The history of garbage is scholarship

0225by Massimo Pigliucci

“Philosophy is garbage, but the history of garbage is scholarship,” said Harvard philosopher Burton Dreben, as quoted by Dan Dennett in chapter 76 of his often delightful and sometimes irritating Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking [1]. One could reasonably wonder why a famous philosopher approvingly quotes another famous philosopher who is trashing the very field that made them both famous and to which they dedicated their lives. But my anthropological observations as a newcomer (from science) into philosophy confirm that my colleagues have an uncanny tendency to constantly shoot themselves in the foot, and often even enjoy it.

Be that as it may, Dreben’s comment does ring true, though it should be (slightly) modified to read: Much of philosophy is garbage, but the history of garbage is scholarship. So there.

The problem is that the very same thing can (and should) be said of scholarship in any field. Perhaps the case will not be controversial for, say, literary criticism, and only slightly more so for, I don’t know, many of the so-called “studies” fields [2]. But of course the “mostly garbage” summary judgment applies also to science itself, the current queen of academic disciplines.

Indeed, this was said as early as 1964 (the year I was born…) by John Platt, in a famous and controversial article published in Science magazine [3]. Here is how he put it: “We speak piously of taking measurements and making small studies that will ‘add another brick to the temple of science.’ Most such bricks just lie around in the brickyard.”

I’ve done and read a significant amount of scholarship in both the natural sciences (biology) and philosophy (of science and related fields) [4] and I can attest that what Platt, Dreben and Dennett say is pretty much uncontroversially true. And moreover, that many people working in those fields recognize it as such, except of course when it comes to their own little bricks in the temple.

Dennett explains it in terms of the difference between chess and chmess. I will assume that we are all familiar with the first game. The second one is Dennett’s own invention, and works exactly like chess, the only difference being that the King can move two, rather than one, square in every direction. Needless to say, many people play (and care about) chess. Not so many in the case of chmess.

Dan further explains that a lot of scholarship in philosophy is like trying to solve chess problems. It is a search for a priori logical truths that hold within a defined conceptual space of possibilities. As far as it goes, it’s not a bad analogy, except for the fact that quite a bit of philosophy is actually concerned with the sort of conceptual problems that matters in real life (think epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, and even philosophy of science, at its best).

Dennett’s point is that trying to solve logical problems posed by chmess is just as difficult as trying to solve the very similar problems posed by chess, with the crucial difference that almost nobody gives a damn about it. A lot of philosophers, maintains Dennett, devote their careers to study chmess, they are quite good at it, and they manage to convince a small number of like minded people that the pursuit is actually worth a lifetime of efforts. But they are mistaken, and they would realize it if they bothered to try two tests of Dennett’s own devising: 1) Can anyone outside of academic philosophy be bothered to care about what you think is important scholarship? 2) Can you manage to explain what you are doing to a bunch of bright (but, crucially, uninitiated — i.e., not yet indoctrinated) undergraduates? (For obvious reasons, your own colleagues and graduate students don’t count for the purposes of the test.)

I think Dan is right, but — again — I don’t think the tests in question should be carried out only by philosophers. Every academic ought to do it, as a matter of routine. I cannot begin to tell you about the countless number of research seminars in biology I have attended over decades, and about which the recurrent commentary in my own head (and, occasionally, with colleagues and students, after a glass of wine) was: “clever, but who cares?” Another quip quoted by Dennett, this one by Donald Hebb, comes to mind: “If it isn’t worth doing, it isn’t worth doing well.”

So, what, if anything, should be done with this state of affairs? Why should the public keep supporting universities (and, in the sciences, provide large research grants) to people who mostly, and perversely, insist in wasting (or at the least, underutilizing) their lives figuring out the intricacies of chmess? Similarly, shouldn’t Deans, Provosts and university Presidents tell their faculty to stop squandering their brain power and get on with some project more germane to the public’s interest, or else?

Francis Bacon famously thought that the very point of human inquiry is not just knowledge broadly construed, but specifically knowledge that helps in human affairs. His famous motto (which is also, you might have noticed, the one adopted by Scientia Salon), was that knowledge is power. Power to control nature and to improve our lives.

Indeed, the famous Victorian debate on the nature of induction between John Stuart Mill and William Whewell [5], which pretty much began the modern field of philosophy of science, was actually a debate about the best way to gain knowledge that could be deployed for social progressive change, to which both Mill and Whewell were passionately committed.

One, very partial, answer to what to do about the problem is provided by Dennett himself in his essay: “let a thousand flowers bloom … but just remember … count on 995 of them to wilt.” Which essentially — and a bit less cynically — echoes Platt’s sentiment from half a century before. That strikes me as right, and it is particularly easy to see in the case of basic (as opposed to applied, or targeted) scientific research. It’s a shotgun approach to knowledge: you let people metaphorically fire wherever they wish, and statistically speaking they’ll occasionally hit a worthy target. Crucially, there doesn’t seem to be a way, certainly not a centralized or hierarchically determinable way, to improve the efficacy of the target shooting. If we want knowledge about the world, our best bet is to give smart and dedicated people pretty much free rein, sit back and wait for the possible societal returns.

But that’s just not enough, I think. Two more things really ought to happen on the part of university faculty engaged in scholarship, and I hope a good number of my colleagues will agree that they are pretty much no brainers.

The first additional realization that my colleagues and I have to seriously internalize is that we owe it to society at large to take our teaching seriously. And make no mistake about it, while some of us certainly do, most don’t. Consider two simple indicative facts: to begin with, pious protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, scholarship is ranked far above teaching (and service) when it comes to promotion and tenure decisions. Why? Since most scholarship is of the “history of garbage” variety, while presumably teaching the next generation of young minds is of obvious and immediate social value, shouldn’t their relative importance be switched in the minds of faculty and administrators alike? (Service, which is unfortunately usually interpreted as internal to the university, not catering to the community at large, certainly deserves to be left in third place.)

The other telling fact is that the number of courses one is expected to teach while also pursuing scholarship is referred to as the “load.” No such derogatory appellative is attached to the word scholarship, or even to service. Again, why? By speaking of teaching loads we immediately send precisely the wrong message to our young faculty: teaching is a necessary evil, a burden to be disbursed as quickly as possible, and which can even be — literally — bought off by applying for research grants. (A practice that has exacerbated yet another shameful malaise of the modern academy: the plague of part-time teaching adjuncts. But that’s another story. [6])

The second realization strikes closer to the very point of Scientia Salon, as I stressed in our opening manifesto [7]: university faculty are uniquely positioned to play a vital role as public intellectuals. They have (or should have) the brains to play that role, and they are granted highly unusual (if, to be fair, increasingly under threat by reactionary forces) privileges by society, including a significant amount of free time, decent salaries, excellent benefits and the mother of all prerogatives: tenure.

To make it perfectly clear and avoid any misunderstanding whatsoever: I am not calling for more teaching hours, fewer benefits and the abolition of tenure. On the contrary: more health and pension benefits is what we should strive to grant all workers, not just academics and a few lucky others. And job security ought also to be a major goal of our society, since having a job is crucial not just to meet the practical challenges of living as an independent adult, but is tightly bound up with a person’s dignity as a human being.

What I am saying, rather, is that my colleagues and I ought (morally) to take seriously the idea of providing high quality teaching to our students and of lending our brains and expertise to public debates on matters about which the public actually cares. Only then will we be justified in playing chess or chmess to our heart’s content, to use Dennett’s analogy (though the former is still preferable to the latter).

So here is an agreement I would like faculty at all private and especially public universities to consider pledging to, a grand bargain for 21st century academia, if you will:

“I am a teacher and a scholar, and I have the privilege of pursuing my intellectual activities within the nurturing structure provided by a private or public university. I recognize that this implies certain duties to my students, to society at large, and to my fellow academics. I therefore pledge the following:

  1. To my students, to provide them with the highest quality teaching that I am capable of, and to never refer to my duties in this respect as a ‘load.’
  2. To my fellow citizens, to devote a substantial amount of my time and intellectual energy to engaging in public debate aimed at together figuring out a way to ameliorate our problems as human beings.
  3. To my fellow academics, to engage in the type of scholarship that can reasonably pass the Dennett double test: i) it can be fruitfully explained to bright but untrained undergraduates; and ii) it is of the type that people outside of a narrow group of graduate students and professionals in my own field can be brought to actually care about.

This in the sincere hope that I can repay society for the privilege of allowing me to pursue my own intellectual interests wherever they may bring me.”

It will be interesting to see how many of my colleagues are willing to follow through.

_____

Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, by Dan Dennett, Norton, 2013.

[2] Of which there now is a bewildering variety, from women studies to African American studies; from Italian American studies to Puerto Rican studies; from disabilities studies to “fat” studies (seriously, that’s the name of the field, as politically incorrect as it seems).

[3] “Strong inference,” by John Platt, Science 16 October 1964, pp. 347-353.

[4] See platofootnote.org

[5] See “Experience and necessity: the Mill-Whewell debate,” by Laura Snyder. In: Philosophy of Science: the Key Thinkers, ed. by J.R. Brown, Comtinuum, 2012.

[6] On the issue of exploitation of adjunct faculty see: “The adjunct crisis and the free market,” by Rebecca Schuman, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 25 September 2013.

[7] “Scientia Salon: a manifesto for 21st century intellectualism,” by Massimo Pigliucci, 21 March 2014.

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145 thoughts on “The history of garbage is scholarship

  1. Bonsaimartin,
    just to illustrate how complex this idea of happiness or fulfillment is, consider this survey.

    One measure of happiness is the degree to which people experience positive emotions, as measured by this Gallup poll:
    http://www.gallup.com/poll/159254/latin-americans-positive-world.aspx#1
    (This displayed well in Firefox but badly in Chrome)

    The results are very surprising:
    Latin Americans are the most positive people in the world, with their region being home to eight of the top 10 countries for positive emotions worldwide.” The other two countries are the Phillipines and Thailand.

    Residents of Panama, which ranks 90th in the world with respect to GDP per capita, are among the most likely to report positive emotions. Residents of Singapore, which ranks fifth in the world in terms of GDP per capita, are the least likely to report positive emotions.

    Here are some interesting results:
    85% Panama (best)
    46% Singapore (worst)

    77% United Kingdom
    77% Lesotho
    76% United States
    76% China
    76% Swaziland
    74% Germany
    74% France

    Contrast Lesotho with the United Kingdom or Swaziland with Germany!
    Material well being does not necessarily create positive emotions. Lesotho, with its very low material well being, experienced as many positive emotions as the UK and more than Germany or France.

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  2. Disagreeable Me,

    You assume that every mental phenomenon has a neural correlate, even though you are unable to define what this correlate might be and you admit that even if it does exist it may be undetectable. You assume, without evidence, that happiness is a neural phenomenon. You assume that you are able to assign relative happiness values to the lives of two hypothetical people you have never met. You assume that this wibbly wobbly tower of improbable assumptions establishes that in principle we might be able to achieve an objective morality. I think the chances of all those assumptions being right is zero.

    When you think about the joy a terrorist feels in the second before he detonates his suicide vest the chances of any of us being able to say anything substantive about the happiness of other humans is almost certainly nil. Attempts to rank or value the happiness that other people experience in their lives according to our own value system are nothing but hubris.

    “I think he’s right on these points.”

    Let’s suppose, hypothetically, that you have found some measurable neural function that goes up when you give someone money, or extra fluffy bunny rabbits. You’re still about a trillion years away from showing that what you measured is, “happiness.” And, you still have to overcome the completely invisible connection between, “happiness,” and morality. On what basis are you making the assumption that making moral choices makes people happier, or have you forgotten that bank robbers and drug dealers are just as capable of being made happy by what they do as poets and kidney donors? They don’t call Batman’s arch-enemy, “The Joker,” for nothing, you know!

    You also have to take into account that brain activity is not always correlated to conscious choice, and that we may not have free will. I saw a BBC Horizon documentary with Marcus du Sautoy, “The Secret You.” They were doing some experiments with brain activity. The subject had to make a choice between pressing one of two buttons, and the equipment recorded when his brain made the decision, and when he pressed the button. After running the test the scientist told him, “In your case, up to six seconds before you make up your mind, we can predict which decision you are going to make.” His brain knew which button he was going to press WELL BEFORE his consciousness made the decision. Not only that, the researcher was conscious of which decision Marcus was going to make, six seconds before Marcus was conscious of it himself. Which suggests that in at least one sense, “we,” are not making our choices, it’s just a matter of biology.

    Link to the documentary. (if you don’t want to watch the whole thing start at 49:30)
    http://www.youtubedocumentaries.com/documentary.cfm?name=The_Secret_You#.U0LqvqKxpbw

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  3. Hi labnut,

    “I need to spend more time over at Edward Feser.”

    It’s hardly surprising if your opinion of the New Atheists is rather low if your views are informed by Edward Feser. 😉 Just wondering, do you read the New Atheists in the original? (Yes I have read Feser’s blog by the way.)

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  4. I must say, Feser doesn’t sound like the sort of fellow I’d endorse. Right wing politics and a rescue of the Aristotelian-Thomistic view? Hmm…

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  5. DM,
    Harris aims to show that where people disagree on morality, some people are likely right and some people are likely wrong.
    To do this there has to be an objective measure of morality and Harris claims that science can tell us what this is and how to measure morality.

    For there to be an objective measure, two possibilities exist:
    1) there is a real, objective thing called morality ‘out there’, either as
    1.1) a law of nature (hard science), or
    1.2) a precept of God,
    or
    2) it is a property of human society that is consistent and can be reliably measured (soft science).

    There is no way, even in principle how we can see that morality is a law of nature, so the hard science approach fails. Harris rejects God so he is left with (2), morality as a property of society that
    2.1) can be clearly identified,
    2.2) is an agreed measure,
    2.3) can be reliably measured, and
    2.4) is consistent across cultures and across time,
    2.5) can be applied to all moral questions.

    This is the soft science, or descriptive science approach. The moment you go down the soft, descriptive science route your thesis that science can determine morality is badly weakened. Is descriptive science real science or is it just societal statistics? Should statisticians become our new high priests? Quick, before we start a new war call in the American Society of Statisticians!

    Harris says flourishing is the measure but start asking searching questions from 2.1 to 2.5 and it is no longer clear that flourishing will do the job. How did he arrive at flourishing as the choice? Is that the best choice? How do we get agreement? How do we measure it? Does flourishing apply to all cultures and at all times? Who’s flourishing are talking about? The ruling class, the working class or the slave class? Does science tell us anything about that choice?

    My previous comment reported that 77% of the people in impoverished Lesotho had positive emotions while 74% in Germany had positive emotions. Does this mean that the moral state in Lesotho is better than in Germany?

    How about South Africa. In my poor country we have 75% positive emotions compared to 74% in Germany!!! But we have one of the world’s highest murder rates, corruption rates and rape rates. Nevertheless we are happier than Germany. Our ruling classes are flourishing on the ill gotten gains of corruption. Does that makes us more moral than Germany?

    Do you begin to see the quagmire you have entered when you go the descriptive science route?

    Let me give you another example. Rome flourished as no other empire has ever done. It was built on harsh, disciplined militarism and slavery. Was the flourishing of Rome less important than the good of the slaves? Why? How would science answer that question?

    Finally, and this is Massimo’s point, Harris chose consequentialism as his moral system, but why? What makes it superior to virtue ethics or deontology? How would science answer that question? Massimo has already given good reasons why virtue ethics is to be preferred. What makes Harris’ opinion better? And in any case, the modern world is becoming ruled by a de facto system of deontology. That is the true irony.

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  6. Edward Feser is a serious, heavyweight philosopher who writes profound pieces. Sometimes he is given to polemic but given his profundity, I readily forgive him.

    As for my opinion of new atheists, it seems the rest of America agree with me, see this posting:

    It is based on http://bit.ly/zEiB7y, Atheists as Other, Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society, which is based on the American Mosaic Project Survey 2003.

    Yes, I have read Dawkins’ and Harris’ books. Real light weight stuff.

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  7. Coel,
    It’s hardly surprising if your opinion of the New Atheists is rather low if your views are informed by Edward Feser

    As a matter of fact my opinions are informed by the mean relentless attacks that theists have to endure at their hands.

    Incidentally, most of my friends are atheists. They don’t push their point of view and I don’t push mine, after all I was also an atheist until fairly recently. We enjoy a relaxed and respectful coexistence.

    Why on earth don’t we have the same relaxed, friendly coexistence here?

    Humourous note: I astonished my parish priest when I introduced myself as a lapsed atheist! It was only this afternoon that I astonished him again when I asked to be baptised into the Catholic Church.

    If you question my judgement you can put it down to the fact that I had just completed a hot, midday 18 km run without drinking any fluid. Maybe that is the route to get more converts!

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  8. Hi labnut,

    Again, I don’t agree with Harris, but I do think he is often misunderstood.

    “To do this there has to be an objective measure of morality and Harris claims that science can tell us what this is and how to measure morality.”

    Not exactly. Harris simply asserts that morality is about maximising well-being. He thinks this is what most people mean at base when they talk about morality, and he thinks that anybody who disagrees is simply not talking the same language. I think he has a point, that this is a very common view of morality (perhaps the most common), but I don’t think that this is enough for him to claim that it is the one true conception of morality.

    This view is perhaps most compatible with your “soft science” interpretation.

    “The moment you go down the soft, descriptive science route your thesis that science can determine morality is badly weakened.”

    Not really. As long as we adopt a convention that “morality” means what Harris says it means, this is something that can in principle be studied in an objective way, much as we can study supply and demand, discrimination, fashion, peer pressure etc. It’s important to understand that we are not studying what people hold to be moral in different places and times, we are instead studying what causes human beings to flourish and experience well-being, and we are calling this morality.

    “How did he arrive at flourishing as the choice? Is that the best choice?”
    I would say it is the most intuitive conception of morality, and perhaps the least controversial. But I agree he cannot claim that this is the only valid interpretation.

    “How do we get agreement?”

    Harris would say we don’t need agreement. We don’t need everybody to agree what gravity is in order for physicists to study gravity.

    “How do we measure it?”

    That’s a practical question, and a problem for any practical implementation of Harris’s philosophy, but it’s not a problem for the principle he argues for.

    ” Does flourishing apply to all cultures and at all times? Who’s flourishing are talking about? The ruling class, the working class or the slave class?”

    The flourishing of everybody. Harris would include animals. He cares about conscious creatures, because conscious creatures are those that can experience suffering and well-being. Science can perhaps help us identify which creatures are conscious and to what extent.

    “Does this mean that the moral state in Lesotho is better than in Germany?”

    Perhaps. Or it might mean that there are confounding factors affecting the reporting of well-being. Again, these are practical considerations.

    “Do you begin to see the quagmire you have entered when you go the descriptive science route?”

    I see, and have always seen, the practical difficulties in acting on Harris’s definition of morality.
    Same goes for your points about Rome.

    “What makes it superior to virtue ethics or deontology?”

    Virtue ethics doesn’t really give you any way to determine a correct course of action in a particular situation, and it certainly doesn’t help in choosing moral social policies. It’s just not the right tool for that job. Virtue ethics and consequentialism can exist side by side, but I would say only consequentialism really seeks to give anything like a robust decision process.

    Deontology is a non-starter without some authority to provide the rules.

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  9. Massimo,
    Right wing politics
    Happily I don’t care about self destructive US politics. In any case, the Democrats and Republicans look like two sides of the same ugly coin, forged by corporate America.

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  10. You are right that atheists are the most disliked group in America, which owes to America being the most religiose of the Western nations. Since faith is all that the religious have, those who lack it are feared and denigrated .

    This is not caused by “new” atheism, though, since it was just as bad before the “new” atheists. Indeed, numbers of and acceptance of atheists is now growing steadily in the US, though from a low base.

    We may have to agree to differ on the “profundity” of Edward Feser. He seems to me just another apologist, who uses poor reasoning to arrive at a position pre-determined by his faith.

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  11. While corporate America certainly does quite a bit of forging right and left, it is a grave mistake to assume that there are no differences between democrats and republicans. Besides, I was referring to his ideas on social issues, not to the party to which he belongs.

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  12. Brenda, LabNut, one more word on the battleground: the idea that beliefs are fixed and battled, instead of contingent and continually reconsidered, may be good for careers (Dawkins) but bad science. Just as good science is about constant skepticism about one’s own views and the views of everyone else, the same I think should apply to all of our beliefs. Mine change frequently. Yours?

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  13. As for “mean relentless attacks”, don’t you think that atheists get plenty of those from theists? From Feser for example? Out of interest, which country do you live in?

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  14. John,
    Just as good science is about constant skepticism about one’s own views and the views of everyone else, the same I think should apply to all of our beliefs. Mine change frequently. Yours?

    Yes, they should, I completely agree with you. They must change because we are continually being exposed to new information and this information reveals a changing landscape that demands reassessment. Whether we change and how much we change is, I think, a function of our curiosity. To be curious is to open one’s mind to the possibility of new viewpoints.

    Interestingly, I had a boss who enforced the 3-5-7 rule for management. We could change positions after three years because we had been long enough in that position to affect real change. We should change positions after five years because by then we were failing to see the need for further change. We must change positions after seven years because by that stage we were hanging onto our earlier changes and preventing further change.

    We are all prone to consolidating our opinions and then hanging onto them. The only answer I know is to deliberately follow a course of extreme curiosity.

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  15. Massimo,
    yes, I should be careful about my opinions of the US since I have to admit to being not terribly well informed. And if you want to see real bad you need only look at what is happening in my own country. It is the death of a dream.

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  16. Hi bonsaimartin,

    I think the assumptions you call “wibbly wobbly” are pretty unshakeable on metaphysical naturalism. If you’re not a metaphysical naturalist then we lack the common ground necessary to discuss the topic sensibly. If you are a metaphysical naturalist then I would be interested in hearing how you could possibly account for emotional states without believing that at some level they reduce to facts about the physical world?

    “You assume that you are able to assign relative happiness values to the lives of two hypothetical people you have never met.”

    On the hypothesis that slaves are by and large less happy than safe, healthy people, I think this is a pretty safe assumption that few would seriously disagree with. Do you have grounds for your skepticism or do I misunderstand you?

    “When you think about the joy a terrorist feels in the second before he detonates his suicide vest the chances of any of us being able to say anything substantive about the happiness of other humans is almost certainly nil.”

    I don’t see why. (Anyway, as an irrelevant aside, I suspect that fear would be a more typical emotion than joy, but I could be wrong.) The fact that “bad” people can feel happy doing immoral things does not take away from the principle that human well-being can be seen as an objective property of the physical world.

    “Attempts to rank or value the happiness that other people experience in their lives according to our own value system are nothing but hubris.”

    Happiness is happiness. Value systems don’t come into it. You may think that Harris would not consider the joy of the terrorist, but he would. All well-being, including that of terrorists is considered. Harris’s view and mine is that terrorism does not by and large lead to human flourishing. The joy the terrorist feels, such that it is, is transient and dwarfed by the long-lasting grief of the bereaved (including his/her own family).

    “You’re still about a trillion years away from showing that what you measured is, “happiness.” ”

    That’s a practical concern.

    “On what basis are you making the assumption that making moral choices makes people happier”

    Harris doesn’t make that assumption and nor do I. The argument is that committing immoral acts is immoral because it decreases aggregate well-being, not because of the effects on the well-being of the perpetrator.

    The Libet experiments and concerns about free will have little to do with it. For the record, Harris denies that free will exists (he even wrote a book about it) and so do I. Conscious choice is a separate topic of interest to suffering and well-being.

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  17. DM,
    Deontology is a non-starter without some authority to provide the rules.

    I think you missed my point. We have such an authority, it is the State. Has it ever struck you that we are living in a world that is more and more constrained by a dense network of rules constructed by the State, encompassing our private lives and our business lives? The statute book is growing bigger and bigger each year. This has become the new moral framework. Instead of God as the judge we have the State as the judge. Instead of God punishing us we have the State punishing us. God used to know everything and now the State is quietly acquiring the same power to know everything. This is full bore deontology with different actors. But back then we only had Ten Commandments, who can count them today?

    In a certain sense this was inevitable. Every time parliament sits it adds to the statute book and it grows over the years. This is what parliaments do and will continue to do with every sitting.

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  18. Hi John,

    I agree with what you said, but not with the implication that minds should change frequently. They should not. If you’re thinking well, then as you gain more experience and knowledge your beliefs should converge asymptotically on what is true (or at least on what your particular mind is predisposed to hold as true), much as science does. Much as big paradigm shifts get rarer in mature fields of science over time, so should significant changes of mind in mature thinkers. That doesn’t mean that you hold rigidly to your views for your views’ sake, it means that your views are well-considered and well-evidenced and so stable.

    Now, prove me wrong by agreeing with me! 😉

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  19. DM,
    Virtue ethics doesn’t really give you any way to determine a correct course of action in a particular situation, and it certainly doesn’t help in choosing moral social policies. It’s just not the right tool for that job

    Hmm, I doubt Massimo will agree but I should let him speak for himself.
    Recently we had a fascinating talk by two Jesuit philosophers about moral decision making.
    They first pointed out that we must distinguish between moral problems with clear cut answers, boundary problems and conflictual problems(create internal conflicts). They also gave us some interesting moral problems to solve.

    The strategy they advised is a cascading one that one starts at the top with deontology, cascading down through virtue ethics to consequentialism and rights based ethics. Many moral problems are easily solved at the deontology level but some cannot be. In this case one cascades down to the next level, virtue ethics. In case you don’t know it, Catholics are very strong on virtue ethics. The moral problem is tested against virtue ethics and if still not resolvable at this level, it is cascaded down to the level of consequential ethics. Now here is the key point, when analysing the consequences one is guided by deontological considerations and virtue ethics. This is the key idea that keeps consequentialism from going off the rails. I greatly simplify a deep subject but it is enough for you to get the idea.

    I mention this because a common misconception is that religion is only about deontology. I will often hear the dull and trite accusation, you only do those things because you are told to. Nothing could be further from the truth, if anything, it is mostly about virtue ethics.

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  20. “A nice example is the one commentator who immediately replied to you with the false equivalence “In that same light, would you also see a place for astrology?“.”
    How is it a false equivalence? The whole point of the question is that they seem equivalent. Both constitute elaborate bodies of research over millennia by incredibly smart people that were prescientific attempts to explain the how the world works. Remember that in the Dover Trial, astrology was used as an example to gauge the legitimacy of Michael Behe’s notion of science. It seems a perfectly legitimate question – does theology have any more epistemic merit than astrology? If so, why?

    “The intent is to deny theists space in the debate, it is silencing, plain and simple.”
    It’s not a silencing technique. As Coel put it in their response to you, it’s a critique, not a silencing technique. At no point does it take away one’s right to offer arguments in favour of the theistic position, nor the right to hold their opinion.

    “So there we have it, non-approved opinions should be silenced. ”
    I’m really not sure how you got that from what I said, or how it follows in any way from what I said. By my reckoning, people should be allowed to speak out both in favour and against theology. It seems your taking exception to the latter – is being against theology an non-approved view?

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  21. DM wrote: “But I would note that scientific research into well-known effects is worthless not because it’s chmessy but because it’s redundant.

    Yes, as I said it is chess – but breathlessly announcing the groundbreaking discovery of scholars mate.

    Like

  22. DM wrote: “I need an example where philosophical chmess leads to an important discovery to believe otherwise. Your example of the ontological argument comes close, but it’s not chmessy enough to convince me.

    This is why arguing via analogy is ultimately fruitless. If the ontological argument is not an example of what “chmess” is supposed to mean then what?

    Philosophers like Heidegger and Derrida do not fit since their only skill is in producing plausible gibberish.

    So can you give me an idea of what you do regard as “chmessy” so that I can find an example which fits the criterion?

    Like

  23. Hi labnut,

    “We have such an authority, it is the State.”

    And I think you missed my point. Deontology doesn’t work as a foundation. In the case of the legal system, the laws we choose are not chosen randomly. They are perhaps not chosen rigorously but they are chosen to accommodate some sort of compromise between moral intuitions such as retribution and fairness as well as consequentialist concerns. But most of us would recognise that lawfulness and morality bear no more than a passing resemblance, so even the deontology of the legal system does not really constitute a basis for morality. The state is an authority but it is not a moral authority.

    “I doubt Massimo will agree but I should let him speak for himself.”

    With the same caveats regarding his speaking for himself, I think he would agree. At least that was my interpretation of something he said on a discussion thread on rationally speaking. As far as I understand it, he views virtue ethics as the domain of personal morality and agrees that something like consequentialism is more appropriate for public policy.

    Your description of cascading levels of deontology, virtue ethics and consequentialism accords rather well with my own views. I would perhaps differ only in that I regard consequentialism as fundamental with virtue ethics and deontology as useful heuristic approximations. I don’t see how consequentialism can go too far off the rails and I don’t see how deontology or virtue ethics constrain it. If our goal is to maximise well-being and minimise suffering, I think little harm is going to come from pursuing it.

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  24. Disagreeable Me,

    “Happiness is happiness. Value systems don’t come into it.”

    This points to a fundamental difference in our thinking. That you want to talk about well being and happiness but don’t think value systems come into it suggests to me that you’re not just barking up the wrong tree, you’re in the wrong forest. I think value systems are the most important part of this discussion, and you think they are irrelevant. I don’t think your value system allows you to have the faintest idea what makes another person happy, whereas you seem quite content to hypothesise that not only do you know what makes people happy, but that all people are made happy by the same things that make you happy.

    “Harris’s view and mine is that terrorism does not by and large lead to human flourishing.”

    So what does lead to human, “flourishing”? The Egyptian civilisation that enslaved millions, the Greek civilisation also enslaved millions, the Roman Empire had slaves fight to the death for, “entertainment,” the Spanish conquest of south America that wiped out the Mayan civilisation, the colonisation of north America that wiped out the indigenous population and enslaved millions of blacks so that rich white men could grow corn and cotton, the colonisation of Australia that decimated the Aborigine so that rich white men could farm sheep, the apartheid system that allowed whites to farm fruit and dig for diamonds in South Africa, the industrial revolution that took millions of people off the land and pushed them down coal mines, up chimneys and into factories for the benefit of capitalists, any example you care to think of in human history of this so-called, “flourishing,” has involved the enslavement, persecution, denigration and annihilation of, “other.” These examples would suggest that morality does not lead to flourishing, either, but that flourishing is a consequence of imposing your will on some other and profiting from their labour. The distinction between this and terrorism is not much more than semantics.

    Like

  25. oops, my comment got published by mistke

    Labnut,

    without getting into a principle discussion about what the state should do or not, let’s look at the pragmatic side of things.

    Actions have material consequences. In Bayesian ways, we develop a heuristic about what to do in the situation (based on whatever criteria one wishes, mostly usefulness). Nothing ethical or moral to it, just “congealed” experience, awaiting for refinement In a small or larger social group, We share silently, and sometimes overtly, these heuristics. Ever so slightly, “nudge” each others in joining an emerging heuristic consensus. In my town, one walks DOWN Main street on the left, and UP on the right, as seen from the Railway Station. No one is forcing anyone, but if one tries the reverse, one bumps into people on auto-pilot because they trust the heuristic, or gets nasty looks.

    This system mostly works at this informal level. Say compliance 80%. But sometimes, a rule needs setting: one can’t drive on the left 80% of the time. Enter the state. A law is passed.

    The more we understand the consequences of our actions, the more such social mechanisms emerge. In my country, with a long tradition of diffuse social control, nudging mostly works. E.g. voluntary recycling rates are exceedingly high. True, one does get the odd “excessive nudging (aka bourgeois oppression): a movie was made about a housing block where everyone was nudged into using brown, rather than black trash bags. In other countries, the state may be involved, fining violators. In others, the private sector is incentivated to pick up after me. Different styles and different rationales – in my country personally disposing of one’s rubbish is considered a “moral” thing to do.

    The upshot is: as many voluntary/compulsory rules as there are known interactions. As knowledge increases, so do the rules. This is inevitable, and the avalanche of laws you see coming out of Parliament in some reflects our increasing knowledge. Parliament, in my country, is issuing energy-saving rules by the vertical yard (it has become a fad that makes my economist heart cringe, for there will never be payback on the investment, also, we’ll be stuck with technologies way past their use-by date). While we expect people voluntarily to follow the law (I’d say we expect a rate of 80%, just to throw in a number to anchor the following), we’ll set up +/- intrusive compliance verification systems.

    In the “good old days” one verified the usefulness of the rules directly. Walking down Main Street the “wrong way” had visible consequences. Increasingly, the consequences are far away from one’s locality – in time and space. When the consequences are far away, the voluntary compliance rate of the compulsory rule drops precipitously. People don’t understand the effects, or don’t care, because the effect will accrue somewhere else. Enforcement must be more invasive.

    Also, we have created principles to guide our messy social interactions. With more than a dash of hyperbole, I’d argue that never since Jesus or Mohammed has there been such a determined effort to install “good behavior.” (In fact, our generation is asked to atone for past sins, behave saintly, and provide for the future). Enforcing them in a hyper-complex “moral rules” is a giant task.

    Now, wise Parliaments would do four “meta” things:
    1. Check the balance between voluntary and compulsory rules. Compulsion had emotional limits – spare the rod, if you want to avoid massive cheating.
    2. Cleanse the system of useless rules: since knowledge doubles about ever 5 years, many rules should have a half-life of 10 years or so.
    3. Make simple rules, and have a consolidated set at all times.(Italy has about 1/3 more laws than other states, and consolidation is a pipe-dream).
    4. Explain the rules to people and make them feel personally responsible. Reducing the people’s involvement to party-led elections every four years or so no longer is enough.

    Please note that I do not discuss content – simply focus on how best to do rules, if rules are needed. Nor is any “morals” involved. It is simply: making things work the best we can.

    So, yes, our increasing knowledge about the world’s complexity will yield more and more voluntary/coercive rules. The problem is the increasing distance between the cause – me – and the effects, which may be far flung. Also, “universality” does not come easy to an apes mostly thinking locally and in “kinship” terms (kinship being social, rather than biological, though there is of course overlap).

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  26. I think Derrida and Heidegger are perhaps candidates. Plausible gibberish sounds chmessy to me.

    I’m not expert enough in philosophy to pick a good example, but something like the debate between actualism and possibilism seems like it might suit. To my inexpert eye it seems to be a rather uninteresting perhaps even nonsensical question.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/actualism/

    But it’s not chmess if someone well versed in it can plausibly explain why it matters.

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  27. DM,
    Again, I don’t agree with Harris, but I do think he is often misunderstood.
    The way he reasons makes that highly probable.

    Like

  28. Hi bonsaimartin,

    “I think value systems are the most important part of this discussion, and you think they are irrelevant.”

    Because Harris’s account is to explain how we might derive value systems from the relatively uncontroversial premise that it is good to promote well-being and bad to promote suffering. Value systems are output, not input.

    ” whereas you seem quite content to hypothesise that not only do you know what makes people happy, but that all people are made happy by the same things that make you happy.”

    That’s a gross perversion of what I said. In fact I’m not sure how you could even get this ridiculous stereotype from anything I or Harris have stated. I make no such claim. As in the example of choosing skiing or choosing to draw horses, my view is that different things will make different people happy. On the appropriate stance with regard to hobbies, therefore, Harris and I would say that freedom of choice is important, not any particular hobby.

    “So what does lead to human, “flourishing”?”

    That’s in principle an empirical question, though not an easy one to answer. The examples you list certainly don’t seem like good recipes for human flourishing. I would hazard to guess that human flourishing is correlated with education, affordable healthcare, social security, GDP, equality and freedom.

    I really don’t see why you think I ought to be defending slavery or exploitation which cause a great deal of human misery. I think you’re misunderstanding “flourishing” to mean “economic growth”. A much broader picture is intended. We’re talking about well-being, happiness, contentment, safety, that kind of thing. Slavery and genocide are antithetical to this goal.

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  29. DM,
    I don’t see how consequentialism can go too far off the rails”
    Let me give you a really simple example by way of an anecdote.

    Our little city acquired a new Traffic Chief. He looked at his budget, his resources and the size of the city and concluded there was a serious mismatch. The budget and resources were not nearly large enough for the size of the city. What to do? The City Council was urging him to cut costs and the Royal Automobile Association was urging him to make the city safer. The Ratepayer’s Association was complaining about strict enforcement of traffic speed limits.

    This looked like a Gordian Knot problem and he was up to the challenge.

    As a well informed atheist, he knew that moral consequentialism was the way to go. And as he thought about it, he was hit by the realisation that he could make the city safer and make dramatic costs savings into the bargain. A win-win for all concerned. So it was that he implemented his brilliant moral consequentialism plan. It was going to be the blueprint for all enlightened atheist communities.

    First, he printed 500,000 booklets explaining moral consequentialism(thanks SEP and IEP) and the new traffic management plan, distributing them to every household. Look, he said, it is very simple you guys. You are responsible, dependable and mature citizens. You know how to drive responsibly, you know the consequences of bad driving and you know the consequences of good driving. Every time you drive, weigh your actions against the consequences and choose the behaviour that results in the greatest flourishing for our city and its denizens. When you park in the parking bays you can work out the optimum time so that you promote flourishing for all concerned. We are removing parking meters. When you drive down the highway you can choose the speed according to your judgement of the best consequences that promote flourishing. We are removing the hated speed cameras. Simple, hey? In return we will show our trust by dismantling all traffic control systems. We will remove traffic lights and signage. We will discontinue all speed traps. There are no more speed limits. Our traffic officers will be redeployed to the garbage disposal system(fair enough, you hated them). The City Council were delighted by the cost savings and the Ratepayer’s Association was delighted by the freedom. The Royal Automobile Association was converted into a chapter of the Atheist Association. The Justice Department heaved a big sigh of relief as their caseload for traffic violations dwindled to nothing A win-win-win-win.

    Now, DM, explain to me how it is that consequentialism can’t go too far off the rails(yes, I know, my example was about road traffic and not rail traffic).

    …and I don’t see how deontology or virtue ethics constrain it

    Like

  30. Easy: a few sleeping cops here, a roundabout there, and lots of clever traffic nudges (See Thaler * Sunstein: Nudges). Social psychology and common sense does it.

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  31. DM,
    “I don’t see how consequentialism can go too far off the rails”
    Let me give you another example(more moral this time) also by way of an anecdote.

    I went to present a paper at a seminar in another country. There, at happy hour time, I met this really pretty post-doc. Pert breasts, lovely rounded bottom, dancing blue eyes, flashing with intelligence and black hair. Yes, she was Irish and had a lovely lilting laugh. We exchanged notes and quickly found we were presenting related papers. Could she see my paper, she asked. Sure, come up to my room, I replied. She replied with a mischievous grin and off we went.

    We were lonely, anxious and needed reassurance. We found company, reassurance and affirmation in each other’s arms. That night we flourished. The next day, brimming with happiness and confidence, we presented our papers and they were a success.

    As we kissed goodbye at the airport she thanked me for a wonderful interlude that had helped her so much. But, she told me, she loved her boyfriend and it was better that we left things there, no harm done. Quite so I answered, I love my wife and children, let’s leave well alone and no harm done. We lived in countries far apart.

    And so we parted with happy memories and no damage to our partners. Sounds like moral consequentialism doesn’t it? We flourished, the consequences were good for us and there were no adverse consequences. Does this story sound familiar?

    Do you think my behaviour was admirable or moral? Why?

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  32. Disagreeable Me,

    “Value systems are output, not input.”

    I’m sorry, but I don’t agree. You can’t impose your value system on me. I have values, they are mine and I am extremely proud of them. They are a product of the lessons I have been taught, the lessons I have learned as I have gone through life, of my good and bad experiences, of being punished for things I didn’t do and getting away with stuff I did wrong, of my failed love affairs and of the dog that gave me unconditional love when I was nine years old. I use those values to help me decide what to do next, how to interact with people, they are the source of my sense of morality. I am not about to throw all that away and take on a set of alternative values that you have determined is of maximum benefit to mankind, even if you could objectively prove that they are. Value systems are what people use to make choices, hundreds of them every day, and value systems are the primary input to Harris’ programme precisely because they are the very thing he is seeking to supplant.

    “That’s a gross perversion of what I said.”

    I beg to differ. You specifically said: “On the hypothesis that slaves are by and large less happy than safe, healthy people, I think this is a pretty safe assumption.” Here, you are hypothesising that you know what makes other people happy, that you can rank people’s relative happiness by wide stereotypes, and that it would be safe for you to assume that your hypothesis is correct. I deny that you have any idea what makes anyone else happy. All you are doing is taking your value system and using it to assess the lives of other people. The chance of you being right for anything other than a very small percentage of the population, those people who share your value system, is nil.

    For example, if you give your love to someone and they reciprocate, they nurture you and take you into the bosom of their family and reward your love in positive ways, from that you learn that giving your love to someone is a rewarding thing to do and you would be encouraged to do it again. If, instead, you give your love to someone and they stomp on it, spit in your eye, rip you off, steal half your books and sue you for their dry cleaning bill, you learn that love might actually be a double edged sword and more care is required. But you seem to be under the impression that you can replace all that life experience with your, “values are output not input,” and decide for everyone else what makes them happy. Needless to say, I think you’re dead wrong.

    “I think you’re misunderstanding “flourishing” to mean ‘economic growth’.”

    Actually, I “misunderstood,” it to mean population growth, which is the only sense in which I have ever heard it used before. You seem to associate it with a set of first world problems, “education, affordable healthcare, social security, GDP.” According to the World Bank, almost half the world — over three billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day, some 1.1 billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to water, 2.6 billion people lack basic sanitation and the people living in slums in Manilla, Accra and Barranquilla pay twice as much for their water as those in London or New York because their water supplies have been privatised. Many African countries are the source of valuable minerals but their populations live in dire poverty because the resources are exploited to boost GDP and line the pockets of capitalists who pay themselves annual salaries that would feed a hundred African families for ten years. Good luck telling these people that the real source of their problem is that their morals are wrong which is preventing their GDP from, “flourishing,” enough for them to be sold healthcare products.

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  33. I think that’s too facile an answer. I don’t mean to imply that all science can be directed, but neither can it all be undirected. I think your answer is part of the problem that causes much of science to not “matter”; e.g. this propensity to “throw your hands in the air because it’s just impossible to know where anything will lead”. Just because groping in the dark finds a laser every once in a while doesn’t mean we should sit around waiting for that to happen. Your example may be the one “hit” that ignores the countless “misses” we’ve had to endure. Continuing on with your metaphor of the dim borderlands, how about we push spotlights where we know we need them. At least some of the time. In reality, we are doing this already, so I believe my point has been made. Even if it was missed here.

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  34. DM,
    See my reply to Massimo’s reply.
    Massimo’s reply trumps your reply hands down, given his wealth of direct, real world experience of the subject matter.

    Like

  35. how do you know, labnut?

    or better, why do you want to know beforehand how life’s journey willl end?

    This is how evolution works – one step at a time, some small, some big, always opportunistic, never knowing where it is going. Once in a great while, there might be a coalition of willing – Lynn Margulis “symbiosis.” There may be intruders – viruses becoming commensals..

    Deng Xiaoping’s development model was based on creating a “special development zone” here, a model village there, learning from experience in Bayesian fashion. Look how far they’ve come – economic development-wise. Following this “learning by doing” principle, Deng put economic ahead of political rights, because he could learn from experience. It worked, and the Dynasty has moved 400 million out of poverty, when India, with its central planning failed.

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  36. Aldo,
    how do you know, labnut?
    because it has only partially worked in limited scenarios possessing the strong, requisite values and high consensus.

    Nudging is an adjunct to other primary measures.

    The rest of your comment is too far removed from the point I was making to DM so I won’t reply to it..

    We were talking about moral consequentialism and I gave examples to show it is an unworkable moral philosophy. I did this because DM was arguing that it is the best moral framework, as Harris does.

    My examples were intended to show that moral consequentialism is fatally flawed. That nudging helps does not change this conclusion.

    Incidentally, I lived and worked in Shanghai for two years and became intimately familiar with the way Chinese work.

    Like

  37. Hi bonsaimartin,

    “I’m sorry, but I don’t agree.”

    Well, neither do I, really. I’m explaining Harris’s argument rather than espousing my own views. In Harris’s framework, values come out of the consequentialist concern for well-being, and values that do not accord with this are morally mistaken. Your sincere conviction in your own values is not an argument against Harris, and his inability to sway you does not in itself mean he is wrong.

    So, do you have any values which do not promote well-being? If so, Harris would say you are wrong. If not, then Harris would say you are right. But even though I think objective morality is a non-starter, I would be quite surprised if you consciously hold values which you believe to be detrimental to human well-being, and I suspect that if any of your values could be proven to be so, you might be persuaded to drop them. If not, I wouldn’t say that you are wrong, but I would not personally consider you to be a particularly moral person.

    “Here, you are hypothesising that you know what makes other people happy, that you can rank people’s relative happiness by wide stereotypes, and that it would be safe for you to assume that your hypothesis is correct.”

    No. I’m suggesting that slaves are generally less happy than free people. I’m not even claiming that I know this to be true, I’m using it as an illustrative example. But if you won’t admit to believing this to be true then you strike me as even more of a contrarian than I am and it will be difficult to continue this conversation.

    “I deny that you have any idea what makes anyone else happy. ”

    Then you are accusing me of being a uniquely ignorant person. I would say that all of us have some idea what makes other people happy. We may get it wrong on the specifics, but anyone who thinks that slavery is as conducive to happiness as freedom is either ignorant or a fraud.

    “All you are doing is taking your value system and using it to assess the lives of other people.”

    Absolutely not. The whole point of Harris’s framework is not to assume any value system at all but to try to find out what makes people happy and do that.

    “Good luck telling these people that the real source of their problem is that their morals are wrong which is preventing their GDP from, “flourishing,” enough for them to be sold healthcare products.”

    Another gross perversion of what I said.

    Firstly, I mean flourishing in this sense:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flourishing

    Secondly, flourishing is not about “first world problems” but it is about first world benefits. Flourishing is therefore what distinguishes the first world from the third world, so Harris’s framework would have us care more about improving the lot of the third world than on “first world problems”. The implications of Harris’s framework are thus precisely the opposite to what you infer. Harris does not argue that these people suffer because their morals are wrong, but that whoever takes action or fails to take action so as to allow this state of affairs to continue is acting immorally.

    You seem to be imputing a callous lack of concern to both me and Harris, but I think this is unwarranted. There may be issues on which we disagree but there will probably be many more on which we agree. Consequentialism is motivated fundamentally out of concern for others, and surely that’s no bad thing.

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  38. Hi labnut,
    Some good stories there!

    I think we’re talking at cross purposes slightly. In my view, the Traffic Chief was not being a good consequentialist because the consequences of his actions would be to reduce traffic safety. True consequentialism demands that we implement traffic safety laws. I don’t see this as deontology guiding consequentialism, I see it as deriving a heuristic deontology from what is ultimately consequentialist morality (so consequentialism guiding deontology).

    The story of the extra-marital affair is a more interesting example. I would say that if no harm was being done, and if you truly knew that no harm would be done, you were indeed not acting immorally (though not especially admirably either).

    But those are big ifs. Given human psychology, it is doubtful whether one can engage in such behaviour with no consequences. It lessens the bond you have with your wife, it leads to guilt, it invites the risk of disaster, etc. Even if you are not caught on this occasion, engaging in similar behaviour in future means that you will probably be caught at some point, potentially causing immense harm.

    In light of this understanding, it is prudent to adopt the fidelity virtue as a heuristic. So again, I see this as deriving virtues from consequentialism. Consequentialism guides virtues and not vice-versa.

    In short, nobody said consequentialism was easy. It’s often impossible to know the consequences. But the picture you paint of consequentialism is too naive, not considering consequences realistically. The ideal consequentialist really does understand the consequences of her actions and behaves accordingly. Since this ideal is usually impossible, we adopt deontological and virtue ethical heuristics, but it’s all consequentialism at a fundamental level.

    At least that’s how I think of morality. I am not a moral realist so I don’t claim that this is the only valid view. It’s just the one I find most defensible.

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  39. Disagreeable Me,

    “values come out of the consequentialist concern for well-being”

    From my perspective, this is cart before horse talk. I had always assumed that people have their values as a consequence of their lived experience, then at some point they look up which -ism corresponds to their set of values . You seem to be suggesting that Harris does it the other way around, he says, “I want to be a consequentialist, therefore I need to have this, this and this value.” I don’t understand how a person can impose on themselves core values that are not consequent on their lived experience. I am the life I have lived, I have been moulded by the things I have seen and done and by the things done to me by others. If I were to pretend I had other values, that I believed things my lived experience contradicts, that would be denying the validity of my life. I would essentially be lying to myself about my whole life. I couldn’t do that and it would never have occurred to me that other people would.

    “So, do you have any values which do not promote well-being?”

    This couldn’t make less sense to me if you had written it in Serbo-Croat. My values don’t promote anything, they just are. My sense of honesty compels me to tell the truth. Even if that truth hurts me I must still tell the truth. So my value does not, “promote well being,” all the time unless you define, “well being,” as the knowledge I did the right thing. I once got the sack for telling the truth. The man said something that wasn’t true and I pointed out that it wasn’t true, and he asked me to apologise. I said, “it doesn’t work like that, you can’t tell lies and then assume the moral high ground,” so he sacked me. My values did not promote well being then, did they? But they are my values and although I was out of work for nine months and suffered in many ways because of it I would still do the same thing again today. In a film once Bill Pullman was playing the president of the United States and he said, “a principle is something to stand by, not hide behind,” and I believe that to be the case, even when it makes you a target, in fact especially when it makes you a target. It is things like this that make me suspect that morality and well being might not be as closely related as Harris supposes.

    “If so, Harris would say you are wrong.”

    I would never say someone was wrong. Because you are the life you have lived, and do not get to choose the lessons you learn from what happens to you in life, the values you have represent the life you have lived rather than any conscious choices you made. If every time you stick your hand out it gets smacked you soon learn not to do that and it makes no sense for me to tell you that you are wrong to have learned that lesson. Just because we disagree does not mean either of us is necessarily wrong. There are things that are illegal, and there are things I think are immoral, but that we have bank robbers suggests that not everyone feels the same way I do. In this view, prison is not a way of telling you that you are wrong to have learned the lessons you have acquired so far in life, it is an opportunity for you to learn a different lesson.

    “Then you are accusing me of being a uniquely ignorant person. I would say that all of us have some idea what makes other people happy.”

    It has nothing to do with how clever, or intelligent you are, and I am not accusing you of anything. It has nothing to do with whether X makes people happier than Y. It has nothing to do with whatever most people would think about X versus Y. It is about whether it is proper for you to be making that determination on behalf of other people. It is not the choice you make that I object to, it is that you choose.

    On the assumption that morality equates to greater well being, the Harris program seeks to institute a set of values that promotes greater well being. To do this they have to choose what represents, “greater well being,” for society. And I deny that neither you, nor Harris, nor anyone else has the right, or the authority, or the insight, or whatever else it takes, to make that determination on behalf of everyone else. To me, that sounds positively Orwellian.

    I suggested: “All you are doing is taking your value system and using it to assess the lives of other people.”
    And you replied: “Absolutely not.”

    Well, let’s review your previous sentence: “anyone who thinks that slavery is as conducive to happiness as freedom is either ignorant or a fraud.”

    You are so utterly convinced that you are right that anyone who disagrees with you is, “ignorant or a fraud.” Bearing in mind that we are talking about a totally subjective opinion here, the real position is that anyone who doesn’t share your view just happens to have a different opinion, but you want to insist that they must be, “ignorant or a fraud.” Anyone so certain that his subjective opinion is the only possible correct answer is usually considered to be pretty dangerous. That you want to use this certainty to tell other people what is or is not moral behaviour strikes me as borderline excessive.

    “The whole point of Harris’s framework is not to assume any value system at all…”

    Really? Then how do you determine that slavery is not conducive to happiness, without a value system? If you haven’t got any values, but are going to derive them from the morality you end up with, how exactly are you working out what constitutes well being? Where do you get your notion of morality from? Are you divining this from tea leaves, smoking banana skins or casting them chicken bones? Or do you, as I have maintained all along, have a value system of your own?

    If you don’t have a value system then chopping babies heads off is equally as conducive to well being as weaving rush baskets and baking muffins. If you have no values of your own then how do you work out who these ignorant frauds are who disagreed with you? How do you even know they disagreed with you, without values? If you don’t have a value system, why are you even bothering to promote something, “better”? If you genuinely have no value system of your own, then poking sharp sticks in your eyes is as good as it gets and you don’t even have a notion that, “better,” might exist. Without a pre-existing value system, there is no Harris program.

    Harris has to start with his value system. He determines what, “well being,” is based on his value system. The morality he comes up with is the one that promotes his idea of, “well being.” Once he has wound up the toy he lets it go and it runs of its own accord but the start position can only be determined by Harris’ own value system.

    The only other option I can think of, is if you assume an objective morality to start with. If there is an objective morality then it isn’t Harris personal value system, but the objective morality that determines the start position. But, if you already have an objective morality then Harris program is irrelevant. Which is what I said at the beginning of this conversation, but you didn’t seem to get it. Maybe now you do.

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  40. Hi bonsaimartin,

    As with flourishing, it seems to me that we may have different interpretations of a few terms.

    It seems to me that you may be interpreting “values” as what you enjoy, or find beautiful or pleasing. This is not what is intended by Harris or me, or by most moral philosophy. Values are beliefs about which actions are moral and which are immoral.

    Well-being is a bit fuzzy but loosely means happiness, contentment and so on. There may not be 100% agreement on all the details about well-being (especially the contrast between short-term euphoria and long-term fulfilment) but there is enough broad agreement among humans to agree the difference between what it feels like to be happy and what it feels like to be miserable. We want as many people to experience something like the former and as few as possible to experience the latter. That’s all. It’s not about telling people what to do, it’s about enabling people to find their own happiness. You seem to think that Harris aims to discover what is the most enjoyable pass-time and then decree that everybody do that. This is nothing like what he has in mind.

    “If I were to pretend I had other values”

    This is where I wonder if you interpret “values” differently. I do think it’s possible to adopt different values just as it is possible to adopt new factual beliefs. I find myself increasingly well-disposed towards vegetarianism/veganism not because of any experience I’ve had but because of evidence and rational arguments I have considered. Similar arguments have changed my mind about a number of other issues.

    “My sense of honesty compels me to tell the truth.”

    Honesty is arguably a value that promotes well-being. Recall that Harris is not concerned about personal well-being so much as well-being for all, and a society of scrupulously honest people would perhaps be better off than a society of cheats and liars. Harris has actually written a short book advocating honesty so I think you will find his values accord with yours in this case.

    “It is things like this that make me suspect that morality and well being might not be as closely related as Harris supposes.”

    Again, I think you misunderstand Harris. He is not saying that values are that which makes you feel better. Harris’s values, his principles, are those that promote well-being for all. These include self-sacrifice and altruism. It’s hard to think of a more noble position than this, in my view.

    “I would never say someone was wrong.”

    I wouldn’t either, on the subject of morality at least. But if we adopt Harris’s premise that morality is about aggregate well-being, then does it indeed become sensible to talk about right or wrong. I say this just to try to explain what Harris means.

    “It is not the choice you make that I object to, it is that you choose.”

    What kinds of choices are you talking about? That I would abolish slavery? Because those are the kinds of choices consequentialism entails, not forcing you to go skiing or whatever else you have in mind. And how can you object that I choose for all while simultaneously refusing to condemn slavery?

    We make decisions all the time. We can’t help it. Even inaction is making a decision. Consequentialism is a reference framework to help guide these decisions.

    I think you’ve got the wrong picture of Harris’s morality. If he was omniscient and omnipotent, I don’t think he’d be telling people what to do all the time, because he knows that freedom and personal choice is important for well-being. The kind of values he would be espousing would be stuff like: don’t be cruel or violent, don’t restrict the freedoms of others, be tolerant of others different from you, give equal opportunities to all. That kind of thing.

    ” To do this they have to choose what represents, “greater well being,” for society.”

    I agree that this is a problem. But even without a rigorous definition it’s still possible to distinguish between clear cases. Whatever well-being is, slavery doesn’t help it. Freedom does.

    “Anyone so certain that his subjective opinion is the only possible correct answer is usually considered to be pretty dangerous.”

    Anyone who is willing to entertain the idea that slavery is a good idea is also usually considered to be pretty dangerous. Are you seriously telling me that you think that it might be nice to be a slave? Because that seems to be what you’re saying.

    “Then how do you determine that slavery is not conducive to happiness, without a value system?”

    Because the evidence is that it is not conducive to well-being, from the testimony of slaves and, frankly, from common sense. Seeking to maximise well-being is a basic moral assumption, not much of a value system. But if you want to call that a value system then in that sense and that sense only Harris bases his morality on a value system. But he then derives his other values (an actual value system) from this.

    “how exactly are you working out what constitutes well being?”

    Are you saying it is impossible to recognise happiness and contentment without a value system? If so, that’s a new one on me.

    “If you genuinely have no value system of your own, then poking sharp sticks in your eyes is as good as it gets and you don’t even have a notion that, “better,” might exist.”

    I would not consider the experience of personal pain or pleasure to have much to do with a value system. Again, this is where it seems we are talking at cross-purposes. To me, a value system simply means beliefs about what actions are moral and which are immoral. I think animals experience pleasure and pain but I don’t think they have a value system (maybe social animals do to a limited extent).

    “The only other option I can think of, is if you assume an objective morality to start with.”

    That’s not really Harris’s assumption. He asserts that morality is about well-being and he doesn’t derive this from some other objective moral system, and then identifies objective morality with the system he has established.

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