Our visit with Dr. Sam

April 9, 2011 • 5:11 am

Sam Harris talked here yesterday on the topic of his new book, The Moral Landscape.   He spoke for about a half an hour—what he said was similar to his opening statement in his debate with William Lane Craig at Notre Dame the evening before—followed by an hour of questions.  Debate was very lively, and we had to bring the session to an end since the lecture hall was needed for another function. (I’m told, by the way, that the Harris/Craig debate will eventually be online; the livestream was dreadful because the audio was weak.)

There were questions that, I suspect, Sam has gotten quite used to.  What is the reason for choosing “well being” as the overarching criterion for morality?  When we make personal moral decisions (in his book Sam talks about giving his daughter a birthday present versus donating that money to starving African children), how do we weigh off our interests towards kin, friends, and lovers against the well-being of the rest of the world?

I asked Sam whether he shouldn’t simply dispense with the word and concept of “morality”—as it’s this freighted word that seems to motivate much of the opposition to his ideas—and simply talk about “well being”.  His response, which I think is right, is that the notion and feeling of morality is too deeply ingrained in human society to jettison, and that his own mission was to co-opt the word to denote well-being.  Above all, he argued, we must prevent religion from being the adjudicator of morality, since faith lays moral opprobrium on acts that either are morally irrelevant or that increase people’s well being, like the desire to have sex with those of the same gender, or in any position you want.

I also asked Sam if his theory wasn’t really tautological, since if one found a palpably moral act that unquestionably decreased well being, he could simply assert that it actually did increase well being since such calculations are often hard and sometimes impossible.  That would make his claim unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific.  In response he could claim that in such cases our moral judgments are simply wrong.  That’s clearly true for some judgments, since we’re starting to realize that, for instance, branding homosexual acts as “immoral” is simply a false morality.

I am quite interested in whether any acts indisputably considered moral can be shown to conflict with Sam’s criterion by decreasing well being.  That, I think, would be the real way one would have to go about falsifying Sam’s neo-utilitarianism. I haven’t been able to think of any such acts, but perhaps readers can.  If you think the criterion of well being is not a good one for morality, give me an example of an act that we’d all consider moral that unquestionably decreases well being.   I’m not talking about religiously-based morality here, since that’s rife with such examples.  Judgments about sex acts, homosexuality, and persecution of infidels come to mind.

After the talk we took Sam to an archetypal species of Chicago restaurant: the steakhouse.  In this case we repaired to David Burke’s Primehouse, known for dry-aging its meat in rooms lined with Himalayan salt.  We started with the tableside Caesar salad for four, which was absolutely terrific.

Then onto the meat.  I had the 40-day aged ribeye, while Sam opted for the 55-day specimen, which he pronounced excellent. On the right of this photo is Dr. Alex Lickerman, an awesome GP at the University of Chicago Hospitals and now head of student health; he interfaced with the U of C Office of Spiritual Life to provide support, funds, and the lecture hall, which was in the hospital.  Alex, like Sam, is a secular practitioner of Buddhism, and has his own website, “Happiness in This World.

You can see two of our side dishes:  truffle fries (yum!) and bacon gnocchi.  We washed down the steaks with a good bottle of Cotes du Rhone from my own collection.

Having already polluted our circulatory systems with lipids, we all opted for dessert.  Here you can see mine: Burke’s famous “cheesecake lollipop tree with raspberry cream”.  Each branch of the tree is a sphere of cheesecake encased in either chocolate or some other coating. You dip the pops into a saucer of whipped cream infused with raspberries.  Fantastic!

To the left is Dr. Bob Richards, who also helped with Sam’s visit.  Bob is a historian and philosopher of science who has appointments in three departments. He’s written a definitive book on Haeckel and is now working on one about Darwin’s Origin.

Thanks to Bob and Alex for helping with the visit and, of course, to Sam for stopping by to talk to us on his way to the UK.  In England, Sam will be having events with both Dawkins and Ian McEwan, as well as giving two other talks.

167 thoughts on “Our visit with Dr. Sam

  1. I am quite interested in whether any acts indisputably considered moral can be shown to conflict with Sam’s criterion by decreasing well being.

    I’d have to think pretty hard about the “indisputably moral” part, I think, because that’s a tough criteria by itself – many “moral” things that I can think of can be disputed in other cultures. I personally view morals more from the standpoint of “beneficial to society,” which raises its own issues but largely seems to work as Harris proposes. The needs of the many, before the needs of the individual, etc. </Spock>

    But since I’ve been working on a long post/rant about nuclear power recently, I have to ask, what about scenarios that have immediate benefits but provide long-term hazards, even potential ones? Such situations seem to be more of a wager against future disadvantages. It even seems to be present in many corporate structures, where immediate benefit takes precedence over future stability or unborn generations.

    Not quite what you asked, I know, but an interesting aspect of morality all the same.

    1. both morality and well-being cannot be defined as scientific terms when they are talked about as general concepts and this is most common case

      there is, of course, a perfect creterion of “genetic imperative” – that property of life (or part of definition of life) that compells _any_ life form for continuos viability

      this creterion of “genetic imperative” can be applied to all actions of humans on a organism-whole level (or on the level of “superorganism”)

      and by extension whatever is good for organism-whole is good for an individual since if organism whole collapses (mankind degrates the planet into ecosystem not capable of supporting mankind) it would automatically bring collapse of individual viability

      sami is a great speaker and doing great job of taking “morality” from the hands of “religion” but his works on the “morality” are _not_ scientific

  2. known for dry-aging its meat in rooms lined with Himalayan salt.

    Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for such nonsense? Persumably the salt lining is hygroscopic and helps keep the meat dry. The Himalayan part is pure marketing BS.

    1. While it’s unlikely that Jerry had any say in the choice of salt, Himalayan salt is available in big ‘rock-like’ crystals (I’m sure you have seen the lamps made out of them). These are easy to line walls with. Try using regular ‘table’ salt to line walls with in a way that you can easily replace it when it gets saturated with moist.

    2. Why exactly should he be ashamed? It’s not like Jerry’s saying the Himalayan-ness of the salt actually improves anything, just that it’s there. Is he supposed to avoid the place because they have Himalayan salt, or avoid mentioning that it’s famous for it? Why?

      1. I can’t believe I’m supposed to be “ashamed” of that. It’s not that I think Himalayan salt is special or anything; I was just conveying what the restaurant said.

        Comments like that I find hurtful.

        1. Sounds like someone hasn’t actually tasted Himalayan salt…or whose taste buds aren’t sufficiently acute to know the difference.

          I can taste the difference between iodized and non-iodized salt, between salts from different regions of the country, and on and on.

          My older brother — nope. Nada. (And yet he’s the fussy eater — go figure.)

          Salt is rarely “pure” salt. Trace minerals are embedded — that’s why Himalayan salt is pinkish.

          Yes, it makes a difference in the taste. No, it’s not just marketing (unlike Fiji water, which is just … well … water).

  3. I also asked Sam if his theory wasn’t really tautological, since if one found a palpably moral act that unquestionably decreased well being, he could simply assert that it actually did increase well being since such calculations are often hard and sometimes impossible.

    I had to read this sentence several times to understand it and I am still not sure I do.

    I do like Sam’s mission to co-opt the word morality to denote well-being. It has too many definitions currently.

    1. I think Jerry’s wondering if Sam’s theory is tautological (i.e., doesn’t actually say much) because phenomena which appear to contradict it can be explained away by invoking the extreme complexity of moral arithmetic.

      Which is a good question.

      But I don’t think Sam’s theory is tautological.

    1. Me, too. I’ve been stewing about it all morning. The food. The conversation. If I could’ve got an invitation to that dinner, it would have topped that time I almost had lunch with Stephen Hawking.

  4. How about Socrates drinking the hemlock instead of paying a fine and going into exile?

    His decision took one life, his own, and left his wife and children alone.

    His teachings still could have been written down by Plato, insofar as Plato actually wrote down what Socrates said.

    I don’t see how Socrates’ decision increases well-being, yet I consider it to be moral, and I don’t use the word “moral” much.

    1. Wouldn’t that be more of an issue of honor than morals? It does have the ring of similarity to a situation where someone does something wicked at gunpoint and also to a hostage/kidnapping situation where the gunman/kidnapper demands an immoral act be performed to spare the life of one of his victims, but aren’t these really just the trolley problem reimagined?

  5. I travelled from Milwaukee, by bus, to attend Sam’s talk and was not disappointed with his presentation. Much of what he talked about I had viewed in previous youtube video’s. The Q&A was quite interesting and Sam was,as always, clear and composed throughout. The question of whether science has a role in determining morality/ethics is still an open one but the dialog is advancing.On a personal note while in town I dropped in at a local takeout food joint,Uncle Johns BBQ,which I learned about from a previous post from Jerry and I am happy to report the rib tips were great as you noted.

    1. Gerard,

      Nice meeting you, and I’m glad you liked the tips! Uncle John’s is awesome.

  6. You don’t mention that Richards first book is the brilliant “Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior”. Really excellent.

  7. The most fruitful ground for cases where morality and the promotion of well-being fail to line up unequivocally is honesty. For example, many people would agree that a man who has had an affair is morally obligated to come clean to his wife about it, even if there is absolutely no possibility of her finding out otherwise.

    Now, you can disagree with that – I won’t claim that it’s uncontravercial – but I would say that many people would think there’s an obligation, a duty, to honesty that applies even if telling the truth is going to make both you and your spouse unhappy.

    Now, I’m not saying there’s no response to this – rule utilitarianism, talk about the overall benefits of trust between partners to society, and so forth. Most such responses seem to require one to abstract not only from this specific situation, but from all similar situations.

    So, this isn’t a very strong case – it’s too easy to bite the bullet, or to expand your viewpoint to the extent that all detail is lost – but it does represent one case where at least some people would intuit that morality does not necessarily correspond with increasing well-being.

  8. The Q&A, which was really quite a good back and forth, really helped me to get my head around Harris’ arguments in a way that I don’t get from print. He was amazingly patient with, as JC said, what were clearly questions that he gets a lot. He was able to back track and provide a number of examples and analogies to illustrate his points. He acknowledges that quantifying morality is enormously complex, but we have to start somewhere. Really fascinating talk, and really complex questions.

    Also, a special thanks to JC for working hard to bring this together. Having met him, he is every bit as affable as one would expect, with a warm smile and a friendly handshake. He signed my copy of WEIT for me, and, no, I don’t know what kind of boots he was wearing, but they were dark brown.

      1. Would we say the same thing about RD getting certain questions a lot after his talks, e.g. that he didn’t nail them down completely in TGD? 😉

      1. Not the Notre Dame “debate” with WLC (is there a more useless format imaginable?), the talk referenced above with the long Q&A.

  9. …”cheesecake lollipop tree with raspberry whipped cream”…

    …looks like it ought to be illegal.

    So did it increase or decrease your well-being? 😉

    1. looks like it ought to be illegal

      No kidding! I wonder if the photo makes the cheesecake lollipops look larger than they really are. And good question: “Is having dessert moral?” 😉

    2. Looks like that swath of foliage was hacked off just for decoration…wasn’t Ben arguing recently for not abusing plants? ;- )

  10. I am quite interested in whether any acts indisputably considered moral can be shown to conflict with Sam’s criterion by decreasing well being.

    I suspect that part of the problem is that many ‘moral’ actions are contingent on the society they work within. But why should the morals found in a desert tribe align with the morals of Inuits? Or hunter-gathers morals with those of post-industrial service economies?

    The only one that comes to mind ‘locally’ is where many people believe that it is moral to abolish the death penalty for murder. If the convicted murderer goes on to kill again (as a number do) presumably this reduces the well being of his/her victim, society in general, and even the killer?

    1. Not if the convicted murderer is prevented from going on to kill again by the fact that he is serving a life sentence, which, by the way, is cheaper (at least in America) then sending someone to death row. So abolishing the death penalty not only has the traditional “moral” benefits, but it also increases well-being by freeing up government resources to spend on other programs.

  11. It’s an interesting discussion, but I think Jerry’s point about post-hoc “false morality” is terminal to the attempt to find an “indisputably moral” act that “decreases well-being”. If an act can be shown to to decrease well-being, then it will not (can not) be “indisputably moral” – Sam Harris, for one, will dispute it.

    1. That said, I think examples like the gift for Sam’s daughter come the closest. For example, if you take Peter Singer’s position (I think I’m accurately attributing this to him)that it is moral to donate money to starving third world residents all the way up until the point when giving one more dollar will hurt the donor more than it helps the donee, then essentially EVERYTHING we do is immoral (because it decreases total human well-being) – enjoying a glass of wine with friends, giving a gift to a child, buying a new car, donating to the local symphony, paying for basic cable, and, certainly, paying $50 for a steak.

      I don’t know that I agree with him (partly, to be sure, because I’m too greedy), and I know that this is well-plowed ground, but this perspective seems most likely to demonstrate that things we think are “moral” actually decrease human well-being.

      1. Those things kinda are immoral even if to a small degree when people elsewhere are starving and dying from things that could be prevented with even small amounts of money or effort.

        In instances like this morality becomes a spectrum of sorts, is it moral to buy and enjoy a chocolate bar when further up the line children have died harvesting the cocoa to make that chocolate cheap? I eat and love chocolate but it does not feel moral when I think about it.

        1. Is there some satisfactory standard or threshold of nutrition, clothing, shelter, health care, educational opportunity and other essential item which, if satisfied for one, then another should not feel particularly guilty about partaking of a bit of luxury (chocolate, what have you)?

          1. Yes.
            I don’t know what it is though. As for chocolate, I’m afraid I had developed an addiction before I learned of the forced child labor that goes into making it inexpensive. I would gladly pay more for it if was produced in a more ethical manner.

            I would elaborate more but I’m typing on a phone.

      2. The usual response to that sort of problem is that human nature is what it is, and a moral system must work with human nature, rather than making unrealistic demands of it.

        So, for example, you just can’t expect people not to favor themselves and their loved ones when spending their money—if they don’t get an advantage from working hard to make the money, they won’t do the work that needs to be done.

        Like designing a set of laws, figuring out moral obligations requires some attention to what’s workable. It’s reasonable expect moral people to moderate their selfishness, and have some basic concern for the well-being of others, but it’s not reasonable to expect them to be perfect selfless altruists.

        A buzzphrase associated with that idea is “ought implies can.” If somebody can’t do something—e.g., being utterly unselfish—it can’t be obligatory that they do that.

  12. How nice to find myself (and my blog) mentioned here. @RussMyers: unfortunately, no, the talk wasn’t filmed, which is a shame as I thought the questions were especially good and resulted in a wonderfully clarifying discussion of Sam’s main points.

    I’m not sure if it was hearing Sam talk in person or spending an enjoyable dinner with him, but one thing I got from those interactions that I haven’t from watching him on the web is a sense of his genuine humanity, on full display in the way he patiently answered questions he’s certainly heard hundreds of times. His energy to engage in respectful dialogue appears inexhaustible. I was reminded just how much courage and compassion is on display in his efforts to speak out against what he (rightly, in my view) sees as one of the greatest threats to humanity’s future: fanatical belief in claims without justifiable evidence to back them up.

    I applaud his attempt to hijack the term “morality” and make it define what it should: choices that impact the well-being and suffering of conscious creatures. Not that it makes making moral choices in the real world easy, but it certainly provides the right guideline for attempting to do so.

    1. If it wasn’t filmed, maybe you could provide a transcript (simply get a pen and write down everything he said). 😮

    2. …one thing I got from those interactions that I haven’t from watching him on the web is a sense of his genuine humanity…

      That always comes across to me in his writing.

      Speaking of “conscious creatures,” that’s one place where I think the moral/well-being balancing act becomes a little sticky. By many people’s calculus, those steaks had once been conscious…

      –Diane, omnivore

    3. It’s well known that I just hang out for the commentary of great looking men, but I really would like to hear more from you . . .

    4. In response to the above (and Jerry keep me honest here if my memory fails): a number of folks in the audience asked about Sam’s contention that choices which increase well-being can legitimately define the “good” and those which decrease the “bad.” It seems many are uncomfortable assuming this axiomatically as Sam says we must (what system, he argued at one point, isn’t built on first principles that are axiomatic and cannot be proven by the system itself?). He further argued, and I think correctly, that though many of us may challenge this notion intellectually, none of us really, in our hearts, believe differently (nor actually, in the absence of a neurologically diseased brain, are even capable of believing differently, in my view)–and that our belief in the truth of this notion cuts across all barriers of time and culture (in other words, the neurology of our brains constitutes the source of morality’s absoluteness). Different cultures may appear to define “good” as it relates to “well-being” differently in specific ways (it’s “good” that a father kills his raped daughter because…I’m not sure…such a death would in some way atone for her sin in the father’s mind, thus relieving his suffering?) but the underlying principle, that “good” equals that which increases “well-being” (or decreases suffering) remains embedded in even these calculations.

      My own views again here: some moral choices are far easier to calculate than others. For example, choosing to stop genocide, though conceptually could increase someone’s suffering somewhere, on balance we’d be hard pressed to argue doesn’t increase the well-being of more people than it decreases. On the other hand, the kinds of choices we’re faced with making in our own day-to-day lives requires a much more complicated calculus and usually reduce to questions not between good and bad but between bad and less bad. Couple that with the notion that suffering itself can be turned toward the good, i.e., become the very impetus we need to make positive changes in our lives that lead to our being happier, and translating Sam’s absolute moral guideline into decisions that definitively increase the well-being of the most conscious creatures reveals itself as incredibly challenging.

      1. >Alex
        what system, he argued at one point, isn’t built on first principles that are axiomatic and cannot be proven by the system itself?

        Moral Nihilism, which is well defended by J.L. Mackie and Richard Garner. Presumptions that there is a right and wrong often get in the way of resolving conflicts according to Garner.

  13. So, first, I’m thrilled that Sam has decided to focus on morality and to take the matter back from religion. This is an absolutely appropriate and proper — and necessary — thing to do.

    But, while he’s definitely heading in the right direction, I don’t think he’s quite on the right path.

    Specifically, he’s taking a skyhook-style, top-down approach when he assigns a teleonomic goal (“wellbeing”) to morality. Instead, I think an evolutionary, bottom-up approach is called for.

    To me, morality is an emergent property of a well-designed strategy (in the sense of game theory) for living one’s life. It “just happens” that the optimal way of protecting your own best self-interest inevitably leads to all the archetypal behaviors we associate with being moral.

    For example, the reason one shouldn’t go around raping and murdering everybody in sight (as theists for some reason expect atheists to do) has nothing to do with an attempt to increase global wellbeing. Rather, it is in one’s best interests to not go on a murderous rape spree. In modern society, it’s self-evident: the police will be after you and soon you’ll spend the rest of your life behind bars. In older times, the villagers would have gathered ’round with pitchforks and torches to hunt you down. Put simply, your odds are better being part of the non-raping, non-murdering majority. And a collection where the majority were murderer-rapists would rip itself to shreds long before it could coalesce into something resembling a society.

    This principle easily extends to modern horrors such as the subjugation of women in various benighted parts of the world. We intuitively know it’s worng, but it’s also easy to see why the men in such societies are shooting themselves in the foot — the same foot they use to hold down the women. It’s a double whammy. Half the population is an unproductive burden when they could instead contribute to the workforce. Just think of all the women doctors, researchers, and engineers such societies could have had but don’t. On top of it, the men devote huge resources of their own to oppressing the women, resources that they could themselves better devote to doctoring and researching and engineering. Those societies will never be able to compete with more enlightened ones until they themselves reach a similar level of enlightenment.

    In both examples — hypothetical mass raping murdering rampages and real-world present-day misogynistic societies — long-term big-picture gains have been discarded in favor of short-term, meaningless trivialities. I’m not sure what one is supposed to gain by going on a murderous rape spree, but Christians seem to think there’s something to be said for it; I’ll take their word for it. The misogynists gain the illusion of superiority by comparing their lot to that of the women, and by vampirically feeding off resources the women should be using for themselves. Both lose out on the miracles of modern society, which includes everything from indoor plumbing to arthroscopic heart bypass surgery to all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets to wireless Internet telephony.

    Therefore, it is my position that the goal of research into morality should be determining the most effective strategy for living one’s life. I have a hunch it’ll resemble something along these lines:

    I. Do not do unto others as they do not wish to be done unto.

    (The First Rule may be broken only to the minimum degree necessary to otherwise preserve it.)

    II. And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.

    III. An it harm none, do what thou will.

    The rules must be applied in that order. For example, following the second rule is not permissible in circumstances which require violating the first rule (except as provided for by the Exception).



      1. what is the use of II?

        Because, ultimately, it is the structure upon which cooperative society is built. If I’d like my neighbor to pick up the mail and the paper when I go out of town for the weekend, the only way he’ll consider doing so is if I’m willing to do the same for him. (Incidentally, the brilliance of the invention of money is that it serves as a proxy for such transactions.)

        And why to write them in a language that links them to a religious text?

        Because they’re familiar and comforting to people who’re convinced that all atheists want to do is barbecue their babies for breakfast.

        It’s also why I picked from two opposing religious traditions; I hope to set up some interesting cognitive dissonances in the minds of believers.



        1. What about ones own well being? Is smoking weed for ones spare time or playing videogames all day a negative life decision? These decisions don’t directly harm someone (unless of course they don’t eat healthy as well). However they harm relationships with others. Relationships that one might not want to have. Maybe a friend wants to go out to dinner and you say “screw that i’m staying in to watch American Idol” and as a result your friend is angry. His feelings are hurt etc.

          I know the “answers” to all these myself, but can science answer them?

  14. How about reversing it and trying to think of indisputably immoral actions that increase overall well-being?

    Hiroshima? Any situation where the words “collateral damage” are invoked?

    This points up where the language that treats “morality” in an essentialistic way goes awry. Morality is a process, not a quality, if it is anything intelligible.

    1. Good luck finding anything like an “indisputable” consensus that using nuclear weapons in WWII was immoral!

      You have proposed a revealing perspective though, because a lot of conservative religious people (in America at least) would argue that bombing Hiroshima was moral because it increased overall well-being, while at the same time arguing against Harris’ definition of morality.

      1. See? This is what I’m saying. Whose well-being?

        Actually what pro-Hiroshima Americans argue is more usually that Hiroshima increased American well-being (and Japan was the instigator etc etc), not overall well-being.

        It just isn’t the case that there’s always some obvious route to greater overall well-being and that that’s the moral slam-dunk way to go.

        1. Re Hiroshima — I think we could start by saying that incinerating innocent children, seniors, animals, and non-combatant adults, then leaving survivors to suffer the effects of radiation is an immoral action on its face, a flat evil in itself. Contextualizing it as in service of a greater well-being may justify the action (or not) without changing our perception that the act itself is in some fundamental way still immoral. These are murky waters, but perhaps the distinctions need to be made somehow anyway.

          1. Right. Often what you have is situations where there is ill-being for some no matter what you do, and it’s just not clear which action is more moral. This is one reason the felicific calculus has never been a conversation-stopper. Even if all you do is count units of well-being…you still don’t necessarily get an obvious answer.

        2. I’ve heard Americans argue that, by ending the war, using nuclear weapons increased “overall” well-being. That is, because Japan had demonstrated a willingness to fight to the end, and because America was a superior military force, a land invasion might have resulted in a 100% death rate for Japan (along with substantial casualties for America).

          1. True; so have I. But people who were fighting in the Pacific at the time – Paul Fussell for example – are quite frank about the fact that they preferred Japanese casualties to their own. Not at all surprising!

            1. Yes. I and how many others might possibly/probably not be around to complain about this or that had fathers/grandfathers/great-grandfathers had to invade Japan?

          2. » Bryan:
            because Japan had demonstrated a willingness to fight to the end

            Only problem with that: it is not true. Not only had Japanese diplomats offered capitulation on the sole condition of being able to keep their emperor (an offer that was initially rejected only to be accepted after the A-bombs), but there are also records of US officials talking frankly about the nuclear explosions as primarily as an opportunity to show off the new technology to the USSR.

            Two very readable discussions of these questions: AC Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities and Howard Zinn’s The Bomb.

            1. That’s exactly why they didn’t drop the bomb on Tokyo– it had already been bombed, and they wouldn’t have been able to gauge the destruction caused by the atomic bomb alone. The two cities were supposed to be Hiroshima (which was untouched at that point), and Kokura in Kyuushu (where my father-in-law is from). It was too cloudy that day over Kokura…so they went to the number two city on the list– Nagasaki. Kyoto was also considered, since it hadn’t been bombed yet. (What idiot thought it would be a good idea to bomb Kyoto…)

            2. For a fascinating debate, see Hitchens debate Grayling about his book on Youtube–that is a debate indeed!

      2. Sometimes I have framed the way we typically use the word “moral” as distinct from “ethical” as a difference between theory and practice. Morality implies that things have an essential quality of “morality” or not — the religious and philosophical take, historically — while ethics is the real-world implementation of caring behavior in our lives, what liberal religion concedes as
        “situation ethics” and philosophy calls the utilitarian approach.

        So by this disctinction, a pimp who deals honestly with his employees, who pays them well, cares for their well-being, protected them from abuse and provides good insurance and other benefits, job security and so forth, could still be said to be immoral, but very ethical.

        But all this is semantic pedantry after a while, isn’t it, rather than useful insight? I just want to get along with people and enjoy life. Do I really need a theoretical framework to achieve that?

          1. But my point is that, then, the technical question of whether something is “moral” becomes a sterile exercise in arbitrary definitions and debate for debate’s sake. If defining “morality” has no necessary bearing on my ability to live harmoniousy and happily, in well-being with my fellow humans, then what do we need the terminology for? I think the burden of proof is on those who want to develop “theories” of morality that those theories are actually needed, or an improvement on improvisation. You can make beautiful, satisfying music without any music theory at all. Sometimes, maybe often in art, theory is just be a way to mechanize some intangible interactive phenomenon for which some people have no talent or ease.

            1. Because morality has to do, for one thing, with looking beyond the local. It’s quite possible to be a lovely person locally while still being the cause of misery elsewhere in the world.

              1. If I have non-local knowledge, then my sphere of moral concern does indeed extend that far, but if I have only local knowledge, and am in no position to broaden it, I argue my action has no global moral culpability. Ignorance of effects, where ignorance is inevitable or understandable, is a moral excuse. How d’ya like them apples?

                A question I have posed is, do we have a general moral obligaiton to seek knowledge, or receive it when offered, if there is some possibility it will affect our moral thinking, or do we have a “right” to be ignorant? Many self-described liberals I know say we have no such moral obligation, nor any moral right to make people hear things that they’d rather not. I say bunk.

              2. Bryan –
                Of course you agree with me. Now go tell that to all the “liberal” knuckleheads who try to paint me as a moralizing bully when I assert that obligation. Apparently the freedom to be a heedless ignoramus is a natural right of some sort.

            2. Dude, get real – failing to obtain “non-local knowledge” when you have the ability to do so and when that knowledge would have impacted your decision making is itself immoral, precisely because it results in less well-being than would otherwise have been possible.

            3. I like your argument. But speaking as a professional musician, ditch the analogy to improvisation. Someone ignorant of theory may be able to sporadically produce some superficially pleasant sonorities, but improv from even the most astute theoretician can’t compete in the arena of logical and satisfying coherence with deliberate and theory-informed composition.

    2. As others will probably point out, one of the factors in deciding dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the moral consideration. For both US and Japanese interests.

      A study done for the estimated that conquering Japan would cost 1.7 to 4 million American casualties, including 400,000 to 800,000 fatalities, and 5 to 10 million Japanese fatalities. This estimated assumed large-scale participation by civilians in the defense of Japan.

      So, the moral decision was to save lives by using the bombs.

      Of course, the Japanese didn’t know that the US only had those two bombs.

      And one also must note that if the US hadn’t used the bomb, that doesn’t mean that they (and others) would never have developed the H-bomb. Can’t stuff the genie back in the bottle, I’m afraid. The Bikini Atoll would still be disintegrated.

        1. Of course– Ingroup always trumps Outgroup. Curiously (or maybe not, since all Japanese social interactions are framed in terms of ingroup/outgroup), the Japanese understand this much better than we do…

        2. Ought Japanese authorities have surrendered and avoided the atom bombs, not been so concerned with “honor”? Would such a resistive mindset have been sufficiently persuaded by an atomic bomb warning “demonstration” in Tokyo Bay?

      1. But what should Japan be conquered? They were running out of oil and could no longer leave their islands.
        They were ready to fight on the beaches? Not to go there was enough.I can’t see any well being gained here.

          1. I still say incinerating people alive is immoral on its face, if anything at all is. Whether it is justifiable in the big ugly utilitarian scheme of things is another question, but that doesn’t necessitate abandoning the idea that the act is in itself somehow immoral, regardless of larger context.

            You see how treating morality as a quality, not a phenomenon, gets us in a hopeless paradox? We have a category problem here, I think.

            1. I still say incinerating people alive is immoral on its face, if anything at all is.

              Well sure – but many things done in war are. Deliberately killing civilians is a war crime. Killing them by accident is immoral. But…one destroys the village to save it. And so the discussion goes on.

              But just saying “well-being” doesn’t help. It’s not as if the generals and their bosses don’t know that being bombed or shot or incinerated reduces well-being.

      2. The Japanese themselves give this as the reason for having had two atomic bombs dropped on their country (at least, that’s what I was told in Hiroshima in the Genshi Bakudan Museum…)

    3. Were more or fewer Japanese citizens incinerated because of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, in the end?

      Would more have died, even more horribly, had the war continued without Nagasaki and Hiroshima, with continuation of the incidiary bombings and eventual street by street invasion and subjugation of the Honshu and the other “main” islands? Far more Japanese were killed by “conventional” bombing than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and these deaths did not deter the rulers of Japan. The atomic bombings did deter them.

      Had the “bombs” not been dropped, would the carnage of a full invasion of the Japanese homeland have prevented the USA (demonstrably racist agains the Japanese at that time) from allowing surrender terms (relatively lenient and friendly by historical standards at that time, partcularly given the toll in blood and treasure on the US side) that later developed into an alliance and an economically powerful Japan?

      Had the “bombs” not been dropped, would they have been used later, with even more devastating effects (a thermonuclear device instead of a fission bomb) because people hadn’t seen the effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

      Would it have been better not to defeat the Japanese empire to prevent Japanese citizens from being incinerated? Ask the Chinese, Malays, and Filipinos about that.

      I don’t have the answers to these questions; but I think your characterization of the events is far too simplistic (your statement makes it seem as you think you have the answers to these questions).

  15. I asked Sam whether he shouldn’t simply dispense with the word and concept of “morality”—as it’s this freighted word that seems to motivate much of the opposition to his ideas—and simply talk about “well being”. His response, which I think is right, is that the notion and feeling of morality is too deeply ingrained in human society to jettison, and that his own mission was to co-opt the word to denote well-being.

    I don’t think it’s possible to do either one, because morality isn’t just “well-being”; it’s about conflicts between and among kinds of well-being and above all about distribution of well-being.

    This idea that the two are identical just obscures that, which is my basic problem with Harris’s book. It’s way too easy to say “Just maximize well-being!” because people compete. I feel ridiculous pointing this out to a biologist. :- )

    1. Maximizing well-being also seems to inherently avoid the problem of altruism, and altruistic behaviors.

      My well-being is lowered when I altruistically raise the well-being of others. I’m sure on the societal level, that equation might work, but on a personal level? And since individuals act individually, well, that’s the issue in a nutshell: The difference between maximizing personal well-being in the context of maximizing societal well-being.

      Heck, appeal to altruistic feelings is the entire method of recruiting people to go into the armed forces.

      There’s nothing “well” about being a grunt in Afghanistan.

      1. Exactly. See below, posted just before yours above.

        The weird thing about TML is that it’s mostly not about altruism, yet morality is far more about altruism than it is about well-being tout court. I think Harris would have had far fewer repetitions of questions if he had realized that.

        1. Is there such a think as “altruism”? Even when you give of yourself freely and without expecting something in return you do get a personal benefit, it makes you feel good.

            1. That good feeling is instinctive and emotional, not culturally invented and intellectual, and a big part of what drives this thing we decide to call “morality.” But some are born, it appears, to feel that good altruistic/empathetic rush of warmth more readily than others are, and some seem incapable of feeling it much if at all. Is it fair to say they are morally “retarded” or disabled or ungifted, perhaps by birth? I’m inclined to say yes, technically, but shut my mouth about it, strategically. It’s a big taboo to suggest such a thing. Still, what is a sociopath if not someone who is tone deaf and color blind to that sensation? We recognize natural talent and natural incapacity in other arts — why not this one?

              1. Is it taboo?

                The complete inability to feel empathy is psychopathy, and it’s not taboo to talk about that, surely…Although it is true that the DSM-IV doesn’t include it, and is being noncommittal about whether it will include it in V. Maybe it is somewhat taboo…

              2. So maybe it’s just the milder natural instances of empathetic/altruistic retardation that we are loathe to describe pathologically, for fear of seeming insensitive to the insensitive.

              3. Committing gross evo-psych, here…what if the frequency distribution of human tendencies along some continuum from hyper altruism to sociopathy is selected for…that is, for instance, in some situations sociopathy is adaptive. If as a society we can move beyond that need (perhaps precisely by refining our definitions of morality) and also ID sociopaths, we could humanely constrain them and be sure to put a stop to their gene flow…

              4. Diane –

                “Sociopathy” (loosely) is adaptive for many non-human species. I suppose given the right (or wrong) circumstances it would also make evolutionary sense for humans to go down an antisocial evolutionary path, which from their perspective would be how they practiced “morality.” Like eating a man after you mate with him, or something nutritious along those lines?

              5. Some (mostly psych popularizers, AFAICT) have associated sociopathic qualities with successful leaders…

                Biologically, I don’t see any reason not to expect a degree of variation to exist w/in a population of social animals with respect to degree of altruistic tendencies…Say that in times of plenty/nonthreat/etc.,a society as a whole benefits when its members behave most altruistically (or I should say, the fitness of most is increased)…but occasionally, circumstances arise when those who tend toward ‘every man for himself/his offspring’ are more successful in propagating their genes…These things are easier to hypothesize about when speaking of nonhuman societies, of course!

      2. Is the overall sense of “well-being” of the American populace increased by having a volunteer military, versus a draft?

          1. Sorry, I’m meant:

            How is that? As in, how would a draft be more moral than a volunteer-based military.

            1. Briefly, a draft forces more people in a society to really think about our military involvements than a volunteer armed service does.

              Ironically, it probably starts by making people think more selfishly…”not risking my neck/kid/etc.!” But that in turn brings up the question of just how necessary/justifiable is the action in question?

              I’ve been sorely disapppointed to realize that many of the wonderful steps toward progressive actions that were initiated in the 60’s may have originated only from the immediate, personal threat to some of the main protestors. But if that’s what it takes…

    2. Ophelia B:

      …morality isn’t just “well-being”; it’s about conflicts between and among kinds of well-being and above all about distribution of well-being.

      I think Harris addresses this point more than once in TML. (Whether he did so successfully is another matter, but it’s not as though he’s left it on the table.) He talks about the inevitability of multiple equivalent peaks on the moral landscape, but remains fixed in the contention that the peaks will be known by the same measure, namely, the well-being of conscious beings. Whether the One Right Answer For All in All Cases is scientifically derivable is (a) unlikely in practice and (b) beside the point (p.190):

      Whether morality becomes a proper branch of science is not really the point. Is economics a true science yet? [Cites never-ending disputes in economics…] Imagine how terrifying it would be if great numbers of smart people became convinced that all efforts to prevent a global financial catrastrophe must be either equally valid or equally nonsensical in principle. And yet this is precisely where we stand in the most important questions in human life.

      The well-being of conscious creatures is intended as a ground of morality that’s better than the leading brand, i.e., morality is that which my favorite god told to the prophet(s) I’ve decided to believe in. It’s better because it’s intuitively appealing, grounded in reality including but not limited to knowable human experience, and, in a great many cases, amenable to scientific analysis.

  16. give me an example of an act that we’d all consider moral that unquestionably decreases well being.

    We’d all as in the readers of this bl – this website? Or as in all humans?

    I’ll take the first, since the second is too difficult.

    I can think of examples that decrease well-being for some while increasing it for others. Parents could give all the money they can possibly spare to a charity that builds schools in Zimbabwe, depriving their children of books, kindles, trips to London and Macchu Pichu, etc.

    1. I hope i’m not stating the obvious when I say I think he means the general well being of all.

      With obvious first priority to those who are close to us. There is the effect of diminishing returns. once I have secured the welfare of those I care about should I continue to pile resources that could benefit all of society or do I start sharing.

      How many (metaphorical)cheeseburgers do I need to eat?

      An interesting example would be Bill Gates, I don’t know what happened to make him become Mr. Philanthropic but perhaps one day he woke up and realized all his billions would not increase the wellbeing of him and his children anymore than if he just had 1 billion or 100 million rather than 50-100 billion.

      1. Yup, one can only eat one meal at a time, read one book at a time, and so on and so forth.

        I’d think he’d get tired of and/or embarrassed by continually being on the Forbes or Fortune list of richest.

        By the way, what is the motivation for someone to hit him in the face with a pie? To be remembered as someone who hit the (temporarily) richest man in the world in a face with a pie?

      2. I hope i’m not stating the obvious when I say I think he means the general well being of all.

        But that’s just it. 1) He mostly doesn’t specify that he means that. 2) You can’t aggregate the general well being of all. It doesn’t work, which is one reason utilitarianism isn’t the obvious simple answer to all questions about morality.

        1. Collective, vs. individual, action to address collective problems? (If everyone who worried about schools for Zimbabwe acted on it…)

  17. It’s pretty easy to think of actions that involve increasing Y’s well-being at the expense of X’s well-being.

    But an action we’d deem moral that unequivocally decreases well being, for everyone involved? Would it be fair to say that such an action would contradict the intuitive definition of “moral” we already hold?

    Perhaps a quest for such an action would be like a quest for something blue that isn’t blue?

        1. Well Jerry said indisputably and unquestionably…but in any case that’s just it: indisputable morality is way hard to come by. People are fond of saying “we all agree that” something, but in fact we don’t. We don’t “all agree” that cruelty to children is wrong, that murder is wrong, that savage punishment is wrong…

          1. You mean like when Sam says “It seems clear that…”

            Poor guy can’t catch a break. Can’t we agreee on anything without a wrangle, fer pity’s sake?

              1. Right, when Jerry says “indisputably” it’s like when Sam says “It seems clear that…” The next step is they are accused of begging the question. What I see is the Rotten Kid Regress being applied to any attempt to establish some foundational values — that is, critics just keep saying “Why?” to every self-evident value we propose to start with, and a game of moral chicken ensues where the last one to quit goes off the cliff, or everybody does.

          2. You mean like when Sam says “It seems clear that…”

            Poor guy can’t catch a break from us critical thinkers. Can’t we agree on anything without a wrangle, fer pity’s sake?

          3. “We don’t “all agree” that cruelty to children is wrong, that murder is wrong, that savage punishment is wrong…”

            If we see exceptions to statements like “cruelty to children is wrong”, Harris said that we have to step outside that value system (often religion) and recognize that any system which values such actions as pathological.

          4. Actually, we all do agree that cruelty to children and murder are wrong.

            Those who marry off their daughters at age 10 do not consider that they are being cruel, but that they are being good parents.

            Those who kill their daughters out of “honor” do not consider that they are commiting murder, but justifiable homicide, such as when we kill in self-defense.

            1. No. Often the fathers who beat their daughters know perfectly well they’re being cruel. They think they’re right to be cruel, of course, but that’s not the issue. It’s just sentimental to translate everything into “they think they’re being good parents.”

              1. I was under the impression Sam was saying morals could be arrived at regardless of culture.

                Meaning if you wish to kill your daughter for not marrying who you tell her if you “do the math” no matter your culture it works out to be immoral. Because in the end it works out to be bad for you, her, and society as a whole.

                I’m getting all my information on what he said second hand however. until recently I didn’t even read his blog.

              2. I was under the impression Sam was saying morals could be arrived at regardless of culture.

                Meaning if you wish to kill your daughter for not marrying who you tell her if you “do the math” no matter your culture it works out to be immoral.

                Well that is what he means, but he doesn’t include all the steps it takes to get there.

                Because in the end it works out to be bad for you, her, and society as a whole.

                Not necessarily; that’s the problem. It might be “good” for “you” in various senses; ditto society.

              3. I think you’re right – which I believe goes a long way toward supporting Sam’s notion that morality is a global project, and we need not get mired in questions of cultural perception. Just as health is health the world over, so should be morality. We’re all humans, after all.

      1. I think we can avoid consideration of relativism when trying to answer Jerry’s question. Those people would undoubtedly perceive a net increase in well-being flowing from their actions. Of course, we don’t see it that way at all (and at the risk of epistemological “arrogance,” we would probably say they are just WRONG.)

        I think Jerry’s question poses a problem for Sam only if we can name some actions that are unquestionably moral from s certain POV, but that result only in diminished well-being from that same POV.

        We can quibble about what’s actually moral later.

  18. Does anyone else find it odd that after discussing the well-being of conscious creatures, the group went out to dine on the flesh of sentient creatures?

  19. The Biblical Flood (Noah and all that) was Moral, wasn’t it? Killing all the living creatures on the planet except for a select few. It was “Moral” because “God” wanted it to happen.

    So you can count me among those who don’t like the word “moral”. I prefer “ethical”, which indicates that the matter in question is being decided by people, “Medical ethics” brings to mind the Hippocratic Oath, while “medical morals” makes me think of Jehovah’s Witnesses refusing blood transfusions or pharmacists refusing to dispense birth control. I’ve even gone so far as to say “I have no morals, but I do have ethics” … then having to explain the difference. 8)

  20. The criterion of Well-being for morality is ideal, as is the use of modern science. We all strive to be better off, and it is beneficial, as a complex society for our neighbors and adjacent countries to also be better off.

    Of course, we cannot devote all our time helping those in need. But if we each give a little every so often, many of societies needs can be addressed. There is no reason for me to forfeit buying my son a birthday present and give the money to foreign aid, as holidays and festivities are a source of well-being for our families. But we can, dedicate some time and give aid to who ever needs it, like blood, for example.

    As a regular blood donor, 3-4 times a year, it is a great way to give to those who need help, contributing to the well-being of our society. It does not mean I have to give all my money or limit my belongings. A little, by many, goes a long way. All we need to do is strive for the well-being of our society.

  21. Surely an issue here is the idea that moral acts are those which _increase well being_. I’m pretty sure that it’s common to have situations where none of the available options actually increase well being, and morality would then consist of choosing the least of the available evils. That is, sometimes the moral thing to do is something that makes things worse, because all of the other options make things even worser.

    Sorry, I sprained a comparative there.

  22. The problem I’ve always had with Harris’ theory is that there’s nothing objective about it. He tries to make it appear so, but he’s really appealing to our moral intuitions at every step.

    Take what Harris would probably consider an obvious example, that of slavery. Being a slave really decreases your wellbeing, but having a slave has the potential to increase it. No doubt Harris would say that the former outweighs the latter. Ok, how do you arrive at that conclusion? Harris does not and cannot explain the math. He just waves the word “clearly” around as if it were an argument, and says that the answer here is obvious and if you disagree you’re a dolt.

    He’s asking his moral intuition for the answer, and his intuition is providing it, sans argument. We all agree on this “obvious” answer because none of us grew up with slavery. If Harris had to explain this to a slaveowner in the 1700s, he’d finally have to come up with the objective argument he already claims to be giving.

    Similarly, killing one person to save five seems okay in one version of the trolley problem. It both increases wellbeing by any obvious measure, and comports with our moral intuition. But other versions of the trolley problem (like where you have to push a fat man onto the tracks) feel intuitively wrong, even though the wellbeing-calculus is the same. In situations like these, Harris again leaves the decision to our moral intuitions. He says that human feelings on such an issue may be so strong that our only option is to work with them. In other words, we increase our own psychological wellbeing by going with what feels right, even if the wellbeing-calculus shows no difference.

    Ok, so what do we need his theory for?

    And keep in mind that Harris doesn’t care about “what feels right” when it disagrees with his own moral intuitions. If owning a slave feels right to me, and it increases my wellbeing just as much as it decreases my slave’s, Harris will still claim that I am mistaken and that my life would be better if I learned to treat people with more humanity. Nevermind that he has no scientific evidence that a slaveowner has, by default, less subjective happiness than someone who believes owning slaves is wrong. Harris simply can’t let his theory describe something like slaveowning as “moral,” even if he can’t give the argument for why it isn’t.

    Fundamentally I think Harris’ mistake is in not recognizing that wellbeing and human moral intuitions are only correlated. They are not the same, and there is not a causal relationship between them. People don’t act because they do wellbeing calculations. They act out of empathy, or because they’re programmed to value fairness, or because they’re programmed not to use other people as tools to achieve some end, even if that end is good for almost everyone involved (i.e. fat man trolley problem).

    I totally agree with Harris’ fight against badness in the world, but I think his attempt to objectively justify it fails completely.

  23. When I read about Dr. Bob Richards, I rushed over to Amazon and put his book on my wishlist. As a hobbyist microphotographer I have an interest in Haeckel’s work. Thanks!

  24. I find Harris’s lack of concern for the well-being of non-humans grotesque, to say the least, not to mention surprising, since I think I’ve read comments of his that express sympathy for animal suffering. Maybe I’m confusing him with someone.

  25. Dr. C.:

    “We washed down the steaks with a good bottle of Cotes du Rhone from my own collection.”

    I am also a huge fane of the wines of the Rhone. If I may ask: What wine and what vintage?

    I buy almost all my Côtes du Rhone from Kermit Lynch in Berkeley, CA. He’s my favorite importer of wine, especially from France. His book, Adventures on the Wine Route is also a great read.

  26. A potential example of an action that would increase overall well-being, but that *most* people would find immoral is the “fat man” version of Philippa Foote’s (sp?) Trolley Problem:

    5 track workers are working on the trolley track. Because of their loud machinery, they don’t hear the oncoming trolley, and the trolley driver can’t see them around the curve. You and a fat man are standing on a footbridge above the track. You are in a position to push the fat man onto the track, which would stop the trolley. It would kill the fat man but would save the 5.

    Most people (around 70%, I think, last time I checked?), when presented with this scenario, judge that it is impermissible to push the fat man.

    Most committed consequentialists would argue that this judgment is wrong (and Josh Greene of Harvard has a neuroscientific account of why they’re making the error), but there are definitely non-consequentialist philosophers who would defend the “commonsense morality” view that pushing the fat man is wrong.

    I am not staking out a position–just pointing out that non-consequentialist philosophers do offer examples in which our moral intuitions clash with (Sam Harris’ obvious commitment to) consequentialism.

  27. I think you’re right – which I believe goes a long way toward supporting Sam’s notion that morality is a global project, and we need not get mired in questions of cultural perception. Just as health is health the world over, so should be morality. We’re all humans, after all.

    and also:

    You bet, and the UDHR is quite a good place to start.

    In college, one of my philosophy professors argued against a utilitarian/consequentialist morality not just due to the difficulties in the calculations involved, but also because it ignored the concept of “rights,” such as any one of those listed in the UDHR. Indeed, as has been pointed out, such calculus could even lead to a situation in which one *ought* to ignore a right. After reading TML, and reading this discussion, I’m curious. What forms the basis of rights? How do we decide what is a right, and what is not? What prevents (or perhaps should prevent) anyone from simply biting the bullet and agreeing that rights sometimes need to be ignored?

  28. I don’t have time to go through all the comments to see if what I’m about to say is redundant. If it is,… apologies.

    Toward coming up with an act that might be considered moral but that unquestioningly decreases aggregate well being: How about the act of saving a hypothetical person from death where said person is a carrier of a deadly disease that will undoubtedly spread and harm millions? For arguments sake lets assume the disease can’t survive outside a living host. One could conceive of a biological weapon designed this way.

    To tweak this a little, lets say the disease does no harm to humans but will probably make some higher order species of mammal extinct. How about a lizard instead of a mammal, or a fish, or (to tweak PZ) a cephalopod.

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