Monday, April 11, 2011

Harris vs Fraser in London

Sam Harris leads off with three reasons that people argue he is wrong about the (essentially utilitarian) nature of moral talk:

  1. At least some religions are true

  2. At least some religions are useful

  3. Atheism is unpleasant and corrupting

Harris rejects these contentions and goes on to present essentially the same opening statement as he did in his recent debate against W.L. Craig, making the case that the science of ethics is essentially a systematic study of how to maximize mental health, just as the science of medicine is essentially a systematic study of how to maximize physical health, and neither should be considered unscientific on account of the fact that both fields strive to maximize human well-being in an attempt to fulfill widely shared values.

Giles Fraser leads off with a bizarre and highly metaphysical critique of utilitarianism, bringing out the nasty old utility-monster from some dark corner of his mind. For some reason, Fraser considers this retort so effective that he doesn't really expound upon any other critique.

Harris and Fraser go back and forth on this a bit, and Harris basically concede that beings who are more richly capable of joy and suffering really should count for more than beings (e.g. cockroaches) who are less capable of such subjective experiences. I'm confused as to why Fraser thinks this is such a problem, unless he is suggesting that theism is basically the same as utility-monsterism. Perhaps this might yet be so, if the Campus Crusade for Cthulhu ever gets their way.

The debate goes downhill a bit from here, until Fraser and Harris get into it over the nature and utility of moral philosophy in general. On this point, Harris does three interesting things: he explains why he avoids the traditional modes of philosophical ethical talk, he clarifies that he does indeed consider himself a philosopher, and declares that he is willing to personally engage the traditional moral philosophers, even if he refuses to write books as they do.

Fraser's next serious challenge is about Harris' repeated use of the phrase "conscious creatures" but it falls fairly flat when Sam explains that he is simply making room for the possibilty of non-human suffering.

I've got to comment for just a second on the first question in the Q&A. This smarmy little bastard stands up and says "What is the scientific reason to care about the well being of conscious creatures?" I'm beginning to lean towards the notion that there is only one correct answer to this question, and it is to walk calmly over to the questioner, stop calmly just short of an arm's length away, and bitch-slap his ass into next week. After all, if he has the sheer cheek to seriously suggest that I should not be concerned about his subjective experience of suffering, why not just take him at his word? I've got to admit, though, that the answer given by Harris was more cogent and persuasive.

Overall, it was a good talk, but it was clear that Harris performs significantly better when up against a worthy opponent such as Craig than he does when facing, well, someone like Fraser.

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