Moral frameworks and the Harris/​Klein debate

Here’s a good background post and analysis on the debate (this has been linked from elsewhere on LW before): https://​​​​2018/​​04/​​26/​​a-deep-dive-into-the-harris-klein-controversy/​​

Like many, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the Sam Harris/​Ezra Klein debate. These are two people I really look up to, and so seeing them going at it (and showing a lot of personal weakness along the way) has been illuminating. I’m still unsettled about it, wanting there to be resolution/​a right answer. So far that satisfaction has eluded me, so I wrote this to try to clarify things for myself. Maybe it helps others too.

The analysis below is meant as a steelman of each side’s positions. If you think I’m not steelmanning them well enough, please leave a comment and I’ll improve.

Consequentialist framework:

  • Sam: As a lesson in how to think for yourself, hold Murray up as someone who has discovered truths that society doesn’t like to talk about. As a general policy, this practice will lead to truths being uncovered faster, leading to a faster pace of discovery, which compounds over time to a much better world through science.

  • Ezra: Make a public example of Sam here, leading to more people recognizing their own privilege and putting their actions in the appropriate historical context. As a general policy, this practice will lead to a more equitable society, which compounds over time to a much better world by reducing suffering directly.

Virtue ethics framework:

  • Sam: It is virtuous to signal-boost things which are true, especially when they are being suppressed by society. “Speak the truth though your voice may tremble”

  • Ezra: It is virtuous to defend the underprivileged by calling out harms, even unintentional harms. “Evil is the silence of the voice of justice when it matters most”

Deontology framework:

  • Sam: Thou shalt update on all available data.

  • Ezra: Thou shalt not invoke long-buried demons of oppression.

Both these moral frameworks look pretty good to me. I see no particular reason to favor one over the other; even if I restrict myself to only looking at the consequences I see plausible arguments that one path or the other is higher-impact.

I have only one unifying thought:

Sam was upset by being attacked by Klein, and considered the attack unfair, which actually triggered the whole debate. I think Sam’s complaint about “unfairness” is invalid here, because it is exactly what he should expect when signal-boosting things that society doesn’t like to talk about. So perhaps the only error here was Sam getting too emotional about being pilloried.

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