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Conservative Markets

March 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Markets provide the best way to simultaneously use and conserve scarce resources. Once the right can accept that corporatists and anti-government extremists aren’t really free market advocates they’ll learn that government is needed to allow markets to function.

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Categories: environment, TED

The Moral Landscape

October 19, 2010 13 comments

Gregg LaGambinaSam Harris initiated the modern intellectual movement that many refer to as “The New Atheism” with his book, The End of Faith. In his new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Dr. Harris hopes to enliven a new, more important, movement. Too many scientists and secular liberals, he believes, have willingly allowed religion to monopolize the discourse of morality. Science and reason, he argues, are the only tools we have to analyze how we ought to behave. A science of morality strikes many people as impossible – how can a subject so burdened by cultural diversity and incompatibility be standardized and studied objectively, they might ask? Harris believes that we can throw out what many people mean when they talk about morality.

We should observe the double standard in place regarding the significance of consensus: those who do not share our scientific goals have no influence on scientific discourse whatsoever; but, for some reason, people who do not share our moral goals render us incapable of even speaking about moral truth. It is, perhaps, worth remembering that there are trained “scientists” who are Biblical Creationists, and their “scientific” thinking is purposed toward interpreting the data of science to fit the Book of Genesis. Such people claim to be doing “science,” of course, but real scientists are free, and indeed obligate, to point out that they are misusing the term. Similarly, there are people who claim to be highly concerned about “morality” and “human values,” but when we see that their beliefs cause tremendous misery, nothing need prevent us from saying that they are misusing the term “morality” or that their values are distorted. How have we convinced ourselves that, on the most important questions in human life, all views must count equally?

So what does Harris mean by “values” and “morality?” He observes that despite all this assumed disagreement almost what everyone is really concerned about is human well-being (his argument applies to all conscious creatures). What else could anyone even possibly care about that doesn’t affect well-being. Even the most devoutly religious care about it – sure, it comes after death, but they worry about the “well-being” of our eternal souls. If they’re right about the supernatural nature of reality, Harris concedes, then they are also right that the most moral thing we could do is bow to God and do everything we can get into heaven and avoid hell whatever the temporal cost – eternity is a lot longer after all.

Luckily, there is no evidence for that religious worldview, so for purposes of our discussion and this proposed discipline, we’ll concern ourselves with this world and our terrestrial lives. If you imagine the worst possible misery for all people all the time that’s clearly “bad” while the opposite is clearly “good.” If you don’t grant Harris that, there is probably nothing that can convince you but I can’t even think of any way someone wouldn’t be able to grant that the worst possible misery for all people all of the time isn’t by every measure bad – it is bad by every measure by definition. Since humans’ well-being corresponds at a fundamental level to their brain states and the reality around them we should in principle be able to scientifically study ways that lead to better and worse well-being. Yes, “well-being” is loosely defined but so is “health” and that doesn’t prevent scientists from discovering objective truths about whether a medical procedure or personal action is beneficial or harmful to a person’s health.

I wonder if there is anyone on earth who would be tempted to attack the philosophical underpinnings of medicine with questions like: “What about all the people who don’t share your goal of avoiding disease and early death? Who is to say that living a long life free of pain and debilitating illness is ‘healthy’? What makes you think that you could convince a person suffering from fatal gangrene that his is not as healthy as you are?” And yet these are precisely the kinds of objections I face when I speak about morality in terms of human and animal well-being. Is it possible to voice such doubts in human speech? Yes. But that doesn’t mean we should take them seriously.

Above you see the characteristic incisive humor and insight in Sam’s writing.

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Categories: Sam Harris, TED Tags:

Science of Morality Roundup

May 7, 2010 1 comment

Ever since Sam Harris’s TED talk went up there has been a healthy debate on the topic. Here are the major links for those interested.  I included some worthwhile excerpts from the various links. 
The TED talk.


The longer Google version. 


The Moral Landscape.


My first reaction. 

[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.

Sean Carroll’s initial critique. 

Harris is doing exactly what Hume warned against, in a move that is at least as old as Plato: he’s noticing that most people are, as a matter of empirical fact, more concerned about the fate of primates than the fate of insects, and taking that as evidence that we ought to be more concerned about them; that it is morally correct to have those feelings. But that’s a non sequitur. After all, not everyone is all that concerned about the happiness and suffering of primates, or even of other human beings; some people take pleasure in torturing them. And even if they didn’t, again, so what? We are simply stating facts about how human beings feel, from which we have no warrant whatsoever to conclude things about how they should feel.

Sam responds to Sean.

It is also worth noticing that Carroll has set the epistemological bar higher for morality than he has for any other branch of science. He asks, “Who decides what is a successful life?” Well, who decides what is coherent argument? Who decides what constitutes empirical evidence? Who decides when our memories can be trusted? The answer is, “we do.” And if you are not satisfied with this answer, you have just wiped out all of science, mathematics, history, journalism, and every other human effort to make sense of reality.

 And the philosophical skepticism that brought us the division between facts and values can be used in many other ways that smart people like Carroll would never countenance. In fact, I could use another of Hume’s arguments, the case against induction, to torpedo Carroll’s entire field, or science generally. 

Russell Blackford counters Sam.

To illustrate Singer’s conception of moral action, if I wish to act in accordance with the so-called ethical point of view, and if I see that Φ-ing (say, selling my house and donating the proceeds to Community Aid Abroad) is the unique way for me to do so in my current circumstances, then it can be said that Φ-ing is what I ought to do. 

 Notice, however, that I expressed this as a hypothetical imperative. It is what I have reason to do if I already wish to act from the ethical point of view. At this stage, no good reason (some kind of non-moral, or pre-moral, “ought”) has been given as to why I should, or might, wish to act in accordance with the ethical point of view. It’s no good saying that my interests are not objectively more important than anyone else’s. So what? They are still my interests, and I may desire to further them. How have I made any error if I set out to do so? My desire to further my own interests is not the sort of thing that can entail any truth-claims that might be in error. I simply have desires … and they motivate me. 

 Sean tries to clarify. 

The second point I wanted to mention was the justification we might have for passing moral judgments over others. Not to be uncharitable, but it seems that the biggest motivation most people have for insisting that morals can be grounded in facts is that they want it to be true — because if it’s not true, how can we say the Taliban are bad people? 

 That’s easy: the same way I can say radical epistemological skepticism is wrong. Even if there is no metaphysically certain grounding from which I can rationally argue with a hard-core skeptic or a Taliban supporter, nothing stops me from using the fundamental assumptions that I do accept, and acting accordingly. There is a weird sort of backwards-logic that gets deployed at this juncture: “if you don’t believe that morals are objectively true, you can’t condemn the morality of the Taliban.” Why not? Watch me: “the morality of the Taliban is loathsome and should be resisted.” See? I did it!

Sam’s guide to moving from “is” to “ought.” 

FACT #8: One cannot reasonably ask, “But why is the worst possible misery for everyone bad?”—for if the worst possible misery for everyone isn’t bad, the word “bad” has no meaning. (This would be like asking, “But why is a perfect circle round?” The question can be posed, but it expresses only confusion, not an intelligible basis for skeptical doubt.) Likewise, one cannot ask, “But why ought we avoid the worst possible misery for everyone?”—for if the term “ought” has any application at all, it is in urging us away from the worst possible misery for everyone.

Massimo Pigliucci thinks science can inform morality but not answer ethical questions. 

The crux of the disagreement, then, is embodied in the title of Harris’ talk: in what sense can science answer (as opposed to inform) ethical questions? Let me take one of Harris’ examples, the (highly questionable) legality of corporal punishment of children in several US States. Harris rhetorically asks whether we really think that hitting children will improve their school performance or good behavior. But that isn’t the point at all. What if it did? What if a scientific study showed that indeed, hitting children does have a measurable effect on improving those desirable traits? Harris would then have to concede that corporal punishment is moral, but somehow I doubt he would. AndI certainly wouldn’t, because my moral intuition (yes, that’s what I’m going to call it, deal with it) tells me that purposefully inflicting pain on children is wrong, regardless of whatever the empirical evidence says.

Sam’s response to Massimo. 

That is not exactly what I asked. I asked whether subjecting children to “pain, violence, and public humiliation” leads to “healthy emotional development and good behavior” (i.e. does it conduce to their general wellbeing and to the wellbeing of society). If it did, well then yes, I would admit that it was moral. In fact, it would appear moral to more or less everyone—just as slitting open a child’s belly to perform an emergency appendectomy seems obviously moral to anyone who understands the purpose of this procedure. The patent immorality of corporal punishment relates to the sense that it is clearly bad for children, both in the moment and in the long run (along with the fact that it is generally the product of anger, rather than benevolence, on the part of the brute holding the paddle).

Sean believes morality can’t be answered scientifically even in principle. 

So how are we to decide how to balance one person’s well-being against another’s? To do this scientifically, we need to be able to make sense of statements like “this person’s well-being is precisely 0.762 times the well-being of that person.” What is that supposed to mean? Do we measure well-being on a linear scale, or is it logarithmic? Do we simply add up the well-beings of every individual person, or do we take the average? And would that be the arithmetic mean, or the geometric mean? Do more individuals with equal well-being each mean greater well-being overall? Who counts as an individual? Do embryos? What about dolphins? Artificially intelligent robots?

P.Z. Myers sides with Sean.

I think he’s right in some of the examples he gives: science can trivially tell you that psychopaths and violent criminals and the pathologies produced by failed states in political and economic collapse are not good models on which to base a successful human society (although I also think that the desire for a successful society is not a scientific premise…it’s a kind of Darwinian criterion, because unsuccessful societies don’t survive). However, I don’t think Harris’s criterion — that we can use science to justify maximizing the well-being of individuals — is valid. We can’t. We can certainly use science to say how we can maximize well-being, once we define well-being…although even that might be a bit more slippery than he portrays it. Harris is smuggling in an unscientific prior in his category of well-being.

Sam responds to PZ and Sean. 

I wonder if there is anyone on earth who would be tempted to attack the philosophical underpinnings of medicine with questions like: “What about all the people who don’t share your goal of avoiding disease and early death? Who is to say that living a long life free of pain and debilitating illness is ‘healthy’? What makes you think that you could convince a person suffering from fatal gangrene that he is not as healthy you are?” And yet, these are precisely the kinds of objections I face when I speak about morality in terms of human and animal well-being. Is it possible to voice such doubts in human speech? Yes. But that doesn’t mean we should take them seriously. 

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.

"Suspend" What You’re Doing and Watch This

March 16, 2010 Leave a comment

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.” – Woody Allen


Forget reincarnation, immortality may be reached through reanimation! This line of research has amazing promise – I hope you enjoyed Mark Roth’s stunning TED talk


(HT: Sam Harris)

"The Tyranny of the Remembering Self"

Father of behavioral economics, Daniel Kahneman, gives an amazing lecture on happiness. Apparently it is incredibly difficult to study. The largest problem is that humans experience happiness in two different ways: through the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self.” Moreover, the two aren’t that well correlated. Watch this video, it’s not obvious which self is more important – the one which lives moment to moment or the one that “consumes memories” and tends to plan for the future.  My initial instinct is to split the difference and make a utilitarian calculation to try to maximize happiness for both selves (“greatest good for greatest number” of personal selves). Of course, since the remembering self tends to make the decisions it may not be too easy to accomplish if it is even the most desirable outcome.


I also wonder how much light people with memory disorders could shed on happiness and well-being. Mystics and those who utilize contemplative methods that expand the experiencing self’s experience also would seem to be able to offer something useful to this area of study.

Categories: Daniel Kahneman, Happiness, TED
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