelty this simple model for behavior teaches all those who pay heed a principal better than love your neighbor (which leaves you vulnerable to exploitation), and has been shown to work in many a real life situations, this is a good basis to begin a discussion I think this is the sort of thing Sam is talking about.

  16. In reply to #4 by Nitya:

    I don’t understand why an ‘average’ is taken?

    That was one of the points I was trying to make, is that Harris presents the idea as if “well being” is obvious and once the neuropsych people tell us how to measure it all interesting moral questions will be solved but he never even comes close to a realistic discussion of what it would actually mean to measure well being. I always assumed you would want to take the average for the whole society in question but you raise a good point, that is probably impractical and perhaps it should just be the people involved in the event in question.

    What I was trying to do here is to think through what Harris said in more detail and show that there are a lot of unresolved questions he doesn’t address.

  17. Your first example ignores the law of diminishing returns. It also supposes well being as a zero sum game, which it is not.

    But, moreover, what you are doing, examining the well being of a population, is exactly the point of the moral landscape. That is, that you can do it examine well being in the manner, and that is function, the meaning, the role, of morality.

    That fact that you missed some relevant points isn’t that bad. It lets others say “hey, what about the law of diminishing returns, and the model that you present, does that reflect reality?” That’s the type of conversation that can lead to something. A conversation that can make progress. Much different from “do X because God says so”. So, really, you are proving Sam’s point.

  18. Analyzing human morality is like trying to “nail jelly to the ceiling” or “wrestle with a puff of smoke”. Moral actions range from flying jumbo jets into skyscrapers for the love of Allah to not cheating on your wife (not even sure why that is moral but sounds like it probably is). Just listen to politicians change morality based on opinion polls (is true of people in general not just politicians). So from evidence we can clearly see that “morality” is so rubbery as to be almost a useless concept so what Sam Harris is trying to do is begin nailing it down and to do this we need to give it a real structure. The problem with trying to do this is that everybody is an expert on Morality because everybody has it and so thinks there version is special. Is a bit like “magic” in the sense that people think there is a “real magic” that is not based on the tricks and illusions of professional magicians but this “real magic” does not, in fact, exist. And the fake magic (ie. tricks and illusions performed by professionals) is in fact the real magic. Likewise for morality, people like to think there is a “real morality” that cannot be based on quantifiable metrics. But as per the idea of “real magic” I think they have it back to front and the closest thing we can have to “a real morality” is one based quantifiable metrics (such as levels of well being). And I quantify the level of well being simply by the absence of things which prevent well being (ie. poverty, disease, oppression, boredom, etc)

  19. If we quantify the level of “well being” by counting the absence of factors known to prevent well being (ie. poverty, disease, oppression, boredom, etc) instead of by trying to count the number of happy people then I think your argument looks a bit shaky. Can you create another scenario where there is some dilemma or paradox about what level of HIV infection is better or worse. Or likewise for political corruption, street violence, domestic violence, etc.

  20. It’s been quite a while since I’ve looked at Sam’s material regarding the moral landscape but if I remember correctly his hopes were for the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people… quite the opposite of your statistical examples.

    Although I have to admit you did a hell of a job of knocking down this straw man.

    • In reply to #47 by Akaei:

      It’s been quite a while since I’ve looked at Sam’s material regarding the moral landscape but if I remember correctly his hopes were for the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people… quite the opposite of your statistical examples.

      I think you remember correctly and that is my recollection as well. But I think that my statistical examples show that that principle: “the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people” doesn’t always match our intuition for a moral decision. That was the whole point of the two simple examples. To me saying you want “the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people” is essentially saying you want to maximize the mean well being for the population.

      What I was trying to show is that when using our moral intuition we also think about things like how evenly well being is distributed in the population or if some people deserve more or less well being, i.e., it’s not just “the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people” because some people deserve to have more (or less) well being.

      • In reply to #49 by Red Dog:

        ” To me saying you want “the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people” is essentially saying you want to maximize the mean well being for the population.”

        To me it does not say that at all. But even if it did, a mean well-being of 35 or 36 should suggest that we’re not really maximizing.

        “… we also think about things like how evenly well being is distributed in the population…”

        I agree. I suspect Sam would as well. But this still uses well being as a metric.

        “…because some people deserve to have more (or less) well being.”

        I would dispute this point, kinda. I would suggest that a fair portion of the behavior that makes people seem less deserving is a result of suffering or poor well being. There are those who cheat because they can and those who cheat because they perceive a lack of viable options. In my opinion the “because they can” group are punished too little and option-less are overly punished. As a civilization we can improve the options of the option-less (to the benefit of all). And we can seek to fleece and punish the psychopathic, mercenary and selfish cheaters. I’m being somewhat idealistic here. A civilization based on laws and property may be poorly equipped to address justice in this fashion.

        Sam’s reliance on well being is a reductionist view, as we should expect from a neuroscientist. I generally agree with him. [Removed by moderator.] But I look at morality more as attribute of evolutionary psychology in social creatures. Our subjective experience and empathy result in a moral sense that leads not to a linear social behavior structure but an algorithmic/balancing social behavior structure.

        • In reply to #55 by Akaei:

          In reply to #49 by Red Dog:
          To me saying you want “the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people” is essentially saying you want to maximize the mean well being for the population.” To me it does not say that at all. But even if it did, a mean well-being of 35 or 36 should suggest that we’re not really maximizing.

          What else does “the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people” possibly mean if not that you want to maximize the mean well being for the population? You say it doesn’t mean that to you then what is your definition? This isn’t even a question that is specific to ethics or well being, if you say you want the greatest amount of X possible for the greatest number of people then no matter what X is (health, money, etc.) you are saying you want to maximize the mean.

          And by maximize I don’t mean “the highest possible number” I mean when you make a decision (which is ultimately what morality is supposed to be about it guides your decision making) you choose (from the available possible options) that option which yields the highest possible number.

          This is just standard usage the way a biologist would talk about maximizing some factor. So for example when they say that a given bird foraging strategy is meant to “maximize the food the bird can bring to it’s young” it doesn’t mean a strategy that will result in the bird having the absolute most it can physically bring back but a strategy that (compared to other strategies such as a strategy where the bird focuses on feeding itself rather than children) will result in the most food brought back.

          • In reply to #58 by Red Dog:

            What else does “the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people” possibly mean if not that you want to maximize the mean well being for the population?

            I think this is more an indictment of Harris’ sloppy use of language (assuming he phrased it that way – I don’t recall) than an actual criticism of the position he holds. We don’t consider the wealth of a poverty-suffering population to have increased simply by adding Bill Gates to the line-up, even if that technically raises the average, so the assumption of collective interchangeability remains just that – an assumption. I think Harris alludes to this problem of comparisons when he quoted Churchland about the difficulty of comparing, say, the headaches of a million people with one poor devil’s broken leg, but I think he also just dumped it into the “things we will look into” folder, sadly enough.

            In reply to #59 by Red Dog:

            I see where you’re coming from. The rub is that his addition of “if we think about it carefully” makes his point ambiguous. For instance, he also says elsewhere that one can dismiss rival claims (like religious ones) to ethics on the grounds that, as there are experts in science and non-experts, so there is the same distinction in ethics. It raises the possibility that he means rational moral intuitions only about well-being, not ones that might be the result of moral dumbfounding. It’s a criticism of his writing that passages like that suggest he hasn’t fully worked out the arguments for his position on the science of ethics just yet. A phrase like “if we think about it carefully” doesn’t help much to dispel that impression.

          • In reply to #58 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #55 by Akaei:

            “the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people”

            is a fuzzy statement that is surely intended to exclude the situation of 99 slightly miserable poor people plus one single ecstatic lottery winner amongst them. The phrase clearly favours the one lottery winners good fortune being uniformly shared. (In the instance of wealth, given the demonstrable reducing efficacy of increasing amounts of money to generate happiness, equity wins anyway.)

            The big question, though, is will deferred gratification increase wealth tomorrow?

          • In reply to #61 by phil rimmer:

            In reply to #58 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #55 by Akaei:

            “the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people”

            is a fuzzy statement that is surely intended to exclude the situation of 99 slightly miserable poor people plus one single ecstatic lottery winner amongst them.

            It’s odd that the language used by many people here to defend Harris is more or less the same thing I would say to criticize him. If you want to do science then using language that is “fuzzy” or as Zeuglodon says “sloppy” is a bug not a feature. The whole point of having a scientific discussion of morals, at least I would think, is to start cutting through all the sloppy and fuzzy philosophic rhetoric and get to a terminology where you can actually have meaningful discussions. I agree Harris doesn’t do that but I see that as a major deficit in his work.

            The more I read of the way people defend Harris here the “defense” seems to come down to “well what he is saying is still better than saying that moral issues should be solved by the Bible or Koran”. And I agree that is true but I think it’s a pathetically low bar to set for contributions to philosophy or science.

          • In reply to #62 by Red Dog:

            The more I read of the way people defend Harris here the “defense” seems to come down to “well what he is saying is still better than saying that moral issues should be solved by the Bible or Koran”.

            I take exception to this broadly dismissive statement. It tried very hard to avoid using the word “strawman” in my previous post, but if ever a statement invited that charge, this is it. I challenge any fair observer to say that this is a reasonable summation of my defense of Harris from your particular objections.

          • In reply to #62 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #61 by phil rimmer
            In reply to #58 by Red Dog:
            In reply to #55 by Akaei:
            “the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people”
            is a fuzzy statement that is surely intended to exclude the situation of 99 slightly miserable poor people plus one single ecstatic lottery

            Hi Red Dog,
            Would appreciate a response to the challenge.. If we quantifying the level of “well being” by counting the absence of factors known to prevent well being (ie. poverty, disease, oppression, boredom, etc) instead of by trying to count the number of happy people can you still create another scenario where there is some dilemma or paradox about what level of HIV infection is better or worse. Or likewise for political corruption, street violence, domestic violence, etc.

          • In reply to #62 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #61 by phil rimmer:

            In reply to #58 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #55 by Akaei:

            “the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people”

            It’s odd that the language used by many people here to defend Harris is more or less the same thing I would say to criticize him.

            But I think Harris is next to useless.

            Taking the scientific/philosophical approach he makes very little new headway.

            On matters of morality we urgently need to get the scientist/philosophers out of the way and get the engineers in.

            It is entirely clear what people feel about moral situations in the real world and their own experience of the real world is where personal moral decision making happens.

            Ethics should not in anyway be about adjudicating on some is/ought issue but on identifying in ever finer detail where harms (and boons) and future harms (and boons) may exist and then proposing means of both pre and post-emptively assessing those harms and boons.

            Only humans can say what they feel about the aggregate of harms and boons in prospect from policy, laws, civic processes etc. about to be voted for, directly or indirectly. Only they can make the call about how their own world should be in the face of past evidence and varieties of futures on offer from civil servants and would-be political servants and would be institution heads.

            Only when consistent and reliable evidence of how people have fared in a myriad of measurable aspects both objective and subjective, students, children, the old, the poor, the entrepreneurs, investors and how that maps on to the measures of societal health, wealth creation, education, productivity, robustness, only then can people see particular groups about to be punished, who are already pushed to their limits; only then can investors and entrepreneurs see how/when investment in all of the nations people brings higher national returns, by expanding their opportunities to both make and sell.

            Ethics needs to work with epidemiologists like Wilkinson and Picket based in a civil service to gather, audit and summarise the comprehensive data on harms and boons to people and society. It is the general public who have the duty to become informed on these matters before voting for policies and candidates. It is for political parties, political pressure groups, legislation advocates to argue from modelling based on detailed current and historical evidence what aspects of society need be changed.

            Arguing the detail of humans internal mental model of harms and boons is fatuous when we have the very humans to do the moral calculus for us. And we need to take some averaged view of it. What is important is that they be reliably and fully educated about harms and boons and can seek out non dogmatic expert opinion. Broadly what we are doing now but much much better informed. Throwing in a discouragement of dogma and an acceptance of evolutionary principles for policy and legislation.

            What I fear is a huge democratic deficit if the mental modelers take it into their heads to say they know what is in other peoples heads.

          • In reply to #62 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #61 by phil rimmer:

            In reply to #58 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #55 by Akaei:

            “The more I read of the way people defend Harris here the “defense” seems to come down to “well what he is saying is still better than saying that moral issues should be solved by the Bible or Koran”. And I agree that is true but I think it’s a pathetically low bar to set for contributions to philosophy or science.

            Hi Red Dog,

            Perhaps, but the fact is that most philosophers believe the is/ought distinction is valid, as do most scientists, as do most religious people (because they think that this is their realm). This is a significant belief that I think needs to be argued with. So it depends on who his audience is. When he comes up with a position like this the people who traditionally make blanket statements about issues of morality are forced to find an argument in support of their own position. This he has done, his main argument seems to me to be saying the is/ought distinction is invalid. I am quite prepared to believe he is wrong but thus far I haven’t heard a single word from people giving an opinion contradicting his that convinces me of this. So if he has set the bar so low why has no-one who thinks the is-ought distinction is real been able to tear him down on this point. I was watching William Lane Craig using is-ought against Krauss just last night. The problem may be mine, I may be missing something here but I cannot help think the is/ought distinction is unhelpful and is used to hide all manner of cultural relativism and extreme post modernistic rubbish. Personally I think what he is doing in this case is not pathetic, but brave. He is publicly putting himself out there and taking a stand. Sure, he hasn’t come up with a cohesive moral template which we can all live by, but who has? He is attempting to chuck out the is/ought distinction and if he’s wrong I would appreciate being corrected (because I cannot see how so far). And is he is right then we’ll have pushed away one of the last excuses that the religious have had to claim authority in secular society when they should have none. What’s more scientists may not be so timid in suggesting that their findings may have some bearing on moral issues. Hardly pathetic.

          • In reply to #62 by Red Dog:

            It’s odd that the language used by many people here to defend Harris is more or less the same thing I would say to criticize him. If you want to do science then using language that is “fuzzy” or as Zeuglodon says “sloppy” is a bug not a feature.

            What gave you the impression I was defending him here? Sloppy language is a bug, not a feature. Harris comes close to making a substantive series of points, but for my money, he neither went far enough nor gave his choice of terms enough thought. The result is that he comes across more as someone whose meta-ethical stance is a work in progress rather than a powerhouse of an argument. I criticize him because he leaves too much too vague, but I concede that he wasn’t committing himself to issues he thought needed further research.

            On the other hand, your counterargument seems to involve putting words into his mouth. Say Harris had said that the economic imperative was to increase global wealth to its maximum possible. If your point had simply been that this was a clumsy and sloppy way of phrasing the point, but that he at least had an eye on the right area to look, both of us would be in agreement. Since your point was that Harris meant that we could just as easily have an impoverished mass offset by a minority of hyper-wealthy elites and call that “maximizing wealth”, however, and that our disagreement with this proves that there are more fundamentals to making people wealthy than gaining more money (there aren’t: you can’t make people wealthy by not giving them more money), then I have to agree with BanJolvie that you’re setting up a strawman. We both agree it’s a bug, but where I think it’s a bug that came about through poor interface design and could be corrected with a reconsideration, you seem to treat it as though it’s a fundamental error to his argument.

            An argument, I might add, that he didn’t make: I agree “maximizing well-being” isn’t the right way to phrase it, but I do think well-being is the right thing to use, and that its increase in at least one individual is a reasonable goal to shoot for. Yet this is simply a question of details, not of fundamentals. I would also point out that Harris hasn’t yet – by his own admission – solved the issue of how to “translate” that when trading off one person’s well-being against another’s, a point Churchland also made when talking about a science of morality. You act like he took a hard line on this issue, which is at odds to the words of his you quoted in Comment 64 because “maximizing well-being” is neutral on this issue. This is a point I mentioned as early as my first paragraph on Comment 60, and I have yet to see a direct response to it.

          • In reply to #78 by Zeuglodon:

            What gave you the impression I was defending him here? Sloppy language is a bug, not a feature.

            LOL. My mistake. Glad we agree on that at least.

          • In reply to #61 by phil rimmer:

            “The big question, though, is will deferred gratification increase wealth tomorrow?”

            There should always be a balance of preparing for tomorrow and living for today.

      • In reply to #49 by Red Dog:

        “But I think that my statistical examples show that that principle: “the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people” doesn’t always match our intuition for a moral decision.”

        In reply to #58 by Red Dog:

        “What else does “the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people” possibly mean if not that you want to maximize the mean well being for the population?”

        The whole point of contention is one we actually seem agree on though through inverted perspectives. Maximizing the mean, or using the statistical mean as a conclusive metric does not give us what we intuitively desire in pursuit of general well being. Utilitarianism falls short for similar reasons. And Sam’s phrasing sounds a lot like utilitarianism. But what I always to be his meaning was maximizing the proliferation of well being. Also, any arbitrary measurement of well being would almost certainly have to give greater weight to suffering (physical and emotional). The health, wealth and comfort of a few is nothing to celebrate in the the face of common infirmity, poverty and suffering.

  21. In The Moral Landscape Sam Harris proposes that the study of ethics is a legitimate field for scientific inquiry. He argues that human well-being is the only metric required for making moral choices. I will describe two simple examples that demonstrate that well-being alone is not sufficient to explain all moral decisions.

    I get the impression you’re mixing at least two different issues here, and making one or two unnecessary assumptions. It doesn’t take much to demonstrate that moral intuitions are in line with principles other than well-being. Haidt and Fiske came up with relational models that included such things as our “purity/sanctity” instinct, our group loyalty, our moralization of authority figures, and our ability to think in terms of monetary transactions independently of any worry about the harms and pleasures inflicted upon the parties involved. Our moral instincts are a little complicated, and in this sense Harris overreaches when he says that well-being is the only moral imperative, or something to that effect.

    I think what Harris was trying to argue is that well-being, whatever it is, is the only moral rationale that is reasonable, and that – under the surface – the other rationales ultimately trace whatever rational basis they contain back to it. Merely because people can disagree, does not affect his argument. The basis of your contradiction with this idea (the public response to the thought experiments provided) rests on the shaky premise that moral dumbfounding isn’t occurring (i.e. that people go to a moral judgement without being able to provide a compelling reason for it). Take Harris to task for not adequately explaining how well-being is the sine qua none of rational moral judgement, by all means, but not with an argumentum ad populum.

    Moreover, he argued that well-being was this basic principle, and visualized it as a multidimensional landscape on which populations and individuals move from valleys to peaks. I don’t recall him saying it was a mathematical metric, much less that it couldn’t be pluralist and that it had to be a linear scale. That seems to misrepresent his argument. For instance, well-being may well consist of two principles: reduction of pain, and maintenance or increase of pleasure, with priority going to the former based on conditional rules such as “if painkillers or thoughts can extinguish or render negligible the pain, switch over to pleasure principle”. Or it may be as complicated as the decision-making faculties in our brain. Framing it as if he were advocating a felicific calculus is disingenuous, not least of all because it confuses “comprehensiveness” with “linearity”. Evolution by natural selection, for instance, is comprehensive in that it contains a description that covers all adaptive evolution, but it doesn’t run on a linear scale or a simple formula.

    • In reply to #51 by Zeuglodon:

      I get the impression you’re mixing at least two different issues here, and making one or two unnecessary assumptions. It doesn’t take much to demonstrate that moral intuitions are in line with principles other than well-being. Haidt and Fiske came up with relational models that included such things as our “purity/sanctity” instinct,

      I agree it doesn’t take much but my point is that’s all it takes to show that the whole model Harris puts forth is wrong. I maintain that his main claim in the moral landscape is the following:

      the Is Ought problem is a non-problem because rational people can all agree — if we think about it carefully — that morality always comes down to maximizing well being. He makes analogies to health as part of his case, no one worries (he claims) about defining what good health is we all know implicitly and in the same way we all really know what morality is, it’s only because we’ve gotten distracted by philosophers that we think there is a hard problem here.

      Do you disagree that the above is his position? If you agree that this is his position then all one has to do to show he is wrong is come up with some examples that show our common sense notion of morality can’t be defined only by maximizing well being. Which is what I was trying to do.

  22. Hi Red Dog,

    I apologize in advance for the length of this post.

    For the record, I’m not 100% convinced by everything that Harris has to say, but I’m going to defend his position in this post because I think your particular objections are off point. I believe that your criticisms are based on a misreading of Harris, in several respects. But most of them, I think, stem from a single error.

    He argues that human well-being is the only metric required for making moral choices.

    I do not think this is a fair summation of what Harris says. I would distill it to something more like, “the well-being of conscious creatures is the only criterion by which we are rationally justified in making moral judgements.”

    At a glance, this does not appear to differ much from your version. The differences are subtle, but they lead you to make a lot of criticisms which do not actually apply to Harris’ thesis.

    To begin with, I think we can dispense with the fact that you specify “human well-being” when Harris explicitly includes non-human minds in his thesis. I’ll assume this was just an oversight arising from simplification and that it doesn’t significantly impact your critique.

    But you go wrong, I think, when you miss the distinction between your “well-being is the only metric required” and my “well-being is the only rational criterion we have.” It leads you to interpret “well-being” as merely a proposed alternative to other secular metrics to be refuted with counter-examples.

    But that is not the point of Harris’ reliance on well-being. He is not offering it to defeat other classical (secular) bases for moral judgement, but to defeat claims of pure moral relativism. In fact, the entire point of Harris’s argument is to establish that science is justified in engaging with the topic of morality and that we can in principle (though not always – yet – in practice) establish an objective basis for such judgements as “right” and “wrong”

    You even recognize this fact in post #31

    It seemed he spent the whole book arguing that science could be used to study ethics (something I already was convinced of) [...]

    This is really as far as you need to go. You recognize Sam’s thesis and agree with it. You are not one of the people he is setting out to convince. That should be the end of it. Sam repeatedly acknowledges that the fact that science can in principle engage with morality falls far short of the hard work of actually establishing such a science in practice. This acknowledgment encompasses all your criticisms. But you have somehow missed that central point of The Moral Landscape and have instead constructed an argument refuting ideas outside of the scope of Sam’s claims.

    The most obvious way to see your mistake has already been pointed out, but you have so far missed it or failed to really consider it.

    You conflate “well-being” with “happiness” in the utilitarian sense.

    You then proceed to criticize Harris for failing to acknowledge factors other than utilitarian happiness. Whereas, Harris intends “well-being” to include all factors that bear upon the conscious states of creatures.

    Consider these examples where you make this conflation explicit:

    In the OP -

    An example measurement scale of well-being from 100 (perfect happiness) to -100 (absolute misery)

    or in Comment #30 -

    Can you site a specific quote or section where he starts to talk about […] issues such as maximizing fairness as well as or instead of well being because I haven’t seen those. [emphasis added]

    or in comment #41, where you actually address this charge of conflation without really considering it.

    […] nothing that you said supports saying that Harris considers fairness a part of well being.

    This exactly misses the point. Harris purposely leaves “well-being” undefined. He acknowledges that such a definition would be problematic, and part of the difficult work needed to establish a true science of morality. He may or may not explicitly include fairness, I can’t remember. But the point is that he does not exclude it either. You are defining well-being as relating to happiness only – or at least as being unrelated to fairness. That exclusivity is not justified by a fair reading of Harris. Therefore you are not engaging with Harris’ argument directly.

    Harris’ point with regard to “fairness” or “justice” or “happiness” or any other metric you might propose is not to contrast them to well-being. Instead he offers well-being as means to justify all or any of them against po-mo, relativistic dismissals. He might assert that we are justified in even considering any such barometers only because – and to the exact extent that – they have a positive or negative impact on the mental states of conscious beings. Thus, we could state that maximizing “fairness” as some abstract principal is not justified because of the is/ought problem. But to the extent that individuals care about fairness and are consciously affected by it’s perceived absence, it is a factor in their overall well-being. Therefor we bypass the is/ought barrier by simply defining morality as the study of all factors that contribute to the relative well-being of conscious minds. This puts all the relevant “is” considerations on the same side of the barrier as any justifiable moral “oughts.”

    I agree that Sam’s only justification for this definition is an intuitive one, but he acknowledges this, and I’m undecided yet as to whether that justification is sufficient. Either way, your examples do not defeat Harris’ actual premise.

    By focusing on “happiness” instead of an undefined and open-ended “well-being” (which would include happiness, but not be limited to it) you miss Harris’ actual thesis – that relativism is not justified in a priori dismissals of scientific approaches to morality. Instead, you level arguments against The Moral Landscape model as if it is basically indistinct from classical Utilitarianism.

    I don’t know if you are familiar with this essay in which Harris addresses this point (among others), but here is a relevant passage:

    I would further add that the concept of “well-being” captures everything we can care about in the moral sphere. The challenge is to have a definition of well-being that is truly open-ended and can absorb everything we care about. This is why I tend not to call myself a “consequentialist” or a “utilitarian,” because traditionally, these positions have bounded the notion of consequences in such a way as to make them seem very brittle and exclusive of other concerns—producing a kind of body count calculus that only someone with Asperger’s could adopt.

    There’s one other way important way in which I think you are misrepresenting Harris. It’s most apparent in post #36:

    Harris’s solution doesn’t work. And by doesn’t work I mean doesn’t correspond to intuitions that all rational people have about morality and since that is all his theory is based on, it’s his contention that with a bit of thought we can all just agree on well being as a definition of morality, [...]

    I don’t believe Sam ever claims that well-being is the actual or complete definition of morality, merely the only rational basis upon which we can base any definition, or any subsequent work.

    Yes, this modest and limited claim is (at least arguably) based on intuition, but it is not as broad as you are trying to portray here. Claiming that such a basis is self-evident (whether he is right or wrong) does not commit him to the stronger claim that everyone will simply agree how best to proceed from that basis. Neither does the claim that a starting place can be intuitively derived oblige Harris to agree that all subsequent conclusions will be also correspond with intuition.

    • In reply to #52 by BanJoIvie:

      Hi Red Dog,

      I apologize in advance for the length of this post.

      For the record, I’m not 100% convinced by everything that Harris has to say, but I’m going to defend his position in this post because I think your particular objections are off point. I believe that your criticisms are based on a mis…

      On it being conscious agents rather than just humans, yes I knew that was an over simplification of what he said, I should have said as much in the original post or just said conscious agents. I was trying to keep the original post as short and to the point as possible and since — as you said — I didn’t think the issue of animal rights really impacted the argument I was making so I just went with the simplified version. I think it shows sometimes less is not more because several people noticed it.

      I see your argument and I agree to some extent. But I think it really shows how empty Harris is that you have to defend him that way and frankly it’s why I don’t consider him to be a serious intellectual, which I did when The Moral Landscape first came out. By a serious intellectual I mean someone like Dawkins or Pinker (or from different perspectives people like Scott Atran or Chomsky). All those people try to do actual science but they also try to write for a general audience in ways that add things to the general intellectual climate. Even going back to Dawkins’ very first book The Selfish Gene, it was written, at least as I understand it, as much to clarify the understanding of evolution to people with a general background as much as to biologists.

      And the thing is in The Moral Landscape Harris didn’t present it as a book that was just about preaching to the choir and saying “religion bad science good”. If that was all he had to say I never would have bothered to read the book. I already know it.

      The reason I picked up the book is that Harris was claiming to make a real contribution to ethical philosophy. He claimed to solve the “is ought problem” which goes back at least to Hume. That is the claim I’m attacking. He didn’t solve the is ought problem at all as IMO my simple examples clearly demonstrate.

      • In reply to #65 by Red Dog:

        And the thing is in The Moral Landscape Harris didn’t present it as a book that was just about preaching to the choir and saying “religion bad science good”. If that was all he had to say I never would have bothered to read the book. I already know it.

        No. “Religion bad science good” is not a fair summation of Harris’ argument. You are really not attempting to engage him fairly when you speak so sloppily and dismissively. This is what leads to charges of strawmanning and it certainly does not honor the principle of charity.

        Let’s assume for a moment though that you had fairly summarized Harris thesis. I would not consider “I already know it” to be a valid reason for dismissing his argument’s value. In fact, It should be a declaration that you are on Harris’ team, but oddly it seems to spark hostility. Harris sets out to justify attempts to treat moral reasoning as an objective question. I think that is a very worthy endeavor, and though you may “already know it,” there are plenty of academics who would say that morality can never be objectively established. Its an open debate, and I think you are wrong to imply it is passé.

        The reason I picked up the book is that Harris was claiming to make a real contribution to ethical philosophy. He claimed to solve the “is ought problem” which goes back at least to Hume.

        Yes, broadly, I think he is attempting to do just that.

        That is the claim I’m attacking.

        Not so far you’re not. You make some arguments against traditional utilitarianism as if it were fair proxy for Harris. You do not address Harris’ “solution” (actually more of a “work-around” in my opinion) to the is/ought problem directly because you either do not understand it or are misrepresenting it.

        He didn’t solve the is ought problem at all as IMO my simple examples clearly demonstrate.

        Perhaps he did, perhaps not. But your examples do not address his attempt, let alone defeat it.

  23. With moral choice one 95% of the population will have a well being of -1, minimally unhappy. However, 5% of the population will have a well being of 100, supreme happiness. With moral choice two everyone will have a well being of 4, mildly happy. If we were to use only mean well-being as our decision metric then we would select choice one. However, if the population were to vote on the outcome they would choose moral outcome 2.

    There seems to be a fundamental error in the measurement of well-being in the moral choices painted here. You are equating well-being with happiness (a score of 100 = supreme happiness). Using that principle, if people were to vote for moral outcome 2, that would imply that they were happier with moral outcome 2, which means moral outcome 2 gives them a greater level of well-being.

  24. I went back to The Moral Landscape just to double check. Perhaps Harris didn’t say what I thought he said. Here is a quote that I think supports my interpretation of what he means:

    “whatever can be known about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures—which is, I will argue, the only thing we can reasonably value—must value—must at some point translate into facts about brains and their interaction with the world at large” Harris, Sam (2010-10-05). The Moral Landscape (Kindle Locations 241-242). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

    I think that is pretty clear. The only “thing we can reasonably value” is “maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures”. Not maximizing the even distribution of well being. Not trying to make some correlation between well being and how much society values the acts of that agent. Only maximizing the well being. I agree that position is overly simplistic, that is my point actually. But I don’t think it’s fair to say I’m creating a strawman when the position I’m attacking is exactly what Harris himself says he believes in.

    • In reply to #64 by Red Dog:

      I think that is pretty clear. The only “thing we can reasonably value” is “maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures”. Not maximizing the even distribution of well being. Not trying to make some correlation between well being and how much society values the acts of that agent.

      To the extent that “maximizing the distribution of well-being” has an effect on the mental states of conscious creatures, it is included in “maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures”. The same goes for “trying to make some correlation between well being and how much society values the acts of that agent” whatever that may mean. If by “society values” you mean that the acts of an agent have some impact on the conscious states of minds in that society, then it falls within “well-being” not outside of it.

      • In reply to #67 by BanJoIvie:

        To the extent that “maximizing the distribution of well-being” has an effect on the mental states of conscious creatures, it is included in “maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures”. The same goes for “trying to make some correlation between well being and how much society values the acts of that agent” whatever that may mean.

        If you redefine “well being” in such a flexible way you are making it so vague as to be a useless scientific construct. It becomes something like the “Id” and “Ego” in Freudian theory. You can bend the term so that it fits any example or data which means it can’t be falsified or seriously tested.

        • In reply to #70 by Red Dog:

          If you redefine “well being” in such a flexible way you are making it so vague as to be a useless scientific construct. It becomes something like the “Id” and “Ego” in Freudian theory. You can bend the term so that it fits any example or data which means it can’t be falsified or seriously tested.

          I understand this concern, but I don’t think I agree. I agree that a wide-open concept of “well-being” leaves most of the hard work undone, but that’s not the same as saying it does no meaningful work. The concept does draw a meaningful distinction, just not the sort you are looking for.

          For example, the key phrase in my post #67 is “To the extent that…” You keep trying to contrast well being with alternatives like “justice,” “fairness,” or “distribution.” I counter that these concepts are meant to be included in “well being” TO THE EXTENT THAT they impact consciousness either positively or negatively. In other words, the distinction is not between well being and these other concepts but between the parts of each concept that have a measurable (in principle) impact on minds and those that do not. It separates the abstract notion of “justice” from the objective effect of perceived justice on participants in society. The separation is within the concept of justice, not between justice and some other factor.

          No, “well-being” does not settle debates between secular moral thinkers who advocate different metrics for thinking about morality. It is not meant to. We cannot dismiss the concept because it does not do that specific job. That’s like saying a stapler is a useless construct because you can’t hammer a nail with it. The question is, can “well-being” do the job for which Harris proposes it? Namely, to justify any and all objective approaches to morality against the dismissive charge that morality can never be objective (I’m calling this position “pure relativism.”)

  25. What is Morality and where does it come from?

    It’s usually best to begin by defining confusable terms. In this case I’m using “morality” and “morals” to simply refer that part of us that seeks to act fairly, kindly or altruistically. It is the innate desire to do right. We may have rules, laws, social conventions and other codified ethics. But the feeling, the underlying motive, the meta-ethic is “morality.” This definition may seem to be inconsistent with traditional usage. By this definition many activities traditionally identified as immoral seem to be dismissed or perhaps still are immoral but for different reasons.

    In order for an entity to be a moral agent it must have subjective experience and empathy.

    The subjective experience is a matter of environmental factors generating preferences in us. Things that tend to damage us tend to feel uncomfortable or painful. Things that tend to increase our safety, survival and reproduction tend to feel comfortable or good. Without this subjective experience it would be difficult to justify any claim of one thing or state being better than another. We would still have considerations of practicality. For instance we might realize it is better to keep both arms than to lose one. Or we might consider it is better to be alive than dead. But without subjectivity in our experience we would not develop spontaneous preferences. Without our own subjective experience it would be difficult to appreciate the subjective experience of others.

    As biological organisms we have needs and constraints and as a result: drives. Food, water and breathable air cover our most basic individual needs. Since we are mortal, we as a species need to reproduce as well. We require an environment that is neither too hot nor too cold with a fairly narrow ideal temperature range. We can refer to Maslow’s Hierarchy for an extend list of less basic needs. But the required resources available to satisfy these needs (and/or our ability to gather them) are limited. We typically find ourselves in competition with each other and other organisms for the resources to satisfy our needs.

    We have the ability and tendency to recognize, anticipate and appreciate the subjective experience of others. It’s difficult to say whether (or to what degree) this empathy is genetic versus cultural (nature vs. nurture.) The physiology of mirror neurons supports genetics but I wouldn’t expect that to be the whole story. Additionally we are social creatures. There are many species of social creatures all of whom have little or no culture. Whether empathy gave rise to our social drives or our social drives gave rise to our empathy is subject to speculation. (“Empathy gave rise” is far more plausible.) But in humans social drive and empathy don’t seem to scale in one-to-one correlation.

    Subjectivity and empathy make us moral agents: entities capable of recognizing, anticipating and appreciating the subjective experience of other subjective entities, even where that capacity is not reciprocal. For instance we would be able to appreciate the suffering of a komodo dragon but we should not expect it to appreciate our suffering. The dragon is not a moral agent. What about a baboon or gorilla? These are creatures that appear to appreciate the subjective states in others of their own kind, at least of their own group. If they attacked a human they would probably have a fair understanding of the suffering their human victim would experience. But would they care, or rather could they care? The answer seems to rely on previous interaction, on established relationships and on the situation at hand. Moral agency in non-human primates appears to be present but stifled.

    Group identity will strongly influence behavior in social creatures. Our devotion to our many social circles varies. Family tends to generate the strongest devotion but shared experience and ideology can create strong psychological bonds as well. We find ourselves grouped with friends, neighbors, co-workers, civic groups, political groups, people with shared interests (environment, sports team, music genre/artists…), religious groups and others. Our devotion to the people and groups we identify with can be based on familiarity. But often we find ourselves devoted to an ideal, a cultural concept, which in turn reinforces our devotion to the related group and individuals.

    From an evolutionary standpoint the power of cultural influences may seem difficult to reconcile. But ceremonies and rituals almost certainly predated language and served to reinforce group cohesion. Behaviors that originally would have augmented kin selection and nepotism have long since become just as effective at dissolving family cohesion. I make this claim in regards to potential rather than likelihood or necessity. Families may share ideological beliefs or hold conflicting ideologies with varying degrees of dedication. In the early millennia of cultural development it’s unlikely that there was any diversity. So evolutionarily, the strength of cultural identity on group cohesion is not surprising.

    In considering the origins of morality we should remember that there are many social species aside from humans. Schools, hives, prides, packs, herds and troops should make it immediately obvious that intelligence and culture are not prerequisites to cooperation. Social instinct has appeased natural selection in many species.

    We tend to value individuals in our groups that contribute more resources to the group. Conversely, individuals that contribute less are generally devalued. And individuals who cheat jeopardize their perceived status as a member of the group through a waning of trust. Our moral agency (subjective experience combined with empathy) gives us perception of whether interactions are generous or stingy, fair or unfair, kind or unkind, caring or callous, and generally good or bad. We appreciate the experience of the individual in a way we think of as rights. We appreciate our relationships and place in a group in a way we think of as roles and responsibilities.

    We need to execute some measure of selfishness to survive. But given our limited ability to gather necessary (and otherwise desirable) resources as lone individuals, we also need some measure of selflessness, manifesting as cooperation. The underlying drives for each are instilled by biology. Like most biological systems the way things work, the ‘rules,’ tend to resemble self-balancing conditional algorithms rather than linear instructions. We seek equity for ourselves and others. We deplore inequity at our expense and also when others suffer unfairness. The more closely we identify with others (an innate recognition of in-group status) the more sharply we recognize and care about their suffering and well-being.

    As cognitive social animals we share information: culture. But cultural information is highly subject to being incomplete, misleading or wrong (by degrees varying form not quite right yet functional to completely contrary to demonstrable factual reality.) And yet what we learn from experience and from shared information influences how we perceive new experience and information. We are entirely capable of doing the wrong thing while thinking we are doing the right thing based on existing beliefs. Ideologies are particularly culpable but simple misunderstandings lead us astray as well. We develop beliefs which bias us when considering new information which is added to our beliefs in cycles that allows us to convince ourselves of just about anything.

    As a result the idea of Objectivism (philosophical morality theory) doesn’t quite make sense because it is based on subjective experience. Relativism doesn’t quite work because there are some very basic, fundamental commonalities to the subjective experience, many of which can be misinformed by cultural beliefs hijacking our perception. Emotivism doesn’t work for several reasons: we are always working with incomplete information, morality is a social issue as much as (if not more than) a personal issue and again mistaken beliefs can, perhaps must, skew our perception.

    Tribalism presents another skew on morality. Our empathy for others and disdain of injustice are stronger and consequently more motivating in-group, toward people we identify with, than for “those other ones” (out-group). Us and them, worse us versus them, undermines our ability and willingness to support “them.” Ideologies, proximity, appearance, etc. create artificial us and them barriers.

    If there is any hope of anything resembling an objective morality it will be accessible only by a willingness and ability to consider our beliefs skeptically and strip away dubious opinions in order to find a balancing mechanism that supports individual rights and social responsibility based on common human subjective experience, empathy and fairness.

  26. This whole quibble with Sam Harris’s idea is just statistical playing around. Well-being or happiness isn’t a zero sum game. So much of happiness isn’t even material, it also involves what kind of laws govern our relations with one another. Sam Harris was talking about these factors too, not just the allocation of material goods.

  27. Putting one’s hand into fire is painful. Therefore one ought not to put one’s hand into fire.

    If we understand what “pain” and “painful” mean then the ought is derived from the is. Pain is both an objective and subjective factual phenomenon. There may be counter motives to the aversion of pain and damage but barring additional stipulations pain is enough to tell us we should not put our hand in fire. Is it wrong to put ourselves in pain for the sake of putting ourselves in pain? Yes, it’s wrong. deliberate self injury is contrary to what it means to be a subjective living organism. Self preservation and pain/damage avoidance are primary attributes of complex animal organisms. Does that make it morally wrong to put our hand in fire? On the face of it: no, though additional social considerations could make it so.

    Putting someone else’s hand in fire is painful to the other person. Therefore one ought not to put someone else’s hand into fire.

    Social interactions seem to complicate things, but not so much really. As a description of the species, are humans social creatures? What does it mean to be a social creature? As a description of the species, are humans moral agents? What does it mean to be a moral agent? And what is morality? If we can answer these questions and consider that self-harm is wrong (and why it is wrong) then we shouldn’t have any trouble understanding that projected harm is wrong (and why it is wrong).

    Exceptions; of course there will be exceptions based on additional motivating factors. It may be wrong to hurt and kill but what if someone is trying to hurt or kill you or an innocent third party? But if two people were isolated and one said to the other, “I enjoy killing. Give me an objective reason why I shouldn’t kill you.” It should be enough to say: we are both humans; meaning you are a moral agent and I am an aware and subjective entity. Even if our killer is a psychopath, he is intellectually, if not emotionally, aware of the suffering and well being of others. If his desire to kill is anything more than whimsy then rationale and reason would fail without appealing to the killer’s own benefits from a reprieve. By merely desiring to kill for the sake of killing, the killer is already wrong.

  28. OK, first of all, Harris did not solve the “is/ought” problem because there’s nothing to solve. As Harris pointed out, the “problem” is a result of bad logic. Ok, so Hume was wrong on that one. Can’t win them all. If you can’t get an “ought” from an “is,” then where, pray tell me, do you get an “ought” from? An “ought” unconnected to an “is” is a meaningless concept.

    Harris’s main point, as I understand it, is that the affect of actions or systems on the well-being of conscious creatures is not arbitrary and is rooted in our biology, which means that science can tell us what is more or less moral, and can guide us to higher peaks on the moral landscape. True morality is then not merely a matter of opinion or cultural preferences. You have done nothing to disprove this point, but merely tried to present rather hard to understand and improbable scenarios, the gist of which is, “yeah, but what if the moral question is really hard or impossible for us to answer?” Well, then it’s hard and impossible for us to answer. So what? If a doctor can’t do anything for a sick patient, that doesn’t discredit the science of health. In reality, however, zero-sum scenarios are rare and usually there are many better options available, even if we can’t always accept them.

    • In reply to #80 by secularjew:

      OK, first of all, Harris did not solve the “is/ought” problem because there’s nothing to solve. As Harris pointed out, the “problem” is a result of bad logic.

      That isn’t what Harris says. Harris attempts to solve the is/ought problem by appealing to common sense which is why my examples — that show cases where well being doesn’t satisfy our common sense notion of morality — demonstrates that he fails.

      Ok, so Hume was wrong on that one. Can’t win them all.

      Hume wasn’t “wrong” and he made no logical error. That’s just hand waving it’s not an argument.

      If you can’t get an “ought” from an “is,” then where, pray tell me, do you get an “ought” from? An “ought” unconnected to an “is” is a meaningless concept.

      Which is exactly Hume’s point. Once you make some assumption, i.e. “I value X” then saying “to make X happen you ought to do Y” that makes sense. The point is that without some starting axiom that establishes one or more values then the ought statements aren’t well founded. It’s a fairly simple point actually but like a lot of good philosophy a simple point of logic can highlight how unfounded a lot of what we take for granted in our normal use of language really is.

      • In reply to #81 by Red Dog:

        Well, of course, you can’t just get any “ought” from just any “is.” The issue is that you simply don’t accept Sam’s “is,” but if the well-being of conscious creatures is not what morality should be concerned with (and he comes to that conclusion quite logically, despite your claims to the contrary), then what should it be concerned with to make any meaningful sense? You keep mentioning fairness, but the reason fairness matters is because it affects well-being. We wouldn’t care that much about it otherwise. By the way, in your examples, fairness is not always as critical as you assume. Why do we jail criminals anyway? On one hand, we do it for prevention (you do bad things and that’s what we’ll do to you), for punishment (which is cruel and makes little sense when pursued for its own ends), but the main reason why criminals should be in prison, even though they are not happy to be there, is not merely because our sense of fairness demands it, but because they can’t help but be criminals and hurt people. If, however, we had a pill that would turn criminals into non-criminals, fairness in these cases would seem like an anachronism.

      • In reply to #81 by Red Dog:

        Harris attempts to solve the is/ought problem by appealing to common sense

        Sort of, yes. I’d say he actually attempts to bypass the problem altogether rather than “solve” it.

        my examples [...] show cases where well being doesn’t satisfy our common sense notion of morality

        Your examples absolutely do not show any such thing. Your examples never even address Harris’s concept of well being, let alone show it to be counter-intuitive.

        Once you make some assumption, i.e. “I value X” then saying “to make X happen you ought to do Y” that makes sense. The point is that without some starting axiom that establishes one or more values then the ought statements aren’t well founded.

        Correct. Harris’ approach is to offer the broadest possible starting axiom. Using your construction it would be something like, “I value the well-being of conscious creatures.” He intends this statement to be so broad as to demand consensus. It is almost tautological, since only a conscious creature would be able to say it, and “my well being” and “what I value” are arguably synonymous. Any exceptions to such a (intentionally open-ended and maximally broad) basis of agreement are so marginal as to be worthy of dismissal out of hand.

        I.e., any conscious creatures who do not value their own well being (if that’s possible) are pathological. Evolutionary pressure insures that such minds could only be an extremely tiny minority in any population. While perhaps instructive to study, the theoretical existence of openly self-destructive minds is not a meaningful impediment to “healthy” minds agreeing that we “ought” to value our own well-being anyway. (Indeed, we have no choice.)

        On the other hand, minds who do not value the well-being of other minds (at least one apart from their own) might make their case, but such arguments would fall outside of “moral” reasoning, simply as a matter of definition. Sam’s analogy to health is intended to illustrate this point.

        People can (and do) argue that they value unlimited junk food or a maximally sedentary lifestyle, but we do not consider their point-of-view when asking questions like “what is healthy?” All rational people agree that – whatever virtues such values may have – they are not values upon which to base a science of “health.” They are excluded from the “health” conversation as a simple matter of definition. And yet the sciences of nutrition and medicine and physiology are not plagued by claims that they are committing an is/ought fallacy; that they can have no rational basis to call an all-Snickers diet “unhealthy.”

        Sam’s approach is to say that – given a broad enough definition – we can agree that well-being is a common value of all rational thinkers. He argues that such a consensus is sufficient to justify an objective approach to morality (at least to the same degree that any other field of science is philosophically justified.) He concludes therefor, that advocates of pure moral relativism should be dismissed as special-pleaders.

        This is not enough – on it’s own – to establish how we should value the well being of conscious creatures. It merely establishes a right to have the conversation and to defend a position as objective. That’s not nothing.

        Sam may or may not succeed with this approach, but I think your approach to refuting him here is off point.

  29. Science can address the question of why some people uphold certain values and others uphold others. Specifically, morality is a SOCIAL construct and will always depend on the leading features of any given society. Belief and self interest tend to coincide, so more farmers than manufacturing workers will tend to say that agricultural subsidies should happen. And so forth.

    But science cannot address the question of what SHOULD happen, which is inherently one of value, depends on no fact, and thus lies outside science. It is profound mistake to think otherwise.

    • In reply to #85 by Markovich:

      Well, that’s Sam point, which is that values and facts are not separate. Values are facts about the states of conscious creatures. For example, consider a simple value like beauty. We value beauty in music, in a partner, in a landscape, etc. This value is not arbitrary and is rooted in our biology. In fact, a value is a meaningless concept without a consciousness to experience it. What does it mean, for example, to say that an apple is tasty if no conscious creature can taste it. So, there is no need to get hung up on the “is/ought ” word games. 2 + 2 should equal 4. And once you define morality as having to do with the well-being of conscious creatures (which is the only type of morality that is of real value), science can tell us what we should do to achieve greater well-being. Of course, if you simply don’t or can’t care about the well-being of others, then this discussion does not apply to you and it would be as fruitless as explaining ethics to bears, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have a science of morality.

    • In reply to #85 by Markovich:

      But science cannot address the question of what SHOULD happen, which is inherently one of value, depends on no fact, and thus lies outside science. It is profound mistake to think otherwise

      Thank you Markovich. This is a pretty good example of the “pure relativism” I was discussing. It is exactly this entranched position which The Moral Landscape is challenging. I think Harris’ attempt is at least good enough to deserves more than a preemptive dismissal as “a profound mistake.”

      • In reply to #87 by BanJoIvie:

        In reply to #85 by Markovich:

        But science cannot address the question of what SHOULD happen, which is inherently one of value, depends on no fact, and thus lies outside science. It is profound mistake to think otherwise

        Thank you Markovich. This is a pretty good example of the “pure relativism” I…

        Since there is nothing remotely ethical in anything that I said, I fail to see how it could be construed as supporting “pure relativism” or any other kind of relativism. If you think that questions of what SHOULD happen could be resolved on a FACTUAL basis, I will be very happy to hear you explain why and how. Until then, I will maintain my belief that it is a profound mistake to look to science for an answer to any such questions.

        • In reply to #89 by Markovich:

          Since there is nothing remotely ethical in anything that I said, I fail to see how it could be construed as supporting “pure relativism” or any other kind of relativism.

          Yes. You certainly do. I refer you to my earlier posts in this thread where I have already defined what I mean when using this term.

          If you think that questions of what SHOULD happen could be resolved on a FACTUAL basis, I will be very happy to hear you explain why and how.

          Read what I’ve already posted. Read The Moral Landscape.

          Until then, I will maintain my belief that it is a profound mistake to look to science for an answer to any such questions.

          How nice for you. Do you have any thoughts about Harris’ rebuttal to your position? That’s the topic of this thread.

  30. Maximizing well being is nice, but fairness and justice is even better. However, when push comes to shove, then what is in it for me is the ultimate decider.
    Nietzsche said “All things are subject to interpretation whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth”.
    Ultimately the will to power will prevail and all talk of morality is just political posturing.

  31. ,,,values and facts are not separate.

    Value and fact are not divorced in experience, neither are color and sound. But sound is not color and color is not sound.

    Values are facts about the states of conscious creatures.

    Value expresses what SHOULD happen. Fact expresses what DOES happen. That values are held in consciousness does not eradicate this fundamental and profound distinction. Mathematics too is held in consciousness, but this does not signify that science can teach us anything mathematical. Mathematics does not depend on the observation of fact, nor does value.

    For example, consider a simple value like beauty. We value beauty in music, in a partner, in a landscape, etc. This value is not arbitrary and is rooted in our biology.

    You know, I detest the later paintings of Jackson Pollock, which I consider to be pretentious garbage. Other people see great beauty in them. Which point of view is “rooted in our biology?” Can science tell us whether and how much we should subsidize the budding Pollocks of this world? Or could it support the conclusion that we should burn all of Pollock’s later paintings because, in net, their contribution to human welfare is negative?

    In fact, a value is a meaningless concept without a consciousness to experience it. What does it mean, for example, to say that an apple is tasty if no conscious creature can taste it. So, there is no need to get hung up on the “is/ought ” word games. 2 + 2 should equal 4.

    “X is a meaningless concept without a consciousness to experience it” is sophomoric prattle no matter what X is. Two plus two equals four as a matter of convention. Neither fact nor value has anything to do with it. But just as the observation of fact cannot answer what two plus two equals, neither can it answer any question of value.

    And once you define morality as having to do with the well-being of conscious creatures (which is the only type of morality that is of real value), science can tell us what we should do to achieve greater well-being.

    You are confusing the determination of what is good, which is the essence of value, with the propagation of the good, which certainly could be aided by science. Suppose that I say that goodness does not have to do with the well-being of conscious creatures, but with the heat of granite. Heat per unit of mass x mass of granite = Absolute Good. Human beings should therefore do everything possible to increase the heat of granite. I fail to see upon what FACTUAL basis this idea could be said to be of any less value than that which you assert to be “the only type of morality that has value.” How is one to measure, objectively, the merit of an ethical proposition? That is one thing science can never do.

    My point is that all you are saying is that IF I accept an arbitrary and one-dimensional definition of well-being, something which in itself cannot possibly derive from science, THEN science can assist in its maximization. But no one ever said that science could not help people achieve their goals.

    • In reply to #90 by Markovich:

      When it comes to the supposed fact/value distinction, I think you’re getting, as Wittgenstein would say, “bewitched by language.” 2+2 SHOULD equal 4. 2+2 DOES equal 4. What is the difference?
      If values are “shoulds,” then where are you getting them, or can they never be gotten?
      You say science doesn’t deal in values, but actually science is BASED on values, like the value of evidence, for example. If one doesn’t value evidence or logic, what evidence or logical argument can you present to make that person value them? Following your thinking, science itself would be of no value (“There is no scientific basis to say that we should value evidence”).

      Consider even a simple value like love, and you should see that values are facts about states of the conscious mind. They’re not just tied to experiences. They ARE experiences. Look, either you love or you don’t, either you care about your and others’ well-being or you don’t, and if you can’t, then this value does not apply to you, just as lectures on empathy do not apply to Jeffrey Dahmer. What Sam is saying is that science can tell us what we should want in order to be moral and to live in a world with greater well-being and less misery.

      But, of course, you do not accept that morality should be about well-being. The most basic definition of morality means doing the right thing. What does “right” mean then? To tie the concepts of right and wrong to mere conventions and intuitions is to live in a world of meaningless, man-made misery and moral relativism. What would be “right” about that? Without conscious experiences of misery and well-being, what do words like “good’ and “bad” even mean?

      The famous scene from “Huckleberry Finn” illustrates the difference between conventional morality and morality in the deeper sense. Huck is escaping on a raft with his friend, the runaway slave, Jim. Huck, from the way he was taught, believes that the right thing to do would be to turn Jim in. Huck, however, can’t bring himself to return his friend to slavery no matter what society says, and he decides NOT to turn him in. These two options are not morally equivalent.

      Now, the other issue you bring up is what Harris calls “the Measuring Problem.” You seem to think, that because there is no unit of well-being and some things can’t be simply measured, that the whole thing is baloney, but there is no single unit of health or depression, and they are assuredly in the domain of medical science. Granted, a lot of people think of science purely as men in lab coats holding beakers and calculators, but even simple observation is in the science domain. Well-being is a suitcase term for countless variables, and while some may indeed be measured, many questions may simply be too hard or even impossible for us to answer. Pointing out the limits of science, however, is not an arguments against science. And just thinking in terms of well-being is sometimes enough to get on the right track.

      Take your dilemma with eating hogs for example. If we discover that pigs have conscious experiences that are more complex and rich than we know, or that they value life in a way that is similar to us, then we’d have to stop killing them. In fact, people’s changing attitudes about the killing of dolphins are an example of just that scenario. Naturally, given our current understanding of the minds of pigs, we do not rate the killing of pigs on the same immoral level as the killing of man. Still, the moral landscape has many options. It would be better if farms were as humane as possible and pigs were free of any abuse or agitation, and that their deaths were painless and peaceful. It would be even better if we ate less meat, which would be better not only for the pigs, but also for our own health and longevity, and we would also not pollute the environment as much (that alone has massive consequences for our and future generations’ well-being). And yes, it would be even more moral if we became vegetarians, though many of us may not be able to climb that high a peak on the moral landscape due to our own natures. But science allows for many possibilities which we may not be currently aware of. We may, for example, in the future, grow artificial meat, which might even be healthy. Thus, lovers of ham and bacon would get their fix, and without clogging up their arteries, while the hogs would live our their lives in relative peace.

      • In reply to #102 by Markovich:

        Two different standards are proposed.

        No they are not. One standard is included in the other.

        The first is well-being, the second is mere pleasure,

        Yes, but though pleasure is distinct from well-being, it is not separate. We may consider pleasure without considering well-being overall, but we may not consider well being without considering pleasure. If you said “The pleasure of conscious creatures is THE ONLY criterion by which we would be rationally justified in making moral judgements.” THAT would contradict “The well-being of conscious creatures is THE ONLY criterion by which we would be rationally justified in making moral judgements.” The statement, “The pleasure of conscious creatures is A criterion by which we would be rationally justified in making moral judgements” does not preclude the simultaneous consideration of other factors as a part of overall well being.

        Since pleasure is a different criterion, why is the claim that a moral system can be based upon it not condemned as irrational?

        Because it is not a separate criterion.

        If I say that human welfare is the one and only good, I have not demonstrated my irrationality, I have merely declared my preference for humanity as opposed to other species.

        A preference which is objectively unjustified by what we know of the nature of minds. That’s irrational.

        According to your lights, SINCE I value humans THEN I must value other conscious species.

        Sort of. If you value the conscious well-being of humans you must value the well-being of other minds to whatever extent that they share valued traits with human minds. Or you could just be inconsistent, i.e. irrational.

        But that is neither more nor less rational than my denial of the same.

        If you say so. I disagree.

        Does a rule of LOGIC condemn my statement?

        The need for consistency.

        Does any FACT refute it?

        The FACT that we have no basis to assume fundamental differences in kind between human consciousness and other – objectively related – consciousness.

        I fail to see how.

        Yes.

        I can acknowledge that non-humans experience consciousness, and share a common descent, and simultaneously deny that their welfare should be a concern of any human with perfect consitency.

        Only by the a priori denial of any obligation to consider objective facts when reasoning. In my book, this is the exact distinction between “good” and “bad” philosophy.

        My basis for valuing exclusively the welfare of humans is not that they are conscious entities, or that they are of a common descent, but that they are HUMAN.

        What could it possibly mean to value something because it is HUMAN without reference to any traits that constitute “humanity?” Given this criterion, could I move something into the realm of value simply my naming it “Human?” It is incumbent on you to identify the distinguishing characteristics of “humanness” if you wish to – rationally – propose that category as uniquely worthy of value.

        From what I know, the only truly exclusive characteristic that makes something “HUMAN” is the ability (in principle) to successfully interbreed with other members of the human gene pool. If this is what you mean to value, then yes, that is separate from conscious well being – and unrelated to questions of morality.

        If you wish to value “humanness” as a purely abstract concept divorced from any consideration of the traits which make up “humanness” (simply because those traits might be shared by our relatives, and you are seeking a means to arbitrarily exclude them) that is your right. But I don’t believe any thoughtful reasoner would be persuaded by that position. In fact, I do not believe that you yourself would earnestly argue it apart from a hypothetical.

        That is not irrational, [...]

        It is inconsistent without justification. Call that what you will.

        [...] it merely differs from your own point of view.

        And, (I presume) with yours, and with anyone’s who honestly and deeply considers the question – given the known facts. I think that Harris would claim that such consensus is enough to give science purchase to proceed. Just as no serious thinker would defend the idea that eating nothing but twinkies is “good for you” so medical science doesn’t have to consider that position in order to make assertions about “health.”

        The evidence of a statement of FACT is the observation of the asserted FACT. The contradiction of a statement of FACT is the observation of a contrary FACT. So flat-earthers and the like are denying observed FACT.

        Not according to them. They are “interpreting the data based on a different set of assumptions.” Any FACT can be contested on the grounds that a challenger denies your assumption. Even if that assumption is only “the objective world exists and is consistent.”

        The establishment of FACT is an epistemic question which may (and does) plaque any scientific claim. I think Harris would deny the absolute separation you are trying to make between VALUE and other kinds of FACT. At least insofar as “value” is of interest to anyone who wants to take moral questions – and their impact on minds – seriously.

        The statement that no pig should ever be slaughtered is a statement of VALUE, not a statement of FACT. Its contradition could not possibly be a statement of FACT, it could only be a contrary statement of VALUE.

        It is a FACT that the VALUES adopted by a society or an individual have real effects in the real world. Objective effects. Among those effects are changes in the conscious states of any minds that can perceive or be effected by any actions arising those values.

        IF we value the well-being of conscious minds then we have a basis in principle for comparing all other values against eachother – the relative effects of their implementation on general well-being.

        Harris contends that we can derive this one first step by common consent, provided that we define “well-being” broadly enough to encompass “everything we can care about in the moral sphere.” Indeed, he contends that as conscious beings ourselves we have no rational alternative to valuing the well-being of conscious creatures.

        If we accept this premise, we can eliminate that which does not impact conscious well being – simply by fiat – as outside the realm of the science of morality. Just as the mathematics of quantum mechanics or the color of Moses’ beard is outside the realm of Evolutionary Biology.

  32. I would also like to know that upon what basis science would conclude that one single Nazi, with his SS uniform and swastika flag, should or should not be allowed to parade through a community of elderly Holocaust victims. If it were 10,000 Nazis, would that change the calculation? And how and what could science ever tell us about whether a 10-week fetus unwanted by the woman carrying it should, or should not, be aborted? How would these “scientific” calculations be carried out?

    • In reply to #91 by Markovich:

      I would also like to know that upon what basis science would conclude that one single Nazi, with his SS uniform and swastika flag, should or should not be allowed to parade through a community of elderly Holocaust victims…. And how and what could science ever tell us about whether a 10-week fetus unwanted by the woman carrying it should, or should not, be aborted? How would these “scientific” calculations be carried out?

      As you said, science can assist us in deciding, and it can help us a lot and most certainly in these examples. Science and scientific processes can always better inform us of the roots of our values and the roots of our reports of harms and boons. It can increasingly tell us of conscious pain and of the neural correlates of consciousness and person-hood, whether it is there or not. It can tell us of the varieties of our values and moral heuristics of their possible evolutionary trajectory . It can model interactions based on these things. But what it should never be allowed to do, and here I agree with you, when you say-

      THEN science can assist in its maximization.

      and imply that a moral obligation still remains.

      The point is that we as individuals have a daily duty to input into the moral conversation, to maximally inform ourselves of the harms and boons of others, of the varieties of their values and wishes and make decisions on what we feel. Only we know the harms that may arise when a computation of possible harms indicates a path that cuts across our own moral heuristics and values and how that makes us feel.

      So just as Religion was ever immoral in seeking to relieve us of our daily obligation of being the moral authors, so too science must not relieve us of the task. But this was never going to happen. Science generates too much stuff, models this way and that, puts error bars on outcomes and knows when there is no data for a mooted variable. It has never made a decision for us but has often and increasingly helped our decision making by excluding clearly negative choices.

      The science of climate change is changing the way we think. How we treat people and what we expect of them will always be better and better informed by science and scientific processes and what it tells us about our selves.

      Moral authorship is both a right and an obligation we must never again cede to another (as most did with religion), but along with it comes an obligation to always be better informed about its outcomes. It is the price individuals must pay for the enormous benefits of being part of society.

    • I would also like to know that upon what basis science would conclude that one single Nazi, with his SS uniform and swastika flag, should or should not be allowed to parade through a community of elderly Holocaust victims.

      If you were in charge, on what basis would your conclusion be made?

      In reply to #91 by Markovich:

      I would also like to know that upon what basis science would conclude that one single Nazi, with his SS uniform and swastika flag, should or should not be allowed to parade through a community of elderly Holocaust victims. If it were 10,000 Nazis, would that change the calculation? And how and wha…

  33. I cut and pasted this thing negligently, sorry-

    “”But what it should never be allowed to do, and here I agree with you, when you say-

    THEN science can assist in its maximization.

    and imply that a moral obligation still remains, it should never actually make our decisions.”

  34. @BanJolvie:

    Well, fine. But I think in your construction of your own special terminology, you might have chosen a term for the denial of any possible OBJECTIVE morality something less confusing than “pure relativism.” In most discussions of ethics, the term “relativism” is employed to signify a certain situationalism in making moral decisions. If you want to call a chair a table and a table a chair, that’s all right with me. But in courtesy to others here who might not be familiar with your special usages, I suggest you not assume that everyone here has read every last special definition that you have already made here, and instead re-define your special usages as you use them agaiin with newer posters.

    No one has to adopt a PARTICULAR ethic to say that ethics cannnot possibly have an objective foundation. Your terminology would seem to foist such a particular ethic, namely, moral relativism, upon anyone who would assert that.

    As for Harris, I have posed in my previous comments some problems for the idea of an objective morality, and I would ask you to answer them before you presume to burden me with task of reading some book. I realize that in your view, the sun rises and sets on Harris’s wisdom, but for me, his claim is absurd on its face. Fundamentally, do you want to discuss this issue, or promote Harris’s book? If Harris’s ideas make any sense, you should be able to explain them.

    Let me add to my foregoing criticisms of your ideas that I doubt very much that science could produce an objective, uni-dimensional measure of well being. How much, for example, should the welfare of hog count against the welfare of people who might want to slaughter and eat it? I am all for the well-being of hogs, and I deplore the industrial methods by which they are raised, but I also very much enjoy a good roast loin of pork, seasoned with salt and rosemary. So how can science objectively weigh my desire for pork with the termination of the hog’s well-being implicit in slaughtering it?

    In another vein, it might make a very great deal of sense if people freshly killed in fatal accidents were butchered and their meat canned and shipped to Namibia to feed the starving children there. What would science have to say about that? Dead people have no welfare, so those converted to meat would certainly not be damaged. Under currently prevalent values, there would be great outrage among their nearest of kin, but one can readily imagine a society where this treatment of one’s deceased relative would be a prideful thing. Can science tell us which is right? Could sicience possibly yield the conclusion that yes, dead people being eaten is part of the clear path to maximal welfare?

    Or again, suppose that science discovered that individuals of type A were capable of vastly greater enjoyment of the good things in this world than individuals of type B, on account of, umm, genetically superior pleasure sensors. Should, therefore, individuals of type A receive more good things than those of type B, for the reason that this would maximize objective well-being? Supposing the premise, would that not be the conclusion? (How else than this, where A is human and B is hog, could the slaughter of hogs be justified? And if it is justified bewteen humans and hogs, why not between humans with more acute pleasure sensors and those with worse ones?)

    These certainly are questions for Harris, but since you are here advocating his ideas, they are also questions for you. If Harris’s book contains or implies the answers to such questions, why don’t you share them?

    • In reply to #95 by Markovich:

      In most discussions of ethics, the term “relativism” is employed to signify a certain situationalism in making moral decisions.

      Yes. And the claim that morality can never be objective roughly fits this criterion. Claims that values can only be subjectively derived are a kind of special case of the “situationalism” you refer to here. I maintain that my usage is within fair bounds, and I have defined my meaning to boot.

      I suggest you not assume that everyone here has read every last special definition that you have already made here,

      Fortunately, I made no such assumption. In comment #87 I clearly referred to

      …”the “pure relativism” I was discussing.”

      I set the term apart in quotes (indicating both a special usage and the fact that I was quoting a previous post.) I also made a clear allusion to earlier discussion. It seems strange that you would assume you just knew what I meant anyway.

      My posts are already way too long. I don’t think I’ll take your advice and start repeating myself even more.

      As for Harris, I have posed in my previous comments some problems for the idea of an objective morality, and I would ask you to answer them before you presume to burden me with task of reading some book.

      “Some Book?” This is discussion thread specifically about the ideas posed by Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape. I hardly think it presumptuous or a burden to ask your opinion on the actual topic of the thread. And no, I don’t really have anything to say regarding the “problems” you raise. I don’t find them interesting enough for comment. Believe it or not, I’m actually familiar with the is/ought problem. It’s pretty basic stuff.

      I realize that in your view, the sun rises and sets on Harris’s wisdom,

      You have no basis for that “realization.” In fact, you are simply wrong. (And not only in the literal sense that I clearly don’t believe that Harris’ wisdom impacts solar orbital patterns.) I disagree with Mr. Harris in many respects. I began my comments in this thread by making that exact point. I have taken great pains in this thread to make my defense of Harris very narrow, while remaining uncommitted as to whether I accept his overall premises (because I’m genuinely undecided.) I don’t appreciate your glossing over that care with shoddy assumptions.

      but for me, his claim is absurd on its face.

      Which claim is that? You can’t be referring to any claim in The Moral Landscape since you haven’t read it, or even – at a minimum – demonstrated some understanding of it’s general premise. Of course, you already have your “belief” about it’s contents, so no need to understand it before dismissing it.

      Fundamentally, do you want to discuss this issue, or promote Harris’s book?

      The former. That’s what we’ve all been doing here. When you make a contribution I find interesting – like your unwarranted dismissiveness – I’ll discuss it. Otherwise, I’ll leave it alone.

      If Harris’s ideas make any sense, you should be able to explain them.

      I’ve made several stabs at summarizing some key concepts already. Again, why not try reading what I’ve already posted?

      Let me add to my foregoing criticisms of your ideas that I doubt very much that science could produce an objective, uni-dimensional measure of well being.

      Ohhhh! My mistake! I didn’t realize that you doubted it very much. I mistook your position for an “argument from personal incredulity.” I wasn’t taking into account the acuteness off your doubt. /sarcasticsnark.

      Sorry, but I hope you’re not surprised that I find your personal doubts unpersuasive. In fact, I am not fully persuaded by Harris either, but at least I haven’t made a judgment before weighing the arguments. I don’t presume to know whether he is profoundly in error (without knowing what he actually says) based on some predetermined absolute boundary for science and objectivity.

      I don’t know about “uni-dimensional” but I don’t see any barrier in principle to the concept of an objective measure of well-being (or more likely, multiple measures of various components of well-being), no matter how difficult it would be in practice.

      Oh, and I haven’t actually noticed any “criticisms of my ideas” yet. I’ll be on the lookout.

      [Markovich's hypothetical about weighing a hog's well being against the interest of a hog-ivore.] So how can science objectively weigh my desire for pork with the termination of the hog’s well-being implicit in slaughtering it?

      For the sake of argument, let’s assume I have no idea. The fact that neither you nor I know the answer would do absolutely nothing to support your implication that no objective answer exists.

      At a guess, I’ll bet a scientific attempt would need to consider a lot more factors than the few variables you’ve introduced. It would be very complex, but “that problem is hard” and “that problem is forever beyond the reach of science” are two different claims.

      [Hypothetical about a Soylent Green scenario.] Can science tell us which is right? Could sicience possibly yield the conclusion that yes, dead people being eaten is part of the clear path to maximal welfare?

      Again, I see no reason in principle why questions like this could not be approached scientifically. But I would not hazard a guess on such scant information about the conclusion science would yield.

      Also, maximal welfare is not really a concept Harris would defend. That is the point of the “landscape” metaphor in the title. There may very well be many “peaks” with roughly equal levels of general well-being.” These could be achieved with widely differing approaches.

      [Hypothetical about assigning humans differing moral status based upon their capacity for pleasure.]

      You are repeating Red Dog’s conflation error from the OP. Well-being is not synonymous with pleasure.

      Supposing the premise, would that not be the conclusion? [That "group A should be given better treatment than "group B"]

      No.

      (How else than this, where A is human and B is hog, could the slaughter of hogs be justified?

      I don’t know (see above.) Perhaps it cannot. Perhaps the slaughter of hogs is objectively immoral. I suspect though, that we would need to weigh a lot of factors to make that determination.

      And if it is justified between humans and hogs, why not between humans with more acute pleasure sensors and those with worse ones?)

      There are objective differences between the mind of a hog and the mind of a human, and “pleasure centers” are probably not the most striking of these. It is possible – again in principle – that those differences could make a double standard of this sort objectively better for the general well-being of conscious creatures. Or they might not. Still, I see no reason to simply assume that an objective answer does not, or cannot, exist.

      These certainly are questions for Harris,

      Not really. These questions don’t actually address his positions as he advocates them. They sort of miss the point.

      but since you are here advocating his ideas,

      Not really. I’m not sure I agree with him.

      they are also questions for you.

      Sorry, I don’t have better answers. Again, my lack of answers does not support your contention that we cannot seek them or that none exist.

      If Harris’s book contains or implies the answers to such questions, why don’t you share them?

      I’m not sure it does. These “questions” seem kind of irrelevant to me. Sam doesn’t so much break the is/ought barrier as attempt to bypass it. I’m not sure he succeeds, but he makes an interesting attempt which deserves to be met on it’s own merits, not summarily dismissed.

  35. @BanJolvie:

    You may consider it presumptuous, but I think that I can address the question of whether science could ever dictate what SHOULD happen without delving into Harris’s book. That science could do so I take to be Harris’s claim. I don’t think that is wrong, is it? The OP says that Harris claims that “the study of ethics is a legitimate field for scientific inquiry.” That is precisely what I deny. I do apologize if I mischaracterized your defense of Harris, but it certainly remains the case that you advocate what I deny, and we can debate this question with absolutely no reference to Harris. Therefore I hope you will not again denigrate my contribution here on the ground that I have not read, and do not intend to read, Harris’s book.

    You are mistaken that subjective morality is necessarily moral relativism. An example of moral relativism would be that depending on the situation, purposely killing another person may be the right thing to do. An example of moral absolutism would be that purposely killing another person is always wrong, no matter what. Someone making either claim might either presume an objective moral standard or deny one. There is an objective-subjective dimension and there is an absolutist-relativist dimension, and these are separate. God Himself may ordain that none of the faithful should purposely be killed, but that all infidels should be killed by any means necessary. That’s an example of a purportedly objective morality, God’s commandment, taking a relativist position on the purposeful killing of other human beings. (Purportedly objective, and truly objective in case the God in question existed and issued such a commandment.)

    Someone can say that no objective morality is possible without specifying any moral system whatever, which is what I have been doing.

    I am not sure whether it is you and Harris, or only you, who thinks that his position is in confrontation with moral relativism. But one thing is certain, and that is that any proposed morality that would appeal to fact to determine right and wrong must admit that what is right and what is wrong in any given case depends on the particular facts of the case. And that is the very essence of moral relativism. All facts are contingent, and any morality dependent upon a factual criterion must necessarily admit that right and wrong themselves are contingent. And because of that, any system of morality that derives its notions of right and wrong from fact must exclude such absolutist propositions as “It is always wrong purposely to kill another conscious creature.” So not only is a fact-based morality not in conflict with relativism, but it necessarily expresses relativism and necessarily denies absolutism.

    You summarize a key argument of Harris as ““The well-being of conscious creatures is the only criterion by which we are rationally justified in making moral judgements.” Suppose I said ““The pleasure of conscious creatures is a criterion by which we would be rationally justified in making moral judgements.” Since you have said that pleasure and well being are not the same thing, you must admit that the second statement contradicts the first. If the first statement is true, the second is IRRATIONAL. So I would be interested to know on what basis the second statement could be said to be irrational. Another example: “The well being of human beings, disregarding all other conscious creatures, is a criterion by which we would be rationally justified in making moral judgements.” How is this irrational? There are many moral systems, and any that utterly disregards the “well being” of some conscious creature is IRRATIONAL, it would seem. I fail to see why.

    You say, “In fact, the entire point of Harris’s argument is to establish that science is justified in engaging with the topic of morality and that we can in principle (though not always – yet – in practice) establish an objective basis for such judgements as ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’” If you only mean that the objective world is the field of moral decision and that science can aid decision-making, no one can dispute that. But based upon what has been said here by you and others, the claim is that science can establish an “objective” morality in the sense that any alternative morality would be seen to be irrational or wrong; and that since science concerns facts, the wrongness of alternative moralities could be demonstrated as a matter of FACT.

    That I deny. At the end of they day, when the advance of technology has enabled Harris established his ‘scientific’ criterion of right and wrong, anyone is free to say, “That’s wrong. I know right from wrong and that’s not right.” If for example Harris’s scientific morality concludes that the slaughter of pigs is not wrong in all cases, there is no FACTUAL basis for denying someone’s claim that the slaughter of pigs is just plain wrong and it should never happen. That’s because morality is inherently subjective and, at the end of the day, determines exactly one person’s notions of what he should and should not do.

    • In reply to #98 by Markovich:

      You may consider it presumptuous […] I hope you will not again denigrate my contribution here on the ground that I have not read, and do not intend to read, Harris’s book.

      I did not accuse you of presumption in this regard – though you did level that charge at me. I pointed out that you have entered a discussion on Harris without knowing his positions. If you feel you can justify such efforts as “on topic” that’s up to you. However, I’m here discussing Harris’ take on things as specified by the OT. Read him, don’t read him, whatever, but I will not assume the burden of explaining the foundational material of the thread to you.

      I consider many of your points to be orthagonal to this discussion based on my understanding of TML. For that reason, I don’t feel particularly interested in engaging them. That’s not denigrating. It’s not my job to discuss every point you raise.

      I voluntarily engaged with the one part of your post that I did find interesting – your confident dismissal (sight unseen) of the very possibility that Harris might have a valid approach. This is wholly separate from your summations of is/ought. Whether or not Harris is correct, I consider your dismissal unwarranted. I don’t need to summarize Harris or defend his positions to make that point.

      You are mistaken that subjective morality is necessarily moral relativism. […] not only is a fact-based morality not in conflict with relativism, but it necessarily expresses relativism and necessarily denies absolutism.

      I understand the distinction you are drawing. I fully agree that a scientific morality would not support absolute or unconditional moral edicts. I simply disagree that the usage of the term “relativism” is as fixed as you portray it here. In fact it’s a pretty squishy term and is used in a lot of ways by a lot of people. The distinction between objective and subjective moral systems is no less “relativistic” than the distinction between consequential and categorical ones. The only difference lies in what “subjectivists” propose as the standard to which moral judgments are considered relative.

      In any case, I think it’s now clear what we each have meant when using the term “relativism.” For the record, when I say you are supporting “pure relativism” I am in no way implying that you subscribe to any categorical system of ethics. Settled?

      You summarize a key argument of Harris as ““The well-being of conscious creatures is the only criterion by which we are rationally justified in making moral judgements.” Suppose I said ““The pleasure of conscious creatures is a criterion by which we would be rationally justified in making moral judgements.” Since you have said that pleasure and well being are not the same thing, you must admit that the second statement contradicts the first.

      No, that does not follow. Pleasure and well-being are not synonymous, but that does not mean that pleasure is not a component part of well-being.

      If the first statement is true, the second is IRRATIONAL.

      Incorrect.

      Another example: “The well being of human beings, disregarding all other conscious creatures, is a criterion by which we would be rationally justified in making moral judgements.” How is this irrational? There are many moral systems, and any that utterly disregards the “well being” of some conscious creature is IRRATIONAL, it would seem. I fail to see why.

      Because we have no objective basis for such an absolutist, bright-line distinction between one type of mind and another. Minds may differ, and we may need to make some moral distinctions between them based upon those differences. But a broad stroke “disregarding” of all non-human minds while caring about human consciousness is rationally inconsistent given our objective knowledge of common descent.

      You say, […] that science can establish an “objective” morality in the sense that any alternative morality would be seen to be irrational or wrong

      Sort of. More precisely, I’d say that – if Harris is correct – then some moral alternatives are objectively better than others. In that sense we might be justified in using terms such as “right” and “wrong.”

      That I deny.

      I get that.

      At the end of they day, when the advance of technology has enabled Harris established his ‘scientific’ criterion of right and wrong, anyone is free to say, “That’s wrong. I know right from wrong and that’s not right.”

      Anyone is equally free to deny the scientific findings of chemistry, biology or physics. That doesn’t mean that these sciences are unjustified in making assertions. The existence of creationists and flat-earthers does not invalidate the claims of science. We simply say, as a matter of definition, “That’s not science.” And we leave it at that.

      Although, interestingly, it is a frequent tactic of creationists to claim that our knowledge of an ancient earth or of common descent are not objective facts because “materialism” is just one competing “world view.” Sam’s basic approach is to treat the claim that morality is necessarily relative as functionally equivalent to the claim that any other branch of science is necessarily dependent on one’s a priori assumptions. I.e. it need not deter us from seeking to establish and engage in a field of study.

      If for example Harris’s scientific morality concludes that the slaughter of pigs is not wrong in all cases, there is no FACTUAL basis for denying someone’s claim that the slaughter of pigs is just plain wrong and it should never happen.

      To the degree that there are objective differences in the effects of adopting these two approaches, those differences would provide a basis for distinction.

      That’s because morality is inherently subjective […]

      You can’t simply assert your position as the “because” to support your argument. That’s circular.

      […] and, at the end of the day, determines exactly one person’s notions of what he should and should not do.

      Peoples “notions” can be objectively right or wrong. This assertion is generally accepted without challenge in other fields of inquiry, even though it is possible to quibble philosophically with the basis of any knowledge claim. Why then, must we consider this claim uniquely problematic for the field of morality? Harris contends that we need not, and he makes a reasonably persuasive case.

      • In reply to #100 by BanJoIvie:

        In reply to #98 by Markovich:

        Peoples “notions” can be objectively right or wrong….

        …Why then, must we consider this claim uniquely problematic for the field of morality?

        The agreed utilitarian process is the accounting of all harms and boons of an enacted moral decision. The moral decision under consideration here may be a social novelty, deriving from a dispassionate moral calculus, that will not as such enfold the introspected feelings of harm or boon from the populace who will be affected by it. It cannot because it precedes our considerations of it.

        The best we can hope for is a recession of recalculations of harms and boons based on our considerations of the novel moral proposal (with its necessary revision), in the hope that a better accommodation of our feelings and all harms etc is achieved.

        The inherent immorality of dictating moral code and failing thereby to make a full account of harms and boons is only assuaged by the inclusion of the whole populace in the process. This is, sort of, what we do now. The process needs no changing whatsoever….only better informing.

        It is science’s job only to inform, educate and propose.

        • In reply to #103 by phil rimmer:

          I agree that a truly novel moral proposition would present problems for any science of morality, just as any truly singular event or observation would be a problem for science. Science normally seeks to generalize from commonalities among events and their effects, and to make predictions about any future events sharing those commonalities. Commonality is a necessity for scientific reasoning, even though in the strictest sense every event may prove fundamentally unique if we could consider every possible factor.

          It is science’s job only to inform, educate and propose.

          I’m uncomfortable with the “only” here, but even if I accepted this as a reasonable limit to the scope of science, I necessarily think it is fundamentally odds with determining that some moral systems have objectively better outcomes than others.

          • In reply to #107 by BanJoIvie:

            EDIT

            The last sentence of my #107 was meant to read:

            “[...] even if I accepted this as a reasonable limit to the scope of science, I DON’T necessarily think it is fundamentally odds with determining that some moral systems have objectively better outcomes than others.

            Sorry.

  36. Last sentence below should have read, “That’s because morality is inherently subjective and, at the end of the day, determines exactly one person’s notions of what he AND OTHERS should and should not do.”

  37. Markovich: You summarize a key argument of Harris as ““The well-being of conscious creatures is the only criterion by which we are rationally justified in making moral judgements.” Suppose I said ““The pleasure of conscious creatures is a criterion by which we would be rationally justified in making moral judgements.” Since you have said that pleasure and well being are not the same thing, you must admit that the second statement contradicts the first.

    BonJolvie: No, that does not follow. Pleasure and well-being are not synonymous, but that does not mean that pleasure is not a component part of well-being.

    My reply: I fully understand that pleasure is a component part of well-being. But if, as you have said, it is ONLY a component part of well being and NOT EQUIVALENT to well-being, then the statement “The well-being of conscious creatures is the ONLY criterion by which we are rationally justified in making moral judgements,” emphasis on ONLY, is contradicted by “The pleasure of conscious creatures is a criterion by which we would be rationally justified in making moral judgements.” Two different standards are proposed. The first is well-being, the second is mere pleasure, which is but one constituent of well being. The first statement says that ONLY the well-being itself can be a rational basis for moral judgements, the second says that mere pleasure, which is but one components of well-being, would be a rational basis for making such judgements. If these two statements are not contradictory, then all logic would seem to collapse. What means “only?”

    Markovich: If the first statement is true, the second is IRRATIONAL.

    BonJolvie: Incorrect.

    My reply: Why incorrect? If you read the first statement, it implies that any criterion of making moral judgements EXCEPT well-being is IRRATIONAL. Since pleasure is a different criterion, why is the claim that a moral system can be based upon it not condemned as irrational?

    Markovich: Another example: “The well being of human beings, disregarding all other conscious creatures, is a criterion by which we would be rationally justified in making moral judgements.” How is this irrational? There are many moral systems, and any that utterly disregards the “well being” of some conscious creature is IRRATIONAL, it would seem. I fail to see why.

    BonJolvie: Because we have no objective basis for such an absolutist, bright-line distinction between one type of mind and another. Minds may differ, and we may need to make some moral distinctions between them based upon those differences. But a broad stroke “disregarding” of all non-human minds while caring about human consciousness is rationally inconsistent given our objective knowledge of common descent.

    My reply: If I say that human welfare is the one and only good, I have not demonstrated my irrationality, I have merely declared my preference for humanity as opposed to other species. According to your lights, SINCE I value humans THEN I must value other conscious species. But that is neither more nor less rational than my denial of the same. Does a rule of LOGIC condemn my statement? Does any FACT refute it? I fail to see how. I can acknowledge that non-humans experience consciousness, and share a common descent, and simultaneously deny that their welfare should be a concern of any human with perfect consitency. My basis for valuing exclusively the welfare of humans is not that they are conscious entities, or that they are of a common descent, but that they are HUMAN. That is not irrational, it merely differs from your own point of view.

    Markovich: At the end of they day, when the advance of technology has enabled Harris established his ‘scientific’ criterion of right and wrong, anyone is free to say, “That’s wrong. I know right from wrong and that’s not right.”

    BonJolvie: Anyone is equally free to deny the scientific findings of chemistry, biology or physics. That doesn’t mean that these sciences are unjustified in making assertions. The existence of creationists and flat-earthers does not invalidate the claims of science. We simply say, as a matter of definition, “That’s not science.” And we leave it at that.

    My reply: The evidence of a statement of FACT is the observation of the asserted FACT. The contradiction of a statement of FACT is the observation of a contrary FACT. So flat-earthers and the like are denying observed FACT. It is true that they are free to do so, but we can say that they are objectively wrong, because an objective world of fact exists and its observation is the ultimate authority as to FACT. The statement that no pig should ever be slaughtered is a statement of VALUE, not a statement of FACT. Its contradition could not possibly be a statement of FACT, it could only be a contrary statement of VALUE. But unlike the world of FACT, which is objective, there is no objective world of VALUE which we can see after putting on our moral glasses, and which could serve as an authority as to VALUE. If you think that a VALUE could ever be spotted in the observation of the objective world, I would very much like to hear about it. There is only one objective world, and that is a world of FACT. Therefore we cannot say that he who would never have a pig slaughtered is objectively wrong in that claim. Likewise, if you and Sam Harris propose some sort of Index of Aggregate Planetary Well-Being, or some alternative FACTUAL measure, as determining right and wrong, that is a statement of VALUE. It refers to a factual measure but THAT this measure SHOULD BE a standard of right and wrong is a statement of VALUE and is not supported by FACT. I cannot say that objectively, you and Harris are wrong; you and Harris cannot say that objectively my proclamation of some alternative statement of VALUE is wrong. There is no objective appeal in the realm of value. IF you think that “One should never slaughter a pig” could be refuted as a matter of FACT, I would like you to say what facts could possibly be presented to accompish this. I claim that no possible facts could do so.

  38. @phil rimmer:

    You seem to be conflating the specification of a moral system with the making of laws. No system of morality depends on its being enacted into law, nor does law necessarily depend on any particular system of morality.

    But I very much doubt that any voters whose interests were negatively affected by it would consent to an arbitrary moral system proposed by a committee of scientists, particularly scientists have no authority in moral matters.

    • In reply to #104 by Markovich:

      @phil rimmer:

      You seem to be conflating the specification of a moral system with the making of laws.

      No, rather the enactment of social, political, economic, educational or other civic policy and wherever else such a system may find real expression. In democracies, the enactment of policy is a vital part of society’s moral conversation with itself.

      I am arguing that Harris cannot have science dictate a novel moral position. I am saying it can propose a novel moral position.

    • But I very much doubt that any voters whose interests were negatively affected by it would consent to an arbitrary moral system proposed by a committee of scientists, particularly scientists have no authority in moral matters.

      Who has the authority in moral matters?

      Harris uses an analogy with health. Medicine is an applied science but we don’t have an arbitrary health care system proposed by a committee of scientists – we have a medical profession relying on medical science as the best source of information and proposals to aid them in developing health care systems designed to maximise good health (within constraints set by politicians). For instance, there is much scientific evidence that smoking is bad for you. Doctors recommend not smoking. An applied science of ethics might conclude that it would be wrong to smoke while driving your children to school.

      There is much scientific evidence that homosexuality is genetic rather than a matter of choice. An applied science of ethics/morals would take this evidence into account but hopefully would not take account of religious assertions that homosexuals are guilty of a moral evil.

      In reply to #104 by Markovich:

      @phil rimmer:

      You seem to be conflating the specification of a moral system with the making of laws. No system of morality depends on its being enacted into law, nor does law necessarily depend on any particular system of morality.

      But I very much doubt that any voters whose interests were negativ…

  39. @BonJolvie: All right then, we’ve been around the mulberry bush on pleasure and well being. I will rephrase my original point to include a word that I had supposed to be readily implicit in it:

    Suppose I said ““The pleasure of conscious creatures AND NOTHING ELSE is a criterion by which we would be rationally justified in making moral judgements.” Since you have said that pleasure and well being are not the same thing, you must admit that the second statement contradicts the first. If the first statement is true, the second is IRRATIONAL. So I would be interested to know on what basis the second statement could be said to be irrational. N.B.: I reserve the right to claim that pleasure is the sole constituent of well-being.

    BonJolvie: If you value the conscious well-being of humans you must value the well-being of other minds to whatever extent that they share valued traits with human minds.

    I can readily concede that and say that the trait I value is humanity itself, or if you like, human well-being. If that is what I value, and nothing else, there is no basis upon which I can be accused of irrationality. It is just my not valuing the welfare of pigs and dogs and cats and mosquitoes and your valuing them. I am in no way compelled, as a matter of logic or fact, to accept your claim that the welfare of these creatures should be considered on account of their consciousness or their common descent. It certainly is not inconsistent to say that only human welfare is of value. It would be inconsistent to say, “The welfare of all conscious beings is of value BUT only human welfare should be considered in our moral judgements,” but that’s not what I’m saying.

    I can say that the trait which constitues humanity is having a human genetic structure (your definition would seeming rule out persons unable to reproduce). It is not this characteristic in itself that I value, but the welfare of beings that possess it. Whether many people would agree with this position is of no concern to me, since this does not support your claim that it is irrational. I could substitute turtles for human beings with equal rationality and with certain guarantee that no one on this planet would agree with me. I could agree with your position except that the welfare of mosquitoes, chiggers, emerald ash borers and house flies should not be considered at all, and be rather certain that few people would dispute the exclusion. Nor would that exclusion be in any way irrational.

    Actually, I am not sure what is the criterion of irrationality in general in your rhetoric. I usually think of irrationality as either (1) insisting upon a logical error, (2) denial of a known fact or (3) talking nonsense. If I am committing one of these errors, I would very much like to know about it. I don’t think that I contradict myself, which would be a logical error, when I say that only human welfare (or only turtle welfare) should be the Great Disideratum. While I might concede that most people would somewhat value the welfare of animals, I think the notion that the One True Morality can be derived from the observation of FACT would not be accepted my many people who have thought seriously about ethics and science and the difference between the two.

    You have yet to answer my fundamental point that THAT some measure of welfare proposed by you or by Sam Harris SHOULD BE the determinant of right and wrong is itself a statement of VALUE and is not supported by any FACT. It uses an objective, factual measure of alleged well-being but in itself it is a statement of value.

    I think we depart very far from science when we say that objective fact is not the arbiter of truth. It is true that flat-earthers can maintain their denial by various incorrect arguments, but the refutation of these arguments is at hand in the observation of objective facts. No such FACT, and no objectively observed VALUE, supports your claim that only the well-being of all conscious creatures should be the disideratum, or a claim that only pleasure should be the disideratum, or that only human well-being should be the disideratum, or for that matter, that there should be no disideratum but obedience to the Will of God. All these are equally rational claims in that none of them is self-contradictory, is nonsense, or denies a known fact.

    BonJolvie: It is a FACT that the VALUES adopted by a society or an individual have real effects in the real world. Objective effects. Among those effects are changes in the conscious states of any minds that can perceive or be effected by any actions arising those values.

    So what? I fail to see the bearing of this upon my point, or any of your points for that matter. Even if it is true, it does not refute my claim that there is no objective standard of value. Are you saying that if the Grand Moral Project that you propose concluded that not all slaughter of pigs was immoral, someone could not still rationally maintain that no pig should be slaughtered? Even if the Great and Glorious Soviet Union declared that all its citizens should consume a maximal amout of pork, and devoted a big propaganda campaign to it, it would not be irrational for some Soviet citizen to say that on a moral basis, no pig should be slaughtered.

    BonJolvie: The FACT that we have no basis to assume fundamental differences in kind between human consciousness and other – objectively related – consciousness.

    What observation would confirm that that is indeed a fact? What observation would disconfirm it? And isn’t it true that we have no basis NOT to assume that there are fundamental differences in kind beween human and other “objectively related” consciousness? I have not yet seen a turtle solve a differential equation.

    • In reply to #108 by Markovich:

      Just an FYI, the second letter of my usename is an “a.”

      Suppose I said ““The pleasure of conscious creatures AND NOTHING ELSE is a criterion by which we would be rationally justified in making moral judgements.”

      I’d have plenty of objections. One would probably be that pursuit of pleasure exclusively is very probably counter-productive to general well-being, whereas the reverse is more debatable. For another, I would suggest that your criterion is less useful than “well-being” for achieving the broad (practically universal) consensus needed to establish an entire field of scientific inquiry. Too many rational, thoughtful positions contradict it. Whereas, I’m not sure any thoughtful ethicists propose any (secular) criteria that can’t be captured by “well-being.” Harris proposes that a broad enough definition of “well-being” can achieve this consensus.

      Suppose I said “I do not value an understanding of living things. The color and consistency of dragon flatulence is the only proper aim for the study of biology.” Would my, admittedly minority position be equally rational to the mainstream definitions of that field? What basis do we have for defining the limits of any field of study other than consensus among those who thoughtfully consider it?

      [BanJoIvie:] If you value the conscious well-being of humans you must value the well-being of other minds to whatever extent that they share valued traits with human minds.

      [Markovich} I can readily concede that and say that the trait I value is humanity itself, […]

      “Humanity” is not a trait of human minds, it is a label for them. To be meaningful in this context you would have to identify a trait of human minds that exclusively distinguishes them from other minds. Otherwise, I can simply say “mosquitos minds have just as much humanity as yours” and you have no choice but to value them equally.

      or if you like, human well-being.

      I don’t like. That’s an arbitrary limit on well-being which makes it less utile, not more. Simply labling a mind “human” is not rational grounds for giving it exclusive consideration

      If that is what I value, and nothing else, there is no basis upon which I can be accused of irrationality.

      Exept you have not identified an excusive value. You now have two. The “well-being” of a mind, and it’s “humanness.”

      I am in no way compelled, as a matter of logic or fact, to accept your claim that the welfare of these creatures should be considered on account of their consciousness or their common descent.

      You are compelled as a matter of logic to be consistent. If not consciousness or common descent, you must identify an actual characteristic of human minds that you uniquely value.

      It certainly is not inconsistent to say that only human welfare is of value.

      Hmmmm. Maybe, maybe not. But it is inconsistent to value the welfare of human minds exclusively if you cannot identify what makes those minds exclusively valuable.

      I can say that the trait which constitues humanity is having a human genetic structure [...]

      Then it is genetic structure you value, not conscious well-being.

      (your definition would seeming rule out persons unable to reproduce).

      Yeah, you’re right about that. I knew that when I wrote it, which was why I added the “in principle.” Anyway, I intended to point to the common definition of species – the ability to successfully interbreed. Maybe it would be clearer to say something like “shared membership in an identifiable gene pool.” Your “human genetic structure” will do as well, except you then have to identify what “human” characteristic of the genetic structure is the source of exclusive value. All life on earth has genetic structure, so what is uniquely valuable about human genetic structure? Chromosome count? The presence of certain genes in certain orders? Would a mutant with some change in that particular location count as “human?”

      It is not this characteristic in itself that I value, but the welfare of beings that possess it.

      No. You have made your valuation contingent upon a factor outside of conscious well being. You can’t then claim to value only the well-being itself. At best you can claim to value the two factors in tandem. At worst you can be accused of valuing genetics more than, or even instead of conscious well-being, since you place one before the other.

      Whether many people would agree with this position is of no concern to me, since this does not support your claim that it is irrational.

      Lack of consensus is not the problem I have identified in this case. It’s inconsistency.

      Actually, I am not sure what is the criterion of irrationality in general in your rhetoric.

      To be clear, “irrationality” is the measure you have proposed. I’m not trained enough in the formal, rhetorical rules of logic to be sure of my usage. In the case of your “human minds exclusively” example, my charge is inconsistency. To the degree that inconsistency is (1) a logical error or (3) “talking nonsense” I would consider it irrational according to your definition.

      I don’t think that I contradict myself, which would be a logical error, […]

      There you have it.

      when I say that only human welfare (or only turtle welfare) should be the Great Disideratum.

      I think you do. The modifiers “human” or “turtle” are not necessary components of “welfare” (or of “conscious well-being” if we want to stay on point.) Therefore “human welfare” is two values, not one. If you value “welfare” in one instance, you must value it in all, or identify an actual component part which differs on either side of your dividing line.

      While I might concede that most people would somewhat value the welfare of animals, […]

      Not just most. Practically all thoughtful people who take the question seriously.

      […] I think the notion that the One True Morality […]

      No one is proposing such a notion. It’s a landscape, remember? Sam’s much weaker claim is that there can be objective bases for making some moral distinctions.

      […]can be derived from the observation of FACT […]

      As a favor, could I ask you to please stop writing “fact” in all caps? In my experience this is considered equivalent to shouting at your opponent, and for whatever reason it’s making me uncomfortable with frequent use. Do you mind?

      would not be accepted my many people who have thought seriously about ethics and science and the difference between the two.

      Well, since that is not a fair summary of Harris’ position, I don’t think it’s a real test of it’s efficacy. However, I agree that Harris’ actual premises remain controversial, which is one reason I remain undecided overall. To be clear, Harris invokes consensus only to support the very specific premise that conscious well-being is uniquely valuable and its pursuit is the proper goal of any moral system.

      You have yet to answer my fundamental point that THAT some measure of welfare proposed by you or by Sam Harris SHOULD BE the determinant of right and wrong is itself a statement of VALUE

      I don’t consider that point relevant, and I don’t intent to answer it. Is that clear enough?

      and is not supported by any FACT.

      Sam offers consensus (not FACT) as the basis for his claim that “some measure of welfare” would necessarily be the basis for any moral determination. “Fact,” no matter now much you shout it, is something which any science can only establish provisionally. When we are being pedantically precise, we can speak of degrees of certainty, but not an actual bright-line separation between “facts” and other knowledge claims. This is true in all fields of science and yet we are unfazed. We can confidently proceed with the scientific endeavor because of its proven utility.

      If consensus and utility are sufficient basis for (provisionally) establishing any “fact” in science, I see no reason in principle that a “value” must be categorically different.

      It uses an objective, factual measure of alleged well-being but in itself it is a statement of value.

      If such “value” can point to universal informed consensus, then I find the distinction purely academic, and of no practical value. I don’t really care if we “should” value well-being. I don’t think we necessarily have to establish that. If, in effect, everyone already does value it when they are thinking seriously, then we can ignore that question. At that point, arguing “should” and “oughts” is as useless as the proverbial “angels on a pin” question. We can just go about studying ways to objectively understand and improve well-being.

      [BonJolvie:] It is a FACT that the VALUES adopted by a society or an individual have real effects in the real world.

      [Markovich:] So what? I fail to see the bearing of this upon my point, […]

      Me either. I don’t think your point actually excludes the possibility of a utile, objective pursuit of moral reasoning. I am not addressing your “point”, and in my opinion, your “point” doesn’t address Harris’ arguments. I think it is off-topic, or irrelevant, or unnecessarily pedantic or special pleading for the field of moral reasoning as opposed to any other field of intellectual pursuit. I don’t know how many more ways to say this.

      How about this. I fully and unequivocally concede you the point that – in a purely technical sense – we can’t derive a “should” from an “is.” And it doesn’t influence my opinion on TML one tiny bit. You “win” your “point.”

      or any of your points for that matter.

      It is one of my points, so I can’t see how that makes sense.

      Are you saying that if the Grand Moral Project that you propose concluded that not all slaughter of pigs was immoral, someone could not still rationally maintain that no pig should be slaughtered?

      All derisive phrasing aside? Yes, I would say that is the case. Because if (as you hypothesize) such a conclusion were established by “my” “Grand Moral Project” (by definition, an actually objective moral science”) it would have the status of a “known fact”. (See your 2nd criterion for identifying irrationality.)

      Even if the Great and Glorious Soviet Union [...]

      I’m gonna go ahead and ignore the rest of that paragraph. Let’s agree to leave the Soviets out of this, huh? It feels like “Godwin light” to me.

      BanJolvie: The FACT that we have no basis to assume fundamental differences in kind between human consciousness and other – objectively related – consciousness.

      [Markovich:} What observation would confirm that that is indeed a fact?

      Ummmmmm, the observation that “we” (read “I and any other thinker of which I’m aware from a general survey of the topic”) do indeed have no such basis? That none of “us” has every proposed one that withstands scrutiny?

      What observation would disconfirm it?

      Well, producing an actual basis for such an assumption would be a good start.

      And isn’t it true that we have no basis NOT to assume that there are fundamental differences in kind beween human and other “objectively related” consciousness?

      No. That is absolutely not true. The logical assumption is that minds with common origins will share some traits in common, and that close relations will share more traits than distant ones. In fact, it is really only this line of reasoning that justifies our assumption that other human minds are analagous to our own (as opposed to say, P zombies.)

      I have not yet seen a turtle solve a differential equation.

      Are you seriously proposing the ability to solve such equations a the defining trait which one might exclusively value about human minds? You’ve never seen me solve one either. Am I human? What a about a baby? An Alzheimer’s patient? Is it only differential equations that qualify a mind as human or is it math skills generally? Are mathematicians more human than others? Some monkeys, birds and dolphins exhibit the ability to grasp some mathematical concepts. This observation (and many others) seems to support the logical assumption that the mental differences between us and some other species are more quantitative than qualitative.

      Listen. This has been fun, but I think I’ve made my points. Some of them repeatedly. I will definitely read any response you care to post, but I may not take the time to respond, if I don’t have anything new to say.

  40. @BanJolvie: Sorry to capitalize so much. It there is no italic key of which I am aware and I felt the need to emphasize.

    You insist that it is only the attributes of consciousness itself that can be a consistent basis for value. One is not entitled to value the welfare of some limited set of conscious entities, on the ground that doing so commits the “inconsistency” of not valuing the analogous welfare of other conscious entities.

    Do you see that that is circular? If one must value the welfare of all conscious entities to be consistent, then not doing so is inconsistent. The premise is assumed to be true, and the conclusion is that the sole consistent basis of moral judgment has been discovered.

    But a system of morality that values only the welfare of some subset of conscious creatures is consistent. So far as I can tell your sole attempt to demonstrate its inconsistency has been to say that if I value the welfare only of humans, it is not human welfare but the distinguishing characteristics of mankind that I value. This really is obscurantist word play. First, I do not know what it would mean to “value” the characteristics that determine the human species. What actions would be implied by such a strange statement of value, unless it were a mere metaphor for valuing the welfare of humans? Second, I have already said that it is human welfare that I value. There is no mysterious conceptual jujitsu that permits you to deny that I value a species of welfare.

    That the King of Albania values only the welfare of Albanians does not lead to the result that it is only Albanianness that he values. He may consider it a good thing, but he is not proposing to store up the maximum possible number of Albanians. He is proposing to act to maximize only the welfare of Albanians, ignoring that of all others. However much we may deplore this, it is not inconsistent so long as it is possible to distinguish Albanian welfare from that of others. Clearly it is, since an Albanian living in a palace and a Serbian in a hovel is a different thing from the reverse.

    It is true that the welfare of Serbians is analogous to that of Albanians, but that does not imply that it is exactly the same thing, which would imply that in seeking to maximize the one, the King of Albania must necessarily maximize the other. The difference between Albanian welfare and Serbian welfare is that one is experienced by Albanians, the other by Serbs. And that is the distinction that you would seek to obscure with your unintelligible claim (here I draw an analogy from your prior argumentation) that in valuing only Albanian welfare, it is not welfare at all that King values, but whatever defines Albanians.

    Congratulations though, on your discovery that if something is assumed to be the only consistent basis for making moral judgements, then all other possible bases are inconsistent.

    P.S. The King of Albania defines Albanians to be all persons born to parents who were both born in Albania.

    • In reply to #111 by Markovich:

      Re: Capitalization. NO PROBLEM! (Ha, ha. Little joke.) I accept that your intent was not to offend. FYI, you can create italics by putting an asterisk before and after the desired text. A double asterisk for bold. For a few other tips, check out the “Help with formatting click here” link just below the preview window.

      You insist that it is only the attributes of consciousness itself that can be a consistent basis for value.

      For valuing consciousness, yes.

      One is not entitled to value the welfare of some limited set of conscious entities, on the ground that doing so commits the “inconsistency”

      This is my last shot at explaining this simple point. After that, we can just agree to disagree.

      One absolutely can value a limited subset of minds. But to remain logically consistent one must identify a trait intrinsic to those minds as a basis for exclusive value. If you base your valuation on a characteristic external to those minds, like the genetic make-up of the organisms generating them, that is tantamount to admitting that you actually value the genes themselves – separately from the minds (either exclusively or in addition.)

      Suppose I say “I value diamonds, but exclusively Bandersnatch diamonds. The rest are crap.” I then ask, “What is it about Bandersnatch diamonds that you value exclusively?”

      You could answer, “I just love to say the word ‘Bandersnatch’,” or “Bandersnatch diamonds come in awesome red velvet pouches.” Then I would be right to accuse you off irrationally devaluing other diamonds. After all, you could just as easily call them Bandersnatch, or put one in a red velvet pouch.

      But if you said “They have streaks of green in their internal structure which I really value.” That would be a consistent basis for making a distinction. However, if I then produced another diamond with green streaks, and you said, “Yes, but that’s not a Bandersnatch,” I would again accuse you of inconsistency.

      You might be able to find a reason to exclusively value human minds (other than “because they are human” – which is either meaningless or inconsistent) but the more research we do, the more it appears that some animal minds possess at least a version of every trait we once thought was exclusively human. The differences between us and our near kin (so far as any observation has indicated) are quantitative, not qualitative. Treating items on a continuum as if they were unrelated is irrational.

      If you did identify an actual mental trait upon which to hang your exclusivity, you might be forced to eliminate some humans on that grounds and include at least some members of other species. “Humanness” does not appear to be a clear, objective distinction between the consciousnesses of entities.

      First, I do not know what it would mean to “value” the characteristics that determine the human species.

      I don’t either. You’re the one who said, “the trait I value is humanity itself.” That is a meaningless statement. “Humanity itself” is a purely abstract concept until you identify what defining characteristics set it apart from “non-humanness.” Once you did offer a definition, it was based on genetic characteristics, not mental ones. That is inconsistent with your further claim; “It is not this characteristic in itself that I value, but the welfare of beings that possess it.” (Unless you mean “genetic welfare” instead of “conscious well-being,” which would be a bait and switch.)

      There is no mysterious conceptual jujitsu that permits you to deny that I value a species of welfare

      You have not defined “a species of welfare.” Rather, you claimed to value the welfare of a species. That is not just wordplay. Those are two different things (assuming that welfare means “conscious well-being” and that your preferred species is defined by traits other than consciousness.)

      [...] the King of Albania [...] is proposing to act to maximize only the welfare of Albanians, ignoring that of all others. However much we may deplore this, it is not inconsistent [...]

      Yes it is.

      [...] so long as it is possible to distinguish Albanian welfare from that of others [...]

      It is not. Albanian and Serbian welfare are not “analogous.” They are materially the same thing. (Look, I’m gonna just assume from here on out that when I use your term “welfare” we are always talking about conscious well-being.) If the King values the welfare of Albanians exclusively, then it is not the welfare itself he values, but shared nationality.

      The difference between Albanian welfare and Serbian welfare is that one is experienced by Albanians, the other by Serbs.

      Okay, let’s go with that then. To be consistent, the King would have to further claim that Albanians experience things in a materially different way than do Serbs. (Let’s assume he would be objectively wrong, but at least he’d be consistent. He’d be irrational for a totally different reason.)

      If the King cannot make such a claim, then the difference you specify here is not a meaningful distinction between one welfare and another. It is actually the expression of a second value extrinsic to welfare.

    • In reply to #111 by Markovich:

      Congratulations though, on your discovery that if something is assumed to be the only consistent basis for making moral judgements, then all other possible bases are inconsistent.

      Ha, ha, ha. Of course this statement is self-evident (nless the “assumption” is incorrect.) I can’t recall discovering anything or the sort. I certainly never said or implied anything that contradicts it

  41. @BanJolvie:

    I am most grateful for the formatting advice, which I now exploit.

    It is not irrational to value only Bandersnatch diamonds, so long as there is any objective means of distinguishing them from other diamonds. If there is not, as you appear to assume In your argumentation, such a preference would be mysterious and could be called “irrational” in the way that word is used in Economics, though I do not see how it is self-contradictory. If enough people shared this preference, then a procedure for certificating Bandersnatchness would soon be devised. But for purposes of commodity trading, crude oil No. 2 delivered at the Houston Ship Channel is crude oil No. 2 delivered at the Houston Ship Channel, whether pumped in Alaska or Saudi Arabia.

    But in my example where the King of Albania values only the welfare of Albanians, clearly, he has a means of distinguishing Albanian welfare from the welfare of other people. His preference only for Albanian welfare is not self-contradictory, nor is it “inconsistent” in any other way. Likewise I can distinguish human welfare from that of other creatures by seeing which form of creature is experiencing it.

    Logical inconsistency is demonstrable by rules of Iogic. Normally it results in self-contradiction. I would like to see a logical argument demonstrating that the proposition in question is self-contradictory. Such a demonstration would proceed from definite premises, by rules of logic (modus ponens and the like), to a statement that contradicted one of the premises. If you cannot make such a demonstration, and I am rather sure you cannot, you are using “logic” in a sense at best metaphoric and at worst obfuscatory.

    It is your insistence that one must value the traits of consciousness that produces the circularity in your reasoning. One does not have to value any traits at all to say that he values only human welfare or indeed any sort of welfare. If I must value only traits and no trait is exclusively human, then your case is proven. But I am under no such obligation. As a matter of science I suspect you are on quite shaky ground when you say that no trait is exclusively human, but I will leave that aside.

    You might also wish to consider that welfare is not a trait; an individual’s traits remain more or less constant over time, but its welfare may vary radically. Biological traits can hardly be affected by any action, welfare obviously can. Biological traits are therefore not a fit object of moral action; welfare is. So I think you are laboring under a confusion in this regard. I already addressed this when I said that it was not Albanianness that the King of Albania would seek to maximize (a weird idea), but the welfare of Albanians.

    Similarly the King of Albania is not compelled to assert that Albanians experience the world in a fundamentally different way than others before declaring his preference for their welfare. It is rational and consistent both to admit that Albanians experience the world in just the same way that others do, and to prefer their welfare over all others. Albanian welfare is already sufficiently distinguished by its being experienced by Albanians, a readily distinguishable class. This is really just another variation of your circularity, where “way of experiencing” substitutes for “trait.”

    • In reply to #115 by Markovich:

      I am completely and utterly unconvinced by your argument and think you are simply wrong. I’m sure you would say the same to me. We must agree to disagree.

      I know I said I’d leave it at that, but I must correct you on one point.

      It is your insistence that one must value the traits of consciousness that produces the circularity in your reasoning. One does not have to value any traits at all to say that he values only human welfare or indeed any sort of welfare. If I must value only traits and no trait is exclusively human, then your case is proven. But I am under no such obligation.

      I like the progression here of the way you portray may supposed argument. First you have me insisting that you must value traits. Then suddenly I’m saying you must value only traits. In reality, I did not say either, or did not mean to.

      What I am saying, is that if you wish to distinguish between objects and assign them differing values, you must do so by referencing the characteristics of those objects. If you reference any characteristic that is not actually intrinsic to the object which you claim to value, then your claim to value only the object itself is “talking nonsense.” The characteristic you identify to single out the object of your affection betrays where your value truly lies.

  42. Sam Harris wrote:

    For those unfamiliar with my book, here is my argument in brief: Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, of course, fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science. On this view, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

    Now suppose instead that Harris, beginning with “Therefore,” had said either:

    Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of mathematics that potentially fall within the purview of science;

    or:

    Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of aesthetics that potentially fall within the purview of science.

    Would either of these assertions, which would appear to follow as much as the assertion that Harris actually makes, be true? From a study of the “full determination” of conscious mind by “laws of Nature,” which I presume involves the application of neuroscience, can mathematical theorems be proven or disproven? Can aesthetic questions, such as the merit of Jackson Pollock’s later paintings, be resolved by this same means?

    • In reply to #116 by Markovich:

      Would either of these assertions, which would appear to follow as much as the assertion that Harris actually makes, be true? From a study of the “full determination” of conscious mind by “laws of Nature,” which I presume involves the application of neuroscience, can mathematical theorems be proven or disproven? Can aesthetic questions, such as the merit of Jackson Pollock’s later paintings, be resolved by this same means?

      The question about math needs to be separate from the Jackson Pollock one. Math is essentially, IMO, a unique domain, it underlies all the other sciences and mathematical knowledge is to some extent independent of empirical data in a way no other discipline is.

      So let’s set math aside, but as for Jackson Pollock (btw the answer is he sucks, just kidding but I’ve never been a big fan) I think it is quite possible that science can have something to say about aesthetics. I read a fairly interesting paper a while back on aesthetics and, believe it or not, evolutionary theory. The hypothesis was that there are certain qualities that a primitive human would find desirable as a territory to defend and that, to some extent, many of our concepts of what is aesthetically pleasing in a landscape can be traced back to these evolutionary predispositions.

      Evolved Responses to Landscapes. Gordon H Orians and Judith Heerwagan

      BTW, I didn’t think that paper was great, mostly speculation, not all that convincing, my point is that it is possible to use science to develop hypotheses in aesthetics and just about any domain that is typically thought to be off limits to science.

      • In reply to #128 by Red Dog:

        BTW, I didn’t think that paper was great, mostly speculation, not all that convincing,

        Nor me, though thanks for posting it. I though it spurious and speculative, but without the good speculations. To talk of flowers and our attraction to them without mentioning the signalling of bees and the presence of honey/ fructose (the sugar we are wired to taste above all) is missing out on a real evolutionary driver for aesthetics. Our interest in the stuff greatly predates agriculture.

        my point is that it is possible to use science to develop hypotheses in aesthetics

        I agree, but I think Vilyanur Ramachandran’s speculations on human aesthetics will prove richer in testable hypotheses and go a lot deeper if they prove themselves. Further I think that that other neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s hypotheses about homeostasis and the itch that needs to be scratched presents a very satisfying and recognisable feel to the experience mooted.

  43. @BanJolvie:

    What I am saying, is that if you wish to distinguish between objects and assign them differing values, you must do so by referencing the characteristics of those objects.

    Yes, and that is what the hypothetical King of Albania does when he values the welfare of Albanians and disregards that of all others. He refers to the welfare of Albanians. The characteristic of the species of welfare to which he refers is that it is experienced by Albanians, an identifiable class.

    If you reference any characteristic that is not actually intrinsic to the object which you claim to value, then your claim to value only the object itself is “talking nonsense.”

    The King of Albania may perhaps be said to “reference the characteristic” (an obscure usage, but I won’t quibble about it) of Albanianness when he says that it is only the welfare of Albanians that he values. But that could only mean that if his moral system is to make any sense, there must be some way of identifying Albanians. Clearly, there is: the hypothetical King defines it as a person’s having both parents born in Albania. This “trait” is readily identifiable, at least if sufficient birth records are kept. Having both parents born in Albania is a property that is actually intrinsic to the persons who share it; being experienced by Albanians is an actually intrinsic property of Albanian welfare; it would be very strange indeed to say in either case that it was not.

    If you would deny that any specificity as to who or what is experiencing it could be an actually intrinsic property of any species of welfare, then that is where you would smuggle in the circularity in your reasoning; the conclusion would be contained in the assumption. But the King is under no obligation to value welfare unqualified by who or what is experiencing it, and neither is anyone else. All welfare is experienced by someone, so who is experiencing it would seem to be an actually intrinsic property of welfare.

    The characteristic you identify to single out the object of your affection betrays where your value truly lies.

    If you mean that the King of Albania, in valuing only the welfare of Albanians is mistaken in his notion that he values their welfare, and that what he “truly” values is the circumstance of having both parents born in Albania, that is obscurantist word play. The King of Albania values a species of welfare, and no mysterious conceptual prestidigitation can prove that he does not. The KIng of Allbania may indeed value someone’s having both parents born in Albania in the sense of thinking that it is a good thing if someone has this trait. He may consider that Albanians are much more worthy beings than other beings on account of this. But neither of these propositions implies the King of Albania’s moral system, which is that he will act so as to maximize the welfare of Albanians, disregarding the welfare of all others.

    Nor does the reverse implication hold. The King of Albania may consider that every Albanian is a miserable thief and a coward; that Albanians are despised by God and innately unworthy of Heaven; that they have lower intellects than four-year-old Serbian children; that he himself is despicable for being one of them; and still maintain that he should act to maximize their welfare and ignore that of all others. There would be no logical inconsistency in this, and we could even find a rational basis for it in the notion of royal duty.

    In any case, the circumstance of having both parents born in Albania is not something that anyone’s action can affect, so it is not a fit object of action. The welfare of such persons, since it is susceptible to change as a result of someone’s action, is a fit object. I may “value” humanity in the sense that I think it is a marvellous thing, but neither the circumstance of being human nor the definition of humanity is a fit object of any action. You seem to seek to obscure this distinction in your insistence that what the King “truly” values is Albanianness. One sort of value expresses an attitude, the other expresses a criterion of moral action. The two should not be confused.

    So though you no doubt deceive yourself, you are playing a shell game with words.

    • In reply to #118 by Markovich:

      Sigh. I can’t seem to stop.

      If you mean that the King of Albania, in valuing only the welfare of Albanians is mistaken in his notion that he values their welfare,

      Or lying, yes. He cannot claim that he only values their conscious welfare – not their parentage – while simultaneously using their parentage to set them apart from otherwise indistinguishable minds.

      and that what he “truly” values is the circumstance of having both parents born in Albania, that is obscurantist word play.

      Nice dismissal, but I don’t consider that an actual argument.

      The King of Albania values a species of welfare

      No, he does not. He values the welfare of a species. That is materially different from valuing a species of welfare. It’s the second time you have used this coinage to describe the King’s claim, and I pointed it out the first time. The fact that you use it again shows that you are not thinking about the distinction

      and no mysterious conceptual prestidigitation can prove that he does not.

      Yes, calling something “mysterious conceptual prestidigitation” or “obscurantist wordplay” or “mysterious conceptual jujitsu” is a very good way to appear to refute it without actually considering it.

      Consider.

      “I value all objects upon which I have placed a little gold star sticker and discount all others as valueless. I place little gold star stickers randomly. Once I do so, an object goes from having zero to maximal value. These little gold stars are always visible, impossible to remove once placed, and provide an unmistakable way to distinguish between valuable objects and worthless crap.”

      And.

      “It is not the little gold star sticker I value. It is not the fact that an object has a little gold star sticker or that it or has gone through the experience of receiving a little gold star sticker from me, it is the object itself I value, for it’s own sake, independent of its little-gold-star-sticker…iness.”

      I say that these two statements are contradictory. I say that this example does not materially differ from the King of Albania’s position. And no genuflecting, hand-wavy, befogging, alchemistic, rhetorical huka-huka can ever disprove my absolutely correct position.

      Having both parents born in Albania is a property that is intrinsic to the persons who share it; it would be very strange indeed to say that it was not.

      It is not an intrinsic quality of their minds, only of their parentage. Therefore, the King manifestly values parentage separately from consciousness, and cannot rationally claim to value consciousness exclusively.

      If you would equate “intrinsic properties to physical properties*

      I wouldn’t. I never knowingly said anything equating the two.

      In any case, the circumstance of having both parents born in Albania is not something that anyone’s action can affect [...]

      I assume you mean, after the initial actions of the two randy Albanians in question. The actual “placing of gold stars” is probably a lot more fun in your King of Albania hypothetical than in mine.

      [...] so it is not a fit object of action.

      I’m not sure, but think I actually agree with this. Therefor the “action” of distinguishing between entities is unjustified on this basis.

      I may “value” humanity in the sense that I think it is a marvellous thing, but neither the circumstance of being human nor the definition of humanity is a fit object of any action.

      You’re the one who said “the trait I value is humanity itself.” That’s the part of your initial construction I am challenging. The part that contradicts the rest of the claim. If there is obscurantism between types of value, you are its source.

      One sort of value expresses an attitude, the other expresses a criterion of moral action

      Discriminating between objects for the purpose of valuation is a moral action. Taking an “attitude” toward something is a moral action – if said attitude will directly affect your other actions toward said thing.

      So you are playing a shell game with words.

      Again, nice.

  44. @BanJolvie:

    No, [the KIng of Albania] does not [value a species of welfare]. He values the welfare of a species. That is materially different from valuing a species of welfare. It’s the second time you have used this coinage to describe the King’s claim, and I pointed it out the first time. The fact that you use it again shows that you are not thinking about the distinction.

    Well, I cannot deny that Albanians are a species of man. Nor can you rationally deny that Albanian welfare is a species of welfare, unless you would like to smuggle your conclusion in with the assumption that welfare cannot be distinguished by the particular beings experiencing it. Whether “Albanian welfare” is a “species of welfare” or the “welfare of a species” appears to me to be a distinction without a difference. To assert that there is a “material” difference between these things would seem to be more obsurantist word play, since they point to exactly the same thing. Either way, it is welfare that is experienced by Albanians that the hypothetical King posits as his maximand, and he can do so with no inconsistency at all.

    I will agree that their are many ways that welfare can be characterized other than by whom it is being experienced. But by whom it is being experienced certainly is a possible method of distinguishing welfare. If you wish to say that is not, then it is here that you smuggle your desired conclusion in with your assumptions.

    We will perhaps have to agree to disagree as to whether the assertion that “to make X qualified by Y the disideratum of an ethical system is not to make a species of X one’s disideratum, but instead to make a disideratum of Y” is obscurantist word play. I maintain that if Y is something that action cannot modify, then I can “value” it only in the sense that I take an attitude toward it. In this sense, I may value humanity or the KIng of Albania may value Albanianness. But humanity and Albanianness cannot be the disiderata of any possible ethical system. If using the term “value” to apply both to an ethical disideratum and a favorable attitude toward something, and pretending that these two things are therefore the same, is not obscurantist word play, then I don’t know what it is,

    In your gold star example you continue to conflate two types of valuation. But to modify it to suit the kind of value that expresses a moral system, I might very well propose a moral system whereby I value the welfare of only those persons whose last four social security numbers constitute a prime number, and treat the welfare of all others as nothing. I concede that it would be difficult to find a rational basis for this, but it is not inconsistent. The proposed disideratum is readily identifiable. Something about this may go against your grain, perhaps it would go against mine, and it might even be called crazy, but it is not an impossible or otherwise inconsistent basis for making moral decisions.

    But it is not fair to proceed from any perceived craziness in the “prime last four” system of morality to the claim that every system of morality that makes some particular species of welfare its disideratum is just as crazy. In the case of the King of Albania, royal duty could be summoned to defend his thinking. Various reasonable arguments could be made for valuing only human welfare or valuing only pleasure, but I will not bother to make them here.

    [People having both parents born in Albania] is not an intrinsic quality of their minds, only of their parentage. Therefore, the King manifestly values parentage separately from consciousness, and cannot rationally claim to value consciousness exclusively.

    Having both parents born in Albania may be an intrinsic quality of someone’s parentage, but it is also an intrinsic quality of oneself. If you will deny that such a quality is intrinsic, then I will merely deny your claim that a quality has to be “intrinsic” to some creature in order to identify a species of welfare. You seem to insist that only intrinsic qualities of minds may be used to distinguish different types of welfare. That again would be a means of smuggling your desired conclusion into your assumption. “Values parentage” continues to confuse the two forms of value. Parentage is something toward which one can take an attitude, not something that can serve as the disideratum of a moral system. You cannot transform one form of value into the other without indulging in word play. “Value consciousness” is more of the same confusion. Even you do not value consciousness as a disideratum, which it could not possibly be. In the moral sense, the welfare of conscious beings is what you value.

    When I said “the trait that I value is humanity itself,” I was either confusing the two types of “value” that I have since recognized, or was merely asserting a positive attitude toward humanity, which is a different thing than valuing its welfare.

    So far as I can see, you have not responded to my claim that you can take a negative attitude toward some class of creatures and still propose their welfare as the disideratum of a moral system. This emphasizes the distinction between the two types of value.

    • In reply to #120 by Markovich:

      Nor can you rationally deny that Albanian welfare is a species of welfare,

      I can. I do. “Albanianness” is not an intrinsic quality of welfare. It cannot be used to distinguish one welfare from another without looking to extrinsic characteristics.

      I must again emphasize, that – although you continue to substitute the term “welfare” – we are always referring to “conscious well-being.” This is necessarily a property of mind. Therefore your usage of “welfare” in the phrase “species of welfare” is problematic. But I can only take it to mean “consciousness with a variable well-being.” Unless you are making a conflation.

      Shell game! Obscurantist word play!

      Any non-mental characteristics of a “person” are necessarily extrinsic to their conscious well-being. (Except for any effects such characteristics may have on consciousness, but that’s beside the point. Effects are separate from their cause.)

      If your substitution of “welfare” of a “person” for “well-being” of a “consciousness” is an intentional bait-and-switch, just say so. Otherwise, examine the distinction.

      unless you would like to smuggle your conclusion in with the assumption that welfare cannot be distinguished by the particular beings experiencing it.

      I have no idea what this means. A person can only directly experience one welfare. How could she ever distingush welfare by experience? Do you mean welfare from non-welfare? Or my welfare from your welfare?

      Whether “Albanian welfare” is a “species of welfare” or the “welfare of a species” appears to me to be a distinction without a difference.

      It is not.

      To assert that there is a “material” difference between these things would seem to be more obsurantist word play,

      It is not. Say it again. I’ll deny it again. How far are we getting?

      since they point to exactly the same thing.

      They do not.

      Either way, it is welfare that is experienced by Albanians

      Being “experience by Abanians” is not a property of a mind. Phrased in this way, it is necessarily something that happens to one. It is perfectly rational to value “things that are experienced by Albanians,” but you cannot then consistently claim to value the things themselves exclusively.

      I will agree that their are many ways that welfare can be characterized other than by whom it is being experienced.

      Good. Otherwise, I can’t see how welfare could be characterized.

      But by whom it is being experienced certainly is a possibly method of distinguishing welfare.

      …OOOOooookay…

      If you wish to say that is not, then it is here that you smuggle your desired conclusion in with your assumptions.

      Luckily, I never said it’s not. It is definitely possible to distinguish things by characteristics external to the things themselves. Gold stars are also a perfectly good method of distinguishing things. It’s just not a method which is derived from the things themselves.

      Note that you switch from “characterized” to “distinguished” above. Those aren’t the same. Again, we can easily make distinctions between things without relying on the characteristics of the things themselves. If I take a hand full of rice from a bag and put it in a canister, I have distinguished between the two populations of rice. Yet neither bag nor canister becomes an actual characteristic of the rice in this way.

      If using the term “value” to apply both to an ethical disideratum and a favorable attitude toward something, and pretending that these two things are therefore the same, is not obscurantist word play, then I don’t know what it is,

      How about using “welfare” to mean “conscious well-being” but then ignoring that fact when apply the term “welfare” indiscriminately to mind as well as non-mind?

      And again. I deny that there is a distinction here. If “taking a favorable attitude toward something” explicitly means attributing a distinct moral status to that thing, then that favorable attitude is an “ethical desideratum.”

      In your gold star example you continue to conflate two types of valuation.

      Then so does the King of Albania.

      But to modify it to suit the kind of value that expresses a moral system, I might very well propose a moral system whereby I value the welfare of only those persons whose last four social security numbers constitute a prime number, and treat the welfare of all others as nothing. I concede that it would be difficult to find a rational basis for this, [...]

      Darn tootin’.

      but it is not inconsistent.

      One more time. Sing along if you know the words. The inconsistency arises IF YOU FURTHER CLAIM (that is intentional shouting) that you value only persons themselves, not their SS numbers.

      The proposed disideratum is readily identifiable.

      So are gold stars.

      Something about this may go against your grain,

      Yup.

      perhaps it would go against mine,

      I would hope so.

      and it might even be called crazy,

      Might?

      but it is not an impossible basis for making moral decisions.

      Who said impossible? Stop putting words in my mouth.

      But is not fair to proceed from any perceived craziness in the “prime last four” system of morality to the claim that every system of morality that makes some particular species of welfare

      Welfare. Of. A. Species. You are not identifying your species by any quality of its welfare. Therefore you have not identified a species of welfare. You have identified a species by qualities other then welfare and only then do you consider welfare.

      Two separate considerations. Two separate “values.” Invoking and linking two independent variables while simultaneously claiming to value only one of them is inconsistent. It just is.

      In the case of the King of Albania, royal duty could be summoned to defend his thinking.

      It could, depending on what else he thinks. It couldn’t give consistency to his claim to exclusively value “Albanian consciousnesses” but only the “consciousnesses” not the “Albanianness”

      Various reasonable arguments could be made for valuing only human welfare or valuing only pleasure,

      I am skeptical of this claim.

      but I will not bother to make them here.

      Oh, Thank Xenu.

      Having both parents born in Albania may be an intrinsic quality of someone’s parentage, but it is also an intrinsic quality of oneself.

      I’m stopping here. This is a tacit admission that you do not mean “conscious well-being” when you say welfare. It’s a bait-and-switch. From here on out, I will correct you every time you make this substitution in any form.

      If you will deny that such a quality is intrinsic,

      Don’t use “ifs” to put denials in my mouth. I deny only what I said I deny.That such a quality is intrinsic to a person’s mind.

      then I will merely deny your claim that a quality has to be “intrinsic” to some creature in order to identify a species of welfare.

      I never made this claim. Don’t attribute it to me.

      I do say that if you wish to be consistent, and _if you claim to value a given “welfare” (consciousness with a variable well-being), and if you claim to place your value on the consciousness itself, not on the characteristic you use to distinguish that consciousness from others, _THEN* you must identify a distinguishing characteristic that is intrinsic to that consciousness.

      You seem to insist that only intrinsic qualities of minds may be used to distinguish different types of welfare.

      Not “welfare.” You mean “conscious well-being.”

      And yes I do insist on that…

      provided that:

      1) “Welfare” means “conscious well-being.”

      and

      2) One wishes to distinguish between “different types of welfare” (conscious well-being) and not merely ‘the welfare of different types of things.’

  45. To those reading the bizarre and seemingly endless discussion between me and BanJovie, which debates whether a much more narrow conception of welfare than that proposed by Harris could be a rational basis for an ethical system, I would like now to point out its significance.

    Harris would like to propose a definition of welfare so broad that everyone would agree to it as a matter of “consensus,” and further claim that it is the only rational basis for a moral system. But if a much more narrow definition of welfare could rationally be maintained as a basis of morality, then conflict between different interests could emerge and neither side could be condemned as “irrational.” The proposed project then falls to the ground before the first cornerstone has even been laid.

    There are actually other reasons why Harris’s proposed consensus might be unattainable, such as, some people value some things very differently than others do.

  46. @BanJolvie:

    If you think the distinction between welfare and well-being is an important one, I would be happy to go back and substitute “well-being” wherever I have put “welfare.” Personally I do not see how much can be made of this distinction. We economists are used to talking about welfare, and it is a more concise term than “well-being.” Those are the only reasons that I used my term instead of yours, by which I meant nothing substantive.

    I am at a total loss to see how “the welfare of a species” differs from “a species of welfare,” either in specific reference to the welfare of Albanians or to that of any other species of beings. I am happy to concede that either term is equally applicable, since the thing referred to is the same. Your insistence that this difference is important is deeply mysterious to me.

    “Any non-mental characteristics of a ‘person’ are necessarily extrinsic to their conscious well-being.” Even if that were so, it would not change that an Albanian living in a palace and a Serb in a hovel is quite a different state of the world than the reverse, and that the King of Albania may rationally prefer the one to the other. If one of us must be hanged, drawn and quartered, I think it is quite rational that I prefer that it be you, and I would not blame myself if I played some little trick to make sure that that was the way that it turned out. As I have said, your insistence that welfare can only be distinguished by “intrinsic* aspects of consciousness is the place where your assumptions imply your conclusion.

    So far as I am aware, you have never acknowledged the distinction between value as an attitude (in the way that someone might value Albanianness) and value as the disideratum of some moral system (in the way that one might value the welfare of Albanians). This confusion permeates everything you have said, and I rather suspect that your refusal to recognize it is intentional, which I would call obscurantist.

    I agree that Albanianness is not a possible characteristic of welfare, and never did I say it was. What I have said repeatedly is that Albanianness is a characteristic of certain persons, and that being experienced by certain persons is a characteristic of welfare. Since, however, it seems that you would deny that, which denial I consider bizarre and which also, obviously, smuggles in your desired conclusion, I do not think we have anything more to say to each other on this subject. So I will not say more about it, at least to you.

    Perhaps we will encounter each other in these forums again, but how much I will look forward to it I am not sure, since one side’s persistent use of words in mysterious and obscure ways does not make for a very fruitful exchange of ideas. In the mean time, if anyone wants to take on the burdensome task of reading our torturous and almost endless exchange, he will have to be the one to decide which one of us has upheld the better part of reason.

  47. What are values? What are objective values and what facts of reality give rise to them? Who or what requires objective values, and for what purpose?

    A value essentially is that which a living entity acts to gain and/or keep. All living entities (plants, animals, bacteria, fungi, etc.) have inescapable requirements of life – e.g., nutrients, water, warmth, sunlight, shelter – which are determined by their biological nature. The requirements of life constitute the objective values that any living organism must act to gain and/or keep if it is to sustain its life – its ultimate value and thus its standard of value – and thereby avoid the only alternative to its life: death. It is life and its requirements (observable facts of reality) that give rise to objective values, and it is life and its requirements that make objective values necessary if life is to be sustained and death avoided. Objective values are inextricably rooted in observable facts of reality: life and its inherent requirements.

    What are moral values? What are objective moral values and what facts of reality give rise to them? Why does man require an objective code of morality?

    Moral values are values in the domain of human choice and thus pertain only to humans. Excepting humans, it is in the biological nature of all living entities to pursue the requirements of their lives – their objective values – automatically; they have no choice in the matter. Man, however, must use his faculty of reason (his only means to conceptual knowledge, and his basic means of survival) to acquire conceptual knowledge about the world and about himself and to discover the requirements of his life and the means of gaining and/or keeping them. Man’s faculty of reason, however, is not automatic, but volitional; man, if he is to think rationally and to act consistently on the basis of his rational thought, must choose to do so and continue choosing to do so. And if he is to discover the requirements of his life and the means of pursuing them effectively, he will need a set of principles to guide him in this endeavour, to assist him in aligning his choices and actions with life-serving long-term goals, rather than basing them on subjective and range-of-the-moment whims that may well thwart his life. This set of principles constitutes an objective code of morality.

    Objective moral values are the values that man’s life requires as determined by man’s biological nature. Such values include not only the basic material values of food, clothing and shelter necessary for mere survival, but also such values as a good education, a rewarding career, hobbies, friends, a partner and family life, etc. – material and spiritual values that enrich and further man’ life – his highest value and thus his standard of value – and serve to make it the happiest life that it can possibly be for him. It is man’s life and its requirements (including the requirement of objective moral principles) that give rise to objective moral values, and it is man’s life and its requirements that make objective moral values necessary, if a life of happiness is man’s ultimate goal. Objective moral values are inextricably rooted in observable facts of reality: man’s life and its inherent requirements. If each individual is to live and flourish and achieve happiness, rather than merely survive as a brute animal, he/she requires an objective code of morality to guide his/her choices and actions – a code of morality that has as its objective standard of value his/her life (and its inherent requirements).

    For greater clarity and much more detail on the principles of an objective moral system, on how such a system derives from observable facts of realty, on why man requires such a morality, and on why its operation in a social context requires an objective principle of rights and how such a principle is derived objectively and protected, read this essay and this essay, both by Craig Biddle over at the Objective Standard website.

    It is also worth reading Ari Armstrong’s response to Sam Harris’s “Moral Landscape Challenge”, which focuses on the principal errors in Harris’s thinking about morality.

    • In reply to #124 by jabberwock:

      For greater clarity and much more detail on the principles of an objective moral system, on how such a system derives from observable facts of realty, on why man requires such a morality, and on why its operation in a social context requires an objective principle of rights and how such a principle is derived objectively and protected, read this essay and this essay, both by Craig Biddle over at the Objective Standard website.

      Just to be clear, those links talk about Ayn Rand’s “theory” of morality. Rand is about as serious a philosopher as Alan Watts or Carlos Castaneda (at least with Carlos you get lots of good stories about tripping your brains out). Have you read Michael Schermer’s essay where he essentially equates Rand’s “philosophy” with a religious cult:

      The Unlikeliest Cult Ayn Rand, Objectivism, and the Cult of Personality

      I tried reading through one of the essays you linked to to find what was the “objective basis” for morality in Rand’s view but all I found was a bunch of hand waving and a description of what Rand doesn’t do, she doesn’t base her morality on God or on liberal values but what objective basis they actually have wasn’t clear at all. Can you summarize in a few words what you think Rand’s “objective basis” for morality is?

  48. Hi Red Dog,

    Excellent article, very thought provoking. I share your views and there is very little I could to what you have said already. What little I would add though relates to what is known as the principle of Beneficence. I had a really good discussion with a friend of mine about this very topic not long ago, she is involved with Health and Social Care here in the UK. I’ve cited a link for further reading should you be interested. Here is the citation, the URL is included at the end:

    Beauchamp, Tom, “The Principle of Beneficence in Applied Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

    • In reply to #125 by iHuman:

      Hi Red Dog,

      Excellent article, very thought provoking. I share your views and there is very little I could to what you have said already. What little I would add though relates to what is known as the principle of Beneficence. I had a really good discussion with a friend of mine about this very…

      Thanks for the reference. I haven’t looked at the Stanford encyclopedia in a while, they have updated the look and feel, I like the new version, much cleaner and no longer looks like an early 90′s web site. Here is the link in case others are interested:

      The Principle of Beneficence in Applied Ethics

      Just started reading the article. It is interesting, so many different ways to look at these questions.

  49. @Red Dog:

    That you for that interesting reply, and for the reference.

    First as to mathematics, since it is clearly a product of human thought, I do not see why Harris’s statement about ethics does apply to it with the clear force of analogy. Perhaps you subscribe to some sort notion of Platonic mathematical forms that are somehow revealed by intellection? I do not, but instead think that mathematics is a logical construct that merely happens to be useful.

    I think that the idea that science could say that I am right that Pollock’s later work is of little aesthetic worth, or that someone else is right in his view that it is of great such worth, reveals a misunderstanding of the nature of science. The mistake being made is to suppose that science could ever do more than correlate some aspects of direct experience with others. My low appraisal of Pollock’s work is a constituent of my experience; someone else’s high appraisal is a constituent of his. Science can at most correlate our opinions with (or if you like, explain our opinions by) something such as my having been dropped on the floor as a baby his not having been, or my experiencing certain electro-chemical patterns in my brain and his having others.

    I once knew someone who experienced a form of color blindness under which certain shades of green appeared to him to be white. Science can explain why he sees white where I see green, but it cannot say which one of us is “right.” That a certain object is “really” green is a peculiar expression of faith, not of science. Science can only say that certain properties of my eye are strongly correlated with (or if you like, explain) the perception of green, while certain properties of his are strongly correlated with (or explain) the contrary perception of white. It is very customary to say that a color-blind person perceives things wrongly, but science can only say that he perceives things differently. That is not a species of political correctness, it is a characterization of the nature of science.

    I will not bother to draw the conclusion that this implies for Harris’s ideas about morality or to yours about aesthetics, because it is obvious.

    • In reply to #129 by Markovich:

      First as to mathematics, since it is clearly a product of human thought, I do not see why Harris’s statement about ethics does apply to it with the clear force of analogy. Perhaps you subscribe to some sort notion of Platonic mathematical forms that are somehow revealed by intellection? I do not, but instead think that mathematics is a logical construct that merely happens to be useful.

      I was mostly trying to stick to one topic, the question of what is mathematics and how does it relate to science could be a topic all it’s own. But I think there is an easier way for me to clarify what I mean there, that is that mathematics is really the foundation for any form of logical or systematic thought. So as far as aesthetics is a discipline I claim it relies on math just as much as any other. Not as explicitly or obviously, we don’t have aesthetic formulas but any time you use logic, any time you say things like “X implies Y and X is clearly true so thus Y must be as well” you are really using mathematics in the form of mathematical logic.

      I think that the idea that science could say that I am right that Pollock’s later work is of little aesthetic worth, or that someone else is right in his view that it is of great such worth, reveals a misunderstanding of the nature of science.

      I’m not claiming that any theory of aesthetics could be completely divorced from culture. I’m just saying that in any theory of aesthetics issues such as the evolutionary influences most likely will play a role. But most importantly if there ever is a “science of aesthetics” it will use the same techniques as any other science. And until there is such a science the vast majority of things that are published by academics in the name of those disciplines is mostly just high sounding nonsense with no more actual information content then someone saying “that sucks” or “that was awesome” only saying it with much bigger and many more words. IMO, you could replace most of what is currently published as aesthetics with things randomly generated at this site and no one would know the difference.

  50. In reply to #127 by Red Dog:

    Can you summarize in a few words what you think Rand’s “objective basis” for morality is?

    The only objective basis for an objective moral system is: man’s life and its requirements.

    It is man’s life that makes objective moral values possible, and it is man’s life that makes objective moral values necessary. If a man – any man or woman – chooses to live and flourish, rather than merely subsist or die, then he must hold his own life as his ultimate value – and thus his standard of value – and act consistently, on the basis of reason (his only means to conceptual knowledge, and his basic means of survival), to gain and/or keep those values (objective values – the values that his life requires) that promote his life in the long term; if he doesn’t act in this way, he will thwart his life to the extent that he doesn’t. A man is acting morally when he pursues values that further his own life in the long term (objective values), and he is acting immorally when he pursues values that retard his own life in the long term (subjective values) (for example, when he pursues the subjective value of the short-term pleasure gained from injecting heroin), or when he sacrifices a higher objective value for a lesser one.

    Is Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, a cult?

    • In reply to #132 by jabberwock:

      Can you summarize in a few words what you think Rand’s “objective basis” for morality is? The only objective basis for an objective moral system is: man’s life and its requirements. It is man’s life that makes objective moral values possible, and it is man’s life that makes objective moral values necessary…

      That is an example of what i mean when I say “hand waving”. You use a lot of words there but you never actually answer the question. What does it mean to say “man’s life and its requirements” (beyond the fact that you seem to ignore one half of the human race for some reason) At least with Harris there is a metric that is meaningful and can give us a start to actually being rigorous in defining what moral choices guided by reason might be like. My point in posting this topic was to show that when we do that, it’s a lot more complex than Harris seems to appreciate, but I at least give him credit that he was rigorous enough to give a meaningful definition.

      You seem to hold up “long term interest” as opposed to “short term” as the defining factor but there is no rational foundation for that. It seems intuitive but so does Harris’s well-being concept and so do a lot of ideas such as Kant’s categorical imperative or Rawls’ concept of fairness. The fact is if someone says “I want to live my life for the moment and I plan to die young after doing lots of drugs” there is nothing inherently irrational about that. We can say “you will probably change your mind as you get older” but that’s an empirical claim, using pure rationality if someone honestly says they want to live for the moment you have no rational basis for telling them they are wrong. That’s the important point, when you claim an “objective basis” for morality you should be able to argue from some first principles or some model of human behavior that doing X is moral, you haven’t done that and I’ve never seen anyone who has.

  51. @Reg Dog:

    I don’t think you really grappled with my explanation of why science could not determine who is “right” about Pollock’s work any more than it could determine who is “right” between my perception of green and my color-blind friend’s of white. (I was saying nothing about culture, by the way, but that probably does fall into a possible category of scientific explanation). But it doesn’t bother me if you don’t want to address that.

    That A implies B means if A then B is a matter of definition. It is not, in my view, a mysterious truth of the world that somehow underlies all understanding, but merely a matter of how we use certain terms. The recognition that B is always found where A is found is primitive and probably, given its obvious utility, inherited. It seems to be present in dogs, anyway. That seems to be the primitive basis of the concept of implication. I don’t think that logical implication is some sort of Platonic form floating “out there,” which is an account of the world that I reject.

    I will say that the proposition that “if there ever is a ‘science of aesthetics’ it will use the same techniques as any other science” seems tautologous to me. That would be true if any X were put where “aesthetics” is. I am not at all sure what is taught in courses on aesthetics, but I don’t think discussions in that realm are necessarily high-sounding nonsense. I like to discuss with others the merit of art and movies I have seen, and music I have heard.

    Harris does get into deep circularity if you put “science” instead of mathematics or aesthetics. Can all truths of science be derived from neuroscience alone? Probably best not to go there, since he seems badly wrong to me in any case.

    • In reply to #134 by Markovich:

      I don’t think you really grappled with my explanation of why science could not determine who is “right” about Pollock’s work any more than it could determine who is “right” between my perception of green and my color-blind friend’s of white.

      Before I deal with what I think you are saying there I want to talk about the general tactic you are using. IMO it’s a common one in people who attack science both theists and from the humanities. The tactic works like this. The science attack starts with a statement like this

      Discipline X can’t be studied by science because look at problem A, surely science can’t solve problem A, just no way and since problem A is part of discipline X, we can only use religion (or postmodernism, Marxism,…) to study X but not science.

      Examples of disciplines would be the studies of ethics, how humans came to be, and aesthetics and examples of A are defining ethics without the concept of God, irreducible complexity, and finally your example above. Now usually I think the whole notion that problem A can’t be solved scientifically is wrong headed to begin with. Irreducible complexity for example is just a basic misunderstanding of evolution. But even if there are examples where A is a serious problem that doesn’t seem amenable to a scientific solution, so friggin what? So there is an unsolved problem that no one yet has a clue how to even start answering. That’s not a sign that you give up on science that’s a sign that you need more and better science!

      Now to get to your problem. What I hear you saying is that any science of aesthetics will have to take into account that we are all individuals. That what is aesthetically pleasing for you and your friend are almost certainly not going to be identical and probably the reason for that is something fundamental about what makes humans human. To which I say well no duh. In fact I would say that is why something like aesthetics may be an interesting area to study scientifically at some point, precisely because understanding why some people like Jimi Hendrix and some people like the Monkees may tell us something interesting not just about music about about human cognition and value setting in general.

  52. @jabberwok:

    The notion that exactly one morality is consistent with human nature is rather difficult to accept, given that a great many moral systems have been adhered to throughout human history. The notion that exactly one moral system is “best” for man is circular, proposing value as a basis for value. We are rather far afield of the topic if we wander off into Ayn Rand territory. Post separately on this and I will be very happy to engage with you on it.

  53. @Red Dog:

    Well, I must reject your characterization of “the tactic I am using” since I do not say that science cannot study X because the study of that belongs to X-ology. I do not look either to religion or the “the humanities” for explanation of direct experience, because providing such explanation is what science much more reliably does (hard science, that is; whether social science does this, I do not wish to debate).

    What I claim is that that is the only thing that science does, and I think indeed that anyone who has thought very deeply about the philosophy of science would agree with that. If you wanted to engage with me on that, I’m surprised that you didn’t respond to my color blindness analogy. Science can explain why my friend sees white where I see green, but it cannot say which one of us is “right.” That a certain object is really green is some sort of metaphysical proposition that lies outside the realm of science. If that statement merely means that most people see it as green under certain conditions of light I will concede that it is scientific, though imprecise and even misleading. But if it means that the greenness of some object is an objective truth and that a color-blind person commits a mistake or is wrong when he perceives it as white, then this proposition lies far outside the bounds of science. Would you care to differ?

    I had thought that the implication of this for Harris’s proposition about ethics or yours about aesthetics was quite obvious. Just as the perceived color of an object, that something is morally right or that something is beautiful is subjective. Indeed all direct experience is subjective. Science has proven a powerful tool for explaining direct experience. Scientific explanation can be seen as pointing to regularities in direct experience that seem to be quite persistent; it can also be seen as making certain predictions of direct experience. Among the elements of direct experience are my perception of green is certain cases; my friend’s perception of white in closely similar cases; my belief that the welfare of mosquitoes is of precisely no value; BanJolvie’s belief that it is; my detestation of the latter works of Pollock; someone else’s adoration of them. These are all things that science could potentially explain, just as it explains a myriad of other constituents of direct experience. Such explanation is always to say that certain aspects of direct experience are reliably correlated with others, and to predict that if the latter are found, then the former will be found also. Now if you think science is capable in principle of doing anything more than that, I would very much like to hear what you think it is.

    I claim that just as science cannot say that an object really is green, it cannot say that we really should respect the welfare of mosquitoes, and it cannot say that Pollock’s later work really does have any aesthetic value. It cannot make these assertions not because these things are truths that are difficult to discover, but because, in principle, such statements lie outside direct experience and thus beyond the bounds of science. The “real” nature of this world is not the subject of science if “real” means something that lies outside of direct experience.

    Just as science cannot say that my friend is mistaken in his perception of white where I see green, it cannot say that BanJolvie is mistaken in his belief that people should respect the welfare of mosquitoes, or that I am mistaken in my detestation of Pollock’s later work.

    • In reply to #137 by Markovich:

      Well, I must reject your characterization of “the tactic I am using” since I do not say that science cannot study X because the study of that belongs to X-ology. I do not look either to religion or the “the humanities” for explanation of direct experience, because providing such explanation is what science much more reliably does (hard science, that is; whether social science does this, I do not wish to debate).

      Just to be clear I think the whole idea that there is some magical line between the social sciences and natural science is wrong. I think there is just science with various specializations. Consider the books Moral Minds by Marc Hauser or just about any Steven Pinker book or Robert Trivers’ book The Folly of Fools. You will find examples from biology, neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, game theory,… Are those books studying social science or natural science? I don’t care and I think the only people who do care are academics who worry about which department to get tenure in.

      What I claim is that that is the only thing that science does, and I think indeed that anyone who has thought very deeply about the philosophy of science would agree with that. If you wanted to engage with me on that, I’m surprised that you didn’t respond to my color blindness analogy. Science can explain why my friend sees white where I see green, but it cannot say which one of us is “right.”

      What you are saying is if you have a poorly framed question you can’t get a scientific answer to that question. I agree. So what? You can’t get an answer to the question who is “right” between you and your color blind friend because it’s not clear what you mean by right in that sentence. If you ask “who perceives the color differences that correspond to different wave lengths” then there is a clear answer.

      And to relate back to ethics, there are a lot of ethical questions that people ask that are just poorly articulated questions. Of course science can’t answer those questions. In fact I think that is a benefit of a scientific approach to ethics (or anything else) is it will get us to stop playing word games and start framing questions that make sense and can actually have answers.

  54. In fact I quite agree that there is no clear line between hard and social science. To me this doesn’t seem relevant to our discussion.

    I am not saying anything about “poorly framed” statements (I have been talking about statements, not questions). I am distinguishing between statements that refer to constituents of direct experience and those that do not. I claim that that I see green, that my friend sees white, that I consider the welfare of mosquitoes to be of no account, that BanJolvie thinks that we should respect the welfare of mosquitoes, fall into the first category. That an object really, truly is green and that we really, truly should respect the welfare of mosquitoes fall into the second. I further say that statements in the second category necessarily lie beyond the bounds of science. Harris’s and your belief to the contrary is a kind of category mistake, attributing to science the ability to make statements which, by its nature, it cannot make. By the same token, science cannot resolve the question of whether God exists (though I believe that you and I share the belief that he/she/it does not).

  55. In reply to #139 by Markovich:

    In fact I quite agree that there is no clear line between hard and social science. To me this doesn’t seem relevant to our discussion.

    In your previous comment you said “or explanation of direct experience, because providing such explanation is what science much more reliably does (hard science, that is; whether social science does this, I do not wish to debate).” that seems to indicate you think there is a significant difference between “hard science” and “social science”.

    I am not saying anything about “poorly framed” statements (I have been talking about statements, not questions).

    When I say statement I just mean any sentence in the language so that would include questions. But you can call it whatever you want, a statement, a question, call it a marklar for all I care. If you ask a marklar that is ill formed you can’t expect to get a cogent marklar as a response. Your marklar about whether you or your friend are right about the color was just poorly stated, it’s not clear what you mean by “right” so of course no answer can be provided.

  56. @Red Dog:

    Whatever my attitude toward the difference between various branches of science, it is not relevant to this discussion. Statement, question, also is not essential, as a matter of convenience, I would prefer to stick with statements and not deal with questions. I did not and do not assert that this is an essential difference. Below I will treat both statements and questions as a matter of courtesy to you.

    “Your [statement] about whether you or your friend are right about the color was just poorly stated, it’s not clear what you mean by ‘right’ so of course no answer can be provided.”

    If color were an objective property of some object then we could talk about its “real” color and we could say that someone is right in the sense of “correct” to assert that it is green and wrong to assert that it is white. I do not know upon what basis such statements as “X is objectively green,” “It is objectively true that we should value the welfare of mosquitoes,” and “It is objectively true that the later work of Pollock is of no worth,” could be said to be poorly formed. They appear to be correct English sentences. What I do claim is that they have no possible basis in direct experience, and thus lie outside the realm of science.

    The statement “A duck is rounder than a duck” is an example of a statement that I would consider poorly formed.

    Moving on, as a matter of courtesy, to questions, “What is the true color of object X?” and “What is the correct attitude toward the welfare of mosquitoes?” and “What is the objective aesthetic worth of Pollock’s later work?” all seem to be formed well enough. They are correct English sentences. I only say that if they have answers, these answers are not found in direct experience and therefore cannot be supplied by science.

    An example of a poorly formed question would be “What is the difference between a duck?”

    To me it seems rather evasive to say that it is not clear what is meant by “right,” so that “no answer can be given” as to whether some statement is right. It was Harris who said: “Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science.” Is either the statement “It is right to respect the welfare of mosquitoes,” or the question, “Is it right to disregard the welfare of mosquitoes?” poorly formed? Is Harris’s statement “poorly formed” because “it is not clear what [he] means by right [and wrong]?” I do not say that these statements and corresponding questions are “poorly formed.” I merely say that Harris’s mistakes what science could possibly do and that the others have no implication for direct experience.

    My essential point is that direct experience is the stuff of this world, direct experience is entirely subjective, and science is an attempt to explain direct experience by relating some aspects of it to others. The propositions of science are verifiable in the sense that their correctness or incorrectness can be found by the apprehension of experience. In this sense, science can say that I see green on account of my eye having a certain structure, my friend sees white on account of his eye having some other structure. The structure of eyes is an element of direct experience perceived when they are examined through the lens or are disected. An explanation of this type thus relates some elements of direct experience to others. That is what science does, and that is all that it does. If you deny that, please come forward and say what else you think it does.

    Do agree that color is not an objective property of any object, but is subjective?

    Do you agree that moral “rightness” is not an objective property of any action, but is subjective?

    Do you agree that “aesthetic merit” is not an objective property of any work of art, but is subjective?

    Do you agree that the entirety of direct experience is subjective?

    If yes to the first but not to the others, I would very much like to hear your explanation as to why,

    • In reply to #141 by Markovich:

      Whatever my attitude toward the difference between various branches of science, it is not relevant to this discussion.

      So why did you bring it up in the first place? (first paragraph of comment 137)

      Statement, question, also is not essential,

      I agree. So why did you raise the distinction in a previous comment? (second paragraph comment 139)

      Moving on, as a matter of courtesy, to questions, “What is the true color of object X?” and “What is the correct attitude toward the welfare of mosquitoes?” and “What is the objective aesthetic worth of Pollock’s later work?” all seem to be formed well enough. They are correct English sentences. I only say that if they have answers, these answers are not found in direct experience and therefore cannot be supplied by science.

      You seem to really want to nit pick the meaning of sentences — or is it statements or questions, or marklars? At least you do until I start pointing out inconsistencies with your nit picking in specific examples and then you want to just say “well that point” (the point you made in an earlier comment) “isn’t relevant”

      So fine, I’ll play the game one more time. When I said “the question is ill formed” what I meant wasn’t “the question isn’t grammatical” or “the question is logically inconsistent” but rather “the question is worded in a way that is ambiguous or unclear and hence we can’t expect a scientific answer to such questions.”

      A question such as “”What is the correct attitude toward the welfare of mosquitoes?” is such a question. It’s not clear what “correct attitude” is supposed to mean. From the standpoint of reducing mosquitoes? From the standpoint of environmentalism? From the standpoint of a writer considering whether or not to write her next Pixar script with a mosquito as the hero? It has nothing to do with subjective or objective per se, it has to do with asking meaningful questions that can have meaningful answers.

      Science deals with subjective phenomena all the time. I’ll just pick one at random. Let’s say we want to understand the effect LSD has on a human mind. That is highly subjective, both to the individual and also to the specific circumstances that the individual is experiencing when they ingest the drug. No decent scientist would say “well that’s too subjective, no way science can figure out how LSD works” On the contrary we know a fair amount about how it effects neurotransmitters.

      Or your color blindness example. Asking questions like “is it really green or white” are just poorly formed in the sense of being ambiguous. If you clarify the question and say ask “does the object reflect light with a wavelength between 495–570 nm” (the length for green according to Wikipedia) then that is a perfectly meaningful question that can easily be answered.

    • In reply to #141 by Markovich:

      :

      The propositions of science are verifiable in the sense that their correctness or incorrectness can be found by the apprehension of experience. In this sense, science can say that I feel content on account that my electrolyte and neurotransmitter levels are nominal, my amygdala quiet and my anterior cingulate cortex has a low level of data on its von Economo cells. My friend feels distressed on account of his ACC being fed conflicting data about immigrants and their possible disloyalty. The formation of his moral-defining aesthetics derived from his early direct experience. The cortisol brain bath of a broken home and an abusive stepfather led to his high levels of anxiety and concerns for loyalty. We surmise these facts when comparing his fMRI and psychology profiling with others of the same family background . An explanation of this type thus relates some elements of direct experience to others. That is what science does, and that is all that it does.

      • In reply to #147 by phil rimmer:

        In reply to #141 by Markovich:

        :

        The propositions of science are verifiable in the sense that their correctness or incorrectness can be found by the apprehension of experience. In this sense, science can say that I feel content on account that my electrolyte and neurotransmitter levels are nomina…

        Oh yes, yes, yes! I fully agree with everything you just said, assuming, and this is not especially essential to our discussion, that the regularities to which you point are true. I willingly embrace it.

        Over and over again, I have said that I do not doubt in the slightest that science can, in principle, explain the entirety of direct experience. I cannot imagine how you ever supposed that I maintained a contrary position, unless it was insufficient attention to what I wrote.

        But how do we get from explaining subjective experience to the claim that certain actions are objectively right in the moral sense, or that certain works of art have some objective aesthetic value? Those claims are what is being debated here. Did you read Harris’s claim that science could say which values are right and which ones are wrong? How, on the basis of mere explanation of fact in terms of fact, can science do that? Is that claim not closely analogous to the claim that I am somehow “right” in my perception of green where my color-blind friend perceives white, and that he is “wrong?”

  57. Well, you’re evading my fundamental point concerning the nature of science. I don’t think that you’re interested in confronting this question, so I will refrain from posting further on it, at least with you. If you ever see fit to answer any of the direct questions that I posed to you, particularly that of what science can possibly do, I will be most happy to rejoin.

    You may wish to consider that wavelengths are not constituents of direct experience, but theoretical constructs. Such things as colors, sounds, touch and ideas, including moral and aesthetic judgments, are the constituents of direct experience.

    • In reply to #143 by Markovich:

      Well, you’re evading my fundamental point concerning the nature of science.

      I don’t believe Red Dog has done any such thing. He has made two clear and simple points that you seem not to have appreciated. You make the astonishing claim that science can only deal with direct experience. This is palpably wrong as RD’s examples amply illustrate.

      Further, not only can we model the subjective experiences of colour, say, we can make predictions, by using that model, of novel subjective experiences, which can then be tested for and the resulting descriptions compared with their predictions. (I carried out the tests and got the chimeral colours).

      There are many many ways that science can access the private space of experience, with new ones opening up. With increasingly high resolution fMRI scanners and the use of modeled meta data derived from it, we can start to close the loop of our experience with our own neural correlates of it. People reading music hear it in their head. Learning first on ourselves we may be able to better read others, adding to our already present skills of “mind reading”. We currently read another’s experiences from the tiny signature in their musculature and experiences.Eulerian Video Magnification may open a new, scientific window on this capacity.

      More importantly, simply by asking people what they feel and making their honesty count in their favour, we can get reliable data to work with. By using the techniques developed in epidemiology of using statistics to discount unwanted factors and of using many many parallel modes of accessing peoples’ feelings we can get good enough data to work with

  58. @phil rimmer:

    If Red Dog was making “two clear and simple points” I would very much like to know what they were. Was one of them that I had mentioned social science in passing and now, after having said that the distinction was not very important, was still required to explain why I had done so? Was one that since I had said that for simplicity’s sake I preferred to deal with statements rather than questions, and had proceeded, as a matter of courtesy, to consider questions also, that I was still required to explain the basis of my initial preference?

    I do not know what any of us can do other than “deal with direct experience.” Does your world consist of something besides that? Mine certainly does not. Maybe you think by “direct experience” I only meant “the products of the five senses.” I did not.

    Science obviously involves the use of conceptual models, and some of these models make use of purely theoretical, unobservable entities. What I said was that propositions, insofar as they are scientific, never do more than relate some aspects of direct experience to others. Models are important conveniences by which this is economically done, but they themselves are not the constituents of this world, other than as concepts. If there is anything outside of direct experience that you think science is capable of explaining, please say what it is. If you think that the confirmation of any scientific prediction could be found outside of direct experience, please say where it could be found.

    When I use “direct experience” here I mean either one’s own experience or trusted reports of the experiences of others. Science is a social project that ultimately relies on the trusted reports of various persons.

    It is true that we can make statements about the internal structure of the models that we use to account for experience, which at first glance do not seem to concern direct experience. We can say, for example, that quarks come in six flavors. But the essential meaning of that statement is that if we assume six types of quarks and not some other number, we best account for certain regularities observed in experience, which regularities if not mentioned are well understood by the theoreticians. If such statements do not refer to experience, there are a sort of modelling advice from one scientist to another, and are not in themselves propositions of fact.

    The constituents of direct experience are not something that can be said to be “right,” “wrong,” “true,” or “false.” These are properties of propositions, not of experience. Now I have maintained that one’s moral attitude toward a certain action, and one’s esteem for any given work of art, is just as much a constituent of direct experience as the perception of color is, and just as subjective.

    I do not doubt in the slightest that direct experience can be explained by electro-chemical impulses in the brain. But this merely says that certain subjective experiences are reliably correlated with certain other subjective experiences that constitute reading an MRI scan and the like, which we trust to be true reflections of the state of someone’s brain. That we can arrive thereby at the prediction that someone is experiencing the color green or an attitude of approval toward a certain action or toward a certain work of art, I do not doubt in the slightest.

    What we cannot do thereby is say that green is an objective property of what the person is looking at, or that moral correctness is an objective property of the action the person is thinking about, or that artistic merit is an objective property of the painting that he is looking at. That we can do that, in the moral case, I take to be Harris’s claim. That we can do that in the aesthetic case, I take to be Red Dog’s claim.

    Red Dog’s insistence that the statement that green is an objective attribute of some object is poorly formed would seem to claim that no proposition is correctly formed unless it refers to something verifiable by observation. Insofar as this argument is confined to scientific propositions, I fully agree. But if “That object is objectively green,” is incapable of being entertained by science, it follows that “Such-and-such an action is objectively moral” and “This work of art possesses objective aesthetic merit” are similarly incapable. The reason that all these propositions are incapable of being entertained by science is that they do not have any implications for direct experience. This failure to proceed from A to a very obvious B and C, in addition to his insistence that I explain why I had drawn one or two distinctions that I had already said were inessential, and that he himself was not claiming to be essential, I considered to be evasive.

    • In reply to #145 by Markovich:

      @phil rimmer:

      If Red Dog was making “two clear and simple points” I would very much like to know what they were.

      My point, which Phil said so well, is that it’s wrong to say, as I think you do, that science can’t investigate subjective phenomena. I can give you all kinds of examples where science is used to understand such subjective topics as emotions, memory, vision, language, and cognition.

      Your argument for why science can’t make such investigations seems to be, at least in part, that you can craft questions which are subjective and don’t have scientific answers. I’m saying there is an alternative explanation, that for a question to have a scientific answer it must be precise and unambiguous. It’s possible to form questions about any topic that don’t have scientific explanations. “Why is there life?” is ambiguous and can’t be answered any more than “is it green or white” that doesn’t mean we decide biology is off limits for science.

    • In reply to #145 by Markovich:

      @phil rimmer:

      “This work of art possesses objective aesthetic merit” [is] similarly incapable [of having a scientific account?]

      After leaving university with a physics degree I became an art lecturer at a college, creating a course based on the psychology of perception work done by the great R.L.Gregory. Even then it was obvious that aesthetics depended on the establishing and thwarting of expectations, and crucially of stripping away distraction from some key emotional buttons.

      I have directed you to two more recent neuro-scientists already that can reasonably render your claim ungrounded.

      Even to Richard Gregory in the seventies it was becoming obvious that the only data of the senses and the introspected feelings about the senses lay in brain states. There was no extra experience, no meta experience or meta data could lie anywhere else but in brain states.

  59. @Red Dog:

    You say, “My point, which Phil said so well, is that it’s wrong to say, as I think you do, that science can’t investigate subjective phenomena.”

    That has never been my claim, and you will search my remarks below in vain for it. In fact I wrote, “…science can say that I see green on account of my eye having a certain structure, my friend sees white on account of his eye having some other structure.” How does this equate to the claim that “science can’t investigate subjective phenomena?”

    You will indeed find below my claim that direct experience is inherently subjective. So I could hardly make the claim you attribute to me and admit any possibility of science at all. What I do say is that science indentifies recurrent regularities in direct experience, and that is all that it does. I would hope that some day, you would confront this point.

    I have written an extensive reply to phil rimmer that I ask you to read.

  60. @phil rimmer:

    I do not say that there is an iota of direct experience that is not explained by brain states. In fact, I believe the contrary. Did you read anything that I wrote?

    Say, if you will, what observations would confirm or disconfirm that any given work of art has an objective degree of aesthetic merit.

    I am happy that you have an excellent education; as you may have ascertained, I do also. I will spare you the details. The relevance of this to our discussion is not obvious to me.

    “Even then it was obvious that aesthetics depended on the establishing and thwarting of expectations, and crucially of stripping away distraction from some key emotional buttons.” I would have to have that explained to me, no doubt at some length. If it somehow implies that there is an objective basis of aesthetic evaluation, I will deny it.

    • In reply to #150 by Markovich:

      @phil rimmer:

      I am happy that you have an excellent education;

      Yes, that came across badly, sorry. I only intended that it was an idea (the neural basis of aesthetics) that I took seriously for a very long time and found evidence from the very first neurological investigations that was built on and expanded later.

      Perhaps like Red, I do not begin to comprehend the nature of your argument when it employs the concepts of “the hard problem”. For me the hard problem (the astonishing quality of experience) has nothing to say about knowledge. The astonishing quality and the meta data (the fact) of it all reside in brain states. (I’m sure we agree.) So why use it to argue against a cultural artifact like objective morality? Like free will it doesn’t exist. There is a set of attributes that approximate the cultural construct of free will, that have virtues worth cultivating, like a sufficient degree of autonomy and internal integrity in decision making balanced with an ability not to be seen as too predictable when that may give advantage to an adversary. So too, for SH and objective morality as I understand it. There are objective processes that can, in theory, point to better moral decision making and serve the purpose of an objective morality. The point here is entirely one to define a democratically based set of processes that cannot be hijacked by vested interest groups, a set of agreed processes that all can invest in with some hope to gain. Remember this comes from the stepping stones away from the religious, cultural and political parasites insisting that morality is god-given, via the need to find some agreeable common other source of fixed (objective) morality and resting here now, perhaps, with the compromise that objective (imperfect but improvable) processes may be the best we can do.

      For the record and to re-iterate, my objection to Sam’s approach is that he seems to suggest that these processes can decide, where I believe they can only inform. This latter for the following reasons-

      1 The processes are imperfect and we may not know what we don’t know.

      2 The processes are incomplete unless they confirm a pre-existing moral plan. Our feelings about novel moral plans must be factored in also, in other words we have the final say.

      3 A morality is nothing of the sort until it is absorbed into our innate culturally wired thinking. (“Innate, culturally wired” means the firmware that is put in to children at a very early age which forms the substrate for the rest of their development.)

      4 Humans must be engaged in a daily conversation with themselves and others that facilitates this wiring and the personal integration. “Moral decisions” offered by processes rather than “morally pertinent information” do not comport with their successful adoption.

      5 The metrics employed must be allowed to evolve culturally to maximally match with peoples own perceptions and feelings.

  61. Is that claim not closely analogous to the claim that I am somehow “right” in my perception of green where my color-blind friend perceives white, and that he is “wrong?”

    No, the different perceptions are merely the facts of the case. In a society of psychopaths the rational way of maximising well-being will be different to where they are in a small minority. (Morality for a race of super corvids will be different from ours.) I believe moralities change for populations at when stressed and unstressed. A useful calculation could be made given knowledge of the brain states of a population and how those brain states in each case relate to our chosen measure (compound measure) of well being. The “objectiveness” of the process is clear because it is a set of dispassionate processes. Whether this comports with any individuals’ idea of an “objective morality” is up to them. It has never meant anything to me, but I have always believed that objective processes of bringing us maximal information about others drive better moralities.

  62. @phil rimmer:

    Thank you for your thoughtful and courteous replies.

    Perhaps like Red…

    With the greatest respect, may I suggest that you speak for yourself, Red Dog speak for himself, and I speak for myself?

    I do not begin to comprehend the nature of your argument when it employs the concepts of “the hard problem”. For me the hard problem (the astonishing quality of experience) has nothing to say about knowledge.

    (I’m going to drop “direct” from “direct experience” in what follows, since it’s only useful to distinguish the use of “experience” we are making here from other uses, such as, “I have a lot of chess experience.”)

    By “the astonishing quality of experience,” you seem to mean, experience as presented, which is what I would call, “experience.” Is that so? The “hard problem,” if I understand you, would be not that experience is generated by brain states, but how it is. Even on that basis, the term “the concepts of ‘the hard problem’” is mysterious to me. What would those be? Anyway, I can’t respond to this seeming criticism without a better understanding of what you mean.

    The astonishing quality and the meta data (the fact) of it all reside in brain states. (I’m sure we agree.)

    I think we agree that somehow, experience is engendered by brain states. “Resides in” looks like a metaphor to me, but I won’t quibble over it.

    So why use it to argue against a cultural artifact like objective morality? Like free will it doesn’t exist.

    Sam Harris seems to think it does. What else does he mean by “there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values?” That he goes on to say that these things “potentially fall within the purview of science” I take to be a colossal category mistake. That has been the whole point of my argumentation.

    It is true that I don’t think an objective morality exists. But my argument here has been that whether there is such a thing, and what it is, is not in the nature of science to be able to answer. These two propositions are distinct.

    Why use it to argue against a cultural artifact? Why use it to argue for a cultural artifact?

    There are objective processes that can, in theory, point to better moral decision making…

    Better according to whom? Better according to what evidence?

    and serve the purpose of an objective morality. The point here is entirely one to define a democratically based set of processes that cannot be hijacked by vested interest groups, a set of agreed processes that all can invest in with some hope to gain. Remember this comes from the stepping stones away from the religious, cultural and political parasites insisting that morality is god-given, via the need to find some agreeable common other source of fixed (objective) morality and resting here now, perhaps, with the compromise that objective (imperfect but improvable) processes may be the best we can do.

    With all respect, this strikes me as a far flight of utopian fancy with no foundation in our discussion of brain states as explanations of experience. If you think there is a connection, I would ask you to supply it. The entire subject of this paragraph appears to be political.

    That something could serve the purpose of an objective morality I do not deny. The doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church could serve such a purpose, and did so throughout Europe for centuries. The Qur’an could serve such a purpose, and does throughout much of this world today. You could convene a Great Congress of Humanity, and with established rules and with full democratic procedure, develop an agreed-upon moral system. You could engrave its precepts upon sets Twelve Tablets to be set up in every city of the world. And you would have something that could serve the purpose of an objective morality. But it would have exactly the same degree of actual objectivity as the Qur’an or the doctrines of the Roman church: none.

    To the degree that it was enforced, such a code would appear as a heinous imposition to those who disagreed with it. No matter what it said, if it said anything both substantive and comprehensive, those who disagreed fundamentally would number in the hundreds of millions. In fact I think that well before the final precepts were voted on, great blocks of humanity would have walked away in outrage and disgust.

    I am not sure how, as a matter of politics, we could ever get from the current state of affairs to a world where the totality of humanity agreed on every last moral proposition. Perhaps that is an unfair reductio ad absurdum. Instead I could merely say, we could not get from where we are to a situation where everyone agreed on all important aspects of morality. The plain fact is, the world is full of real conflict. Self-interest and belief have a very strong tendency to coincide. For this reason, each side of any given real conflict is quite certain that it is right in some objective sense. I don’t think we can wish away the very real conflicts in this world, or the tendency of self-interest and belief to coincide.

    Even such a small thing as debating a decision to put a highway through a residential neighborhood will produce public meeting that will have a very strong resemblance to an “orchestra of scortched cats.” If a team of scientists stood up in the middle of such a meeting and proposed to say which side was right as a matter of science (which I maintain they could not responsibly do), this would contribute little to the political outcome.

    We currently resolve conflict by means of politics and, ultimately, the power of the state (or, in the international arena, war). The notion of a Great Congress of Humanity, or whatever else would be implied by the notion of a great consensus that could serve the purpose of an objective morality, would seem to wish all that away.

    Please accept these remarks as my attempt to give a fair response to what you have said.

    • In reply to #154 by Markovich:

      @phil rimmer:

      With the greatest respect, may I suggest that you speak for yourself, Red Dog speak for himself, and I speak for myself?

      Good plan.

      I am not sure how, as a matter of politics, we could ever get from the current state of affairs to a world where the totality of humanity agreed on every last moral proposition. Perhaps that is an unfair reductio ad absurdum. Instead I could merely say, we could not get from where we are to a situation where everyone agreed on all important aspects of morality.

      That is the entire point of the formal process of scientific methods. How do we manage with differing moral aesthetics in play? It is entirely the work of Wilkinson and Picket demonstrating how we all win in more equal societies. It is entirely how the unfettered dogmas of religion and politics can be better argued against and constrained to the betterment of all.

      Nor will I have a dismissal of this as politics and not morality. Our political persuasion grows entirely from our disparate moral aesthetics, fairness, equality, liberty, loyalty, authority and purity . (per Jonathan, Haidt say page 48. Other slicings are available.)

      Creating more moral societies is entirely a political endeavour, but it cannot proceed without a plan. Personally I would never use the term objective morality in that plan, but the methodologies that Sam invokes for moral landscaping are the start of an appropriate process.

  63. @Markovich.

    What we cannot do thereby is say that green is an objective property of what the person is looking at, or that moral correctness is an objective property of the action the person is thinking about,

    OK. I see the misunderstanding in what you are saying.

    Well being is a subjective experience. It is to be used along with a million others in differing circumstances in an objective and formal process to derive a moral state that maximises this for the greatest number. The precise algorithm is contended here. The person is not asked to make a moral pronouncement about this or that, but to say how they would feel (using the many well being parameters) if such and such moral state pertained. More boldly, the modelers would have this predicted based on some sort of research.

    It is the moral state indicated that can claim objectivity. That it is built on subjective experience is neither here nor there.

    With regard to the precise algorithm, I expect if it were allowed flexibility to evolve then one that favoured a somewhat egalitarian outcome would turn out to be the one that most maximised the net sum of “well being” quotient.

  64. @phil rimmer:

    Creating more moral societies is entirely a political endeavour, but it cannot proceed without a plan.

    Science perhaps can aid in creating “more moral” societies, but science cannot say what is moral. That has been my whole point. I fully grant that if some objective measure of “the good” is adopted, science can very well say that some policies increase it more than others do. Science cannot say what that measure should be, because that itself is a moral question.

    Are you familiar with the notion of Pareto optimality? It says that a state of the world is preferable to some other if at least one person is better off and no one is worse off. Pareto optimality could conceivably be socially engineered by some sort of central planning process, though a great many people think that something resembling it is much more efficiently achieved via markets. There is a vast literature of Mathematical Economics that supports that under certain idealized conditions, a vector of prices of all goods exists whereby free exchange under those prices brings about Pareto optimality, and that under fairly weak assumptions about how prices move in a system of free exchange, dynamic processes gradually bring about the Pareto-optimizing price vector from any arbitrarily chosen initial one. What this idealized conclusion means for politics is highly debatable. Many take it as an endorsement of the so-called free market with very limited government regulation.

    Anyway, I brought up Pareto optimality because it is relevant to the question of whether science alone could ever help us to bring about a “better” state of the world. It all works fine so long as we confine ourselves to Pareto optimality. How could anyone disagree that a Pareto suboptimal situation be remedied? But one thing Pareto optimality cannot possibly imply is that some person should sacrifice one tiny particle of his welfare even if that would result in millions of people being significantly better off. If I had all the money in the world and everyone else were a pauper who depended on my beneficence, that situation would be Pareto optimal. Many of us would say that the wealthy man should sacrifice that particle of his wealth, but science cannot support that. True enough, some optimand could be specified that weighs one person’s welfare against another’s, which would then justify such a decision. Choice of such an optimand, however dispassionately made, is not dictated by any considerations of mere fact, and therefore is not a possible result of science. This point was debated at length in the late 19th century, and it is a long established result.

    Some measure of cardinal utility (I suggest you read the wikipedia article; I cannot put the link because it includes an underscore that has perverse effects of formatting here) certainly could be implemented, and its implementation, like any social policy, could be facilitated by science. But science cannot say either that a measure of cardinal utility should be adopted, or how it should be specified. You may think it is irrational for the rich to play polo matches while the poor sift through garbage, but the rich are under no obligation to agree, nor can any finding of science say that they should.

    I do not deny that given sufficient power, a Grand Project of Moral Improvement could be carried out and imposed upon the Unthinking Masses. What I deny is that it could be defended on the basis of factual observation.

    • In reply to #157 by Markovich:

      @phil rimmer:

      I fully grant that if some objective measure of “the good” is adopted, science can very well say that some policies increase it more than others do.

      I do not deny that given sufficient power, a Grand Project of Moral Improvement could be carried out and imposed upon the Unthinking Masses.

      This moral engineer gives up. If my myriad qualifications to create a viable process go unacknowledged then conversation is truly fatuous. Sorry to have wasted your time.

    • In reply to #157 by Markovich:

      “…Pareto optimality? It says that a state of the world is preferable to some other if at least one person is better off and no one is worse off.”

      ” But one thing Pareto optimality cannot possibly imply is that some person should sacrifice one tiny particle of his welfare even if that would result in millions of people being significantly better off.”

      If the definition precludes sacrifice as beneficial then of course the religion of pareto optimality could not imply that sacrifice is beneficial. This kind of ultra capitalist ideological model works perfectly in the ideal world mathematical models. However it does not remotely resemble real-world observations. PO doesn’t begin to offer a method for identifying what is good or moral.

      PO is insidious in that it pretends to justify the immorality of the self-serving. PO ignores subjective experience and empathy. PO ignores the very basic antecedent that humans are social creature, what it means to be a social creature and the basis of civilization. PO prescribes faulty edicts with the clear intention of subverting fairness and justice. Anyone with the first clue about morality and ethics should see that referring to PO as a moral or ethical system is obscene.

    • In reply to #157 by Markovich:

      Science perhaps can aid in creating “more moral” societies, but science cannot say what is moral. That has been my whole point. I fully grant that if some objective measure of “the good” is adopted, science can very well say that some policies increase it more than others do. Science cannot say what that measure should be, because that itself is a moral question.

      I’ve seen this objection several times, and it strikes me as verbal octopus ink. The only real issue is what in reality corresponds to the measure or precision of “good” or “bad”, positive or negative, etc. The most obvious candidate is the sentient experience that makes up individuals, most basically (but not exclusively) pleasure and pain. There are certainly difficulties in trading off these things across individuals (for instance, in issues of euthanasia and sadistic choices), but most conspicuously there are also unobjectionable examples (for instance, denouncing killing for sadistic pleasure or personal gain). and it has the advantage of self-evidence: pleasure is, by definition, a positive experience. The remaining moral dilemmas almost entirely consist of what structures to put in place to reduce these trade-offs, as in negotiations, or deal with them, as in unpleasant but necessary work done by the military, hypothetically speaking.

      Once you’ve established a real-world correlate for the word bad that is self-evidently “-negative” – i.e. get an ought from an is – asking should questions about it is fatuous, like asking why there ought to be gravity on Earth or why should it be the case that unicorns are hollow and socialist. It also involves circularity: whatever answer is supplied would be met with another “Why should X be the case?” question, prompting another answer ad infinitum.

  65. @phil rimmer:

    Any number of viable processes do not imply the morally correct process. We still seem to disagree whether science could possibly reach a moral conclusion.

    I enjoyed talking to you. I suggest you do read about cardinal versus ordinal utility, since it bears strongly on the project you propose.

    • In reply to #159 by Markovich:

      @phil rimmer:

      I suggest you do read about cardinal versus ordinal utility.

      Right at the outset I indicated that simple metrics were inadequate. I required broader national performance characteristics be included in the mix and that it was essential to have the populace consider their feelings about these measures so they could adjust their responses over the years and even seek to see the metrics evolve at their democratic direction. Metrics are meaningless (especially in assessing some idea of “the good”) without an opportunity to scale them. Summing utils or preferring beef everyday over slightly better pensions doesn’t begin to deal with the metrics over national robustness or the world one bequeaths one’s kids. The solution to the farcical scenarios, that Red Dog draws attention to, is to devise short scales with lowish resolution for each measure, but include concerns over every single area that we could feel good or bad about.

  66. @phil harris:

    It is you who said you didn’t think it was worth our talking any more. I’m not sure that I do either.

    Much of what you say I find very difficult to understand. Perhaps it is some deficiency of mine, but you often employ terms that seem to have no clear reference. An examples are “broader national performance characteristics” and “have the populace consider their feelings about these measures so they could adjust their responses over the years.” There are many others. With the greatest respect, and no intention to communicate any animus whatever, I would go so far as to say that the specifics of your proposal have so far been shrouded behind your mysterious locutions. If you would spell out your proposal in clear, simple terms, I will try to address it. I would appreciate your avoiding such obscure locutions as “The best we can hope for is a recession of recalculations of harms and boons based on our considerations of the novel moral proposal (with its necessary revision), in the hope that a better accommodation of our feelings and all harms etc is achieved,” which to me seems to register at least 8.0 on a Richter scale of opacity.

    Relative to cardinal and ordinal utility, it was you who said, “I expect if it were allowed flexibility to evolve then one that favoured a somewhat egalitarian outcome would turn out to be the one that most maximised the net sum of ‘well being’ quotient,” my emphasis. That seems clearly to propose univariate optimization. Sometimes you thus seem to propose optimization of what theory would call an “objective function,” albeit unspecified, in others you seem to wander off into obscure locutions about multivariate measures and democratic processes, without ever saying in clear terms exactly what would be the criterion for deciding between different notions of right and wrong. With all respect, I have grown rather impatient with this. Each time I try to grapple with your ideas, the ground seems to shift under me.

    You have some sort of world-wide moral improvement project in mind. My main point is that one could never say that as an objective matter, such a project was justified, or that any moral precepts developed thereby were objectively right. If you agree with that, I don’t think that you and I have any remaining dispute that is on-topic.

    Yet while seeming to agree, you have said “The ‘objectiveness’ of the process is clear because it is a set of dispassionate processes.” But dispassion and objectivity seem to me to be two very different things. This notion of “objectiveness” seems to me to be something quite different than “objectiveness” in the sense of a statement being objectively true. This use of “objectiveness” would seem to guarantee the objectiveness of a great many “sets of processes.” The Spanish Inquisition was a set of dispassionate processes. The Holocaust was a set of dispassionate processes.

    Your next sentence was, “Whether this comports with any individuals’ idea of an ‘objective morality’ is up to them.” The same could be said, of course, of the victims of the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust.

    I have said that your proposal would seem to sweep aside many very real conflicts that characterize human society. There is no single set of moral propositions that could have any significant content and be accepted by everyone in this world, or even by a very large majority. The idea that these conflicts could somehow be resolved by a committee of enlightened Guardians; by a Grand Congress of Humanity; or by scientific analysis of world-wide brain states and then proposed to such a committee or such a congress; is a utopian fantasy, I claim. I do not believe that I have encountered your response.

    I will take this opportunity to make another criticism, and that is that there is no process of genuine human consensus, or truly democratic process, that would rule out a priori a great many outcomes that I suppose would horrify you. It could well turn out, for example. that based upon the analysis of world-wide brain states or votes in a great congress, blasphemy against God should not be uttered, that prayers to Him should be made every day, and that all children should be taught that He exists and governs all. It could also turn out that all the Jews in this world should be exterminated. Has that occurred to you?

    Listened to as poetry, without trying to puzzle out the precise meaning of all your statements, your proposal sounds frighteningly Orwellian. I have scant doubt that if were spelled out in detail in three or four pages, it would seem so to many. To me it seems quite fortunate that it is only your fantasy.

    • phil harris? I don’t think Phil is that much of a fan.

      In reply to #162 by Markovich:

      @phil harris:

      It is you who said you didn’t think it was worth our talking any more. I’m not sure that I do either.

      Much of what you say I find very difficult to understand. Perhaps it is some deficiency of mine, but you often employ terms that seem to have no clear reference. An examples are “…

      • In reply to #165 by Marktony:

        phil harris? I don’t think Phil is that much of a fan.

        In reply to #162 by Markovich:

        @phil harris:

        It is you who said you didn’t think it was worth our talking any more. I’m not sure that I do either.

        Much of what you say I find very difficult to understand. Perhaps it is some deficiency of…

        My apologies. Obviously, that was for phil rimmer.

  67. @Akael:

    I haven’t said anything about Pareto optimality that is contradicted in the slightest by anything you have said. You know nothing about my politics, and neither my politics nor yours is the subject of this conversation. Pareto optimality in itself is not a political notion but a conceptual state in a very abstract model of society. In itself it has no political implications whatever. Moreover I do not dispute that it cannot possibly be a basis for determining political outcomes, which almost always determine winners and losers. The “win-win” political rhetoric that we hear is usually a sham.

    I introduced Pareto optimality into my conversation with phil rimmer so as to illustrate the difference between outcomes that could be universally agreed upon and those that could not, that is all.

  68. @Zeuglodon:

    Oh God, someone else who doesn’t understand the nature and bounds of science. I’m not going to respond, because it would only repeat things that I have said before. My answer to what you wrote is contained in what I have already written here. Read some of the philosophy of science. Read David Hume. Read Ernst Mach.

    P.S. I am happy that you have the answer to all the ethical questions ever entertained in your pocket there. Do they say how much the rich should be taxed? Do they say whether it is permissible to abort a fetus of 20 week’s development? Do they say whether euthanasia is a good thing, or a bad thing? Do they say whether the farm subsidy is good or bad? Do they say whether Russia had a right to incorporate the Crimea? Do they say whether Israel should exist as a Jewish state, or whether the Jews should depart the shores Palestine and leave it to the Palestinians? And if they do say any of that, upon what objective basis do they say it?

    • In reply to #166 by Markovich:

      Oh God, someone else who doesn’t understand the nature and bounds of science.

      Dear me, that’s not a very sportsmanly attitude to adopt.

      I’m not going to respond, because it would only repeat things that I have said before. My answer to what you wrote is contained in what I have already written here.

      I have read your first few posts, and your most recent one. That’s why I commented in the first place.

      Read some of the philosophy of science. Read David Hume. Read Ernst Mach.

      I already have, but your enthusiasm in broadening my horizons – even if it involves presuming they haven’t already – is appreciated.

      P.S. I am happy that you have the answer to all the ethical questions ever entertained in your pocket there.

      It’s not an intelligent discussion tactic to put words in other people’s mouths. I claimed that notions of good and bad correspond most strongly to positive and negative sentient experiences, citing pleasure and pain as examples. While I will concede that this isn’t necessarily a scientific claim – not least of all because science isn’t needed to demonstrate that pain is, in fact, unpleasant – I did not claim that this answered all ethical questions, as it still leaves open the question of trade-offs and calibration (i.e. comparing death with suffering). This also makes no direct commitment to any particular policy or set of policies, and it doesn’t rule out a complex, multifaceted situation (for instance, how to describe sadomasochists, or arachnophobes who distress themselves beyond the actual level of threat involved but whose distress is nonetheless significant). Moreover, this line of thought isn’t something I plucked out of my pocket. It has antecedents in Epicurus, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mills, and Peter Singer. It’s hardly the “revolutionary” musings of one Internet anonymous.

      Lastly, science can indicate what is moral based on observable effects, such as the observation of, say, pain and pleasure in the world at large, or more broadly of individual welfare. In that sense, it does indicate whether an action is ethical or not. The major difficulty is that individual minds are not directly connected to that of others, and so cannot experience what they do except indirectly. They may not even accomplish that much if the minds aren’t designed, say, to sympathize with others, further making the point harder to appreciate for such an individual. But simply because the connection is indirect, does not make it non-existent, or you end up with the argument that, because you can’t see it or hear it or experience it, therefore it doesn’t exist.

      Do they say how much the rich should be taxed? Do they say whether it is permissible to abort a fetus of 20 week’s development? Do they say whether euthanasia is a good thing, or a bad thing? Do they say whether the farm subsidy is good or bad? Do they say whether Russia had a right to incorporate the Crimea?

      I don’t pretend to be smart enough to make a calculation of that size. Even with this way to distinguish “good” and “bad”, it would take a lot of work to predict and measure the outcomes. For one thing, it’s contingent on the facts in each situation, including the facts about millions of participants’ sentient experiences, each one of which might be complicated enough to demand lifelong study. On practical grounds alone, it would be hard to assess the impact on everyone involved. Not to mention anything involving death makes it even harder to trade-off different scenarios, since while you could in principle empathize with the pain of someone else and so gauge its severity, it’s nigh-impossible to do the same when they die.

      I’m pretty sure, though, that the solution would involve trying to get as accurate a comparison between, say, death and suffering as is feasible for modelling and decision-making, not swinging whichever way one fancies or rolling a dice.

      And if they do say any of that, upon what objective basis do they say it?

      The “objective-subjective” distinction is the key component in your smokescreen. With the rise of the mind sciences like psychology and neuroscience, the boundary between the two has been rendered obsolete. Unless you’re a dualist who thinks there’s a ghost in the machine, your mental experience and the sensory functions of the physiological computations of your brain are identical, at least practically speaking. The fact-value distinction is no more serious than the fact-digestion distinction: valuing is a description of what minds do, not an ontologically separate category.

      Besides, what definition of objective would that be? If you mean do I have to invoke actual minds to make my point, then it’s not an objective one, but this isn’t exactly a profound announcement. If you mean do I think there are facts about minds that exist independently of any one person’s beliefs about them (which I do), then it is an objective point. No matter how much I wish it didn’t, pain is still painful, death is irreversible, and I experience the present now and will experience the future in a bit. Even if only indirectly, science can still investigate that. To that extent (and I refer you to my caveat earlier), it is objective.

  69. @Zeuglodon:

    Sorry to be unsporting, but I have posted at great length on precisely these questions. See #129, #137 and #145.

    See my many exchanges with BanJolvie concerning the hypothetical King of Albania, who cares only for the welfare of Albanians, not for that of any others. Those exchanges begin around #111 and peter out in metaphysical absurdity (on my opponent’s part, of course) around #120,

    “Lastly, science can indicate what is moral based on observable effects, such as the observation of, say, pain and pleasure in the world at large, or more broadly of individual welfare. In that sense, it does indicate whether an action is ethical or not.”

    That pain is real is certain, and that it can be predicted in many cases is very likely. It does not follow that pain should be reduced or that pleasure should be increased. It is the should that has no objective basis. No mere observed fact establishes whether an action is ethical. So fundamentally, you make a category mistake.

    If the King of Albania, and everyone else in Albania, cares only for the welfare of Albanians, no result of science can say that they are “wrong.” On that basis, some action that marginally increases Albanian welfare and throws Serbia into abject misery is morally defensible. You and I might disagree, but the people of Albania are under no obligation to yield on this point. If you want to propose a different moral system than “Albania first and forever,” fine. But it’s inevitably based on value, not fact. Pain is objective, that total world pain should be minimized is not.

    Hitler invades the Soviet Union and the scientists rush to Moscow with their latest calculations. “Wait a minute!” they say. “Our results indicate that time-weighted world-wide utility is 1.06 percent greater, plus or minus 0.21 percentage points, if the Soviet Union surrenders now! Therefore, Soviet resistance is immoral!” I am sure that Stalin would have been most happy to receive that information. I can predict very well the reward he would have bestowed on the persons delivering it. Nor could science have called him wrong.

    It is most unlikely that I will rejoin further, since I have been over this ground repeatedly in this thread.

  70. In reply to #129 by Markovich:

    Aesthetics is almost entirely perceptual. Balance and contrast can generally be predicted to be favorable or discordant. But the variables of individual perception including propensity for pattern recognition, previous experience and states of mind disallow completely objective judgement of aesthetics. When we perceive aesthetics (ignoring the feelings and career of the creator) the experience is our own. We can certainly analyze the aesthetics of what we perceive. And metrics may correlate with perceptions common among those perceiving, but probably not all who perceive. Assuming we could make a scientific study of aesthetics I doubt we would find right and wrong, rather justified and unjustified responses. If there is such a thing as aesthetic unfairness or aesthetic injustice (ugliness or discordance perhaps) we are not perceiving anything like the inequity of a social dynamic. Aesthetic perceptions and judgments are not analogous to moral perceptions and judgements.

    Color blindness is perceptual but colors are factual. If an object reflects incoming white light back out predominantly at a wavelength of about 510 nm, then that light is green and the object reflecting it has the attribute of green. If some observers are unable to differentiate between green and other colors, or from full spectrum white light, it is due to the deficiency of the colorblind observer. In consideration of what is real and what the colorblind perceiver sees, he is wrong. (So are the rest of us but to a lesser degree.) When green is presented and he reports to see white he is not wrong in the sense of what he perceives. But he is wrong about whatever it is he is observing as being something that is white. There are of course subjective states that influence and are influenced by what is perceived (just as with aesthetics) when we individually perceive green. But green is real. Science can and should say that he perceives things wrongly. If there is any analogy to be made between color perception & judgments and moral perception & judgments it might be that amorality is like colorblindness.

    Comment 129 does not explain or adequately suggest why morality or the study of what is good is beyond the scope of science.

    In comment 72 I made a case for why morality is within the scope of science with a 1300+ word essay. Actually it’s more of a reductionist theory of what morality is. But with that, and a willingness to recognize and dismiss faulty cultural influences, comes the ability to develop objective moral judgements about subjective interactions. Or so I would have us believe.

  71. @Akael:

    Color most certainly is not an objective property of objects. There is, indeed, nothing objective at all but some regularities that we have discovered in direct experience. When an object that appeared green in sunlight is beheld instead in the light of a sulphur lamp, it appears yellow. Which is the objective property of the object, green or yellow? Are we “mistaken” when we perceive yellow? What has changed, the object, or the light in which it is beheld? If the latter, how can we say that greenness is an objective property of objects?

    It is true that we conventionally attribute “color” to light emitted within the visible range, but that only says that many people perceive the given color when lignt along some given wavelength is beheld. All the direct experience that constitutes measuring the wavelength of light and obtaining a certain result is fairly well correlated with the perception of some color, which is another aspect of direct experience. Thus some constituents of direct experience are correlated with others. So in a partial sense, we have explained the perception of color. We have not entirely explained it, however, since beholding light along certain wavelengths is not perfectly correlated with perception of color. We discover that certain structures of they eye, which can be discovered in experience by such procedures as disection and microscopic examination, are well correlated with the perception of green when light along some given wavelength is beheld; others are correlated with the perception of white. Even then we may not have a complete accounting of the perception of color; we may need to consider the structure of the optic nerve or the brain, which again we can only apprehend through some form of direct experience.

    At the end of the day, we have explained some aspects of experience in terms of others, and that is all we have done. All experience is entirely subjective. What is objective are the regularities that we have discovered. They are objective in the sense that they permit us to make good predictions of future experience, and that is the only sense in which they are objective.

    Within the field of our experience we have a powerful sense of difference between those constituents of experience that constitute the self and those that constitute the other, and I have scant doubt that this distinction, which does not need to be reasoned out but rather imposes itself on direct experience, is inherited. It has obvious utility to survival. (Most likely there are other inherited aspects of perception.) Our language reflects this distinction, and people seem to have quite similar experiences when placed in similar situations. So we speak of an objective world, which is a concept that is so useful that it forms an unconscious part of our daily reckonings (or perhaps is unconscious because it is inherited). But this does not mean that any part of direct experience is not subjective.

    Suppose we all sit around a table eating paella and drinking Rioja, and agree that the evening just now has become remarkably quiet. Yet our dog jumps up and cocks his head, then runs upstairs. It turns out that in his bedroom, our child has blown his dog whistle. It is nothing that we heard; it was only heard by our dog. Were we then “wrong” to agree that the evening was very quiet?

    • Color most certainly is not an objective property of objects. There is, indeed, nothing objective at all but some regularities that we have discovered in direct experience. When an object that appeared green in sunlight is beheld instead in the light of a sulphur lamp, it appears yellow.

      Don’t you mean Sodium lamp rather than Sulphur lamp? A Sulphur lamp produces full spectrum light.

      In reply to #173 by Markovich:

      @Akael:

      Color most certainly is not an objective property of objects. There is, indeed, nothing objective at all but some regularities that we have discovered in direct experience. When an object that appeared green in sunlight is beheld instead in the light of a sulphur lamp, it appears yellow….

      • In reply to #182 by Marktony:

        Color most certainly is not an objective property of objects. There is, indeed, nothing objective at all but some regularities that we have discovered in direct experience. When an object that appeared green in sunlight is beheld instead in the light of a sulphur lamp, it appears yellow.

        Don’t you…

        Yeah, yeah. I meant sodium. But even then I was wrong. It is that what is normally white appears as yellow. Inessential, however.

        But further as to color, the measurement of the wavelength of light is one set of direct experiences, color as a constituent of experience is another. Color is a constituent of experence, and science can explain it in terms of the wavelength of light, the properties of the eye, and so forth. That is all that science can do.

        There is a kind of arbitrary majoritarianism that goes into saying that a color-blind person’s perception of color is “wrong.” If by some alternative evolutionary path no human being were equipped with the ability to see color, but everyone instead perceived the world in shades of gray, we would not have the concept of color, we would not have names for given colors, and we would not associate color with particular wavelengths of light. We would still measure the wavelength of light, but we would not say thereby that we had established anything about color. Nothing in the world would have changed but the properties of the eye of the human species. This demonstrates quite conclusively, it seems to me, that color is not an objective property of anything, not even of light.

        The point of all of this for this conversation is that one person’s perception of white where another person perceives green is quite analogous to one person experiencing an attitude of moral approval toward some action and another person experiencing moral disapproval. Both color and moral approval are constituents of experience. Science can explain both the one and the other, it cannot say that either is somehow “right” or somehow “wrong.”

    • In reply to #173 by Markovich:

      All stimulus is objective. All perception is subjective. Returning to the green apple, the surface of the apple has objective properties (if we allow that anything can have objective properties) which reflect available light of some frequencies more than others. Changing the available wavelengths of light does not change the objective attributes of the apple. The reflective biases of the surface of the apple are the same. If we use objective instruments to measure the light frequency reflected from the apple under white light, sodium light and complete darkness we will get three different measurements. Does changing or removing the light alter the reflective properties of the apple’s surface in any way? No it does not. Would we be able to take the properties of the apple’s surface and predict wavelength measurements under white light, sodium light, UV, no light or whatever? Assuming that we understand the reflective properties of the surface of the apple we would make very accurate predictions. These predictions are not because we are good guessers. And it’s not merely because we have a history of correlation. It is because we understand the cause; we understand the properties of light and the reflective properties of the surface of the apple. By altering the color of the light before it is reflected we are not changing the fact that the surface of the apple has a bias for reflecting green light nor are we changing that the wavelength of about 510 nm is green. The apple is objectively green.

      (referring to a later comment, 175 I think) While living in Japan I mentioned to my girlfriend that the traffic lamp (I’ll use “lamp” instead of “light” for clarity) was green/midori. She corrected me saying the lamp was blue/aoi. Traffic lamps in Japan are the same color as in the western world. The Japanese draw the line on the visible spectrum distinguishing green and blue a little farther into the green. This cultural distinction does not change any objective fact about the lamp; it merely indicates a cultural norm.

      Something is not made “objective fact” by consensus. Well, generally not. Naming distinctions and other language components are heavily indebted to common usage/acceptance. We may have decided to call the wavelengths of light reflected by the apple (comm. 172) and the ball (174) green but we do not arbitrarily nor by consensus determine what reflective biases these objects have. (Obviously through selective breeding and/or genetic engineering we can change the color of the apple and through engineering or simple dye we can change the color of the ball but such sophistry is a dishonest distraction from the core argument in the thread.) These objects have objective physical properties that result causally in specific reflective properties that causally result under normal conditions in the observation of the color green. If the resulting observation of the heretofore green ball/apple is not a report of green we don’t throw up our hands and say “color is just subjective anyway.” Instead, we know there is a problem. Whether the the ball/apple has been change, the available light has changed or the perception of the observer is impeded we know there’s a problem with the observation. We intuit this, which could be mistaken. But we also understand the objective properties of light, the objective reflective properties and objective & subjective observational properties well enough to understand the causal relationships between each. Color is objective.

  72. Since the statement “There is, indeed, nothing objective at all but some regularities that we have discovered in direct experience” will no doubt appear mysterious to some people, I would like to say in what sense the statement “That ball is green” may be said to refer to objective fact. Such a statement effectively predicts that if persons with ordinary perceptual abilities look at the ball under currently given conditions, they will agree that it is green. This prediction is not based on the results of scientific experiments, but regularities observed in ordinary experience. If people of ordinary perceptual abilities look at the ball under the given conditions and agree that it is green, my statement is confirmed. If they see some other color it is disconfirmed. In this sense, and only in this sense, that the ball is green is “objective.”

    @Zeuglodon: You have read Ernst Mach? I am quite impressed.

    • Except in some languages the same word can mean either blue or green, so they may say “that ball is green” when the ball is blue.

      Languages where green and blue are one color.

      In reply to #174 by Markovich:

      Since the statement “There is, indeed, nothing objective at all but some regularities that we have discovered in direct experience” will no doubt appear mysterious to some people, I would like to say in what sense the statement “That ball is green” may be said to refer to objective fact. Such a sta…

      • In reply to #175 by Marktony:

        Except in some languages the same word can mean either blue or green, so they may say “that ball is green” when the ball is blue.

        Languages where green and blue are one color.

        In reply to #174 by Markovich:

        Since the statement “There is, indeed, nothing objective at all but some regularities that…

        I think you’ve focused on the essential flaw in the comments made by Markovich here. And that is that most of what he is saying is describing peculiarities of English and so it’s really irrelevant to any serious discussion of philosophy or science. It would be relevant if we were linguists or anthropologists understanding English dialects but otherwise it’s a waste of time. (BTW, he isn’t alone in doing this, I think you can make the same critique about a lot of the philosophy done in the US for the last half century)

        I was trying to make that point a long time ago and then gave up. That the first thing we do when we want to be serious about science or philosophy is to define our terms. Arguing over if the King of Albania is really X or Y is a complete waste of time. You are just arguing about English usage and there are no answers to those questions because English as used in the every day world is ambiguous. What you need to do is define your terms “By King of Albania I mean X” or “by color I mean the frequency of the reflected wavelength” once you have made those definitions THEN you can have a meaningful discussion. Until you do you will go round and round in pointless circles as is evident by much of the discussion on this thread.

        • Yes, I think you gave a much better definition of a green object in post #142. A machine can distinguish objects based on the wavelengths of the light they reflect, emit, or transmit. It’s objective enough for me.

          Even the mass of an object can change if it is moving fast enough.

          In reply to #176 by Red Dog:

          In reply to #175 by Marktony:

          Except in some languages the same word can mean either blue or green, so they may say “that ball is green” when the ball is blue.

          Languages where green and blue are one color.

          In reply to #174 by Markovich:

          Since the statement “There is, indeed, nothing objective at…

        • Is Your Red The Same as My Red?

          In reply to #176 by Red Dog:

          In reply to #175 by Marktony:

          Except in some languages the same word can mean either blue or green, so they may say “that ball is green” when the ball is blue.

          Languages where green and blue are one color.

          In reply to #174 by Markovich:

          Since the statement “There is, indeed, nothing objective at…

      • In reply to #175 by Marktony:

        Except in some languages the same word can mean either blue or green, so they may say “that ball is green” when the ball is blue.

        Languages where green and blue are one color.

        In reply to #174 by Markovich:

        Since the statement “There is, indeed, nothing objective at all but some regularities that…

        That is a completely inessential consideration. In such a language there is no doubt a way of distinguishing green from blue. Or if “green or blue” were what we’re meant, that could be said in either language. The point is not green or blue or red, but to illustrate what “objective” means.

        • Did you mean “That Ball is Green or Blue”?

          In reply to #179 by Markovich:

          In reply to #175 by Marktony:

          Except in some languages the same word can mean either blue or green, so they may say “that ball is green” when the ball is blue.

          Languages where green and blue are one color.

          In reply to #174 by Markovich:

          Since the statement “There is, indeed, nothing objective at…

        • How about if we say an object is green if:

          under white (full spectrum) light it reflects wavelengths in the range 495-570nm.

          Then we can use a machine to measure it. To measure color objectively, it’s important to overcome the physical limitations of human observation.

          In reply to #179 by Markovich:

          In reply to #175 by Marktony:

          Except in some languages the same word can mean either blue or green, so they may say “that ball is green” when the ball is blue.

          Languages where green and blue are one color.

          In reply to #174 by Markovich:

          Since the statement “There is, indeed, nothing objective at…

          • In reply to #183 by Marktony:

            How about if we say an object is green if:

            under white (full spectrum) light it reflects wavelengths in the range 495-570nm.

            Then we can use a machine to measure it. To measure color objectively, it’s important to overcome the physical limitations of human observation.

            In reply to #179 by Markovi…

            Nobody denies that it is possible to measure the wavelength of light. This adds nothing to the conversation, because it does not change that color is not an objective property of objects. Is blue an objective property of the sky? If you go high enough, you will discover that it is black. What color is the sea?

            The larger point is that while science is a fine tool for explaining things, that is all that it is. There is no leap from mere explanation to any notion of right and wrong. Most people here seem to be confusing that measurement techniques associated with neuroscience could somehow be used to constuct an arbitrary measure of individual happiness, on the one hand, with the notion that social policy should somehow optimize that measure. Both halves of this are problematic, but my only point is that science cannot take us from any particular measure of well-being to the claim that it should be maximized. Actually it amazes me that there are people here defending the contrary, since I had thought that everyone with any degree of eduction understood that science does not and can not express value.

            Since the example of the King of Albania has been dirided without anyone but BanJolvie bothering to confront it, would anyone care to say how science unaided by anyone’s prior assumptions of what is to be valued, and how much could dictate the solution to the question of Palestine, the polar cases being the survival of the Jewish state and the departure of most Israelis for other regions?

          • Nobody denies that it is possible to measure the wavelength of light. This adds nothing to the conversation, because it does not change that color is not an objective property of objects.

            Not for you maybe. But for others reading these posts it may well add to the conversation. See also my post #183.

            Is blue an objective property of the sky? If you go high enough, you will discover that it is black. What color is the sea?

            Despite the fact that you have deliberately chosen objects that are not really objects, most people when asked what colour the sky or sea is would say blue, or perhaps green for the sea. As I expect you already know, the normally blue appearance of the sky is due to the scattering of sunlight by gases and particles in the atmosphere. The blue light scatters more because of it’s short wavelength – there’s that wavelength again. See this description of Rayleigh scattering for an explanation of the greater intensity of blue scattered light – there is even an equation giving the inverse relationship with the wavelength. So the objects are the particles.

            When you use a torch with a good focused beam you can often see the beam of light – but you are not actually seeing the light (unless you are in the path of the beam), you are seeing light reflected from particles in the air.

            The larger point is that while science is a fine tool for explaining things, that is all that it is. There is no leap from mere explanation to any notion of right and wrong.

            A notion of right or wrong is often meaningless. Is it wrong of a volcano to erupt? Oh dear, now you’ve got me doing it. Unless you define what you are judging and against what criteria, you can’t say whether or not an action is beneficial (right) or not. And as you say, science is a fine tool for explaining things, in fact I can’t think of anything better, can you. You say “that is all that it is” – what more do you want?

            When you decide right/wrong, obviously that is your opinion – you have decided on the judgement criteria and you have looked at as much of the available evidence as you can. The input to your decision is coming from what you know about the real world and if you don’t get that from science where do you get it from. Lawrence Krauss explained it better in the video I linked to in #171, Science and Morality.

            ……. but my only point is that science cannot take us from any particular measure of well-being to the claim that it should be maximized.

            I don’t think people spend much time wondering if well-being should be maximised, just how to maximise it. Of course, not everyone’s idea of well-being would be the same. Morality is a feature of evolved concious minds. It’s a product of nature just as everything else is, so if science has nothing to say about it, then what does?

            In reply to #184 by Markovich:

            In reply to #183 by Marktony:

            How about if we say an object is green if:

            under white (full spectrum) light it reflects wavelengths in the range 495-570nm.

            Then we can use a machine to measure it. To measure color objectively, it’s important to overcome the physical limitations of human observatio…

  73. @Marktony:

    I listened to the entirety of that talk by Krause and I simply do see that it has any bearing on what we’re talking about which, I had thought, was whether any possible observation of fact could ever imply a conclusion as to value. Early on, Krause explicitly excludes any consideration of the idea that “neurophysiology could tell us what is right and wrong.” Yet this latter is what I take to be Harris’s main point, and that of some other people conversing here. That is what I had thought we were talking about. Are we, on the basis of some mutual misunderstanding, simply talking past each other?

    I certainly would never disagree that since action takes place in an objective context (in context of understood regularities of experience), and since morality judges or recommends actions, understanding what is objectively true and what is not is very important for questions of morality. One can say that a knowledge that dropped objects tend strongly to fall is relevant to the decision as to whether to drop a 12-pound shot from the top of a four-story tower into a crowd assembled just below. That is what I take to be Krause’s main point. It is somewhat trivial, it seems to me. But in any case, it is not at issue here.

    There are many things in Krause’s remarks that I as a social scientist find quite naive, so naive indeed that he seems to violate his own dictum that knowledge of this world is essential to correct action, but this too is not at issue here.

    You wrote, “…you have decided on the judgement criteria and you have looked at as much of the available evidence as you can. The input to your decision is coming from what you know about the real world and if you don’t get that from science where do you get it from?”

    Evidence in the sense of observed fact may indeed be quite relevant to one’s moral attitude toward something, but evidence alone does not constitute value or compel any particular value. That is the very point we are debating, indeed. I don’t dispute that most values are somehow acquired. I think actually we understand rather well that morality, like religious belief, is social in origin, and that one tends to acquire the values that one is taught. Beyond that, the notion that self-interest and belief have a strong tendency to coincide goes very far to explain why some people have some values and others have others. This is not a rational process in the sense that its results are reasoned out.

    You said, “I don’t think people spend much time wondering if well-being should be maximised, just how to maximise it.” I don’t think that most people think of morality as a project of maximizing well-being or discovering how to do it. My impression is that essentially no one proceeds on the basis of a measure of some quantity. I do think that most people have some sense of right and wrong and want to do right and avoid doing wrong. Socrates thought that everyone did, but I am not so sure.

    As to color, please see my #185, which I suppose you overlooked because I added the substantive part after originally posting the bit about the sodium lamp. It’s quite all right with me if you want to establish a terminological convention that equates the “color of objects” with measured properties of light reflected from them, but that is all you have established. (You have a ways to go in your description of light, which is not always of uniform wavelength and produces, therefore, all sorts of varied perceptions of color, but that is inessential). You have not set forth an adequate explanation of the perception of color; and you haven’t grappled with that beheld light is not always reflected from some definite object. But that is all inessential.

    What is essential is that you have not grappled with the inherent subjectivity of all experience or with what it means to say that something is objective, something that I treated below in #173 and #174. You said, “To measure color objectively, it’s important to overcome the physical limitations of human observation.” With the greatest respect, that puts the cart before the horse. Color is a constituent of direct experience; it is not somehow limited or false. The task for science is to explain it. Attitudes of right and wrong, same thing.

    • Sorry about the late reply.

      I listened to the entirety of that talk by Krauss and I simply do not see that it has any bearing on what we’re talking about which, I had thought, was whether any possible observation of fact could ever imply a conclusion as to value.

      No, the OP was arguing against the suggestion that the well-being of concious creatures is the only criterion worth considering when addressing moral questions. Harris claims that concious minds are a product of nature and that the life experiences of those concious minds is what determines their well-being (seems reasonable). When Harris says that science can answer moral questions (right & wrong) he means that science can provide the knowledge required to answer those questions on the basis of maintaining (or improving) those good life experiences and minimising bad life experiences.

      For those reading this that are not familiar with Harris’s book, here is Harris on The Moral Landscape.

      He accepts that some people may disagree on what constitutes good life experiences and that some people would argue that suffering bad life experiences may be necessary in order to ensure good experiences after death.

      Are we, on the basis of some mutual misunderstanding, simply talking past each other?

      Perhaps.

      In reply to #187 by Markovich:

      @Marktony:

      I listened to the entirety of that talk by Krause and I simply do see that it has any bearing on what we’re talking about which, I had thought, was whether any possible observation of fact could ever imply a conclusion as to value. Early on, Krause explicitly excludes any consideration…

    • I certainly would never disagree that since action takes place in an objective context (in context of understood regularities of experience), and since morality judges or recommends actions, understanding what is objectively true and what is not is very important for questions of morality.

      So what sources of knowledge, other than science, are you using to aid in your “understanding what is objectively true and what is not”?

      Evidence in the sense of observed fact may indeed be quite relevant to one’s moral attitude toward something, but evidence alone does not constitute value or compel any particular value.

      Surely evidence is more than just “quite relevant”. Upon what, other than evidence, do you base your values?

      In reply to #187 by Markovich:

      @Marktony:

      I listened to the entirety of that talk by Krause and I simply do see that it has any bearing on what we’re talking about which, I had thought, was whether any possible observation of fact could ever imply a conclusion as to value. Early on, Krause explicitly excludes any consideration…

    • I think actually we understand rather well that morality, like religious belief, is social in origin, and that one tends to acquire the values that one is taught.

      If a child is seriously ill and medical science determines that a blood transfusion would avoid the untimely end to the life experiences of that child (ie. prevent death), would you consider it wrong (immoral) of that child’s parents to refuse the transfusion based on religious beliefs? Is your argument merely that: science has not decided that the parents refusal is wrong, it has just provided the evidence for the basis of that decision?

      It’s quite all right with me if you want to establish a terminological convention that equates the “color of objects” with measured properties of light reflected from them, but that is all you have established.

      I didn’t just make up that ‘terminological convention’ for the colour of objects. Like most people I was taught a language from an early age. For me, that language was English and “colour” is one of the words (like brightness) used to describe the different appearance of objects based on how light interacts with them.

      (You have a ways to go in your description of light, which is not always of uniform wavelength and produces, therefore, all sorts of varied perceptions of color, but that is inessential).

      I concentrated on the colour green, because you used green as an example. And I specifically mentioned the range of wavelengths.

      You have not set forth an adequate explanation of the perception of color;

      Neither have you, but then if people are interested they could always do some research on the subject and science would be the best source of knowledge. I have not claimed that science is able to reproduce an individuals perception of colour in order to re-play that perception for others to experience. Here is the Wiki article on Colour Vision.

      I don’t know to what extent you perceive an object differently to me, but since we are both members of the same species and share almost identical DNA, it seems reasonable to assume that our perceptive abilities are similar. Maybe your perception of a square is slightly different to mine but we can both learn what a square is. We can count the sides and measure the lengths and angles and conclude that the shape is indeed square – or would you argue we cannot say that because we cannot guarantee that our perceptions of a square are the same?

      In reply to #187 by Markovich:

      @Marktony:

      I listened to the entirety of that talk by Krause and I simply do see that it has any bearing on what we’re talking about which, I had thought, was whether any possible observation of fact could ever imply a conclusion as to value. Early on, Krause explicitly excludes any consideration…

  74. @Marktony:

    Every action in this world obviously depends on understanding the world’s nature. A dog attacks a hare on the basis of some notion of how the hare will behave and, I suppose, some expectation of eating its meat. All successful action requires understanding. Attitudes toward action certainly, therefore, require at least the same understanding as action itself does, and possibly more if “all” (a question-begging term) its consequences are to be considered.

    None of this compels any particular moral attitude toward any action. There are people, for example, who believe that no fetus should ever be aborted, and no mere observation of fact can say that they are wrong. Their value in this case is not based on any evidence, and neither is my very strong belief that they are wrong.

    If a child is seriously ill and medical science determines that a blood transfusion would avoid the untimely end to the life experiences of that child (ie. prevent death), would you consider it wrong (immoral) of that child’s parents to refuse the transfusion based on religious beliefs?

    What my values are is completely irrelevant to this conversation.

    Is your argument merely that: science has not decided that the parents refusal is wrong, it has just provided the evidence for the basis of that decision?

    I do not say that science has not decided that the parents are wrong, I say that it cannot decide whether anything is right or wrong in the moral sense.

    No, the OP was arguing against the suggestion that the well-being of concious creatures is the only criterion worth considering when addressing moral questions.

    Well, that certainly is not a claim based on evidence, nor do I think it follows from logic (a mulberry bush that I danced around with someone else here at very great length). I think indeed that in spite of being dressed up in “only rational basis” rhetoric, it is merely an expression of Harris’s own values. I did not think it was your claim.

    Actually I do not know how our discussion can procede any further so long as you persist in arguing that values somehow derive from mere observation of fact. Without thinking, you suppose a prior set of values that facts concerning possible actions would inform.

    Let me simply conclude by quoting something from a well-respected site that introduces young people to the notion of science (http://undsci.berkeley.edu/):

    Science doesn’t make moral judgments

    When is euthanasia the right thing to do? What universal rights should humans have? Should other animals have rights? Questions like these are important, but scientific research will not answer them. Science can help us learn about terminal illnesses and the history of human and animal rights — and that knowledge can inform our opinions and decisions. But ultimately, individual people must make moral judgments. Science helps us describe how the world is, but it cannot make any judgments about whether that state of affairs is right, wrong, good, or bad.

    • Science doesn’t make moral judgements.

      What judgements are made by science?

      In reply to #192 by Markovich:

      @Marktony:

      Every action in this world obviously depends on understanding the world’s nature. A dog attacks a hare on the basis of some notion of how the hare will behave and, I suppose, some expectation of eating its meat. All successful action requires understanding. Attitudes toward action cert…

    • There are people, for example, who believe that no fetus should ever be aborted, and no mere observation of fact can say that they are wrong. Their value in this case is not based on any evidence, and neither is my very strong belief that they are wrong.

      ……….

      What my values are is completely irrelevant to this conversation.

      Apart from your values regarding abortion?

      In reply to #192 by Markovich:

      @Marktony:

      Every action in this world obviously depends on understanding the world’s nature. A dog attacks a hare on the basis of some notion of how the hare will behave and, I suppose, some expectation of eating its meat. All successful action requires understanding. Attitudes toward action cert…

  75. That really is not fair at all, Marktony. I merely remarked in passing that I disagreed with the extreme anti-abortionist position. It remains that my particular values are not relevant to the discussion. So shame on you, really, for making such a petty and inessential point.

    What judgements are made by science?

    I need to respond to this, after here spelling out at great length exactly what it is that I think science does?

    • As petty as:

      Oh God, someone else who doesn’t understand the nature and bounds of science.

      or

      P.S. I am happy that you have the answer to all the ethical questions ever entertained in your pocket there.

      or

      Listened to as poetry, without trying to puzzle out the precise meaning of all your statements, your proposal sounds frighteningly Orwellian. I have scant doubt that if were spelled out in detail in three or four pages, it would seem so to many. To me it seems quite fortunate that it is only your fantasy.

      In reply to #195 by Markovich:

      That really is not fair at all, Marktony. I merely remarked in passing that I disagreed with the extreme anti-abortionist position. It remains that my particular values are not relevant to the discussion. So shame on you, really, for making such a petty and inessential point.

      What judgements are…

      • In reply to #196 by Marktony:

        Markovich

        Listened to as poetry, without trying to puzzle out the precise meaning of all your statements, your proposal sounds frighteningly Orwellian. I have scant doubt that if were spelled out in detail in three or four pages, it would seem so to many. To me it seems quite fortunate that it is only your fantasy.

        It was quite a considered and underlined insult, wasn’t it? Especially as I was arguing precisely against Sam’s proposal of science as a final decider of things moral and for the requirement of people as the deciders.

        No apology so far, despite my explanatory link.

        • Yes, I thought at the time it was hardly Orwellian. A bit soppy perhaps.

          In reply to #197 by phil rimmer:

          In reply to #196 by Marktony:

          Markovich

          Listened to as poetry, without trying to puzzle out the precise meaning of all your statements, your proposal sounds frighteningly Orwellian. I have scant doubt that if were spelled out in detail in three or four pages, it would seem so to many. To me it see…

          • In reply to #198 by Marktony:

            Yes, I thought at the time it was hardly Orwellian. A bit soppy perhaps.

            In reply to #197 by phil rimmer:

            I settle for soppy!

  76. @Marktony: Well, we’re not talking about the topic anymore, are we Marktony? I can readily understand why you would not wish to do so, but if you ever change your mind, I hope you will take my point that neither your values nor mine are relevant in the slightest to the issue being discussed.

    @phil rimmer: What I said was not meant as an insult, nor can I see how it could reasonably be taken as such. Read a little farther up, regarding the Inquisition and the Holocaust.

    Moreover phil, if you really think that was a calculated insult and not just my sincere reaction to your proposed project as I understand it, report it to the moderators.

    • In reply to #200 by Markovich:

      Moreover phil, if you really think that was a calculated insult and not just my sincere reaction to your proposed project as I understand it, report it to the moderators.

      No. I’m perfectly happy to see opinion forcefully expressed, just as I’m happy to reflect back that I think it so (not Orwellian so much as fantasy which is belittling). I am always happy to know what you (others) feel as well as what you think.

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  78. @Marktony: If you rejoin, I would appreciate your saying whether you consider the material that I quoted ( #192 ) from http://undsci.berkeley.edu/ to be a correct description of the relationship between science and value. If you do, then we have been talking past each other all this time. If you don’t, I don’t know upon what basis we could continue our discussion here.

    @phil rimmer, Zeuglodon, Red Dog, et.al.: The same.

    (For the benefit of anyone else reading this, “Understanding Science,” at the above url, is a well-respected site that introduces young people to the notion of science. The site is produced by the UC Museum of Paleontology of the University of California at Berkeley, in collaboration with a diverse group of scientists and teachers, and was funded by the National Science Foundation. I can’t give the url of the quoted material because it contains underscores that interact perversely with the formatting features of this website. However it can be reached by going to “Understanding Science,” clicking on “What is science,” the scrolling down and clicking, near the bottom of the page, on “Science has limits.”)

    • For those still giggling at the vertiginous condescension in 202 and can’t be bothered, here’s the skinny-

      Science 101. These are the indisputable facts, kids….

      Science doesn’t make moral judgments
      When is euthanasia the right thing to do? What universal rights should humans have? Should other animals have rights? Questions like these are important, but scientific research will not answer them. Science can help us learn about terminal illnesses and the history of human and animal rights — and that knowledge can inform our opinions and decisions. But ultimately, individual people must make moral judgments. Science helps us describe how the world is, but it cannot make any judgments about whether that state of affairs is right, wrong, good, or bad.

      People make aesthetic judgments, not science Science doesn’t make aesthetic judgments
      Science can reveal the frequency of a G-flat and how our eyes relay information about color to our brains, but science cannot tell us whether a Beethoven symphony, a Kabuki performance, or a Jackson Pollock painting is beautiful or dreadful. Individuals make those decisions for themselves based on their own aesthetic criteria.

      Science doesn’t tell you how to use scientific knowledge Science doesn’t tell you how to use scientific knowledge
      Although scientists often care deeply about how their discoveries are used, science itself doesn’t indicate what should be done with scientific knowledge. Science, for example, can tell you how to recombine DNA in new ways, but it doesn’t specify whether you should use that knowledge to correct a genetic disease, develop a bruise-resistant apple, or construct a new bacterium. For almost any important scientific advance, one can imagine both positive and negative ways that knowledge could be used. Again, science helps us describe how the world is, and then we have to decide how to use that knowledge.

      Gould is alive and well and posting his keep off notices. Mysterians and the religious still insist there is irretrievable information that yet, unfathomably, interacts with brain states.

      This half baked pap is for American kids with scared parents. Humans remain sacred. Science only informs us about the world apparently and not ourselves (Sorry Ramachandran, Damasio, Atran, Pinker, Sacks, Seung, Baron Cohen, Haidt, De Waals. And thats just the stack on the floor here by my desk.)

      FWIW I am still confounded that as someone who believes indeed it is we that must be involved in and make the final value judgments (we have to live with them and become them) that it is we who experience the aesthetic responses, I am judged an Orwellian fantasist for wanting to understand in the finest detail what makes us tick and how that already is directing us to less harmful behaviours. As I’ve said before this is not a novel endeavour. We have always used reason to progress our mutual flourishing and broaden the franchise of “us”. Perhaps we simply need to clarify where this progress has been coming from, give it the status and encouragement it needs as it shakes off the shackles of sacred thinking and let the magesterium of science and reason achieve the full latitude that it can properly demonstrate.

    • In reply to #202 by Markovich:

      @Marktony: If you rejoin, I would appreciate your saying whether you consider the material that I quoted ( #192 ) from http://undsci.berkeley.edu/ to be a correct description of the relationship between science and value. If you do, then we have been talking past each other all this time. If you…

      I think this is the link you are talking about: Science has limits: A few things that science does not do

      Unlike Phil, I don’t think that overview is terrible. I think it’s wrong in spots, at least I would seriously disagree but I wouldn’t expect to completely agree with a LOT of elementary school overview material, I’m sure if I looked at elementary school overviews of US or World History that would probably make me crazy with all the errors of omission and distortion. A grade school overview should try not to be controversial, actually I guess that’s debatable as well in a really good school I would want some controversy but let me rephrase: given how abysmal I know the US school systems are I expect an overview of science to try not to be controversial and to try to teach what are middle of the road generally accepted ideas. I think that overview — and here I agree with Phil — summarizes a general view of science that a lot of scientists had and some of them still do have. And we can thank (or IMO blame) Gould for a lot of that although I also think he was just a good salesman who knew what his audience wanted to hear.

      But just as I wouldn’t expect a thoughtful discussion of The God Delusion in a grade school RE class I don’t expect a deep discussion of the limits of the scientific method in a grade school class either.

        • In reply to #206 by phil rimmer:

          In reply to #204 by Red Dog:

          Unlike Phil, I don’t think that overview is terrible.

          I don’t think it terrible, just understandably incomplete and not fit for purpose here.

          Sorry, then we agree completely.

    • In reply to #202 by Markovich:

      @Marktony: If you rejoin, I would appreciate your saying whether you consider the material that I quoted ( #192 ) from http://undsci.berkeley.edu/ to be a correct description of the relationship between science and value. If you do, then we have been talking past each other all this time. If you…

      Just to say a bit more, I would actually acknowledge that the view I have of science, that it can have something to say (which is not the same as saying it can answer all questions definitively) about aesthetics and morals may be a minority view among scientists right now. I haven’t looked at any polls on the topic and I don’t really care. I LIKE taking opinions that go against the accepted wisdom when I think there is a good reason to do so and I think I’ve explained my reasons in previous comments.

    • When is euthanasia the right thing to do? What universal rights should humans have? Should other animals have rights? Questions like these are important, but scientific research will not answer them. Science can help us learn about terminal illnesses and the history of human and animal rights — and that knowledge can inform our opinions and decisions. But ultimately, individual people must make moral judgments. Science helps us describe how the world is, but it cannot make any judgments about whether that state of affairs is right, wrong, good, or bad.

      No, I can’t say I really agree with the above. When I first read your post #192 I thought it was just a sarcastic dig with your “young people” reference. I am in agreement with Phil in his reply at #203. It is a rather PC statement, trying not to worry those God-fearing parents. Strictly speaking, science does not make moral judgements because science does not make judgements at all, humans do. Hence my short reply in post #193, which you didn’t appreciate.

      The scientific evidence suggests that the earth is more than 10,000 years old. In fact there is so much evidence it would seem madness to deny it (though some do). Many would simply say “science tells us that the earth is billions of years old”, but science does not actually tell us – we are led to that decision by the overwhelming evidence.

      To make a judgement/decision, first you need a clear definition of the question and then you need lots of good information/data/evidence (knowledge) from reliable sources. Sometimes that knowledge is so conclusive that the decision is more or less made for you – you could even say science made it. I won’t ask for your judgement again, but I did mention a few examples previously – eg. the decision not to smoke while driving your kids to school: there is enough scientific evidence regarding the danger of passive smoking to make that decision very obvious. People used to think it cool to smoke (some still do), or even healthy. They would not have seen the danger to themselves let alone their children – are people who expose their children to passive smoking more wrong (immoral) now than those who did so before the scientific evidence was so conclusive?
      Some countries are making it illegal to smoke in places where children are present. Is the scientific evidence compelling that decision? Can we say that science tells us it is wrong to expose children to passive smoking? Your point is that people make that decision, scientists even, but not science, and strictly speaking you are right. But you are nit picking.

      I suppose this is a touchy subject because we so often hear from the religious that science cannot answer moral questions, that an atheist has no objective basis for morality (as if the religious did!). In a few hundred years time, will people look back at us and say “well those people back then were not exactly enlightened were they, some rather immoral practices, but I suppose we should not judge 21st century values based on 23rd century knowledge”.

      In reply to #202 by Markovich:

      @Marktony: If you rejoin, I would appreciate your saying whether you consider the material that I quoted ( #192 ) from http://undsci.berkeley.edu/ to be a correct description of the relationship between science and value. If you do, then we have been talking past each other all this time. If you…

  79. I’m not saying that we all have to accept the “accepted wisdom,” I was merely trying to clarify the issue by pointing to a clear expression of it. I don’t see that it is relevant that the particular example I used is directed toward young people. It is written in clear English and I, at least, don’t think it omits anything essential. Also please note that below I have tried to explain why this position is correct.

    The question can be reduced to this: can any set of observations, alone and without any prior normative position, possibly lead to a normative conclusion? For example, what bundle of mere observation could possibly lead to the conclusion that chess is a better game than contract bridge? What I say is that the most science can do is to explain why some people prefer playing chess and others prefer contract bridge. If someone thinks that science could somehow reach beyond that and support the statement, “Chess is a better game than contract bridge,” or its contrary, I would very much like to know how. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that the how has been lacking in all of the foregoing.

    So, what set of hypothetical facts would support that chess is a better game than contract bridge?

    I’m not trying to change the topic by switching to a different class of normative statements. If somebody wants an example more to do with morality, substitute “On no condition should a viable human fetus ever be aborted.” But I think it may be more useful to stick with the chess-bridge example, because it is less fraught with prior value.

    • In reply to #209 by Markovich:

      “Chess is a better game than contract bridge,”

      Science at least could get us to stop asking such facile questions. Better how? It could compare the two in possibly hundreds of different ways both theoretical (quantifying levels of intellectual challenge, which intellectual abilities, which emotional abilities) experiential (how engaged are its players, how thrilled, how rewarded, how addicted, how consciousness absorbing, what brain regions are engaged, do they map to anything else we know and have strong views on?) commercially, culturally, on and on.

      So now having had science and its methods investigate all these aspects of a simple question and having answers provided by those methods, you ask again. You will get an answer from me not just about my biases and preferences but one more informed and considerate of how others may view it; how my disdain for chess, because I don’t have the intellectual clout or the emotional stamina, shouldn’t get me voting against money spent on chess clubs in school; or how bridge may be the better choice for others because of the team thinking aspect etc. etc.

  80. In reply to #210 by phil rimmer:

    In reply to #209 by Markovich:

    “Chess is a better game than contract bridge,”

    Science at least could get us to stop asking such facile questions. Better how?

    Exactly! I said the same thing (comment 142) in response to an identical example many comments ago:

    A question such as “”What is the correct attitude toward the welfare of mosquitoes?” is such a question. It’s not clear what “correct attitude” is supposed to mean. From the standpoint of reducing mosquitoes? From the standpoint of environmentalism? From the standpoint of a writer considering whether or not to write her next Pixar script with a mosquito as the hero? It has nothing to do with subjective or objective per se, it has to do with asking meaningful questions that can have meaningful answers.

    I think there is something fundamental you aren’t getting Markovich and that is we aren’t necessarily arguing with any of your specific examples. You can dream up dumb questions all day long and i will agree with you that science can’t answer dumb questions. The error you make is that you think because you can dream up some ambiguous questions that science can’t answer you’ve said anything meaningful about science. You haven’t. For example: “Why is there life?” Not what caused life to exist on Earth but what is the purpose of life? Science can’t answer that. By your reasoning that makes biology off limits for science as well.

    And I know I’m repeating myself, I’ve said all this before but since you are asking the same question again I thought I would repeat the answer yet one more time but I’m done discussing it now (famous last words).

  81. The reason I’ve been asking for analysis of specific cases is that it is just too easy to puff out windy locutions that have no clear confirmation or disconfirmation. If mere observation can possibly lead to a normative conclusion, unaided by any reference to a prior norm, there must exist a case whereby some set of hypothetical observations dictate a normative conclusion. So if you don’t like any of my cases, which I propose not because they are interesting but because they are clear, supply one of your own.

    Red Dog, the question of whether chess or contract bridge is a better game is in no way “ambiguous,” nor is the given statement about abortion. These question cannot be answered by science not because they are ambiguous, but because they are normative. That they are not reducible into mere predictions of fact is my point, but that does not flow from any ambiguity. Is “Thou shalt not kill” ambiguous?

    Moreover if mere observation can support a normative conclusion, this would seem to be a general claim, so the avoidance of cases would seem to be a way of admitting that the general claim is not true.

    Phil rimmer, whether bridge – chess question is important or not is itself a normative question. However unimportant it may be, can you think of any mere set of facts that could answer it? Or answer any normative question?

    • In reply to #212 by Markovich:

      Red Dog, the question of whether chess or contract bridge is a better game is in no way “ambiguous,” nor is the given statement about abortion. These question cannot be answered by science not because they are ambiguous, but because they are normative.

      I knew I shouldn’t have said it was the last thing I would say. I can never hold to those promises. OK, so if “the question of whether chess or contract bridge is a better game is in no way “ambiguous,” then there must be some discipline other than science that can answer that question. What discipline is that? And please explain to me using that alternative method to science whether chess or contract bridge are better and why.

    • In reply to #212 by Markovich:

      Is “Thou shalt not kill” ambiguous?

      No, but who cares? And why? What sort of world do you live in that, of itself, has this as a complete and moral prescription on the matter of killing?

      Thou shalt not kill the mad axeman bearing down on your wife and kids. From your vantage point of the window upstairs you could drop the marble bust of a pope you are carrying on the mad axeman’s head, but at the last minute you remember what is moral.

      “Sorry, darlings,” you shout out as a goodbye. “No can do. Pope Innocent here would never forgive me.”

      Is bridge a better game than chess as therapy for those with Aspergers?

      Is bridge a better game than chess in your opinion?

      Is bridge a better game than chess?

      Is a courgette funnier than soap?

  82. Well it seems that no one wants actually to address the question, can any conceivable set of facts, unsupported by any prior norm, imply a normative conclusion? The affirmative point of view seems to be implicit in Harris’s claim. So far no one has produced an example. So until someone does wish to address that question, I shall depart this part of the board.

    • In reply to #215 by Markovich:

      can any conceivable set of facts, unsupported by any prior norm, imply a normative conclusion?

      No, but who cares?

      The affirmative point of view seems to be implicit in Harris’s claim.

      But it is not actually there, though he may believe that impression would be helpful to the recently religiously bereaved.

      The result of facile questions is facile and useless answers. The Moral Landscape is a bit of a desert in my view, but it points in the right direction and it invokes the right kind of tools to secure a way of working that is substantially free of the labile nature of subjectivity and yet maximally take account of harms which are only subjective.

      He undersells the approach in my view, but given his mainly American readership, this is not surprising. He is not offering objective morality, he is offering something better, more detailed, more useful, more tractable, yes contingent as utility demands in evolving circumstances but nevertheless a reliable process accessible to all, and definitely not sequestered with those intuiting divine intention. Its working well up to now.

  83. Well, as I have argued, not only is there no such thing as value free of subjectivity, but there is no such thing as experience free of subjectivity. But the discussion grows more futile. Others will have to judge the respective merits.

    • In reply to #217 by Markovich:

      no such thing as value free of subjectivity

      Completely agree almost. Value is certainly personal and contingent, experienced most often but not exclusively, subjectively (unconscious values exist also…an unacknowledged antipathy to mice or the Welsh…you sidle away without realising it.) What you have to demonstrate is that any of this information resides somewhere necessarily inaccessible yet itself be available to influence brain states.

      If I can almost end on a note of mutual agreement, I want to emphasise the common ground that exists between us. Science cannot be the final decider of moral positions, whatever Sam may say, though our reasoning here is probably different. I think (suspect) most people here take this view. I do though suspect that science will make proposals for moral actions that I may increasing check the box of.

  84. OK, in reply to the “kid stuff” dodge, here is what Sean Carroll, a physicist at Caltech, has had to say:

    On the other hand, things like aesthetics and morality aren’t science either, because they require an additional ingredient — a way to pass judgment, to say that something is beautiful/ugly or right/wrong. Science doesn’t care about that stuff; it describes how the world is, rather than prescribing how it should be. You may think that there are objectively true statements one can make within these realms (“killing babies is wrong,” “Justin Bieber sucks”). But whether or not they are objectively true (they’re not, in any useful sense), they’re not scientific statements, in the way that “the universe is expanding” is a scientific statement. If they were, we could imagine worlds in which they were not true at all (“killing babies is good,” “Justin Bieber is awesome”). Those would be absolutely conceivable worlds, just not the ones in which we happened to live. And the knowledge of which world we lived in would have to come from collecting some data, just as that’s how we learned the universe is expanding.

    Carroll is definitely not writing for children. So let’s not try to dismiss the quotation that I cited earlier by saying that it was kid stuff. I am not arguing that this question should to be decided on the basis of authority, not at all. But Harris’s defenders should at least recognize that his claims lie outside the customary understanding of what science can possibly do.

    Here is a lengthy post by Carroll on the subject of Harris’s idea: http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2010/05/03/you-cant-derive-ought-from-is/. It would seem to be germane (and has been very widely disseminated on npr.org).

    • Here is a short response from Harris:

      Many critics claim that my reliance on the concept of “well-being” is arbitrary and philosophically indefensible. Who’s to say that well-being is important at all or that other things aren’t far more important? How, for instance, could you convince someone who does not value well-being that he should, in fact, value it? And even if one could justify well-being as the true foundation for morality, many have argued that one would need a “metric” by which it could be measured—else there could be no such thing as moral truth in the scientific sense. There seems to be an unnecessarily restrictive notion of science underlying this last claim—as though scientific truths only exist if we can have immediate and uncontroversial access to them in the lab. The physicist Sean Carroll has written a fair amount against me on this point (again, without having read my book), and he is in the habit of saying things like, “I don’t know what a unit of well-being is,” as though he were regretfully delivering the killing blow to my thesis. I would venture that Carroll doesn’t know what a unit of depression is either—and units of joy, disgust, boredom, irony, envy, or any other mental state worth studying won’t be forthcoming. If half of what Carroll says about the limits of science is true, the sciences of mind are not merely doomed, there would be no facts for them to understand in the first place.

      Perhaps you, as a Social Scientist, could see Harris’s point?

      PS. Would be interested to see your reply to Red Dog, post #213.

      In reply to #220 by Markovich:

      OK, in reply to the “kid stuff” dodge, here is what Sean Carroll, a physicist at Caltech, has had to say:

      On the other hand, things like aesthetics and morality aren’t science either, because they require an additional ingredient — a way to pass judgment, to say that something is beautiful/ugly or…

      • In reply to #221 by Marktony:

        Here is a short response from Harris:
        PS. Would be interested to see your reply to Red Dog, post #213.

        I would be interested as well. I have a response to Harris but won’t have time for a while to post it.

      • In reply to #221 by Marktony:

        Here is a short response from Harris:

        Many critics claim that my reliance on the concept of “well-being” is arbitrary and philosophically indefensible. Who’s to say that well-being is important at all or that other things aren’t far more important? How, for instance, could you convince someone who does not value well-being that he should, in fact, value it? 

        I’m not sure which critics Harris is referring to here but what he is saying is not a valid response to the argument I’ve posted in the original topic. My criticism here isn’t a generic critique of well being as useful to understanding morality. On the contrary I absolutely think it is relevant. My criticism is the way Harris resolves the Is Ought problem. He “solves it” by just making an appeal to common sense. By saying “we can all agree with this common sense definition of morality and the only people who don’t agree are crazy people like Islamic fundamentalists and we can safely ignore them”. That’s not a direct quote obviously but I think it paraphrases his argument exactly. 

        So my response was to give examples that show that are moral intuitions aren’t nearly as uniform and uncontroversial as Harris claims.  I’ve given examples where “maximize well being” doesn’t fit with the intuitions many people would have about morality. Since Harris’s claim is based on the assumption that we all have the same moral intuitions and that they all (all of us who matter anyway) agree that maximize well being is always the moral solution. All it takes to puncture that argument are examples where moral intuition of many people doesn’t correspond to “maximize well being”. 

        And even if one could justify well-being as the true foundation for morality, many have argued that one would need a “metric” by which it could be measured—else there could be no such thing as moral truth in the scientific sense. There seems to be an unnecessarily restrictive notion of science underlying this last claim—as though scientific truths only exist if we can have immediate and uncontroversial access to them in the lab. 

        I agree with Harris on this point. It’s why I made all sorts of simplifying assumptions in my examples. I’m perfectly fine with assuming that at some point we may be able to measure well being on a scale of perfect happiness to perfect misery. The point of the examples in fact was exactly that even with those simplifying assumptions “maximize well being” is not always the only rational metric. For example, do we want to maximize well being or as in Moral Choice 1 do we perhaps want to minimize the variance of the distribution of well being? Or perhaps it’s really a combination of both and other factors as well. I don’t know the answer but I do think that my examples show that “maximize well being” breaks down fairly quickly and it has nothing to do with the difficulties Harriss alludes to here since I make simplifying assumptions that ignore those problems right from the start. 

        BTW, I didn’t go into it in the original post because I wanted to keep it short but there is also a lot of empirical data that Harris ignores that says the same thing. For example one of the social science “games” I think it’s called the Ultimatum Game is where person A is given some money and told to share some of it with person B. Person B is then told that she can accept or reject person A’s offer. If B accepts they both get the distribution if B rejects neither gets anything. So for example if A decides to split $10 and take 9 for herself and give 1 to B, then B can either accept and get $1 (and A gets $9) or reject and neither gets anything. 

        Now if our moral intuition was always to maximize well being we would expect people to accept offers that were very low, after all getting even a few pennies is better than getting nothing. That isn’t what happen. Below a certain percentage, I think it’s 80/20 but the numbers don’t really matter, below a certain distribution most people just reject the offer. To me that is again evidence that our moral intuitions are about more than maximize well being, in fact if you read Trivers paper on Reciprocal Altruism you absolutely would expect people to behave this way, that they would want to punish “cheaters”  (in the game theoretic sense) who don’t reciprocate their altruism. 

        • In reply to #224 by Red Dog:
          Fairness is a big part of morality. But how do you measure fairness? It’s some sort of balancing isn’t it? But what is it we are putting on the scales? Our language doesn’t really have a name for the basic currency of resources and opportunity. “Well-being” and “suffering” are the best I can think of to describe having our needs/comforts met, unmet or damaged. I can’t speak for Sam but I would be happy to accept language that better addresses what that ineffable stuff is that is measured too short when we conclude unfairness.

          • In reply to #226 by Akaei:

            In reply to #224 by Red Dog:
            Fairness is a big part of morality. But how do you measure fairness? It’s some sort of balancing isn’t it?

            This is a common problem whenever you try to look at issues such as morality from a scientific standpoint. The first thing you need to do to have an actual scientific discussion is to rigorously define your terms and the way we commonly use language is not rigorous. You can see this with the term “altruism”. Whenever there are threads on altruism there are always people who go off on tangents and say “well it’s not really altruism if you are working to maximize your reproductive success” And people will go round and round saying “Altruism is X” “No Altruism is Y” and I think such discussions are mostly a waste of time. I say make a definition and then stick to it and see what you can figure out from there but don’t spend all your time arguing about the definitions.

            So to get back to this example, it’s one of the things that occurred to me as I wrote this originally is to my knowledge no one has really pointed out that when you look at the idea of “maximizing well being” that you probably want to be concerned with more than just raising the mean well being. You also want to consider the standard deviation of the mean and in fact it might be a reasonable empirical definition of “fairness” to mean “a low standard deviation of well being”. Not exactly rocket science I know but to me that kind of quantification and rigor to what are usually very fuzzy poorly defined concepts constitutes a step in the right direction. But there will always be the risk, in fact I think it’s really inevitable, that when you do try and get rigorous the definitions you create won’t completely satisfy most people. That is why we don’t all talk in binary or some rigorous specification language, for human conversation lack of rigor often works very well. It’s just that when you want to actually analyze things you need to be rigorous.

            BTW, Krauss has a good discussion of this same issue in the beginning of A Universe From Nothing on a completely different topic, the question of what the word “nothing” even means and from what I remember he says more or less the same thing, that he realizes his definition won’t satisfy a lot of people from a philosophical point of view but that he doesn’t think that is a major drawback, rather it’s inevitable that when you try to actually start defining things you won’t be able to perfectly capture the common usage complete meanings of the term.

          • In reply to #229 by Red Dog:
            >

            …for human conversation lack of rigor often works very well.

            There are facts, relationships (the way things are interrelated), and facts about relationships. There are also perceptions about facts and perceptions about relationships. For us subjective beings, objectivity (in degrees) is a hard-won, unnatural skill. As subjective beings it shouldn’t be surprising that language favors perception and relationships over facts.

            p1 Morality is based on equitable resource (including opportunity) acquisition among empathetic (read: social) subjective beings.

            p2 The perceptions of these subjective beings leads to subjective language.

            c Language is maladapted to precise or quantifiable descriptions of subjective experience (individual or common.)

            Successful acquisition of resources and evasion of harm (trauma, illness) typically yields some form of well being. i.e. contentedness, comfort, happiness
            Unsuccessful acquisition of resources and unsuccessful evasion of harm typically yields some form of suffering.

            Well being is a vague and indirect metric. It’s on the right track. It’s useful. But for a science of meta-ethics something more specific, that can be more directly measured, seems necessary.

            Reducing the standard deviation (increasing the proliferation of this elusive social currency) puts the target on fairness. Rather than minimizing the standard deviation, a target range of acceptable/preferable deviation might be the way to go. Minimizing sounds a bit like communal-ism and practically nullifies non-altruistic incentive.

            Time for fun with paraphrasing:
            And the selfish people said ‘Society, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ “Then society will answer them, ‘When you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’

  85. For the example of the criminals;

    You are saying of moral outcome 2 that ‘many people would choose this outcome as preferable.’
    This means then that the well being of the 80 people who are neither victim nor criminal needs to increase as well as the well being of the victims. This is because they are happier as they perceive justice has been done and the outcome ‘is more preferable’ just as you argue. This means the average well being in moral outcome 2 is actually higher than in moral outcome 1.

    • In reply to #225 by jmarcham1:

      For the example of the criminals;

      You are saying of moral outcome 2 that ‘many people would choose this outcome as preferable.’
      This means then that the well being of the 80 people who are neither victim nor criminal needs to increase as well as the well being of the victims. This is because they a…

      Just want to acknowledge that’s a great question, as is akael’s. I’m kind of busy this week and also don’t have access to a real keyboard but will reply when I can, probably in a few days.

    • In reply to #225 by jmarcham1:

      For the example of the criminals;
      You are saying of moral outcome 2 that ‘many people would choose this outcome as preferable.’ This means then that the well being of the 80 people who are neither victim nor criminal needs to increase as well as the well being of the victims. This is because they are happier as they perceive justice has been done and the outcome ‘is more preferable’ just as you argue. This means the average well being in moral outcome 2 is actually higher than in moral outcome 1.

      My first reaction to this was just to say that you are changing the example. It’s a thought experiment and in a thought experiment you have a lot of leeway to imagine things that may not actually come about in the real world such as what would happen if you ride on a beam of light.

      But as I thought about it a bit more I realized that isn’t a great response on my part. Yes, we have dramatic license in a thought experiment but at the same time there are limits. It’s reasonable to have a thought experiment that says imagine riding on a beam of light but if in that experiment you said “imagine the speed of light was 5 mph” then your thought experiment becomes mostly irrelevant. Because we know by empirical data that the speed of light is not 5 mph so any conclusions drawn from that premise are invalid.

      So I take your question to be an empirical claim. You are claiming that example 2 is an invalid thought experiment because your hypothesis is that well being is such that the people in example 2 who aren’t criminals or victims still have a vested interest in justice and would be so outraged by the injustice it would effect their well being and the numbers would never come out the way I describe them in the example.

      To which I reply… maybe but I don’t think so. And I acknowledge I don’t have any data to back up my claim but neither do you. We are both arguing (and neither of us has a very strong case I think) based on what our intuition tells us. My intuition tells me that I can imagine many cases where people go along with less than perfect justice. Actually, I should even back up because the question of what Justice is is open to debate. For some people justice means applying the maximum punishment to satisfy the victim. For others justice is the minimum punishment required to (with a high probability) discourage future crimes. Actually, in most cases I would be on the side of the minimum punishment definition so we can at least add one real data point that supports my view here.

      So the liberal view of punishment that it should be about deterrence not about seeking an “eye for an eye” supports my example. The “tough on crime” view (which I agree is far more prevalent in the US now) supports your view. But the main point is that I don’t think you have given strong evidence that the scenario is completely inconceivable, yes I agree there are populations with certain outlooks such that you can say that example wouldn’t happen with such a population but for your argument to work (and to rescue Harris’s argument) you would need to demonstrate that such a view that put prevention over punishment was an empirical impossibility and I don’t think there is any data to support that.

  86. I just found this on Youtube, Robert Trivers talking to a class about kin selection, reciprocal altruism, the ultimatum game, etc. Most of the stuff that is relevant to what we were discussing here comes in the Part 3 video but I’m linking to Part 1 because the whole thing is worth watching and is only 50 minutes in total. First time I’ve heard Trivers lecture, he is as interesting live as in his writing.

    Robert Trivers: Mathematical approaches to problems in evolutionary social theory part 1

  87. I’m just not that impressed with Sam. Besides, morals have been and always will be irrelevant to civilizations. Sam is trying to attend to the moral control that religion claims to have and he gets to come up with a loose theory that just doesn’t seem to hold any water. The morals that matter are innate in us. Most are made up. Darwin was a racist. Our grandfathers were womanizers and our forefathers were genocidists.

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