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Philosophy Undergraduate Student’s Paper: “The Materialization of Morality: A Response to Sam Harris’s Scientific Basis for Ethics”

 
Antisocialdarwinist
 
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Antisocialdarwinist
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23 April 2016 22:19
 

However, if this is the case, if what is good for an individual is always equivalent to what is right, how can we explain decisions of self-sacrifice in order to save the life of another being?

Because “self-sacrifice” involves more than tangible self interest. If I’ve been raised to believe that helping others is right, then I’ll get a warm fuzzy feeling from helping others and an unpleasant feeling from standing by and watching others suffer. In order to avoid the unpleasant feeling and experience the warm fuzzy feeling, I’ll behave in a way that appears to run counter to my own self interest—donating money to charity, for example, instead of spending it on beer, or diving heroically into an icy river in a futile attempt to save some drowning idiot. That’s the beauty of the conscience: it tricks us into behaving irrationally—trading away tangible stuff like beer for a warm fuzzy feeling. Functional psychopaths—who have no conscience, and therefore experience no warm fuzzy feeling from helping others, and no unpleasant feeling from watching others suffer—are the only truly rational humans. You won’t catch them sacrificing themselves.

 
 
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24 April 2016 15:56
 

Ha, they might. You never know who is watching and judging.

 
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27 April 2016 07:57
 
Smote - 24 April 2016 03:56 PM

Ha, they might. You never know who is watching and judging.

That’s the beauty of religion: it doesn’t matter if anyone is actually watching and judging you, as long as you believe someone is.

 
 
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27 April 2016 22:44
 
Antisocialdarwinist - 23 April 2016 10:19 PM

However, if this is the case, if what is good for an individual is always equivalent to what is right, how can we explain decisions of self-sacrifice in order to save the life of another being?

Because “self-sacrifice” involves more than tangible self interest. If I’ve been raised to believe that helping others is right, then I’ll get a warm fuzzy feeling from helping others and an unpleasant feeling from standing by and watching others suffer. In order to avoid the unpleasant feeling and experience the warm fuzzy feeling, I’ll behave in a way that appears to run counter to my own self interest—donating money to charity, for example, instead of spending it on beer, or diving heroically into an icy river in a futile attempt to save some drowning idiot. That’s the beauty of the conscience: it tricks us into behaving irrationally—trading away tangible stuff like beer for a warm fuzzy feeling. Functional psychopaths—who have no conscience, and therefore experience no warm fuzzy feeling from helping others, and no unpleasant feeling from watching others suffer—are the only truly rational humans. You won’t catch them sacrificing themselves.

What you call irrational might only be irrational from the viewpoint of a “silo” individual, i.e., one who is not at all dependent on any other individual, but rather whose existence is present in all the ontological layers of reality. That is not necessarily the case, and I believe it is actually false. The objective evidence suggests that we exist as individuals only at the level of ontology represented materially as chemistry and biology. My view is that emotions are evolved rational responses that make individuals effective links in a chain of causality we call species and evolutionary lineages. We as individuals could not physically exist without the species and lineages from which we are descended. Some of those emotions are mostly or entirely self-interested from an individual perspective, and some of them are mostly or entirely species-interested. From this point of view, no emotion can be considered entirely irrational when the complete causality that brings individuals into existence is considered. The assumption that only individual self-interest is a rational motivation is simply placing one set of emotions over another set, thereby ignoring the causality that makes either set possible.

 
 
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28 April 2016 07:58
 
Poldano - 27 April 2016 10:44 PM
Antisocialdarwinist - 23 April 2016 10:19 PM

However, if this is the case, if what is good for an individual is always equivalent to what is right, how can we explain decisions of self-sacrifice in order to save the life of another being?

Because “self-sacrifice” involves more than tangible self interest. If I’ve been raised to believe that helping others is right, then I’ll get a warm fuzzy feeling from helping others and an unpleasant feeling from standing by and watching others suffer. In order to avoid the unpleasant feeling and experience the warm fuzzy feeling, I’ll behave in a way that appears to run counter to my own self interest—donating money to charity, for example, instead of spending it on beer, or diving heroically into an icy river in a futile attempt to save some drowning idiot. That’s the beauty of the conscience: it tricks us into behaving irrationally—trading away tangible stuff like beer for a warm fuzzy feeling. Functional psychopaths—who have no conscience, and therefore experience no warm fuzzy feeling from helping others, and no unpleasant feeling from watching others suffer—are the only truly rational humans. You won’t catch them sacrificing themselves.

What you call irrational might only be irrational from the viewpoint of a “silo” individual, i.e., one who is not at all dependent on any other individual, but rather whose existence is present in all the ontological layers of reality. That is not necessarily the case, and I believe it is actually false. The objective evidence suggests that we exist as individuals only at the level of ontology represented materially as chemistry and biology. My view is that emotions are evolved rational responses that make individuals effective links in a chain of causality we call species and evolutionary lineages. We as individuals could not physically exist without the species and lineages from which we are descended. Some of those emotions are mostly or entirely self-interested from an individual perspective, and some of them are mostly or entirely species-interested. From this point of view, no emotion can be considered entirely irrational when the complete causality that brings individuals into existence is considered. The assumption that only individual self-interest is a rational motivation is simply placing one set of emotions over another set, thereby ignoring the causality that makes either set possible.

Yes, I agree with all of that. But we can still distinguish between what I call tangible and intangible well-being. If I give you the shirt off my back, your tangible well-being improves at the expense of mine. The only thing that makes it worthwhile, from my perspective, is the warm fuzzy feeling I get.

So from the standpoint of tangible well-being or tangible self-interest, it’s irrational to sacrifice one’s own tangible well-being in order to improve someone else’s. Only the intangible benefits of our “species-interested” emotions make self-sacrifice rational. It’s a clever software patch, so to speak, that got added to the program late in the product life-cycle, in order to align good old, tried-and-true self-interest with the well-being of others. What you’re calling a “silo individual” I’m calling a functional psychopath.

And keep in mind that “species-interested” emotions aren’t hard-wired to any particular behavior. It’s just as possible to experience positive “species-interested” emotions from smashing your Jewish neighbors’ windows one night as it is from helping them clean up the next morning—provided you believe it’s the right thing to do.

 
 
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28 April 2016 23:22
 
Antisocialdarwinist - 28 April 2016 07:58 AM

...

Yes, I agree with all of that. But we can still distinguish between what I call tangible and intangible well-being. If I give you the shirt off my back, your tangible well-being improves at the expense of mine. The only thing that makes it worthwhile, from my perspective, is the warm fuzzy feeling I get.

So from the standpoint of tangible well-being or tangible self-interest, it’s irrational to sacrifice one’s own tangible well-being in order to improve someone else’s. Only the intangible benefits of our “species-interested” emotions make self-sacrifice rational. It’s a clever software patch, so to speak, that got added to the program late in the product life-cycle, in order to align good old, tried-and-true self-interest with the well-being of others. ...

As long as you admit that well-being is not binary-valued, I agree with you. Specifically, it might be rational to sacrifice a small part of my own well-being to improve someone else’s well-being by a large amount, quite independent of warm fuzzy feelings and conscious self-interest.

Antisocialdarwinist - 28 April 2016 07:58 AM

...

What you’re calling a “silo individual” I’m calling a functional psychopath. ...

I was actually thinking of homo economicus, but functional psychopath could be the equivalent.  wink

Antisocialdarwinist - 28 April 2016 07:58 AM

...

And keep in mind that “species-interested” emotions aren’t hard-wired to any particular behavior. It’s just as possible to experience positive “species-interested” emotions from smashing your Jewish neighbors’ windows one night as it is from helping them clean up the next morning—provided you believe it’s the right thing to do.

Hmmm…  The idiom preaching to the choir for some reason crosses my mind… . On the other hand, I may not be the only one reading this, so, right you are!

 
 
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29 April 2016 07:12
 
Poldano - 28 April 2016 11:22 PM
Antisocialdarwinist - 28 April 2016 07:58 AM

...

Yes, I agree with all of that. But we can still distinguish between what I call tangible and intangible well-being. If I give you the shirt off my back, your tangible well-being improves at the expense of mine. The only thing that makes it worthwhile, from my perspective, is the warm fuzzy feeling I get.

So from the standpoint of tangible well-being or tangible self-interest, it’s irrational to sacrifice one’s own tangible well-being in order to improve someone else’s. Only the intangible benefits of our “species-interested” emotions make self-sacrifice rational. It’s a clever software patch, so to speak, that got added to the program late in the product life-cycle, in order to align good old, tried-and-true self-interest with the well-being of others. ...

As long as you admit that well-being is not binary-valued, I agree with you. Specifically, it might be rational to sacrifice a small part of my own well-being to improve someone else’s well-being by a large amount, quite independent of warm fuzzy feelings and conscious self-interest.

What would make it rational independent of warm fuzzy feelings and conscious (tangible) self-interest?

 
 
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29 April 2016 09:41
 

Antisocialdarwinist and Poldano,

What is your basis for believing that morality is reducible to, what I am assuming you mean to be, biochemistry? Can you address or give responses to the philosophical and logical problems that arise when taking a naturalistic, materialistic approach in which I discussed in my paper?

Thanks,
Bethany

 
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29 April 2016 10:55
 

Hey Bethany,

I’m still curious to know whether your goal is to show that Harris is inconsistent, or whether your goal is to show that TML - taken alone - is inconsistent, or both?

 
 
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29 April 2016 12:01
 

Hi Icehorse,

Here is my post back to you regarding your questions… you may have missed it on page 2. Hope it clarifies.

Thank you,
Bethany

the Antinihilist - 22 April 2016 12:24 PM
icehorse - 21 April 2016 11:05 AM

Hey Bethany -

The opinions I held before I read your paper were:

- TML seems to have merit and would be a boon.
- Freewill - I agree in theory, in practice I think the conclusions are wrong

I’m unsure of your goal. It could be one or more of these, or something else:

1 - Harris is inconsistent
2 - Taken together, TML and Freewill are inconsistent.
3 - TML on its own is wrong

It would be great if you were willing to clarify your main goal(s) for this paper.

If your goal is to prove that Harris is inconsistent, I wouldn’t have much to push back on, since I agree.

If your goal is to say that TML on its own is wrong, then we could pursue that discussion.

== specifics

- begging the question - got it
- materialism: how do you classify energy, like radio waves?
  - how do you classify “thoughts” ?
- atheism: I don’t think atheism is a philosophy. It might be that many atheists share a similar philosophy, but that’s a different claim.

- logical leaps - i’d like to defer until we have goals nailed down

- the WBCC axiom - hmmm. Again this seems dependent on your goals. I would contend that if we look at TML alone, it’s a reasonable axiom, lest we slip into a relativistic swamp.

- uniformity to nature - again, i’d like to defer until i understand your goal(s)

In response to your question about the general goals, I would definitely say I was arguing for all three of those points. As far as your specific questions…. In my paper, I did not want to argue on what my own position was on, for example, what I believe the true definition of thoughts to be. I wanted to really refrain from giving an argument for my own worldview, and focus on the philosophical dilemmas I found present in TML, Free Will, and his Ted Talk under Harris’s own presuppositions.

Also, any position, question, subject, etc. that has to do with questioning, describing, or attempting to understand the nature of knowledge and reality is philosophy.

 

 
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29 April 2016 12:07
 

Hey Bethany,

Sorry I missed your earlier response.

If you had all three goals in mind in your paper, I must confess I’m not sure how to untangle / isolate the TML-only bits that can stand on their own?

Does that question make sense?

 
 
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29 April 2016 19:15
 
the Antinihilist - 29 April 2016 09:41 AM

Antisocialdarwinist and Poldano,

What is your basis for believing that morality is reducible to, what I am assuming you mean to be, biochemistry? Can you address or give responses to the philosophical and logical problems that arise when taking a naturalistic, materialistic approach in which I discussed in my paper?

Thanks,
Bethany

Yes, I am claiming that morality is reducible to biochemistry. But if I understand your paper correctly, that’s not what you’re arguing against. My reading is that you’re arguing against combining that claim with the claim that science can determine what we ought to value. I’m not claiming that science can determine what we ought to value. I disagree with Harris on that point.

If I’m wrong—if you are arguing against the claim, in and of itself, that morality is reducible to biochemistry—maybe you can point me to the relevant part of your paper and I’ll try to answer.

 
 
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29 April 2016 20:01
 
the Antinihilist - 29 April 2016 09:41 AM

Antisocialdarwinist and Poldano,

What is your basis for believing that morality is reducible to, what I am assuming you mean to be, biochemistry? Can you address or give responses to the philosophical and logical problems that arise when taking a naturalistic, materialistic approach in which I discussed in my paper?

Thanks,
Bethany

Morality is not reducible to biochemistry’s current domain of study. Biochemistry abstracts from life processes those that are found at the chemical level. I currently believe that proto-morality cannot emerge until after replication is well established. It is conceivable that it could emerge at some lower scale, but we have not yet seen evidence of the complexity required to support such processes at those scales.

This is brief, but should give adequate hints to my materialist approach to the problem, both philosophically and biologically.

 
 
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29 April 2016 20:28
 
Antisocialdarwinist - 29 April 2016 07:12 AM
Poldano - 28 April 2016 11:22 PM
Antisocialdarwinist - 28 April 2016 07:58 AM

...

Yes, I agree with all of that. But we can still distinguish between what I call tangible and intangible well-being. If I give you the shirt off my back, your tangible well-being improves at the expense of mine. The only thing that makes it worthwhile, from my perspective, is the warm fuzzy feeling I get.

So from the standpoint of tangible well-being or tangible self-interest, it’s irrational to sacrifice one’s own tangible well-being in order to improve someone else’s. Only the intangible benefits of our “species-interested” emotions make self-sacrifice rational. It’s a clever software patch, so to speak, that got added to the program late in the product life-cycle, in order to align good old, tried-and-true self-interest with the well-being of others. ...

As long as you admit that well-being is not binary-valued, I agree with you. Specifically, it might be rational to sacrifice a small part of my own well-being to improve someone else’s well-being by a large amount, quite independent of warm fuzzy feelings and conscious self-interest.

What would make it rational independent of warm fuzzy feelings and conscious (tangible) self-interest?

An objective benefit to self from improving someone else’s well-being could make it rational. That benefit need not be accompanied by conscious or unconscious perceptions of self-interest or warm fuzzy feelings. However, most such benefits are mediated by subjective warm fuzzy feelings or subjective conscious/unconscious perception self-interest. The process by which subjective phenomena are associated with objective benefits is of course subject to errors of perception and judgment. Dynamically speaking, errors tend to be negatively reinforced, so a simplistic steady-state rule of thumb is that all objective benefits correspond to subjectively positive phenomena. The rule of thumb is inadequate for understanding how the association comes to be, remains stable, or breaks down.

I’m of course using rational in a sense that does not equate to subjective judgment, experience, or processes, but to some process that can in principle be observed objectively. This is exactly the same sense in which homo economicus is said to behave rationally.

 

 
 
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30 April 2016 05:56
 
Poldano - 29 April 2016 08:01 PM

Morality is not reducible to biochemistry’s current domain of study. Biochemistry abstracts from life processes those that are found at the chemical level. I currently believe that proto-morality cannot emerge until after replication is well established. It is conceivable that it could emerge at some lower scale, but we have not yet seen evidence of the complexity required to support such processes at those scales.

This is brief, but should give adequate hints to my materialist approach to the problem, both philosophically and biologically.

That’s an interesting take on the question, Poldano. I think that “biochemistry” is being used here in a further-reaching way than what the academic field currently devotes its energies to.

 
 
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