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facts vs values

So, essius recently linked me to some stuff related to Sam Harris's new book The Moral Landscape, and it got me thinking about this topic again. First, here is Harris's 20 minute TED talk on the subject:

http://www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right.html

And here is Sean Carroll's well-written response. He says basically what I would have said, and does a good job of explaining why science will never be able to determine fundamental values:

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2010/05/03/you-cant-derive-ought-from-is/

What I found interesting about this is that, as I watch Sam Harris speak on the subject, I find myself more or less nodding my head and agreeing. But then when I read Sean Carroll's response, I'm reminded of why Harris is surely full of shit. So this got me thinking, what part of what Harris is saying do I agree with? And what part do I disagree with? This post is an attempt to explain where I stand on the issue.

One of the devices Harris used in an article he wrote for the Huffington Post to convince people morality is objective is linking to pictures of Muslim women who have been burned with acid, a common reaction when women in highly oppressive Islamic cultures turn down a potential mate or question the patriarchy... (warning, these pictures may be very disturbing):

http://www.tampabay.com/blogs/alleyes/2009/11/terrorism-thats-personal.html

On the surface, it seems like he has a good point. I mean, who could look at these pictures and honestly say to themselves "yup, the society these women live in is just as ethical as any modern Western society... after all, who are we to judge? Their values are relative to their culture."

And I have some sympathy for that viewpoint. In fact, I think these women are being treated horribly, and I would even be willing to advocate a bit of cultural imperialism in this case... let's teach the men in these backwards Muslim cultures to be more tolerant of women, and more respectful... at least respectful enough not to throw acid in their face when they get turned down for a date. But the difference between Sam Harris and myself is that I don't pretend that there is some objective reason why I'm right and the men who threw the acid are wrong. Rather, I just claim that I care deeply about women and want to defend them against acts of aggression like this. It's a subjective concern, that not all people necessarily share. Indeed, I think the fact that there do exist men who engage in this behavior, and who defend it, is pretty strong evidence that my feelings there are not universal.

But there is a part of what he's saying that I agree with. And that's that many times, when people (or societies) debate what the most ethical course of action is in a given situation, the answer to that question can be informed by science, and in many cases settled by science. But whereas he interprets that as proof that science can say something about values, I do not. Why not? Because any question about best-course-of-action is determined by a combination of fundamental values and facts about the world. If you know what your values are, that still doesn't give you information about what the best way is to achieve them or how to maximize them. And that's where science can be helpful--in giving you an accurate understanding of the world so that you can make informed decisions rather than uninformed decisions about how to act. Harris confuses facts with values and thinks that if you're asking an ethical question (a question about whether a given action is ethical) then that means it's purely a question about values--it's not. While I haven't read his book so I can't say for sure, I get the impression from his TED video that all of his purported attempts at demonstrating objective morality take this form where he treats a combination of facts and values as if it is purely a question of values.

Let's look at a concrete example to see exactly how this works: the question of whether it is ethical to put a cap on CO_2 emissions (for example, cap and trade). Science can certainly inform someone on the answer to this question, because it hinges critically on whether or not emitting CO_2 into the air causes the increase in temperature that science says it does. On that point, I whole-heartedly agree with Harris. If it does not affect the temperature, then putting caps on CO_2 emissions will do nothing but hurt the economy. But it's very important to realize that it will only settle the question if people agree on the basic premise that global warming is bad. If they disagree on that then the science doesn't settle it. Now, you can take this a step further, and say that science can even inform us on the question of whether global warming is bad. It can do this because it can give us more information on what the effects of global warming will be. Someone who isn't aware of or doesn't believe the science may not realize all of the effects it has, and so they may come to a different conclusion about whether it is bad than if they were aware of the facts. However, this process has an end because fundamentally, all values are rooted in subjective desires, not objective facts. There's a fundamental difference between facts and values, and I just don't see how he can get around this.

Continuing with the global warming example, let's say that science says that coastal cities will likely be flooded, hurting poor people (who can't get up and move inland easily) the most. If two different people hear that, and they both agree that hurting poor people is bad, then presumably both will be convinced that global warming is bad (or that it has at least one bad effect). But what if they don't agree that hurting poor people is bad? To a poor person, it seems fairly obvious and self-evident that hurting poor people is bad. But to a rich person, it's much less straightforward. If all of your friends and family are rich, and the only time you ever encounter poor people is when they are bugging you for change on the way to work, you might feel differently. Especially if the poorest people live in another country entirely, you might not care at all. And despite what people may say to the contrary, I strongly suspect this is the case for many residents of rich countries. Fundamentally, they don't care about some starving person in Africa, or some poor person living in a coastal city they'll never visit, because it's not going to affect their life or anything they will ever experience or have to deal with or worry about. It's not going to affect their family, their kids, their neighbors. They just won't see any bad effects from it at all. (Ok, for global warming, perhaps they will see some bad effects, but I think you see my point... it's far less of a concern for them than if it directly affected them.)

The hardest part of ethics is figuring out how to balance the interests of one person against the interests of another. And there have been all different kinds of proposed solutions in philosophy for how to deal with this. But the real fact of the matter is, people have different interests. When it comes to ethics, I think a lot of people like Harris like to pretend that all of our interests are the same, and that everyone in the "human family" all wants the same outcomes, and all cares about exactly the same things. But this seems trivially false--we don't care about the same things, we all care about different things. Yes, many of us care about other humans, and even in some cases other animals. But we all care by different amounts, it's highly dependent on things like what culture you were raised in, who your friends are, etc. I think the fundamental error that moral objectivists make is in assuming that we all care about the same thing. And every moral objectivist you ask will give you a slightly different thing that we supposedly all care about, whether it be survival of the species, a maximization of freedom, a maximization of happiness, self interest, altruism, honesty, virtue, loyalty, patriotism, dignity, sanctity, respect, fairness, justice, tolerance, etc. And it's probably true that most if not all people care about all of these things to some extent, but the issue is we all care by different amounts. Some people will care mostly about freedom while others will care mostly about happiness. Some will care so much about honesty that they put it above all the rest, some might do the same for loyalty or altruism. But I think it's fine for us to just admit that we disagree and try to get along. There's no need to pretend that we all care about the same things by exactly the same amounts in exactly the same proportions, because it's simply not true.

In the end, for practical purposes, there may be many things I agree with Sam Harris on. And I do think that, because the human species shares much of its DNA with each other, that we do happen to have a lot of shared values in common. And when you can find a value that nearly everyone shares to some extent, for example "preservation of life" then you can consider that "true" for practical purposes. But there's a very big difference between arriving at a consensus on the facts, and arriving at a consensus on values. People arrive at a consensus on facts through argumentation and it is often the case that one person is just wrong and has to be convinced by the other person. But with values, you never arrive at a consensus, there is only a consensus if people happen to start out nearby each other. If you don't happen to start out nearby each other, then you'll always have different values and there's nothing wrong with that. It's all a beautiful part of the diversity of our species.

So for practical purposes, it's fine to say "throwing acid in women's faces is just plain wrong" and expect that most others will agree. And if they don't agree, it's fine to ignore their opinions, because they're doing something the rest of us feel is very wrong. It's not that we ignore their opinions because they are mistaken about something, we ignore their opinions because they are advocating behavior that we really really don't like. And to me, because tolerance is a huge value that I hold and consider very important, I would only ever ignore someone's opinion on values if I feel like theirs very deeply conflict with mine, as is the case with someone who thinks it is ok to throw acid in women's faces. If it's a case where their values differ but I don't feel like they are all that harmful, then I try my best to live and let live... and I try to encourage others to do the same.

To wrap this up, there is one more point I'd like to make. In Sean Carroll's post he said that for practical purposes, this difference between subjective vs objective morality doesn't actually matter. But this is actually the one thing he said that I'd disagree with. Yes, for *most* practical purposes it doesn't matter and for most practical purposes, I would probably end up agreeing with Sam Harris. However, there are definitely real life situations where I think Harris's views become very dangerous and scary. And the real life situations have to do with things like cultural imperialism and with trying to impose top-down solutions for things that would be better handled by letting everyone choose for themselves and live out their own lives with their own values. This is the libertarian in me preaching, but one of the things that really worries me about hardcore utilitarians is that because they think they have some kind of moral calculus--some happiness function they can maximize--it gives them a tendency to try to meddle in people's lives to make them better. I'm fine with meddling if you can be sure that you are doing something for someone who doesn't understand some fact about the world that would make them happier. But I'm (usually) not okay with meddling because you think your value system is superior. In extreme cases, sometimes even that can be justified (such as trying to stop Hitler or perhaps the Taliban).

But what worries me is that someone like Sam Harris will be prone to meddle in many more cases than is justified. Because he's convinced himself that he has some objective reason why his views are superior, when it is really just subjective. That's the real life difference, moral subjectivists like myself tend to be more tolerant of other people, whereas moral objectivists tend to be well--moralizing. They have a tendency to support things like cultural imperialism. For example, geheimnisnacht pointed out to me that one of Harris's stated ways of determining ethics scientifically was to measure "how global civilization can best thrive". Whether Harris realizes this or not, this way of stating it in terms of "civilization" exposes an intolerant bias against uncivilized cultures such as hunter gatherer societies. For example, I wonder what Harris would have thought of the European genocide against native Americans. Arguably, wiping out the indiginous culture helped global civilization thrive. As did capturing uncivilized people in Africa and bringing them to the new world as slaves. So does that mean if you did one of Sam's fancy science experiments and proved that wiping the uncivilized people out helped the civilized people thrive better, then that proves that it was the ethical choice? I would disagree. I think, even if someone did such an experiment, I would not hop on board and say "yes, that's ethical".

Granted, I still haven't read his actual book. So I should probably give him more of a chance. But this is my current view of the situation, and while I will probably read his book at some point because I do find the subject fascinating, I think it is very unlikely to change my opinion on the matter. I think it is a lot more likely, I will read it and lose respect for Dawkins for recommending it.

Comments

( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
plymouth
Dec. 3rd, 2010 05:12 am (UTC)
To a poor person, it seems fairly obvious and straightforward that they would agree that hurting poor people is bad. But to a rich person, it's much less straightforward. If all of your friends and family are rich, and the only time you ever encounter poor people is when they are bugging you for change on the way to work, you might feel differently.

As a (by global standards) rich person who mostly sees poor people bugging me for change, my take is that hurting poor people hurts me. Flooding the homes of poor people means they become even more poor people and are more likely to be bugging me for change. Because climate change happens slowly and it won't happen fast enough to DROWN the people in cities - just to destroy their homes. So they will move inland same as rich people do, they just won't be able to afford homes there. Not to mention that coastal cities are also commercial hubs and while it won't be ruinous to have to move those things it won't be cheap. Christ, I would be sad to lose Manhattan. This place is AWESOME.

Now I know when I say this is sounds awfully callous and it's not that I don't have actual empathy for people being displaced from their homes. I do. I just get a little cranky at being called a "bleeding heart liberal" when I believe I am a liberal for mostly pretty selfish reasons. (note that I am not accusing you of calling me that - the statement is generic).
spoonless
Dec. 3rd, 2010 03:53 pm (UTC)

I just get a little cranky at being called a "bleeding heart liberal" when I believe I am a liberal for mostly pretty selfish reasons.

Yeah, this was a big realization for me when I got into grad school. Prior to grad school I had an impression of liberals as being "bleeding hearts" that just had different core values from me. Now I think of socialists as the bleeding hearts, and liberals are essentially just libertarians who have a more sophisticated understanding of the world.
ankh_f_n_khonsu
Dec. 3rd, 2010 11:44 pm (UTC)
"more sophisticated understanding of the world"?!

What makes this comical is that you have no idea how closely you are aligning yourself with bigotry. Given your interests in gender and subjection, that's a little beyond ironic.
spoonless
Dec. 4th, 2010 02:35 am (UTC)
Nice to see you back, haven't stopped by in a while.

By the way, I've got a question for you. You do a lot of complaining about the capitalist system, about Obama, about the Olympics, about just about everything in modern society. But I've never heard what your political views are? What kind of system would you support? Do you have an alternative in mind or do you just think the way the world is really sucks and everyone is to blame and there's nothing that can be done about it?
ankh_f_n_khonsu
Dec. 5th, 2010 01:33 am (UTC)
Yeah, reading LJ doesn't always fit into the schedule these days... I do my best to read through at least once a week, but my commenting is definitely less frequent...

Anyway, I think you've misunderstood the object of critique as criterion of critique. For example: I do not complain about capitalism - I complain about the asymmetries of power, structural inequalities, and inherent exploitations of capitalism. I do not complain about Obama - I complain about the hegemonies he legitimizes, the approach to governmentality he embodies, and the misanthropy lurking beneath the ideologies he privileges. I do not complain about the Olympics - I complain about the corporate graft, misappropriation of the commons, and sociopathic spectacle. Etc.

Insofar as my political views, I tend to agree with Alain Badiou: forms of collective organization which eliminate inequalities of wealth and access are not only possible, but practicable.

I can't begin to envision the type of governance I'd support because it hasn't been invented yet. We don't need re-packaged ideology. The Event cannot be packaged at all. To that end, here I find great resonance with the queer utopianists - in particular, Muñoz. See, for e.g., (2009) Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity.

Instead, I'd counter that if you're thinking in terms of established political economy, I think it's critical to emphasize that you're actually taking on homo-normative narratives as ideal.

In regards to whether I "have an alternative in mind", again, it would be rather problematic if I did. I'm looking towards unrealized futures, not taking on the narrative of progress or any of that.

However, that isn't to say contours aren't clear enough to be acted upon, but to admit that they're fuzzy enough that they shouldn't be universalized or imposed by way of authoritarian discourses. For example, I'd argue education should be free from the cradle to the grave - at all levels. Further, I'd say that education needs to be de-linked from capital production. Here I find resonance with Zizek and Kant who argued in favour of the public use of reason, as contrasted with the private use of reason. By linking education with capital production we esteem a system of experts. These experts make private use of reason to impose solutions. For example, an expert might look out and quantify poverty, then call for policies which will mitigate the version of poverty under study. However, in this instance there was no public use of reason because there was no consideration of why poverty existed in the first place. In this way experts move discourse towards solutions which negate public use of reason. But, in contrast, I think we need more public use of reason, and I think free education from the cradle to the grave is one means of affecting this potentiality.

Finally, as for whether the world "really sucks", I think the 2.7 billion + who live on less than $2/day (as of 2009) probably wouldn't be so optimistic as to say the world "really works". Similarly, Buckminster Fuller observed:
an economy which wastes a sizable percentage of its production capacity on items such as toilet seats with dollar bills embedded in plastic or a multitude of stuffed animals while thousands of human beings starved to death daily or live without adequate shelter does not yet possess the comprehensive perspective required for the success and survival of humanity as a global species and is not supporting the true function of humans on Earth (Sieden, 1989, p. 376).

Bucky certainly didn't think there wasn't anything to be done about the situation, and neither do I. If I were that cynical I might have a more difficult time giving authentic voice to power. Can you imagine Martin Luther King Jr. with such an attitude? Or Gandhi?
ankh_f_n_khonsu
Dec. 3rd, 2010 11:41 pm (UTC)
There are soooooo many assumptions underlying your interpolations. And if that weren't tragic enough? - Ugh. As if Harris actually has something meaningful to say about culture or ethics?! Looking to him for these horizons seems about as silly as using Obama as an exemplar of accountability.
peter_bayesian
Dec. 5th, 2010 04:21 am (UTC)
I haven't read Harris' arguments. But based on some ideas I've put together from Gary Drescher's book Good and Real, Overcoming Bias, and Less Wrong, here's why I disagree with Sean Carroll's response:

1. There’s no single definition of well-being.

Observing each person's preferences, mainly as revealed through behavior, has been enough to produce something resembling a consensus among economists who have studied this problem.

2. It’s not self-evident that maximizing well-being, however defined, is the proper goal of morality.

It's true that I can't disprove the possibility that a deontological morality is true. But I can infer a good deal from attempts at finding one.

3. There’s no simple way to aggregate well-being over different individuals. ... Who counts as an individual?

All I expect from a moral system is that agreeing with many other entities to follow that moral system better enables those of us who agree to it to satisfy our preferences. A moral system is improved if it's expanded to include any entity whose cooperation we value. A moral system is safer for us if it's harder to exclude entities that others might think of as like us. Those pressures will probably lead us to moral systems that apply more universally than what we currently practice.

Science can in principle tell us a good deal about which methods of aggregating well-being will be better for which people. That won't directly create a "best" method. It will inform bargaining over which rules for cooperation people will select. If, for every entity attempting to bargain over which rules to adopt, science were able to guide them to the strategy which best maximizes that individual's preferences, I say there's something objectively good about the result.

Morality can't accomplish everything that people hope it can accomplish. If you demand too much from moral systems, none of them will seem adequate.

From your post:
one of the things that really worries me about hardcore utilitarians is that because they think they have some kind of moral calculus--some happiness function they can maximize--it gives them a tendency to try to meddle in people's lives to make them better.

Science is able to provide evidence that the meddlers are overconfident about their ability to and/or desire help others. It can also inform victims of phony "help" of ways to organize and deter that "help".

I wonder what Harris would have thought of the European genocide against native Americans.


It is scary to not have a moral system that guarantees that we have a compelling argument against this genocide. But that doesn't mean that there exists an argument that would have compelled a fully informed European to act differently in that situation. An alternative "nicer" moral system isn't valuable if there's no good reason for people to adopt it.
easwaran
Dec. 6th, 2010 12:59 am (UTC)
But the difference between Sam Harris and myself is that I don't pretend that there is some objective reason why I'm right and the men who threw the acid are wrong. Rather, I just claim that I care deeply about women and want to defend them against acts of aggression like this. It's a subjective concern, that not all people necessarily share. Indeed, I think the fact that there do exist men who engage in this behavior, and who defend it, is pretty strong evidence that my feelings there are not universal.

This sort of discussion makes me wonder if I'm thinking of objective morality in a different way than Harris. Again, I haven't actually read his stuff, or even listened to his TED talk, but if he's trying to derive objective morality from understanding people's brains, then it seems to me that all he can be basing it on is what people care about, which clearly does have some amount of interpersonal variation, as you point out.

However, I think the dimension of "care" doesn't really capture the relevant variability. There are at least two dimensions of variation here. I claim that you don't actually care as much about the women whose faces are scarred with acid as you do about many, many other things that you would not describe in the some sort of terms. For instance, you've spent money to go to concerts and festivals and such, but have you spent money to help these women? On that dimension of what you're actually willing to act on, there are many more things that matter more to you than these women. But on another level, it's clear that you think of the situation of these women as a grievous moral wrong, whereas the situation of you not making it to a given show or festival or whatever wouldn't be. So there is a specifically moral dimension of care, distinct from other notions, like what actually motivates you to act.

Clearly, people do have different feelings or beliefs (I'm not sure how best to describe it) even about this specifically moral dimension. But it's not just as simple as what one "cares" about - there's a specifically moral dimension of caring, which at least presents itself to us as objective (unlike other aspects of caring), whether or not that presentation is accurate.

If it's a case where their values differ but I don't feel like they are all that harmful, then I try my best to live and let live... and I try to encourage others to do the same.

Of course, I say the same even when it's not values, but factual matters that just about everyone would admit clearly have an objective basis. It's generally a good idea not to bother getting into a huge argument with someone about something that you aren't going to change their mind on, especially if it doesn't affect their actions too much - but that doesn't mean that their position is just as correct as mine.
spoonless
Dec. 6th, 2010 01:52 am (UTC)

if he's trying to derive objective morality from understanding people's brains, then it seems to me that all he can be basing it on is what people care about, which clearly does have some amount of interpersonal variation, as you point out.

I haven't read his book either, but from what I've gather I don't think this is what he's doing. (That's what *I'd* do if I wanted to understand the source of values--of course, I'd expect it to come out slightly different for each person.)

But I think what he's doing is different--he claims that all statements about right and wrong have to do with the well being of conscious creatures. So I think what he's saying is that morality is objective because we all mean roughly the same thing when we make a moral claim about something being good or bad... and that you can measure whether it is good or bad by measuring whether it really increases or decreases the well being of some conscious creature, or some collection of conscious creatures. I'm guessing by well being he wants to measure things like happiness and suffering. He admits that all of these terms are somewhat vague, but makes a reasonable point in saying that "health" is also a vague notion and yet we do have various scientific metrics for measuring how healthy someone is. I think he wants to extend this to measuring how happy someone is, or how much they are suffering.

I see values differently, and to me it seems like they don't necessarily all relate to the well being of conscious creatures. But even if they did, there are problems with trying to compare the happiness of one being to another and coming up with an aggregate. And I don't buy that everyone is talking about the well being of conscious creatures when they give moral prescriptions. If you go up to a person who has deontological moral intuitions and say "you're objectively wrong, because my intuition says that it's the consequences that matter"... I don't see how science is going to back you up.

It's generally a good idea not to bother getting into a huge argument with someone about something that you aren't going to change their mind on, especially if it doesn't affect their actions too much - but that doesn't mean that their position is just as correct as mine.

Right. And it becomes even more important when you're making decisions about, say, whether to bomb a certain country. There's issues of value differences (which I view as subjective) but there are also issues of uncertainty to worry about. Uncertainty both in whether you're right about some facts about the matter (like say, whether WMD's are actually being manufactured), and in how well you can predict the consequences of what will happen if you intervene.
easwaran
Dec. 6th, 2010 02:17 am (UTC)
Oh wow, so he thinks neuroscience has found objective measures of well-being? On the one hand that's totally banal - one objective measure of well-being is just the answer someone gives when you ask "on a scale from 1 to 10, how well are you doing?". But to give something that's much better than that and is better than various alternative measures seems like a massively hubristic undertaking given the state of our understanding of these things.
spoonless
Dec. 6th, 2010 02:58 am (UTC)

Oh wow, so he thinks neuroscience has found objective measures of well-being?

I'd have to read his book to know to what degree he thinks this has already been accomplished, and to what degree he's just arguing that we can plausibly do this in the future and therefore, whether we have the answers or not now, moral questions have objective answers. He's saying we have started to be able to do this and will be doing it more and more as time goes on.

By the way, I've been having a long debate with geheimnisnacht about whether or not values are subjective... I don't know if it will be worth reading it all the way through, but if you scroll all the way down we just got into some interesting things like homosexuality, AI's, and aliens visiting earth =)

http://spoonless.livejournal.com/181928.html?thread=1#t1571752
spoonless
Dec. 6th, 2010 02:02 am (UTC)

So there is a specifically moral dimension of care, distinct from other notions, like what actually motivates you to act.

I think you're right that I've been glibly glossing over the distinction between morality and values and "ought" more generally. I think that moral oughts are only a subset of the things that people think ought to be. For example, you might say "they ought to cast Ethan Hawke for this movie, he would be perfect for the part" and it's not really a moral claim, but it is a claim that expresses the way you think the world ought to be, rather than the way it is. So for me the interesting thing is the general separation between is and ought, rather than the more specific question of what morality is. Hmmm... I wonder if realizing that distinction, which I hadn't thought about too much... makes any of what Harris is saying make more sense. Will have to think about that.
easwaran
Dec. 6th, 2010 02:18 am (UTC)
And of course, I always make the point that there's objective facts about what one ought to believe, given certain types of evidence!
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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