Morality and health
Posted: 01 February 2011 01:33 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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In Harris’s response to his Moral Landscape critics, he often compares well-being and morality to health. But what if well-being is regarded not as an analogy to health, but as part of health?

In fact, well-being might be suitably defined as mental health, plain and simple. If this is possible, then morality is nothing more than a psychological therapy for good mental health.

This would make Harris’s defense of morality equivalent (rather than just analogous) to a defense of mental health, which I think would make it harder to argue against.

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Posted: 11 February 2011 10:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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Generally, health care is not imposed on people.  But moral values, by their nature, are things that we do impose on others or attempt to impose.  Saying ‘you ought not to rape,’ and saying ‘you ought to get that bunion looked at,’ are quite different types of things.  Moral values are intended to be prescriptive in a way that health care is not, and so I find the analogy rather poor.

There is a type of circular definition in saying that well-being is mental health.
Q: What is well-being?
A: A mental state consistent with mental health?
Q: What is mental health?
A: A state of well-being.

This would be to take two somewhat vague concepts and define them in terms of each other.

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There simply are no absolute values or goals.  It would be convenient and reassuring if there were a rock upon which we could anchor our values, but alas there is none.  The meeker among us create an imaginary rock they call god.  Those who are brave enough to value truth over false certainty sail forth, navigating by our own internal compass, as supernatural fairy tales wash away and fade in our trailing wake.

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Posted: 12 February 2011 06:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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I agree to some extent with both of your criticisms, but allow me to provide a possible rebuttal.

Telling someone they ought not to rape, and that they ought to have their bunion checked out are, indeed, somewhat different. However, I’m not sure they are different enough to be regarded as completely independent categories. In the former case, the advice is intended to protect the well-being of a second party (the potential rape victim). In the latter case, the advice is intended to protect the well-being of a the first party. But both pieces of advice have similar goals: to prevent suffering.

The idea of imposing morality is, it seems, more difficult to argue against. A moral system only works if a group of people agrees to abide by its rules. But then again, health care only works if patients agree to follow the doctors orders. The difference, once again, is first person vs. second person issues. It’s one thing to refuse one’s own health care recommendations, and another to prevent someone else from improving (or maintaining) their health. Nonetheless, this seems more like a second order distinction than a first-order difference between the two phenomena.

Regarding circularity, I think this can easily be broken by using a metric like happiness, or contentment, as the deciding measure. Indeed, that is how I came up with the idea of morality as mental health in the first place: it is my view that the desire for contentment and, conversely, the aversion to suffering, is what people ultimately strive for in both morality and health. Morality, then, is simply one of the set of tools, along with healthcare, that promotes happiness. Morality is certainly different for the above mentioned reasons: it involves interactions between people rather personal matters, but an overarching similarity remains.

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Posted: 12 February 2011 08:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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kpharri - 12 February 2011 11:40 AM

Telling someone they ought not to rape, and that they ought to have their bunion checked out are, indeed, somewhat different. However, I’m not sure they are different enough to be regarded as completely independent categories. In the former case, the advice is intended to protect the well-being of a second party (the potential rape victim). In the latter case, the advice is intended to protect the well-being of a the first party. But both pieces of advice have similar goals: to prevent suffering.

The idea of imposing morality is, it seems, more difficult to argue against. A moral system only works if a group of people agrees to abide by its rules. But then again, health care only works if patients agree to follow the doctors orders. The difference, once again, is first person vs. second person issues. It’s one thing to refuse one’s own health care recommendations, and another to prevent someone else from improving (or maintaining) their health. Nonetheless, this seems more like a second order distinction than a first-order difference between the two phenomena.

Since I’m a moral anti-realist and believe that all values are subjective, I actually do agree that there is not much difference between the ought statements.  I understand all prescriptive statements to be what Kant would have called a hypothetical imperative.  So they would have the form of:

(A) IF you want that pain in your foot to away, THEN you ought to see a doctor.

(B) IF you care about other people, THEN you ought not to rape anyone.

But many people (and I think Harris too) would like for there to be something more to it.  They would like for a moral ‘ought’ to carry some real form of obligation so that even if you don’t care about other people you still have a reason not to rape.  Without something more than a hypothetical imperative, well-being and goodness are just two more physical properties with no particular motivating force.

Spheres are round - so what.
Triangles are pointy - so what.
Metal is malleable - so what.
Rape is bad - so what.

Learning that triangles are pointy doesn’t motivate me to do anything.  An often held view of moral properties is that they are somehow inherently motivating or obligating.  If I learn that starvation is bad and giving to charity is good, I should be motivated to donate money to reduce hunger.  But I believe that Harris has failed to show that morals have this special kind of force that motivates or obligates us to act.  There is one very obvious thing that has such a force - our feelings.  But moral realists don’t much like that answer because emotions are volatile - they are prone to change and to differ from one person to another.  And how do we argue with somebody that doesn’t have feelings about other people?

It would certainly be convenient if there was a clear, objective moral truth, but I do not believe that there is.

I think the best explanation of how we actually do deal with moral issues is that most people do care about others - for example, most people do wish to prevent rapes.  So since these views are held by the strong majority, it’s basically a case of might-makes-right.  Or maybe if we call it moral democracy it sounds a little better.  This provides the basis for a moral contract.  I’m willing to agree not to murder anyone if everyone else will agree not to murder me.  Most people will see this as a contract where they come out ahead - they give up something that they don’t much value (killing other people) to gain something that they highly value (personal safety).

So a killer has broken the social contract.  Of course this raises the question of why ought we abide by contracts - especially imaginary contracts that we didn’t even sign?  The answer to that is, again, that might-makes-right.  Most people want the killer captured and punished and as a society we’ve created a law enforcement apparatus to do just that.

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There simply are no absolute values or goals.  It would be convenient and reassuring if there were a rock upon which we could anchor our values, but alas there is none.  The meeker among us create an imaginary rock they call god.  Those who are brave enough to value truth over false certainty sail forth, navigating by our own internal compass, as supernatural fairy tales wash away and fade in our trailing wake.

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Posted: 12 February 2011 08:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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kpharri - 01 February 2011 06:33 PM

. . .

In fact, well-being might be suitably defined as mental health, plain and simple. . . .

Not to my eye it wouldn’t. Well-being includes other things—somatic health as well as mental health, for instance.

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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Posted: 13 February 2011 08:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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@Midwest Skeptic

I, too, am of the view that hypothetical imperatives are all we have. A moral system can only be adopted if a majority of the relevant population agrees to it. I suppose that my suggestion about mental health is really a way of pointing out that basic desires for happiness are, indeed, something most people can agree on, because most people want to be mentally (and physically) healthy. Guidelines for our interactions with one other, i.e. moral prescriptions, may help us attain the level of health we desire.

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Posted: 13 February 2011 08:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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@nonverbal:

“Well-being includes other things—somatic health as well as mental health, for instance.”

In my view, well-being is a mental state. Someone who experiences well-being experiences a sense of contentment, say, or even happiness. This is the epitome of mental health, I would argue. Now, if a person is not physically healthy - if they are injured and in pain - then they are not going to be mentally healthy either, since they will be distracted, their judgement may be affected,  and they may be depressed. This means they will also not have a sense of contentment or well-being.  Somatic health, then, is part of what determines mental health.

I realize that mental health is usually regarded as a phenomenon related to diagnosable conditions like schizophrenia, MPD, etc. But it also involves conditions like depression, that may be caused - at least in part - by the state of a person’s everyday life, including relationships, employment situation, etc. It is here that mental health and morality begin to blur into each other.

[ Edited: 13 February 2011 12:13 PM by kpharri]
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Posted: 12 May 2011 10:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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Midwest Skeptic - 12 February 2011 01:56 PM

Rape is bad - so what.

The ‘so what’ is that “bad” according to a science of morality means “is detrimental to the well-being of conscious creatures”. Before anyone gets too philosophical about ‘well-being of conscious creatures’ recall that a science of morality appeals to other sciences such as sociology, economics, psychology, neuroscience. It means that a society that permits rape is a society which stifles the flourishing and well-being of its members by the metrics of these relevant disciplines.

It’s not a question of motivating force, it’s not physics. Rape being bad says nothing about who will or won’t be motivated to rape. It means if you allow it your society will have more misery and suffering than it would otherwise, and it will be your fault, and it will be measurable.


I think criticisms to the thesis that science can give us moral values are based on waaaaaaay too much over-thinking.

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Posted: 12 May 2011 11:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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Well said.

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Posted: 12 May 2011 12:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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truth is truth, reality is reality regardless whether everybody agrees to abide by the rules or accepts.  The disagreement or rejection over objective reality only causes human misery, it doesn’t alter reality.

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Posted: 04 June 2011 12:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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[ Edited: 04 July 2011 11:58 AM by rbrtharn]
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Posted: 27 September 2011 09:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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Scruffy - 12 May 2011 02:55 PM
Midwest Skeptic - 12 February 2011 01:56 PM

Rape is bad - so what.

The ‘so what’ is that “bad” according to a science of morality means “is detrimental to the well-being of conscious creatures”. Before anyone gets too philosophical about ‘well-being of conscious creatures’ recall that a science of morality appeals to other sciences such as sociology, economics, psychology, neuroscience. It means that a society that permits rape is a society which stifles the flourishing and well-being of its members by the metrics of these relevant disciplines.

It’s not a question of motivating force, it’s not physics. Rape being bad says nothing about who will or won’t be motivated to rape. It means if you allow it your society will have more misery and suffering than it would otherwise, and it will be your fault, and it will be measurable.


I think criticisms to the thesis that science can give us moral values are based on waaaaaaay too much over-thinking.

So what if it’s my fault, and so what if it’s measurable?  If you’re saying that people ought to care about these things, then why ought they care?
 
And again it comes back to the point that Harris’ theory doesn’t show how there is any logical or factual error in raping or in any other way failing to promote well being.  If Harris just wants to say that most people value well being so lets promote well being, that is not a moral theory - it’s perhaps a political one - give the majority what they want.
 
An objective moral theory - one which purports to show that moral values are grounded in the facts of the world - needs to explain not only what it is to be good, but why we ought to be good.  If there is no reason that we ought to be good, then morality is but a curiosity.  Harris’ theory fails at this.  One can simply say that they think well being is not the correct basis for morality and then Harris has nothing persuasive to offer at that point.  There is no reason why one ought to prefer well being as the basis of morality (vs. virtue, or a deontological theory, etc.)
 
And as for “waaaaaaay too much over-thinking” - philosophy has been an active field of inquiry for thousands of years.  It has a rich history and a huge body of written work.  You’ve got to be kidding me if you think a few posts on the Internet amount to “over-thinking”.

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There simply are no absolute values or goals.  It would be convenient and reassuring if there were a rock upon which we could anchor our values, but alas there is none.  The meeker among us create an imaginary rock they call god.  Those who are brave enough to value truth over false certainty sail forth, navigating by our own internal compass, as supernatural fairy tales wash away and fade in our trailing wake.

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