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Sep 01 2013

The owl’s well-being is to eat the mouse

Because of new relevance, my review of The Moral Landscape for Issue 53 of TPM. Posted at ur-B&W April 16, 2011.

Sam Harris asks an interesting question in the introduction, after laying out his central (and not really controversial) claim that questions about values are questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. “Is it possible,” he asks, “that certain people are incapable of wanting what they should want?” Of course, he answers; there are always people who get things wrong. But that question doesn’t exhaust the difficulties that arise in moral discussion, yet Harris separates it out as if it did. The really hard question, which he generally gives short shrift, asks “is it possible that there are many people who are incapable of wanting what other people want?” In other words is it possible that many people do just fine at wanting what they should want for themselves and fail only at wanting what they should want for other people? Yes it is, and this is why the world is not a happy Utopia of people adding their bliss together to make a sum of Megabliss. The owl’s well-being is to eat the mouse, and the mouse’s well-being is to dodge the owl. We have an impasse.

It is surprising that Harris doesn’t put more emphasis on competition, on rivalry and scarcity and zero-sum games and prisoners’ dilemmas, on exploitation and labour and hierarchy, on the fact that more well-being for me is not the same as more well-being for you, let alone for everyone, and that this fact by itself is enough to make morality contentious and difficult. He does address these issues eventually, but not until well into the book, and then only briefly and somewhat perfunctorily. The emphasis is all on insistence that “the well-being of conscious creatures” is pretty much all we need to consider.

He does tell us some interesting things in the process, though, such as that “neuroimaging has also shown that fairness drives reward-related activity in the brain, while accepting unfair proposals requires the regulation of negative emotion.” That is a hopeful observation – but it is vulnerable to the familiar fact that humans are brilliant at rationalization, which means among other things that we know how to understand “fairness” in such a way that it maximizes our own well-being at the expense of other people. Tax-cuts for the super-rich make a tidy example of that, since one can view both sides of the debate as defining “fairness” in their own favor. (Michael Moore performed this dialectic in one of his films: on being told that his new book had just hit the New York Times best-seller list he said, “Oh! Well now I believe in tax-cuts for the rich.”)

The depressing truth that Harris never really confronts is that no one really wants to maximize the well-being of everyone. Economies depend on not doing so: cheap labour is the engine that drives various economic miracles and tigers. Lip service is paid to the idea of eradicating poverty, but meanwhile all sorts of visible and occult mechanisms make sure that there will always be plenty of poor people around. Rich countries subsidize their own cotton farmers at the expense of desperately poor African counterparts. Where is the brain reward for the feeling of fairness then? Africans are far away, and easy to ignore, so their immiseration doesn’t interfere with the well-being of prosperous Europeans.

This isn’t an issue of not understanding that morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures. It’s an issue of not caring, of selective attention, of studied ignorance, of institutions, regulations, habits, expertise – it’s a myriad of things. It’s easy to get people to agree that well-being is good; the hard part is getting them to agree on what that implies they should do, and getting them to do it.

Harris spends most of the book hammering home the point that morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures, which means he spends far too little time considering the difficult questions that arise even if everyone agrees on that. He also frequently treats those questions as easily settled, for instance when he says, “I think there is little doubt that most of what matters to the average person – like fairness, justice, compassion, and a general awareness of terrestrial reality – will be integral to our creating a thriving global civilization and, therefore, to the greater well-being of humanity”.

Almost halfway into the book he does suddenly admit the difficulty – “population ethics is a notorious engine of paradox, and no one, to my knowledge, has come up with a way of assessing collective well-being that conserves all of our intuitions”. He then quotes Patricia Churchland saying, “no one has the slightest idea how to compare the mild headache of five million against the broken legs of two…” Quite so, and this acknowledgement should have come much earlier and been woven into the discussion throughout. Because it isn’t, the first part of the argument seems much too quick and effortless. If it were that simple, the reader keeps thinking, why wouldn’t everyone just do it?

25 comments

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  1. 1
    Ace of Sevens

    That $20,000 is as good as yours.

  2. 2
    Eamon Knight

    @1: Nah, I’m sure Ophelia’s only addressing “peripheral issues” in the book. [/sarcasm]

  3. 3
    RainbowSlushie^.^

    Ophelia demonstrating, yet again, the shallow superficial grasp of morality of one of the Four Horsemen. This is so effortless for you Ophelia, it’s almost directly embarassing to these titans of Patriarchy I’d have to imagine, or at least their constituents; I hear they have well packed egos. I hope for the day when I can read your books in a bookstore, and not those of the people who you are seemingly effortlessly taking to pieces. You’re superior to them =~)

    That being said I don’t agree with everything said here, but I will just leave the praise where it should be.

  4. 4
    rhebel

    I work in an extremely high performing school. The above is yet another reason people can claim that our public schools are “failing”–which is another myth to address at another time–but, the crux is, we are not encouraged to work with surrounding districts to help them improve, but, rather, (thanks to our rethug guv and legislature) encouraged to outcompete them and take joy in our ability to stay ahead of them. Not in the best interests of society as a whole. Sad state.

  5. 5
    LykeX

    @2
    Exactly. After all, Ophelia just said:

    …after laying out his central (and not really controversial) claim that questions about values are questions about the well-being of conscious creatures

    Since she clearly agrees with the central thesis, Harris is justified in dismissing the entire rest of her review as dealing only with “peripheral issue”.

  6. 6
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    on the fact that more well-being for me is not the same as more well-being for you, let alone for everyone, and that this fact by itself is enough to make morality contentious and difficult.

    For virtually all values of well-being, this is not actually true. The trouble is that many of the ways in which each individual’s wellbeing are increased by everyone’s wellbeing are non-obvious and non-intuitive, and are often in the form of opportunity costs. In more egalitarian economic systems, for instance, everyone’s life expectancy improves, as does their health generally. Crime rates are lower too. Meanwhile, the relatively wealthy, although not always as absolutely wealthy as people in less egalitarian nations, certainly don’t see their standard of living suffer. One might even argue that not having to hire armed guards to keep mobs from attacking your house qualifies as a positive benefit. In practice, though, the wealthy in more egalitarian countries are often as wealthy as those in more unequal ones; Sweden scores very high on economic equality indices (although I understand the current government is trying to change that), but the CEO of IKEA is worth $36 billion, while someone like Imelda Marcos, famous with her husband for looting the Philippines with both hands via blatant corruption while they were running the country, has never had a net worth of even $1 billion, and currently claims only $22 million. Wrecking everyone else is a very poor strategy for getting a really nice lifestyle; when it works at all, which is rarely, it’s always precariously balanced on the edge of all disappearing, and it doesn’t work very well. OTOH, it takes a lot less planning than the other way, because you don’t have to think about how the system works, or how much constant maintenance behind the scenes is needed to make it work, because you can always point a gun at the eggheads and tell them to make it work, but eventually you’ve shot them all, because you keep demanding the impossible, and the infrastructure is failing, if there ever was any to begin with, and the peasants can’t be taxed anymore because they’ve got nothing left to take, and you can’t pay your thugs anymore, and when the torches and pitchforks come, no one’s on your side. It doesn’t always happen exactly that way, but there’s only one way it ever ends, and the only real question is whether age will get you before the tiger you’re riding does.

  7. 7
    dantalion

    We do still live in a world where “morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures” is highly controversial. It may seem like a simplistic platitude that doesn’t deserve half a book. But let’s keep in mind how many millions of currently living humans would say morality is defined by what makes one creature happy.

  8. 8
    Sophia, Michelin-starred General of the First Mediterranean Iron Chef Batallion

    Blake said it well – One law for the lion and ox is oppression. If we were lions and oxen, that’d hold true for humanity as well.

    We’re all humans, but we’ve got people declaring themselves lions and oxen and all sorts of things. If someone believes their wellbeing depends on the deprecation of others, they fancy themselves a lion; a lion eats oxen to remain well. The oxen might decide that they can be lions one day too, and so bear the indignity of oxenhood with gritted teeth under the mistaken impression there’s a mane and tail on a hanger hiding just around the next corner.
    We’re all just human. If we take the things that are important to humans as an entire species – equality, access to health care, food, accomodation, education, infrastructure, communications, community – then our needs are the same. It really depends on how high people believe they are up the food chain, how highly they place their own wants above the needs of others.

    Problem is, we’ve all got arbitrary labels now. It’s animal farm. An equal outcome from equal opportuinities is impossible. Privilege exists and has many facets, preventing any sort of blanket rules, opportunities or incentives from having an equalising outcome. Still, the minute we take any affirmative action, the cries of “unfair!” ring loud – yes, it is unfair. Everything is unfair, we’re trying to correct that. Deal with it.

  9. 9
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    If someone believes their wellbeing depends on the deprecation of others, they fancy themselves a lion;

    This is the point I was getting at earlier; those people are demonstrably wrong. Expanding on that, that type of bullshit social pseudo darwinism is exactly what gives ruthless pragmatism a bad name; all the ideologies that like to claim that mantle (Randists, other forms of right-libertarians, fascists, numerous flavors of Communism, and totalitarians of all stripes all qualify) are to terribly, terribly bad at it, because they always get hung up on all sorts of absurd notions about merit, fault, deserts, and all manner of similar nonsense, and wind up breaking everything. Real pragmatism looks at what works, then does it. If one wants to live a reasonably comfortable life or better, and not worry about someone killing you for the change in your pocket or just something to do on a Saturday night, and all that good stuff, there are policies that achieve it, and ones that don’t, and who’s better, who’s worse, and who deserves what don’t even enter into it.

  10. 10
    601

    I am pleased to see this “challenge” for several reasons.

    I agree with the “central argument” of The Moral Landscape, but I enjoy seeing it challenged.

    And I believe it’s not accepted by the general population, especially amongst the religious.

    “The second best case (from my point of view) would be to be presented with a criticism that I can’t answer, but which I recognize to be fatal to my thesis. I will then concede defeat and pay the author the tenfold prize.”

    We humans use reason to rationalize our intuitions, but I’ll give Sam credit here for trying to find the ultimate value via the scientific method. People have been working on this question a long time (possibly 100K years or more), and I’d like to finally see some progress.

  11. 11
    Dave Ricks

    More challenging to Harris’s central claim (about the well-being of conscious creatures): On the is side of the is/ought distinction, what if science shows that honor killing and widow burning are examples of morality?  Is he ready to accept that as science?  If not, why not?

    The modern Prometheus has a Euthyphro dilemma.

  12. 12
    John Phillips, FCD

    Dave Ricks, first define morality.

  13. 13
    raymoscow

    I think the main logical flaw in Harris’ approach is that if one doesn’t feel empathy for the suffering of other beings, there is no way to logically or scientifically prove that one must.
    Science and logic are very useful for determining the best means to an end (e.g., minimising suffering of self and others), but this end cannot be justified merely by science.
    Of course as Ophelia points out, that ‘end’ of minimising suffering is a very complicated subject as well.
    (Check or money order please, Mr. Harris.)

  14. 14
    Sophia, Michelin-starred General of the First Mediterranean Iron Chef Batallion

    I’ve always worked from a definition of morality that states, in essence, that a moral act is one whose benefits noticeably outweigh its harm, with the intent of minimising harm. Nothing can be “declared moral” without also demonstrating that that thing is intrinsically more beneficial than harmful. Humans are very good at rationalising things declared to be moral by an authority through compartmentalisation and othering, though the thing declared to be moral may in fact cause great harm. The Christian god declares many things moral that are, in reality, very harmful and give no discernible benefit.

    I’ve also always thought of empathy as a very logical thing. It’s logical to care about the suffering of others because others -not- suffering can benefit you greatly. It seems to me to be a survival mechanism, linked closely with co-operation. Without co-operation we couldn’t form societies.

    Firstly, even without a system of guilt or debt, doing a good deed for someone else gives them an example of empathy and may cause them to be more empathetic towards others. This has an overall positive effect on a group.
    Secondly, an empathetic reaction (helping suffering members of a community) could mean the survival of that community as sick or injured members may live and prosper rather than being left to rot. The members helped may continue to contribute to the group.
    Thirdly, by adding in the most basic concept of debt, one good deed is likely to breed another, fostering a positive, helpful attitude that again benefits every helpful member of an empathetic community.

    On the flipside, not helping suffering members of a community means that more will suffer, die or leave the community. Without incentives to band together for survival, there’s no such thing as a society. Even the most primitive hunter-gatherer society works by sharing food and labour, and sharing is an empathetic concept.
    We don’t function within societies without empathy, and by extension, morality.

  15. 15
    lostintime

    #5, MaoistAnchoress
    .

    …it’s almost directly embarassing to these titans of Patriarchy…

    Is there a reason for this thoughtlessly aggressive comment? Sam Harris has written and spoken extensively about women’s rights, but it appears his entire thesis can be swept away with such a perfunctorily stupid remark as this. I don’t happen to agree with his conclusions and I think Ophelia has summed up how I feel far better than I could, but I concede that ethics is sufficiently complicated for there to be disagreement without angrily dismissing someone because of their gender. The only person who’s attitude is embarrassing is yours, and you do feminism a disservice.

  16. 16
    Erin (formerly--formally?-- known as EEB)

    The depressing truth that Harris never really confronts is that no one really wants to maximize the well-being of everyone. Economies depend on not doing so: cheap labour is the engine that drives various economic miracles and tigers. Lip service is paid to the idea of eradicating poverty, but meanwhile all sorts of visible and occult mechanisms make sure that there will always be plenty of poor people around.

    That was what kept nagging at me while I read the book. I actually agreed with the majority of what Harris said–acknowledging that I was predisposed to before I even picked up the book–but I can’t escape the utter impracticality of it. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s wrong. An economist might be able to write a book that explains how alchemy would fix the inflation problem, with all the numbers and supporting evidence perfectly correct, but it wouldn’t change the fact that alchemy will never exist, so what’s the point? Harris’s utopia depends on a complete upending of society that, to me, seems about as realistic as a Department of Alchemy in the US government.

    The truth is, I want to do the right thing. I don’t want my money going to support destructive and cruel production; I want to support fair wages for all workers, fight exploitation of labor in other countries, reduce industrial impacts on the environment, fight for a better world. But I also have to exist in this world. And in this world, I live on a tiny fixed income. If I need a new shirt, or pair of shoes, I simply can’t spend 100$–or even 40$–on a pair of fair trade, environmentally friendly shoes. I have to buy cheap shoes, probably made at the expense of exploited workers, and that sucks. But it’s not like I could just give up a couple cappuccinos every month to make up the difference in price–I am on the edge all the time. I’m not financially independent. I have food money, rent money, transportation money, and health money, and if any other expenses come up, I am screwed. I don’t give up a luxury item for those shoes, I give up medication or a couple meals. So while my internal perception of myself is a compassionate, caring, unselfish person, when it comes down to how I spend my money, I do put my own needs first, ahead of my moral beliefs. And I rationalize that decision so I don’t feel so guilty.

  17. 17
    RainbowSlushie^.^

    And in this world, I live on a tiny fixed income.

    Me too, I get Disability, and have for ten years now. These tiny fixed incomes are just this amazingly great stuff according to the Republicans. I suspect I know better than this.

    I have to buy cheap shoes, probably made at the expense of exploited workers, and that sucks.

    Me likewise, it does suck =-/

  18. 18
    jack*

    I’m confused by your position that Harris’ “claim that questions about values are questions about the well-being of conscious creatures” is “not really controversial.” So the naturalistic fallacy is non-controversial, and no one really believes the is-ought problem? Since much of the objection from philosophers was of that bent, it would seem that’s it is too controversial.

    The physical component of wellbeing is called “health,” and no one really argues that healthcare isn’t scientific or objective. And yet there are conflicts of interest in physical health that lead to real ethical decisions – of the mouse/owl variety – every day. Should we speed the death of a terminal patient so that his organs can save the life of someone who can be saved? Should we destroy the last smallpox in the world, or keep it for future scientific study? Is there any doubt that the answer to these questions lie in understanding the facts about the world that each affects?

    Seems to me like there’s a lot of good that can be done by trying to measure how our laws, institutions, ideologies, religions, and intuitions affect everyone’s long term wellbeing. I’m not sure why people are so opposed to making that a subject of scientific study.

  19. 19
    601

    Balancing the needs of the one versus the needs of the many may well be an intractable problem, but it is independent of the axioms used to define values.

    For example, given a Crime and Punishment, with the first two thirds of a group agreeing about the Crime, and the last two thirds agreeing the Punishment fits that Crime.

    C gets a super majority
    P gets a super majority
    However, Crime AND Punishment gets a minority vote. Only a third of this example group agrees to the combination.

    Groups are not like individuals in important ways.

  20. 20
    Ophelia Benson

    Seems to me like there’s a lot of good that can be done by trying to measure how our laws, institutions, ideologies, religions, and intuitions affect everyone’s long term wellbeing. I’m not sure why people are so opposed to making that a subject of scientific study.

    Good grief, I’m not opposed to that at all. But that’s not what Harris’s book is about. It’s a great deal more grandiose than that.

  21. 21
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    EEB, EvilAnchoress
    Wanting something and having the capacity to do it aren’t necessarily the same thing. The system has been rigged by assholes to their own benefit, and while we can do things to try to change the system, it isn’t fast or guaranteed, and in the meantime, we do the best we can to do as little harm as we can manage, but since we’re inextricably bound to a harmful system, that’s not going to be zero. In practice, though, cheap shoes are only marginally more likely to be made in sweatshops than expensive ones; there are shoes made by well-paid artisans, and they are pricier than many, but most really expensive shoes are priced by the designer’s logo, and are probably made in literally the same place as the cheap ones you and I have to buy.

  22. 22
    Dave Ricks

    John, in 12, you asked me to first define morality, like Socrates asked Euthyphro to first define what is pious or virtue. That starts a dialectic that leads to a dilemma for someone who thinks the arbiters of morality are the gods, or science in this case.

    I’ve never seen Harris raise the Euthyphro dilemma as a problem for The Moral Landscape, let alone that he solved it. If he solved it, that might be the philosophical equivalent of Andrew Wyles proving Fermat’s Last Theorem.

    Another point — in terms of science (on the “is” side of “is/ought”) — is that I wonder how to classify Harris’s thesis that morality is a maximization of well-being. Is that thesis a hypothesis that could be falsified experimentally? Or is it a model like F = ma that might be modified later, to fit new data? No, he gets his thesis from the “ought” side (maybe as a revelation from Ecstasy, and maybe his fans are implicitly using an argument from consequences).  Nothing in science could persuade Harris his thesis is wrong in science.

    The Moral Landscape has these problems, as philosophy and science, without me defining morality.

  23. 23
    jack*

    Good grief, I’m not opposed to that at all. But that’s not what Harris’s book is about. It’s a great deal more grandiose than that.

    I’m not trying to defend Harris or his book; I thought his book was bad, terrible even. I guess I’m trying, poorly, to tease out the different strains of thought that arise in and inform the various theses his book, however badly he articulated them (and continues to try to defend them).

    One idea was that moral questions pivot on the measurable state of things in the world. Most philosophers seem to disagree with that. The is-ought problem and the naturalistic fallacy are evidence of that disagreement. Your position seems ambiguous, and I feel confused as to where you lie in that debate. Perhaps I’m simply not sophisticated enough to somehow grok how to resolve what seems incompatible.

  24. 24
    RainbowSlushie^.^

    @Dalilama

    Wanting something and having the capacity to do it aren’t necessarily the same thing. The system has been rigged by assholes to their own benefit, and while we can do things to try to change the system, it isn’t fast or guaranteed, and in the meantime, we do the best we can to do as little harm as we can manage, but since we’re inextricably bound to a harmful system, that’s not going to be zero. In practice, though, cheap shoes are only marginally more likely to be made in sweatshops than expensive ones; there are shoes made by well-paid artisans, and they are pricier than many, but most really expensive shoes are priced by the designer’s logo, and are probably made in literally the same place as the cheap ones you and I have to buy.

    (((((hugs))))))

  25. 25
    Stacy

    It’s been several years since I read the book, so I could be off-base here. Also, I feel a little funny defending Harris, because I’m not a fan. But–

    Harris spends most of the book hammering home the point that morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures, which means he spends far too little time considering the difficult questions that arise even if everyone agrees on that.

    I think that that point may need hammering. Maybe it seems obvious to you because you’re smart, secular-minded, and have a good grasp of basic philosphy–but it isn’t obvious at all to lots of people. As dantalion said:

    We do still live in a world where “morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures” is highly controversial. It may seem like a simplistic platitude that doesn’t deserve half a book. But let’s keep in mind how many millions of currently living humans would say morality is defined by what makes one creature happy.

    Yes, or it’s defined by following the Rules, Rules laid down by an authority figure: God, for example (as communicated via scripture, clerics, poobahs.)

    So, yes, the book would have been much more interesting if he’d spent more time on the difficult questions, but maybe Harris meant it to be a primer, and it really was all about convincing people that “morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures”?

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