Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sam Harris TED talk about morality

I received this email from a reader:


I love the blog. I came across it when I googled the Atheist's Riddle, and have been following it closely since. If it interests you, I was raised Catholic, but upon going to university, and choosing the path of science and medicine, I realized just how stupid and limiting religion is! Your blog feeds me with all kinds of information, or evidence, that science is clearly the better choice.

I came across a clip that I think would interest you, and I would love to hear your opinion. In any case, this is great atheist propaganda:

Sam Harris: Science can answers moral questions"

I just watched the video, and I mostly agree with him.  As atheists, we may not believe in the concept of absolute/objective morality, but that doesn't mean we want no morality at all.  I don't want chaos.  I don't want to let all these psychos run around harming people and property, free of any consequence.  It is incredibly important that we define a human-made moral system and enforce it.

The question then becomes what to base this moral system on.  The religious argue that we should base the moral system on their religious books, even if those books endorse actions which lead to great human suffering.  Sam Harris, like myself, argues that we should base our morality on the well-being of people.  I'd also add that the well-being of higher animal life, ecosystems and the environment should be given high consideration.  These things lead to safe, healthy and happy people.

The problem is what has already been hinted at.  Not everybody agrees that safe, healthy and happy people (plus healthy planet) should be considered the basis for morality.  And that's why we're not going to get anywhere on the issue of defining a unified morality for all people.  Many people consider economic growth to be the best indicator of what is considered moral in regards to the environment.  Many people think the worst thing somebody can do is to insult their religion, and therefore must be killed.  Many people think that a small group of cells deserve the same rights as adult humans.  The list goes on, and on and on.

There is a similar ideological difference in political discussions with my coworker.  He is an American libertarian, and his basis for his political morality is that small government which does not interfere is the best for people.  I argue that safe, healthy and happy people should be the basis for what governments do and what they have control over.  I point to examples like Canada, Denmark, etc, which all have more social-leaning governments, and all have lower crime rates, longer average life-spans and happier people than the USA (ie. safer, healthier and happier people).  So how could he argue that policies which lead to less-safe, less-healthy and less-happy people could be a good thing?  Because his goal is not to make safe, healthy and happy people, it's for government to stay out of his way.


Magnamune said...

It's easy to simply say that morality should be based on what makes people happy and healthy, and, in a simple sense it works. Problems begin to occur when we get into questions such as: "Would you kill a loved-one to save 5 strangers? 10? 1000?" or "This country's views are detremental to the health and well-being of the rest of the world, should it be converted/destroyed?"

Should we try to make overall suffering less, despite the suffering of a few? In many cases, peole would like to say yes, until put in the position to decide.

Then of course there's the other end of the spectrum. If killing the majority will make the lives of the few greatly better, not to mention the environment, should the majority die? such a circumstance may be on the brink of a zombie apocolypse, it's determined that only 10% of the people are immune. Should the rest be killed before becoming zombies, or should they be allowed to live, knowing the have a high chance of becoming one?

My mind is currently reeling, so, while I think I made a point, I'm not sure if I did.

Jim said...

The answer is frustratingly simple. Spock said it best.

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Sometimes people have to make a decision that puts people in harms way in order to save others. During my time in Iraq, I have had to make decisions which put people in harms way in order to save innocent lives of people I didn't care about. Why? It was the right thing to do. I know there are people who cannot make that choice, and that is perfectly all right. It is not our morality that clouds those choices, it is our emotion. Once they are separated, the choices become very easy.

Should I sacrifice something or someone I love to save innocent lives? Yes. Is that going to be a hard thing to cope with emotionally and psychologically? Of course.

The morality is quite clear. Until you cloud that vision with emotion.

Should I kill someone to end their suffering? Well, yes. It is cruel and harsh to know that someone is or will be suffering and allow them to do so.

To use the zombie example, to save someone the inhuman and total living hell of becoming a zombie, you would have to kill them before they become one. And to kill them before they succumb to an existence which knows no end to suffering is proper. Not saying you should just start killing everyone to save them from their fate, but if that fate is unquestionably and without a doubt upon them, spare them that hell.

To reiterate, morality is crystal clear. Emotions cloud it.

Daniel said...

Thanks for the reply. It's funny how you were thinking about this very topic before I sent the link. It seems that you and Harris are on the same wavelength.

Magnamune said...

There are a two ethical viewpoints, concequentialism and deontology. The difference is basically: "Which is more important, the act, or the effect?"

You have a consequentialist viewpoint Jim. What happens as a result is more important then the act itself. I'm sure, though, that you'd agree that if the same result can occur in multiple ways, the way with least suffering would be best, depending on risk. Such as arresting the designer of the zombies before he spreads it, or sending in SWAT in a hostage situation, as opposed to just opening fire.

Also... who says being a zombie would be hell? Have you been a zombie? It may be like a constant orgasm. :P

Jim said...

I think it is pretty easy. The effect is vastly more important.

Dropping atomic weapons on Japan. Yes, it was a bad thing, but what resulted was much better overall. It saved potentially millions of lives and ended a war in days. To have that ability and not use it would have been more devastating.

To kill a love one to save a group of people. Yeah, it would suck for me, but more people would benefit from this action than suffer, so the overall balance shifts to doing it.

We can all agree that when it comes to making hard calls, the act of carrying out the hard call is the toughest part. But in retrospect, it is easy to see why it was done, and what benefits came from it.

Also, screw being a zombie. There's nothing to do but eat brains. I prefer to shoot them.

Admin said...

f terrorism can be defined as targeting civilians to further one's military or political goals, then dropping those bombs on Japan, as well as the firebombing of Tokyo, would be considered terrorism. The United States committed some of the worst acts of terrorism in history. Then today they bitch and whine about the fact that other countries might one day use nukes. It was all fine and dandy when they were the only country that had them, and they're the only country to ever use them,

Jim said...

Terrorism is defined as:

1. The use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes.
2. The state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization.
3. A terroristic method of governing or of resisting a government.

Since the bombs (along with thousands of other bombs from dozens of other countries) were used on civilian targets during a time of war, they can not be defined as terrorism. During WWII, England, German, the US, France, Italy, Russia, Japan, Spain, and every other country that dropped one single bomb that killed at least one civilian could then be considered a terrorist country if we expand the definition of terrorism to include military actions.

However, the definition does not apply to military operations.

It should also be noted that the United States is adamant about other countries not getting nuclear weapons for the simple fact that other countries have threatened to use them. Iran, for example has stated publicly that they would use nuclear weapons to "wipe Israel off the map". Not to mention the fact that Iran supports terrorist organizations who also threatened to use the nuclear weapons against western countries, to include most of Europe and the United States.

There are too many countries who simply can not control themselves enough, or be trusted enough, to posses nuclear weapons. The fact that the US has never used them, or even come close to using them, since 1945 shows that we have a certain level of control over them. This is also true for every other country which posses them. With North Korea now in possession, the whole game starts to change. Here is a country that has threatened to use them in a first-strike capacity. Something the rest of the nuclear capable countries have agreed to never do.

Would you consider Japan, Germany, or England to be terrorist countries? Each one of these countries has also attacked civilians who were unarmed for military purposes.

Admin said...

I don't know about terrorist countries, but yes, I consider what those countries did in their various wars to be acts of terrorism. They INTENTIONALLY targeted civilians, including children, to further their goals. The US atomic bombs not only killed those children in the cities at the time, but condemned future generations to birth defects associated with the radiation. I also consider the US defoliation bombing of Vietnamese jungles to be environmental terrorism (terrorism against the environment). How many animals, many of them endangered today, died painful deaths because of that? They had nothing to do with the conflict.

The bombings of all of these cities were acts of immaturity and cowardice by politicians too incompetent to solve their differences without marching their young people off to die.

I fail to see the difference between bombing a city with warplanes, and what Osama Bin Laden does. You might say the difference is that there was a war going on, but Western countries have been waging undeclared war against the Middle East for decades.

I do not see any reason why I should feel so bad for the NY terror victims and the UK bus bombing victims, when the bombing of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq gets merely a footnote in Western news coverage. Their deaths matter just as much as ours do, but nobody seems to care.

Magnamune said...

As far as I can tell, being an almost 3rd party, both sides are guilty of terrorism. The difference is what they hope to achieve in those terrorist acts. The US hopes to stop others from threatening thier values. The terrrorists hope to force others to follow their values. I support the US's decision to try and stop them, though they aren't really trying. With the technology available, the terrorists threatening the UK and US should have been destroyed/cowed a long time ago, but as near as I can tell, the US is too worried about being PC...

(BTW, I'm not particularly knowledgeable about this topic. Just going on the little information I have found.)

Admin said...

"The US hopes to stop others from threatening thier values. The terrrorists hope to force others to follow their values."

Forcing others to adopt their values? Isn't that EXACTLY what the US is doing in Iraq? Actually, they've used so many excuses that I don't know anymore. But I do remember a certain idiot saying that they were "bringing god's gift of freedom to the Iraqi people"

We're demonstrating the point exactly. We all have different ideas of what is moral and what isn't. Then these putzes come along who say they have the absolute answer, but strangely, they are the ones who repeatedly are making excuses for when it's OK to not follow that morality.

Jim said...

Don't blame us for George W Bush's actions. A lot of us here (the majority, in fact) did not want to go into Iraq. That fucktard made us. It was not the US invading Iraq, it was George W Bush's war machine. It was the Bible-thumping Republican conservative hillbillies that wanted a war. The civilized people wanted nothing to do with the country, seeing as how they wanted nothing to do with us.

Also, remember that the vast majority of civilian bombing deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are a result of their own people killing them in the name of Allah. They think that by carrying out suicide bombing missions they are going to heaven with their 72 virgins.

It should also be noted, that since the atomic bombs were dropped, the US has never intentionally targeted a civilian target. They only go after military targets. I think this goes for every civilized nation as well. Germany, who bombed the hell out of London and killed thousands of innocent people, even stopped. So did England, who did the same to Germany in retaliation.

Either way, with the invasion of Japan left as the only way for the US to end the war in the Pacific. And knowing that the Japanese never surrender if they can still fight, the US had a decision. Invade Japan, which would force them to use civilians as either shields or conscripts (thus resulting in possibly hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, possibly over a million deaths on both sides combined). Or use the atomic bomb, and potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives.

Considering Japan was willing to fight down to the last man, woman and child, the bombs ultimately saved untold thousands of innocent people from fighting and dying.

And they brought something else with them. Peace.

Yeah, I know there were wars after, but nothing in the scales of WWI or WWII. Not even close. Countries were so concerned with the threat of nuclear war, that many wars didn't get off the ground. And those that did were fought delicately. No one wanted or even dared to target civilians. No one tried to inflict mass casualties. No one tried to use sheer numbers and overwhelming force. Everyone was so afraid of what the nuclear weapons could do that they tried to keep war off the table, or civil as they could.

Admin said...

"Don't blame us for George W Bush's actions. A lot of us here (the majority, in fact) did not want to go into Iraq. That fucktard made us. It was not the US invading Iraq, it was George W Bush's war machine. It was the Bible-thumping Republican conservative hillbillies that wanted a war."

Unfortunately, I don't think this is correct. I believe the surveys said 70% or more wanted to invade Iraq. Look at what happened to dissenters like the Dixie Chicks.

"Considering Japan was willing to fight down to the last man, woman and child..."

No, they weren't. That is now clear.

"...the US had a decision. Invade Japan, which would force them to use civilians as either shields or conscripts (thus resulting in possibly hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, possibly over a million deaths on both sides combined). Or use the atomic bomb, and potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives."

You don't see a third option? Like, instead of keeping the bomb secret, a demonstration of its power for the Japanese? If they even considered Japanese to be human beings, they could have invited a representative to view a test. Or sent video to their leaders.

Have you ever been to the Hiroshima A-Bomb museum? Saddest place on Earth.

Admin said...

From Wikipedia:

May 2003

A Gallup poll made on behalf of CNN and the newspaper USA Today concluded that 79% of Americans thought the Iraq War was justified, with or without conclusive evidence of illegal weapons. 19% thought weapons were needed to justify the war.

Magnamune said...

That poll suggests that there were only a max of 2% who felt that even if there were weapons the war wouldn't be justified. Then of course there are those that just don't care.

As I said, I'm not up to speed on all this war in Iraq stuff. Nor could I really be bothered with it. I don't like that it's going on, but there's not a thing I can do about it.

the only reason I can find acceptable to go to war is when your country is threatened, in a meaningful way. Stopping the threat should be the goal, not conversion. If the country needs an idea to be planted to stop the threat (or to prevent it from re-occuring), then let that idea be planted. But there is a big difference between blanting an idea, and forcing one.

I don't blame the troops, it's not thier fault, but that doesn't mean I can't be angry at what they'll forced to do.

Jim said...

We were lied to. We were told there were WMD's in Iraq. As soon as it became clear that there weren't, we wanted out. And I think the mass protests around the world and in the US prove that a lot of people were against it.

"An August 2004 poll showed that two-thirds (67%) of the American public believe the U.S. went to war based on incorrect assumptions."

"Washington Post/ABC poll find that almost 60% of Americans think should not have been fought in the first place."

"Approximately 2 out of 3 respondents wanted the government to wait for the UN inspections to end, and only 31% supported using military force immediately."

The quote you pulled was immediately after the invasion (when everyone thought this war was going to be fast and easy). We had rolled in and taken over the country in five days. Everyone was excited. They thought we would grab Saddam and be home by the 4th of July. Of course public opinion was high. It always is in victory.

As for Japan, this is what they thought. Hindsight is 20/20. We may now know that wouldn't have fought so hard, but in August and September 1945, we didn't know that.

"Casualty predictions varied widely but were extremely high for both sides: depending on the degree to which Japanese civilians resisted the invasion, estimates ran into the millions for Allied casualties and tens of millions for Japanese casualties."

"In addition, the Japanese had organized the Patriotic Citizens Fighting Corps—which included all healthy men aged 15–60 and women 17–40, numbering 28 million—to perform combat support, and ultimately combat jobs. Weapons, training, and uniforms were generally lacking: some men were armed with nothing better than muzzle-loading muskets, longbows, or bamboo spears; nevertheless, they were expected to make do with what they had."

"One mobilized high school girl, Yukiko Kasai, found herself issued an awl and told, "Even killing one American soldier will do. … You must aim for the abdomen.""

Seems to me like they were ready to fight a long and hard battle. Imagine how Japan would look if Allied forces were forced to invade mainland Japan to end the war. Millions of casualties on both sides. Japan would barely exist today. And if you think a demonstration would have proved effective, remember that they didn't surrender after the first bomb landed on Hiroshima. That demonstration wasn't enough. There should have been no need to drop the second one if a demonstration was all they needed.

Again, with Iraq, it was George W. Bush and his magical bag of stupidity that tried to force democracy on the Iraqi people. Once he realized everyone knew he was wrong about the WMD's, he tried to sell us all the democracy bit. For the first year I was in Iraq we had several different missions.

-Take over Baghdad and capture Saddam.
-Oh, wait, get the WMD's too.
-They don't exist, let's get Saddam.
-We can't find him? Get his sons.
-Got them? Uh... Get Saddam.
-We got him? Awesome. Now what?
-Oh, just install a democratic government. Shouldn't be that hard...

Yeah, it's easy to blame the whole country for Iraq. But it was all Bush. He refused to listen to anyone who would tell him that Iraq posed no threat and had nothing to do with 9/11.

Admin said...

"And if you think a demonstration would have proved effective, remember that they didn't surrender after the first bomb landed on Hiroshima. That demonstration wasn't enough. There should have been no need to drop the second one if a demonstration was all they needed."

Perhaps they thought there was only 1 bomb. Perhaps they thought a lot of things. Did the US meet with their representatives after the first bomb to tell them more were coming?

There were a number of options available to at least ATTEMPT to save the lives of those people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It doesn't seem any of them were tried. The US, in all of its Christian morality, seemed to make very little attempt to save these people. At least if they had tried, we could give them credit for that. It was an act of pure terrorism, by today's standards.

Admin said...

As for the Iraq thing, this thread is about morality. Even if spirits were high in May 2003, the vast majority of Americans saw nothing morally wrong with the action at that time. It was only when they started getting their butts kicked that they decided it might not have been moral to invade. That is not how things should work, but it's what the surveys seem to show.

And to top it all off, and add insult to the world's injury, the majority of American voters re-elected George Bush in 2004, with approximately 1/3 of the eligible voters not even caring enough to roll off their couch and vote.

Sucks that you had to go to Iraq. Feel free to write about it here.

Jim said...

Here's the thing about Iraq. If you weren't living in the US at the time, it's hard to get a real grasp on how much we were lied to. Especially serving in the military. Sure, you can look at Wikipedia, or remember the world news, but it doesn't compare with being there. We were force-fed this story of Iraq and WMD's and their links to Al Qaeda and 9/11. Everywhere you turned there were stories about how the world is close to nuclear threat from a rogue nation. And our elected officials were the ones telling us this. And they fed on our anger over 9/11. They new we were chomping at the bit to get revenge. And they gave us Iraq as a target.

But when I was stuck in that dessert, and there was no threat anywhere, it was obvious we had been lied to. And where I was there was no TV, no radio, no newspaper, nothing. There was no way for us to know what the civilian population knew about what was going on. And when we got home, it was to a nation divided. The liberals were angry about the war. The conservatives were happy. The soldiers were split too. We had caught Saddam, but found no WMD's.

A lot of people were fed up with Bush. Myself included. But in the military, I was alone in this opinion. To be in the military and against war is a ridiculous notion for a lot of people. So Bush got re-elected by war-happy conservatives and the military who liked to do what they do best.

It was very wrong. He should have never been re-elected. But there you have it. He was re-elected by the ignorant populace. He was elected by trigger-happy nut-jobs.

A lot of people were against the war, but public opinion at the time was 'against the war, against the troops'. Which is not true at all. It stems from guys coming home from Vietnam. They were involved in a very unpopular war, and as a result, hated when they returned. In hindsight, the country was shocked and appalled at how they treated their veterans. So the country decided that, while Vietnam was wrong, the troops weren't. Skip ahead to Iraq, where the conservatives feed the public the underhand message that to support the troops, you HAD to support their cause. Which is a load of shit. And no one wanted to look like they were against the troops. Cut to several years later, after Bush was re-elected, and people started to realize that it was okay to be against the war, but for the troops.

It was very shady. And people fell for it. I hate to quote Hitler here, but it fits:

"The great masses of the people will more easily fall victims to a big lie than to a small one."

And that is just what Bush did.

Jim said...

The Japanese people were told that there would be attacks on them even before the first bomb fell. They knew what was coming.

They were given chances to surrender before the first and second bombs fell, but did not.

They attacked, without cause or provocation, several countries, including China and the US. They enslaved Chinese citizens. They were ruthless in their treatment of POW's. And they had amassed a citizen army, threatening the fatalities of millions of people. The bombs, while horrible in their destruction, saved millions of lives, and months, if not years, of war.

Admin said...

I lived in the US from August 2000 to May 2002. So I did get fed a lot of the propaganda, too.

The issue I'm trying to get at with Japan is this: What is the difference between the US dropping bombs on Japan to achieve their goals, and Al Qaeda bombing civilians for their goals?

I know the Japanese bombing was part of a war, and may have been the least undesirable option among many undesirable options. But what I resent is for our countries to then turn around and condemn "terrorist groups" for what they are doing. It's fundamentally the same thing. They don't have smart bombs and cruise missiles. They're doing what they can with what they have to wage their war.

Admin said...

The point being that we'd do the same thing if we had to. we know that, because we have. when we didn't have smart bombs, we targeted entire cities.

and if these "terrorist groups" think they are saving lives in the long run (ie. stopping Western powers from bombing them, etc), then they are just as justified as we were back then.

So which is it?

ANTZILLA said...

I'm of the opinion that everyone outside of USA knew that the war in Iraq and Afgainistan was for US maintaining a monopoly on the oil interests.

Muslim terrorists, threats of WMD just played into the christian governments propaganda machine.

Jim said...

The difference between 9/11 and the dropping of the atomic bombs is pretty clear. We dropped them to end the war and save lives.

Terrorists ran two planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to start a war and kill people. They were trying to cause anarchy and hatred. They wanted to piss us off. They wanted a war.

And living in the US during that time, you must have seen the steaming pile of shit the conservatives and religious leaders were feeding Americans about how God wanted us to invade Iraq. Bush even said that God told him to invade Iraq.

phreedm said...

So in short, there really is no such thing as "human rights".

Morality simply becomes a byproduct of a democratic rule.