Shermer vs. Pigliucci on Moral Science

Ophelia Benson summarized Michael Shermer’s latest foot-in-mouth in his row with Massimo Pigliucci over whether and to what degree moral philosophy should become a moral science instead. Reading their exchange, I find Shermer is more inclined toward ideological biases and superficial worldview declarations than actual, sound, self-critical, well-thought analyses in this matter.

As a result, Shermer is doing a really awful job of defending what I actually agree with: that it’s high time moral philosophy began to be folded into the sciences (the same way philosophy of mind became psychology and cognitive science, for example). And that’s annoying. It’s like when awful Jesus myth theorists make it harder for me to argue that Jesus might not have existed after all, by their constantly using terrible arguments that then get falsely imputed to me. My case then gets judged by their failures. I now worry the same will happen here. So let me try to nip that in the bud.

The General Point

Pigliucci already exposes Shermer’s lack of understanding in this latest matter generally, so I won’t rehash all that. You can follow along with that exchange on your own. Shermer opened with this (“The Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality”) at The Edge, which was in spirit correct but somewhat inept in execution, and Pigliucci took him to task for its obvious omissions in a reply at Rationally Speaking. To which Shermer responded there. To which Pigliucci then replied again (possibly it’s still going on at this point, but that’s as much as I’ve so far read).

Shermer is getting owned in this debate. He is really not coming across well. In particular, not only is he out of his depth, once again he doesn’t seem capable of learning. He pretty much just circles the wagons around his original claims. He isn’t really listening to Pigliucci or answering his concerns. And the actual goal (to articulate an actionable scientific research program in moral science) is getting lost, even though it’s supposed to be what Shermer is arguing for. Badly.

Disclosure is warranted. Like I said, I agree with Shermer’s overall point: morality should become a science. And I have responded harshly to Pigliucci on this issue before (in a letter Pigliucci read but that has not yet been published). In a previous review, Pigliucci had horribly straw manned the case for a moral science made by Sam Harris (in his book The Moral Landscape), not only misrepresenting what Harris argued, but falsely equating Harris’ insufficient defense of the case with the indefensibility of the case altogether. Pigliucci carries that flawed theme forward in his critique of Shermer, but otherwise Pigliucci is spot on. Everything he says about the ineptitude of Shermer’s arguments is pretty much correct, and I agree with a lot else Pigliucci says in this exchange.

On the matter of making morality a science, however, both Shermer and Pigliucci are wrong, for reasons I already spelled out in formal detail in “Moral Facts Naturally Exist (and Science Could Find Them)” a couple years ago, which is chapter 14 of The End of Christianity (pp. 333-64, 420-29). I had previously elaborated on that idea less formally in Part V of Sense and Goodness without God (and further illumination can be gained from my past debate over desire utilitarianism: see Goal Theory Update; and likewise from my discussion of Moral Ontology). Shermer is wrong for all the reasons Pigliucci documents. But Pigliucci is wrong for all the reasons I document. (As a philosopher, Pigliucci would be most concerned to read my chapter in TEC rather than the material in SaG or my blog, which should be viewed as an informal appendix to the formal demonstration of that more recent work in print.)

Pigliucci is thus really just tearing down a straw man here, since Shermer’s awful defense of a science of morality is easy pickings for any well-informed thinker trained to spot a fallacy. I do hope someday Pigliucci will constructively critique my chapter instead, if we want to make progress in discussing a possible research program for a real science of prescriptive (and not merely descriptive) morality. Of course, I say this knowing that in his reply to Shermer, Pigliucci actually agrees with a lot of what I say there. Indeed, my paper uses careful and peer reviewed philosophy to demonstrate what Shermer is trying to argue ineptly with a lot of sloppy inferences and hand waving.

The Specific Point

But what really gets my goat is the way Shermer uses evidence, and one particular example is emblematic. I mean the way Shermer uses a particular research paper, a product of a private think tank (and not something you can find yet in a peer reviewed academic journal as far as I know): Daniel Sacks, Betsey Stevenson, and Justin Wolfers, “Subjective Well-Being, Income, Economic Development and Growth” [PDF here], which (contrary to what Shermer says) is policy paper No. 5230 (October 2010) for the German Institute for the Study of Labor (aka the IZA).

On this Shermer says (my emphasis in bold):

…in a study…entitled “Subjective Well-Being, Income, Economic Development and Growth” by the University of Pennsylvania economists Daniel Sacks, Betsey Stevenson, and Justin Wolfers…they compared survey data on subjective well-being (“happiness”) with income and economic growth rates in 140 countries. The economists found a positive correlation between income and happiness within individual countries, in which richer people are happier than poorer people; and they also found a between-country difference in which people in richer countries are happier than people in poorer countries. As well, they found that an increase in economic growth was associated with an increase in subjective well being: “These results together suggest that measured subjective well-being grows hand in hand with material living standards.” How much difference? “A 20 percent increase in income has the same impact on well-being, regardless of the initial level of income: going from $500 to $600 of income per year yields the same impact on well-being as going from $50,000 to $60,000 per year.” Contrary to previous studies, the economists found no upper limit in which more money does not correlate with more happiness. As well, on a 0-10 scale measuring “life satisfaction,” people in poor countries averaged a 3, people in middle-income countries averaged a 5-6, and people in rich countries averaged a 7-8 (Americans rate their life satisfaction as a 7.4). The economists’ conclusion confirms my moral science theory that the survival and flourishing of individuals is what counts.

Now, let’s set aside that last line, which is a non sequitur–and for many more reasons than Pigliucci already points out (I mean, honestly, the complete disconnect in terminology from that sentence, the conclusion, with the preceding sentences, the premises, would get Shermer an F in almost any college course I can think of that he could write such a paper for). Likewise, let’s set aside the overall assumption that subjective measures of life satisfaction are sufficient in themselves to reach moral conclusions about the behaviors that increase them (Pigliucci already rightly takes Shermer to task for that sloppy inference).

I am here concerned about his use as “evidence” of the statement I put in bold, particularly the “contrary to previous studies” remark, but also his extending it to, as he quotes from that paper, the “conclusion [that] economists’ traditional interest in economic growth has not been misplaced.” This put up a skeptical red flag in my mind, because every previous study I know found otherwise, and so they have a big burden to carry here if they are going to overturn all previous science on this subject. Shermer should certainly agree. He should also certainly acknowledge that he agrees. Instead, he just assumes this is the good science, and all the rest is the bad science. All because it says what he wants. Bad skeptic.

Two key claims are implied by the study he cites (plus a few other claims of lesser importance here): that economic growth helps everyone and is therefore a desirable goal in itself, and that even the ultra-rich are happier than the merely rich, therefore gaining wealth is always a desirable goal. These conclusions are not explicitly stated in the study, but the authors hint at them repeatedly and have gerrymandered their presentation to favor that conclusion. And Shermer is explicitly using their paper as if it argues these things (as his remarks I put in bold confirm).

But there are two problems with these claims, which expose problems with the way Shermer uses this study, which further confirms Pigliucci’s criticisms of Shermer’s entire abuse of evidence generally, an abuse that more resembles pseudoscience than the actual science Shermer wants done in the moral sphere:

(1) The authors of this study did not control for the one factor that actually matters with respect to GDP: percentage of GDP spent on social services and infrastructure rather than hoarded by top earners. For example, just contrast Norway with Saudi Arabia, and right away a claim like “national economic growth is always a desirable goal for everyone” is exposed as somewhat absurd. Obviously national happiness will improve with GDP insofar as higher GDP results in improved social services: more and better police and fire departments, more and better government institutions aiding the public, more reliable social safety nets, more and better roads and sanitation and pollution abatement, more and better workplace safety regulation and building codes, cheaper and cleaner public water, and so on.

If you want to claim that this byproduct of GDP-increase is not the thing responsible for the measured increase in general happiness of a population, you would have to actually control for that factor. But they didn’t do that. Why? Possibly because if they did, they wouldn’t find what they appear to want. They’d probably find that public services investment is the actual factor, and GDP increase is not the real cause–that it often (but not always) correlates with happiness only because it often (but not always) correlates with public services investment, and it’s public services investment that causes the observed boost in happiness. Hence that old warning: correlation is not always causation. Skeptics should have that tattooed on their brain. Shermer, evidently, does not.

(2) They also conceal reality by using a logarithmic function for income. If you know anything about math, you might immediately be getting suspicious. The usual finding, of many previous studies, which they imply they are contradicting (and which Shermer went out of his way to mention they are contradicting), is that as wealth increases, gains in happiness decline. But that’s exactly what this study also shows. By mapping gains in happiness against the logarithm of gains in wealth, all they prove is that more wealth produces smaller gains in happiness. Precisely what all previous studies found.

The key to unraveling their entire argument is the single table on [PDF] page 41, figure 1 (or rather, I should say, their implied argument; all the paper actually argues is that they found this logarithmic relationship, which by itself is a somewhat trivial finding, since it does not disagree with any prior study and doesn’t tell us anything new–but they do not write their commentary as if their improvement on past studies was thus trivial, as in fact it is, but as if it discovered something revolutionary, which it didn’t). Here is the graph in question:

Figure 1 from Sacks-Stevenson-Wolfers paper, as described in the text, graphs income level against reported life satisfaction in several countries, with one of those lines representing the U.S.

Notice the logarithmic scale of income along the bottom, against their non-logarithmic scale of subjective happiness (“life satisfaction”) along the left side (measured on a scale of 1 to 10). Note that past studies found that after annual income reaches around $70,000 (in adjusted dollars), gains in happiness become too small for continued acquisition of wealth to be a significant factor in making you happy. Now look at what their table says: a bump from $64,000 annual income to $128,000 annual income produces a gain in “life satisfaction” of a mere fraction of a unit–from about 7.5 average to about 7.8 average, a difference so small I would expect it to be consumed by any subject’s margin of error in reporting their own degree of happiness (see my marked up version of this graph below).

Hmmm. That’s basically what past studies said: such an income bump has only an insignificant effect on overall life satisfaction. There are very few things we should be willing to sacrifice in order to merely increase our life satisfaction from a 7.5 to a 7.8 out of 10. Thus, once we reach a certain income level, pursuing more income starts to lose any significant value for the purposes of moral decision-making (even if polled subjective happiness is the ultimate goal of moral action as Shermer claims). Indeed I suspect that more income beyond that only adds significant life satisfaction insofar as we do worldwide good with it (rather than consuming it selfishly), but that’s at least something we can study.

Meanwhile, a gain from $16,000 to $64,000 makes a significant difference in happiness: from an average rating of 6.5 to 7.5. And of course, these are averages. Tease out the effect of going from $16,000 to $64,000 for someone with medical problems (or who has a large family or is living in an expensive city or in a terrible crime zone that they can’t afford presently to escape) and I’m certain the gain in life satisfaction at that level would be even greater. But even with that speculation aside, from the data already available–the very same data Shermer is using–it’s clear that helping the poor is more important than doubling the incomes of the rich.

I’ve illustrated all this by marking up that same table:

Same as above, only with Carrier's mark-up

Also notice that their table ends at $128,000. In this paper’s commentary they talk about moving from the bottom 5% to the top 5% as yielding great gains in happiness. Yet their table doesn’t even include the latter. In the U.S. the top 5% begins at around $166,000, which on their logarithmic scale would begin a bit off the edge of their current table. Yet we should want to know if their correlation line actually continues with the same slope–as their paper implies–or if in fact the slope begins to level off at some income level–and if so, at what level of life-satisfaction.

Certainly, it must. Their claim of a consistent logarithmic relationship is impossible, since the scale stops at 10, yet their correlation line would predict someone making a billion dollars a year will report a life satisfaction in the 100s [or actually, about 14.5]. Obviously not. In fact, I doubt it even goes to 10, as if there was some income level at which the average earner at that level reports a life satisfaction of 10. (When there can be no number above 10, averaging at 10 is really damn hard to do.) In fact I doubt the reported average even goes to 9. So where does it level off? These authors coyly don’t tell you. I suspect it levels off around or just under an average of 8, judging from where they decided to stop telling you. Which means once you get to around $120,000 in annual income, you are unlikely to get any happier on average than just under an 8. Essentially what everyone has been saying in this field for years.

And that’s joint household income, BTW, i.e. the total income of a couple (when a household consists of a couple, or even in some cases an extended family), not their income individually, which is significant because it refutes what Shermer implies (repeatedly), that it is individual success that is being measured here, when in fact it includes the cooperative success of pair-bonded couples. Each of whom can earn $32,000 and be just as happy as if they were alone and making $64,000. Think about that. It means that increasing the income of low wage earners is far more important than increasing the incomes of the already-rich. It means fair wage laws might be a good idea. Indeed, they might be better than all the government boons and largesse we throw at banks and corporations. Protecting million dollar bonuses for a few thousand people is morally indefensible when doubling the minimum wage would far more greatly improve the lives of tens of millions.

Sure, I can already anticipate the usual objections, like that increasing the minimum wage would hurt more people by increasing unemployment or the cost of goods and services, and so on. But once we start that conversation we’re having a debate over the facts that is far more nuanced than Shermer pretends. Shermer is right on one thing: science has to answer these questions (like, what actually are the effects of raising the minimum wage?). They cannot be answered from the armchair by pithy ideological assumptions about how markets are supposed to behave. Markets don’t obey ideologies. They obey reality. And that’s science’s domain. And the thing about science is, it often doesn’t get the results you want. You have to be okay with that. Otherwise you’re just a creationist obsessing over something other than creationism.

Anyway, back to this paper’s non-revolutionary finding that increasing income after a certain point has only negligible effects on personally reported happiness: the same mistake plagues their cross-country comparisons by GDP and GDP growth. Once again, even there, their own data show that continued gains on this logarithmic scale are of rapidly diminishing importance. Perhaps we should not, therefore, pursue national economic growth at the expense of things like ghettoizing our inner city neighborhoods, or protecting banks “too big to fail” from the actual consequences of their misbehavior, or allowing the wealthy to take corporate welfare and other “perks” from the government (while simultaneously denigrating benefits in aid of the poor).

Continued economic growth should not therefore be a major moral goal even by Shermer’s own reasoning. I doubt it even makes the list of top moral goals, once your nation has reached a certain baseline level of stable economic success. Showing that gains still continue after that is moot when those gains are so small that they simply aren’t worth the actual social costs of pursuing them.

Shermer’s ideologically obsessed failure to recognize nuances and complexities like this (which Pigliucci also points out), and his misuse of this paper in particular to push his own armchair moral agenda under the false veneer of it being scientifically proven, is just sloppy and insulting. It would be one thing if at least he said there may be nuances to this and that all he is really calling for is that we actually study these facts further to see what shakes out, and if he at least acknowledged that this does not yet connect to any actual prescription for moral action (Shermer never actually gets around to explaining what moral rules or behavior these facts are supposed to support, beyond vague slogans about individualism and market economics, which are meaningless shibboleths, words with emotive force but largely devoid of any clear content), and if he also actually responded to Pigliucci’s point that even the question of what’s best for us (what we as individuals most want for ourselves) is a matter of scientific inquiry (inquiry that might yet turn out a result Shermer doesn’t expect), and if he would concede Pigliucci’s point that right now, in the absence of the scientific research we actually need, a more scientifically informed philosophy is the only stopgap we have left for answering moral questions, maybe if he did all that then what he’s been saying on this subject would be salvageable. But he just doesn’t get any of that. He doesn’t think. He doesn’t listen. He just plays the fiddle of verification bias.

And I’m getting tired of that.

A Better Research Proposal

Shermer has one thing sort of vaguely right: science is already really good at teasing out cause-effect relationships, and if well-honed and ingeniously-directed, it could do a really good job at working out what the total lifetime consequences are for certain behavior choices (consequences psychologically, socially, reciprocally, and with respect to interpersonal relations). For example, we could determine if cultivating and abiding by the virtues of compassion, reasonableness, and integrity lead to ceteris paribus gains in personal life satisfaction, how large, for whom, and when. We already have the methodologies and research tools to do this. We just have to actually do it. And doing it would render moot much of moral philosophical pondering about such things.

But that’s just one side of the equation. Pigliucci keeps telling Shermer this, but he keeps not getting it. A moral imperative consists of two components: an implied set of consequences to a behavior, and an implied desire to have or avoid those consequences. I explain that in my cited work. But what it comes down to here is that the first component (consequences to a behavior) is what Shermer keeps talking about, while the second component (what people actually want) is what Pigliucci is talking about. Both are scientifically discoverable facts (and both are real facts of the natural world, and not mere opinions or phantoms), but they are not discovered or researched in the same way. Yet a proper moral science has to investigate both. And obviously, the latter is where a real science of morality should start–since consequences only matter once you know which consequences people want to enjoy or avoid.

This leads to a complexity that both Shermer and Pigliucci appear to overlook. The question of importance to any true moral science is not to study what people happen to want, but what they would want if they were suitably informed. All moral imperatives assume this (as I have demonstrated in my cited work). You might want designer shoes, but when informed of the child slavery producing them, your desire for designer shoes might evaporate. Knowledge makes all the difference between whether a moral imperative is true or false. The material facts of the world have to be understood as they are, in order to understand the moral facts of the world as they are.

This is a lot harder for science to suss out. But it’s not beyond our abilities. Science is incredibly creative and innovative in finding methods and ways of getting at facts. You just have to get to work on it. The task before us is not only to do what Shermer is talking about (and certainly not in the pseudoscientific way Shermer is doing it, but in properly sound and critically robust ways, in line with all good science), but also to start studying what people really want most from their lives, and more particularly, what they want when significantly informed of their options and of the contents of the world and of the possible consequences of their actions and choices–especially those they might not presently be aware of.

And after doing a lot of that, science needs to survey its results and look for cross-cultural and inter-societal universals. If it finds any, a universal morality emerges (and hence an objective and real one)…along with a way to explain it and persuade people to it that no longer hinges on speculation or hypothesis or holy books or tradition or anything other than facts and reason. If, on the other hand, science finds there is no universal set of ultimate core values (from which ultimate moral facts will necessarily derive, in the way I explain in my cited work), it will then have found two or more population subgroups who share ultimate core values, and will then be able to discover prescriptive moralities that are real and hold true for those respective subgroups.

I doubt the latter will occur, for reasons I have explained in my cited work (I doubt humans differ enough from each other biologically or indeed even environmentally for different subgroups of us to have radically incommensurate ultimate core values…and yes, I even consider the phenomenon of psychopathy). But that’s at least a verifiable (or falsifiable) empirical claim. Which science could answer…if it could be persuaded to bother. It’s high time it was.

 

Comments

  1. Jason Goertzen says

    Bang on. I’ve found this exchange frustrating for pretty much exactly the reasons you’ve listed. Pigliucci has frustrated me since he seems to think Philosophy has the monopoly on logic and clear thinking. All of science depends on logic and clear thinking…History, Medicine… Yes, Philosophy helps to teach clear thinking, but that that doesn’t make anything that depends on clear thinking the fall under the purview of Philosophy, and not Science. Nor does calling Morality a science make Philosophy irrelevant. I think Pigliucci is overly defensive because of Sam Harris’ having dismissed the jargon of philosophy as “increasing the amount of boredom in the universe.”

    • says

      I concur on all points.

      (Although I should add that philosophy does still have a lot to teach scientists, who are rarely in fact taught logic, fallacies, or even epistemology, but just muddle through with what specialized stuff they do get taught; while simultaneously, a vast quantity of philosophy is, as Harris said, boredom-inspiring bullshit–and telling the difference is a job of work, one much needed in the field, but I’ve soap boxed that many a time before.)

    • Jason Goertzen says

      I linked to your soap-boaxing about it in another online discussion on the subject. :)

      I have a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, but I decided not to continue on to get my PhD because I was tired of wading through bullshit to find what amounted to trite observations couched in jargon. One thing that alarms me about modern philosophy is that it has lost its emphasis on clearly communicating; I worry that it is, in part, for the same reason for theology’s jargon: because when it’s expressed in the simplest possible terms, a lot of it is revealed to be less than remarkable, or else obvious false (as Dan Dennett has discussed).

      Another thing that alarms me is that I’m not convinced that expert philosophers are consistently better at philosophy than well-informed amateurs. When a professional philosopher can say with a straight face that belief in God can be “properly basic,” like the belief “I’m seeing words on a screen,” and when other philosophers take this argument seriously, I have to shake my head a bit. Much like you’ve argued with Jesus historicists, philosophers kind of have to get their house in order before crying foul that they aren’t adequately respected by non-philosophers.

    • says

      Amen to all that.

      Your first point is one of the ten things I myself listed as wrong with modern philosophy in a podcast debate I had with a philosopher many years ago. Philosophers should be required to engage in oral debates and online dialogues with ordinary people regularly, so that they gain experience communicating their ideas–and once they do that, they will start to realize how much of their ideas really are bullshit, once stripped of their fancy language and frameworks, and general disconnect from reality.

      My concern is that people see this and then assume that’s all that philosophy is or can be, and therefore philosophy as a whole is useless. The anti-philosophy spouting scientists like Hawking and Shermer and gang are all victims of that fallacy. It’s rather like assuming astronomy is bullshit because astrology is bullshit, simply because astronomers are not themselves making any distinction between the two. That’s what philosophy is now: a field with no standards, and no will or effort to distinguish real substance from dressed-up bullshittery; in other words, no desire or ability to tell the metaphorical difference between astronomy and astrology.

      Your second point I also worry is true (and is related to another of my ten points: philosophy has no actual standards by which to measure progress, which is then mistaken for philosophy not being able to make progress). The best case to the contrary was made recently in response to this very debate here (by a guest posting philosopher on Ophelia Benson’s blog). But he leaves out the very thing you just noted: everything he says in theory sounds great, but in actual practice often seems not to be the case.

      To take this outside the field of religion (since one could claim that Christian philosophy is a special kind of bullshit in the same way creation science is, and thus perhaps attempt to rehabilitate philosophy as a whole by chopping off that rotting limb) I am embarrassed by the work of such “revered” luminaries as Peter Singer and John Searle, who have become famous for some of the most terrible arguments I’ve ever seen from Ph.D.s in the subject (outside of the philosophy of religion, that is), and none of their peers seem to realize or recognize how terrible those arguments are or even what’s wrong with them. And that’s just an example. I see this kind of thing a lot.

      So you are quite right about philosophers needing to get their house in order. Of course, IMO.

    • Alessandro says

      As a current Masters in Philosophy student I have spent the last 4 years quite appalled at the nonsense that passes for philosophical discourse as it is presented to students.

      There is evidence, at least at my university, of this changing. We are encouraged to write clearly and concisely for a layman audience, and to explain any technical jargon we use. Some classes encourage the use of a more conversational style of writing, rather than the stuffy absence-of-personal-pronoun writing so often found in published articles. The undergrads here are taught that these (historical) philosophers were great *in spite* of their bad writing, and not because of it. I’m at a loss as to why the Sokal Hoax isn’t taught in every first year class (philosophy or otherwise) to ward against people developing habits of writing near-impenetrable bullshit. Calvin and Hobbes makes the point nicely: http://tomnichols.net/blog/2013/02/16/why-academic-writing-is-so-bad/

      Our post-graduate group from this year and last were and are level-headed no-nonsense writers, eager to see their work make a difference in the world somehow. Unfortunately, our intentions make little difference unless the vanguards of the academic journals share our goals for a more transparent dialogue, since we’re required to write to their standards and not our own. Valid charges of elitism and tradition seem to fall on deaf ears (and conspire to ensure you remain unpublished).

      That at least deals with the communication aspect, but what about the content. Here, one can only say that good philosophy must be informed by good science (which in turn also needs to be informed by good philosophy). For this reason I squint sideways at much of what comes out of evolutionary psychology, for much of it amounts to very nice ‘just so’ stories with little philosophical or scientific rigor. Philosophy of mind is similarly plagued by unscientifically informed armchair babble.

      Richard, is your gripe with Searle limited to the Chinese Room (ala SAGWG), or also his biological theory of consciousness? It’s my understanding that Pigliucci advocates (at least privately; not sure publicly) for a biological theory of consciousness rather than a computational theory. Philosophy of Mind appears to be a special case where many, especially the New Mysterians, can yammer whatever they like about the nature of consciousness without fear of being called out on it, largely due to our ignorance of how it arises. Thomas Nagel appears to have completely lost his mind with his latest book, advocating for a ‘universal law of teleology’ that drives the universe to create life and conscious beings.

    • says

      Thank you for that commentary. All useful to know, and verifies some of my impressions.

      Richard, is your gripe with Searle limited to the Chinese Room (ala SAGWG), or also his biological theory of consciousness?

      Chinese Room. And his associated case against Turing consciousness (Turing consciousness may be impossible, but not for the scientifically illiterate reasons he claims).

      What Searle calls biological naturalism is not literal enough to be a useful term, IMO. He does not use the word “biological” the way scientists do, but in a much more vague way that could more usefully be communicated with a completely different and less misleading word. To wit…

      It’s my understanding that Pigliucci advocates (at least privately; not sure publicly) for a biological theory of consciousness rather than a computational theory.

      Taken literally, it’s unclear to me what intelligible difference there can be. Biology is just a chemical system. Which is just a computer. It has inputs and outputs, and processing of information in between. Nothing more. Claiming protein-and-lipid-based cells have any relevantly different properties vis-a-vis consciousness than other machines harkens back to the old days of vitalism. Which is like harkening back to the days of astrology. Others have made the same point. But I think they mistake Searle for using the word literally (though that is a semantic error of his own creation).

      To say other mechanisms can’t generate consciousness is like saying artificial hearts are impossible because only biological hearts can pump blood and vary their pulse in response to neural signals. Which is refuted by experience. And that is an analogy Searle has explicitly made and agreed with. In fact, on this much I think Searle and I agree: consciousness is a state of a system; and that system might be realizable in all sorts of mediums, not necessarily what we mean by a “biological” one (here I am using the word in its scientific sense, not in the muddled sense adopted by Searle).

  2. Tim Bartik says

    I doubt very much that Stevenson and Wolfers think that “economic growth helps everyone” in all places and at all times. Stevenson, for example, was chief economist at the Labor Department under Obama, which does not exactly fit with the notion that these are two conservative economists. Even more relevantly, there is a more recent paper by Sacks, Stevenson, and Wolfers on this topic.

    http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2012/8/02%20income%20wellbeing%20wolfers/02%20income%20wellbeing%20wolfers.pdf

    In this paper, they specifically discuss the U.S. and say the following:

    “The US, however, remains a paradoxical counter-example: GDP has approximately doubled since 1972 and well-being, as measured by the General Social Survey, has decreased slightly. There are a few things to note about the US. The first is simply that as with any particular country there may be all sorts of social changes that are occurring that may either generate rising or falling well-being. This is what makes it difficult to draw general conclusions from the experience of just one country. The second is to highlight a particular social issue that has occurred in the US: changing inequality. While the average income has increased by 0.8 log points, the average of log income in the General Social Survey—which is what we would expect to influence well-being—has increased by only 0.17. That is, perhaps the well-being of those Americans in this survey has not grown much, because few survey respondents shared in the fruits of rising GDP. In European countries, inequality has increased by half this amount, or less (Krueger et al., 2009).”

    • says

      Thank you for that. That’s an excellent addition. All the more proof that Shermer is badly misusing their work.

      Though in the paper Shermer uses they have only one sentence mentioning that result buried in one paragraph (pp. 19-20) that they then don’t explore or revisit when they summarize their conclusions, they do use careful wording like “raising the income of all [my emphasis] does indeed raise the well-being of all” (p. 4) which destroys the point Shermer wanted to make (that it was individual success, rather than cooperative success, that produces the effect observed), but then they use careless language like “we find that economic growth is associated with increases in life satisfaction” (p. 30), which is, as you now point out, not true (the exceptions are crucial and not something to be glossed over in a statement like that–one should expect a caveat like “as long as income disparity does not grow along with it”).

      The paragraph you quote, for example, flatly contradicts their conclusion, quoted by Shermer, that emphasis on economic growth should continue to be a priority–no mention of inequity being an even greater concern. Instead, they say their “conclusion suggests that economists’ traditional interest in economic growth has not been misplaced,” no mention of, say, “economists’ more recent interest in income disparity has also not been misplaced and is equally important.” This is the gerrymandering I was talking about. The paper seems designed to mislead people like Shermer who don’t read carefully and need certain conclusions to be true. It does not contain the consistent qualifying remarks one should otherwise expect. I do not know who is responsible for that fact, but it’s there.

  3. snowman says

    Btw, isn’t it telling that even the title of the chapter you always cite to refer to your irrefutable genius doesn’t make sense?

    Moral facts naturally exist (and science CAN find them!) – or you mean science “could” back in fairy tale times, or “could” if you had a clue?

    • says

      So are you saying you need a grammar lesson? The word “could” in that chapter title is the future subjunctive mood of “can” (see its definition), it indicates a hypothetical conditional, e.g., “science could find new species in Antarctica, if it undertook the expense of an expedition,” ergo, “science could find moral facts if it undertook the necessary research programme to do so.”

      Or, of course, you know this and you’re just being a dick. Past history suggests which.

    • snowman says

      >>indicates a hypothetical conditional, e.g., “science could find new species in Antarctica, if it undertook the expense of an expedition,

      And that’s exactly what I just said to show your sentence is badly written or at best incomplete. Do you even think before posting?

      Your claim is that science actually CAN find moral facts – which indicates your ignorance of the issue but then again that comes out clearly in this post as you swing as badly wide as Shermer does, Pigliucci says science cannot “find” moral “facts” period. Can or cannot, that is the debate. Not “could” if maybe but….

      After claiming Shermer failed to answer properly, and wanting to school him, you instead waste your endless verbal diarrhea debating an economic “fact” that is irrelevant to the higher order question Pigliucci argued.

      Only at the endless end do you make this claim showing you are as tone deaf as Shermer: “The material facts of the world have to be understood as they are, in order to understand the moral facts of the world as they are.”

      Uhh, no, and Pigliucci explained why not. You didn’t manage even 1 sentence here showing what Shermer should have said to argue against that..

      And no, your “cited” – and badly titled – chapter does not answer it either. The claim that it is “moral” to seek whatever we want, if only we gathered all the factoids of the world and reasoned, is incredibly badly wrong as Pigliucci explained. You’d have a bagful of facts and no way to sort them.

      (As was indicated in the short post you censored which – oh my! – used our human desire to “crap” to satirize the value of your “getting what we desire is moral” argument. But I guess you didn’t catch that substantive point so you censored it?)

      By the way, had never read Pigliucci before your post – thanks – but saw a post where he said:

      —”His intemperance with people who happen to disagree — even marginally — with his position is nauseating (just ask the editor of Skeptical Inquirer, who occasionally receives and promptly refuses to publish Richard’s letters about my columns).”

      You refer to one letter here. Why don’t you publish all of them so we can judge, unless what Pigliucci said about your letters was true?

    • says

      And that’s exactly what I just said to show your sentence is badly written or at best incomplete.

      This is starting to get humorous. The title of a chapter that confirms the claim made in the title is now being claimed by you incomplete because…what? The title doesn’t contain the whole chapter? Honestly.

      Your claim is that science actually CAN find moral facts

      No, as I just said, my claim is that science COULD find moral facts, if it bothered to try. That is indeed the thesis of the chapter. Several paragraphs in it are devoted to precisely that point.

      As to the rest, I have already addressed all those issues, in this post (e.g. my remaining dispute with Pigliucci), and in the works I cited. That was why I wrote this post as I did and cited those works in it.

      Why don’t you publish all of them so we can judge, unless what Pigliucci said about your letters was true?

      There were only two, one on memetics and one on this issue. In both cases Pigliucci made a number of egregious errors that I pointed out (and we did not disagree “marginally” in those cases). His instead blaming me for being stubborn instead of acknowledging the errors I demonstrated in his articles is exactly the kind of behavior from him that gets my goat. I may indeed publish those letters someday. But that just isn’t a priority for me, especially since they relate to what are now quite old articles in SI and thus are barely newsworthy. We’ve moved on.

  4. Alessandro says

    This is the argument I’ve been waiting to see Pigliucci make since this exchange began. That being said, I believe he is a neo-Aristotelian virtue ethicist, and would reject consequentialist reasoning as the sole arbiter of the moral good. I am aware that your hypothetical-conditional Goal Theory could account for this (“Why would you want to be virtuous?”) but I am unsure of whether that counter would satisfy Pigliucci.

    • says

      I am also a neo-Aristotelian virtue ethicist, but I also have demonstrated that we can unify all moral theories under that rubric. Even Aristotle’s case for virtue ethics was consequentialist; it is also deontological–and the fact that it can be both is something philosophers miss when they fail to recognize that Kantian ethics is in fact also consequentialist. Both facts I have demonstrated in my work, including in my formal peer reviewed chapter on the subject. I explained the unification thesis in Sense and Goodness without God V.3 (where I show we can fold in many other supposed conflicts in ethical theory, e.g. even unifying intuitionism with cognitivism). I state the formalism in The End of Christianity, p. 344 w. n. 26, p. 424.

    • Jason Goertzen says

      “…when they fail to recognize that Kantian ethics is in fact also consequentialist.”

      What I refer to as Kantsequentialism. I’m sure I’m not the first to do so. :)

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    Insofar as money is only one of the factors which influence “happiness”, the proposed science of sorting this out will involve a lot more than even the (multiple variables comprising) social investment criteria suggested above.

    Anecdata: some years ago I attended a financial “seminar” (so labeled, but utterly non-academic) featuring an adviser who claimed to have worked with a large number of lottery winners – all of whom, he said, divorced within a year or so of their windfalls. No doubt some of those were in miserable relationships held together only by lack of opportunities to escape, but clearly other issues arose due to the influx of cash.

    Markets don’t obey ideologies. They obey reality.

    Aw, c’mon. In many cases, markets follow * advertising * [pls add blinking neon effects and frolicking buff young models - until html stylings can catch up with Madison Avenue of three generations ago] – arguably the exact opposite of reality.

    The question of importance to any true moral science is not to study what people happen to want, but what they would want if they were suitably informed.

    Ai yi yi. Doesn’t this introduce enough hypotheticals and fuzziness to put all hopes of achieving scientific status off into the clouds for decades to come?

    • says

      Doesn’t this introduce enough hypotheticals and fuzziness to put all hopes of achieving scientific status off into the clouds for decades to come?

      No more than the conceptual and technical apparatus behind verifying the existence and properties of the Higgs boson. Indeed, that was arguably a lot harder to do (certainly as measured by dollars spent, but even also in terms of years and personnel devoted). And yet, isn’t discovering moral facts more important?

    • Pierce R. Butler says

      That LHC apparatus wasn’t even approved – never mind funded, designed, & built – without some very clear ideas of what to measure.

      Last I heard, we have yet to put meaningful numbers to the phenomena “importance”, “moral’, “happen”, “would want”, “suitably” or “informed”. Subatomic forces have been tested in labs around the world and observed across the sky; so far our most advanced goodometers and evilscopes lack as much calibration as notches on a stick.

      … isn’t discovering moral facts angels more important?

      Do you think Templeton will fund my proposal for a nanoweave-covered pinhead to record the precise choreography of angel dances? Has the moral-factics school yet suggested instrumentation of comparable specificity?

      The study of ethics remains woefully sparse in the modern academy, though arguably less so than its practice in society. I would like to see it a classroom topic, a theme for scripts, and a subject of discussion at cocktail parties and tractor pulls alike – but with so many variables as yet unquantified, promoting this particular subset of philosophy to scientific status seems premature at best.

    • says

      That LHC apparatus wasn’t even approved – never mind funded, designed, & built – without some very clear ideas of what to measure.

      Which took almost a century to develop. That’s my point. You have to actually work on a thing to make empirical progress on it. Anyone who says “science can’t study that” has throughout history almost always been proved wrong. It’s therefore almost always a losing bet.

      We already have some of the ground work done (e.g., degrees of sentiment, feeling, desire, and the prioritizing of goals have all been scientifically measured in peer reviewed published scientific research studies, and have been for many decades; and peer-reviewed cause-effect studies in complex social systems has been in progress for decades as well). The rest is doable. It just has to be done.

  6. humesapprentice says

    In my opinion, Ethics is a study that has one foot in science and the other in philosophy.

    Science is capable of showing us which action will best fulfill our goals. Science cannot, however, dictate what our goals are. Figuring out our goals is a matter for philosophy.

    Example: some libertarians are opposed to wealth redistribution, and say they would maintain their opposition to it even if wealth redistribution would make a lot of people really happy without making anyone unhappy. They believe in the moral principle that you should not forcefully take anything from anyone to give to someone else, and that no ends just the means. I disagree with the libertarians who think this. The reason I bring up this example is to make plain that some ethical disputes don’t have anything to do with science, rather, they have to do with a disagreement over which goals we should be pursuing. Extremist libertarians believe we ought to uphold our committment to letting people keep what they earn, whereas most people would be more committed to overall societal health and happiness. How can we decide which of those two viewpoints is correct? I think we’d have to use philosophical arguments, and, as it turns out, there is a good philosophical argument that would settle this dispute: That moral rules and principles ought to only be upheld to the extent that they create human happiness, because happiness is what we are truly after, and so any rule or principle that doesn’t ought to be thrown out completely or at least neglected in cases where it does not produce happiness. Ergo, the non-libertarian position is correct.

    • says

      Ethics is a study that has one foot in science and the other in philosophy.

      But really, IMO, that’s also true of all of science. All the sciences depend on logic and epistemology for their entire foundation, and on moral philosophy for ethical guidance, and make metaphysical assumptions routinely. Scientists also often entangle their scientific claims in political and aesthetic statements, which is philosophy, and philosophy again. Scientists just aren’t aware or are unwilling to admit this in most cases.

      Science cannot, however, dictate what our goals are. Figuring out our goals is a matter for philosophy.

      Actually, no.

      First, finding out that x causes y can easily dictate changes in our goals (if pursuing goal x produces side-effect y, and we don’t want y, then science can thus prove we should abandon goal x). There are derivative goals that are a product of core goals in light of cause-effect beliefs (to achieve core goal x, we often have to pursue derivative goals y and z), so changes in cause-effect beliefs will change derivative goals (example: what goals we set as far as defeating a disease can be changed by scientific discovery, e.g. science proves universal vaccination should be a goal for any morally minded person; likewise what we’ve discovered and have had to conclude regarding the necessary ethics of quarantine and containment).

      Secondly, science must dictate derivative goals (since those derive from core goals combined with scientific facts, as just explained), but science does not dictate core goals, i.e. goals that we have not because they derive from other goals but because they are the goals we have for their own sake and that we could not be persuaded to abandon (because if we could be persuaded to abandon them, that would have to be by appeal to other goals we already have that are in conflict with them and that we already agree supersede them, which would make those other goals our core goals). Rather, science’s job is to discover those core goals.

      That was my point about the two sides of the research project. Shermer is talking about the derivative project (the matter of cause and effect). He is ignoring the core project (the matter of identifying what people ultimately want from life, which determines what our derivative goals are). I explained in the post what that core project is and how it differs from the derivative project. Both are empirical research programs. Both should now be folded into science. The philosophical underpinning is already in place, just as it is in every other science (e.g. the philosophical epistemology of the use of instrumentation and of measurement error is what makes other research projects in science possible).

      Hence to take your example: the extreme Libertarian position you describe (which I am certain most Libertarians would dispute, but let’s just use it for example) has no foundation whatever unless they can link the statements “never forcefully take anything from anyone to give to someone else” and “no ends ever just the means” to actual core values that people actually have. If no one has any core values that warrant those propositions, then the Libertarian claim about morality is simply false, as false as a creationist claiming the earth is six thousand years old (I explain why in my chapter in The End of Christianity). And what core values people actually have is a question for science to answer, not philosophers (and certainly not armchair Libertarians).

      To carry the point through, the only valid way to argue that it is true that everyone ought to agree “never forcefully take anything from anyone to give to someone else” and “no ends ever just the means” is to argue that obeying these principles will have effects on the world that satisfy our core values in ways that not obeying these principles would not. But that’s two empirical propositions: (1) what our core values actually are, and (2) what the actual effects are of implementing those two principles universally. I don’t even need a special scientific research project to conclude on empirical evidence readily available to me that both those principles are false (no society that advocated them as rules to follow would be one anyone would want to live in, since they both preclude the entire concept of justice). But then, as I noted, I think Libertarians would agree. They would want to modify both principles considerably before advocating them. But that just changes what the empirical hypotheses are that they are advancing. And as empirical hypotheses, only science has the proper tools to answer them with the degree of certainty we should want.

    • snowman says

      >> once you know which consequences people want to enjoy or avoid.
      >>science’s job is to discover those core goals.

      Your superficiality makes you think you are answering Pigliucci when you haven’t even started.

      Pigliucci asks, “What should we value?”

      You answer, “We should value what we already value (given certain conditions).”

      So of course the response is, “No, I asked you what we OUGHT to value, not what we already value, no matter what conditions. Even if we all value life and happiness it doesn’t follow that we ought to. Maybe Silenus was right?”

      What we value (100% informed of the “factoids” of the world or otherwise) has no grip upon the question of what we OUGHT to value. A scientific survey is a flat 2D one, absolutely nothing stands out on its own.

      Instead of embracing that and pursuing the implications, you sneak valuations in through the back door, god-like oughts about “happiness” and “persons” so no one gets hurt and – ignoring obviously conflicting values – it might all tend toward a nice recognizably modern liberal moral code. And you openly say anyone who disagrees is insane and evil. (Sound familiar?)

      If you were consistent and simply accepted what we value, and the chaos of those ever-changing cross-purposed valuations throughout the history of our species, then you’d see your approach can never amount to more than saying, “This is how this animal lives.” There are no ultimate “moral facts” there, no ultimate guidance, it’s little more than anthropology you’re doing.

      For example: should I live in self-sacrifice to family and country, or in the pursuit of artistic self-fulfillment? Should I sacrifice my life to tend to my sister with cancer, or pursue my own dreams? Science can dig up all the facts it wants, and someone today or 500 years ago can state what he values, but science is never going to tell you which path you ought to value. That is a cardinally different question which you treat incredibly superficially, thus demeaning the nobility of life, equating it with a tricky survey and statistics problem.

      If values are not given, then the truly intriguing questions remain: How have we created values, who created them, to what end… What is the essence of valuing?

    • says

      You are simply ignoring all the arguments made in my referenced work, in particular my discussion of the role of natural core values in determining the truth-value of all ought-statements in The End of Christianity. Until you address what I have actually said about this, your remarks are completely moot to everything I have said. If you were anyone else I’d simply recommend you read that chapter first, as I advised everyone to do in my original post, in order to get up to speed on the context, so you can start conversing on the same page as the rest of us. But based on your past experience, I don’t believe you are being sincere about anything, so I seriously doubt you’ll ever do that, much less act responsibly or sincerely with the information conveyed in that chapter if ever you do read it.

      For everyone else who actually sincerely wants to understand this subject: the comment being made above has already been thoroughly and formally answered in that chapter. So please start there.

    • snowman says

      >>the role of natural core values

      It’s clear you are slipping value judgements in the back door so as not to have to argue for them as values but, as I said, even if they were 100% shared in our species throughout our long history because we let ourselves define away all the exceptions as crazies:

      –”If you were consistent and simply accepted what we value, and the chaos of those ever-changing cross-purposed valuations throughout the history of our species, then you’d see your approach can never amount to more than saying, “This is how this animal lives.” There are no ultimate “moral facts” there, no ultimate guidance, it’s little more than anthropology you’re doing.”

      It’s no different from examining what cockroaches like to do, then claiming it is a “moral fact” that they ought to do that. Surely you see how superficial that is, no? We’re just another animal here for a bit, and not cardinally different from cockroaches, just more clever.

      And that doesn’t even get into the later problem of cross-purposes emanating from some assumed “core value” of “happiness” as you define it, but then try to corral by inserting rules about the value of “persons” we must all accept (or again are defined away as crazy).

      >>has already been thoroughly and formally answered in that chapter

      I’m not aware of anyone in philosophy who agrees that defining away the problem as you do is actually answering the problem. You are not answering the question being asked.

      For elucidation, please try to answer the question I raised, similar to the questions Pigliucci raised, and give an answer applicable to a young woman in 225 BC Greece, a young man in a 1620s Tibetan village and a young woman in LA today:

      –”For example: should I live in self-sacrifice to family and country, or in the pursuit of artistic self-fulfillment? Should I sacrifice my life to tend to my sister with cancer, or pursue my own dreams?”

      What is the moral “fact” there to be discovered via your approach?

      Thanks

    • says

      Even though this comment violates my comments policy (by repeatedly ignoring my every relevant argument on the subject, particularly in my peer reviewed print article, despite being told to stop doing that), I am letting it through because it is so disturbing and ignorant of what I’ve written on this subject that it discredits this guy even more effectively than any analysis from me could.

      For those who lost track of what we were actually discussing: I have here and elsewhere argued that science is the only field capable of properly determining what core values people have and whether all people share the same core values (snowman’s armchair assertions here are therefore what we call “pseudoscience,” aka armchair bullshit). How “happiness” gets defined then follows from what science then discovers are the things people most want out of life (their core values) when relevantly informed (i.e. when they know what the actual consequences of their actions are and what their actual options in life are). Morality then follows from that (the same way medicine follows from medical facts and goals, engineering from engineering facts and goals, etc.). We can propose some plausible hypotheses in all these respects already from what science and empirical data we so far have (and I have done so in my books and articles, online and in print). But science needs to get busy doing this more seriously and extensively. That’s the whole thrust of everything I have been arguing here. Snowman is just ignoring it. Because he doesn’t like the truth.

    • snowman says

      Well, the basic ones you hadn’t posted until now, but still haven’t answered:

      1) why you take what we WANT to be what is moral to pursue. It’s very easy to see that they can be at opposite ends. As I said, “It’s no different from examining what cockroaches like to do, then claiming it is a “moral fact” that they ought to do that. ” Why is your human animal analysis any different?

      2) why you ignore all the obvious crosspurposes any definition of “happiness” would entail, let alone why “happiness” is the goal. Obviously many don’t pursue “happiness”, they pursue what they think is right to pursue and it often involves much misery.

      3) why you think it OK to slip in cultural value judgement about “persons” so everyone is equal and no one’s happiness can involve harming others? That isn’t a “core value” science discovered in humans, it is derived from Christian notions of the soul, later abstracted by Kant into “dignity”.

      But mostly, if you want to ignore all that yet again and just claim every time that you answered it elsewhere so anyone asking is being a bad boy – though you didn’t answer it elsewhere – then for elucidation of your approach at least answer one sample question as I asked:

      4) Please try to answer the question I raised, similar to the questions Pigliucci raised, and give an answer applicable to a young woman in 225 BC Greece, a young man in a 1620s Tibetan village and a young woman in LA today:

      –”For example: should I live in self-sacrifice to family and country, or in the pursuit of artistic self-fulfillment? Should I sacrifice my life to tend to my sister with cancer, or pursue my own dreams?”

      What is the moral “fact” there to be discovered via your approach?

    • says

      Once again, a comment that completely ignores what I have written on all these points. Thus, once again, a comment that violates my comments policy and wastes everyone’s time.

    • snowman says

      Btw, why do you keep saying “peer reviewed print article”? No one else says that. It comes off as desperately trying to gain legitimacy, no?

      And why are you so afraid to “repeat” an argument you might have made elsewhere anyway???

    • says

      (1) You do not think there is a difference in value between a paper in philosophy that is not peer reviewed and one that is?

      (2) I write arguments down precisely so that I don’t have to repeat them. That is, in fact, one of the main purposes of the invention of writing.

    • snowman says

      >>You do not think there is a difference in value between a paper in philosophy that is not peer reviewed and one that is?

      I think it is telling you need to slip in this “appeal to authority” every time to try to enhance your claims, as though they were true bc someone read your paper. Don’t see others doing that, they let the work stand on it’s own.

      >> I write arguments down precisely so that I don’t have to repeat them.

      But you repeat things constantly – except when you don’t have a good answer?

      Why can’t you even answer a simple example to demonstrate what you are claiming??? What are you afraid of?

      4) Please try to answer the question I raised, similar to the questions Pigliucci raised, and give an answer applicable to a young woman in 225 BC Greece, a young man in a 1620s Tibetan village and a young woman in LA today:

      –”For example: should I live in self-sacrifice to family and country, or in the pursuit of artistic self-fulfillment? Should I sacrifice my life to tend to my sister with cancer, or pursue my own dreams?”

      What is the moral “fact” there to be discovered via your approach?

    • says

      >>You do not think there is a difference in value between a paper in philosophy that is not peer reviewed and one that is?

      I think it is telling you need to slip in this “appeal to authority” every time to try to enhance your claims, as though they were true bc someone read your paper. Don’t see others doing that, they let the work stand on it’s own.

      So you do not think there is a difference in value between a paper in philosophy that is not peer reviewed and one that is?

      [Everything else you say is already answered in my cited chapter. Go read it and respond to what it says. Or stop wasting everyone's time.]

    • snowman says

      So you write a post about how Pigliucci can be answered BUT refuse to answer typical examples he raised that show you are missing the question entirely???

      Brave debating strategy.

      >>So you do not think there is a difference in value between a paper in philosophy that is not peer reviewed and one that is?

      Not in terms of the truth of the argument, no. Plus the last time you cited “peer review” I recall it was pretty flaky in terms of who reviewed it, or you refused to say who it was, something like that.

      It would be much more valuable if you could actually answer a simple example question like above so as to elucidate your approach, but “clearly” you prefer to hide in the dark.

    • says

      I have answered all those questions. That’s the point. Go read my answers. Or stop giving a shit what they are. Your call.

      As to peer review, now we know you deem non-peer reviewed work as no less in merit to peer reviewed work. I will quote you on that in future. Most people do not share your view. They constantly ask why my work hasn’t been peer reviewed. So the reason I mention it is to answer them. Since you don’t care, you can disregard it.

      As to your false accusations about it, I named all that chapter’s peer reviewers in the chapter itself, and all of them were major professors of philosophy…so, neither did I “not name them” nor can they be considered “flaky.”

      Although I believe you are insincere (and thus are just fucking with me), if I am charitable enough to assume you really think there is something flaky about anonymous peer review, then I have to say you are out of touch with reality. Sometimes peer reviewers do want to be anonymous (as in the case of my peer reviewers for Proving History), and I respect that, as all scholars should. The peer review process can be deeply undermined if peer reviewers can be punished for approving work that is of required quality but merely unpopular. Anonymous peer review is thus one of the mainstays of academic freedom.

    • says

      Isn’t it KC James on Amazon.com that continues to randomly ask who the anonymous peer reviewers were on Proving History?

      http://www.amazon.com/review/R3KJJC5HO5HDIF/ref=cm_cr_rev_detmd_pl?ie=UTF8&asin=1616145595&cdForum=Fx114KMFJVO9SXH&cdMsgID=MxQ0M3PFP2X77Y&cdMsgNo=36&cdPage=4&cdSort=oldest&cdThread=Tx3CI6IJROFPQH0&store=books#MxQ0M3PFP2X77Y

      Yup. I’ll bet he asks Jesus every few months who the anonymous authors of the gospels were and withholds his belief accordingly.

    • snowman says

      Where did you answer this exact question, as you just said??? You’ve never answered it.

      Why are you afraid to answer a clear example, to show how to answer Pigliucci in a post about that topic? People who are real philosophers strive for clarity, not gamesmanship as you do. Or you don’t answer because the question makes your approach look foolish?

      I really want to know what science has to discover about the value of duty vs happiness for someone who doesn’t know what to do, and who seeks more than some random polling results.

      Share your peer-reviewed wisdom with us with a clear example:.

      ********************
      Please try to answer the question I raised, similar to the questions Pigliucci raised, and give an answer applicable to a young woman in 225 BC Greece, a young man in a 1620s Tibetan village and a young woman in LA today:

      –”For example: should I live in self-sacrifice to family and country, or in the pursuit of artistic self-fulfillment? Should I sacrifice my life to tend to my sister with cancer, or pursue my own dreams?”

      What is the moral “fact” there to be discovered via your approach?
      ********************

      As for tangents which you will repeat endlessly while avoiding answering a real question: So you actually think that every single journal article in history is true just because peer reviewed??? People asked you before as a starting point because you constantly made the stupidest most outlandish claims for having proven things that are unproven after millenia and obviously flawed. But you still do it anyway then pretend you have some authority behind your claims now. (Then go off on further tangents about “anonymous review” which no one even mentioned. ???)

      Just answer the simple example question for us simple folks, o wise one. Or demonstrate yet again that you can’t answer it, up to you.

    • snowman says

      I’ve read your arguments online on the subject and they don’t indicate it is worth paying $13 to read them reformatted or even reformulated.

      Your basic argument is badly flawed and superficial. No one takes it seriously, especially when you constantly make absurd claims that you’ve proven things you obviously haven’t.

      -And even less so when you can’t answer one simple example question on the very subject you posted about – unless someone pays you money.

      That’s pretty sad for a so-called “philosopher”.

    • says

      I see. It’s not worth reading but you know it’s badly flawed and superficial. It was peer reviewed and passed by four major professors of philosophy but no one takes it seriously. And you think the job of a philosopher is to give you free tutoring?

      If only your ears could twitch from all the people laughing at you at this point.

    • snowman says

      Yet again with your lame appeal to bureaucratic authority: “it’s peer reviewed, therefor it’s proven”. Exactly as I said above, it doesn’t mean a thing. I’ve read thousands of very poor peer-reviewed articles. Yours is just another bad argument a couple profs said was OK for a private company to try to make money on in book form – it’s not even published in a serious philosophy journal!

      When you publish the same argument in a serious phil journal, let us all know!

      C’mon, you’ve been claiming to be a genius for years and to have solved millenia-old philosophical problems, yet no one in philosophy has ever taken your arguments seriously.

      And you can’t even answer a basic example on the blog topic YOU posted about!

      And then make silly schoolyard boasts about unknown readers laughing at commenters when you can’t answer them honestly and clearly and simply?

      Deluded much?

    • says

      I didn’t say “it’s peer reviewed, therefore it’s proven.” I said it’s peer reviewed, therefore it meets the higher standards of peer reviewed academic philosophy generally, an equal or even better standard to “a serious philosophy journal,” since I had four peer reviewers; academic journals typically have only two.

      When you to simultanously disdain peer review entirely (as you have done here, and previously in this thread) and then claim you’ll read my work when I “publish the same argument in a serious phil journal” I know you are being pathetically insincere, the more so as my chapter in TEC met the same or better standard as any serious phil journal, so by your own logic you ought to go read it now.

      When you do, and want to actually interact with it, you’re welcome to here. Until then, you’re just a troll.

    • snowman says

      >>I didn’t say “it’s peer reviewed, therefore it’s proven.”

      Are you “literally” stupid? Do you have no sense whatsoever of how to interpret a sentence without leaping to “win” a debate point in your mind?

      You constantly repeat that some chapter in a privately sold book was OKd for sale by a couple profs as though that means anything about the validity of your argument. It doesn’t.

      “Proving my theory of godless morality correct, I refuted this, I demonstrated this, I unified these moral theories..” Get a grip on yourself there, little man :-)

      Again, when you publish this argument in a serious phil journal, and serious phil’s respond to it and say you’ve done these things, let us all know, please!

      Until then you’d be better served by a whopping dose of humility (and civility) and maybe even by answering simple questions posed about your claims. Otherwise you come off like just another deluded scientistic optimist, like those early guys who thought radiation was good for us.

    • says

      You keep seesawing between two ends of a black and white fallacy. This is fun. I know you are completely insincere, but it’s amusing to expose this. So here goes…

      >>I didn’t say “it’s peer reviewed, therefore it’s proven.”

      You constantly repeat that some chapter in a privately sold book was OKd for sale by a couple profs as though that means anything about the validity of your argument. It doesn’t.

      So now peer review means “nothing” about the merit of the work? So, for you, either peer review means “nothing at all” about the value of a paper or it means the paper is “completely proven.” You cannot imagine any of the million degrees of possibility between those extremes? Oh, wait, I’m sure you can. I suspect you are just being an insincere dick, and that you really do understand what I said, but are pretending there are only two extreme options and not the actual one I stated. And then you waffle between which extreme you believe in. Here you reject all peer review whatever, while previously you asked me to get the paper through peer review before you’d read it. Even though I already did that. Yet you still won’t read the paper.

      And round and round we go.

  7. says

    I’m still reading (great post) but will have to split before i finish and wanted to note an apparent error: You suggest,

    Their claim of a consistent logarithmic relationship is impossible, since the scale stops at 10, yet their correlation line would predict someone making a billion dollars a year will report a life satisfaction in the 100s.

    Judging from the U.S. curve in the graph (using the left scale, as you are, rather than the right scale, whence their gradients appear to be calculated), about a point on the 0–10 scale is gained by quadrupling one’s income. To recover the two points separating the self-rating average under an annual household income of $128K, then, we would have to increase income 16-fold to about $2 million. It’s about a (4^6.5 =) 8,000-fold increase from $128K to a $1 billion income, which means that someone making a billion dollars a year “would” report a life satisfaction of about 8 + 6.5 = 14.5 on the 0–10 scale. This is still ridiculous, of course (the relationship must break down before this point), but it’s not quite as extreme as predicting ratings in the hundreds.

    • says

      Aha! Thanks for doing the math. I’m surprised it’s so low, but that’s the thing about geometric progressions, isn’t it? I’ll add a note to the article.

  8. says

    I think the biggest problem is that social sciences in general (political science, sociology, history, and economics in particular) have been plagued with this notion that it’s all “opinion” and that there is no way to examine these fields from a naturalist perspective, or that there is no “right” answer. Of course, this is blatantly false. Political and economic ideologies, just like religions, make empirical claims; therefore they can be subjected to empirical testing to evaluate the veracity of these claims, and can be accepted or rejected based on their acknowledgement of reality.

    For example, is Nazism a theory consistent with the facts? Of course not, it’s various claims (“Some races are superior to others”, “Jews are responsible for post-ww1 economic collapse”, etc.) can be tested. And they turn out to be false if the evidence is examined.

    In the same way, the claims of all political ideologies can be tested. Does teaching abstinence in schools reduce the rate of teen pregnancy? No.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teen_pregnancy#Causes

    There are hundreds of political ideologies that make various, often contradictory claims. They can’t all be true. If only there was some sort of way to sort them out and identify which claims are true and which are false. Oh wait, we already have that, it’s called methodological naturalism, aka science.

    The idea that “it’s all subjective” needs to be thrown right out. Positivism needs a stronger emphasis in the social sciences in the minds of the general populace than it currently does. So long as people use terms like “soft science” to discredit the work of social scientists, we’re never going to get past square one.

    In particular, moral science is a real field. It is in fact possible to qualify and quantify moral claims. Some moral claims are better representative of the world than others, and it requires methodological naturalism to sort it out.

    This ultimately ties into the idea of Non-overlapping magisteria, political, economic, and social theories are NOT in a separate magisterium, unable to be examined by science. The sooner this can be admitted, the sooner progress can be made.

  9. says

    Glad to contribute!

    Presuming you to mean the geometric progression of the annual household income (AHI) required to achieve a given level of reported satisfaction index (SI) (i.e. the logarithmic progression of SI with AHI), yep, that’s key. As you say, this returns gains in SI that diminish with baseline AHI, so that ever-widening echelons of income separate people of any regular difference in satisfaction. (I too would need a lot of convincing to believe that the relationship even matters at the individual level beyond the millionaire bracket; very quickly the sampling errors (due to fewer people in each bracket) and measurement errors (due to clumping around the asymptote) overwhelm any real difference in SI.)

    I’m delighted to see you make the point toward the end about contingent versus informed desires, and i’ll be following the links to hopefully see more harping on about this. Is this old news among moral philosophers?

  10. says

    I’m sure you realize that the instant we have a bona fide moral science department that can rigorously demonstrate its moral conclusions to the hyper entitled and ignorant cross-cultural world of human values, we’ll be immediately inundated with moral science deniers, right? Like no other denial of science, EVUR. Geez, that’ll almost be as much fun as the current pseudo philosophical naysayers who can’t figure out moral claims have to do with reality. I predict this will be a huge kick in the balls to religion and even the science friendly religious people will be clutching their pearls at the thought that religion-central could be violated with such profane science.

    • says

      Indeed. Of course, that is already happening (the morality of abortion and homosexuality is already awash with science-denying among those who want to maintain their factless and antiquated moral values on those matters). So yes, we’ll just continue getting more of the same. But that is the inevitable byproduct of all progress. Every time science finds results religion can’t abide, it denies (when, that is, it can’t destroy).

  11. says

    RC, you say, “The question of importance to any true moral science is not to study what people happen to want, but what they would want if they were suitably informed.”

    Suppose that scientists could tell us what we would want were we suitably informed. Do you think that would be the same as telling us what we ought to want? If so, I think science alone would be unable to tell us this, after all, presumably because what would count as “suitably informed” would be a normative question.

    Suppose we had the ideal situation of total omniscience; we have all the information any creature could possibly have, and that information causes us to want X rather than Y. Perhaps science could explain that causal relationship, but this wouldn’t be a science of morality; rather, the scientists would be explaining and predicting only what the smartest people regularly want. To think that the smartest, most informed and rational people tend to do what’s morally best requires a normative presupposition which science alone can’t justify.

    Have you seen the Simpsons episode where all the smart people in the town get to run Springfield for a while, and then they run the town into the ground? It turns out that having the biggest brains isn’t the same as knowing what ought to be done. Wisdom isn’t the same as having the most information. What you need in addition is a plan to put that information to some moral use. Just knowing all the facts won’t reveal the prescription of what ought to be done with the world as it really is. Just because you know everything there is to know about how the world works, doesn’t mean you have the best plan of what should be done with that world. Of course, this isn’t say that scientists, speaking as philosophers, couldn’t enlighten us about that plan, but only that scientists as such would be unable to do so.

    • says

      Suppose that scientists could tell us what we would want were we suitably informed. Do you think that would be the same as telling us what we ought to want? If so, I think science alone would be unable to tell us this, after all, presumably because what would count as “suitably informed” would be a normative question.

      Explicitly addressed in The End of Christianity, note 36, p. 426.

      rather, the scientists would be explaining and predicting only what the smartest people regularly want.

      Not really, because unresolvable ignorance factors in, whereas scientific knowledge ends all unresolvable ignorance. This is explicitly addressed in notes 28 (p. 424-25) and 34 (pp. 425-26) and 35 (p. 426).

      An analogy is in cognitive rationality: knowing that a certain thought process is fallacious ends any claim to be ignorant of the fact, therefore one cannot claim to be thinking rationally once they know in fact they are not. As for rationality, so for morality, as well as the bare pragmatics of desire hierarchies. And whereas scientific discovery does not produce this effect, it cannot claim to produce it.

      Thus you might still indeed have some people who know what is moral and others who do not, but that state of affairs exists in all possible moral theories (i.e. in every moral system, of any metaethical foundation, there can always be conditions where I know something about the consequences or properties of your actions that you do not, and if I am physically unable to distribute that information to you, there is nothing that can be done about that information disparity). Since this is a defect of all logically possible moral theories, it is an argument against none of them.

    • says

      The point I was trying to make is that “suitably informed” presupposes some normative rather than factual statement which science alone can’t prove correct. “Suitably informed” must mean that some information is excluded, because even if we knew everything whatsoever, including all the effects of our possible actions, none of that information would tell us what we ought to want. We’d need to be steered in our selection of the information, and science can’t tell us how we should be so steered. This is to say that science can’t tell us what we ought to want, because what steers us in our dealings with the facts is our interests, which make some facts more relevant to us than others. The question is whether we have the best desires, ethically speaking. Rationality and omniscience don’t add up to having a moral character, so even if we understood how all the consequences work, we still wouldn’t know which path in life we should take, because we wouldn’t know whether our actual ultimate desires are the best possible ones.

      Your case for the science of morality makes morality relative to rationality (to being able to follow logical trains of thought) and to our interests. You say the only true, interesting moral imperatives are those that have a claim on our motivation. But suppose we were all evil, meaning that evolution designed us to want the wrong things, morally speaking. You’d have to say, then, that altruistic moral principles would be false because they wouldn’t interest us. But maybe the problem would be with our interests and desires, not with the principles. How can science show that one rather than the other would be at fault?

      In your book, you say, ‘to argue that by “morality” you mean something we ought to do but that we have no sufficient motivating reason to prefer doing to something else, is simply to avoid the question of what in actual fact we ought to do.’

      There may be a reason to perform some action, but whether that reason succeeds in motivating someone depends on what that person is like. A sociopath won’t be interested in altruistic principles, so just because those principles won’t have any claim on such a person’s interest doesn’t mean the principles are at fault. A sociopath can be rational and well-informed. What makes him evil is that he lacks the desire to be social. If moral imperatives are just hypothetical ones, the sociopath has his own morality and the science of morality would have nothing to say against him. On the contrary, science could come in handy in helping the sociopath get what he most wants, by supplying him with more efficient killing machines, for example.

    • says

      The point I was trying to make is that “suitably informed” presupposes some normative rather than factual statement which science alone can’t prove correct.

      Not really. See my referenced notes. Indeed, the whole concept of “normative” you are working with here presupposes a false dichotomy that I refute in the chapter itself, first thing, pp. 334-35.

      The bottom line is, you wouldn’t say this if we were talking about medicine or engineering. Once you identify goals, how to achieve them is a matter of fact, and facts are most reliably ascertained by the scientific method. Irrationality and ignorance are demonstrably bad techniques for achieving goals. And ignorance we cannot presently resolve is not a barrier to doing what we can with what we currently know. I explicitly discuss both points in the main text of the chapter.

      As to your point about values, you are correct (rationality is a tool, not a motivation), and that is the very position I explain and defend in all my work, including the referenced chapter. I even specifically address the example of sociopaths there (and your account of what a sociopath is is also scientifically incorrect).

      You should know that if you’ve read that chapter. Once you have read it (or perhaps re-read it, since you evidently have missed much of what it says), you will benefit further from following the debate I had with McKay: see Goal Theory Update, which is a follow up to the debate itself, a video of which is linked there as well (as well as the text of just our opening statements).

    • snowman says

      >>The question is whether we have the best desires, ethically speaking.
      >>science can’t tell us how we should be so steered

      You are spot on, Benjamin. Richard simply redefines away the essential problem by taking a survey of what we desire as being what we ought to pursue, asserts happiness is the goal – which is why he can’t answer examples about choosing to sacrifice without redefining it as “satisfaction” – combined with an absurd scientistic faith in making sense of the chaos of conflicting possibilities and then patched with Kantian/Christian value assertions about the equal “dignity” of “persons”, etc., so we aren’t allowed to desire “evil” things.

      As Richard says “Once you identify goals”… I.,e., once you skip the actual serious question of what our goals ought to be…

      >>a false dichotomy that I refute in the chapter

      Have to love your absurd self-confidence, Richard :-)

    • says

      Of course in the real world the rest of us live in, I don’t skip the serious question of what our goals ought to be. I’ve publicly debated and written about that extensively and published formal philosophical papers on it. None of which you have the responsibility to consult.

      A critic who won’t even read what he is criticizing. Is there a word for that?

    • snowman says

      Richard, why are you consistently dishonest in your replies just to try to “win” debating points on a blog?

      Clearly I said above I HAVE read your argument, and thus pointed out how it is flawed in several ways, especially by defining away the actual serious question. (I’m just not paying $13 to read them re-formatted in your new book with some added minutiae given how essentially poor your argument is.)

      You can’t even answer a simple example about what you say you’ve proven, for someone who doesn’t know what he/she should prefer?

      ********************
      Please try to answer the question I raised, similar to the questions Pigliucci raised, and give an answer applicable to a young woman in 225 BC Greece, a young man in a 1620s Tibetan village and a young woman in LA today:

      –”For example: should I live in self-sacrifice to family and country, or in the pursuit of artistic self-fulfillment? Should I sacrifice my life to tend to my sister with cancer, or pursue my own dreams?”

      What is the moral “fact” there to be discovered via your approach?
      ********************

    • says

      If you had read my argument, you would be able to address the ways it answers your questions. Because it does. Explicitly. Instead, you do not seem at all aware of how it explicitly answers your questions–as the mere fact that you keep asking what my answers are proves. Thus, you are evidently being very insincere when you claim to have read what my answers are. My comments policy requires you to respond to what I have actually said, such that if anyone persists in refusing to do so, I shall stop accepting their posts. This is the last straw. Address what I have actually said, or you are done.

  12. snowman says

    you mean address what you refuse to say in public? even though I’ve pointed out how you are wrong?

    • says

      Do you have evidence of my lacking any empathy for any other human being? Please present it.

      I’m open to hearing evidence for other symptoms of sociopathy, too. So let’s see your evidence.

      Otherwise, that’s just a stupid troll question.

      [For those wondering why on earth someone would suddenly say such a stupid thing, snowman is either a sock puppet for Thunderf00t or a Thunderf00t acolyte (see here) who is annoyed that I extensively documented Thunderf00t's disturbing lack of honesty and empathy in Is Thunderf00t a Sociopath?]

  13. afzal says

    Non theists ofn point out the flexibility of scientists compared with the unbending dogmatism of religious claims. How about Virginia Steen-Macintyre and her conclusions about Hueyatlaco – that human habitation occurd there 300,000 years ago? Gasps! Does this indicate a certain dogmatism inherent in science? I’v got this exampl from Michael Cremo’s Hidn Histry’v the Human Race.

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