After Sam Harris wrote The Moral Landscape, he encountered both accolades and criticisms. In response to the criticisms, he held a contest, offering $2,000 to the best short essay to challenge his own work. He published both the winning essay and his own response to it. I find it to be a good read that cross-cuts some traditional concepts of moral philosophy (e.g., that there is no intersection between descriptive versus prescriptive statements) and points the idea that we can dispense with (or at least translate into factual observations) the notions of “good” and “bad.”
Here is an excerpt from Harris’ essay commenting on the winning essay:
Part of the resistance I’ve encountered to the views presented in The Moral Landscape comes from readers who appear to want an ethical standard that gives clear guidance in every situation and doesn’t require too much of them. People want it to be easy to be good—and they don’t want to think that they are not living as good a life as they could be. This is especially true when balancing one’s personal well-being vs. the well-being of society. Most of us are profoundly selfish, and we don’t want to be told that being selfish is wrong. As I tried to make clear in the book, I don’t think it is wrong, up to a point. I suspect that an exclusive focus on the welfare of the group is not the best way to build a civilization that could secure it. Some form of enlightened selfishness seems the most reasonable approach—in which we are more concerned about ourselves and our children than about other people and their children, but not callously so. However, the well-being of the whole group is the only global standard by which we can judge specific outcomes to be good.
This lively podcast, featuring Sam Harris and Paul Bloom, challenges many traditional notions of morality, focusing on the distinction between empathy and compassion. If you give it 10 minutes it will be difficult to turn it off.
Pseudoinefficacy: We are willing to help one person, but less willing when there are multitudes we cannot help
Compelling 2015 research by Paul Slovic and others shows that we are often likely to help a person in need, but we are much less likely to help that person when our attention is simultaneously directed toward other people that we are unable to help. The fact that there are multitudes in need dampens our willingness to help a person we are most assuredly in a position to help.
Here is the summary of the research:
In a great many situations where we are asked to aid persons whose lives are endangered, we are not able to help everyone. What are the emotional and motivational consequences of “not helping all”? In a series of experiments, we demonstrate that negative affect arising from children that could not be helped decreases the warm glow of positive feeling associated with aiding the children who can be helped. This demotivation from the children outside of our reach may be a form of “pseudoinefficacy” that is non-rational. We should not be deterred from helping whomever we can because there are others we are not able to help.
Mark Johnson (of “Metaphors we live By,” written with George Lakoff) gave this excellent talk destroying the notion that meaning is something ethereal and disembodied. Instead, the body is the yardstick for meaning. This talk turns much of traditional epistemology upside down.
Johnson opens the talk with a Billy Collins talk titled “Purity.”
At the U.K. Guardian, Sarah Bakewell asks and answers what it is like to be an existentialist. Her article is equally insightful and entertaining. Here’s an excerpt:
[Existentialists] were interesting thinkers. They remind us that existence is difficult and that people behave appallingly, but at the same time they point out how vast our human possibilities are. That is why we might pick up some inspiring ideas from reading them again and why we might even try being just a little more existentialist ourselves.
Consider whether we are capable of learning basic moral lessons. This in a reenactment of the Millgram experiment by the BBC. This video drives home the terrible things that human beings are capable of doing, even when not coerced, where they are merely requested to do these terrible things by an apparent authority figure. Massively unsettling.
I rarely write poetry, but I’m finding myself in new territory these days (divorce, new home and several other related changes), feeling some angst when it would seem that I mostly have cause to celebrate new perspectives and opportunities. I’ve often joked that I experience this sort of distressed happiness because of my gypsy roots. Friends tell me that this is the plight of control freaks and that I need to loosen up. This is my response to them.
I’ve long been fascinated with the writings of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. I made his theory of the flux the focus of my poem.
The Joyride of Becoming
Erich Vieth (2014)
Heraclitus wasn’t fooled when people talked about
All is flux, he proclaimed.
“You cannot step into the same river twice.”
Now that Life has hurled me out of my self-conjured comfort,
Every moment whispers that Heraclitus is correct;
the world is permeated with universal acid.
This is not a philosopher’s word game.
I feel it in my ever-morphing bones.
Every thing is
a nonstop dance of destruction and creation.
Every cloud, creature and canyon a ghostly multiverse,
a sprawling swirling that runs through our feeble stop signs,
ignoring these empty-shell words we try to use as hooks
to stabilize our vivid imaginings.
Even my steadfast dog threatens to become an ontological metaphor.
The SuperFlux gives rise to joys that will inevitably threaten
and dangers that will someday delight–
A roiling process that moves in and on in a thousand ways
On both sides of our skins and skulls,
whether we are ready or not.
Failure to heed this fact that all nouns are verbs
tempts us to walk
with undue swagger
and blurt out false promises.
Yes, some things change less noticeably, mostly
things that don’t cry,
though all things eventually crack, crumble
It is our friends, lovers
and central truths that are
the fastest fire and water:
Even though they look the same from day to day, they are
self-extinguishing works in progress
that we struggle to know
only through sparks and splatters.
Trying to possess them is to try to embrace
dancing flames and swift whirlpools.
Act, we must. Judge, we must,
or we would quickly die.
We are told that to live well
we must know well,
though we are irretrievably smeared
across all that is.
Even that magic three-pound organ in our head
cannot wrap itself around the impossibility of this daily task.
Taking this plight seriously risks
If only I could better convince myself
to go with the flow.
As we pause to drink water molecules previously drunk
by Jesus, Cleopatra and Heraclitus, we become
We summon up courage as a substitute for knowledge
and we have faith that all Motion is Progress,
whistling while rearranging our decaying deck chairs,
over and over
that it is the Blobs in this lava lamp that are stably
rather than the process.