i’m with Sam

Before I start let me say a few words of caution. Firstly, I’m not in any way qualified to critic anyone on philosophical arguments. This means that if you’re undecided about this matter I would not recommend you seek enlightenment in this post – for the same reason as to why I wouldn’t recommend you read a lay person’s essay on galaxy evolution in order to decide between hierarchical and monolithic collapse theories . I’m also not here to defend Sam Harrisviews in light of other people’s criticisms – you should read those posts for that, plus Sam Harris’ reply. I’m writing this because I saw myself profoundly changing my mind about something that is important to me, and publicly exposing an argument is still the best way to find flaws in it. A test, if you will. To put it in other words, I’m writing this for my own benefit, not anyone else’s.

Let me start simply, by stating what I used to think is right and what I think is right now. I used to think that the moral views of different people were equally valid, or at least always worth of equal consideration. Now I think that it can be asserted that some moral views are right, and some moral views are wrong. Note that I’m not saying that I can assert it – only that it can be asserted. We’ll get to the ‘by whom?’ question later.

Sam Harris further argues that science can help with that assertion, but my fundamental problem with this was that I didn’t think this should – could – be done, in principle. Science wasn’t even in the equation. Turns out that it has to be, but we’ll get there later.

So why did I use to think that we all have an equal say when it comes to morality? Funnily enough, I’m finding myself having more trouble justifying my previous stance than my current one. Some people seem to be focusing on the sheer size of the moral landscape to justify this, but I don’t think that was it. I very much agree with Sam Harris here in that consensus or range of opinions/theories has very little to say about how likely any one given person is of being right or wrong (a pet hate of mine is how, in Astronomy, people often insist on estimating systematic errors – often brought in by models which essentially parametrise our ignorance – by comparing results obtained with different models with no regard to the rather obvious fact that models are likely to be wrong in the same, and unknown, way). No, that’s not it.

Perhaps then, it was because I was brought up as a catholic and even though I am no longer a catholic (or a religious person), I still felt the need to accommodate these views out of respect towards my family and friends (a large fraction of whom are devote catholics). But whereas respecting religious beliefs is one thing, accepting real policies that arise from those beliefs as being morally right is quite another. Perhaps then I was somewhat confused here. Turns out I discarded accommodationism too, but that’s somewhat beyond the point for now.

However, I think the honest and fundamental reason is that I could not identify an expertise that I thought could rule on the morally right or wrong. “Who am I to say that it is not OK to stone women to death for adultery?” Really? Really? OK, there are two questions here.

First. Is there an expertise that can give me absolute answers about what is right or wrong? Second. If such an expertise exist, how does one become an expert?

First. Turned around by Sam Harris, I’m now very much inclined to say that there is. If we agree that there are ‘peaks’ in the moral landscape (these peaks will change with time – and that is OK!), then to each of these peaks there must correspond a set of moral answers that will lead us to it. The more fundamental question then, is whether such an absolute (albeit time-dependent) landscape exists, and how it can be calculated. Sam Harris’ answer is quite simple: maximise well-being, and you will find your peaks. These peaks exist – how can anyone argue that they don’t? You may argue that different people have a different ideas of what these peaks are, but I will argue that a lot of people will be wrong. It’s not about starting from different premises (individuality vs common good, for example); Fred Hoyle wasn’t just starting from a different set of assumptions – Fred Hoyle was wrong. I can’t say exactly when individual freedom trumps the common good, but I am willing to accept that the question can be answered in any given context, and that there is a right answer (that leads us to a peak) and a wrong answer (that doesn’t).

This leads me to the second point – how does one become an expert in such landscape mapping? I think this will very much depend on which policy one is trying to act, but I’m taking Sam Harris’ point as simply stating that when it comes to making policies, opinions or wars then science can help you make that decision – even if at the crux of the question there is a moral disagreement. And we already do this, all the time. Here’s an example which has somewhat backfired on me, and that is abortion. I’m pro-life as a lot of you know. I’m not religious, but I’m passionately pro-life. However, even though there is a clear moral question here, a lot of countries have taken a more scientific approach to this matter and have legalised abortion. This was a decision that presumably maximises well-being, and has ruled on the moral arena. Now I happen to vehemently disagree with that decision, but I don’t have to be right! I’m also not saying that abortion is right in a moral landscape scenario, but I’m willing to accept that there is a right and a wrong answer, and that that answer is attainable. Moreover, I think the route to that answer is via science, with a view to maximising human well being right here, right now (and not in an afterlife, or whatever else).

So there – in a nutshell this is why I’ve changed my mind, and I haven’t changed it back whilst writing this. As Sam Harris puts it, “the moment we admit that there is anything to know about human wellbeing, we must admit that certain individuals or cultures might not know it.” I genuinely cannot argue with that.


17 thoughts on “i’m with Sam

  1. Brendan says:

    But…why maximise well-being? Why not minimise it? Or maximise it for only a particular subset of the population? Just me? Just my country? Just people of my skin-colour or religious beliefs?

    Science can’t help with that, and Harris wasn’t terribly clear or forthright in acknowledging this. Which is why people are grumpy about it.

    Not to mention all the moral relativists were made even more grumpy by the notion of ‘absolute answers to what is right or wrong’.

    (BTW, hope you don’t mind me commenting here, I just stumbled here via facebook!)

    • Edd says:

      Well I think there’s a fairly clear and obvious reason to maximise well-being and not minimise it, and that’s because it is almost tautologically what we want to do. It doesn’t come from science as such, but it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to put in at the start.

      What I agree is a problem is the difficulty in saying what you’ll evaluate it for, and how you do that. As you say, do you do it purely for yourself, taking a position of ethical egoism, or do you do it in a more utilitarian way, and for animals too? For plants?

      I think it’s fair to say we can all agree on maximising something, but I don’t think we can all agree on what something to maximise.

      • Brendan says:

        Well, indeed. Arguably though, sometimes people do want to minimise the well being of -someone else-.

        I’m sure a case could be made that sometimes people do indeed act to minimise their own well being. Humans are complicated creatures.

    • Rita says:

      Hey Brendan – of course I don’t mind you visiting and commenting :)

      Maximising well being is really the only natural way to be. I can’t quite conceive of any real example of this not happening – although maximising yours may end up afflicting someone else’s.

      And I certainly don’t think Sam ever intended to maximise it for one subset at the expense of another. I find it hard to think of examples that are so broad ranging as to affect the world population at once. So locally, you should be able to go or down. If the idea of peaks is unappealing, think of it as gradients. I would argue that the right answer should result in a positive gradient in well being, for the local subset of population that this decision affects.

  2. Edd says:

    First off, I largely agree with Sam, although I don’t think he’s handled his criticism so well.

    Anyway, I think there’s a couple of problems. One is this idea of a moral landscape. I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that – even beyond time-variance. The very act of moving around it changes it, and it’s not obvious to me it has any nice properties like path independence and other things that make it remotely possible to try to find answers to certain problems. Certainly there are ‘areas’ which are stable and smooth enough to find reasonable answers to questions like “Is it better to talk a person round to your way of thinking or repeatedly hit them with a brick to the head until they agree?” but I’m not sure it’s so clear in the more interesting moral dilemmas. It’s rather like the idea of the Laffer Curve. Laffer notes a couple of zeroes and the sign of their derivative at two extrema and draws a simple line between them. In fact it’s more likely to exist as some kind of incredibly complex and ever-changing curve like Gardner’s neo-Laffer Curve. It might make the actual practice of answering some of these questions intractable.

    Secondly, there’s unexplained assumptions which need to be properly expressed. I think of these as something like mathematical axioms from which you deduce the rest of things. Questions like how you evaluate well-being, and what things you evaluate it for. I have no real idea why you might be pro-life (I mean that as an honest statement to avoid assuming anything about why you are, rather than a negative comment on it!), but some people are pro-life pretty much because of what they evaluate well-being for and how they evaluate it being inconsistent with how I do it as an anti-lifer (I generally dislike the terminology used in this sphere, although I understand why its a convenient short-hand, but I’m going to abuse it anyway to make a side-point ;-) ).

    It’s not clear to me how to approach the questions of the way in which you evaluate well-being and inconsistencies between approaches. It’s like if I started an argument on mathematics with someone who happened to choose a different but still self-consistent set of axioms to me and therefore reached a different conclusion on some subject.

    Harris might be right in principle, but I’m not sure in practice it leads to anything different to a ‘standard’ moral relativism.

    • Rita says:

      I agree that the idea of a moral landscape as I presented it is over-simplistic. But I don’t think that we’re worrying about finding the absolute maxima. Or even the local maxima. At any given point in this landscape, decisions will result in some sort of gradient with respect to well-being. I argue that making sure it goes up gives you the ‘right’ moral answer, at that time for that particular place is parameter space.

      But your second point is of course much more interesting (as was Brendan’s above), as it’s not clear how one should define well-being (clearly needed if we want to maximise it). A moral landscape shaped by religion is much different from the moral landscape shaped by science (or by you and I!). And religion and science (look at me generalising here! please bear with me..) will have different starting axioms, and therefore different answers. Your problem, I think, is that there is no a priori reason as to one should trump the other. Sam’s point, I think (or at least my point) is that there is.

      We have learnt a lot about human well being, objectively, why do we feel like this is worthless knowledge? Take abortion again. We are all trying to maximise well being, but if science can provide some objective answers to the questions of pain/consciousness/independence of an embryo or a fetus or a child – why should we discard this knowledge? This is what I don’t understand. Why are we, as scientists, so eager to promote science as the ultimate way to perceive the world, and are happy to encourage our governments to listen to scientists when making policies but shy away from entering the moral arena? Are our results in any way dependent on our morals? (as opposed to another culture’s) So why? There seems to be a double standard there, which I’m most definitely not happy about.

      In practice I’m also not sure what exactly the repercussions are, but I think Sam’s intention was simply for people to acknowledge the facts above.

  3. Edd says:

    “Take abortion again. We are all trying to maximise well being, but if science can provide some objective answers to the questions of pain/consciousness/independence of an embryo or a fetus or a child – why should we discard this knowledge?”

    I think the problem is not that science can’t tell you some objective answers like the one you suggest above, but it might be impossible to, for example, find a consistent way of evaluating the net benefits.

    Even if I found some quantifiable measure of pleasure and pain, say ‘Q’, it wouldn’t tell me if I should sum Q, or sum log Q or anything else over an entire population and so it might become impossible to objectively say which approach best maximises well-being.

    There’s certainly a role for what Sam suggests in moral philosophy, but it doesn’t cover all the things we need for a complete system of moral thought.

    • Rita says:

      People do insist of being quantitative about this. I’m not saying that there is even such a thing as ‘Q’. And I’m not saying that there is a generalised methodology that you can apply to every single moral question that humanity comes across.

      What I’m saying is that for every moral question, taken on its own, within social and temporal context, the answers that science have given us MUST help. Even when we are answering a fundamentally moral question. And that this knowledge (when available – there’s no reason as to why it should always be available and this availability will certainly vary with time/technology), for its objectiveness and – dare I say – superiority, should be taken at full consideration when it comes to asserting what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

      Have I backtracked from my original post? I don’t think I have, but I do think writing the previous paragraph has cleared my head a bit. :)

  4. Rita says:

    that makes me worry I did backtrack ;)

  5. Brendan says:

    Must is a very strong word. If you reduced the strength, I’d be in agreement too.

    • Rita says:

      I understand, but I think the ‘must’ is the point. I see no reason why we shouldn’t make use of this knowledge when we have it. If you do, I’m genuinely interested to hear it!

  6. Brendan says:

    It’s not that we shouldn’t. It’s that sometimes it’s simply not any help!

    Here’s a nice example you have probably been witness to. Myself and a characterful, mutual friend of ours, now in Copenhagen, would often have chats about the morality of eating meat. I don’t recall ever disagreeing with him on any fact about meat production or consumption. We were essentially in uniform agreement about the scientific facts of the matter. And yet, he would not eat meat, and I did (and still do), abeit at substantially reduced amounts compared to the national average.

    Science is no further help here. Perhaps I simply like the taste of meat more than our friend, or don’t care as much about the welfare of my food as he does. Perhaps I value my own happiness slightly more than he does. But these things cannot be changed by introducing new facts into the discussion, because they are not conclusions or beliefs. They are just my internal states of mind. Those could change, but not through new facts being introduced to me (there are no new ones, presumably!) – just through new experiences. Two experiences I imagine that would heavily influence me would be spending more time with vegetarians, or with people who hunt for their own food.

    You could make the case that science has already done the job here – we both agree on the physical facts of the matter, therefore science has already been and gone. I’d be sympathetic to that argument, but I think if you tried hard enough you could find an example where the facts of the matter are so commonplace and obvious that it’s a stretch to use the word ‘science’ at all. I’ll leave you to think about that one; I don’t have an example to offer up.

    But regardless, Harris’ argument does become rather trivial when stated as such: since value judements are made about the real world, accurate information about the real world can always help us with value judgements, and science is our best known way of getting accurate information about the real world. Perhaps in that less dramatic form of his claims, we can find some agreement.

    The only people who would disagree are those who believe not all value judgements are about the scientifically testable world…

    • Rita says:

      Thanks Brendan.

      I’m not entirely sure that Harris is arguing that science can, right now, provide an answer to all moral questions. Whatever light we can shed on abortion today (for example) was certainly not possible 100 years ago. You seem to say that there is absolutely no light that science can shed on vegetarianism *in the future*, or *in principle* that will solve your dispute with B. – did I get that right? That’s a stronger statement to make, and one that is not as obvious to me.

      [Sam Harris repeatedly says that just because a question cannot be answered in practice, it doesn’t mean there is no answer, and it doesn’t mean we cannot make true or false statements (the example of exactly how many birds are flying right now over the whole planet is a good one – we don’t know the answer, but we know it’s more than 1000 and less that 10E8). But you seem to be saying that there is no question that can be asked, or no absolute moral framework which will aid you in your moral question – ever (or in principle).]

      But again, whereas you give a good example where science is right now potentially ‘useless’, there are tons of other examples where this is clearly not the case, and still we do NOT allow ourselves to take a moral stand. One case is sexual education – the Church sells absolute moral values, which result in forbidding contraception amongst the faithful and excommunication of a raped young girl and their family (to name only a few). The Church sells the values that lead to these policies as absolute, because the Man in the Sky said so (in fact, he said almost anything you care to think of – but that’s another story). Right here, right now, these policies are harmful to human flourishing. It’s not just ‘my opinion’ – we can make physiological, psychological and sociological studies that will back this up. So why should we discard these and put that moral stance in the same footing as anything else?

      My point being – what you seem to take for granted, namely

      “since value judements are made about the real world, accurate information about the real world can always help us with value judgements, and science is our best known way of getting accurate information about the real world.”

      is not common place *at all*.

      Sam Harris is proposing a moral framework which can be absolute, and that is to take science and evidence at their true value (working under the assumption that scientific values, or knowledge, are culture-independent). He’s not saying that he can sit down and rule on every moral question in the world (even though the Pope does, and nobody seems to think that that’s wrong!! people may disagree with his opinion, but most people still think his moral views are in principle as valid as anyone else’s!), but that we can build a framework in which, if the information exist, unbiased answers can be achieved.

      I’m going slightly off topic now, but just bear with me. It striked me yesterday, as I finally watched his talk for Authors@Google, that perhaps Sam intends to do take this to a much more extreme level. There’s some insistence on the fact that because it all happens at the brain level that this may be a way of absolutely quantifying well-being. That part of his views wasn’t obvious to me at all before, and it’s not something I’m taking in that well. But he is being quite subtle about this (and understandably so) – I think we’ll need to wait for the book for more detail on that one…

  7. Brendan says:

    Hi Rita,

    I’m claiming that even if B and I knew all there was to know about the facts of eating meat, the disagreement over a given slab of meat -could- remain. This is principle, and the distinction you consider is, I agree, a sensible one. (Indeed I’m not claiming in practice it -would- remain, as it’s quite possible there does exist some fact he or I am unaware of about eating meat. But I know a lot of them, and I think B does too. So it’s not implausible!).

    I’m not sure how to elaborate to the extent that makes it clear to you why, but I can try.

    Whether we should eat meat or not is a complicated question, involving (to me at least) a huge swathe of facts that are important to a huge swathe of values that I hold. Some of these are my well-being, the well-being of animals, the well-being of other people, the existence of animals (the value, not the fact), and so on. I hold different values to B (or perhaps in different strengths), so of course, my result of this evaluation of the morality of eating meat could (and does, in this case) end up different to his. New facts don’t change what values we hold.

    (That said, since I’m giving vegeterianism another go (bar the things in my freezer), it’s sort of moot now – but it’s not because I learned anything new about eating meat. ;) )

    I don’t know much about the rest of Harris’ views, so I can’t really comment. It seems silly to imagine you could quantify well-being and get sensible answers, but that’s just because I think it’s silly to have an objective standard for what’s moral and what’s not. What’s moral and what’s not is different for everyone.

  8. Rita says:

    Hi Brendan,

    OK, I think this is where we may diverge:

    “What’s moral and what’s not is different for everyone.”

    This is true, and I’m not disagreeing with it. But this:

    “that’s just because I think it’s silly to have an objective standard for what’s moral and what’s not. ”

    is where the divergence occurs. Fundamentally, just because you and B. disagree it doesn’t mean you’re both right, or that both of your views should be given equal consideration. People _can_ have moral views, or values, that are wrong (Harris argues). You will probably disagree with this (and Edd will probably say that “wrong” or “right” depends on the specific system of axioms you’re starting from and therefore the problem is prone to being circular).

    Vegetarianism, as you rightly say, is a problem for which it is hard, right now, to tell who is right and who is wrong. But it doesn’t necessarily follow, to me, that this is not a question which can be answered in principle (or in the future). From that it follows that it is perfectly reasonable to assert that either you or B. is right, and the other is wrong – even if right now it is difficult in practice to assert who wins.

    In other words, the fact that vegetarianism represents a question to which an answer is right now (seemingly) unattainable, doesn’t invalidate the fact that there are many examples where the right and wrong answers are clearly scientifically evident and yet we don’t allow ourselves to judge.

    I may be misrepresenting Harris’ views – but that’s the most important thing that I got out of it: that it is _in principle_ (and in many cases, _in practice_) possible to construct a (local?) moral construct, based on scientific facts, that allows us to say what is the right moral answer to a given question. If we disagree on this point (and I think we do) then I’m not sure I have the tools to persuade you – this is all fairly new to me, too :)

  9. Brendan says:


    I agree. We do diverge here, and it’s a simple disagreement of whether moral statements are absolute or relative. (Though it’s funny you agree with one statement of relative morality and disagree with another! We should explore this nuance one day, I’m interested in why one is okay and not the other.)

    Anyway, this is a longstanding philosophical disagreement, and at this juncture I don’t think there’s really any powerful arguments either one of us can bring to the table in the course of a simple blog-post. We can maybe talk about it properly one day, but it never tends to get anywhere. :) Maybe one of us can persuade the other though.

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