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Response to Critics - Comments

bendigeidfran's Avatar Comment 1 by bendigeidfran

I've not read this defence but it's wrong.

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 08:38:55 UTC | #595874

bendigeidfran's Avatar Comment 2 by bendigeidfran

What's the point of it Sam? You can have well-being presupposed, with a nod from bat-man, and you can try to increase well-being - wherever the calculation yields an answer. Is that it? You only needed a sentence. More importantly, would you have sectioned 70s Elvis? Show us the maths. Sod his well-being, I'd lose the trilogy.

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 09:11:00 UTC | #595886

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 3 by Steve Zara

  1. Maximizing well-being is good.
  2. Should it be a human value?
  3. Let's do some science. What do we need to measure to find out if (1) is true?
  4. Well being, of course!
  5. Why do we need to measure well-being? Go back to (1)

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 09:14:56 UTC | #595887

bendigeidfran's Avatar Comment 4 by bendigeidfran

I liked it when he did stand-up. Before becoming messianic. Can I download it from Piratebay? the calcs quickly become impossible. Each man's well-being touches so many others says Clarence.

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 09:33:28 UTC | #595891

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 5 by AtheistEgbert

Harris writes like he's having a tantrum. I think some of us agree that a naturalistic ethics is not only possible but important. Emotions are clearly part of the basis for ethical decisions, from which a theory can be established. However, moral truths do not exist out there as a substance, let's be clear about that. Whether a person commits murder or not depends on the context of a situation, simply feeling that a person is a murderer is not ethics.

Although we feel murder is wrong, we require a rational scientific theory to establish why we feel it is wrong. Only once we understand the theory can we explain those feelings properly. Otherwise we mistake the idea that simply feeling bad means that something is morally wrong.

The reason why we believe ethics is intuitive is because we're not conscious of the evaluation processing going on inside our heads when we come to moral decisions. It is rather like our automatic and unconscious ability to speak fluently without knowing the underlying grammar.

In a sense, moralists are a bit like grammarians who tell us how we ought to speak or how we should put together sentences, when we automatically do this all the time.

Morality is a process and not a fact, and we only need a scientific theory to identify the process and then determine the facts behind our moral decision making. To confuse those facts as objective moral truths without taking into consideration the process or evaluation of those facts is grossly misguided.

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 09:39:05 UTC | #595896

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 6 by Steve Zara

the calcs quickly become impossible. Each man's well-being touches so many others says Clarence.

Indeed. This is why well-being is not like health. It's not at all like health. Health can be largely an individual thing, measured on individual scales, for each human. Well-being is collaborative, and interdependent. I hate the gays. My well-being is reduced when I see them in the street. I feel unsettled, uncomfortable. But here comes Sam and tells me that I am wrong about my well-being. Science says that I will be more well if I like the gays.

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 09:43:22 UTC | #595899

AshFromHousewares's Avatar Comment 7 by AshFromHousewares

I am so disappointed in you Sam. Aluminum IS my favorite flavor of ice cream. With the economy so screwed up why do you want to hurt the aluminum flavored ice cream industry? How are you even able to grasp a measure of well being when you think it's ok that kids everywhere can't get thier favorite lactose confection?

Seriously though, I was rather impressed with the whole concept put forth and I think most of the squirming is due to the simplicity of the concept and the fear it may cause people to think differently about the origins of morality.

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 09:46:18 UTC | #595901

DamnDirtyApe's Avatar Comment 8 by DamnDirtyApe

Oh dear.

Colin McGinn is not a man I greatly admire after listening to him speak at his honorary degree award at Kent University last year.

For half an hour he talked about himself. He made 9/11 sound boring and he said something about there being no grammar schools in the north as he was growing up. Aside from the one my dad went to, obviously. If he's a better writer I wouldn't know, but he was a dreadful public speaker.

Compare to my sister's graduation where Bill Bryson was there. He was basically saying stuff like 'you're all awesome! be happy! Bush isn't -your- president!'

Why we couldn't get David Suchet in ours I don't know. We really lucked out.

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 09:46:29 UTC | #595902

gordon's Avatar Comment 9 by gordon

I think I'll actually read it first before commenting. Amazon then.

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 09:49:03 UTC | #595904

bendigeidfran's Avatar Comment 10 by bendigeidfran

The quantum difference engine broke so I tossed a coin. It said I couldn't download it. But best of 57 it said I could. But I got distracted and downloaded 'Healthy eating' by the king instead.

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 09:49:27 UTC | #595906

michaelfaulkner101's Avatar Comment 11 by michaelfaulkner101

I think Harris is right on the point about realism and about wellbeing. The main problem is that I think the title of his book is misleading. While science can determine values, the master value, ie wellbeing cannot be determined by science per se - normatively cannot be naturalised in this way. However, the determination of the value of wellbeing is via an argument to first principles. First principles come from philosophical argument not from any of the specific sciences. To use a Kantian turn of phrase Harris should have called his book, “The philosophical groundwork for the science of morality.”

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 09:49:35 UTC | #595907

michaelfaulkner101's Avatar Comment 12 by michaelfaulkner101

I think Harris is right on the point about realism and about wellbeing. The main problem is that I think the title of his book is misleading. While science can determine values, the master value, ie wellbeing cannot be determined by science per se - normatively cannot be naturalised in this way. However, the determination of the value of wellbeing is via an argument to first principles. First principles come from philosophical argument not from any of the specific sciences. To use a Kantian turn of phrase Harris should have called his book, “The philosophical groundwork for the science of morality.”

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 09:50:30 UTC | #595909

Stevehill's Avatar Comment 13 by Stevehill

Sam, you're letting them get to you.

They're not worth it.

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 09:55:32 UTC | #595916

RichardNevin's Avatar Comment 14 by RichardNevin

@ Stevehill

I don't agree, I think Sam needs to offer responses to his critics so his clarification of the argument can be quoted alongside criticisms in the press. Having said that, if his critics would only read The Moral Landscape before they dismissed it, that would also help!

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 10:08:58 UTC | #595919

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 15 by Steve Zara

I'm a supporter of Blackford's views. I think Sam has a mistaken view of the need for some kind of objective morality. I'm also puzzled as to what would be achieved with a scientific backing of human values even if it could be achieved.

Those who need to be told by science that stoning adulterers is wrong won't listen, and those who are prepared to listen don't need to be told.

If we are going to determine human values in a way that is going to be useful we need to find a way of doing so that will convince those who need to be convinced. Telling such people that we have invented a well-being meter and they really must look at it will achieve nothing.

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 10:16:24 UTC | #595925

superbeanson's Avatar Comment 16 by superbeanson

I have a lot of sympathy with those who dismiss SH for working forward from a utilitarian platform- after all you cannot get around the impossibility of deriving ought from is

If you concede the utilitarian premiss (which we all do) then fine- there has been nearly 200 years of literature on this precise subject- what novelties does SH bring?

Dunno- not read it...

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 10:30:49 UTC | #595930

bendigeidfran's Avatar Comment 17 by bendigeidfran

For his chess other than the simplest positions he is in moral zugzwang or incalculable trillions of games, present and future. If you read the list of what he says he's not saying, what's left?

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 11:17:10 UTC | #595950

Marcus Small's Avatar Comment 18 by Marcus Small

Comment 15 by Steve Zara :

Those who need to be told by science that stoning adulterers is wrong won't listen, and those who are prepared to listen don't need to be told.

That Steve is very interesting observation. If we think about the second group my question is how do they know? (I am not fishing for a supernatural explanation BTW).

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 11:24:29 UTC | #595951

PurplePanda's Avatar Comment 19 by PurplePanda

Ignore all the bullshit. Determine what the genuine criticisms are and refute them or admit they are correct. Do it all in the next edition of your book and don't worry about anything else.

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 11:24:59 UTC | #595952

rsharvey's Avatar Comment 20 by rsharvey

None of the criticisms in the comments here attempt to refute the central premise that morality is related to facts of the world. The major criticism appears to be that it is too difficult in practice to calculate the total well-being of individuals in a society. But this is something that Harris has repeatedly granted himself. It doesn't mean that everything which contributes to well-being is beyond measurement

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 11:33:31 UTC | #595956

irate_atheist's Avatar Comment 21 by irate_atheist

I agree with Bendi agreeing with Steve Zara agreeing with Russell Blackford. Although I haven't read the actual book, of course. But it does appear to be one huge circular argument and a predictable fail. I like peanuts and am happier when allowed to eat them. My colleague at work does not and is happier when he doesn't. Which one of us is right? My boss doesn't like the smell of the oranges I eat. Which one of us is right? What is the precise measurement of his orange hating versus my olfactory pleasure? I gain great pleasure in insulting 'tards. Does measuring the rise in their blood pressure give us a scientific argument?

Maybe I have reduced this to an argumentum ad absurdum? Maybe I'm talking bollocks? Who knows.

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 11:39:17 UTC | #595959

bendigeidfran's Avatar Comment 22 by bendigeidfran

Do one at gene level. That would be more correct. Upset the eaterati properly. Throw in some Buddhist drivel that we're waves but all water. Unify the magisteria. Then do perpetual motion machines.

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 11:52:59 UTC | #595963

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 23 by Steve Zara

None of the criticisms in the comments here attempt to refute the central premise that morality is related to facts of the world. The major criticism appears to be that it is too difficult in practice to calculate the total well-being of individuals in a society. But this is something that Harris has repeatedly granted himself. It doesn't mean that everything which contributes to well-being is beyond measurement

But here you have seemingly mixed up morality and well-being. Well-being is unquestionably related to facts of the world. The problem is that morality isn't. Many religions try and insist that morality is a fact of the world - it is a fact because God makes it so, or that it is a fact because it's so obvious that it must be (the latter is a surprisingly common argument).

Human values are in the realm of morality. They aren't facts of the world (well, not really). They are choices. When we make decisions about what to do, we think "if A then we should do B". The choice of A (the "if") and the "should do" represent our values. In a very trivial way, they are determined by science because we live in pretty much a deterministic world. In principle, if not in practice, we can say which values someone will end up having. But we can't say whether or not they should have such values.

This problem is because morality must be without foundation to be of use to us, I would argue. We need to be able to construct a morality out of shared experiences and negotiation. The foundation needs to be us. We can use science to help investigate the experiences. We can use science to help with the negotiations, but we can't use science to insist what we should end up with. This is because morality is an abstraction. It's like logic, and indeed, has been investigated in this context by philosophers for centuries.

Well-being is real, and can be scientifically determined. But human values aren't even the kind of thing that could be determined by science, any more than science can determine logic.

Insisting that science can determine values as against inform decisions based on values is just plain wrong. Having a book with a wrong title is not a good start. The book should have been called 'The Well-Being Landscape".

We don't need science to try and replace the moral authority of religion. Religion corrupts what is good in us. We just need to allow our humanity to be released from the constraints of dogma and we will do fine.

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 11:59:01 UTC | #595966

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 24 by Steve Zara

If we think about the second group my question is how do they know? (I am not fishing for a supernatural explanation BTW).

Interesting question. The faithful know what is moral based on a combination of personal feelings and dogma and tradition. The problem is that tradition is... traditional! And, of course, dogma is dogmatic. This is why so much religious morality is way out of date, because it's foundations are necessarily reactionary. I suspect that in a century, religions will look quite liberal to us today, but the rest of society will have moved on - to who knows what?

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 12:02:48 UTC | #595967

Peter Grant's Avatar Comment 25 by Peter Grant

Please could someone post the rest of this article here? The smegging proxy at work is blocking me.

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 12:15:21 UTC | #595968

Peter Grant's Avatar Comment 26 by Peter Grant

Well-being is real, and can be scientifically determined. But human values aren't even the kind of thing that could be determined by science, any more than science can determine logic.

Can you think of any human values which are not concerned with well-being? Are they moral?

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 12:47:17 UTC | #595977

superbeanson's Avatar Comment 27 by superbeanson

Comment 26 by Peter Grant Can you think of any human values which are not concerned with well-being? Are they moral?

Well altruism which is not concerned with the well-being of the perpetrator is generally considered morally good whereas killing sundry people in the name of allah is generally considered by the non-muslim world to be morally bad.

But the problem is generalising- spreading your personal morality to others; this is where utilitarianism comes in- people try to establish a base equality between a fact and a moral unit that all can agree on. It's notoriously difficult (in fact impossible). There are in fact particular humans who very much value those conditions and actions which do not promote general well-being (murderers, pschopaths, etc) How can you argue that their moral code is unworthy WITHOUT invoking an unsubstantiated value system?

I think it was Hume who said something to the effect that it is not irrational to prefer the destruction of the world to the scratching of your little toe

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 13:02:31 UTC | #595980

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 28 by Steve Zara

Can you think of any human values which are not concerned with well-being? Are they moral?

One example is artistic values. I can't see how they are concerned with well-being. On the other hand, I'm not sure it they are moral.

Selfishness is related to morality. And from a selfish point of view, I think I'm being slowly, very slowly, converted to Sam's way of thinking. Morality has to be about well-being, surely. I think that the appropriate neural connections have been made, and I'm beginning to see what Sam is saying.

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 13:07:18 UTC | #595983

Peter Grant's Avatar Comment 29 by Peter Grant

Comment 27 by superbeanson

Well altruism which is not concerned with the well-being of the perpetrator is generally considered morally good whereas killing sundry people in the name of allah is generally considered by the non-muslim world to be morally bad.

Altruism is mainly concerned with the well-being of the beneficiary but the perpetrator often feels good about it as well

But the problem is generalising- spreading your personal morality to others; this is where utilitarianism comes in- people try to establish a base eqality between a fact and a moral unit that all can agree on. It's notoriously difficult (in fact impossible) There are in fact particular humans who very much value those conditions and actions which do not promote general well-being (murderers, pschopaths, etc) How can you argue that their moral code is unworthy WITHOUT invoking an unsubstantiated value system?

Easy, their values do not promote general well-being.

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 13:12:55 UTC | #595986

BaltimoreOriole's Avatar Comment 30 by BaltimoreOriole

I think Sam can be fairly criticized for using the bumper-sticker slogan "a scientific basis for morality" in the title of his book. If you actually read his book or listen to his arguments, it's clear that this is an over-simplification. But it's hard to avoid the impression that most of the people who criticize him haven't read beyond this overly dramatic catch phrase. The main criticism seems to boil down to this:

CRITICISM: You can't "scientifically" or even just rationally justify the basic contention that well-being/flourishing is the fount of morality. And even if you could, what's the point? Even if you're right, you won't persuade anyone who disagrees with you.

ANSWER: Regarding the first sentence, this would be a killer criticism if it actually addressed an argument that Sam had made, but even a cursory reading of his book should really make it clear that he doesn't make that argument.

Consider: you can't justify the scientific enterprise to someone who doesn't accept, without justification, eg the principles of logic, the value of evidence, etc. You can't justify the mathematical enterprise to someone who doesn't accept, without justification, the Peano axioms, or something like them. (This last is my example, not Sam's.) You can't justify the moral enterprise to someone who won't accept, without justification, that well-being/flourishing is a good thing. So what do you do about such people?

You exclude them from the discussion. To take an example from Sam, if the physicist Sean Carroll were to learn that someone wanted to participate in a physics colloquium which Sean were running who rejected the value of evidence and the principles of logic, Sean wouldn't spend sleepless nights anguishing over whether to include him; he simply wouldn't invite him. Some people just aren't worth talking to, even if you can't provide some sort of absolute justification for this assessment. If this bothers you, okay, but why do you apply this principle in every other realm of your life except this one?

I agree that if someone just reads the bumper-sticker sub-title of Sam's book, this may not be clear, and I would join in the criticism of Sam for using that slogan. But having said that, I think it would be nice if people would actually read his arguments before attempting any deeper criticism.

If you read Sam's book, he makes it clear that his intended readers are not the large, and largely imaginary hordes of unpersuadable psychopaths who his critics invoke, but rather the people who effectively agree with Sam about morality, and yet are paralysed into moral inaction by mistaken notions of moral relativity, a group which he fears is predominantly composed of atheists and scientifically-minded people, who should be his natural allies.

There was an interesting panel discussion recently under the auspices of Lawrence Krauss' origin project in which Steven Pinker and Peter Singer were first put off by Sam's references to a scientific basis for morality and expressed disagreement with him. However, after Sam made clear what actually stood behind the bumper sticker, they both came over to his side, though Pinker criticized him, correctly I think, for using "science" as a stand-in for "rationality", a usage bound to create confusion. Reading the reactions to Sam's book, it's hard to argue with Pinker, I think.

Steve Zara does bring up an interesting original (so far as I know) criticism which I have not seen Sam address, but perhaps another poster can correct me on this. Steve points out that morality is necessarily bound up with interactions with others, while health, which Sam posits as an analogous concept, is not.

I would be interested to hear what Sam has to say about this. My own reaction would be that, to the extent to which this is true, morality may become harder to do, but that doesn't invalidate the enterprise. In any case, the argument is, in my opinion, overblown. Our health and our children's health are indeed affected by the mistaken health notions of anti-vaxxers, people who don't see the value in washing their hands before they prepare our food, people who blow cigarette smoke in our faces, people who overuse health resources by making poor life-style choices, etc.

Anyway, I would love to see more criticisms like this one by Steve, addressed to Sam's actual arguments rather than imagined ones.

Fri, 25 Feb 2011 13:14:13 UTC | #595988