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The Moral Equivalent of the Parallel Postulate - Comments

MarcCountry's Avatar Comment 1 by MarcCountry

Let’s grant the factual nature of the claim that primates are exposed to a greater range of happiness and suffering than insects or rocks. So what? That doesn’t mean we should care about their suffering or happiness; it doesn’t imply anything at all about morality, how we ought to feel, or how to draw the line between right and wrong.

Indeed, just because we DO care about something doesn't mean we OUGHT TO care... but, on the other hand, isn't morality really about how we DO feel about things, and we DO act in situations (and not how we might think we ought to feel or act)? Moral 'oughts' are often literally impossible... these are the domain of religion. Moral "ises' moral realities, are the domain of science. Why do we feel the way we do? Why did those feelings evolve? What use can those feelings be put to?

Thu, 25 Mar 2010 14:06:00 UTC | #452091

Mette's Avatar Comment 2 by Mette

In the end, morals is about doing what is right not because of being rewarded or punished, but because we know it is the right thing to do no matter what.

Thu, 25 Mar 2010 14:26:00 UTC | #452099

crookedshoes's Avatar Comment 3 by crookedshoes

I'd like to contribute something to the discussion (especially in light of reading the responses). My morality comes from me. The point is, all of these "intellectuals" discussing whether you can have scientific morality or morality has to be grounded in god or religion are all missing the huge point that we all define our own morality. A cheater is a cheater. I do not cheat on my wife. NOT because of god or punishment or even science (I cheated on several girlfriends before my wife). I do not cheat on my wife BECAUSE I CHOOSE NOT TO. I CHOOSE. Now, having said that, sometimes I drink to excess. Because I choose to. Everyone chooses. Every choice has ramifications. I do not know a single person who lives a perfectly straight life and every moral that everyone breaks; they rationalize away. Meanwhile they crap on the other "immoralities" that those "other" people engage in.
Whether you think you are moral due to a god or due to science is largely inane. You are moral (in your own personal way) because of the choices YOU make. No bigger picture here. No behind the scenes shenanigans. No real argument, god is in your head, or science is in your head....but choices you make are your own choices.

Thu, 25 Mar 2010 14:34:00 UTC | #452101

jgravelle's Avatar Comment 4 by jgravelle


I'm no more anxious to consult the "Periodic Table of the Ethics" than the fables of King James to determine right from wrong.

I'd rather decide for myself whether eating a Big Mac is morally justifiable than leave it to a body whose members are in flux over how many planets there are...


Thu, 25 Mar 2010 14:47:00 UTC | #452103

Pedantic Twit's Avatar Comment 5 by Pedantic Twit

It seems that Harris has a certain unspoken assumption of a moral philosophy approximating Utilitarianism. In that light, science most definitely can inform our morals.

It's just that you need an underlying metaphysics of morality before you can make use of just about any sort of information.

Thu, 25 Mar 2010 14:50:00 UTC | #452105

Bonzai's Avatar Comment 6 by Bonzai

However, what "is" does put a constraint on what we would consider "ought".

Sean is pushing a mathematical analogy so I will go along with it.

The great Russian mathematician V.I. Arnold made a very salient point about mathematical axioms.

He said that while it is theoretically possible for the mathematician to sit in his armchair and dream up all kinds of esoteric definitions and axioms most of them will not lead to fruitful mathematics and as a result, would be a waste of time. For a definition or an axiom to be fruitful it has to capture some interesting mathematical insights, it goes much beyond just a logical possibility (The philosophers should take note)

I think something like that is also true for morality. While it is true that we can logically envision all kinds of moral axioms, most of them would not be workable or acceptable simply because we are what we are. Our biological heritage puts a constraint on the possibility of the moral axioms that we would adopt.

So in that sense "is" does inform "ought", though of course it is not a straight forward equality. The constraint placed by "is" may still leave a lot of room to choose as our axioms for "ought".

There is also the problem of how do we actually, practically make use of the information provided by science in this scenario. I don't think it is straight forward.

Thu, 25 Mar 2010 14:52:00 UTC | #452107

epeeist's Avatar Comment 7 by epeeist

Comment #472356 by Bonzai:

He said that while it is theoretically possible for the mathematician to sit in his armchair and dream up all kinds of esoteric definitions and axioms most of them will not lead to fruitful mathematics and as a result, would be a waste of time. For a definition or an axiom to be fruitful it has to capture some interesting mathematical insights, it goes much beyond just a logical possibility (The philosophers should take note)
You might want to point this quotation at Martin Woodhouse.

Thu, 25 Mar 2010 14:58:00 UTC | #452109

Nunbeliever's Avatar Comment 8 by Nunbeliever

Why do people have to go to such extremes? It seems like Sean Carroll is saying science can't have anything to do with morality and values at all.

As I explained in an other thread, I think it is quite obvious that science ultimately can't decide whether for example utilitarianism is a good thing or not. Or objectively answer what good things and bad things are in themselves. These questions are beyond the scope of objectivity.

STILL, if we decide that we ought to strive for say peacful, socially functional societies capable of granting their citizens the best possible degree of well-being (or in other words utilitarianism in my opinion) science obviously has a say on this matter.

I do not like the opinion that just because science can't answer ultimate questions regarding morality (like what is objectively a "good" thing and a "bad" thing) science has nothing to say about moral standards and values at all. I get the feeling that some debaters here seem to derive their conclusion rather from some weird ideological anarcho-individualism (No one's gonna tell me what to do) than from rational and logical reasoning. My experience is that especially atheists from America are more disposed to hold opinions like these than others. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that many atheists in America are former devout believers and followingly for obvious reasons regard moral authority as an inherently dangerous and bad thing. Even if we are talking about science.

Thu, 25 Mar 2010 15:30:00 UTC | #452122

bethe123's Avatar Comment 9 by bethe123


Whether our geometry is Euclidean or not is determined by experiment...even Gauss knew this, and unless your book was ghost written, you do to.
You should use a different analogy instead of the parallel it stands, your analogy suggests we could, by experiment, (i.e.,science) determine what the correct value system in our world is, and that is somewhat what Sam is claiming...if I have understood his reference to corporal punishment in the classroom. Try picking an axiom system that has no physical realization. Not as catchy as your title, but more accurate.

Thu, 25 Mar 2010 15:45:00 UTC | #452129

Konradius's Avatar Comment 10 by Konradius

> that you can’t derive ought from is.
No, Hume was actually wrong. Do you exist?
If so, then you are an is. You derive, dream up or otherwise think of an ought.

Basically, it is impossible to get to an ought without having an is first.

Now I understand the important word here might be 'derive'. So this deepity can be understood as 'you might need an is before you construct an ought, but this construction cannot be done by derivation'.

Now, you cannot prove a negative, but you can disprove a negative. My ought is: 'You ought to eat'. I derive that from is statements like 'to live you need to eat' and 'you want to live'.

I always wondered why that quote from Hume was considered such a truism...

Thu, 25 Mar 2010 15:47:00 UTC | #452133

epeeist's Avatar Comment 11 by epeeist

Comment #472384 by Konradius:

If so, then you are an is. You derive, dream up or otherwise think of an ought.
Existence is not a (first-class) predicate.

Thu, 25 Mar 2010 15:51:00 UTC | #452134

Chrysippus_Maximus's Avatar Comment 12 by Chrysippus_Maximus

This whole direction of thought is painfully absurd. There are much better thinkers who have much better explanations of value than this.

Thu, 25 Mar 2010 16:11:00 UTC | #452141

Bonzai's Avatar Comment 13 by Bonzai


Why keep these better explanations under wrap? Do enlight us lower orders of humans who don't happen to be "professional philosophers".

It seems that all you ever do here is to write a few terse sentences here and there telling people that they are stupid without exposing your own thought to the vigor of debate, that doesn't seem fair. Sometimes I do wonder whether you have an original thought to share besides citing dead philosophers,--actually not even so much citing them, but only citing their names with may be a few jargons attached.

Now how original is it to use the name of yet another dead white male philosopher to be your internet moniker?

Thu, 25 Mar 2010 16:29:00 UTC | #452147

chawinwords's Avatar Comment 14 by chawinwords

It is an interesting deduction, and tries to find a logical foundation for the concepts of ethics and morality.

So long ago now, I learned that ethics and morality are not the inventions of religions and religious institutions; but, that in the deep past of human community type evolution, and the need for rules to organize communities around, the need for conceptual morality and ethics invented religion and religious institutions. Religions merely took the concepts out of human hands and awarded the same to mysticism -- out of human reach.

That, plus it was only a short evolution for the old tribal shamans into priesthood. Then of course, many institutionalized religions arose on the same level as mega-tribalism.

There was a sort of interesting article in "Scientific American" that in many ways bears out that suggestion and how the evolution of human civilization emerged:

Thu, 25 Mar 2010 16:31:00 UTC | #452149

prettygoodformonkeys's Avatar Comment 15 by prettygoodformonkeys

I did a little research on getting a degree in Philosophy, but then I couldn't find any good philosophy companies to work for.........

Thu, 25 Mar 2010 18:13:00 UTC | #452197

nother person's Avatar Comment 16 by nother person

Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures… If we’re more concerned about our fellow primates than we are about insects, as indeed we are, it’s because we think they are exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering. The crucial thing to notice here is that this is a factual claim.

Let’s grant the factual nature of the claim that primates are exposed to a greater range of happiness and suffering than insects or rocks. So what?

In my view, you are granting the wrong fact. The fact of interest is that we do have moral sentiments towards primates in a greater degree than we have towards insects. This is the empirical fact. The bit about happiness and suffering is just Sam's hypothesis purporting to explain this fact. Other hypotheses are possible. One possible alternative might be because we perceive primates to have a greater degree of agency than insects. Another might be because we perceive them to be more like ourselves along a range of factors. Another hypothesis is that we have been culturally conditioned to feel this way for reasons that have nothing to do with the matter at hand. Each of these hypotheses is amenable to investigation by science.

Thu, 25 Mar 2010 18:42:00 UTC | #452213

Chrysippus_Maximus's Avatar Comment 17 by Chrysippus_Maximus

Bonzai, I have better things to do than respond to people with attitudes as bad as yours. If people are interested in seeing what other work is being done on value, they can look it up themselves.

Thu, 25 Mar 2010 19:19:00 UTC | #452227

robotaholic's Avatar Comment 18 by robotaholic

I don't want anyone telling me what to do. So I make up my moral code as I go along. Why would anyone want to make up a moral framework and force other people to live by it? So I enjoyed listening to Sam speak but even if he created the perfect moral code I'm still going to do what the hell I want.

Thu, 25 Mar 2010 19:31:00 UTC | #452238

chawinwords's Avatar Comment 19 by chawinwords

robotaholic, I can't wait for you to have a few children, then have them say:So I enjoyed listening to Sam [you/dad] speak but even if he [you/dad] created the perfect moral code I'm still going to do what the hell I want.
Life is filled with learning - from beginning to end. And gosh do some of the lessons during life hurt, on too many levels to count.

Thu, 25 Mar 2010 20:11:00 UTC | #452249

Nunbeliever's Avatar Comment 20 by Nunbeliever

To robotaholic:

I don't want anyone telling me what to do. So I make up my moral code as I go along. Why would anyone want to make up a moral framework and force other people to live by it?

That has to be the nonsequitur of the day. You totally missed the point. Moral authority does not mean the right to force moral standards upon others. An exampel of what it actually could mean is if science can enlighten us what moral standards or values are more likely to result in well-being, given that well-being is what we want to achieve.

It is not that hard to understand. Compare it to a patient going to see the doctor. The doctor says the patient has cancer and if he want to be cured he has to receive chemotherapy. "Bollocks", the patient says. "I don't want anyone telling me what to do, so I make up my own health measures as I go along." Yes, of course the patient is free to do whatever he like. On the other hand, unless he's suicidal it would be most irrational to ignore the physician's advice. Perhaps we'll look at moral standards in much the same way in the future. Perhaps we'll label people who adopt certain moral standards equally irrational as a person refusing to receive medical treatment. In fact, we already do. I think most of us in the western world find it irrational to stone people to death for what we consider minor offences. Why is that? Well, because we have a whole range of moral authorities telling us that it is irrational. Probably the single most important is culture (regardless of whether it is religious culutre or profane). We largely construct our moral standards in accordance with cultural knowledge. Even the most extreme individualist and anarchist person have moral authorities, even though most are too deluded to realize that they aren't as independent as they like to think they are. Surely it would be better if science could provide us with a more objective form of moral authority, would it not...

I am a bit puzzled by the fact that many atheists are so (in my opinion irrationally) afraid of moral authority as if it was something inherently awful and bad. Perhaps the fact that many atheist are former devout believers (and followingly maybe regard moral authority as fascism) has something to do with it. I don't know, but I find it interesting.

Thu, 25 Mar 2010 20:41:00 UTC | #452261

carlitoernesto's Avatar Comment 21 by carlitoernesto

I understand Nunbeliever's point... As for Spinoza... eh.

Fri, 26 Mar 2010 00:20:00 UTC | #452327

Fuller's Avatar Comment 22 by Fuller

Unfortunately I completely disagree with his major point.

Yes, that is unfortunate. Next!

Fri, 26 Mar 2010 00:37:00 UTC | #452328

Prieten's Avatar Comment 23 by Prieten

I liked Sam Harris's presentation. He made it all sound so reasonable. What makes people happy? Let's use science to increase that happiness. Many naysayers now quibble with the "what makes people happy" part. People are too different, they like too many different things, who decides which happiness is okay, which is not? Since when should scientists let themselves be intimidated by the size of a task? If there are many different happiness states which can be simultaneously achieved (while avoiding increasing unhappiness), why shouldn't science tackle this problem? We know the religious will keep on pontificating about which happiness states they feel should be allowed. I believe we should hear from the scientists.

Obviously Marxism should serve as a warning that pseudo-science might lead us in the wrong direction. But increasing environmental degradation and resource shortages are already forcing us to ask tough questions about feasible happiness states. I want to hear what science says on this matter!

Fri, 26 Mar 2010 02:02:00 UTC | #452351

ANTIcarrot's Avatar Comment 24 by ANTIcarrot

Minor point:
WORK is not the same as ENERGY
JUSTICE is not the same as MORALITY

Work is the application of energy. Justice is the application of moral principles. I get the impression that people are getting hung up on the theory and forgetting its practical application. That is very silly.

Whatever your system of morals, when you apply them in the real world, you absolutely have to use science to varify you are applying them correctly. It's not just 'innocent until proven guilty' but also 'by scientific means'. Because there simply isn't any other way of varifying factual statements. And the instant you enter the practical world of applications, all your morals equate to factual statements.

This applies doubly when you have to arbitrate two statements:
*Criminals should go to jail
*Innocent people should remain free
Science can determine who's guilty and who's innocent. It can also determine which moral systems are self consistant and which are self serving egotistical powertrips.

The moment you start making factual statements about the world AND claim that science somehow can't test these statements then you become a fundimentalist nutcase.

Fri, 26 Mar 2010 02:11:00 UTC | #452353

Janus's Avatar Comment 25 by Janus

This post/essay by Eliezer Yudkowsky is very relevant:

Not for the Sake of Happiness (Alone)

When I met the futurist Greg Stock some years ago, he argued that the joy of scientific discovery would soon be replaced by pills that could simulate the joy of scientific discovery. I approached him after his talk and said, "I agree that such pills are probably possible, but I wouldn't voluntarily take them."

And Stock said, "But they'll be so much better that the real thing won't be able to compete. It will just be way more fun for you to take the pills than to do all the actual scientific work."

And I said, "I agree that's possible, so I'll make sure never to take them."

Stock seemed genuinely surprised by my attitude, which genuinely surprised me.

One often sees ethicists arguing as if all human desires are reducible, in principle, to the desire for ourselves and others to be happy. (In particular, Sam Harris does this in The End of Faith, which I just finished perusing - though Harris's reduction is more of a drive-by shooting than a major topic of discussion.)

This isn't the same as arguing whether all happinesses can be measured on a common utility scale - different happinesses might occupy different scales, or be otherwise non-convertible. And it's not the same as arguing that it's theoretically impossible to value anything other than your own psychological states, because it's still permissible to care whether other people are happy.

The question, rather, is whether we should care about the things that make us happy, apart from any happiness they bring.


Fri, 26 Mar 2010 02:58:00 UTC | #452364

Russell Blackford's Avatar Comment 26 by Russell Blackford

Eliezer has a point, though the point has been made best by Robert Nozick with the Experience Machine thought experiment in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. This book advocates a system of political libertarianism, which I don't support, but it has some wonderful discussions in passing of deep moral and related issues.

That said, preference utilitarians think they can get around the sort of point that is being made here. If we are maximising preferences, then we count the preferences of people not to take the happiness pill or plug in to the Experience Machine. Our aim is to increase preference-satisfaction, not subjective feelings of happiness.

I'm not wanting to defend preference-utilitarianism, just saying that sophisticated utilitarians like Peter Singer can't be defeated so easily. All forms of utilitarianism have problems, not least that no one has ever shown that you make some sort of mistake about the world if you decide not to act like a utilitarian.

Fri, 26 Mar 2010 11:39:00 UTC | #452473

keddaw's Avatar Comment 27 by keddaw

All utilitarianism (that I have read) quickly shifts over into desire-fulfilment rather than individual utility when you bring up non-utilitarian acts like a mother dying to protect her child or battlefield heroism or blood donation.

When Rick lets Ilsa go with her husband at the end of Casablanca it is for a greater good that he has no interest in and does not benefit from. He made an intellectual decision that was both against his utility and his desires, "I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

Basically, all morality should come from Humphrey Bogart films.

Fri, 26 Mar 2010 13:32:00 UTC | #452520

stanleygarden's Avatar Comment 28 by stanleygarden

Basically, by my lights this disagreement can be reduced to a couple statements:

Sam is proposing that sicence can guide us on how we shuold live our lives by giving us the facts which are necessary if - and this is his underlying assumption- we are to increase the happiness and reduce the suffering of sentient creatures. I don't see how this is wrong or invlalid.

Now, the opposing comments I have rad here and elsewhere seem to have a problem with this question: "Ok yes..that's fine but science cannot tell us why we should regard the well-being of sentient beings as GOOD". Here, we hit bedrock. But if science can't answer this NOTHING else can either. In other words it's like asking "Why is it moral to be moral?" One cannot answer this question without being thrown into an infinite regress.

On a different note, moral relativism might be in a way analogous to materialistic deterministm. It might by ultimately true, but it would be absurd to live our lives under this assumption. After all, once we accept moral relativism as a sound and valid position, other propositions follow, e.g. Tolerance for diversity is a good idea. This is an absolute claim, not a relative one. Indeed, if moral relativism is correct, then this is an absolute claim, not a relative one.

Fri, 26 Mar 2010 15:26:00 UTC | #452552

keddaw's Avatar Comment 29 by keddaw


The problem is that Sam comes out and says that we SHOULD try to enhance the well-being of conscious creatures.

Says who? According to Sam it is the collective will of humanity through the ages, but since when has that ever been a good enough motive? Might there not be principles that trump this well-being? For example, if there were a way to plug yourself into a computer to be happy for the rest of your life, would/should you do it?

Also, define conscious creatures... Would a computer program be included in this (assuming one becomes conscious.)

Science can tell us what outcomes are more likely or produce more of some measurement given certain parameters, but it cannot tell us which measurement to use.

Fri, 26 Mar 2010 15:49:00 UTC | #452563

blayzekohime's Avatar Comment 30 by blayzekohime

I still consider atheistic morality to be superior. It takes a better person to do the right thing because it is the right thing and not because they are afraid of hell/anticipating heaven. Doing the right thing with no expectation of reward is the most pure act possible; would Jesus himself say any different?

Fri, 26 Mar 2010 19:57:00 UTC | #452729