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I'm on Harris' side. Actually, as I say in that post, I didn't see anything too controversial there. What do you disagree with, Norm? It was a talk against moral relativism, and I don't think he was off at all.

I think Chris in the comments did a nice job of summing up my objections to the Harris view.

Harris is making the elementary philosophical mistake of thinking you can derive an ought from an is. That is an argument with a normative conclusion will have at least one normative premise. Science can certain play an important role in informing our moral inquiry, but it cannot get us any moral conclusion on its own. For example, lots of recent research has been done on the possibility that we have some kind of innate moral sense. Suppose it turns out that is true. We still need a normative claim like, one ought to act consistently with one's moral sense. We certainly don't want to act on all our instincts in every case. So we need a normative principle to decide which innate tendencies to act in accordance with and which to resist. I don't see science giving us answers to those questions.

I read Harris' response but didn't find it persuasive, I think he's still missing the point. Certainly science can be extremely helpful in providing reliable data to inform us, but that's only half the problem. I believe he fails to make the case. Maybe I'm misunderstanding what his claim really is, but he'll need to do a better job of explaining it.

I'm still missing the point.

I thought science was all about the ought. We make observations about what is. Then formulate a theory about why the is is. Then test the theory by making a guess about what ought to happen.

So... moral values exist. Can't we then observe them (good or bad.) Then formulate a theory about why the values exist. Then test that theory by making guess about what ought to happen?

Okay, take something like Marc Hauser's work, for example:

You are driving a train when you see five hikers on the track ahead of you and a siding with a single hiker. Is it okay to flip a switch and send the train onto the siding, killing one hiker but saving five? Most people say yes. Would it be okay for a doctor to harvest organs from a healthy person to save five patients? Most people say no. But they often do not have a clue why they think one of these choices is okay and the other is not. And that fact is a clue that we have an innate moral faculty. Like competent speakers who do not understand the grammatical underpinnings of language, people tend to have strong, gut-level opinions about what is moral but are unable to give coherent explanations.

Say that Harris can explain exactly how our brain processes this information, that still doesn't answer the question about what we ought to do with the information It only answers the is part of the question. For example do we think a utilitarian approach is the correct one, or something else. The work is still there to be done, what is good, what is bad, and what we ought to do about it.

I think you are misunderstanding Harris - in your example he would say that there are possibly multiple 'right' (aiming toward well-being) responses but clearly one can make an assessments and predict possible outcomes to determine what ought to be done. Though I don't always agree with Harris, I'm with him on this one.

he would say that there are possibly multiple 'right' (aiming toward well-being) responses but clearly one can make an assessments and predict possible outcomes to determine what ought to be done.

If that is all he's saying I wouldn't disagree, but then that's what we do now. There is nothing new, or groundbreaking, or special about what he's saying, it elicits nothing more from me than a big DUH. We can call his take on it the multiple truths theory of morality.


That's what I meant when I said I don't see anything controversial, but if you read Sean's posts' comments, there are many true moral relativists there arguing for it. I'm not even sure if Sean also thinks like that.

Are you saying moral relativists are arguing for Sam Harris' view?
Until Sam takes the time to define wellbeing, good, and bad I'll continue to view his work as interesting and even useful but not in the way he is claiming.

I meant that there were moral relativists arguing for actual moral relativism, and they were the ones having the biggest gripes with Harris' talk. Like you, I don't think there are absolute moral values but also it's not all completely relative.

That's what I thought you meant but it was ambiguous what the it in your sentence was referring to. I think the whole argument comes down to can science come up with an answer to what Well-Being is and can we measure it in a way that settles the question. .

Maybe this is not Harris' point, but what I'm saying is... There is a moral problem. Humans solve it all the time using some moral reason. Can't we test whether that moral reason is sound? Was the greatest good really achieved in either case? What if the doctor really did kill the patient for the organs, then becomes a drunk abusive husband because of the guilt, beats his kids and creates a cycle of abuse in his family line? Was the greater good really served by saving the 5 if the 5 end up dying in a train accident the next day? Can't science help us to check our moral claims to see if they have the cause and effect that we think they have?

You can/can't do X because it will lead to Y arguments could be tested.

You can/can't do X because it's just wrong arguments could looked at by studying the effect it has societies that believe it.

I'm just trying to work out some thoughts here, like I always do. I hope there is a good method of exploring morality and deriving 'ought' conclusions that don't derive from dogma. If science shouldn't give it a go, what should?


Off the current topic but the big bang bit got me thinking of jehovah's witnesses who once came to my door and argued that the human eye was evidence of a divine creator.

Actually that isn't the main problem any moral science inspired realism faces. Suppose you survey moral attitudes and discover that 95% of people think in circumstance C you ought to take action A, that doesn't seem to give you warrant to say that those 5% ought to A in C. A scientific study of morality can tell you e.g. what will for most people promote happiness and what actions most people feel are morally required. What move cannot then be made is to say that the obligation felt by the majority is an obligation which binds the totality. Psychopaths and other instances of moral variability are what should be kept firmly in mind when reading the available literature.

P.S. - Hauser, yuck. From philosophy you have the work of Jesse Prinz, Shaun Nichols, Richard Joyce and Steve Stich, from psychology you have Feiry Cushman, Liane Young, Jonathan Haidt and (sometimes) Joshua Cohen. The three volume OUP series on moral psychology is fantastic, if you want to learn more. Hauser's book was deeply unimpressive a) because it just felt like a Chomsky-loyalist applying a linguistic model to morality without much thought to the rough edges, b) it ignored most of the meaty philosophical problems yet nevertheless assumed their easy resolution.

Of all the people mentioned, who would you recommend to catch me up on the morality debate in philosophy? I only have time to read one :(

I mentioned Hauser because he is known for raising the kind of question that gets to the heart or the problem.

I'm even familiar with some of the names you mention, Shauan Nichols for example. He taught at the University of Utah for a time, if I'm not mistaken.

Listening to the talk with anticipation that the issue would come up I read a lot into his 'multiple peaks of happiness' remark which might make some progress towards a reply to the problem. It has to be said in passing that it doesn't appear in Hume as any sort of logical rule but rather as a remark in the footnote that it seems strange (I think the word might be 'queer') when one has been progressing in a standard line from one is to another and suddenly to switch to ought. The main problem, to my mind, is that unadulterated oughts are presumably universal in scope and usually what you uncover about morality through the scientific method isn't. Multiple peaks of happiness might allow for, for example, you being more emotionally sensitive than I am to the suffering of others and therefore devoting more time to charitable work. But to (ho ho) use a linguistic analogy; it's rather as if I as a grammarian were to survey a population and discover that most of them were applying a rule (though some were happily applying an entirely different rule, perhaps (stronger case) because they are forced to due to some physiological difference) and declared that everyone ought to follow the majoritarian rule.

How many times have I been warned to beware of moral relativism? And I always give the same stock reply. All morals are relative. They have no objective foundation at all. A human sacrifice is a profoundly moral act to the priest conducting the ceremony. I'm backing Sean on this one.

Harris is being more practical than that. It seems to me that this line of "all morals are relative" argument, while it may be well grounded in theory, doesn't help. He was saying (as I understood, and from many other of his talks/writings) that the vast majority of decent human beings can easily agree on a moral framework where some things are clearly wrong and some clearly OK, and proposed that we view this as a happiness/suffering thing.

Of course you can come up with very unclear examples, and he never denied that, but you can also come up with very clear ones such as stoning girls or spreading likes about condoms on not countries, but whole continents riddled with AIDS.

I meant spreading lies.

Harris starts with an a priori assumption - that moral behavior is to be measured by the impact on the well-being and happiness of sentient beings

He defends that assumption and I think successfully (what other yardstick would be appropriate?) Others may disagree with that assumption (though I'm not sure on what rational basis); but, Once that assumption is accepted, his theory about the scientific nature of morality is pretty sound (caveats for all of the admitted difficulties in defining, weighting and evaluating well-being and happiness in the context of human variability):

Happiness and well-being are states experienced by the mind - > the mind is an epiphenomenon of the brain -> The brain, while not necessarily deterministic is nonetheless material and subject to quantifiable study -> yada -> yada - > yada

The arguments brought to bear so far are rather flawed:

"A human sacrifice is a profoundly moral act to the priest conducting the ceremony"? By what measure? God's happiness? The priests? The aggregate of the community's happiness? Even if they all got a good chuckle, how would you weight those x number of chuckles against the pain, despair and death of the sacrifice?

I think most of us not conditioned to be irrational would weigh those things similarly.

Even conditioned with irrational BS, most of the non-scientific moral positions that strike us as being horrible manage that only by redefining sentient beings (sinners, unclean, slaves, unbelievers, foreigners). THEIR well-being and happiness may be subordinated for that of the tribe, faithful etc. because they are not the same as 'real' people.

And that is profoundly non-scientific. And not 'Moral'.

The other example given was apples and oranges. And obviously so: The Train Driver MUST pick (a positive act) - either barrel ahead into five or flip a switch and run over one. At least one death is not avoidable. A choice (flip the switch or no) must be made)

The contrasting Doctor has the additional option of NOT acting. Perhaps time will present additional options. This is why our brains recoil at the idea of acting, hastily, unforced by circumstance, to CAUSE the death of one - to possibly save X.

"By what measure? God's happiness? The priests? The aggregate of the community's happiness? Even if they all got a good chuckle, how would you weight those x number of chuckles against the pain, despair and death of the sacrifice?" I didn't realize morality was a measure of happiness. Nor did anyone else I imagine. Your argument is foolish.

The idea of a scientific theory of the inherent rightness of an action (or inaction) which may be denied till the end of time by a certain lunatic fringe seems to me pefectly in line with the idea of a scientific theory of evolution which will be denied till the end of time by an ever dwindling number of creationists.

So far all criticisms I've seen for Harris are philosophical in their roots. What I think Harris is attempting to do is to get people to admit that in practice we do have a non-completely-relativistic moral framework and deep down most of us know it even at a visceral level.

Just see how "morals" have changed throughout history. The more knowledge we gained (much of it by doing science), it stands to reason that human societies' rules tended toward equality. This is not just relative change, it is progression. It is one-way. Rules and what we consider "moral" will keep changing, but who, even among the staunchest relativists, will bet that black people may have separate bathrooms and schools, or women won't be allowed to vote in the future?

This argument many are putting forth for moral relativism may be philosophically well grounded, and even philosophically undeniable (or unprovable), but in reality humanity hasn't behaved like that for thousands of years.

A problem that I have with SH's remarks: well-being and happiness are INCREDIBLY subjective. You can measure changes in the brain, and attempt to correlate them to a loose scale of happiness, but still you won't have objectivity, just a general trend including people who don't fit the trend perfectly.

Not to mention the extreme relativity of short-term happiness vs long-term happiness, how they should be prioritized etc.

If morality is measured by contribution to temporary happiness, wouldn't whores be the most moral among us?

Similarly you can argue forever about whether nearly any act increases overall well-being.

Trying to base an objective moral framework around extreme subjectivity seems deeply flawed to me.

Picking out rare examples of decisions that the majority tends to agree on doesn't point to a system of objective morality. It just points to similar biology and culture. That alone is not enough to justify the statement that there is an objective way to measure "good" and "bad", or that there ever will be a way to measure such a thing.

Not wellbeing, but suffering should be the yardstick for a moral society; after all, achieving great things despite great odds, fighting those odds and succeeding is the essence of morality. Only by suffering 'higher men' can excel, prove their worth, and live at the expense of the weaker. In a society without suffering, the higher men inadvertently end up paying the price (by rejecting some of their own ambitions).


Or, from another perspective: human beings come with an innate want for recognition as better than others by the other. The most human man rejects his animal instincts in a struggle for recognition and thus wins the recognition of the other, who embraces his animal instinct of survival in return for recognizing the other as better. As only through suffering (by the other) man can attain recognition, suffering is the a requisite for a moral society.

[Yay for my abuse of Nietzsche and Hegel]


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