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Is well-being the ultimate moral good?  Can all we value be reduced to “well-being”?

 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher
 
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TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher
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25 July 2018 13:10
 

[This post is more technical than I would like, but at this point I don’t know how to write it any other way.  Any ideas on that point—or on any other—would be much appreciated.]

In The Moral Landscape Harris argues that well-being is ultimate moral good to which all other moral goods can be reduced.  That is, while he recognizes that goods like justice, equality, and duty are legitimate moral aims, for him these and “all other” moral goods “not explicitly tied to the well-being of conscious creatures draw upon some conception of well-being in the end” (p. 33, emphasis added).  Is this true?  Do all moral goods draw on the concept of well-being in the end?  Are all moral goods reducible to one ultimate good, well-being?  This is no tangential question.  Not only is the affirmative the main assertion of The Moral Landscape: it is also the basis for Harris’ claim that “moral view A is truer than moral view B, if A entails a more accurate understanding of the connections between human thoughts/intentions/behavior and human well-being” (p. 64).  Absent well-being as the ultimate moral good—i.e. absent well-being as the foundational moral good from which all others are ultimately derived—the main argument of The Moral Landscape fails.

This question of well-being as the ultimate moral good can be addressed in two ways:  first regarding “well-being” as a moral category to which all other moral concepts might belong, and second regarding well-being as a “state” that can be ‘measured’ or ‘assessed’ in some way, i.e. as a determinate state of human being, presumably one based on both the states of the brain and events in the world.  In both respects, Harris’ assertion that well-being is the ultimate moral good to which all other moral goods reduce fails—but only in a mitigated sense.  Anticipating the argument, well-being is, as Harris asserts, the moral goal that encompasses all other moral goals, but absent realization of the moral goods through which well-being is realized, “well-being” has no meaning from which to draw; that is, absent this realization, there is no well-being per se to aim for, nor is there any determinate state of well-being to “accurately understand.”  In this respect, then, Harris is right to note that “well-being” is “the good” to which all other goods ultimately aim, but he is wrong to assert that it is the good to which all other goods reduce.  For no reduction takes place.  The confusion that there is can be addressed in two ways.

First, consider “well-being” as a moral category.  As a general moral category, “well-being” involves all instantiations of particular moral concepts, and in this sense well-being does encompass, at least potentially, all moral goods—as Harris suggests.  But what Harris fails to appreciate is that precisely because of this instantiation, none of these goods can be reduced to well-being. 

For instance, while true that goods like health, prosperity, happiness, security, and creativity (just to name a few general moral goods) all aim toward the general goal of “well-being”—and therefore they all relate to well-being in the end—it is equally true that absent these goods comprising well-being, “well-being” is just a general goal with no specifiable meaning from which to draw.  In other words, absent moral goods as instantiations of well-being, the concept is just an empty, moral category, much like “being” is just an empty ontological one.  To put the matter another way, to give the notion of “well-being” any substance, moral goods must first exist and then be realized, not the other way around, and for this reason alone, far from all other goods reducing to well-being, “well-being” as a concept reduces to the instantiations of these other moral goods.  Without these actualized moral goods, “well-being” is simply an empty moral category; therefore it makes no sense to say that all the other goods “draw upon some conception of well-being in the end” (p. 33).  The concept of well-being in the end is nothing but the realization of the moral concepts comprising it.  Otherwise it’s just an empty moral category.

So, reducing all moral goods to well-being is confused on logical grounds.  Moral goods are required to give “well-being” its meaning, not vice versa, and reducing the former to the latter amounts to, analogously, reducing the terms that define a definition to the definition that the terms define.  Just in this case, it’s not a “definition” in the strict sense of the term but rather the relationship of the moral category “well-being” to the constituent moral concepts that comprise it.  Well-being may capture “all that we can intelligibly value” (p. 32), but that is only because all the things we value give the empty category of well-being its concrete meaning.  To say that the former reduces to the latter is to put the logical cart before the existential horse.

Second, Harris’ claim that well-being is something that can be ‘assessed’ or ‘measured’ as the basis of moral claims partakes of this same logical confusion, for in effect Harris claims that “well-being” represents a determinable state that can be independently ‘measured’ or ‘assessed’ in some (unspecified) way, when in fact well-being is nothing but the realization of other moral goods. In other words, as an aspect of human being, well-being may indeed comprise a determinable state (like for Harris “health” is a determinable state), but like with “health” this general state is nothing more than the existential realization of the components comprising the general category, just in this case moral goods, not aspects of health.

For instance, one is “healthy” only because one has the elements of good health—say a good metabolic profile, a good BMI, a well-functioning cardiovascular system, etc.  Absent these elements, “health” is just an empty category, a placeholder for the existence of these components, as it were.  Using the same parallel Harris draws, the case is the same with well-being: one only experiences well-being only upon the realization of its substantiating goods, goods such as health, prosperity, happiness, security, and creativity, and so forth.  In both states—health and well-being—it makes no more sense to reduce the realization of these comprising elements to the state these elements comprise than it makes sense to reduce the concepts instantiating a category to the meaning of the category itself.  Well-being as a state is the realization of its constituent moral goods, nothing more; therefore it simply makes no sense to say any determinable state called “well-being” determines the realization of these goods, especially one that can be measured or assessed as some kind of existence ‘in and of itself’.  Rather the reverse is true: existentially the measure of these moral goods is and determines the measure of well-being.

So, while true that all moral striving aims at well-being as the general moral category, “well-being” as a concept is empty without the instantiations of its constituent moral goods; there is no “conception” of well-being to reduce these goods to.  Similarly, while true that all moral goods can be captured in a ‘state of well-being’, this state is nothing more that the realization of its component goods; it has no existence ‘in and of itself’ to “account for” or to “understand.”  Harris’ reduction of all moral goods to the single good of well-being is therefore specious.  There is no reduction of all other moral goods to the moral good of well-being because well-being itself is 1) nothing but an empty moral category to be filled with moral concepts and 2) a determinate existential state as the realization of these component goods.  To put it comparatively, it makes no more sense to base morality on the concept of well-being than it makes to base science on the concept of being.  In both errors, one confuses a relation of logical priority with an existential one of fact.  As such, while logically all moral striving aims at well-being, the various moral goods which Harris would reduce to well-being are in fact the proper goal of moral actions, with “well-being” as nothing more than a name for their realization.

[ Edited: 27 July 2018 04:15 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
nonverbal
 
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26 July 2018 05:43
 

Writing that focuses on morality can be hazardous to an author’s credibility, and publishing The Moral Landscape did no favors for Harris’ reputation. He might someday revise his views, and I’ll be pleasantly surprised if he does.

To employ “well-being” as a starting point to describe the essence of human morality might seem to make sense on some level, but the term is too general and open to interpretation to be of much use. It’s like explaining a joke incompetently, destroying the humor. Sure, morality is related to well-being. But if you don’t define well-being in great detail, how can anyone expect to know in advance what precisely goes into developing WBCC?

In fact, Harris seems not to be interested in describing well-being or human morality itself. He seeks to refine definitions. A noble goal, no doubt, but rife with both logical and historical challenges.

[ Edited: 26 July 2018 06:04 by nonverbal]
 
 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher
 
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26 July 2018 06:48
 
nonverbal - 26 July 2018 05:43 AM

To employ “well-being” as a starting point to describe the essence of human morality might seem to make sense on some level, but the term is too general and open to interpretation to be of much use. It’s like explaining a joke incompetently, destroying the humor. Sure, morality is related to well-being. But if you don’t define well-being in great detail, how can anyone expect to know in advance what precisely goes into developing WBCC?

 

To your point, what I am driving at is that one can only “define” well-being in terms of the moral values that Harris would say are defined in their moral worth by their relationship to well-being; that prior to these values, well-being is just an empty placeholder—a moral category waiting to be filled, not a definition ready to be applied to values, as though arbitration in terms of that definition could decide their moral worth.  So “well-being” doesn’t define the moral worth of prosperity, social harmony, equality as moral values; rather well-being is nothing but prosperity, social harmony, equality, etc. 

Perhaps the underlying intuition here is this: saying morality is a science of well-being is like saying physics is a science of being.  Abstractly, “well” is just a qualifier for desirable being.  Concretely it is just an adjective for desirable experiences.  In both cases, “well-being” only gets its definition from the existences and experiences that make it up.  Absent these existences and experiences that give it meaning, there can be no “great detail” to define.  Because of this, I say, one cannot say all values reduce to well-being in the end; that their moral worth depends on their promotion or retardation of “well-being.”  Instead, well-being “reduces” to the meaning of those values; it only means what those values mean.  Because of this, there can be no prior reduction to well-being in Harris’ sense, and in effect he gets the relationship exactly backwards.  All we value doesn’t reduce to well-being in the end; well-being reduces to all we value, all that can only make up “well-being.”  As such there is no morality of well-being, only of values, just as there is no physics of being, only of matter and energy.

What is WBCC?

 

[ Edited: 26 July 2018 06:56 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
nonverbal
 
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26 July 2018 08:34
 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher - 26 July 2018 06:48 AM

What is WBCC?

“Well-being of conscious creatures,” a phrase Harris likes to use, opens up another under-explained term: Which creatures are conscious, and which are sleeping, awareness-wise? I think of all creatures as having some consciousness, even if it’s too small to measure or notice. It’s the thing differentiates animals from plants, in my opinion.

TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher - 26 July 2018 06:48 AM
nonverbal - 26 July 2018 05:43 AM

To employ “well-being” as a starting point to describe the essence of human morality might seem to make sense on some level, but the term is too general and open to interpretation to be of much use. It’s like explaining a joke incompetently, destroying the humor. Sure, morality is related to well-being. But if you don’t define well-being in great detail, how can anyone expect to know in advance what precisely goes into developing WBCC?

To your point, what I am driving at is that one can only “define” well-being in terms of the moral values that Harris would say are defined in their moral worth by their relationship to well-being; that prior to these values, well-being is just an empty placeholder—a moral category waiting to be filled, not a definition ready to be applied to values, as though arbitration in terms of that definition could decide their moral worth.  So “well-being” doesn’t define the moral worth of prosperity, social harmony, equality as moral values; rather well-being is nothing but prosperity, social harmony, equality, etc. 

Perhaps the underlying intuition here is this: saying morality is a science of well-being is like saying physics is a science of being.  Abstractly, “well” is just a qualifier for desirable being.  Concretely it is just an adjective for desirable experiences.  In both cases, “well-being” only gets its definition from the existences and experiences that make it up.  Absent these existences and experiences that give it meaning, there can be no “great detail” to define.  Because of this, I say, one cannot say all values reduce to well-being in the end; that their moral worth depends on their promotion or retardation of “well-being.”  Instead, well-being “reduces” to the meaning of those values; it only means what those values mean.  Because of this, there can be no prior reduction to well-being in Harris’ sense, and in effect he gets the relationship exactly backwards.  All we value doesn’t reduce to well-being in the end; well-being reduces to all we value, all that can only make up “well-being.”  As such there is no morality of well-being, only of values, just as there is no physics of being, only of matter and energy.

Yes, your point here seems noteworthy, but I don’t know how to process it very well. (I majored in music and English teaching.) While I was attending Midwestern Catholic grade schools, the nuns repeatedly informed us about our place in the world of morality. Here’s a paraphrase: “What is it to be good, boys and girls?; What is your purpose in life? Well, it’s to worship God, that’s what it is. Everything we do must be for the glory of God.” So when Sam Harris came along with WBCC, at least he was making more sense to me as an atheist than my 2nd-grade nun ever had.

Yes—to rely on the concept of well-being to anchor human morality into its definition is indeed a tautology. Since the English language permits and actually encourages redundancy, however, it doesn’t strike me as being a breach of logical word use. I don’t doubt that if I’d read and studied what you have, as opposed to what my nuns drilled into me, I’d see more of a problem with Harris’ well-being tautology.

 
 
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26 July 2018 15:57
 

I understood Harris’s thesis a little differently. I think that “well-being” has meaning independent of moral good—but only if we’re talking about individual well-being. I think it’s possible that we’ll eventually be able to objectively quantify individual well-being, maybe with a tricorder-like “Well-Being-O-Meter” device. The same cannot be said for aggregate well-being, and this is where I think Harris’s argument fails most obviously. Even if we grant him a Well-Being-O-Meter and his purpose of morality (to maximize the well-being of conscious creatures), that still doesn’t get us to a point where we can objectively quantify aggregate well-being. Which I think is necessary in order to claim that a given behavior is objectively good or bad.

We can, for example, claim that removing a healthy individual’s vital organs against her will reduces that individual’s well-being. One might be tempted to claim that removing a healthy individual’s vital organs against her will is therefore objectively bad. But what if the organs are transplanted into other individuals whose own organs have failed? Who’s to say whether the increase in their well-being more than offsets the decrease in well-being of the unwilling donor individual? One might be tempted to employ the Well-Being-O-Meter and simply add up the increase in the recipients’ well-being and subtract the decrease in the donor’s well-being. If the result is positive, then aggregate well-being has increased and we can claim that the transfer of organs was objectively good. And vice-versa.

That, however, makes an assumption about the relative value, or importance, of the donor’s and recipients’ well-being: it treats them as equally important. Is that an assumption that science could confirm? I don’t see how. And if not, then we can’t claim that science has determined the goodness or badness of removing a healthy individual’s organs against her will and transplanting them into other individuals.

But what if, instead of transplanting the organs into other individuals, I feed them to my cat? Which, for the purposes of maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures, would be tantamount to throwing them away, since cats aren’t conscious creatures. Except that I enjoy watching my cat eat my enemy’s heart. It increases my well-being by exactly one point on the Well-Being-O-Meter. True, it reduces my enemy’s well-being by far more than that, but since I value my well-being more than my enemy’s, the net result is still an increase in aggregate well-being.

I realize there are plenty of good, subjective arguments for why I’m mistaken about the importance of my well-being relative to my enemy’s, but the only relevant question in terms of Harris’s thesis is whether science can determine it. Again, I don’t see how science could determine the value, or importance, of my well-being relative to my enemy’s. Ditto for the relative importance of future vs. present well-being.

Which begs another question: if claim X depends on ten sub-claims, nine of which can be determined by science and one of which is a subjective preference, has science determined claim X? I say no. If any part of a claim depends on subjective preference, then the claim has not been determined by science.

The other thing to consider is that maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures isn’t just the purpose of morality, it’s the purpose of all human endeavor. So claiming that the purpose of morality is to maximize WBCC tells us nothing about morality itself other than that it involves human endeavor.

 
 
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26 July 2018 21:57
 

It isn’t. We can’t.

We can describe all sorts of states of affairs that relate to life, health, property, justice, psychological satisfaction, physical pleasure, equality of opportunity and circumstance and autonomy…. most anything people might care about. None of it achieves moral standing until a preference is invoked. It might seem obvious to prefer life over death but after a moments reflection we can appreciate that this is contingent and relative to many other factors. I think any preference or prescription, real or imaginary we might invoke is the same. All rests upon contingent circumstance. All is relative to personal perspective. That is simply an attribute of what values are.

Further, I would argue that we ought not want some objective measure of morality. Dogma is bad for morality. Absolutes are bad for morality. I think this is true historically and I think its true inter personally. Sam is not only mistaken in his conclusion he is mistaken in his intention. He worries about post modernism and prescriptive relativism… which is valid but he takes this as a warrant to promote a pretty empty tautology and a factually false account of human morality.

TML is the worst thing he has published bar none.

 
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27 July 2018 04:48
 
Antisocialdarwinist - 26 July 2018 03:57 PM

I understood Harris’s thesis a little differently. I think that “well-being” has meaning independent of moral good—but only if we’re talking about individual well-being. I think it’s possible that we’ll eventually be able to objectively quantify individual well-being, maybe with a tricorder-like “Well-Being-O-Meter” device. The same cannot be said for aggregate well-being, and this is where I think Harris’s argument fails most obviously. Even if we grant him a Well-Being-O-Meter and his purpose of morality (to maximize the well-being of conscious creatures), that still doesn’t get us to a point where we can objectively quantify aggregate well-being. Which I think is necessary in order to claim that a given behavior is objectively good or bad.

We can, for example, claim that removing a healthy individual’s vital organs against her will reduces that individual’s well-being. One might be tempted to claim that removing a healthy individual’s vital organs against her will is therefore objectively bad. But what if the organs are transplanted into other individuals whose own organs have failed? Who’s to say whether the increase in their well-being more than offsets the decrease in well-being of the unwilling donor individual? One might be tempted to employ the Well-Being-O-Meter and simply add up the increase in the recipients’ well-being and subtract the decrease in the donor’s well-being. If the result is positive, then aggregate well-being has increased and we can claim that the transfer of organs was objectively good. And vice-versa.

That, however, makes an assumption about the relative value, or importance, of the donor’s and recipients’ well-being: it treats them as equally important. Is that an assumption that science could confirm? I don’t see how. And if not, then we can’t claim that science has determined the goodness or badness of removing a healthy individual’s organs against her will and transplanting them into other individuals.

But what if, instead of transplanting the organs into other individuals, I feed them to my cat? Which, for the purposes of maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures, would be tantamount to throwing them away, since cats aren’t conscious creatures. Except that I enjoy watching my cat eat my enemy’s heart. It increases my well-being by exactly one point on the Well-Being-O-Meter. True, it reduces my enemy’s well-being by far more than that, but since I value my well-being more than my enemy’s, the net result is still an increase in aggregate well-being.

I realize there are plenty of good, subjective arguments for why I’m mistaken about the importance of my well-being relative to my enemy’s, but the only relevant question in terms of Harris’s thesis is whether science can determine it. Again, I don’t see how science could determine the value, or importance, of my well-being relative to my enemy’s. Ditto for the relative importance of future vs. present well-being.

Which begs another question: if claim X depends on ten sub-claims, nine of which can be determined by science and one of which is a subjective preference, has science determined claim X? I say no. If any part of a claim depends on subjective preference, then the claim has not been determined by science.

The other thing to consider is that maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures isn’t just the purpose of morality, it’s the purpose of all human endeavor. So claiming that the purpose of morality is to maximize WBCC tells us nothing about morality itself other than that it involves human endeavor.

Agreed on all points. 

The state described as “well-being” does have meaning independent of moral good because as Brick Bungalow indicates, well-being only becomes a moral good once a preference for that state is asserted.  Now, almost tautologically one will prefer well-being over not because “well” qualifies “being” more or less as what we prefer, but that tautology doesn’t mean that “well-being” prior to that evaluation doesn’t have a non-moral, merely factual standing.  It does, and the state as preferred only becomes moral under an asserted preference or valuation.  Otherwise it just exists as the state that it is.

On this point, however, I doubt Harris would agree with either of us.  For him, it makes no sense not to want to avoid the worst-possible-suffering for everyone; therefore the “ought” to pursue well-being allows no room for doubt: it is prescribed by the reality of the worst-possible-suffering, and nothing more is needed to assert it.  In other words, for Harris pursuing well-being as a value follows necessarily from the facts of suffering, thus it can’t but be a moral good.  As I’ve posted already, I think Harris’ position on this is bunk, so I agree with you, not him.  Outside of his tautology and the fictitious imperative he creates, “well-being” as a mere state of existence is independent of moral “good.”  It is a fact, one that Harris insists grounds the objectivity of morality.  But for him, this fact and its goodness are one of apiece.  Facts and values he says, are inseparable, with values just being a species of fact.

While I don’t think the state preferred as “well-being” will ever be measurable in the sense you describe, if for the sake of argument it can be, then the arguments you put forth against it as an objective foundation for morality seem right—at least as problems that must be resolved, if the foundation is to hold.  If you are interested, with them you’ve independently derived some of the classic arguments against utilitarianism—the position to which Harris’ argument ultimately reduces, once “well-being” is substituted for “utility.”  I’ve never seem him answer these objections, but he’d have to if his scientific version of morality is going to be as valid as he claims. 

 

[ Edited: 27 July 2018 11:16 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
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27 July 2018 05:54
 
Brick Bungalow - 26 July 2018 09:57 PM

It isn’t. We can’t.

We can describe all sorts of states of affairs that relate to life, health, property, justice, psychological satisfaction, physical pleasure, equality of opportunity and circumstance and autonomy…. most anything people might care about. None of it achieves moral standing until a preference is invoked. It might seem obvious to prefer life over death but after a moments reflection we can appreciate that this is contingent and relative to many other factors. I think any preference or prescription, real or imaginary we might invoke is the same. All rests upon contingent circumstance. All is relative to personal perspective. That is simply an attribute of what values are.

Further, I would argue that we ought not want some objective measure of morality. Dogma is bad for morality. Absolutes are bad for morality. I think this is true historically and I think its true inter personally. Sam is not only mistaken in his conclusion he is mistaken in his intention. He worries about post modernism and prescriptive relativism… which is valid but he takes this as a warrant to promote a pretty empty tautology and a factually false account of human morality.

TML is the worst thing he has published bar none.

Again, agreed,  but with three things to add. 

First, right: moral judgment requires an asserted preference.  It is ultimately a valuation, and as a valuation it posits a preferred end-in-view.  Once that end-in-view is asserted, right and wrong answers can be had over which means properly adjust toward achieving that end.  That is, questions about the adjustment of means to ends can be objectively answered (empirically there are right and wrong ways to achieve an end), and in so far as they can be, there is some sense in which moral judgments can be “objective,” as well as independent of mere personal preference. 

Second, but here’s the rub.  Absent consensus on which moral ends to strive for, this objectivity falls apart.  That’s the “relativity” left in all moral judgment.  No matter how much it can sometimes be a matter of adjusting a means toward an end, which ends to pursue are always in a sense relative.  There is just no other basis than consensus for the validity of moral ends, even if some of them can be “obviously” imperative in some cases—like you mention, preferring life over death.  Harris tries to get around this by finding some end that everyone must agree to, one there is no room to maneuver against—his worst-possible-suffering for everyone hypothetical.  In that case, he thinks, there’s an end everyone can’t but “agree” on; therefore reaching well-being becomes a navigation problem—or alternatively, one of adjusting means toward ends.  But as I’ve posted already, his arguments for that “absolute” end are specious, and as you point out here, any end requires considering plenty of factors that make it ‘the right end” to pursue, given the circumstances.  So despite Harris’ attempt to derive an “ought” for all moral striving from and “is” about the world, there is just no basis other than consensus for the validity of our moral ends.  Those and the “oughts” that follow from them must be agreed upon.  They cannot be logically or scientifically derived.

Third, once these ends are agreed upon (as they usually are within a given society), one person can tell another that they are “right” or “wrong” on how to reach that end.  For how to reach an end is always an empirical question: if the way works, it’s valid; if it doesn’t, it’s invalid.  And so on.  In this limited sense moral judgment goes beyond mere personal preference (“prescriptive relativism”), but only in this limited sense, and even then, there is more room for preference than I think Harris wants.  For note: multiple ways to achieve an end are always possible, so not only are there alternative “peaks on the moral landscape”: there are multiple ways to achieve any given peak.  So even in a society that agrees upon the moral ends to strive for, there will be multiple ways to achieve them, and in this sense moral judgments will also remain relative. 

So, I agree with all you say here, just with a twist, but I especially agree about the problem of dogma, i.e. the problem with both the conclusion of and the mistaken intention behind finding an “objective foundation” for morality—a problem I would phrase this way. 

Asserting an objective foundation for morality as an antecedent basis with which moral judgment must conform or against which it can be arbitrated in order to be “true” makes moral judgment too rigid and therefore unable to adjust to the changing circumstances that inevitably arise as we live out our lives, including and especially circumstance we don’t—or even can’t—foresee; that without a flexibility to adjust, moral judgment can’t be true because its truth comes in making the right adjustments to those changing circumstances.  Just what “right adjustment” can mean in general is perhaps the problem of morality, but asserting an objective foundation as the starting point amounts to claiming to have an answer for all moral questions that might arise even before these questions arise—a foolish idea in any walk of life, but a perpetual temptation in morality, it would seem.  For his part, Harris falls into this religious temptation of finding a moral foundation.  Like with the reassuring belief in God, he wants some antecedent basis for being morally justified, one against which all claims to justification can be arbitrated.  But like you (but perhaps for different reasons?) I think this temptation is misguided, both personally and socially.  There is no equivalent of “God” on which to base moral right and wrong, scientifically derived or otherwise; there is only us adjusting our means to our agreed upon ends as best we can, with no assurances in advance that we will ever end up doing the “right” thing.  Harris seems unwilling to live with this because he feels certain moral views are repugnant, and he want’s a way to be right about them being wrong.  But as I see it, his “objective foundation for morality” throws out the baby of our moral errors out with the bathwater of a basic fact about our humanity—the inherent uncertainty of life, especially in moral judgement.  That’s an uncertainty Harris seems unwilling to live with, at least in the sphere of morality.

Perhaps he just needs to appreciate the best lessons of his own spirituality. and get over this “quest for certainty” in moral matters…

In any case, thanks for the thought provoking reply.  That’s two I owe you…

 

[ Edited: 27 July 2018 11:25 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
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27 July 2018 11:46
 

The following sharpens (?) the argument of the OP.

For Harris, well-being is that against which moral truth or falsity is arbitrated, meaning that a moral idea A is truer than moral idea B if A entails a more accurate understanding of the connections between determinate states of human being (thoughts, intentions, and actions) and well-being.  But, does this mean he reduces all moral goods to the ultimate good of well-being?  Additionally, for Harris the moral worth of all that we value draws (his word) its meaning from its necessary relationship to well-being, meaning that all we can value is morally meaningful only in so far as it promotes or retards well-being.  But, does this drawing from entail a reduction to well-being, and if it does, what might “reduction” mean? For Harris clearly acknowledges that other values besides “well-being” exist; he would certainly acknowledge that there are other moral goods as well, however subservient.  But he also insists that values (goods) are good or bad with respect to their ‘proportion’ of well-being, and only that.  Values that promote well-being are good (right); values that diminish well-being are bad (wrong).  In this respect some kind of reduction to well-being is implied, but the question remains: what kind of reduction?

The kind of reduction to which Harris is committed seems to be: ‘that without which X has no meaning.’  For him, values have no moral meaning unless they relate to the well-being of conscious creatures, therefore the meaning of those values (the X) is reduced to their proportionate well-being.  In this sense, “draw” for Harris means “reduce”: “well-being” is that meaning without which a value cannot be a moral value; thus values “reduce to” well-being by drawing from the concept.  For Harris, “draw from” and “reduce to” are equivalent terms when it comes to the relationship of well-being to other values.  All moral values reduce to well-being because they draw from that concept.

This equivalency of “draw from” and “reduce to” is essentially what’s challenged in the OP.  For the reasons stated, values can relate to well-being as an empty moral/logical category to which all moral concepts ‘belong’ (hence they “draw on” the concept “in the end”), but they cannot be reduced to it in Harris’ sense because what “well-being” means in the concrete can only be what these moral concepts mean.  Hence “draw from” and “reduce to” can’t be equivalent; the street, as it were, only goes one way.  Moral concepts like justice, duty, and equality are instances of values representing “well-being” (they “draw” their status as moral concepts from that general concept), but—and this is the key—the meaning of those values can’t be reduced to the meaning of “well-being” in any meaningful way because “well-being” gets its only meaning from the realization of those concepts, i.e. from the realization of those values.  Otherwise it is just an empty, moral category, and all it necessarily says about other moral concepts is that they are moral concepts.  To put summarily, only tautologically are all values “about” well-being—a tautology that accounts, I think, for any persuasive force to Harris’ argument that “well-being” is the only true moral end; that because of this tautology, no one challenges Harris on his reduction of all values to well-being (to my knowledge, no one has).  In any case, since “well-being” more or less belongs to the definition “value” (e.g. a value asserts some preferable state of being, one that in most general terms is a state of well-being) Harris’ reduction is specious.  Or put it another way, its grain of truth is equivalently true, trivial, and irrelevant to the question of “objective” values.

Pointing out the error of reducing all moral values to considerations of well-being is the underlying point of the OP, which is (hopefully) somewhat sharpened here.  As important as it is to the argument, the meaning of “reduction” was only implied, and as a result the reasons why the reduction cannot occur might not have been clear.  Harris is not exactly wrong to point out that all values “in the end” relate to the well-being of conscious creatures.  It’s just that the way in which he is right is true by tautology and entirely irrelevant to the issue he raises—the “objectivity” (or not) of moral judgment.

[ Edited: 28 July 2018 05:13 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
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27 July 2018 22:20
 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher - 27 July 2018 05:54 AM
Brick Bungalow - 26 July 2018 09:57 PM

It isn’t. We can’t.

We can describe all sorts of states of affairs that relate to life, health, property, justice, psychological satisfaction, physical pleasure, equality of opportunity and circumstance and autonomy…. most anything people might care about. None of it achieves moral standing until a preference is invoked. It might seem obvious to prefer life over death but after a moments reflection we can appreciate that this is contingent and relative to many other factors. I think any preference or prescription, real or imaginary we might invoke is the same. All rests upon contingent circumstance. All is relative to personal perspective. That is simply an attribute of what values are.

Further, I would argue that we ought not want some objective measure of morality. Dogma is bad for morality. Absolutes are bad for morality. I think this is true historically and I think its true inter personally. Sam is not only mistaken in his conclusion he is mistaken in his intention. He worries about post modernism and prescriptive relativism… which is valid but he takes this as a warrant to promote a pretty empty tautology and a factually false account of human morality.

TML is the worst thing he has published bar none.

Again, agreed,  but with three things to add. 

First, right: moral judgment requires an asserted preference.  It is ultimately a valuation, and as a valuation it posits a preferred end-in-view.  Once that end-in-view is asserted, right and wrong answers can be had over which means properly adjust toward achieving that end.  That is, questions about the adjustment of means to ends can be objectively answered (empirically there are right and wrong ways to achieve an end), and in so far as they can be, there is some sense in which moral judgments can be “objective,” as well as independent of mere personal preference. 

Second, but here’s the rub.  Absent consensus on which moral ends to strive for, this objectivity falls apart.  That’s the “relativity” left in all moral judgment.  No matter how much it can sometimes be a matter of adjusting a means toward an end, which ends to pursue are always in a sense relative.  There is just no other basis than consensus for the validity of moral ends, even if some of them can be “obviously” imperative in some cases—like you mention, preferring life over death.  Harris tries to get around this by finding some end that everyone must agree to, one there is no room to maneuver against—his worst-possible-suffering for everyone hypothetical.  In that case, he thinks, there’s an end everyone can’t but “agree” on; therefore reaching well-being becomes a navigation problem—or alternatively, one of adjusting means toward ends.  But as I’ve posted already, his arguments for that “absolute” end are specious, and as you point out here, any end requires considering plenty of factors that make it ‘the right end” to pursue, given the circumstances.  So despite Harris’ attempt to derive an “ought” for all moral striving from and “is” about the world, there is just no basis other than consensus for the validity of our moral ends.  Those and the “oughts” that follow from them must be agreed upon.  They cannot be logically or scientifically derived.

Third, once these ends are agreed upon (as they usually are within a given society), one person can tell another that they are “right” or “wrong” on how to reach that end.  For how to reach an end is always an empirical question: if the way works, it’s valid; if it doesn’t, it’s invalid.  And so on.  In this limited sense moral judgment goes beyond mere personal preference (“prescriptive relativism”), but only in this limited sense, and even then, there is more room for preference than I think Harris wants.  For note: multiple ways to achieve an end are always possible, so not only are there alternative “peaks on the moral landscape”: there are multiple ways to achieve any given peak.  So even in a society that agrees upon the moral ends to strive for, there will be multiple ways to achieve them, and in this sense moral judgments will also remain relative. 

So, I agree with all you say here, just with a twist, but I especially agree about the problem of dogma, i.e. the problem with both the conclusion of and the mistaken intention behind finding an “objective foundation” for morality—a problem I would phrase this way. 

Asserting an objective foundation for morality as an antecedent basis with which moral judgment must conform or against which it can be arbitrated in order to be “true” makes moral judgment too rigid and therefore unable to adjust to the changing circumstances that inevitably arise as we live out our lives, including and especially circumstance we don’t—or even can’t—foresee; that without a flexibility to adjust, moral judgment can’t be true because its truth comes in making the right adjustments to those changing circumstances.  Just what “right adjustment” can mean in general is perhaps the problem of morality, but asserting an objective foundation as the starting point amounts to claiming to have an answer for all moral questions that might arise even before these questions arise—a foolish idea in any walk of life, but a perpetual temptation in morality, it would seem.  For his part, Harris falls into this religious temptation of finding a moral foundation.  Like with the reassuring belief in God, he wants some antecedent basis for being morally justified, one against which all claims to justification can be arbitrated.  But like you (but perhaps for different reasons?) I think this temptation is misguided, both personally and socially.  There is no equivalent of “God” on which to base moral right and wrong, scientifically derived or otherwise; there is only us adjusting our means to our agreed upon ends as best we can, with no assurances in advance that we will ever end up doing the “right” thing.  Harris seems unwilling to live with this because he feels certain moral views are repugnant, and he want’s a way to be right about them being wrong.  But as I see it, his “objective foundation for morality” throws out the baby of our moral errors out with the bathwater of a basic fact about our humanity—the inherent uncertainty of life, especially in moral judgement.  That’s an uncertainty Harris seems unwilling to live with, at least in the sphere of morality.

Perhaps he just needs to appreciate the best lessons of his own spirituality. and get over this “quest for certainty” in moral matters…

In any case, thanks for the thought provoking reply.  That’s two I owe you…

Agreed again. TML is especially frustrating to me because it’s written by a notable secularist and yet features the same kind of tautology and emotional blackmail that I’ve come to expect from contemporary religious treatments of the subject. Truly disappointing and a big step back for the project as a whole.

 
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28 July 2018 03:34
 

It depends on the definition of well-being.

If you define it as a psychological feeling of satisfaction, it can be debunked a simple thought experiment from Olaf Stapledon’s Modern theory of ethics:
https://olafstapledonarchive.webs.com/moderntheoryethics_ch4.html#d

To emphasize the insufficiency of feeling as the ground of goodness, and even as the essential constituent of goodness, let us imagine the absurd case of a world of sentient beings who have no impulses save the impulse to get gloriously drunk. Let us imagine further that in this absurd world it is possible for every one to indulge this impulse to the full extent without ever causing himself or anyone else any distress. Let us suppose that an intoxicating and sufficiently nourishing manna drops from the sky in such quantities that every one can spend all his time in devouring it. Let us suppose also that the universal tipsy bliss is never marred by a headache. And finally, let us suppose that each ecstatic toper has the comfortable knowledge that every one else is as happy as he, and therefore that there is nothing irrational in his behaviour. Here, it would seem, we have a perfect case of the felt harmonious fulfilment of impulse, and therefore a world wherein the rational good is realized. Are we then mistaken if we judge such a world to be less good than our own world, where there is less harmony of satisfaction? Is the truth just that such a world would not satisfy us, would not give beings like us harmonious fulfilment of our impulses? Or are we right in saying that such a world: would be absolutely less good than ours?

On the other hand, you can define well-being as fulfillment of one’s potential with respect to intellectual, social and creative activities. If this is the case, well-being is indeed the ultimate goal of moral behaviour. The human mind is the most extropic entity known to us and therefore its flourishing must be our priority.

[ Edited: 28 July 2018 04:03 by RoseTylerFan]
 
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28 July 2018 04:23
 
RoseTylerFan - 28 July 2018 03:34 AM

It depends on the definition of well-being.

If you define it as a psychological feeling of satisfaction, it can be debunked a simple thought experiment from Olaf Stapledon’s Modern theory of ethics:
https://olafstapledonarchive.webs.com/moderntheoryethics_ch4.html#d

To emphasize the insufficiency of feeling as the ground of goodness, and even as the essential constituent of goodness, let us imagine the absurd case of a world of sentient beings who have no impulses save the impulse to get gloriously drunk. Let us imagine further that in this absurd world it is possible for every one to indulge this impulse to the full extent without ever causing himself or anyone else any distress. Let us suppose that an intoxicating and sufficiently nourishing manna drops from the sky in such quantities that every one can spend all his time in devouring it. Let us suppose also that the universal tipsy bliss is never marred by a headache. And finally, let us suppose that each ecstatic toper has the comfortable knowledge that every one else is as happy as he, and therefore that there is nothing irrational in his behaviour. Here, it would seem, we have a perfect case of the felt harmonious fulfilment of impulse, and therefore a world wherein the rational good is realized. Are we then mistaken if we judge such a world to be less good than our own world, where there is less harmony of satisfaction? Is the truth just that such a world would not satisfy us, would not give beings like us harmonious fulfilment of our impulses? Or are we right in saying that such a world: would be absolutely less good than ours?

On the other hand, you can define well-being as fulfillment of one’s potential with respect to intellectual, social and creative activities. If this is the case, well-being is indeed the ultimate goal of moral behaviour. The human mind is the most extropic entity known to us and therefore its flourishing must be our priority.

Two thoughts.

First, I agree well-being isn’t a separable and identifiable feeling or emotional state like contentment,  satisfaction, happiness, and so on, but for different reasons than the thought experiment.  Rather I’d say “well-being” is simply a general classification for those positive feelings, not one of those positive states themselves.  All those feelings are “well-being,” as is any positive feeling, but no one of them is well-being as a separable, experienceable feeling.

Second, as ASD points out, “well-being” is the goal of all human endeavor, so saying well-being is the ultimate goal of moral behavior amounts to saying that morality is just like any other human activity.  What special status is there for the well-being pursued in morality than that pursed in, say, medicine or science?  If the science of well-being grounds objective morality, why doesn’t a science of well-being ground objective medicine?  It would seem to me that all Harris gets out of well-being as the ultimate goal of morality is the rather obvious ‘tautology’ that well-being is its ultimate goal.  All human endeavor aims at being well, so why not judge their epistemology against whether or not that goal is achieved?  Why is not scientific or medical objectivity a “navigation problem” about reaching “peaks” of well-being on a scientific or medical “landscape”?

 

[ Edited: 28 July 2018 04:26 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
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28 July 2018 07:15
 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher - 28 July 2018 04:23 AM

Second, as ASD points out, “well-being” is the goal of all human endeavor, so saying well-being is the ultimate goal of moral behavior amounts to saying that morality is just like any other human activity.  What special status is there for the well-being pursued in morality than that pursed in, say, medicine or science?  If the science of well-being grounds objective morality, why doesn’t a science of well-being ground objective medicine?  It would seem to me that all Harris gets out of well-being as the ultimate goal of morality is the rather obvious ‘tautology’ that well-being is its ultimate goal.  All human endeavor aims at being well, so why not judge their epistemology against whether or not that goal is achieved?  Why is not scientific or medical objectivity a “navigation problem” about reaching “peaks” of well-being on a scientific or medical “landscape”?

No, you cannot do away with morality. But in a sense, you are right, since all human activity must serve the supreme moral goal.

Medicine is the knowledge of the human body and its diseases. It can be used to heal or to kill. The use of medical knowledge creates moral questions, like when to end the suffering of an incurable patient.

 
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28 July 2018 10:08
 
RoseTylerFan - 28 July 2018 07:15 AM
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher - 28 July 2018 04:23 AM

Second, as ASD points out, “well-being” is the goal of all human endeavor, so saying well-being is the ultimate goal of moral behavior amounts to saying that morality is just like any other human activity.  What special status is there for the well-being pursued in morality than that pursed in, say, medicine or science?  If the science of well-being grounds objective morality, why doesn’t a science of well-being ground objective medicine?  It would seem to me that all Harris gets out of well-being as the ultimate goal of morality is the rather obvious ‘tautology’ that well-being is its ultimate goal.  All human endeavor aims at being well, so why not judge their epistemology against whether or not that goal is achieved?  Why is not scientific or medical objectivity a “navigation problem” about reaching “peaks” of well-being on a scientific or medical “landscape”?

No, you cannot do away with morality. But in a sense, you are right, since all human activity must serve the supreme moral goal.

Medicine is the knowledge of the human body and its diseases. It can be used to heal or to kill. The use of medical knowledge creates moral questions, like when to end the suffering of an incurable patient.

Are you saying that morality is supreme among other human activities in achieving well-being? If so, I would say instead that moral behavior is just one human activity among others that strive for “well-being”; that morality solves problems of social interaction, whereas medicine and science solve problems of health and coping with the natural world, and so forth.  If you are asserting the priority of morality by saying all these activities strive for a “supreme moral goal,” then I’d say you are just sneaking in “well-being” as a special province of morality.  But that doesn’t seem to be the case.  Well-being is the province of all we do, and I see no reason to give morality any special title to it, nor do I see any grounds for basing the “objectivity” of those activities on whether or not they achieve well-being—e.g. what Harris does with morality.

[ Edited: 28 July 2018 10:17 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
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28 July 2018 22:27
 

Is there a majority that considers morality to be intrinsically good? If so that probably goes some way toward explaining some degree of signal loss. I don’t think morality is good or oriented toward the good or allied with the good or anything like that. Maybe I’m alone here.

I feel like morality is simply some set of human conventions that contain an overt or covert expectation from other humans to do likewise and uses specific social pressures like emotion as leverage and motivation. A moral action is simply whatever conforms to and collaborates with some particular collective social project. It could be good. It could be bad. Most likely its a mixed bag. Change the date and location and you change the moral worth of a decision.

I think ‘the good’ or a ‘good act’ is a lot more elusive than this. I think it transcends morality. It transcends conscience. It transcends our limited powers to even name it. (Sorry if this sounds ‘woo woo’.) Without getting into metaphysics I think we can necessarily deduce this is true with some simple observations about human weakness and failure. We can abide by all current customs, norms and popular prescriptions and still fail to do good. We can abide by the demands of our own conscience and still fail to do good. We can act according to what seems noble and helpful and altruistic and still fail to do good. If I’m right about that I believe it infers the existence of (at minimum) a concept beyond these conventions.

Sorry to derail the thread with this but I do think it’s pretty important considering the topic title.

 
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29 July 2018 05:35
 
Brick Bungalow - 28 July 2018 10:27 PM

Is there a majority that considers morality to be intrinsically good? If so that probably goes some way toward explaining some degree of signal loss. I don’t think morality is good or oriented toward the good or allied with the good or anything like that. Maybe I’m alone here.

I feel like morality is simply some set of human conventions that contain an overt or covert expectation from other humans to do likewise and uses specific social pressures like emotion as leverage and motivation. A moral action is simply whatever conforms to and collaborates with some particular collective social project. It could be good. It could be bad. Most likely its a mixed bag. Change the date and location and you change the moral worth of a decision.

I think ‘the good’ or a ‘good act’ is a lot more elusive than this. I think it transcends morality. It transcends conscience. It transcends our limited powers to even name it. (Sorry if this sounds ‘woo woo’.) Without getting into metaphysics I think we can necessarily deduce this is true with some simple observations about human weakness and failure. We can abide by all current customs, norms and popular prescriptions and still fail to do good. We can abide by the demands of our own conscience and still fail to do good. We can act according to what seems noble and helpful and altruistic and still fail to do good. If I’m right about that I believe it infers the existence of (at minimum) a concept beyond these conventions.

Sorry to derail the thread with this but I do think it’s pretty important considering the topic title.

Not a derailment, I think.  Rather your point deepens the stakes… 

I think I see what you are driving at.  In one sense, morality aims at some conception of the good, but not necessarily the good itself.  In another sense, descriptively, it just aims, so to speak; it aims at regulating social behavior in some way, through various mechanisms, whether that regulation is “good” or not.  So some distinction between moral actions as aiming for the good and moral actions as just regulating social behavior is warranted.  Ideally it does both, but as a statement of fact it’s best just to say that morality is “simply some set of human conventions that contain an overt or covert expectation from other humans to do likewise.”  Whether it aims for, much less achieves, the good is a separate issue.

Yes, I think that’s right.  We want to think our moral actions reach the good just by virtue of being moral, but there is no apriori reason to think that just because we act “morally” in one circumstance, we actually are making the right—in the sense of reaching the good—decision.  It may just be that the moral act in some circumstances leads to something bad, or it may be that what one society deems necessary for social regulation is just, for the most part, bad—or at least not good by any sensible conception (that tribe, for instance, that Harris discusses in TML).  In this way the good transcends moral judgment.  It is something that ideally moral judgment aims for, but in reality it can fall short of, either because the conception of the good is misguided, or because regulation itself is deemed good just because it’s regulation, without proper thought toward how good that regulation is; or it falls short just because we misfired somehow.  In any case, the good can’t be reduced to our limited moralities; they are too relative for that, and even when they are fairly effective at reaching goodness, they can still far short in some circumstances—which is just another way of saying we can’t foresee all contingencies with our moral judgments; that some of these contingencies will fall outside its effective guidance. 

In one respect, the point you are driving at speaks toward the uncertain and probable nature of moral judgment, and in that respect, it seems sound; I agree.  In our moral judgments we may do our best to reach the good, but we may be wrong about how best to achieve it in a given situation; that even though we apply our best moral knowledge at the time, the consequences of the act or institution show that we were wrong.  Something bad happens, something worse, maybe, than what prompted the moral deliberation.  In any case, as rare as that might be, we can never know prior to the consequences of a moral act whether the act is truly moral in the normative sense of actually reaching the good, or whether it was just “moral” in the descriptive sense of conforming to moral norms.  Yes, prior to the moral act we have no guarantees that the act will be moral in the sense of achieving the good.  In this respect, I think the point is sound.

In another respect, however, the point you are driving at raises a whole hornets nest of metaphysical questions, which doesn’t ipso facto speak to its soundness, but it does make me wonder if it’s a road we want to go down.  For instance, what you are driving it with the question of “transcendent good” about which our conceptions may waver sounds like it could be the road Plato takes us down—The Good as a Form or an Ideal or an Essence—in any case as something requiring some special knowledge or intuition beyond our regular limited capacities to know.  Minimally it would require an incontestable foundation, one that provides justification for moral claims.  I’m not saying you are going down this road, only that calling good “transcendent” suggests its possibility.  I happen to think it can be transcendent in a different way, but I’m not even sure what I mean by that. 

How, for instance, do we recognize that our moral judgments can be moral and “right” in the sense of conforming to our best moral norms and using all available knowledge at the time but still fail to achieve a good outcome?  How can we conceptualize “good” here without falling into the Platonic trap—the trap that’s taken us down an indecisive road for 2500 years, with no stable results; the trap of seeking some Ideal, some summum bonum, some Good against which all other conceptions of “good” can be measured?  The trap of asserting an incontestable foundation for morality that provides advanced justification for moral claims.  I don’t know, but the question you raise gets to, I think, the heart of the matter.  In some sense we have to recognize that our conceptions of “the right thing to do” are too limited to actually be, in all case for all times, The Right Thing To Do.  But we also want to avoid getting entrapped into a conception of The Right Thing To Do that we argue about endlessly, with no more resolution than when we started—essentially the argument Harris engages in with his foundation for morality in a science of well-being.  Perhaps we need a way of conceiving moral judgment without a “foundation”; a conception without the assurance of prior justification; a conception of it as probable, individual and objective, without ever being absolute; a conception that sees moral ends as contingent upon consensus but as achievable nonetheless as questions of fact…

In any case, that’s how I think the issue needs to be approached, and I think your “derailment” is a good segway into that approach.  It raises the central issue.  Alas, however, no answers here, just questions and a prospective framing of those questions…

 

[ Edited: 29 July 2018 09:02 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
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