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March 28, 2010


M David Carlson

I feel like a troll, as I just ran across this site and the "TED" video - neither one I know anything about. However, the domain caught my attention, and I was really hoping that Sam Harris would delve into a science of morality.

But, I don’t see where anything is said of substance. Great, so we have the potential of defining morality from facts … but what are they? How? I was hoping for so much more.

What about applying scientific methodologies of logical consistency, testing, etc to human behavior? That's what Stefan Molyneux does to define universally preferable behavior. Maybe Sam has more meat in other speeches, but not here.

Andrew Boardman

Sorry I haven't responded before this, I wanted to give your comment some deeper thought than I was able to at the time and then never got back to it. However, you have a great point.

My take on what Harris is adding to the discussion is drawing the line in the sand that says these are items that are possible to address scientifically. I agree that he didn't add anything more to the discussion at that point (most went off saying "assuming that is true, then..." without proving the basic premise). I haven't read his book although it is on my list, so I'm not sure whether he goes into detailed defense of that point there. The interviews and other talks I've seen from him have not.

I have a deep interest in applying scientific thinking to aspects of life that currently have none, particularly around social organization. I do want to post more on this and see if I can get some of those thoughts into a reasonable form so I can get feedback. I also know I need to do more research and see who is working in the general area and what progress they've made.

Berry Muhl

Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, Robert Ardrey and F. A. Hayek have all provided pieces of the essential insight into morality, by writing about human nature as expressed in the Amity / Enmity Principle. Morality is normative. It evolves in response to environmental pressures, and exists to compel unrelated humans to overcome their natural aggression and territoriality to each other and live more or less peaceably in high concentrations. Morality is the difference between society in the "natural state" and civilization. Morality is the sum total of a society's norms and values, and as such, must to some degree defy the norms and values of other societies. A civilization's (or sub-society's) morality is one of the distinctions whereby it competes with other societies. Morality is diverse. There is no universal morality.

By the same token, there is no *subjective* morality either. Morality cannot be invented by an individual, because it arises by consensus and is enforced on individuals by society's norms. When an individual speaks of his "own personal moral code," he is committing the error of confusing *ethics* with *morality*.

It follows from all of this that morality can really only work if it is treated as--if it is *believed to be*--objective. We have to buy in to our society's norms and values in order to cohere with our neighbors and to be accepted by them. If we flaut those norms, society can and will reject us.

One of society's most essential functions--in all animals, not just humans--is to enforce norms. We cannot function at large population scales, in high densities, otherwise. Our natural tendency to aggress and acquire territory and social rank would prevent us from doing so. Civilization *domesticates* us, and it does so via a lifelong program of indoctrination...just as we indoctrinate our animals into remaining domesticated. And just like our animals, we are only ever a single generation away from going feral, if those indoctrinating forces are removed. This is why, for instance, our society has become increasingly violent over the past few decades, as the much-vaunted "liberalization of society" has undermined tradition, religion and morality and their influence over us.


But there IS universal morality. After all, what is morality other than individual preferences of behavior?
Would anyone say that they prefer their neighbor to be violent toward himself? That's like saying one would prefer to be raped over making love.
This does not mean we only choose peaceful action, but given the choice of the behavior, the answer is very universal.
"Society norms" is a nebulus construct and cannot be considered useful when defining objective, prefered behavior i.e., morality. Morality must be taken down to the individual, and then it CAN be defined objectively.
It seems to me that Sam Harris should be looking at what behaviors are universally preferred and apply tests to determine if it is actually universal. That would be an excellent start for defining universal morality.

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