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social justice 2

Step Outside and See That!

…but today, if we are just women and men, we are indeed in jail with Thoreau, imprisoned in our own society by a myriad of psychopaths and sociopaths, narcissists, literalists, corporatists, absolutists, and other fools and cowards who are so scared of their own shadows that they can only feel secure if they become almighty and impose their will on everybody else.

It’s time to step outside the propaganda and see and act and dream again.

In our last episode, you remember, I was agreeing with Michael J. Sandel, in Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, that we should be including religious points of view in our national dialogue about morality and social justice. In this episode I want to add my opinion that we should be including the scientific viewpoint, via an excellent book by Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. (And then a few comments.)

First: “Further neuroimaging suggests that psychopathy is also a product of pathological arousal and reward. People scoring high on the psychopathic personality inventory show abnormally high activity in the reward regions of their brain…in response to amphetamine and while anticipating monetary gains. Hypersensitivity of this circuitry is especially linked to the impulsive-antisocial dimension of psychopathy, which leads to risky and predatory behavior. Researchers speculate that an excessive response to anticipated reward can prevent a person from learning from the negative emotions [eg fear and sadness] of others [and thus not develop empathy].”  [Is it really believable that persons who just can’t seem ever to get enough money are not addicted, and that none of those persons is sociopathic—at best what Harris calls the “garden-variety” psychopath?]

The Moral Landscape, like Justice, is very readable and every citizen should read it. Like Sandel, Harris not only provides major ideas, evidence, and illustration, but also shows how to think well about such matters. His argument is very carefully and thoroughly reasoned. And pragmatic: the state of global morality is like a landscape, with peaks and valleys; we try to climb out of the depths.

I’ll try to sketch the gist:

Sam Harris is a neuroscientist (doctorate in neuroscience, UCLA; doctorate in philosophy, Stanford). His subtitle purposefully claims that scientific knowledge (rather than revealed religion) can establish moral truth based on physical, factual reality. He argues that “…morality is a genuine sphere of human inquiry, and not a mere product of culture; therefore progress is possible.” (179)

His “core claim [is] that moral truths exist.” (197) Moral questions are questions to which there are true answers. Morality must be based on facts. Indeed “…the split between facts and values—and, therefore, between science and morality—is an illusion.” (179)

His “central thesis: Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering…Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena,..fully constrained by the laws of Nature….Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science.” (195)

Moral reasoning belongs to consciousness. Morality is subjective; but “consciousness and its ever-changing contents remain the only subjective reality” (186), and consciousness is a matter of brain function. Significant pertinent facts regarding progress toward well-being will be provided by scientific study of the brain.

Thus, he proposes that the universal principle of morality be global well-being, i.e. “the most positive states of being to which we can aspire.” (183) . “It is only against an implicit notion of global well-being that we can judge my behavior to be less good than it might otherwise be.” (207) [Of course we could judge it, like the Puritans, as to whether it serves the glory of God. What if the well-being of God required the misery of humans, and then the extinction of the universe?]

He argues “that the value of well-being—specifically the value of avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone” can be presupposed in morality, just as values such as “desire to understand the universe, a respect for evidence and logical coherence” must be presupposed within science. He sees “no problem in presupposing that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and worth avoiding or that normative morality consists, at an absolute minimum, in acting so as to avoid it.” (201)

It is only against an understanding that “human health is a domain of genuine truth claims—however difficult ‘health’ may be to define,” that it is possible to think clearly about disease,” (208) and it is possible to think clearly about immorality only against an understanding that morality is a domain of genuine truth claims.

Some Additional Ideas in the Chapters:

“Introduction: The Moral Landscape.”  The term “moral landscape” is a metaphor for the global heights and depths of human flourishing or suffering. It allows a pragmatic description of the application of moral truth—behaviors and the resultant degrees of human well-being, across time and space. It is a changing “landscape of possibilities;” and since neuroscience and related sciences are in their infancy, and since we are, by now, less determined by evolution than is popularly thought, we can expect progress in our landscape artistry [my metaphorical twist].

Because “human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain,…there must be scientific truths to be known about it.” In view of these truths, we will have to see distinctions among ways in which we live together, and judge some ways as better, more true to the facts, and more ethical. We live in an “interdependent world of facts” about how “thoughts and intentions arise in the human brain,..mental states translate into behavior,..behaviors influence the world and the experience of other conscious beings;” and these facts “exhaust what we can reasonably mean by terms like ‘good’ and ‘evil.” Scientists must accept their responsibility to help bring moral clarity (and stop evading by claiming absolute moral relativism). (2-7)

Values (“the set of attitudes, choices, and behaviors that potentially affect our well-being—as well as that of other conscious minds”) are not separate from facts, and must not be counter-factual (12), including religious values (22-5). Those that include situational suffering can be judged by whether they lead in the direction of well-being (21).

“Moral Truth.”  There is moral truth; moral judgments, including cross-cultural judgments, can be valid; statements about human values are not without truth conditions; concepts such as well-being and misery can be defined well, and are not “so susceptible to personal whim and cultural influence that it is impossible to know anything about them.” (23) “Consciousness [is] the only intelligible domain of value….[and] values only exist relative to actual and potential changes in the well-being of conscious creatures.” (32-33) Science, as both a way of thinking and a body of knowledge, relating objectivity to subjectivity, can help find right answers to moral questions and understand what we should do and want, to maximize well-being. (28-9)

“Good and Evil.” “There may be nothing more important than human cooperation.” [my bold] (55) Science can help understand want makes cooperation possible, even among strangers, to serve a common interest.

Questions about value, such as right and wrong, “depend upon experiencing such value” and related consequences. (62) Study of the brain will contribute facts to a right understanding of these felt experiences, and about our lapses in response to calamities, injustices, paradoxical situations, and dilemmas; and it seems likely to vindicate the attractiveness of fairness and others’ well-being, as well as kindness and compassion. (80)

Science and focus on well-being can help resolve problems such as how we can know that truth of our claims regarding right and wrong; hierarchies of self-interest and attention that make it difficult to be consistently good; bewildering diversity; emotional tone; personal and impersonal decisions; moral sensitivity, motivation, judgment, reasoning; self-relevance; belief and disbelief; psychopathy; the role of emotions such as anxiety; individual moral deficit or genius; the role of population density; and motivation and reward for cooperation. (92-100)

[Persons who stake their morality on the heroic ego’s conscious freedom of choice-making must come to terms with the fact that] “all of our behavior can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge: this has always suggested that free will is an illusion.“ (103) [We are not such hyper-conscious sources of our own actions.] The real question is the degree to which we should be unconstrained in following our intentions, once they arise into consciousness; and to answer that question we need scientific knowledge, objectivity, universal principles, and negotiation with the group.

But our consciousness is where our intentions and character become fully known, as we form the record of our responsibility [our ability to respond, quality of responsiveness, pattern of responses], and thus consciousness is where we can be held accountable for our actions, by a reasoning and rule-setting citizenry.

“Belief.”  [In the beginning was the word, in the sense that] with language came our ability to substitute a proposition for a physical experience. Thus truth claims and lying became possible. Belief is our acceptance of the truth of a proposition (2 + 2 = 4, snow is white, it is good to be healthy). A complexity of knowledge is required for acceptance of a new proposition, including contextual facts and reliability of source. By now we acquire most of our knowledge linguistically (thus significantly modifying the influence of classic evolution—our environment being largely verbal, cultural; and science is doubling knowledge every few years).

We favor the truth, i.e. accord with reality. Because acquisition of a truth (of fact or value) activates the brain’s reward system and enhances self, we might have a bias toward belief, i.e. a tendency to accept a proposition as true until proven false. Repeated exposure to a proposition creates a memory of it as true—regardless of context or reliability of source. [See Faux News.]

“All reasoning may be inextricable from emotion,” (122) and indeed “to reason effectively, we must have a feeling for the truth.” (126) But this makes possible, e.g., wishful thinking, self-deception, and bias; one’s conviction can become “detached from logic or sensory evidence.” (127)

Belief is also affected, in subconscious brain activity, by genetic make-up. E.g. one’s reasoning may be influenced by one’s tolerance for risk, which is influenced by a variety of genes, including “genes for the D4 dopamine receptor and the protein stathmin (which is primarily expressed in the amygdala).” (128) Re. religious belief, “people who have inherited the most active form of the D4 receptor are more likely to believe in miracles and to be skeptical of science; the least active forms correlate with ‘material rationalism’.” (128)

The point, then, is that science can increasingly throw light on the facts of subconscious and emotive factors in our reasoning and beliefs, so that we can correct for wanderings from reality. Bias, for example, is a “reliable pattern of error,” (132) and thus can be treated.

“Any apparent truth [takes] its place in the economy of our thoughts and actions, at which time it becomes as potent as its propositional content demands;…” and in view of its social cost, “deception commends itself, perhaps even more than violence, as the principle enemy of human cooperation.” (133)

Because of our preference for truth, in order to believe a proposition we must first believe that we have accepted it for belief because it seems true—i.e. that we are in touch with, in accord with, reality (of fact or value), that we would not believe nonsense. “Beliefs purport to represent the world as it is.” (138). Furthermore, because belief includes the sense of being in accord with reality, it has a communal dimension, a sense of common reality beyond individual preference: “to believe that X is true or that Y is ethical is also to believe others should share these beliefs under similar circumstances.” (144)

[We want our beliefs to be informed by actual features of the world. Reality is what we are trying to believe in, what makes a difference. Thus lying (epidemic among Republicans) undermines human cooperation by undermining the foundation of our shared attempt at basing belief and action upon our fundamental desire to be in touch with, in accord with, reality, and to form fact-based values. And thus political behaviors such as pretence and hypocrisy are especially insulting, especially when done for selfish ends. We don’t want to be “misled.” Sometimes we hedge by saying that “it might be true” or “some say that,..” so that we can deceive ourselves or let a target constituency off the hook. People fear change in belief because they fear change in what they think is true of the world, e.g. that they are secure or divinely privileged, or they would rather deceive themselves than violate a commonly held but erroneous belief.

“Religion.”  It appears that in the US religious commitment highly correlates with social insecurity and racism. Worldwide, research on “subjective well-being” suggests that keys are tolerance and personal freedom, which flourish in secular societies. There may be a genetic predisposition to superstition and susceptibility because of the link between dopamine and serotonin to religious states, the structure of cognition, and the cultural perception of mind as separate from body. Nevertheless, “religion is largely a matter of what people teach their children to believe about the nature of reality.” (146-52)

In the brain, belief/disbelief activity is the same for religious and nonreligious persons and regarding religious and nonreligious propositions. Comparing all religious to nonreligious thinking, religious thinking was more linked to areas active in perception of pain and of pain in others, negative feelings like disgust, and reward. Both groups showed more uncertainty re. religious propositions. While religious beliefs are not special in brain activity, when applied to religious propositions they are special inasmuch as deemed so by religious believers, and “are especially resistant to change” (153-4) [one would guess: because of the import of the belief that the core proposition, God exists, and its ramifications, is deemed in accord with reality].

The conventional concept of an “immortal soul capable of reasoning, feeling love, remembering life events, etc., all the while being metaphysically independent of the brain, seems untenable given that damage to the relevant neural circuits obliterates these capacities in a living person,” and furthermore given the resemblance of the human brain to brains of other animals supposed soulless. Religious believers posit a special, God-given, human subjectivity [God in us], which then carries over into morality, at which point, “intellectually honest scientists cannot help but fall into overt conflict with religion regarding the origins of morality.” (159) Religious beliefs unnecessarily complicate straight-forward issues of human well-being, lead public thinking down blind alleys, constrain the ability of science to contribute to solving problems, and cause failures of compassion.

An extended illustration: the scientist and vocal Christian, Francis Collins, appointed by President Obama to direct the National Institutes of Health. [Harris sees] “nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many of the world’s religions. Compassion, awe, devotion, and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have. What is irrational, and irresponsible in a scientist and educator, is to make unjustified and unjustifiable claims about the structure of the universe, about the divine origin of certain books, and about the future of humanity on the basis of such experiences.” (165)

For Harris, this is “the condition of faith itself—conviction without sufficient reason, hope mistaken for knowledge, bad ideas protected from good ones, good ideas obscured by bad ones, wishful thinking elevated to a principle of salvation, etc.” (175)

“The Future of Happiness.”  [Before the chapter sections I reported major ideas from this chapter and the Afterword.]

Harris is hopeful about our moral progress as a species. We are less violent and less tolerant of violence; and “today, we are surely more likely to act for the benefit of humanity as a whole than at any point in the past.” (177) Questions of subjective well-being have answers, and science is increasingly accepted as a contributor to finding them and to correcting popular misconceptions about what conditions are conducive to happiness. Some complicating factors are: disagreements between the self that is experiencing and the one that is remembering, validly competing claims to what is right, and tensions between personal and collective well-being. But they can be adequately resolved in the service of well-being. Some interests “are more defensible than others” and some “are so compelling that they need no defense at all.” (190-91)

Harris ended the first edition by saying: “Whether or not we ever understand meaning, morality, and values in practice, I have attempted to show that there must be something to know about them in principle. And I am convinced that merely admitting this will transform the way we think about human happiness and the public good.” (191)

A new “Afterword.” In which Harris rebuts the best critics (scientists and philosophers) and criticisms of the first edition (1910):

The Value Problem: no scientific basis for valuing well-being.
The Persuasion Problem: no scientific way of arguing that someone who doesn’t care about well-being is wrong and should care.
The Measurement Problem: “well-being” in discussions of morality can’t be rigorously defined and therefore can’t be scientifically measured.

Harris: At the least, one can presuppose “that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and worth avoiding or that normative morality consists, at an absolute minimum, in acting so as to avoid it.” That is like claiming that hens lay eggs [or ought to]. “Certain ‘oughts’ are built right into the foundations of human thought.” (201-2) [I think only nihilism is uncomfortable here, but some scientists and at least one political novelist seem to prefer nihilism—masquerading as scientific relativism or Objectivism—as regards subjectivity and values.]

The critic’s “notion of ‘should’, with its focus on the burden of persuasion, introduces a false standard for moral truth.” (205) Harris is claiming that people’s actual values and desires are fully determined by an objective reality, and that we can conceptually get behind all of this—indeed, we must—in order to talk about what is actually good.” (205-6) It seems to Harris that “if global well-being could be maximized, that would be better (by the only definition of ‘better’ that makes any sense.” (207) [And btw, how many prefer a life without well-being to a life with it? —a life without morality to a life with it? How many don’t care one way or the other? Show of hands.]

[As with eg Kant and Rawls, the existence of the ideal, in its abstract purity, makes it more powerful, a more clarifying imperative and perspective, than is the flawed actual.]

* * *

[So, re. the suggestion by Sandel (see above) that we must include religious viewpoints in our quest for morality and social justice: Harris is a leading proponent of atheism, and of course his philosophy is important in his discussion of science and morality. He views religious beliefs and institutions as opponents to clarifying values and achieving a more moral and just world. Religions [IMHO certainly the 3 Middle Eastern, desert-mountain* religions that dominate American religious faith and conversation] promote belief in supposed facts, from revealed truths, that are not consistent with—and even militate against—the evidence and conclusions offered by science; and worse, they militate against future scientific discoveries that would enhance human well-being. Furthermore, actions by members and institutions of these religions often are abominable. From Harris’ point of view, after all, to include that kind of religious point of view in our national dialogue about morality is like [my analogy] Fox News including Daumer in a discussion of whether murderous cannibalism is moral, so as to get a fair and balanced discussion (fair and balanced is moral, isn’t it?). And, in fact, psychopaths do reason. However, IMHO, in order to make progress we must include open-minded persons with religious views in the dialogue (especially if, alas, only 3% of Americans are atheists—perhaps “open-minded” helps balance the numbers).

*I suspect that such features of Earth are the main historic determinants of religious experiences and beliefs.]

Other Topics:  99%OCCUPYnutshellnonviolentpowerhistorymisogynyracismmoneywealth gap 1wealth gap 2republican partynamescapitalismfascismother ismspathologiessocial justice 1social justice 2social justice 3soulbody and soulthingsanarchyactionsbtwbib

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