Friday, April 16, 2010

Sam Harris: Health and Well-Being

I am writing this series in response to requests for my opinion on Sam Harris' argument, two of which expressed the argument in terms of "human flourishing". Actually, the term that Harris officially uses is, "the well-being of conscious creatures".

This change does not effect any of the arguments that I have written. None of them turn on a difference between "well-being" and "flourishing", nor on the difference between "humans" and "conscious beings".

It is still the case that if morality has any influence on the motion of physical objects through space/time (including intentional human actions) then it is something that we should be able to study scientifically, and if it has no relevance to the motion of physical bodies through space/time then, at least for all practical purposes, it should be put into the realm of fiction.

It is still the case that the scope of human desires is as broad as the scope of human beliefs. Consequently, we would have to expand the scope of "well-being of conscious creatures" to cover all possible propositions capable of being believed - even those in which conscious beings are not even mentioned.

It is still the case that to the degree that well-being is ill-defined it creates a theory that cannot be criticized because it can morph itself around any objection. However, it has this power because it does not say anything.

And it is still the case that well-being is not only good but necessarily good, and is not necssarily incompatible with desirism. That is to say, value can consist on relationships between states of affairs and desires as the theory of desirism claims, and it can be the case that "well-being of conscious creatures" is the only thing that is desired. In this case, it would be the only thing that has value.

Desirism gives us a way of more narrowly defining the phrase, "well-being of conscious beings". With this more precise understanding we should be able to do a better job of determining whether conscious beings are well-off or not. This theory will be consistent with the claims that well-being is necessarily good. However, it will not be consistent with the claim that the well-being of conscious creatures is the sole end of morality.

The Concept of Health

I am going to start this analysis by looking at the concept of health. The properties of well-being that I am interested in are also found in the concept of health.

Health is good in the same way that circles are round and bachelors are unmarried. It is built into the very definition of the word that it is not to be used to refer to something that people have no reason to realize. If a particular physical or mental sate does not qualify as a state that people generally have reason to obtain - that people only have reason to avoid - then we are not going to say that people with those states are healthy. Instead, we are going to use a term that means a physical or mental state that people generally have reason to avoid - namely, 'illness' or 'injury'.

Now, I am going to mix this concept of health with the desirist concept of value to see what we come up with.

Recall, beliefs and desires are propositional attitudes. A "belief that P" is the attitude that P is true - that P accurately describes the world. A "desire that P" is a motivating state - a 'reason for action that exists' - to realize a state in which P is true. The set to P identifying what agents are capable of desiring is as vast as the set of P identifying what agents are capable of believing. However, no desire is fulfilled except by realizing a state in which P is true.

Health is a state of physical or mental functioning that is necessarily good, and value is a relationship between states of affairs and desires. From this, we draw the conclusion that good health is mental or physical functioning that tends to fulfill desires, whereas illnesses and injuries are forms of mental or physical functioning that tend to thwart desires. The former gives people reason to pursue health, while the latter gives them reason to avoid a state of being injured or ill.

There are two ways in which a mental or physical functioning state can thwart desires. It can be a state that a person can have a direct aversion to - such as a state of being in pain. Or it can be a state the reduces the capacity of a person to perform actions that would otherwise fulfill his desires - such as paralysis, muscle weakness, blindness, deafness, forgetfulness, an inability to think or reason clearly, or delusions. These are all bad because they tend to thwart desires or, at best, deprive a person of the ability to fulfill desires hat most people have.

Now, desirism has given us an indication of what health, illness, and injury are. They have shown us that health is necessarily good while illness and injury are necessarily bad. This means that the term 'health' is to be applied to the functioning of they body and mind that people have reason to pursue, while"illness" and "injury" apply to states that people have reason to avoid. This, in turn, implies that the former are states that tend to fulfill or empower the agent to fulfill its desires, while the latter are states that tend to thwart, directly (pain) or indirectly (incapacity) the agent's desires.

However, none of these properties give us the ability to infer that health is the one sole legitimate concern of all intentional action. We cannot use this to infer that people should choose what to eat based solely on the health-effects of the food, considering taste only where the health effects are identical. It does not support the conclusion that health alone should be the only thing an agent considers when deciding to engage in a passionate kiss, or to have sex, or to go sky-diving, or to visit exotic lands.

Well-being

Everything I have said above about health applies to well-being. Well-being is necessarily good. It is a part of the very definition of the term that we will only apply it to states that people have reason to pursue. In fact, we can see this is true for well-being even more than with health, since the value-term 'well' is a part of the term itself.

So, the question is never, "Is well-being good?" The questions to be answered are, "Is a particular state a state of well-being?" and "Is well-being the only legitimate good?"

Applying desirism, we begin with the proposition that a state of well-being is a state that people have reason to bring about. The only reasons for action that exist are desires. So, a state of well-being is a state that is such as to fulfill desires, directly or indirectly. That is to say, it is a state in which the propositions that identify the objects of a person's desires are true, or a state that empowers an individual to make the propositions that are the objects of his desires true. To the degree that a person is in such a state, to that degree that person is doing well.

However, in the same way that health statements are limited to statements about physical and mental functioning, well-being statements are limited to statements about intentional agents. A statement about well-being, like a statement about health, identifies only a subset of the things that a person can have an interest in. Just as people can be interested in more than their physical and mental functioning, they can have an interest in more than the states of conscious beings.

Just as we can have beliefs (P) that have nothing to do with conscious beings, we can have desires (we can value things) that have nothing to do with conscious creatures. Unless one wants to invent some sort of magical, mystical entity that states with conscious beings have that other states do not have, then values that do not concern conscious beings stand on the same foundation as propositions about conscious beings.

Note: Using this analysis, we can explain why health is a component of well-being; because propositions concerning the mental and physical functioning of conscious creatures are, necessarily, propositions concerning conscious creatures. Yet, just as health is a subset of well-being, well-being is a subset of all value.

None of what is true of well-being gives us the ability to infer that the well-being of conscious creatures (as with health) is the one sole legitimate concern of all intentional action. We cannot use this to infer that people should choose what to eat based solely on its effects on the well-being of conscious creatures without regard to taste. Or imagine telling your significant other that the sole reason you had sex, or brought her a present, has nothing to do with her, but that you are thinking only about the well-being of conscious creatures.

Granted, making the world a better place than it would have otherwise been means making or keeping true those propositions that are about the states of conscious creatures that fulfill desires that, in turn, tend to fulfill other desires. But it is about making those other propositions true as well - propositions that have nothing to do with the states of conscious creatures. There is no legitimate reason to pick just a subset of our possible desires and say, "Those are the only ones that count. These have a property of 'ought-not-to-be-consideredness' while those over there have a property of 'ought-not-to-be-consideredness'. Not unless you can give evidence that such properties are real.

Remember, I agree with Harris that there are moral facts. However, these moral facts are not facts about the well-being of conscious creatures. They are facts about the relationships between malleable desires (capable of being molded through social practices) and the fulfillment of other desires.

4 comments:

josef said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kip said...

Good post, Alonzo.

Mark Sloan said...

Alonzo, we are in agreement that morality can be understood as part of science. But it seems to me that your assertion “They (moral facts) are facts about the relationships between malleable desires (capable of being molded through social practices) and the fulfillment of other desires” is in the end no more provisionally ‘true’ as part of science than Harris’ assertion that “moral facts are about the well-being of conscious creatures”.

I don’t see how you can make such a claim without defining the criteria are you using to show that this is a superior hypothesis to all others. It seems to me your logic relies, much as Harris’ does, on common intuitions about morality which are far from objective.

Peer reviewed science (in the field of evolutionary morality and cultural evolution) is converging on a very different view of what moral behavior ‘is’. In those fields, the observation would be uncontroversial that “Almost all moral behaviors increase, on average, the synergistic benefits of cooperation and are unselfish in at least the short term.”

But what is the support for this observation being provisionally ‘true’ or ‘false’ as a matter of science? That is being provided by showing that this hypothesis meets normal criteria for scientific utility better than all other competing hypothesis, specifically: 1) explanatory power for the diversity and contradictions of moral behaviors and cultural moral standards, 2) explanatory power for puzzles about moral behaviors and moral intuitions (as why people’s moral intuitions and actions are often not strictly utilitarian), 3) predictive power for moral intuitions, 4) universality, 5) lack of contradictions with known facts, and so forth.

Of course, science can tell us nothing about what moral behavior ‘ought’ to be. Nor can science provide any source of justificatory force, beyond enlightened self interest, for accepting the burdens of such a morality.

Much to my frustration, I cannot point you to a single paper that lays out all the above argument. The argument’s details and examples are scattered far and wide in the literature.

But my own efforts lead me to believe that 1) accepting the burdens of the implied definition of the above morality is arguably in the enlightened self interest of practitioners even in specific instances when they expect the results to be against their self interests and 2) philosophical definitions of moral behavior (all forms of utilitarianism, Kantianism, and so forth) are not remotely competitive with the above hypothesis about moral behavior in terms of being provisionally ‘true’ as a matter of science.

Have I misunderstood you? If you are proposing “They (moral facts) are facts about the relationships between malleable desires …” should be a recognized part of science, then what criteria are you using to show that this is a superior hypothesis to all others?

rvkevin said...

"Just as we can have beliefs (P) that have nothing to do with conscious beings, we can have desires (we can value things) that have nothing to do with conscious creatures."

And why do you have desires for such things? Because you, a conscious being, think that you or others will receive utility from fulfilling that desire. Why is it any different to say I want to fulfill a certain state because I desire it as opposed to it will bring utility?

I think desirism is equally fuzzy when talking about it applicable use. What if you walk by a person dying, and physical limitations of the environment prevent anything to be done to save him? Is that morally wrong? The person has a strong desire to help others, the victim has a strong desire to be helped and the strong desire to live, both want the state of him being saved to be fulfilled, yet they are doomed to not fulfill such a state. What aversion to desires am I missing here?

"Unless one wants to invent some sort of magical, mystical entity that states with conscious beings have that other states do not have, then values that do not concern conscious beings stand on the same foundation as propositions about conscious beings."

I'm curious what these values between unconscious beings are. Any examples? To say that my glasses have value is only because I, a conscious being, benefit from them, it enables me to see things more efficiently. To increase the utility of one being (while not effecting anyone else), is to increase the sum of utility among all beings; so these values concerning unconscious objects regarding conscious beings are directly related to what Sam Harris is talking about. What is the problem in saying that unconscious objects effect the well-being of conscious beings?