Posted: Sep 29, 2017 9:52 pm
by zoon
archibald wrote:
zoon wrote:For example, I think you and I agree that we can say for practical purposes that there is just and unjust behaviour, and that the unjust behaviour is wrong and to be disapproved or punished, and we are both happy that all this behaviour (both the unjust and the retributively just) is compatible with evolutionary theory, but nobody is deriving either the specific sense of justice or the content of particular decisions from what we know of evolutionary theory.


Sam Harris (I seem to have started referencing him very frequently recently, lol, I think I am trying to adopt his stance and see how far it goes) would say (did say, in that video I think) that we have 'flown the perch' of evolution. This itself may be something of an overstatement, especially given that imo (and his) we haven't flown the perch of determinism, but in a general sense it seems difficult to take the stance that we are as trapped by evolved predispositions as, say, other animals seem to be. So in that sense, I think we have to accord a role to autonomy and reasoning (allowing that our reasoning is imperfect and will probably never be truly rational in the way often suggested by some philosophers seeking, for example, to identify different mental states) even if it's not truly freely-willed, but just involves something we might call 'increased degrees of freedom'.

Yes, I think I am coming around to being more of a pragmatist, largely, I think by listening to you. I still have reservations, similar to those I expressed in the free will thread, that pragmatism involves fudges which run the risk of not grasping the nettle of 'truth' (and thereby evading the sometimes unpalatable consequences, such as for example that we don't have free will) but that said, it may be, as I think you have said more than once, that we simply don't know enough yet to call for radical changes to the way we go about things, and that until we do (know more) we might have to be pragmatic, in the meantime, whether it involves fudge or not.

Possibly I am also warming to moral realism, in some of its weaker guises, now that I am, like you, better aware of the varieties, and so now I'm wondering, like you it seems, if there is any substantial disagreement between you and spinozasgalt.

One criticism of Sam (there I go again) Harris' apparently morally-realistic thesis is that it's perhaps too radical for the same reason as I gave above, that we don't know enough yet via science for it to step into the role of prescription. I accept this, but can't help thinking that he isn't at least holding the stick at the correct end nonetheless and as such I warm to his ideas while thinking they might in some ways be a tad too....simplistic, or ahead of their time. In other ways I think they are timely, and arguably overdue. The traditional view that morality is not a domain where science can prescribe might just be a cultural relic to some extent and I still think that morality can be and is being scientified (if thats a word). It's not entirely unlike the similar argument made by Dawkins among others that science and religion aren't non-overlapping magisteria either.

But regarding possible limitations, for example, he struggles a bit, I think, when it comes to envisaging how science could prescribe, as in how this would pragmatically play out in society. He has to introduce caveats to say that science can only prescribe in an advisory capacity, which then slightly weakens the strong claim that science - in the broad sense he means - can tell us right from wrong. Perhaps it can, to an extent, tell us, but only in the role of a wise uncle, which seems to relegate it back to being informational only. It seems to me that there will always be room for something quite unscientific, that something being cultural agreement, which may boil down to a popularity contest. To say otherwise seems too dictatorial, and may be what makes many people worried about what Sam Harris is saying, because they imagine futuristic dystopias not unlike 'Brave New World' and so on. But I think he knows that, considers it a straw man, and tries to deal with it (by connecting 'telling' with 'advising' rather than 'instructing' or 'dictating') but that he has to pragmatically accept that there is also merit in saying that what is right and wrong is also what is deemed, in a relativistic sense, to be right and wrong, subjectively, by hoomans, along the lines of what surreptitious57 is saying.

My view on determinism and ethics comes in 2 parts, and I think both parts are essential to ethics as we know it:

1. All the evidence is that we are fully determinate mechanisms (with the usual caveats, e.g. quantum indeterminacy doesn’t count here).

2. We don’t, so far, know in any useful detail how those mechanisms actually work.

I think our ignorance of our brain mechanisms is essential to morality as it currently operates because if, or when, neuroscience enables people to predict and modify brains routinely with something approaching the accuracy and detail of modifying a car engine, then social life will be very different in ways we cannot easily predict from here, and that would include the way morality works, if morality’s still there at all. In that respect, I’m agreeing with people who say that in the end determinism is incompatible with moral realism: I’m saying that it’s only while we remain functionally indeterminate because of our ignorance of brain mechanisms, that we still use morality in its current form.

Meanwhile, I agree with your doubts about people like Sam Harris when they try to claim that science at this stage would be expected to have a major effect on the actual practice (rather than the background) of ethics. So far, science has given us very little new information about how our social lives operate in terms of basic science, that is, in terms of the actual brain mechanisms. Neuroscience is still grappling with the basics of brain function, never mind the massive self-reflexive complexities of human social behaviour. As you say, it’s not a good idea to underestimate the effect of scientific discoveries either, but I don’t think I would want to revolutionise ethics on a scientific basis for the time being. Wise uncle sounds good.

Looking at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on moral realism, it does mention some philosophers who are suggesting moral realism is compatible with scientific causality. I’ve been looking at a paper by one of them, Stephen Finlay, and I think his approach is similar to mine, though of course much more thought through. He suggests that basic moral assumptions, e.g. “Suffering should not be inflicted on innocent people” are in the end demands that the audience should share the same concern as the speaker. This is like my view, though I was emphasising the threat which underlies a “demand”. I don’t think it’s the same as Sam Harris’ view, because I think he sets a single normative value as basic, the “well-being of conscious creatures”, rather than taking the more descriptive line, including the various basic moral assumptions that people tend to have such as “people ought to look after their health” or “people ought to avoid irrationality”. I don’t think Sam Harris even attempts to show why scientific evidence tells us that the “well-being of conscious creatures” is a paramount value (and I would guess rather few people in practice take it as their paramount value), which is worrying if the main claim of the book is that science can give us moral values. It’s a fighting try at tackling the question.