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Author Topic:   Scientific Morality? - (The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris)
Jazzns
Member (Idle past 1323 days)
Posts: 2657
From: A Better America
Joined: 07-23-2004


Message 31 of 34 (677443)
10-29-2012 6:11 PM
Reply to: Message 30 by Stile
10-29-2012 10:43 AM


Re: Just Morality
What I'm saying is that the distinction depends on the people involved, though. When the state-sanctioned ownership of people was abolished, wouldn't you agree that there were many people voicing their
opinion that they did not want to be owned?

....

Again with genocide. Are you saying that people have never voiced their opinions that they would not like to be killed?

I notice that you didn't try to make some rediculous hypothetical situation where people want to be exterminated in the same way you did for slavery. It is sufficient to assume that the well being of these people would improved by not dying and not being slaves. These moral outcomes are not divorced from the perception of the sentient beings that it affects and Harris makes that very clear both in the video and in the book. I just think you are taking it too far.

For example, Harris beings up the situation where there have been studies that if you artificially extend the length of an uncomfortable medical procedure that it reduces the memory of the discomfort of that procedure. So if you ask the person at the time that the procedure is underway if you want it to stop they will undoubtably say yes. But the moral thing to do might be to wait if in the end it reduces the trauma embedded in their memory.

I think the point is, I don't believe you need this imaginary barrier of being able to communicate in order to decide moral questions. I also think that your complaint is in fact captured in the argument for the moral landscape made by Harris.

Yes, in an imaginary realm where we can invent scenarios we can envision some bizarre circumstance where there is a population of people and if we kill them all then the rest of us will all survive. You may even be able to claim that this is moral. But the morality of this contrived circumstance does not change the fact that stand alone genoicde is not moral. The goal of the moral landscape is NOT to try to create a rational version of the 10 commandments, rules that must be followed in all circumstances.

We can choose to be grounded in reality and the innumerable REAL circumstances that we face today. The people who WANT to have acid thrown in their face to escape a dictator and the questions such as, "would you switch the path of a train to save a baby but kill an old man" type of edge case quandries can continue to baffle armchair ethicists while the rest of the world adopts rational principles to solve real problems.

I think it is important to identify when something is morally unknown and make sure that we do not allow others to call something "good" or "bad" when it is unknown. That is a rationalization which leads to bigger problems. We can talk about our best course of action... our best guess to help as much as we can... but to suddenly switch and say "I know that this is actually good to do!" without having the proper communication to actually know such a thing... is fundamentally ignoring what morality is about.

Well, I think you are picking a fight over so much semantics. The principle realization of the moral landscape is that once you are outside of absolute misery that it may very well be arbitrary and uncertain in some circumstances. This is discussed at length in the book but may not be accessable from the video. I know you expressed that you weren't interested in the book but then perhaps you should avoid making pronouncements about the invalidity of ideas for which you aren't familiar with. I am not saying this to be contrary or argumentative. I just think that what you are talking about is something other than what Harris is proposing.

Science and reason are an excellent tool to track our experiences to help us form our best moral "guesses." But the answers are sometimes not linear or logical because they are subjectively dependant on other people's subjective feelings. That is why science and reason cannot ever be our "final tool" in reaching a conclusion. We have to understand that morality is about people, and people are subjective. Therefore, the only way to reach a final conclusion is to communicate with those people.

No one is proposing a "final tool". Finally, no one is proposing that moral decisions be made in absence of the experience of the sentient beings for which it affects.


If we long for our planet to be important, there is something we can do about it. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers. --Carl Sagan

This message is a reply to:
 Message 30 by Stile, posted 10-29-2012 10:43 AM Stile has responded

Replies to this message:
 Message 32 by Stile, posted 10-30-2012 9:10 AM Jazzns has responded

  
Stile
Member
Posts: 2870
From: Ontario, Canada
Joined: 12-02-2004
Member Rating: 2.6


Message 32 of 34 (677501)
10-30-2012 9:10 AM
Reply to: Message 31 by Jazzns
10-29-2012 6:11 PM


Re: Just Morality
Jazzns writes:

We can choose to be grounded in reality and the innumerable REAL circumstances that we face today. The people who WANT to have acid thrown in their face to escape a dictator and the questions such as, "would you switch the path of a train to save a baby but kill an old man" type of edge case quandries can continue to baffle armchair ethicists while the rest of the world adopts rational principles to solve real problems.

Well then, lets talk about real world problems. I wasn't the one who brought up obvious non-every-day issues like slavery, genocide and acid-tossing.

All I'm trying to say is that if we forget that morality deals with other people... and that those other people are the final arbitrators... we can fall into an easy trap of thinking "we know best" for other people. This is a troublesome caveat that is easily avoided by understanding that only other people can say what other people are feeling, not us.

It's easy to say "I know genocide is wrong" or "I know that throwing acid in other people's faces is wrong."
It's difficult to explain exactly why.
If your explanation is "Because I know that it brings us closer to lowering the overall moral landscape for humanity..." you can easily fall into the trap when trying to deal with everyday practical issues.
If you think that throwing acid in someone elses face is wrong simply because you, personally, have decided that it's wrong... it sets you up to fail when dealing with normal issues.

Like opening a door for someone.
If you open the door, but the other person didn't like it...
To say "well, opening doors for other people generally raises the overall moral landscape for humanity, therefore I'm going to just keep doing it and you're simply weird..." Is wrong. It's talking for other people and ignoring what every-day morality is supposed to be about... dealing with other people and other people's feelings.
The correct answer is "Oh, gee, I'm sorry. I was trying to be nice. Obviously you don't like it, though... I'll try to keep that in mind."
Notice how the correct answer takes into account the feelings of the other person, regardless of the initial idea that opening the door is "likely" the right answer.

Well, I think you are picking a fight over so much semantics.

Of course I am. That's what discussions of morality are about, including pretty much any other philosophical discussion. If we didn't have the time to discuss the semantics, we wouldn't have the time to discuss about morality in the first place.

This is discussed at length in the book but may not be accessable from the video. I know you expressed that you weren't interested in the book but then perhaps you should avoid making pronouncements about the invalidity of ideas for which you aren't familiar with. I am not saying this to be contrary or argumentative. I just think that what you are talking about is something other than what Harris is proposing.

Fair enough. I've already admitted that I may not be discussing Harris' ideas. But as long as you indicate you have an issue with the ideas I propose, I would like to continue discussing those... until I can understand the problem with them. Maybe I need to change my position.

No one is proposing a "final tool". Finally, no one is proposing that moral decisions be made in absence of the experience of the sentient beings for which it affects.

My mistake, then. You didn't mention anything other than science or reason, and didn't seem to accept my idea of taking into account "the experience of the sentient beings for which it affects" (I thought you were making points against it, even?) Please feel free to elaborate, I'm more confused than anything else as to what we're talking about at the moment. I've just been trying to submit that the final (and most important) piece of the morality puzzle is communication with those being affected by the proposed actions. It seems reasonable to me. But if you already agree with that, then I suppose I don't have any point of contention at all.


This message is a reply to:
 Message 31 by Jazzns, posted 10-29-2012 6:11 PM Jazzns has responded

Replies to this message:
 Message 33 by Jazzns, posted 10-31-2012 11:55 AM Stile has responded

    
Jazzns
Member (Idle past 1323 days)
Posts: 2657
From: A Better America
Joined: 07-23-2004


Message 33 of 34 (677643)
10-31-2012 11:55 AM
Reply to: Message 32 by Stile
10-30-2012 9:10 AM


Re: Just Morality
Well then, lets talk about real world problems. I wasn't the one who brought up obvious non-every-day issues like slavery, genocide and acid-tossing.

I said real issues not just every-day issues. I was specifically pushing back on these manufactured moral dilemmas that will never actually happen. Slavery, genocide, and acid-tossing ACTUALLY happen or have happened in very recent times. There are international arguments inside some of the most powerful world bodies about what we should do about these things. Some of these discussions are very much about morality, in particular forcing Western ideals upon Afghanistan when there is backlash manifest by civilians who are willing to throw acid in the face of their daughters for going to a school built by western money.

What is not happening at the U.N. for example are discussions about toddlers and senile people wandering around on separate train tracks that are controlled by buttons that average civilians have access to.

Like opening a door for someone...

I understand your point but my feelings on this are best expressed by, "so what?" I perfectly fine with living in a world where there is infinite moral ambiguity about whether it is the right thing to do to open doors for other people. If we are teetering around a particular peak of the moral landscape on these ho-hum moral dilemmas then that is a world I would be very happy to live in.

My mistake, then. You didn't mention anything other than science or reason, and didn't seem to accept my idea of taking into account "the experience of the sentient beings for which it affects" (I thought you were making points against it, even?) Please feel free to elaborate, I'm more confused than anything else as to what we're talking about at the moment. I've just been trying to submit that the final (and most important) piece of the morality puzzle is communication with those being affected by the proposed actions. It seems reasonable to me. But if you already agree with that, then I suppose I don't have any point of contention at all.

Well I think I was confused because of the examples you chose to use. I don't quite know how you could have digested, even from the video alone, that moral decisions could be made in absence of this. But you constructed your criticism around this notion of "communication". You don't need to communicate in order to keep the well-being of people in mind. There is a strong evidence based, while still admittedly subjective, argument to be made that the well-being of the people of Afghanistan will be improved by bringing women out of ignorance and poverty. Yet if you go right now and poll the Afghan people, I don't think programs for women would be very popular. So is what the West doing moral by supporting the education of women in Afghanistan? I would say yes based on the argument made in the moral landscape (among many arguments you could make). But if we go and ask them, based on your original formulation of the problem, you may consider it immoral.

There is also the situation of the medical procedure that I brought up in my previous post which you did not respond to.

Thanks for the discussion by the way.


If we long for our planet to be important, there is something we can do about it. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers. --Carl Sagan

This message is a reply to:
 Message 32 by Stile, posted 10-30-2012 9:10 AM Stile has responded

Replies to this message:
 Message 34 by Stile, posted 10-31-2012 1:13 PM Jazzns has not yet responded

  
Stile
Member
Posts: 2870
From: Ontario, Canada
Joined: 12-02-2004
Member Rating: 2.6


Message 34 of 34 (677664)
10-31-2012 1:13 PM
Reply to: Message 33 by Jazzns
10-31-2012 11:55 AM


Feedback Loop
Jazzns writes:

I understand your point but my feelings on this are best expressed by, "so what?" I perfectly fine with living in a world where there is infinite moral ambiguity about whether it is the right thing to do to open doors for other people. If we are teetering around a particular peak of the moral landscape on these ho-hum moral dilemmas then that is a world I would be very happy to live in.

I was just trying to focus on whatever I guessed you wanted to talk about.
The point about feelings works just as well for opening doors as it does for genocide, slavery and acid.
It seems to me that you seem to be talking about the initial side of morality - the point where we decide what we should do on our own. And I completely agree with using scientific reasoning of past experience to guide our decisions. Then I'm talking about the other side of morality - understanding if it was actually good or actually bad after the action has been completed... and the only way to do this is to communicate with the person being affected. You can "try" to be good or bad before the action, but to "know" if you were good or bad after the action... the only way to be informed of that is to ask the people involved. Because morality is subjective, I think it's impossible to "know" if an action is going to be moral or immoral before the action has completed.

There is a strong evidence based, while still admittedly subjective, argument to be made that the well-being of the people of Afghanistan will be improved by bringing women out of ignorance and poverty. Yet if you go right now and poll the Afghan people, I don't think programs for women would be very popular. So is what the West doing moral by supporting the education of women in Afghanistan? I would say yes based on the argument made in the moral landscape (among many arguments you could make). But if we go and ask them, based on your original formulation of the problem, you may consider it immoral.

I consider it to be "trying to do what is right."
The only way we'll ever know if it's actually moral or not is after the action is completed. After the women have been educated and they understand what's happened. You and I both seem to agree that it is likely they will be pleased with the efforts. In that case, I would say the action was then moral. However, it's possible that after they have been educated, and they understand the situation... they do not like the position they find themselves in, maybe in some kind of "why would you ever interfere with our culture!?? Now we are simply a copy of you instead of being able to figure such things out in our own way!" type of thing. If such a thing were to happen... then I would say that it was an immoral action.

I am saying that currently, as the action is on-going, we cannot say if it is moral or not. We can say we're trying to be moral, and give our scientific reasoning (documented past experiences) to show that... but we cannot know if it's moral or not until the action is completed and we are able to communicate with those who are affected. Without that... if we just say "it's moral because we think it's best for women to have rights!"... then we're speaking for the lives (and culture) of other people (sort of like a Star Trek Prime Directive kind of issue). I would say we have an extremely high chance of being correct, and I endorse the proposed actions... but this doesn't give us the right to say that we know what other people's subjective feelings are going to be. And if we do start doing that, then we might start thinking it's okay for us to tell other people what's best for them in other not-so-obvious issues, like forcing capitalism on them, or something like that...

There is also the situation of the medical procedure that I brought up in my previous post which you did not respond to.

-----
For example, Harris beings up the situation where there have been studies that if you artificially extend the length of an uncomfortable medical procedure that it reduces the memory of the discomfort of that procedure. So if you ask the person at the time that the procedure is underway if you want it to stop they will undoubtably say yes. But the moral thing to do might be to wait if in the end it reduces the trauma embedded in their memory.
-----

My posts tend to get long and rambly... I try to keep them short, but I generally fail. For this, however, my answer is the same:

We cannot know if the action was moral or immoral until after the action is completed and we're able to communicate with the patient.
Let me expand into the following possible scenarios:

1. We ask patient if they want to stop - patient says "yes."
After procedure is stopped and patient goes home, we ask them if they are happy with the stopped procedure - patient says "yes."
--I deem the action of stopping the procedure to be moral.

2. We ask patient if they want to stop - patient says "yes."
After procedure is stopped and patient goes home, we ask them if they are happy with the stopped procedure - patient says "no."
--I deem the action of stopping the procedure to be immoral.
We can say it's not "fair", we can say the patient is to blame... we can say a lot of things. But morality isn't easy, and it's not straightforward. And it may very well be impossible to get everything right all the time.

3. We ask patient if they want to stop - patient says "no."
After procedure is completed and patient goes home, we ask them if they are happy with not stopping the procedure - patient says "yes."
--I deem the action of not stopping the procedure to be moral.

4. We ask patient if they want to stop - patient says "no."
After procedure is completed and patient goes home, we ask them if they are happy with not stopping the procedure - patient says "no."
--I deem the action of not stopping the procedure to be immoral.

I hope this helps to show where I'm coming from.
If the situation was presented to me, I would try to be moral and not stop the procedure as I would assume the patient wanted the procedure in the first place, is simply under the stress of the immediate situation, and will like the procedure to be completed as normal.
However, I cannot say that this action "is moral" without learning how everything unfolds. The answer to whether or not it "is moral" is always up to the person being affected by the action. Even if they change their mind.
That's why morality is so complicated and difficult... because no one ever does know the answer until the action is completed, and even if they do know... it's subjective... therefore it's able to change.

Anyone who's ever spent time thinking about morality knows that it's not cut-and-dry, it's not simple, and it can be extremely confusing.
I'm just trying to describe a system that actually describes the confusion and difficulties instead of throwing up my hands and going "oh... morality just gets strange sometimes..." which seems to be what every other system I've ever heard of does eventually. Including Harris' with his landscape of peaks and valleys. Harris and I seem to agree that the peaks and valleys exist due to the subjective, difficult, confusing nature of morality. I'm just adding in that they way to precisely understand each peak and every valley is to communicate with those individuals and find out. Maybe Harris even agrees with that? Generally, people explaining a moral system leave it at "well, it's difficult..." and move on to more generalized advice (like "moving away from universal evil.")

I think it's important to note that "it's okay to be wrong." If we try to force a system where we can always win... we can end up rationalizing away the times we were actually wrong. That's a really bad thing.

I think it's important to actually find out if some of the things we do actually were good or bad. After communicating with others and figuring it out, our moral system becomes a feed-back system where we use this new information to further refine our "scientific reasoning" in order to make better guesses at trying to be moral in our actions.

As we try to be moral, and feedback positive/negative responses into the system, the system will move ever closer to being "fully moral."

This doesn't eliminate errors (mistakes), but may very well be impossible with the subjective nature of morality anyway. This does, however, provide a way to get as close as possible to being as "good" as possible.

Thanks for the discussion by the way.

I'm always looking for a way to improve the system I currently use. Or even a way to better describe the system I use...


This message is a reply to:
 Message 33 by Jazzns, posted 10-31-2012 11:55 AM Jazzns has not yet responded

    
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