Monday, 24 January 2011
I recently posted my general review of Sam Harris' latest book, "The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values." A fellow xangan, bryangoodrich, let me know that he'd previously posted his thoughts on a Sam Harris Tedtalk on the same topic. There's enough one to one correlation with the talk and the contents of the book to make this relevant to my review of the book.
Bryan says:...well-being and associated morality is "agent relative." Harris wants to talk about there being an objective notion of well-being, but he talks of objectivity in morality like objectivity in science. Talking about values can be like talking about facts in that we can form cognitive (semantic) theories about how they are associated, but values are not facts. Their very nature imposes relativistic or perspectival constraints not found in "billiard ball objectivity."
Rather than use the terms "objective" and "subjective" it may be better to use "common ground" to refer to common psychological capacity for mental states as members of the same species and "arbitrary" to refer to benign divergence from that. People who don't know about higher moral peaks and are relatively content in their ignorance still have the psychological capacity to have a different and better life. That's "billard ball objectivity" to me as things just aren't "agent relative" enough in any relevant sense to undermine Harris' proposal.
Bryan makes a perplexing claim:I have seen no evidence to support the idea that the tyranny of custom preventing us from having available certain choices causes any sort of conscious defect. Without that, Harris' fundamental thesis is not supported.
Bryan's objection might make sense if Harris was only talking about active suffering, but he is also talking about the positive side of the moral landscape as well. Surely there's no overwhelming reason to discuss monastic techniques for achieving amazing levels of contentment, yet Harris brings that up a lot more than all of the other new atheists out there, doesn't he? So there's not really a conflict here as Bryan imagines.
Bryan says:...notice a recurring theme in Harris' example: Middle Eastern women are often forced, either by cultural stigma or by physical abuse, to cover themselves completely when in public. He is quick to note that if someone in a free country like America chooses to wear a burqa, this is alright. To maintain a tradition by our own free choice is fundamentally different than not having the choice at all. There is a difference between someone fasting and someone starving, for instance.
All humans self-justify their choices as a means of preserving the norms of their self-esteem. That doesn't mean their every perceived beneficial justification actually represents what they think it does. I don't think we should necessarily assume that liberty makes everything okay. It just often makes things better since people are free to navigate away from imposed suffering and towards mental states that they at least believe work better for them. Individuals tend to be the best judges of that to a point, but ignorance is a factor as well. Even the women who have the liberty to choose the burqa can be wrong about that choice as a lifestyle just as someone who chooses to fast can be wrong about the benefits of fasting. They might make different choices if introduced to certain facts or methodologies which accomplished the same goal better. It is not an uncommon post-hoc sentiment to look back on the choices made in the past and exclaim, "What was I thinking!?" as though there is a problem with their memory.
Bryan says:If we are to say that being forced to wear a burqa with no other choice is wrong, even though it induces no mental stress on the person accepting that lifestyle, then we are saying which conventions of morality are better. We may have good reasons for that, but they do not rely upon the information Harris wants us to believe is important.
The active suffering of Muslim women of this kind is just a factual question Harris may be wrong about. If there aren't any problems, and burqa wearing turns out to be as awesome as it gets, then Harris is going to have to agree by his own logic. Even if the example of the burqa can be found not to work for some reason and that active "oppression" is entirely contrived from our narrow-minded Western perspective, surely Bryan is aware of repressive cultural norms in general? Virtually everything feminists and gay rights activists argue for fall into that category. Religious people push back when their cultural options are cut off in a secular society, etc. Pick a different one and we can simply use that as our example, but I don't think we have to.
Aside from the idea of just pleasing the arbitrary whims of Allah*, what exactly is a Muslim woman trying to accomplish in her day to day experience by wearing a burqa? What are the psychological expectations of a woman in the West who chooses to show a great deal of skin on a daily basis (since that dichotomy is Harris' common example)? Taking into consideration whatever each woman might report in addition to a full cross-cultural analysis of women from around the world on the same kind of issue, what are all of the possible "psychological goals" that human females are attempting to actualize with their clothing choices? We already have some idea of what that palette of experiences will be to do a preliminary assessment (which of course can be checked for bias and other mistakes with further analysis). Who is hitting the best balance of modesty, self-respect, personal liberty, net solicitation of flattering social approval as well as comfortable indifference (which would also entail different encultured assumptions for men as well in a full picture), and whatever else we may find that tends to be important to women. Who can boast the most? Surely someone can. It's not like every moral/relational mental framework is static and perfectly attuned to every representative individual.
Harris suggests something in between the extremes. Someone may claim that they have the maximum possible level of self-respect for example, but perhaps we can do brain scans to show just how active that part of their mind is when feeling that way in comparison to another person's alternative claim. Perhaps further research might also be able to cut through the self-reporting artifacts by determining the frequency and longevity of such experiences in every day life as well. In all likelihood, when all the facts are in and when the logic is corrected there will probably be a meaningful answer (whether Harris' moderate answer is correct or not) that the vast majority of women who care about their experience of themselves should want to know about in a morally prescriptive sense on the issue.
As I said in my review:Even our own values change over time, from moment to moment, and we are constantly navigating the perils of self-contradiction, personal ignorance, and our own immaturity when engaging the world of value differences. There's not even such a thing as a genuine cultural baseline inside of one culture for relativism to latch onto. If you are doing any effective moralizing for yourself or your own not-so-static culture or any trouble-shooting whatsoever, you do in fact have all the tools you need to sort the entire world out whether you recognize that or not.
If my own convention is to mean anything at all, and if I have anything in common with other humans, we can in principle sort this stuff out even if it turns out the practical science can't be used to tease out results. I really don't understand how anyone can hope to argue for an arbitrary dividing line where those tools cease to apply to sorting out the human condition. Otherwise we're just making a whole bunch of arbitrary stuff up that doesn't actually correlate with improving one's life or avoiding the many flavors of misery.
Bryan says:...people in these sort of "problem case" scenarios are often not in some sort of conscious detriment. Consider an abused and overworked housewife or an impoverished black male. In both cases, they may be consciously well-off, even though they lack substantial freedoms to enjoy things other people readily obtain. The black male may not get a great job, drive a BMW or get an advanced education. Nevertheless, he may go through his entirely life satisfied. Why? Because he has no aspirations to get a great job, drive a BMW or obtain an advanced degree. His life expectations were low to begin with, and so he was satisfied with his lowly life.
I don't get the impression that Harris' conception of the moral landscape entails that everyone drives a Ferrari. Bryan feels free to use the value-laden terms "abused" and "overworked" in reference to the housewife. That's a little confusing since there's no reason to call someone abused if there are no symptoms of abuse to appeal to. I'm assuming Bryan is not using the example of "stable" dysfunctional relationships that are clearly problematic from the outside and yet viciously defended from the inside despite the cycles of abuse. We must be talking about something more low key than that.
It's definitely an interesting point and contributes additional complexities to the discussion. People don't know what they don't know and may report "wellness" from their current level of expectations given their knowledge base of possible mental states. However, to speak for Harris (if I may, or at least to speak for myself), I don't consider this a meaningful stumbling block to proceeding with moral science. It can just become an axiom of moral science that humans can achieve the maximal states of happiness with a variety of life expectations. Is that really a problem? Cinderella might be able to be just as happy slaving under her step-mother if she never has another option as she is living the life of a fully appreciated princess. Even taking the pictures that Bryan presents for granted as static demographics (which probably isn't ever entirely true, since I don't know of anyone who doesn't ever consider other options for their life), that's only a slice of the spectrum of humanity and doesn't refute the relevancy of the rest of the spectrum. There can be many stunted "I don't know any better" hills on the moral landscape where perhaps not a lot of suffering is happening (and hence, less worthy of our time as far as solving the world's problems go).
However that doesn't mean that someone who happens to know better can't evaluate them and make educated guesses as to what might be better. We do that all the time with friends and family going through the complexities and dramas of their lives. We make constant judgments about when others are failing to meet their "full potential" in their ignorance and this isn't crazy talk (or crazy thoughts) in principle even though often enough we can be hasty and make poor judgments based on the wrong things. It is logically possible for someone to be more aware than someone else when it comes to positive and even negative mental states. I don't think that should be a controversial claim. In our own person experience and life history it is typical to be informed of higher elevations on the moral landscape whether by stumbling into them or through advertisement from others. Presumably, a comprehensive appraisal of what is possible for human beings could inform us where the highest peaks are. If I can hope to find higher elevations on the moral landscape in my personal experience (which is obviously true), I see no reason why a concerted effort on the part of our most rigorous methods couldn't do even better.
There probably is some limited detriment to informing people of what they don't have in terms of mental states. They become "have nots" whereas they otherwise would have been "didn't know any betters." One could construe situations where "ignorance is relative bliss" but in an information age and in public discourse, this isn't as important as building the best picture of human capacities that we can. It may be an issue with dealing with primitive cultures around the world which are not on the main street of the world community, but I don't think the "right to be ignorant" applies to anyone else in a responsible conversation that attempts to get all of our moral facts straight.
Bryan says:...Harris has argued for something entirely opposite of what he says is fundamental to morality. It is true that taking consequences and suffering into account is important. These manifest at aggregate levels by heuristics we identify as being important to accept, at least to those that accept that convention. But to recognize the significance of our heuristics over those of others cannot be defended by a thesis of mental suffering. As Harris has done, it must be defended by a theory of liberty, rights and justice.
Liberty, rights and justice either have consequences for the well-being of conscious creatures or there is no reason to defend them and that's what Harris has been seamlessly arguing for all along. The error that Harris constantly harps on is to allow the discussion to separate those realms.
*I'm assuming there are conceptions of Allah where he and Harris could be on the same page in principle in terms of stipulating behaviors that maximize well-being. Many theists have this kind of view where guidelines for proper human behavior can simply be "reverse engineered" from experience.
So there appears to be just a few minor conceptual errors and misunderstandings. Most of what Bryan says in his post, I think Harris would agree with.