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Ch. 1: Moral Truth (The Moral Landscape) 
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Post Re: Ch. 1: Moral Truth (The Moral Landscape)
Quote:
...it is incorrect to speak of an assumption as either true or false, since there is no way of proving it to be either (If there were, it would no longer be an assumption). It is better to consider assumptions as either useful or useless, depending on whether deductions made from them corresponded to reality. ... On the other hand, it seems obvious that assumptions are the weak points in any argument, as they have to be accepted on faith in a philosophy of science that prides itself on its rationalism. Since we must start somewhere, we must have assumptions, but at least let us have as few assumptions as possible.
-Isaac Asimov


In regards to why we should accept Harris' definition of morality, I think this qoute sums up Chapter 1 pretty well. Equating morality to well-being is not scientifically factual or false, but it is a starting point that seems to correspond with reality and allows us to use reason and logic to make moral decisions. I don't understand how this is fundamentally different then Utilitarianism though. Would anyone care to clarify? Admittedly, I am not an expert on the subject. Also, based on the first chapter, I find the subtitle of the book very misleading. I also find a lot of Harris' arguments to be vague, circular, and often times based on metaphors alone. So far I agree with his conclusion though.



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Fri Jan 21, 2011 8:41 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1: Moral Truth (The Moral Landscape)
DrWhizgig wrote:
In regards to why we should accept Harris' definition of morality, I think this qoute sums up Chapter 1 pretty well. Equating morality to well-being is not scientifically factual or false, but it is a starting point that seems to correspond with reality and allows us to use reason and logic to make moral decisions. I don't understand how this is fundamentally different then Utilitarianism though. Would anyone care to clarify? Admittedly, I am not an expert on the subject. Also, based on the first chapter, I find the subtitle of the book very misleading. I also find a lot of Harris' arguments to be vague, circular, and often times based on metaphors alone. So far I agree with his conclusion though.


I think utilitarianism is a slippery enough term that it's not that useful without further explanation.

However, check out note 50 starting on p.210. Harris, paraphrasing Nozick, asks if it would be ethical for our species to be sacrificed for the unimaginably vast happiness of some superbeings, and answers "yes." The analogy being how we treat animals. As he says, the argument is not practically relevant; I'm not really sure what to make of it, but it's interesting.



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Sat Jan 22, 2011 8:26 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1: Moral Truth (The Moral Landscape)
Harris doesn't come right out and identify himself as a utilitarian, but since he approves of the phrase "the greatest good for the greatest number," it appears that he's firmly in that tradition. Consequentialism seems to be directly tied to utlitarianism, and he does call himself a consequentialist. I found his discussion of the difficulties of determining how best to benefit a population with whatever actions are proposed, to be a little dismaying, though it was honest of him to go into the topic. How can we really ever know what the unintended consequences will be, and how can we agree on the proportioning of benefit that would maximize well-being given the resources available? Harris likes to remind us that we shouldn't confuse no answers in practice with no answers in principle. I believe he sees problems with consequentialism to be of the first variety, but I'm not sure I can agree. It doesn't have to be true that advances in science will enable us to clarify these matters in which politics figure so highly.

He might also be assuming a political system that favors social engineering, which our brand of individualistic capitalism does not.

I was relieved, though, that Harris didn't claim that science will someday enable us to anticipate all the unintended consequences, which would mean being able to predict the future. That clearly is a case of no answers in principle, absent some extreme sci-fi scenario where everyone's thoughts are plugged into a centralized data base.

I want to defend the scientific basis of a morality that is based on well-being. That values reduce to facts about human brains is scientifically defensible. He's not talking about all conventional morals here, such as prohibitions against homosexuality, but about morals that really deserve to be called morals because they do relate the only thing we can really care about, which is the well-being of ourselves and others. Kindness is considered perhaps the central moral virtue because our brains react in a predictable way to treatment of this sort. We will describe the feeling as one of gratitude, pleasure, reassurance, or some other positive emotion. Goodness, which seems to be a more abstract kind of value, nevertheless has its origin in states of our brains that produce positive emotions about actions related to fairness or honesty. There isn't any disrespect for intellect shown here. Neuroscience has firmly established the partnership of emotion and reason, but reason is still real. As Harris writes, "Feeling may be necessary to judge the truth, but it cannot be sufficient" (127).

Can well-being as the foundation of a moral vision be criticized? Sure. I'm only making the case that it is scientifically sound.


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Sun Jan 23, 2011 8:43 am
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Post Re: Ch. 1: Moral Truth (The Moral Landscape)
Robert Tulip wrote:
DWill wrote:
The only part I could disagree with, Robert, is that the most compelling reason to act to mitigate climate change is to avoid human extinction.

The implications of global warming are the big reason why the relation between facts and values as presented by Harris is the most urgent question in morality.

Basing our values on facts is the only reliable way to make the world a better place, and address the large scale global threats we face.

James Hansen, head of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, is an expert on Venus. His study of the atmosphere of Venus led him to observe that if humans successfully move enough carbon from the crust of earth into the atmosphere to burn all oil, coal and shale oil, we will create a runaway Venus syndrome, putting planetary temperature above the boiling point of water. A runaway greenhouse effect would make earth uninhabitable, causing human extinction. This is possible. It is not a joke, and it is not a secondary problem. It is the primary fact of our time.

Despite this factual observation, the pace of CO2 emissions is increasing, not decreasing. People do not base their values on the facts of observation of our planet, but on imaginary ideas and dumb instincts. This is the ground of Harris's observation that fundamentalism in religion is an emergency problem, because of its scale and danger, and its evil capacity to distract people from real ethical problems such as climate change in favor of supernatural beliefs such as the Christ myth.

Yet Harris is wrong in his wish to throw the baby out with the bathwater by abolishing religion, the goal he hints at. He fails to see the rational meaning behind the stupid veneer of faith. The gospels have immense power to transform human life for the better through a vision of love. If we read the gospels through an atheist lens, we can still glean superb ethical content, including a counter-cultural recognition that the mentality of blind faith should be condemned in favor of analytical reason.

Harris has said there is no reason for blind faith and the trappings of organized religion when there are other perfectly good reasons to behave ethically and morally. I agree with this. Imagine all of the money and lives that could be saved without organized religion.



Mon Feb 14, 2011 10:22 am
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Post Re: Ch. 1: Moral Truth (The Moral Landscape)
Meditation should be a requisite of every major discipline, as the "the truth is lived, not taught"....


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