Ten Serious Questions for Sam Harris
Posted: 01 September 2011 06:42 PM   [ Ignore ]  
Newbie
Rank
Total Posts:  36
Joined  2011-08-28

Some questions I’d like Sam Harris address have been written by a fellow named Timothy Sandefur.

Ten Serious Questions for Sam Harris

Profile
 
 
Posted: 01 September 2011 09:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
Newbie
Rank
Total Posts:  3
Joined  2011-09-01

Timothy Sandefur’s exceedingly pretentious five-part explosion (apart from being super-scary) is chock full of selective quoting, misinterpretation, and irrelevancies. It is a case study in why the frightening Ayn Rand types come off as cuckoo for cocoa puffs.

Sam probably chose a poor title for his original post, but his writing was calm and civilized. Also, wealth inequality is probably not a problem, but rather wealth disparity - with the middle section having mostly sunk to the bottom.

Sandefur seems to be making a case for a no-tax system of government, or perhaps a voluntary tax system. Arguments of this sort are probably non-starters, at least pragmatically. If Sandefur would concede the need for some sort of tax system, would he deny that someone like Buffett should pay a percentage comparable to that of his maid or other wage earners, instead of a lower percentage?

Profile
 
 
Posted: 03 September 2011 08:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
Newbie
Rank
Total Posts:  36
Joined  2011-08-28

So you are saying because the questions are so easy to refute that you and he can’t answer the questions?  That it’s scary so you can’t answer?  I don;t see any invocation of Ayn Rand in those questions in the first place.  In fact his several posts on this topic ask many valid questions.

I find all sorts of ideologies scary.  Sam had no problem responding to Islamist, yet I’m supposed to believe he’s more scared of Sandefur?

I think the scary part is that your philosophy isn’t robust enough to stand up to the challenge.

BTW,  I’ve run into actual Objectivists and have no problem whatsoever explaining why I find Objectivism objectionable.  Unfortunately, Rand is a red herring here.  Arguments stand or fall on their own merits, not on who you try to associate them with.

I want some serious argument and not all the red herrings, ad hominem, guilt by association, argument from authority, false dilemmas and all the other nonsense Harris and guys like you are pulling.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 03 September 2011 08:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
Newbie
Rank
Total Posts:  36
Joined  2011-08-28

BTW, I find both you and Harris exceedingly pretentious.  I say that so that you are aware that we are on a level playing field with respect to that.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 03 September 2011 08:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
Newbie
Rank
Total Posts:  36
Joined  2011-08-28

Buffet is actually a hypocrite and is in fact wrong about his taxes on a couple of fronts.

1) It is not likely he pays less taxes as a percent than his maid.  Investment income is double taxed for one thing.  So no he doesn’t pay 15% overall.  Plus, low income people have all sorts of deductions of their own.  A maid likely pays next to no taxes that pay for the general duties of the government.  Sure she pays SS but in theory that goes to her retirement (but I doubt it will be there by then).
2) He’s currently in a dispute with the government over $6 billion in taxes he owes but will not pay.  So much for the idea he’d be happy to pay more taxes.  He won’t even pay his current taxes.
3)Buffet has enormously benefited from the bailouts.  He should have been experiencing huge losses but the penalty for the risks he took are falling on the taxpayer.  He’s even setting himself up for future benefits of his political connections with a new deal for BoA.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 03 September 2011 08:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
Newbie
Rank
Total Posts:  36
Joined  2011-08-28

I could argue the way you do and dismiss Harris as a scary torture supporting moral deviant.    I could dismiss you completely on that basis as a scary Sam Harris type.  You think that is valid?

Profile
 
 
Posted: 03 September 2011 10:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
Newbie
Rank
Total Posts:  3
Joined  2011-09-01

I’m sorry, I didn’t make it clear that I wasn’t referring merely to Sandefur’s “Ten Questions” (part 5 of his response to Sam’s post), but rather to the entire series, including the prior four parts. The other four parts are linked from the following post; http://sandefur.typepad.com/freespace/2011/08/still-no-reason-or-logic-from-sam-harris.html

It is in the third post at the link above that Sandefur discusses Rand, and puts forth her view on a specific position. So, given that Sam wrote critically and negatively of Rand, and Sandefur wrote positively and in defense of Rand, I don’t think it’s fair to say that the topic of Rand is a red herring - unless they’re both committing the fallacy.

Sandefur doesn’t sugar-coat his radical extremist objectivism. His position is far more extreme than some of the very moderate posts here on this forum. He asks ” I don’t see what’s wrong with living for the sake of my own flourishing” and “It seems pretty obvious to me that the moral purpose of my life is my own flourishing.  I don’t see why it’s wrong to be what Harris calls “selfish” and “short-sighted.”

Sandefur does correctly quote Sam in saying that “It amazes me that such questions require answers.”

I think it does boil down to our intuitions about these questions, because that may be all we have. We’ll see if Sam can add any more support if he bothers to answer Sandefur’s ten questions.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 03 September 2011 10:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
Newbie
Rank
Total Posts:  3
Joined  2011-09-01

I may have failed to highlight the irony that I intended to illustrate in my prior post.

Sandefur writes that Sam needs to provide answers and support for compassion and empathy, rather than just “hand waving” and “intuition” that he claims is conveyed when Sam writes “It amazes me that such questions require answers.”.

But just a few sentences before that,  Sandefur writes “It seems pretty obvious to me that the moral purpose of my life is my own flourishing.”. If Sam is waving hands, Sandefur is waving right back - whether his statement is true, false, obvious or not.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 03 September 2011 04:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
Newbie
Rank
Total Posts:  36
Joined  2011-08-28

Yes, he does write: “He indulges in ad hominem attacks on Ayn Rand, accusing her of “terrible writing” and so forth. He claims to be familiar with Rand’s works, but shows no awareness of Rand’s discussion of the Rawlsian position regarding “unearned” possessions.”

Which pretty much sums up what you did also.

You haven’t supported your position.  Harris hasn’t supported his.

Harris is at an inferior position to Sandefur because the latter isn’t advocating his power over others.  Harris is attempting to take other peoples stuff.  Sandefur is merely objecting to the unjustified appropriation.

I have no reason to care about Sandefur’s potential errors because he’s not advocating the kind of class envy and economic policies that resulted in nearly a hundred million dead in communist countries when taken to the extreme.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 04 September 2011 06:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
Newbie
Rank
Total Posts:  36
Joined  2011-08-28

Now I agree with Sam Harris that Ayn Rand is a “terrible [fiction] writer”.    I started reading one of her novels and just couldn’t get through the first couple pages.  On the other hand maybe I’m a poor judge of art, or maybe it’s just a matter of taste.  I wouldn’t reject every single argument she ever made on that basis however.  Perhaps Sam Harris is also a terrible writer of fiction.  I’m pretty sure you and I are.  Does that mean no one should listen to our valid arguments.


With regard to her non-fiction.  As far as I can tell she makes valid and invalid arguments like every other philosopher.  She also tries, like many other justificationalists, find a base from which she can argue forward.    I don’t buy her believe that one can start from a set of self-evident axioms and derive everything from there including morality.  I have actual arguments against it but since no one is arguing f or her over-all system I have no reason to spell them out here. 


Considering that every other foundationalist philosopher has failed in this regard I can’t really hold that against her so much.  It just means I can’t select between foundationalist philosophers on that basis.  I can’t say “Sam Harris has derived all of morality from root X” and Ayn Rand hasn’t so therefore I choose Harris”.    So I am left with picking and choosing on the basis of individual arguments.  I am free to reject all arguments made in a particular area by philosophers, and say “I don’t know” if I choose.


Of course there are non-foundationist philosophers to consider also.  There’s William Warren Bartley for instance.


However all of that is moot.    If we had to accept the entire philosophies of other people in order to decide on any issue we’d go nowhere.


Instead we argue with each other in an intellectually honest way.  I used to think that Harris was intellectually honest but I am having my doubts at this point.  He’s using fallacies to argue with his opponents, and not addressing their questions.


I’m also extremely well read in economics and he is for all purposes completely ignorant on the subject.


What if Sandefur was arguing for the Theory of Natural Selection with an opponent who disagreed.  Ayn Rand was a Darwinist.  Now suppose that opponent dismissed natural selection on the basis that Ayn Rand was a terrible writer and moral deviant (or whatever).  Are you now going to accept that the theory is shown to be false?


Sam has attempted to build a moral system on the foundation of reducing suffering.  I think that is just a ridiculous, if not more ridiculous, than Rand’s foundations.  All without defining his terms.  What is suffering?  How can forced appropriation of property not count as causing suffering?  Is it merely based on how much someone has?  Then what is the level at which appropriation can happen?  Who gets to decide what gets appropriated?  What should get appropriated?  Does that appropriation depend upon whether someone else is suffering?  So on and so forth.  Then it all needs to be justified.


I don’t see any of that.  I see some valid critique of religion,  the outlines of a moral system that doesn’t even address prior thinkers,  a bunch of hand waving, and lots of fallacious evasion.

 

 


.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 04 September 2011 07:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
Newbie
Rank
Total Posts:  36
Joined  2011-08-28
goapy - 03 September 2011 02:26 PM

He asks ” I don’t see what’s wrong with living for the sake of my own flourishing” and “It seems pretty obvious to me that the moral purpose of my life is my own flourishing.  I don’t see why it’s wrong to be what Harris calls “selfish” and “short-sighted.”

Sandefur does correctly quote Sam in saying that “It amazes me that such questions require answers.”

That all depends on what Harris calls selfish and short-sighted, now doesn’t it.  Those are scare quotes.


Christians would argue that atheists like Harris and me are selfish and short sighted.  Selfish for not donating to the church, and short sighted for not considering the afterlife.  I don’t see why it is wrong to be what Christians call “selfish” and “short sighted”.  That’s because our world views differ.  In fact, I think Christians are selfish and short sighted.  Selfish for desiring an eternal reward   Short sighted in relying on blind faith to assure them that such a reward exists.


Objectivists have an idiosyncratic vocabulary that I think gets in their way and actually can lead to moral error.  I don’t think such error is in play here however.


Harris is in fact advocating economic and political policies that are short sighted.  For example his Luddite concerns regarding new inventions.  That’s a notorious example of a economic fallacy that rests on short sightedness.  So in that case Harris is being short sighted and Sandefur is taking in the broader landscape.


Many people are upset with Harris specifically because he is being short sighted in the implications of what he is advocating. 
Harris is short sighted also in gathering input for his conclusions.


Shortsightedness is an extremely common error in economics.  In fact, to such an extent that entire schools of economics are based on shortsightedness.  Keynes is famous for saying, “In the long run we are all dead”.


There is a saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.  Harris may have good intentions in advocating ludditism but the end result, in the long run, of Luddite policies are bad.  India stagnated for decades after its independence in part because Gandhi’s Luddite economic policies.  [Thomas Sowell has covered this issue if you want to read further.] This caused a lot of needless suffering.  Harris’s short sightedness would have us repeat these errors.


Florishing can certainly include charity, and that is a question I would take up with Sandefur. 


Many outside the objectivist camp and prior to it even existing have questioned whether the government dole counts as charity.  How can Buffet forcing me to pay higher taxes to pay for policies that allow him soothe his guilty conscience count as charity?  I don’t think they can.


Make no mistake here either.  I actually believe that t he government can justifiably do things like a) Enact Good Samaritan law. b) Enact public insurance schemes.    However, when I do so the arguments I use to justify these things can only do so within limits.  For example, a limitation on my argument would not allow for a law that allows someone who received substantial help in an emergency to indefinitely keep whatever resources were appropriated during the emergency.  Also the cause of the emergency has to be taken into account, etc.  For instance, one can break into a cabin in an emergency to take food, but one would be required to 1) Pay it back when possible 2) Publicize the fact that you took it.    I cannot justify such behavior without these and other criteria (I haven’t expounded completely).  I need these criteria to distinguish this act from simple theft.  There are also other issues such as conflicting emergencies.  During a hard winter you just can’t break into someone elses cabin for food because they too may be on the edge of starvation.


So I can accept appropriation of the wealth of others under certain criteria.


Harris’ argument is a total non-starter for justifying such takings.  I see no way to distinguish what he desires to do and theft.


In fact, many criminals justify their acts specifically based on this idea that others have “too much” which Harris seems to think is based in morality.  I would argue instead that it is immoral.

I think it does boil down to our intuitions about these questions, because that may be all we have. We’ll see if Sam can add any more support if he bothers to answer Sandefur’s ten questions.


Harris can’t claim that this is about mere intuition.  The title of his book is “How Science Can Determine Human Values”.  He’s claiming some kind of objective authority for science on the issue of morality.  He is in a way an “objectivist”.


I think moral systems are competing survival strategies.  I don’t think there is an objective way to directly determine which such survival strategy is “best”.  Some are superior to others in certain niches and will drive others extinct but that all depends on environmental factors.  So in a crude way we can say that for instance humans are better than dodo birds. 


So my philosophical position doesn’t suffer from problems his does.  It is also less totalitarian.  I don’t have to decide on the one true morality and force it on others.

[ Edited: 04 September 2011 04:50 PM by Brian Macker]
Profile
 
 
Posted: 05 September 2011 06:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
Newbie
Rank
Total Posts:  36
Joined  2011-08-28

“Sam probably chose a poor title for his original post, but his writing was calm and civilized.”


Since we’re on a first name basis here.  So was Timothy.


“Also, wealth inequality is probably not a problem, but rather wealth disparity - with the middle section having mostly sunk to the bottom.”


What does that even mean?  You think there is some enormous difference between the words inequality and disparity?  No you have not identified any problem.  Unemployment is an effect of the actual problem, which is following bad economic policies.


Good economic policy has been know for a long time but politicians refuse to follow it because they can’t take money for themselves and their friends with the zero cash flow inherent in not interfering with markets.


This was written 60 years ago in the book “Economics In One Lesson” by Henry Hazlitt:


“”The case against government-guaranteed loans and mortgages to private businesses and persons is almost as strong as, though less obvious than, the case against direct government loans and mortgages. The advocates of government-guaranteed mortgages also forget that what is being lent is ultimately real capital, which is limited in supply, and that they are helping identified B at the expense of some unidentified A. Government-guaranteed home mortgages, especially when a negligible down payment or no down payment whatever is required, inevitably mean more bad loans than otherwise. They force the general taxpayer to subsidize the bad risks and to defray the losses. They encourage people to “buy” houses that they cannot really afford. They tend eventually to bring about an oversupply of houses as compared with other things. They temporarily overstimulate building, raise the cost of building for everybody (including the buyers of the homes with the guaranteed mortgages), and may mislead the building industry into an eventually costly overexpansion. In brief in the long run they do not increase overall national production but encourage malinvestment.” – Henry Hazlitt


That sound familiar?  He’s stating the know effects of a certain government policy which was followed and which caused the known effects.    Yet, now the economists who caused the current economic mess are blaming it on the free market.  There was no free market. 


Read the whole thing.


The government has not only followed an idiotic policy in providing government guaranteed loans and mortgages, they’ve also committed a whole series of other market interferences that also have bad repercussions of a various time lags.


Here is Hazlitts take on the issue of the short sightedness of the kind of policies Sam Harris is proposing.    I know that Timothy understands this.  So in this regard Harris is the short sighted one.  Timothy’s morality includes economic policy that is NOT short sighted, unlike Harris.  Harris’s morality is economically short sighted.

Profile
 
 
   
 
 
RSS 2.0     Atom Feed