The Moral Landscape: a critical review

Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape continues a pattern I’ve noted in the last two books of his I’ve read, Letter To A Christian Nation and The End Of Faith (my review here). Harris is a very capable thinker and a fearless, lucid, forceful writer; at his best, he’s the most accessible of the group he calls the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christoper Hitchens and himself). I generally find myself in strong agreement with the general thrust of his arguments – and yet, I find he sometimes fails to ground them properly or follow them through completely.

So it is again in this book; the flaws are minor, comparatively speaking, but more than the partisans of rationality can afford in putting forward a case both so important and so certain to be met with stubborn denial.

Harris’s main point is sound and soundly expressed. What he’s contending against is the notion, long since solidified into a kind of dogma among most Western intellectuals, that normative moral claims can never be derived from the sorts of facts accessible to science – in Hume’s phrasing, you can never turn an “is” into an “ought”. As he did in The End of Faith Harris argues, both correctly and persuasively, that this dogma reduces a lot of otherwise intelligent people to uttering astonishing nonsense (cue Stephen J. Gould babbling about “non-overlapping magisteria”), and that it concedes far too much ground to religions and other peddlers of irrationalism. But in this book Harris goes further and tries to develop a positive account of how science can inform debates about morality.

The part of the book that’s demolition is nearly flawless. Harris is particularly eloquent in arguing that thinkers who hold forth the lack of universal agreement about moral claims as evidence for moral relativism are applying a double standard. When people disagree about scientific claims, we do not interpret this as evidence that there are no scientifically accessible universals, we take it to mean that some of the disputing parties are objectively wrong. Harris asks, quite properly, why supposedly intelligent people dismiss the possibility that one can be objectively wrong about moral claims as well.

Harris then goes on to argue that moral claims must of necessity be about the well-being of human beings (and, potentially, other sorts of experiencing beings as well). Well-being is a measure that can be studied by objective means in spite of our lack of a completely generative understanding of well-being (he compares this to the concept of “health”, for which the corresponding claim is universally accepted). Moral claims can be viewed as testable hypotheses about what sorts of behavior will increase well-being, and thus studied consequentially and scientifically.

So far this is all excellent stuff, but it is after this point that Harris’s argument starts to lose some of the compelling force he could and should have given it. The problem isn’t that he’s wrong, it’s that he fails to cover his flanks against some rather obvious spoiling attacks. Yes, if you’re going to make a case for objective moral truth without just handwaving about the mind of God there is nowhere else to land other than on some form of consequentialism and utilitarianism – but having done that, failing to meet the classic attacks on utilitarianism head-on is just begging to be rubbished by a triumphant religious apologist. Nobody is going to finish this book believing that Sam Harris would torture one child to death to bring about the Millennium…but since Harris halfway acknowledges that difficulty without ever actually making a tight consequentialist case against such atrocities, his whole argument is weakened.

It’s not like covering that flank would have been difficult, even. All Harris had to do was point out that the means of human action shape its ends – a world in which people torture children to death in order to bring about paradise is one in which “paradise” is very likely to be a hideous charnel house. But he never does this; instead his talk of “increased well-being” becomes abstract and disconnected at exactly the points where it has the strongest criticisms to answer. He leaves openings to attack his utilitarianism that he didn’t have to.

There are other curious lapses. When Harris says on page 109 that “The urge for retribution, therefore, seems to depend on our not seeing the underlying causes of human behavior,” I felt gobsmacked. How can Harris have missed the justification of retribution as a forward signal to potential wrongdoers in the future? In this account it doesn’t matter whether or not we ascribe intention to those we punish, because the purpose is to deter others in similar circumstances to the retributee from doing the wrong thing.

Similarly, on page 111: “Clearly, a full account of the causes of human behavior should undermine our natural response to injustice.” Huh? Supposing we have a “natural” response to injustice, it’s going be “natural” because it’s shaped by two million years of successful adaptation to living with other hominids. That’s a lot of field-testing. While it’s certainly possible in principle that our “natural response to injustice” has wandered into a maladaptive cul-de-sac and gotten stuck, that’s not a bet I’d care to cover and it’s a claim Harris badly needs to justify rather than leave hanging as a big fat target.

The problem here seems to be that Harris has an emotional aversion to the idea of punishment which he allows to cloud his thinking. Conservatives will land on him with both feet about this, and they’ll be right to do so even though the conservative attitude that willingness to inflict punishment is a mark of virtue doesn’t stand close examination very well either. It is worthy that Harris is trying to be rational on all levels, but to be fully convincing he needs to examine his own premises a bit more closely than he sometimes does.

In a different sort of error, Harris’s attachments sometimes prevent him from following his own insights as far as he ought. He writes on page 5 “Multiculturalism, moral relativism, political correctness, tolerance even of intolerance–these are the familiar consequences of separating facts and values on the left.” He develops the theme that these consequences create a moral vacuum to be filled by zealots, or by tyrants operating from an amoral will to power. He notes correctly that this a deep sickness that may yet prevent us from coping with Islamic fascism, unless we can cure ourselves of it. But because he has the emotional commitments of a left-liberal, he doesn’t take the last step to recognizing that the same large portions of the western Left that sided with Communism during the Cold War years are pushing these toxic ideas precisely because they have enlisted on the side of today’s enemies of Western civilization.

There are also odd minor factual glitches that make Harris look bad. He tosses out “some people will die if they eat peanuts, for instance” – but it’s actually material to his analogy that what’s toxic is a fungus that lives on the nuts, not the peanuts themselves. That’s exactly the kind of pertinent fact about well-being that he asserts is the proper basis for argument! (UPDATE: Harris may have this right after all. I had read that what had been mistaken for allergic anaphylaxis is actually aflatoxin poisoning, but have been unable to verify this or recover my source.)

Harris is on much sounder footing when he responds (page 173 and following) to criticism of himself and the other New Atheists for daring to take the anti-scientific claims of religion seriously in public. When he points out that prominent American secularists tend to suffer from both moral cowardice and a deeply condescending attitude towards the reasoning capacity of the average American, he is dead on target.

But that indictment, justified though it is, also exemplifies a structural problem with the book. In particular, Harris spends more time and verbiage on this particular topic than he ought, creating some appearance (I think a false one) that he’s more interested in the dispute than the underlying issues. In general, the book seems too long and too digressive – both prose and ideas have a tendency to sprawl. A leaner, more disciplined presentation would have served Harris’s purposes better.

Still, despite these minor problems, this is very much a book worth reading. It is too bad that, as with The End Of Faith, those who need its instruction most badly are the least likely to read it.

176 thoughts on “The Moral Landscape: a critical review

  1. I’ve been looking forward to this post, since I’m one of those who generally holds that science can’t make authoritative moral claims, and I’m interested to see what a really rigorous counterargument looks like. I hope to read the book at some point, provided that I can actually get through the pile of other books that are sitting around waiting for me to read them. But this statement gives me pause:

    Harris then goes on to argue that moral claims must of necessity be about the well-being of human beings

    This is begging the question, isn’t it? One of the core problems of moral argument is that people differ in their conceptions of what morality is for, whether it’s preparing your soul for heaven, or caring for the entire ecosystem (welfare of individual humans be damned), or caring for the well-being of people as Harris argues. If you’re going to construct an empirical morality, it’s rather disheartening to have to begin with a non-empirical, a priori assertion like this.

  2. Sam Harris’ approach is wrong, but for the same reason the traditional “non overlapping magesteria” is wrong also.

    Namely, just because one might accept that normative criteria are subjective, or indeed chosen by the holder, that does not in any way imply moral relativity. There is no logical contradiction involved in saying on the one hand, “all moral theories are in some sense arbitrary, subjective and chosen by the holder” and “I have the right to apply my moral views to you”.

    * From my point of view, I can apply my moral views to you because my moral views say it is right for me to do so.

    * From your point of view, you can apply your moral views to me because your moral views say it is right for you to do so.

    No contradiction. The notion that moral views are subjective does not imply any moral relativism, it refutes it. I might consider you absolutely dispicable, and you me, without any logical contradiction at all.

    The difficulty – the *apparrent* difficulty – arises because moral philosophy is looking for the impossible, an argument that would logically *compel assent* to a moral theory. But, *even if a correct philosophy could be found and be proved to be correct*, it wouldn’t end, or even advance, the argument.

    It’s really about the continuous, practical business of rubbing along together. We can do that without having a shared moral sense. A universal moral theory is neither necessary, nor sufficient. Nor available.

  3. >This is begging the question, isn’t it?

    Harris does a good job of arguing that it isn’t. For example, “preparing your soul for heaven” simply extends the calculation of well-being to include your well being in the afterlife you believe is coming.

  4. What limit is there to punishment based on deterrence? I wouldn’t assent to the whipping of, for example, a thief, even if it reduced the incidence of theft. Retribution, as bankrupt as it is as a rationale for punishment, at least has the advantage of prescribing limits.

  5. The question about the morals of “torturing a child to bring about paradise” is the moral equivalent to “this sentence is a lie”. It is a paradox about the choice between two moral choices. I think these two paradoxes must be solved in the same way.

    The paradox “this sentence is a lie” (from the classical Greek “Epimenides the Cretan says, ‘that all the Cretans are liars,’”) can only be solved by understanding that an expression about logic is meta-logic, that is, on a different level. Mixing levels of description generally goes wrong.

    Wrt moral choices, you cannot use the same criteria on a moral choice of action, eg, whether or not bringing on paradise or torturing a person, onto the morals of moral choices. For instance, a moral choice should never be utilitarian. However, a moral choice between two moral choices (eg, should I throw someone off the balloon to save the passengers) will likely involve utilitarian motives like less deaths.

    We also know the “instinctive solution” to this dilemma: To rather choose inaction than action when such a choice presents itself. So maybe an argument can be made that the “natural” choice would be the choice of the least action. But there will always be a suspicion that the better choice would be an utilitarian (least suffering) or and absolute one (“do no evil”).

    In all cases, the principles of choosing between (im)moral actions will never be the same as whether or not an action is moral.

    Note that the Atheist moral view is called Humanist in Europe. Both take the human individual as the center of morals.

    And those with a peanut protein allergy will die when eating peanuts. No fungus needed.

  6. >What limit is there to punishment based on deterrence?

    The obvious one. Escalation of force is wrong; thus, if we seek to deter with punishment that is disproportionate to the crime, we commit a crime.

  7. “The problem here seems to be that Harris has an emotional aversion to the idea of punishment which he allows to cloud his thinking. Conservatives will land on him with both feet about this, and they’ll be right to do so even though the conservative attitude that willingness to inflict punishment is a mark of virtue doesn’t stand close examination very well either.”

    In game theoretic research, punishment seems to be part of protection. The willingness to punish those who transgress the norms is equivalent to protect the group from outsiders.

    And just as there is a line between protection and aggression against those outside the group, there is a line between punishment and coercion or human sacrifice (herretic and witch burning was deemed necessary to placate god).

  8. Operational ought is formed as if-then rules; “Do this, if you want that to happen.”

    Ronald Merrill in The Ideas of Ayn Rand drew an analogy with Maxwell’s unification of electricity and magnetism, suggesting that “normative ought” and “operational ought” also should be unified and mostly the same idea, just expressed differently.

    Thinking about it further, I think they are the same idea, but with an unspoken (or hidden) “reason” for normative ought. And that supplying the reason will tell you more about what the speaker believes than it would about the real world.

  9. There’s one other detrimental aspect of Harris’s leftism: it will confirm religious conservatives’ bias against him. They won’t read his book precisely because of the leftist leanings, which will confirm their belief that atheism must necessarily lead to leftism.

  10. >Escalation of force is wrong; thus, if we seek to deter with punishment that is disproportionate to the crime, we commit a crime.

    Except that without perfect detection you must punish those criminals actually apprehended more harshly than they benefited from harming others or punishment loses its deterrence value. Punishment times the likelihood of being caught has to be greater than the benefit of the criminal act or the punishment is wasted.

  11. @William B Swift
    “Punishment times the likelihood of being caught has to be greater than the benefit of the criminal act or the punishment is wasted.”

    So punishment is harm inflicted for utilitarian reasons? Which makes for a moral system based on utilitarianism. But is that the moral system you want?

    The moral choice would be to step up detection to reduce punishment.

  12. * From my point of view, I can apply my moral views to you because my moral views say it is right for me to do so.

    * From your point of view, you can apply your moral views to me because your moral views say it is right for you to do so.

    The problem with that is that it presents no framework for resolving opposing moral positions. There are various such frameworks, and you can elect to choose on a pragmatic basis, rather than a moral one, but you don’t get to duck the whole question.

    moral philosophy is looking for the impossible, an argument that would logically *compel assent* to a moral theory.

    No, moral philosophy is looking to *justify compulsion* All moral philosophies, even the most libertarian/anarchist ones, ultimately involve compelling people to do things they believe to be wrong, or to refrain from doing things they believe to be right (and most make both such compulsions necessary). The problem is that it is definitionally impossible for everyone to do what they believe to be right, thus someone must be forced to do what they believe to be wrong.

    Take punishment as an example. If I believe that I have the moral obligation to kill someone, and I do, then punishing me for that murder is, from the framework of my morality, wrong. From most other people’s frameworks, it isn’t. Except, of course, when we do accept the moral obligation to kill, as, for example, with executioners.

    But suppose I took an extreme view that executioners are murderers, should be held in prison for life, and started kidnapping them…

    It’s really about the continuous, practical business of rubbing along together. We can do that without having a shared moral sense. A universal moral theory is neither necessary, nor sufficient. Nor available.

    Morality is about the times when rubbing along together fails. As is politics. That’s why they tend to result in arguments.

  13. Except that without perfect detection you must punish those criminals actually apprehended more harshly than they benefited from harming others or punishment loses its deterrence value. Punishment times the likelihood of being caught has to be greater than the benefit of the criminal act or the punishment is wasted.

    Fortunately, crimes generally benefit the perpetrator much less than they harm the victim – if they were positive-sum games, then the “perpetrator” could compensate the “victim” for their “harm” and they would not be crimes. So the punishment can equal the harm while still exceeding the benefit.

  14. @esr

    As you say and have said in the past, the best a materialistic frame can produce is some flavor of utilitarianism. Since we’re in the business here of forming logical arguments, utilitarianism has been poked full of logical holes by minds greater than mine, the ‘utility monster’ thought experiment being the most well-known, thought I can come up with other, simpler ones on my own. Are we to argue that a non-theistic, universal morality/ethic is some how emergent, like it now appears gravity is (careful: link is directly to a PDF)? That still suggests a source; gravity arises as a necessary consequence of the presence of matter. Morality/ethics arise as a consequence of….what? What is the source of the corresponding objective truth? The theist will argue that source is God, in his role as Creator. Perhaps because of my education and upbringing, I can envision no other objective source.

    Or maybe the author of Ecclesiastes is right: all is vanity.

  15. Morality/ethics arise as a consequence of….what? What is the source of the corresponding objective truth? The theist will argue that source is God, in his role as Creator. Perhaps because of my education and upbringing, I can envision no other objective source.

    This is the classic theist argument that atheists are necessarily immoral. As an atheist, I reject it, simply because there is no God to provide the objective truth sought.

    I would argue that the principle Christians know as the Golden Rule is the axiom upon which the entire theory is based. I don’t think it needs to be handed down form on high, either; it is common to pretty much every religion out there, which argues for tis truthfulness to us as a species.

  16. However, having said that, Robert Heinlein argues in Starship Troopers that a scientific theory of morals must be based solely on maximizing the survival of the human race and nowhere else. I don’t see that as inconsistent with the Golden Rule, but it’s another perspective to look from.

  17. Brian Scott,

    I wouldn’t assent to the whipping of, for example, a thief, even if it reduced the incidence of theft.

    Why not? How is whipping worse than incarceration for long periods, which exposes inmates to a world of incredible cruelty and permanently damages their chances to live a good life by disrupting their existing social relationships and forcing them to acculturate to the criminal society of prisoners?

    You are taking your personal prejudices and assuming that they are moral universals. I, on the other hand, would like to see more corporal punishment as a substitute for incarceration.

    This is relevant to the discussion at hand, because it can be incredibly dangerous to reason out a morality based on “human well-being” if you have a poorly specified model of what well-being consists of.

    For example, research has consistently shown that people are happier and thrive more in their lives if they have a wide circle of friends with positive attitudes. Perhaps then a “proper” morality should compel us to have a minimum number of friendships? (This is, in fact, one side effect of organized religions’ practices of communal worship.)

  18. @matt minton
    All people have morals like all people have language.

    Making up your own morals is like making up your own language. Other people will quickly make you abandon your project.

    A major falsehood of religions is to tell us they have created the morals, while all they did is corrupt existing morals.

  19. Harris then goes on to argue that moral claims must of necessity be about the well-being of human beings

    Is that so? Beings in the plural? Sounds like a postulate to me, which is just someone playing god. I think one can explain morality using science, but I don’t think one can derive it without some assumptions. Hume is not a thinker so easily disposed of.

  20. Mastiff,

    Whether it’s crueler to whip a person or incarcerate them is up to the individual criminal’s constitution and the actual condition of the prison. That being said, your point is taken. However, my view is that punishment should be mainly restitutive and secondarily incapacitive.

    Pain compliance is a vicious tool. It’s why I don’t approve of its use at all in any after-the-fact punishing capacity.

  21. @Jay Maynard:

    However, having said that, Robert Heinlein argues in Starship Troopers that a scientific theory of morals must be based solely on maximizing the survival of the human race and nowhere else. I don’t see that as inconsistent with the Golden Rule, but it’s another perspective to look from.

    Well, if we’re going to use maximizing the survival of the human race as our yardstick, then then we should probably start by making it okay to kill off everyone with defective genes. That would include the weak, the very stupid, the mentally retarded, and others born with severe congenital disability or otherwise have an inability to produce genetically perfect children.

    I’ll start writing up the plan immediately. I think I call it “The Final Solution.”

    (tongue firmly planted in cheek)

  22. > but since Harris halfway acknowledges that difficulty without ever actually making a tight consequentialist case against such atrocities, his whole argument is weakened.

    Yes, he does talk about this a little bit at the end of his debate on moral ontology with William Lane Craig. He says something to the effect of “If we killed healthy people and took their organs to give to unhealthy people, that would undermine faith in doctors and hospitals and lower well-being.” I recommend taking a look at it, if only to give the apologists their best showing.

    > If you’re going to construct an empirical morality, it’s rather disheartening to have to begin with a non-empirical, a priori assertion like this.

    This is no more a problem for an objective morality than it is for any other system of thought. As Harris has noted, if a person steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that logical statements tied to empirical reality are a good way of arguing, then there is nothing within logic or empiricism that will convince them. All the evidence in the world, all the tightly reasoned arguing could be dismissed as begging the question for evidence and reason. This move on the part of an interlocutor has the effect of dismissing them from the conversation; you don’t have to sit and argue with patently unreasonable people. However, it is true that every philosophical system, including science, rest on certain a priori assumptions that cannot themselves be justified empirically. Unless you want to afford Greek myth and modern medicine an equal intellectual standing, then you can’t fault Sam’s moral system for being based on an a priori statement.

    >Namely, just because one might accept that normative criteria are subjective, or indeed chosen by the holder, that does not in any way imply moral relativity.

    Huh? Yes, it clearly does. We may disagree on something objective for subjective reasons, sure. For example, you and I could disagree on the particulars of how to play chess because I like the way the pawns look after a certain opening and you value your bishops over your knights. These are aesthetic judgements. But the checkmate will determine, objectively, who was right and wrong. Harris basically wants to make moral truths like a checkmate; there are many ways to get to the destination, but there is in fact a destination and some ways are in fact better than others.

    >A universal moral theory is neither necessary, nor sufficient. Nor available.

    It is necessary for the same reason that a unified theory of science is necessary. More scientific knowledge allows us to manipulate our world better, more moral knowledge tells us how to live to maximize our own and other’s well-being. Whether it is available or not is of course up for debate, but I’m sympathetic to Harris’s attempts to demonstrate that it is.

    >That still suggests a source; gravity arises as a necessary consequence of the presence of matter. Morality/ethics arise as a consequence of….what?

    The capacity of a conscious thing to suffer or be happy. Notions of morality don’t make sense in any other context. Noting that morality is emergent doesn’t diminish it’s potential status as an objective domain of knowledge. I assume that we can agree that biochemistry is an objective science. But, had complex molecules failed to assemble out of the primordial ooze 4 billion years ago, there would be nothing to know about biochemistry; it wouldn’t exist as a science. Likewise, in a universe populated by rocks, there would be no objective morals, because there would be nothing to suffer or experience happiness. It’s emergent and contingent, but still potentially objective.

  23. @Morgan Greywolf:

    Well, if we’re going to use maximizing the survival of the human race as our yardstick, then then we should probably start by making it okay to kill off everyone with defective genes.

    Mother nature took care of that before vaccinations. Modern medicine has degraded our gene pool :(

  24. >Escalation of force is wrong.

    I disagree. I would think it appropriate to use lethal force against a criminal initiating non-lethal violent force (e.g. shooting a rapist).

  25. One of the problems that all attempts of thoroughly-rigorous, rational and logical systems of ethics and politics is that they tend to fall into categories where you need value-judgments to be made, valuing one thing over another.

    Value judgments are frequently based on individual preferences. As a less contentious and slightly off-topic example, ask top interior decorators for a color palate for a particular room in your house. All options might indeed be pleasing to most, if not all, people, but it is highly unlikely that they will all be the same configuration. Performing risky and/or painful medical experiments on prisoners sentenced to die is a good one. They’re going to die anyways, so at least their lives might be used to improve the whole of humanity going forward. Wait? That’s unethical? What part of science says that this is bad? Any psych trauma is going to be in someone about to die, anyways, so it isn’t like there’s a waste.

  26. @Trent Fowler

    >A universal moral theory is neither necessary, nor sufficient. Nor available.

    It is necessary for the same reason that a unified theory of science is necessary. More scientific knowledge allows us to manipulate our world better, more moral knowledge tells us how to live to maximize our own and other’s well-being. Whether it is available or not is of course up for debate, but I’m sympathetic to Harris’s attempts to demonstrate that it is.

    Ah, but there is no “unified theory of science”. There is “Materialism”, which states that everything real is based on states of “matter” (where matter should be taken in its QCD Field meaning). All the rest in science is procedure. And then everything diverges.

    The only “objective” principle of humanistic/atheistic ethics/morals would be that ethics deals with the interaction between people. Robinson Crusoe alone on his island cannot act immorally.

    But there is no unified moral theory that covers all of stock markets, mother-child relations, education, health care, soldiers, law enforcement, and lovers in one go. And it could be argued that any such a theory, when put into words, would necessarily be immoral and cruel.

    And anyone who claims to know what is best for humanity is living under a delusion of grandeur. No one knows what is best for “humanity”. And what I know of Humanism, says that harming an individual for the benefit of a groups is immoral.

  27. “Morality/ethics arise as a consequence of….what? What is the source of the corresponding objective truth? The theist will argue that source is God, in his role as Creator. Perhaps because of my education and upbringing, I can envision no other objective source.”

    Yes, C. S. Lewis used that argument – our moral feelings are God speaking to us.

    Male wolves will fight for dominance of their pack. It has been observed that when one wolf shows that it is clearly stronger than the other, the weaker one will offer his throat to the stronger in a submissive gesture. The stronger will then back off and let him go. You can see the origin of ‘mercy’ in this. Our moral feelings at least got started as a result of biological processes.

    Don’t thank the philosophers…thank Charles Darwin.

  28. And what I know of Humanism, says that harming an individual for the benefit of a groups is immoral.

    You mean like shooting an armed bank robber, with clear/demonstrated intent to kill anyone who gets in his way, to save the hostages in the bank?

  29. @LS

    Male wolves will fight for dominance of their pack. It has been observed that when one wolf shows that it is clearly stronger than the other, the weaker one will offer his throat to the stronger in a submissive gesture. The stronger will then back off and let him go. You can see the origin of ‘mercy’ in this. Our moral feelings at least got started as a result of biological processes.

    Our moral feelings, only 30 thousand years ago, did not prevent us from encroaching up (and ultimately vanquishing) neanderthal territory in Europe.
    Perhaps at that time, our moral feelings weren’t as developed as those of wolves !

  30. >I disagree. I would think it appropriate to use lethal force against a criminal initiating non-lethal violent force (e.g. shooting a rapist).

    You’re changing the subject. Shooting a rapist in self-defense is different from punishing a rapist with death when he no longer poses a prompt threat.

  31. “You mean like shooting an armed bank robber, with clear/demonstrated intent to kill anyone who gets in his way, to save the hostages in the bank?”

    (Self) defense and torturing children are not on the same moral level.

  32. An interesting discussion. Someone higher on this board mentioned a certain Ayn Rand. Now, what she did, with her reformulation of Aristotle’s basic philosophy, was to bridge the “is-ought” divide and answer the question, to my mind fairly convincingly, as to how one can derive normative ought statements from the facts of reality.

    She did this in a way that meets the problems that Eric identifies with Sam Harris: she asked the question as to what are morals for. Morals are not intrinsic or something we just know “somehow”; nor can they be decided by some sort of majoritarian vote on general utility, or whatever. Morals are what purposeful, life-achieving beings need to live by in order to live and flourish. Even if we were isolated on a planet or desert island, we’d need to be moral. This can be demonstrated, if not with the precision of a scientific controlled experiment, then certainly by a lot of intelligent introspection and evidence.

    Think about it: what the Greeks, and Rand, and others have figured out is that the virtuous life and the happy one can be one and the same process; to make that happen, we need virtues and rules of behaviour: rationality, productiveness, justice, integrity, honesty, etc.

    If the New Atheists like Harris and Hitchens and the rest want to put real philosophical backbone into their position, they need to deal with these issues.

    I recommend this essay by Greg Perkins. http://blog.dianahsieh.com/2008/06/why-new-atheists-cant-even-beat-dsouza.shtml

  33. Uma
    >Our moral feelings, only 30 thousand years ago, did not prevent us from encroaching up (and ultimately vanquishing) neanderthal territory in Europe.
    Perhaps at that time, our moral feelings weren’t as developed as those of wolves !

    You’re talking about two different subjects.
    The male wolf who let the submissive male live just made himself the leader of a larger pack (larger by one). I’m sure tenderness has little to do with the decision.

    I think the same wolf, and his pack, would behave very similar to the humans in Europe when face with a territorial dispute. In both cases the wolf would be acting on his and his pack’s best self interest.

  34. >Morals are what purposeful, life-achieving beings need to live by in order to live and flourish.

    Ayn Rand’s analysis is not in this respect any different from Sam Harris’s, or mine for that matter. There are other problems with it, however, notably that her confirmation theory is seriously broken. This actually doesn’t affect her ethical reasoning much, but it makes her entire system of thought easy to dismiss by those inclined to do so. Which is unfortunate.

  35. >Shooting a rapist in self-defense is different from punishing a rapist with death when he no longer poses a prompt threat.

    While I recognize the difference between the two scenarios both in quality and in purpose, I don’t understand how that defeats my point. In both cases you’re attempting to minimize the violation of rights by the deviant, in the first by immediate incapacitation and in the second by dissuading possible future deviants. The only way I can see escalation of force justified in the first scenario but not in the second is if you ascribe the first scenario as being of greater moral pertinence (which I agree with), but that merely makes escalation of force in the second scenario unnecessary, not forbidden.

  36. >Someone higher on this board mentioned a certain Ayn Rand. Now, what she did, with her reformulation of Aristotle’s basic philosophy, was to bridge the “is-ought” divide and answer the question, to my mind fairly convincingly, as to how one can derive normative ought statements from the facts of reality.

    Her arguments were often a little hand-wavy or sloppy (unfortunately, sometimes more than a little), I recommend Merrill’s book.

    My Amazon review of it:

    While the discussions of the influence of Nietzsche on Rand and the analyses of her novels are interesting, the real strength of this book is the clarification and extension of Rand’s ethics. The unification of oughts, operational ought and normative ought are the same, the replacement of Man’s Life as ultimate end with Man’s Life as ultimate means, and his clarification of the goals of ethics (as making yourself the kind of person you should be, rational, productive, and self-improving) are more than worth the price of the book.

    He points out the weaknesses and problems with Rand’s esthetic theories.

    Unfortunately, he does not do the same for Rand’s epistemology, which has always been the weakest part of her work.

    The last part of the book deals with her attempts to make a practical difference through politics and the continuing disagreements Objectivists have with libertarianism.

    The book is also extremely readable and well organized.

  37. >The only way I can see escalation of force justified in the first scenario but not in the second is if you ascribe the first scenario as being of greater moral pertinence (which I agree with), but that merely makes escalation of force in the second scenario unnecessary, not forbidden.

    No. The difference is that in the first scenario, a credible threat of death – which has to be backed up by actually killing if required – is necessary in order to prevent the crime, and is thus minimal use of force. On the other hand, when we punish the power relationship is the other way around; we want to use the minimum force required to deter rather than to prevent.

  38. >Unfortunately, he does not do the same for Rand’s epistemology, which has always been the weakest part of her work.

    Hell yeah. If Randian epistemology weren’t such utter bilge I might be a Randite myself. There’s very little wrong with her ethical criticism.

  39. LS – In Korad Lorenz’s King Solomon’s Ring he describes that behavior among wolves. He also describes doves, which peck each other bloody without stopping when locked in a cage. (They didn’t develop the same instinct to spare the losing party as wolves, because in the wild, the losing pigeon flees very early.) He mentions his own horrific experience as a medic in WWII. He ends the book with the pious hope that humans will learn to be more like wolves and less like doves.

  40. >No. The difference is that in the first scenario, a credible threat of death – which has to be backed up by actually killing if required – is necessary in order to prevent the crime, and is thus minimal use of force. On the other hand, when we punish the power relationship is the other way around; we want to use the minimum force required to deter rather than to prevent.

    OK, I think I see now. I believe I mistook what you meant by escalation of force. If I understand, it is that you don’t go beyond what is required to achieve your end, not necessarily that the force you use must be equivalent in quality and/or severity to the crime.

  41. >OK, I think I see now. I believe I mistook what you meant by escalation of force. If I understand, it is that you don’t go beyond what is required to achieve your end, not necessarily that the force you use must be equivalent in quality and/or severity to the crime.

    That’s correct, with the qualification that your end must in itself be ethically sound. Self-defense is a more important goal than forward signaling, so it justifies more counterviolence.

  42. The problem with consequentialism, as I see it, is this. A claim that doing A is good because, in a clear chain of cause and effect, it eventually brings about X sounds empirical enough, and the part about A leading to X is empirical; but the claim also assumes that X is good, and anyone who denies the goodness of X rejects the conclusion that we should do A. For example, a claim that the USA should build nuclear reactors in quantity because cheap power allows us to lead longer and healthier lives really asserts that long and healthy human lives are good, and that power from nuclear reactors will lead to that consequence. A radical Green, who thinks long and healthy human lives should be sacrificed to the biosphere in general, will oppose nuclear reactors even more strongly if he believes the empirical part of the claim. The trouble is that a debate between the radical Green and … well, normal people on whether humans exist to serve the Earth or vice versa can’t be settled by referring to empirical observation. They are wholly in agreement on every fact that can be measured; the dispute is precisely over what “well-being” is. A consequentialist, as far as I can tell, justifies the goodness of A by explaining how it leads to X; then, if challenged on the goodness of X, explains how it leads to Y; if challenged on Y, he explains how it leads to Z – and so forth in an infinite regress (until the challenger gives up and goes away.)

    Look at the example quoted – torture an innocent to create paradise on Earth. It is not, in fact, adequate for a utilitarian to answer the challenge of that example by claiming that a “paradise” built by people who condone torture would not be paradise as the ordinary man conceives it; that says only that one torture is bad because it leads to other tortures, which lead to other tortures again – the infinite regress. The obvious way to stop the regress is to say that torture of innocents is wrong per se, and reason from that to the conclusion that a society which condones it is no paradise. But … the moment you do say that, you cease to be a consequentalist; you have taken a moral position that is not justified by empirical tests. So Harris can’t say that without refuting his own thesis. But Harris also can’t say torture of innocents is wrong because it leads to X, which is wrong in itself; for whatever X he picks, its wrongness is not determined by its effects, and thus not provable by any empirical tests. So he has to say torture of innocents is wrong because it leads to X which leads to Y which leads to Z which leads to … and so on forever; or else say that it impairs “the well-being of humans” without defining exactly what that is. I gather that the last is what he does. Unfortunately that leaves his thesis hanging in mid-air.

  43. > Hell yeah. If Randian epistemology weren’t such utter bilge I might be a Randite myself. There’s very little wrong with her ethical criticism.

    When I lived in Waco I knew a (smart) Southern Baptist who was sure he could reconcile Randian philosophy with the Southern Baptist faith.

    He was thinking about writing a book on it.

    I was considerably less sure, so I did not encourage him.

    Now I wish I had. I want to know what he knew about Rand and Southern Baptist beliefs that I don’t.

    Yours,
    Tom

  44. >The trouble is that a debate between the radical Green and … well, normal people on whether humans exist to serve the Earth or vice versa can’t be settled by referring to empirical observation. They are wholly in agreement on every fact that can be measured; the dispute is precisely over what “well-being” is.

    Harris’s answer is very simple: one of the disputants is wrong about what constitutes well-being.

    There is no infinite regress here for the exact same reason there is no infinite regress in applying consequential reasoning to evaluating truth claims about more obviously physical systems. Eventually all claims have to cash out in observables.

    You should read the book before arguing this point further here. Harris’s argument doesn’t fit well in a blog comment.

  45. >I want to know what he knew about Rand and Southern Baptist beliefs that I don’t.

    I don’t have to know a lot about Southern Baptism to be sure he was kidding himself. Just a lot about Rand.

    It’s a shame she was such a sloppy, fixated thinker when she ventured outside of ethical criticism. A damn shame. The result is that the mainstream culture has thrown out the sound in her thinking along with the unsound.

  46. @ esr
    I haven’t yet read Harris (though he is now on the list). One curious point in your review struck me:

    > He tosses out “some people will die if they eat peanuts, for instance” – but it’s actually material to his analogy that what’s toxic is a fungus that lives on the nuts, not the peanuts themselves.

    Is it possible that Harris here means anaphylaxis, rather than toxic fungus? One of my three kids has severe allergies to dairy, eggs, peanuts and tree nuts. We’ve been lucky – a couple of trips to the emergency room, but so far “well managed”. However, anaphylaxis can certainly kill.

  47. >However, anaphylaxis can certainly kill.

    That’s correct. The anaphylaxis is not a reaction to the peanuts themselves, however. It’s to a class of compounds called aflatoxins secreted by a common fungus that lives on the peanuts.

  48. “Harris’s answer is very simple: one of the disputants is wrong about what constitutes well-being.

    “There is no infinite regress here for the exact same reason there is no infinite regress in applying consequential reasoning to evaluating truth claims about more obviously physical systems. Eventually all claims have to cash out in observables.”

    What “observable” could settle the dispute? Claims about physical systems are grounded in sense experiences – I believe general relativity is true because it correctly describes the relative motion of the Sun and Mercury, I believe quantum mechanics is true because it correctly describes what happens when one particle passes through one of two holes, I believe continental drift happens because fossils found in South American rocks of a certain age came from the same species as fossils found in African rocks of the same age. But the claims of a radical Green and an Objectivist are not grounded in sense experiences, on the specific points where they disagree. When Ayn Rand says “it is best for man to master himself and his environment by using reason”, and the Green says “it is best for man to submit himself to the environment and live in obedience to Gaia”, each knows very well what the results of the other’s principles would be, if carried out in practice; but what one loves, the other hates, and what one condemns, the other praises. When two people agree completely about the empirical consequences of an act, and differ only on whether it is a good act, there is not – cannot possibly be – any empirical observation that shows one to be in error. And, without that possibility, where does the regression stop?

  49. >What “observable” could settle the dispute?

    Again, please read Harris before arguing the point. I don’t think I can summarize his argument in a way that both does justice to it and will fit into a blog comment.

  50. Utilitarianism is manifestly invalid, because all conflicts arise when what is good for one person is bad for another. It is rarely practical to resolve which is the greater good, so you wind up with a supreme authority, the bureaucracy, the politburo, the judiciary, whatever, to decide what is good for everyone, with authority to sacrifice Bob for Ann, regardless of what Bob thinks about the issue. Been tried. Fails cataclysmicly for obvious reasons in obvious ways.

    Utilitarianism can only be implemented by totalitarian terror. That in practice means shape ends is itself a rebuttal of utilitarianism. We have to judge the means, and as soon as we do so, we are applying a non utilitarian standard to those means.

    How is it that we *can* judge means?

    As soon as you say “means shape ends” you are admitting a standard other than utility – admitting natural rights and natural law (law in the sense of Saint Thomas Aquinas, not law in the sense of Newton) In practice wicked means lead to wicked ends – but utilitarianism tells us that means cannot be wicked, only ends.

    Natural law (law in the sense that unlawful actions may rightly be punished’) follows from self interest and rational egoism.

    For an extensive discussion of natural law and natural rights from a sociobiological perspective, the rational egoist perspective, the evolutionary psychology perspective, see:

    Good and evil from self interest – a recap http://jim.com/constant_on_good_and_evil.htm

    A proof that moral judgments, when done correctly, are judgments of objective fact http://jim.com/moralfac.htm

    Natural Law and Natural Rights http://jim.com/rights.html

    An action X is unlawful, contrary to natural law if when Bob does X, it gives other people good reason to get rid of Bob, and Ed getting rid of Bob for doing X, does not give other people good reason to get rid of Ed.

    So Bob killing and eating wild turkeys is not contrary to natural law, since that is normal behavior for carnivores, and does not indicate he threatens me, but Bob killing and eating people is contrary to natural law, because I am people.

  51. esr,

    > I don’t have to know a lot about Southern Baptism to be sure he was kidding himself. Just a lot about Rand.

    I never knew much about Southern Baptist beliefs either, just a lot about Rand. Smart people can surprise you though. Especially when they work hard. Perhaps he was smart enough to discard everything Rand except her ethical criticism. Reconciling Randian ethical criticism with the Southern Baptist faith might work out pretty well.

    Yours,
    Tom

  52. >Utilitarianism is manifestly invalid, because all conflicts arise when what is good for one person is bad for another.

    You’re arguing against a terminological straw man, and you’re wasting everyone’s time by doing so. Harris thinks the evaluation of means fits into a utilitarian analysis and can be extended to a utility-based theory of natural rights (though he doesn’t use that language). I agree with him. There are real problems with utilitarianism, which Harris recognizes and discusses, but you have not identified any of them.

  53. > Harris’s answer is very simple: one of the disputants is wrong about what constitutes well-being.

    And how do we decide what is right about what constitutes well being? In practice, you just cannot weigh one person’s well being against another’s. You wind up with the problem of socialist planning.

    Socialists tend to believe that sleeping on straw at night, eating barley gruel in the morning, and cultivating ground with a digging stick in the other eighteen hours of the day is good for you – good for the soul.

  54. esr:
    > There are real problems with utilitarianism, which Harris recognizes and discusses, but you have not identified any of them.

    I don’t bother identifying them. It suffices to just point in their general direction. Utilitarianism has been tried. The theoretical critiques of utilitarianism were demonstrated in long and bloody experiment. To go into further detail would flog a dead horse, which would first require digging up the horse, which horse was buried over a hundred years ago, and is no longer in good shape for a flogging.

  55. @ esr
    > That’s correct. The anaphylaxis is not a reaction to the peanuts themselves, however. It’s to a class of compounds called aflatoxins secreted by a common fungus that lives on the peanuts.

    Thanks for the link. My understanding was that the allergens (such as, in the case of peanuts, Ara h1) were proteins occurring naturally in the relevant substance. I hadn’t heard of a link between aflatoxins and anaphylaxis. Do you have a cite?

  56. Morality is a cultural phenomenon. It comes into play when individuals, or groups of individuals, interact with each other.

    Setting aside the issue of the search or argument for an objective morality, one can look at this topic through the eyes of cultural evolution. The earth’s various population groupings are rife with social experiments in which moral coda of all types are put to the test. One could argue that after few more millennia of continued cultural experimentation, a moral code reflecting maximum evolutionary advantage will become as established as bicameral vision and opposable thumbs. Would this constitute an objective supremacy? Sort of boggles the mind.

  57. >Do you have a cite?

    Sadly, no. Paper source, years ago. I just tried web searches, and while I found a lot about the toxicity of aflatoxins (you get anaphylaxis from the effects on the liver) I didn’t find anywhere that asserted that this is the actual mechanism of peanut allergy. I remember that the paper article was written in a “Huh? Who’d’a thunk it?” tone, as nobody had previously had any idea that aspergilis was so widespread on peanuts that it contaminated effectively all of them.

  58. >I don’t think I can summarize his argument in a way that both does justice to it and will fit into a blog comment.

    Which is why I have been cutting back on my web reading, going back to spending more time with books. Not just comments, but blog posts and even articles are too short and hard to read in a browser for much actual learning to take place.

    @James A Donald – To a large extent I agree with your points against utilitarianism, but natural law/natural rights have at least as many and as large problems. See two little books, L A Rollins’s The Myth of Natural Rights and Robert Anton Wilson’s Natural Law … or Don’t Put a Rubber on Your Willy. The second is an defense and expansion of Rollins’s book, responding to criticisms of it from George H Smith and Samuel Konkin among others.

  59. @esr
    Ok, thanks. Might try to chase this down the next time we see the allergist.

  60. >That’s correct, with the qualification that your end must in itself be ethically sound. Self-defense is a more important goal than forward signaling, so it justifies more counterviolence.

    There’s also another part, which is related to but distinct from forward signalling: violent sexual offenders have high rates of recidivism. (I’m not sure of the numbers; I’ve seen Wikipedia suggesting that sex offenders in general have lower recidivism rates than felons in general, but that includes all kinds of technical offenses that don’t really count in this scenario. I refer here basically to violent rape, and my understanding is that rates of recidivism there are high compared to ordinary felons.) In that case, punishment can offer a forward signal to the rapist, as well as other potential rapists, against rape; but very long imprisonment and capital punishment both take the rapist out of the equation, removing someone from the population who is very statistically likely to rape someone again. The correlation becomes even higher with second offenses (someone who is arrested for rape a second time is virtually certain to keep on if release, IIRC).

    Of course, my immediate emotional reaction here is to kill them anyway, regardless. I’m not sure of the moral implications of pure retribution, but they probably aren’t good. This is why I’m glad I’m not the one making the rules for these things.

  61. >Of course, my immediate emotional reaction here is to kill them anyway, regardless.

    Given a high enough rate of recidivism in violent rapists this would be justified. I think castration would be more fitting, however.

  62. A philosophy of morals is as doomed to fail as any philosophy of science. That is to say, miserably.

  63. >A philosophy of morals is as doomed to fail as any philosophy of science. That is to say, miserably.

    Do you have any sort of justification behind this, or is it just a random troll?

  64. >Hi esr, I’d be interested in your thoughts on Ophelia Benson’s review of the book

    A commenter answers her complaint against the book well, I think, when he says “I view Harris’ arguments as being more directed at pulling the rug out from under those who support mindless religious morality, moral relativists, and bigotry.” Harris is not arrogant enough to think he can solve problems like the population paradoxes all at one go; I think his purpose is to try to shift the ground of discussion to where constructive work might begin.

  65. @BPSouther:

    I think the same wolf, and his pack, would behave very similar to the humans in Europe when face with a territorial dispute. In both cases the wolf would be acting on his and his pack’s best self interest.

    We don’t know for sure whether neanderthals in the end made themselves submissive to us or not. What we do know is that we definitely interbred with them (4% of our genes are neanderthal genes). There is more to our story with neanderthals than *just* the territorial dispute.

  66. “Given a high enough rate of recidivism in violent rapists this would be justified. I think castration would be more fitting, however.”

    Unfortuately, it wouldn’t stop them. Rape is a crime of violence. Many rapists cannot complete the sex act during their crimes, as it is.

    Castrating an adult male does NOT prevent them from having sex. The harem eunuchs of old were castrated simply to prevent pregnancy among the sultan’s wives, which could lead to illegitimate pretenders to the throne.

  67. esr:
    > In this account it doesn’t matter whether or not we ascribe intention to those we punish,
    > because the purpose is to deter others in similar circumstances to the retributee from doing the wrong thing.

    Let me tell you a story, based loosely on two real live histories, where your justification for punishment does not work, yet punishment is still justified.

    An island was ruled by a priesthood, which from time to time announced that someone was guilty of invisible magical crimes, usually crimes against the gods, and ate the offender. Supposedly, those who commit crimes against the gods, crimes that are usually invisible to the senses of ordinary mortals, must killed and eaten by the priesthood, or else the sun will not rise.

    Some members of the warrior aristocracy come to suspect that eating people is wrong, and that magical detection of crimes is unreliable, especially crimes with invisible effects and supernatural consequences. The priesthood decides that certain members of the warrior aristocracy need to be sacrificed and eaten for their quite visible and audible crimes against the gods. A battle ensues. The priesthood is defeated and imprisoned.

    The priesthood announces that unless they are immediately released, and restored to their rightful authority, the sun will not rise in the morning. The leader of the revolutionaries, the new King, announces the sun will rise as usual, and after it rises, any priest that smelled out a wrongdoer on invisible magical evidence, any priest that killed someone on the basis of invisible magical evidence, and any priest that ate parts of someone wrongfully killed, will die after the coming sunrise.

    In due course, the sun rises, utterly discrediting the defeated priesthood – thereby rendering them no longer dangerous. The new King makes a speech ridiculing the priests and the claims of their religion, then executes them.

    Now this does not deter evil theocracies, since evil theocracies are unlikely to be punished, unless they lose to a revolution, in which case their chances are not much better than virtuous theocracies. The priest’s beliefs were deluded and self serving, but they probably believed sincerely enough. So there is no utilitarian benefit to killing the priests, and no benefit to making cannibalism retroactively a crime. Indeed, given that the priestly belief was for the most part more or less sincere, how can we say the theocracy was evil? Were they not maximizing utility by ensuring that the sun would rise?

    Well, duh, obviously the theocracy was evil, and killing them fair enough, regardless of the utility of doing so. We are unlikely to consider the new King a bad man, while we would usually consider a new King who slaughtered the old regime to be a tyrant. You earlier observed that wicked means lead to wicked ends. Would you think the new monarchy is going to have bad consequences because of its bloody origins?

  68. I haven’t read the book, but since you haven’t said anything about it, I need to point out that there are two kinds of faith: faith in things which cannot be proven, and faith in things which have already been disproven. A scientist can have the first faith, but better not have the second.

  69. Anything written on peanut allergy above is wrong! Please take care, because the condition can be lethal and is really linked to storage proteins integral to the peanut.

    The link below is to a Lancet paper (2008) which discusses what is known about peanut allergy.

    Peanut allergy

    Prof A Wesley Burks MD
    Pediatric Allergy and Immunology, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC, USA

    The Lancet, Volume 371, Issue 9623, 3 May 2008-9 May 2008, Pages 1538-1546

    doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(08)60659-5
    Seminar

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140673608606595

    Eight peanut allergens have been identified that are termed as Ara h 1 to Ara h 8 (Arachis hypogaea).[21], [22], [23], [24], [25] and [26] Most of the peanut allergens are members of the seed storage protein families with the exception of Ara h 5 and Ara h 8. The two major peanut allergens, Ara h 1 and 2, are part of the vicilin and conglutin families of storage proteins, respectively. Ara h 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 bind IgE in a minority of patients. Ara h 5 belongs to the profilin family, a group of actin-binding proteins responsible for cytoskeleton formation in plant cells, and Ara h 8 is a member of the pathogenesis-related PR-10 family, primarily involved in pollen-associated food allergy.

    Aflatoxins are not alergenic, they are carcinogens that atack (mainly) the liver.

    AFLATOXINS : Occurrence and Health Risks
    http://www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants/toxicagents/aflatoxin/aflatoxin.html

    Evidence of acute aflatoxicosis in humans has been reported from many parts of the world, namely the Third World Countries, like Taiwan, Ouganda, India, and many others. The syndrome is characterized by vomiting, abdominal pain, pulmonary edema, convulsions, coma, and death with cerebral edema and fatty involvment of the liver, kidneys, and heart.

  70. Thanks Winter, that is consistent with the medical advice we have received.

    ESR says: I’ll post an update about this.

  71. ESR,

    I am glad that the is-ought gap is being attacked, it always bothered me, but IMHO Harris doesn’t understand the problem that facts are dependent on values: I can only tell the height of a mountain if we first agree whether the compressed snow on top of it counts or not. After we have agreed in some values, then we can gather and organize facts based on these values, and then, yes, we can derive further values from them. So if we agree in that dying is undesirable then by adding facts we can say that one medicine is objectively better than the other.

    While agreeing in f.e. that dying is considered a bad is fairly easy, the process gets increasingly harder if we talk about such things as f.e. mental health. It seems it is extremely difficult to agree upon exactly what mental characteristics are desirable and especially justifying them why… if you are familiar a bit with Szasz’s work, you know that the concept of mental health is a huge minefield…

    But without making value judgements about mental health how can we talk about well-being? What we should avoid is that primitively “organist” or “mechanical” view of the 20. century that defined harm or help only in the crudest mechanical sense and ignored the mental side of things. For example, in the 20. century it was thought that a caning is a cruel punishment but solitary confinement is not. After all no mechanical harm was done… our No. 1 job in the current century is to fix all the mistakes coming from this. It won’t be easy. You will probably not like it when I say that convincing a man to get hooked on heroine or gambling should be considered a more serious crime than beating up someone. Yet it needs to be done if we want to think consequentialist and do not want to ignore the mental / psychological side of well-being.

    So the difficulties are:

    1) Where do we derive the first, primary values from without which no facts are possible?
    2) What to do with conflicting values, or value systems made from multiple goals – is a 1% more efficient truly better if it costs 1000 times more?
    3) Defining the primary values is increasing harder as we approach the concept of well-being because either we ignore the mental/psychological side of it or will find very hard to agree about them.

    I am afraid that the primary values and their prioritizations must come from a social process and not from science because science itself depends on them. (Not necessarily all kinds of science but f.e. economics does.) So simply we must find agreement and compromise regarding them. In such a process it is generally a good idea to use philosophy, but not to overuse it.

  72. >I can only tell the height of a mountain if we first agree whether the compressed snow on top of it counts or not.

    Bad example. This is not a values problem, it is just a language issue. There is no value-centered reason for anyone to defend either definition of “height”, and descriptions made according to either definition are commensurable. In principle the parties can agree to talk about “height1″ and “height2″ and arrive at a common account.

    >1) Where do we derive the first, primary values from without which no facts are possible?

    You have yet to demonstrate that facts are dependent on values, and I reject this claim.

    To address your example: Mental health is a sort of shorthand compounded from facts like “does not have hallucinations”, “does not exhibit phobic responses”, “is able to respond to nonverbal cues from others” etc. What you interpret as values issues about what constitute mental health I interpret as language issues about which facts enter this bundle for any given speaker. Whatever category differences you and I might have can be resolved by investigating which facts we are bundling; this is exactly like the height-of-the-mountain issue in principle if more complicated in practice.

    Of course it is possible to get into crazy arguments about language because one is ideologically or emotionally attached to a particular definition of “mental health” (or for that matter of “height of a mountain”), but this kind of argument is not philosophically challenging. It’s what A. J. Korzybski called an “inappropriate semantic response”, treating map as though it were territory.

    >2) What to do with conflicting values, or value systems made from multiple goals – is a 1% more efficient truly better if it costs 1000 times more?

    I think you find this a more difficult question than it really is only because you are are confusing “value” in the ethico-moral sense with “utility” in the economic sense. To illustrate the difference: you and I might have the same ethical value system, but place different utilities on a plate of food because of the timing of when we last ate. Value differences may be a problem for Harris’s program, but utility differences are certainly not. And before supposed value differences can actually be a problem, you have to first show that they don’t disappear under language analysis or derive from premises which are false to fact. You have not done this yet.

    >I am afraid that the primary values and their prioritizations must come from a social process and not from science because science itself depends on them.

    You have yet to demonstrate this, and again I reject it. Social processes shape the language in which we form theory, but differences in language do not imply that the theories we form are incommensurable (the map is not the territory; the word is not the thing defined). Social processes may create emotional attachments to particular definitions of terms or particular theories, but dissolving these attachments (inappropriate semantic responses) is a large part of what philosophical analysis is for.

    The preceding has all been an elementary application of General Semantics. I recommend you study the discipline; it’s an excellent way to stop being confused about a great many “philosophical” questions which disappear under language analysis.

  73. @esr shenpen
    Values come around in questions like recreational drug use and behavior of consenting adults.

    Areligious morals (like atheist’s) generally state that it is no person’s business if there is no victim.

    Many people have moral value systems which oblige them (they claim) to meddle in what people do in the privacy of their homes. Such value systems do not have the happiness and well being of individuals as a goal (even if they falsely claim they do). They all put some aims over the well being of individuals (eg, God’s will).

  74. IMHO value means a purpose and utility means fitness for a purpose – “good” means “good for” and it cannot really mean anything else, can it? Usually not one purpose, but some kind of a weighted average of many purposes, and some of them negative: we want our medicine to be a certain combination of fast-healing, painlessly-healing, cheap, while not having a long list of harmful side-effects. The purposes themselves come from adding facts to other purposes: those are the goals and these are the means. And the goals are themselves means to other goals and there is a long list of regression of goals, each goal or purpose coming from another one by adding facts to them. Thus by fact-checking we not really resolve a debate about a goal (value) or a mean for a goal (utility) but reduce / trace it back to another debate about other purposes.

    Thus the problem of mountain heights is not really that of language but comes from that that geologists and tourists want to use maps for different purposes.

    I mentioned mental health and mental well-being because if track back purposes long enough we usually find a psychological purpose around the end and this is usually where it gets confusing: John wants a new suit because he wants to make a good impression because he wants a new job because he wants more money because he wants to buy a motorbike because he enjoys speed because speed gives an noradrenaline boost and usually this is where the chain stops.

    Because every purpose can be tracked back to something psychological, mental, in the mind, a scientific system of morality would probably end up saying something along the lines of a thing is good if has an optimal net effect on everybodies noradrenaline, serotonin etc. levels. Basically a harmless kind of ecstasy pill would do. Granny dead? Bad, but let’s pop a pill and be happy. Is that really what we want?

    Given that every purpose can be derived from desirable states of mind by adding facts, how could a fact-based morality result in anything else but tinkering with the brain, Brave New World, or maybe Matrix?

  75. @shenpen
    “IMHO value means a purpose and utility means fitness for a purpose – “good” means “good for” and it cannot really mean anything else, can it?”

    Yes, it can mean something else. If a person is “good”, there is in general not a purpose (good for) intended. You might construct such a meaning, but there is no reason the speaker of the “good” would agree with you.

    In a more general sense, moral values do not have to be utilitarian. They better be not.

  76. There is a pretty good utilitarian argument against exemplary punishment for crimes mostly committed by psychopaths – psychopaths don’t have a functioning amygdala and are incapable of anticipating suffering.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/may/21/jon-ronson-how-to-spot-a-psychopath writes about experiments performed by Robert Hare in the seventies that seem at least prima facie to identify and confirm this.

    The substantive question is what fraction of serious crime is committed by psychopaths – if it’s large, then the only sensible thing to do is to lock up the psychopaths to keep everyone else safe. If it’s small, then exemplary punishment and rehabilitation are practical options.

    Obviously, you have the option of executing the psychopaths instead of locking them up – they have no prospect of ever being productive members of society – but this faces the usual problem that if you make a mistake, then you’ve executed someone who wasn’t guilty, but if you had locked them up, then you can let them out. Medical diagnoses (even presuming that we’ve convicted them of a crime first) just aren’t that reliable.

  77. @Richard
    “There is a pretty good utilitarian argument against exemplary punishment for crimes mostly committed by psychopaths – psychopaths don’t have a functioning amygdala and are incapable of anticipating suffering.”

    An even better utilitarian argument is that current practises hardly work. Much more effective interventions are known to reduce crime. However, they all lack in “toughness” and “bloody revenge”.

    Before everybody screams about softies etc. The point is “Evidence Based Crime Control”. Yes, formulating crime policies based on real evidence of (cost-) effectiveness. It is unheard of in the world. But we can all dream.

  78. “If a person is “good”, there is in general not a purpose (good for) intended. You might construct such a meaning, but there is no reason the speaker of the “good” would agree with you.”

    The most influential book of ethics in history, the one by Aristotle, meant exactly that, a man is good if he is good for the natural purpose of man. Religious people generally say a good believer is one that is good for the purpose of being saved. More generally, a good person is a good neighbor, coworker, partner, member of society, and if you break it down, by each you will find a set of purposes to fulfill.

  79. @Shenpen
    “The most influential book of ethics in history, the one by Aristotle, meant exactly that, a man is good if he is good for the natural purpose of man. ”

    Not to belittle Aristotle, but “the natural purpose of man” is no specific purpose at all.

    And a good person is not entirely on the same level as a good neighbor. Utilitarianism is a valid view on ethics, but it is not the only one.

  80. >There is a pretty good utilitarian argument against exemplary punishment for crimes mostly committed by psychopaths – psychopaths don’t have a functioning amygdala and are incapable of anticipating suffering.

    Agreed, but the argument is compromised by uncertainty about whose amygdalas are functioning. Better objective tests would help, and I think the label “psychopath” might actually be a distraction from this.

    Of course, I inventoried myself. I’m somewhere from a 2 to a 6 on the Hare scale depending on how loosely the terms are interpreted. The only two I’m absolutely certain fit me are “3 Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom” and “12 Early behaviour problems”. On the other hand, some of those traits are so the opposite of me that I should probably award myself -1 for them – I’m almost incapable of lying even when it would be socially acceptable to do so, for one (item 4). And I’m married to my high-school sweetheart (item 17). It was an interesting exercise to consider which traits someone who strongly dislikes me would list.

  81. >IMHO value means a purpose and utility means fitness for a purpose – “good” means “good for” and it cannot really mean anything else, can it?

    I think you are right about this. But that means you are now arguing for Harris’s program rather than against it.

    >Because every purpose can be tracked back to something psychological, mental, in the mind, a scientific system of morality would probably end up saying something along the lines of a thing is good if has an optimal net effect on everybodies noradrenaline, serotonin etc. levels

    This is very near exactly Harris’s argument.

    >Basically a harmless kind of ecstasy pill would do. Granny dead? Bad, but let’s pop a pill and be happy. Is that really what we want?

    Harris doesn’t think so. Nor do I. The obvious arguments about long-term vs. short-term measures of utility apply.

  82. “Yes, if you’re going to make a case for objective moral truth without just handwaving about the mind of God there is nowhere else to land other than on some form of consequentialism and utilitarianism”

    This seems to be quite a logical leap and it looks like that’s the basis for a lot of discussion in the comments. When you first described “well being” I thought you were talking about “well being” in the sense used by values theory, e.g. just as “sharpness” is a a value that increases well being for a knife, wisdom is a value that increases well being for a human. The reason this sentence threw me is because there’s a lot of different theories for morality that do not depend upon God. Utilitarianism and consequentialism have been around long enough for the holes to be thoroughly known.

    I’ll have to recommend this book to my atheist friends, but is it correct to say this is a reaction to the strawman attack that religious people use against atheists: an atheist cannot be moral? “Atheists cannot be moral” seems to be as fallacious as the argument, “I disagree with Christian theology, ergo Christians cannot be moral.”

  83. >When you first described “well being” I thought you were talking about “well being” in the sense used by values theory, e.g. just as “sharpness” is a a value that increases well being for a knife, wisdom is a value that increases well being for a human

    And this differs from utilitarianism in what way, exactly?

    I’ve heard the argument that value ethics is somehow foundationally different from utilitarianism, but I don’t buy it. A “value” is an abstraction from utility-maximization strategy; thus, when we say a human is “wise” we are usually praising his or her ability to evaluate second-through-nth-order consequences and choose large long-term gains over smaller short-term ones. Value ethics can be summed up as “The N habits of highly effective people”.

    Perhaps you would find it less of a logical leap if I applied the label “consequentialism” instead. Makes little difference to me as I am not interested in worshiping the stuffed corpse of Jeremy Bentham :-)

    (I used to play strategy games with a Joe Presley. Is that you?)

  84. The fact that you can’t get an “ought” from an “is” isn’t a dogma, it is a logical fact.

    Take the notion that well-being can be objectively measured, therefore morality must be grounded in it. Even if the first statement were true–and it can’t; there are objective proxies for well-being, but no actual objective measures–there is no logical way to arrive at the second statement. You can argue that morality should be grounded in well-being, and that the fact that it’s objectively measured makes this appealing on a practical level. But that’s no more “objective” an argument than any other “ought” type arguments. It’s simply expressing a preference–a preference for certainty, and making judgments based on measureable criteria. There is nothing objective to support that preference.

    I am an Atheist, and a follower of Hume, Smith, and Hayek. I believe morality is something that emerges, along with human institutions, the price system, and all other forms of humanity’s extended phenotype. This recent ThinkMarkets post delves into this point of view pretty well.

    Do you have any post that you’ve written in the past where, rather than reviewing someone else’s efforts, you explicitly state your own strongest case for your point of view on this?

  85. >Do you have any post that you’ve written in the past where, rather than reviewing someone else’s efforts, you explicitly state your own strongest case for your point of view on this?

    No. Good topic for a future blog post.

    Sketch of argument, partly but not entirely influenced by Harris: Moral claims have to cash out as assertions about the experience of conscious beings because every truth claim has to cash out as an assertion about the experience of an observer. Thus, “ought” claims and “is” claims are ultimately confirmed in the same way. The distinction we think we see between these categories is an illusion; all kinds of truth claims have to be connected and commensurable because they’re all descriptions of the same universe.

  86. “Harris doesn’t think so. Nor do I. The obvious arguments about long-term vs. short-term measures of utility apply.”

    I don’t find them that obvious. When I was young and foolish I had some first-hand experiences about how amazingly happy you can be by popping a pill and dancing to techno music. And what scared me about the whole thing is that currently the only arguments against it in a materialist-scientific moral system is that it is bad for your health, addictive and loses effectiveness after a while. Fix that and you will have no reason to care about anything else, except for the bare minimum of money-making, exercise etc. to keep you alive as long as possible.

    Actually… this experience is maybe the only one reason I do not buy 100% into a scientific-materialistic worldview but attempt to make all sorts of excursions out of it – because I can see how it could lead to a world where people live in barracks, wear uniforms, work 2 hours a day producing the minimum to stay healthy, like a vitamine-spiked gruel and said uniforms and medicine, and spend the rest of the time happily drugged or in a virtual reality or have our pleasure centres in the brain tickled by electrodes or something like that. No art, no love, no friendship, no scientific research other than in medicine, no creativity, no sports other than basic exercise…

    And the contradiction is that we would be happy and therefore would have no objections against it, and yet there must be some sort of an objective point of view from which it would be wrong. I figure a lot of people have similar feelings just maybe not explaining them so. I can tell you something – such feelings / fears underlie a lot of religious and pseudoreligious like New Age beliefs. And on the opposite side I figure some people have anticapitalistic feelings exactly for similar reasons. If you can demonstrate that having our values dictated completely by scientific-materialistic methods does not lead to the huxleyfication of the world, you do a very powerful service to your cause. Because, you see, some of us feel part of it is already happening, that Huxley was onto something, the rise of the “entertainment industry” and all that..

    Can it be shown in your or Harris’ worldview, that, for example, more DIY, more self-sufficiency would be generally a good thing instead of depending on others to do everything except for our job for us? Because for example this is something I think is a problem today and it comes from a “mechanical” view of life, and the point would be to demonstrate the scientific does not equal the mechanical.

  87. It’s an interesting argument, but I’m not sure I entirely understand it.

    When I say that my computer is sitting on a table, I understand how that truth claim “cashes out” from the point of view of my experience–I am literally perceiving one thing (a computer) on top of another thing (a table).

    When I say that killing children is wrong, though, it’s a completely different thing. It’s not as though there’s a big sign that pops up above the act of killing a child that says “THIS IS WRONG” or something. There is no objective experience of wrongness. There’s what a feel in the pit of my stomach, or the tightness of my throat, or something–and there’s validation that I’ve received by other people who have expressed similar feelings, or just agreed with me with the statement killing children is wrong.

    Moreover, moral observations are further complicated by the fact that sometimes things that feel wrong the same way child-killing feels wrong, under certain circumstances may (arguably) still be the right thing to do. My imagination is failing me just now; I’m having trouble coming up with a specific example, but do you agree that this does occur?

    There’s no such controversy over the computer on the table. You can get into whether it’s really “on” the table, since there’s space between the molecules, but that’s just splitting hairs. Everyone understands what I mean when I say the computer is on the table–and it’s an easily verifiable statement. Whether or not something is wrong, however, is not verifiable in the same way. There is no objective way to measure the wrongness the way that we can tell whether or not I’m right about the computer being on the table.

    If you’re interested, I wrote out how I think morality does work, and what it is, in this post.

  88. >Can it be shown in your or Harris’ worldview, that, for example, more DIY, more self-sufficiency would be generally a good thing instead of depending on others to do everything except for our job for us?

    Oh, yes, very very easily. Because the kind of lotus-eater society you fear philosophical materialism would lead to is extremely fragile against any kind of disruptive shock. Self-sufficiency isn’t a dispensable luxury, it’s a survival hedge in case the machine stops.

    This is not just a theoretical handwave for me. I am a martial artist and a shooter partly because I conceive it as my duty to my neighbors and my civilization to help defend the cooperative order of society against disruptive shocks, ranging from small-scale criminality up through pathological political turns to the civil disorder consequent on major natural disasters. I’m not a lotus-eater and never will be because when shit gets real the lotus-eater cannot cope.

    The above is one way to unpack the argument for personal virtue and self-discipline from long-term utility. Thank you, Robert Heinlein, for teaching me how to think this way before I was old enough to shave.

  89. @esr
    “Because the kind of lotus-eater society you fear philosophical materialism would lead to is extremely fragile against any kind of disruptive shock. ”

    Hapiness and hedonism do not lead to lotus-eater societies if you think things through. A good start is Epicurius, who was all for avoiding grief and seeking happiness. He was everything but a lotus-eater. Actually, he considered eating in measure and staying healthy of prime importance.

  90. @esr Yep, it’s the same Joe Presley. To be precise this is the new memetic order of Joe Presley. The one you knew was deposed in a memetic coup a few years ago. Just kidding… I miss losing strategy games to a great group of people. Now I just lose. :p

    It’s been a while since I’ve studied ethics and morality with rigor. Admittedly it was only as part of an interesting class I took to fulfill a general education requirement. Looking into what I could find in order to respond, I realize I should have used the term “virtue theory” and not value theory. You might be able to map conclusions in utilitarianism to virtue theory (which as you said is the N traits of a ___________ person), but it’s really the approach which makes it different.

    You may be able to map consequentialist conclusions to virtue theory but it’s not just a semantic difference. With consequentialism you have to be able to show how the moral code leads to whatever preferences you set. This can get dicey. It leads to rube goldberg justifications but it never escapes its inherent weakness which subsumes a person’s moral worth to whatever utility function you devise. A lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to work around this problem. With virtue theory, it would be easier to use empirical evidence to state “with the information we have at this time, we know these are the N traits for a moral person or the N traits of a moral society.”

    Ultimately when it comes to atheism, I don’t see it escaping the problems that theist moral theorists have. Existing moral theories all have problems. It seems that a lot of the discussion with atheist morals is more a question of whether morality is an emergent system. But even if this is true, atheists and theists will still argue the theology of why it’s emergent.

  91. >It leads to rube goldberg justifications but it never escapes its inherent weakness which subsumes a person’s moral worth to whatever utility function you devise.

    You think this is just a problem with utilitarianism? I think it’s a problem with deontic ethics and every other account as well. They’ve all got utility functions; what differs is the amount of bafflegab they use to obscure that fact.

  92. “Because the kind of lotus-eater society you fear philosophical materialism would lead to is extremely fragile against any kind of disruptive shock.”

    Fair enough. I think this is a good argument and I haven’t thought about it. Too much time spent in the comfortable big-city bubble… which, come to think about is, is pretty much a death trap if the shit hits the fan… if, for example, we think about our methods of acquiring food, if we list them by a growing order of easieness and pleasentness it is like foraging < hunting < farming < shopping from farmers < shopping raw at the grocery store < shopping processed < eating out < ordering pizza or something. But they are riskier to any kind of major systemic shock in exactly that order. Thus the ratonal person would not consider it a "sin" to be lazy and call for a pizza whenever he likes it, but would also hedge his bet somewhat by focusing somewhat on the lower levels as well. Got it.

    Then I have just two remarks to make. Instead of rejecting all religious habits and values outright as something delusional, as is the habit of annoying young Dawkins-fanboys on Reddit, we should examine them and see if they are useful, actually a lot of them are. And while doing so, remember that people tend to make up myths but rarely tend to make up costly myths that make their lives difficult: whenever religion meets everyday life the chances are that there are some real experiences and real lessons to learned wrapped in the myth. So instead of laughing when someone says "gambling is a sin" we should understand that "sin" in this case can be unpacked into "addictive and can ruin lives". And another aspect is that always keep in mind that utility is not only to be defined in mechanical terms but also all sorts of psychological or even character harm or help should be considered. If we can do that then I think Harris' method can be useful. We just need to keep in mind that reflexive anti-religious myths (f.e. that there can be nothing wrong with sex between consenting adults) can be just as wrong as religious ones and generally in modern times this second type of myths is more widespread.

  93. @esr “You think this is just a problem with utilitarianism? I think it’s a problem with deontic ethics and every other account as well. They’ve all got utility functions; what differs is the amount of bafflegab they use to obscure that fact.”

    No, it’s a general problem; it’s one reason I’m inclined towards virtue theory.

    The reason I asked about the motivation for Harris’ argument is because some of my atheist friends have mentioned their frustration with the straw man argument “Atheists can’t be moral.” Another reason I ask for the motivation is because all the effort has the marks of an attempt to find a problem for the solution. Or to tie in with another subject of your blog, the effort to hack morality reminds me of the effort to get Linux to the masses (thank you Android). For the average person, it just needs to work. The hackers on the other hand for whatever reason focus their attention on a different solution space than what most people care about.

    If the reason for all of the effort is to provide an atheist solution to morality, then why not view morality as an emergent system that’s been created by thousands of years (or even millions of years if you want to look at different species) of evolutionary programming?

  94. >why not view morality as an emergent system that’s been created by thousands of years (or even millions of years if you want to look at different species) of evolutionary programming?

    I think that corresponds to Harris’s view of the matter, and it certainly agrees with mine. The motivation of his argument is simple and explicit: he thinks the separation of value claims from fact claims leads to dangerous pathologies. I concur.

  95. On the is-ought gap: As far as I can tell, in a strict sense, yes, there is no way to go from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ without at least some ‘ought’ parameters to begin with. In the Harris argument you present above, your initial ‘ought’ parameter is ‘we ought to act so as to maximize human well-being’, which seems pretty obvious, but some would disagree with you (I’m thinking basically of the sort of nutsoid religious types who believe that morality is in doing what God wants you to, full stop). Thoughts?

  96. @esr “The motivation of his argument is simple and explicit: he thinks the separation of value claims from fact claims leads to dangerous pathologies. I concur.”

    That seems interesting and provides a stronger motivator for me to read his work than trying to contort everything into some sort of utilitarian rationale. I have to admit that I’ve been turned off by what one commenter termed “Dawkins fanboys on Reddit.” Especially since the One True Way is -obviously- the path of Righteous Agnosticism and everyone else are just HEATHENS who will burn! /joke

    I lump the irrationally rational atheists in the same bucket of scorn where I keep my feelings for limousine liberals.

  97. There seems to be a call for atheist morality. That sounds strange. The classical Greek and Roman system of citizen virtue is basically agnostic. Humanism was formulated some centuries ago. That is agnostic too.

    So there seems a lot to choose from.

  98. >(I’m thinking basically of the sort of nutsoid religious types who believe that morality is in doing what God wants you to, full stop). Thoughts?

    Claims about what God wants you to do are unfalsifiable. Best to just dismiss people who make unfalsifiable claims from consideration.

  99. A bit of following-up: you see my problem and bit yours as well that I ought be your ally in such matters. But my background in software development is different than yours and it taught me to be a ruthless practicalist: I cannot afford to care about what is true, because I must care about what works. Too many times I have designed academically perfect accounting systems no one wanted to use in actual business and thus they failed, despite the fact that they were true and correct in every possible “scientific” sense to the extent finance can be considered a science, which is a pretty small extent, but anyway. I therefore learned to value myths that actually work in the human-social sense of the word higher than truths that don’t. I must value an untruth if useful methods are derived from it higher than a truth that doesn’t – with the provision that we can always find a truer justification for the methods that work later on.

    Example: an old, good, nice, and rather stupid friend of mine was got addicted to gambling and pretty much screwed up his life. He is now something akin to a heroine-zombie. Science have told him to beware of gambling because it is addictive. This is true. This truth didn’t work. I cannot help but wonder if religion would have told him gambling is sin (which they do), and he would have believed it, it would have helped him better? I care a lot more about what would have helped this good guy than about what is true. Because just how could I do otherwise? Sacrifice a living human being over some abstraction? I figure I will never will make a good scientist, valuing expediency and practicality in helping people over truth. But I would make a damn good doctor, psychiatrist or engineer for they MUST think this way.

    So this is my problem and partially this is your problem too, because there are many people like me, I figure, even when they just feel these things and don’t make them so open. We ought to be on your side. I kinda think we could be of some use for you. And one day we will. But there is stuff to be done in order to achieve that.

    The problem is that your side, for each and every person like yourself, who are actually rational, there are a hundred dumbasses who make a lot of noise about being “rational”. Go take a look at atheism.reddit.com if you don’t believe and while you are at it politics.reddit.com is a good (read: bad) place to take a look at too. It is your side that has to get all the little the Saint-Simons, Comtes, Margaret Meads, Marxes and Benthams and Descartes and JSMills and Marcuses ridiculed and laughed out of the discussion and then I think we can join.

  100. “Best to just dismiss people who make unfalsifiable claims from consideration.”

    A bit of friendly Socratean trolling: such as “all humans are mortal” ? AFAIK this is from Popper himself. This is an extremely useful statement we use all the time, yet unfalsifiable by any other method than killing everyone. If I remember right Popper used this an example of why the claim of falsifiability is generally a good direction but exceptions must be allowed.

  101. Theism/atheism is about beliefs. Agnosticism is either you are afraid to admit you are a believer or unbeliever (maybe rationally depending on your neighbors) or you are too stupid to even know what you believe.

  102. A sidenote: no offense meant, but America uses the concept of a religious conservative very wrongly, meaning generally and by large Baptists-descended-from-Puritans under this term. The Puritans were no kind of conservatives but revolutionaries exactly in that bad sense of the word Marx was one: http://gene-callahan.blogspot.com/2010/02/eric-voegelin-on-judicious-hooker-on.html

    Based on the commonly accepted definitions of conservatism in general and applying it to the specific field of religion, it would be the Greek Orthodox who would be the most conservative, the Catholic would come second and the Anglican / Episcopalian a third.

    Now the fun part is that the older, more traditional, thus indeed more conservative kinds of religions generally tend to be less irrational than the newer kinds.

    If you have rational reasons to be anti-Christian you have even more reasons to be anti-Protestant for exactly the same grounds.

    For example, read this article from Anglican / Episcopalian Archbishop Rowan Williams and say whether he is not a man that can be a lot more reasoned with than the Pat Robertson types? http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/767/human-well-being-and-economic-decision-making

    I figure this is important: the American terminology means “a bad type of religious revolutionary” when it says “religious conservative”. This view is clearly wrong: Baptism is not conservatism, it is kinda the Marxism of religion. And it is harmful too: it automatically devalues all kinds of true cultural conservatism that could otherwise be found to be at least partially useful.

  103. “Agnosticism is either you are afraid to admit you are a believer or unbeliever (maybe rationally depending on your neighbors) or you are too stupid to even know what you believe.”

    Atheism all too often means anti-theism: the unfounded belief system that just because god does not exist all religious customs, habits, values, are useless and wrong. This is wrong because it confuses the *cause* of having an idea with its *justification*.

    I solve this problem (of not believing in god but neither believing in religious values and habits being useless) by calling myself “non-theist” instead of atheist. This is a wrong meant to correct another wrong, namely, anti-theists calling themselves atheist.

    Agnosticism is something some people use for the same purpose I use “non-theist” for, I figure. An angostic is an atheist who does not hate religion and actually listens when religious people talk about f.e. original sin and translates it into secular terminology.

  104. Agnosticism is either you are afraid to admit you are a believer or unbeliever (maybe rationally depending on your neighbors) or you are too stupid to even know what you believe.

    Doubt is a healthy state for the human mind to exist in. Doubt is the opposite of certainty (theism, atheism). While the ‘certain’ crowd might be a happier bunch (with happiness being inversely proportional to IQ) it is the doubters that have created human progress over the millennia.

  105. Well-being is a measure that can be studied by objective means in spite of our lack of a completely generative understanding of well-being

    Bollocks, I say – though not having the book, I can’t be sure he isn’t Nobel-worthy-clever in how he figures that out. But I know where I’d put my money if there was a bet.

    On its face, I can’t even imagine what “objective well-being” would be, from a scientific point of view.

    Oh, there are things one can measure objectively, and many of them are closely or intimately associated with well-being, but many of them aren’t very objective, and there’s not agreement about what the set should consist in – if we don’t even agree as to what “well-being” is composed of, I find it very much begging the question to insist that it’s real anyway because some people are just wrong about what it does/doesn’t; no different from religious dogma on the matter.

    (If you can achieve an objective well-being definition and measure, then, sure, science can definitely help you achieve it, by telling you which courses will most tend to increase it.

    But I still don’t see it being possible.

    Part of the reason why we think scientific disagreement means someone is objectively wrong* is that we can disprove a claim; if not, it ain’t science.

    It’s going to be very hard [understatement of the millennium] to disprove statements about well-being that are subject to actual controversy – how would one even go about it?)

    (* This brackets things like Newtonian physics vs. relativistic physics vs. quantum physics, where it’s not a matter of “wrong” so much as “incomplete” or “wrong only in some very limited domains but otherwise accurate”. Newtonian physics is “wrong”, but it’s plenty “right” enough to get you into orbit.)

    And all that said, I completely agree with your much more recent comment that the contents of our various moralities are emergent systems that evolved by producing monkeys that survived better by following them… but I don’t think that requires an objective measure for value claims qua value claims.

    [Given a moral claim X, it can be true both that X is objectively better at making monkey civilizations that hold it survive, and that there is no objective well-being measure at the individual level that demands we institute X.

    X can be selected for at the population level without being objectively better for the individual's well-being.

    Or, to analogize with genetics, your genes don't care if you're happy and fulfilled as long as you successfully reproduce and your offspring live to fertile age.

    Likewise morality that makes the general population survive better can make individuals miserable, so long as it doesn't drive them to suicide too soon.])

    (Relevant disclosure, for those who haven’t been keeping score: I’m a life-long atheist with an automatic scientific inclination, and got my Bachelor’s in philosophy. So this topic is, well, like the most natural thing in the world for me to blather on endlessly about.

    And my automatic reaction to “there IS SO an objective basis for morality” remains “so show it to me” – and as I note above, while the adaptation argument is convincing, I don’t think it stands as an “objective basis”.

    I read the term as one or the other of “establishable a priori” or “demonstrable in the scientific sense”; given the lack of disproofs of moral claims [or even a clear basis FOR such a disproof!], and the lack of a priori proofs I reject both and thus reject “objective morality” in the scientific or strict philosophical sense.

    Which is ironic, because in the normal sense of the term, I’m not remotely a moral relativist – I just don’t care that my moral doctrines aren’t scientifically objective.)

  106. Er, Rowan Williams is a Marxist. Which makes that last post rather confusing.

    I know Americans use some words in very perverse, corrupt ways, and I know the source (Leftists poisoning the language) and if you knew that too I think things would make more sense for you.

  107. >If I remember right Popper used this an example of why the claim of falsifiability is generally a good direction but exceptions must be allowed

    That’s a shocking lapse on Popper’s part, then. We can falsify this statement just by waiting long enough and keeping accurate records. :-)

  108. “Er, Rowan Williams is a Marxist.” Does he believe that “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” This is the most important aspect of (what is wrong with) Marxism and I would find it rather unlikely that he could believe in that. A person can agree with Marx that the contemporary economic system tends to turn things like corporations into persons by ascribing agency to them, but this by no means being Marxist, one could just as well justify that on other grounds f.e. that this is legal fiction by the state.

  109. He is best known as the most pugnacious of the New Atheists a streetfighter who argued in his polemic The End of Faith that rational science should no longer merely tolerate religious belief but instead should declare total war on it.What is less well-known is that Harris spent a decade studying Buddhist meditation had several mystical experiences as a teenager on MDMA and was once briefly the bodyguard for the Dalai Lama. He is for sure the most spiritually-minded of his New Atheist chums but also the most aggressively anti-religious he ended his Buddhist studies by writing a paper suggesting that we should should Kill Buddhism. He insists that science can tell us objectively whether a life is a Good Life or a Bad Life.

  110. > Agnosticism is either you are afraid to admit you are a believer or unbeliever (maybe rationally depending on your neighbors) or you are too stupid to even know what you believe.

    Bullshit.
    An agnostic is someone who claims not to know or, in my case being a devout agnostic, someone who claims that the ultimate cause is unknowable.

    I’m not sure how anyone can claim to be a scientist and also claim to KNOW that there is or isn’t anything that can’t be proven.

    You can fully believe that every religion on this planet is an absurd concoction dreamed up by those who are either afraid of death or want to control the masses and still be an agnostic. You can also believe that there are no supernatural beings pulling the strings of the universe and that science is the best tool we have to answer questions about the universe and still be an agnostic. You can be be an atheist (non-theist) and also be an agnostic.

    I harbor a lot of mistrust and doubt about anyone who claims to be anything but an agnostic.

  111. >I harbor a lot of mistrust and doubt about anyone who claims to be anything but an agnostic.

    Can’t see why. As the term “atheist” is normally used, it denies theism that is, the existence of an Abrahamic-style creator-god. Since said existence is logically impossible (omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent in one package is incompatible with the existence of pain and evil) atheism seems a pretty rational and even necessary position to take. Agnosticism about classes of gods that are not logically impossible would be more reasonable.

    In my experience a lot of people who are actually atheists present themselves as agnostics either as a social accommodation to theists or a signal of epistemic humility. I used to be in this category myself. But epistemic humility about the logically impossible is silly; one might as well claim to be an agnostic about the existence of square circles. And accommodating the religiously insane is a species of humbug with which I’ve grown less patient as I’ve grown older, and much less patient since 9/11.

  112. >Can’t see why. As the term “atheist” is normally used, it denies theism that is, the existence of an Abrahamic-style creator-god.

    I don’t consider theism to mean specifically monotheism, let alone as pertaining to an Abrahamic-style god. What would you call an Indian who denies the existence of the Hindu gods? Maybe there is a word missing from my vocabulary I should know about.

  113. >Can’t see why.

    Because, throughout history, the people who ‘know’ are the ones most likely to burn witches and commit genocide. Atheism (anti-theism) has all the ingredients needed to create the same kind of dogmas that make the monotheistic religions toxic.

  114. Atheism (anti-theism) has all the ingredients needed to create the same kind of dogmas that make the monotheistic religions toxic.

    Are you talking Atheism in general or scientific atheism in particular. Because i would argue(as ESR’s last post does) that scientific atheism (or “I don’t believe in $(god) because observation of the real world invalidates every known logical consequence of the existence of $(god)”) doesn’t have “all the ingredients needed to create the same kind of dogmas”.

    In general, I think your argument is incomplete.
    What would compel an Atheist to travel large distances and risk final death just because you follow a [foreign] god? On the other hand monotheistic religions have at minimum one, Anyone who worships anyone other than $(god) is wrong and immoral.

  115. “Because, throughout history, the people who ‘know’ are the ones most likely to burn witches and commit genocide. Atheism (anti-theism) has all the ingredients needed to create the same kind of dogmas that make the monotheistic religions toxic.” – BPSouther

    Just to support the above assertion, esr in a previous blog entry mentioned his idea of the connection between Augustine and atheistic authoritarianism. When I get a chance to read Sam Harris’ work, one of the things I’ ll look for is how he deals with mass murder done in the name of atheistic ideologies. If esr’s assertion that Augustine incorporated the mind control created by Zoroastrianism is true, then the conclusion that I would draw is that religious faith is not a necessary trait for justification of horrific acts. Humans are perfectly capable of evil with or without faith in a higher being.

    Just like people use the various physics models under the appropriate conditions, e.g. newtonian physics vs. relativistic vs. quantum mechanics, etc., I don’t see a need to be consistent when one discusses theology, philosophy, scientific inquiry, etc. These fields are limited by their scopes of discussion. I describe myself as a jewish agnostic because theologically I believe in an unknowable God in the Judaic tradition, which I believe is somewhat agnostic in its theology. For philosophic discussions, the only rational claim is agnosticism because it’s logically impossible to prove or disprove the size of the set of Gods. Claims of rationally proving atheism hold as much weight as claims to rationally prove christianity is the result of jewish prophesy. You might be able to do it, but you’re talking theology, not philosophy or scientific method.

    The reason I joke about Righteous Agnosticism or Fundamental Agnosticism is because I hope that it highlights the dangers of any attempt to remake humanity justified by any ideology. Esr and Sam Harris claim that we cannot tolerate religious pathologies after 9/11. I suspect that the general case is that as we approach the singularity, we cannot tolerate the memetic pathologies that leads to any authoritarian attempt to mold humanity into whatever vision the ideologues think of next. I suspect that a healthy dose of agnosticism holds a better promise of an antidote than atheism.

  116. >For philosophic discussions, the only rational claim is agnosticism because it’s logically impossible to prove or disprove the size of the set of Gods.

    If the claimed characteristics of a god are such as to make its existence logically impossible, being “agnostic” about its existence is like being “agnostic” about whether 2 + 2 = 4 in Peano arithmetic. This is not rational.

  117. esr,

    > If the claimed characteristics of a god are such as to make its existence logically impossible, being “agnostic” about its existence is like being “agnostic” about whether 2 + 2 = 4 in Peano arithmetic. This is not rational.

    Yes, but it is trivial to posit a God whose existence is not logically impossible. Those people who claim this universe is a simulation running on a sufficiently computer, for example, have done so. Similarly, the watch maker God, who sets off the Big Bang and then just lets things run without ever doing anything. I know these aren’t the Christian God, but that is why, just as the philosophical proofs for God’s existence don’t actually prove He exists, the philosophical proofs that there is no God also fail.

    Yours,
    Tom

  118. If the best a materialistic framework can produce is some flavor of utilitarianism we are hosed, and have little choice but to call in the god botherers, because a hundred years ago the best minds of the period tried to produce a utilitarian rationale for an acceptable set of moral principles, but when they got into specifics, their moral principles were alarmingly immoral, violently contrary to moral intuition, and disturbingly authoritarian – and they only avoided being disturbingly totalitarian by a pile of thin and stretched rationalizations.

    But a materialistic frame work can produce a flavor of natural law morality just as easily as a religious framework, indeed more easily, for we can appeal to the entirely scrutable theory of evolutionary psychology, rather than needing to ascertain the inscrutable mind of god from his works.

    We have compelling moral intuitions. Where do they come from? Answer, evolution. What is the target of evolution (yes, evolution does have targets – eyes evolve towards seeing accurately as is reasonably practical, feet evolve towards running fast, and over time, most species get smarter) The evolutionary target for our moral intuitions is an evolutionary stable strategy for the use of force – which was not far from Saint Thomas of Aquinas’s target.

    If we want a theory that accords with our moral intuitions, we have to have a theory that tends to produce the same results as evolution – which is natural law theory.

  119. >Yes, but it is trivial to posit a God whose existence is not logically impossible.

    Indeed it is trivial. It is also uninteresting to do so, since there are no (surviving) monotheisms which worship a God that both interacts with the universe and is logically possible (phrased that way to avoid a quibble about deism). I’m not even aware of historical examples later than the cult of Akhnaten and very early henotheistic Judaism. So you can get to a living religion which justifies an agnostic counterbelief only by no longer speaking of “God” (singular).

  120. Just another meaning of agnosticism: Considering the identity of the correct religion irrelevant.

    Mathematics is agnostic, as what religion might be the one and only correct one is irrelevant to mathematics.

    In classical Roman Virtue, the correct opinion about the gods and their thoughts was not relevant as the Virtue system was considered the province of humans. So, although a virtuous man should show reference to the gods, it was not prescribed how he should do so and to what god(s) should be referred.

    So, instead of fighting the assorted religious nuts head on, the Romans drove the debate in a direction all men could aspire to.

  121. >>Yes, but it is trivial to posit a God whose existence is not logically impossible.

    >Indeed it is trivial. It is also uninteresting to do so, since there are no (surviving) monotheisms which worship a God that both interacts with the universe and is logically possible (phrased that way to avoid a quibble about deism).

    In fact, I developed an interesting theology when I was younger which was not only logically consistent, but also scientifically consistent with what we know of the world. I dropped it and have since been consistently atheist because even then there is absolutely no evidence that any god or gods actually exist.

  122. > When Harris says on page 109 that “The urge for retribution, therefore, seems to depend on our not seeing the underlying causes of human behavior,” I felt gobsmacked. How can Harris have missed the justification of retribution as a forward signal to potential wrongdoers in the future?

    Oh, I think he understands that quite well. You are correct about the purpose of retribution, but I think you miss the subtle point Sam is trying to make. Understanding the underlying causes removes the motives from the perpetrator in the first place. As retribution exists today, the forward signal you speak of may not be heard in the same manner by all recipients, and thus its efficacy may be in question.

    Or to put it more bluntly. As a parent, I would take great pleasure in giving someone who hurts children a very slow and painful death. Unfortunately, that probably only worked effectively in small tribal situations. In today’s world, there is nothing about that type of forward signal that would deter other people who display the same aberrant behavior.

    The optimal retribution may be to solve the problem in the lab, and “vaccinate” from there forward. In the abstract, that is indeed a type of forward signal, but in more concrete terms “prophylactic” or “vaccine” seems much more appropriate.

    I see one potential issue though… Only history can tell us certain things. Having the power to “vaccinate” what appeared aberrant at one time (homosexuality, differing range of skin colors, etc), might rob us of a certain richness in our future. I fear this ability would cause us to converge on a dangerous type of uniformity. It sickens me to have to consider that the very worst of society has a certain value in that way.

  123. Just another meaning of agnosticism: Considering the identity of the correct religion irrelevant.

    More like considering that that no correct religion exists. Megalomaniac insanity is then taking the next logical step and attempting to create the correctreligion. ;)

  124. @Morgan Greywolf
    “Megalomaniac insanity is then taking the next logical step and attempting to create the correctreligion. ;)”

    You obviously never read Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (start with “Praise of Folly”) or Spinoza. You could not have been more wrong.

  125. . What is the target of evolution (yes, evolution does have targets – eyes evolve towards seeing accurately as is reasonably practical, feet evolve towards running fast, and over time, most species get smarter) The evolutionary target for our moral intuitions is an evolutionary stable strategy for the use of force – which was not far from Saint Thomas of Aquinas’s target.

    I think you’re ascribing a bit more “thought” to evolution that is the reality. The only question that is interesting about evolution is “is the sum of the parts more or less fit to breed”. Evolution doesn’t sit back and think “you know those feet are cool, lets stick those with that brain, that was an awesome idea”. Instead those people with faster feet breed more surely than others, however thats assuming that within the context “running fast” is an advantageous trait.

    Is a stable strategy the goal? Unlikely, there are no goals in evolution only trajectories.
    Is a stable strategy the current trajectory? I couldn’t prove or disprove that but if it is we’re not getting very far. In some ways we’re just as barbaric in our use of force as the medieval ages.

    Ultimately saying “Evolution did it!” is just as unsatisfying and as unenlightening as “God did it!”.

  126. “…just as the philosophical proofs for God’s existence don’t actually prove He exists, the philosophical proofs that there is no God also fail.”

    Which in itself is sufficient justification for agnosticism. They don’t involve themselves in useless arguments. Many, though, also retreat into agnosticism because they don’t want to be identified with a certain species of atheist…the ones that like to ostentatiously look at their watches and yell, “God! I’ll give You ten seconds to strike me dead!………..Time’s up!”

    I (not agnostic), also remember cringing when a group of atheists tried to start calling themselves “bright”. No, you guys can go over and join the Mensa idiots; leave the rest of us dullards alone.

  127. they don’t want to be identified with a certain species of atheist… the ones that like to ostentatiously look at their watches and yell, “God! I’ll give You ten seconds to strike me dead!………..Time’s up!”

    Hmm, I don’t think I’ve encountered that species outside of emails chain letters circulated by fundies. The ones I really do find odious are the American Atheists types. Victim politics is loathsome enough in general. It’s doubly so when I’m being put forward as “victim”.

  128. I’m a bit confused, ESR, by a seeming contradiction. In your other writings, particularly, “Dancing with the Gods,” you accept as fact the existence of energy healing and other phenomena that fit uneasily with the conventional understanding of the world. (I say this as a sometime Qigong student.)

    At the same time, you are adamantly against the notion of a God.

    Perhaps you are hung up on the popular conception of God, as being essentially an omnipotent human? The Jewish view is that God is so alien to the human experience that we cannot conceive of it altogether, and that anthropomorphic metaphors for God are meant to guide the properly prepared mind to an understanding that cannot be captured with words (see in particular Bachya ibn Pakuda on this point). My father goes so far as to say that he is uncomfortable with considering God to be a being, at all.

    Furthermore, the book of Job makes very clear that God’s purpose is outside of our understanding, and need not correspond with our understanding of justice. That most theologians ignore this point is their problem, not God’s.

    You might consider God to be a metaphor for the Cause, however described, that a) brought about the universe, and b) provides enlightenment to those people who can tap into it through mystical practice.

  129. >You might consider God to be a metaphor for the Cause, however described, that a) brought about the universe, and b) provides enlightenment to those people who can tap into it through mystical practice.

    One of the reasons I call myself an atheist is out of revulsion against this sort of sloppy thinking. Metaphors are for poets; when I’m thinking analytically about the way the universe is, I don’t want them. I’m fine with enlightenment through mystical practice but I don’t confuse any of what that shows me with cosmology and don’t want to confuse it with cosmology.

  130. >If the claimed characteristics of a god are such as to make its existence logically impossible, being “agnostic” about its existence is like being “agnostic” about whether 2 + 2 = 4 in Peano arithmetic. This is not rational.

    For me it’s about language and keeping it precise.

    You can know that 2 + 2 = 4. It can be tested and confirmed (I don’t know enough about Peano arithmetic to know if something about it would allow doubt here. Pardon my ignorance on the subject).

    You can’t know that a plane won’t fall on your house tonight just as you can’t know that a single ticket in one of those huge multi-state lotteries is going to be a loser. Just as it would be absurd to waste time or energy preparing for either of these things to happen it would be absurd to let the possibility of the existence of any God/Deity/Spirit/Voodoo-curse factor into any of your decisions in life, scientific or otherwise.

    You can be agnostic and still think it’s irrational and downright ridiculous to believe in any god. You can believe that there are no gods (as I do) and be agnostic.

    Why say that you KNOW, when talking about an unfalsifiable claim?

  131. >Why say that you KNOW, when talking about an unfalsifiable claim?

    Good question. But the claim that a god with the omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence traits exists isn’t unfalsifiable. It is necessarily false.

    Now, if you want to speculate about gods without those imputed characteristics, we may get into unfalsifiability. Removing any one of the three will do.

  132. >Good question. But the claim that a god with the omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence traits exists isn’t unfalsifiable. It is necessarily false.

    >Now, if you want to speculate about gods without those imputed characteristics, we may get into unfalsifiability. Removing any one of the three will do.

    Again, this comes down to the definition of “theist”.
    If it necessarily means one of the big 3 monotheistic religions then… uncle.
    I don’t think it does or should. There are already specific names for those religions. If it does then the term “polytheist” should not exist and some other word for the belief in supernatural beings needs to be invented.
    I’m fairly certain that, if you polled a large number of people who identify as atheists (non or anti) the overwhelming majority, if not all would tell you that they don’t believe in ANY gods or religions.

    Someone splitting hairs might claim that your issue is with the co-existence of the omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence traits in the same god, not with the existence of the god itself.

  133. Good question. But the claim that a god with the omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence traits exists isn’t unfalsifiable. It is necessarily false.

    I’d drop omnibenevolence for a start. Old Testament God was not a benevolent God even by his own propaganda leaflet. If someone wants to argue that OT God is omnibenevolent then they have to argue that drowning all but 2 of every species because “they weren’t worshipping me” is benevolent.

  134. esr Says:
    > You think this is just a problem with utilitarianism? I think it’s a problem with deontic ethics and every
    > other account as well. They’ve all got utility functions; what differs is the amount of bafflegab they use
    > to obscure that fact.

    No they do not. What, for example, was Aristotle’s utility function in “Nichomachean Ethics”?

    Any moral system based on a utility function, any system that proposes to maximize total X over all people leads to totalitarian consequences, no matter what we choose for X, even if X is supposedly maximum liberty, maximum choice, attempting to maximize total X will minimize liberty and choice for each particular individual.

    Maximization principles necessarily lead to undesirable results because people are highly unlikely to agree on how
    to maximize whatever is being maximized, and what precisely a maximum is, particularly when some wise and
    good authority wants to maximize by improving Joe’s utility at the expense of Peter’s utility, or reducing Joe’s rights violation by violating Peter’s rights.

    Maximization requires a single view of the highest good to be imposed on everyone, and any disagreement concerning
    what that good is and how to achieve that good to be crushed, which requires unending war by some well armed authority, united by ideology, against a disarmed populace.

    Thus general acceptance of the view that whatever maximizes utility, or minimizes rights violations, is good, or lawful, is unlikely to lead to maximum utility or minimum rights violations.

    If a government wishes to be capitalist, it must use force on the basis of just retribution and defence of peoples rights and respect for peoples rights, rather than the basis of “what use of force will give effect to our objectives of being capitalist” It cannot subordinate the use of force to the goal of maximizing X, even if X is rights.

    For John Stuart Mill, rights are justified by utilitarianism, since the conditions under which utility can be maximized exist only when liberty is guaranteed. – but if rights are merely a tool for a purpose, a tool for maximizing happiness, then they are not rights, and they will not work as rights. They will not keep the peace. Instead government coercion will keep the peace, and we are back to Bentham’s totalitarian utilitarianism, which Mills was trying to rationalize his way out of.

  135. “If someone wants to argue that OT God is omnibenevolent then they have to argue that drowning all but 2 of every species because “they weren’t worshipping me” is benevolent.”

    You can’t use that story to prove anything unless you’re one of those literalists that won’t listen to any of the countless objections to their position. The ancient Hebrews weren’t thinking literally when they copied the flood story from the Babylonians, who copied it from the Assyrians, who copied it from the Akkadians, who copied it from the Sumerians, who….

  136. > I’d drop omnibenevolence for a start.

    Yep, I’ve heard plenty of Christians who believe that God’s benevolence is reserved for a small number of his faithful. There is no shortage of people of people claiming that all abortionist are going to spend eternity in a burning lake of sulfur or of pictures of picket signs with “God hates fags” on them. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Muslim claim that Allah is omni-benevolent but I’ve heard plenty quotes that would indicate otherwise.

  137. >What, for example, was Aristotle’s utility function in “Nichomachean Ethics”?

    Aristotle begins by saying that the highest good for humans is “eudaimonia”, which if you look it up is pretty similar to a Benthamite utilitarian’s notion of happiness. Joke’s on you.

    Now, at a second level of analysis, Aristotle argued that eudaemonia could be maximized by increasing the occurrence of virtue (arete) in individuals. But this just changes the utility function he aimed to maximize directly, trusting eudaemonia to increase as a mechanical result.

    More generally, your error lies in confusing Bentham-style hedonic utilitarianism with the goal of maximizing a utility function. The former is particular; the latter is general and a (disguised) property of all normative ethical systems.

  138. I prefer to use the term “God” as a reverential synonym for the totality of the universe. If God also exists in the manner in which mainstream religion conceives it, then that version of God must, by definition, be a subset of what I call God. I think it is appropriate to have a high regard for the totality of the universe.

  139. >I prefer to use the term “God” as a reverential synonym for the totality of the universe. If God also exists in the manner in which mainstream religion conceives it, then that version of God must, by definition, be a subset of what I call God. I think it is appropriate to have a high regard for the totality of the universe.

    I’m sympathetic to this position. The problem with it is that every time you use the word “God” with your private referent, you wind up giving social support to irrationalism and foaming loonies.

  140. You can’t use that story to prove anything unless you’re one of those literalists that won’t listen to any of the countless objections to their position. The ancient Hebrews weren’t thinking literally when they copied the flood story from the Babylonians, who copied it from the Assyrians, who copied it from the Akkadians, who copied it from the Sumerians, who….

    OK but the moral of that story is that if you don’t worship God and follow his rules he’s going to exterminate you with extreme prejudice. And i’ve picked the obvious one that I know the most about, it’s not like the OT isn’t filled to the brim with God smiting this or that because he doesn’t like what they’re doing. Endless forgiveness and boundless love doesn’t really come into the picture until the NT.

    In my (limited) experience, most God stories only go to conditional benevolence. Follow my rules and worship me and (maybe) i’ll protect you.

  141. In my (limited) experience, most God stories only go to conditional benevolence.

    Let me rephrase that (sounded way to wishywashy).

    In my limited experience, all God stories only go to conditional benevolence.

    My experience is limited to Christianity, some Gnosticism and a little bit(i.e. the cover sheet and resume) of Judaism, Islam and some of the ancient systems (egyptian, greek and roman). If there’s a God story out there that talks about wanting to bring every man woman and child into paradise regardless of who or what they are and what they’ve done (repentance on certain things accepted) then i’m interested to know.

  142. >If there’s a God story out there that talks about wanting to bring every man woman and child into paradise regardless of who or what they are and what they’ve done (repentance on certain things accepted) then i’m interested to know.

    No religion with such a theology has ever or will ever reach the stage of institutionalizing. Churches need sin and induced guilt to thrive.

  143. “As the term “atheist” is normally used, it denies theism that is, the existence of an Abrahamic-style creator-god. Since said existence is logically impossible (omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent in one package is incompatible with the existence of pain and evil) atheism seems a pretty rational and even necessary position to take.”

    Permit me to correct you here: this is not an argument that the God of classic theism is logically impossible – rather, it’s an argument that God, as defined, would not have created the universe as we know it, because a God who is infinitely powerful, wise and good would create the best possible universe, and this universe is manifestly inferior to some other possible universe. That is, the imperfection of the actual universe is taken as an empirical refutation of the hypothesis that God created it.

    Now, the weak point in this argument is that, in order to carry it through, the atheist has to exhibit a possible universe which lacks the flaws of the real one. To the best of my knowledge, each possibility that has been presented proves, on examination, to lack some feature of the real universe, which nearly everyone would agree is good and significant; thus the alternative is not manifestly better than the reality, which means God would not certainly have created it instead of our universe. I’ll take the easiest example: a universe in which moral evil is impossible looks, at first, better than the reality. However, the possible universes fitting that description are ones inhabited by philosophical zombies, who can’t form evil intentions because they can’t form any intentions; and ones in which matter refuses to obey when directed by rational beings who intend evil. I think it is manifest that a universe of zombies is much worse than the real universe; as for the other suggestion, if matter behaved like that causal regularity would be violated constantly in the presence of wicked persons, and scientific inquiry would be a futile project. I suppose there are people who would prefer that universe to ours, but the New Atheists like Sam Harris certainly don’t.

  144. No religion with such a theology has ever or will ever reach the stage of institutionalizing. Churches need sin and induced guilt to thrive.

    No, Daniel Franke is right: The UUs definitely meet that description.

  145. >Doesn’t the Universalist Church of America qualify?

    Remarkable. I think you are right. Now the interesting question is: how did they do it?

  146. > I’m sympathetic to this position. The problem with it is that every time you use the word “God” with your private referent, you wind up giving social support to irrationalism and foaming loonies.<

    This is true. I use the word rarely and usually in a context in which I'm trying to avoid an unnecessary conflict in polite company or family settings.

    On a related note, the human species is a small component of the earth, which is a minor part of the solar system, which is a trivial quantity in the galaxy, which is an infinitesimal speck of the universe. Why is it that a few billion transient life forms can establish a mystical conception of God over a period of a few thousand years out of 14 billion, and still think that no other explanation can be valid?

  147. @TomA
    “I prefer to use the term “God” as a reverential synonym for the totality of the universe.”

    You are in good company. That is basically the position of Spinoza. He could not say it outright because of the prevailing censorship (he was already persecuted for his views).

  148. >Permit me to correct you here: this is not an argument that the God of classic theism is logically impossible

    Logical impossibility is indeed one of the claims; see Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification for multiple demonstrations of theism’s logical impossibility, followed by multiple arguments that it is inconsistent with the real world, as well as multiple examples of problems with religious morality.

  149. Remarkable. I think you are right. Now the interesting question is: how did they do it?

    Christian Univsalism was/is a movement that traces back to the 19th century. It started with people attempting to logically reconcile the concept of an omnibenevolent god with a place of eternal torment and torture. Unitarianism, the other half “UU” started with people attempting to logically reconcile what happens to be people who aren’t of the supposed One True Religion(tm); they simply went to the logical extreme of rejecting the concept of a One True Religion(tm).

    Tge Universalist Church of America no longer exists separately; it merged with the Unitarian Association to become the Unitarian Universalists; Christian Universalists are a minority within the UUs.

  150. @esr: BTW– I’m a bit surprised that you seem to have never heard of the UUs. They’re one of the few non-pagan religions that are friendly to neopaganism.

  151. > I’m sympathetic to this position. The problem with it is that every time you use the word “God” with your private referent, you wind up giving social support to irrationalism and foaming loonies.

    This is exactly what went through my mind when I saw the title of your last blog “Maybe science is my religion, after all”.

  152. Morgan: I thought the Unitarian half was in reference to the line of theological thought that rejects Trinitarianism.

  153. >I’m a bit surprised that you seem to have never heard of the UUs. They’re one of the few non-pagan religions that are friendly to neopaganism.

    Oh, I’d heard of them, all right – I’d just forgotten about the theology of Universalism.

  154. >This is exactly what went through my mind when I saw the title of your last blog “Maybe science is my religion, after all”.

    And now you know why I always hesitate before describing the neopagan and quasi-Buddhist stuff I do as “religion”. It’s a deeply misleading word to anyone stuck inside supernaturalism and theism, but I don’t know of any word less misleading.

  155. > Now the interesting question is: how did they do it?

    In a religious vacuum, they probably wouldn’t have been able to.
    I can see such a religion being very attractive as a alternative to all the others who claim that you might be virtuous enough to make it to Heaven but your family members and loved ones who don’t make the cut will burn for eternity in a lake of fire.

    Maybe a better question is: Why didn’t it become more popular than it did?

  156. Morgan: I thought the Unitarian half was in reference to the line of theological thought that rejects Trinitarianism.

    Yes and no. Originally, yes, sometime ago (early 20th century?) the Universalists started allowing non-Christians in and over time the meaning of “Uinversalism” has shifted to include those people.

  157. And now you know why I always hesitate before describing the neopagan and quasi-Buddhist stuff I do as “religion”. It’s a deeply misleading word to anyone stuck inside supernaturalism and theism, but I don’t know of any word less misleading.

    It is a confusing word. I tend to use the words “religious practice” or “spiritual practice,” which has the intended effect of breaking people out of the mindset of Chrsitianity but even that doesn’t really get the point across.

  158. BPSouther: That actually brings to mind another question: why is there such a backlash against liberal Christianity in general? It seems like such an inherently unstable position. Proponents either slide in functional atheism, or “come to Jesus” and catapult right back into fundamentalism, with all the requisite theological rigmarole that entails.

  159. esr Says:

    > The problem with it is that every time you use the word “God” with your private referent, you wind up giving social support to irrationalism and foaming loonies.

    I read, ‘Ann Coulter writes of the left to mock them. David Mamet’s intention is to convert them, a far more ambitious enterprise,’ here:
    http://pajamasmedia.com/rogerlsimon/2011/05/23/david-mamets-progress/?singlepage=true

    I understand that your target audiences differ, but when writing about OSS, it seems as if your intent is conversion (and your success by that metric has actually been greater than the more dogmatic advocates of the four freedoms).

    Would you reach a bigger, more receptive audience and even change a couple of extra minds if you adopted that approach when writing about religion?

  160. @Brian Scott:

    You mean it isn’t obvious? *blink*

    Liberal religions in general, especially those that require their practitioners to think for themselves, are highly discouraged precisely because they can’t be used against their adherents to control them.

  161. I meant that people seem to moving away from it. Stifling it from the outside is understandable, but liberal churches are (supposedly) hemorrhaging adherents, while the more literalist and fundamentalist denominations seem to be gaining.

  162. I meant that people seem to moving away from it. Stifling it from the outside is understandable, but liberal churches are (supposedly) hemorrhaging adherents, while the more literalist and fundamentalist denominations seem to be gaining.

    Or they just appear to be getting more vocal because they are losing adherents. Check out ARIS for more details. The fastest growing religion in the U.S. is no religion.

  163. Interesting survey. I’d like to see it conducted again soon, as I’d bet the influence of the New Atheists since 2008 has been considerable, though it’ll probably show up mostly as non-denominational Christians, agnostics, and the non-religious becoming explicit atheists.

  164. >Would you reach a bigger, more receptive audience and even change a couple of extra minds if you adopted that approach when writing about religion?

    Certainly. But I’m not anti-evangelizing right now.

  165. @Morgan

    Huh, that is an interesting survey. It seems I was mistaken in my assessment.

  166. Interesting survey. I’d like to see it conducted again soon, as I’d bet the influence of the New Atheists since 2008 has been considerable, though it’ll probably show up mostly as non-denominational Christians, agnostics, and the non-religious becoming explicit atheists.

    Unfortunately, ARIS doesn’t appear to be conducted as regularly as some other less scientific surveys (i.e., conducted by people without a clue as to proper statistical sampling and surveying methods). But I’m sure they’ll do another poll sooner or later.

  167. Apparantly there’s physical evidence that The walled garden is a temple.

    Apparantly i’m reposting something that Jeff Read posted much much previously. My bad, didn’t see read the post at the time.

  168. Real interesting stuff for this Baptist.

    But I don’t get this notion that our moral beliefs like mercy are the product of social evolution. If that were so, why do human societies demonstrate such vastly different moral beliefs? There have been cultures that delight in watching people hack each other to ribbons as a form of entertainment. Other cultures regard it as appropriate to abort all female fetuses. Other cultures feature the belief that homosexuals should be executed. And so on. I know that nature gives rise to a great deal of diversity, but it’s hard to see how that would happen when it comes to morality. Humans are humans, physically and mentally, wherever you find us, anywhere on the planet. We have the same physical and social needs, all over the world. So whatever is truly, objectively good for one group of humans surely ought to be truly, objectively good for all. And if I’ve evolved enough to understand that, so should everyone else. But clearly that’s not the case. Our physical evolution has left people everywhere pretty much the same. But our moral evolution is all over the map. Which suggests to me that there’s a heck of a lot more going on in human moral reasoning than evolution, and there’s no natural selection of right and wrong. But I’m an ignoramus in these matters. What am I missing?

  169. Jesme says:
    > If that were so, why do human societies demonstrate such vastly different moral beliefs?

    Moral beliefs about people who count as people, about neighbors, family and so forth, are strikingly uniform. Who counts as people, people far away, tends to vary considerably.

  170. Eric wrote on May 23, in relation to Rand:

    “There are other problems with it, however, notably that her confirmation theory is seriously broken.”

    forgive my ignorance, but I am not sure what you mean.

  171. >forgive my ignorance, but I am not sure what you mean [by saying that Rand's confirmation theory is seriously broken].

    Confirmation theory is the branch of philosophy concerned with how we evaluate truth claims (nearly indistinguishable from epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge; the difference is mainly one of emphasis rather than content).

    When I say that Rand’s confirmation theory is seriously broken, I mean that her theory of truth dissolves into circularity and hand-waving when examined too closely. One of the major problems is that she believes Aristotelian binary logic is the way the universe fundamentally is, rather than being merely a convenient abstraction for some kinds of reasoning: thus you get from her claims like the so-called “Law of Identity” which is false where it is not utterly meaningless. More generally, Rand suffers from massive confusion between linguistic map and phenomenological territory; this is hard for most people to see because she is mainly systematizing and exaggerating errors that are already baked into most natural-language reasoning.

    A good antidote to Rand’s epistemological confusion is to read Alfred Korzybski and learn to think in terms of non-identity, non-Aristotelian logic, and systematic consciousness of abstracting. I’ve found these tools immensely helpful over the last forty years, and not just for avoiding Rand’s errors but a lot of other time-wasting philosophical sinkholes as well.

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