Archive for the ‘Moral Philosophy’ Category

The Offensive Truth about Batkid

January 2, 2014 2 comments


A minor internet brouhaha erupted after philosopher Peter Singer and others critiqued the wisdom of the Make-A-Wish Foundation’s Batkid event.

You’d have to be a real spoilsport not to feel good about Batkid. If the sight of 20,000 people joining in last month to help the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the city of San Francisco fulfill the superhero fantasies of a 5-year-old — and not just any 5-year-old, but one who has been battling a life-threatening disease — doesn’t warm your heart, you must be numb to basic human emotions.

Yet we can still ask if these emotions are the best guide to what we ought to do.


It’s obvious, isn’t it, that saving a child’s life is better than fulfilling a child’s wish to be Batkid?

It seems distasteful to even question that utility of a charity that brought so much joy, but it’s partly this fear of giving offense that retards the moral growth of our society. It’s impolite, after all, to doubt the helpfulness of giving 32% of our charity to religion when only a third of all charitable donations goes to the needs of the poor. It’s rude to wonder if many of us favor immigration restrictions that trap people into a life of scandalous poverty because we’re uncomfortable with poor foreigners living near us. It’s positively vulgar to suggest that a charitable event that brought delight mostly to privileged Americans isn’t as beneficial as protecting children from parasitic worms.

Read more…

An Imperfect Argument

April 21, 2011 8 comments

I finally got around to watching the “Does Good Come From God?” debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig. There are a number of interesting aspects of this debate – Sam’s thoughts on it are here – but I want to challenge Dr. Craig’s foundational assumption, which I thought could have been more clearly undermined. Every apologist that wants to argue that morals come from God need to answer the Euthyphro dilemma: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” In other words, if God commands an evil act would it be good? If not, the good is clearly independent of God.

To escape this Dr. Craig asserts that God by his nature is perfect and good and cannot issue an evil commandment. But that just begs the question of what it means for something’s nature to be comprised of moral goodness. If kindness is by nature good then God – the divine commander in Craig’s view – is unnecessary for morality; we only need to refer to the good itself. Good by Craig’s logic is more fundamental than God – thus, Good doesn’t come from God.

Possibly even more problematic for his view is how “goodness” is defined by nature. If love and kindness is self-evidently a property of perfection and goodness, why again is God necessary for moral foundation? Staying true to theological tradition, his answer just pushes the question back a step. Let’s look at this game Craig plays: (I interjected some questions after Craig’s points – Craig never argues his positive case beyond these contentions) Seeing his arguments in print have a way of exposing their deficiency.

Where does good come from?

Craig: “Objective moral values are grounded in God.”

Skeptic: What if God commands something evil?

Craig: “Far from being arbitrary, God’s commandments must be consistent with his holy and loving nature.”

Skeptic: How do you know God’s nature is good?

Craig: “As St. Anselm saw, God is by definition the greatest conceivable being and therefore, the highest good.”

Skeptic: How convenient, but what defines goodness?

Craig: “He is by nature loving, generous, faithful, kind, and so forth.”

Skeptic: But why are those attributes morally “good”? Why aren’t hatred, jealousy, and cruelty “good”?

Craig: [God] is not merely perfectly good; he is the locus and paradigm of moral value. God’s own holy and loving nature provides the absolute standard against which all actions are measured.”

Skeptic: You haven’t answered anything.

All these theological gymnastics illustrate the absurdity of the religious project. How does Craig or anyone else know that God is perfect or good by nature? How do we know perfection or goodness are defined in the way Craig says they are? If God’s nature (whatever that even means) was evil, would love still be good? If God really did issue morally obligatory commandments how would we be certain of their divine origin? As Dr. Harris points out throughout the debate, the bible repeatedly gets major questions of morality wrong (e.g. slavery) so we don’t have any obvious source to learn His commandments.

This improvisational fiction is not unique to Craig. The latest issue of Time magazine chronicles the debate between evangelicals on whether hell really exists or not and if so what its nature is. No one seems to notice that no one has any clue. If it wasn’t so consequential, Time might as well have reported on the debate between my alarm clock and my iPod.

Graciously Responding to Non Sequiturs

January 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Sam Harris parries a lot of weak criticism of his book and answers his more serious challenges.

The purpose of The Moral Landscape is to argue that we can, in principle, think about moral truth in the context of science. Robinson and Horgan seem to imagine that the mere existence of the Nazi doctors counts against my thesis. Is it really so difficult to distinguish between a science of morality and the morality of science? To assert that moral truths exist, and can be scientifically understood, is not to say that all (or any) scientists currently understand these truths or that those who do will necessarily conform to them.


[C]onsider the concept of health: should we maximize global health? To my ear, this is a strange question. It invites a timorous reply like, “Provided we want everyone to be healthy, yes.” And introducing this note of contingency seems to nudge us from the charmed circle of scientific truth. But why must we frame the matter this way? A world in which global health is maximized would be an objective reality, quite distinct from a world in which we all die early and in agony. Yes, it is true that a person like Alice could seek to maximize her own health without caring about the health of other people — though her health will depend on the health of others in countless ways (the same, I would argue, is true of her well-being). Is shewrong to be selfish? Would we blame her for taking her own side in any zero-sum contest to secure medicine for herself or for her own children? Again, these aren’t the kinds of questions that will get us to bedrock. The truth is, Alice and the rest of us can live so as to allow for a maximally healthy world, or we can fail to do so. Yes, it is possible that a maximally healthy world is one in which Alice is less healthy than she might otherwise be (though this seems unlikely). So what? There is still an objective reality to which our beliefs about human health can correspond.

Fully Satisfied

November 7, 2010 13 comments

In an interesting portion of Derek Parfit’s brilliant work, Reasons and Persons, he considers an ethical problem in utilitarian philosophy. Allow me to use Parfit’s discussion of the mere addition paradox and the repugnant conclusion to expand on how I believe how the concepts of value, good and bad, and better and worse should be looked at. I’ll also explain why I think the mere addition paradox and the repugnant conclusion make some fundamental errors. I encourage everyone to read his book, but if you haven’t already it might be helpful to read this section on these problems from wikipedia.

When most people consider different moral situations they compare them as better or worse or one as good and the other as bad. When utilitarians do this they attempt to compare the well-being (or “happiness” or some other similar concept) of the people in each scenario. Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape is a good example of this – my discussion of it might help some readers follow the concept more clearly.  Simplistically speaking, well-being is what is valuable so if case A has more well-being than case B: case A is better.

Parfit identifies what he sees as a paradox in certain cases using that framework. If we consider a greater sum of happiness (I’m using this term interchangeably with “well-being”) to be always better a repugnant conclusion could be drawn:

For any population of at least ten billion, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better, even though its members have lives that are barely worth living.

I dispute this conclusion and the existence of any paradox in appropriate utilitarian thinking. To make that case it is essential to understand that for something to have value it must be valuable to somebody. Sam Harris writes,

Consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What is the alternative? I invite you to try to think of a source of value that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings. Take a moment to think about what this would entail: whatever this alternative is, it cannot affect the experience of any creature (in this life or in any other).

For the purposes of our discussion let’s take for granted that well-being (or phrased another way, for life to go as well as possible) is the ultimate goal. You’re welcome to dispute that, but these problems within utilitarianism use that as a starting point. If you just completely reject all possible forms of utilitarianism then me resolving these paradoxes might be of little interest to you anyway. Feel free to read on if you’re curious though.

If something only has value if it is valuable to a conscious creature then well-being is only valuable subjectively (in the sense that it needs a subject to experience it). Well-being isn’t of value inherently or “for its own sake.” I’m not even sure what well-being could mean if it’s not a state of an actual being. So how do we approach measuring whether one situation is better or worse in terms of well-being? As Parfit argues, it’s not worse for more people to exist. Is it?

If I’m right and the goal is to maximize the well-being of conscious beings, do we have to conclude that more people existing is always better if there is more total well-being? Referring to the wiki page charts (“The group’s size is represented by column width, and the group’s happiness represented by column height”), would Z really be better or no worse than A?

File:RepugnantConclusion.svgThe reason why this isn’t a repugnant conclusion or paradox is because if we’re correctly using a utilitarian framework that holds consciousness to be the only proper domain of value we’re comparing the wrong things. Some questions don’t make sense even if they can be said. Consider the question, “What happened before time?” Even though it is difficult to grasp, physicists can explain that the question doesn’t make sense. Similarly, to compare total sums of or average happiness side-by-side doesn’t make sense – or at least isn’t what’s important.

There is no “better” or “worse” unless we ask, better or worse for whom? If we look at the mere addition problem and ask what’s better A or A+ you’ll see what I mean.


It is explained that, “In situation A, everyone is happy. In situation A+, there are the extra people.” The extra people lives have enough well-being that they are worth living. So is A+ worse than A? Most people intuitively think, “no, how could it be worse for more people to exist? Their lives are worth living, after all.”

But we haven’t established what is being compared. What is worse and worse for whom? As established before, we only need to consider the state of conscious beings. Something can’t just be “better” or “worse” in itself. So, you may ask, are the extra people “better off”? Well in A they didn’t exist, so you might assume that, yes, they are automatically better off by mere fact that they now exist and have greater than 0 well-being. As a corollary, are the extra people worse off in situation A? I say, no. Here’s where we get to the comparison problem. Nonexistence isn’t a “bad” state because nonexistent people don’t have consciousness. In fact, nonexistent people is a contradiction – nonexistent people aren’t people, they’re nothing. In fact, there is not even a “they.”

Let’s list some true observations. Everyone in A is at their max well-being; their situation is perfect. More people exist in A+, those extras could be better off. If everyone in A+ had the well-being of those in A, A+ would constitute a better situation for those within that world. Even though they are at a lower level of well-being, the extra people are not worse off compared to A because they don’t even exist in situation A. The extra people aren’t worse off in A because there are no extra people.

To help illustrate this consider what it would mean to conclude nonexistence is “bad” or “worse than existence.” We would have to conclude that we exist within an apparent infinity of badness because an unending number of nonexistent beings could exist but don’t. You would even have to conclude that the holocaust is trivial in terms of badness compared to the infinity of nonexistent beings. After all, the holocaust happened to a finite number of people and many of the victims who suffered were still able to experience well-being greater than 0.  Of course, that is a preposterous conclusion. Clearly, the holocaust is worse than nonexistence because nonexistence doesn’t happen to somebody; the holocaust does.

Therefore, it should be more clear that A and A+ aren’t perfectly comparable. The difficultly arrises because of how our minds work. It’s kind of like the “don’t think of a pink elephant” problem. When someone tells you not to think of something, it is extremely difficult not to think of it. As such, to think of nonexistent beings makes us imagine beings. Arguing that it’s better for them because they’d not exist in the other scenario seems to fall into that type of cognitive illusion. Once we talk about “their” existence we can’t help but think of “them” as conscious beings. If a person isn’t in existence they can’t experience anything. Does a nonexistent person have worse balance or a worse sense of smell? No, no sense of balance or smell exists to be worse. Our brains are constructed in a such a way that we can easily personify something and empathize with it. If I asked if it was good or bad to be a rock, you might try to imagine yourself as a rock. Maybe you’d think that would suck. But if you can’t be a rock; once “you’re a rock” you wouldn’t be you. You wouldn’t be a you. It wouldn’t suck or be good or be bad. Rocks aren’t conscious so good and bad doesn’t apply.

Let’s think of this another way. If the goal wasn’t to maximize well-being but rather to completely satisfy our appetites (maximize the food in our stomachs) you might be able to better see the problem with the earlier comparisons. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume you can’t overeat. If you’re comparing it with well-being or happiness in your mind, let’s assume that the population change doesn’t have any effect on the well-being of the existing people. Let’s also assume that food (resources) is infinite – there isn’t a finite amount of available happiness either.


5 people stand in our house (existence). All 5 persons’ stomachs are full – we completed our goal.

Illustration by Drew Simenson

If 5 more people walk into the house with their stomachs 3/4 full just because there is more food in bellies overall doesn’t make the situation better.

Illustration by Drew Simenson

So calculating total food seems ridiculous. The extra 5 people certainly aren’t worse off either. It just means there is more work to be done; since it doesn’t require the original 5 people to regurgitate their food up to feed the new group of people it’s not worse for anybody. It is simultaneously a situation in need of improvement (giving charity to A+ would be useful but not to A) but not worse for anybody.

Does that mean we can’t compare the two situations from a third party perspective? No. Clearly if you had to decide which world you lived in assuming you’d be put in the same state of being as the others, situation A is better than A+.

I submit that it is neither good nor bad to simply add people to the population so long as it doesn’t affect the well-being of anyone else. It only makes sense to look at the conditions of each situation and ask what, if anything, we could make better.


If only two people, Adam and Eve, existed and they were perfectly happy would having a child be morally good or a moral obligation? Assume that their happiness isn’t affected positively or negatively by the addition of their child (far fetched I realize). A utilitarian could answer that it didn’t run counter to the goal because no conscious creature’s well-being was made worse by that decision. Therefore, I’d argue their choice to have a child wouldn’t be morally good or bad (assuming also that the child’s life would be worth living). They’d have no moral responsibility to others to have a child – there are no others. They only acquire moral responsibility to maximize the child’s well-being once, and if, they have a child. There would only be a moral obligation to have children if having those children helped increase well-being of other conscious beings that are currently in existence. Of course, once they popped into existence we couldn’t use them as slaves or something because we would now have to be concerned with their conscious well-being. People should have children only if they believe that they (and assuming others exist) and others would be happier/better off (in a broad sense) to do so (also with the caveat that the child’s life is “worth living”). Think of it this way: do you think people ought to have children if that means everyone is going to have worse lives?

Does any of this mean that if people were all perfectly happy it would be morally wrong to bring them into existence? No – look at the difference between A and A+ again. The extra people’s existence didn’t result in any loss of well-being for the first group.  So as long as the mere addition of extra conscious beings doesn’t ever cause more suffering to the initial group nobody is getting worse. The population in A is better off than the total population of A+. But again no one is worse off for those extra people to exist so it isn’t morally wrong to bring them into existence. The goal isn’t to keep well-being maximized for its own sake. It is to maximize the well-being of anybody who exists. Remembering that people experience life as an individual rather than a group also helps us keep this in perspective.


If this has implications for birth it also has implications for death. We don’t increase conscious creatures’ well-being by killing people off because that is lowering their well-being and will lower the well-being of their family, friends, and anyone that could have been helped by them directly or indirectly. I discuss a related topic here. On an extreme level, this also make it theoretically possible for voluntary human extinction to be a morally neutral or (in some more extreme cases) a morally good choice. For that to happen, it’d have to be actually voluntary and everyone would have to be no worse by refusing to have children. It is almost certainly impossible in practice however. I find it difficult to believe that people would truly be happier deciding to not have children – but if somehow that was the case, so be it.

If people left the stage after a reasonable run, in the fullness of time intelligence could evolve again (dolphin-people? chimp-people? orchid people?). And then, in due course, when this new species deciphered human books or reached the marker that might be left for them on the windless moon, they would know that man ended his dominion so that theirs might begin. Imagine, then, how they will regard us. It is, far and away, the greatest act of goodness ever contemplated, the ennoblement of a whole species; an act, almost, of angels.

Until that day we should be content to fill our bellies.

Special thanks to Drew Simenson for providing illustrations for me. To contract Drew about his graphic design work you can email him here.

The Moral Landscape Released

October 5, 2010 1 comment

I have no trouble admitting I’m a Sam Harris partisan. Everything he does I find I love. So it should be no surprise that I’m excited for his new book released today.

I previously covered some of the debate surrounding his thesis here.

Both The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post published excerpts from The Moral Landscape.

Many people worry that there is something unscientific about making such value judgments. But this split between facts and values is an illusion. Science has always been in the values business. Good science is not the result of scientists abstaining from making value judgments; good science is the result of scientists making their best effort to value principles of reasoning that link their beliefs to reality, through reliable chains of evidence and argument. The very idea of “objective” knowledge (that is, knowledge acquired through careful observation and honest reasoning) has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon principles that we must first value (e.g. logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony, etc). This is how norms of rational thought are made effective. As far as our understanding of the world is concerned—there are no facts without values.

Just as there is nothing irrational about valuing human health and seeking to understand it (this is the science of medicine), there is nothing irrational about valuing human well-being more generally and seeking to understand it. But whether morality becomes a proper branch of science is not really the point. Is economics a true science yet? Judging from the last few years, it wouldn’t seem so. And perhaps a deep understanding of economics will always elude us. But does anyone doubt that there are better and worse ways to structure an economy? Would any educated person consider it a form of bigotry to criticize another society’s response to a banking crisis? Imagine how terrifying it would be if great numbers of smart people became convinced that all efforts to prevent a global financial catastrophe, being mere products of culture, must be either equally valid or equally nonsensical in principle. And yet this is precisely where most intellectuals stand on the most important questions in human life. (from The Daily Beast)

Imagine that there are only two people living on earth: We can call them “Adam” and “Eve.” Clearly, we can ask how these two people might maximize their well-being. Are there wrong answers to this question? Of course. (Wrong answer #1: They could smash each other in the face with a large rock.) And while there are ways for their personal interests to be in conflict, it seems uncontroversial to say that a man and woman alone on this planet would be better off if they recognized their common interests — like getting food, building shelter and defending themselves against larger predators. If Adam and Eve were industrious enough, they might realize the benefits of creating technology, art, medicine, exploring the world and begetting future generations of humanity. Are there good and bad paths to take across this landscape of possibilities? Of course. In fact, there are, by definition, paths that lead to the worst misery and to the greatest fulfillment possible for these two people — given the structure of their brains, the immediate facts of their environment, and the laws of Nature. The underlying facts here are the facts of physics, chemistry, and biology as they bear on the experience of the only two people in existence.

As I argue in my new book, even if there are a thousand different ways for these two people to thrive, there will be many ways for them not to thrive — and the differences between luxuriating on a peak of human happiness and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood. Why would the difference between right and wrong answers suddenly disappear once we add 6.7 billion more people to this experiment? (from The Huffington Post)

Kwame Anthony Appiah at The New York Times has a pretty tepid review.

Harris often writes as if all that matters is our conscious experience. Yet he also insists that truth is an important value. So does it count against your well-being if your happiness is based on an illusion — say, the false belief that your wife loves you? Or is subjective experience all that matters, in which case a situation in which the husband is fooled, and the wife gets pleasure from fooling him, is morally preferable to one in which she acknowledges the truth? Harris never articulates his central claim clearly enough to let us know where he would come down. But if he thinks that well-being has an objective component, one wants to know how science revealed this fact.

Also, right as this book hits stores, Sam debates Mark Oppenheimer, NYT columnist, at The Economist over the motion: “This house believes that religion is a force for good.”

I’ll be purchasing my copy tomorrow and hope to share my thoughts with everyone soon. I’m also going to try to see Sam at Tufts and/or Harvard soon. In the meantime go out and buy the book. Harris is an incredibly clear and exciting writer; even if you end up disagreeing you’ll be sure to enjoy the experience.

Judge Walker: A Modern Jeremy Bentham

August 11, 2010 23 comments
File:Vaughn Walker adj.jpg

In his decision overturning prop 8 in California, Judge Vaughn Walker went through every argument against allowing same-sex marriage and concluded that none had any merit. From The Economist:

During the trial in January, both sides brought witnesses to argue for and against same-sex marriage. The larger point of this exercise was to clarify and examine each individual argument against the practice.

Surgically and methodically, Judge Walker (who is himself gay) has now ruled that not a single one has any merit: the plaintiffs (ie, the gay and the lesbian couple) did not seek a “new” right, but merely the same right that heterosexuals have, and a right which in America is first and foremost a civil and not a religious matter. “Procreative capacity” has never been the basis of marriage, hence it is irrelevant, the judge found (infertile heterosexuals are allowed to marry, after all). Calling same-sex unions “domestic partnerships” unfairly disadvantages the couples. Allowing same-sex marriage “has at least a neutral, if not a positive, effect on the institution of marriage” and is good for any children involved. And so on, point by point until none was left.

This reminded me of the way Jeremy Bentham in the late 1700s went through the arguments against homosexuality and couldn’t find any utility in punishing or prohibiting it. 

To what class of offences shall we refer these irregularities of the venereal appetite which are stiled unnatural? When hidden from the public eye there could be no colour for placing them any where else: could they find a place any where it would be here. I have been tormenting myself for years to find if possible a sufficient ground for treating them with the severity with which they are treated at this time of day by all European nations: but upon the principle utility I can find none.

File:Jeremy Bentham by Henry William Pickersgill detail.jpgThe layout of Walker’s decision going through the “finding of facts” and lining up each argument to see if their is any rational basis for denying homosexuals the right to marry looks remarkably similar to Bentham’s Offenses Against One’s Self where he goes argument by argument concluding that each one offers not basis for punishing homosexual behavior. Bentham looks at the history of different sexual practices, Walker does as well. They both look at religious arguments concluding that they aren’t relevant to the state’s legislation. Bentham writes,

For these or other reasons it is an opinion that seems to spread more and more among divines of all persuasions, that the miraculous and occasional dispensations of an extraordinary providence afford no fit rule to govern the ordinary and settled institutions of human legislators. (my emphasis)

Similarly Walker finds that marriage is a civil institution and religious and personal moral objections don’t play into the state’s role in marriage. Walker writes,

To the extent proponents argue that one of the rights of those morally opposed to same-sex unions is the right to prevent same-sex couples from marrying, as explained presently those individuals’ moral views are an insufficient basis upon which to enact a legislative classification. (my emphasis)

It’s just amazing that people can’t reason through the arguments and notice that gay marriage harms no one – rather it benefits many. Unfortunately, most people haven’t even caught up with the 18th century. Moral philosophy needs to be divorced from religious and emotional bigotry. The sooner people can base their morals on moral reasoning rather than dogma and disgust the easier it will be to improve human well-being. 

And just to add a great clip so that true conservatives can understand why they should stop denying marriage to other arbitrary classes of citizens, here’s Ted Olson.

(images from wikipedia)

The Utility of Friendship

August 2, 2010 5 comments

Over at BloggingheadsTV, Robert Wright and Robert George have a great discussion on natural law and morality. I think readers of this blog will enjoy the whole video as it touches on many topics that often come up here. Free will vs determinism even comes up briefly. On the question of natural law vs utilitarianism, which was the overriding theme of the dialog, I found myself in agreement with Wright and had similar questions for George’s philosophy. Although, I must confess I was very impressed with George  – much more than I anticipated considering his connections to evangelical religion and their social positions. He’s clearly a very thoughtful thinker. Not sure if I was more surprised with that or with my head nodding to Wright, who I’ve had serious disagreements with before. Let me share a portion of their talk (but watch the whole thing) here that I want to comment on.

The sticking point here is if friendship is intrinsically good in and of itself – independent of its positive attributes. A utilitarian would argue, as Wright does, that we value friendship because friendship is more valuable to us (makes us free better, is useful, etc) than not having friendship – say, simply a business or trade relationship. A natural lawist argues that we can see that friendship is valuable in itself because we commit ourselves to the institution even when it may not provide us with specific utility (and even when its depressing, burdensome, etc). George also argues that its good is “intelligible” to us. That sort of begs the question for me: it seems to be saying that something is good just because we think it is good.

I was mostly with George on friendship until Wright challenged him using the evolutionary psychological explanation for friendship, to which George didn’t seem to adequately respond. George basically just argued that that explanation was reductionist, but I think he failed to understand the ultimate vs proximate distinction implicit in the rational, which I’ve discussed previously. I want to expand on Wright’s argument.

Wright argues that natural selection has “implicitly calculated” the utility of friendship, therefore, it feels good to commit to friendships. That seems to counter George’s example of us participating in a friendship even in a specific situation within that friendship that doesn’t have explicit utility such as visiting a friend in a hospital when it is sad, takes time, etc. Why? Because if we didn’t do those things we wouldn’t get the benefits of friendship. That of course doesn’t imply that we’re just selfish frauds that fake through the tough parts to get the helpful and fun parts. Natural selection has made us actually desire real friendship – cheaters, fakers, and friendship free riders will be spotted and are looked on negatively by society. If by nature (and through nature) we were all phonies, friendship as an institution would be less useful. In his superb New York Times piece on our moral instincts, Steven Pinker puts it this way.

In his classic 1971 article, Trivers, the biologist, showed how natural selection could push in the direction of true selflessness. The emergence of tit-for-tat reciprocity, which lets organisms trade favors without being cheated, is just a first step. A favor-giver not only has to avoid blatant cheaters (those who would accept a favor but not return it) but also prefer generous reciprocators (those who return the biggest favor they can afford) over stingy ones (those who return the smallest favor they can get away with). Since it’s good to be chosen as a recipient of favors, a competition arises to be the most generous partner around. More accurately, a competition arises to appear to be the most generous partner around, since the favor-giver can’t literally read minds or see into the future. A reputation for fairness and generosity becomes an asset.

Now this just sets up a competition for potential beneficiaries to inflate their reputations without making the sacrifices to back them up. But it also pressures the favor-giver to develop ever-more-sensitive radar to distinguish the genuinely generous partners from the hypocrites. This arms race will eventually reach a logical conclusion. The most effective way to seem generous and fair, under harsh scrutiny, is to be generous and fair. In the long run, then, reputation can be secured only by commitment. At least some agents evolve to be genuinely high-minded and self-sacrificing — they are moral not because of what it brings them but because that’s the kind of people they are. (my emphasis)

And piggybacking further on his ultimate/proximate distinction: we ultimately want friendship because of natural selection, we proximately want it because we actually value friendship – not just the “feeling” of friendship like on George’s friendship machine. So the reason friendship seems like it’s just inherently good and written into the laws of nature to George is not because its a good for its own sake but because its good for its ultimate utility. This inner psychology helps explain why it feels weird to treat friends and other “social” relationships the way we would business relationships.

Day Ariely argues that “social relationships have a lot of advantages. They protect us from future fluctuations, they give us trust and confidence, and all kinds of other things.” 

Anyone see a flaw in this line of reasoning?

At the end of Wright and George’s bloggingheads Wright and George go over different moral dilemmas to try to expose the flaws in each school.  Although I’m siding with Wright this doesn’t mean I don’t have some questions for utilitarians (which are a type of consequentialist). Don’t intentions matter? 
Here’s my on-the-fly thought experiment (sorry it’s no trolly problem): 

Say you could save 2 children that might fall off a bridge by jumping out and grabbing them, but another child is standing near the edge and for whatever reason the child would be at risk of being knocked off in your attempt to save the other two. If you knock the 1 child off and save the other 2 is that ok for a consequentialist? If 2 children were knocked off to save the 1 is that now morally wrong? Is it the same moral wrongness of deliberately killing 2 children to save 1? If not, doesn’t that show that intentions matter? Furthermore, does the level of risk affect the morality of the choice and, if so, why? If you can save 2 kids but you understood that you’d have only a 1% chance of knocking the single kid off is that more morally acceptable then if you thought you had a 99% chance? Also, does the probability of saving the kid(s) affect the morally of the choice as well? 

Science-Based Morality and The Problem of Liberty

March 29, 2010 1 comment

I promised my thoughts on Sam Harris’s TED talk – I also watched a longer version of the talk which he gave at Google containing a worthwhile Q&A session.

My thoughts below the fold.
Sam Harris always impresses me and I’m incredibly excited about this book. Although I don’t think he completely breaks through Hume’s “is/ought” barrier [update: see below], Harris adequately demonstrates that a science of morality is possible and objective facts can be known about moral systems. His major insight is to recognize that morality is really about answering questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Once that move is made it becomes clear that objective values exist – actions either correspond to promoting greater well-being or they don’t. No matter how you parse it, murdering innocent babies doesn’t lead to greater flourishing of human well-being.

Harris, wisely, doesn’t claim that he or science currently knows all the answers to our moral dilemmas, only that it is possible that discoverable truths exist and that we should admit that we know more then nothing. Furthermore, Harris paints us a picture of our potential moral universe where different answers to moral questions can exist. That does not imply that all responses are equally valid. If you imagine his “moral landscape” it has many peaks and valleys. His analogy to health helps the most: a practically unlimited amount of different types of food can all lead to greater health (itself a fussy concept) but that doesn’t mean that poison is food or that science can’t identify objective truths about health-related questions.

I assume most of my concerns will be addressed in his 300+ page book; I eagerly await. For example, I’m curious if he thinks science can help us adjudicate between different peaks – not just map them. It wasn’t obvious to me how that would be possible. If two peaks are equally tall is the choice just personal or societal preference? Also, he argues that science can inform us about the objective moral worth of different political systems, which seems true if you accept his premises. Of course, if one expands morality to more then just well-being the moral landscape’s bedrock might become more fragile. As soon as I started thinking about various political systems, I began wondering about how the concept of liberty would be viewed through Harris’s moral microscope.

Maybe the argument is invalid but it seems a strong case can be made that liberty is a moral value that doesn’t rely on well-being as its foundation. Sure, supports can be garnered to strengthen the moral case for liberty but humans, for example, could theoretically be worse off because of liberty and a strong case can still be made for its moral value. Kant, of course, made a strong moral case that humans are ends not means. Therefore, conscious beings as autonomous agents might make suboptimal decisions, but restricting their free choice through a benevolent paternalism might be less moral even if it leads to greater well-being. Robert Nozick like Harris argues that values exist (he argues they are independent of us) and makes a moral case for rights and liberty without a necessary appeal to well-being. I know Harris is familiar with Nozick and other philosophers who value rights and liberty, so I’m very excited to see how he deals with these issues. Does he believe that rights are just useful tools to achieving greater well-being or does he believe that they are valuable for their own sake? I hope to expand on this topic further – if anyone finds out Harris’s opinion on these issues or if you want to take your own crack at it feel free to comment.

[Update: Sam writes a lengthy response to a lot of the critiques of his lecture (including some issues I brought up]:

All other notions of value will bear some relationship to the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. So my claim that consciousness is the basis of values does not appear to me to be an arbitrary starting point.

Now that we have consciousness on the table, my further claim is that wellbeing is what we can intelligibly value—and “morality” (whatever people’s associations with this term happen to be) reallyrelates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the wellbeing of conscious creatures. And, as I pointed out at TED, all the people who claim to have alternative sources of morality (like the Word of God) are, in every case that I am aware of, only concerned about wellbeing anyway: They just happen to believe that the universe functions in such a way as to place the really important changes in conscious experience after death (i.e. in heaven or hell). And those philosophical efforts that seek to put morality in terms of duty, fairness, justice, or some other principle that is not explicitly tied to the wellbeing of conscious creatures—are, nevertheless, parasitic on some notion of wellbeing in the end (I argue this point at greater length in my book. And yes, I’ve read Rawls, Nozick, and Parfit). The doubts that immediately erupt on this point seem to invariably depend on extremely unimaginative ideas about what the term “wellbeing” could mean, altogether, or on mistaken beliefs about what science is.

(my emphasis) 

Sam on The Moral Landscape

March 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Will add my thoughts later just wanted to get the video up:

[update 03/29]: My thoughts.

Peter Hitchens on God and Brother

Christopher Hitchens brother, Peter Hitchens, shares his thoughts in the Mail Online.  

Read his full account, but I’m particularly unsatisfied with his argument about morality.

One of the problems atheists have is the unbelievers’ assertion that it is possible to determine what is right and what is wrong without God. They have a fundamental inability to concede that to be effectively absolute a moral code needs to be beyond human power to alter.

First of all, of course if a moral code is absolute then human power (or any other power) can’t alter it. But absolute and objective are two different things. There may or may not be “absolute” morality.  If there is I don’t see how a God gets you there – can He change it? If so, it isn’t so absolute, is it? If it’s beyond Him than He’s superfluous anyway.  Also, even if God is able to command an absolute morality I’m curious how we are supposed to know what it is. It can’t be the bible. Peter Hitchens somehow writes this without noticing his Christian God’s support for these types of acts,

Left to himself, Man can in a matter of minutes justify the incineration of populated cities; the deportation, slaughter, disease and starvation of inconvenient people and the mass murder of the unborn. 

So, since no one knows God’s true will, humans are left to figure out morality on their own anyway. If morality is focused on the question of human (and animal) well-being – which I think clearly it is – there are certainly objective answers to discover about an action’s effect on suffering, happiness, societal stability, freedom, and all other components of well-being.  As I’ve discussed before, generations of thinkers have contributed to moral philosophy without appealing to a supernatural diety. Let me again recommend Michael Sandel’s online Justice course for a great introduction. Also, our entire modern legal system is based on secular reasoning. So even in practical terms humans can do a decent job regulating morality without supernatural invocations (of course this is somewhat a separate question).

I won’t go through Hitchen’s entire piece but this stuck out to me for its obvious inconsistency. (my emphasis throughout)

I am also baffled and frustrated by the strange insistence of my anti-theist brother that the cruelty of Communist anti-theist regimes does not reflect badly on his case and on his cause. It unquestionably does.

Soviet Communism is organically linked to atheism, materialist rationalism and most of the other causes the new atheists support. It used the same language, treasured the same hopes and appealed to the same constituency as atheism does today. 

When its crimes were still unknown, or concealed, it attracted the support of the liberal intelligentsia who were then, and are even more now, opposed to religion.

Another favourite argument of the irreligious is that conflicts fought in the name of religion are necessarily conflicts about religion. By saying this they hope to establish that religion is of itself a cause of conflict. 

This is a crude factual misunderstanding. The only general lesson that can be drawn is that Man is inclined to make war on Man when he thinks it will gain him power, wealth or land.

He really advances these arguments back-to-back. Whether or not religion is true, its effect on human behavior is irrelevant to religion’s veracity. Can we just explode the perception that religion necessarily makes one good and atheism makes one amoral.  Atheists, of course, can be bad but they need a corrupt moral outlook in addition to their non-belief to do bad things. Believers, of course, can be good, but religious beliefs beyond just thinking God exists can cause religiously motivated cruelty. 

The terms are too often confused which leads to misunderstanding. Atheism and Religion are not opposites. One could conceivably believe in God but not be religious. Soviet Communism like other secular belief systems might have atheism as a property but they are not atheism. Atheism is just non-belief in Gods. This continues to show why the word atheism (and similar words) should probably just be abandoned. If someone believes in God that tells you nothing about their morality. Just as a secular xenophobic belief, for example, could lead to immoral actions, a dogmatic religious belief can have negative effects as well. Notice I didn’t write “atheistic belief;” there is no such thing.  There are beliefs by atheists and secular beliefs which are beliefs that are unconnected to religion. Whether secular or religious, beliefs cause actions – good, bad, or neither. 

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