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Ch. 3: Belief (The Moral Landscape) 
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 Ch. 3: Belief (The Moral Landscape)
Ch. 3: Belief (The Moral Landscape)



Thu Dec 09, 2010 10:08 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 3: Belief (The Moral Landscape)
SH gets more into neuroscience in the chapter. One of the points he tries to make is that the lack of a sharp boundary between facts and values, which he has already postulated, finds support from neuro-imaging.

So what do you think of neuroscience in general? Robert has seemed to give it the back of his hand, but he could clarify his view. You at least have to grant that neuroscientists are the sexiest guys around in white coats. I can imagine young, ambitious science students planning to go into this field that has such cachet at the moment. Crime scene investigators are passe. Other organ specialists seem pedestrian compared to the brain brigade, who talk about the three-pound enigma as though it's an exciting, exotic landscape, which I suppose it is. In an interesting progression, philosophers stole ground from theologians, and now neuroscientists are doing the same to philosophers, perhaps even effectively marginalizing them. Every statement about how we know and how we really think has to reference findings of this relatively new science. If you have a product or program to sell in the fields of psychology, counseling, behavioral economics, and others, you will do well to include some neuroscience findings.

No doubt there's a lot of real value in this science, immense value, in fact. It's too bad that it tends to be quite inaccessible to lay people, and that we have little means of evaluating its claims. I think we need neuroscientists to be frank about what the science can do at its current stage of development. I've seen at least one expert say that what we know about the brain is still not that impressive and that neuroscience might not be ready for prime time. Harris doesn't issue a disclaimer; however, the findings he reports seem far from conclusive, which actually is not that different from the rest of science, where suggestiveness is the norm. Even in the case of less ambiguous results, the general conclusions that can be drawn won't be straightforward. Harris disagrees sharply with neurologist Robert Burton about what the brain's innate emotional biases says about our ability to lay claim to independent reasoning.

Having science determine our values therefore seems at least a matter of waiting a great while for the fabled consensus to emerge. I agree with Harris that what science discovers about the brain, and what it makes possible for us to know about individual brains, will have an effect on our ethics. But I'm much less sure that science will lead the way. We need some overarching goal guided by a strong ideal. Harris advocates maximizing well-being as the ideal. But does it have the legs?


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Post Re: Ch. 3: Belief (The Moral Landscape)
The relation between neuroscience and morality is problematic.

There is no doubt that neuroscience enable us to describe the brain, and that this is a powerful tool for medical work and to help understand the nature of the mind. But how much does neuroscience really tell us about what we should value?

Harris argues that neuroscience is decisive for understanding well-being, that facts about the brain, roughly clustered around pleasure broadly defined, correspond to what we value, while brain facts clustered around misery correspond to what we do not value. Pleasure is good while misery is bad.

My concern is that when we analyse it, this model of morality can only provide the most preliminary and general of answers. For example, it is often argued that good morality places high value on justice. Extensive philosophical discussion since at least the time of ancient Greece has examined the meaning of justice, including its relation to equality, fairness, revenge, rights, deserving, opportunities, outcomes, rehabilitation, loyalty, forgiveness, mercy, obligation and other similarly complex concepts.

We do not have a simple consensus on the meaning of justice. Nonetheless it is a core value, but one that neuroscience alone does not really tell us much about.

How does Harris’s focus on sentient well-being help assess real moral questions? For a start, his lens of ‘empirical brain states’ as the determinant of ethics rapidly devolves into a utilitarian argument. For example, that the most just approach will maximize overall pleasure and minimise pain, with the tweak that pleasure and pain are measured by neuroscience. But that is barely an answer at all. If we want to discuss what we should value in the realm of justice, we need to look carefully into the consequences of various theories, such as that people should get what they deserve, or that we should aim to make all decisions on the basis of merit and evidence. The trouble is, the positive brain states that result from just actions can be seen as effects that flow from those actions in a way that is almost a tautology, without telling us anything interesting or new about which actions are truly just.

To illustrate the complexity, some actions increase short term pleasure and well-being at the cost of a moral hazard. Paying the bills of people who suffer a disaster but failed to insure their property is one example – it is a kind and compassionate action, but it leads people to expect the government and charities will bail them out in the future so their incentive to insure properly is diminished. Harris might argue we have to factor in the whole stream of possible future brain states with the risk weighting of incentives and moral hazard, but that only raises the question of what the neuroscience information actually adds to the moral question. In reality it looks like it adds nothing beyond a theoretical method for the utilitarian calculus of pleasure and pain.

Contrary to Harris’s assertion, value questions do not admit of objective answers. They always balance conflicting interests, and are based on judgment calls about risk. If we assess a risk as very low, eg being hit by a car while asleep in bed, we are more compassionate and kind to a victim than where the risk is high, eg being hit by a car while walking drunk across a freeway. In contrasting these examples, the moral calculus would have to factor in the widespread community attitudes caused by responses to the differing circumstances.



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Mon Jan 24, 2011 12:02 am
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Post Re: Ch. 3: Belief (The Moral Landscape)
Robert Tulip wrote:
The relation between neuroscience and morality is problematic.

There is no doubt that neuroscience enable us to describe the brain, and that this is a powerful tool for medical work and to help understand the nature of the mind. But how much does neuroscience really tell us about what we should value?

Harris argues that neuroscience is decisive for understanding well-being, that facts about the brain, roughly clustered around pleasure broadly defined, correspond to what we value, while brain facts clustered around misery correspond to what we do not value. Pleasure is good while misery is bad.

My concern is that when we analyse it, this model of morality can only provide the most preliminary and general of answers. For example, it is often argued that good morality places high value on justice. Extensive philosophical discussion since at least the time of ancient Greece has examined the meaning of justice, including its relation to equality, fairness, revenge, rights, deserving, opportunities, outcomes, rehabilitation, loyalty, forgiveness, mercy, obligation and other similarly complex concepts.

We do not have a simple consensus on the meaning of justice. Nonetheless it is a core value, but one that neuroscience alone does not really tell us much about.

I agree about his model of morality being only preliminary and general. I suspect what he means to achieve in proposing it is to clear the ground of the prohibition-based morality of religion. I don't know if you meant to illustrate the deficiency of his model with the example of justice, but justice does qualify as a value based on facts about how we react to conditions of the world. Our concepts started from that base in our experience. I don't get the sense that Harris thinks that neuroscience will elucidate our ideas of justice; these aren't likely to be found in our neurons. He does seem to think that if we conceive of morality as maximizing the well-being of everyone, we'll automatically go in the direction of social justice. I find it difficult to believe that we won't continue to care about, mainly, the well-being of ourselves and those closest to us. What is our incentive to do otherwise? Since, as Harris says, we don't even know what the upper limits on well-being are, why won't our concern be to see how high we can push it? If well-being is provided partly by education, that could mean putting our kids into the best private schools and colleges, for example, regardless of many kids having no educational opportunity. If it's provided also by better physical functioning as we age, why won't the affluent want to spend all they can to live to be 120? Well-being doesn't remove competition as the primary driver in a society such as the U.S.

In Harris' defense, he doesn't claim to give us the how of implementing his moral vision, and we shouldn't expect an idea to contain the means of its implementation. He also makes a good point in objecting to the attitude that if something is difficult to do, that must be a fault in our idea of how to do it. Morality will always be a difficult project to put into place across a culture.
Quote:
How does Harris’s focus on sentient well-being help assess real moral questions? For a start, his lens of ‘empirical brain states’ as the determinant of ethics rapidly devolves into a utilitarian argument. For example, that the most just approach will maximize overall pleasure and minimise pain, with the tweak that pleasure and pain are measured by neuroscience. But that is barely an answer at all. If we want to discuss what we should value in the realm of justice, we need to look carefully into the consequences of various theories, such as that people should get what they deserve, or that we should aim to make all decisions on the basis of merit and evidence. The trouble is, the positive brain states that result from just actions can be seen as effects that flow from those actions in a way that is almost a tautology, without telling us anything interesting or new about which actions are truly just.

But really, there isn't anything else we need to know about what constitutes humane treatment of our fellow people. What neuroscience has done, and will increasingly do, is to confirm the common sense of the ages about our ethics. Neuroscience will also inevitably affect our lives as it enables us to make the content of minds more available for viewing. This has, of course, sinister overtones, but is there any doubt that, with all our security concerns, we're headed for this? Harris mentions several of the ethical challenges our growing capability in neuroscience will create for us. This isn't the same as that science showing us what is moral or ethical, though.

Harris' contention, again to be fair, is that science, not specifically neuroscience, can point the way to our values. Science can be nothing more than reasoning from available facts, or it can be greatly specialized. For his purpose, all he needs is to be able to establish that some values are wrong because they don't rest on the only things that ultimately values can rest on--the overall well-being of people. I accept that argument.
Quote:
To illustrate the complexity, some actions increase short term pleasure and well-being at the cost of a moral hazard. Paying the bills of people who suffer a disaster but failed to insure their property is one example – it is a kind and compassionate action, but it leads people to expect the government and charities will bail them out in the future so their incentive to insure properly is diminished. Harris might argue we have to factor in the whole stream of possible future brain states with the risk weighting of incentives and moral hazard, but that only raises the question of what the neuroscience information actually adds to the moral question. In reality it looks like it adds nothing beyond a theoretical method for the utilitarian calculus of pleasure and pain.

He means well-being to be a concept similar to a familiar one it actually contains, health. I don't think he's calling it a discrete state of the brain. There would be many configurations of the brain that could be considered compatible with either the individual sensing well-being or an intent by others to promote his well-being. Those would not be exclusively pleasurable feelings. Think of what we do in working toward the well-being of the children we raise. In many instances we know that they won't be feeling simple pleasure when they do the things needed for good development. Harris would equate well-being with pleasure only if he were thinking of the pleasure centers of the brain, especially the limbic system. But he's thinking of the whole brain, knowing that the higher functions in the cortex aren't about hedonic, animal pleasure. Harris may be in the utilitarian tradition, but he's not measuring utility by the ability of an action to maintain someone in a pleasure zone, a la the lotus eaters.
Quote:
Contrary to Harris’s assertion, value questions do not admit of objective answers. They always balance conflicting interests, and are based on judgment calls about risk. If we assess a risk as very low, eg being hit by a car while asleep in bed, we are more compassionate and kind to a victim than where the risk is high, eg being hit by a car while walking drunk across a freeway. In contrasting these examples, the moral calculus would have to factor in the widespread community attitudes caused by responses to the differing circumstances.

Do difficulties like this, arising from the structure of our brains apparently, mean that we can't say that any action is, based on facts, right or wrong? Harris is pretty frank about these difficulties of applying moral calculus, but insistent that we still can say with certainty that values can be either right or wrong. That is the only objective answer I see him caring about.


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Mon Jan 24, 2011 9:22 pm
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