Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Congratulations, Ryan Born

I've been discussing things to do with Sam Harris' Moral Landscape Challenge lately, but I forgot to congratulate the winner, Ryan Born.  Though it was Harris' challenge, it was Russell Blackford who chose the winning essay.  I've only read a handful of the entries, but I don't recall reading any that were better than Ryan's.  It's a well-written and interesting essay, and I trust Russell to have found the best of the lot.

That said, I'm not thrilled with Ryan's essay.  I like the general strategy of taking up the Value Problem.  However, Ryan's primary tactic is problematic.  He takes up the idea of self-justification in a confused, or at least confusing, way.  Sam Harris has said that he would change his mind if he could be convinced that "other branches of science are self-justifying in a way that a science of morality could never be."  Ryan mistakenly takes Harris to be saying that science is self-justifying.  This allows Harris to reply:  "Contrary to what Ryan suggests, I don’t believe that the epistemic values of science are “self-justifying”—we just can’t get completely free of them."

That isn't the end of Ryan's argument, or Harris' reply, of course.  Ryan does at least hint at difficulties with Harris' approach, and Harris' lengthy reply opens the door to even more objections (some of which I'll get to momentarily).  Unfortunately, Harris has not indicated that he will engage Ryan any further, and we can no longer expect any sort of evaluation from Russell.  (Originally, Russell was going to evaluate Harris' response to the winning essay.  I guess he still might, but probably not on Harris' blog.)  So I'm a little disappointed.  I would have liked to see a winning essay that cut right to the heart of the matter without any confusion.  Not that it necessarily would have mattered.

I think the best strategy against Harris is to point out the absurdity of his interpretation of "should" and "ought." In his response to Ryan, he says, "Some intuitions are truly basic to our thinking. I claim that the conviction that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and should be avoided is among them."  So we have the following, conceptually basic intuition:

(1) The worst possible misery for everyone is bad and should be avoided.

In another part of his response to Ryan, Harris says strange things about the word "should":

Ethics is prescriptive only because we tend to talk about it that way—and I believe this emphasis comes, in large part, from the stultifying influence of Abrahamic religion. We could just as well think about ethics descriptively. Certain experiences, relationships, social institutions, and technological developments are possible—and there are more or less direct ways to arrive at them. Again, we have a navigation problem. To say we “should” follow some of these paths and avoid others is just a way of saying that some lead to happiness and others to misery. “You shouldn’t lie” (prescriptive) is synonymous with “Lying needlessly complicates people’s lives, destroys reputations, and undermines trust” (descriptive). “We should defend democracy from totalitarianism” (prescriptive) is another way of saying “Democracy is far more conducive to human flourishing than the alternatives are” (descriptive). In my view, moralizing notions like “should” and “ought” are just ways of indicating that certain experiences and states of being are better than others.

If that is correct, and prescriptive "should" statements are synonymous with descriptive statements, then we can restate (1) as follows:

(1*) The worst possible misery for everyone is less conducive to human flourishing and avoiding it is more conducive to human flourishing.

We must remember that Harris is very flexible about what comprises misery and flourishing.  In fact, he defines "flourishing" and "misery" in opposing terms.  Once you realize that, it is clear that his "intuition" is a tautology.  If we accept Harris' view of morality, all (1) means is:  that which is least conducive to human flourishing is less conducive to human flourishing, and avoiding that which is least conducive to human flourishing is more conducive to human flourishing.  According to Harris, that is an intuition that is basic to our thinking.  And somehow it is supposed to sustain moral realism.

The absurdity of Harris' language games is evident.  It would have been nice if Ryan Born had pointed that out, but perhaps Harris will still see fit to respond to the challenge.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Reflection on my recent encounter at Jerry Coyne's blog

There's one more facet of my recent encounter on Jerry Coyne's blog that I haven't commented on.  My first comment on the thread was a criticism of Coyne.  He was impressed by the number of people who responded to Sam Harris' Moral Landscape Challenge, saying that it shows just how many people take Sam Harris' views seriously.  Here's my criticism:

"I don’t take Sam’s views seriously, and I wouldn’t assume that most, let alone all, of the respondents did so because they take his views seriously. What they presumably take seriously is the opportunity to get published on his blog, earn $2,000 and possibly, just possibly, change his mind. What I take seriously is the fact that so many people take him Sam Harris seriously. I wrote my essay because I think his views are not worth taking seriously, and I think there is a serious problem with the way so many people follow him.
By the way, my essay was not entered into the competition, because I didn’t learn of the competition until after the deadline. But I wrote one anyway."

Here's how one commenter, GBJames, responded to that:

"Wait… Other people were only motivated by the hope of winning $2000 but you wrote a response without any possibility of a cash reward?

Sounds to me that you take his views seriously even if you don’t like them."

Note the mischaracterization:  I did not say that anybody was "only motivated by the hope of winning" money.  Also note the fact that GBJames jumped to a personal conclusion about me that explicitly contradicts the views I expressed.  That is neither charitable nor friendly.  In my response to GBJames, I did not point any of that out.  Instead, I merely explained that I did, in fact, hope to gain some monetary reward when I wrote my essay.  I wrote:

"Actually, part of me did hope that my essay would still be considered for some monetary reward–I even emailed Russell just to see if there was a chancen–but mainly, I hoped (and still hope) my essay would help people see through the bad arguments that pass for “informed” philosophy in places such as this."
Here's how GBJames responded to that comment:
"Then why not assume that other people who responded were motivated by a similar desire to make what they think is a good case to convince others of their view?"
I then pointed out that GBJames had misunderstood me.  If you reread my initial comment, I did say that we should presume people were interested in changing Sam Harris' mind.  It is obvious that anybody who responded to the Challenge was trying to change minds, and nothing I wrote implies otherwise.  Yet, GBJames continued to mischaracterize my position in an uncharitable way.  Eventually, he wrote this:

"When you demean the arguments of others by saying they are simply motivated by money (compared to your own presumably noble motives) you poison the well. Similar to telling others that they aren’t thinking carefully enough. Such comments provoke the kind of response that the roolz prohibit. I’ll disengage now."
 Now he not only repeats the same misrepresentation of my view, but claims I am poisoning the well.  That is nonsense.  If I were poisoning the well, that would mean I was trying to argue against a position by discrediting the source.  But I was not arguing against the people who responded to Sam Harris' essay, nor was I trying to discredit anyone as a reliable source.  The accusation of "poisoning the well" is ridiculous and shows a clear lack of careful thought.  In addition, GBJames claims that I was trying to put myself above the other people who responded to Harris' Challenge, even though I had already explained that I was, in fact, interested in a monetary reward.  That is simply careless.  How ironic that this all comes at the same time GBJames gets all high and mighty because I accused him of not thinking carefully enough about what I had been saying.

In sum, GBJames was arrogant, foolish, uncharitable and unfriendly, and stubbornly misrepresented my views, displaying a lack of careful thought.  Besides reasonshark (whose confusion and misunderstanding I have already documented), GBJames is the only person who expressed any displeasure at my posts before Coyne told me to leave his blog.  If that is the kind of poster that Coyne prefers to keep around, I'm happy to stay out of his playground.

What I think should be obvious is that I was not kicked off his blog for being rude or arrogant, or for breaking any rules.  I was kicked off because Jerry Coyne does not like what I have to say.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Response to Shuggy: On Morality and Personhood

There's one more post I want to respond to from Jerry Coyne's blog.  Shuggy writes:

"So what are the alternatives to well-being as a goal of ethics? I see “virtue” but how would virtue be defined without involving well-being? Isn’t the point of not raping, to quote a recent example, to maximise the well-being of those not raped?"

It's a good question:  What could be the goal of ethics, if not the maximization of well-being?  I assume the question is, what is the point of morality?  Why do people make ethical judgments at all, if not to promote well-being?

Of course, even if I cannot give a persuasive answer, it doesn't mean no answer can be given.  We should not assume that the goal of morality is to maximize well-being just because we cannot think of a different one.   That would be argumentum ad ignorantiam.   However, I do have an answer.

If we were going to approach this scientifically, we might consider an evolutionary perspective.  How might moral judgments be adaptive?  How might they increase our chances of successful reproduction?

It might be that moral judgments help solidify community bonds, establishing complex forms of reputability and trust.  The goal of ethics, then, might be to strengthen social interaction.  The goal, in that case, is not to maximize the well-being of all or even most conscious creatures.  It is not even to maximize human flourishing.  It is to maximize the chances of successful reproduction.  It may just be that moral judgments improve the chances of successful reproduction by promoting suffering.  Throughout history and even today, many moral judgments lead to suffering.  From an evolutionary point of view, this need not be considered a mistake.

I think of dignity as the fundamental moral property.  Morality, as a sociobiological process, is all about fostering dignity.  But there is no fact of the matter about how dignity can or should be fostered.  Dignity is not quantifiable.  Dignity is the property of having moral excellence, where moral excellence is a matter of social value.  It is normative, a matter of what is or is not considered just.  There is no fact of the matter about what is or is not just.  There are various reasons, and these can be agreed upon or not, but there is no metric for determining which are correct and which are incorrect.  There is no such thing as an incorrect moral judgment.  Dignity is not the sort of thing that can be scientifically measured.

You might say dignity is therefore an illusion.  If that is so, then so are the concepts of earning a living, deserving fair treatment, and being guilty or innocent of a crime.  These are concepts we live by.  You can call them illusions if you want.  You can, like the moral error theorists, claim that all moral judgments are false, and that all thought of dignity is an error.  I, however, prefer noncognitivism.  This is the view that dignity is real, but judgments about it are not truth-evaluable.  We can't talk about the elements of personhood--dignity, guilt, rewards, etc.--and expect anything to make our judgments true or false, but we should still take such talk seriously.  There is no conceivable alternative.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Response to reasonshark

Since I'm not allowed to respond to reasonshark on Jerry Coyne's blog, and since reasonshark seems confused about my position and arguments, I'm posting a response here.  (I can't find any contact info for reasonshark, so if you know him/her, please get his/her attention for me).

I attempted to demonstrate what is wrong with the way Sam Harris interprets the word "should."  He says that it is synonymous with maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures.  So, "I should x" means the same thing as "If I x, it will maximize the well-being of conscious creatures."  This is how Sam Harris attempts to overcome the is/ought distinction (aka "the fact/value distinction").  According to him, moral judgments about what we should or ought to do are just statements about what will maximize the well-being of conscious creatures.

In my response to Harris' Moral Landscape Challenge, I presented a formal argument for the falsity of Harris' view.  My argument there is that we can conjoin clauses about maximizing well-being, but not "ought" statements.  For example, we can say, "Doing x will maximize well-being and doing y instead of x will also maximize well-being."  Yet, we cannot say, "We should x and we should also y instead of x."  This suggests that "should" does not mean what Harris thinks it does.

Consider paradigm cases of how we use the word "should":

(1)  We should bring an umbrella because it is going to rian.
(2)  You shouldn't eat too much.  You'll get sick.
(3)  What should we do if it rains?

In all of these cases, the word "should" indicates that a justifying reason is called for.  In cases (1) and (2), the justifying reason is given as a way of answering the question raised by the "should."  Why should we bring an umbrella?  In other words, what reason would justify the bringing of an umbrella?  The justifying reason is that it is going to rain.  In case (3), the question is not asking for a justifying reason, but is asking for a course of action which is presumed to be justified by some reason.

With that in mind, consider the scenarios I presented:

Imagine this conversation:

Carol: We should do x, y and z.
Lucy: Why?
Carol: Well, if we do x, y and z, it will lead to happiness. It will maximize well-being.
Lucy: Oh, you’re right. Okay!

That’s a simple, common-sensical conversation, right? Nothing wrong with it.

Now imagine a world where people spoke the way Sam Harris thinks they do:

Carol: We should do x, y and z.
Lucy: Why?
Carol: Well, if we do x, y and z, it will lead to happiness. It will maximize well-being.
Lucy: I know what “should” means, Carol. Geez. Why are you lecturing me on the definition of “should.” I’m not a child. I’m asking for a REASON!

See, if Sam Harris were right, then you could never appeal to the maximization of well-being as a REASON for doing anything. You could never say you should x BECAUSE IT MAXIMIZED WELL-BEING. You’d have to give some other reason. But what sort of reason could you give?

The point of my question is this:  If Harris is correct about morality, then you could not possibly give a valid reason for why we should maximize the well-being of conscious creatures.  The very idea of trying to justify the maximization of well-being would be incoherent.  Of course people might they they were giving reasons for maximizing well-being, but they would be very confused.


Now on to reasonshark's response.  On the one hand, reasonshark thinks that linguistic analysis is not going to be of any help.  And yet, Sam Harris is making an argument about language.  He is making a claim about what the word "should" means. I think Harris is wrong.  Why shouldn't I think that an argument to that effect would be fruitful?  Is there something about the methodology of linguistic analysis that makes it unreliable?  Not that I am aware of.  

reasonshark said, "You seemed to be saying that, if Harris’ point about “good=maximizing well-being” is correct, it would be obvious to anyone that they were synonyms (hence the “I know…” bit in your second example)."

No, that was not my point.  My claim was that, if Harris is correct, the second sort of conversation between Carol and Lucy would be plausible.  Not inevitable, but plausible.  It would not seem odd.  And yet, it does seem very odd.

What if I said we should not maximize the well-being of all conscious creatures?  Would that mean that maximizing the well-being of all conscious creatures does not maximize the well-being of all conscious creatures?  That is absurd, but it is what Harris would have us believe.  I, in contrast, think it means this:  There are justifying reasons for not maximizing the well-being of all conscious creatures.  And I think that's common sense.

As it happens, I'm a moral noncognitivists, which means I don't think justifications of reasons have truth conditions.  I don't think there's any fact of the matter about whether or not we should maximize the well-being of all conscious creatures.  That doesn't mean there aren't reasons.  There can be reasons for and against the maximization of well-being, but justification of those reasons is not truth-evaluable.

reasonshark also says, "Any particular ethics, principally the normative kind (as I indicated in the post you replied to), presumes a metaethical theory to begin with, otherwise it’s empty." 

That is false.  No ethical system requires choosing between moral realism or anti-realism, for example.

reasonshark continues:  "Your question ["Why should I maximize well-being?"] is not the same regardless of which meaning you pick. If you were asking from normative grounds, then you are committing to a rival metaethical theory, however loosely, but you can’t challenge a metaethical theory by asking for a norm, because the norms are supposed to derive from the metaethics, so you’re supposed to ask in terms of another, rival, metaethical theory, an equal. The challenge otherwise makes no sense."

Norms are supposed to derive from metaethics?  How is that?  I think reasonshark is confused about the relationship between ethics and metaethics.

The point I made is this:  The meaning of "should" is the same regardless of your ethical or metaethical views.  The meaning of the question, "Why should I maximize well-being?", does not depend on your ethical or metaethical views.  It doesn't matter if you are a moral realist or a moral anti-realist, you should still agree that the question is asking for a justifying reason for maximizing well-being.  It doesn't matter if you're a deonotlogist, consequentialist, or virtue ethicist, either.  If anyone disagrees, feel free to explain.  Why should it matter if you're a moral realist or anti-realist?  Why should it matter what approach to ethics you favor?

Here is further evidence that reasonshark is confused about the difference between ethics and metaethics:  "metaethical grounds (challenging Harris’ claim to have solved the issue of what goodness is, principally)"

So, according to reasonshark, a metaethical ground is one which answers the question, "what is goodness?"  And yet, according to the field of philosophy, that question is a question for normative ethics, not metaethics.

It is ironic that I am accused of confusing ethics and metaethics by somebody who cannot tell the difference between them.

Not to go off on a tangent, but . . . Perhaps you can see why it is hard to be patient when trying to defend the practice of philosophy on Jerry Coyne's blog.  

Now, it seems reasonshark is also confused about my argument.  Apparently, reasonshark thinks that I am asking for some reason to maximize well-being.  reasonshark writes:  "it’s not clear what you mean by asking for a reason. Are you looking for a real-world explanation of how goodness and badness arise from otherwise morally neutral physics, or an appeal to your self-interest?"

I was NOT asking for a reason.  I was pointing out that Harris's view does not align with a common sense view of the language.

reasonshark: "You were criticizing Harris’ metaethical theory with a thought experiment that treated it like a normative claim, that isn’t solid as a metaethical critique, and all while presupposing that the way we use language is a valid critique of the “goodness”=”well-being” idea."

No, I was not critiqing the "goodness"="well-being" idea in my conversation with reasonshark.  I was critiquing Harris' claim about the meaning of the word "should."  That should have been obvious.  (I.e., there are justifying reasons to think that it was obvious.  Not that its having been obvious would somehow maximize the well-being of conscious creatures.)

At this point, I have to wonder why I'm bothering to reply at such length to reasonshark.  But there's one more error that needs to be corrected.  reasonshark says: "I don’t agree that Harris is correct when he says Dennett is trying to change the subject."

I did NOT say that Harris was correct in accusing Dennett of changing the subject.  I just pointed out that Harris has, in fact, accused Dennett of changing the subject.

As a final note, reasonshark accused me of making a personal indictment when such was not my intention.  reasonshark criticized the idea that linguistic analysis could be of use.  I (somewhat rudely) claimed that my linguistic point seems appropriate.  The rudeness came from the fact that I do not always have the patience to be nice to people who dismiss legitimate philosophical tools on a Website that is notorious for dismissing the practice of philosophy in general--especially when they don't have a problem with the use of those same tools by people they favor, like Sam Harris.  So, if I offended you, reasonshark, it is because I think you should be more careful in your criticisms of conceptual analysis.

I've Offended Jerry Coyne

He told me not to post on his Website anymore and said I should not call him "Coyne."   Check it out:  LINK.  I guess the use of last names is a touchy subject for some people.  I guess "Dr. Coyne" would have been more appropriate.  "Jerry" is surely too familiar.  Whatever.  I'm sure that's not why I've been kicked off his blog.  He suggested it's because I'm arrogant.  But when I posted again (not having had time to see his initial comment telling me to leave his Website), he suggested that I'm too interested in drawing attention to my response to Sam Harris' Moral Landscape Challenge, though that challenge was the subject of the thread.  And with that, he revoked my posting privileges.

My tone did rub one or two people the wrong way.  I admit, I was not at my most patient or humble.  I wouldn't say I was arrogant, exactly.  I was confident and aggressive, yes, and a little rude, but that's about it.  And I'm not sure my tone was entirely uncalled for.  Nor would I say I led the discussion in unseemly directions.  And yet, I was booted without even being given a warning.  I suspect that if I had exhibited the same tone and made similarly strong posts with arguments that were more congenial to his position, I would not have been booted.  I might have been given a warning, but that's it.  I wish I could say I'm shocked or even surprised, but I'm not.