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Yes, you do look fat in that dress September 24, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics.

In a new essay entitled “Lying”, Sam Harris argues that lies are “the social equivalent of toxic waste”, and that we must commit to avoiding them — even so-called “white” lies:

When we presume to lie for the benefit of others, we have decided that we are the best judges of how much they should understand about their own lives — about how they appear, their reputations, or their prospects in the world. This is an extraordinary stance to adopt toward other human beings, and it requires justification. Unless someone is suicidal or otherwise on the brink, deciding how much he can know about himself seems the quintessence of arrogance. What attitude could be more disrespectful of those we care about?

Moreover: even seemingly harmless lies undermine trust, foreclose opportunities for deepening relationships, and generally have unforeseen and unintended consequences. Hard as it might be, we must learn to tell our friends and loved ones when we don’t like a gift, when their spouse is cheating on them, when they can’t act or sing, and when they look fat.


Could science prove that vanilla is better than chocolate? February 1, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Science.

Science can undoubtedly help us get what we want, but could science ever tell us what we ought to want, or what we ought to value? Sam Harris thinks so: he argues that the only reasonable source of value in this universe is the well-being of conscious creatures, which is constrained by the laws of nature — placing morality under the purview of science. But if that were true — so goes one of the criticisms Harris engages — couldn’t we say the same for any aspect of human subjectivity or culture?

after all, a preference for chocolate over vanilla ice cream is a natural phenomenon, as is a preference for the comic Sarah Silverman over Bob Hope. Are we to imagine that there are universal truths about ice cream and comedy that admit of scientific analysis?

Clearly, science might tell us a lot about why certain people prefer chocolate over vanilla or find some jokes funnier than others. But could science ever conclude that chocolate is objectively better than vanilla or that Sarah Silverman is objectively funnier than Bob Hope? Could we ever say that someone’s preference on such matters was wrong?

[…] I don’t think the distinction between morality and something like taste is as clear or as categorical as we might suppose. If, for instance, a preference for chocolate ice cream allowed for the most rewarding experience a human being could have, while a preference for vanilla did not, we would deem it morally important to help people overcome any defect in their sense of taste that caused them to prefer vanilla — in the same way that we currently treat people for curable forms of blindness. It seems to me that the boundary between mere aesthetics and moral imperative — the difference between not liking Matisse and not liking the Golden Rule — is more a matter of there being higher stakes, and consequences that reach into the lives of others, than of there being distinct classes of facts regarding the nature of human experience.

It’s surely possible for a person to have values or desires that lead to unnecessary suffering (for himself as well as for others) — and that would seem to be an objectively bad situation. An interesting way to think about this is to imagine a world where we could change people’s values and desires.

Consider how we would view a situation in which all of us miraculously began to behave so as to maximize our collective well-being. Imagine that on the basis of remarkable breakthroughs in technology, economics, and politic skill, we create a genuine utopia on earth. Needless to say, this wouldn’t be boring, because we will have wisely avoided all the boring utopias. Rather, we will have created a global civilization of astonishing creativity, security, and happiness.

However, some people were not ready for this earthly paradise once it arrived. Some were psychopaths who, despite enjoying the general change in quality of life, were nevertheless eager to break into their neighbors’ homes and torture them from time to time. A few had preferences that were incompatible with the flourishing of whole societies: Try as he might, Kim Jong Il just couldn’t shake the feeling that his cognac didn’t taste as sweet without millions of people starving beyond his palace gates. Given our advances in science, however, we were able to alter preferences of this kind. In fact, we painlessly delivered a firmware update to everyone. Now the entirety of the species is fit to live in a global civilization that is as safe, and as fun, and as interesting, and as filled with love as it can be.

It seems to me that this scenario cuts through the worry that the concept of well-being might leave out something that is worth caring about: for if you care about something that is not compatible with a peak of human flourishing — given the requisite changes in your brain, you would recognize that you were wrong to care about this thing in the first place. Wrong in what sense? Wrong in the sense that you didn’t know what you were missing. This is the core of my argument: I am claiming that there must be frontiers of human well-being that await our discovery — and certain interests and preferences surely blind us to them.

Well, I guess it would be nice to be rid of murder, rape, theft, etc… But I, for one, would rather die a vanilla lover than live in some utopia where everyone prefers chocolate!

What is wrong with psychopaths? January 15, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Ethics, Science.
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It is estimated that about 1 percent of the U.S. population are psychopaths — distinguished by their extraordinary egocentricity and their total lack of concern for the suffering of others. What exactly is wrong with them? The answer to this question may help us understand more about how moral intuitions develop in us. In The Moral Landscape, neuroscientist Sam Harris notes that while psychopaths do understand the concept of right and wrong (thus meeting the legal definition of sanity), they

generally fail to distinguish between conventional and moral transgressions. When asked, “Would it be okay to eat at your desk if the teacher gave you permission?” vs. “Would it be okay to hit another student in the face if the teacher gave you permission?” normal children age thirty-nine months and above tend to see these questions as fundamentally distinct and consider the latter transgression intrinsically wrong. In this, they appear to be guided by an awareness of potential human suffering. Children at risk for psychopathy tend to view these questions as morally indistinguishable.

And indeed, studies show (Blair et al., 2005) that psychopaths are often unable to recognize expressions of fear and sadness in others, suggesting that the negative emotions of others, rather than parental punishment, may be what goad us to normal socialization:

Blair […] observes that if punishment were the primary source of moral instruction, children would be unable to observe the difference between conventional transgressions […] and moral ones […], as breaches of either sort tend to illicit punishment. And yet healthy children can readily distinguish between these forms of misbehavior. Thus, it would seem that they receive their correction directly from the distress that others exhibit when true moral boundaries have been crossed. Other mammals also find the suffering of their conspecifics highly aversive. We know this from work in monkeys (Masserman, Wechkin, & Terris, 1964) and rats (Church, 1959) that would seem scarcely ethical to perform today. For instance, the conclusion of the former study reads: “A majority of rhesus monkeys will consistently suffer hunger rather than secure food at the expense of electroshock to a conspecific.”

Psychopaths, on the other hand, are born with mental defects that make it impossible for them to value the right things. Like those who are congenitally deaf or blind, they don’t know what they’re missing.

Some people are not worth listening to January 10, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Philosophy, Science.

In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris makes the case that questions of morality are actually questions about the well-being of conscious creatures; therefore, there are right and wrong answers to moral questions — and they can be determined (in principle) by science. A common objection to this thesis is that the notion of “well-being” is only loosely defined and continually open to modification — and in any case, there will always be people who insist that their moral values and goals have nothing to do with well-being:

I might claim that morality is really about maximizing well-being and that well-being entails a wide range of psychological virtues and wholesome pleasures, but someone else will be free to say that morality depends upon worshiping the gods of the Aztecs and that well-being, if it matters at all, entails always having a terrified person locked in one’s basement, waiting to be sacrificed.

But there is a double standard at work here, treating morality differently than we treat any other realm of knowledge. Harris suggests we consider an analogy with physical health. Like well-being,

[health] must be defined with reference to specific goals — not suffering chronic pain, not always vomiting, etc. — and these goals are continually changing. Our notion of “health” may one day be defined by goals that we cannot currently entertain with a straight face (like the goal of spontaneously regenerating a lost limb). Does this mean we can’t study health scientifically?

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

Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value health. But once we admit that health is the proper concern of medicine, we can then study and promote it through science.

And what happens if someone doesn’t accept our definition of science, or its goals and methods? Well, nothing happens.

It is essential to see that the demand for radical justification leveled by the moral skeptic could not be met by any branch of science. Science is defined with reference to the goal of understanding the processes at work in the universe. Can we justify this goal scientifically? Of course not. . . .

It would be impossible to prove that our definition of science is correct, because our standards of proof will be built into any proof we would offer. What evidence could prove that we should value evidence? What logic could demonstrate the importance of logic?

The same is true regarding morality. Ever since David Hume, it has been widely accepted that there is an unbridgeable gap between facts and values: that no description of how the world is could tell us how it ought to be. According to Harris, this is an illusion.

Asking why we “ought” to value well-being makes even less sense than asking why we “ought” to be rational or scientific. And while it is possible to say that one can’t move from “is” to “ought,” we should be honest about how we get to “is” in the first place. Scientific “is” statements rest on implicit “oughts” all the way down. When I say, “Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen,” I have uttered a quintessential statement of scientific fact. But what if someone doubts this statement? I can appeal to data from chemistry, describing the outcome of simple experiments. But in doing so, I implicitly appeal to the values of empiricism and logic. What if my interlocutor doesn’t share these values? What can I say then? As it turns out, this is the wrong question. The right question is, why should we care what such a person thinks about chemistry?

So it is with the linkage between morality and well-being: To say that morality is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal) because we must first assume that the well-being of conscious creatures is good, is like saying that science is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal) because we must first assume that a rational understanding of the universe is good. . . . No framework of knowledge can withstand utter skepticism, for none is perfectly self-justifying.

This type of skepticism is no more a problem for an objective morality than it is for any other branch of science. Consensus is not a prerequisite for truth; in any domain of knowledge, some opinions must be excluded from the discussion.

I don’t think we can intelligibly ask questions like, “What if the worst possible misery for everyone is actually good?” … We can also pose questions like “What if the most perfect circle is really a square?” or “What if all true statements are actually false?” But if someone persists in speaking this way, I see no obligation to take his views seriously. . . .

On the subject of morality, as on every other subject, some people are not worth listening to.