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Happiness and Suffering as the Basis for Morality
Posted: 18 December 2007 09:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 61 ]  
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What may be hampering the progress of this thread is the use of the word ‘happiness’ itself.
I can’t for the life of me define what it means.
It has been suggested that the term is meaningless and that it is better to ask if someone is satisfied.

Most of us would feel worse if any of our basic needs were missing; i.e. bread, bed and boobs.

Having no hope of a better future, not being able or allowed to express yourself or lacking a play-ground to run around in are similar only higher up the pyramid.

If this is true then it follows that something you don’t need, be it heroin, Jesus or the advice of Miss Cleo, can never increase your well-being.

PS. I haven’t had my coffee yet so I’m not sure how much or little sense this makes.

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Posted: 18 December 2007 09:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 62 ]  
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derekjames - 18 December 2007 01:58 PM

If you guys don’t have a problem buying that false beliefs are sometimes correlated with a net increase in happiness, then why have you repeatedly pressed me to demonstrate it?

Derek, if I could lay this out for you in words of one syllable, I would. The first thing you have to get straight is that even if the statement “true beliefs lead to a net increase in unhappiness” were true (and it manifestly is not true), it would not lead to the conclusion that “false beliefs lead to a net increase in happiness”.

If you want to drape yourself in the conceit that you are using reason to argue that Sam Harris presents an inconsistent position, you must really clarify your opinion as to what the inconsistency actually is.

[ Edited: 18 December 2007 09:26 AM by Traces Elk]
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Posted: 18 December 2007 09:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 63 ]  
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derekjames - 18 December 2007 12:31 PM

I actually find it hard to believe that several people here are arguing that truth is always positively correlated with a net increase in happiness

No one here is making that argument. Personally, I’m saying that falsehood is generally correlated with decreased happiness, which is not the same argument as the one you assume we are making. And I emphasize generally correlated, not absolutely so or always so.

Your examples of placebos and Santa Clause and flattery, while valid, are simply not comparable to the concept of divine command, which is the falsehood I am talking about. The core falsehood is the belief that obeying commands that are alleged to have come from deity are more important than the effects of one’s actions on others.

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Posted: 18 December 2007 09:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 64 ]  
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Sander - 18 December 2007 02:19 PM

Most of us would feel worse if any of our basic needs were missing; i.e. bread, bed and boobs.

Having no hope of a better future, not being able or allowed to express yourself or lacking a play-ground to run around in are similar only higher up the pyramid.

If this is true then it follows that something you don’t need, be it heroin, Jesus or the advice of Miss Cleo, can never increase your well-being.

PS. I haven’t had my coffee yet so I’m not sure how much or little sense this makes.

I think you’ve summed it up just about completely, and shown remarkable patience in the face of arguments that are “not even wrong”.

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Posted: 18 December 2007 09:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 65 ]  
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Carstonio - 18 December 2007 02:21 PM
derekjames - 18 December 2007 12:31 PM

I actually find it hard to believe that several people here are arguing that truth is always positively correlated with a net increase in happiness

No one here is making that argument. Personally, I’m saying that falsehood is generally correlated with decreased happiness, which is not the same argument as the one you assume we are making. And I emphasize generally correlated, not absolutely so or always so.

Then why on earth would you say this:

The burden is on you to show how a falsehood belief can produce a net increase in happiness in society. That is because all mental propositions affect a person’s actions to some degree, even the “true” ones. (I put “true” in quotes because by definition, a belief involves some question as to whether the proposition is true - it has not been proven true or proven false. If the belief is true then it graduates to the realm of knowledge.)

How could a falsehood belief produce a net increase in happiness?

Why would you say the burden of proof is on me, and ask me this question if you concede that it is possible?

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Posted: 18 December 2007 09:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 66 ]  
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I agree derek that happiness is difficult not only to quantify, but to qualify; the whole one man’s pleasure is another man’s pain, yada yada. Perhaps if we define happiness in terms of freedom and access coupled with the notion of don’t tread on me, a consensus can be made as to what constitutes the overall increasing of humankind’s happiness, which in turn would decrease overall suffering.
To be more specific, by freedom, I mean freedom of consciousness and conscience, and by access, I mean access to a liberal eduction and quality health care. My mind keeps going back to Alexander Meikeljohn and his hope for america in which through unfettered (laissez-faire) education, individuals will eventually acheive self-governance, and be able, in the Holmesian sense of free marketplace of ideas, to discern “good” ideas from “bad” ideas, eventually discarding the bad ones, or the false ones for truth. Individuals would still be able to believe in the sacred sunflower, sowing the seeds of love if they wanted to, they just couldn’t impose those beliefs onto others. Organized religion would be treated like a business—-taxed like on too—whose bylaws and tenets can be preached so long as they don’t breach state and federal laws. 

Utopian, pie-in-the-sky, naive, polyanna?  Perhaps….but I’m an optimistic existentialist.

I often wonder the US would be like if the framers had worded the First Amendment to say freedom of speech, press, consciousness and conscience instead of speech, press and religion.

Carstonio, you make some salient points. I disagree however, that a falsehood belief or self-delusion “tends to decrease happiness for the believer.” There are some times when it might be useful to have a delusion: a cancer patient comes to mind; or a victim of violent crime. It seems to me the larger problem is the falsehood beliefs about “the other” that tend to cause potentially heinous actions.

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Posted: 18 December 2007 10:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 67 ]  
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Salt Creek - 18 December 2007 02:20 PM

Derek, if I could lay this out for you in words of one syllable, I would. The first thing you have to get straight is that even if the statement “true beliefs lead to a net increase in unhappiness” were true (and it manifestly is not true), it would not lead to the conclusion that “false beliefs lead to a net increase in happiness”.

Now who is slinging around the straw men?

I never asserted either of those things. I have asserted:

1) True beliefs sometimes lead to a net decrease in happiness
2) False beliefs sometimes lead to a net increase in happiness

Throughout this thread, several people have refuted #2 and asked for demonstrations or verification. And if you make the assertion that “False beliefs never lead to a net increase in happiness”, as some people, such as carstonio have implied, that does lead to the conclusion that “True statements always lead to a net increase in happiness”.

If you want to drape yourself in the conceit that you are using reason to argue that Sam Harris presents an inconsistent position, you must really clarify your opinion as to what the inconsistency actually is.

Here are the claims I understand Harris to be making:

1) Happiness and the alleviation of suffering should be the foundational basis for a secular moral system

2) False beliefs generally lead to a decrease in happiness and an increase in suffering

3) However, even in cases where false beliefs do lead to an increase in happiness and a decrease in suffering, we still shouldn’t hold those beliefs

Perhaps I am misrepresenting his position on this, but that’s what I’m getting out of his readings and his talks. If these are accurate representations of Harris’ views, I see an inherent contradiction between #1 and #3. If happiness is the yardstick by which we measure goodness, then those false beliefs that yield an increase in happiness should be good.

[ Edited: 18 December 2007 10:30 AM by derekjames]
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Posted: 18 December 2007 10:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 68 ]  
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derekjames - 18 December 2007 03:11 PM

Perhaps I am misrepresenting his position on this, but that’s what I’m getting out of his readings and his talks. If these are accurate representations of Harris’ views, I see an inherent contradiction between #1 and #3. If happiness is the yardstick by which we measure goodness, then those false beliefs that yield an increase in happiness should be good.

No, beliefs that lead to a net increase in happiness should be considered good. Don’t hedge your bet. Furthermore you continue to ponder “false beliefs that lead to a (not specifically net) increase in happiness”. No belief known to be false can lead to a net increase in happiness, because the holder of such a belief expends too much effort reconciling his knowledge that it is false with the feeling that it makes him happy. You seem to be relying on statistics published by Haidt who is demonstrably not a neutral observer of the phenomena he is purporting to describe.

Furthermore, as others have pointed out, “happiness” (even as Harris uses the term) is poorly specified, so you would seem to be arguing with Harris about a semantic nicety, rather than any sort of logical inconsistency. Perhaps your only conceit is to hope that you are cleverer than Harris. If you want to demonstrate this, you should arrange to have a public debate specifically with Harris himself.

derekjames - 18 December 2007 03:11 PM

3) However, even in cases where false beliefs do lead to an increase in happiness and a decrease in suffering, we still shouldn’t hold those beliefs

 

Harris does not assert anything like this, and this is not the first time you have been reminded of this. In no case does anyone (except perhaps your hero Haidt) assert such a thing, and you are conflating the beliefs of your paragon with those of Harris in order to perpetuate the strawman proposed by your hero.

For my part, your obsession with this niggling point about truth, falsehood, and net happiness is looking a bit like a personal vendetta. I think you don’t give as good as you get, unless it is only attention that you crave.

derekjames - 18 December 2007 03:11 PM

Now who is slinging around the straw men?

I never asserted either of those things. I have asserted:

1) True beliefs sometimes lead to a net decrease in happiness
2) False beliefs sometimes lead to a net increase in happiness

Now you’re just slinging around your own incompetence in semantics, because the words “net increase” or “net decrease” are not consistent with your use of the word “sometimes”.

[ Edited: 18 December 2007 10:42 AM by Traces Elk]
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Posted: 18 December 2007 10:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 69 ]  
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derekjames - 18 December 2007 02:51 PM

Why would you say the burden of proof is on me, and ask me this question if you concede that it is possible?

Partly because even when the possibility of something approaches zero, the possibility still exists. I was asking the question in part to take a stab at an answer myself.

[ Edited: 18 December 2007 11:04 AM by Carstonio]
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Posted: 18 December 2007 10:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 70 ]  
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isocratic infidel - 18 December 2007 02:52 PM

Carstonio, you make some salient points. I disagree however, that a falsehood belief or self-delusion “tends to decrease happiness for the believer.” There are some times when it might be useful to have a delusion: a cancer patient comes to mind; or a victim of violent crime. It seems to me the larger problem is the falsehood beliefs about “the other” that tend to cause potentially heinous actions.

Your general point is the same as mine. I do see some risk in those useful delusions you mention, such as the violent crime victim becoming either over-sensitized or under-sensitized to future danger. But I’m much more interested in focusing on the larger problem represented by god-belief.

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Posted: 18 December 2007 11:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 71 ]  
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Salt Creek - 18 December 2007 03:33 PM

No, beliefs that lead to a net increase in happiness should be considered good. Don’t hedge your bet.

Ah, okay. Well, that’s your position. I suppose Harris’ is still indeterminate.

Furthermore you continue to ponder “false beliefs that lead to a (not specifically net) increase in happiness”. No belief known to be false can lead to a net increase in happiness, because the holder of such a belief expends too much effort reconciling his knowledge that it is false with the feeling that it makes him happy.

And what about the cases where the holder of the belief does not necessarily know that it is false, but is basing his beliefs on poorly-justified reasons?

Perhaps your only conceit is to hope that you are cleverer than Harris.

...

For my part, your obsession with this niggling point about truth, falsehood, and net happiness is looking a bit like a personal vendetta. I think you don’t give as good as you get, unless it is only attention that you crave.

Nice personal attacks, but believe it or not I actually care about these issues and have a stake in resolving them. As a secularist, I want to be able to justify my values and decisions rationally.

I agree with those who praise the New Atheists for their razor-sharp criticism of religious faith, and also those who criticize them for not doing much hard work in erecting a secular alternative in its place. I actually applaud Harris for going further than Hitchens, for example, who reminds me of Mencken, perfectly happy in the tearing down, but not so much the building up. Harris at least throws something out there, and suggests a direction, but I think the foundation of happiness and suffering is a weak one, and that’s why I’m thinking and arguing about it.

derekjames - 18 December 2007 03:11 PM

Harris does not assert anything like this, and this is not the first time you have been reminded of this. In no case does anyone (except perhaps your hero Haidt) assert such a thing, and you are conflating the beliefs of your paragon with those of Harris in order to perpetuate the strawman proposed by your hero.

One, Haidt’s not my hero. I don’t even like his views. I do think there’s reasonably good evidence that religious adherents are on average happier and healthier than non-religious adherents. By the way, here is a link to an essay by Haidt, and responses by Sam Harris, PZ Meyers, and others. I agree much more with the critics than with Haidt, especially Meyers, who does not dispute that religious adherents are often happier than atheists, but says:

I attended graduate school in Oregon at the time the Baghwan Shree Rajneesh had his commune in the state. On the news, we’d often see video of the smiling hairy guru going for his morning drive in one of his fleet of Rolls-Royces, and his acolytes would line the road, waving joyfully as he went by. They were ecstatic. If we are to judge the value and virtue of a “moral system” by the happiness of its followers, then the Rajneeshis were contesting for the pinnacle of radiant glee; interviews would always have them gushing over the Baghwan, and I’m sure that any survey would have shown them far exceeding the happiness quotient of us sullen, gloomy, miserable atheists.

Shall we assess the merits of any social institution by the professions of happiness of its followers? Is that what we want?

No, that’s not what I want, because I think a secular moral system should not value happiness over truth. I see an inherent tension between the valuation of happiness vs the valuation of truth that I think needs resolving, but apparently many others here think that tension is a fabrication.

Now you’re just slinging around your own incompetence in semantics, because the words “net increase” or “net decrease” are not consistent with your use of the word “sometimes”.

Well that’s an idiotic thing to say. The following sentence is perfectly intelligible:

Investing in tech stocks sometimes leads to a net increase in your family’s wealth.

To leave out the qualifier “sometimes” would be to assert that all combinations of tech stocks lead to a net increase in wealth, which wouldn’t be true. To not use the phrase “net increase” would imply that there are no stocks that might individually decrease in value. If you can’t parse fairly simple constructions then maybe it isn’t very sensible to try to maintain a conversation with you.

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Posted: 18 December 2007 12:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 72 ]  
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derekjames - 18 December 2007 04:44 PM

I think the foundation of happiness and suffering is a weak one, and that’s why I’m thinking and arguing about it.

I did not realize that was the case. By all means clue us in to what you think a better foundation might be. Or are you just tearing down the arguments of New Atheism and not presenting any alternatives?

You appear, in fact, to have been relying on nothing but the quantitation of happiness and suffering to “erect a secular moral system”. It’s just that you have certain prescriptions concerning how this is to be accounted for. You seem to suggest that people can achieve higher net happiness by keeping the privilege of believing in things that likely are false (i.e., by practicing wishful thinking). Do you really assert that someone’s false belief in absolute authority is all that is keeping him “in line”?

Complaining that no one has proposed what you consider to be a workable alternative to the work of the religious nutters is not much help, and you have gone nowhere in demonstrating any basis for thinking that the elimination of religion will lead to more suffering than organized religion is already causing. Your suggestion that depriving the holders of innocuous belief systems will cause a huge increase in misery is an interesting one; personally, I find the holders of innocuous belief systems to be achieving happiness through sloth rather than by dint of effort. You suggest misery comes from confronting the world as it is as opposed to what one wishes it was. No scientist will want to entertain such an argument. The misery in the general population that arises from giving up wishful thinking will be more than compensated by the boon to the professions of counseling and psychotherapy. Of course, the foundations of their professions are largely bullshit at present also.

Really, what New Atheists (if we have to call them that) are proposing is the breaching of unquestioned respect for religious dogma, and a host of other unsupportable “new age” or “woo-woo” fantasies. If this breach of respect is going to cause untold misery, I do hope you will explain the mechanism. Asserting that the “elimination” of religion is a reasonable goal is a strange perversion of the proposed program. Of course, people like me suspect that in time, overt mockery of false belief will lead to its diminution in the population at large. This is because it is evident that most “believers” have no interest in examining their beliefs at all. The ones we see bitching and moaning here in defense of their “faith” do so mostly by parroting dogma, and are in the wings of the distribution.

[ Edited: 18 December 2007 01:25 PM by Traces Elk]
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Posted: 18 December 2007 12:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 73 ]  
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derekjames - 18 December 2007 04:44 PM

No, that’s not what I want, because I think a secular moral system should not value happiness over truth. I see an inherent tension between the valuation of happiness vs the valuation of truth that I think needs resolving, but apparently many others here think that tension is a fabrication.

Again, please provide your definition of “truth.” Without such a definition, your point about inherent tension has no meaning. Also, believers use “truth” to mean that only their beliefs are factual and anything that disagrees with those beliefs is not factual.

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Posted: 18 December 2007 12:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 74 ]  
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Derek,

I see the contours of a familiar argument lurking behind your original question.
It goes something like this: Sure, religion is bullshit but some people, not me, are better off with it.

If this is so then a fair amount of arrogance is involved.

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But that’s the way I like it baby, I don’t want to live forever.”

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Posted: 18 December 2007 12:58 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 75 ]  
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but that he is wrong about happiness and suffering being the basis for morality.

Actually I think you are taking the matters in the wrong order.
A secular universal morality can only be fully developed when we first actually do welcome truth as a central value. As Harris argues, we do not need to believe anything on insufficient evidence.

AFTER you do that, morality should be based on happiness and suffering.
Truth is not a factor of morality so it should not be involved in moral questions. But morality should be based on truth, hence the problem is really only in rhetoric.

I don’t think that Sam Harris would dream of arguing for obscuring truth in favor of happiness, his view on morality is based on the assumption that society stops asserting things without proof first.

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