Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sam Harris: Well-Being vs. Desire Fulfillment

Author's Note: I originally wrote this posting using the phrase "human flourishing". In fact, Harris' specific phrase is "well-being of conscious creatures." This article has been rewritten to use the more accurate characterization.

This is the second post I am writing in response for a request for comments on a talk that Sam Harris gave at TED (Technology, Education, and Design).

See: Atheist Ethicist: Sam Harris: Science and Morality

Harris' talk was on the relationship between science and morality. In my previous post, I reported that I agreed with Harris that science can reveal moral facts. However, I disagreed with Harris' argument for this proposition. Harris simply asserted that as a matter of clear an dobjective fact some states are better than others.

I argued that if 'ought' has any influence at all on the motion of matter through space then it had better be something found in the world of fact. If it had no influence on the motion of matter through space then it is probably fiction or, at best, unknowable and irrelevant.

However, I expressed disagreement with what Harris said has value. Harris asserted that morality is concerned exclusively with "the well-being of conscious creatures", and with the nature of conscious experience. I asserted that value in general, and moral value in specific, is concerned with much more than that.

To answer Harris I want to begin with a competing hypothesis, then show that it is better than Harris' theory because we can do a lot more with it. It is part of a theory that explains and helps our understanding not only of value, but of intentional actions as well.

That other theory says that our brains are programmed with two types propositional attitudes. Propositional attitudes are, surprisingly enough, attitudes towards a proposition. Our two core types of propositional attitudes are beliefs and desires. A belief that P (for some proposition P) is an attitude that P is true. A desire that P (for some proposition P) is a reason to act so as to realize a state of affairs in which P is true. It is an attitude of wanting or seeking to make P true.

There is no reason to believe that there is any more of a limit to what we can desire than there is a limit to what we can believe. If a person can believe that P, then he can desire that P, for any P. This includes propositions that are false and can never be made true. A person can believe that he is serving God, and can have a desire that he serve God, even though there is no God, or a desire to travel back in time, even where time travel is impossible.

From here, I can better explain a statement that I made on my last post that raised a question - can value be concerned with something other than the well-being of conscious creatures?

I said that well-being is one of the things we can be concerned with, but that there are other things we can be concerned with as well. With multiple interests, there may well be cases in which we trade off some well-being in order to acquire some other good.

If what I have said above is correct, then any proposition that can be imagined can identify a state of affairs that can be of value to an agent. An agent can desire that the Sun will burn forever and wish for the return of the dinosaurs. He can want a milk shake, even though it is not good for him, and have an aversion to broccoli that is out of all proportion to broccoli's contribution to well-being.

Please note that I am not yet offering anything in defense of the theory. I am simply placing the two ideas side by side in order to expose how they are different. One difference is in what each theory identifies as the set of states of affairs that can have value. I will have more to say later as to why I hold one theory is better than the other.

However, as it relates to my comment about well-being, if any proposition that can be imagined can be the object of a desire (have value), this has two important implications for the value of the well-being of conscious creatures.

Either the concept of 'well-being' has to be so broad that it encompases every proposition that can be imagined, or it must be the case that we have the capacity to value things that do not count as the well-being of conscious creatures.

The former would take the concept of well-being of conscious creatures to the breaking point - particularly since a substantial number of propositions that can be imagined have nothing to do with conscious creatures at all, let alone the well-being of conscious creatures. Thus, my claim that we value things other than the well-being of conscious creatures and can sometimes trade the well-being of conscius creatures for the sake of some other value.

We can, for example, have a chocolate shake, even when it contributes nothing to - and even subtracts a little from - the well-being of conscious creatures. We can pursue a piece of scientific understanding that has little or no chance of ever having any practical application.

One immediate response to this would be to say, "Alonzo, you idiot! Harris was not talking about likes and dislikes. He was talking about moral value - things we ought to like and dislike."

However, moral value is going to depend on what the best theory is as to how it can be the case that a state of affairs can have value. How is it that a set of molecules can organize themselves into one pattern that is 'better' than another? The answer to this question is going to have to come prior to any type of moral theory.

Harris does not even pretend to answer the question of how molecules can organize themselves so that a state of affairs can have value. Desirism provides an answer. However, this answer suggests that a wide array of arrangements of molecules can have value, not just 'the well-being of conscious creatures'. It allows for the possibility of finding value in things that have nothing to do with the well-being of conscious creatures.

In my next post, I will say a few things about how this is done.


Anonymous said...

I'm hoping Sam Harris will get notified of your responses once they are finished. I really like that he's raising awareness of objective morality, but he needs to put some more thought into it.

Kevin said...

I don't see how your milkshake example works. Our experiences contribute to our happiness/well being and the sum of well being of society. I would contend that one chocolate milkshake annually would increase well being if they enjoy it (If humans didn't value it, then no one would drink them)(with no detraction from society that I can see), but if it were a (bi)daily occurrence, then it would detract from total well-being (by weight gain, increase the chance of obesity related diseases, undue strain on the health care system, etc.). I don't see why you think a single milkshake is going to detract from societal well being and in the second case then it would not be included under societal well being.

There are many examples of things that are beneficial when used moderately, but harmful when abused. Also there may be many things that are neutral to well being, it would only result in a different peak of the same height and would be indifferent in Harris's view. I don't see how this is any way at odds with what Harris said.

I think he addressed your point in the Q&A about how someone can desire to do something that is actually harmful, and in that case, we need to look at well-being in a larger context.

Silver Bullet said...

Being quite familiar with Harris' work, I would suggest that you might need to replace "human flourishing" with the "flourishing of conscious entities or animals", if you want to really address his ideas on morality.

I think that he has been clear that his is not a human species specific proposition.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The points made by commenters about human flourishing are accurate.

I was responding to a set of emails I received asking for my opinion on Harris' talk. Those emails put the argument in terms of "human flourishing", and I kept the term - since they actually make no difference to the argument.

But it is not, strictly speaking, what Harris spoke about. Harris' phrase was "the well-being of conscious creatures."

I'll rewrite the arguments with this substitution.