Book Review: The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris, Part 2

On to Chapter 1 on moral truth.

This is Part 2 of this review. In case you missed it, Part 1 of this review (the review of the Introduction) is posted here. And Part 3 is here.

As with last time, the structure will be: summary of main points, agreements and disagreements, evaluations of specific points, and evaluations of general points.

The Moral Landscape, Chapter 1: Moral Truth, p. 27-53.


Harris states that moral relativism has become common over the past few centuries, and that the educated elites seem to have adopted this belief with particular fervor (27).

Thesis statement: “I am arguing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics…” (28)

Science can help us determine where to invest our money for maximum return on well-being, maximizing “happiness for the greatest number of people” (28).

Subjectivity vs. objectivity. We can have objective facts about subjective experiences, e.g. morality. Answers in practice vs. answers in principle: we can get moral facts in principle, even if not in practice (30). Truth has no relationship to consensus. (31).

Why ought we to value the well-being of (“actual or potential”) conscious creatures? Consciousness is a fact. There is no other possible source for value than the experience of conscious beings. (32)

Consciousness is the focus, well-being is the value, and morality relates the two (32-33). There is no point in following laws for their own sake, we follow them for the sake of happiness, whether in this life or the next. All moral systems boil down to well-being, explicitly or not (33).

What about people who have different “values” like Jeffrey Dahmer or creationists? Well, they are wrong (34). The Catholic Church, for example, excommunicates women for attempting to become priests, but not priests for raping children. It excommunicates doctors for performing abortions, but excommunicated no Nazis for genocide (35).

Analogizing morality with medicine, no one questions what “healthy” really is, despite not being able to define it well. Intuitive physics yields to the science of physics, intuitive morality will yield to the science of morality, run by moral experts (36).

Hume’s is-ought problem is not the last word on morality. In fact “ought” is just a Judeo-Christian leftover. The Bible says we ought to kill children for talking back (38).

If we can’t argue for “well-being,” then how about misery for everyone? (39) This is “bad” if words are to have any meaning. Well-being is better than misery; that is all we need to know to have moral truth (39).

“Human and animal well-being” mentioned (41).

How to balance autonomy and the common good, individual rights and collective interests? (42)

Recounting a conversation with an academic relativist (42-44).

Moral relativism is self-contradictory because it holds relativism as a moral absolute (45). Relativism ruins liberalism and opens up morality for the religious. This book is the third way between relativism and Jesus (46).

Some will call this scientism (46) or utopianism (47).

I am not promoting an evolution-based ethic (49).

Three projects to not confuse: 1) an explanation of why people behave as they do (descriptive project); 2) what we should follow in the name of morality (normative project); 3) convincing people to change their behavior to lead better lives (persuasive project) (49). The third project is the most important, every important goal falls within its purview, but it relies on project 2, so that is where I am starting (50).

Some other guy tried to pick up my wife at the gym (51). But I did the right thing. To maximize well-being, I did not kill anybody (52).

Many people have wrong conceptions of morality, and we can discuss this problem and shape our morality and public policy for the future (53)

Points of Agreement:

We can agree that morals are not relative.

We can agree that moral truth exists and is knowable.

We can agree that science can help us in this task, just as strongly as Harris states in his thesis.

We can agree with what he says about subjectivity and objectivity.

We can agree with what he says about answer in practice vs. answers in principle.

We can agree that truth is not a product of consensus.

We can agree that laws are not followed for their own sake, but for their sake of their purpose: to aid the common good.

We can agree that there is a reasonable balance to be struck between individual rights and the common good.

We can agree that moral relativism is self-contradictory.

We can agree to the formal structure of his three-part descriptive-normative-persuasive project (but not the content).

We can agree that promoting moral behavior can be the objective of public policy in many cases.

Points of Disagreement:

We cannot agree that the only focus of morality is happiness for the greatest number of people.

We cannot agree that the only focus of morality is consciousness

We cannot agree that Harris knows much about the Catholic Church, especially the proper uses of excommunication (hint: Harris gets it wrong).

We cannot agree that Harris knows much about the Bible, especially on whether it recommends killing children (hint: Jesus didn’t recommend that).

Evaluation, Specific Points:

1) Harris has a serious problem on the existence and definition of consciousness. Later in this book Harris denies the existence of free will (102-6). But in this part of the book his argument hinges on consciousness. How are these two mental phenomena distinct, and how does one have reality while the other does not? Can we separate the phenomena in any sense? Harris gives no help at all.

Consciousness might just be a sensory monitoring system, but then why does it have “qualia,” that is, why is there any “quality” to experience, any feeling of it, why are we not just robots with no need to feel, just react? The qualia question is a serious one in philosophy of mind. Why do we feel like we exist and are experiencing things? Robots do not do that, and materialist reductionism says we are machines. Same with free will: why do we feel like we are free? If we are robots then we are not free, so why do we have the sensation of freedom? Why the illusion, and how could such a state ever come about? Harris needs answers here, without them his position is weak at best, internally incoherent at worst.

The value of “actual or potential” consciousness is another interesting remark. In the comment thread of Part 1 we got into a little discussion about this, and here Harris comes down on the side of extending moral concern to even potential consciousness. That is good, I think. I agree that potential consciousness ought to be protected too.

But Harris thinks there is nothing more to root morality in than consciousness, that there could be no other place to ground morality. Harris seems to lack imagination as to where else moral value might lie. The clear answer is in life itself, which is inherently purposive (as I also explained in the Part 1 comment thread).

In any case, Harris neither defines consciousness nor explains why consciousness is valuable. I would like to know the answer, especially if consciousness is just a complex chemical reaction (i.e. ultimately an illusion) like Harris claims free will is. Why does that chemical reaction have any more value than a plant or test tube? Why all the fuss about morality if we are just bags of fancy chemicals? Why not moral nihilism?

2) Morality is not about maximizing happiness. It is about maximizing goodness, which produces happiness as one side-effect. If you want the surest way to unhappiness, try to pursue happiness directly. You will likely run straight into hell. That is because happiness is an effect of being good, not an effect of obtaining pleasure (or whatever else you think causes happiness). If you want to be happy, help people. Love people. Do good things, develop virtuous habits, fulfill your human life and talents excellently. Then you will become happy.  There is plenty more to be said on that – for another time.

3) “Ought” is a Judeo-Christian left-over? Why does Harris bring this up? His entire point is to say what we “ought” to do: improve the well-being of conscious creatures. Why is he sabotaging himself?

Interestingly, Harris seems to be channeling the English Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe who actually says the same thing. In her essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958, Google Scholar (well cited!), PDF here), the same essay where she coins the word “consequentialism,” which Harris ought to know since he is a consequentialist (one who thinks moral value is in consequences, not intentions, see pgs. 62, 67-73), she says the “moral ought” is a leftover from divine command ethics. Harris doesn’t cite her, or list her in his bibliography.

Anscombe’s whole point in bringing this up, by the way, is to say that utilitarians/consequentialists (like Harris) can’t use the “ought” because without God the rationale of the moral ought falls apart. It is taken out of context and therefore has no force. The solution instead is to revive Aristotelian virtue ethics, where goodness is about becoming a virtuous human. Harris seems to be arguing in favor of Anscombe’s point, when her point is directed at destroying his position. After raising this problem Harris quickly diverts to calling Jesus an advocate of killing children, which I suppose is for the purposes of distracting from a problem that he finds interesting but cannot solve.

4) Criticizing the Catholic Church concerning excommunication in these cases is deeply misleading. In other words, it is a lie. He combines four true things (the four cases he cites) into a falsehood through his use of false analogy and a misrepresentation of the purpose of excommunication (pg. 35).

The purpose of excommunication is not to somehow protect the Church from being associated with bad people. The purpose of excommunication is to separate in a public, physical way that which has already been separated in spirit; that is, the sinner in question being cut off from the body of Christ (which has a physical, communal meaning, and a spiritual, Eucharistic meaning). It serves as a public warning that a Catholic community member is in serious spiritual danger and needs to publicly repent.

Excommunication can be automatic, as in the case of involvement in schism or an abortion, or through church legal channels, as is usually the case when excommunicating national leaders. Please note, any mortal sin prevents any Catholic from taking communion. Excommunication reinforces that, in a public way for a public sin, emphasizing that you are no longer a member of the community – you are barred from participation. Here’s Wikipedia and the Catholic Encyclopedia on the matter.

How about the specific cases of female priests, molesting priests, abortion, and Nazis? Please bracket for a minute your own thoughts on these subjects and just look to them for logical coherence with the concept of excommunication.

For women trying to become priests, they are in schism (being ordained illicitly through a disobedient bishop, they effectively set up their own hierarchical community), and are therefore automatically excommunicated, by their own act, by definition (schism being the act of separating yourself from the hierarchical community).

Abortion is the intentional killing of an innocent human life, hence it yields automatic excommunication.

As for child-molesting priests, their deeds were done in secret, so how could they have been excommunicated publicly if they were not even known? Once they were discovered, the hierarchy, of course, completely bungled a lot of cases and shuffled some predatory priests around, thus allowing them to continue their evils. That is inexcusable. (I AM NOT defending the hierarchy on protecting offending priests. They messed up.)

But excommunication makes no sense in this context. The molestations were crimes and sins, but not excommunicable unless defiantly and publicly persisted in, which didn’t happen. Excommunication is a public act to call a public mortal sinner to public repentance and reconciliation.

As for Nazis, first of all, is Harris advocating some kind of retroactive excommunication? You don’t excommunicate dead people: they are already kinda outside the community. (By the way, I’m being facetious here, I’m not saying Harris wants that.)

As for Hitler himself as the paradigm case, after his childhood Hitler was not a practicing Catholic (see Wikipedia for a start) and therefore would not have been affected by excommunication, so there would have been no point. However, Hitler was quite eager to attack anyone who offended him (including a dog in Finland! Funny aside in a serious topic), which excommunication probably would have accomplished. In other words, it would have accomplished nothing except making Hitler mad, which for a genocidal maniac is not helpful for anyone.

This whole passage of TML is wrong on so many levels. It is an obvious ploy for emotional manipulation of the reader. I myself read it and felt rather confused, until I realized I was being lied to. These comparisons are false equivalencies built on ignoring the basic facts of the cases. Four truths are combined into a false framework. Very clever. He even uses his endnotes to prop up his disgust-inducing rhetoric with more disgust-inducing rhetoric. The referred note is not an example of the Church not excommunicating molester-priests, but rather an explicit and grotesque example of molestation. If you have no logic, turn on the disgust-response even higher. Maybe the emotional brain-noise will cancel out the lack of facts.

When confronted with this kind of lie, the natural response is confusion. But look to the objective, not the data. The data are being manipulated. Why? To persuade you of something. What is the “something”? Look to the objective: this is a chance for Harris to slander one of his opponents in the fight for defining morality. Emotion triumphs over reason. Mission accomplished.

5) Does the Bible advocate killing children? Here Sam Harris’s misunderstanding of the Bible should embarrass him. (These are the verses in question: Ex. 21:15, Lev. 20:9, Deut. 21:18-21, Matt. 15:4-7, and Mark 7:9-13.) Harris gets completely wrong Jesus’s point in bringing up “killing children for talking back.”

Jesus was making the EXACT OPPOSITE POINT. He was effectively saying “You’re criticizing me for not washing hands, but you guys don’t kill your kids for speaking evil, so buzz off. You are hypocrites; you don’t follow those rules anyway, you are just using them for excuses.” The point is that the law is superseded, and if on big points, then on small ones too.

Note that Jesus never killed anybody, and the few passages where death is involved Jesus repeals the sentence or reverses the death, even his own! That is the point of Christianity, restoring the dead to life, not legalism.

Now with regards to the Old Testament, there is a good question as to why these laws ever would have been created in the first place. They seem crazy to us. But in the desert, wandering about as nomads, what are you supposed to do with someone who is trying to beat you up, cursing you, betraying your family, disturbing everyone with drunken defiance, and so on? There is no jail. You are already on the edge of survival. The only legal system is the community and its families.

The person in question – who is likely a teenager or older, a “child” in the sense of “offspring,” not “youth” – is a menace and nomads have limited options for hopeless cases, especially hopeless since the person in question would know he or she is courting death, yet is acting this way anyway. The person could even be psychopathic, as Harris brings up in the next chapter (and mentions 1% of people might be, pg. 97), where he says some psychopaths are hopelessly dangerous, like grizzly bears and hurricanes (100, 109).

Now, in bringing up this idea that the Bible says to kill children, what is Harris trying to do?  Seeing as the practice of killing children is not a part of Christian tradition – not something Christians actually do – he must know he is giving a non-standard Biblical interpretation.

“And to what end?” we might ask. We should already know… to make religions (particularly Christianity), which possess competing worldviews and moral systems, look bad, so that Harris can jump in and can replace them. Harris is spouting political rhetoric, “persuasion” in his words (50), not philosophy or science.

Evaluation, General Points:

As with the Introduction, Chapter 1 contains many things that Catholics and other religious people can with agree Harris on. But once again they are formal agreements and not agreements of content.

We can agree that moral relativism is unacceptable, and that morality and moral truth are real. We can agree that science can help us in the quest for the natural foundations of morality. We can agree that the descriptive, normative, and persuasive projects are important. We can agree with many other of the basics that Harris lays out. In fact in this chapter there are really only two things I want to pick out to strongly disagree on: Harris’s lies about religion and his political use of ethics.

In this chapter Harris has already begun to run off the rails on religion. Two brief, flippantly delivered misrepresentations stick out in this chapter, one with regards to the use of excommunication in Catholicism, and one with regards to Biblical law. It’s hard to believe Harris would even write them.

This is where Harris’s ethics – his ends-justify-the-means ethics – should make us all worry. Harris has definite political goals he is pursuing (50), he freely admits that, and only the results count. So that makes lying for political gain just fine – which might be, I think, exactly what he is doing.

And therefore we should not trust Harris. In this book, scattered in snippets here and there, he’s basically admitting that he wants to use us, his reading public, for his own purposes. We’re just bodies to prop up his political movement. This book is an attempt to rewire your brain to think like Harris.  And since he thinks free will does not exist, he assumes you will just fall for it.

This is a political book, not a work of philosophy or science. The objective is to change human behavior through government legislative action, and religious people are in the way of that goal, so they must be eliminated. How to eliminate them? Well, Harris could just convert us all through books and the internet; that is one way. But if you read Harris’s book The End of Faith, you know he has other methods in mind as possibilities, if necessary. Controlling religion may necessitate killing (52-53), torture (194, 198-9), nuclear first strike (129), dictatorship (151, 230), and a world government (151).

No joke. “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” (TEOF 52-53). That’s just one. You can read it on Google books (though of course much of the book is missing, the above page is there). And it sounds oddly like the justifications given by all sorts of religious fundamentalists justifying murderous actions. Funny how the mentality works even for atheists.

This is serious evil. I mentioned evil in the introduction to my previous review, and then didn’t say much specifically about that evil last time. This time, as Harris’s project becomes clearer, the evil becomes clearer. Personally, when someone starts talking about how it might be okay to kill other people over their beliefs, I get a little worried. In the next chapter Harris gets even worse. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Once again, Part 1 is here and Part 3 is here.

Also, in a previous version of the above text I made an error. Harris does not explicitly attribute to Jesus the command to kill children, though he could be construed as implying it.  I have corrected the text and I apologize. I have also adjusted some other language.

41 responses to “Book Review: The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris, Part 2

  • Scott


    It’s odd that you take on the task of showing this book to be “seriously evil” when you (have to?) resort to lying to do so. Lying isn’t always wrong; but in the course of trying to discuss ideas in a public forum, I think it very much is. Perhaps you disagree.

    You lie by implication several times in your list of where you and Harris disagree, implying that Harris believes that:

    “suffering is the only criteria for right and wrong” I don’t believe that Harris ever says this; and you yourself document him as saying “values are a kind of fact involving happiness OR suffering” (my emphasis, notice the word in front of the OR). So if that is a more correct summary–I believe it is–then your later point simply attacks a straw man unrelated to his position.

    “consequences are the only aspect of the moral act worthy of consideration”, after which you add you view that “(intention must also be judged).” The issue over how and where to include intentions in moral evaluation in a lively one in consequentialist philosophy (often framed as objective vs. subjective consequentialism, the latter also going under terms like “expected value/utility consequentialism.” I am not aware that Harris addresses that debate and takes a position on one side or the other, but on p17 he clearly says someone who “spends all his energy TRYING to move as many people as possible toward the Bad Life” is wrong, while someone who makes the opposite efforts is acting rightly (my emphasis, again). He doesn’t say here that the moral difference between the persons is erased if their tryings (intentions) fails, so it looks prima facie as if he does allow intentions to be relevant. Perhaps you can point to another passage where he explicitly addresses the intention vs. consequence issue and goes with the latter; but I think not, I think instead you are making this up. Perhaps your issue with him is that you don’t think the ijntentions that Harris thinks are morally relevant (intentions to produce good consequences of a certain sort) are the ones that you think are morally relevant. But that’s not at all the same thing as saying that no intentions are morally relevant.

    “whatever is true is discoverable now.” WTF? Sorry, but Harris /repeatedly/ distinguishes between things that have truth values and things that are unmysterious and immediately knowable (see p30, for instance). Later in your review you attribute this statement to his p25, and castigate it as silly since many historical facts are true but lost to, well, history. But this ignores two things: first, Harris makes EXACTLY this same point about various historical facts on p31. Now, if you said what you claim he said on p25, then he would not only be wrong, but contradicting himself. But he does not make the claim you attribute to him–rather he says that “Whatever is true ABOUT US, ETHICALLY AND SPIRITUALLY, is discoverable in the present…” [again, my emphasis, just to make sure you don’t miss this the second time through]. Now, this may or may not be true; indeed I’m not 100% what his claim means. Indeed, if he were right that we need MRI machines and the like to discover or confirm some ethical facts, then he surely can’t mean that this is true of the immediate present, for we might need more technology to find out more hidden truths of ethics. But I take him to mean, rather, that we can find this stuff out using the general kind of things available to us as mortal humans: the intellectual tools of science. The statement is ambiguous (and I’m not sure what he means by “spiritually,” so let’s set that entirely aside). But it CERTAINLY and OBVIOUSLY does not mean what you attribute to him. I don’t see how you could possibly have missed that if you had been reading his work with intellectual honesty, instead of with the intention of twisting his words wherever possible to make him look worse than he is. But perhaps you care to explain…?

    Later her attribute this to his book: “Religion is treated monolithically…[as] interchangeable phenomena.” Again, this is a clear fabrication; he clearly thinks there are distinct wrongs in Catholicism and Islam, as distinct from other religions. He condemns them all generally as sharing some common errors, but this is hardly to say that he think they are interchangeable.

    Of course you also lie when you say that JS Mill’s philosophy leads to selfish egoism. It does nothing of the sort; there’s a clear difference between egoism and utilitarianism, and Mill espoused the latter philosophy. Mill actually rejected “social atomism” and “free riding” and so calling these things the “logical limit” of his views is completely nonsense. Worse, it is an unfounded, INTENTIONAL, deliberate LIE.

    There’s one point on which you don’t lie, but make false (and lunatic) guesses at what Harris thinks, when you ask “As for Nazis, first of all, is Harris advocating some kind of retroactive excommunication?” No, on p35 he is obviously objecting to the fact that the Nazi’s did not excommunicate Nazi Catholics (such as those depicted here /at the time the Nazis were in power/. This was about 70 years ago, you may recall. Your suggestion that retroactive excommunication is the issue is a non sequitor, allowing you apparently to dodge the point. You also try to dodge the point by making fine distinctions between a person being “bad” and a person being a member of the body of Christ, which you identify even more specifically (begging huge questions here!) with following the dictates of the Catholic Church hierarchy. I grant you the distinction /in toto/, as I suspect Harris would as well, because it proves his point: the kinds of things that the hierarchy requires of its associates and members, and which constitute proper membership in the body of Christ, have very little to do with a being a good person. QED.

    You also imply that Harris says something he does not when you say in part 2, purportedly critiquing him, that “Morality is not about maximizing happiness. It is about maximizing goodness, which produces happiness as one side-effect. If you want the surest way to unhappiness, try to pursue happiness directly. … If you want to be happy, help people. Love people…” First Harris would obviously agree that helping people leads to happiness (at least for the ones helped, and doubtless for yourself to some extent, and often in very enriching ways; indeed helping others is one of his characteristics of the “Good Life” described on p15). More profoundly, you confuse “maximizing X” with “pursuing X directly,” oblivious to the fact that if these were identical, then the same charge could be brought against your claim that morality is about maximizing goodness, which also cannot be “pursued directly,” but must be pursued indirectly, by doing the things that substantively constitute goodness (helping, loving, etc.) I’d be surprised if Harris ever claims that we must all directly, consciously, by some immediate intention, pursue the maximization of happiness, but please surprise me with a quotation if you can. A real one, though, please (see above points).

    Now, since you frame your points in an agree/disagree framework, I would like to do the same, because there are points where your critique is clearly correct. I agree that:

    Harris’ reference to MRI scans and other brain science is pretty much beside the point; we might learn a little more from it here and there, but 95% of what we need to know about human well-being can be learned from talking to people.

    Harris’ treatment of existing philosophical tradition, literature, and debates is appalling and naive. That is not to say that I think a closer examination of these would show Harris to be substantially mistaken about ethics; to the contrary. But the way he gets there skips a lot of hard work.

    Well, those are brief points of agreement, but my post is long enough already, and of course the second point covers a range of criticisms you give of him, so I’m just saying you’re generally right about this in the several passages you mention it (which is not to say that I agree w/ you on all, or even most, of your specific views, interpretation of philosophical issues like the OQA, etc.–but just that you’re right to point out that Harris is too fast and loose with these to be convincing or taken to be saying anything very important).

    So yeah, not an extremely helpful book for anyone really wanting to get at the heart of ethics. But /evil/? And evil /because/, in your conclusion, his practice demonstrates that he thinks “lying for political gain [is] just fine”?


    Pot, meet kettle.

  • Brian Green

    Good gracious! I’ll respond, but give me a couple days. 🙂

  • Brian Green

    Just as a preliminary, I think we might be differing a bit on semantics, which might be causing some problems here. I certainly do not advocate lying, and I do not believe that I did lie about Harris in this post. I will re-examine what I wrote and your critiques of it. Perhaps I will need to change something; I know I had trouble being charitable when writing this (you should see what I cut!). I also appreciate your pinning the discussion to the text, that is helpful. And I appreciate the detailed attention you gave to your comment overall. But, sorry to keep you waiting, it’s going to be a couple days…

  • Scott

    “This is serious evil.”

    Hey man, /you/ calm down.

  • Scott

    I mean seriously; you lie about another author, call him seriously evil for lying and the “political use of ethics,” and also say his book uses “arrogant, glib rhetoric.” Meanwhile you’ve got your own political agenda defending an ethical view that limits the power of women vis-a-vis men and fetuses, and have trouble admitting that p25 does not say what you said it says, when the facts are plain as day.

    What are you *thinking*, dude?

    And you wonder why the new atheists like Harris are angry with religions, and sometimes get a bit “emotional,” when /this/ is the kind of thing that passes, in your apologetics, for a supposedly non-evil approach to morality?

    BTW, the more I read of this book (I admit I just started, but I’ve already finished the chapters you focus on) the more wrong your review is shown to be. You ask “does Harris think that no one has ever tried to create a “scientific” morality?” and mention that such attempts have been around for the 2300 years since Aristotle. That first looked like a good rhetorical point, except that I now see Harris’ footnotes on p195 grant precisely this point. So that’d answer your question, if only you had read it. Or cared to acknowledge it. Note that this qualifies my earlier concession that Harris is naive in dealing with the philosophical tradition; the more I read the better he looks, which is still not to say I find his approach flawless.

    “I know I had trouble being charitable when writing this (you should see what I cut!)”

    If I needed more evidence against your approach, perhaps–but I think there’s quite enough as it is. Yes, I can see you had trouble sticking to the truth, if that’s what you mean by “being charitable.” If an author says more sensible things than you find convenient, making it harder to criticize him, I understand that can be frustrating if you’d like people to agree with you and not with him. But that does not excuse making things up.

    Stop me before I read more of his book and find more errors in your review.

  • Brian Green

    You are welcome to find as many errors in my review as you can bear to witness. I appreciate your attention, though you are rather snotty about it. But I’ll take the correction despite it. Thank you for helping me improve my review.

    I do concede to you on some points and I have amended my text where appropriate. But I do not concede to you on all points. That would be boring, after all. And so, point by point.

    On the suffering versus happiness question (in part 1). My remark there was very brief, perhaps so much so as to be misleading. I’m seeing happiness-suffering as a spectrum, which I think Harris does as well. So I meant for happiness to be implied there. I have altered the text.

    Ah, the “trying” issue on pg 17 is interesting. I would also bring up his discussion of intentions in The End of Faith, p. 147n47, where he says “intentions are everything,” then in the endnote says he doesn’t actually mean that at all.

    But you are right, I should not remove Harris’s nuance/confusion from this discussion. I have amended the text. In Part 3, which has been in the works for a while (sorry to inform you that there will be a Part 3, though your opinions are welcome when it appears), I mention that I think Harris ought to give up being a consequentialist and instead turn to virtue ethics because it will let him say what he wants to with better conceptual tools and language; i.e. allow him to integrate intention and consequences into the idea of habits of character. It is Harris who affixes the label of consequentialist to himself, after all. But you are correct that I should not remove the nuance.

    Whatever is true is discoverable now. Once again I simplified too far. And you are correct that he says as much on pages 30-31. Mea maxima culpa. Due to my notes I made a mistake and the text is now corrected.

    Monolithic religion… Harris does pick out various specific things he finds wrong in particular religions, yes. That does not mean he does not still treat religion monolithically, I stand by my assertion. He dismisses all religions with one wave of the hand. He provides details on a few. So what? Religion is a little more complicated than that. And somehow atheism does not qualify for the same dismissal? Humans must have an ideology or worldview of some sort. If you want to treat “religion” as a monolithic category you need to include in that monolith other meaning-making structures including secular ones so that you are addressing the category of ideology/worldview, not “religion.”

    JS Mill and egoism… You are correct that Mill himself did not say these things in Utilitarianism. In fact, utilitarianism was, of course, directed towards helping the poor and suffering, who were so downtrodden under the English class system in the 18th and 19th centuries. What I am talking about has more to do with On Liberty. I know those works are in tension with each other, as I already said. I also explicitly said I was being “brief and brutal.” And I am talking about the maximum extreme of these things, which is what we are seeing worked out in philosophy now. You’ll get diverse opinions on what is considered to be utilitarianism from Peter Singer (kill infants, have sex with animals) to David Benatar (humans should go extinct).

    For the excommunicating dead Nazi’s remark I must apologize. I was being facetious. Facetious at Harris’s expense, which is uncharitable, yes. But was I doing it to be diversionary? No, rather to attempt humor, which in this particular case failed. I apologize. As for Nazi’s not being excommunicated at the time, 70 years ago, I assume it might have something to do with the explanation I gave about Hitler, that is, angering genocidal maniacs usually helps no-one. It is certainly not because the Vatican was approving of Hitler’s or any other genocidal Nazi’s activities (your facebook link was dead, by the way, but I’ll counter-offer: this article provides a quick summary of praise for the Vatican after the war: and if you want more, read which of course shares both sides).

    Alright, on the pg 195 footnote. Yes, I was aware of it, and yes, I overstated my point. The text has been modified. I was talking more about the numerous other contemporary philosophers, whom I mentioned, who are working on this right now. He only mentions Casebeer and Flanagan, while there are many others.

    And the “serious evil” quote. You are linking it to lying for political gain, but I was linking to killing people for their beliefs, as Harris states. I think my linkage is the more obvious of the two, though perhaps you could argue for its ambiguity if you wanted to.

    Now, about lying for political gain. I acknowledge that I made several mistakes in the above text, mistakes which I have now corrected. I would hardly say they qualified for the abuse you threw at me in your comments. Let me just say, every one of those capitalized words stung. (That’s a joke, by the way, since you seem to have difficulty detecting them.) I will grant that perhaps you have been psychologically primed by past encounters with bad book reviews. I apologize for reminding you of those experiences.

    But to say that I was acting in the same way that Harris does in his book is unfounded. At worst what I did, and which you have helped me amend, is to badly caricature his position at several points. That was an error on my part, I did not articulate myself or Harris clearly enough, and for that I am deservingly chastised.

    Thank you for your assistance in correcting these posts. You have made my review stronger by pointing out to me where I have erred. Please come again and comment any time, good editors are hard to find, especially ones with worthwhile philosophical training.

  • Scott


    OK, much better.

    First, on “snottiness”: I show contempt where contempt is due, and make no apologies for expressing offense at hypocrisy, especially when it’s part of a pattern I’ve learned to expect from religious apologists (and not just from their book reviews, though that’s a common forum for misrepresentation of opposing views). But fortunately it is not a monolithic pattern, and I must commend you for admitting mistakes where you have done so and proceed from there.

    Still, you persist in several errors, or perhaps switch to new ones at points.

    Your inclusion of atheism as just another “ideology or worldview” is an old attempt to find absolution by identifying “partners in crime.” Atheists find this boring; it’s like saying Santa Clausism and a-Santa-Clausism are equivalent because they are both beliefs. You’re choosing to ignore the fact that Harris is arguing against *religions* and not against “worldviews” generally–if, that is, we grant your overly-broad definition of worldview, presumably meaning something like “any set of beliefs,” which is the only definition which will guarantee the truth of your claim that we each need one of these. If you mean something narrower by that, like a reassuring, comforting, unchallengable bulwark of ideas, then atheism needn’t be any such thing. Harris does not criticize “meaning-making structures” in general, and to identify the two and then accuse Harris of an inconsistency generated solely by your mis-identification is really poor argumentation.

    You also continue to abuse words in lieu of an argument when you call certain things said in the name of utilitarianism the “maximum extreme of such things,” if, again, by this you mean something like what you said before, which is that this is the logical consequence of or pure essence lying at the heart of the view, only now being fully revealed. I might as well say that buggery and the inquisition are the “maximum extreme” of Catholicism, meaning that this is what it all boils down to, the rest being veneer. I don’t believe that, and don’t feel the need to condemn a whole tradition and belief system on the grounds of abuses of some of its members. And while you are free to criticize Singer and Benetar on their own grounds, don’t mix up your criticisms: certainly neither endorse any sort of egoism, which was the point at contention. Consequentialism is a big tent, there might be some versions of it which are good, others which are not. There may be people who call themselves this and who use consequentialist-sounding argument to support positions that don’t really follow from the avowed principles. If you want to engaged yourself in the details, be my guest; you might find I agree with some of your arguments. Just don’t treat consequentialism as, um, er…monolithic, to be dismissed in toto with a “wave of the hand.” As somebody recently said was a bad thing in another context.

    “As for Nazi’s not being excommunicated at the time…angering genocidal maniacs usually helps no-one.” That’s a very nice consequentialist justification, justifying the means via the end. It might even be a correct one. But if you appeal to such results, please don’t pretend to be standing on virtuous or deontological principles, condemning avowed consequentialists who openly admit that the results, and the intention to produce good results, are morally significant and often override other otherwise important considerations when the stakes are high enough. They’re just being honest while you’re being duplicitous, which makes them better than you regardless of the ultimate value of consequentialist morality. Be bold and forthright about your principles instead of hypocritical about them. Or I just might get snotty again…and we don’t want /that/ consequence to ensue, do we? 🙂

    Actually the Catholic Church has shown throughout history that, when push comes to shove, they were willing to be good consequentialists, though I fear too much of a certain institutional-egoist strain focusing on self-protection, by being willing to bend their supposedly absolutist, inviolable principles in order to keep themselves in power. It may well be that Hitler would have threatened to annihilate the Vatican if they had seriously contested his power. We can debate another time about whether that would have been a bad thing or not :-), but when apologists turn around and attack avowed consequentialists, even accusing them of surreptitious egoism…well, such hypocrisy galls me, or bores me, depending on my mood.

    p195…well, yes, I still find this note to be troublesome. I’ve never heard of Casebeer or Flannagan, and this is one of my primary research interests; the reference suggests that his knowledge of the literature is a bit shallow and selective here. Thanks for modifying the point, for it’s important to criticize what people /actually/ say rather than what you wish they has said to make their views even more extreme or obviously wrong than they are, especially if they do make real mistakes that deserve to be identified in their own right. Why make stuff up when you can criticize what’s actually there, albeit with less venom?

    You are right, I shouldn’t have identified the “serious evil” quote with the parts of your review I was criticizing; earlier you identify these other points with Harris’ “evil,” but the “serious evil” was not a summary conclusion from all your points, but only focusing on the killing bit. I frankly don’t know what Harris was thinking about that passage, and would disagree with him at least as literally read; I agree with Mill that when thought becomes speech motivating action, then we may act to stop it, using whatever means are less bad than the outcome we are trying to prevent, and which may include shooting people. But Harris suggests that thoughts alone may justify death merely on the possibility that this /might/ lead to action, which I find simply confused. Such judgments should indeed be left to religious nuts.

    BTW, I didn’t address your charge of “utopianism.” I noticed that Harris addresses precisely this charge, and you fail to acknowledge this or say what is unconvincing about this response; you’re instead acting like you discovered yet another gap in his argument that he must have been totally oblivious of. But I’ll let you do you own research and correction on this.

    So, thanks for the corrections where noted, but you’re not out of the woods yet.

    Perhaps later I will respond to the strange charge that the new atheist morality is a “leftover” from Christianity; actually it’s much the opposite, for Christian morals are simply ideas borrowed from secular morality, and given a false genealogy when attributed to supernatural sources. But that’s for another time.

  • Scott

    Oh, and by the way, if Harris were serious in thinking that in rare cases people should be killed merely for bad beliefs which might turn into bad actions but apart from the probability of such actions occurring…well, that would make him a very poor consequentialist, now, wouldn’t it? So maybe he’s not /really/ a consequentialist, or maybe faults like this don’t arise from his consequentialism at all, but from some other unacknowledged aspect of his views or personality.

  • Scott

    Re: intentions. Harris’s text and footnote on this from “The End of Faith” are a bit confused, and he doesn’t resolve this, which is unfortunate. Still, if we were to read the thesis and antithesis here charitably, we might synthesize them into what Harris *should* have said, given the points he was discussing. And for you to say that his footnote reveals that his statement “intention is everything” is not what he meant *at all* is again simply a lie; he still means /something/ like this, but perhaps is aiming at a qualification that resolves the tension he has identified between good intention within a context of belief, but where the belief itself is somehow morally corrupt.

    I think the best correction is found by asking, what more beyond intentions are morally relevant, and I would propose the following answer–for discussion as to whether it’s either right in itself and/or consistent with other things Harris says: more intentions. That is, not just the intention to act on your beliefs to produce maximal good, but the intentions to have good, correct, justifiable beliefs, held with confidence proportional to one’s set of evidence for them, as opposed to just adopted/maintained because of the comfort and reassurance they give the believer. Now, such intentions do not guarantee that your actions will always lead to the best results. But they would improve things, and perhaps would be better than any conceivable practical alternative.

  • Brian Green

    Well, now this is becoming more interesting. You have lopped the low-hanging fruit and gotten into more interesting questions. Things you’ll have to reach farther for. And as before, gimme some time. 🙂

    But in any case my curiosity won’t wait on one thing. What are your research interests?

  • Scott

    Identifying the nature of ethical judgment, and ethical truth.

  • Brian Green

    Here I am.

    Your research interests – I was hoping for a little more description. But you know, your use of the word nature makes me think you might be doing natural law… 😉

    What is a religion? That’s the point I argued for immediately after my point on Harris’s monolithic treatment of religion. He talks a lot about it but I cannot recall him giving a definition in any of his three books. Perhaps you’ve noticed one. Absent a definition we’re left trying to figure out what the category “religion” means, and like I said, it looks something like the definition of religion is “irrational beliefs,” which stacks the deck for discussion. So I suppose another way to look at the monolith is that it is every worldview Harris finds irrational. Which is to say that it is every worldview other than Harris’s own.

    If you want a related discussion to this, on whether atheism is a position or negation, see this post and comment thread: Of course, it might just bore you. 🙂

    And I would like to see Harris argue against worldviews in general! That would be a good one.

    Your next utilitarianism/consequentialism paragraph made me smile. I’ll try to be less monolithic about it. 🙂 But I’m going to re-reiterate here: I’m talking more about “On Liberty” than “Utilitarianism.” Freedom is great… within limits. I think Mill sets the limits too wide (as in, one may do that which does not harm anybody else – the construal of which is open to wide interpretation), and in doing so he threatens group cohesion. Here’s a question for you, honest question: what do you think makes groups cohere?

    I think groups cohere because of the commonalities of their members, particularly ones of value and purpose. “On Liberty” opens that up for disintegration. Sharing the one commonality that we won’t bug each other is a pretty weak one. And in breaking up coherent moral groups people are morally atomized, which easily leads to egoism. Not what Mill intended, but a direct, logical possibility latent his philosophy.

    Now, one of my favorite quotes in all of philosophy is Mill: “There is no difficulty in proving any ethical standard whatever to work ill, if we suppose universal idiocy to be conjoined with it” and perhaps here I am requiring universal idiocy of the human populace. But another favorite quote to go along with it is Hans Jonas: “One underestimates at his peril the magnitude of human stupidity and its capacity for disaster.” So between the two of them we are screwed.

    Call me a pessimist. Virtue ethics and deontology often lead to egoism too, and all religions, much of the time, even if they explicitly reject it. Trying to avoid egoism is trying to avoid human nature. But the best way to mold human nature is through a strong coherent moral community, not a nuanced philosophical argument like Mill gives, especially when egoism is a latent logical possibility within that position.

    In any case, push a little harder on this and maybe I’ll change something.

    On to Nazism. Virtue ethics does not exclude consequences, of course. It just focuses on internal consequences to character more than external consequences, prioritizing persons over actions. I see nothing wrong with choosing to save Jews quietly rather than loudly, on either VE or consequentialist grounds.

    I’m meeting Casebeer later this week and I’ll tell you all about it if you like. He studied under the Churchlands at UCSD and wrote the book Natural Ethical Facts:

    Flanagan doesn’t impress me too much, but perhaps that means you will like him. 🙂

    Harris’s ideas on killing those with certain beliefs just makes him a different kind of consequentialist I would think, rather than not a consequentialist at all. He’s factoring in probable risks more than usual, perhaps. The mere existence of a potential enemy is too risky in itself, so they must be eliminated. Very inquisitiony, if I may make up a word (though of course the inquisition was directed more at internal enemies and Harris is talking more about external ones, I think). Or perhaps it makes him a virtue ethicist of some sort: the enemy are morally corrupted beyond redemption, therefore they must be destroyed. I think this is related to his determinism and denial of free will. Once the programming sticks, you are stuck.

    As for the TEOF “intentions” question, I think I can state, not as a “lie,” that “Where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything” (TEOF 147) and “Intentions matter, but they are not all that matters” (TEOF 255) are not mere qualifications on one another, but clearly conflict. The first says intentions are everything and the second that they are not everything. One does not mean the other at all. Clear. And not a “lie” on my part to say it, that is an overstatement on your part. Yes, of course he probably means something in between, but the real sense I get is that he is overstating his point for dramatic emphasis then backpedaling in the note. Harris does have a flair for the dramatic, after all. Perhaps we all ought to calm down a little more.

    Lastly, please do explain to me how Christianity stole secular ethics for its own. It’s not a strange charge at all; it is the one Nietzsche would level were he alive to witness the new atheist phenomenon. You are, then, like the anti-Nietzsche. Perhaps you can convince me of something new.

  • Scott

    Whether or not I’m doing “natural law” depends on what this term means…and I’ve seen it defined by people who claim to advocate it in very many ways. If it just means “objective moral truth,” then of course I’m a NL theorist; but I consider that definition deceptive and hence worse than useless, because other define it as “nature sets values for us which are objectively valid just because they are there” or “nature embodies values which are objectively valid because God put them there,” i.e. an indirect form of divine command theory. I think the last is the most distinctive form of NLT, and seems to be ultimately what is behind the thinking of most people who use this term even if they disguise it under the first, more generic definition, and because it makes ethics ultimately dependent upon God’s subjectivity, and even more directly, upon one’s subjective choice to make God/nature one’s moral authority, it is ultimately not even a theory of objective morality, let alone the only such one.

    So in short, I reject NL theory, under any but the most trivial definition thereof.

    I also reject most contemporary forms of evolutionary ethical naturalism. Their problems are that they try to justify specific ethical values by showing how these values could be embodied by instincts with evolutionary functions. The minor problem with any such argument is that it only justifies the value to the extent that it is adaptive; and no moral value is always adaptive in all the cases where we tend to think it is, in fact, morally good. The fit is never perfect. The bigger problem is that this again makes ethics arbitrary, there’s no explanation for why we should approve of those values evolution happens to deliver.

    I instead try to show that our capacity for ethical judgment, like our capacity for moral reasoning, physical exploration, etc. is adaptive and hence has an evolutionary origin. Actually it’s more complex than that; ethical judgment is a kind of spandrel, a byproduct of our capacity for self-reflection that allows us to abstract away from our existing values/instincts via higher-ordered judgments. This self-reflection is adaptive; moral judgment is a consequence of this. But once we have this capacity, we can perceive/identify moral truths, which are simply those sets of values which we can reflect upon and approve, ultimately via some self-approving judgments, which avoid both an arbitrary, subjective closure or appeal to an infinite regress.

    No, I don’t recall Harris defining religion, but that doesn’t justify saying he must be attacking worldviews in general, or irrational belief as such (after all, we’d need to define “worldview”, care to try?) On first analysis, we might call religion any worldview that involves belief in supernatural entities; I don’t know if Harris would agree or not, but suspect it would explain much of what he says about it.

    I’m glad I can make you smile sometimes. 🙂 What do I think makes groups cohere? Lots of different things, but I’m not terribly interested in the sociology of this, because I have an ethical question for you: when should groups cohere, and when should they not? Unless we know the answer to this question, knowing only how to make them cohere is not very helpful. There are lots of times groups should not cohere, or should not be forced to cohere if the costs of doing so are too high for what value we get out of it. You say it can lead to a strong moral community; well, if by “moral” you mean “any values the community accepts.” Which means it can lead to the strong endorsement of immorality, which often must be broken by individuals speaking truth to power: Gandhi, MLK, Jesus, etc. So I’m not impressed by any argument that says we need to reject any philosophy which encourages individual thinking or undermines group solidarity as such. My question is: what /kind/ of thinking does it encourage, what kind of solidarity does it undermine–or what kind is it compatible with? If the thinking is subjective egoism, that’s bad. If the thinking is concern for other rational agents as such, that’s good.

    On to virtue ethics. I agree w/ part of what you say here: it focuses on internal consequences rather than external ones. That’s accurate, and most of what worries me about it. Then you identify this with a focus on persons over actions. Wait a minute now. Some persons–indeed most of them–are external to you, and are affected by your actions. So VE doesn’t merely focus on persons–it focuses on the person that happens to be YOU. Now that doesn’t mean it’s just a version of egoism–after all, the focus is on your acquisition of specific virtues, some of which are other-directed essentially, and most of which are incompatible with pure egoism. But it does mean that /insofar/ as there is some “internal” focus, there is a little less concern for other persons than there is, say, under consequentialism. At least, I can find no other way to interpret the focus on “internal” consequences, but perhaps you can explain this. I do think that there is some confusion–fostered, admittedly, in part by many consequentialists–over the role of intention in morality. I’m a “subjective” i.e. expected consequence consequentialist (a very clumsy phrase, and I’m desperate to find a better one). That is, I believe our obligation is to form a set of intentions which, given the evidence available to us, is most likely to lead to the satisfaction of the rational ends of all agents; not to actually do so, for our evidence might be misleading or incomplete, for which we are not to be blamed. Far too many consequentialists think that only actual consequences matter, which I think is baloney. So if emphasis on internal consequences simply means focus on intentions, then VE has a good point; but I can incorporate that into C-ism, and many other philosophers have done so as well. If it means something else, as I suspect it does, like focus on character traits which for some reason have been selected as the “right” ones, even though they don’t coincide with the character traits that maximize expected consequences, then I balk: why should we adopt /those/ character traits? The issue, that is, is not between internal and external; the issue is between intentions to maximize satisfying consequences for all rational beings, and intentions to do something else (whatever VE offers as this something else). I fear that if VE offers something different, then this essentially is a choice against the good for other rational beings in the name of some kind of internal good for your character, defined as conformity to a list of traits which may make you feel good about yourself, but which when implemented do worse than my version of consequentialism would for the good of other beings, privileging your choice of character traits and the value you place on acquiring them over similar choice that other beings make. Which makes VE a disguised form of egoism, and presents, I think, is a prima facie reason for thinking it is wrong.

    I did realize later that I have Casebeer’s book on my reading list, who knows when I’ll get to it. What little I’ve gleaned just now on amazon sounds indistinguishable from the vague appeals to the adaptive qualities of various social values that I’ve seen too much of in evolutionary “naturalized” ethics of the sort I describe above, but if there’s more to it I’m open to learning.

    I agree w/ you that Harris’ suggestion that some ideas deserve killing can still be consequentialist; I just said it was a very poor sort of consequentialism, which does the relevant calculations very wrong.

    And you’re also exactly right about Harris exaggerating for dramatic effect, then backpedaling. The claims you note conflict, but this is still not the same as saying that the footnote shows that he didn’t mean the first point “at all,” just that he didn’t mean it “fully” or seriously. Which is still a problem, just a different kind of problem.

    Secular ethics? The golden rule, as well as ideas about virtues, consequences, intrinsic values, and so forth, all existed centuries before Jesus, and were developed independent by cultures across the globe. Taking some subset of these and saying “you should do these things because my God/religious leaders say you should” and calling that “religious ethics” is not very original.

  • Brian Green

    I’ll have to be a bit brief for now, and then I won’t be able to say any more for a few days, but I will be back. I would define natural law as the theory that moral norms are real because they are rooted in certain facts about human nature, such as our psychology, physiology, cultural needs, etc. Summed up: action follows being. Human nature prescribes certain general directions for moral action: teleological purpose yields deontological guidelines. This need not necessarily be theological, since the above description pretty much includes Harris too (except the teleology part, though I might have to think more about this – he might have some teleology in there…). But generally natural law is associated with Catholicism, of course.

    Good grief we have extremely similar research interests. Now you are making me curious who you actually are, i.e. over-educated high school student, undergrad, grad student, professor, garbage collector, etc. I’m just a grad student, as you can tell from the “Contributors” page. Well, also an adjunct professor, but it hardly counts. Anyway…

    While I wouldn’t try to justify specific moral norms based on evolution I would argue that there are general norms that we have to live with based on our current state, such as the need to survive, reproduce, educate young, live in society, seek knowledge, etc. Those are the minimal telei. You can’t necessarily get both topically specific and universally valid norms from this because morality must match its environment, and environments vary.

    As for moral judgment being a spandrel of self reflection that is a rather difficult question. It may have originally been a byproduct of that, but upon entering functional exist it certainly took on adaptive qualities, I would say, seeing as it deeply affects how the individual engages the world. Anyway, big question, too big for right now.

    If I had to define “worldview” without looking it up, I would say it is a subset of culture involved in both the perception of and interpretation of meaning from the world. It looks at a lack of rain and tells one person “the gods are mad at you, propitiate them” and another “Damn climate change!” Pure data never enter the human mind, of course, they are always interpreted through the mind’s pre-existing expectations. So perhaps one’s worldview is what one expects the world will present to you.

    Anyway, you can’t criticize that because the act of criticism requires the presence of a worldview. So I doubt Harris will critique it, nor would I want him to try. 🙂 The definition of religion is of course very key here, and worth discussing.

    When should groups cohere? I actually have a post on roughly this right here:
    But I’ll boil it down. They should cohere when they are working for the common good, and they should not cohere when the act against the common good. I think we basically agree here on this and for the rest of your paragraph.

    Yes, VE is often charged with “egoism” but the point is that the virtuous individual exists to help others become virtuous individuals. Ideally, it’s like a disease. 🙂 The point of the concentration on one’s self is to make one no longer concentrate on one’s self; i.e. to make one’s character other-centered, of flip yourself inside-out. I need to say more but time is up.

    Well, one last thing: just because the golden rule is commonly found in many cultures around the world does not make it secular, unless by secular you literally mean “related to the world.” In fact, I would venture to guess that in every case the origin of the golden rule was from a religion: I’ve seen those posters with all the religions and their version of it, perhaps you have too. Just because the rule predated Jesus doesn’t mean they weren’t also religious. Perhaps what you mean to say is that the rule of reciprocity is something like a law of logic; i.e. avoid getting hit by not hitting others. Then religions just adopted it because it was cool (in a pragmatic sense, of course). Of course, if you argue that, then you are arguing the rule is related to human nature, and our pain perception, tool-cultures, tendencies to hierarchize, group dynamics and so on, and then you are getting into natural law again, action follows being. Back to the beginning again.

    I shall return. Write as much as you like in the mean time… this is fun.

  • Brian Green

    Ah, in the “you can’t criticize that” paragraph I mean “you” in the generic and “that” = worldview. I’m sure YOU could criticize that, after all, I know what you can do. 🙂

  • Scott

    This is indeed becoming an interesting conversation. I’m a non-tenured prof at a MN junior college, with aspirations for much more as soon as the economy turns around, it seems I entered the job market at the wrong time… You can check out my first article at “How to Make Ethical Universalization Tests Work.” The Journal of Value Inquiry, v41n1 (March 2007): 31-43, which gives a rough idea of the kind of logical derivation of ethics I give, though I’m working on several projects which try to expand, update, and clarify the basic ideas started there.

    The problem I have with the NLT as you’ve described it is that it ignores the simple fact that taking any supposed norms or needs from nature (or any other source, for that mater) as authoritative is a /choice/ that /we/ make. So, if these natural norms are supposed to undergird our other choices (ordinary, first-order choices like should I eat this food, should I select this profession or that, should I make love or war, etc.), then you also need to justify the choice of adopting those natural norms. What justifies /that/ choice? If you say “the same natural norms,” then you use circular logic. Now the interesting things about that is that circular logic is, I argue in my article, not necessarily bad–it just that /most/ circular reasoning is vicious, because it rests upon some arbitrarily-selected source of norms, and so there is no ultimate justification for picking /that/ source as opposed to some other one. But I show that there’s a non-arbitrary circular closure to the justificatory regress which is unique in that it has no arbitrary/contingent elements; but of course, that means that it contains no reference to god, nature, etc.–just the the requirement of self-consistency of our norms, which actually I think leads to some substantive constraints (basically, equal respect for/treatment of others), but this is not required by nature, God, or metaphysics, just by logic alone.

    I would say the same thing about VE as you describe it…and think it not coincidental that the two share much in common and are often associated by their followers, though not by all. Yes, a virtuous person will help others be virtuous, but only according to the definition of “virtuous” one starts with. The question is how to justify /that/ particular choice of virtues. If it’s contingent on facts of nature which one didn’t /have/ to follow, but followed by choice, we have to justify the choice to take these facts and not others as normative, and we’re back to the above argument. If it depends only upon what is logically constitutive of rational willing (which Kant tried to make the basis of his ethics, but which I argue he misunderstood in parts…long story there) then the same question does not arise.

    “Telei” — never heard that used before. Plural of telos?

    So you think a worldview is a subset of culture, and we always interpret things through our worldviews…this sounds suspiciously like one argument sometimes used for cultural relativism, that we can never escape the moral (or even belief?) perspectives of our cultures, so we might as well accept them as true and go on. Which ignores the fact that people resist/rebel against their cultures very frequently, and often with very productive and salutary results. I suppose you could say that each time we do that, we’re generating a new, personal worldview…but then “worldview” just means “a set of beliefs,” and the claim that we all have one is trivial, and the idea of being bound or limited by it trivial, since we can always change it and are only bound by it as long as we want to. Of course, we can only criticize beliefs with other beliefs, but there are still better and worse ones….for example, the belief that one should not contradict oneself is a good starter for criticism of all others, for if you try to criticize /that/ belief, you endorse self-contradiction, and hence don’t /really/ believe what you claim to believe (since you also believe the opposite is acceptable in some way).

    Last paragraph, briefly: laws of logic do not depend upon contingencies of human nature, though it is a contingent fact that our human nature allowed us to understand the laws of logic relevant to both belief and valuation, without which there would still be abstract moral truths, just as there would be mathematical truths, we just wouldn’t have known what they were or been able to understand them (not that we would then have come up with the /wrong/ ones–non-human animals just can’t understand these categories in the first place; you have to have the capacity to access these truths in order to also err in your understanding, and humans do spectacularly well at both!)

  • Brian Green

    The conference I attended was very good. Lots of interesting people there. I’ll probably blog about it in the next few days.

    Would you mind if I emailed you to ask for your articles? Is the email you submitted with your comment profile a good address or should I use another? I’m sorry to hear about your market difficulties, I hope things start looking better soon for both our sakes!

    Your argument for an ethic based on self-consistency reminds me of course of Kant, but also Alan Gewirth. Any influence there? I don’t think much of purely rational ethics because while they would probably work if there were rational creatures around to follow them, humans are not very rational. Better to have an ethic that works for humans-as-we-are rather than humans-as-we-aren’t.

    That doesn’t mean the approach is wrong. It may well generate good moral guidance. But it needs to be implemented on the scale of the individual with something with higher motivational power than just logic. Whether that be religion or some notion of a good life is the next question.

    And I see you problem with NL, but I disagree with it. It is not “us” who pick the norms, but rather nature, by weeding out that which does not work. It’s simple cultural evolution. That doesn’t mean every morality will always come out the same, because contexts vary over time and space, but as I said above, the fundamentals will remain the same as long as it is humans doing the actions, because we have a shared human nature with certain necessary requirements.

    NL does not justify all cultural behaviors though, because there are examples of cultures which “work” but of which we do not want to approve. For example the Munduruku headhunters of the Amazon thought they needed to gain the approval of the spirits by bringing in the heads of their neighboring tribes. By pleasing the spirits, the spirits would send plentiful game.

    The interesting thing, of course, is that killing neighboring tribes does increase the amount of game, but not by pleasing the spirits, but by eliminating competition for the resource. Adaptive behavior with the wrong justification. If you are familiar with David Sloan Wilson’s work you will recognize the idea. Cultural evolution selects behaviors, not the theories behind the behaviors.

    Now “why are the Munduruku wrong?” is the next question. The reason they are wrong is because they are not working for the common good, but rather are treating themselves – a part of a whole – as if they were the whole. The whole is humanity all together, and perhaps the rest of nature too.

    Then the question is why are we treating all of humanity as the whole and not some sub-group, and to that I have to respond that ethics is proven by the way it is lived, and so far human cultures with larger notions of the good (be good to more people) have tended to do better than those with smaller notions (be good only to a few people, e.g. your in-group). The little groups that try to kill everybody else usually end up extinct, like the Nazis, while those that are more inclusive tend to grow both by natural growth and conversion. Cooperation yields better results.

    The theory-selection criteria I am using are more “pragmatic theory of truth” than “coherence theory of truth” which I think you might be using. Ultimately, it would be nice if both theories yielded the same result, which I think they just might. But they will frame their arguments differently, as we are discovering here.

    I will not deny that there are logical laws at work under this, but they are not really experienced at the level of logic for individual humans, but rather at the level of cultural practices habituated into individuals as virtues or vices. Natural law and virtue ethics are inseparable in Catholic tradition because nature gives the capacity and then the capacity is molded into a virtue or a vice by cultural practices.

    The plural of telos, yes. I have heard “telei” and also “teloi,” and I don’t yet really know which is correct, except that it was a journal editor who claimed it was telei, which works for me, being a pragmatist. 🙂

    Worldviews, yes people do rebel, but it is not into a new worldview, just a mutation of the old. Now, most mutations are deleterious, but some are salutary, indeed. but mutations should have a presumption against them in my opinion, since the tried at the very least did not get us all killed. The untested cultural mutation cannot say the same. It’s fine with me if the mutation comes into existence and is tested, but I would rather not be subjected to the results if they turn out badly. 🙂

    “laws of logic do not depend upon contingencies of human nature”

    That is correct, of course. But what about reality independent of humans makes reciprocity/mutual respect a logical/moral law even in our absence? You argue epistemologically for the understanding component of it that humans are capable of unlike other animals, but what about its ontology? We could envision immortal creatures who felt no pain, for example, who could beat each other up all the time and never get hurt because it is not their nature to die or feel pain. This ethic would not work for humans because we are of a different nature. Human nature structures our moral needs.

    But more importantly, why is rational self-consistency the judge of morality? Is it because it is a law of logic pre-existing the entry of humanity into the universe? What kind of existence does it have prior to the appearance of humanity? Or does it only appear as a ramification of logic when human-like entities appear? If so then it is dependent upon a human-like nature. I like to drill through ethics down to anthropology and metaphysics, as you can see.

    I really do apologize for our relationship starting off on the wrong foot, by the way. That was my fault for having inaccuracies in my posts.

    Let me extend an invitation to you: If you have any interest in guest blogging here at some point you would be welcome. You are certainly allowed to say provocative (and atheist) things if you like, or not, as you choose. Not all of us here are theists anyway. We could at least take our arguments out of the combox and into some posts, if you wanted.

  • Scott

    I’m curious which conference that is, I try to keep on top of them and attend many myself. I happened to see Casebeer’s name at another one this June in Arlington but I’m not likely to get out that far. The listed email is one I check regularly enough.

    I wasn’t influenced by Gewirth, though there are similarities. I actually find much of his work annoyingly overcomplex, and have a general idea of a couple mistakes he makes but which are hard to diagnose given his obscure writing and phrasing. I also just discovered a few months ago that some of his original forays into ethical theory in the late 60s almost exactly prefigure what I did 40 year later, and because his style was a little simpler then it’s easier to see exactly where we agree & disagree. Basically I think Gewirth is correct about how to derive norms from practical reason, but the exact norms he then claims to derive (a rights-based deontology) simply doesn’t follow from his views. Kant makes a similar kind of mistake. I agree more with Hare on the actual norms, but not exactly; Cummiskey is actually better with his 2-tiered consequentialism, but less clear in his derivation.

    So here’s a general point about ethical rationalism. The idea is that any practical reasoning is simply not quite coherent unless and to the extent that it is rational, consistent, and hence human thought, when freed of bias, tends towards the consistent. It’s not that it only works at all if we’re perfectly rational, nor that we should assume we are. Indeed, quite to the contrary; I am staunchly against false idealization. Kant notoriously assumes that norms (maxims) that work in ideal worlds where everyone follows them also work in ours, but they sometimes do not. Other (ideal observer theorists) assume that what your ideally rational self would do or want to do or want you to do is what you should do, which again might no work if /you/ are not fully rational, and have good reason to think you aren’t. But I do think that we can take account of our imperfect rationality as a modifying factor, indeed we do it all the time (imperfectly, of course). Consistently still is a regulative ideal, and indeed has to be to have a coherent argument for ethical norms or even for belief; and this is compatible with accepting that we are likely to have some practical inconsistent in our lives which it may not be worth the trouble to thoroughly expunge. It’s like the old canard of writing a book you suspect may have some errors in it still, yet believing each statement one by one, and holding to the regulative ideal that /if/ you discovered an error, you would try to fix it, but still publishing it anyway instead of editing it 10 million times to reduce the error chance to zero but at the cost of never publishing in your lifetime.

    I think there’s ample evidence that humans are often motivated by ethical values as such, which religion can either support or cut against in particular cases. I also think that the various versions of the golden rule are precisely the laws of practical logic expressed at the ordinary level of human culture, and its pervasiveness shows that while we’re not all as incisive as Kant or Gewirth, you don’t need to be a logician to understand the minimal logic needed for most ethics, and to be influenced by it.

    One problem with a natural law theory identified with evolutionary ethics as you present it lies in the tricky claim that it generates behaviors that “work”–but for /whom/? Many behaviors work for the individual, or more precisely, for their own propagation through gene-environmental interaction, but work badly for other members of the species, members of other species, etc. You’re quite aware of this, of course, but glossing over the problem. You are perfectly alive to the fact that a truly good morality must cover all relevant beings (ambiguous between all humans or humans + animals, which is fine for now because I have ambivalent thoughts about the status of animals, it’s a debatable issue which we can skip for now). This is shown by your effort to claim that /in the long run/ societies running value systems with this approach do better than others. But this merely shows that you’ve already determined, somehow, that this is the correct answer, and are trying to show (and hoping very much) that the evolutionary test will conform to it. This shows that the test of what works evolutionarily is *not* your ultimate standard. It’s very nice and convenient if in the long run, good moral systems come out on top. But their coming out on top is not what makes them good moral systems; it’s something else.

    Related: as JM Keynes pointed out, “in the long run we are all dead.” In the short run nice moral systems often do fairly badly; the generous Chatham Islanders got decimated by warlike Maori in historical times, etc. etc. For centuries the societies dominating the globe were not the most peaceful ones, but those with the best ships and muskets. Right now unscrupulous corporations and those who own stock in them are doing fairly well. But again, all of this is just to question the supposed coincidence between what “works” in terms of self-reproducing behaviors and morality. Even if the two /did/ coincide it would be just a coincidence, not proof that the former defined the latter.

    The question of what causes harm to each others’ interests is of course quite empirical, and hence the question of “is it wrong to beat up another person is also. But the more fundamental norms, like “don’t act in ways which, overall, to more to harm than to further the rational ends of all agents” are not contingent. For beings who are not harmed but perhaps indifferent to or pleased by being beaten, beating each other does not violate this norm, so such contingencies would not show that this norm must also be contingent.

    Practical logic is simply what is required to have a coherent set of values. It only pre-exists rational agency in the sense that it is true that, 10 billions years, /if/ there had been rational agents, they would not have had a coherent set of values unless they accept norms x,y,z, etc.; likewise they wouldn’t have had a coherent mathematical system unless it had some analogue of 1+1=2. These facts are independent of whether any such beings actually exist. They need rational beings to recognize them, and in the first case, for there to be anything to which such constraints apply. It is a contingent fact whether rational beings exist; it is not contingent but necessary that: if any exist, their values are incoherent unless they accept norms x,y.z. This is why I say such facts do not depend upon contingent facts about their nature/agency, but this is of course other than the fact that they exist. it’s like this: 1+1=2, and so if two objects 1m long each are laid end to end, they form a 2m conjoint structure. The fact that they are 1m long, and are laid together, is continent; but the fact that their union is 2m long does not depend upon whether they are made of wood, stone, or beeswax. Of course whether you have 2m of wood or 2m of beeswax is contingent on such things. Likewise, the logic of practical reasoning only applies to rational agents; if there weren’t any, the basic logical facts about reasoning and ethics would still be true, they just wouldn’t apply to anything that happens to actually exist. But these facts do not depend on any further facts about what those beings are like. However, what particular actions those facts require such beings to do will depend on further facts about them–like what causes them pain, what sort of empirical evidence they have, and so forth.

    Thanks for the invitation; I’ll have to read the blog a bit more to see what you’all are up to first. I actually just stumbled on this as I was starting to read Harris’ ML, to see what others thought. I’m very glad that an initial confrontation has turned into a very fruitful and pleasant discussion, and we can both be mildly proud that we overcame initial antagonisms; not everyone is so disposed.

  • Scott

    I made a few grammar errors just; a few are obvious, but in the penultimate paragraph I should note that I meant “10 billion years AGO”

  • Brian Green

    Sorry for the long delay! I’ll try to hit at least part of your comment, if not all.

    I should state clearly that I have no problem at all with the general idea of ethical rationalism based on the coherence model of truth. Natural law has been often associated with that, historically, as well as the pragmatic approach I’m examining. One general idea of NL is that a rationally ordered nature produces rational creatures capable of seeing the consistency/resonance between themselves and the nature that created them.

    Your critique that I am surreptitiously importing the “real” norm and judging evolution by it, rather than drawing the norm from evolution itself is an important and interesting one to me. I think I can argue that evolutionary history as well as human history give inductive strength towards the position that I am promoting, that is that the larger notion of the common good is superior to the smaller notion of the good (the good of the part, not the whole).

    Good for whom is a perfectly good question. Individual human individuals play bit roles in evolution. Groups play larger ones. In the long run, we are all, as individuals, dead. But groups and cultural traditions live on, mutating to match their environments, or dying off. Ethics has to be derived at the level of groups and for the good of groups, not individuals, I think. This is going to be part of my dissertation. I have to say, I don’t really like the idea. Regular old individualism would be my preference (though of course ethics is always about groups of people, the balance varies in different systems, and that’s what I’m talking about). Giving over more priority to the group is disturbing, but every cultural tradition of morality requires it, and the more “traditional” the culture the stronger the requirement is.

    I’m also aware of the Spencerian/social Darwinism danger of saying that everything now is okay and as it should be because evolution made it that way. That is a bad position to take because it is used to justify oppression which violate the common good. Spencer was too provincial.

    Anyway, I’ have no problems with most of what you are saying. Like I said previously, I think the coherence model and pragmatist model could/should converge on the same solutions. I just wonder of your response to the moral nihilist or irrationalist who has no interest in reason or reciprocity. My position says “That won’t work. Any group with those norms will fail.” Your position says they are irrational… which might be another way of saying “that won’t work” but I’m not sure. I am reminded of one of my professors who, discussing Gewirth, noted “you must act thus on pain of rational inconsistency.” That can elicit chuckles.

    Now, one way to converge what we are doing here is to say that you have the more justificatory element and I have the more motivational element of the same theory. What do you think?

    Yes, it is nice to overcome antagonisms! That is supposed to be the point of ethics, sort of. If we – two ethicists – can’t do it, the world is in trouble. So maybe the world has some hope. 😉

    Our blog is a mixture of stuff, anything relating to ethics. The political/current events stuff always gets the most views… well, except for my atheism stuff. That gets medium but constant interest. Not that popularity matters. No worries if you’d like to pass, just thought I’d propose it as a potential course of action.

  • Brian Green

    I should probably add that perhaps NL has been most associated with the correspondence theory of truth rather than either the pragmatic of coherence approaches… the problem of course is the matter of which (or whose) reality it is corresponding to! And to select which of the various choices of “reality” to select, then pragmatic and coherence approaches come in secondarily.

  • Scott

    Yes, NL is based on correspondence, which I think is a particularly confused way to approach the idea of ethical truth. It may even be misleading for understanding theoretical truth, but not quite as much so. You’ll see in the recent paper I sent you that I treat the valuational process as one that begins with experienced input, and valuational output. The mistake of correspondence approaches is that they basically imagine that values are part of the input. Actually the only thing that can be experienced data as input is the fact that somebody (you, or someone else) has valued something or other. But that doesn’t show that it is right to value such a valuation as a higher-order valuational output. I analyze /is right to value X/ as a cognitive claim that valuing X is part of a coherent set of lower+higher-order valuations closed under logical consequence, and add that two pragmatic constraints (universalization of valuations, and consistency with other values in the set) strongly restrict the range of acceptable values to (more or less) those we intuitively consider to be “moral.” Since values are inherently motivational, this supports the internalist view that motives and justification are connected, and hence can explain not only why we are typically motivated to be moral, but why we cannot really escape such motivation except through an irrational process of self-deception which turns our attention away from the logical consequences of our present values. Which, unfortunately, humans are pretty good at doing; but showing that they must always be logically incoherent when they do so (and that it’s not merely a contingent fact of training, evolution, or whatnot that the possibility of recognizing the moral facts and being motivated by them is ever-present for any being which can make higher-order judgments, including moral ones), is, I think, a fairly powerful result. If I’m right.

    I think the Gewirthian response to the nihilist is very weak, or at least far too abstruse to be compelling. Korsgaard has a somewhat better approach, saying that rejection of morality constitutes failure to have a unified, coherent, practical identity, or in other words to be a person. This is still not quite compelling, and some people have said “but what if I don’t care about being a person as you define it?” Which I think she has resources to defend against, but the gap is suggested by her wording. I would say (and I think Korsgaard says in some passages) that the problem is that you can’t coherently, wholeheartedly, endorse such a position. So, sure, you can be a non-unified entity. But you can’t truthfully say “and I like myself that way, I fully endorse this kind of life,” precisely because you’ve given up unity of self, meaning full high-order endorsement of precisely the values you have chosen. You will always be at odds/in tension with yourself, and have conflicting values. And another way to put that is that it is logically necessary that you always have some values pointing towards/entailing your endorsement of moral values, and so it’s just not true that you have “no interest” in reason or reciprocity, though you might think you don’t, and you might find strategies of ignoring your interest in these. But there is always something that you are ignoring, while the moral person does not have to flinch from him/herself, can face herself and wholeheartedly say “that’s good.”

    So I think my theory has a strong justificatory and motivational component, granting that we have these dual capacities to recognize and be motivated by morality for evolutionary reasons. The fact that morality in social groups contributes to their success is a /further/ motivational element, or perhaps explanatory element, for understanding why our moral sense came to be and persisted It is not logically necessary that morality be conducive to individual or even group survival; we are fortunate that it is, which is itself a moral judgment. If our biology were very different–say, if we evolved as cannibalistic beings–reconciling moral judgments with the inevitably strong instincts for individual/group survival would be much harder than it already is, and our situation far more tragic.

  • Brian Green

    Yes, here we differ significantly, and this conversation has done me well for clarifying my own views, which ought to make my dissertation clearer too. And you’ll probably get your paper cited in my dissertation too. 🙂 (Though I have to read it again, just skimmed it so far. Very interesting.)

    I do think goodness and therefore moral values do exist in nature, outside of human existence. This is because nature contains functions which can be fulfilled more or less well; in other words nature is teleological, and success in achieving telos is good and failure is bad. That’s straight Aristotle and Aquinas, of course. The removal of teleology from nature is of course a major aspect of modernity, being clearly articulated by Francis Bacon, for example, who said teleology existed in the mind, not nature, so we ought to drop it.

    But one can make a distinction between using teleology to erroneously explain nature (i.e. the hills exist to grow grass for my cows) and trying to explain teleology that apparently already exists in nature (i.e. my heart beats to keep me alive). I think we can argue that thinking “the hills are for the sake of my cows” is very different from “my heart beats for the sake of keeping me alive.”

    Biology is intrinsically teleological, I think, and it is a major work of some kinds of philosophy of biology to try to expunge it, and it never quite works. Those who wish to expunge it can blame our human cognitive bias towards seeing teleology, and those in favor of keeping it can say it’s because teleology really is there.

    The next question is how do you /know/ that you have properly determined what the moral values are in nature, and that is where pragmatism comes in. If your moral system works (long term and for everybody), you’ve found the correct moral values; if it doesn’t work, then you have not found them.

    Coherence would be my lowest category. In other words, if I had to choose between what is rational and what works (assuming such a conflict were possible), I would choose what works. I do not think such a conflict is in fact possible, only that such conflicts can seem to exist if we lack sufficient information, are misinterpreting what information we have, and so on.

    So ranking the theories of truth/good/value, I rank 1st correspondence, 2nd pragmatic, and 3rd coherence. Obviously you put coherence first. If you can prove your case, as you argue above (I assume you have a book on the way?) then that would be very interesting. Intrinsically cannibalistic creatures do exist, by the way, sand tiger sharks rely on intrauterine cannibalism to feed the one embryo which will be born. Siblings are literally “meant” for food. They would have a strange morality, I suppose, were they to become as mentally developed as humans; perhaps rather Nietzschean: morality is the will (or hunger) of the strongest!

    Relating to logic and survival, perhaps you can solve a problem for me. In what sense is the practical logic you are advocating not relative to a good? For example, what is rational to one who’s highest good is money is not the same as what is rational to one who’s highest good is stopping injustice. Reason instrumentally serves a good in these cases. In what sense does the logic you advocate consist of the-good-in-itself, rather than serving a good? Or am I misunderstanding your point?

    If good is rational consistency, then I guess reason serves that by, well, being rationally consistent with it. There is your virtuous circularity. But if good is survival and reproduction, as it seems is the good of nature (were you to permit nature to have a good), then that is a completely different kind of goal to serve with a completely different logic for action, a.k.a. ethics.

    And since we are all the descendants of survivors and reproducers wouldn’t we expect this to be the more primary form of logic we experience? Hence we attempt to live and mate. No explicit logic necessary there, it is built-in to us. Other forms of logic were not built-in in the same way. In fact, just thinking about it off the top of my head, adopting a different basic logic, one other than survival and reproduction, would likely result in that different kind of logic being weeded out by selection, no? Or only appearing as a by-product. In which case why would we expect it to realistically reflect reality?

    On another thing, like Harris I do not think fact and values are really separable. Values are facts and facts are values. In fact (no pun intended), if pushed, I would say values exists more primarily and facts exist only derivatively of them, both in the human mind and in all living nature.

    We are getting into fun metaphysics here, concerning where reason, good, and teleology reside, in human heads or in nature. I say all three are external to us, I think you say only reason is, or perhaps good as well?

  • Scott

    Your own example illustrates the biggest problem with your approach, which makes me suspect you don’t really appreciate its gravity. You acknowledge that cannibalistic creatures would have a “strange” morality because they are inherently cannibalistic; but all creatures which have some natural tendency to benefit themselves at the expense of others (whether members of their own species or other species), or even who just manage to figure this out later while trying to pursue their individualistic ends, are “cannibalistic” at least to some extent, metaphorically, because the satisfaction of their own ends feeds off of the frustration of those of others. But since we are all such creatures to some extent–some of us more than others 🙂 –you must conclude that a similarly “strange” morality is right for those for whom it “works”, which surely is a reducto ab absurdum of the view.

    Put another way, what this reveals is that your claim that morality is “what works…for everybody” is incoherent; since what works for one human or tiger shark is not what works for all of them. *Nothing* works for everybody, if by this we mean “is evolutionarily/biologically successful for everybody”. The best you can do is compromise, maximizing the number of total interests satisfied, after they are weighed for factors like intensity, and perhaps tossing out those which are themselves incoherent in some way. And when you say coherence is lower in priority than “working”, well that’s a problem too, and I suspect we’re working with different ideas of “coherence.” You need coherence to coherently define “working for everybody.” If you accept an incoherent definition of working and then imagine you can achieve this…well, I don’t know what you’re talking about anymore. Coherence in values simply means that you’re not at cross-purposes with yourself, that you don’t at the highest-order level of thought/valuation both approve of the satisfaction and frustration of the same values. But seeking a morality which works for “everybody” when it is logically impossible that there be such a thing is simply not a live proposal.

    Coherence/consistency is not some separate value above and beyond others, one which I happen to want or define as what I call morality or rationality; the value of coherence is implicit in every possible value. To value A is to disvalue -A, and to value means to A and disvalue barriers/obstacles to A. Now if you also value B, and A and B conflict, you have some incoherence, but maybe you can make the two cohere by working out a compromise and hence moderating your initial valuations to compatible and hence coherent levels. If you fail to do this, then I submit you aren’t really serious about the value of A, or B, or both. The problem is not that you failed to value some third thing called coherence, but that you in some way failed to truly value A and B as you thought you did. Calling the position “incoherent” is just a general way of saying that.

    If one’s “highest good” is money then this value is irrational and immoral; for trading (for instance) your capacity to be a rational agent away for any amount of money is incoherent. If the reason you do this is to fund schools or hospitals that save the physical/mental lives of more people, then this may not be incoherent, but of course then money is viewed only instrumentally. Actually I can show the problem with far less dire examples; if A’s highest good is money (I presume this means, “A’s acquisition of more money, as measured numerically in some currency”), then presumably A would approve of herself making some choice that results in the death of some other people chosen at random as long as the result is that A gets more money. But then if B does *exactly* the same thing, then if A values A’s following this behavior, then A must logically value B’s following of this behavior, as by hypothesis the choice to engage in the behavior follows exactly the same norms (reason-action habit). But A would be extremely irrational to endorse B’s doing this, as A might be one of B’s victims. And this is true even if A values *nothing* but money. For if A dies she’ll have no money. Therefore, it is irrational for A to *exclusively* value money, by reductio. She (and all agents) must value both preserving the life/rational agency of those who have it, and value the ends of others roughly equal to her own.

    So when you ask if my “practical logic” is relative to a good, I say it is relative to all rational goods, which are a combination of the necessary goods of life/rational agency (failure to value these, and fairly highly, is irrational; Kant said they had infinite value, which I think goes too far, but it’s in the right direction), and the contingent ends all beings happen to have, as long as the latter are not irrational. The latter would consist in their opposition to the necessary ends, or opposition to the satisfaction of other contingent ends–yours or those of other beings. For instance, if a being set its goal precisely as the frustration of other beings as such, or set itself a pair of opposing ends without trying to resolve the conflict.

    I hence oppose all ethical systems that set up as privileged ends any ends /not/ required by the logic of practical reasoning as such. And that’s a short list: life, and the capacity to engage in practical reasoning, meaning the capacity to resolve conflicts between your values, and to seek means to your ends. And life is really only valuable as a prerequisite for preserving this capacity, and to set and pursue your other contingent ends. It’s not valuable because it’s natural or anything like that, or part of the causal history of how we got here. Just because our ancestors got us here a certain way, and this was part of our causal history, has nothing to do with whether it is rational for us to value some continuation of the same process; the question is whether we can value the continuation of the same behavior in any other agents considered at random. Descendents of evolutionary competition and heterosexual reproduction don’t need to value the continued engagement in those processes any more than children of rape need to value themselves or others being rapists. I’m being extreme here just to make a point, of course; one can defend sex, life, and possibly some competition–but not, I think, society based on a continued natural selection struggle for survival–for other reasons. It’s just that you can’t point to the causal history of our existence for any support for continued behavior, because that principle would also require some of us to support some fairly atrocious behavior which is obviously wrong.

    I think facts & values are inseparable, but not in the way you (or, I think, Harris) suggests–interesting though that you two agree on a point I differ on, considering how we started this discussion! 🙂 I think there are facts about values, and we also value certain facts; and certain facts about the relationships between values–namely, which set of values are consistent and which are not–logically lead coherent rational agents to adopt certain values and reject others. Thus an agent trying to make its values more coherent will be led to a common set of moral values in the same way that a being who values A and learns that a necessary means to A is B will be led to valuing B. And any agent not trying to make its values coherent has no serious proposal for morality we should pay attention to, since its values are not, in fact, coherent and hence not held seriously.

    Life and reproductive success is indeed a byproduct of what I am calling basic moral values, and so it won’t be weeded out by natural selection. But you need to also remember that we’re dominated by memes now, not genes. There are many social and religious groups that have more children than others. But they are not winning in numbers; how many ex-Mormon or ex-Catholics have you met in your life? Many in mine, far more than ex-secular humanists, and I think not just because there were fewer secularists to begin with (in fact, there are so few ex-SH’s that the few who exist get paraded around and tend to do college debate circuits and lectures telling us how they were saved). It’d be interesting to see statistical analysis on this actually, I admit I’m being anecdotal. But coherence has its own built-in ratchet mechanism, and will spread quite easily throughout a population of agents capable of making higher-order judgments, without any need to transmit such values through gametes.

    I can’t answer your last question since I’m not sure what you mean by saying things are “external” to us, and some other points. If you mean that the facts about what constitutes them are not determined by contingent facts about us, then: facts about reason are external in this sense, the derived teleology of biological mechanisms is (but I like Dawkins’ analysis of this as “pseudo-teleology” which we only recognize through its resemblance to the real teleology of valuing agents). Teleology is part of valuing, and we can choose what we value to a large extent, though we don’t usually choose what others value. Good is ambiguous; morally good or just valued as good? The former is based on reason, the latter is highly contingent. But just because something is valued, or is part of a teleological system, does not by itself mean that the higher-order valuation approving of the adoption/furtherance of that particular value is consistent, and hence moral; that depends on what the expected consequences of such continuation of the valuation/teleological system are on the totality of valued ends it may affect.

  • Scott

    A clarification on the fact-value thing. I think facts & value are different. But certain facts about the relationships between values show that some values (the morally obligatory ones) are derivable from *any* values. You can’t derive values from facts; instead you derive values from other values. But there are facts about how that can be coherently done, and those facts show that certain values are incoherent, while others are incoherent to reject; we call them “forbidden” and “obligatory” respectively. The facts describing these, if believed, will tend to motivate us to acquire & reject certain values. But it’s the values that are doing the motivational work; the facts just indicate relationships between values which we might have been unaware of or actively resisting/evading.

  • Brian Green

    I can only say a bit here, I will try to address more later, but there is so much to say!

    Good to clarify on “external.” I was being unclear. By external I did not mean external as in “not including” us, I meant external as in existing independently of human minds. So that is what I should have said: good, teleology, and reason exist independently of human minds.

    When you say teleology is part of valuing, I say the opposite: valuing is part of teleology. You are saying, I think, what John Searle says, and a lot of others (I suppose everyone who is not an Aristotelian or Thomist or “absentialist” as Terrence Deacon at UC Berkeley calls himself), that is: humans assign value, and that makes things look teleological. Unlike Dawkins I do not think life forms are following pseudo-teleology (teleonomy as other have called it), the teleology is really there because they really are pursuing ends. Goal directed behavior, whether being pushed programmatically from behind (teleonomy) or drawn by a mental conception of the future (teleology) is attempting to do something – function – and that function can be performed well or badly: that is where value comes from. Not from the human mind.

    The only reason the human mind can value is because it is built on lower systems which are already doing that, unconsciously of course: tissues with functions and goals, cells, sub-cellular systems doing the same, etc. Where ever there is function there is value built in, conscious or not.

    The only other thing I would say here is that sand tiger shark intrauterine cannibalism is /good/ for them. Without it they would not exist, and existence is a good thing. That does not mean existence cannot be done in better and worse ways, getting into your evolutionary and historical justification argument. The existence of a child of a rape has a good existence. But it is unfortunately not the best way to have come into existence. Good has levels to it.

    Because human nature is completely different from tiger shark nature you do not reduce my argument to absurdity. Tiger sharks are, I suppose we could say, intrinsically anti-social creatures in utero. 🙂 Humans are never intrinsically anti-social, we are always intrinsically social. Therefore our morality is going to much more socially oriented.

    Lastly, and I know this is rushed, I’ll try to clarify more later, let me re-iterate that I am not saying pragmatism and coherentism are not going to be compatible. Both methods ought to end up in the same place with the same set of moral. The difference will be in the path to that place. And if I had to choose between figuring out what was good based on careful rationalizing versus careful observation of what works, I would choose “what works” because that is at least verifiable with data, not just argument. Of course there are problems with that, I’m not saying it’s easy to figure out even through observation, otherwise we’d all know all the answers already.

    Alright, I know I didn’t get to everything. More later, respond now or later as you see fit, of course.

  • Scott

    Well, I can go either way with the definition of teleology. If you like, yes, we can say plants have ends, and as long we understand these as being “pushed programmatically from behind,” and hence significantly different from ends which are valued by the creatures who have them, then no confusion will result. I think. The important thing is that animal capacity for valuation is a kind of refinement or very specific and interestingly different version of what plants do, and one of the most interesting aspect of it is that since it has intentional objects, it is theoretically possible for it to be recursive–and is, in one species, the human–which gives rise to the capacity for moral judgments.

    “Humans are more social”–well, most of them. And if psychopaths manage to prey on us, and this “works” for them, is that “good” and “right” for them? I don’t mean from their perspective, which of course it is (making your claim they are always social simply false; it may be true 99% of the time. It’s the 1% I’m worried about.) I’m asking if you judge their perspective as equally valid and morally legitimate as the one you and I at least largely share. If it works for them, and working is your criteria of moral rightness, you must say yes. You can say they’re outside of the human norm; but why is that special if some humans find non-normal behaviors that “work” for them?

    This raises another issue I have with the natural function/natural law theory people. They try to get moral objectivity based on species-typical behavior. But this tends to both denigrate human creativity and rejection of the “species standard” behavior in some cases which I think are either good or at least innocuous; and begs the question as to why the species average is particularly important when since Darwin we know not only that species always have natural variation, but that such variation is part and parcel of evolution, and can shade in to the formation of sub-species or wholly new species, along generally continuous lines of variation. So the privileging of the species average both gives the wrong results, and is arbitrary. Cultural relativism has *exactly* the same dilemma: it says we should conform to our culture, but has little to say when I propose joining/making my own subculture, of a million, 100, or just one. It ends up condemning very good forms of cultural change & reform, and can’t explain why variation is disallowed. If it allows the latter, there’s no logical stopping point in terms of how small or different a subculture may be as long as it “works” for those who belong to it. Morality based on some presumed species-nature has the same problem, especially with humans, who have far more behavioral variation within their ranks than any other species, for exactly the same reason they can make moral judgments: because they can use higher-ordered thinking to challenge existing/past values.

    The solution is to find a standard that arises from our capacity to make moral judgments at all, figuring out what kind of requirements are imposed simply by the idea of making some standards consistent, which is harder that it first appears once you recognize that each judgment of an action implies a higher-order judgment approving of that very judgment. Any other standard, taken from some external teleological source, is likely to have cases which fail to be consistent when judged at a higher-order level; like when your principles work 99% of the time, but end up implicitly approving of the tiger sharks among us.

  • Scott

    Just wanted to note that the question of whether to say that plants, say, are teleological or only “pseudo-teleological” may be partly just a terminological issue. But a moral issue hangs on it. We can both agree that the valuational behavior of animals and humans is simply a further, evolved capacity which in one sense performs the same function that pre-programmed, non-representational chemical responses to stimuli do in plants: they further the survival and reproductive success of the organism.

    But I think it would be the grossest mistake to consider the value (let alone moral value) of our agency to lie in how successful our capacity to valuing/rational/moral agents, or particular values we choose to adopt, simply in terms of how these satisfy these life functions. Indeed, that has things precisely backwards, for there is no /moral/ value to teleology as such. Evolutionary teleology can explain why our valuing and moral capacities came to exist, and persist; it cannot justify them, for justifying is precisely an exercise of our moral capacities. Looking back upon the evolutionary history and processes from which our justificatory thinking arose, we may choose, or conclude that we have reasons, to value that; or we may not. That’s a question to be determined by the proper use of our justificatory thinking. That proper use must be determined by analysis of what it means to value our own valuational behavior, and determining what higher-order values can confirm rather than undermine our entire structure of values and hence achieve consistency and unity within our values. It cannot be assumed to be determined by the first-order values of evolutionary or organismic success, for that is precisely to ignore the fact that accepting this as good is an exercise of higher-order valuation, and begs the question as to whether /that/ particular valuational decision is correct.

    Any acceptance of any external (what Kant called “heteronomous” and using Sartre called “bad faith”) standard of values runs into the same problem; nothing special about evolution/nature here. Intuitionism, cultural relativism, egoism and divine command theory all founder on this point. They assume a first-order set of values to settle the issue of how to make our higher-order judgments, forgetting that the choice of /that/ particular first-order set of values is yet another higher-order judgment, and we can’t know if that judgment was made correctly until we know the correct standard for higher-order judgments…so we’re trapped in a logical circle, which is vicious because it could have started anywhere, with any set of values picked as a standard (from nature, culture, my whimsical intuitions, etc.) The only way out is to investigate higher-order valuation itself and see what standards can stabilize them from the inside. If there were many incompatible ways of doing this, we’d have a worry again; my aim is so there is only one way to do this, and it leads to the golden rule and common-sense morality, proving that most of our moral intuitions were right all along, but giving us some basis for correcting those that weren’t.

  • Scott

    So here’s another way to put it: plants can be said to have ends, and hence a teleology. But this is of no moral significance, because they do not *value* their ends; their ends have no intentionality or “aboutness.” Hence they do not suffer if their ends are frustrated, and there is no potential for recursion in their teleology. Recursion can occur in animals, since their values are about things, and so in principle the can value their own valuational acts (must don’t, but humans do, and this gives rise to moral values; but moral values are /values/, not merely ends).

    So, you need teleology to get to valuations, and you need valuation to get to moral values; but moral values are values, values about other values; “ends” as such have no moral significant. A coocoo clock can also be said to have an end, a teleology, one which fails if a spring is broken (for unlike plants it has no tendency towards self-repair). A guided missile has somewhat greater tendency for self-correction. But along with plants, the satisfaction of their teleology has no intrinsic moral value (it might have moral value for beings with values, derivatively). The suggestion that moral values derive from some value inherent in teleology itself brings morality back down to a lower biological common denominator, and hence does not recognize what is truly unique about it.

  • Brian Green

    I think we are using two modes of reasoning which are yielding similar results via different paths. You are relying on coherence, and I on pragmatism. Like deontology and consequentialism, perhaps. Coherence allows us to examine the rationality behind good action. Pragmatism permits us figure out what good action is. I’m more interested in what good action is rather than the reasoning behind it because ethics is about action, not thought. More of a “what” than a “why.” But if a pragmatist must give an answer to “why” the answer is always simply that “it works.” Reasoning beyond that is icing on the cake, but no longer the cake itself.

    But this brings us to the classic deontologist vs. consequentialist problem. Coherence – but what if it doesn’t work? Pragmatism – but what if it is not rational? What if your system of reasoning produces bad results or your results-based system doesn’t rationally cohere?

    As I’ve said before, if I had to choose between a perfectly rational system that produced bad results and a non-coherent system which produced good results I would choose the non-coherent system. This assumes of course that we know what “good” means, and for me good is “it works” not “it’s rational.” This is the crux of our debate, I think.

    And I think I said this before too: I think it’s easier to tell whether something is working rather than whether it is rational and the reason is simple. What works is visible in the real world for all to see, while what is rational exists not in the visible world but inside minds, invisibly. The difference between objectivity and subjectivity. Now, you will likely reply exactly the reverse, that rational coherence is objective and judgment of “what works” is subjective. And I’m not sure how we could adjudicate this point to come to a conclusion.

    Funny, at the start of this I thought you were a consequentialist, but now you seem to be a deontologist. Your appeal to rationality and coherence is irrespective of consequences it seems. Do you agree?

    But I think I get the point: because rationality is rational it leads to good consequences. And I think the same but reverse the causation: good consequences indicate what rationality is.

    Going back a bit, your bringing up psychopaths is not very useful because psychopaths were, of course, raised by families and have language and culture and a whole bunch of other necessary things that all humans need to have because we are intrinsically social creatures. In attempting to prey on others they attack the system that created them and upon which they rely for their existence. A society or psychopaths would fail. It wouldn’t work.

    You could just as easily say psychopathy is irrational because it violates the necessary premises for action in the first place, or something like that, as you said above. But the rationality part of this is the explanation for why it doesn’t work. The important part is not the explanation, but just the fact that it does not work.

    Defective individuals such as psychopaths do not set the norm, as you well know. (and we do have to go by what is “normal,” not what is “average.”) How do we know when variation is allowable? It depends on whether the teleology of the part has come to injure the teleology of the whole. The common good for all people and the ecosystem as well, has to be normed to a good which maximizes the actualization of the individual telei of its component parts insofar as that does not injure the telos of the whole. We already know this and do this with putting criminals in jail or eradicating diseases. The telos of smallpox is to reproduce by making people very sick. This is a part (smallpox) of the whole injuring another part of the system (humans). This we can justifiably call bad.

    Likewise, humans chopping down rainforests for stupid reasons like making charcoal is also bad because it causes immense destruction to other parts of the system for the sake of another part, and the same thing could be accomplished with vastly less destruction. The means is disproportionate to the end. Millions of tiny telei are ruined for the sake of the telos of charcoal. Now charcoal can be important, but humans are smart enough to figure out better ways to get it, or get around it (this is where technology feeds into ethics, another interest of mine).

    Here is a deeper problem I am having with your system. I think my system is very practical: norms are easy to come by, just look around and see which “experiments” across cultures are working and which are failing. The failing ones can be especially instructive! But for coherence, how do you get specific action-guides from it? And what if you think you get some guidance from it but that actually turns out to be very bad when made into reality?

    The advantage to pragmatism in ethics is that ethics is a practical discipline. We are all doing ethics all the time because we are all interacting with each other. So we have lots of evidence to look at and judge all the time, and entire histories and cultures to evaluate on whether “that worked out” or not.

    But going back to the mental plane and arguing from rational coherence… how’s that apply to abortion? Euthanasia? Chopping down the rainforest? Now, that might seem quite simple, but how do you know you are not just “rationalizing” your previous biases? And what if the guidance you come to actually turns out really bad? What if you say abortion is okay, based on the rational underpinnings for action and coherence, etc., and then discover that your society is being replaced by a more pro-life group of people? As an otherwise liberal professor of mine once said “societies that kill their own children tend not to last very long.”

    I would much rather argue ethics from real world data than from “unreal world data.” Thoughts are known to go astray unbeknownst to their thinkers, and then be discovered, upon implementation, to have been very bad ideas. Cultural practices, on the other hand, are known to go astray too, but then the solution is to say “this isn’t working out” and change them. Either that, or let nature take its course and replace the culture engaged in that practice, if it is bad enough.

    The real debate we are having here, I think, is whether ethics should be done via practical or theoretical reasoning. Ethics is a practical discipline, and so I say it should be done via practical reasoning. The difference between the two is the difference between thought and action, rational coherence and a good life.

    The proof of an ethics is in how it is lived, not in how it is argued.

    And that’s what natural selection works on too, practices, not the beliefs behind them.

    Now, as I have said before, the two kinds of reason should yield the same outcome. If they do not, then something serious has gone wrong. Either our brains do not match reality, or our brains do not match rationality, or reality does not match rationality. All three ought to line up, and if they do not then ethics is in trouble.

    What your ethical systems is providing is useful, but it is more useful for thought than for action. Is is a good check on practices and perhaps a corrective when practices are obviously not working. Put in terms of mutation, your system could try to direct cultural mutations towards better ideas. But those ideas will then be judged by practical reality, and if they are not improvements they will be discarded or replaced. Ideas are only good if they work.

    But that’s a lot of stuff. I’ll be quiet now.

  • Brian Green

    I think I may have mis-characterized your position above in regards to whether you are using theoretical and practical reasoning. You are using practical reasoning, just in a less practical way that I would. 🙂

  • Scott

    Brian, I don’t quite see the distinctions you’re making, so either I’m misunderstanding them deeply, or the real differences are something other than what you’re describing, at least in the beginning. I consider myself a moral constructivist *and* a pragmatist, in the Peircean sense, indeed I think there’s no significant difference between these. If you mean “pragmatic” in the more colloquial sense, then we get to the next point…

    Yes, you’ve said you’d prefer goodness over coherence. But my point is, that doesn’t *mean* anything. Really. If you incoherently arrive at goodness, then you are incoherently good. And I’m talking about coherence/non-contradiction in practical reasoning, meaning in our choice to take certain things as reasons to value certain other things. So “coherently producing good results” means either something like “sometimes producing good things and sometimes producing inconsistent results, i.e. the opposite of good” or it means “sometimes valuing goodness and sometimes valuing its opposite (and, insofar as values are motivating, being motivated towards both and hence being at cross-purposes.” So I think either you’re not really being clear about what I mean by “coherence,” or misdescribing your own position, because an incoherent good, in short, is not really good–at best it’s good + some non-good. That’s what incoherence /means/–not consistently, wholeheartedly being the purported thing in question. So contrasting coherence with “the good” is simply nonsense; “the good without coherence” is not a position I happen to disagree with or wish to describe in other terms, but simply the lack of any position at all.

    The same is true for the supposed contrast between “working” and “being rational.” I don’ t understand what “working irrationally” could mean–for rational means, 1) instrumentally, using appropriate means for some end, and 2) reflectively/morally, that the valuation of the end can itself be valued. If you fail on either of those counts, that in itself means that something isn’t working (instrumentally) or isn’t working towards something you can wholeheartedly value. And reflective endorsement isn’t anything mysterious. So again, I don’t really know what you think you mean by this contrast, and fear that you’re not understanding my views if you think this contrast captures our two views.

    True, valuation seems to be in the mind, and “working” appears to be outside it. But this is superficial. To judge that something is “working” towards something “good” is to say that it fits certain mental categories I have. The two are independent; and you do seem to endorse this interdependence in some passages. To that extent you may be right that we’re getting to the same point in different ways. But when you say yours is more “practical” and rests on “observable” things, I see the confusion again. You can’t determine what *counts* as “good” or “working” without a previous mental decision, a valuation, and unless that valuation can itself be reflectively valued as part of a consistent/coherent set of values, you don’t really have a standard, and you can’t really judge something as good or working. Your standard thus presupposes mine, I think.

    I am essentially a consequentialist, but I think this is an implication of consistency in practical reasoning, and sharply disagree w/ those (including Kant) who thought the later entailed deontology. If you endorse behavior which does not maximize the satisfaction of rational ends, then you are inconsistent.

    I would answer your speculation about abortion w/ the same point I made a few days ago: we live in a world of memes more than genes. If we didn’t, we would both long ago have been overrun by polygamists, Catholics would have swamped most protestants ages ago, and societies in which women have an average of four children would long ago have replaced those with lower or dwindling birthrates. Quite the opposite is happening, for memetic rather than genetic reasons. Just because your parents had 10 or 3 (or any) children doesn’t mean you will, and doesn’t mean that the moral values or simply the predispositions of those who have more children will dominate others; there are strong social evolutionary reasons that are tending the other way which are swamping the genetic drives. This has little to do with whether any particular values wrt population choices (social or individual) are right, of course–except possibly that insofar as people are free to choose for themselves, and not have their family sized imposed upon them for ideological or economic reasons, they are somewhat more likely to make those choices on moral grounds. (I say that carefully, for I hardly think that individuals choosing freely /always/ leads to morality, but external compulsion is likely to not do so unless it is solving some kind of coordination problem or provably irrational/immoral temptation people naturally gravitate towards to some extent. But I don’t think that the choice to have fewer children is either of these, unless perhaps our population dwindles to the thousands. We’re in no danger of that happening.)

    “Societies that kill their own children tend not to last very long”–some, or all? The Greeks practiced some infanticide; they’re still around. As you know, abortion has been widespread the last 40 years, and our population is still growing, though primarily from immigration now. But that’s my point: memes, not genes. We can hardly keep people out, our memes are so good that people are moving here in droves to benefit from the economic system that results, and likely to absorb US values as they stick around. As evidenced by my visit to a local Catholic university this morning, where dozens of subcontracted day laborers speaking Spanish were assembling a tent for some event. Perhaps they are all legal citizens. I doubt it. I’m all for immigration reform to make all such workers legal, incidentally, and don’t resent their presence at all; I’m just noting an interesting convergence of facts, some of which support my point about memes over genes.

    One last point; I talk about practical /reasoning/ and /consistency/, which may make it sound like I’m talking about /conscious thought/ and suggesting we would be more moral if we went around contemplating stuff all the time like a rabid Platonist. But this is very far from the truth. If you reach in your pocket to get keys to lock the door when you’re going out, you’re acting in accordance with practical reasoning, and acting consistently, with nary a thought in your head (or none relating to the keys, anyway). Conscious reasoning can help confirm or test our practical action when we are in doubt, and create new and more useful valuational and practical habits for us, but 90% of the work is in the habits. Or more. None of that is inconsistent with ethical rationalism; indeed, it’s required by it. It would be deeply irrational to think too much. But what /counts/ as working, effective practical behavior, goodness, or morality, can be defined in terms of consistency amongst our values. That’s all I mean by “rationalism.”

  • Scott

    Paragraph 2, line four: I meant “INcoherently producing good results”…

  • Scott

    Ack. 4th paragraph line 3: the two are INTERDEPENDENT

    Sorry, I obviously wrote too quickly w/o editing. I’m preparing a late lunch and my mind is elsewhere as I type.

  • Brian Green

    I think the above clarifications will help us get back on course to more productive dialogue. More later!

  • Brian Green

    Alright, another very brief response. I think what we are really having is an ontology and epistemology problem. Ontologically we are in agreement, what we are differing on, I think, is epistemology and how to go about knowing the ontological truth of a rational, real, coherent morality which produces working good results that we agree to exist. I vote for a more observational approach, you for a more logic based one. How’s that sound?

    I know there’s more to address, but how’s that for now. Any help?

  • Scott

    That sounds more correct.

    Ontologically, good values are constituted by some interaction of logic and observation (i.e., experience, and the values we generate in response to actual experiences and anticipation of future ones). Epistemologically, there could be different approaches in principle to the question “how are we more likely to figure out the correct values?” No approach can be completely exclusive to just one of the constituents of what you are seeking.

    But, I think that attention to logic, especially the logic of pragmatic implication, is essential, because this can draw our attention to the ways in which we form our values, and hence to the implicit values we are holding, not just the explicit ones. An approach which is too “observational” could focus on paying close attention to some values that seem intuitively right, but lose sight of others that are implicit in our choices to decide /which/ first-order values to regard as significant. My reading of, and past discussions with, self-styled followers of “natural law theory” suggests to me that failure to recognize the values underlying one’s choice of which values to consider “natural” (as opposed to others which, on a purely naturalistic basis, would seem to have equal claim to this but which are rejected either for good or bad reasons) is endemic to this theory. The theory’s main “function,” as it were, may even be precisely to serve as a way of disguising one’s preliminary value-choices under the guise of “nature,” then pointing to the “natural values” thus reached as if they were entirely objective and derived from facts alone (1). Logic must be applied to observation, of course, but observation must be guided by logic, or it is merely a kind of blindness of narrowed vision.

    All of this is very generalized, and the devil’s in the details of course. I actually feel ill at ease discussing the point at such abstract levels, because there’s so much room for misunderstanding there, and examples can more concretely illustrate what we mean by various terms. Still, tell me if this helps any.

    (1) For example; I had a lengthy and fruitless discussion with several people on another blog site several months ago, where one person in particular was essentially arguing that “objective science” has proven that a fertilized egg and an adult human were the “same thing,” while an unfertilized egg was not the “same thing” as either, nor was a warm, freshly-dead human corpse, so it’s OK to menstruate or to bury corpses, but not to ever abort a conceptus; and that the unifying principle of a human being, which gives us moral value, is our capacity to be conscious. And how does this unifying principle apply to the unfertilized egg, which has no such capacity? Well, he argued, it does actually have this capacity because it’s the “same thing” as an adult human, which clearly has it. I pointed out that this begged the question, if the “same thing” relation is defined as relating two spatio-temporal entities with the same unifying principle, and then he said that the unifying principle can change between different stages of a thing; I pointed out that then they’re not really unified, and he just repeated that they must be, since they’re the same thing. [!] He never understood that his logic was viciously circular, and insisting that he was just using pure science, pointing to the organismic continuity between the conceptus and the adult, while ignoring the continuities between these and the egg or the corpse, blithely unaware that his choice to privilege certain physical continuities as morally significant and downgrading others which were equally matters of “scientific fact” was itself a value choice in need of justification. So the discussion was fruitless, except for the very important insight I gained into his argumentation strategy, which amounted to an evasive procedure of erasing his hidden premises from his own sight. In a separate discussion, he & others used exactly the same kind of process to show that a same-sex couple cannot be “married,” because they lack the unifying principle of marriage (ability to conceive), but that somehow this unifying principle is present between opposite-sex octogenerians or younger sterile couples–why? Well, because they are the “same kind” of couple as fertile couples, despite lacking precisely the unifying principle that they originally said was essential to marriage!! Since then I’ve briefly looked or given a second look at other NLT writings, and realized they often follow essentially similar question-begging strategies. Which reinforces my idea that you can “look” at science and facts all you want, but if you fail to follow the pragmatic logic of questioning the values which guide your choice of what to look at, you are only falling deeper into error. Looking is a relation between observer and observed, and if you think you’re getting pure, raw unfiltered data just from the latter, you won’t understand the process you are engaged in, and are disguising subjective facts for the objective ones we should be seeking. You’re really only looking at yourself in a way, without realizing that what you’re “seeing” as objective facts are just your own initial values, repackaged. I’m not saying any of this applies to present company, just that this kind of shell game is what concerns me most about what is called “natural law theory” or perhaps even what often gets passed off as “ethical naturalism” more generally.

  • Scott

    last paragraph, line 6: should be “apply to the fertilized egg”, not UNfertilized egg.

  • Brian Green

    Sorry for the long delay in response, but I got my grades in. 🙂

    I like your example of the other argument you had about the un/fertilized egg. Yeah, that happens. I hope he was not a professor! (He wasn’t, right…?) Natural law theory obviously gets “done” different ways, and one of the ways is to use it to mask traditional authority. I think that would be the incorrect way. Authority is legitimated by truth, not truth by authority. He might not have had a hidden premise other than “this is what my group loyalty states.” (Of course, something always has authority, and if not a person or institution, then “what works” or “reason.” Now, those can be legitimate sources, but there is always the “why” question that pushes authority around to various places – anyway, just another way of thinking of the values question.)

    Anyway, we’ve been having a good conversation here, so I mentioned it in another post.

    Hmmm, have we exhausted this subject or is there more? Oh, of course! There is always more! 🙂 We haven’t yet gotten to the bottom of this subject, after all. But we could move to something else. You pick.

    And I do want to reiterate the invitation to guest post something. Some of the stuff here would be good to bring up to the post level, comments are pretty much ignored by most readers, and this is an interesting conversation.

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