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.
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.
Propublica has published this astonishing history of the Senate’s attempt to not get to the truth.
Almost a nightmare tonight. I flew into St. Louis at 11:30 pm, and I was tired. I found my car at the airport and was driving about 60 mpg in the center lane of Hwy 70 toward downtown. Coming around a curve in the highway I though I saw something, and a split second later I DID see that it a man slowly walking across my lane. He was wearing a dark red top and black pants. I gave the wheel a slight nudge to the left, but not a hard tug for fear of rolling the car over. I ended up on the left side of my center lane, and missed hitting the man by less than a foot. There was no time to hit the brakes. He was not looking toward me when I almost hit him. I don’t know whether he was drunk or mentally ill. I found myself shaken up, and thanking my stars for both him and me. A couple minutes later, I thought of calling the police, but the man would have made it across the highway, or not, by then. You just don’t expect to see a person walking on a dark superhighway at night, so when I first thought I saw him, I couldn’t immediately process that it could be a person. looking back, I now see that I made an almost unconscious decision that I would not flip my car (probably a suicidal maneuver) in order to save this man. It’s a disturbing thought, made only a bit less disturbing by the fact that the entire episode lasted 2 seconds, making it impossible for me to think things through in real time.
And now, back home, I once again remind myself that an avoided tragedy is a great gift. What happened is the equivalent of me striking and killing a man on the highway, and then a magic genie coming along and using magic to undo the damage. I came so close to striking the man that it almost seems like I DID strike him . . .
So why isn’t there any national war on hospital negligence? Isn’t a death a death? More than 200,000 needless hospital deaths every year. Propublica Reports.