Sam Harris' surprisingly modest proposal

post by sketerpot · 2010-10-06T00:46:05.838Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 44 comments

Sam Harris has a new book, The Moral Landscape, in which he makes a very simple argument, at least when you express it in the terms we tend to use on LW: he says that a reasonable definition of moral behavior can (theoretically) be derived from our utility functions. Essentially, he's promoting the idea of coherent extrapolated volition, but without all the talk of strong AI.

He also argues that, while there are all sorts of tricky corner cases where we disagree about what we want, those are less common than they seem. Human utility functions are actually pretty similar; the disagreements seem bigger because we think about them more. When France passes laws against wearing a burqa in public, it's news. When people form an orderly line at the grocery store, nobody notices how neatly our goals and behavior have aligned. No newspaper will publish headlines about how many people are enjoying the pleasant weather. We take it for granted that human utility functions mostly agree with each other.

What surprises me, though, is how much flak Sam Harris has drawn for just saying this. There are people who say that there can not, in principle, be any right answer to moral questions. There are heavily religious people who say that there's only one right answer to moral questions, and it's all laid out in their holy book of choice. What I haven't heard, yet, are any well-reasoned objections that address what Harris is actually saying.

So, what do you think? I'll post some links so you can see what the author himself says about it:

"The Science of Good and Evil": An article arguing briefly for the book's main thesis.

Frequently asked questions: Definitely helps clarify some things.

TED talk about his book: I think he devotes most of this talk to telling us what he's not claiming.

44 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2010-10-06T17:26:07.885Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"The Science of Good and Evil": An article arguing briefly for the book's main thesis.

I don't know if the book is any less bad, but this article is pure Dark Arts, and not even a competent attempt at those. I hardly see a single valid argument made in it. It is a mere collection of emotional appeals, invalid analogies, and ridiculous attempts to sell as "scientific" naive utilitarian ideas that anyone unbiased and moderately competent in critical thinking should be able to rip to shreds without any serious effort.

Like any other ideologue, Harris has a vision of what the social order should be like and how people should live their lives, and he wishes to push it onto those he disagrees with. This is nothing unusual by itself, but the real trouble is that in a way similar to an orthodox Marxist, Harris insists that his ideology has the force of "science" and therefore there can be no tolerance for those pathological elements who refuse to submit to his vision.

Traditional religious people, except for the greatest extremists, at least accept the fact that there will be other people around them who don't share their religion, so that it's desirable to find a way to agree to disagree. People like Harris, however, with their faith that their ideology is a product of "science" and thus infallible and necessarily accepted by anyone honest and sane, have no such concerns. Ultimately, if you have different ideas on how you would like to live your life and what kind of society you would like to live in, they are far more dangerous than all but the most extreme religious zealots.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-07T01:11:27.032Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're using "ideologue" as a dirty word, and bringing in Marxism to taint by association.

If an "ideologue" was right, in your opinion, you wouldn't condemn him for being too ideological. If you had a vision of the social order that really was how things should be, you'd damn well push it on the reluctant.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2010-10-07T03:21:34.120Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In retrospect, I did get carried away a bit writing the above comment, but still, I don't see any ground for your specific objections:

You're using "ideologue" as a dirty word,

Only insofar as "ideologue" suggests bias and low intellectual standards due to prioritizing the promotion of ideology over clear thinking. This is, in my view, an entirely fair and objective way to characterize the article in question.

and bringing in Marxism to taint by association.

I brought in Marxism as a pertinent analogy, namely as another example of an ideology whose essential component is that it lays pretense to scientific status. Note also that I said orthodox Marxists, by which I meant the old-school kind who insisted on describing themselves as "scientific socialists." (These are almost nonexistent nowadays, not least because, insofar as Marxism makes any falsifiable predictions, they have been repeatedly falsified for well over a century now.)

If an "ideologue" was right, in your opinion, you wouldn't condemn him for being too ideological.

Well, when I read stuff written by people whose overall position has a strong ideological pull on me, I often feel awful frustration when I see invalid reasoning used to argue for positions I sympathize with. But I allow that ideological sympathy is probably clouding my judgment on at least some occasions, and you're heartily welcome to make a correction should you notice this sometime.

If you had a vision of the social order that really was how things should be, you'd damn well push it on the reluctant.

Even assuming this is true, it is still a lesser sin than doing this pushing in the name of science, so I can nevertheless claim to be less bad, no?

In any case, claiming that all people are equal when it comes to ideological zealotry is simply inaccurate. Some people have much grander and more radical visions, as well as much greater zeal, for pushing their ideological visions on the rest of humanity. For clear reasons, ideologies that make pretenses at scientific status tend to be particularly aggressive in this regard, as the historical record clearly shows.

comment by Lightwave · 2010-10-07T09:53:13.731Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Like any other ideologue, Harris has a vision of what the social order should be like and how people should live their lives, and he wishes to push it onto those he disagrees with.

You could argue against "pushing" the CEV "ideology" on people on the same grounds, couldn't you?

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-07T12:24:28.737Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That was exactly my point.

A coherent vision for the human race that happens to be truly the best thing is something you will feel is your duty to put into action. In fact, it would be your duty.

I suspect that Vladimir doesn't like Harris because his examples make him a conventional moderate liberal.

Harris is trying to prove that SCIENCE! implies that we all must be conventional moderate liberals. The first part of that sentence (the "SCIENCE" part) is kind of shoddy. So what we're left with is "We all must be conventional moderate liberals." As a conventional moderate liberal, I AM BEHIND THIS ALL THE WAY.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2010-10-07T16:44:32.525Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ignoring the present problems with CEV, which are still deep and insufficiently understood to give any final judgment on that project, the relevant point is that CEV is supposed to solve the problem of existential threat of non-friendly AI, not to achieve improvements on the present human condition. In other words, it's an attempt to figure out how to ensure that an AI, if implemented, won't turn us into dog food, not a pseudoscientific recipe for building utopia here and now (which would be just as insane as all such previous ideas).

Assuming an AI will be implemented at some point, CEV will be a preferable alternative to being turned into dog food, and -- as a wild speculation -- in the hands of a superintelligence, its results might perhaps not even be that bad by other standards. But all this is extremely far-fetched in any case.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-07T17:03:53.346Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

what's your problem with utopia? don't you like nice things?

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2010-10-06T17:21:38.047Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sam Harris makes me extremely nervous when he says in the FAQ(5):

[The Taliban] believe that they will enjoy an eternity of happiness after death by following the strictest interpretation of Islamic law here on earth.

He has a long history of asserting that people believe their dogma. While he has managed to say interesting things about religion despite this terrible handicap, I think one must be careful when reading him.

Similar is sketerpot's example of the burqa in France. I don't know what was meant by the example, but it's not a disagreement of individual preferences or belief about preferences. All sides are in tacit agreement that (most of) the purpose of the burqa is to show allegiance.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-10-07T00:51:31.556Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

He has a long history of asserting that people believe their dogma. While he has managed to say interesting things about religion despite this terrible handicap, I think one must be careful when reading him.

Well, many people in the Taliban certainly do appear to act as though they believe their dogma.

comment by DilGreen · 2010-10-07T09:35:18.598Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is the awful thing about the interaction of humans and dogma.

What can start out primarily as a means of advertising allegiance can easily, particularly in stressed circumstances , become a trap.

To me, someone who undertakes a suicide bombing mission would appear to be someone who believes in the stuff about heaven et al very seriously indeed. However, journalists who have taken care to look into the real circumstances of these people have suggested that some at least of them are not particularly fervent believers, and have diverse reasons for participating. [http://www.newsweek.com/2008/07/29/dressed-to-kill.html] Perhaps this is an extreme case of the argument set out in this post: http://lesswrong.com/lw/2r0/dont_judge_a_skill_by_its_specialists/

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-10-08T01:27:55.450Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You don't have to be a religious fanatic to blow yourself up, but it helps.

comment by sketerpot · 2010-10-07T05:20:28.064Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My example of the burqa in France was just supposed to illustrate that disagreements over values are more newsworthy than the agreements, though they're less numerous. I wasn't taking a side on the issue, which turns out to be a tad more subtle than the headlines make it sound.

comment by Dr_Manhattan · 2011-07-31T14:11:56.593Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sam Harris makes me extremely nervous when he says in the FAQ(5):

[The Taliban] believe that they will enjoy an eternity of happiness after death by following the strictest interpretation of Islamic law here on earth.

How else would you explain this? http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/31/world/asia/31herat.html?_r=2&ref=global-home

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2011-07-31T16:13:37.264Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ms. Mohammedi’s uncle visited her in jail to say she had shamed the family, and promised that they would kill her once she was released.

This is about shame. The uncle wants to restore his own honor, not avoid damnation, nor deter others from the damnation of eloping. I recommend this Last Psychiatrist article about a hardly observent Iraqi killing his daughter in America. If it's too long, just read section VI. As he says, OJ Simpson isn't enforcing Shariah.

Actually, I am surprised to learn that the Taliban executed elopers itself, rather than just endorsing parental murder. I would guess that crowds pulling couples from cars is more about conformity than Shariah, but I don't know much about it. Everything I've read about the Islamic Revolution in Iran suggests that with no religious change people started enforcing public dress codes much more severe than they themselves had been wearing. Though there is some bias in which accounts appear in English.

Anyhow, I recommend people like Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran for other explanations than belief.

Actually, now I recall that Sam Harris does not consistently claim that people believe their dogma, but only fundamentalists. If moderates don't believe what they say, why should fundamentalists? Yes, if people did believe in their religion, they might become literalists, but I think that's quite rare.

comment by Dr_Manhattan · 2011-08-01T12:39:17.771Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

First, it's not just the uncle - it's the father, too. Even if the father does not "believe the dogma" as you say the dogma is a memetic force in that society, where partial endorsement thereof makes episodes as described common.

From personal experience of having being moderately religious orthodox jew in america for 20 years I can say I believed, and would follow the religious precepts even if none but god was looking. I can readily extrapolate that Talibanis really believe much of the dogma just based on that.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2011-08-02T01:45:22.257Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, writing down Sharia should have some effect, but what? I doubt the Koran is more specific than Deuteronomy 21:18-20, which vaguely talks about killing disobedient sons, but is pretty widely ignored.

I think the most useful part of the concept of memes is to separate belief from belief-in-belief.

My previous comment emphasized the public too much. I don't mean to dispute that people believe in the rightness of what they do. I'm not talking about peer pressure to change one's actions. I do mean that neighbors influence people's morals, but mainly I object to the claim that people actually believe auxiliary factual claims that are made in their morality. I don't believe Harris's claim the Taliban choose their morals based on beliefs about afterlife. Did you honor your mother and father in order to live long? Did you keep the covenant with Abraham so that your descendents would be as numerous as the stars?

First, it's not just the uncle - it's the father, too.

Yes. Why do you bring this up? Has anyone proposed a theory under which the father and uncle act differently?

comment by Dr_Manhattan · 2011-08-02T12:31:55.106Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

First, it's not just the uncle - it's the father, too. Yes. Why do you bring this up? Has anyone proposed a theory under which the father and uncle act differently?

Yes, this theory is commonly called evolution.

My point is that it takes some pretty strong mental forces to overcome natural attachment of father for the daughter. Shame by itself does not seem to make the cut.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2011-08-02T19:39:23.610Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You are assuming your conclusion: that shame is weaker than belief. Evolution is irrelevant to your argument.

Yes, evolution distinguishes between the father and the uncle, but shame+evolution and afterlife+evolution do so equally. Kin selection quantifies the expected differential action and it's pretty small - a factor of two. If you claim that shame would motivate the uncle and not the father, then you need a quantified theory of shame that is equally precise.

I gave an example where a father killed his daughter with lots of evidence that it was shame, not belief, so shame makes the cut, regardless of whether supernatural reward does.

Parents kill their children quite often. It's not that much to overcome.

comment by Lightwave · 2010-10-07T10:01:55.059Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

All sides are in tacit agreement that (most of) the purpose of the burqa is to show allegiance.

Still, you'd agree there exist better or worse ways to show allegiance?

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2010-10-07T14:45:28.500Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The French are not objecting to the implementation details. They are trying to prevent the group identity entirely.

comment by Lightwave · 2010-10-07T21:22:59.930Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Are they? It seems to me nobody would be against them wearing a badge or something. You can also ban football t-shirts on the same grounds.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-06T15:29:30.297Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Harris says in his Q and A that people who think stopping gay marriage is a major issue are "not worth listening to."

That kind of gets to the heart of his argument. He's conceding that his argument has limits. If you're going to say that science can give us answers about morality, you have to declare that some people are not worth listening to. In his case, this means non-humanists. Harris, and I, believe that what matters morally is the well-being of conscious creatures. The people who don't -- the people who think some races are vermin to be exterminated, for example -- are completely incompatible with our moral system. We can't listen to them, and we can't persuade them; we can only stop them from doing harm.

You can talk to humanists by discussing consequences: such and such a plan would save lives or end them, cause happiness or misery, wealth or poverty, health or sickness, flourishing or limitation. You can't really talk to a non-humanist. You can't prove him wrong, by science or philosophy or anything else. If he doesn't care about people, you can't make him care. All you can do is say "I'm a humanist, and this makes you my enemy."

comment by Vladimir_M · 2010-10-06T17:54:20.783Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

SarahC:

[Harris is] conceding that his argument has limits. If you're going to say that science can give us answers about morality, you have to declare that some people are not worth listening to. In his case, this means non-humanists. Harris, and I, believe that what matters morally is the well-being of conscious creatures. The people who don't -- the people who think some races are vermin to be exterminated, for example -- are completely incompatible with our moral system. We can't listen to them, and we can't persuade them; we can only stop them from doing harm.

I'm not sure if I'm reading you correctly, but you seem to be implying that when one embraces Harris's worldview, the only people who have any serious disagreements ("non-humanists") will be various insane extremists. But this is completely false. Historically, there have been numerous human social orders that are not evil or crazy by any reasonable standard, and others might exist in the future. Reasonable and non-evil people will ultimately disagree on which exact one they favor, and there is no way to solve that conflict of values and preferences except by figuring out some practical way to disagree and let good fences make good neighbors, or by having one view imposed on others by force (and perhaps, in the long run, ideological propaganda).

There is no way that you can construct an argument based on vague claims like "what matters morally is the well-being of conscious creatures" that will provide valid evidence, let alone a valid proof, for even the roughest outlines of Harris's ideology. It's all vapid talk disguised as rational argument (or to make things even worse, as "science").

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-06T22:13:44.758Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nope, they won't be crazy extremists.

The point is, if you want universal morality, you have to exclude some points of view. If you want to be Sam Harris, you have to declare you won't listen to some people. If you want to claim that science can resolve questions of morality, it can only do that among people who already agree on a number of fundamental values. Nobody else counts; you have to override them, perhaps by force.

Because I'm in a bad mood right now, I say "Kill 'em all," even if that leaves about five survivors. lol.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2010-10-06T22:33:35.262Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

SarahC:

The point is, if you want universal morality, you have to exclude some points of view. If you want to be Sam Harris, you have to declare you won't listen to some people. If you want to claim that science can resolve questions of morality, it can only do that among people who already agree on a number of fundamental values. Nobody else counts; you have to override them, perhaps by force.

That is indeed so. But the additional trouble is that arguments based on "the well-being of conscious creatures" and such fuzzy concepts won't even be able to provide a clearly defined position with which people could genuinely agree. All they will provide is a rallying point for some existing ideological forces that will gather around it guided by emotion or interest.

Moreover, once "science" is taken to be authoritative for resolving moral questions, then in any realistic human society, it is only a matter of time before the very notion of "science" degenerates into a fig-leaf for ideology and venal interest. (Which has in fact already happened to a large extent in some fields that modern governments rely on as an authoritative guide for policy.) Thomas Hobbes put it best:

[The] doctrine of right and wrong is perpetually disputed, both by the pen and the sword: whereas the doctrine of lines and figures is not so, because men care not in that subject what be truth, as a thing that crosses no man's ambition, profit, or lust. For I doubt not, but if it had been a thing contrary to any man's right of dominion, or to the interest of men that have dominion, that the three angles of a triangle should be equal to two angles of a square, that doctrine should have been, if not disputed, yet by the burning of all books of geometry suppressed, as far as he whom it concerned was able.

Harris's inability write a whole book about this topic without being able to grasp this essential point is, in my view, enough to dismiss him as an altogether incompetent thinker.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-06T22:38:20.010Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But when do I get to kill people? Can I start with rednecks, people named Vladimir, and the sadistic bastard who wrote my homework?

Seriously, I think you and I agree -- Sam Harris can't really run a shortcut around all moral debate the way he's claiming he can. All he's really doing is telling people who share a certain set of values that they should go ahead and act according to those values because everyone else is heinous and "not worth listening to."

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-06T15:18:05.084Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think he's way overconfident in assuming that everyone is or has to be concerned with the "well-being of conscious creatures." Some people do not think that the suffering of all conscious creatures counts, morally. Some people think that suffering ennobles. Some people think that there is such a thing as just punishment (not to prevent further suffering, but purely as retribution.) You're not going to prove those people wrong with science!

On the other hand, there are areas of broad agreement, especially within a society. Usually it's enough to say "But that will cause thousands of deaths!" or "But that leads to lifelong psychological trauma!" or "But that will destroy the economy!" It's so common to assume that death and poverty are bad, that objective facts can usually advance moral discussions. But those assumptions are not universal. Sam Harris can't persuade the Taliban that women are worth caring about. All he can do is to persuade the rest of us not to tolerate the Taliban.

There's a certain unity -- not universal unity, but broad unity -- in what people value. Sociopaths do not have empathy, but most people do. There's even more unity in the common values of modern industrialized democracies. But there are correspondingly more dissenters -- people who could not be persuaded to be concerned for women or children or the families of murderers. Science can tell us a lot about the consequences of actions; it doesn't tell us if we should care about the consequences.

I think that Sam Harris is actually advocating for more confidence on the part of those of us who care about the "well-being of conscious creatures." He's broadly a humanist; he doesn't like unnecessary suffering, and he thinks that the suffering or joy of any conscious creature counts. I have the same views. But you can't prove those views are worth having. At best you can say, empirically, that they're pretty common. You can say that the direction of history moves towards recognizing those views more and more fully.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-10-07T00:38:06.329Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sam Harris can't persuade the Taliban that women are worth caring about. All he can do is to persuade the rest of us not to tolerate the Taliban.

I dunno, if the Taliban magically became convinced of the "objective fact" that their god didn't exist, I suspect that they'd be more willing to listen to arguments about the value of girls' schools and such. If there really were an evil bastard deity out there sending people to hell for not following the rules that the Taliban imposes, then, well, it would be better to force women to wear burqas and keep them out of school than let them end up as yet another victim of said evil deity.

comment by multifoliaterose · 2010-10-06T15:34:18.073Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wrote up some thoughts about this to an acquaintance last March after seeing Harris' TED talk and reading Sean Carroll's initial response. I've pasted these thoughts below.


Despite their apparent disagreement, I think that the things that Harris and Carroll are saying are not so different. I agree with Carroll that science can't provide us with the most basic moral assumptions. But I don't think that Harris is really trying to say that science provides us with the most basic moral assumptions (even if it does sound like he's saying that). I think that what Harris is trying to say is that in practice, there's enough overlap between most people's basic moral assumptions so that often that there is a "fact of the matter" as to whether each member of a pair is right or wrong if they disagree - an assessment of the situation which they could share if they had enough factual knowledge. In this respect I agree with Harris.

To be sure, there are some genuine moral gray areas in real life, particularly when there's "not enough to go around" for everybody's needs to be met. But many political disagreements between people boil down to different factual assessments of situations: Does handgun control increase or decrease violent death of innocents? Is there a Christian God who will send people who engage in homosexual behavior to hell for eternity? On average does welfare encourage laziness among the poor or does it enable them to become more productive members of society? Will the health care reform that just passed increase or decrease health care costs relative to what they otherwise had been? etc.

I also think that there are many instances in which people appear to differ in their most basic moral assumptions but do not in actuality. People can be confused about what's important to them. When they're concerned they sometimes misattribute where these concerns are coming from. For example, for a number of years I was deeply disturbed by (what I thought to be) the absence of absolute morality. Only over the past few years have I realized that my anxiety was not rooted in the absence of absolute morality, but with the fact that I have a tendency to internalize strongly vocalized world views that I don't agree with and when this happens it's very unpleasant for me. I had unconsciously concluded that the only way that I could get around this problem was to find objectively true moral principles that substantiated my values. Thus, the problem came to seem hopeless and I spent a lot of time upset about this. Once I realized what my real concern was (that I was doomed to internalize unpleasant world views), addressing it became much easier.

I think that something analogous is going on when, for example, people in the American heartland exhibit xenophobia toward Mexican immigrants - their hatred of Mexicans is not actually a core value on their part - they're substituting (concerns about losing their jobs, being surrounded by an influx of new people who they can't relate to, etc.) with (hatred of Mexicans), a substitution which probably doesn't help them address their actual concerns.

I agree with Sam Harris that intellectuals should be more willing to form and to vocalize moral views. Whatever reservations one has about adopting a voice of authority must be counterbalanced by the fact that someone will be adopting a voice of authority in any case. Intellectuals are undoubtedly "out of touch" with a large portion of the population, but the same can be said of most demographies. I think that intellectuals do know more on average (not in every case) about the "matters of fact" that are relevant to coming to conclusions that derive from ubiquitous basic moral assumptions, and that it would be in many people's interest to pay more attention to them.


(Note that Carroll subsequently wrote more about the topic, for example here).

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-06T15:55:44.564Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm with Carroll here; I'm also with you, in the sense that I think there are areas of pretty broad agreement on the moral basics, where questions of fact become very relevant.

One thing I wonder about sometimes is what to do about people who have a pretty alien moral system -- but not completely alien. Fundamentalist Christians, for example. Or people in Asian or African societies where they place a higher value on tradition than on freedom.

Are these people "wrong"? That's a lot of people to place outside the pale of reasonable discussion. There are a lot of non-humanists out there -- at least, to some degree or another. On the other hand, if they start to make things morally worse, by my lights -- if they drive gay teenagers to suicide or cut off girls' clitorises -- then I'm not going to say "meh, to each his own." I don't think we have to let just anything stand unchallenged, in the name of tolerance. On the other hand, if we don't have some notion of tolerance of disagreement, we could become pretty dogmatic and dangerous. I do not want to live in a world where some measure of happiness was maximized ruthlessly without my say-so.

comment by Wilka · 2010-10-06T07:16:09.167Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here's a longer (1h 16m) version of his TED talk he gave at Google: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UrA-8rTxXf0

The more polished TED version is kind of a summary of this talk.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-10-11T20:38:48.437Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you are overgenerous on his philosophical sophistication! AFAICT he just repeatedly asserts that we know what's right and it's promoting human wellbeing. He pushes straightforward moral realism with no stronger argument than repeated heated assertion.

comment by utilitymonster · 2010-10-09T13:38:56.083Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My reaction is that moral philosophy just isn't science. Sure, if you're a utilitarian you can use empirical evidence to figure out what maximizes aggregate welfare, relative to your account of well-being, but you can't use science to discover that utilitarianism is true. This is because utilitarianism, like any other first-order normative theory and many meta-ethical theories, doesn't lead you to expect any experiences over any other experiences.

comment by magfrump · 2010-10-07T02:30:20.405Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When people form an orderly line at the grocery store, nobody notices how neatly our goals and behavior have aligned.

It hasn't even made the Onion!

comment by zefreak · 2010-10-06T04:05:10.527Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I still think Ayer's chapter on ethics sums up morality pretty well, at least as most peole use the term. Is Harris referencing something other than an objective set of values? It seems he may be committing one great naturalistic fallacy if not, and if he is I wish he would ditch the term.

comment by Will_Newsome · 2010-10-06T02:20:19.672Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Just reading his frequently asked questions was probably enough for me to say I agree with him. His proposal is idealistic, though. Bioethics is an area where we know exactly what would increase humanity's well-being, but Sam Harris's modest proposal isn't going to sway anyone.

Basically, it's cool that someone's being sane about morality. For anyone who disagreed with or didn't understand Eliezer's sequence on the subject, this seems like the next best thing, if you supplement it with knowledge of evolutionary/cognitive psychology, rationality, signaling theory, et cetera.

comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2012-07-01T20:06:43.778Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sam Harris's books are wonderfully written, weaving together Eastern and Western modes of thought. Looking down the comments list, I think far too many people have just read the first link and judged from there. Don't extrapolate from small amounts of evidence when there's much more evidence to consider.

I have read all of Harris's works, and find them incredibly useful and informative. I now follow his blog, and I assure you that he covers all of the problems discussed below. He argues that all moral decisions are decisions about the best possible future state of affairs.

As has been discussed on other posts, most human hardware (brains, that is) are similar. He argues that human flourishing is what we should really value, if we actually understand what we value. He doesn't say that morality concerns the kinds of rules we find in physics, but that it is far more normative.

He supposes a person who doesn't share our values, but this time takes the normative values of logic. If a person is a genesis-creationist-chemist, who believes that water isn't H20 because it would be biblically inelegant for God to make special hydrogen before making the sun, then we can't disprove them by appeal to logic. What logical argument, he asks, will you use to persuade someone to value logic? We can't use these normative laws to tell people what to believe if they don't share our values. Harris then takes our value of human flourishing. He attempts to show how almost all people value this, and how a science of morality therefore shouldn't be as controversial as, for instance, a science of physical health - nobody is attacking the philosophical underpinnings of physical health by asking "What if a person wants to throw up all of the time and then die?". And nobody also says "Health changes over time, and we can't have a science surrounding such a vague idea". Just because people used to only live to 25 and now live to 70 doesn't mean we can't be scientific about health. He argues that we can have a science of such normative values with a perfectly well grounded philosophy, just as science can be built around other normative things, like logic.

That may not be the best presentation of his argument... It's not my personal choice, and I'm not him. He writes clearly, but he's one of the best speakers I've ever come across. Perhaps listen to his full-length talks on Morality, Free Will and Religion/Dogmatism. I think he's really much better than the comments are giving him credit for.

To hear his view on Free Will: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCofmZlC72g&feature=player_embedded

comment by timtyler · 2010-10-09T11:33:22.520Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sam argues for moral realism - a pretty unpopular idea around here.

The case he makes for it is an awful one, IMO.

comment by thomblake · 2010-10-07T17:56:57.482Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When people form an orderly line at the grocery store, nobody notices how neatly our goals and behavior have aligned.

Lots of people notice this! A few years ago, there was a popular book ("Watching the English") one of whose major topics was how much English people like to queue, and it's widely known that the same does not hold for many sorts of continental Europeans.

comment by NihilCredo · 2010-10-07T07:32:16.535Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wonder what kinds of depraved and obviously insane moral standards we, and Sam Harris, hold right now that will cause our mid-third-millennium descendants to shake their heads during History class, and Sam Harris' distant spiritual heir to label us as "not worth listening to" while providing no argument more structured than 'because it's depraved and obviously insane, duh'. (Murdering animals seems the foremost candidate. All sorts of now-disgusting sexual mores also sound plausible.)

If your theory for a universal morality behaves for all intents and purposes like "Let's all care about the exact same things I care about, and anybody who disagrees is very evil or very stupid!", you may want to tone down your claims.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-07T15:27:54.269Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If your theory for a universal morality behaves for all intents and purposes like "Let's all care about the exact same things I care about, and anybody who disagrees is very evil or very stupid!", you may want to tone down your claims.

why, though?

comment by NihilCredo · 2010-10-07T21:45:32.336Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Because it's rather more likely that you're just rationalising, using self-deception to raise your personal values to categorical imperative status, than that you (a) discovered the correct process to establish which values are "worth listening to" and (b) immediately found out that the subset of values "worth listening to" were precisely the ones you had already been considering "worth listening to".

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-08T12:44:56.247Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here's the thing. Given that there are pretty irreconcilable differences between terminal values -- the question is what attitude you ought to have towards your own values. Are you going to say "Well, this is just my opinion" or are you going to say "My opponents are EVIL"? Are you going to treat your own values with an attitude of confidence or an attitude of timidity and provisionality? I think it's in your interest to approach your values with confidence; if you don't, you will always be unsatisfied, and you will be defeated by people with competing values who are more confident.

There's a scene in the West Wing where a character is urging the Democrats to be more aggressive in talking to the Republicans. The line ends, "We're both right. We're both wrong. Let's have two parties, huh? What do you say?" The point is, if you let the other guys claim the moral high ground and the categorical imperative, the other guys will win. Now you might be wrong and they might be right; but do you really want to live in a world where you never get what you want and your opponents always do? Do you want to live in a world where what happens is always your least favorite outcome? Because that is what will happen if you try to be the most willing to compromise and the most willing to concede your own flaws. The person left out of the discussion will be you.

comment by NihilCredo · 2010-10-08T13:01:35.225Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure we're even talking about related things anymore... your post (which uses quite a bit of Dark Arts, by the way) is all about instrumental signaling and how best to lead other people to act the way you'd prefer. I'm talking about Harris's claim to have outlined the process for an objective, universal study of morality. I am not really interested in whether his writings are or are not an efficient way to make others adopt his same morals; I am interested in the intellectual consistency of his positions, which I currently find rather lacking.