This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.

← Toward a Science of Morality

Toward a Science of Morality - Comments

bethe123's Avatar Comment 1 by bethe123

This seems to be more of the same of Harris's ideas from TED which have been exhausitively dealt with elsewhere.

I do disagree with this new additon to his thesis:

Do monkeys suffer more than mice from medical experiments? (The answer is almost surely "yes.") --Sam Harris

With respect to suffering of physical pain, I do not see any basis for how that could be determined. In fact, who is to say the mouse does not suffer more? It seems to me the mouse and monkey must be equally capable of experiencing physical pain. How about pyschological pain? Because of the cognitive differences that exist  between monkeys and mice, we might expect a difference, but I would not use the word "surely" as Harris has done. Terror and panic seem to be basic responses that even a mouse can experience.

Updated: Sat, 08 May 2010 05:14:22 UTC | #467696

Monkey Man's Avatar Comment 2 by Monkey Man

I'm with Sam all the way on this one. The guy is a genius, I think he'll go down in history for stuff like this. Maybe all of that time in silent retreat gave him special powers.

Sat, 08 May 2010 06:19:15 UTC | #467705

SteveN's Avatar Comment 3 by SteveN

bethe123
...I do disagree with this new additon to his thesis: Do monkeys suffer more than mice from medical experiments? (The answer is almost surely "yes.") --Sam Harris With respect to suffering of physical pain, I do not see any basis for how that could be determined. In fact, who is to say the mouse does not suffer more? It seems to me the mouse and monkey must be equally capable of experiencing physical pain. How about pyschological pain? Because of the cognitive differences that exist  between monkeys and mice, we might expect a difference, but I would not use the word "surely" as Harris has done. Terror and panic seem to be basic responses that even a mouse can experience.

Although I agree that Sam cannot know whether a monkey suffers more than a mouse, I expect that he is just generalising with regard to brain complexity. If I say that a mouse will suffer more than an amoeba, no-one will object (I assume). This is to accept that suffering is more or less dependent on the complexity of the organism. There is continuous sliding scale of complexity from amoeba to mouse, so where do we draw the line?

Of course, there may be something about the particular make-up of a mouse brain that renders it exquisitely sensitive to suffering despite being less complex than the primate brain, and Sam's comment would therefore be absolutely wrong. However, it seems to me that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, his point is justified.

Sat, 08 May 2010 06:35:39 UTC | #467707

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 4 by Jos Gibbons

Harris could be wrong about mice vs. monkeys - but that is exactly the point.

Sat, 08 May 2010 07:04:04 UTC | #467717

RDfan's Avatar Comment 5 by RDfan

It may be the case that we cannot derive and ought from an is, this is up for debate, but I think that, as Sam says, if science cannot do this, then religion certainly cannot either. Science, however, has several benefits in its favour, the scientific method being one. Religion has none whatsoever and is no more apt for the task than, say, mere guesswork is.

So to the extent that science is the only game in town, Sam has a point. It is quite another question whether science can formulate the rules to play the is/ought game.

Updated: Sat, 08 May 2010 07:55:41 UTC | #467722

NewEnglandBob's Avatar Comment 6 by NewEnglandBob

bethe123
Do monkeys suffer more than mice from medical experiments? (The answer is almost surely "yes.") --Sam Harris

Since Sam is a neuroscientist, maybe he has done or seen experiments on this.

Either way, I do like the direction that Harris is going with all this and this piece has expanded on what he said at TED 2010. (Why he posted on HuffPo is the bigger mystery to me.)

I do like the back and forth with Sean Carroll, now that the initial anger has subsided over a stupid statement.

Sat, 08 May 2010 10:25:47 UTC | #467740

Son of Rea's Avatar Comment 7 by Son of Rea

Suffering: could it be as simple as observing the animal's reaction and comparing degrees of apparent agitation/distress?

 

As far as morality science goes, I don't think you can ever arrive at any concrete conclusions as long as religious people believe suffering is desirable in order to obtain eternal reward.

Sat, 08 May 2010 13:03:17 UTC | #467760

david k's Avatar Comment 8 by david k

I told myself not to read this over and over but still did.  Now I'm really frustrated.  Nothing new to persuade me.  I know the point of a comment should be to explain one's postion, but it would take too long, so i express dissatisfaction instead.

Sat, 08 May 2010 14:20:49 UTC | #467778

rsharvey's Avatar Comment 9 by rsharvey

 

bethe123
With respect to suffering of physical pain, I do not see any basis for how that could be determined. In fact, who is to say the mouse does not suffer more? It seems to me the mouse and monkey must be equally capable of experiencing physical pain. How about pyschological pain? Because of the cognitive differences that exist  between monkeys and mice, we might expect a difference

 

What could it mean to speak of physical pain in isolation from psychological pain. Physical pain is accompanied, at least in a human brain, by an emotional surge of anguish, or exhilaration or anger etc. I would suggest that these types of brain activity are not a fixed quantity across species, but scale with the complexity of the brain in question. It seems common sense, when you consider the reduction ad absurdum.

I think it is central to an understanding of Sam's point that nothing exists except in so far as it is brain activity. It is not meaningful to speak of physical pain in isolation of its experience in a brain, and so a less complex brain would surely suffer less than a more complex one.

Sat, 08 May 2010 15:07:09 UTC | #467787

chawinwords's Avatar Comment 10 by chawinwords

After reading the article twice, and on the basis of a non-specialist instinct, I mostly agree with Harris: morality and ethics can be studied and tested scientifically. But to do so, conjecture based upon emotion and. especially cultural inheritances, must be rejected as a foundation. Or, in other words, world views about morality and ethics need to go the way of the dinosaurs -- extinct. The human race needs to leverage itself away from its adolescent, superstition based sources of non-testable knowledge.

Other than that, and because I now have a headache from trying to follow the philosophical circles within circles -- no further comment, except, human fallibility needs be a scientific exercise as well. We need to stop the pretending -- (Represent fictitiously, as in a play, or pretend to be or act like.)

 

Sat, 08 May 2010 17:25:14 UTC | #467814

Enlightenme..'s Avatar Comment 11 by Enlightenme..

In Sam's closing paragraph:

"But the consequences of moral relativism have been disastrous. And science's failure to address the most important questions in human life has made it seem like little more than an incubator for technology. It has also given faith-based religion -- that great engine of ignorance and bigotry -- a nearly uncontested claim to being the only source of moral wisdom."

 

Nearly uncontested ?!!

What the bloody hell was The Enlightenment all about then? Why did we even bother with a 'Universal declaration of human rights' ?

Updated: Sat, 08 May 2010 17:35:16 UTC | #467817

sonnygll's Avatar Comment 12 by sonnygll

I think Sam Harris has his head right up his ass this time. Morality is based on feelings. We may use logic and reason to ACT on those feelings, but morality is the feelings themselves. Feelings are subjective by definition.

Since we are all of the same social species, and these feelings are based on our social instincts, we have many of these feelings in common.

There is WAY too much conflation that goes on with this subject. People always try to conflate the decisions we make based on the feelings, with the feelings themselves. Then they always point to values most humans have in common. But how could it be any other way for a social species?

Then there are cultural things that get added on after the fact. For example, I would feel uncomfortable kissing another man on the cheek (except for my father). Yet there is no real reason I should feel that way. In other cultures that is a normal greeting.

I can condemn something based on my own subjective morals and/or subjective morals most people have in common. That in no way proves objective morality.

Updated: Sat, 08 May 2010 18:14:50 UTC | #467834

rsharvey's Avatar Comment 13 by rsharvey

sonnygll
I would feel uncomfortable kissing another man on the cheek (except for my father). Yet there is no real reason I should feel that way. In other cultures that is a normal greeting.I can condemn something based on my own subjective morals and/or subjective morals most people have in common. That in no way proves objective morality.

I think you are being too liberal with the term 'morality'. What you are talking about is condemning something because of your sense of personal revulsion. I happen to feel the same way. In fact - I don't even like to kiss my dad, its just a result of the way I was raised. But to call it a moral issue is wrong.

Our sense of morality works in the same way, by hijacking our senses of disgust or revulsion, which most likely exist purely to keep us away from parasites or disease. This may be why we tend to refer to moral excellence in terms of cleanliness and purity, and refer to immoral acts/people with phrases such as "what a rotten thing to do".

For Sam Harris' proposal to make any sense, we have to first agree with his definition of 'moral'. We have to agree that there is something out there which we should call morality, and it is not borne out of individual prejudices or biases, but should change in the face of new evidence.

For example, the moral philosopher Peter Singer has a very consistent and well reasoned idea of what a moral or immoral act is. He is a vegetarian and also supports euthanasia. His moral guidance does not just bubble up out of him as a result of his upbringing, but is open to revision and scrutiny.

From there what Sam Harris says is uncontroversial. The bit that people seem to disagree with is whether or not we can define morality in such a way. I personally think you can and should.

Sat, 08 May 2010 19:48:05 UTC | #467855

Kmita's Avatar Comment 14 by Kmita

Honestly wish I hadn't wasted my time clicking on the link.

Sat, 08 May 2010 20:03:05 UTC | #467862

sonnygll's Avatar Comment 15 by sonnygll

rsharvey
sonnygll I would feel uncomfortable kissing another man on the cheek (except for my father). Yet there is no real reason I should feel that way. In other cultures that is a normal greeting.I can condemn something based on my own subjective morals and/or subjective morals most people have in common. That in no way proves objective morality. I think you are being too liberal with the term 'morality'. What you are talking about is condemning something because of your sense of personal revulsion. I happen to feel the same way. In fact - I don't even like to kiss my dad, its just a result of the way I was raised. But to call it a moral issue is wrong. Our sense of morality works in the same way, by hijacking our senses of disgust or revulsion, which most likely exist purely to keep us away from parasites or disease. This may be why we tend to refer to moral excellence in terms of cleanliness and purity, and refer to immoral acts/people with phrases such as "what a rotten thing to do". For Sam Harris' proposal to make any sense, we have to first agree with his definition of 'moral'. We have to agree that there is something out there which we should call morality, and it is not borne out of individual prejudices or biases, but should change in the face of new evidence. For example, the moral philosopher Peter Singer has a very consistent and well reasoned idea of what a moral or immoral act is. He is a vegetarian and also supports euthanasia. His moral guidance does not just bubble up out of him as a result of his upbringing, but is open to revision and scrutiny. From there what Sam Harris says is uncontroversial. The bit that people seem to disagree with is whether or not we can define morality in such a way. I personally think you can and should.

 

 

That was kind of my point really, that people are too liberal with the word morality. That might not have been the best example of a cultural thing though. That was more of a tangent anyway.

Sat, 08 May 2010 21:18:47 UTC | #467880

Marc Country's Avatar Comment 16 by Marc Country

Harris wins again!

Sun, 09 May 2010 01:53:48 UTC | #467927

MelM's Avatar Comment 17 by MelM

Like Sam, I worry that the nutters will take full advantage of the failure of the New Atheism to define and defend a rational ethical system. One wonders just how many atheists even see reason as a virtue or faith as a vice. Yet, one has stopped us from crapping in our own water supply and the other will take us back to it. IMO, an ethics unrelated to the goal of human life, is a death ethics.

A quote from the end of the Metaethics article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "But what is it about morality that precludes it being fundamentally arbitrary? A good answer, I suspect, will lead one away from the idea that moral properties are merely there in the world to be found, wholly independent of our concerns and practices. But a good answer is needed. And a good answer is not provided simply by supplying, if one could, a consistent and coherent set of principles that successfully systematized particular moral judgments about acts, institutions, and characters. The challenge here is not simply to show that moral judgments can be seen to fit a pattern; the challenge is to show that the pattern they fit — the principle(s) to which they conform — work to explain and justify their importance. "

I note, in particular, the line: "A good answer, I suspect, will lead one away from the idea that moral properties are merely there in the world to be found, wholly independent of our concerns and practices."

I think values are relational in that they pertain to the relationship of hindering or furthering a goal. Note Objectivism's view of is-ought.

As bad as it is, the Christians do have a metaethics ("what's good is what God says is good") which they are not going to let go of untill the world is shown a rational metaethics.

Sun, 09 May 2010 02:04:33 UTC | #467931

sandman67's Avatar Comment 18 by sandman67

Sam, (I dunno if you read this stuff but what the hell....)

 

Mate the whole point of people like Prof D and Mr Hitchens and your good self is you act as a bridge between hard science and academia and laymen like myself. You started out, if youwill forgive me, as a semi-presentable academic, and have come on leaps and bounds since. Your writing is compelling and persuasve, and your presentation style is now catching up.

 

However,

 

In this article you are slipping backwards into the navel gazing academia style. My attention waned half way through, and it was a real struggle to maintain interest.

 

You missed the target my friend. Im very well educated, Yet even I found reading this hard work.... too many fluffy academic circles and complex concepts to maintain a solid interest. KISS is always a good rule.

 

I find your scientific reasoning on empirially measurable "morality" to be logically sound and it seems to make sense. Screw the pipe smoking ivory tower dwellers ... leave them to their pointless and self serving ruminations in the dusty back rooms and common rooms of academia. Give us grass roots words and pragmatism. Leave them to play with words and concepts that we need the OED to work out what the hell they are on about.

 

Keep It Simple Sam.... otherwise what use is your work to the real world?

 

Preach on Brother!

 

 

Sun, 09 May 2010 08:17:39 UTC | #467977

601's Avatar Comment 19 by 601

"...inform me that morality is a myth,"

Morality is a myth in the same sense Free Will is a myth.  And there is so much emotional baggage with "morals" that the concept should be discarded.

I argue that "community ethics" is the only valid concept in this space, which I define as a consensus definition of behaviour warranting community condemnation.

These communities can be tiered, from a global UN down to a matriarchal family.  The tricky part is how to establish this consensus, balancing liberty with shared values.

Mon, 10 May 2010 00:42:59 UTC | #468235

dochmbi1's Avatar Comment 20 by dochmbi1

Well, I suppose you could accept Harrises position as a sort of noble lie.



Even if we knew everything there is to know, we still couldn't tell scientifically what human well-being is, because it is not an empirical question.

Updated: Mon, 10 May 2010 01:49:56 UTC | #468248

deftmasterofdisguise's Avatar Comment 21 by deftmasterofdisguise

If we can say that morality is shaped by context? Then we should be asking something like:'What are the universal principles that link separate and disparate moralities?' And therefore 'Can these principles be scientific in nature?' I think that Harris is brave in proposing that 'it's time we tried' to answer these questions about the possibility of having a scientific-morality. The excerpts that he provides of Carroll proves that scientists are not seriously delving into the entailing issues that surround the creation (if that is possible) of a scientific morality. 

I'LL GIVE THE TOPIC A GO:

One observable 'universal', is that we all are striving for something 'positive'. In the sense that we all have concepts of what is 'right'. Therefore we all have a sense of justice (which is rooted in our context of what is right). This 'truth' is a self-preserving (not necessarily selfish) truth. The concept of 'doing un to others', in my opinion is THE basis for morality; because it's a very powerful concept which makes one realize that that other person (or animal) is just like ourselves. Doing un to others is a concept which can be one basis for society cooperation therefore, and therefore morality.

I guess I'm trying to say, that morality is both self and group preserving. And what I'm trying to grapple with is 'does this mean that self-preservation is the basis of morality?' But I have a feeling that our brains have progressed to an 'altruistic' belief system. Because it is on the basis of altruism that human progress flourishes. 

 

 

 

Mon, 10 May 2010 12:16:25 UTC | #468392

zengardener's Avatar Comment 22 by zengardener

I think he's on to something.

Remember folks, he's not saying that we can know everything, only that we shouldn't be afraid to ask questions in a scientific way.

Mon, 10 May 2010 14:17:07 UTC | #468433

quantum_flux's Avatar Comment 23 by quantum_flux

I consider morality to be a few different things. 

First has to do with energy efficiency, which is to say that life ought to have a small footprint on the entropy of the universe relative to the technological capacity of that life form 

Second, it is good for life to develop intelligence and to increase in technological ability to the maximum level, essentially to evolve and to master godlike capabilities of creativity. 

Third, it is good to encourage an appropriate level of diversity within the universe.

Mon, 10 May 2010 22:28:03 UTC | #468608

keddaw's Avatar Comment 24 by keddaw

Sam claims that maximising conscious well-being is the only moral aim, but is it?

 

Even if absolutely everything Sam says is correct, there is still one decision to be made at the start which most people would consider a moral one yet it defies the kind of moral measurement Sam describes:

 

Some people would claim maximising the total well-being is the highest goal.

Some people would claim maximising the minimum well-being is the highest goal.

Some people would claim maximising the median well-being is the highest goal.

Some people would claim maximising the average well-being is the highest goal.

(and no, total and average are not necessarily the same, but given what is required to increase the average but not the total not many people would go for it.)

 

So my question is: How do you decide between these competing views on the fundamental goal of morality?  (Without using circular reasoning.)

Each one is a valid point of view and is correct ONLY if you use it as the metric.  Sam seems stuck on maximising total well-being, but I would suggest he is in a minority given the two (or three) other options.

Tue, 11 May 2010 14:30:15 UTC | #468892

overwhelmedas1wouldB's Avatar Comment 25 by overwhelmedas1wouldB

@keddaw (comment 25): What do you mean by "total well-being"? And where does Harris espouse the view that "total well-being" should be our aim?

Wed, 12 May 2010 00:48:18 UTC | #469036

overwhelmedas1wouldB's Avatar Comment 26 by overwhelmedas1wouldB

@bethe123 (comment 1): A new addition to his thesis? He has said all along that there are surely differences between different organisms in their capacity to experience pain or pleasure. Upon thinking about the question he poses it does seem that it might be a rather difficult question to answer. Or maybe not. Of course the point is that there are differences which can at least in principle be determined by the tools of science.

Wed, 12 May 2010 01:04:19 UTC | #469041

Quine's Avatar Comment 27 by Quine

 

Comment 27 by overwhelmedas1wouldB
@bethe123 (comment 1): A new addition to his thesis? He has said all along that there are surely differences between different organisms in their capacity to experience pain or pleasure. Upon thinking about the question he poses it does seem that it might be a rather difficult question to answer. Or maybe not. Of course the point is that there are differences which can at least in principle be determined by the tools of science.

Yes, it is going to be difficult.  Even in the best situation there is going to be a subjective transition zone between examples of beings that "suffer" and those you can, thoughtlessly, swat.  I am very much looking forward to reading Sam's work on this, and tend to hold off judgment until then.

 

 

<!--Session data-->

Wed, 12 May 2010 01:23:44 UTC | #469045

keddaw's Avatar Comment 28 by keddaw

@overwhelmedas1wouldB (comment 26)

Total well-being is simply the arithmetic total of all the well being that exists in the brains of conscious creatures at a given time. Sam also makes no mention of whether we should have a discount rate for well being put off or hardships endured for future pleasure (he has to save something for his book...)

"Where does he say maximising well being is the goal?" http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/moral-confusion-in-the-na_b_517710.html

Also in his TED talk, and a longer talk (possibly at Google) go into great detail about how (and why) maximizing well being of conscious creatures is "the only morality worth having". It is the height part of his moral landscape map!

Updated: Wed, 12 May 2010 07:12:17 UTC | #469131

overwhelmedas1wouldB's Avatar Comment 29 by overwhelmedas1wouldB

@keddaw (#29): Thats' interesting. That is what I figured you probably meant by "total well being".

I did not ask you where Harris says that "maximizing well-being" is the goal. I asked you where he says that "total well-being" is the the goal. All four of those goals you list in your previous comment are by your own admission versions of "maximizing well-being". I clearly asked you where Harris commits himself to version number one. And I have re-watched the TED talk and it is not in there. And I read the article you linked to. Indeed, have you watched Harris' talk and the panel discussion following at the third Beyond Belief conference? He mentions those alternative goals and he doesn't commit to any of them. He asks "are we talking about...aggregate, average, etc..[well-being]"(a paraphrase).

But even if he did, your objection seems trivial. Are those choices not something we can talk sensibly about? Is it impossible that one or more of those goals could be objectively determined to be better or worse than other? Or maybe they could represent "equilavent ways to thrive" (TED talk).

"Sam also makes no mention of whether we should have a discount rate for well being put off or hardships endured for future pleasure"

Having listened to many of Harris' talks and having read much that he has written, there is no doubt that the conception of well-being he has in mind in not a narrow one of instant gratification. That is a stupid thing to say actually.

Wed, 12 May 2010 16:14:47 UTC | #469257

bendigeidfran's Avatar Comment 30 by bendigeidfran

Sam's wasting his time. Not even funny.

Wed, 12 May 2010 17:34:57 UTC | #469294