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Is Sam’s moral landscape deterministic?
Posted: 02 January 2011 05:46 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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My understanding of Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape is based on his presentation at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley on 11.10.10 (video available on FORA.tv under “Sam Harris: Can Science Determine Human Values?”).

Sam presented his Landscape as a surface in 3D space, with well-being represented by the vertical axis, the two horizontal axes being unnamed.  Given the context in which Sam presented his model, I took well-being here to refer to collective well-being rather than individual well-being, though it seems to me that if the model applies to one then it must also apply to the other. The horizontal axes are I presume meant to be symbolic of the (greater than 2; measurable in principle) factors that determine well-being, such as health and income. I use the word “determine” because Sam did appear to be describing a deterministic system: a system in which, given perfect knowledge of all these factors (e.g. income, health, relationship status), well-being can be determined as a single value. I infer that the details of the landscape would vary between individuals (though its general topology would be similar amongst humans), between populations and across time (e.g. neurology changes during maturation/aging).

Does Sam think that well-being can be reduced to a single variable; isn’t this necessary for the above deterministic model to stand? It seems possible that there are a plurality of qualitatively different types of well-being (e.g. feelings of mutual compassion, sensory pleasure, collaboration with others, mindfulness, flow…), which cannot be objectively reduced to a single well-being (pseudo-)variable (comparisons of apples and oranges are often used to illustrate this type of argument). Does Sam believe there is some as yet undiscovered objective measure of well-being that combines or transcends these types? If so what is this belief based on.

Can qualitatively different types of well-being be compared at all? Well, as Sam pointed out, the short-term sensory pleasure or a fudge sundae does seem to be less important to us than other types of well-being such as that of being in productive human relationships (I forget the precise example he used). But can these be related quantitatively as required for a deterministic model, or ordered in an absolute hierarchy where the value of any degree of one is greater than any degree of any lower types? Perhaps the latter hierarchy idea works for sensory pleasures vs human relationships, but what about relations such as “mindfulness” vs “flow”?

Here’s another way of looking at the question. Let’s reinterpret the horizontal axes of Sam’s landscape as qualitatively different types of well-being such as “mindfulness” and “flow”. Let’s further say that we can in principle understand and measure all these types of well-being. Is Sam saying we could then (in principle) find an equation relating these types to a “higher” measure of well-being?

We do make choices that affect our well-being everyday, which in result in trading off some types of well-being against others. But the fact we do this doesn’t necessarily mean that there is in principle a “higher” measure of well-being and so there is also not necessarily a deterministic means of calculating such trade offs.

Final thoughts: I’m reminded of Isaiah Berlin’s notion of the mutual incompatibility of human goods - I’d be very grateful to hear of other works that bear on this idea; do any readers know of philosophers/logicians that deal with what can in principle be known about well-being?

I haven’t posted here before, so I’ll just say before I close that I enjoyed Sam’s talk and think his efforts to tie moral values to well-being and his lucidly explaining why the scientific method is so important in addressing such questions is highly laudable, thank you Sam.

Peter

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Posted: 15 January 2011 04:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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Sam’s uses his fundamental metaphor of a moral landscape much like the Woo Woo crowd uses Quantum - to try to cast a patina of Science over his claims. The fact that you’re asking questions like these demonstrates that Sam has never explained the metaphor in any rigorous, scientific or philosophical sense.

Scientists label their axes. It’s what they do. It’s fundamental. Without labeled axes, you just have a pretty picture, without meaning. Have you ever seen well defined labeled axes on Sam’s moral landscape? Me neither. The moral landscape is part of Sam’s rhetorical conjuring trick, hand waving to distract you from the sleight of ideas he engages in to push his argument forward.

Now, you could try to infer a consistent meaning in the axes. I think you would fail, because I find him inconsistent in his usage, but that really isn’t the point. Sam is a smart guy, he is an eloquent guy, and usually a logical guy. If he had a consistent, meaningful definition for his moral landscape, he would have given it, and you wouldn’t have to play conceptual archaeologist to figure it out.

[ Edited: 15 January 2011 04:25 PM by buybuydandavis]
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Posted: 15 January 2011 05:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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OR, pwdav just didn’t get it buybuy. The fact that many may not get Sam’s ideas does not necessarily mean that they are not gettable. A religionist gets simplistic adolescent ideas like “God” for example. Just because an idea maybe simple does not necessarily mean that it therefore has more truth in the bigger picture.

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Posted: 15 January 2011 05:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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gragor - 15 January 2011 10:21 PM

OR, pwdav just didn’t get it buybuy. The fact that many may not get Sam’s ideas does not necessarily mean that they are not gettable.

Perhaps I’m just too foolish and clueless to understand Sam’s genius.

If you could be so kind to the mentally handicapped, please identify Sam’s precise and rigorous definition of the axes of his moral landscape.

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Posted: 15 January 2011 06:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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You seem to have taken offence, but this is your moral choice. Did you feel happy in taking such offence? Therefore, are you using intelligence in choosing to interpret my post as sarcasm? I think that unless we become objective about our emotional conduct we will tend to be unhappy. And objectivity seems to be what is required. Happiness is the goal of Sam’s book. Becoming intelligent about our old patterns of offence taking and general emotional reactivity is what I feel is the subject of “The Moral Landscape”. This is my synopsis of Sam’s premise. As far as axes go: axes or graphs may not be necessary for me to understand in order to fully understand a premise. Graphs of that nature are for ones that need them. Some brains need things to be explained in such graphic ways, others may not. Sam is possibly just presenting different views of the same premise for different brains. If one does not get his “axes” then maybe don’t even try. His book seems to be full of other options for “getting it”.

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Posted: 15 January 2011 06:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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And yes, emotional reactivity does handicap us mentally. You have expressed a truism there. To get beyond the brain we need to be objective about the brain. Morality can be a way to be objective about these emotive organs of ours. For example, Christianity is a morality founded in reactivity (purely emotional). I believe, along with Sam Harris, that a new moral code can be founded through an objective understanding of that emotional organ (brain). It is to use it intelligently rather than merely react with it. It is to presume that we, as human, are not our brain. It is merely a tool toward the understanding of everything, and, therefore, a tool for understanding of self (or itself). The brain is like the signpost to London. To confuse ourselves as merely a brain is to confuse the signpost to London as London. In other words, the brain is a tool for penetrating the deepest secrets of life. And as we are life, it is a tool for revealing that fact.

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Posted: 16 January 2011 04:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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I’m afraid I’m feeling obtuse again. It’s such a burden. I can’t quite find Sam’s precise and rigorous definition of the axes of his moral landscape in your reply.

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Posted: 16 January 2011 02:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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Maybe you should explain what you mean by axes. You say that Sam, because he does not “label his axes” merely “paints a pretty picture that has no meaning”. I think the meaning of the picture he paints is obvious. The fact that you are not recognising meaning could just be down to the limitations you place on yourself as expressed by your confessed state of obtuseness. For Harris’s book to penetrate your resistance could be as difficult as explaining to a blind man what the colour red looks like. You seem to have boxes you want filled. But these boxes are of your creation. Boxing, categorization and labelling are examples of limitation. To go beyond these forms one has to stop sucking on the pointing finger (or signposts such as labels) and look in the direction the finger maybe pointing.

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Posted: 16 January 2011 05:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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Your fear (“I am afraid”) and your choice to feel obtuse is, indeed, your self-imposed burden. I wonder why you wish to limit yourself so. Your description of how you rehearse your bondage makes me think of my interpretation of the symbolism of crucifixion: “To crucify oneself by one’s own beliefs (maybe in order to “rise again”, but then again, maybe not. It all depends on the degree of addiction one has to their childhood, emotional/chemical state of being)”

“Objectivity” of one’s own brain (as nueroscientifically proposed by the likes of Sam Harris), or one’s employment of “an observer” of oneself (the introduction of an “observer state” of mind, as proposed by the likes of Eckhart Tolle, Adi Da and other similar writers) is the rational and logical step towards self-understanding and, therefore, self-transcendence. The transcendence of self-imposed and “burdensome” limitations and fear.

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Posted: 17 January 2011 04:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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This is all very exiting..but those who seem to critique Mr Harris’ observations seem to be almost wholly religious. Not a good frame of mind to enter an new way of thinking of anything i.e.: Having a steadfast unalterable opinion that you are emotionally attached to, perhaps instilled since you could first speak. Nothing gets done like that.

To me, and I am sure the majority of people, Mr Harris’ observations and relatively easy to understand language he uses to convey them are simplicity itself. No hidden agenda, unlike religion. No deference to one of the many cruel, callous and jealous Gods in mythology, again unlike religion.

Seriously, I would not mind the those of a faith taking issue with anything Mr Harris says if they had anything worthwhile to say. Sadly they do not.

Mr Harris is suggesting (in as simple terms as possible)in order to get it through our
evidently thick heads), that we use our socially evolved ethic and moral compass, and not defer to some myth born at the start of the agricultural revolution for even the most tenuous glimpse of any kind of morality. Add to that the fact they consider theirs not just superior, but divinely ordained and you have all that we see around us. That is to say, violence and immoral behaviour laced with a wish to bring this world to a close, and all for a fictitious messiah..Very sad indeed and we need a change.

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Posted: 17 January 2011 04:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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Rickylad - 17 January 2011 09:53 AM

This is all very exiting..but those who seem to critique Mr Harris’ observations seem to be almost wholly religious.
...

Mr Harris is suggesting (in as simple terms as possible)in order to get it through our
evidently thick heads), that we use our socially evolved ethic and moral compass, and not defer to some myth born at the start of the agricultural revolution for even the most tenuous glimpse of any kind of morality.

I’m an atheist, and my disagreement with Sam is that his Objective Morality is just another piety, a law without a law giver, a commandment without a commander.

You’re just not paying attention if you think that atheists aren’t criticizing Sam’s new book. In fact, not only are they criticizing it, part of Sam’s spiel is that he worries that only the fundamentalists seem to agree with him that there is an objective morality. So you’re not even paying attention to Sam, let alone those who criticize him.

And for my part, I find those who support Sam in his new book come in two varieties: those who consider the book hard to understand, don’t believe they understand it, but believe it is profound and true nonetheless, and those who think it is simple, and clearly understand little if anything of what Sam has to say. We have the Mysterions and the Inattentive.

For example, you seem to be of the Inattentive variety. Sam very explicitly makes clear we should not be following our evolved moral compass as he talks about moral illusions (see in particular the discussion about how the amount of help offered decreases in the face of increasing numbers of the needy.) He doesn’t want us to follow our moral compass, he has claimed to have shown that morality can only be the Well Being of Conscious Creatures, and he is quite clear that our actual morality does not always serve that end. The Well Being of Conscious Creatures is the ought we ought to have, regardless of the oughts we do have.

[ Edited: 17 January 2011 08:47 PM by buybuydandavis]
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Posted: 17 January 2011 09:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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Rickylad - 17 January 2011 09:53 AM

This is all very exiting..but those who seem to critique Mr Harris’ observations seem to be almost wholly religious. Not a good frame of mind to enter an new way of thinking of anything i.e.: Having a steadfast unalterable opinion that you are emotionally attached to, perhaps instilled since you could first speak. Nothing gets done like that.

This is true but of course open debate and forums are not for those “wholly religious”, or to attempt to change them in particular. They are mere fodder within these discussions. They represent examples of, or what should regarded as, past delusional man. I see these types of discussions and books as education for others that may consider the opportunity to learn about their own brains in order to help create a new, and universally fundamental, morality. If the ideas of the likes of Sam Harris were not presented as an option then it is more likely that people with more moral promise may just become frustated and militaristic in viewpoint. Militarized forms of frustration merely distract ourselves from being responsible for our own brains and neglectful of our brain’s potential for chemical change. Chemical change toward an actual human world rather than what we are still mainly experiencing now (Planet of the Apes). If we can learn to change the chemical structure of our own brains, a “scientific alchemy” perhaps, then we would be less inclined at projecting our frustration upon those that do not seem to have a particularly adaptive chemistry. Projection of our fears perpetuates a chemistry of fear.
A certain inwardness is required before outward projections change. Outward projections create and re-create a view that everything remains as a perpetuating cycle. To move beyond a “safe” orbit, of the cyclic appearance of primate-human life, we need to become “unsafe” (in the sense that we penetrate and challenge our old emotional patterns of thought) by looking into ourselves. Into our brains. Not continue looking OUT at others, which, consequently, tends us to also look OUT at ourselves by virtue of us remaining a mere reflection of those we feel are stuck.
“The Moral Landscape” is a science about looking INTO ourselves. It is a NEW SCIENCE in that it does not do what old science tends to do. “Old science” sees man as the center of all other things and creatures by being only objective of phenomena outside of what could be described as “ego”. A “new science” OF ego seems to be what is required. And what is “ego” in this context (or any context, for that matter)? It is the emotional activity of our own brain and it gives rise to a mere notion that this is what we are. “The Moral Landscape” can give us insight to show that we are more than an isolated ego competing for space and resource with all other egos.

[ Edited: 18 January 2011 03:46 AM by gragor]
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Posted: 20 April 2011 08:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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LOL

The 3D version is just a reduced simplification. The vertical axis is obviously well-being. The other axis are just whatever the variables are that well-being is a function of. Sam demonstrated that these exist and can be known in principal. Thats all that is needed for that representation to be valid for its purpose. It reminds me of non-linear system analysis. I think you (buybuy) are being over-dramatic. I could do the same thing with any real world system. Take the temperature of the planet. There are pretty much an infinite number of variables that affect the temperature of the planet, any diagram without that infinite number of labeled axis is just woowoo? But we take as known that there are some number of variables that affect the temperature of the planet, and you could come to that realisation without knowing anything specific about ANYTHING in reality. Just by applying scientific epistemology, that nonsense diagram is the prototypical model.

“And for my part, I find those who support Sam in his new book come in two varieties: those who consider the book hard to understand, don’t believe they understand it, but believe it is profound and true nonetheless, and those who think it is simple, and clearly understand little if anything of what Sam has to say. We have the Mysterions and the Inattentive.”

-Well its good that you have specified the way you are superior to everyone to each extreme of the spectrum of people who disagree with you.


And to the OP:

Yes.


“Does Sam think that well-being can be reduced to a single variable”

Wellbeing could be a multidimensional number but that number would have a magnitude that would be wellbeing. The structure of what wellbeing is is an open question. Thats kinda a good thing…


“But can these be related quantitatively as required for a deterministic model, or ordered in an absolute hierarchy where the value of any degree of one is greater than any degree of any lower types? “

-Something cant be qualitative and deterministic?

-I like the types of questions that Sam is being hit with. When a scientist discovers something everyone says “ooo cool, nice one”. When a scientist proceeds on the assumption that there are answers to questions, people say “good idea!”. When someone suggests the same for ethics, suddenly they are expected to project their knowledge infinitely far into the future and answer questions about the END GAME of this relatively new field! Or else they aren’t allowed to proceed.

Could wellbeing have multiple components? Sure why not.

How do qualitative components and quantitative components map? Don’t know!

Does it matter? No.

What are the variables that wellbeing is a function of? Guess what? Dont know!

Is it definitely possible to know what those variables are? No.

Does that matter? No.

Is the reality of morality beyond our ability to model? Almost certainly.

What isnt? Nothing.


Only in this, religiously baffled, field are you required to know everything before you can know anything.

[ Edited: 20 April 2011 09:04 AM by MarcoTenshi]
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Posted: 20 April 2011 10:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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MarcoTenshi - 20 April 2011 12:33 PM

LOL
The 3D version is just a reduced simplification. The vertical axis is obviously well-being. The other axis are just whatever the variables are that well-being is a function of. Sam demonstrated that these exist and can be known in principal.

Well being of who? All conscious creatures? How exactly does Sam propose to aggregate utility functions of different creatures? This is actually a well studied problem in economics that Sam completely blows off. Is that the way a scientist does things? Ignores decades of relevant work and study?

I could do the same thing with any real world system. Take the temperature of the planet. There are pretty much an infinite number of variables that affect the temperature of the planet, any diagram without that infinite number of labeled axis is just woowoo?

The difference, presumably, is that they have a well defined operational method for measuring the temperature of the earth, and the meaning of the term is defined by that operational method.

But we take as known that there are some number of variables that affect the temperature of the planet, and you could come to that realisation without knowing anything specific about ANYTHING in reality. Just by applying scientific epistemology,

So Sam’s “model”, is that some variables in the universe determine (determine?, or is it stochastic?) some undefined possibly multidimensional variable (you seem unaware of the problems of multidimensional variable utility functions)  that Sam chooses to call Well Being. Something determines something else. How illuminating.

that nonsense diagram is the prototypical model.

Just to be clear, then, you agree that Sam’s “moral landscape” is a nonsense model?

-Well its good that you have specified the way you are superior to everyone to each extreme of the spectrum of people who disagree with you.

Of course, I was responding to a post that characterized those who disagreed with Sam as religious, basing their beliefs on faith. I pointed out that I am an atheist, like many critics of Sam’s Objective Morality, so his characterization of Sam’s opponents was incorrect.

And my comments on Sam’s supporters wasn’t to claim superiority (although any argument claiming that I’m right and you’re wrong implicitly does that), it was to identify particular conceptual mistakes that people make when supporting Sam. Your’s is of the variety “It doesn’t matter that Sam doesn’t know what he is talking about, you should believe him anyway.”

Wellbeing could be a multidimensional number but that number would have a magnitude that would be wellbeing. The structure of what wellbeing is is an open question. Thats kinda a good thing…

Again, it doesn’t mean anything in particular. And having your fundamental concepts not mean anything in particular is a “good thing”.  No thanks.

Could wellbeing have multiple components? Sure why not.
How do qualitative components and quantitative components map? Don’t know!
What are the variables that wellbeing is a function of? Guess what? Dont know!
Is it definitely possible to know what those variables are? No.
Is the reality of morality beyond our ability to model? Almost certainly.
Only in this, religiously baffled, field are you required to know everything before you can know anything.

When you’re claiming a *Science* of Morality, you have to be a bit more precise and specific than “I don’t know what the hell anything I’m talking about means, but believe me anyway.”

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Posted: 20 April 2011 01:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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Hi.

I am sensing quite overt hostility to both Marcotenshi and Harris with this reply. I feel you are boiling what has been said down to a point where its somehow almost (but not quite) forgivable to lambast Marcotenshi’s post.,  I thought his post was entirely reasonable, and never have I see Harris dismiss out of hand any other discipline so much as once, not even religion. If there is a science of economics (and I am sure there are efforts to finesse the one in place) it has clearly not developed to a status where we are able to foresee a collapse of the sort affecting both you and me right now. Of course there is the notion that certain bankers and traders saw this event coming (and very probably ignored it) but this monetary science of which you speak had to start somewhere. The difference being this particular domain of science ( in its broadest and most encompassing term) has not had to clamber over so many theocratical and philosophical obstacles to so much as be permitted to speak.

Harris’ treatise is to my lights a good place to start. As far as your retort to Marcotenshi’s temperature analogy goes I am as yet unclear as to what you mean. You are presumably referring to the absolute mean temperature being that we can indeed measure it, but Marcotenshi was alluding to the obscure culmination of environmental factors (hitherto known or unknown) that otherwise affect the result. As I say I am unclear as to what you mean, perhaps you could elaborate?

Harris freely concedes that there are a great many instances where it is difficult to predict or quantify the everyday moral concern, however, using the quantifiable model of well-being we can at least take steps in assisting the outcome for the better. Again, I don’t know what system of ethics you are championing here, so perhaps you could illuminate me on that also?

Neither I or Marcotenshi “devout” followers of Harris, and to date Harris has been careful indeed to be as delicate as possible in dealing with these matters. He no doubt feels the eyes of everyone (secular and godly) second guessing his every word, and if I felt for a moment that he was somehow overstepping the mark I would say so. So far this is clearly not the case.

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Posted: 20 April 2011 02:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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Rickylad - 20 April 2011 05:04 PM

1) ...never have I see Harris dismiss out of hand any other discipline so much as once, not even religion.

2) If there is a science of economics (and I am sure there are efforts to finesse the one in place) it has clearly not developed to a status where we are able to foresee a collapse of the sort affecting both you and me right now.

3) Again, I don’t know what system of ethics you are championing here, so perhaps you could illuminate me on that also?

I am a moral subjectivist, and reject Sam’s claim to have established that there is an Objective Morality, and that the WBCC is it.

The thread started with someone asking reasonable questions about the meaning of the Moral Landscape.

2 weeks went by, and he got no response. Then I responded, saying it didn’t mean diddley. It’s just a rhetorical device by which Sam pretends to be talking about a Science, instead of the moralistic collectivist duty bound piffle he is pushing. I invited others to give meaning to the Sam’s fundamental metaphor, the Moral Landscape. I’ve had the same discussions at Project Reason. Nobody has a clue about what the moral landscape means. They are divided into camps of “Sam’s so clever, it must mean something, but I can’t figure it out” and “it means something, it’s completely obvious, even though I can’t answer any of your picky questions about it.”

On specific points.
1) Sam has completely and glibly dismissed the whole history of philosophy of morality, and has defended such dismissal, saying he didn’t want to bore people.

2) Sam has not addressed the well known analyses of the meaning of utility functions in economics, as you fail to, giving the excuse that economists couldn’t predict the banking crisis. There is a lot of detailed analysis of what a utility function could actually mean, whether they are ordinal or cardinal, and whether it is meaningful to create aggregates of utility functions (which is what Sam is doing).

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