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Happiness and Suffering as the Basis for Morality
Posted: 15 December 2007 01:09 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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In The End of Faith, Harris says:

A rational approach to ethics becomes possible once we realize that questions of right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures.

I’ve seen him go on to repeat this general assertion at talks such as those at Beyond Belief. But there seems to be a glaring contradiction in his thinking about morality and his critiques of religious faith.

If happiness and suffering are the yardstick by which we should judge morality, then if someone’s religious faith increases their happiness and decreases their suffering, then shouldn’t it be considered good? As a corollary, if an individual’s faith increases the net happiness in the society at large, and decreases suffering, then it’s a good thing, right?

One could argue that this isn’t the case, although there are numerous studies to back up the claim that religious adherents are generally happier and healthier on average than non-believers. But Harris has argued against faith on principle, using the example of believing he is the fastest man on earth, and how even if it improved his quality of life by boosting his self-esteem, it would still be wrong to believe.

On what basis? I think Harris has boxed himself into a strange corner. He wants to simultaneously argue that happiness should be the logical basis for morality, while arguing that certain beliefs that demonstrably increase happiness are wrong.

I think Harris is right about unjustified beliefs being wrong, but that he is wrong about happiness and suffering being the basis for morality. The problem is, he leaves the valuation of truth out of the morality equation. I personally value truth over happiness. I would rather know an unpleasant truth than a lie that would make me feel happier. In my moral system, truth trumps happiness in all but very extreme situations (e.g., a very small lie can relieve a very large amount of suffering). All things being equal, though, valuation of truth takes precedence.

Harris seems to implicitly value truth, but does not include it as part of his moral equation, and I just wonder why.

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Posted: 15 December 2007 05:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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Welcome Derek,

derekjames - 15 December 2007 06:09 PM

A rational approach to ethics becomes possible once we realize that questions of right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures.

I’ve seen him go on to repeat this general assertion at talks such as those at Beyond Belief. But there seems to be a glaring contradiction in his thinking about morality and his critiques of religious faith.

If happiness and suffering are the yardstick by which we should judge morality, then if someone’s religious faith increases their happiness and decreases their suffering, then shouldn’t it be considered good? As a corollary, if an individual’s faith increases the net happiness in the society at large, and decreases suffering, then it’s a good thing, right?

If your neighbor comes to your house and kicks you in the balls since your address begins with a 5 and Mercury is in retrograde and he then donates $ 100 dollars to your daughter’s college fund because that is what the demon monkeys living in his left eyebrow clearly see as a correct action on the second Friday in November, what will the net happiness of your family be ?

Sam speaks of the direct consequences of certain ideas.
You have read his books so I don’t think I need to give you the examples.

One could argue that this isn’t the case, although there are numerous studies to back up the claim that religious adherents are generally happier and healthier on average than non-believers.

Really ?
Give us some of these studies.

You have read TEOF so you will also recall the 2005 UN development index which shows that the most atheistic countries are by far the healthiest and happiest by every measurable standard compared to the most religious ones.
The same holds true in the US when comparing the individual states.

[ Edited: 15 December 2007 05:07 PM by Lapin Diabolique]
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Posted: 15 December 2007 06:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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Derek, what do you mean by the fuzzword “truth”? The word seems to have no meaning in a religious context other than “My faith is the only right one.” 

derekjames - 15 December 2007 06:09 PM

If happiness and suffering are the yardstick by which we should judge morality, then if someone’s religious faith increases their happiness and decreases their suffering, then shouldn’t it be considered good? As a corollary, if an individual’s faith increases the net happiness in the society at large, and decreases suffering, then it’s a good thing, right?

Faith can just as easily lead to suffering because it doesn’t assign any intrinsic value to either happiness or suffering. Faith doesn’t care whether one’s actions increase the net happiness of society or decrease suffering, because faith says the highest priority for human behavior is devoting one’s self to a deity. Faith said that “good” is what pleases the deity and “evil” is what displeases the deity, regardless of whether the actions lead to happiness or suffering.

derekjames - 15 December 2007 06:09 PM

there are numerous studies to back up the claim that religious adherents are generally happier and healthier on average than non-believers.

When the adherents’ faith leads them to cause increased suffering and reduced happiness for others, that the adherents’ own health and happiness are irrelevant.

derekjames - 15 December 2007 06:09 PM

The problem is, he leaves the valuation of truth out of the morality equation. I personally value truth over happiness. I would rather know an unpleasant truth than a lie that would make me feel happier.

You are describing the problem with faith - believers deny the “unpleasant truth” that there is no evidence for either a deity-created purpose for suffering or a life after death.

[ Edited: 15 December 2007 06:47 PM by Carstonio]
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Posted: 15 December 2007 07:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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derekjames - 15 December 2007 06:09 PM

If happiness and suffering are the yardstick by which we should judge morality, then if someone’s religious faith increases their happiness and decreases their suffering, then shouldn’t it be considered good? As a corollary, if an individual’s faith increases the net happiness in the society at large, and decreases suffering, then it’s a good thing, right?

I couldn’t agree more.  However, you can argue that religious faith does not increase the net happiness in the society at large, but in fact decreases it.  That’s hard to measure, though. 

And what about the possibility that faith increases the individual’s happiness but decreases net happiness?  In this case, is faith good or bad?

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Posted: 15 December 2007 08:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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Kurt wrote:

If your neighbor comes to your house and kicks you in the balls since your address begins with a 5 and Mercury is in retrograde and he then donates $ 100 dollars to your daughter’s college fund because that is what the demon monkeys living in his left eyebrow clearly see as a correct action on the second Friday in November, what will the net happiness of your family be?

I’m not sure what your point here is. $100 isn’t worth a kick to my nuts, so the net happiness of my family would be pretty negative, I think.

Kurt wrote:

Really ?
Give us some of these studies.

A cursory Google should do it. Jonathan Haidt studies this sort of thing for a living. Here’s an Edge article on the subject:

http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt07/haidt07_index.html

In which he says:

I just want to make one point, however, that should give contractualists pause: surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people. Most of these effects have been documented in Europe too.

I don’t have any problem believing that religious people in general are happier. Do you?

Harris makes the argument, though, that even if we take for granted that religion is beneficial, what he calls “the utility argument”, then it is still wrong. But by his own standards, using happiness as the metric for morality, how does that argument make sense?


Carstonio wrote:

Derek, what do you mean by the fuzzword “truth”? The word seems to have no meaning in a religious context other than “My faith is the only right one.”

I don’t mean it in a religious context, but in a scientific one. Defining truth isn’t an easy proposition, but I use as a working definition: The degree of correlation between a representation and a referent.

Thus, the statement “I am the fastest man in the world” does not correlate with the actual state of the world, and the truth value of the statement is extremely low.

But no matter how Harris defines truth, he obviously has some value for it, because he argues very adamantly for justifying one’s beliefs based on reason and evidence, rather than faith. I just continue to find it odd that he doesn’t explicitly try to include the valuation of truth as part of his basis for morality.

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Posted: 16 December 2007 05:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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derekjames - 16 December 2007 01:22 AM

I don’t mean it in a religious context, but in a scientific one. Defining truth isn’t an easy proposition, but I use as a working definition: The degree of correlation between a representation and a referent.

What representation and what referent do you mean? I don’t know if the word “truth” is even used in science. If it is, the concept is almost certainly grounded in reason and evidence.

derekjames - 16 December 2007 01:22 AM

But no matter how Harris defines truth, he obviously has some value for it, because he argues very adamantly for justifying one’s beliefs based on reason and evidence, rather than faith. I just continue to find it odd that he doesn’t explicitly try to include the valuation of truth as part of his basis for morality.

The implication that I get from your post is this - you seem to believe that there is some truth that Harris is ignoring or discarding. Is this accurate? Why wouldn’t some definition of “truth” be grounded in reason and evidence? Faith resides in the world inside our heads and has no connection to the world outside our heads, so one cannot claim that it has anything to do with truth.

[ Edited: 16 December 2007 05:17 AM by Carstonio]
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Posted: 16 December 2007 05:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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derekjames - 15 December 2007 06:09 PM

In The End of Faith, Harris says:

A rational approach to ethics becomes possible once we realize that questions of right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures.

I’ve seen him go on to repeat this general assertion at talks such as those at Beyond Belief. But there seems to be a glaring contradiction in his thinking about morality and his critiques of religious faith.

If happiness and suffering are the yardstick by which we should judge morality, then if someone’s religious faith increases their happiness and decreases their suffering, then shouldn’t it be considered good? As a corollary, if an individual’s faith increases the net happiness in the society at large, and decreases suffering, then it’s a good thing, right?

One could argue that this isn’t the case, although there are numerous studies to back up the claim that religious adherents are generally happier and healthier on average than non-believers. But Harris has argued against faith on principle, using the example of believing he is the fastest man on earth, and how even if it improved his quality of life by boosting his self-esteem, it would still be wrong to believe.

On what basis? I think Harris has boxed himself into a strange corner. He wants to simultaneously argue that happiness should be the logical basis for morality, while arguing that certain beliefs that demonstrably increase happiness are wrong.

I think Harris is right about unjustified beliefs being wrong, but that he is wrong about happiness and suffering being the basis for morality. The problem is, he leaves the valuation of truth out of the morality equation. I personally value truth over happiness. I would rather know an unpleasant truth than a lie that would make me feel happier. In my moral system, truth trumps happiness in all but very extreme situations (e.g., a very small lie can relieve a very large amount of suffering). All things being equal, though, valuation of truth takes precedence.

Harris seems to implicitly value truth, but does not include it as part of his moral equation, and I just wonder why.

I agree with Sander. Perhaps Harris is referring to a deeper level of understanding about happiness vs. suffering than yours, derek. Superstitious ways of thinking and decision-making can have serious ramifications, not easily predictable. When seen for exactly what they are, they become treacherous.

A woman who lives across the street from me is a realtor. I’ll call her Linda. Since I’m hoping to move sometime in the next few months, Linda’s been talking me up and e-mailing me listings. At first, I thought this was pretty cool—a trusted neighbor, etc. Then one day after a short discussion in the street, she told me she’d pray for me. A couple of days later, when we were discussing neighborhood security, Linda pointed to my next-door neighbor’s house and told a little story that involved a late-night sighting of four angels guarding their property, as the family had a newborn baby. When she asked me, “Do you believe in angels?”, I quickly changed the subject and mentioned the practical reliability of a deep-voiced dog. This sort of cognitive approach to the world—seeing angels where none exist and countless other such imaginings—can end up being behaviorally crippling. I now imagine my realtor neighbor taking moments throughout her day praying that I find the perfect house for the needs of my family. Even though I realize she’s a reasonably intelligent person, I picture her hearing or feeling answers to her prayers about us and our needs. I picture her being guided by her invention of a Holy Spirit guiding her in her quest for my next house. I now see her primary (though certainly not only) method of discovery as being essentially delusional. She’ll be guided by superstition, and her advice to me and her answers to my questions about various properties will be so guided. No wizened Christian trusts in her Lord too much, of course. But how do I know how far Linda has managed to climb aboard the sort of reality I find useful, in which cold, hard evidence is what matters most when deciding to accept an answer.

Neither Linda’s business nor her customers receives any overt benefit from her prayerful approach. Only damage can result in such a career over the long haul. Except . . . she may appear to be helping clients by telling them she’s praying for them or describing angelic manifestations. And many customers, I’m guessing, attribute great integrity and honesty to this realtor simply as a result of observing her godliness. After all, it’s not only location but appearances-appearances-appearances that tend to sell houses. In a sense, people are being swindled daily by mythology being mistaken for reality.

I don’t know whether or not I’ll end up making use of Linda’s services. If I don’t and she asks me why I ultimately chose someone else, I’ll probably explain myself honestly. If she attempts to defend her angelic visions, I will say they were illusions. I don’t know where the conversation will go from there.

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Posted: 16 December 2007 07:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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Most of the responses here have focused on the practical issue of whether or not religious faith really does confer any net benefit.

That’s ignoring the central point, which is this: Why, in principle, would it be morally wrong to believe something false that made you happier and did not have the net effect of decreasing anyone else’s happiness?

Here is Sam Harris at Beyond Belief last year:

In particular, have a look at what he says starting around 24:34. He talks about believing he is the fastest man in the world and how the utility argument is not compelling. He says “it is clear” what is wrong with holding this unjustified belief, but if he’s using happiness as the primary basis for morality, I don’t think it is clear why it is wrong to believe something that is likely false if it increases your happiness without decreasing that of others.

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Posted: 16 December 2007 07:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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derekjames - 16 December 2007 12:10 PM

I don’t think it is clear why it is wrong to believe something that is likely false if it increases your happiness without decreasing that of others.

I think you need to drop the extreme generality of your position, and discuss something specific. Furthermore, you appear to have started to hedge a little on the truth or falsity of the belief, when you say “something that is likely false”, and stipulating that your belief has no impact on that of others. This implies that you think such beliefs cannot in principle be determined to be true or false. You seem to be arguing that one can have thoughts (or beliefs) that have no possibility of having any impact on other people. Anyway, to specifics: Do give us an example of a “belief” that might increase your happiness without decreasing that of others.

Believing that you are the fastest man alive (or that you are entitled to eternal life) may lead you to boast of it incessantly to other people, who may not wish to hear about your fabrication. It may make other people uncomfortable enough that they will shun you. You may then be stuck in a club of people all of whom consider themselves to be ‘the fastest man alive’ (or to be Napoleon), and so on.

Sam’s point about believing that one is the fastest man alive is intended to illustrate one thing, and one thing only: That having a certain belief makes one happy has no bearing on whether it is true or not.

Mark Twain said: “Be careful about reading health books – you could die of a misprint.”

[ Edited: 16 December 2007 07:36 AM by Traces Elk]
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Posted: 16 December 2007 08:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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Salt Creek - 16 December 2007 12:31 PM

I think you need to drop the extreme generality of your position, and discuss something specific. Furthermore, you appear to have started to hedge a little on the truth or falsity of the belief, when you say “something that is likely false”, and stipulating that your belief has no impact on that of others. This implies that you think such beliefs cannot in principle be determined to be true or false.

My perspective on truth is as a continuous, graded, probabilistic concept rather than a binary one. I don’t think particular beliefs can be determined to be absolutely true or false, though very high or very low confidence levels can be ascribed to them. That’s why I use qualifiers.

Anyway, to specifics: Do give us an example of a “belief” that might increase your happiness without decreasing that of others.

All right, then. How about the medical use of placebos? Placebos have repeatedly been shown to have a statistical positive effect relative to a baseline of no treatment. In those cases where clinically-verified drugs are not available for a particular ailment, would it be ethical to administer placebo therapy?

In practice, you can never be 100% sure that a beneficial lie will not be uncovered, so there is always the potential for harm. However, if the potential that the lie will be revealed is small relative to the potential good that the lie will do, then under a moral system based on happiness/alleviation of suffering, the use of placebos should be justified, correct?

Sam’s point about believing that one is the fastest man alive is intended to illustrate one thing, and one thing only: That having a certain belief makes one happy has no bearing on whether it is true or not.

Exactly. But if happiness is the ultimate metric, then why does it matter whether it’s true or not?

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Posted: 16 December 2007 08:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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[quote author=“derekjames” ]Exactly. But if happiness is the ultimate metric, then why does it matter whether it’s true or not?

Others, including me, have expressed such a sentiment here before.
I’d duck if I were you.

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Posted: 16 December 2007 08:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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derekjames - 16 December 2007 01:07 PM

My perspective on truth is as a continuous, graded, probabilistic concept rather than a binary one. I don’t think particular beliefs can be determined to be absolutely true or false, though very high or very low confidence levels can be ascribed to them. That’s why I use qualifiers.

The use of obscurantist nonsense is a way to convince yourself that you are making a clever argument. To someone who recognizes obscurantism, it makes you look silly.

derekjames - 16 December 2007 01:07 PM

How about the medical use of placebos?

A religious belief is not a medical placebo. I think people know whether or not their beliefs are true or false, or whether the truth or falsity is really unknowable at the 50-50 level. People who benefit from placebos know that drug compounds actually exist. Belief in the existence of specific deities, such as Thor and Thoth, is known to be false. No god has been invented by people that is ontologically different from Thor or Thoth.

derekjames - 16 December 2007 01:07 PM

if happiness is the ultimate metric, then why does it matter whether it’s true or not?

Happiness is not an “ultimate metric”. It is a guide for interpersonal conduct. Belief is not the guarantor of interpersonal conduct that can be shown to produce happiness. Actually being kind to people is known to make most of them happier. Compassion is a feeling you have that you are capable of being kind to other people. Kindness is action.

Nhoj Morley - 16 December 2007 01:22 PM

[quote author=“derekjames” ]Exactly. But if happiness is the ultimate metric, then why does it matter whether it’s true or not?

Others, including me, have expressed such a sentiment here before.
I’d duck if I were you.

You go, Nhoj. Have a merry X-box. Reality is the ultimate metric, and it comes to you as bad knees and the inability to raise phlegm in the morning. If it ducks like an apologist… it probably is an apologist. Quack.

[ Edited: 16 December 2007 08:44 AM by Traces Elk]
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Posted: 16 December 2007 09:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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Salt Creek - 16 December 2007 01:37 PM

The use of obscurantist nonsense is a way to convince yourself that you are making a clever argument. To someone who recognizes obscurantism, it makes you look silly.

Wow. You can disagree with someone or ask for clarification about what they are saying without lowering yourself to this. First time I’ve ever been accused of obscurantism. How exactly was I being purposefully obscure?

A religious belief is not a medical placebo. I think people know whether or not their beliefs are true or false, or whether the truth or falsity is really unknowable at the 50-50 level. People who benefit from placebos know that drug compounds actually exist. Belief in the existence of specific deities, such as Thor and Thoth, is known to be false.

You can’t disprove the existence of an entity that isn’t subject to scientific inquiry. That doesn’t mean you should believe in it, either. But Dawkins, for example, admits that you can’t disprove the existence of leprechauns, because the subject cannot even be approached scientifically. What you can do is say that there is either little or no evidence in favor of such a claim, so a belief in leprechauns (or god) is not well-justified.

If you are claiming to know that god does not exist, you are making an unreasonable, untenable claim.

Happiness is not an “ultimate metric”. It is a guide for interpersonal conduct.

Well, Harris talks about happiness as the foundation for a secular moral system, not merely as a “guide”. So I think he carries it a bit further than you.

Nhoj Morley - 16 December 2007 01:22 PM

Others, including me, have expressed such a sentiment here before.
I’d duck if I were you.

Thanks for the advice, Nhoj. Didn’t take long for it to get a bit ugly.

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Posted: 16 December 2007 09:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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derekjames - 16 December 2007 01:22 AM

Kurt wrote:

I’m not sure what your point here is. $100 isn’t worth a kick to my nuts, so the net happiness of my family would be pretty negative, I think.

My point is that we can’t excuse stupid and damaging behavior just because it’s a part of a belief system that also may have benefits.

You also want to be cautious when people’s happiness is polled.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes about her youth as a devout Muslim living in Somalia.
If you would have asked the younger Ayaan if she was happy as a Muslim, what do you think her answer would have been ?
If you are born in a cage it is difficult to realize you are living in one and even more difficult to admit to yourself that your life sucks.

Happiness, smappiness.

Look at quantifiable data instead: Life-expectancy, literacy, child mortality, violent crime rates, etc.
These metrics can tell us more about the quality of people’s lives than proclamations of happiness.
I just spend two weeks on a Christian forum. If you would ask these people if they were happy you would hear a hysterical chorus attesting to the joy of being a religious wing nut.
Yet my observation is that these people are scared, ignorant and miserable.

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Posted: 16 December 2007 09:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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Salt Creek - 16 December 2007 01:37 PM

A religious belief is not a medical placebo. I think people know whether or not their beliefs are true or false, or whether the truth or falsity is really unknowable at the 50-50 level. People who benefit from placebos know that drug compounds actually exist. Belief in the existence of specific deities, such as Thor and Thoth, is known to be false. No god has been invented by people that is ontologically different from Thor or Thoth.

Wait a minute.  Are you saying that people who believe in God actually know He doesn’t exist?  What evidence do you have of that?

 

Sander - 16 December 2007 02:06 PM

Look at quantifiable data instead: Life-expectancy, literacy, child mortality, violent crime rates, etc.
These metrics can tell us more about the quality of people’s lives than proclamations of happiness.
I just spend two weeks on a Christian forum. If you would ask these people if they were happy you would hear a hysterical chorus attesting to the joy of being a religious wing nut.
Yet my observation is that these people are scared, ignorant and miserable.

So, I take it you studied the life expectancy, literacy, child mortality and violent crime rates of your friends on the Christian forum and from these metrics determined they were scared, ignorant and miserable?  And if not, then what observations did lead you to that conclusion?

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Posted: 16 December 2007 09:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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Antisocialdarwinist - 16 December 2007 02:27 PM

So, I take it you studied the life expectancy, literacy, child mortality and violent crime rates of your friends on the Christian forum and from these metrics determined they were scared, ignorant and miserable?  And if not, then what observations did lead you to that conclusion?

It is one thing to observe a small group of people for some time and draw conclusions based on this experience.
If you are trying to find out something about a large group of people whom you do not know at all you are better off relying on metrics.

Surely you will use different methods to form opinions on the people living next door than on the population of Finland.

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