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Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions
Posted: 30 March 2010 06:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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Write4U - 30 March 2010 05:46 PM

The problem with behavior principles which are based on voluntary observance is that each country, region, province, county, city, village have their own local morals. I believe it is a far reach to envision anyone behaving in a “neutral” humanistic way.

If you travel you will see that people are all the same, all neutral Humanists if you assess it with some acumen. Very predictable. It is true that as a species we rely on our institutions (the Rule of Law, Democracy, Science et al) which form containers, but we also benefit from standardization - and our short lives are no big mystery in terms of its parameters (yet).

Humanism is a philosophy and offers no reward or punishment for bad behavior (other than by law). On the other hand, religion offers reward for good behavior (heaven, 40 virgins), but also punishes bad behavior (hell, damnation).
Thus any Humanist movement should stress the emotional reward and public respect for a “moral” lifestyle and severe physical penalties under law (incarceration, community service) for bad behavior. Otherwise it’s just talk.

Put the money on the table? Well, I think Humanism would benefit from being in ascendancy for a while. For example, we could outlaw war manufacturing/militaries and save us all a pile of cash and some ridiculous risk. So we pay ourselves a modest pension instead of a military budget. Follow?

Think we’d have a problem in Afghanistan if we gave all the old war veterans and their other ‘freedom fighters’ a war pension for their militarist invasions of the past 200 years, and just went home. Make sense? 

Of course. But realize that you may read it here but won’t anywhere else. It’s worth discussing and implementing, that’s what disturbs me, as a Humanist. Because it’s so readily achievable with a world Parliament Assembly (UNPA) and some Human trust, yet people go downtown and buy a .38 instead..

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Posted: 30 March 2010 06:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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Martinus - 30 March 2010 02:26 PM

So to begin with, we can assume that Man is innately moral, and from there people start in bending the twig… i.e. We are born Humanists.

Sure, you can assume it, but you are wrong. Some people are innately moral, others are not.

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Posted: 30 March 2010 07:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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Write4U - 30 March 2010 05:46 PM

“The problem with behavior principles which are based on voluntary observance is that each country, region, province, county, city, village have their own local morals. I believe it is a far reach to envision anyone behaving in a “neutral” humanistic way. Humanism is a philosophy and offers no reward or punishmenht for bad behavior (other than by law). . . .”

Hi, I appreciate the response.

First, I’m not sure that I assumed “voluntary observance”, as any society that I know of, big or small, has some sort of penalty for social infractions on the group or individuals.  This could mean anything from annoyed looks to the death penalty.  Yes, I agree that each ever-widening group, has it’s own set of rules or laws, but those are typically based on the general moral principle of reducing harm to the individual members and, by extension, to the group.  The problems that come in with regard to the social sanctions that defy that general principle are rules that claim some sort of top-down providence: for instance, God supposedly talks to a spokesperson or profit, this person passes it to a scribe, this is understood by a priest, etc., etc., etc.  There are numerous levels in this process where opportunist individuals have the ability to insert their own particular bias or wants.

Second, I understand that humanism is not a legal or political philosophy, but does take as an understanding that humans are the primary source of human governance.  Essentially, that social structure has a bottom-up providence:  for instance, that we (humans) make laws and follow through on those, that those laws are based on our ability to reason, etc.  Humanism is the idea that we humans have made everything the way it is (with regard to human systems) and we have the ability to change it. 

My main point I want to make is that morality is so commonly claimed to be related to religion, that some sort of non-religious alternative, that provides a basic, structured, and reasoned approach, would need to be offered as a grounding to get people to then use objective data (science), as Sam Harris suggests, to inform their moral process.

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Posted: 30 March 2010 07:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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George - 30 March 2010 06:46 PM

Some people are innately moral, others are not.

I’m really interested….  How are some people innately moral and others not?

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Posted: 30 March 2010 07:58 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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cacrosdale - 30 March 2010 07:12 PM
Write4U - 30 March 2010 05:46 PM

Second, I understand that humanism is not a legal or political philosophy, but does take as an understanding that humans are the primary source of human governance. :

Very well said, can we have high school grads recite that?

Essentially, that social structure has a bottom-up providence

Provenance?

My main point I want to make is that morality is so commonly claimed to be related to religion, that some sort of non-religious alternative, that provides a basic, structured, and reasoned approach, would need to be offered as a grounding to get people to then use objective data (science), as Sam Harris suggests, to inform their moral process.

If we agree with you that ‘morality’ is part-and-parcel of the religious viewpoint, why patronize the concept? As I mentioned earlier, a focus on the concept of character places responsibility on the individual, whereas morality is for sermons. In this way a continuation of Greek or Renaissance Humanism revitalizes the valuation of character as an alternative.

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Posted: 30 March 2010 08:48 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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Hi Dwight,

I meant to say “bottom-up provenance” and “top-down providence”, but from brain to fingers, that didn’t work out. Sorry.

I personally don’t think that morality is intimately tied to a religious viewpoint.  It certainly has been claimed to be, and holds that stigma, but I don’t think that it needs to be scrapped for that reason alone.  In fact, contrary to that, it may be all the more reason to reclaim it in that it offers a common way to bridge the gap between people. “Moral reasoning” has as much of a secular history as a religious one and can be shown, very quickly, to be much more useful in modern day situations where it that it doesn’t have to reference an ancient text in the hope of finding some appropriate application.   

I like the notion of the development of “character” as well and, in thinking about it, may be much more important in terms of focusing on personal moral behavior (rather than leaving it to some abstract philosophical concept that people may not feel applies to them), but I was trying to focus on the issues of Harris’ speech.

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Posted: 30 March 2010 09:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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cacrosdale - 30 March 2010 07:21 PM
George - 30 March 2010 06:46 PM

Some people are innately moral, others are not.

I’m really interested….  How are some people innately moral and others not?

People inherit their parents’ genes which to some degree will shape their beahviour. Adopted children who’s biological parents are criminals have much higher chance to become criminals themselves when compared to adopted children who’s biological parents are honest citizens. If you are really interested, google the names of Mednick, Gabrielli and Hutchings to read more on genetic correlates of criminal behavior. If you are not interested, get something by Jean-Jacques Rousseau…  wink

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Posted: 30 March 2010 10:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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I believe there is a third way.  If one is to persuade a “spiritual” person that the notion of an “intelligent, purposeful” god is false, one must be prepared to offer an alternative which behaves in the same manner as a god but is founded in science. i.e. “as you sow so shall ye reap” = “laws of causality”, or “eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge” = the point in evolution where man acquired intelligence”, or “and god created the heavens and the earth” = “the big bang” (btw. the science department of the Vatican (holy see) concluded that the big bang is not contrary to scripture).
Whenever I speak with a relatively objective religious person, I use the bible to demonstrate scientific concepts, which often lead to a shift in thinking, but without the demand that religion must be discarded.
When you take something away from someone (who holds this very dear), you must be prepared to offer a solution which can replace the “loss”. In a previous post I proposed that God = Potential (that which may become reality). The equation is in itself scientifically correct, and can be argued and defended as a viable substitute, but removes the notion of an “intelligent being” governing the universe.

[ Edited: 30 March 2010 10:33 PM by Write4U ]
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Posted: 31 March 2010 12:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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“.... People inherit their parents’ genes which to some degree will shape their beahviour. Adopted children who’s biological parents are criminals have much higher chance to become criminals themselves when compared to adopted children who’s biological parents are honest citizens. If you are really interested, google the names of Mednick, Gabrielli and Hutchings….”

I was trying to think of how to approach this comment, but realize that I have some real emotional bias in this.  I professionally work with adopted children (and their adoptive families) and have a great of deal of background on this subject.  However, I think that you are trying to refer to adopted children with the assumption that these individuals have “escaped” environmental influence (that by being adopted by caring families, there is no reason, apart from genetics, that they could have difficulties).  With the aim of being fair, I don’t want to comment until I actually have Googled Mednick, Gabrielli, and Hutchings to see what the claims are. . . .

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Posted: 31 March 2010 12:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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question: would it be moral to manipulate genetics to “evolve” a more benign human?  A pretty subtle way of genetic engineering or selective breeding.
I just wonder if it is inevitable that where man has the ability of imagination and fantasy, the cost is that these fantasies go both ways. The more creative we become in good (symbiosis), the more creative we become in expressions of evil (predation). To upset that balance may have unsuspected consequences.

[ Edited: 31 March 2010 12:36 AM by Write4U ]
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Posted: 31 March 2010 01:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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I’ve considered the same idea a bunch of times, but it ultimately falls back on a series of dilemmas:

Humans are the product of evolution and, like higher-order mammals, have had brain levels slapped on top of other brain levels over the eons of our development.  To abbreviate the discussion a bit, the bottom layer is about base issues (brain stem, etc.), the next layer is paleo-mammalian (emotion, etc.), the next layer is neo-mammalian (thoughts, concepts, language, etc.), and the top section, the pre-frontal cortex, is about “human-like” functions (focus, attention, abstract thought, etc.)..... 

Humans are in constant mental conflict, to a lesser or greater degrees, as these layers, all working on different neurochemical systems, battle it out.  To make someone “more benign”, just tosses this all out of balance.  To make someone more “cerebral” does the same. . . .

Humans have a weird set of variables that preclude extensive “messing around”.

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Posted: 31 March 2010 06:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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Write4U - 31 March 2010 12:34 AM

question: would it be moral to manipulate genetics to “evolve” a more benign human?

If your wife was pregnant with a child who you knew was going to grow up to become a psychopath, would you alter it? I see nothing immoral about this.

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Posted: 31 March 2010 06:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]
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cacrosdale - 31 March 2010 12:03 AM

However, I think that you are trying to refer to adopted children with the assumption that these individuals have “escaped” environmental influence (that by being adopted by caring families, there is no reason, apart from genetics, that they could have difficulties).

Right, but, FWIW, it probably doesn’t matter much what type of parents the foster parents are. Children who’s biological parents are honest citizens and who are adopted by criminal foster parents have only slightly higher chance to become criminals when compared to children who’s biological parents are honest citizens and are adopted by foster parents who are honest citizens. Remember Oliver Twist?  wink

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Posted: 05 May 2010 11:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]
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Sam Harris clarifies his position and responds to critics:

http://www.project-reason.org/newsfeed/item/moral_confusion_in_the_name_of_science3/

[ Edited: 05 May 2010 12:01 PM by Chocotacoi8 ]
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Posted: 01 October 2010 09:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]
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Edited to clean up some humorous misspellings.

I just picked up on the videos posted on Sam Harris’ web site off of Michael Shermer’s twitter:  “Good video summary of Sam Harris’s thesis in his next book, The Moral Landscape”, then clicked Sam Harris’ twitter page to find: “Short video introducing #TheMoralLandscape http://bit.ly/byHUql Please feel free to pass along.” So, I’m a little late to watching the TED presentation. The introductory vid is pretty good.

Sam Harris’ web site with vidoes

I really enjoyed the TED presentation. It’s funny in a way I found out about the video this way because while I’m watching Sam I’m thinking a great introduction to this would be to read Shermer’s book, The Science of Good and Evil. It almost appears to me like an extension of Shermer’s arguments to basically argue that we need to now move on, assured we can make judgments about “morality” that are sound without getting bogged down with the distractions of what is essentially “cultural relativism”.

While watching I was thinking back to arguments made by Jonathan Haidt which were part of the Edge.org’s, The New Science of Morality conference.

I think the examples Harris uses are pretty straight forward and correct. Where I believe Haidt goes wrong is a matter of emphases mainly. Haidt argues against a form of “confirmation bias” in how we view and empirically calculate in the wide spectrum of “moral principles” throughout cultures. However, this ignores that we already have a clear understanding of a gray area of “moral, ethical” behavior. What I mean is - take the example of forcing women to wear a burqa is clearly an area that can be reasonably viewed as “unethical” since we know the strict limitations this places on individual freedoms (limiting potential, instilling fear etc.) - we also know the people forcing this behavior and those who must conform (whether they want to or not) most likely live reasonably “moral” lives. Haidt argues a kind of ethnocentrism (actually, a particular westernized cultural influence) should not determine our (un)willingness to collect data with regards to all cultures. This is only partially true since we can reasonably assume (for example) the forcing of wearing burqa’s is “unethical” and the moral justification is then likely faulty which can further tell us that the “moral” behavior done by the individuals within that culture do so in-spite of their justifications since the guiding principles will at once severally limit an individuals “freedoms” while allowing them for others with no rational reason why accept a claim that it is essentially dictated by a source (which is also unproven outside of being forwarded by other people). At some point we can say that “moral system” is broken and we can do this through empirically justifiable means - this obviously does not say we should dogmatically accept or reject certain principles (after all that wouldn’t be very scientific). Again, I’m reminded of Shermer’s basic argument that may follow all of this which lead him to argue for “provisional ethics” (which I accept and maintains scientific integrity for one clear reason that we can recognize scientific findings as provisional). Following this I also accept Paul Kurtz’s argument we must be willing to reconsider our “moral principles” when new data is confirmed.

[ Edited: 01 October 2010 11:00 AM by Skepticus ]
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