Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”

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Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”

#1  Postby MattHunX » Nov 11, 2010 10:02 am

An excerpt from The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”

There are very practical concerns that follow from the glib idea that anyone is free to value anything—the most consequential being that it is precisely what allows highly educated, secular, and otherwise well-intentioned people to pause thoughtfully, and often interminably, before condemning practices like compulsory veiling, genital excision, bride burning, forced marriage, and the other cheerful products of alternative “morality” found elsewhere in the world. Fanciers of Hume’s is/ought distinction never seem to realize what the stakes are, and they do not see how abject failures of compassion are enabled by this intellectual “tolerance” of moral difference. While much of the debate on these issues must be had in academic terms, this is not merely an academic debate. There are girls getting their faces burned off with acid at this moment for daring to learn to read, or for not consenting to marry men they have never met, or even for the “crime” of getting raped. The amazing thing is that some Western intellectuals won’t even blink when asked to defend these practices on philosophical grounds. I once spoke at an academic conference on themes similar to those discussed here. Near the end of my lecture, I made what I thought would be a quite incontestable assertion: We already have good reason to believe that certain cultures are less suited to maximizing well-being than others. I cited the ruthless misogyny and religious bamboozlement of the Taliban as an example of a worldview that seems less than perfectly conducive to human flourishing. As it turns out, to denigrate the Taliban at a scientific meeting is to court controversy. At the conclusion of my talk, I fell into debate with another invited speaker, who seemed, at first glance, to be very well positioned to reason effectively about the implications of science for our understanding of morality. In fact, this person has since been appointed to the President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues and is now one of only thirteen people who will advise President Obama on “issues that may emerge from advances in biomedicine and related areas of science and technology” in order to ensure that “scientific research, health care delivery, and technological innovation are conducted in an ethically responsible manner.”25 Here is a snippet of our conversation, more or less verbatim:

She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?
Me: Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing well-being—and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human wellbeing.
She: But that’s only your opinion.
Me: Okay … Let’s make it even simpler. What if we found a culture that ritually blinded every third child by literally plucking out his or her eyes at birth, would you then agree that we had found a culture that was needlessly diminishing human well-being?
She: It would depend on why they were doing it.
Me [slowly returning my eyebrows from the back of my head]: Let’s say they were doing it on the basis of religious superstition. In their scripture, God says, “Every third must walk in darkness.”
She: Then you could never say that they were wrong.

Such opinions are not uncommon in the Ivory Tower. I was talking to a woman (it’s hard not to feel that her gender makes her views all the more disconcerting) who had just delivered an entirely lucid lecture on some of the moral implications of recent advances in neuroscience. She was concerned that our intelligence services might one day use neuroimaging technology for the purposes of lie detection, which she considered a likely violation of cognitive liberty. She was especially exercised over rumors that our government might have exposed captured terrorists to aerosols containing the hormone oxytocin in an effort to make them more cooperative.26 Though she did not say it, I suspect that she would even have opposed subjecting these prisoners to the smell of freshly baked bread, which has been shown to have a similar effect. 27 While listening to her talk, as yet unaware of her liberal views on compulsory veiling and ritual enucleation, I thought her slightly overcautious, but a basically sane and eloquent authority on scientific ethics. I confess that once we did speak, and I peered into the terrible gulf that separated us on these issues, I found that I could not utter another word to her. In fact, our conversation ended with my blindly enacting two neurological clichés: my jaw quite literally dropped open, and I spun on my heels before walking away.

While human beings have different moral codes, each competing view presumesits own universality. This seems to be true even of moral relativism. While few philosophers have ever answered to the name of “moral relativist,” it is by no means uncommon to find local eruptions of this view whenever scientists and other academics encounter moral diversity. Forcing women and girls to wear burqas may be wrong in Boston or Palo Alto, so the argument will run, but we cannot say that it is wrong for Muslims in Kabul. To demand that the proud denizens of an ancient culture conform to our view of gender equality would be culturally imperialistic and philosophically naïve. This is a surprisingly common view, especially among anthropologists. 28 Moral relativism, however, tends to be self-contradictory. Relativists may say that moral truths exist only relative to a specific cultural framework—but this claim about the status of moral truth purports to be true across all possible frameworks. In practice, relativism almost always amounts to the claim that we should be tolerant of moral difference because no moral truth can supersede any other. And yet this commitment to
tolerance is not put forward as simply one relative preference among others deemed equally valid. Rather, tolerance is held to be more in line with the (universal) truth about morality than intolerance is. The contradiction here is unsurprising. Given how deeply disposed we are to make universal moral claims, I think one can reasonably doubt whether any consistent moral relativist has ever existed. Moral relativism is clearly an attempt to pay intellectual reparations for the crimes of Western colonialism, ethnocentrism, and racism. This is, I think, the only charitable thing to be said about it. I hope it is clear that I am not defending the idiosyncrasies of the West as any more enlightened, in principle, than those of any other culture. Rather, I am arguing that the most basic facts about human flourishing must transcend culture, just as most other facts do. And if there are facts that are truly a matter of cultural
construction—if, for instance, learning a specific language or tattooing your face fundamentally alters the possibilities of human experience—well, then these facts also arise from (neurophysiological) processes that transcend culture.
In his wonderful book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker includes a quotation from the anthropologist Donald Symons that captures the problem of multiculturalism especially well:

"If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, leaving only a tiny hole for urine and menstrual flow, the only question would be how severely that person should be punished, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction. But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, suddenly it becomes “culture,” and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible, and is even defended by some Western “moral thinkers,” including feminists.29"

It is precisely such instances of learned confusion (one is tempted to say “learned psychopathy”) that lend credence to the claim that a universal morality requires the support of faith-based religion. The categorical distinction between facts and values has opened a sinkhole beneath secular liberalism—leading to moral relativism and masochistic depths of political correctness. Think of the champions of “tolerance” who reflexively blamed Salman Rushdie for his fatwa, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her ongoing security concerns, or the Danish cartoonists for their “controversy,” and you will understand what happens when educated liberals think there is no universal foundation for human values. Among conservatives in the West, the same skepticism about the power of reason leads, more often than not, directly to the feet of Jesus Christ, Savior of the Universe. The purpose of this book is to help cut a third path through this wilderness.
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Re: Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”

#2  Postby chairman bill » Nov 11, 2010 10:24 am

I agree absolutely. 'Learned psychopathy' is a wonderfully accurate, descriptive term.
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Re: Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”

#3  Postby Mr.Samsa » Nov 11, 2010 10:45 am

Sam Harris is an idiot... :doh:

Particularly this section:

She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?
Me: Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing well-being—and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human wellbeing.


"She" asks for an explanation or example of how science could answer how forcing women to wear burqas is wrong, and he reverts back to his opinion without answering the question at all. To rephrase his answer so that it actually addresses the question posed to him, he would have to say this:

Because science has demonstrated that right and wrong is a matter of increasing or decreasing well-being—and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human wellbeing.


Then he would point to the scientific experiments or studies that demonstrate why right and wrong is determined by increasing or decreasing well-being. Then he'd point to the experiments which justify whatever particular brand of utilitarianism he subscribes to; is it a compromised well-being for everyone? an overall well-being at the cost of the minority? etc etc. In other words, if the overall well-being of the entire population was increased by hating homosexuals and setting them on fire, even though it resulted in the pain of the minority, then Harris' "objective" morality suggests that science supports our destruction of homosexuals. Obviously, Harris would argue against this and say that we need to take into account the well-being of all individuals, so even though homophobes' well-being would be increased by actively hating homosexuals, their wants should be ignored in favour of the minority... But then we are impacting on the well-being of some individuals (no matter how hate-fuelled and disgusting their opinion is)...

Basically, Harris runs into the same problems that utilitarianism ran into centuries ago. He tries to avoid it by labelling his particular brand of opinion/philosophy as "science", even though it has absolutely nothing to do with science. Why do people let him get away with this?

This doesn't mean I support people who want to burn the faces off women for being raped, I obviously find such actions abhorrent. The point is that there is no scientific reason to label such behavior as "wrong", and only people like Harris who have no clue what Hume's is/ought problem is would think that science can determine human values. Obviously once we figure out what values we want to hold, or what oughts we should have, then science can help inform our positions. For example, we can decide that we think that we should value human well-being. Clearly there is no scientific way of determining this, but we can decide it ourselves or reach this position through logic and reason. From there, we can use science to make moral decisions; if well-being is defined as maintaining the good health of as many people as possible, then we can decide that it is "morally" wrong to throw acid in the face of a rape victim. The problem Harris then faces is that it's also morally wrong to sell cigarettes and to use them.

Summary: Harris should not be discussing an issue he is so clearly ignorant of, and it would be in his best interests to stick to what he's good at. I'm not sure what that is, his politics seem shaky, his neuroscience is like a creationist investigating evolution, and his ideas of morality are more ridiculous than a first year philosophy student...
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Re: Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”

#4  Postby MattHunX » Nov 11, 2010 10:49 am

Mr.Samsa wrote:Sam Harris is an idiot... :doh:

Particularly this section:

She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?
Me: Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing well-being—and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human wellbeing.


"She" asks for an explanation or example of how science could answer how forcing women to wear burqas is wrong, and he reverts back to his opinion without answering the question at all. To rephrase his answer so that it actually addresses the question posed to him, he would have to say this:

Because science has demonstrated that right and wrong is a matter of increasing or decreasing well-being—and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human wellbeing.


Then he would point to the scientific experiments or studies that demonstrate why right and wrong is determined by increasing or decreasing well-being. Then he'd point to the experiments which justify whatever particular brand of utilitarianism he subscribes to; is it a compromised well-being for everyone? an overall well-being at the cost of the minority? etc etc. In other words, if the overall well-being of the entire population was increased by hating homosexuals and setting them on fire, even though it resulted in the pain of the minority, then Harris' "objective" morality suggests that science supports our destruction of homosexuals. Obviously, Harris would argue against this and say that we need to take into account the well-being of all individuals, so even though homophobes' well-being would be increased by actively hating homosexuals, their wants should be ignored in favour of the minority... But then we are impacting on the well-being of some individuals (no matter how hate-fuelled and disgusting their opinion is)...

Basically, Harris runs into the same problems that utilitarianism ran into centuries ago. He tries to avoid it by labelling his particular brand of opinion/philosophy as "science", even though it has absolutely nothing to do with science. Why do people let him get away with this?

This doesn't mean I support people who want to burn the faces off women for being raped, I obviously find such actions abhorrent. The point is that there is no scientific reason to label such behavior as "wrong", and only people like Harris who have no clue what Hume's is/ought problem is would think that science can determine human values. Obviously once we figure out what values we want to hold, or what oughts we should have, then science can help inform our positions. For example, we can decide that we think that we should value human well-being. Clearly there is no scientific way of determining this, but we can decide it ourselves or reach this position through logic and reason. From there, we can use science to make moral decisions; if well-being is defined as maintaining the good health of as many people as possible, then we can decide that it is "morally" wrong to throw acid in the face of a rape victim. The problem Harris then faces is that it's also morally wrong to sell cigarettes and to use them.

Summary: Harris should not be discussing an issue he is so clearly ignorant of, and it would be in his best interests to stick to what he's good at. I'm not sure what that is, his politics seem shaky, his neuroscience is like a creationist investigating evolution, and his ideas of morality are more ridiculous than a first year philosophy student...


Woah, there!

First, read the rest of the book, if you can get it, then say Harris is ignorant, that is of you still think that. :) This is only an excerpt, remember.
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Re: Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”

#5  Postby Mr.Samsa » Nov 11, 2010 10:58 am

MattHunX wrote:Woah, there!

First, read the rest of the book, if you can get it, then say Harris is ignorant, that is of you still think that. :)


I know I should, but I've watched all of his talks on this issue, all of his shorter commentaries on his book, read reviews of his book, and discussed it with other people who have read his book, and all lead me to the same conclusion: When he says "Science can determine human values", he means "People can decide through logic, reason or opinion what values they wish to hold, and once decided and defined, science can inform their moral choices".

As such, his position is redundant since that's how morality has been discussed since, practically, the dawn of time..

But I can accept that I might be wrong, I assume that you've read the book? If so, can you point me to the scientific literature that he cites to support his claim that right and wrong is a matter of increasing or decreasing human well-being? (I assume that this means that as long as it doesn't affect the well-being of a human, we can do whatever we like to animals. Unless he then slips into Peter Singer Woo-Ville where he starts discussing "conscious beings"...).
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Re: Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”

#6  Postby MattHunX » Nov 11, 2010 11:05 am

Mr.Samsa wrote:
MattHunX wrote:Woah, there!

First, read the rest of the book, if you can get it, then say Harris is ignorant, that is of you still think that. :)


I know I should, but I've watched all of his talks on this issue, all of his shorter commentaries on his book, read reviews of his book, and discussed it with other people who have read his book, and all lead me to the same conclusion: When he says "Science can determine human values", he means "People can decide through logic, reason or opinion what values they wish to hold, and once decided and defined, science can inform their moral choices".

As such, his position is redundant since that's how morality has been discussed since, practically, the dawn of time..

But I can accept that I might be wrong, I assume that you've read the book? If so, can you point me to the scientific literature that he cites to support his claim that right and wrong is a matter of increasing or decreasing human well-being? (I assume that this means that as long as it doesn't affect the well-being of a human, we can do whatever we like to animals. Unless he then slips into Peter Singer Woo-Ville where he starts discussing "conscious beings"...).


I am reading the book. Haven't finished it yet. I don't find anything wrong with his reasoning on why and how science could and should be able to eventually informs us on morality, as being related to the well-being of conscious creatures, and he is right in saying why Hume's is/ought distinction and moral relativism is wrong.

I am past the part I've posted, actually.
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Re: Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”

#7  Postby Mr.Samsa » Nov 12, 2010 2:08 am

MattHunX wrote:I am reading the book. Haven't finished it yet. I don't find anything wrong with his reasoning on why and how science could and should be able to eventually informs us on morality, as being related to the well-being of conscious creatures, and he is right in saying why Hume's is/ought distinction and moral relativism is wrong.

I am past the part I've posted, actually.


This is what he says about Hume:

Despite the reticence of most scientists on the subject of good and evil, the scientific study of morality and human happiness is well underway. This research is bound to bring science into conflict with religious orthodoxy and popular opinion—just as our growing understanding of evolution has—because the divide between facts and values is illusory in at least three senses: (1) whatever can be known about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures—which is, I will argue, the only thing we can reasonably value—must at some point translate into facts about brains and their interaction with the world at large; (2) the very idea of “objective” knowledge (i.e., knowledge acquired through honest observation and reasoning) has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon principles that we must first value (e.g., logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony, etc.); (3) beliefs about facts and beliefs about values seem to arise from similar processes at the level of the brain: it appears that we have a common system for judging truth and falsity in both domains. I will discuss each of these points in greater detail below. Both in terms of what there is to know about the world and the brain mechanisms that allow us to know it, we will see that a clear boundary between facts and values simply does not exist.


He promises to explain these 3 points in further detail, but he doesn't. His claim in (1) is pure conjecture. Maximising well-being of conscious creatures is the only thing we can reasonably value? Why? There is a whole field of study that spans back centuries that disagrees with him there, so if he wants to make that claim, he sort of needs to support it with something stronger than his opinion. He even tries to answer that criticism here:

And here is where the real controversy begins, for many people strongly object to my claim that morality and values relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures. My critics seem to think that consciousness holds no special place where values are concerned, or that any state of consciousness stands the same chance of being valued as any other. The most common objection to my argument is some version of the following:

But you haven’t said why the well-being of conscious beings ought to matter to us. If someone wants to torture all conscious beings to the point of madness, what is to say that he isn’t just as “moral” as you are?

While I do not think anyone sincerely believes that this kind of moral skepticism makes sense, there is no shortage of people who will press this point with a ferocity that often passes for sincerity.
Let us begin with the fact of consciousness: I think we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What is the alternative? I invite you to try to think of a source of value that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings. Take a moment to think about what this would entail: whatever this alternative is, it cannot affect the experience of any creature (in this life or in any other). Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is—it would seem, by definition—the least interesting thing in the universe.
So how much time should we spend worrying about such a transcendent source of value? I think the time I will spend typing this sentence is already too much. All other notions of value will bear some relationship to the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. So my claim that consciousness is the basis of human values and morality is not an arbitrary starting point.


But he still doesn't answer the fucking question! Instead he just says "But surely conscious well-being is all that matters!" and then starts talking about religious concepts. It's ridiculous. What if I define values as increasing my own well-being - why is his definition better than mine? What if I define it as only relating to humans? Why should we care about animals? He devotes entire pages to discussing how animals can suffer, but who cares? Why does their ability to suffer afford them moral concern?

How can he be so ignorant of the issues surrounding his branch of utilitarianism?!

Basically, if he wants to make the claim that we should strive for a model of ethics that can be informed by objective facts, then I can absolutely support him. I think it's a noble and intelligent approach. But that's not what he's doing. He is presenting his personal opinion, without any supporting arguments, as if it were an undeniable truth about the world. Why should we care about the well-being of conscious creatures? His defence: Because we should.

His problem is that he really doesn't understand Hume's argument. If a first year philosophy student used any of Harris' arguments in an essay on Hume, they would get an instant F for not understanding any of the subject material. Take this section for example:

Rather I am arguing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind.


The problem? He's equivocating the world "should". Hume doesn't deny that facts can inform moral decisions, but the choice over what we should value is not something that can be determined by science. Harris has implicitly accepted that he cannot escape Hume's is/ought argument, or moral relativism, by abysmally failing to address the issues presented by both positions.

If Harris truly believes that he has defeated the is/ought distinction and moral relativism, then he needs to present the scientific evidence that demonstrates that concern for the well-being of conscious creatures is what we should value. I'm not even sure what an experiment like that would look like, how does he measure what is "good" or "right" without an appeal to values or a moral system?

Once we see that a concern for well-being (defined as deeply and as inclusively as possible) is the only intelligible basis for morality and values, we will see that there must be a science of morality, whether or not we ever succeed in developing it: because the well-being of conscious creatures depends upon how the universe is, altogether. Given that changes in the physical universe and in our experience of it can be understood, science should increasingly enable us to answer specific moral questions.


No, you jackass (Harris), once we have decided that concern for well-being is the moral position we choose to adopt, then we already have our system of morality. We can't have a "science of morality" because you've already decided your moral position without invoking science at all! Once we have reached our moral conclusion, then we can use science to inform our decisions - yes, this is a trivial point that nobody in the entire world disagrees with.

Sorry MattHunX, Harris has written a steaming pile that is not worth the paper it's written on.
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Re: Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”

#8  Postby Spinozasgalt » Nov 12, 2010 4:01 am

My turn? :)

To be fair to Harris from the start, I think the woman he was speaking to was an idiot too. Harris makes a number of mistakes and those tend to be pretty clear. I'll address the relativism part first.

Moral relativism is not what Harris makes it out to be. The view that all moral relativists need to hold in common is that there are wide-ranging moral disagreements across society and that these outnumber whatever agreements there are (this is not uncontroversial, btw). That's the descriptive variety and is probably the most common. There is also meta-ethical relativism, but that's not really relevant here. What Harris has done is take normative relativism as denoting the whole class of relativistic views. Normative relativism tends to be the kind of tolerance view that he's railing against, but relativists don't need to hold that view and it's actually one of the weaker and less common brands. If Harris knew what Hume's guillotine was, he'd realise why it is equally effective against normative relativism. If no moral ought is entailed by how the world is, then the relativist's tolerance thesis is dead in the water.

Next is this strange habit he has of portraying moral realism and moral relativism as the only views there are from which to choose. This is wrong. There are also various forms of anti-realism, theistic ethics etc. Harris perhaps doesn't realise that even if we don't believe in God, a theistic ethics could still be the most plausible explanation of our moral language, judgements etc.

Another thing Harris doesn't seem to realize is that he's not getting around Hume; he's begging the question and appealing to emotion. The stranger part is that moral realists have moved past Hume and have actually come up with plausible seeming ways of accepting Hume's thesis and continuing with ethics anyway, but Harris seems largely unaware of the last 40 years in moral philosophy. I've heard him say he's read Rawls and a few others, but that's not quite the same.

Now to get to this woman:

She: But that’s only your opinion.


First, this is her own view of ethics and needs support just like Harris's does, but that's a typical thing to say, so no need to go into it.

She: Then you could never say that they were wrong.


No, no, no. Under most forms of relativism, he can say whatever he likes. It's simply that wrong won't refer to anything special.
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Re: Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”

#9  Postby MattHunX » Nov 12, 2010 8:43 am

I ran through the comments on his site yesterday. Thought, they were under the 20-minute TED talk. But, Harris himself put up a request for comments and they were hundreds of them, most basically having the same criticism, that he should have defined morality more and elaborated on it better. At least, that's my understanding, anyway.
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Re: Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”

#10  Postby Ecce Feles » Dec 20, 2010 2:24 pm

I am a bit late because I've just seen his lecture on this topic, but I am grateful to see that it has already been discussed.
What boggles my mind is this: the woman in question doesn't seem to be a moral relativist to me, Harris went on to talk about her and her testimony about some lie detection methods vs. cognitive freedom of individuals subjected to them, and she was obviously speaking against these methods. Does it mean she thinks that there is some universal timeless standard by which we can judge whether something is wrong or not? Why would she think some lie detection test is wrong but denying women education is not? And is that idea (of universal values) really outdated in intellectual circles, which is what Harris complains about, and whatever we feel is right or wrong is nowadays considered right or wrong only from our perspective, in our opinion/experience and so on?
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Re: Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”

#11  Postby NineOneFour » Dec 20, 2010 2:27 pm

:popcorn:
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Re: Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”

#12  Postby Thommo » Dec 20, 2010 3:12 pm

Hmm, I missed this thread first time around.

I like Mr Samsa's righteous indignation I must say. A most informative read and far more persuasive than those extracts from Harris. :thumbup:
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Re: Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”

#13  Postby NineBerry » Dec 20, 2010 3:17 pm

Science and morality don't mix.

Most of the most barbaric acts in human history were committed by people who believed they absolutely _know_ what is right and what is wrong. I rather like people who know that they could be wrong or that there could be several different possibilities of looking at an issue.
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Re: Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”

#14  Postby MattHunX » Dec 20, 2010 3:23 pm

NineBerry wrote:Science and morality don't mix.

Most of the most barbaric acts in human history were committed by people who believed they absolutely _know_ what is right and what is wrong. I rather like people who know that they could be wrong or that there could be several different possibilities of looking at an issue.

Well, in Harris' moral landscape analogy there are many different heights and peeks, corresponding to many different paths to human flourishing, and just as many, if not more, valleys corresponding to negative ways, wrong ideologies, immoral practices...etc.

I get it why Harris' approach is not to many people's liking and what issues there are with it, but as Harris himself said, this is an area that is in its infancy and needs to develop and his position will need refining.
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Re: Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”

#15  Postby Thommo » Dec 20, 2010 3:27 pm

MattHunX wrote:Well, in Harris' moral landscape analogy there are many different heights and peeks, corresponding to many different paths to human flourishing, and just as many, if not more, valleys corresponding to negative ways, wrong ideologies, immoral practices...etc.

I get it why Harris' approach is not to many people's liking and what issues there are with it, but as Harris himself said, this is an area that is in its infancy and needs to develop and his position will need refining.


I don't find his morality objectionable, I find his claiming it's scientific when it's anything but scientific objectionable.

I also balk a bit when I try and swallow this concept of maximising "human well being". I don't accept that kind of fudged nonsense in an argument for the existence of a god and I'm not going to accept it in an argument for the existence of a scientific morality.

If it's science then he can damn well give a scientific definition for it.
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Re: Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”

#16  Postby NineBerry » Dec 20, 2010 3:28 pm

What is the "best" way to organize morality depends:

a) On the goal you have. And different people have different goals. And there is no objective way to decide which is the right goal or the wrong goal. It's just a matter of opinion.

b) On the circumstances. Whether organizing a society in a certain way will work, depends mostly on the technologies and resources that are available to it.
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Re: Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”

#17  Postby MattHunX » Dec 20, 2010 3:35 pm

NineBerry wrote:What is the "best" way to organize morality depends:

a) On the goal you have. And different people have different goals. And there is no objective way to decide which is the right goal or the wrong goal. It's just a matter of opinion.

b) On the circumstances. Whether organizing a society in a certain way will work, depends mostly on the technologies and resources that are available to it.


c)And the willingness of other, technologically and economically and socially more developed nations, to help those who cannot help themselves.
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Re: Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”

#18  Postby Mr.Samsa » Dec 20, 2010 10:55 pm

Ecce Feles wrote:I am a bit late because I've just seen his lecture on this topic, but I am grateful to see that it has already been discussed.
What boggles my mind is this: the woman in question doesn't seem to be a moral relativist to me, Harris went on to talk about her and her testimony about some lie detection methods vs. cognitive freedom of individuals subjected to them, and she was obviously speaking against these methods. Does it mean she thinks that there is some universal timeless standard by which we can judge whether something is wrong or not? Why would she think some lie detection test is wrong but denying women education is not?


You're right, we have no reason to think that the woman in the OP is a moral relativist. We simply have a woman who is confused by Harris' claims and instead of answering her questions (and clarifying his position), he simply resorts back to "OMG but it's sooo obvious I shouldn't have to explain it!".

Ecce Feles wrote:And is that idea (of universal values) really outdated in intellectual circles, which is what Harris complains about, and whatever we feel is right or wrong is nowadays considered right or wrong only from our perspective, in our opinion/experience and so on?


It's certainly very popular, but as pointed out by Spinozasgalt, the problem is that Harris believes that there are only two ethical positions: moral realism and moral relativism (unfortunately he must have skipped the latter half of his Phil 101 lectures, probably to go light one up with the guys 'cause he's so rad). If these were the only two positions, then yes most people in intellectual circles would fall in the latter as the former is mostly filled with theologists. However, the problem is that moral relativism is not what Sam Harris thinks it is, it does not mean that "anything goes" and that if another culture views facial scarring and rape as morally okay then we can't say it's wrong or that we shouldn't do anything to stop it. It simply means (again as pointed out by Spinozas) that our use of the term "wrong" has no special meaning - it wasn't dictated by god, it's not a natural state of the universe, it's simply our reasoned and logical position that we feel is correct given the circumstances.

Take food preferences for example, and suppose that most people are Preference Relativists (that is, we believe that there is no universally accepted form of "tasty" and "yucky"). Sam Harris is saying that if we assume there is no objective measure here, then all of us who enjoy chocolate ice cream cannot try to convince people who have lived their entire lives eating tree bark that they should try chocolate ice cream. In the real world, these Preference Relativists will probably say something like, "What the fuck are you eating tree bark for? Try this instead".

Thommo wrote:Hmm, I missed this thread first time around.

I like Mr Samsa's righteous indignation I must say. A most informative read and far more persuasive than those extracts from Harris. :thumbup:


I was going for "frustrated rant", but I'm glad you enjoyed it :tongue:

Thommo wrote:I don't find his morality objectionable, I find his claiming it's scientific when it's anything but scientific objectionable.

I also balk a bit when I try and swallow this concept of maximising "human well being". I don't accept that kind of fudged nonsense in an argument for the existence of a god and I'm not going to accept it in an argument for the existence of a scientific morality.

If it's science then he can damn well give a scientific definition for it.


Yeah, the idea of "maximising human well being" isn't too bad as a starting point, but he really needs to expand on what the fuck he means by this. Maximising well being of everybody? Well being of individuals? And he's particularly shady on how animals meet this requirement.

It just seems to me that he wanted to make a quick buck by selling a book that was filled with controversial nonsense, rather than actually looking at some of the problems in the field and trying to suggest solutions for them.
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Re: Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”

#19  Postby iamthereforeithink » Dec 20, 2010 11:01 pm

:clap: :clap:

As usual, Mr. Samsa presents a spot-on and immensely clarifying analysis.
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Re: Moral Blindness in the Name of “Tolerance”

#20  Postby Beatsong » Dec 21, 2010 12:58 am

NineBerry wrote:What is the "best" way to organize morality depends:

a) On the goal you have. And different people have different goals. And there is no objective way to decide which is the right goal or the wrong goal. It's just a matter of opinion.


Exactly. Harris makes the fundamental rookie error of presuming that everyone WANTS what he wants, and that making moral absolutes out of what he wants will therefore deliver "well being" (ie, being like him) to everybody else. Coming as he does from an American background, he naturally places liberty at the forefront of that and presumes that people having a lack of free choice over certain aspects of their dress code is the most horrendous thing that could possibly happen to them. In reality, many people happen to feel otherwise.

[One could also point out that there are many, many ways in which dress codes are imposed upon people in the west - both universally and sex-specifically - and yet noone is hollering for someone else to come and "liberate" us from them.]

b) On the circumstances. Whether organizing a society in a certain way will work, depends mostly on the technologies and resources that are available to it.


True as well. And furthermore, the relative importance attached to various moral priorities tends to change as material and other circumstances change. One only has to look at what happens in wartime, when even the most liberal and freedom-loving nations often become all too happy to limit individual freedom in the name of group security. Similarly, having a material standard of living that is much lower than ours and closer to the ever-present threat of poverty or starvation, will tend to make people value social cohesion over individual liberty, since social cohesion is one of the main prerequisites to surviving such circumstances.

But none of this matters to an arrogant western supremacist intent on telling people he knows nothing about how he intends to "make" them "happy".
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