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The more I listen to Sam, the more disappointed I get

 
NL.
 
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NL.
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11 January 2018 08:09
 

ubique - Yes, I have experienced this myself as a professional (on the one hand, people kind of assuming we can’t speak on equal footing because of some mysterious ‘expertise’ - but, I should note, on the other, I’ve worked with people who are very stubborn about common ‘folk knowledge’, like “I know how to straighten that child up! All they need is X.”, so there is a balance there,) and I’ve seen it in professionals I’ve been to. In my experience you can go to three different doctors with the same set of physical symptoms (and I don’t mean something subjective, like back pain, I mean very concrete physical symptoms,) and you will get three different explanations - or, alternately, when you know what the problem is, they will not have heard of it. When I was a vegetarian and taking a lot of iron I was always trying to stay ahead of ‘black line stain’ on the back of my teeth - this is easily Google-able, and yet I had two different dentists insist I didn’t floss and my teeth were in terrible shape because they’d never heard of such a thing.


I think the key is to ‘know what you know’. To have a meta-awareness of when you understand an idea well and feel you can see the implications and have absorbed them, and when you think “Wow, a lot of that went right over my head, I need someone to break this down more for me.”


Back to the OP - I notice that Harris recently started a Twitter thread outlining his views on objective morality, so I definitely spoke too soon on that one! He breaks down his views in ten tweets, tweet 7 is the crux of my disagreement:

7/ We can also be selfish and shortsighted. Many solutions to our problems are zero-sum (my gain will be your loss). But *better* solutions aren’t. (By what measure of “better”? Fewer things suck.)

 


I feel Harris brushes aside 90% of what moral conversations are about with, “better solutions aren’t zero sum”. (I should note, this is part of why I am a philosophical Buddhist. Buddhism just says we are in samsara and that this realm of existence is never going to be perfect, and to my mind this aligns with the problems of game theory.)


I think the part of morality that isn’t ‘zero sum’ is so obvious to everyone that we don’t talk about it. If you ask “If you have food that you don’t want, and your grandma is starving, should you give it to her?”, then I assume that members of ISIS - yes, literally, ISIS - would have no qualms with this. To my mind, this side of morality is so obvious that we don’t talk about it - which perhaps lends support to Sam’s basic ideas about what underlies morality, but again, keeps things in the realm of topics no one is arguing about, like “Is it good to be kind to homeless puppies?”.


But look at what happens when the starving grandma or cute animal is ideologically charged or a utilitarian tradeoff, respectively. What if the starving grandma lives in North Korea and we want to sanction them? Or, in the case of ISIS, what if she is part of another tribe in a world where the constraints of tribal loyalty are the only real law enforcement in place? Say the animal in question is now a cute newly hatched chick - what are the ethics of containing it for life and then eating it, assuming people really need the food?


I still agree with the more ancient wisdom that life in this ‘realm’, if you will, is inherently zero sum in at least some ways, and that any deeper morality must focus on changing our internal perceptions and relationship to suffering, not creating a perfect external world. And that improvement in one actually means improvement in the other anyhow - the more we experience vicarious joy for others, for example, the more zero sum competition is reduced.

 
 
Ashiok
 
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Ashiok
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11 January 2018 09:23
 

Man, that’s one of the reasons I can’t stand twitter. It is impossible to properly convey your thoughts in that plataform. If it was used only for sharing links and news, alright, but far from it. Anyway, since Harris doesn’t mind sharing his thoughts on such plataform… I won’t mind sharing my thoughts on what he has shared.

Most problems of humanity have as a root cause a competition for resources (our ‘resource pie’, if you will). Even though technological progress and trade increase the size of the pie that we all share with each other, there are two caveats:

1) That comes at a cost commonly associated with the extent of our environmental damage (if you develop a better way to do fishing, more people can have more fish, at the cost of the finite resource that is ‘fish’) and
2) There is a limit, at least in a given period of time, to how much this pie can grow (you can’t expect processes and technologies and trade to always make our pie bigger in a relevant way in a short span of time).

Therefore, once we start to divide the pie in such limited period of time, we enter the zero-sum game. Many of our moral dilemmas can be seen through the lens of such game: the israel vs. palestine conflict, for instance, is ultimately a problem of scarcity of land. The question of wheter or not to donate to a charity is related to the scarcity of your money. The issue of making healthcare universal or not is related to the scarcity of the service provided by health professionals. Pointless to say, if resources were infinite, moral dilemmas would most likely vanish. I don’t see though how can you try and justify that there are ‘non-zero’ sum solutions to these moral problems that are directly related to our material world where things are, usually, zero-sum (at least when seen through the scope of these moral dilemmas).

 
Antisocialdarwinist
 
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Antisocialdarwinist
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11 January 2018 09:46
 
Ashiok - 11 January 2018 09:23 AM

Man, that’s one of the reasons I can’t stand twitter. It is impossible to properly convey your thoughts in that plataform. If it was used only for sharing links and news, alright, but far from it. Anyway, since Harris doesn’t mind sharing his thoughts on such plataform… I won’t mind sharing my thoughts on what he has shared.

Most problems of humanity have as a root cause a competition for resources (our ‘resource pie’, if you will). Even though technological progress and trade increase the size of the pie that we all share with each other, there are two caveats:

1) That comes at a cost commonly associated with the extent of our environmental damage (if you develop a better way to do fishing, more people can have more fish, at the cost of the finite resource that is ‘fish’) and
2) There is a limit, at least in a given period of time, to how much this pie can grow (you can’t expect processes and technologies and trade to always make our pie bigger in a relevant way in a short span of time).

Therefore, once we start to divide the pie in such limited period of time, we enter the zero-sum game. Many of our moral dilemmas can be seen through the lens of such game: the israel vs. palestine conflict, for instance, is ultimately a problem of scarcity of land. The question of wheter or not to donate to a charity is related to the scarcity of your money. The issue of making healthcare universal or not is related to the scarcity of the service provided by health professionals. Pointless to say, if resources were infinite, moral dilemmas would most likely vanish. I don’t see though how can you try and justify that there are ‘non-zero’ sum solutions to these moral problems that are directly related to our material world where things are, usually, zero-sum (at least when seen through the scope of these moral dilemmas).

Well said. Even if we grant Harris his claim that individual well-being can be objectively quantified, that still doesn’t get us beyond the problem of aggregation. Which is why I think the oft-cited analogy between morality and health fails.

 
 
ubique13
 
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ubique13
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11 January 2018 12:07
 
NL. - 11 January 2018 08:09 AM

ubique - Yes, I have experienced this myself as a professional (on the one hand, people kind of assuming we can’t speak on equal footing because of some mysterious ‘expertise’ - but, I should note, on the other, I’ve worked with people who are very stubborn about common ‘folk knowledge’, like “I know how to straighten that child up! All they need is X.”, so there is a balance there,) and I’ve seen it in professionals I’ve been to. In my experience you can go to three different doctors with the same set of physical symptoms (and I don’t mean something subjective, like back pain, I mean very concrete physical symptoms,) and you will get three different explanations - or, alternately, when you know what the problem is, they will not have heard of it. When I was a vegetarian and taking a lot of iron I was always trying to stay ahead of ‘black line stain’ on the back of my teeth - this is easily Google-able, and yet I had two different dentists insist I didn’t floss and my teeth were in terrible shape because they’d never heard of such a thing.


I think the key is to ‘know what you know’. To have a meta-awareness of when you understand an idea well and feel you can see the implications and have absorbed them, and when you think “Wow, a lot of that went right over my head, I need someone to break this down more for me.”

The known unknown is crucial to understanding any aspect of life. And it really is alarming at how misinformed, uneducated, or just plain stupid some medical professionals are.

I feel Harris brushes aside 90% of what moral conversations are about with, “better solutions aren’t zero sum”. (I should note, this is part of why I am a philosophical Buddhist. Buddhism just says we are in samsara and that this realm of existence is never going to be perfect, and to my mind this aligns with the problems of game theory.)


I think the part of morality that isn’t ‘zero sum’ is so obvious to everyone that we don’t talk about it. If you ask “If you have food that you don’t want, and your grandma is starving, should you give it to her?”, then I assume that members of ISIS - yes, literally, ISIS - would have no qualms with this. To my mind, this side of morality is so obvious that we don’t talk about it - which perhaps lends support to Sam’s basic ideas about what underlies morality, but again, keeps things in the realm of topics no one is arguing about, like “Is it good to be kind to homeless puppies?”.

Aside from briefly cringing every time I hear the name of the Ancient Egyptian mother goddess being used to describe Daesh/IS, I would tend to agree that part of the entire problem is that most people tend to view life as being explicitly transactional in nature. I am dubious in regards to Buddhism, as the proselytizing thing is problematic no matter what belief system is being discussed, though there are elements of Buddhism and Hinduism that I have a good deal of respect for. The manner in which I think of selfishness being useful is that one cannot be of any help to any other individual unless they have first seen to their own basic needs. Once this is done, anything that one might do to make another person’s life easier becomes a lot more fulfilling.

Ashiok - 11 January 2018 09:23 AM

...the israel vs. palestine conflict, for instance, is ultimately a problem of scarcity of land…

No, it really is not. And this analogy is extremely problematic in any serious discussion unless you are quite well-versed in Middle-Eastern history going back 2,500 years or so.

 
 
Brick Bungalow
 
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Brick Bungalow
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11 January 2018 12:08
 
Ashiok - 11 January 2018 09:23 AM

Man, that’s one of the reasons I can’t stand twitter. It is impossible to properly convey your thoughts in that plataform. If it was used only for sharing links and news, alright, but far from it. Anyway, since Harris doesn’t mind sharing his thoughts on such plataform… I won’t mind sharing my thoughts on what he has shared.

Most problems of humanity have as a root cause a competition for resources (our ‘resource pie’, if you will). Even though technological progress and trade increase the size of the pie that we all share with each other, there are two caveats:

1) That comes at a cost commonly associated with the extent of our environmental damage (if you develop a better way to do fishing, more people can have more fish, at the cost of the finite resource that is ‘fish’) and
2) There is a limit, at least in a given period of time, to how much this pie can grow (you can’t expect processes and technologies and trade to always make our pie bigger in a relevant way in a short span of time).

Therefore, once we start to divide the pie in such limited period of time, we enter the zero-sum game. Many of our moral dilemmas can be seen through the lens of such game: the israel vs. palestine conflict, for instance, is ultimately a problem of scarcity of land. The question of wheter or not to donate to a charity is related to the scarcity of your money. The issue of making healthcare universal or not is related to the scarcity of the service provided by health professionals. Pointless to say, if resources were infinite, moral dilemmas would most likely vanish. I don’t see though how can you try and justify that there are ‘non-zero’ sum solutions to these moral problems that are directly related to our material world where things are, usually, zero-sum (at least when seen through the scope of these moral dilemmas).

Social media is good for funny pet videos. The moment I invest greater expectations than that I get let down.

 
Ashiok
 
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Ashiok
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11 January 2018 12:24
 
ubique13 - 11 January 2018 12:07 PM

No, it really is not. And this analogy is extremely problematic in any serious discussion unless you are quite well-versed in Middle-Eastern history going back 2,500 years or so.

Maybe it is asking too much but, briefly, could you say what is the ultimate cause then? (If it is hard to say briefly, feel free to give a larger explanation). You can regress as many thousands of years as you wish, how can the ideological basis for the conflict of today not be grounded, originally, in a problem of tribes competing to live in the same space?

 
ubique13
 
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11 January 2018 12:37
 
Ashiok - 11 January 2018 12:24 PM
ubique13 - 11 January 2018 12:07 PM

No, it really is not. And this analogy is extremely problematic in any serious discussion unless you are quite well-versed in Middle-Eastern history going back 2,500 years or so.

Maybe it is asking too much but, briefly, could you say what is the ultimate cause then? (If it is hard to say briefly, feel free to give a larger explanation). You can regress as many thousands of years as you wish, how can the ideological basis for the conflict of today not be grounded, originally, in a problem of tribes competing to live in the same space?

There are much larger forces at play, and that seems to have always been the case. Two historical figures whose existence and proximity to each other raise some interesting questions whose answers remain elusive:
Saladin and Maimonides.

 
 
SlackerInc
 
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07 February 2018 16:46
 

I see a lot of valid critiques here, especially as concerns “objective” morality.  This is something I’ve long had an intuition exists, but I have to admit it’s elusive to actually pin it down.  Maybe it’s more that there are some things we can say are axiomatically bad, but a lot of grey area?

I’m surprised Sam doesn’t see that one of his own thought experiments undermines his contentions in this area.  It’s the one about a doctor who has a patient come in for some relatively minor procedure like having his tonsils out, but who then takes advantage of the general anaesthesia to harvest all the tonsil patient’s organs to save the lives of a bunch of patients in desperate need of those organs.  He has sacrificed one life to save many—so what’s the problem?  Yet most of us instinctively recoil from this, and Sam seems to as well.

 
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07 February 2018 17:46
 
SlackerInc - 07 February 2018 04:46 PM

I see a lot of valid critiques here, especially as concerns “objective” morality.  This is something I’ve long had an intuition exists, but I have to admit it’s elusive to actually pin it down.  Maybe it’s more that there are some things we can say are axiomatically bad, but a lot of grey area?

I’m surprised Sam doesn’t see that one of his own thought experiments undermines his contentions in this area.  It’s the one about a doctor who has a patient come in for some relatively minor procedure like having his tonsils out, but who then takes advantage of the general anaesthesia to harvest all the tonsil patient’s organs to save the lives of a bunch of patients in desperate need of those organs.  He has sacrificed one life to save many—so what’s the problem?  Yet most of us instinctively recoil from this, and Sam seems to as well.

I think it’s probably a bit easier to establish a basic thought experiment which serves to demonstrate the foundations of human decency than it may seem. If two individuals are conversing, the most effective way to maximize compassion is if each of the two people can empathize with their counterpart.

To put it succinctly, “Life is not about you, it’s about everyone else.

Kant’s idea of a Categorical Imperative seems like the most obvious choice for a central ideology, but its inability to function as anything more than theory requires disciplined pragmatism. Each of us can only do what is in our power to, and it is just as important to remember that fact as it is to be focused on outward generosity. By taking this kind of approach to life, one’s selfish urges tend to be fulfilled through acts of selflessness. There are few things that feel as rewarding as helping another person achieve something good that they could not have done alone.

 
 
SlackerInc
 
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07 February 2018 18:28
 

But again, what if you can help other people this way, several of them—but only by hurting a smaller number of other people?

 
ubique13
 
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07 February 2018 18:37
 
SlackerInc - 07 February 2018 06:28 PM

But again, what if you can help other people this way, several of them—but only by hurting a smaller number of other people?

The trolley problem is a useless headache. If it were a trained engineer operating the machinery, then that individual would almost certainly act to preserve as many lives as possible. Adding or subtracting hypothetical qualifiers to a situation that none of us are ever likely to be in does nothing to advance the ostensible goal of actually figuring out how human beings ought to treat each other.

 
 
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19 February 2018 13:36
 
Ashiok - 09 January 2018 02:38 PM

I have to concede that Sam Harris was pitiful at this debate. He basically didn’t address Craig’s objections at any point in time.

I find it fascinating how people see different occurrences while watching the same thing. Let me share my view of the debate:

Craig’s starting argument - There is no possible objective foundation of morality. However, the christian god’s subjective morality is equal to objective morality since god is by definition perfect. - is answered by assertions that god is clearly not perfect, christianity is immoral and accepting authority as morality is psychopathic.

Craig has two more arguments, both directed against the “moral landscape”; Equating the wellbeing of conscious creatures with moral goodness is merely a trick, and can in fact be proven wrong by imagining a world inhabited by very happy psychopaths. Furthermore, if we are merely biological machines there can be no responsibility and no morality since we have no choice.

These arguments are hard to answer because 1. the moral landscape is obviously flawed and 2. free will is a discussion all of its own. Regardless, Sam’s response is that christian morality is also motivated by wellbeing, avoiding hell and striving for heaven / it is necessary to make some assumtions in every science, what matters is whether the results are useful / and Craig’s view of a world without free will is to simplistic.

I certainly preferred Sam’s performance in this discussion. Not merely because his opinions are closer to my own (it is no accident that I am posting on this website), but mostly because I dislike Craig’s mechanical debating style. It feels like he “plays to win”, while Sam actually talks to people.

There were two statements from Sam that I feel are worth remembering: Morality is a necessity / and it would be very strange if being the most rational, the most correcting for bias, the most intellectual honest possible would be of no use answering questions about it.

Lastly I would like to offer some thoughts about the moral landscape and objective morality.
As Sam says, it is possible to value the wrong things - objectively. The exemplary culture that gouges out the eyeballs of every third child is not evil - because they don’t know any better. We do however know that they are causing pointless misery, thus we have a moral obligation to stop them. Not by any means, of course, but we should at least have a general motivation to do so.

While “the worst possible misery for everyone” is also not evil, intentionally causing it would without question be. Consequently, any intention to the contrary might be “good”. Just by adding intentions I feel much more inclined to agree with the general premise of the moral landscape.

 
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