Morality, Health and Sam Harris

9 02 2011

There’s a lot to like about Sam Harris‘ views on morality. In fact, I suspect that even his most vocal critics agree with him on a vast majority of what he has to say. His advocacy for a scientific engagement with morality is warmly welcome, as is his commitment to go beyond the old God versus no-God debate to suggest a positive agenda to build a secular morality devoid of supernatural meddling.

But there’s one sticking point  – one to which Harris continues to apply glue – and one against which people like myself and Russell Blackford continue to rebound. That is Harris’ commitment that science can describe morality all the way down.

Harris suggests that science doesn’t stop at the descriptive waters edge, but that it extends as far as being able to establish our fundamental values. His brand of bald naturalistic realism is not only extreme but, in my opinion, overshoots his objective. And in doing so receives criticism that distracts from the merits of his view.

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The Problem with Revolutions

3 02 2011

We’re all holding our breath watching the events in Egypt unfold. Many commentators are ebullient. Some are more cautious. In fact, I think Mark Colvin makes an important point about the dangers of revolution, and how quickly the unity in deposing a despot can turn into fractious in-fighting to fill the political vacuum.

United a group may be in their opposition of something, but that doesn’t say much about what they do stand for. Those holding hands today might be wielding clubs tomorrow.

Furthermore, it is precisely in times of instability and unrest – such as those immediately following a revolution – when people are more inclined to turn to a strong authoritarian leader to keep the peace. It’s precisely when people feel the most threatened, either bodily or in a more abstract sense by feelings of uncertainty about the future, that people lean to the right.

And it’s precisely when a nation is undergoing unrest, with multiple political ‘tribes’ vying for power, that trust in ones’ fellow citizens is eroded – “I don’t know whether that person is part of my tribe or the other.”

This kind of tribal mentality is devastatingly destructive to democracy, where trust in your state and trust in other citizens is paramount to making democracy a success. Democracy only works when I’m confident that if the ‘other tribe’ get elected and take power, they’re not going to embark on a pogrom targeted against myself and my ‘tribe.’ It’s this distrust in the system that spelt doom for democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In situations like this the trust required for bottom-up democracy is so lacking that a strong top-down authoritarian government is virtually required to keep the peace. However, top-down governments are only good for keeping the peace or defending against invaders. Oh, and they’re good at being corrupt, at entrenching power, at embezzling the nation’s wealth and taking the nation straight back to where it was prior to the revolution.

Democracy is remarkable not because it’s inevitable, but because it’s so difficult to get off the ground. It often takes a unified vision, a population with a largely similar culture and value system, and a stable environment in terms of economic prospects and absence of threat from invaders.

If a state can satisfy all those conditions, and if the people genuinely want democracy – which means they buy in to a system where they might vote for their entire lives and never see their candidate in power – then democracy can flourish. And once established, it’s hard to shake.

Egypt might yet become such a democracy. I’m not conversant enough in recent Egyptian history or ethnography to say whether it does satisfy all these conditions, but I think it stands a chance. The recent restraint shown by the military, and the apparent lack of military ambitions to take over from Mubarak, are positive indications.

But, while the protests underway in Egypt this week are exhilarating  – and cause for optimism for a brighter, more open, more inclusive, more democratic Egypt – we should be mindful of the lessons of history and of political psychology and hope that authoritarianism doesn’t block out the sunlight before democracy has a chance to grow.





Sam Harris Doesn’t Get Morality

17 01 2011

It’s all in Russell Blackford’s illuminating and comprehensive review of Sam Harris’ latest book, The Moral Landscape.

Harris’ big mistake is his utter contempt for metaethics. Now, I’m on record as stating that doing metaethics is a dreadful way to spend one’s time. And so is doing your tax. But, sadly, there are few metaethicists who bill by the hour to whom one can outsource one’s metaethical labours.

Harris’ broader project – one to which I’m sympathetic – is done a disservice by his refusal to engage with moral philosophy and metaethics, at least beyond engaging to the point of skimming the surface and dismissing it out of hand (although one could claim I’m doing the same with Harris’ work – but hey, if I’m wrong, someone’ll tell me – it’s the internet, after all).

Metaethics has a propensity to get bogged down in minutia, and to argue around in circles about questions of arguable import. But the very difficulty of meteathics is suggestive that morality is a more complicated phenomenon to understand that it appears at first blush. Harris would do well to pause to listen to philosophers before disagreeing with them. In fact, some philosophers, such as Blackford, are trying to help advance Harris’ programme.

Ultimately, as Russell says, Harris’ book will be a Good Thing because it’ll advance the discussion about morality. Even if Harris’ work is flawed, he makes some good points, particularly about encouraging a productive engagement between philosophy and science when it comes to morality. Hear hear.

Hopefully, The Moral Landscape, will inspire a second generation of books that respond and build on Harris’ ideas. Blackford has suggested he might pen one himself (go for it man!). What does seem clear is that we’re emerging, slowly, from the miasma of 20th century metaethical debate, and we’re gaining momentum towards developing a robust, functional and empirically-aware secular moral framework. And that is possibly one of the most important things humans can work on right now.





What WikiLeaks is About (Hint: It’s Not About Exposing Individual Wrongdoing)

2 12 2010

It seems my previous post may have been made in haste. After reading this enlightening post on Zunguzungu about Julian Assange’s philosophy, it’s now clear that his intention isn’t just to provide a medium by which whistleblowers can expose individual cases of wrongdoing, he’s instead attempting to alter the communication and secrecy landscape entirely, thus eroding the very possibility of what he calls ‘conspiracy’.

Where details are known as to the inner workings of authoritarian regimes, we see conspiratorial interactions among the political elite not merely for preferment or favor within the regime but as the primary planning methodology behind maintaining or strengthening authoritarian power.

Authoritarian regimes give rise to forces which oppose them by pushing against the individual and collective will to freedom, truth and self realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers. This is enough to define their behavior as conspiratorial.

His idea is to basically remove the capability of ‘conspirators’ to be able to communicate effectively and in secret, thus removing their ability to conspire. The leaks also turn the organisation on itself and fosters paranoia, thus further reducing its ability to ‘conspire’.

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption. Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

This is a kind of assymetric information war that could only be fought in the internet age. And, in a way, it was probably inevitable – remember Stuart Brand’s “information wants to be free”, meaning not that information ought to be made freely available, but that the cost of distribution is so low that it becomes harder and harder to keep it from moving around.

I find Assange’s essay compelling, but I still have concerns. They centre around trust:

How do we know we can trust Assange and WikiLeaks?

For the time being, I think we can. But the very lack of transparency in its own workings – by Assange’s own theory – make it ripe for descending into a conspiracy of its own.

Yet opening up WikiLeaks would likely cause it to stop functioning, as the leakers would suddenly be exposed, and the organisation itself would be vulnerable to being taken down, whether through its leaders being arrested or its servers disabled.

This suggests a paradox: in order for openness to thrive, there must be some restrictions on some information.

And I don’t believe there is any way to resolve this paradox satisfactorily.

That’s not to say this paradox is unique to this context; Hobbes faced the very same paradox when considering how to prevent people from descending into a war of all against all. His solution was an all-powerful sovereign state that has the power to force people to cooperate without defecting – to take a Prisoner’s Dilemma analogy.

But… how do the citizens know the sovereign won’t defect on them? I.e., how do they know the state won’t abuse its power and engage in some kind of conspiracy to further its own ends to the detriment of the people?

There is, to date, no perfect solution to this problem. The separation of powers, a free press and as much transparency as possible is the best we’ve come up with until now. And the very existence of WikiLeaks suggests that even this hasn’t sufficient to date.

Another concern is whether full transparency is always a good thing. I see it as being a sliding scale: more transparency means more bad acts are caught, but also more benign acts might also be inappropriately exposed (say, revealing a political leader is gay or atheist, causing a perfectly competent leader to be ousted for reasons irrelevant to their capability to perform their job).

Some things should remain private. Although too much privacy and secrecy means less benign acts are exposed, but also makes it easier for bad acts to occur unseen.

There’s no perfect solution to this problem. It’s a trade-off.

So, check and balances. Checks and balances. It’s the best we can do. And while WikiLeaks is putting itself forward – commendably, in my opinion – as a check on authoritarian and ‘conspiratorial’ power, it needs to be aware of the potential trap it’s digging for itself.

Seems we’re at a crossroads in how information is used, and the current state is unstable. It’ll have to settle into equilibrium at some point, and it’ll be interesting to see how it does.





Who Watches the WikiLeakers?

2 12 2010

There’s a whole lot of hubbub about the recent WikiLeaks so-called ‘dump’ (not the term I would use). But the whole escapade raises some serious questions about the ethics of leaking, and the difference between whistleblowing and breaching privacy. And it raises an even more important question about checks and balances on the whole process.

The tradition of leaking previously restricted information to expose corruption or abuses of power has a long and noble history. WikiLeaks’ publishing of the Apache helicopter attack in Iraq might well fall into that category; there’s good reason to believe it could be evidence that a crime was committed, and was then covered up.

But the recent ‘dump’ is different. It’s just a grab bag of diplomatic communiqués. Certainly, some of the communiqués suggest evidence of unsavoury behaviour, such as the US pressuring Germany not to prosecute CIA agents involved in illegal torture and rendition. These ought to be released.

But many others are just typical diplomatic messages, much of it amounting to gossip. This is not only unimportant in terms of revealing corruption or abuses of power, but it undermines the diplomatic process. The language of diplomacy is incredibly carefully couched, and even a simple message between two states can take a great deal of fine tuning before it’s suitable for release. (Steven Pinker has some cute anecdotes about diplomatic language in his book, The Stuff of Thought.*)

There’s a good reason for this: diplomacy is about touchy business, and you don’t want to risk pissing off an ally (or an enemy) because of a careless word. And what’s said behind closed doors, in briefings and conversations between two nations about a third, can be highly damaging to international relations.

There are also other commiuniques that ought not be released, as The Economist‘s Democracy in America notes:

Some diplomatic cables from United States embassies will have concerned American interventions on behalf of dissidents in authoritarian countries. Release of such cables would endanger any future such American intervention, since authoritarian governments would fear that concessions to secret American requests would eventually embarrass them if the requests were made public.

Unless such material is suspected of revealing some crime or some misuse of power it should not be released.

There’s a difference between freedom of information and breaches of privacy and diplomatic privilege.

Not all information ought to be free.  We value our privacy, and business need theirs. What if WikiLeaks began revealing personal information about individuals, or began releasing forward plans of businesses, undermining their ability to compete?

It’s unlikely WikiLeaks would go that far, but it’s taken a step in that direction by ‘dumping’ an indiscriminate collection of communiqués, many of which show no evidence of crimes being committed or abuses of power.

The key is that WikiLeaks needs to exhibit the kind of transparency as its values demand of others. WikiLeaks needs oversight, and that oversight needs to be monitored. There need to be checks and balances that ensure WikiLeaks is serving the cause of whistleblowing, not just undermining the confidence of governments in being able to hold a conversation in private.

And WikiLeaks needs to acknowledge that not all information is worthy of release. One wonders how they’d feel if Julian Assange’s location was leaked, or if the identity of the leakers was revealed.

There are a number of ways this could happen, almost all of which involve decentralising control from the hands of Assange. The fact is we can’t trust any one individual with this kind of power. I tend to agree with The Economist’s Democracy in America about how this should be done:

But like other human-rights and humanitarian organisations, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross, it needs to lay down some clear, public ethical guidelines about how and why it does what it does. And it needs to bring in a board of directors of people from a wide range of countries, backgrounds and institutions to review the organisation’s conduct on ethical and other grounds.

I’d also add that governments, or the targets of the leaks, could be informed ahead of the leak to give them the opportunity to do the right thing and release the information themselves, or to give them a chance to offer an explanation, in case the information really is benign. The damage from a false or fraudulent leak could be greater than the damage from not leaking something legitimate.

Even though we’re living in the internet age, old fashioned checks and balances are still important. Sometimes information should move slower than we’re used to seeing these days. Sometimes information shouldn’t even be made public. WikiLeaks has an opportunity to become an important tool for exposing corruption, but it’s a powerful tool, and as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility.

*Extract from Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought (2007) page 397, quoting an American former treasury official:

At one point in my federal career, I wrote up an explanation of a complicated matter in what I considered an extremely clear , cogent matter. The senior government official to whom I reported read it carefully, ruminating and adjusting his glasses as he read. Then he looked up at me and said, “This isn’t any good. I understand it completely. Take it back and muddy it up. I want the statement to be able to be interpreted two or three ways.” The resulting ambiguity enabled some more compromise between competing governmental interests.





Can There Be a Science of Morality?

21 10 2010

Can we have a science of morality? This question has been thrown around quite a bit of late, especially fuelled by the spirited ejaculations of one Sam Harris. Harris firmly believes there are no barriers to a science of human values, but I fear things aren’t that simple, and I’m not alone in this concern.

Sam Harris

While a ‘science of morality’ is a laudable notion in a loose sense, such a science would, by necessity, look nothing like what Harris has in mind. Harris is seeking not only a science of morality, but a science of human values. He wants a “universal conception of human values” that can be checked, verified and proven using the tools of empirical science.

But that’s just not going to work. Science doesn’t do that kind of thing. At least not without assistance from other disciplines, like philosophy. And if we try to force science alone into providing us with values, there is no shortage of traps that will inevitably spring up.

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Secular Liberalism Misunderstood

15 10 2010

The ABC site, The Drum Unleashed, posted another of my missives, this time on the merits of secular liberalism, regardless of one’s spiritual (or otherwise) persuasion. And already the comments are flowing. I’ll attempt to respond to them in this post as they roll on.

First up, to those who have criticised my term “believe in atheism”, you’re right. That was a poor turn of phrase on my behalf. Should properly be “whether you believe in God or are an atheist”. Doesn’t affect my argument though. Okay, moving on.

To those who suggest that Richard Dawkins isn’t seeking to abolish the teaching of religion, rather he seeks to abolish the indoctrination of children into a particular religion – I agree that he is in favour of the teaching of comparative religion, as well as the teaching of the Bible as an historical text. However, he has made strident claims against religious teaching of the, well, religious flavour. While I oppose supernaturalism, I would suggest that any attempt to banish religious education would be problematic, as I’ll elaborate below.

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The New New Left

27 08 2010

The ABC’s Drum site has picked up my riffs on the sorry state of federal politics in Australia and the need for a new 21st century political party that isn’t shackled to unions or religion.

It’s an issue I’ve been thinking about for quite some time – well before this shambolic campaign was thrust at us. Both the Labor and Liberal parties in Australia political anachronisms today, with neither representing the growing number of voters – particularly those under 40 – who believe in economic liberalism but are also socially progressive.

Labor is socially progressive, but its unionist and socialist foundations (and ugly factionalism) make it increasingly unappealing. The Liberal party has embraced more liberal economic principles – often too laissez faire – but it’s also the haven for religious social conservatives, and promotes a brand of fear-based, racist, xenophobic and homophobic politics that many find repulsive.

The Greens are a promising party in many respects, and I heartily applaud their commitment to sustainable economics and social progressivism. But The Greens are prone to big government semi-socialism with some issues; their wonderfully clear policy document (why don’t the major parties have such a coherent document?) involves a lot of spending without necessarily facing up to the cost of such government activity. In fact, the election results suggest many voters who went Green did so through disillusionment with Labor, and distaste with the Liberals, rather than a broad commitment to Green values.

Some commenters on the Drum article have suggest the Democrats were the party. Perhaps they were (emphasis on were). The Democracts allowed themselves to implode for the very reason that they were beginning to shift – under Natasha Stott-Despoja – to the kind of centre-left party I’m talking about and, for a variety of reasons (internal personality conflicts being a major one), they couldn’t make the shift. They’re not the party I seek.

So where to now? I think we’re ripe for a new major party, one that brings centre-left politics to the fore, one that embodies the shift to economic liberalism that Labor has attempted (but failed, largely thanks to its unionist/socialist underpinnings), and the shift to social liberalism and tolerance of diversity that is a hallmark of generation X and Y.

Could it happen? It wouldn’t be easy to build critical mass sufficient to overtake Labor (which would be the likely casualty), but it is possible. It just needs the right leadership, the right strong and well-respected voices backing it, and a clear values and policy message to be delivered to the people. It might take years – and a couple of elections at least – to really take hold.

But we live in a democracy, after all. The habit of voting Labor or Liberal is just that, a habit. There’s nothing stopping us from voting differently as a nation, except the expectation that no-one else will vote differently. Make an alternative party look electable, and it will be electable. We now only need those brave enough to try.





Evolved Fear of Sharks Prompts Front Page News

17 08 2010

Today, roughly*:

  • 133 Australians died of cardiovascular disease
  • 116 died of cancer
  • 30 died from respiratory diseases
  • 24 died from injuries or external trauma, including 6 from suicide, 4 from falls and 2 from road accidents
  • 18 died from behavioural or mental disorders
  • 16 died as a result of nervous system disorders
  • 16 also died of metabolic diseases
  • 14 died of diseases of the digestive tract
  • 9 died from genitourinary diseases, mainly renal failure
  • 5 died from infections or parasites
  • 3 died from other causes
  • And 1 died from a shark attack

Yet, can you guess which made news internationally? Yep, the shark attack.

You're more likely to accidentally drown in the bathtub than be eaten by me.

It made news not because it was a rare occurrence – even though it is – because there were many other deaths that occurred today that could be counted as rare. It didn’t get news because it was common and preventable, because it’s not either of these things.

It got news because there’s something deep down in our monkey brain that finds the idea of being eaten by a predator to be a shocking and outrageous way to die. Individual deaths from modern ailments – from cardiovascular disease, cancer or infection – rarely rate a mention, and certainly don’t get reported worldwide.

A list of common human fears typically includes “heights, storms, large carnivores, darkness, blood, strangers, confinement, deep water, social scrutiny, and leaving home alone” because “these are the situations that put our evolutionary ancestors in danger” (Pinker, 1997).

Strikingly absent from this catalog of human fears are the things humans should be afraid of in contemporary environments. The sight of a car or a gun, for example, should strike far more fear into the heart of a modern human than does the sight of a snake, for cars and guns kill far more people than do snake bites. (Buller, 2005)

The moral of this story is that we should remember that we’re not much more than occasionally thoughtful primates – and we’re still more primates than thoughtful.

* Statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics document, Causes of Death, Australia, 2008





When ‘Best Practice’ isn’t Best

12 08 2010

Like any other journalist, I get a torrent of press releases every day. Certain words and phrases feature prominently. Too prominently, too often. This post is not specifically about those words and phrases, it’s about how these words and phrases have come to be so numbingly banal. The phrase is ‘best practice’, and this post is a cautionary tale of when ‘best practice’ actually leads to failed practice, and why.

It seems as though ‘best practice’ would, by definition, always be the best way to do something. But sometimes it’s not. This is because some problems aren’t conducive to the creation of one ‘best practice’, but instead need to constantly adapt to a changing set of background conditions.

There are, broadly, three types of problems in this world: those with static background conditions; those with changing background conditions; and those where the background conditions change in response to your actions. ‘Best practice’ only works well for the first of these problems, less so for the second, and often fails entirely in the third.

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