Hi All,

We had a discussion many moons ago about atheists and morality and a lot has happened since then. I reached some new conclusions (which I'll withhold for now so I don't poison the water) and at least one other poster here has some new ideas about it.

So, I was wondering what the prevailing opinion is out there on this topic. Do you believe that atheists can be "moral"? Is it impossible for an atheist to be truly moral? Is "morality" something to which adherents have a valid claim? The infamous Dawkins and Harris had a discussion at Oxford about this about a year or so ago that was very good and I would also be interested in what anyone thinks of what was discussed there.

Thanks and all are welcome.

- kk

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Hey kOrsan,

Egggzzzzaaaccctttllyyyyy And this is Harris' logic - see below - kk

Hey SteveInCo,

That's a great point and its something I brought up in our discussion before. This is where Harris' logic falls down. What is sometimes the most logical solution can also be a repugnant one that no one in their right mind would accept.

Harris’ formulation invokes the concept of group versus individual “rights” or “good”. Oddly, Harris and Dawkins both seem to be acutely aware of this problem but only in the most camouflaged sense. Harris has written numerous oblique references to this problem and we need to examine it here (these are observations from a recorded discussion at Oxford in April 2011).

1.) hospital organ donors being murdered to save more lives is posed but never engaged.

2.) There is a trolley just below a cliff and you stand above. The trolley is certain to impact and kill 4 people, but a nice large fat man is beside you and if he fell on the tracks he would stop the trolley. Do you push him off for a net rescue of 4 people? How does this compare when the act of pushing him off is abstracted from you (say, by being able to drop someone on the track by some distant remote control scheme)? This is actually something that Peter Singer wrote about in 2007 at project-syndicate.org.

3.) Harris vaguely appealed to something like reciprocal altruism as the solution to the hospital and trolley problem

4.) Did Harris actually argue in favor of human misery without meaning to do so? It sounded like it when he argued against the use of certain psychiatric drugs.

5.) Harris stated that free will is illusory and I was oddly comfortable with that, intellectually speaking, until I began to ponder the problem of non-deterministic *and* non-algorithmic mental processes. I would argue that Harris’ argument did not sustain.

6.) Harris spoke of the difference between justice (he uses this term not in the legal sense but in the popular sense of "fairness") and "well being"; without realizing it was really just a distinction between individual and group. His argument about "well being" was basically, as I think I've learned tonight, his formation and assertion of archetype in consequentialism.

Group versus Individual Good

Harris speaks of zero sum scenarios when dealing with the question of group or individual. His final solution to the dilemma, unfortunately, is to just dismiss it as “not important” because he thinks that something akin to reciprocal altruism will “solve it”. In other words, he thinks people will “just be compassionate” in those difficult moral moments. This is completely unacceptable and is a recipe not only for serious challenge but serious disgust and disdain from adherents. Let’s be clear, my purpose is to spread atheism everywhere.

Harris does seem to acknowledge the problem of the zero sum game by saying that zero sum situations in which the individual’s utility increases with no utility increase for the group, or vice versa, is a reality. So, in order to better understand the discussion and frame it properly, we will go back to the statements supra that have been attributed to Harris and/or Dawkins.

In the case of the hospital and trolley example, the logic is similar but not exactly the same. In Harris’ trolley example the point of this that I gathered is to illustrate the difference between a rational decision versus the impulses of reciprocal altruism which may not be rational, at least within the limitations of the example. How is this? When a human being has to make a decision about who shall live or die based solely on number (the remote control example), the decision will revert to reason alone as there is nothing confounding the thought process. But when the presumptively purely rational decision is contaminated with an emotional component (the “fat man”) the outcome may not be rational. What we mean by emotion is essentially identical to Hume’s “passions”. And it is the introduction of abstraction into this example that finally explains this. When the “fat man” is standing directly next to you, the reality of that person’s existence is less abstract than the reality of the existence of the people on the trolley. And this is normal and good. It is a trait that helps protect us from deception.

But what does this story, as well as most of the similar stories Harris and Dawkins offer, ultimately tell us? It demonstrates that the interests of the individual may, in many circumstances, be more likely defended by an advocate acting out of passions rather than reason. To understand this, one only needs to see that the Trolley example is an extreme. Consider what would happen if we change the Trolley example to a scenario where there is one person on the trolley and the “fat man” standing next to you. You know one must die by the circumstances given. But let’s add a caveat. Say you don’t know the man next to you but the person on the trolley is a friend or acquaintance. Now it gets murky. If you don’t know the person that well you might well leave the “fat man” right where he is and let your “friend” die. In fact, this kind of oxymoronic behavior is all too common in human society. It is the physical proximity of the “fat man”, hence his reification to the actor, that forces the “passions” to override reason. And it was this “passion” that allowed the “fat man” to gain favor. We could come up with better examples for sure, but the point is that we can sustain this argument with Harris’ example alone; to wit, our example illustrates our point but need not serve as proof of it.

So, what Harris is actually dancing around here is the problem of the individual versus the group. He appears ill-equipped to respond to it apparently due to a lack of sufficient background in matters of civil society, contracts, economics and law. In other words, Harris needs to introduce the concept of equity in law to make progress in this discussion. He can be forgiven for this, but not if he then uses this to begin making statements regarding morality in human society. Thus we identify the second failure of the Harris proposition. And it is a failure as far as I’m concerned only inasmuch as it leaves Harris’ morality vulnerable to negative public relations. Often an advocate’s insecurities – of whatever stripe but in this case of the intellectual kind - are exposed by what they focus on the most and it is uncanny how reliable this is. So much time and discussion spent on these stories and examples belie what I think is an uncertainty about the completeness of the proposition. This uncertainty would be correctly founded.

- kk

RE: "Human Sacrafice" and "The reward is not real or tangible" - don't be so hasty to condemn - are we talking Bar-B-Que here? A Luao maybe? With chips and dip and baked beans, maybe some corn on the cob, some good beer or a nice Merlo? It might be worth looking into - just sayin' --

Is Merlo the equivalent of Merlot?  If so, good, the T is a French additive and thus redundant.

-- and I hate redundancy, I hate redundancy!

RE: "overindulgence,"? Moi? Past?

Refer it to Monty Python's famous Department of Redundancy Department.

Hey Tiffany,

Yes, the question was for you, but there are some impudent individuals at TA that just interpose themselves between posters whenever they like :-)

Let me ask you a hypothetical. Suppose I were to discover that if I invaded a country, call it Afghanistan, killing several thousands of people, I might be able to gain access to new, untapped supplies of petroleum. Now, suppose my actuaries tell me that if we were to get this new, abundant supply, we would drop the price of heating oil this coming winter by x perccent. And lets say they tell me that, based on what they've seen every year now for decades, they find that this will save more lives than the lives they think will be lost by going to war.

Assuming we are okay with their numbers and agree, we have a problem. By Harris' logic they should go to war. And this is not an overstatement of his principle because while it is obvious to us that there are other issues weighing on this matter, Harris' formulation explicitly excludes their consideration. By Harris' formulation, which provides no process by which these types of situations should be decided, leaves us with this war being a good, moral decision. So, my question is, do you think this is okay? Is there something we could add to Harris' formulation to make it more complete? Any ideas?

- kk

Hey Tiffany,

I'm not so sure you're wrong as much as Sam Harris is. In his discussion at Oxford he seemed quite certain and staid about the conclusions I mentioned earlier. Having said that, it wouldn't surprise me if he contradicted himself in some other venue.

But whatever the case, it doesn't matter for the sake of the discussion. Lets assume your understanding is correct and that Harris is not confused (or that I'm confused, take your pick).

Sam asserts that when or if we can fully understand conciousness, we can then apply scientific principles to determine the most productive course of actions. 

If this is his position then I can agree with this point, which is that at some point we could presumably apply scientific principles directly to the issue of morality. However, our understanding of human consciousness is so poor right now we cannot even agree on the operational definition of "consciousness", much less what gives rise to it. But in principle, I agree with this point.

So, answering questions on what is moral, is not something he feels is fully accessible yet, as we are still struggling with that conciousness thingie.

Sam and I would agree.

It is my understanding, and assertion, that morality is a coliding of conciousness,matching our potentional. 

I'm not sure I understand what you mean by that, but this wouldn't surprise me because I can be dense sometimes.

While we can philosophically entertain the "why's and definition of morality forever, at some point we need to focus on logic and reason.  What is our method of doing this currently?  Science.  Harris ultimately believes science can uncover moral truths but I don't believe he assumes we can aswer them now.

Here is where I, Sam Harris and many of his ilk will diverge strongly. I
believe that there is often a naive view of science in which it is pretended that the scientific method is carried out in a pure, clinical manner without any impact from the foibles of human nature. I don't mean it in a bad way, I just think scientists are good at what they do, and what they do has a poor record of insulating you from naivete. Creating an interdependency between science and the public discourse on morality would, in my opinion, corrupt both. So, I don’t think we can base it on science, the scientific method or such similar thing, not because it’s a bad idea by itself, but because as practicably considered, it would ruin both science and “morality”.

- kk

The font color changed to black, so I'm tryhing to ffix it here.

Here is where I, Sam Harris and many of his ilk
will diverge strongly. I believe that there is often a naive view of science in
which it is pretended that the scientific method is carried out in a pure,
clinical manner without any impact from the foibles of human nature. I don't mean
it in a bad way, I just think scientists are good at what they do, and what
they do has a poor record of insulating you from naivete. Creating an
interdependency between science and the public discourse on morality would, in
my opinion, corrupt both. So, I don’t think we can base it on science, the
scientific method or such similar thing, not because it’s a bad idea by itself,
but because as practicably considered, it would ruin both science and “morality”.

Hey,

And Sam agrees that the consciousness (The holy grail of neuroscience) is still in infant stages. But progress is being made. Brain mapping has come pretty far. I’m sure at some point, people assumed it would be impossible to put a scientific theory to anything, and we’ve comes a long way in debunking that myth.

I agree. We will eventually figure it out.

So, answering questions on what is moral, is not something he feels is fully accessible yet, as we are still struggling with that conciousness thingie.

 Sam and I would agree.

–Me too

It is my understanding, and assertion, that morality is a coliding of conciousness,matching our potentional.

 I'm not sure I understand what you mean by that, but this wouldn't surprise me because I can be dense sometimes.

–Explaining this may take more effort than my ADD brain will allow. Let’s see how well I can explain this. Do you agree that everything we have discussed here has been a philosophical debate? We are attempting to place truths on things, in ways which makes sense to us.

Agreed.

While I agree that science cannot explain everything, it really is the best method we have to find universal truth.

Agreed.

Thriving is our goal, and we are not always the best decision makers. No matter now I look at it, morality is something I construct myself, with my conscious, and my ultimate goal is to thrive. We are social creatures and pack animals (For lack of a better term) Thriving requires cooperation and the end game plan seems to be “Live the good life” So when we reach that potential, in ways which feels good to us, we reach our moral potential in the only “real way” we can understand. Sorry, I feel I still leave you confused on my opinion (which I admit is still evolving) Basically it goes back to morality being a construct of our own making.

Nice, this is new to me, so I’ll think about it and see if I agree.

If brain mapping can find how I process thoughts (which it can to some degree) is it safe to feel we may be able to map a persons brain, and give them a map/plan which could most effectively (without allowing for accidental and sudden death) lead to our best life. A life leading to the least amount of harm and most benefit to us and society, would it be moral to ignore it? What if we went further, and would see a clear percentage of terrible things happening by following the other path. Would it be moral to follow it?

Now I see your point. Yes, but this playing god on a level I was not thinking about.

If science can answer these questions, and I feel it’s not only likely but actually probable (eventually), would we have a universal morality? As I see it, yes. It would be as close as we are able to come.

 Interesting. But in some sense it acknowledges that it has a subjective component and in fact relies on that to find an “objective” morality, yes? I agree that this technology is conceivable.

-Human error will always exsist. Initially the data will be flawed and bugs will need to be worked out. But I simply feel that if our goal is to define morality in a universal way, science is our best hope towards answers.

This is a more sophisticated view than what I was considering. Given this I agree with you almost entirely. This isn’t the kind of foible I was worried about. Science does a good job here. It’s when non-scientists start monkeying with the labs and the results for political reasons that I worry.

However, I also agree with your view. That in many ways it’s a social construct of our own making, which is sealed and delivered to us via our friendly neighborhood fundamentalist.

Exactly.

I see your point that is really doesn’t exsist in some ways, and our defending ourselves to creationsists against a construct they inflicted is madness. I love being a freethinkers….I can straddle the fence and ponder all kinds of things. ?

Yes! Good times.

- kk

Hey,

Playing God really does play into it strongly. 

It does!

Which brings more moral questions right? 

Right.

But resorting back to brain mapping, and the advancement of computers, ANYTHING is possible.

I believe you. Sometimes its easy to forget how progressive the long-arm of science over time can be.

Why am I thinking of the movie Terminator right now?  :)

lol - I loved that movie. We've expended our limit of 5 or something nested postings, so I didn't have a reply button for you. I just put it here.

- kk

Hey,

Thriving is our goal, and we are not always the best decision makers. No matter now I look at it, morality is something I construct myself, with my conscious, and my ultimate goal is to thrive. We are social creatures and pack animals (For lack of a better term) Thriving requires cooperation and the end game plan seems to be “Live the good life” So when we reach that potential, in ways which feels good to us, we reach our moral potential in the only “real way” we can understand. Sorry, I feel I still leave you confused on my opinion (which I admit is still evolving) Basically it goes back to morality being a construct of our own making.
 

Okay, yea, I see what you mean. I agree.

- kk

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