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Why do atheists believe in universal values?
Posted: 31 October 2010 07:48 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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Hi all,

I enjoyed watching Sam Harris’ interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. There was a question that jumped out at me—I sent Sam a PM about a week ago and didn’t hear back (understandably). Anyone else want to take a shot?

In The Daily Show clip, Sam talks about the Judeo-Christian God—Sam’s pronouncement is very negative, and the basis of that judgement is whether or not a concept like slavery increases or decreases harmony. Elsewhere, I think Sam uses a similar basis of whether or not a policy increases overall happiness within humanity.

The part that I’m hoping you can help me understand is: from an atheist and philosophical point of view, how can one value be elevated above another as a moral basis for all humanity? That is, I understand why one person can adopt a value of maximizing happiness for everyone. However, what “allows” that person to judge another person’s value as inferior? Why is it that increasing overall happiness is taken to be the universal value?

Thanks for your thoughts,
Jerry

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Posted: 10 November 2010 07:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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I found it takes some time and effort to really understand The Moral Landscape.  I’ve been reading reviews and questions like these and typing-up responses.  I finally think I have come up with a fairly decent response to these basic questions.  Feel free to correct or clarify my write-up.

Here’s a link to the talk Sam Harris presented at the TED conference last spring (about 20 minutes). It also has a long synopsis of his argument if you are not going to read the book.

http://www.project-reason.org/newsfeed/item/moral_confusion_in_the_name_of_science3/



Why is it that increasing overall happiness is taken to be the universal value?

Happiness is not taken to be a universal value (although it probably is).  What the Moral Landscape proposes is that a science of morality “concerns the well-being of conscious creatures”.  In the book, there are few, if any, specific values that are derived from this definition.

Observe the science of medicine “concerns the health of human beings”.  While we are not going to find a cure for cancer without knowing alot about DNA, cell biology or the immune system, medicine took a major leap when doctors simply washed their hands before working on the next patient.

It is a philosophical position that our own well-being matters to us (is objectively good).  It’s also a philosophical position that understanding the real nature of the world matters to us (is objectively good), thus we have science itself.


how can one value be elevated above another as a moral basis for all humanity?

That’s not what the Moral Landscape argues.  SH said it best at TED: Values are a certain kind of fact, they are facts about the well being of conscious creatures.

A science of morality would seek to uncover those facts/values about the well being of conscious creatures (let’s start with people).  Therefore morality would study all aspects of human well-being to discern what values tend to increase well-being, individually and collectively, and we should expect some balance and compromises between the two.

Values are a type of fact, facts can be uncovered by science, a science of morality would uncover the facts that matter to the well being of conscious creatures.  What do you value?  Physical comfort, health, family, friends, religion, social standing, peace, justice, civil society; what of these common sense values (individual and collective) do not relate to you and your well-being?  A science of morality would examine how and why values like these relate to our well-being (individually and collectively) and what practices increase or decrease our, individual and collective, well-being.

The Moral Lanscape does not list specific values that would follow from the scientific definition of morality.  This seems to be the frustration of many readers and reviewers.


However, what “allows” that person to judge another person’s value as inferior?

In general terms, a fully developed and mature science of morality (recall: one that considers the well being of people) would be able to discern those values that are not conducive human well-being and therefore inferior.  The authority would come from the general respect that society places in science, which is not universal but still useful.  And like the science of economics it would be there to serve as a guide post to public policy.  When done right a science develops experts through research and debate which leads to definitions and precepts.  In time you would have a set of values for human flourishing but, as the Moral Landscape suggests, there could be different peaks on the moral landscape so not all human societies would need to be the same.

While we await a mature science of morality, there are some low hanging fruit.  Does the belief in the “evil eye”, a common practice in rural communities, increase human well-being?  Observing that it tends to decrease cooperation and breeds suspicion in the community, suggests that it doesn’t increase human well-being.  Ruling out the wrong practices might be one method to get to a right set of practices.

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Posted: 14 November 2010 11:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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Hello,

Thanks for your thoughtful reply and link. After viewing the TED session, and then reading Sam’s afterword, many of the comments, the critique by Sean Carroll, and Sam’s rebuttal, I see that my question has been amply posed and discussed by many smart people from a variety of backgrounds (cf Sean’s article, plus comments 100 and 133, for example). This issue seems to be the main criticism of Sam’s TED presentation (and understandably so, since the objectivity of this moral framework is foundational to that message).

I gather Sam’s arguments on the subject to be the following:
1) There is an objective good, and it’s related to human well-being—we might not know the specifics like how to measure it, but there are certainly things that we can eliminate (you furnish the example of the “Evil Eye”). Sam draws an analogy to physical health: though physical health is imprecisely defined, we certainly know the difference between health and death)
2) People who disagree that well-being is an universal value (e.g. the Taliban) are irrelevant to the conversation

Someone like Sean Carroll would ask, “Wait, who gets to set the standard to be well-being and not something else?”

To which Sam roughly replies “We do—it’s like logic in that it’s universal; if you don’t agree (like if you’re the Taliban), your opinion doesn’t matter.” Sam also invokes the “answers in practice versus the answers in principle” argument, reinforcing that even though we don’t how to measure well-being, for example, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.


For a moment, Sam’s logic was very tempting. In particular, his rhetorical question of why we accept logic at all gave me pause—could well-being be universal just like logic? Then, one of Sam’s supporters raised the reason that well-being cannot be universal—in comment 69, the person writes:

“The scary part of your reasoning is that if we discovered that ill-educated kids believing in eternal happiness from a loving god produced a larger well-being for society than scientific evidence and a naturalistic worldview, you would, apparently, support it!”

Embedded in that statement is that truth is an objective good as well. I suppose Sam would probably say that truth and well-being go together, but what if they don’t? Which one trumps? Just that it’s possible to ask that question means (to me) that well-being cannot be elevated to the same level of logic.

(You can do a similar exercise with fairness and well-being. Suppose you believe that it’s fair that if you earn something, you get to keep it. Suppose then a government comes and says that if they force you to share with your neighbors, their collective happiness rises by more than your loss of happiness, and therefore you must give it away. It’s not that far-fetched to think that fairness and maximization of well-being can conflict, and unlike the often-used example of the Taliban, someone claiming fairness as the objective standard doesn’t seem that unreasonable.)


Someone might be tempted to use the “answer in practice vs. answer in principle” argument here—just because we don’t know how much truth affects well-being doesn’t mean that well-being is no longer objective. Invocation of that argument at this juncture seems intellectually sloppy:
1a) Well-being is being assumed as the objective good; why can’t someone else claim that truth or justice is the objective good?
1b) In the TED session, Sam tries to justify well-being as the objective good by saying that even religious people accept well-being as the objective good—it’s just that they take it on a different time scale. If ideals like truth or justice could ever be shown to have even the slightest chance of being in conflict with well-being, then Sam’s argument here fails because many religious people see truth and justice as independent ideals, to be valued for their own sake and not for what effect they have on well-being (either spiritual or physical). Hence, Sam’s original argument that well-being is the objective good because it is universal would fail.
2) In case anyone wants to try say that well-being is the sum of different values—this would be like asking how many apples is an orange worth. It seems like you can have justice without truth (e.g. someone commits a crime that no one knows about, and a terrible natural tragedy happens to that person), and truth certainly seems like it can be known without justice (think of any flagrant injustices that have been left unpunished). These values are different, and trying to map them onto a single dimension (“well-being”) requires a weighting factor which can vary from person to person. If the weighting factor can vary, then the resulting value can vary, which means that there is no answer in principle, and that well-being is not an objective good. (It’s not that there are different peaks—it’s that well-being is not objective.)


To me, the most compelling reason to believe that something is amiss here is this thought experiment: In the TED session, Sam posits that one day, science will advance far enough that we will be able to do a brain scan and be able to measure well-being. Let’s suppose that we are in a time where not only that is possible, but it is also possible to create an environment where we can artificially optimize for that, but where individuals are unable to know that they are in such an environment (think of a benevolent version of _The Matrix_). Adopting well-being as the objective good instructs that we should create such an environment (if you don’t agree, then I’m pretty sure you’re saying that well-being is not the objective good); intuition screams that creating such an environment is morally wrong.

As far as I have gathered, well-being is not the objective good. If this analysis is correct, then much of Sam’s work collapses, like a building without a foundation.

Happy to hear where I’ve gone wrong,
Jerry

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Posted: 17 November 2010 12:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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To reply to the question in the thread topic, atheists don’t all believe in universal values.

Clearly, people don’t in fact have the same values, as revealed through their actions.

So the issue is really one of the existence of some set of values that we supposedly ought to have: oughts we ought to have, instead of the oughts we do have. The prevalent monotheists are in general agreement that there is such an objective morality, while some atheists believe in this, and some don’t.

I don’t think Sam’s argument holds at all, and plenty of folks, like Carroll, are pointing out the flaws in his argument. See “The Great Debate” at The Science Network, linked in Sam’s twitter feed. I thought Simon Blackburn gave a good talk on some of the general philosophical issues which Sam doesn’t effectively deal with.

Diagram it out for yourself. See what arguments are used to support what conclusions, and consider whether you think the arguments are valid

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Posted: 19 November 2010 09:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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jerryp

Bare with me, this stuff is difficult.  I think this is a complete answer but it does not directly address all your points.  You might re-examine some of your points in light of this response.

I would say you are still misunderstanding the uses of the definition of morality.  You often use the term “well-being as the objective good” thus equating “well-being” to a value, synonymous with happiness.  That is not the intent.  Study these three sentences:

A valid field of science is morality where the domain is the well-being of conscious creatures (WBCC).

A valid field of science is physics where the domain is the behavior of matter and energy.

A valid field of science is medicine where the domain is the health of human beings.

SH is seeking to define the domain of morality and has not spelled out any values and how they relate to the WBCC.  I tried to give you some “common sense” values so that the concept was not so abstract.  SH does not elevate the WBCC above all values, but promoting the WBCC is implied.

Look at the case of medicine.  There is a science of human biology if all you want is a description of how the human body works and its deseases.  And if we stop there this science is virtually worthless.  The definition of medicine comes with the value of promoting human health.  You could view medicine as an engineering discipline and perhaps many do (I’m starting to).  But medicine still follows the rules of science (reason, logic, evidence, peer review,...)

But for now, use “common sense” values and juggle their weight and application to a moral situation and then study the projected results with a concern for human well-being.  Be wary of short term well-being.  Don’t confuse happiness or pleasure as the whole definition of well-being.  Constrain your analysis to the facts of human existence.  We still need food, water, shelter and social relations, and quite probably a functioning civilization.  Intuitive senses count, but with a mature science of morality, it would be wise to check for counter-intuitive situations.

And while, well-being is loosely defined, it must be richly complex with many dimensions because humans and their societies are richly complex with many dimensions.  And being a social creature, these must include individual and social dimensions.  For the individual, to start, there could be health, physical comfort, autonomy, social standing and, probably, purpose.  For society there could be order, security and sustainability.  These dimensions of well-being should constrain an analysis and make unlikely the probability of distopia being an ideal state.

Fearing the best effort of our reason does not make sense.  What else do we have to comprehend human well-being?  People may fear engineering our own future, but we do it all the time, from the begining of time.  Political organization will still arbitrate how we forge our future.  A science of morality would serve to constrain the moral domain and filter out the patently bad ideas.  That is, you can’t say you are acting morally if it could be proved you are not considering human well-being. 

I will have to concede I have come to think of morality as an engineering practice, but I’m not sure if SH would agree.

Hope this helps, it helped me.  Thank you.

[ Edited: 19 November 2010 09:31 AM by theAmature]
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Posted: 28 November 2010 08:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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Hi,

@theAmature—Your reply is helpful in pinpointing one root of disagreement: whether the promotion of well-being is a value or not.

You often use the term “well-being as the objective good” thus equating “well-being” to a value, synonymous with happiness.  That is not the intent.  Study these three sentences:

A valid field of science is morality where the domain is the well-being of conscious creatures (WBCC).

A valid field of science is physics where the domain is the behavior of matter and energy.

A valid field of science is medicine where the domain is the health of human beings.

I’m really surprised that you don’t think of the aim to increase well-being of conscious creatures as a value. Morality is what people should do (common definition), and obviously different people have different values, which results in different codes of morality. Once someone injects his or her version of what people should do, that person is relying on a value.

As long as science sticks to facts like “this is what happens when these conditions occur”, I agree that there is no value being implied. Once someone takes the next step of “therefore, we should do this”, then there is a value being inserted into the conversation. That is, physics can tell us how uranium atoms react under certain situations; values will tell us whether it is ok to detonate a nuclear bomb. Medicine can be used to heal or harm people; saying that medicine should only be used to heal people is a value. (This is, by the way, the is/ought debate that Sean Carroll and others reference.) Sam certainly relies on his value of promoting well-being, or else many of his moral pronouncements would not make sense.

I suspect that none of this is new to you. I spend some time writing this out, however, because I spent much of my prior post reasoning that the promotion of well-being cannot be a universal value, and your response was that the promotion of well-being is not a value at all.

If you still don’t think that the promotion of well-being is value, imagine arguing with someone who believes that morality is the promotion of justice (even if it does not coincide with well-being). Why do you get to say that your version of morality is the correct one, and not his?

If well-being were some physical property that could be measured (as Sam implies by his statement that one day we might be able to measure it with MRIs), then the promotion of it would still be a value. To pretend otherwise is to try and arrogate the meaning of “morality”—go call it something else, like “the study of well-beingness” (don’t hijack a word which already has its own commonly accepted definition and that which is very meaningful to other people).

[As a silly example, if I were to say that morality is the study of how to reduce obesity, you’d (appropriately) laugh at me. If I were serious, I would need to furnish real arguments as to why my version of morality should be universal. As far as I can tell, Sam’s argument is that well-being is “self-evident” as the universal yardstick by which we measure the morality of decisions and actions. He even goes as far as dismissing people that he thinks are on the fringe. What’s ironic is that he’s taken up this version of morality that people throughout the ages probably have not heard of—even as he condemns the author of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, which have been accepted by large numbers of people.]

These dimensions of well-being should constrain an analysis and make unlikely the probability of distopia being an ideal state.

It’s interesting that you’re only willing to go as far as to say “make unlikely”—it sounds as if science advanced so far that the benevolent Matrix scenario described above became true (so that you knew for sure that people would have more well-being than if they didn’t enter the Matrix), then you would be in favor of imposing that society. If so, I think that says a lot about your morality (I’m interested in your take on this). For my part, truth is a prominent value, so I could not support that.


@buybuydandavis—I agree that not all atheists believe in universal values, and I apologize that my posing of the question was not more clear. What surprises me is that Sam has garnered such a following despite having such weak philosophical grounds (as others have pointed out). It suggests to me that some atheists yearn for universal values (and are willing to overlook some logical weaknesses) and/or many are drawn to charisma, regardless of what’s true. Maybe there’s another theory that I’m missing as to why Sam has made such a splash.


Thanks for your thoughts,
Jerry

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Posted: 29 November 2010 02:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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jerryp - 29 November 2010 01:50 AM

To pretend otherwise is to try and arrogate the meaning of “morality”—go call it something else, like “the study of well-beingness” (don’t hijack a word which already has its own commonly accepted definition and that which is very meaningful to other people).

... As far as I can tell, Sam’s argument is that well-being is “self-evident” as the universal yardstick by which we measure the morality of decisions and actions.

@buybuydandavis—I agree that not all atheists believe in universal values, and I apologize that my posing of the question was not more clear. What surprises me is that Sam has garnered such a following despite having such weak philosophical grounds (as others have pointed out). It suggests to me that some atheists yearn for universal values (and are willing to overlook some logical weaknesses) and/or many are drawn to charisma, regardless of what’s true. Maybe there’s another theory that I’m missing as to why Sam has made such a splash.

On that first paragraph, you’re counseling people against proof by conflation of terms. How are people supposed to argue, if not by verbal sleight of hand? Honest, rational, valid arguments on morality? What planet are you from?

On the second paragraph, I don’t think that Sam is relying entirely on his argument being self evident. He uses some of his own verbal hocus pocus to make it appear like he has more of an argument than he has. He talks about questions of morality only having meaning in the mind of conscious beings, and therefore morality is about states of conscious beings.

Notice the trick - while only conscious creatures are the subjects of philsophical valuing, it does not mean that they are the only objects of moral values. But if you hustle through it, and your audience wants to believe, the sleight of tongue might prevail.

And of course, no one wants the bad states, so it must be the good states, the states of well being, that are what morality is about. And then there is the argument from analogy with health care, when one questions how well defined “well being” is.

So he’s certainly doesn’t come out and say “it’s all self evident”, he tries to present it like he has an argument, though as you can tell, I don’t agree that he has a valid one.

On your reply to me, I don’t mean this to be rude, but I have to wonder if you’ve been paying attention during your life. You seem to understand the issues just fine, but are surprised at the conclusions nevertheless, as if you’ve just never pieced it together before.

The vast majority of the world yearns for universal values. While atheists don’t use theistic piffle to justify themselves in that regard, that would hardly imply that they wouldn’t have their own nontheistic piffle to accomplish the same ends.

If lacking such, wouldn’t they enthusiastically embrace anyone supplying it? Sam feeds a yearning, why the surprise that people gloss over the weak philosophy? Billions gloss over the argument from “I’ve got a magic book”. It’s taken us centuries to chip away at the magic book argument.

It’s only disappointing or even surprising if your experience has been that people require strong philosophical arguments to believe something, or will change their views in response to a strong argument showing they are incorrect. Has that been your experience?

And I don’t mean to give you a hard time. I’m writing this as much to stifle my own feelings of surprise and annoyance that Sam has gone down this path, and that so many follow him.

[ Edited: 29 November 2010 02:18 AM by buybuydandavis]
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Posted: 05 December 2010 10:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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On your reply to me, I don’t mean this to be rude, but I have to wonder if you’ve been paying attention during your life. You seem to understand the issues just fine, but are surprised at the conclusions nevertheless, as if you’ve just never pieced it together before.

No offense taken. I thought about what you wrote, and I think the answer is more that I haven’t really engaged with people that much regarding what they believe about the metaphysical. I’m a Christian, and most of my good friends are Christian; as such, I don’t tend to get involved in philosophical discussions. You might find it ironic that I engage others so little, given that I’m a follower of someone who was so other-focused—that is a failing of mine. In high school and college, I used to be more zealous in this regard, but those conversations never seemed to go well. So, I guess I stopped and started chasing more worldly things.

The vast majority of the world yearns for universal values. While atheists don’t use theistic piffle to justify themselves in that regard, that would hardly imply that they wouldn’t have their own nontheistic piffle to accomplish the same ends.

Limited as my experience might be, it seems to me that some atheists are quick to pronounce judgment on the morality of actions they disagree with (which rely on universal values), but those people never seem bothered by the philosophical incongruence of their beliefs. To that end, they didn’t strike me as yearning for universal values.

It’s only disappointing or even surprising if your experience has been that people require strong philosophical arguments to believe something, or will change their views in response to a strong argument showing they are incorrect. Has that been your experience?

I’m not sure I understand this comment. I agree with your assessment that people generally don’t change their minds, even in the face of compelling arguments—I guess that’s a big part of why I stopped having those conversations, and likewise, others stopped having those conversations with me. However, wouldn’t you view it as a good thing if people required strong arguments to change their minds? (i.e. in what sense is it disappointing?)

And I don’t mean to give you a hard time. I’m writing this as much to stifle my own feelings of surprise and annoyance that Sam has gone down this path, and that so many follow him.

Out of curiosity—if you don’t believe Sam’s work, why do you browse these forums? (assuming that you do) I came here to ask a question in case I missed something in the way that Sam’s argument is constructed. While the ultimate result is not that different from what I expected, I did learn more about what arguments are used in support of various claims, and the philosophical variance within the atheist community.

Also out of curiosity—since you’re on the opposite end of the spectrum from me, what do you find meaningful in life? (e.g. what do you live for?)

Thanks for engaging,
Jerry

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Posted: 06 December 2010 10:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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You might find it ironic that I engage others so little, given that I’m a follower of someone who was so other-focused—that is a failing of mine.

I don’t find it ironic. A serious Christian has one overriding relationship in his life: his relationship with Christ.

The vast majority of the world yearns for universal values….

Limited as my experience might be, it seems to me that some atheists are quick to pronounce judgment on the morality of actions they disagree with (which rely on universal values), but those people never seem bothered by the philosophical incongruence of their beliefs. To that end, they didn’t strike me as yearning for universal values.

You see that they’re often as quick to rely on universal values as anyone else. Why don’t you see that as yearning for universal values? Maybe I would have been clearer if I said that Sam provides a feeling of justification for your values beyond yourself, and most people want that.

I agree with your assessment that people generally don’t change their minds, even in the face of compelling arguments…However, wouldn’t you view it as a good thing if people required strong arguments to change their minds? (i.e. in what sense is it disappointing?)

I think it would be good is people’s minds could be changed by good arguments, but that usually isn’t the case, so I try not to be so surprised or disappointed when it happens.

Out of curiosity—if you don’t believe Sam’s work, why do you browse these forums?

I’ve agreed with Sam on his first couple of books, and in general support the New Atheist movement. I’m a big fan of Hitchens, and find I agree with Dennett a lot, which is quite rare for a philosopher.

But opposition to Objective Morality is one of my philosophical hobby horses, so Sam just painted a big target on his chest with his new book. I’d like to discourage both Sam and his readers from going down that path. It’s monotheism without God.

If a person thinks that we’re all born to slavishly follow orders, it doesn’t matter so much to me whether he thinks he’s getting those orders from a burning bush or a rationalist imperative. Both guys are in error, and both are a menace.

Also out of curiosity—since you’re on the opposite end of the spectrum from me, what do you find meaningful in life? (e.g. what do you live for?)

Bringing my values into the world. Enjoying life. Taking care of people I care about. Learning things, understanding things. The fact that the universe doesn’t sanction my values, doesn’t mean my values don’t mean anything to me.

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Posted: 08 December 2010 12:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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jerryp-

...promotion of well-being…

...increase well-being of conscious creatures…

These statements would be values or a philosophical position (see below).  As I said before, SH does not detail any values, particularly not a universal value, that would follow from the definition he proposed.  This frustrates many, including me, but I can grasp the difficulty of just getting the domain/field/scope/realm of a science of morality defined.

The term well-being itself has an inherent sense of good, just as health has a sense of good for medicine.  [If somebody is harming the health of a patient they are either doing bad medicine (not applying the science of medicine correctly) or just not doing medicine (Chinese herbal “medicine”, if they do anything right it’s by sheer luck).]  But well-being seems to be a term that is sufficiently large to encompass a large number of values and individuals/societies that have different priorities of values.  They would be moral individuals/societies if they organized and applied those values with a concern for the well-being of conscience creatures.

It might be a twist of language that when we speak of ourselves, the terms have an implied sense of value.  And this might be what SH means when he says: “values are a certain kind of fact,” (and from his position) “[values are] facts about the well-being of conscious creatures”.

So all SH has proposed is:  “A valid field of science is morality where the domain is the well-being of conscious creatures”.  There is not much that can be done with the definition except, and this seems quite powerful, exclude practices that can be shown not to be considering the well-being of conscience creatures.  And this might be the sole objective of SH and his book.

If you still don’t think that the promotion of well-being is value, imagine arguing with someone who believes that morality is the promotion of justice (even if it does not coincide with well-being). Why do you get to say that your version of morality is the correct one, and not his?

The problem with “promotion of justice” as the definition of a science of moralilty is that it is too limited.  What dimensions of justice would incompass the human need for relationships (friends, family, initimates,...)?  As for ‘well-being being self evident’ I think it would be hard to find anyone who did not spend every waking hour looking after their well-being.  If it means that much to each one of us, then it seems wise to respect that endeaver in others.  But we are a social creature, so there has to be trade-offs of individual preferences for mutual interests, and that makes it very complicated.

It’s interesting that you’re only willing to go as far as to say “make unlikely”—it sounds as if science advanced so far that the benevolent Matrix scenario described above became true (so that you knew for sure that people would have more well-being than if they didn’t enter the Matrix), then you would be in favor of imposing that society. If so, I think that says a lot about your morality (I’m interested in your take on this). For my part, truth is a prominent value, so I could not support that.

I seem to suffer from what SH cites as a positive characteristic for science (trying not to speak beyond what is known) but is a negative characteristic for public discourse.  So, for the record, a society that would go into the “benevolent Matrix”, even voluntarily, is not a good one.

Using terms like “impose” makes your point of view seem stronger, but I feel they really cloud the issue. We don’t impose medicine on people except where there is a public health issue.  Public health scientists don’t make laws, neither will moral scientists.  The religious view of moral absolutes seems to have contaminated the term morality.  While morals cannot be so flexible as to be meaningless, they also cannot not be so rigid as to prevent wider concerns for human well-being. 

I will acknowledge you have taken the easily demolished, “everyone on heroin drip” counter-example to the next level, but I remain confident that the “benevolent Matrix” will fail the human well-being test (nothing stops truth from being a dimension of human well-being).

What surprises me is that Sam has garnered such a following despite having such weak philosophical grounds (as others have pointed out).

It’s funny, SH may have thought he would have less push back from the philosophy community as on page 45 he writes: “While few philosophers have ever answered to the name of moral relativist, it is by no means uncommon to find local eruptions of this view whenever scientists and other academics encounter moral diversity.”  But he seems to get criticised for either not addressing the philosophical arguments or for not crediting those who already said what he is using.  I would say, he seems to give credit to a few philosophers in his endnotes, but I have never studied philosophy, so I would not know if these are sufficient.

It’s a philisophical position that knowledge of the universe (science) and a concern for human well-being (morality) are objectively good.  Morality defined as:  a field of science where the domain is the well-being of conscious creatures.  Science defined as: the best attempt of our reason to understand the universe.  I can’t see how else we got the morals we have or how to improve those morals.  That is to say, our morals are already our best attempt, but not always using reason, and, they have not been checked against the proper definition of morality.

There is an inter-dependence of science and philosophy, but from it’s philosophical roots science proceeds to attempt to answer real questions.

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Posted: 03 January 2011 09:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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Hello buybuydandavis and theAmature—Happy New Year!

Apologies for the very late reply. December turned out to be a very busy month for me, and I fell behind in e-mail.

@buybuydandavis:

buybuydandavis - 06 December 2010 03:40 PM

You might find it ironic that I engage others so little, given that I’m a follower of someone who was so other-focused—that is a failing of mine.

I don’t find it ironic. A serious Christian has one overriding relationship in his life: his relationship with Christ.

Except that Christ has explicitly stated that evangelism unto others is a key part of the relationship (or at least a natural outflow).

You see that they’re often as quick to rely on universal values as anyone else. Why don’t you see that as yearning for universal values?

It seems to me that they’re quick to rely on universal values when convenient—if they yearned for it, I think they would be more consistent about it and would even accept such arguments when broached. I think we just differ in terms of degrees regarding “yearning”.

Bringing my values into the world. Enjoying life. Taking care of people I care about. Learning things, understanding things. The fact that the universe doesn’t sanction my values, doesn’t mean my values don’t mean anything to me.

And, if you don’t mind my asking, what are those values?

@theAmature:

So, for the record, a society that would go into the “benevolent Matrix”, even voluntarily, is not a good one. ... I will acknowledge you have taken the easily demolished, “everyone on heroin drip” counter-example to the next level, but I remain confident that the “benevolent Matrix” will fail the human well-being test (nothing stops truth from being a dimension of human well-being).

Very interesting. It’s great to hear that you don’t believe in the “benevolent Matrix”. However, I think your statement brings up two issues.

The first is just a tangent, but I think your answer differs from a hypothetical Sam answer: at the end of his TED talk, he conceded that if it was shown to contribute to human well-being, then he would support having women wear veils (in a culturally relevant context). If we follow that logic, and if we knew that the benevolent Matrix was shown to increase human well-being, I think he would also have to concede support for it (although I don’t know if he’s changed his position since then). Also, notice that earlier he said that science might at some point advance to the place where we can measure human well-being and therefore we can institute practices that increase it. Hence, if the Matrix does increase this supposedly measurable quality, then that statement suggests that Sam would be in favor of such a Matrix.

The second issue is that you might want to consider the scientific-ness of your statement. How can you be confident that a benevolent Matrix would fail the human well-being test? (Scientists gain confidence after running experiments, and I doubt that we have had sufficient experiments to provide data in this arena.)

In any case, the data is somewhat irrelevant at this stage—the question actually asks us to suppose that the Matrix passed the test (for the sake of this thought experiment, suppose that it tremendously increased human well-being)—would you be willing to support the logical conclusion?

[And, by the way, if you claim that anything that violates truth must not increase human well-being, then I think you’re claiming that truth is an universal value, which raises the broader question of this topic.]

Happy New Year,
Jerry

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Posted: 03 January 2011 04:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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jerryp - 03 January 2011 02:45 PM

Except that Christ has explicitly stated that evangelism unto others is a key part of the relationship (or at least a natural outflow).
...
It seems to me that they’re quick to rely on universal values when convenient—if they yearned for it, I think they would be more consistent about it and would even accept such arguments when broached. I think we just differ in terms of degrees regarding “yearning”.
...
And, if you don’t mind my asking, what are those values?
...

I’ve found a lot of serious Christians aren’t that big into both evangelism or social work. I don’t think either are particularly required by the New Testament. I wouldn’t be surprised with scattered quotes in favor of evangelism, but I don’t think that is a major theme. What do you have to justify evangelism as a major theme of the NT?

On whether the positive reception of atheists to Sam’s message indicates a “yearning” for universal values, I don’t think inconsistency negates that yearning. People might yearn for Ski Doos, and once they buy them, they sit in the garage for years. How many Christians are consistent with the Bible? Even just the NT? Talk about a la carte inconsistency. Atheists can’t hold a candle to Christians on inconsistency.

My values? Taking care of people I care about. Technological progress. Squashing bad ideas, spreading good ones.

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Posted: 14 January 2011 05:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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There is, and has always been, a “universal value”. It is called The Universe.

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Posted: 18 January 2011 09:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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I’ve found a lot of serious Christians aren’t that big into both evangelism or social work. I don’t think either are particularly required by the New Testament. I wouldn’t be surprised with scattered quotes in favor of evangelism, but I don’t think that is a major theme. What do you have to justify evangelism as a major theme of the NT?

This is not an exhaustive list, but here are what I would consider highlights:

1) “The Great Commission”—Matthew 28:19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations”. This command from Jesus gets particular weight since this is among the last set of instructions that Jesus gave.

2) In addition to training the twelve disciples and sending them out, Jesus sends out a wider circle (“the seventy”) in Luke 10 to spread the good news.

3) In Romans 10, Paul talks about the need for those are sent to share the good news with those who do not yet know the gospel.

4) The book of Acts is mostly about the gospel going out beyond Jerusalem.

Just as you consider it an important value to spread what you consider good ideas, it’s not hard to imagine that Jesus felt the same way with what he considered good news.

On whether the positive reception of atheists to Sam’s message indicates a “yearning” for universal values, I don’t think inconsistency negates that yearning. People might yearn for Ski Doos, and once they buy them, they sit in the garage for years. How many Christians are consistent with the Bible? Even just the NT? Talk about a la carte inconsistency. Atheists can’t hold a candle to Christians on inconsistency.

I think my prior comment might have been interpreted in an unintended way. I’ll try to clarify. I think our discussion on this point is what “yearning” means. As far as I can tell, my understanding of “yearning” is a more extreme version of what you consider “yearning”. That is, in my mind, if someone truly yearned for Ski Doos, they wouldn’t allow them to just sit in the garage for years. They might have thought that they yearned for them, but if the Ski Doos are left alone for a long time, I would probably conclude that those objects weren’t a deep desire of their hearts. My sense is that we don’t substantially disagree with each other on this point if we could calibrate to what the other means in terms of “yearning”.

To be clear, I wasn’t trying to compare how consistent Christians are vs. atheists. I wasn’t trying to say that Christians are more or less consistent than atheists—I don’t think I have enough data points to assess that one way or another. I do think that a very legitimate criticism that people outside of the church could level against Christians is that Christians do not yearn enough (I’m am not excluding myself from that group of Christians who would fall under this criticism, although I do think that part of the response for all Christians is that life is complex enough that the answers often aren’t clear). Obviously, hypocrisy is a charge that has plagued the church—and unfortunately, it is often true. In any case, I’d probably would have to be a sociologist with mounds of data before I personally feel comfortable even conjecturing in this area, and even then, it’s not clear to me that that would be a fruitful exercise.

My values? Taking care of people I care about. Technological progress. Squashing bad ideas, spreading good ones.

If I might joke a little here—I used to really value technological progress, and then technology passed me by smile (I was virtually the last among my peers to get a mobile phone, and I still don’t really engage with Facebook. You might expect better from a software developer.)

Best,
Jerry

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Posted: 18 January 2011 07:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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jerryp - 18 January 2011 02:31 PM

Just as you consider it an important value to spread what you consider good ideas, it’s not hard to imagine that Jesus felt the same way with what he considered good news.
...
That is, in my mind, if someone truly yearned for Ski Doos, they wouldn’t allow them to just sit in the garage for years… My sense is that we don’t substantially disagree with each other on this point if we could calibrate to what the other means in terms of “yearning”.
...
If I might joke a little here—I used to really value technological progress, and then technology passed me by smile

I agree that a commandment to evangelize can be found in the NT. But so are commandments (suggestions) to be a light to others through what you do. And so can the idea that your are not judged by your works, but by your faith. I read the basic narrative as redemption through Christ’s sacrifice and your faith in him - all other considerations are secondary.

On yearning, I think we’re close enough. People may yearn to *have* Skidoos, but not yearn to use them. Similarly, people like the feeling of having objective values, without yearning to apply them to their lives. People like to feel justified in their values. Actually living by those values aint always so important. It would have been more to the point for me to have said that people yearn for feelings of justification, freedom from doubt, superiority over their neighbors, personal submission, and dominion over their neighbors, and a doctrine of objective value is yearned for as an instrumental means to those ends.

I value technological progress too, as some of the good ideas I like to see spread.

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Posted: 27 April 2011 06:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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Being an atheist is no guarantee that a person has traded faith for reason and rationality.  I find most atheists just a mystical as the the die hard fundamentalist.  If you believe in an afterlife and a spiritual dimension that violates all natural laws, you will have a HARD time comprehending an objective, scientific reality.

[ Edited: 27 April 2011 06:06 PM by mormovies]
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