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Journal of No. 118


April 9th, 2010

Sam Harris battles the is/ought divide @ 03:06 pm


Sam Harris gave a TED talk on "Science can answer moral questions". Following the initial feedback, in which he was called an idiot, he blogged at length about the matter. The TED talk is too long, the blog post is too long, so let me tackle the NPR summary of his main argument:
1. Science can, in principle, answer moral questions even if it cannot do so in practice now.

2. The science that will answer these questions will be the rapidly advancing fields of brain, cognitive and, ultimately, consciousness studies.

3. The criterion on which these questions will be answered is "human wellbeing."


Now, I have nothing against wellbeing. Wellbeing is pretty nice. But somehow I don't think this criterion was determined scientifically. So yes, if we have a pre-determined criterion, science can certainly help us experiment to determine how to maximize it.

That said, I really don't see how this program is going to be very helpful. Indeed, I think you can see how this scheme has affected American politics for the worse. Let's raise taxes. Wellbeing of constituents goes down. Ok... let's cut services. Wellbeing of constituents goes down. What about the wellbeing of future generations? Fuck em. Similarly, we can look at the 'morality' of climate change. Maybe we can ask Sam Harris to measure the wellbeing of the people of 2050 and decide how to weigh that against the wellbeing of the people of today.

Something as simple as stealing becomes a problem. What if poor guy's wellbeing is increased more than yours decreases by being robbed by him? Sure, to deal with these situations, you can maybe jigger your definition of total wellbeing to make this work out the way you want it to, but to then say that science determined the answer is a complete sham. We're firing science arrows and then drawing targets around the one we want to be the right answer. There's nothing wrong with using some sort of rational process to come up with definitions of wellbeing (or right and wrong), but to somehow imply that the result of that process was just 'out there' waiting to be discovered is silly.

Seriously, if Harris came up with a wellbeing-o-meter and discovered that women who wear the burqa have higher self-esteem, less anxiety about their appearance, less frustration with choosing what to wear, experienced fewer catcalling incidents, and had more disposable income to spend on rearing their offspring, while experiencing signficantly reduced pleasure in the shaking what her mama gave her department. If he found that -- on balance -- their overall wellbeing was higher than that of non burqa wearing women...

would Harris say:

A) Often science contradicts our common sense ideas. I thought it was obvious that forcing women to wear the burqa reduced their wellbeing. However, I have discovered that such a strategy would maximize wellbeing. Thus, as an act in the interest of the public good, the scientific overlords have therefore passed such a law.

B) Clearly, the wellbeing formula needs to place higher numerical weight on the shaking what her mama gave her factor.(*) This is merely a simple recalibration of the universal objective wellbeingometer. It's technical.
 
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:April 9th, 2010 10:13 pm (UTC)
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and since it may become relevant... a repost via hagdirt:

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From:ladyeuthanasia
Date:April 9th, 2010 11:17 pm (UTC)
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I don't think you can summarize what he's saying at all. It's rather complex and difficult to distill. I didn't watch his TED talk but I did read some of his rebuttals, like this one:

http://www.project-reason.org/newsfeed/item/moral_confusion_in_the_name_of_science3/

And this one:

http://www.samharris.org/faq/full_text/but-what-if-beating-children-is-actually-good/


Edited at 2010-04-09 11:17 pm (UTC)
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:April 10th, 2010 05:39 am (UTC)
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Having read his blog more carefully, it still seems to support my reasoning that he has indeed failed before he even gets started.

"The fact that it might be difficult to decide exactly how to balance individual rights against collective good, or that there might be a thousand equivalent ways of doing this, does not mean that we must hesitate to condemn the morality of the Taliban, or the Nazis, or the Ku Klux Klan."

I entirely agree, but... when we do this deciding, we are not enshrining an experimental result, but codifying our preexisting moral prejudices or intuitions. Obviously a member of the Taliban would decide differently. And while Harris is content to simply declare a Taliban opinion wrong, again this is not the result of an experiment. No doubt a Taliban representative's 'decision' about what wellbeing means would place more emphasis on female modesty than Harris does. But Harris' statement that his version of wellbeing is right, and the Taliban's is wrong is not based on science, but his own prejudices. It's obvious to both Harris and Taliban ibn Taliban what wellbeing is. And yet they do not agree. Is this not what subjective means?

“Who decides what is a successful life?” Well, who decides what is coherent argument? Who decides what constitutes empirical evidence? Who decides when our memories can be trusted? The answer is, “we do.”

Is this not what subjective means? I agree that that we do make these decisions (and we should make these decisions) but this has nothing to do with science. Harris follows this with "And if you are not satisfied with this answer, you have just wiped out all of science..."

I disagree quite strenuously. We do not decide whether falling bodies fall with constant acceleration near the surface of the earth. We do not decide whether protons and electrons have the same (but opposite) charge. If he wants to take his unintended 'critique' of science so far as to suggest that scientific results are all socially constructed, then he is kindly invited to fuck off. But I don't think that's what he's suggesting.


At best he will be able to show that things that increase flurble increase flurble. This does not make such things right, even if we substitute the word 'wellbeing' for flurble. Unless we decide that flurble is good.
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From:notjenschiz
Date:April 9th, 2010 11:30 pm (UTC)
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Actually, economics and neuroeconomics do take some stabs at some of these issues, such as measuring our well-being compared to the well-being of a person in 2050. I agree that well-being is an arbitrary, non-scientific, and impossible to measure/compare metric. Or, in other words, not a metric at all

I think it is easier to say "I can show a system remarkably like the system we refer to as 'morality' might evolve from a simpler underlying principal, such as natural selection dynamics." But I don't think that's what he's trying to say.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:April 9th, 2010 11:43 pm (UTC)
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Agreed.

Right, he's not discussing the origin of moral intuition (which I think would be practically unavoidable in a social species).
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:April 10th, 2010 03:57 pm (UTC)

(*) further reflections

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This placing of additional emphasis on certain parameters in order to get the right result is possibly part of the explanation for what happens among the Westboro Baptists. Most people (nowadays) look around and see gay people getting married or otherwise settling down into a rather tame version of the gay lifestyle, but essentially enjoying wellbeing without harming anyone else's wellbeing, and are content to say diffrent strokes for diffrent folks. But the Westboro Baptists have to shout that homosexuality is inherently super double secret holy doubleplus ungood. This washes out all that wellbeing, making homosexuality a moral evil.

That 'nowadays' is also an important point. That fascinating graph of support for gay marriage by state/age strongly implies that opinion is shifting in time. If we had asked people about gay marriage in 1890... well, once we had revived the wellbred ladies, I expect we would discover that a strong majority would feel their wellbeing challenged by allowing gay marriage. Today, things are 50/50 or so. In the future, people will no doubt feel their lives are unfulfilling unless they've at least tried one gay marriage and one straight marriage.
It seems to me that there are two options.
A) The weighting of individual vs. community wellbeing is skewed so far to one side or the other that the matter has effectively been determined beforehand (rather than experimentally determined). "I'm sorry, your decline in wellbeing is immaterial compared to the wellbeing of all these other people/this other person, so gay marriage is moral/immoral."
B) The weighting is not skewed that far, so that populations at different times and different places will have different 'scientifically determined' morals.

Harris allows for this latter possibility - "And, as I emphasized in my talk, there may be many different ways for individuals and communities to thrive—many peaks on the moral landscape—so if there is real diversity in how people can be deeply fulfilled in life, this diversity can be accounted for and honored in the context of science." But how is this not the moral relativism that he loudly decries? How is this a universal basis for morality?
Moral relativisim is not (as Harris and the Westboro Baptists probably agree in thinking) 'anything goes,' but rather the recognition (changing things to Harris-speak) that different people have different wellbeing senses. That a Malibu beach bunny and a traditional Afghan American woman would assign different wellbeing quotients to wearing a bikini and wearing a burqa.
Either Harris has to allow this (and moral relativism) or he has to demonstrate (hopefully scientifically) that one woman's internal wellbeingometer is just wrong somehow.

To take another recent cause celebre, clearly the wellbeing of a large number of Mississippi high school students was increased by excluding lesbians and retards from prom. They made sure to publicize exactly how much fun they had! Either we must weight the unhappiness of the ostracized people by a huge factor (artificially, I would argue) in order to get the 'right' answer. Or we must agree that the majority acted morally in ostracizing the weirdos. Or we must somehow convince the happy majority that they are not really happy -- Sam Harris' wellbeingometer says that they only thought they were enjoying themselves.

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From:essentialsaltes
Date:April 10th, 2010 03:57 pm (UTC)

OMG my comments was too long Re: (*) further reflections

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And I'm still bothered by how little he even alludes to actual empirical tests. It's simply 'obvious' that the mandatory burqa is wrong. I quite agree, but he's claiming that this should be demonstrable scientifically. It's obvious that dropped stones fall, or that magnets are not strongly attracted to copper. And I can think of simple tests that would verify these obvious facts. But Harris does not propose any such simple tests. Indeed, when pressed on a similar point, his reaction was not to offer an empirical justification of his views, but rather "I confess that once we did speak, and I peered into the terrible gulf that separated us on these issues, I found that I could not utter another word to her. In fact, our conversation ended with my blindly enacting two, neurological clichés: my jaw quite literally dropped open, and I spun on my heels before walking away."

That was his big chance to smack her down with the power of science. But instead he got huffy, since the answer is 'obvious'.
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From:ian_tiberius
Date:April 11th, 2010 03:26 am (UTC)

Re: OMG my comments was too long Re: (*) further reflections

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After reading Harris' blog post, I think his intent is to say that there exists moral truth that is just as objective as your statements about physics; e.g., that "gouging out babies' eyes is wrong" is just as "true" as "protons and electrons have the same (but opposite) charge." With regard to your charge of subjectivity: Harris appears to be comparing the possibility that gouging out babies' eyes is not wrong to the possibility that we can't believe our own senses.

Descartes once postulated that perhaps absolutely everything he believed, all the way down to 2+2=4, was a lie, propagated by a malevolent demon who controlled everything he saw, heard, smelled, etc., Matrix-style. As I recall, Descartes eventually dismisses this possibility by saying "I exist, therefore God made me, therefore God exists, and God wouldn't allow that to happen", but I would dismiss it by saying: maybe it's true, but if we accept that possibility then there's absolutely no way for me to establish the truth of anything, so I choose to dismiss that possibility and presume that the things I see and hear are real.

Harris seems to be saying that his moral intuitions about the morality of gouging baby eyes are on the same plane as his physical intuitions about what his senses are telling him, and that to dismiss those moral intuitions as "subjective" would be as ridiculous and pointless as assuming that the things he sees and hears are purely subjective experiences conjured by Descartes' demon. I think that in response to your condemnation of his (lack of) response to the female neuroscientist, he would ask what you would say to someone who said "well, you can't say with surety that 'falling bodies fall with constant acceleration near the surface of the earth', because everything you see and hear might be false." You can't smack someone down with the power of science if they refuse to accept the premises on which the scientific process rests.

[continued]
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:April 11th, 2010 03:54 pm (UTC)

Re: OMG my comments was too long Re: (*) further reflections

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I agree that it is a fact that Harris has moral intuitions. They can be as immediate to his experience as the fact that he sees the sky being blue colored. I am not trying to wave that away with radical skepticism.

It is true that Harris sincerely believes that mandatory-burqa-laws are obviously wrong.
However, it is also true that there are people who believe that mandatory-burqa-laws are obviously right.

So I'm not denying the truth that people have moral intuitions.
I'm just pointing out that different people have different moral intuitions. Moral truths are not held universally, and in this sense they are subjective... differing from person to person.

Of course, Harris believes that his moral intuition is right on this count (and heck, I agree with him). And he does certainly believe that there just is a right answer to this question. To this extent, he is a moral realist. That's fine. It's a philosophical position with a long history and he's welcome to it (though I don't share it).

But, where he fails spectacularly (in my opinion) is when he suggests that science provides the justification for why his intuition is right, and the Taliban's is wrong.

He explicitly mentions the distinction you're talking about here when he discusses tinnitus. Yes, it is true that so-and-so is experiencing a ringing noise, and it is true that the doctor doesn't. Here, we can bring in science to settle the matter of whether there is actually a noise or not. The lack of sound does not make it untrue that the patient experiences a sound. But it does tell us (we hope) something about the true state of affairs out in the universe, rather than in our heads.

[This reminds me... in a recent discussion elsewhere, someone said something like "Morality is all in our heads," implying that it was imaginary or illusory. And my immediate thought was, "Where else would you expect to find it?"]

Anyway, Harris' program is, as far as I can tell:

Step 1: Assume some form of utilitarianism is true.
Step 2: Use science to determine moral facts.

I don't have a problem with this program, except that I think he's being disingenuous about step 1. How did he 'scientifically determine' that utilitarianism is the correct tool for determining moral facts?

Thus, by starting my talk with the assertion that values depend upon actual or potential changes in consciousness [wellbeing], and that some changes are better than others, I merely assumed what I set out to prove. This is what philosophers call “begging the question.” I am, therefore, an idiot.


And then, rather than justifying his selection, he goes on to wring his hands about all the people attacking his position. He does consider one alternative: "So how much time should we spend worrying about such a transcendent source of value? I think the time I will spend typing this sentence is already far too much." I submit that this is not an experimental result.

He leaps the is/ought divide by assuming utilitarianism without proof (either scientific or any other kind), so -- if his program is to provide a scientific basis for moral truths -- this is where he fails before he even begins.
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From:ian_tiberius
Date:April 11th, 2010 06:34 pm (UTC)

Re: OMG my comments was too long Re: (*) further reflections

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But, where he fails spectacularly (in my opinion) is when he suggests that science provides the justification for why his intuition is right, and the Taliban's is wrong.

I'm not sure that he actually says that anywhere. I read him as saying "Let us accept that this is the metric; then we can use science to measure whether one thing is better than another," not "Science has decreed that my metric is best." Harris writes:

So what about people who think that morality has nothing to do with anyone’s wellbeing? I am saying that we need not worry about them—just as we don’t worry about the people who think that their “physics” is synonymous with astrology, or sympathetic magic, or Vedanta.


He spends many paragraphs on a defense of his view that wellbeing=morality, but again, this part of his argument is clearly philosophical in nature, not scientific. He even yields the point that his personal definition of "morality" is not definitive:

And, as I emphasized in my talk, there may be many different ways for individuals and communities to thrive—many peaks on the moral landscape—so if there is real diversity in how people can be deeply fulfilled in life, this diversity can be accounted for and honored in the context of science. As I said in my talk, the concept of “wellbeing,” like the concept of “health,” is truly open for revision and discovery.


Personally, I think that all this reduces his argument to near-meaninglessness. He says that if we accept that morality should be based on well-being, and if we could agree on what "well-being" means, and if we had perfect knowledge of how various actions would impact everyone's well-being, we could decide between courses of action by choosing the one that maximizes well-being. Well, yes. And if I could shoot fireworks out of my ass, I could fly to the Moon. Still, the thing you're pillorying Harris for - the claim that his premise of morality is based on Science - is a claim I don't see him making.

(again, I only read the interminable blog post, I didn't watch the video, so maybe he does make that claim elsewhere.)
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From:ian_tiberius
Date:April 11th, 2010 06:54 pm (UTC)

Re: OMG my comments was too long Re: (*) further reflections

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Oops. In my post above, "He even yields the point that his personal definition of 'morality' is not definitive" should have read "He even yields the point that his personal definition of 'well-being' is not definitive".
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:April 11th, 2010 07:56 pm (UTC)

Re: OMG my comments was too long Re: (*) further reflections

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Personally, I think that all this reduces his argument to near-meaninglessness. He says that if we accept that morality should be based on well-being, and if we could agree on what "well-being" means, and if we had perfect knowledge of how various actions would impact everyone's well-being, we could decide between courses of action by choosing the one that maximizes well-being.

If that's all he's saying, then it's pretty boring, or tautological. Science can help us maximize variable W, once the criteria for W are defined.

When he says "Rather I was suggesting that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want..."

Imagine that he sets up a W that satisfies him. Using this variable and the power of Science, he determines the best way to maximize W. I'm unconcerned with how difficult this would be practically. But as a matter of principle, where in this process would he discover that actually he shouldn't have wanted W, but W'?

Maybe, as you seem to be suggesting, he doesn't think science would provide that answer. That instead, in the give and take of public discourse, ethicists would work out a W that changes (or there would be partisans for many different competing W's), and science's role is simply to evaluate different policies and how they would affect the global W.

But I don't think that's what he's suggesting. When he says "there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind." I don't think he's saying that science will evaluate policies (in the light of a W determined by the usual rational discourse) to figure out which course is right and which course is wrong.
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From:ian_tiberius
Date:April 12th, 2010 04:21 am (UTC)

Re: OMG my comments was too long Re: (*) further reflections

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If that's all he's saying, then it's pretty boring, or tautological. Science can help us maximize variable W, once the criteria for W are defined.

Well, yes, but I think his point is that people don't generally think of W as being measurable objectively. The idea that we could quantify well-being through brain scans (or whatever) is the quote-unquote revolutionary idea that he's setting forth. I think that the difficulties inherent in 1) deciding the criteria for W and 2) measuring those criteria make the idea unworkable as a comprehensive solution. But to offer the most favorable possible interpretation to Harris, we could say that even if we can't agree on all the criteria for W or figure out how to measure all the criteria, we might be able to agree upon and quantify some of them, and that might inform policy-making, even if it can't provide comprehensive answers.
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From:ian_tiberius
Date:April 11th, 2010 03:56 am (UTC)

Re: OMG my comments was too long Re: (*) further reflections

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It's tempting to get hung up on the details of the wellbeing-o-meter, and I think that Harris does his argument about universal moral truth a big disservice with all his talk about science and measurability. (Of course, that window dressing is undoubtedly what garnered him so much attention for simply putting forth a hypothesis about universal morality that's been offered by many other philosophers.)

Personally, my biggest problem with his argument is that he elides any concrete definition of "well-being" by saying that 1) it's intuitive, 2) you might derive "well-being" from different sources than I do (although your total well-being would still be measurable with the wellbeing-o-meter just like mine), and 3) just because well-being is a universal truth doesn't mean he understands its definition in full. Harris is really putting forth a philosophical argument, not a scientific one, and as such I'd like to ask him some questions about this maximization of well-being that defines morality.

essentialsaltes, I think your question about a poor guy stealing from a rich guy would be the most interesting thing to press Harris on. If I stole $100,000 from Bill Gates, he would never notice the difference, but my life would be substantially enhanced. Would this then be "moral"? A strict parsing of Harris' definition says "yes", in that the well-being of myself and Bill Gates has, in the aggregate, increased - but I wonder what he would say to that.

To take another recent cause celebre, clearly the wellbeing of a large number of Mississippi high school students was increased by excluding lesbians and retards from prom. They made sure to publicize exactly how much fun they had! Either we must weight the unhappiness of the ostracized people by a huge factor (artificially, I would argue) in order to get the 'right' answer. Or we must agree that the majority acted morally in ostracizing the weirdos.

I think that we're into the weeds here with the issue of how one constructs the wellbeing-o-meter. Nothing Harris says implies that it's simply a measurement of one's happiness at a particular moment in time. I think Harris might say it should take into account the long-lasting effects on McMillen and the other excluded students and those who read about the incident and empathized with McMillen, the possibility that it gives encouragement to others to treat homosexuals just as poorly, and perhaps future attacks of conscience suffered by the rest of the students. Again, Harris isn't claiming to have the wellbeing-o-meter, only saying that if he had perfect knowledge, he could construct one.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:April 11th, 2010 04:38 pm (UTC)

Re: OMG my comments was too long Re: (*) further reflections

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OK, having covered why I think his program fails before it begins -- at least for his larger (mainly tacit) claim that utilitarianism is scientifically justified -- this is not to say that his program is without merit. Regardless of the moral dimension, as a matter of public policy, it would be useful to figure out how to make people happier or wellbeinger. And science would certainly be an admirable way to do that.

Harris is really putting forth a philosophical argument, not a scientific one

I quite agree, but that's not what he's saying. Which is why I'm all bent out of shape about it.

Nevertheless, I still see huge problems in principle, rather than in practice [contra his own opinion about his detractors].

Nothing Harris says implies that it's simply a measurement of one's happiness at a particular moment in time.

Yes, and I see this as a problem. If it were such a simple measurement, then (still given the unjustified-but-plausible assumption of utilitarianism) it might have some claim to objectiveness. But in the face of rather elementary objections, it's clear that wellbeing must involve a large number of different factors. I will stipulate that Harris can measure each of these factors with infinite accuracy.

The potential space of wellbeing metrics, mixing together these factors, is enormous. And there is no objective way (I argue) to choose among them. Using one metric, Bob has more wellbeing than Alice, while using a different metric, Alice has more wellbeing that Bob. How do we choose the correct metric? We can't just ask them who's happier right now or over the course of their lives, because we already know that's a faulty measure of wellbeing. We need an objective metric of wellbeing in order to come up with an objective metric of wellbeing.

And it seems clear to me that if we granted both Sam Harris and Pat Robertson perfect knowledge of all the measurable wellbeing factors, they would come up with different metrics. And Harris' critics are right when they say that any wellbeing metric he comes up with "must be a mere product of my own personal and cultural biases."
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From:ian_tiberius
Date:April 11th, 2010 06:45 pm (UTC)

Re: OMG my comments was too long Re: (*) further reflections

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And it seems clear to me that if we granted both Sam Harris and Pat Robertson perfect knowledge of all the measurable wellbeing factors, they would come up with different metrics.

Actually, this paragraph of his blog post suggests otherwise:

And, as I pointed out at TED, all the people who claim to have alternative sources of morality (like the Word of God) are, in every case that I am aware of, only concerned about wellbeing anyway: They just happen to believe that the universe functions in such a way as to place the really important changes in conscious experience after death (i.e. in heaven or hell).


See, to construct your "well-being" matrix properly, you just need to know whether and how we'll be rewarded in the afterlife for our actions here on Earth. Simple.

So yes, you're right about the question of how to construct the well-being matrix. Harris does a little hand-waving about "moral experts", but you once again have a chicken-and-egg problem; who chooses the experts? Are we going to put a Catholic priest on this panel? How about a Wahhabbist imam?

It's nice that Harris got a lot of people to think about all this stuff, but as we both seem to agree, his argument is ultimately just about meaningless without an agreed-upon definition of "well-being".
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:April 11th, 2010 08:15 pm (UTC)

Re: OMG my comments was too long Re: (*) further reflections

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See, to construct your "well-being" matrix properly, you just need to know whether and how we'll be rewarded in the afterlife for our actions here on Earth. Simple.

Even if we grant this perfect knowledge of the afterlife, this may not determine W. Suppose our perfect knowledge told us that the Bible is 'literally' true. Dawkins has described the God of the OT as "a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

Would it increase Dawkins' well-being to obey the commands of such a character, regardless of the potential bribe this monster offered him? How many witches would he kill? Could it be better to rule (or suffer) in Hell than to serve in Heaven?

I'm not at all certain that perfect knowledge (even of metaphysical matters unreachable by science) would uniquely determine W.
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From:hagdirt
Date:April 10th, 2010 08:37 pm (UTC)

Re: (*) further reflections

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How is this a universal basis for morality? Moral relativisim is not (as Harris and the Westboro Baptists probably agree in thinking) 'anything goes,' but rather the recognition (changing things to Harris-speak) that different people have different wellbeing senses.

What I find interesting is that the actual research done so far on a "universal basis for morality" seems to show that while there may be such a thing as a biological drive for morality, it's very vague in the details. The metaphor so far seems to be that, like language, we're programmed to find and learn the "local usage," but there's no "general usage" except in the very broadest sense: don't kill people, don't hurt people, share at least some of the time.

And while it's very excellent that we have an ingrown impulse to "not hurt people," it's no more useful to say we can "scientifically" determine the details of how to treat everyone than it is useful to say you speak all languages on Earth because you've learned French in high school. Or, that you can speak your own mother tongue.

PS - Have I mentioned "Moral Minds" by Hauser yet?
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:April 10th, 2010 10:28 pm (UTC)

Re: (*) further reflections

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I think a closer analogue to Harris' argument is to say... "Well, obviously Indo-European languages are more beautiful than Sinitic languages [and when challenged on this point by a Chinese poet, I peered into the terrible gulf that separated us on these issues, and found I could not utter another word to her] but if we really wanted to talk prettily, we could do experiments to find the maximally aesthetic language, and ultimately this would determine whether Volapük or Esperanto was the most beautiful language in the world."

More broadly a universal morality like a universal grammar might exist in Hauser's sense, and it can indeed be explored by science, but this still doesn't tell us anything about whether that shared morality is a good one. I expect "eye for an eye" thinking is relatively common, but is not what I would consider a good foundation for morality. Or to crib from the errors of the bingo board: I4 - Natural is always good.
From:boymaenad
Date:April 10th, 2010 08:55 pm (UTC)
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(a) I like this post, and (II) it seems like good XKCD fodder.
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From:richardabecker
Date:April 11th, 2010 05:40 am (UTC)
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I'll stay in the shallow end of the discussion and merely state that in my opinion, natural is not always better.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:April 11th, 2010 02:59 pm (UTC)
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That may be too deep for Harris, so you're one up on him.
From:aaronjv
Date:April 11th, 2010 08:49 am (UTC)
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Fucking scientists, stay out of my artsy-fartsy world.

Journal of No. 118