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Sam Harris TED Talk on Science and Morality

March 27, 2010

An interesting TED talk, well worth a watch.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Justin permalink
    March 29, 2010 3:47 PM

    Definitely interesting! I wonder if the cultural compulsion for women to wear burqas really is objectively wrong. Too often I think the supposed superiority of a Free Society comes from a Kantian moral imperative. By this I mean that freedom or free will is somehow a moral axiom rather than deduced from a moral framework like utilitarianism. My gut and my pineal gland tell me that utilitarianism is the only form of rational ethics. If this is the case then a planned society (ant colonies or theocracies) might be happier overall. This brings me to my next thought experiment.

    Suppose we could install a monitoring device on every human being that tracked exactly the serotonin and dopamine levels. We could then have a quantitative measure of how “happy” people are at any given moment. A utilitarian ethic would then ask that we maximize the integral of these levels over time. Every time someone dies we’d have one fewer happiness generator in the world… very sad. Every time someone is born we would have a new happiness generator… yay! But, we could still monitor net effect of actions and social systems. Perhaps another mouth to feed creates more of a burden on a world then any happiness it has to contribute, but this would only make sense if we had some total measure before birth. Perhaps we should put coordinates on happiness and if you aren’t making the cut (and your absence wouldn’t create extra harm) we might dish out a state-sponsored morphine overdose. It’ll be the happiest you’ve ever been.

    We would have measurements of all the starving people in Africa and so on. We could test if a communist society produced greater net happiness or not. We could measure if a theocracy produced a happier society and so on. Perhaps brainwashing as we often perceive it happening in religion really produces happier people. What if an Islamic society is actually the highest point on Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape? The bottom line is we don’t know until we can take measurements.

    There are still a lot of problems to be handled. In particular, how do we account for current happiness resulting in global catastrophe? For any one person this is similar to the question: Which life leads to greater net happiness, the rockstar who dies young on a drug overdose or the simple monk who lives a long and quiet life? We could record happiness levels for an entire life lived and have available this data for people to record. Probably some middle path would work best for most people and people would know this and feel happy about their life choices. What worries me now is that this individual information doesn’t seem to scale up well and we might have reached a point in time where the grand experiment of life on Earth is nearing its end. Driving cars and eating what you want may make everyone a lot happier now, but what about total global annihilation as a result?

    I’ve also had a friend suggest that the brain naturally adjusts to its own environment and that elated states only persist for a short period of time. This means that if you went from a middle class person who has enough money and resources to secure basic needs to a millionaire, there might be a time-localized spike in happiness, but you would probably settle into the same neural patterns from before. Your worries and frustrations would go from “I’m a lowly barista and this stupid businessman-jerk is being impatient about his double skim latte” to “stupid car washers missed a corner on my Rolls-Royce, I ought to have them fired.”

    Finally, this brings us around to the issue of moral imperatives. When I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, I had this immediate reaction “Wow! Look at how awesome of a utopia this is! What a perfect society!” Huxley’s point was totally lost on me because I believed in a utilitarian view ever since I was a child. What Huxley described was the perfect society because everyone was as happy as can be, even the workers! They loved working in mills and hated being near books! I know that I was supposed to feel disgust and moral revulsion, but I didn’t and that’s because I don’t seriously hold any moral imperatives precisely because I can’t find rational bases for them. Can anyone else? I’d like to know.

  2. March 29, 2010 4:15 PM

    damn, you managed to preempt a post on morality i’m half way through writing. I’ll be talking about some of the things you mention in there, will think about what you’ve written here and see if I can weave in something of a reply. the first thing i say is that harris takes it a tad too far in my opinion.

  3. August 17, 2010 4:06 PM

    Yes, the culture of compulsory burqua wearing is objectively wrong. It negates equality of respect without any consideration to the individual. For every difference in the way men are treated a relevant reason should be given. Why should it be that all women must wear this garment when men are free to wear what they like? I fail to see a utilitarian argument for the mistreatment of just fewer than half the world’s population, and what if the number of women overtakes the number of men? Can morals really be based on demography statistics?

    And so to my current thoughts on Utilitarianism; I can see that I have a lot of reading to do but why pass the chance to record ones ignorance.

    Happiness; what’s so damm great about it anyway? I can name plenty of genius depressives off the top of my head but none that had happiness in boundless quantities. In addition the correlation between the level to which someone deceives themselves, over their intellect and desirability, and their happiness is well recorded. I therefore personally pimp for definition b) out of the two possibilities:

    Happiness is:
    a) a subjective experience
    b) a subjective experience plus the beliefs that led to this experience (are true)
    Thankfully meaning a Utilitarian world couldn’t just be a doped up version of the Matrix and giving happiness a non-subjective, and I would say worthwhile, value.

    My main problem with Utilitarianism is that it seems to rule out the rights of minorities. The “rational” justification of genocide seems a bit much. If you try getting around this by saying that “the dislike of the x people for the Y people” can never be based on true reasons but only on ignorance it gives you problems, free will may not exist but personality certainly does. How can you put a truth value to someone’s dislike of tomatoes?

    It would seem the time scale over which to maximise the integral of happiness should be infinite and then going around taking “happiness” measurements would be pointless. We already assume that we are consuming and disposing of recourses at the expense of future generations but what other more subtle effects do are moral decisions have on future society?

  4. August 17, 2010 7:13 PM

    For now, a reply to the first paragraph of your comment…

    I agree, compulsory burqa wearing is wrong. The problem for me is that I don’t see burqa wearing itself as wrong. There are perfectly legitimate (within the religious framework) reasons that a woman might choose to wear one. The problem is obviously in the word “compulsory”. This makes banning them outright, as in France, wrong in my opinion. An article I linked to a while back made the best point on this I’ve seen yet; if women are being forced to do something, there are already laws in place to deal with this mistreatment.

    Will have a think about the rest of your comment when Egyptian food poisoning isn’t addling my brain – haven’t eaten for quite a while.

  5. August 18, 2010 2:29 PM

    Yes that was a good article and I agree that the banning of burqua wearing is wrong. I’m not sure what you mean by “within the religions framework”, surely anyone (including you) can wear a burqua if they like.

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