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Discussion of the Intro to The Moral Landscape 
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Post Discussion of the Intro to The Moral Landscape
Discussion of the Intro to The Moral Landscape



Thu Dec 09, 2010 10:10 pm
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Post Re: Discussion of the Intro to The Moral Landscape
I just noticed that we didn't start at the beginning --the Introduction--with the book, so I'd like to back up the discussion in order to keep us focused on the base of Harris' argument. With regard to what Robert has been saying about the philosophical issues, I wouldn't go as far as to say that this book could be alternately titled "The End of Philosophy," but it is apparent that Harris believes there's no need to go through academic philosophy to get to his starting point, which is that the good is the same as what promotes human well-being. (Harris' take on academic philosophy can be viewed in the note on 197-198.) To the extent that philosophy operates as a closed system without much connection to the serious social and other problems Harris is looking at, it is indeed irrelevant to him. It's legitimate to point out any troubles he runs into in terms of philosophical consistency, but only, it seems to me, if that handicaps what he proposes as a practical program of action.

There's a lot to talk about in the chapter. We could start with SH's definition of morality as behaviors that enhance the well-being of conscious creatures. He actually has numerous variations on this definition throughout the chapter, and morality isn't his true umbrella term; rather, values is. But it took me a little while to get used to seeing morality in his way because it isn't the typical way it is represented. Morality is usually defined as what resides in a person as a set of behaviors having mostly to do with character habits that are approved or disapproved by religion or social consensus. On SH's view, morality concerns how I promote the well-being of other people ("conscious creatures" seems to bring in other animals as well, which complicates the picture). But not just of other people, I think, but of myself as well. This is where the more traditional moral character habits might enter in. My well-being includes my degree of success in self-discipline, ability to meet social obligations, personal honesty, and many other traits. So it's important to note, as SH does, that well-being doesn't always equate to pleasure in any hedonistic sense. However, what Harris' definition does exclude is the view that morality consists only of eschewing individual behaviors that society or religion has stigmatized, which would include homosexuality, drug use, and abortion, as well as behaviors that it legitimately stigmatizes. This is why I'd characterize his social agenda as libertarian.

That only scratches the surface. His main argument as I see it in this section is that values have a factual basis in conditions of the world and in physical states of the human brain. We can certainly say with confidence that some of these values promote well-being more than do others, and that therefore some societies are better than others. There will inevitably be relativism in just how societies arrange to attain well-being, but this relativism isn't absolute; some practices will fall outside of what can be shown by science to be acceptable. Anthropological relativism took an extreme form in the 1900s and needs to be refuted. Relativism engendered by the desire of the scientifically educated to avoid offending the religious majority (at least in the U.S.) is another handicapping problem. The religious right has captured all the energy and is making inroads as the supposed anti-dogmatism forces have laid down their arms by accepting the truth of NOMA. But for Harris, science and religion "are in a zero-sum conflict with respect to the facts" (24).


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Mon Jan 03, 2011 9:47 am
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Post Re: Discussion of the Intro to The Moral Landscape
With some of the moral relativist arguments that he cites, you almost can't believe anyone could hold those views, especially since presumably all of them have preferences on public policy for example. I have to suspect that for some of them, if you probed them further and explained that you weren't pulling value statements out of nowhere (but making them conditional on increasing well-being), you could make some progress in changing their minds, but maybe I'm being too optimistic.

Also, I think Harris might be libertarian on some things, but I doubt you could characterize him that way. See here for example: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harri ... 02480.html



Last edited by Dexter on Mon Jan 03, 2011 5:22 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Mon Jan 03, 2011 5:22 pm
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Post Re: Discussion of the Intro to The Moral Landscape
Right, good point about him not being a full-out libertarian. With regard to social behavior that appears not to harm anyone else, he might have those leanings.


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Mon Jan 03, 2011 8:41 pm
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Post Re: Discussion of the Intro to The Moral Landscape
Comments on Introduction to The Moral Landscape

Sam Harris has a goal that is perhaps the most important thing in our world today, to establish a scientific basis for morality. His goal deserves to be treated totally seriously to see if he justifies it adequately, if, in his Wittgensteinian terms, he manages to ‘clear the philosophical brush’ (p27) that has prevented us from seeing that values are only worth holding if they are based on facts.

My assessment is that Harris allows a rhetorical commitment to the obvious intuitive truth of his goal to obscure the need for proper logical explanation of it. So, in the spirit of trying to improve Harris’s argument, I will focus on those points in his presentation that seem particularly vulnerable. Ants try to sting at the soft gaps between the armor plates that protect their victims. This focus recognises that aiming for the strong points has no effect. The analogy here is that the argument for a scientific morality needs to evolve and adapt to become more robust and successful.

Harris says ‘values translate into facts’ (p1). However, he observes that muddy thinking about morality has led many to confuse the imprecision of ethical claims for an argument that questions of value admit of no answers in principle (p3). He gives the example that evidence shows corporal punishment produces worse outcomes as a moral question of values that may be difficult but in principle can be studied and answered as a matter of fact.

Far from being just a game of logical theory, these philosophical questions have utterly serious political intent. On the political left, the secular liberal orthodoxy separates truth from morality in order to defend “multiculturalism, moral relativism, political correctness, tolerance even of intolerance” (p5). Harris fears this attitude has “hobbled the West in its generational war against radical Islam and it may yet refashion the societies of Europe into a new Caliphate.” (p5) His juxtaposition here of supine doubt before dogmatic zeal echoes Yeats’ comment in The Second Coming that the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Harris is playing for high stakes.

The separation of science from morality, what Harris rightly describes as the Hume-Popper firewall, is shown as incoherent by the example of health – just as we know some food is poison and some is good, we know some conduct is moral and some is not. How does this analogy hold up? So far so good, but Harris starts to get shaky when he asks neuroscience, his own specialty, to do more of the intellectual heavy lifting than it really can, by locating morality within a precise science of mind. What does the fact that neglect affects brain development really say about morality? Harris says (p10) that meaning and measurement must be reconciled, but then draws the unjustified conclusion, in a tactical stiletto argument aimed at the heart of his real opponent, that “science and religion … will never come to terms”. The invalid logic here involves the claims that because science values consistency, evidence and simplicity in its assessment of factual truth, “a clear boundary between facts and values simply does not exist” (p11), and that “religion and science are in a zero-sum conflict with respect to facts” (p24).

The central error at the foundation of Harris’s argument is presented in his claim that “factual beliefs like ‘water is H2O’ and ethical beliefs like ‘cruelty is wrong’ are not expressions of mere preference.” (p14) The implication is that condemnation of cruelty should be absolute and universal. The choice here of the statement about cruelty as a universalizable moral claim is very revealing about the weakness of the overall argument. While all should share a goal of moving towards a less cruel world, the simple statement as presented that cruelty is wrong is in fact different in kind from the simple statement that water is made of hydrogen and oxygen. The statement about cruelty is a value, a sentimental preference, while the statement about water is objectively and absolutely true by definition. The cruelty statement needs to be hedged around with qualifiers to become anything like as universal as any statement of objective fact. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. A lion kills the offspring of rivals in cruel fashion, but we do not say the lion is wrong. The idea that cruelty is wrong produces the perverse view that all must have prizes because separating winners and losers is cruel.

Harris hints here at Kant’s categorical imperative, the idea that we should always act in ways that we would like to be universal (cf p.82). But Harris does not follow through the logic, that the categorical imperative separates facts and values, in Kant’s distinction between the starry heavens above and the moral law within as the twin sources of wisdom, with morality grounded in transcendental imagination rather than in factual observation. As with his relegation of Aristotle’s eudaimonia (flourishing) to a footnote (n9, p.195), Harris does not properly locate his claims within a recognition of how philosophy has previously analysed them. The result is sloppy logic, a worthy rhetorical argument that may be plausible and even persuasive but is far from compelling. His antipathy to religion produces an irrational antipathy to transcendence in logic, an invalid elision from description to recommendation, a continuation of the muddy waters that confuse the social schematics of the logical categories of reason and evidence in philosophy.

This main problem of the inability to properly define the source of values lead Harris to make erroneous statements about evolutionary ethics and the status of religion, which I will address in subsequent posts.



Sun Jan 09, 2011 5:57 pm
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Post Re: Discussion of the Intro to The Moral Landscape
Robert, if I may, my view of what Harris is about differs from yours in a number of ways. I've read about 75 pp. of the book, so I probably have some of this later material in mind as I give my reactions to your post on the Introduction.
Robert Tulip wrote:
Sam Harris has a goal that is perhaps the most important thing in our world today, to establish a scientific basis for morality.

I think this might give the impression that Harris' project is weirder than it actually is. Harris defines "science" very broadly, whereas most people, when they hear the word, picture professionals called scientists doing research of various kinds. While this kind of science comes into play as a tool to guide our goal-setting in the arena of morality, Harris in fact believes that we already have a scientific basis for much of what we believe to be moral. Saying that acting with kindness towards others supports the well-being of conscious creatures is a scientific statement that has already been tested. It doesn't even need to be tracked to the ultimate source of truth in physical changes in the brain that can be observed under the condition of the world that we would label "being treated with kindness." But of course, as the science of the mind progresses, we will be able to define better what positive emotion looks like in the brain and how positive emotions differ from one another. This research will be confirming much of what people just know and always have.
Quote:
values are only worth holding if they are based on facts.

He places "well-being" at the end of that sentence, not "facts." Here I think you are beginning to use "facts" in a way he doesn't intend. The facts that exist--without any doubt, he says--are facts about states of the conscious brain. These facts relate to what we experience physically as joy, fear, love, hate, anger, etc. We then sort these out according to whether or not in the situation of the individual they are supporting well-being.
Quote:
Harris says ‘values translate into facts’ (p1). However, he observes that muddy thinking about morality has led many to confuse the imprecision of ethical claims for an argument that questions of value admit of no answers in principle (p3). He gives the example that evidence shows corporal punishment produces worse outcomes as a moral question of values that may be difficult but in principle can be studied and answered as a matter of fact.

The facts that values translate into are facts about our emotional responses, as Harris goes on to say after the words you quote. If we only would respect these facts about the well-being of conscious creatures, then a large part of our moral confusion would be lifted, as the example of corporal punishment shows. But as you mention, educated people want to say that factual answers to moral questions don't exist, so they have no way of proving that corporal punishment is not just something they don't believe in, but wrong as well. Harris elsewhere points out the inconsistency in the common attitude that moral reasoning must be categorical and airtight for all situations, or else it is invalid; whereas when science is incomplete and not in a state of consensus, the situation is normal and simply an indication that more research is needed. However, even with more research, perfect consensus never arrives, and that is okay, more than good enough.
Quote:
The separation of science from morality, what Harris rightly describes as the Hume-Popper firewall, is shown as incoherent by the example of health – just as we know some food is poison and some is good, we know some conduct is moral and some is not. How does this analogy hold up? So far so good, but Harris starts to get shaky when he asks neuroscience, his own specialty, to do more of the intellectual heavy lifting than it really can, by locating morality within a precise science of mind. What does the fact that neglect affects brain development really say about morality? Harris says (p10) that meaning and measurement must be reconciled, but then draws the unjustified conclusion, in a tactical stiletto argument aimed at the heart of his real opponent, that “science and religion … will never come to terms”. The invalid logic here involves the claims that because science values consistency, evidence and simplicity in its assessment of factual truth, “a clear boundary between facts and values simply does not exist” (p11), and that “religion and science are in a zero-sum conflict with respect to facts” (p24).

Some facts about food, facts that are based in human physiology, transcend the vagaries of culture, so we can say some true things about good and bad food. So too, some facts about well-being transcend mere cultural preferences; they're true regardless of what culture we're talking about, so we can say that some cultural practices are good/right or bad/wrong. If cultures automatically adapted themselves to whatever promotes maximum well-being, we'd have great moral health, but none of them do.

Morality for Harris isn't in any sense "within" a science of the mind. Science doesn't create morality, any more than religion does. Science will in various ways be helpful in guiding us to set moral goals. Harris uses as an example whether we should spend our next billion dollars to eliminate racism or malaria.

For me, it's clear what the effect of neglect on development says about morality. Since well-being is by virtue of our physical constitution the only thing we can really value, then allowing babies to have improperly developed brains is immoral and points to a need for action.

I'm not clear about what you object to in SH's statement about science and religion never coming to terms. He's simply talking about accepting as moral/immoral whatever revelation has specified, vs. designating as moral whatever is most likely to secure human well-being. That religions often don't care about the effects on well-being (at least in this world) doesn't need to be discussed in detail. Sure, we know that SH hates religion, but he has a specific reason here for wanting it out of the business of morality. He's also not any kinder to other sources of craziness such as the North Korean regime. I see no problem with the validity of his logic, and I wonder if you are taking his assault on religion as too broad-based.
Quote:
The central error at the foundation of Harris’s argument is presented in his claim that “factual beliefs like ‘water is H2O’ and ethical beliefs like ‘cruelty is wrong’ are not expressions of mere preference.” (p14) The implication is that condemnation of cruelty should be absolute and universal. The choice here of the statement about cruelty as a universalizable moral claim is very revealing about the weakness of the overall argument. While all should share a goal of moving towards a less cruel world, the simple statement as presented that cruelty is wrong is in fact different in kind from the simple statement that water is made of hydrogen and oxygen. The statement about cruelty is a value, a sentimental preference, while the statement about water is objectively and absolutely true by definition. The cruelty statement needs to be hedged around with qualifiers to become anything like as universal as any statement of objective fact. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. A lion kills the offspring of rivals in cruel fashion, but we do not say the lion is wrong. The idea that cruelty is wrong produces the perverse view that all must have prizes because separating winners and losers is cruel.

It helps to have his explanation for the statement from p. 14: "To really believe either proposition is also to believe that you have accepted it for legitimate reasons. It is, therefore, to believe that you are in compliance with certain norms--that you are sane, rational, not lying to yourself, not confused, not overly biased, etc. When we believe that something is factually true or morally good, we also believe that another person, similarly placed, should share our belief. This seems unlikely to change. In Chapter 3, we will see that both the logical and neurological properties of belief further suggest that the divide between facts and values is illusory." As for the need for condemnation of cruelty to be absolute and universal, this might be traditional in philosophy, but Harris has always said we won't have this in ethics, do not need it, and that it is not implied when we say that cruelty is wrong. Again, science doesn't give us universal agreement and consistency, either. I don't know why "cruelty is bad" needs to be seen as any less factual than "water is 2 hydrogens and one oxygen." Certainly from a practical standpoint, every human being is in a position to verify the facts of the first statement, while few can personally verify the second.
Quote:
Harris hints here at Kant’s categorical imperative, the idea that we should always act in ways that we would like to be universal (cf p.82). But Harris does not follow through the logic, that the categorical imperative separates facts and values, in Kant’s distinction between the starry heavens above and the moral law within as the twin sources of wisdom, with morality grounded in transcendental imagination rather than in factual observation. As with his relegation of Aristotle’s eudaimonia (flourishing) to a footnote (n9, p.195), Harris does not properly locate his claims within a recognition of how philosophy has previously analysed them. The result is sloppy logic, a worthy rhetorical argument that may be plausible and even persuasive but is far from compelling. His antipathy to religion produces an irrational antipathy to transcendence in logic, an invalid elision from description to recommendation, a continuation of the muddy waters that confuse the social schematics of the logical categories of reason and evidence in philosophy.

Of course, Harris would be well aware of the categorical imperative, but what use would he want to make of it if it obliges him to separate facts and values, precisely the fault his book argues against? I think that for him the "transcendental imagination" is roughly equivalent to our innate moral intuitions, which he doesn't slight in any way and doesn't say that science must somehow show us how to overturn. You charge that hostility to religion biases him to "transcendence in logic," but I'd ask you to define this and then to show how its absence nullifies his argument. The is/ought argument is one that he handles as well, capably I think, but that will be for another time.
Quote:
This main problem of the inability to properly define the source of values lead Harris to make erroneous statements about evolutionary ethics and the status of religion, which I will address in subsequent posts.

Looking forward to that.


_________________
No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence--that which makes its truth, its meaning--its subtle penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live as we dream--alone.

Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness


Mon Jan 10, 2011 11:03 am
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