Uncommon Sense

June 6, 2014

Oh, Yeah, Take This …

Filed under: Philosophy,Science — Steve Ruis @ 1:22 pm
Tags: , ,

Sam Harris’s blog is one of my favorites. On it he recently issued a challenge in the form of a contest (with a substantial cash prize, mind you, no cheapskate Dr. Harris) with the topic being to refute his thesis in his book “The Moral Landscape” that a scientific basis for morality could be found. Here is the prize winning essay (www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-moral-landscape-challenge).

The good doctor doesn’t allow comments on his website as he has neither the time to read them nor the staff to monitor them (plus he is a target, literally, because of his critiques of the Muslim religion, amongst other things). Consequently I am writing my comment about the refutation here. I state this up front so you can go elsewhere if this bores you.

The basis of the refutation is that there is no scientific definition of what “is good” means. And as Sam Harris used as an analogy the health business (doctors, nurses, etc.) the refutation basically says that since “good health” cannot be defined scientifically that medicine is in the same position as is a scientific morality, having to start with axioms of what “is true” to have any purchase whatsoever.

This is where I wish to start setting my hair on fire. I feel someone capable of evaluating such arguments as I majored in chemistry in college and minored in philosophy, also having read a great deal of philosophy. I remember my ethics professor pointing out that in 4000 years of recorded philosophy that philosophers had yet to answer a single question. His comment came in a very long discussion (taking up weeks) of what the phrase “is good” meant. This is in contrast to churchmen who have answered virtually every question, but incorrectly, e.g. Question: How old is the Earth? Answer: 6018 years. Wrong.

Since I am an academic I am used to this approach of taking somebody by the scruff of the neck and shoving their face into the bark of a tree and then screaming in their ear “Can you see the forest? Can you?” So, let us take a step back, shan’t we? The purpose of any system of morality is to guide people in making decisions that affect other human beings. Were you alone on the planet, I doubt the subject of ethics or morality would come up (although some now are trying to extend human ethics to include other conscious animals, let’s not go there for now as this is complicated enough as it is).

So, let me address the issue of health scientifically. Here is a scientific poll:
Q1 Would you rather be sick or well?
a. sick
b. well
c. don’t really care
What do you think the results would be if several thousand people were to seriously answer this question? Is there any doubt that 95+% of ordinary people would answer “b”? Would you not be suspicious of anybody answering a or c? Do you think the results would depend upon culture or ethnicity or age or . . . ? No, I don’t either.

So, we have scientific poll results saying that the hugely vast majority of human beings would rather be well than sick (or we would if we were to do this poll). So, does an academic concern over being able to scientifically and accurately define “sick” and “well” affect the interactions you might have with other people that involve the morality of these situations? I don’t think so.

This is by no means cut and dried. Let’s go back to the early days of the United States—the Revolutionary War period. Smallpox was a constant threat to our armed forces. (The British soldiers had either already had it and survived or been exposed to it enough to not get a bad case (they were somewhat immunized).) The radical idea cropped up that one could avoid the fatal aspects of smallpox by giving oneself a mild case of the disease (thus creating an immunity) and some douty Americans voluntarily did this, that is they chose being sick over being well. Of course, this is not a general condition we are addressing here, we are addressing a trade-off of choosing a mild short-term illness versus the possibility of a disfiguring and possibly fatal illness later. So, probabilities come into play. If you had to make this choice, would you prefer scientifically determined probabilities of death/disfigurement from a full-fledged case of smallpox versus the possibility of the mild case getting out of hand or would you prefer an “educated guess” by your health professional, the guy over there with the leeches?

If we step back farther, we see that scientific methods applied to medicine have resulted in better health outcomes for most of us and longer lifespans, too. So, wouldn’t it follow that having scientific information available any time a decision of questionable morality needs be made be a naturally good thing?

A system of morality should provide guidance when you have to make decisions that affect other people. (I think you should have autonomy over yourself up to an including suicide, but this is debatable.) Part of the problem is that some of us believe in absolute rules of morality and some of us do not. If you are a believer in moral absolutes, you will have a hard time accepting any scientific moral system as it will involve probabilities and not absolutes. I tend to think that people who believe in god-given absolute morals are deluding themselves. (They have to be god-given to have the authority behind them to make them absolute.) Such morals are wishful thinking on a grand scale. I say this because if the moral codes of say, Christians, were absolutes, a Christian would never murder anyone (Thou shall not commit murder.) because even if they avoided punishment in this life, punishment in the hereafter would be so extreme as to make such an act insane. And, of course, Christians, do murder people from time to time. So, whether you think such cases are clear evidence of insanity, at least you have to admit those rules do not work . . . especially the one about coveting your neighbor’s wife! The wishful thinking is that any god-given morality has to be more effective than any socially devised moral code we could come up with. Or possibly people like the fact that if someone does get away with it now, they won’t later; it is hard to tell.

The even sillier thing is if we do create a scientifically based moral code, how different could it be from the ones we have now? Are we going to come up with something that says it is okay to steal small things from rich people because they will hardly miss them but not okay to steal from poor people who need everything they have and more? I don’t think so.

It is clear to me that people have created the gods and therefore they created all of the “god-given” moral codes, along with the others (not god-given) and by and large these are pragmatic, “can’t we all get along” kinds of rules. We are not talking about the rules of the Securities and Exchange Commission, we are talking about general guidelines to help people who write such laws/regulations prevent fraud and abuse of others.

Need we worry about academic/scientific definitions of what it means “to steal” or should we take a step back and ask people, in a scientific poll, whether they want their goods stolen or not? Can we not accept the feelings of others as a basis to establish a scientific moral code? Are we not just trying to get along with one another, doing the most good and the least harm? Why is this so hard?


  1. Bingo. That was an impressive essay, Steve. Why people complicate these things i cannot say, but you cut through the noise beautifully.

    So, did Harris award the money, or did everyone fail?


    Comment by john zande — June 6, 2014 @ 2:47 pm | Reply

    • He had another guy evaluate the essays so that his ego didn’t get in the way and he did, indeed, award the $2000 prize. He responded to the critique today.

      I really enjoy Sam Harris’s writing in that it is well done but he also take son substantial topics: religion, Islam, lying, free will.

      His take on free will, I think is mistaken as he, like almost all of the others, concentrates on *conscious *free will (the conscious being the greatest strength and hence the greatest weakness of intellectuals). He concludes that conscious free will is an illusion and then goes on to the consequences of not having any free will at all. I, on the other hand, think that we are are much more mundane creatures than most would like to admit and we are largely driven unconsciously (while driving our cars unconsciously). I think we make choices of free will but they are rarely conscious which is in keeping with our general pattern of rarely making decisions consciously. While we may pile of data about which car to by or whatnot, we end up making the decision emotionally due to data overload. ;o)

      Guess it is my day to wax philosophic. ;o)

      On Fri, Jun 6, 2014 at 2:47 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — June 6, 2014 @ 3:03 pm | Reply

      • You should do more of it, you’re very good.

        I share your understanding of free will. The vast majority of our decisions are performed on autopilot, yet occasionally there is that uncommon bloop. For a while i entertained the thought that maybe we only truly have one moment of pure free will; some moment when as a child we made that first conscious decision, and that, and that alone, set in motion all the rest. I guess its possible, but i still see those bloops.


        Comment by john zande — June 6, 2014 @ 3:08 pm | Reply

        • Our conscious minds are these wondrous tools … until you try to use them. They are much better for planning and imagining than actual doing.

          And, again, thank you for the complement.

          On Fri, Jun 6, 2014 at 3:08 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:



          Comment by Steve Ruis — June 6, 2014 @ 3:45 pm | Reply

      • Eh, I don’t really agree. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. We do consciously go about our day to perform actions (writing comments), but we are swayed by our intuitive beliefs (you’re so full of shit). However, post facto rationalization (ok, maybe not entirely full of shit) can influence future intuitive responses.


        Comment by Ignostic Atheist — June 6, 2014 @ 7:06 pm | Reply

        • Thank you! … I think …

          On Fri, Jun 6, 2014 at 7:06 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:



          Comment by Steve Ruis — June 6, 2014 @ 9:21 pm | Reply

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