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Evolutionary Ethics in The Moral Landscape 
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Post Evolutionary Ethics in The Moral Landscape
Sam Harris makes some rather surprising comments about the relation between evolution and morality. On page 14, he says our modern concerns about meaning and morality have flown the perch built by evolution. On page 48 he takes a swipe at Edward O Wilson, the sociobiologist, for linking morality and reproduction.

I recently read and reviewed Wilson’s book Anthill, and felt it provided a far more profound moral sense than I detected in The Moral Landscape. For example, the parable of the mutant ant nest that kills all its food sources and then dies itself is a lesson for global humanity.

My impression is that, like with other leading new atheists, a strong element of bombast creeps into Harris’s discussion of evolution and ethics. He seems to take a simplistic view of what constitutes evolutionary fitness, approving Stephen Pinker’s strange statement to the effect that male promiscuity is the fittest approach, with his description on page 13 of sperm bank contributions as ‘conforming to the dictates of evolution’. Such bombastic rhetoric lacks nuance. For example, it might be a more evolutionarily stable strategy for men to ensure a small number of their children do well than to indiscriminately father as many as possible and abandon the mothers. This ESS could lead our genes to give men a moral bias towards family values.

It reminds me of the problem of bacteria, that we might expect the most virulent to be the fittest, whereas in fact these ones burn up their hosts too fast and die out. Promiscuity has dangers such as sexually transmitted infections and delinquency, which could well act in an evolutionarily behavioural way to encourage faithfulness.

My view is that Harris is on to an essential point with his argument that values should be based on facts, but he is nowhere near sufficiently cogent in explaining this big idea. He should be harnessing evolutionary logic to his case, arguing for intentional evolution towards a more sustainable society, but instead he indulges in gestures based on what look like an inadequate understanding of evolutionary philosophy and ethics. One example is his sloppy claim that the statements ‘cruelty is bad’ and ‘water contains hydrogen and oxygen’ are equally true. An evolutionary ethic should see that at times cruelty can be good, as when lions kill the cubs of rivals. There are analogies in human life where a lack of competition leads to stagnation, even though competition is inherently cruel at times.

Here at Booktalk we have had good discussion on sociobiologist authors Robert Wright and Franz de Waal, and of course on the closely related writings of Richard Dawkins. It therefore is a very discussable aspect of The Moral Landscape that despite saying he wants to base values on facts, Harris rejects the notion of evolutionary ethics.

The endorsement of Dennett’s swipe at Wilson regarding morality and reproduction has a whiff of Harris positioning himself politically, expressing his sentimental attachments of like and dislike. This would be okay if he did not express such absolutist bombast. It seems Harris wants to define well-being as conceptually distinct from reproductive success. This definition may have its attractions, but it also could lead a people to decide to fail as a society but have a good time doing so. It leaves open a short term hedonic definition of wellbeing that belittles sacrificial duty for the good of the future aimed at long term flourishing.

Contrary to Harris’s implication that evolution is so passé, it can be argued that human evolution has indeed moved beyond a purely genetic basis into a memetic framework in which intentional decisions about culture, technology and politics will determine the survival and flourishing of our planet. We can see that despite the complexity, these memetic decisions are driven by natural selection and cumulative adaptation just as much as the slower processes of genetics are. Morality therefore becomes the effort to shape the memetic process.

At the end of the day, Harris wants to say that New York liberal values are absolute and universal, that wellbeing equates to personal fulfillment. A rigorous evolutionary framework can be inconvenient for this politically correct world view, so he ditches the relevance of evolution to morality. So much for basing his values on facts.



Last edited by Robert Tulip on Fri Jan 21, 2011 9:40 pm, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: Evolutionary Ethics in The Moral Landscape
Good post, RT.

Always thoughtful, always a catalyst for deeper consideration. Keep em coming.


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Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.

Have you tried that? Looking for answers?
Or have you been content to be terrified of a thing you know nothing about?

Is this the virtue of faith? To never change your mind: especially when you should?

Young Earth Creationists take offense at the idea that we have a common heritage with other animals. Why is being the descendant of a mud golem any better?


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Post Re: Evolutionary Ethics in The Moral Landscape
You're entitled to your opinion, of course, but my concern is that people not reading the book will get a distorted idea of it from your commentary. I believe that if the context of the snippets you condemn is given, what Harris and Pinker are saying isn't controversial, much less peculiar.

Take the first remark about the place of evolution in determining our morality.
Quote:
I hope it is clear that the view of "good" and "bad" I am advocating, while fully constrained by our current biology (as well as by its future possibilities), cannot be directly reduced to instinctual drives and evolutionary imperatives. As with mathematics, science, art, and almost everything else that interests us, our modern concerns about meaning and morality have flown the perch built by evolution (13-14)


Harris later ridicules one statement by Wilson and Ruse, not for "linking morality and reproduction," but for saying "morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends." This is quite untrue as an analysis of our ethics as we survey the moral landscape. Harris, linking morality and reproduction, says just a sentence later: "The fact that our moral intuitions probably conferred some adaptive advantage upon our ancestors does not mean that the present purpose of morality is successful reproduction, or that our 'belief in morality' is just a useful delusion. (Is the purpose of astronomy successful reproduction? What about the practice of contraception? Is that all about reproduction, too?)"

Harris paraphrases Pinker as saying that "if conforming to the dictates of evolution were the foundation of subjective well-being, most men would discover no higher calling in life than to make daily contributions to their local sperm bank (13)." Pinker is simply respecting the undeniable equivalence of natural selection with getting the maximum number of an organism's genes into the next generation. Yet the fact that there is a "higher calling in life" at all, that we have a concern for "subjective well-being," is all the evidence we need that we've left natural selection behind in our construction of ethics. If men have conceived the idea that quality of offspring might be better than quantity, certainly you don't thank natural selection for that insight; you thank the ability of humans to think and reason. As Dawkins says, every time a man puts on a condom, he is asserting a power independent of the selfish genes with which evolution has endowed him.

You say that Harris is right to say that values need to be based on facts, but that he has no idea how to explain this big idea. You still haven't registered that when Harris says that values should be based on facts, he's talking only about facts relating to conscious brains, which gives him the means of locating well-being at the center of morality. This is actually not that big an idea, but a rather self-apparent one that doesn't even require sophisticated neuroscience.

Concerning your complaint about sloppiness in Harris' claim that 'cruelty is bad' and 'water contains hydrogen and oxygen' are equally true, what he says is that both are facts. One is a discrete fact and the other is less so, but each is based on physical realities. In the case of cruelty, the intention to be cruel will almost without exception produce in the victim a physical state of the brain that the victim will report as painful. If it can be difficult to apply facts about cruelty with the precision that applies to facts about water, that is no argument against the value of doing just that, as the benefits to humans are potentially much greater. The example of cruelty as a fact relating to conscious states indicates, contrary to your claim that Harris expresses a political or sentimental preference, that he has an objective basis for determining moral right and wrong.

Harris never equates well-being with doing what feels good in the moment. Implicit in his argument for increasing well-being as the prime civic virtue is the idea that everyone will have to sacrifice, that is have fewer means to fulfill hedonic desires.

Harris manages economically to separate scientific genes from non-scientific memes.
Quote:
The obvious difference between genes and memes (e.g., beliefs, ideas, cultural practices) is also important to keep in view. The latter are communicated; they do not travel with the gametes of their human hosts. The survival of memes, therefore, is not dependent on their conferring some actual benefit (reproductive or otherwise) on individuals or groups. It is quite possible for people to traffic in ideas and other cultural products that diminish their well-being for centuries on end (20-21).


Finally, I'm afraid I have to point to your own attempt to give evolution an aspirational character as peculiar. What could "harnessing evolutionary logic" and applying "intentional evolution" enable us to do? Harnessing ourselves to evolution could only mean being committed to whatever happens. In retooling evolution to make it a value, you're in fact inadvertently agreeing with Harris that evolution leaves us high and dry when it comes to the ethics and morality our cultures have created. Evolution is neutral. The development of morality in the beginning enabled humans to increase our chances of survival, but this can be compared to a booster rocket that falls away once the force of gravity is surpassed. We're on our own now.


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Post Re: Evolutionary Ethics in The Moral Landscape
I haven't read Harris' book, but I am familiar with much of his work. I especially appreciate the careful way that DWill and RT engage the text, and each other.

At what point does the search for values in evolutionary facts, become individual psychological projection: a rorscharch exercise, where the enormous mass of data that composes evolution- becomes a subjective composition by the thinker evaluating the data?



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Post Re: Evolutionary Ethics in The Moral Landscape
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At what point does the search for values in evolutionary facts, become individual psychological projection: a rorscharch exercise, where the enormous mass of data that composes evolution- becomes a subjective composition by the thinker evaluating the data?


That is a problem that has polarized secular liberals from those who think science has something to say about morality. Harris' reasoning was that even though the sum total isn't possible to evaluate, that doesn't mean specific parts, or parts in general, aren't able to be evaluated. If we are turned off by the near impossibility of the task, no progress will be made. We need to start somewhere, and realizing that human values are actually facts about the state of a person's brain is the first step. Pointing at the moral landscape in it's entirety and despairing over the enormity of the task, and the pitfalls of subjectivity, is to ignore the fact that progress can be made. I would also say that it is most certainly not one lone thinker who would evaluate the data. The process would be democratic in some sense. Harris may address this, but I haven't gotten past the introduction.



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Post Re: Evolutionary Ethics in The Moral Landscape
Although I haven't read the context of the Wilson quote, I suspect that Dennet's dismissal (with Harris' approval) of Wilson on p. 48 is an example of oversimplifying someone else's arguments. Would Wilson (or most people) really disagree with Harris, who says that much of what we do in the name of morality has been shaped by natural selection, "but this does not mean that evolution designed us to lead deeply fulfilling lives"?

As in other places, I think Harris' arguments are perhaps less controversial than he makes them out to be, if you were to examine how people actually think or talk about moral questions, and not just taking a stated moral relativist position at face value.

I say this particularly because Harris doesn't attempt to answer the "hard cases," but limits himself to condemning practices that a vast majority would agree is harmful to well-being.



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Post Re: Evolutionary Ethics in The Moral Landscape
DWill, thanks for the detailed response. We have previously discussed how evolution relates to philosophy and clearly see things differently. I am trying to engage with what Harris actually says, rather than an idealised version of what his argument should be. As I said in the intro thread, I like his aims, but don’t think he argues them very well.

DWill wrote:
what Harris and Pinker are saying isn't controversial, much less peculiar.
But is it correct? My concern is to analyse Harris’s comments on the relation between evolution and ethics. This topic is immediately controversial for all who hold to a supernaturalist view of reality, and also, for different reasons, for scientists who subscribe to the Hume/Popper firewall between facts and values.
Quote:
Take the first remark about the place of evolution in determining our morality.
Quote:
I hope it is clear that the view of "good" and "bad" I am advocating, while fully constrained by our current biology (as well as by its future possibilities), cannot be directly reduced to instinctual drives and evolutionary imperatives. As with mathematics, science, art, and almost everything else that interests us, our modern concerns about meaning and morality have flown the perch built by evolution (13-14)

Harris says the good is “the well-being of sentient creatures.” Apart from the surprising use of ‘creatures’, a throwback to the creationist logic of a creator who makes creatures, instead of the more scientific term ‘organisms’, this definition of the good is entirely evolutionary in intent.

Our choices today could lead to alternative futures in one million years time in which either (i) humanity is expanding into the cosmos or (ii) we have gone extinct through warfare and ecological destruction, or (iii) we have regressed into a ‘planet of the apes’ or ‘mad max’ type post-apocalyptic condition. Obviously genetic evolution is only a small part of this question of the destiny of our planet, but it remains entirely legitimate to describe future (i) as evolving into a higher complexity and futures (ii) and (iii) as a failure to evolve and regression to a lower state. Well-being, considered over the long term, is entirely congruent with and dependent on human flourishing understood in evolutionary terms. We can only flourish if we stay on the right side of evolutionary risks by preventing wars and climatic catastrophes. Our brains are the main utensil to achieve such success, or even the taboo word progress. The well-being agenda sits entirely within an evolutionary framework.
Quote:
Harris later ridicules one statement by Wilson and Ruse, not for "linking morality and reproduction," but for saying "morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends." This is quite untrue as an analysis of our ethics as we survey the moral landscape.
My paraphrase is shorter, but the meaning is the same. Socio-biology argues that valid values conduce to flourishing, and that flourishing is entirely a matter of evolutionary success. Apparent flourishing that is not sustainable is delusional.

Given Harris’s interest in basing values on facts, he is not talking just about a survey of the existing moral landscape, but of the peaks on that landscape where well-being is greatest. These peaks clearly relate to evolutionary success. A peak of well-being that is not sustainable hardly counts as moral and ethical. For example putting priority on consumption over investment increases current well being at the expense of the future.

If societies maximise well-being, they set themselves up for sustained evolutionary progress, understood as movement towards ever higher cultural and social complexity and depth of interaction.
Quote:
Harris, linking morality and reproduction, says just a sentence later: "The fact that our moral intuitions probably conferred some adaptive advantage upon our ancestors does not mean that the present purpose of morality is successful reproduction, or that our 'belief in morality' is just a useful delusion. (Is the purpose of astronomy successful reproduction? What about the practice of contraception? Is that all about reproduction, too?)"
Actually this delinks morality and reproduction. Harris critiques present morality as not sufficiently fact-based. If we wish to reform current morality to take facts into account then the evolutionary implications of alternative choices becomes a decisive criterion.
Quote:
Harris paraphrases Pinker as saying that "if conforming to the dictates of evolution were the foundation of subjective well-being, most men would discover no higher calling in life than to make daily contributions to their local sperm bank (13)." Pinker is simply respecting the undeniable equivalence of natural selection with getting the maximum number of an organism's genes into the next generation.
This equivalence is both deniable and wrong. A higher level of evolutionary logic has to consider both the superiority of targeted reproductive investment over a scattergun approach, and also possibly the idea of group selection. If we wish to evolve as a species we have to sublimate blind instinct in favour of rational cooperation.
Quote:
Yet the fact that there is a "higher calling in life" at all, that we have a concern for "subjective well-being," is all the evidence we need that we've left natural selection behind in our construction of ethics.
No way. That does not follow. For one, a higher calling often involves sacrifice of subjective interests in favour of a broader strategic or long term interest, for two, ‘our construction of ethics’ often gives higher priority to principles and myths over facts, and for three, nature remains determinant, it is just that we have to see our memetic evolution as part of natural selection.
Quote:
If men have conceived the idea that quality of offspring might be better than quantity, certainly you don't thank natural selection for that insight; you thank the ability of humans to think and reason.
Certainly? Very many organisms exercise a purely evolutionary trade-off between quality and quantity of offspring. These decisions are hardwired into the genetic code. Humans may think we transcend nature in rational decision making, but much of our thinking is in fact instinctive.
Quote:
As Dawkins says, every time a man puts on a condom, he is asserting a power independent of the selfish genes with which evolution has endowed him.
Our genes evolved language and brains which enable decisions on reproduction. The ultimate ethic of such decisions is evolutionary, shown in the consequences for the future.
Quote:

You say that Harris is right to say that values need to be based on facts, but that he has no idea how to explain this big idea. You still haven't registered that when Harris says that values should be based on facts, he's talking only about facts relating to conscious brains, which gives him the means of locating well-being at the center of morality. This is actually not that big an idea, but a rather self-apparent one that doesn't even require sophisticated neuroscience.
So human ideas of love, truth, beauty and justice are reducible to brain facts? That makes no sense. These ideas exist as relational realities in the world.

Harris makes the bizarre claim (p11) that “a clear boundary between facts and values does not exist.” This means we cannot distinguish between an empirical description of a situation and recommendations about how to respond to it.
Quote:

Concerning your complaint about sloppiness in Harris' claim that 'cruelty is bad' and 'water contains hydrogen and oxygen' are equally true, what he says is that both are facts. One is a discrete fact and the other is less so, but each is based on physical realities. In the case of cruelty, the intention to be cruel will almost without exception produce in the victim a physical state of the brain that the victim will report as painful. If it can be difficult to apply facts about cruelty with the precision that applies to facts about water, that is no argument against the value of doing just that, as the benefits to humans are potentially much greater.
But here is a simple example where there is a clear boundary between facts and values. Facts are objective. Water always contains hydrogen and oxygen. Values are subjective. Cruelty is not always bad. You can generalise about factual claims in a way that is simply invalid for moral statements of this kind. If Harris means cruelty is only usually bad, he must accept that his assertion of equality to factual statements is an error. All facts are true.
Quote:
The example of cruelty as a fact relating to conscious states indicates, contrary to your claim that Harris expresses a political or sentimental preference, that he has an objective basis for determining moral right and wrong.
This ‘objective basis’ is meaningless. If cruelty is bad then why do nations not open their borders to all comers on the grounds that migration restrictions are cruel? Do nations not mind being bad? Or do they have a different view of morality from Harris?
Quote:

Harris never equates well-being with doing what feels good in the moment. Implicit in his argument for increasing well-being as the prime civic virtue is the idea that everyone will have to sacrifice, that is have fewer means to fulfill hedonic desires.
You might like to find the reference for this implicit reading. I did not notice much discussion of duty or sacrifice.
Quote:
Harris manages economically to separate scientific genes from non-scientific memes.
Quote:
The obvious difference between genes and memes (e.g., beliefs, ideas, cultural practices) is also important to keep in view. The latter are communicated; they do not travel with the gametes of their human hosts. The survival of memes, therefore, is not dependent on their conferring some actual benefit (reproductive or otherwise) on individuals or groups. It is quite possible for people to traffic in ideas and other cultural products that diminish their well-being for centuries on end (20-21).

This statement does not say that memes are non-scientific. As well, it is another example of sloppy argument. Non-coding DNA confers no benefit but exists just because it can, and there are disease genes that diminish well being.
Quote:
Finally, I'm afraid I have to point to your own attempt to give evolution an aspirational character as peculiar. What could "harnessing evolutionary logic" and applying "intentional evolution" enable us to do? Harnessing ourselves to evolution could only mean being committed to whatever happens.
“Intentional evolution” was not my phrase. But as I explained above, planetary evolution is now dependent on human decisions. Our global choices about whether to base our values on facts or fantasy is the key determinant for whether we and our biosphere will prosper or languish.
Quote:
In retooling evolution to make it a value, you're in fact inadvertently agreeing with Harris that evolution leaves us high and dry when it comes to the ethics and morality our cultures have created. Evolution is neutral.
Evolution provides a basis to judge the value of morals. Morals with good consequences are compatible with progress to a more complex evolved condition, whereas morals with bad consequences cause regression to worse states.
Quote:
The development of morality in the beginning enabled humans to increase our chances of survival, but this can be compared to a booster rocket that falls away once the force of gravity is surpassed. We're on our own now.
Just because contemporary values seem to have cut loose from their moorings in facts, and are leaving us drifting on to what we could call the rocks of fate, does not mean that the rocks of fate do not exist. The idea that human culture has transcended nature is pure hubris. Eventually the natural consequences of all decisions show the evolutionary basis of valid ethics.



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Post Re: Evolutionary Ethics in The Moral Landscape
In general, Robert, we disagree, as you say. Perhaps my prime disagreement is your belief that evolution holds the key to human progress. You indicate at the end of your post that it is hubristic to conceive humans as outside of nature. Of course it is, in the sense that we have obligations to all the other creatures with whom we share the planet. But it's different when we conceive culture, in its particularity, as outside the forces of nature, meaning of evolution. To me, it's somewhat hubristic of you to imply that the success of humans equals success in evolution. Our species could disappear and we could still count that as a fully "successful" development in terms of evolution. Success is a term we impose on the process of evolution. The disappearance of thousands of species after the Cambrian explosion is just a neutral event.

You seem to derive an "ought" from evolution in the sense that evolution proceeds from lower to higher complexity. Whether it might be diversity, not complexity, that increases doesn't matter for now. Complexity is not necessarily a measure of success and not something for which to strive for its own sake. Why is it better?
Quote:
Harris says the good is “the well-being of sentient creatures.” Apart from the surprising use of ‘creatures’, a throwback to the creationist logic of a creator who makes creatures, instead of the more scientific term ‘organisms’, this definition of the good is entirely evolutionary in intent.

Are you serious? Harris is using creationist logic?
Quote:
Our choices today could lead to alternative futures in one million years time in which either (i) humanity is expanding into the cosmos or (ii) we have gone extinct through warfare and ecological destruction, or (iii) we have regressed into a ‘planet of the apes’ or ‘mad max’ type post-apocalyptic condition. Obviously genetic evolution is only a small part of this question of the destiny of our planet, but it remains entirely legitimate to describe future (i) as evolving into a higher complexity and futures (ii) and (iii) as a failure to evolve and regression to a lower state. Well-being, considered over the long term, is entirely congruent with and dependent on human flourishing understood in evolutionary terms. We can only flourish if we stay on the right side of evolutionary risks by preventing wars and climatic catastrophes. Our brains are the main utensil to achieve such success, or even the taboo word progress. The well-being agenda sits entirely within an evolutionary framework.

Again, human flourishing and well-being, that is what we conceive of in moral terms as human flourishing, has nothing to do with evolution. Evolution doesn't care about our moral development, just with how good we are at reproduction.
Quote:
My paraphrase is shorter, but the meaning is the same. Socio-biology argues that valid values conduce to flourishing, and that flourishing is entirely a matter of evolutionary success. Apparent flourishing that is not sustainable is delusional.

A species that flourishes, from the standpoint of evolution, grows in numbers and competes successfully in the ecosystem. That isn't what either Harris or you are intending by the word.
Quote:
Given Harris’s interest in basing values on facts, he is not talking just about a survey of the existing moral landscape, but of the peaks on that landscape where well-being is greatest. These peaks clearly relate to evolutionary success. A peak of well-being that is not sustainable hardly counts as moral and ethical. For example putting priority on consumption over investment increases current well being at the expense of the future.

I hate to be so insistent on this, but you should say something like "basing values on facts relating to sentient beings." I know you have an overriding interest in sustainability, but facts about sustainability wouldn't directly translate into values for Harris. It would be by relating sustainability issues to well-being, ultimately to brains, that we'd find the route from sustainability to ethics.
Quote:
If societies maximise well-being, they set themselves up for sustained evolutionary progress, understood as movement towards ever higher cultural and social complexity and depth of interaction.

Well-being can take many forms. Certainly in some cases increasing well-being might entail a drop in complexity, at least as subjectively viewed. Might not the social and cultural complexity of multiple religious communities, with the attendant possibility for conflict, be exactly what is impeding well-being?
Quote:
If we wish to evolve as a species we have to sublimate blind instinct in favour of rational cooperation.

This is a value-laden idea of evolution.
Quote:
For one, a higher calling often involves sacrifice of subjective interests in favour of a broader strategic or long term interest, for two, ‘our construction of ethics’ often gives higher priority to principles and myths over facts, and for three, nature remains determinant, it is just that we have to see our memetic evolution as part of natural selection.

Sure, sacrifice for the long-term can be fully compatible with well-being. I don't have the quotations at hand, but Harris acknowledges this. As far as nature--meaning natural selection--being determinant over the forms of our culture, ethics, or morality, tell me how natural selection operates in the necessity for women to wear burkkas in Muslim societies.
Quote:
Very many organisms exercise a purely evolutionary trade-off between quality and quantity of offspring. These decisions are hardwired into the genetic code. Humans may think we transcend nature in rational decision making, but much of our thinking is in fact instinctive.

Humans are the only ones capable of consciously restraining reproduction. It is not instinctive to decide to have just two, one, or no children.
Quote:
Our genes evolved language and brains which enable decisions on reproduction. The ultimate ethic of such decisions is evolutionary, shown in the consequences for the future.

Consequences that we hold entirely in our own minds. There is no ethic of evolution.
Quote:
So human ideas of love, truth, beauty and justice are reducible to brain facts? That makes no sense. These ideas exist as relational realities in the world.

Why is it that we have ideas of love, truth, beauty, justice, and so on? Isn't it because it feels good to be loved and to love, that it feels pleasurable to contemplate works of art, that it feels comforting and right to be treated fairly? Could we know any of these concepts without having just the brains that we do have? The word "reducible" is not the right one if it's meant to denigrate facts about our brains, facts that are really marvelous.
Quote:
But here is a simple example where there is a clear boundary between facts and values. Facts are objective. Water always contains hydrogen and oxygen. Values are subjective. Cruelty is not always bad. You can generalise about factual claims in a way that is simply invalid for moral statements of this kind. If Harris means cruelty is only usually bad, he must accept that his assertion of equality to factual statements is an error. All facts are true.

Cruelty, defined as an intention to produce a state of fear or pain in another feeling creature, can be said to be always bad. This isn't the same thing as being "tough," as a drill sergeant might be, or as a parent might need to be. See Harris' discussion of subjectivity on pp 29-31. Again, values attach to facts, facts about the human brain.
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This ‘objective basis’ is meaningless. If cruelty is bad then why do nations not open their borders to all comers on the grounds that migration restrictions are cruel? Do nations not mind being bad? Or do they have a different view of morality from Harris?

This type of problem Harris discusses in the section on consequentialism (67-73). How you do go about determining what actions do the most good for the greatest number is complicated. In the case of immigration, the well-being of the citizens needs to be taken into account, and, given our preference for advancing the well-being of our own people, tends to take center stage. This may be a moral shortcoming of ours, or it may reflect logic related to available resources in the host country. That's what the debate is about.
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I did not notice much discussion of duty or sacrifice.

See the section "Is Being Good Just Too Difficult?", 82-83. The peaks on the moral landscape are those situations where well-being has become generalized, and that can't occur without some people giving something up.
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Just because contemporary values seem to have cut loose from their moorings in facts, and are leaving us drifting on to what we could call the rocks of fate, does not mean that the rocks of fate do not exist. The idea that human culture has transcended nature is pure hubris. Eventually the natural consequences of all decisions show the evolutionary basis of valid ethics.

Contemporary values need to get closer to to the facts about sentient beings. That is Harris' argument in a nutshell. Otherwise, we're stuck, on one side, with a morality that stresses prohibitions about such things as homosexuality, and on the other, a morality that lacks any strong voice.


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Last edited by DWill on Tue Jan 18, 2011 12:18 pm, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: Evolutionary Ethics in The Moral Landscape
Robert, an addendum. Could we possibly find agreement using this passage from Chapter 3?
Quote:
And much of our behavior and cognition, even much that now seems essential to our humanity, has not been selected for at all. There are no aspects of brain function that evolved to hold democratic elections, to run financial institutions, or to teach children to read. We are, in every cell, the products of nature--but we have also been born again and again through culture (119)
.


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Post Re: Evolutionary Ethics in The Moral Landscape
DWill wrote:
In general, Robert, we disagree, as you say. Perhaps my prime disagreement is your belief that evolution holds the key to human progress.
I think this is a necessary statement of logic. Evolution is the law of life. Cumulative adaptation, building on precedent, changes succeeding where they deliver improvement, is how things happen in the absence of external disruption. Human culture evolves by exactly the same laws as we see in genetics. Human progress happens when people find things that are better than what they have done before, in the absence of external disruption. Systems, whether cultural or ecological, progress to ever greater complexity, with more diverse and sensitive organisms emerging and finding a sustainable niche in their environment.
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You indicate at the end of your post that it is hubristic to conceive humans as outside of nature. Of course it is, in the sense that we have obligations to all the other creatures with whom we share the planet.
”Obligations to other creatures” retains too much of the Abrahamic tradition of dominion, with the assumption that human stewardship of nature sees us as a higher power than the planet. This is simply not true. If we continue on a path that is not ecologically sustainable, especially spewing CO2 into the air in ever greater quantities, Gaia will bite back and obliterate us. This is not some mystic idea but a physical law of nature.
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But it's different when we conceive culture, in its particularity, as outside the forces of nature, meaning of evolution. To me, it's somewhat hubristic of you to imply that the success of humans equals success in evolution.
I don’t get that. Success in evolution means continued increase in complexity. I simply cannot conceive what other form of success you are imagining here. Seeing our success as part of nature is the opposite of the dominant hubristic paradigm.
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Our species could disappear and we could still count that as a fully "successful" development in terms of evolution. Success is a term we impose on the process of evolution. The disappearance of thousands of species after the Cambrian explosion is just a neutral event.
This is just the sort of ‘value-free’ scientific outlook that Harris rails against. His argument that well-being is the highest good requires us to ask how we can maximise well-being. Human well-being requires that we live in harmony with the ecological systems that sustain life on our planet. If we disrupt these systems we imperil human well-being, except in the most stupid and short term dimension. Disappearance of homo sapien might be neutral from a value free objectivity, but it most certainly is not neutral for homo sapien.
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You seem to derive an "ought" from evolution in the sense that evolution proceeds from lower to higher complexity. Whether it might be diversity, not complexity, that increases doesn't matter for now. Complexity is not necessarily a measure of success and not something for which to strive for its own sake. Why is it better?
Diversity and complexity are essentially the same. A more diverse ecosystem, with greater biodiversity, is necessarily more complex. Fewer species equals more simplicity. Complexity in ecological terms provides robustness against shock, and is therefore better in terms of sustainability.
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Harris says the good is “the well-being of sentient creatures.” Apart from the surprising use of ‘creatures’, a throwback to the creationist logic of a creator who makes creatures, instead of the more scientific term ‘organisms’, this definition of the good is entirely evolutionary in intent.

Are you serious? Harris is using creationist logic?
Well, yes. Creature is a creationist word. A creature has a creator. An organism evolves by nature. I was simply noting that in accidentally using this obsolete word from his theistic opponents, Harris commits a naive faux pas a bit like using words such as ‘crusade’ or ‘blood libel’ in ignorance of their historic resonance.
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Again, human flourishing and well-being, that is what we conceive of in moral terms as human flourishing, has nothing to do with evolution. Evolution doesn't care about our moral development, just with how good we are at reproduction.
But, my point in starting this thread is to argue that “moral development” lacks a factual ground when it fails to accord with a long term ecological strategic vision. This is the key to why evolution is at the centre of basing values on facts.
Quote:
A species that flourishes, from the standpoint of evolution, grows in numbers and competes successfully in the ecosystem. That isn't what either Harris or you are intending by the word.
Why not? The human species seeks to compete successfully in the global ecosystem. If we fail in this basic task we will go extinct or regress. Flourishing is entirely an evolutionary term.
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I hate to be so insistent on this, but you should say something like "basing values on facts relating to sentient beings." I know you have an overriding interest in sustainability, but facts about sustainability wouldn't directly translate into values for Harris. It would be by relating sustainability issues to well-being, ultimately to brains, that we'd find the route from sustainability to ethics.
If you say that sustainability is irrelevant to well-being, you get back to my original charge against Harris that short term happiness that goes out with a bang is morally equal to a prudent and providential planning for the long term. The bohemian grasshopper with his violin would then be as ‘good’ as the ant who works hard and invests for the future. As I noted in my review of Anthill, the Bible picks up this naturalistic maxim with the proverb ‘look to the ant o sluggard, consider her ways and be wise.’ Wisdom provides for the future.
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Well-being can take many forms. Certainly in some cases increasing well-being might entail a drop in complexity, at least as subjectively viewed. Might not the social and cultural complexity of multiple religious communities, with the attendant possibility for conflict, be exactly what is impeding well-being?
Good point. My view is that dogmatic uniformity is a form of simplicity that overrides cultural complexity and diversity. Again, the Biblical source in the Beatitudes, especially ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ provides a blessing for diversity. The meek are inherently diverse.
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If we wish to evolve as a species we have to sublimate blind instinct in favour of rational cooperation.

This is a value-laden idea of evolution.
Yes. It is about shaping terrestrial evolution so that humans stay part of it. That is what I value.
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Sure, sacrifice for the long-term can be fully compatible with well-being. I don't have the quotations at hand, but Harris acknowledges this.
“Compatible”? How are the peaks of well being “compatible” with anything else than long term interest. I am not convinced that long term interests always require sacrifice though.
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As far as nature--meaning natural selection--being determinant over the forms of our culture, ethics, or morality, tell me how natural selection operates in the necessity for women to wear burkkas in Muslim societies.
Burkhas are a good example of a pathological ethic that lacks a basis in reason and evidence. This is where I agree with Harris that fundamentalism is a moral emergency, enabling people to justify moral stances that are actually harmful.
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Humans are the only ones capable of consciously restraining reproduction. It is not instinctive to decide to have just two, one, or no children.
The issue here is that our brains have become an evolutionary device to enable us to determine if we flourish or fail. We have to change/evolve our concept of evolution away from just blind instinct towards seeing reason as our central adaptive tool. The intermediation of an apparent rational freedom in reproductive decisions makes no real difference to the bigger evolutionary argument. If every woman in the world has six children and all of them survive to have six children we are on an insane path to collective destruction, incompatible with the natural boundaries of evolution.
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Our genes evolved language and brains which enable decisions on reproduction. The ultimate ethic of such decisions is evolutionary, shown in the consequences for the future.

Consequences that we hold entirely in our own minds. There is no ethic of evolution.
Continuing the same point, our minds do not transcend our natural context. This sense of transcendence of mind over matter is the hubris of religion and its fact-free values.
Quote:
Why is it that we have ideas of love, truth, beauty, justice, and so on? Isn't it because it feels good to be loved and to love, that it feels pleasurable to contemplate works of art, that it feels comforting and right to be treated fairly? Could we know any of these concepts without having just the brains that we do have? The word "reducible" is not the right one if it's meant to denigrate facts about our brains, facts that are really marvelous.
“Feeling” or sentiment falls far short of a fact based ethic. Love is good because it promotes a sustainable, secure and stable society. The fact that we like it is a bonus.
Quote:
Cruelty, defined as an intention to produce a state of fear or pain in another feeling creature, can be said to be always bad. This isn't the same thing as being "tough," as a drill sergeant might be, or as a parent might need to be. See Harris' discussion of subjectivity on pp 29-31. Again, values attach to facts, facts about the human brain.
Ah, but now you are qualifying the meaning of cruelty. The difference between facts and values is that facts are absolute and quantitative, while values are relative and qualitative. I agree a world without cruelty would be a utopian ideal, but setting the abolition of cruelty as a prime moral goal would often involve the subversion of competitive market systems which have some inherent cruelty. The point here is that Harris equated the status of his personal values about cruelty with objective scientific statements in a completely illogical way.
Quote:
This type of problem Harris discusses in the section on consequentialism (67-73). How you do go about determining what actions do the most good for the greatest number is complicated. In the case of immigration, the well-being of the citizens needs to be taken into account, and, given our preference for advancing the well-being of our own people, tends to take center stage. This may be a moral shortcoming of ours, or it may reflect logic related to available resources in the host country. That's what the debate is about.
Ah, so a subjective preference creeps into the decision, and the value statement lacks the objectivity of a quantitative fact.
Quote:
See the section "Is Being Good Just Too Difficult?", 82-83. The peaks on the moral landscape are those situations where well-being has become generalized, and that can't occur without some people giving something up.
That may be true, but it is not clear that tearing down the rich will improve the situation for the poor. Again, it illustrates that our values will always struggle to attain the level of objectivity that we can see in facts.
Quote:
Contemporary values need to get closer to the facts about sentient beings. That is Harris' argument in a nutshell. Otherwise, we're stuck, on one side, with a morality that stresses prohibitions about such things as homosexuality, and on the other, a morality that lacks any strong voice.

As you said earlier, I am struggling to understand what precisely Harris means by “facts about sentient beings”. In my view there are much bigger value questions than hurt feelings. If we can develop our world to be peaceful, loving, just and diverse, based on quantitative analytical assessment of what policies will achieve the best results, we provide a material basis for the well being of sentient beings. If we ignore the big picture of global evolution we are on a path to destruction.



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Post Re: Evolutionary Ethics in The Moral Landscape
I find my own opinion to be somewhere in between Robert's and DWill's.

The type of evolutionary principles discussed by Robert are not Biological in nature, but social. They do not necessarilly work on a Darwinistic level as they are not necessary to insure the survival/reproduction of the individual. Nor do they result in biological adaptation. They are however driven by the same Darwinistic urges. Even if we are not evolving biologically as a species, we are still wired for competition and our nature is constantly causing us to try and prove our intelectual/physical/financial superiority to one another. This results in technology and culture. Sometimes this technology/culture is good for group survival and sometimes it is not. Though I think that Harris' logic is sometimes flawed, I agree with his conclusion. It's probably not a bad idea to assume a definition of Morality so we, as a group, can use science to draw conclusions on what is best for the group.

I do find it odd when others try to argue that humanity is somehow above nature though. We came from nature and we will always function according to nature. At least that's my opinion.

I've really enjoyed reading this thread by the way. Joined BookTalk last night and I'm loving it so far. :)



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Post Re: Evolutionary Ethics in The Moral Landscape
DrWhizgig wrote:
I find my own opinion to be somewhere in between Robert's and DWill's.

The type of evolutionary principles discussed by Robert are not Biological in nature, but social. They do not necessarilly work on a Darwinistic level as they are not necessary to insure the survival/reproduction of the individual. Nor do they result in biological adaptation. They are however driven by the same Darwinistic urges. Even if we are not evolving biologically as a species, we are still wired for competition and our nature is constantly causing us to try and prove our intelectual/physical/financial superiority to one another. This results in technology and culture. Sometimes this technology/culture is good for group survival and sometimes it is not. Though I think that Harris' logic is sometimes flawed, I agree with his conclusion. It's probably not a bad idea to assume a definition of Morality so we, as a group, can use science to draw conclusions on what is best for the group.

I do find it odd when others try to argue that humanity is somehow above nature though. We came from nature and we will always function according to nature. At least that's my opinion.

I've really enjoyed reading this thread by the way. Joined BookTalk last night and I'm loving it so far. :)

Thanks, DrWhizgig. Glad you joined the discussion. I'm not sure I go along with Darwinistic urges, or maybe I just need to know what that refers to. If it refers to groups getting a competitive advantage against other groups or just ensuring the sustainable functioning of the group, that is the reason also given for the emergence of such complex mechanisms for social cooperation; those are also, then, Darwinistic. So in that sense I would agree with the word, but of course we commonly use Darwinism in the sense of "nature red in tooth and claw."

When we get very far out on the cultural limb, to areas such as the arts and to particular social practices and customs, Darwin is a faint influence, not needing to be accounted for. What matters to us, at this level, is always the particular shapes that our urges have assumed, and it isn't any kind of natural selection that has been responsible for this. Culture has created its own momentum. I think you said the same thing, more or less, in your post, which was well stated.

I think it can be easy to mistakenly interpret views such as mine as saying humans are above nature, that we are not subject to the basic laws of ecology that other animals are, or that we can afford to flout these laws just because our brains enable us to change our environment immeasurably more than any other animal can. All I'm saying is that culture is a process of "us: making;" it's not a process of "nature: making," as it is when we consider how we came to be homo sapiens and the limitations that apply to us as but one type of animal in a complex web of life.


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