Sam Harris: not a utilitarian

Utilitarianism, prioritarianism and other varieties of consequentialism.
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Arepo
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Sam Harris: not a utilitarian

Post by Arepo » Fri Oct 22, 2010 4:44 pm

Just in case you were wondering ;)
New Scientist: So what is "right" is whatever maximises the well-being of conscious creatures? How is that different from utilitarianism?

Harris: People often criticise utilitarianism because any narrow concern for utility, pleasure or short-term happiness fails to capture everything that is important to us in life. We are also concerned about things like truth, justice, fairness, intellectual pleasure, courage, creativity and having a clear conscience. I believe, however, that the notion of well-being can capture all of these things.

In my book I argue that we can view all possible experience on a kind of landscape, where peaks correspond to the heights of well-being and the valleys correspond to the lowest depths of suffering. The first thing to notice is that there may be many equivalent peaks on this landscape - there may be many different ways for people to thrive. But there will be many more ways not to thrive.
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg2 ... pheap.html
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Re: Sam Harris: not a utilitarian

Post by DanielLC » Fri Oct 22, 2010 8:47 pm

I'm confused. It sounds to me like he's a utilitarian. He never admitted or denied it in that quote, but he never said anything about rights, duties, or values, so it seems like he'd have to be a consequentialist.
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Re: Sam Harris: not a utilitarian

Post by Ubuntu » Mon Oct 25, 2010 7:39 pm

Who said anything about short term happiness?

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Re: Sam Harris: not a utilitarian

Post by RyanCarey » Tue Oct 26, 2010 7:02 am

Yeah, I've read that interview and it doesn't sway me from my initial position - that he is a utilitarian.

My reading of your quote is "justice, fairness and creativity are states that are generally conducive to wellbeing.", which is something so boringly utilitarian that I could've said it! I didn't find a line of The Moral Landscape to be inconsistent with utilitarianism, whereas there were plenty that carried heavily utilitarian connotation. Here are a few:

e.g.
Sam Harris wrote:Let us begin with the fact of consciousness: I think we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What is the alternative? I invite you to try to think of a source of value that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings. Take a moment to think about what this would entail: whatever this alternative is, it cannot affect the experience of any creature (in this life or in any other). Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is—it would seem, by definition—the least interesting thing in the universe.

So how much time should we spend worrying about such a transcendent source of value? I think the time I will spend typing this sentence is already too much. All other notions of value will bear some relationship to the actual or potential experience of conscious beings.
Sam Harris wrote:Much of the skepticism I encounter when speaking about these issues comes from people who think “happiness” is a superficial state of mind and that there are far more important things in life than “being happy.” Some readers may think that concepts like “well-being” and “flourishing” are similarly effete. However, I don’t know of any better terms with which to signify the most positive states of being to which we can aspire.

...

Some of what psychologists have learned about human well-being confirms what everyone already knows: people tend to be happier if they have good friends, basic control over their lives, and enough money to meet their needs. Loneliness, helplessness, and poverty are not recommended. We did not need science to tell us this.
But the best of this research also reveals that our intuitions about happiness are often quite wrong. For instance, most of us feel that having more choices available to us—when seeking a mate, choosing a career, shopping for a new stove, etc.—is always desirable. But while having some choice is generally good, it seems that having too many options tends to undermine our feelings of satisfaction, no matter which option we choose.

...

It is useful to know that what we think will matter often matters much less than we think. Conversely, things we consider trivial can actually impact our lives greatly.
Sam Harris wrote:if evil turned out to be as reliable a path to happiness as goodness is, my argument about the moral landscape would still stand, as would the likely utility of neuroscience for investigating it. It would no longer be an especially “moral” landscape; rather it would be a continuum of well-being, upon which saints and sinners would occupy equivalent peaks.
At the very worst, you could call The Moral Landscape a text of 'popular utilitarianism', allowing you to distinguish it from the writings of RM Hare and Peter Singer. Still, even this seems unnecessary. For god's sake, you'll find greater deviations from the principles of utilitarianism in John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, than here.

That's my two cents.
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Re: Sam Harris: not a utilitarian

Post by ihanna » Fri Jun 08, 2012 11:35 am

Arepo wrote:Just in case you were wondering ;)
New Scientist: So what is "right" is whatever maximises the well-being of conscious creatures? How is that different from utilitarianism?

Harris: People often criticise utilitarianism because any narrow concern for utility, pleasure or short-term happiness fails to capture everything that is important to us in life. We are also concerned about things like truth, justice, fairness, intellectual pleasure, courage, creativity and having a clear conscience. I believe, however, that the notion of well-being can capture all of these things.

In my book I argue that we can view all possible experience on a kind of landscape, where peaks correspond to the heights of well-being and the valleys correspond to the lowest depths of suffering. The first thing to notice is that there may be many equivalent peaks on this landscape - there may be many different ways for people to thrive. But there will be many more ways not to thrive.
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg2 ... pheap.html


Such a nice posts, can you elaborate more? I want to know more cause I'm a little bit confused. Thanks in advance! :)
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Re: Sam Harris: not a utilitarian

Post by Brian Tomasik » Sat Jun 09, 2012 4:51 am

ihanna wrote: Such a nice posts, can you elaborate more? I want to know more cause I'm a little bit confused. Thanks in advance! :)
Do we keep spambot posts if they're polite and flattering? :)

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Re: Sam Harris: not a utilitarian

Post by Arepo » Mon Jun 11, 2012 10:39 am

Tempting, but if they keep editing stuff in later to tell us how to enlarge our penises I'm less keen...
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Re: Sam Harris: not a utilitarian

Post by rehoot » Tue Jun 12, 2012 9:34 pm

RyanCarey wrote:you could call The Moral Landscape a text of 'popular utilitarianism',
yes. I read The Moral Landscape and saw some of his videos. He has some interesting ideas, but he seem to lack understanding of criticism of his type of argumentation. In one of his videos, he asked if scientists really have no comment on the difference between Ted Bundy (serial killer) and the Dali Lama (allegedly the reincarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion). I can tell you want a scientist can say: Bundy killed and raped many people, and the Dali Lama didn't. A scientist can count the percentage of people who dislike Bundy or count the percentage of people who prefer not to be killed or who prefer to follow a rule of not killing anybody. These might be legitimate grounds to form a morality, but it does not mean that there is an underlying objective moral principle that exists in the natural world as Harris seems to imply.

One thing that I noted in his book is his frequent focus on Islam. It sounds like he is saying that there is an objective, scientific basis for stopping Sharia law. His arguments appeal to Americans who fail to recognize their own culture as relativistic. Here is my counterexample: In some Islamic countries, women must cover their faces. In most places in the U.S., women must cover their boobs. The core reasoning for both is quite similar (men will be excited and therefore it is the woman's fault). Many Americans think that it is absolutely insane to make women cover their faces but think that it is absolutely necessary to make them cover their boobs in public (unless they are on a movie screen showing their boobs to millions of people). There is no objective, scientific basis for either cultural norm, so there is no basis to claim that one is objectively wrong while defending the other.

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Re: Sam Harris: not a utilitarian

Post by ReX » Sun Jun 24, 2012 12:53 pm

Breasts are secondary sex characterists that unlike say facial hair, also function as erogenous zones. Covering the face makes you anonymous, something illegal in some countries (except on Carnival), bypassing the religious influence. Granted, if women walked around with their breasts visisble in the West, it would take a while before a male looked at their face, but I fear that's also missing the point.

I don't think Sam Harris cares much either way, as long as you don't throw battery acid in people's face when they don't comply. Forcing women to do either one (be naked by enforing a media culture, or be covered and disempowering them thusly) won't get you in either peak. A peak would be where there's maximum well-being. Though he uses the word so broadly, he even uses is interchangeably with eudaimonia.

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Re: Sam Harris: not a utilitarian

Post by Michael Dickens » Thu Jun 28, 2012 9:36 pm

Sam Harris is definitely a utilitarian, although his understanding of utilitarianism appears to be excessively limited.

I think Sam Harris has the potential to do a lot of good if only he carries the theories in The Moral Landscape to their logical conclusion.

Harris claims that he was once a vegetarian, but then quit because he felt too unhealthy (I think the quote is somewhere in this video). It seems to directly follow from his position on ethics that we hold an ethical mandate not to use animal products the way we do. If he spent more time promoting this position and other utilitarian positions, he could do a lot of good considering the size of his audience.

I've thought about emailing Harris and telling him as much, but I doubt he reads emails. I wonder if he would be willing to write or speak about some truly-utilitarian topics. (He doesn't seem to shy away from contentious topics, but I haven't seen him address animal welfare at all.)

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Re: Sam Harris: not a utilitarian

Post by LJM1979 » Sun Jul 15, 2012 1:07 pm

MTGandP wrote:Sam Harris is definitely a utilitarian, although his understanding of utilitarianism appears to be excessively limited.

I think Sam Harris has the potential to do a lot of good if only he carries the theories in The Moral Landscape to their logical conclusion.

Harris claims that he was once a vegetarian, but then quit because he felt too unhealthy (I think the quote is somewhere in this video). It seems to directly follow from his position on ethics that we hold an ethical mandate not to use animal products the way we do. If he spent more time promoting this position and other utilitarian positions, he could do a lot of good considering the size of his audience.

I've thought about emailing Harris and telling him as much, but I doubt he reads emails. I wonder if he would be willing to write or speak about some truly-utilitarian topics. (He doesn't seem to shy away from contentious topics, but I haven't seen him address animal welfare at all.)
Well put. He has many outstanding ideas in The Moral Landscape. It's such a shame he doesn't take them to their logical conclusion though.

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Re: Sam Harris: not a utilitarian

Post by peterhurford » Fri Jul 20, 2012 8:03 am

LJM1979 wrote:Well put. He has many outstanding ideas in The Moral Landscape. It's such a shame he doesn't take them to their logical conclusion though.
Which conclusions do you see him as missing?

I definitely see him as missing a lot. I was really sad to hear of him abandoning veg*nism. And I don't imagine he donates much income.
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Re: Sam Harris: not a utilitarian

Post by LJM1979 » Fri Jul 20, 2012 10:47 am

peterhurford wrote:
LJM1979 wrote:Well put. He has many outstanding ideas in The Moral Landscape. It's such a shame he doesn't take them to their logical conclusion though.
Which conclusions do you see him as missing?

I definitely see him as missing a lot. I was really sad to hear of him abandoning veg*nism. And I don't imagine he donates much income.
It's been a while since I read the book but I think his speciesist thinking interfered with taking his ideas to their logical conclusions.

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